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Quiz: Am I Ready to Buy?

Carla Hill, Yahoo Real Estate

There are lots of eager would-be buyers out there. It’s no wonder why! The market currently offers many ideal buying conditions. Interest rates are still at historic lows (for those with excellent credit). Home prices are extremely affordable when compared to area median incomes. There is a large supply of homes available in most markets (more homes to choose from and buyer advantage at negotiations).

Yet, the questions remains. Are you ready to buy? Take a moment to answer this ten question quiz: Am I Ready to Buy?

1. What is your credit score? (a) less than 620; (b) between 730 and 850; (c) between 620 and 730.

2. Do you have cash for a 20 percent down payment? (a) how much?; (b) yes; (c) not yet, but we’re working on it.

3. Do you have cash totaling an 8-month emergency fund? (a) I live month to month; (b) we have funds to cover 8 months of expenses; (c) we only have savings to cover a few months.

4. Have you been pre-approved for a mortgage? (a) I figured I’d find the house I like first; (b) Yes, and I have a copy of the letter; (c) I played around with forms online.

5. Is your job: (a) temporary, part-time; (b) full-time and secure; (c) full-time, but our company is experiencing lay-offs.

6. Do you plan on staying in your current city for the next 3 to 5 years? (a) I won’t be here for that long; (b) Yes, most definitely; (c) I’m not sure.

7. Have you worked on buyer budgets? (a) I don’t have time to do frivolous budgets; (b) I have a spreadsheet showing different scenarios; (c) I’ve worked up a few, but haven’t spent much time.

8. How much space do you need? (a) I want a mansion. I’ll take nothing less. (b) We know within about 500 square feet; (c) we’ve given it some thought, but aren’t sure.

9. Are you and your spouse or partner on the same page? (a) it’s my way or the highway; (b) we’ve had several lengthy discussions and agree on most points; (c) we’ve talked, but have very different ideas.

10. Why do you want to buy? (a) I want a place i can show off; (b) I want stability for my family; (c) I want to be able to decorate like I want!

If you answered mostly a’s, then our experts recommend you take some time to get your finances in squeaky clean order before proceeding. Homeownership is a big financial responsibility, and with an unemployment rate over 9.0 across much of the country, it’s important that you have funds in place to take care of yourself and your family before you you buy.

If you answered mostly b’c, congratulations! You sound like a prime candidate for homeownership. Be sure to contact your local Realtor for advice on the next step.

If you answered mostly c’s, you are very close to being ready to buy. Take the next few months to check over your credit report and fix any errors. Talk to banks and lenders and see what rates you qualify for. Start putting buying at the forefront of your mind and your future planning. Make it a priority and it’ll happen!

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Jon Prior, Housing Wire

Roughly 150 protesters gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago Monday afternoon, protesting the Mortgage Bankers Association as some of the the trade group’s members looked on and snapped photos.

Thousands more from various groups organized around the city, including Daley Plaza and Federal Plaza. A pastor from a nearby suburb who identified himself as Russell, arrived at the Hyatt and picked up a sign from the Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation. It was a cardboard cutout of JPMorgan Chase (JPM: 32.40+4.38%) CEO Jamie Dimon that read: "Wall Street Bank Robber."

The likenesses of Bank of America‘s (BAC: 6.54 +8.46%) Brian Moynihan, Countrywide‘s Angelo Mozilo and others were also seen bouncing above the chants and a marching band.

"Of my congregation of 270, about 30% are facing foreclosure," Russell said. "They come to me and my church, and we organize them and try to direct them to all the available programs and mediation sessions. But the banks continue to undermine that."

While Russell said SOUL and other community groups have been organizing protests since 2005, the recent uprising from Occupy Wall Street and other areas rejuvenated them to try and catch a more unified wave of dissent.

A SOUL organizer, who called himself Toby, made some final preparations for his speech through the megaphone. Even some curious MBA members gathered nearby on the hotel steps behind security to watch the crowd and listen to Toby.

"While we are out here desperately looking for jobs, they’re in there trying to figure out how to make more money off of us," he yelled into the megaphone.

One mortgage banker, who wouldn’t give her name, shook her head. "This is the wrong place to do this. We’re trying to figure out how to help them."

Others were more critical. Another banker pointed out to his colleague different union members he thought he saw in the crowd. Another scolded some protesters for bringing their children to the rally.

One technology vendor, who wouldn’t be identified, said he was sympathetic and that some previous members of this very trade group "got away scot-free."

"There’s just no jobs," he said. "What would you do?"

Another banker, who also wouldn’t give his name, said the recent wave of protests was even routine. Coming out of crises and recessions, there is always a wave of descent before the eventual recovery.

The MBA itself put out a statement Monday morning in advance of the protest, highlighting the 3,000 members who assembled in Chicago to revamp the U.S. housing system.

"We all recognize that our industry faces a trust deficit with policymakers and the public and that people in our industry contributed to the events that led to the financial crisis," the MBA said. "The mortgage professionals who have gathered in Chicago this week are about sustainable homeownership and ensuring access to affordable mortgage credit for qualified borrowers."

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People who have always wondered what it might be like to dabble in a little New York real estate may soon be able to dabble in a lot of it — by buying a piece of its most famous skyscraper, the Empire State Building.

The Malkin family, which controls the 102-story Art Deco tower at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, is planning to create a publicly traded real estate company featuring the building, according to three executives who had been briefed on the plans but spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The skyscraper draws tens of thousands of tourists from across the globe every year to its 86th-floor observatory, 1,050 feet above the city streets. If the Malkin plan is successful, New Yorkers, and anyone else for that matter, will be able to buy stock in the company that owns the Empire State Building, much as Wisconsin residents bought stock in the Green Bay Packers.

The new company, the executives said, may include a number of other office buildings controlled by Anthony E. Malkin and his father, Peter L. Malkin, including 1 Grand Central, a 55-story, 1.3-million-square-foot building across 42nd Street from Grand Central Terminal, and a 26-story building at 250 West 57th Street, as well as six buildings in Westchester County and Connecticut.

Anthony Malkin declined to comment, but he, his father and their partners are hoping to cash in on the Empire State Building’s international cachet and a commercial real estate market in New York that is once again attracting buyers from around the world.

“Investors the world over are clamoring to invest in Manhattan office properties, both debt and equity,” said Michael Knott, a managing director of Green Street Advisors.

Still, the Malkins must clear a number of hurdles, not the least of which is gaining the support of their principal partner, the estate of Leona Helmsley, which has hired advisers to evaluate the proposal, and the 3,400 limited partners in the existing company that owns the Empire State Building.

A public sale would come amid a sharp rebound in the number of initial public offerings, which roughly tripled in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the same period a year ago. Stock offerings for real estate investment trusts have also surged, with a total volume of $1 billion, more than double the output during the same period last year. But Mr. Knott said that many of those recent offerings had not performed very well after selling in the public markets.

The Empire State Building did not get off to an auspicious start when it opened in 1931, during the Depression. Critics derided it as the “Empty State Building,” and it was not profitable until 1950.

Mr. Malkin’s grandfather Lawrence A. Wien, his father and Harry B. Helmsley created what became a model for real estate syndication when they bought control of the building in 1961 from Henry Crown and leased it to a group of investors, including themselves. Those investors then sold an operating sublease for the tower to another entity now controlled by the Malkins and the estate of Leona Helmsley, while Mr. Helmsley and Mr. Wien sold the title to the property to the Prudential Insurance Company.

After years of fighting among the owners and feuds with Donald J. Trump, the Malkins gained full control of the building about five years ago and embarked on what has become a $560 million effort to burnish the 2.9-million-square-foot landmark and more than double the rents.

They have renovated the lobby — restoring original Art Deco murals — refurbished the observatory and replaced the 6,514 windows as part of an effort to make it one of the city’s most energy-efficient buildings.

The Malkins and their brokers at Newmark Knight Frank have attracted a series of corporate tenants, including a division of Li & Fung, the giant trading firm, which signed a lease for 483,000 square feet in January. There are now about 200 tenants, down from 950 in 2002, though today’s tenants occupy far larger spaces. The building may never command rents as high as those at trophies like the General Motors Building, but real estate brokers say the tower now shines.

“They’ve moved the building, in my mind, to a Class A property,” said Peter Riguardi, president of Jones Lang LaSalle in New York. “It needed those upgrades. It’s now one of the top buildings in that area.”

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By choosing a studio that measures just 12 feet by 7 feet, Felice Cohen can afford to live in Manhattan’s Upper West Side where apartments rent for an average of $3,600 per month. She pays just over $700 for her 90-square-foot microstudio. After a bit of adjustment she now loves living smaller, simpler and cozier.


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Wall Street Journal

The lot of the U.S. consumer hasn’t been a happy one. Weak labor markets, falling home values and, recently, soaring gas prices have gnawed away at confidence.

The economic angst was apparent Tuesday when the Conference Board reported its index fell to 63.4 this month, from 72.0 in February.

Even so, misery isn’t blanketing the U.S. in equal measure. And gauging local gloom is possible using data collected at the city level. It turns out Boston is coping best. Clouds are darkest in sunny Phoenix.

The twin worries depressing consumers — slow progress on the job front and soaring gas prices — are reminiscent of the fears of the late 1980s. Back then, a misery index — the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates — illustrated the strains on households. In 1980, the index averaged 21%.

How miserable are consumers now? A 1980s index would total 11.0%, but recent inflation reports haven’t totally captured the pain drivers are suffering at the pump. Plus, any measure today would have to include the weakness in real estate. The January S&P/Case-Shiller report showed the fall in home prices is accelerating again. Declining home values make homeowners feel especially miserable.

One way to construct a current misery index would add the 12-month change in the jobless rate (to gauge improvement in the labor markets), the percent change in gas prices since the end of 2010, and the inverse of the yearly percent change in home values. That U.S. misery index would stand at 20% now, and up from 8.3% a year ago.

The national number, of course, masks the divergence across regions since some cities and real estate markets are recovering faster than others. Local misery indexes are possible using city unemployment rates from the Labor Department, local gas prices from, and home prices from the S&P report.

Although misery is in the eye of the beholder, the city with the mildest case of the blues is Boston. The Massachusetts city has seen home prices fall just 0.6% over the past year, and gas prices are up “only” 13.6%, compared with a nearly 18% gain nationwide.

Phoenix, Ariz., ranked last of the 20 cities. Home prices there led the S&P January survey with a yearly drop of 9.1%. And gas prices have jumped about 22%.

The magnitude of local misery will have an impact on struggling city governments. In Phoenix, the steep plunge in home values will constrain property tax collections. Miami and Denver have seen little progress on the jobs front, suggesting demand for public safety-net services will remain high.

Don’t expect misery to ease soon. Although the jobless rate is likely to fall gradually, gas prices are likely to keep rising as the U.S. nears the summer driving season. And the S&P/Case-Shiller report warned there was “no real hope in sight for the near future” concerning home prices.

Consumers are already braced for more pain ahead. The plunge in confidence was concentrated in expectations for the next six month. That index dropped to its lowest reading since November 2010.

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