Hello South Florida

Hello South Florida!

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It’s been an adventure making the transition from Chicago to South Florida, and although I will still maintain my status as Your Windy City Guide up in Chicago for the foreseeable future, I’m now fully up to speed as the South Florida Sunshine Guru!

The adventure began in early 2011 when your Sunshine Guru’s partner landed a position in South Beach managing a large condominium property.  As sailors with a dream to live near the ocean, and eventually leave the civilized world to sail the globe, the opportunity seemed too good to be true.  Although Steve – the aptly named Condo Guru – began working in January, I remained in Chicago to settle everything.

A team remains in place to serve the needs of my Chicago clients and business is up over the slow years of 2009 and 2010.  For the foreseeable future, Chicagoans are welcome to contact me directly, and I’ll make the introductions to my Chicago Team of Kim Kerbis and Kevin Van Eck.Ft Lauderdale Canal view 4

Here in South Florida, I have joined the leading real estate firm Keller Williams Realty Professionals located in Fort Lauderdale.  Keller Williams offered a comprehensive support system and seemed to be every bit as technologically advanced as @properties in Chicago.  South Florida can be a bit of a tech back-water so finding an office filled with savvy and experienced professionals was a pleasant surprise.

Here in Fort Lauderdale I’m well placed to serve the needs of buyers and sellers from Boca Raton, south through Lauderdale By The Sea and Fort Lauderdale, and areas south of Fort Lauderdale down through Miami Beach/South Beach.  Primarily my focus will be the communities of Fort Lauderdale and those towns located closest including Wilton Manors, Lauderdale by-the-Sea, Lighthouse Point, Pompano Beach, Dania Beach and Hollywood.Snow Chicago

Sunshine Guru readers should look forward to regular updates on the state of the real estate market in South Florida, information on buying or selling in South Florida, and other random musings on life in the Sunshine State.  This is especially poignant as the weather at (old) home in Chicago seems to be changing to Winter without reprieve. 

So now I can offer my expertise in Chicago as well as make your warm weather dreams come true.  Please contact me if you have questions about buying, selling or anything related to real estate. And remember, I always appreciate your referrals.


What Goes Down Must Come Up

Prices rise in some city neighborhoods

Homeowners in a handful of Chicago neighborhoods can pop the cork on the champagne they’ve been saving for the housing market recovery. Meanwhile, there are still a number of areas where residents might want to reach for something harder.

Homeowners in a handful of Chicago neighborhoods can pop the cork on the champagne they’ve been saving for the housing market recovery. Meanwhile, there are still a number of areas where residents might want to reach for something harder.

A top-line review of year-over-year price changes and current inventory levels in 21 city neighborhoods (see chart below) paints a picture of a city still grappling with the 5-year-old housing downturn. But what might be surprising are signs of a turnaround in a number of Chicago communities, as well as recent data showing rising prices throughout the greater Chicagoland area.

Nowhere is the ground more solid than in North Center, located northwest of Wrigleyville, where the average price increased an eye-popping 13% year over year for the period ended 8/31. The big jump can be attributed to North Center’s great fundamentals (schools, housing stock and transportation) and a resurgence in single-family new construction. Other neighborhoods where prices have been trending up are Lakeview, Logan Square/Bucktown and Near North, which includes River North and the Gold Coast.

On the other side of the coin are areas like Uptown and the South Loop, where average prices registered substantial declines and inventories remain high. In between are neighborhoods like Ravenswood, Forest Glen and Hyde Park, where prices are down slightly but inventories are vastly improved.

Big picture, the latest S&P/Case Shiller home price data for Chicago shows an improving market with two consecutive months of price increases (three for condominiums). And if Chicago as a whole is up on a monthly basis, that’s good news even for neighborhoods that are down on an annual one. Let’s hope the positive trend continues.

Of course, stats don’t tell the whole story. It’s important to look beyond the numbers and to remember that factors affecting price, market time and market fluidity vary not only from neighborhood to neighborhood, but also from block to block and even building to building.

In every neighborhood, homes are selling if they’re priced, presented and marketed properly. So contact me if you have questions about buying, selling or anything related to real estate. And remember, I always appreciate your referrals.




Did you get out of bed today?

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Here we go again. It’s the Bear Market of 2008 back to punch us in the stomach and take our lunch money one more time. There goes the stock market. There goes the real estate market. There goes the global economy.’scary3

Certainly the events of early August have been unsettling, even maddening. The triple whammy of a slowing U.S. economy, the ongoing European debt crisis and Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. credit has rattled an already fragile consumer confidence.

Lou Barnes, a mortgage banker from Boulder, Colo. said it best in an August 8 interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Developments blog: "Who wants to get out of bed today, let alone buy a house?"

Yet a lot of people right here in Chicagoland did get out of bed today and buy a house. Why is that? Is it because the same fundamentals that existed yesterday – record low mortgage rates and record high affordability – still exist today? Is it because local apartment rents are rising faster than Starlin Castro’s batting average? Or could it be that real estate (like our now AA+ rated US debt) is still considered a relatively safe long-term investment?

That’s a radical concept in 2011. But an investment that can also shelter you and your family, provide a large tax deduction, serve as a hedge against inflation, and allow you to put down roots in a top community or school district has to be given serious consideration – especially if it comes at a discount of more than 33% off its peak value… especially if it’s in the business, cultural, tourism and innovation hub of the Midwest… especially if you plan to live there for a while.

As it stands today, there are only 18 nations in the world rated AAA by Standard & Poor’s. Among them are Guernsey, Liechtenstein and Isle of Man. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live in AA+ Chicago, Illinois, USA.scary1

What will the stock market do tomorrow? What will the housing market do tomorrow? If we knew that, we’d all be sipping fruity drinks on our own private island. But if the last century of American economic history is any indication, the long-term trend is up. I believe that, which is why I’m in the real estate business. And @properties believes that, which is why we’re continuing to invest in and expand our business even in tumultuous times.

As in 2008, we’re keeping a cool head, focusing on hyper-local market conditions and framing most conversations about housing, not around the headline of the moment, but around your individual wants and needs at your particular stage in life.

I’m here to help, so please contact me if you have any questions or are getting ready to buy or sell. And remember I always appreciate your referrals.


Credit Suisse Monthly Survey of Real Estate Agents shows buyers’ outlook still worsening

Today’s monthly survey of real estate agents shows that economic worries are still having an impact on buyer traffic and sales.  Agents highlighted the consistent worries
among buyers about a) job security, b) expectation of declining home prices, c) difficult
financing, and d) high gas prices, which provide buyers with the excuse to stay home.  High inventory and buyer hesitation is keeping pressure on prices.

In Chicago:

Credit Suisse Chicago


Buyers stick to the sidelines. Buyer traffic dipped lower in June, as our traffic index fell to 21 in June from 33 in May, with readings below 50 pointing to traffic missing agents’ expectations. This marks the region’s lowest reading since November. According to agents, buyers are nervous about the economy and the stability of the housing market; commentary was largely centered on a general lack of confidence in any type of recovery.  Job security was a key issue for buyers, as several agents highlighted that a lack of jobs and high unemployment were major factors in buyers’ decision making.


Another agent noted that she has “More willing renters than buyers.”  Your Guide found this interesting as I just read over the weekend the more rigorous lending guidelines; even for FHA loans.  With buyers’ credit scores needing to be between 700 and 725 to even be considered “marginal” and above 725 to be considered “good” it seems that the number of borrowers that might even be eligible to borrow has shrunk by 50% or more during the mortgage crisis of the last two years.  Buyers with credit scores just below 700 faced the possibility of paying an extra 1.5% premium on their interest rate just for the privilege – if they can get approved at all.

Buyers are exhausted and sick of hearing the recovery is around the corner.

It doesn’t sound like we’re out of the woods yet.


Introducing ShowMojo–handling apartment showings with ease!

Your Guide has been helping a friend who is both an IT consultant (his day job) and an apartment investor (his retirement program) develop a program to help landlords and leasing agents schedule showings for apartments all on the internet. The goal was to reduce the time spent fielding showing requests, managing the appointment schedule, and ensuring prospects arrive to the apartment at the designated hour.

We’ve got the system up and running and the software is handling showings for Pete and his wife like a champ. We decided to develop the site into a comprehensive tool to aid landlords in renting their apartments and put the product out there for everyone to use. The end result is ShowMojo – www.showmojo.com!


Realtor Peeps reading this post might think that this is a similar system to the “Showing Time” system that’s built right inside ConnectMLS, but ShowMojo has a few significant differences. While Showing Time will allow Realtors to request appointments at any time they wish for a particular listing, and then handle the feedback request for the showing, ShowMojo works a bit differently.

For folks that don’t necessarily show real estate full-time, it’s important to schedule showings on a few evenings, or on the weekend. Landlords log into ShowMojo and enter their weekly availability (perhaps a few two-hour blocks) for rental showings. They get an advertising link from ShowMojo and add it to their online ads. (Craigslist, anyone?) Then the magic happens. As each prospect makes an appointment, ShowMojo alters the showtimes it makes available to the next prospect, assembling convenient clusters of booked showings! This way, the landlord isn’t running back and forth all week for one random appointment at one time and another appointment at another time.


ShowMojo was developed to interact with renters directly (although it can be used for showing condos for sale, or nearly any other appointment scheduling task you can imagine) and handle the process from the first inquiry up to confirmations the night before the showings.

The first hassle we wanted to eliminate was handling the inquiry phone calls and booking appointments. We were already writing great Craigslist ads, and putting up lots of photos. So most everyone that called really just wanted to make an appointment. And of course in some neighborhoods during the busy season, this meant juggling dozens of phone calls a day. A link in the Craigslist ad tells prospects to “Click to schedule a showing”. They are taken right to the page in ShowMojo that has information on the property and the available showtimes.

ShowMojo then takes the prospect’s name, phone number and email address when booking the appointment.

Prospects can choose to confirm of their appointment by email or phone. ShowMojo eliminates the hassle of prospects giving out fake phone numbers or email when the landlord choses to make confirmation a mandatory part of the showing process.

In the apartment renting business, there are a lot of “no-shows” and last minute cancellations. We wanted to try to improve the number of prospects that show up for their scheduled showings, so ShowMojo will email each prospect 24 hours before the scheduled showing. Prospects can confirm the showing, cancel the appointment, or reschedule – right from the confirmation email. ShowMojo updates your calendar as these appointments are handled. If a prospect doesn’t reply to that email, ShowMojo sends out another reminder six hours before the showing.

A cool feature we implemented recently allows you, the user – landlord or property owner – to create multiple calendars. This idea came about as Pete had three separate apartments very close to one another, and other apartments in another part of the city. With multiple calendars, you can group your apartments available in one location on one calendar, and the other apartments on another calendar. So you can tell ShowMojo that you’re available in Bucktown on Saturday morning for showings, and in Lakeview on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps you’d like to handle showings in Bucktown on Wednesday evening after work, and in Lakeview on Thursday afternoon. You, the landlord set up your schedule by adding your Bucktown apartments to one calendar, and your Lakeview apartments to another calendar. There are no limits to the number of calendars you can have!

Initial setup

As a new user, simply create an account on ShowMojo with a verifiable email address (that’s all that is required for sign-up). Then add some basic information about yourself such as your name and phone number (this information is optional but recommended because it lets your prospects know you are a real person).

The next step is create a new listing and add some basic information about your apartment for rent. You can upload a photo, add the address and a short description. You can add as many listings as you wish. To start off, you’ll have one calendar and you’ll specify the days and times that you’re available for showings. There is a provision for a “typical” week-long schedule, and a section for exceptions. A good example might be a holiday weekend where you won’t be available for showings that differs from your normal schedule.

If you’re ready to start making appointments, you get a “Marketing Link” for a specific property from ShowMojo that you add to your Craigslist ad, your Postlets, or any other website, and drop it into your online ad. That link takes prospects to the ShowMojo page for that property and displays the available showtimes.


It’s that simple! Of course, there are more advanced features (such as multiple calendars, double-booking, and setting the duration between showtimes) that you can try out, but you have the ability to get up and running in a matter of minutes.

Testers needed

We’re using ShowMojo now to handle some of our summer rentals, and are ready to test the service with other users. ShowMojo will eventually be available to everyone. Right now we are looking for agents, landlords or other folks who use a lot of Craigslist advertising to test ShowMojo. To this end, we are offering free accounts to the first 100 people who sign up at https://showmojo.com/users/sign_up

Free for 2011

The features currently in the ShowMojo beta will remain free through the end of 2011 to anyone who registers now.

We are just getting this service up and running. We have yet to decide on a payment model. The future is full of cool features and must-have tools. We imagine that we will need to charge for something. But our intent is always to provide a useful version of ShowMojo at an incredibly affordable price point (if not for free.)


Springtime and the Parkway…


Ah Spring!  Everyone is outside at play now that the weather is finally breaking to warmer weather.  Your Guide was walking trusty dog Monty this week in North Center and a resident actually chased me down after seeing me walk by after Monty was seen sniffing around her parkway tree. 

Back in 2008, a regular reader wrote to ask about proper Parkway Etiquette.

Parkway 001

Technically, the City of Chicago owns the Parkway – the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street.

If you look carefully at the City Sidewalk and notice the little cross hairs etched into the sidewalk – sometimes highlighted in spray paint – the cross hairs mark the property boundary. 

In a cruel twist of irony, however, the City requires home owners to care for the land.  Owners can be fined for letting the grass grow too long or for the property to become overgrown with weeds.

Of course, there are many examples of Chicago owners going to great lengths to (1) beautify the parkway in front of their home and (2) keep dogs from using the area as the public bathroom.

But in keeping to the spirit of living in the Big City (and therefore with lots of other people who invariably have pets. Or kids. Sometimes both) your guide puts forth the following Handy Etiquette Guide:

  • Pet owners CAN walk their dogs and allow the use of the parkway for going to the bathroom.
  • Pet owners SHOULD take care when walking their dogs by elaborately landscaped parkway sections and keep their dogs out of the planting beds.
  • Home owners CAN mark new grass, new sod, and grass seed by putting up temporary fencing, and the dog owners should respect the temporary boundary.  There is plenty of grassy parkway just a few feet farther down the sidewalk.
  • Families with kids CAN expect that their front yards should remain free of pet waste and that the kids can romp, play and roll in the grass without the worry of stepping in waste.
  • Therefore it follows that dog owners SHOULD keep dogs on the parkway side of the sidewalk.  Those long zippy leashes that allow dogs to run willy-nilly all over a 30 foot wide swath aren’t appropriate for city dog walking.
  • But parents SHOULD expect that any given stretch of parkway has been used as a dog walk area, and that the area might not be clean for kids romping and playing.
  • Home owners that really want to keep pets out of their front yards SHOULD erect fences rather than put up signs, fake lawn chemical signs or notices quoting city ordinances about picking up dog waste.  The notes are just silly.
  • In the case of particularly rude dog walkers that regularly patronize your parkway, the most appropriate revenge is the well-timed activation of a sprinkler. 
  • It is also permissible to scoop up the offending matter yourself and then follow the dog walker home and deposit the "deposit" on the offenders front porch. 

Condo dwellers: Get involved. Or go rent.

This is a cautionary tale for condo residents who naturally find themselves too busy to get involved with their condominium association.  Things can go haywire when no one is at the wheel, and this affects the residents’ ability to sell their homes!Condo Building

Your Guide’s example involves an association that at first glance appears spectacularly well run.  The developer’s children live in the building.  The property has a management company that does a great job on day-to-day activities.  The landscaping is in great shape, the hallways and lobby are always clean.  Maintenance is regularly performed.  This is all well and good!

The well manicured and maintained exterior hides a secret, however, which caused two buyers to bolt from their contracts.

Sometime in 2009, the elected condo board president moved away, and naturally resigned his position as president.  The treasurer at the time began filling in the president’s duties, but did not actively manage the board.

His lack of attention resulted in the board having no meetings in 2010!  The building continued to run, and the treasurer (acting president) made sure that bills were paid and maintenance continued without interruption, and the other busy residents went on with their busy lives.

The problem came about during condominium document review:  The declarations for most condo buildings require a minimum number of meetings per year.  In our example, at least four.  But this association had none.  This is a glaring omission when lawyers and cautious buyers are looking over these documents to verify that the association is a well-run association.

More problems

When interviewed by the buyers, the treasurer (acting president) not being fully aware of the consequences, said that the building basically functioned during 2010 “without a board.”  An awful thing to say in any situation, but in our story it made the situation ever so much worse as the buyers were already leery because the documentation of the financial health of the association was already suspect.  In fact, our association did NOT function in 2010 without a board.  It just functioned minimally with one board member absent.  Finances

It is perfectly legal and acceptable for a board to run with a position vacant for a period of time.  This happens all the time as residents move for many reasons.  Boards have the discretion to fill a vacant position by appointing a replacement, or by continuing to serve with a member short – often at their own discretion.

Of course in our example, other residents could not be bothered to offer their time to volunteer to fill in on the board, leaving our poor treasurer to muddle along as best he could.

The final blow came when we discovered that our association only had one-third as much money in its reserve account as our homeowners originally thought!  The last time our owners looked at their financial statements it appeared that the association had as much as $45,000 in reserves.  In reality, the reserves had been depleted to $16,000.

In our example, since none of the members of the association were involved in running the association, expenses had increased but assessments had not been increased to cover expenses, and the management company had slowly spent the associations savings.  This meant that the association will need to increase assessments as well as possibly enact a special assessment to replenish the reserves.

This was too much bad news for our prospective buyers to bear, and they decided to cancel their contracts.

Better to rentApartment for rent

In some instances, for busy residents that do not have the time to be involved in the operation of their building, it may be a better idea to rent rather than own.  In fact, condominium expert Mark Pearlstein often chastises residents of buildings that do not have active condo boards that ultimately these buildings could revert to apartment ownership rather than condominium.  It’s a drastic step, but Mark can be dramatic.


End of an Era: last Cabrini Green high rise torn down today

White Cabrini

Back on August 21, 2008, I posted in response to a reader’s question about when the Cabrini Green high rises might eventually get torn down.  At that time, most of the RED high rises were gone already, but no timetable had been established for the WHITE high rises.  Well the answer is finally delivered today.

Red Cabrini

Check out the video from the CHA regarding their vision for the re-development for the community.


Prices benchmarked in time have fallen farther back into the early 2000’s. AKA “The Lost Decade”

Back in 2009, I wrote about prices and how far back in time you could benchmark the fall.  When I wrote that article it appeared that prices had fallen back to 2007 price levels.  I also thought that prices had stabilized – or it seemed.

What caught my eye today was a listing in my neighborhood for a townhouse that came on the market for $389,900 at 2928 North Wood, unit D.

2928 N Wood

The list price of $389,900 is $1,600 less than the developer offered this unit for when offered at the sales office in 2000.  Also, the original purchaser of this unit added upgrades, and the original closed price was $431,700!

2928 N Wood living

This makes you wonder if prices have fallen all the way back to the year 2000 or 2001?  Or even earlier?

2928 N Wood kitchen

Is the decade from 2001 to 2011 henceforth known as “The Lost Decade?”


Crain’s reports 13th month of price declines; Credit Suisse survey of agents backs up seat of the pants impression.

Your Guide has been jealously watching the economic recover and the related recovery of the real estate market in other major markets while the market remains sluggish in Chicago.  Stats from Federal Housing Finance Agency show that Chicago experienced its 13th straight quarter of price declines.

Home prices in the Chicago area have now fallen for 13 consecutive quarters — more than three years — as foreclosures and short sales continue to take a toll on the market, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The agency’s index of home prices in the area decreased 3.02% in the fourth quarter compared with the same period in 2009 and dipped 0.77% compared to third-quarter 2010. The last time local prices increased was third quarter 2007, when the index rose 0.89%, according to the agency.

Check out the whole article at Crain’s here.


From the Credit Suisse survey of Real Estate Agents:

Traffic weak as buyers remain hesitant. Traffic levels remained below agents’ expectations in February, as our buyer traffic index came in at 28 (from 26 in January), with readings below 50 pointing to less than expected traffic for this time of year. Agents stressed that buyers were still looking for stronger signs of a recovery before they started seriously shopping for homes. One agent mentioned “buyers are looking for a bottom.” Another noted that “people want more job security before they put themselves out there with a mortgage.”

Chicago, and probably due to the pressures on the budgets for the State of Illinois and Cook County have still put a rather stern damper on the economic recovery here in Chicago.  And we’re finally seeing the foreclosure crisis hit neighborhoods that had been immune to foreclosures and economic distress.  More distressed sales (such as short sales and outright foreclosures) are hitting premium north-side neighborhoods like Lakeview and Lincoln Park.



Your Guide
Your Guide

Robert Darrow

In Chicago:
3101 N. Greenview
Chicago, IL, 60657
(312) 965-1552

In South Florida:
Keller Williams Realty
3696 N. Federal Highway
Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 33308
(954) 446-9001
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