The Commonwealth Blog

Friday, January 24, 2020

Choosing an Architect to Design Your Custom Home

Most of us have things we’d like to change about our homes. This has driven home renovation to become a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. If you want to upgrade the kitchen, redesign your bathroom, or convert your garage to a workshop, a quick trip to the nearest big-box home center can get you all the tools, materials, and expertise you need.

But what if you want to do something bigger? What if you want to build a custom home from the ground up? For a project like this, the home center won't be much help. You'll need an architect.

Why You Need an Architect

An architect does much more than just drawing a blueprint. A good one can take your dreams and apply them to a house you can build in the real world. An architect will help you navigate building regulations, use your land wisely, and maximize the function of your house. Sometimes, they may even help you choose finishes and fixtures.

Choosing an architect is a big decision, and you shouldn't make it lightly. Here are five tips to help you pick the right architect for your new home:

1) Do Your Homework 

The first step in picking an architect is determining what style you like. A quick Google search on architectural styles can help you put a name to the aesthetic you prefer. Fortunately, whether you like baroque or Bauhaus, it should be easy to find examples you can visit in person.

2) Everyone Has Their Own Look

Every architect has their own style that they naturally fall into. Asking an architect who specializes in the Cape Cod style to design an industrial space is a recipe for disaster. Before you choose an architect, make sure their vision and yours align.

3) Dream Big, Think Small

There are hundreds of huge design firms and superstar architects all over the world. If you're planning to build a skyscraper, these are the people to see. If you're planning a slightly less ambitious project, a small, local architecture firm is probably your best bet.

3) Get Recommendations

If you ask around, you'll probably find that some of your friends and family have hired architects for their own projects. If you like the look of someone's new home or renovation, ask them who did the work. When you visit the firm, be sure to mention the recommendation—architects love word-of-mouth advertising.

4) Visit in Person

Looking at pictures of architecture is a good start, but if you really want to get the feel for a space, you have to visit in person. Once you've narrowed down your style and have a short list of potential architects, visit as many of their physical projects as you can.

Building a custom home is not for the faint of heart. It is a time-consuming, potentially costly project. However, when it's done right, the end result is well worth the effort.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Choosing a Property for Your Custom Home

Are you planning to build a custom home? Choosing the land you’ll build it on is one of the most important decisions you'll make. Make the right choice and you’ll be on your way to owning the house of your dreams. Make the wrong choice and that dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

There are many constraints to be aware of. Every area has its own building, environmental, and zoning restrictions that will limit your choices somewhat, but your options may still be overwhelming. Fortunately, you can make the process a little easier.

Pick your Priorities

Choosing the property will always involve a compromise. Most of the time, there isn't one available that will meet all of your desires within your budget. The best way to tackle this problem is to make a list of priorities. Here are four attributes you’ll want to consider:

1) Think Regionally

The first consideration should be geographical. Where do you work? Where do your friends and family live? What activities do you enjoy? Do you want to live in a particular county, town, or neighborhood? Once you narrow your search down to an area on the map, you’ll be ready to consider your other priorities.

2) City or Country?

Do you like being closer to nature, or would you rather be close to the action in town? Properties in urban areas are generally more expensive, but the choice between city and country can have an enormous impact on many other decisions that affect cost, including architectural style and square footage.

3) How Close Is Close Enough?

How close do you want to live to work, public transit, the grocery store, and all the other places you go regularly? Do you want to walk and bike to them, or are you okay with taking your car everywhere?

4) Size Matters

What size property are you looking for? This depends on your plans. Do you want to have a shop? How about a garden? You’ll need room for them. Whatever it is you like to do, make sure your new property can accommodate you.

If you want to build a custom home just the way you want it, you will face hundreds of decisions large and small. Choosing a building site is only the first step in the process, but it could be the most important.

 
Wednesday, January 15, 2020

New Construction or Existing Property

Buying a home is exciting, but you face hundreds of decisions, both big and small. One of the most important choices you will make is whether to purchase an existing property or a new home built from the ground up. In some locations, land for new construction isn’t available, but if you have a choice, you'll need to be careful to make the right decision for you.

Pros and Cons

There are definite advantages to new construction. For example, you can customize your floor plan, finishes, and appliances right from the start. However, you will probably pay a premium for this flexibility.

Existing properties are available in many more locations, so you have a better chance of buying wherever you want to. Unfortunately, an existing property may come with many hidden costs. Here are some other money matters to consider when choosing between buying an existing property or building something new:

1) New Construction Costs More

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average cost to construct a new home is around $300,000, on top of the cost of the land. The average cost of an existing property, on the other hand, is just $200,000. This difference alone can make the choice for many homebuyers.

2) Repairs and Renovations

When you purchase an existing property, it may need some repairs, or you might want to make some renovations. These costs can quickly escalate even for minor projects. If you’re leaning toward buying an extant property, get a home inspection first—you may change your mind if the repair estimate is too steep.

3) Utilities

Don’t forget about ongoing energy costs. Developers often build new homes with energy efficiency in mind, but an existing property may need a lot of work to catch up. Modern building codes are more likely to require better insulation, energy-efficient windows, and other upgrades. In addition, if you're considering solar energy, adding a system to new construction is much easier and less expensive.

Choosing a home to purchase is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. If you have a choice between new construction and an existing property, think carefully about the benefits and drawbacks to both.

 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Are You Ready to Offer Short-Term Rentals?

bedroom with chairs by a windo

Short-term rentals are popular these days. Millions of people each year are reserving rentals through Airbnb, HomeAway, Vrbo, and other websites as an alternative to traditional hotels. If you live in an area popular with tourists or business travelers, offering your home or apartment as a short-term rental can be a great way to earn extra money.

Getting Ready for a Short-Term Rental

If your renters went to a hotel, they would expect a certain level of comfort and amenities. You can’t just leave the keys under the mat and expect everything to go smoothly. If you want to ensure a good experience for yourself and your guests, take these five steps:

1) Clean Up Your Mess

When you go to a hotel, you expect to find a clean, orderly space waiting for you. Your short-term tenants should find the same when they show up at your property, so make sure it’s been cleaned thoroughly before your renters arrive. If you want to make it easier on yourself, do what hotels do: Hire a professional.

2) Be Clear on the Rules

Hotels have rules, so your rental property should too. You don't need to write a whole book, but you should at least cover the basics:

  • Is smoking allowed? Where?
  • Can your guests have parties?
  • Does your neighborhood have a noise curfew?
  • Are pets welcome?

3) Protect Your Valuables

If you're renting out your personal residence, perhaps while you're on vacation, you need to keep your valuables safe. Keep things like firearms, jewelry, and personal documents in a safe, or better yet, store them off-site.

4) Make it Safe

If a guest is injured in your property, you could face a legal liability nightmare. Accidents might always happen, but you can reduce the chances by addressing any obvious hazards. Make sure a first aid kit and fire extinguishers are accessible in the property, and check that your smoke detectors are working properly. Leave emergency contact info and the address of the nearest hospital somewhere visible in case an accident occurs.

5) Stock the Shelves

Even short-term guests need some basic items to make their stay comfortable. At the least, provide the following:

  • Toiletries
  • Clean towels and linens
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Extra blankets
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Kitchen basics
  • Trash bags
Most guests also expect free internet access. Leave your Wi-Fi password for them, but remember to change it again once they check out.
 
Opening your house or apartment to short-term renters can be a lucrative side business, whether you share your primary residence with others while you’re away or you own a second property just for this purpose. Taking these simple steps before your guests’ stay will ensure a better experience for everyone.
Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Giving Back to the Cambridge Community

 

Cambridge, Massachusetts is most famous for its prestigious universities, including Harvard, MIT, and others. Since life in Cambridge is so inextricably tied to college culture, driven by thousands of young people who are active in community engagement, it’s no wonder there are so many volunteer opportunities in this particular Boston suburb.

Of course, you don’t need to be a college student to give back to your community—there are countless ways for Cambridge residents of all ages to get involved. Here are some excellent places to lend your time and talents for the good of your friends and neighbors.

The Cambridge Public Library

Made up of both historic buildings and modern facilities, the Cambridge Public Library System has much more to offer than books: computer access, conference rooms, an interlibrary loan system, and many cultural and educational events throughout the year. If you’d like to help the library plan, run, and advertise its various programs, join the Friends of the Cambridge Public Library. Past volunteers have assisted with clerical work, office administration, and social media outreach.

Charles River Conservancy

The Charles River serves as the border between Cambridge and Boston proper, offering a slice of the outdoors in the middle of the sprawling cityscape. Bostonians and visitors both enjoy swimming, sailing, and kayaking in the water, riding along the Charles River Bike Path, and relaxing in one of the several nearby parks. If you volunteer with the Conservancy, you can do your part to keep the river area clean, inviting, and eco-friendly.

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter

Getting involved with the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, which operates November through April, is an excellent chance to help less fortunate members of your community persevere through Boston’s harsh winters while they try to get back on their feet. As a volunteer, you’ll join Harvard students in welcoming guests to the shelter, preparing their dinner and breakfast, and helping them do laundry.

It’s not all hard work, however—you’ll also have the chance to converse with guests, watch movies with them, read to them, and engage in other friendly activities they might not get to experience often. It’s one of the most important and rewarding things you can do with your evenings.

CitySprouts

CitySprouts promotes growth in two ways: by literally cultivating urban gardens around Cambridge and by helping children with limited access to nature learn more about gardening, nutrition, and their environment. CitySprouts volunteers can help tend gardens in the spring, press apple cider in autumn, and perform other basic tasks essential to keeping their various programs running year-round.

A Hundred Ways to Help

If the organizations we’ve mentioned don’t inspire you, there are plenty of other groups that would gladly welcome your time and effort. If you live in Cambridge, or if you’re planning to move here, you’ll agree the strong community makes this wonderful city what it is.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Make a Home Office Work for You

Even if you love your job, you probably don’t enjoy traveling there and back five times a week. It’s not hard to understand why most people prefer sleeping in, working in comfortable clothes, and being six steps from their couch at the end of the day over spending a lot of time getting ready and commuting. On top of the convenience, many workers are more productive in their own environments, too.

In a lot of industries, it’s no longer necessary for people to go to a jobsite to get their work done, and employees are well aware of that—according to one 2019 poll, 99% of workers surveyed said they wanted to work remotely at least part of the week, and more employers are obliging to stay competitive.

Now that working from home is such a big part of our culture, a great home office setup is key. While you still live in your house, you’ll benefit from having a designated place to get tasks done, and when it comes time to sell, you’ll have a better chance of appealing to millennial buyers who are accustomed to working remotely. Here’s what you can do to get the most out of your home office before and during your sale.

A Room with a View

Nothing’s more counterproductive than feeling cooped up. Set up your office in a room with a window so you can take in the natural light, enjoy a breeze in nice weather, and look upon nice scenery when your eyes need a break from the computer. When prospective buyers come by, make sure your window is open and the lawn or garden outside has been tended to—they’ll be happier to imagine themselves working in a scenic atmosphere.

Use Your Wall Space

Your home office hopefully won’t be as sterile as the average workspace, but having some of the same accessories will make it more effective. Save room on your wall for a whiteboard or corkboard, a calendar, Post-it notes, etc. Even though you’ll probably take these things with you when you move, showing them to a buyer will prove that your office is a productive environment.

Stick to Business

The point of a home office is to eliminate distractions—otherwise, you’d just work in your living room. A little decoration is okay, but keep television, dishes, your kids’ toys, and other nonwork items out of your dedicated office space. You’ll get more done, and potential buyers will be better able to envision themselves working there without your personal touches.

Ultimately, you should establish your home office in whatever way works best for you personally, but these rules of thumb should serve most remote employees well. Say goodbye to long commutes and hello to a faster sale.

 
Thursday, January 2, 2020

6 Places to Eat in Somerville

three girlfriends dining out

Boston may be internationally famous for its baked beans and clam chowder, but those classics are just scratching the surface of the cuisine New England has to offer. Somerville, in particular, has become a dining hotspot in recent years—some of the region’s most highly rated restaurants, according to Boston magazine and Yelp users alike, call Somerville home.

If you’re a Boston resident looking for new places to try, or if a thriving food scene is an important factor in where you’d like to move, check out these six Somerville establishments.

Sarma

Let Sarma introduce you to meze, the Middle East’s answer to tapas. Your party can choose from a variety of small bites inspired mostly by Turkish cuisine, giving you the chance to sample quite a few items. Crowd favorites include seven-layer hummus, brisket shawarma, and harissa BBQ duck, but one of the nightly specials carried from table to table by the servers may catch your eye too.

Highland Kitchen

Highland Kitchen is a bar and restaurant that specializes in inventive takes on American staples. Grab a cocktail and enjoy a gourmet burger, sandwich, or stew for dinner (the spicy coconut curried goat stew is a highlight), or enjoy Sunday brunch, where fried chicken and shrimp and grits steal the show. Come for the food and drinks, stay for the eclectic jukebox.

Tasting Counter

Tasting Counter isn’t just a trendy name for a restaurant but a hint at what you’ll find inside: one shared counter space, facing the kitchen, where guests can interact with both the chefs and each other while enjoying a nine-course New American tasting menu. Self-described as “a complete sensory experience,” Tasting Counter is as much about performance as it is pleasing your palate, encouraging guests to immerse themselves in a communal culinary event.

Dakzen

Bringing authentic Thai street food to Somerville, Dakzen prides itself on having a smaller menu than most other Asian restaurants, holding to the philosophy that concentrating on a set amount of specialties leads to better meals than going too broad. The khao soi and yen ta fo noodles are not to be missed.

Field & Vine

Field & Vine, located in Somerville’s Union Square, offers simple small plate dishes using natural, sustainably sourced ingredients. Fans of seafood should pick from the raw bar, which includes oysters, fluke ceviche, and Maine yellowfin tuna crudo. If fish aren’t your favorite, try the Long Island duck breast or one of the many delicately prepared vegetable plates.

Celeste

Another Union Square establishment, Celeste serves homemade Peruvian fare in a unique environment designed by one of the restaurant’s cofounders, who’s also an architect. They have an extensive beer and wine menu, and their pisco drinks pair excellently with the seco de cordero (lamb stew).

This is only a small sample of the Somerville restaurants that Greater Boston gourmands have been excited about lately. If you’d like more recommendations, ask a realtor—as experts in what makes Somerville such a great place to live, they’re sure to have an opinion on the best food in the area.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Can You Find the Right House Online?

 

In today’s world, anyone with a smartphone has an enormous amount of information at their fingertips. This gives modern home buyers a major advantage over those of past generations. Instead of driving around neighborhoods to see what’s for sale or counting on a realtor to know all of their preferences from the get-go, they can look at houses online to narrow down their search before bringing in professional help.

Using online resources is essential to finding your ideal home and neighborhood quickly. Here are some tips that will make your online search more effective.

First Things First

Before you start shopping for houses, take a few preliminary steps to set your search up for success.

  1. Know What You Can Afford
    Few things are more frustrating than finding the perfect house, then realizing you can't afford it. Before you start your search, take a thorough account of your income and expenses to set realistic expectations.
  2. Start Saving for Your Down Payment
    For most people, buying a house means having a mortgage. You can usually get better terms on a loan if you have a larger down payment, so start saving now.
  3. Get Preapproved
    Getting approved for a loan before you need it is the sensible thing to do. If you ever find yourself in a multiple offer situation, preapproval can make the difference between you and another potential buyer.
 

Starting Your Search

While you can find a lot of good info online by yourself, working with a realtor is still well worth it. Real estate professionals have access to multiple listing services that typically have the most current and accurate information. If you’d still like to go it alone for a while before bringing in a realtor, websites like Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com have the best information available to consumers.
 
For the most effective search:
 
  1. Be Specific
    How many bedrooms do you want? How many bathrooms? What is your price range? All the real estate websites give you the option to limit your search so you only see the houses that meet your criteria. Narrowing your search keeps you from being overwhelmed.
  2. Learn the History
    Before you commit to a home, look into its history. How long has it been on the market? Is it a foreclosure? How many foreclosures are in the area? What comparable houses have sold recently? The answers to these questions will give you valuable information that can help you when it comes time to negotiate.
  3. Know the Neighborhood
    Do you have kids, or do you plan to have them? It’s worth looking for a place with good schools, parks, and other family-friendly amenities nearby. Want to use public transit? You'll want a property within walking distance of a stop.
  4. Closing the Deal
    If you haven’t brought in a realtor by the time you’re ready to make an offer, make sure to do so now. A knowledgeable agent will have insight into each house's potential and the experience to help you negotiate a great deal.
If you’re looking for a home in the Greater Boston area, use our Property Search tool and follow our suggestions above. Let us know when you’ve found a few options that interest you—one of our agents will be happy to help you on the next leg of the journey.
Monday, December 23, 2019

Hire a Mover or Do it Yourself?

Whether you’re moving down the street or across the country, the process of packing your belongings into a truck, driving them to your new place, and unloading them all can be overwhelming. It’s tiring enough just to read about it. There is a solution that will help you carry some of the load: You can hire professional movers.

 

Is it better to get professional assistance or move everything yourself? It depends on your situation. If you’re living in a one-bedroom apartment and have plenty of friends to help out, DIY moving could be easy. On the other hand, if you've got a three-bedroom house and two kids’ worth of stuff to take, doing it all alone may be more than you can handle.

 

Having trouble deciding? Let’s look at the pros and cons of managing the move on your own.

 

Pros

  • DIY Moving is Cheap
    If your budget is tight, moving everything yourself is probably the better option. As long as you have some friends willing to help with the heavy lifting, and you can handle driving a moving van, the DIY route is doable.
  • You Are in Total Control
    When you move yourself, you’re in complete control of everything: The boxing, the packing, the driving, and the schedule are all up to you. If you always like to be in command of your situation, DIY moving is definitely the way to go.

 

Cons

  • There’s a Lot of Heavy Lifting
    The worst part about a DIY move is picking up and packing all of your stuff into the truck—especially the bulky items and heavy furniture. If you and your friends aren’t quite muscular enough to hold everything steady, you could lose your security deposit or lower your property value by scratching up the walls. Professional movers come prepared to pick up and drop off everything for you, no matter how huge it is.
  • Logistics Are Harder Than They Look
    There is a lot of planning and coordinating that goes into a move. Professional movers know the best way to load your belongings so everything will be safe during the trip and convenient to take out of the truck. Moving companies are also better at predicting how long the trip will take.
  • The Problems Are All Yours
    When unexpected problems arise, and they will, it's up to you to figure them out. It could be something simple, like getting your couch through the door, or something a bit tougher, like your moving truck breaking down on the interstate. When you pay for professional movers, they take on some of those responsibilities for you.

Moving to a new home is always exciting regardless of what it takes to get there, but the less hassle the better. Now that you know the pros and cons of DIY moving, will you try it yourself or bring in the pros?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Staying Active in Arlington

 

In February 2019, Boston magazine rated Arlington, Massachusetts one of the best places to live in the area. It's easy to see why. Arlington has the feeling of a small town, with its shops and restaurants, but it's just a few miles from downtown Boston. Its highly rated public schools make it a natural fit for young families, and it’s an excellent place to maintain an active lifestyle. Arlington offers plenty of opportunities to move around and enjoy the outdoors. Here are some of the suburb’s most popular sites for fresh air and exercise:

Reservoir Beach

Whether you come for a day of swimming in the summer, a barbecue in the springtime, or a stroll down the walking trail in the fall, Reservoir Beach should be on your list. It's perfect for an impromptu visit, but you can also make a reservation and host a party.

Robbins Farm Park

This iconic park started out as a family farm. With its playground, ball fields, and incredible view of the Boston skyline, it’s popular with kids and parents alike. Take a ride down the 60-foot twin slides, and don’t forget to take a picture with the famous dog statue.

The Minuteman Bikeway

This bike trail follows an unused railroad right-of-way through several Arlington neighborhoods. It’s perfect for biking, jogging, running, and walking. It's also the best way to reach the Great Meadow.

The Great Meadow

When early settlers found this marshy area, it was too soft to support buildings. Over the years since, it’s been used as a grazing area, a drainage area, and a reservoir. Today, the Great Meadow is a natural habitat for wildlife. Take the Minuteman Bikeway to get there and then spend the day exploring the trails.

Menotomy Rocks Park

At this 35-acre park in the heart of Arlington, you'll find walking paths, open fields for unstructured play, and a three-acre pond. Even though it's in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas in the country, Menotomy Rocks Park remains in its natural state—you’ll experience the area just as the early colonists did.

Spy Pond Park

If you’re looking for something different, how about a day of kayaking and canoeing? Spy Pond is a wonderful place to slow down and enjoy the natural beauty of one of the country’s most scenic areas. If you want to hit the water, be sure to reserve your spot ahead of time. Even if you don't care for boating, come to enjoy the walking trails. Whether you’re a dedicated athlete or you just enjoy quietly ambling around, Arlington’s parks, beaches, and trails will keep you occupied for months.

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