Friday, June 27, 2008

House hunting in the age of $4 gas

Gas cost just over $2 a gallon in October 2006 when Derek Benoit bought his condominium in Amesbury in the far northeastern corner of the state. Now he's trying to sell the unit, even though he just finished renovating it.

With gas now $4 a gallon, the software executive is no longer willing to pour $500 worth into his tank each month, an expense he attributes mainly to his 34-mile commute each way to work in Wilmington, or farther, to Logan International Airport for out-of-town meetings. He is looking to buy a home closer to his employer and the airport.

"I love, love, love my place, so it's bittersweet," Benoit said. But the commute is "just getting too expensive."

Benoit's decision may seem like an extreme reaction to soaring gasoline prices, which have forced many commuters to modify their driving habits. Some are making fewer trips, and others are trading in gas-guz zling sport utility vehicles for compacts or taking mass transit to work. The US Department of Transportation recently reported a record drop in the number of miles Americans drove in March, compared with March 2007, which amounted to a 4.3 percent decline.

But if gas prices continue their inexorable rise, commuting costs will become a critical factor in where people choose to live, according to transit specialists and economists. Most will probably not take as radical a step as Benoit and relocate; instead, the next time they have to move, for a job or a bigger house, proximity to work or mass transit will be a much bigger consideration.

The first dramatic changes would probably occur for those in isolated suburbs and exurbs: the New Hampshire resident who commutes 50 miles to Boston or the Framingham resident who drives 20 miles into Kendall Square in Cambridge.

"When gas was cheap, it was financially possible to live out in the exurbs and the outer reaches of the suburban ring and commute in," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's "That's where we'll see the largest impact from the surge of commuting costs."

There is little evidence of a migration by homeowners seeking to lower their gas costs, but there are signs that more are thinking about it.

In a survey of its agents by real estate brokerage Coldwell Banker, 81 percent said they are seeing more interest from prospective buyers in urban living because of high gasoline prices. Fifty-four percent said access to public transportation is more important to their clients now.

A May study by CEOs for Cities, a research organization supported by government and business, said rising gas prices would push new housing developments closer to the urban core in Boston, Seattle, and other US cities, while suburbs with few transit options will lose value.
The market for higher-density development in close-in neighborhoods is likely to grow stronger," the report said.

Young families might settle for tighter quarters closer to the city instead of the larger, less expensive homes with long commutes. For suburban professionals, a more expensive condo in downtown Boston might make financial sense. And baby boomers might consider giving up the family home because higher gas prices eat into their retirement savings.

Daniel Gustafson and his partner, Paula Parker, are buying a home in Milton that abuts the Red Line's Mattapan trolley. Gustafson realized he could ride the subway to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge rather than drive his van, as he has done for years. That sold him. He calculated this would save about $200 a month in gas, after subtracting the cost of a subway pass.

In Melrose, Linda O'Koniewski, owner of Re/Max Heritage, reported a surge of interest in recent months in the compact city, which has three commuter train stops. It also offers easy access to a short highway commute into Boston and a quaint downtown, with restaurants and clothing and arts and crafts stores, to which many residents can walk.

Melrose's housing market is still slower than last year. But one indication of a turnaround is that the supply of homes for sale in Melrose has dropped sharply, to half the inventory for surrounding Middlesex County. Buyers "are making different life decisions because of the economics of energy," O'Koniewski said.

The town of Scituate, which is along the new Greenbush commuter rail line, had 77 home sales between January and May - 10 more than the same period last year. No one knows whether the sales were influenced by lower commuting costs, but the numbers are suggestive.

Economists and housing analysts said there is no specific level at which gas price increases will prompt people to move. Instead, as prices rise to attention-getting levels - up, say, 50 cents or a dollar - more people will reexamine their living situations.

But moving isn't necessarily the right answer, especially now. The outlying communities where commuting costs are hitting hardest are also experiencing a larger decline in real estate values. Closer-in communities have fared better in the slump. For those looking to relocate, that would mean less money for the home they're selling and more money for the one they would buy.

Close-in communities also often have higher property taxes, and the act of moving is an enormous and expensive undertaking.

Jeff Glew, director of the East Coast office of The Concord Group Real Estate Advisors, said gas prices are high enough now to influence those who have to move for a job change or other reasons. But he said gas prices would have to be as high as $8 a gallon before the savings from a shorter commute will compensate for moving to a more expensive, closer-in community.

For Benoit, moving closer to his Wilmington employer is unlikely to save him any money because housing in the area is more expensive. Among the communities he is considering are Medford and Woburn, which would both cut his daily, round-trip commute to 10 miles from 68 miles, saving him $163 a month at current gas prices, according to calculations by The Concord Group.

But in Woburn, for example, the median condo price is $250,500; at that level his monthly housing costs, including taxes, would increase $228. If he chooses Medford, where the median price of a condo is $310,000, his monthly housing costs would increase by $615. That doesn't include the costs associated with buying the home and moving.

Benoit is unfazed, saying the tradeoff makes sense for him.

"Even if I end up spending more money, I'm spending it in a smarter way," he said. "I'm investing in real estate. I'm not pouring it into my gas tank."

Social networks are growing in niches

The growing success of Facebook - now well ahead of MySpace - has forced the latter to revamp itself, building on its core strength of music. If MySpace becomes more of a niche player, albeit a huge one, then it may simply be part of a trend. Niche is the new buzzword. There are already lots of niche networking sites including,, and But there are new niche networks in the pipeline including two - would you believe it - from Britain with global ambitions. They are simple and, unlike the startups in the dotcom boom, they think they know how to make money.

One of the most interesting, Finerday, was launched this week, triggering the question - why on earth was something so blindingly obvious not developed before? A commercial site, supported by Age Concern, it enables older people to network and stay in touch with their families and vice versa. There are other similar sites, such as in the US and Saga Zone in the UK but they lack several factors that Finerday hopes will be killer apps: old people don't just want to talk to older people, they want to be in touch with their extended families wherever they are in the world: they want everything to be simple and they want an easy, affordable computer.

I only saw a pre-release version of Finerday, but it was enough to tell me that if - a big if - it works properly, it could be a big success. It has a simple, colourful interface with icons for messages, photos, diary, shopping, fun etc. Fun is subdivided into games, television and radio with buttons in big letters to press and play. One option, "Send a gift", takes you to well-known brands with customised suggestions, giving the site a potentially lucrative revenue stream. But the interesting thing is that within months it hopes to offer a package including simple installation by an internet service provider and one of the new generation of cheap computers - in this case an Acer - customised for older people with a large screen, simple buttons and a price as near £200 as they can get it.

Coincidentally, I have just received a phone called Emporia Life with big keys and a red emergency button for older people. The computer world has suddenly realised that, just as there are a billion poorer people in the world wanting to buy cheap, customised computers, so there is a vast, and fast-growing market of older people wanting the same.

Another interesting site set to launch soon,, couldn't be more different. It aims to marry console-style gaming with a community site that looks a bit like a digital version of the X Factor. Instead of aggregating a mass of content around users like MySpace, Basedrift encourages them to put up videos, photos, music, text or other achievements in special galleries - from urban dancing to girl of the month - with punters voting through (lucrative) text messages in the hope of getting glitzy prizes. Co-director Dom Penrice claims it is unusual because participants are competing and communicating with other people (providing the company with a fan base it can exploit) and that if you don't win you can still qualify for rewards. Helped by a marketing campaign, he hopes to have a niche market of 350,000 users by the middle of next year. I have been shown a demo, though wasn't able to test it myself - but it looks different and is one to watch.

If you are not convinced that social networks are going niche, then how about I was alerted to it by Christian Ahlert who runs the Minibar in London for budding entrepreneurs and is advising Finerday. It is a social network (not yet public) for avatars in virtual worlds such as and Second Life so they can communicate with each other across virtual borders. If avatars need their own network, can any other niche community be immune from this new trend?

Home for sale includes wife

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL-- A struggling single parent and real estate agent is trying to sell her house and find a husband. She's auctioning off both her home and herself in a package deal on eBay and Craigslist.

Single parent Deven Traboscia has been divorced for eight years. She had hoped to be remarried by now, so she is turning to the internet for help.

The real estate agent is auctioning off her Palm Beach Gardens home and herself on both Ebay and Craigslist.

In the ad, Traboscia writes:

"If you want to live the never ending dream and experience the real love, life and the romance you have always felt was a fairytale then this is the vibrant outstanding woman of your dreams! To sweep this European Loving Lady off her feet send in your application right now."

She goes on to say that her four bedroom, 2,000 square-foot home, that will be included in the deal, has "neutral colors, Berber carpet, and upgraded tile".

Traboscia says she has already been contacted by one man in Italy, who is arranging a trip to South Florida to visit her.

Her eBay auction ends July 2 and asks for a starting bid of 99 cents with a shipping cost of $500 thousand. The auction has not yet received any bids.


Seffner man dies after downing 23 shots of vodka

SEFFNER, FL -- Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies believe a Seffner man may have drunk himself to death, by downing 23 shots of vodka in 30 minutes.

Deputies discovered the body of Eric Morris at a bar on US 92 in Tampa Tuesday night.

Morris was 26 years old.

According to a sheriff's spokesman, Morris went to "The Angels" bar, which is a topless bar on US 92, and began ordering shots of Burnett's Cherry Vodka. He was playing a drinking game with a friend. The police report says his friend told Morris he was too old to keep playing the game, but Morris continued.

He drank 23 shots in 30 minutes before passing out. His friend dragged him to the club's champagne room where Morris died.

The medical examiner's office says the cause of death is pending and it may take four to six weeks before they have blood tests back to show Morris' blood alcohol level.