Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why we can't shake name brands from our brains

Book Review: 'Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy'

Book Review
Title: "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy"
Author: Martin Lindstrom
Publisher: Crown Business, 2011; 304 pages; $25

Who doesn't love an insider secret? That's why you ask around to find out if anyone you know knows a guy/gal who does plumbing, works on your type of car, or sells real estate, when you're in the market to buy or sell yourself.
It's comforting to know that you have insider access to the tricks up the sleeve of your opponent. And it's precisely that comfort and insider access you'll get from master marketer-turned-consumer advocate Martin Lindstrom's latest work, "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy."
At the outset, Lindstrom tells his own personal tale of trying to take a yearlong diet from all name brands. He could still buy things, and could still use the things he already owned, but he could not buy anything new -- not even food -- that was associated with or touted as having a brand name.
All went well, despite the occasional withdrawal pang when he couldn't buy a round of anything at friends' birthday celebrations, as was his wont -- until, that is, he found himself in Cyprus, with no luggage (blasted airlines!).
Not only did he break his brand fast with the purchase of a hokey "I Love Cyprus" T-shirt, he completely relapsed, backsliding into a veritable brand-buying frenzy on the next stop of his trip: the fashion capital of the world, Milan.
"Brandwashed" takes a deep dive into the insider secrets of brand marketing, uncovering the hypnotic techniques that companies are using in this digital age to get us to buy what they want us to buy.
The general effect of this book is to make you second-guess why you like the things you like and buy the things you buy and, depending on how you answer those questions, to begin to view your relationships with brands, with things, with purchases and even with your social networks and electronic gadgets (from which marketers glean much of the data that helps them manipulate us into buying) in an entirely new light.
A short list of the marketing manipulations Lindstrom exposes in "Brandwashed" includes:
1. Start marketing in utero. Lindstrom tells of a Filipino coffee company that distributed candies to obstetricians to give to their pregnant patients, in anticipation of launching a coffee line with the same flavors. The coffee launched to great success: among newborns. The moms who had habitually consumed the candies while pregnant found that their fussy babies would instantly calm down with just a sip of the candy-flavored coffee.
And this is not an isolated incident: Lindstrom points out that children under 3 are a $20 billion market. With 90 percent of babies watching some sort of screen (i.e., television, iPad, etc.) by the time they are 2, and recognizing logos by the time they are 18 months old, brands now find success marketing everything from fragrances and unhealthy foods to bizarrely inappropriate items like a pole-dancing kit for girls under 10 and sweet, alcoholic sodas to young teenagers.
Even less objectionable adult brands and items are getting a head start by marketing to children, like Shell Oil putting its logo on Legos and Audi's stuffed animal line.
2. Cultivating addictions. We've all heard of various tobacco industry high jinks that have created physical and psychological addictions to their products. But did you know that the menthol in your lip balm and the salt and sugar in your snack foods can be just as addictive? Well, you might not have known, but Lindstrom says the brands that put them there did.
3. Peddling hope. Lindstrom points to the example of how brands market and sell the juice of the goji berry with packaging that implies or expressly says the products are Himalayan in origin, evoking associations of Buddhism, enlightenment and wellness. In fact, the berries come from China and some of the products so packaged are actually produced in decidedly less exotic locales like Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Lindstrom shows that this aggressive (and misleading) association of products with abstract aspirations and values people so desperately crave to have in their lives is not limited to nutritional products; the cosmetics industry is equally guilty, as are all the major brands that seek to showcase their good corporate deeds or create faux spiritually targeted product lines for marketing purposes.
"Brandwashed" is vast in range and powerful in its ability to entertain and enlighten, simultaneously. This book will find a ready audience in those who have already cut back on their consumerism or are highly skeptical by nature; but those who need to read it the most are those who engage in retail therapy frequently or have a problem with consumer debting or spending.
(Also, parents will be shocked and concerned, and perhaps smarter about allowing their kids to engage with brands, after reading "Brandwashed.")
You will absolutely recognize many of the marketing campaigns it calls out -- and many of the reactions you have personally had to them -- as precisely what the brands/marketers intended.
Having a conversation about the book with a colleague, I kept trying to point out mediocre products that have succeeded in "brandwashing" our circle of peers; she kept responding, "Well, but that's an amazing (product/service/website)." My response was: "Friend, you've been 'Brandwashed.' "

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Google, Facebook, privacy and digital identities

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBase

Mobile world blurs line of business vs. personal

As you are no doubt aware, Google is consolidating its privacy policies across all services in its platform. This means instead of 60 disparate privacy policies there will be one.
Simplification is good. Especially when it comes to privacy. While there are certainly concerns to be had with the new policy (such as wording that allows Google to hand over your data to the government without being served with a warrant), it's good to have it all in one place.
That way, if you disagree with it you can choose to not use the company's services.
I can hear some folks sputtering now about how it's impossible to use the Web without using Google services, but that just isn't the case. There are other email providers, other search engines, other analytics tools, and so on.
Sure, some of them cost money or aren't feature-for-feature comparable to their Google equivalents. But alternatives do exist.
Facebook, with its abysmal track record on privacy protections for its users, has been a lightning rod for privacy conversations. Users have even set up protest pages about privacy controls within Facebook (which, for the record, serve as a great place for Facebook to make money pushing advertising).
What's more interesting to me than comparing various privacy policies is the increasing prominence that "privacy" has in certain corners of digital thinking.
Digital identity
Several years ago the big competitive front in the online world was centered around digital identity: the one login to rule them all.
The theory was that it was too cumbersome for people to log in and enter all of their information to all of the various profiles, and that what was needed was a sort of single sign-on for the online world.
It certainly is true that a certain fatigue sets in while filling out social network profiles. And while the digital identity competition seems to have settled on the three usual suspects (Google, Twitter and Facebook) for social profiles, there really hasn't come to pass a single digital identity.
The reason for this is simple: People have multiple identities online. Or rather, people use tools for different reasons to fulfill very different needs.
Put yet another way, the social fabric of human relationships is not yet mirrored adequately in our digital experiences.
Some people use digital tools only for work-related tasks. Some people use digital tools only for personal connections. Some use digital tools for activism, or for activities that occupy a gray area between their personal and professional lives.
Most people like to have a fairly distinct line between all of the different online personas they may have.
We've heard enough fear/uncertainty/doubt stories about people who accidentally use their professional social tools in conjunction with their personal activities or thoughts to know that it's probably a good idea to maintain some sort of boundary. At least, for most people that's the case.
This is why privacy matters to people. They want the opportunity to have personal lives or hobbies or interests that they can explore using digital tools, but they don't want to necessarily mix them all together.
Currently, however, it isn't very convenient to maintain all of these multiple personalities. Should we maintain several Facebook accounts: one for your mom, one for your co-workers, one for your business relationships, one for whatever crazy stuff you're into? Should we use different networks entirely? It's a mess.
It would seem -- based on the all-hat-no-cattle approach of people who complain about privacy policies yet do not leave the services about which they are complaining -- that convenience is winning.
The ease of just logging in and knowing that a service is probably using your data in some way that's creepy is outweighing the decision to take any meaningful action against that service.
Vendor relationship management
In 2006, Doc Searls came up with the concept of "Vendor Relationship Management." It's sort of the inverse of customer relationship management. The short version is that the customer would maintain his or her own data and decide which businesses could access and do stuff with that data.
I was always a little cold towards VRM. Customers don't want to "manage relationships" with businesses. They just want their stuff or their service.
And even with a VRM system in place, someone would have to provide it. You'd have to trust that someone an awful lot. You'd probably have to trust that someone more than any you trust any technology company today because they'd have the data that comprised all of your digital personalities.
VRM solved a problem for businesses more than it ever solved a problem for consumers. It basically is a system that gets the customer to do the data entry instead of the business.
But perhaps conversations around privacy could tilt that a little bit. Perhaps, if people truly did care about privacy and control of their data, it would solve a problem for real people. It would let them maintain control of their digital identities.
I don't yet see anyone making an honest and useful tool that does VRM. But as digital devices escape the office desktop and dive into our pockets and social spaces, the issue of privacy is not going to get easier.
Either there will be a change in social acceptance of the inevitable gaffes that occur when personal and business streams are crossed, or meaningful and convenient systems will take hold.
For now, I'm betting on the former. Though less than I was even last year.
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Monday, February 27, 2012

3 home defects that can elude discovery

English: Pensacola Beach, Fla., July 16, 2005 ...Image via Wikipedia

Who's liable for items overlooked during inspection? By Barry Stone
Inman News®
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DEAR BARRY: We bought our home two months ago and have discovered three defects that our home inspector overlooked. These include a water leak under the kitchen sink, a gas leak in the front yard, and an unsupported PVC pipe for the front-yard hose faucet. Is our home inspector liable for these defects? --Lissa
DEAR LISSA: Some of these defects may involve liability and some may not. Here is a short review of each of these items:
1. If there was a visible plumbing leak under the kitchen sink, your home inspector probably should have seen it. If the cabinet below the sink was packed with miscellaneous stuff, the problem may not have been visible on the day of the inspection. In some cases, storage prevents the discovery of defects during an inspection.
2. If the gas was leaking at or near the exterior of the building, the inspector would most likely have encountered it. If the leak was occurring in one of the yard areas away from the building, it could easily have been missed.
3. If the yard faucet is installed on an unsupported PVC plastic pipe, support is needed to prevent breakage, but this is too simple a repair to involve concerns over liability. All that is needed is a metal stake driven into the ground and strapped to the PVC pipe.
When issues such as these arise, the home inspector should be contacted immediately. Reputable inspectors will address these concerns by revisiting the property to see what may have been missed. A mistake many people make is to have the problems repaired and then contact the inspector to demand payment.
When liability issues occur, the inspector should be given the opportunity to see what was missed during the inspection. Home inspection agreements, in many cases, specifically require notification prior to making repairs.
Hopefully, you have a home inspector who takes pride in his work and will seriously consider your concerns.
DEAR BARRY: We bought a foreclosed home, as is, from a bank. When we removed the old carpet, we found large cracks in the slab, leading to costly foundation problems. The contractor who repaired the foundation found evidence of previous foundation repairs that were done incorrectly.
We searched the county records and found that this older work had been done without a permit. Is the bank that sold us the properly liable for not disclosing this problem? --Carrie
DEAR CARRIE: Banks are exempt from disclosure laws because, in most cases, they are unfamiliar with the homes they acquire through foreclosure.
If you had bought the home from a private party, that person might have had knowledge of the substandard foundation repairs and would have been required to provide disclosure. In your case, the bank was probably unaware of the problem and could not have provided disclosure.
Unfortunately, some banks take advantage of the disclosure loophole by avoiding information that they might have to disclose. For example, if you had hired a home inspector and had then decided not to buy the property, the bank would probably not have requested a copy of the report.
Without having seen the report, the bank could maintain plausible deniability with other buyers.
To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

4 factors to consider before buying a home

Mood of the Market

It's tax time, so those who don't own homes are seriously thinking about whether they should. And those who do are busy trying to collect up and cash in all of their deductions.
To boot, the real estate market is in year six (!) of what those who can't agree on a precise economic term can all agree to call the doldrums.
Those who haven't lost or walked away from their homes are very focused on how much theirs are worth, how much value they've lost, how much they're paying for them, and whether they can refinance.
Given these financial fixations, one would think that homes were simply a financial instrument, like stock shares or options or something.
But I recently watched a film that poignantly highlighted a number of ways in which the real estate decisions we make are very often driven by values, priorities and motivations that have little or nothing to do with money.
In "The Descendants," George Clooney is the patriarch of a family that owns a massive land trust in Hawaii. The primary plotline focuses on Clooney's character's discovery that his wife was having an affair before the accident that left her comatose (an affair with a real estate agent, no less).
But I also noticed a second, real estate-related storyline. I won't spoil it, as the film is a must-see portrait of an American family. But the upshot is that Clooney and a boardroom full of his aging cousins are facing some decisions about whether and to whom to sell thousands of acres of pristine Hawaiian beachfront that have been in their family for hundreds of years.
The biggest dollar offer is the underdog from the beginning, and, ultimately, money completely fails to trump history and relationship complexities as the decision-driving factor. (Enough said -- go see the film.)
Inspired by "The Descendants," here are four common motivators and drivers of real estate decisions -- and the decision to own a home, in particular -- that fall entirely outside of the financial realm:
1. Family. When you own your home, you have the possibility of eventually owning it free and clear -- and with that, the possibility of passing it on to your children. Homeownership also gives children stability of place, school and community that can be difficult (though not impossible) to give them while renting.
Last year, I wrote a review of a book that mentioned family legacy as one thing homeowners valued, and almost instantly after my review went live, I received a reader note saying that no one cares about legacy or passing homes down to their children anymore -- especially in the wake of the recession.
Then, interestingly enough, I received another half dozen notes from readers about how essential this was to their real estate decisions, and the New York Times published a piece about how the recession was allowing, even prompting, parents to buy homes as gifts for their children. This has all bolstered my belief that, yes, family legacy is still a valid and widely held driver for homeownership and real estate decision-making.
2. and 3. Comfort and control. They say comfort is a core human desire; certainty is also on the list. The ability to control your location, to customize your home's comforts for your own personal preferences and needs, to control your noise levels and your proximity to (or distance from) neighbors -- all these powers to dial up your own comfort levels and have control over your living situation are critical motivators for our real estate decisions.
I see comfort and control as largely overlapping factors that impact many people's decision whether to rent or to own, but they are not identical. Comfort highlights the fact that, in some areas and school districts, it is tough to find high-quality housing or larger homes for rent.
On the other hand, the control elements of homeownership also include the certainty of knowing what your housing costs will be for a very long period of time, and the power to stay put as long as you want, without being forced to move if and when your landlord wants to sell or move into the place.
4. Career. Our real estate decisions and career choices are tightly intertwined. Many people choose their home in large part based on a desire to make it easier and more comfortable to get to and from work, or even to work at home.
On the flip side, committing to homeownership in this market climate may also limit your ability to move around freely for career opportunities. And having a mortgage certainly puts some boundaries around the decisions you make about how much you work, what work you do, and who you work for.
It's tough (though not impossible) to quit your day job as an attorney and start your lifelong dream to be a full-time artist when you have a bulky bottom line to meet.
You don't have to be a land baron or a patriarch to understand that owning a home -- or opting out of homeownership, for that matter -- is not all about the Benjamins.
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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tax changes to note as filing deadline nears

IRS 1040 Tax Form Being Filled OutIRS 1040 Tax Form Being Filled Out (Photo credit: kenteegardin)
  Here are some important tax changes for 2011 that you should be aware of as you prepare your return.

Different due date for return
Ordinarily, your tax return is due April 15. However, this year the deadline has been extended to April 17. The reason: April 15 is a Sunday and April 16 is the Emancipation Day holiday in Washington, D.C. If you file for an extension, you have until Oct. 15, 2012, to file your return.

New tax form for capital gains and losses
The Internal Revenue Service has created a new form, Form 8949: Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets, that most people will have to use to report their capital gains and losses. Then, you report certain totals from that form on Schedule D of your Form 1040.

Two standard mileage rates
If you use the standard mileage rate to deduct your business driving, be aware that there are two different rates for 2011.  The rate is 51 cents per mile for all the business driving you did from Jan. 1 through June 30, and 55.5 cents for the rest of the year.
Medical and moving mileage are both 19 cents per mile for the first half of the year and 23.5 cents in the second half.

Self-employed health insurance deduction
Self-employed people are allowed to deduct 100 percent of their health insurance premiums from their income tax (you take this deduction of line 29 of Form 1040). In 2010, the self-employed were also allowed to deduct their health insurance premiums for self-employment tax (Social Security and Medicare) purposes, as well as income taxes. This deduction is no longer allowed -- don't look for it on the 2011 Schedule SE that you file with your Form 1040 to pay your self-employment tax.

Alternative minimum tax (AMT) exemption amount increased
The AMT exemption amount has increased to $48,450 ($74,450 if married filing jointly or a qualifying widow(er); $37,225 if married filing separately).

Health savings accounts
If you have a health savings account (HSA) and withdraw money from it to pay for something other than medical expenses, you are required to pay a penalty tax on the withdrawal. In the past, the penalty tax was 10 percent.
Starting in 2011, however, the penalty tax is 20 percent. In addition, beginning in 2011, you can't buy nonprescription drugs with HSA money.

Roth IRAs
If you converted or rolled over an amount from a traditional IRA (individual retirement account) to a Roth IRA or designated Roth in 2010, and did not elect to report the taxable amount on your 2010 return, you generally must report half of it on your 2011 return and the rest on your 2012 return.

Mailing a return. The IRS changed the filing location for several areas. If you're mailing a paper return, be sure to check the Form 1040 instructions for the correct address.
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Friday, February 24, 2012

Existing-home sales post third gain in 4 months

NAR: large-scale REO-to-rental program not needed By Inman News
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Increased demand from investors and first-time homebuyers helped boost existing-home sales in January -- the third increase in the past four months, the National Association of REALTORS® reported.
NAR said total existing-home sales -- including single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- were up 4.3 percent from December to January, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.57 million.
While that's essentially unchanged from the same time a year ago, for-sale inventory was down 20.6 percent from a year ago, to 2.31 million homes, a 6.1-month supply of homes at the current pace of sales.
Many housing analysts view a six-month inventory of homes as a good balance between supply and demand -- a larger inventory of homes can indicate an oversupply of homes for sale, which can undermine prices. When inventories drop below six months, the shortage of homes for sale can drive up prices.
"The broad inventory condition can be described as moving into a rough balance, not favoring buyers or sellers," NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement.
Yun cited the statistics as evidence that a government proposal to convert bank-owned properties into rentals on a large scale "does not appear to be needed at this time."
"Foreclosure sales are moving swiftly with ready homebuyers and investors competing in nearly all markets," he said.
Merrill Lynch analysts Michelle Meyer and Ethan Harris think part of the drop in inventory is due to delays in the foreclosure process in the aftermath of the so-called "robo-signing" scandal.
With top banks nearing a final settlement with state attorneys general, they expect the foreclosure process to accelerate, and for inventory to swell to eight months later this year.
The first REO-to-rental transactions are weeks away, but the property pools offered this year may be smaller and more manageable for groups of qualified local investors than previously assumed, Ken Harney reports.
NAR said foreclosures and short sales accounted for 35 percent of sales in January, and that the national median existing-home price for all housing types was down 2 percent from a year ago, to $154,700.
Investors purchased 23 percent of homes in January, up from 21 percent in December, while the percentage of first-time homebuyers increased from 31 percent in December to 33 percent in January.
Nearly one in every three January home sales was an all-cash transaction. A survey of NAR members showed more than half had at least one contract canceled or delayed in January, often as a result of a mortgage application being turned down or because appraisals come in below the negotiated price.
Single-family home sales were up 3.8 percent from December to January, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.05 million. That's a 2.3 percent increase from a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $154,400 in January, down 2.6 percent from the same time a year ago.
Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 8.3 percent from December to January, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 520,000. That's a 10.3 percent decline from a year ago. The median existing condo price was $156,600 in January, up 2 percent from January 2011.
At the regional level, the West saw the biggest jump in sales, an 8.8 percent increase from December to January. Sales were down 3.1 percent from a year ago, however, and the median price was also down 1.8 percent from January 2011, to $187,100.
The Midwest saw the smallest jump in sales, with sales up 1 percent from December to January. Although that was a 3.2 percent increase from a year ago, the median home price fell 3.9 percent from January 2011, to $122,000.
In the South, existing-home sales rose 3.5 percent from December to January but were unchanged from a year ago. The median price in the South was $134,800, down 0.3 percent from a year ago.
Existing home sales were up 3.4 percent from December to January in the Northeast, and up 7.1 percent from a year ago. At $225,700, the median price in the Northeast dropped 4.2 percent from January 2011.

5 building permit issues you can't ignore

Building permit from 1921Image via Wikipedia

Don't get stuck with $20K bill when it's time to sell

It's a good idea to check the building permit record on a home you're planning to buy before you remove your inspection contingency. Although buyers are advised to take this important step, many don't. This can result in unpleasant consequences.
Some planning departments won't allow you to take out a permit to do additional work on your home if there are outstanding or expired permits that never received final approval from a city building inspector.
The buyer of a home in the hills above Oakland, Calif., had to clean up a lot of the previous owner's poorly done work before she could begin the work she wanted to have done on the home.
In one instance, buyers received a copy of the permit record on the home they were purchasing before they removed their inspection contingency. It was loaded with expired permits for work that had been completed but had never received final approval from the building inspector.
The buyers were concerned that they might incur unquantifiable charges if the permits weren't approved before closing, so they asked the seller to resolve this issue as a condition of the purchase.
The seller of a Piedmont, Calif., home recently found herself in a similar situation. She bought her home long before unpermitted work was an issue. The buyers discovered during their inspections that the previous seller had done a lot of work incorrectly and without permits. To close the transaction, the seller had to agree to pay more than $20,000 to correct the problems.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Not only is it a good idea for buyers to check the permit history on a home before they buy, but sellers are wise to check the permit history on their homes before putting them on the market. This way, they can correct any permit issues before the listing goes public.
Homeowners often assume when they hire a contractor to do work that requires permits that the contractor will take responsibility for this. This may not happen, particularly if it is not specified in the work authorization contract.
Sometimes there is miscommunication between a contractor and the homeowner. One thinks the other is going to call for a final inspection and meet the inspector, but neither does. It's a good idea to follow up on this because it will cost more renewing a permit if it expires before the final inspection is done.
Another issue that can create problems is work done without building permits that adds living space to a home. In most cases, due to changes in mortgage lender requirements, appraisers can't count unpermitted work as livable square feet, even though it is used as such by the current homeowners.
In older neighborhoods, there are often homes where an attic or basement has been converted to add living space. Until recently, if the work was done professionally by a contractor, the appraiser could usually count it as usable square feet. Today, underwriters may require copies of permits for all work that adds square footage in addition to what shows in the public record.
The public record on a property is not always accurate. For example, an addition that was done with permits may not show up in the public record. In this case, the error should be corrected before the home goes on the market. Your real estate agent or assessor's office should be able to help you with this.
Many homes have been renovated without the benefit of building permits and final inspections. In today's real estate market, this could have an effect on value.
Even so, the last thing a seller should do is make representations that can't be substantiated. Sellers who had work done without a permit should let the buyer know, in writing.
THE CLOSING: Sellers have been sued for misrepresenting square footage; it's wise to err on the side of caution.
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Thursday, February 23, 2012

731 Whitman Drive Washington Twp NJ


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Bi-Level,Detached, Other - BLACKWOOD, NJ

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2 BATHROOMS (1 full, 1 half)

Wow! Huge Back Yard! If you love to enjoy the outdoors, this is it! Nice size deck and pool! Lovely Bi-Level home in one of Wash Twp’s established neighborhood for less than 180K! Needs cometic work, this 4 bedroom 1 1/2 bath home in desireable Whitman Square with spacious fenced in back yard includes an above ground swimming pool with newer 4 year old liner and a deck great for summer outdoor entertaining. Lower level consists of a family room with a brick fireplace a 4th bedroom and 1/2 bath. Large amount of storage area with enough room for a possible 5th bedroom or game room. Newer A/C unit. Washington Township school system! Close to AC expressway, Rt.42, and major highways, shopping, restaurants, and the best that township has to offer! This is a Great Value in Washington Twp for anyone looking for some sweat equity. Main Level is all original hardwood flooring.

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Your very own 'Magic Kingdom' ... for a price

Disney's Golden Oak development features multimillion-dollar mansionsORLANDO, Fla. -- You say you're thoroughly smitten with all things Disney? You say you've been known to joke that you'd practically live at Walt Disney World if you could?
Got millions of dollars to spare?
That's more or less the cost of admission for owning a home at Golden Oak, an upscale, gated and guarded subdivision that Disney is developing almost in the shadow of its iconic theme parks here -- the development is just three miles away from Disney World.
But unlike the popular Disney theme parks, these homes are not approachable for the masses.
At prices ranging from $1.5 million to upwards of $8 million, the developer promises a house and neighborhood with the hallmarks it has carefully cultivated for decades: meticulous attention to detail; extensive personal service; and, if you're so inclined, a daily dose of Mickey, Minnie and the crew.

Minnie Mouse occupies a chair in a model home at Disney's upscale Golden Oak development.

Golden Oak's development team is courting a very well-heeled clientele of Disney diehards that it's certain are out there, in addition to others who may be lured less by "The Little Mermaid" than by the promise of tight security and a deep trust in the Disney brand.
"That's the gold standard for quality," said Richie Galaska, an Orlando, Fla., real estate agent who said he has taken clients to see Golden Oak and who himself lives in Celebration, an earlier -- and much different -- Disney residential development.
He can see Golden Oak's appeal for highly affluent buyers, he said. "For an individual who's looking for an ultra-exclusive address, you'd expect a certain amount of security and confidence in the developer," Galaska said.
Although Florida abounds in upscale communities that promote a "lifestyle" of one kind or another, Golden Oak's planners think the Disney brand is the not-so-secret weapon that sets it apart: Buy here, goes part of the sales pitch, and get years of virtually unlimited access to Disney properties in the surrounding area.
"We've never done this for anybody else," explained Stacey Thomson, public relations manager for Golden Oak, who said that buyers in the current sales phase will get three years' worth of unlimited VIP-access passes to the parks for the homeowner and four guests, in addition to such services as door-to-park van service, access to special events, and numerous other Disney-esque benefits that don't accrue to the typical visitor.
Walt Disney World is inarguably popular -- in 2010 it had 17 million "guests," making it the most-visited theme park on the planet. But among them, are there hardcore fans who'd be interested in "la vida Disney"?

"Millions of people are like that," Thomson said. "We developed Golden Oak because we have this population of guests who have such a high affinity for our brand. They told us they wanted more. They asked, 'How do I get more access?' "
This prototypical "affinity" customer may visit Disney properties, including the ones in other countries, several times a year, and they're partial to Disney cruises, she said.
Golden Oak is the corporation's first foray into subdivision-type housing since Disney began sales at its Celebration community in 1995. But the new development, with its official insistence on "Tuscan" and Mediterranean styling (set out in a thick book of architectural regulations), is deliberately not another nostalgic, picket-fenced, Celebration village.
"It's totally different from Celebration," said Thomson. "Celebration was a stand-alone community with its own schools, own churches, etc."
Where Celebration was conceived as a full-fledged town with a large contingent of full-time residents and a share of units at a much lower price point, Golden Oak is a sprawling, 980-acre subdivision that will function more as a gilt-edged resort.
That is, though Golden Oak residents are expected to shell out millions for a home that bears the Disney imprimatur, they're highly unlikely to actually live there full time.
"Most of our buyers will probably spend a few months a year here," Thomson said. "These will be their second or even third homes."
And homebuyers can't expect to underwrite their investments here by leasing out their abodes to vacationers -- short-term rentals are prohibited, thus reducing the prospect of 20-somethings throwing a spring break kegger next door.
But when the homeowners are in residence, their roomy-to-sprawling houses are intended to be magic kingdoms in their own right.
The various gated neighborhoods within Golden Oak eventually will be filled with 450 highly customized houses that abound in granite countertops, crown moldings, pools, fountains, elaborate stonework and other trappings of wealth.

Concierge service will offer to arrange everything from decorating the house for Christmas to catering dinner to stocking your refrigerator before you fly into Orlando for the week -- for a fee, of course.
A 16,000-square-foot clubhouse, to be completed this year, will have a restaurant, pool, fitness center and a demonstration kitchen to host residents-only events, such as Disney restaurant sommeliers conducting wine tastings. Children's activities will claim a fair amount of space in the building, Thomson said, including an area with a 106-inch television screen.
There will, indeed, be kids at Golden Oak, at least part time, though maybe not the ones the developers anticipated: Disney presumed homebuyers would be in their 60s and dreaming of a Disney magnet for their grandchildren, Thomson said.
"They've skewed much younger than that," she said. "We've had some buyers in their 40s, but mostly they're in their 50s. Typically, they're early retirees who look to bring their children.
"Our buyers see this access to Walt Disney World as a legacy product, something to pass on to their children and then to their grandchildren," she said.
And so far, no mortgages -- they're paying cash, she said.
"We haven't seen effects from the recession," Thomson said. "The kind of buyer we're appealing to hasn't been affected."

A kitchen in a Golden Oak model home. Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.
Disney doesn't release sales figures for the development, which it began marketing in mid-2010. But its sales literature designates 21 properties in the first phase of 81 lots as "sold," with several other sales pending.
At this point, there aren't many neighbors. Thomson said five owners have moved in, with half a dozen others scheduled in the next two months. On a recent day, construction activity was ubiquitous and Thomson said sales are running ahead of company projections; Disney anticipates a full build-out to take about a decade.
The true-blue Disney fans have, indeed, materialized, she said, and touches in the homes reflect their affection for the brand. One homeowner who is building a sprawling custom home, for example, is putting in a fireworks-viewing stand to take in the parks' nightly pyrotechnic shows. Another homeowner embellished her custom-made glass interior doors with likenesses of the Disney characters.
But strong interest also has come from another quarter: Latin Americans who perceive Florida as a haven from economic and political uncertainty. On New Year's Eve, for example, Thomson hosted a party for a crowd of potential buyers from Brazil in an unsold, 6,800-square-foot spec house (price tag: $3.45 million) at Golden Oak.
Indeed, the development's first resident, she said, was a Brazilian pop star, whom she declined to name.
"There's a lot of money coming into Florida from South America and from Europe," said Ron Kurtz, president of the American Affluence Research Center, based in Atlanta, which studies the attitudes of the wealthy. "The Disney name has great value to internationals."
Brazilians, in particular, come to Orlando in groups, said Laura Bennett, who owns an Orlando public relations firm and is an expert in branding. "They have a ton of money and they're attracted by safety here. You know, in some other parts of the world, (the threat of) kidnapping may be a part of life for wealthy people."
Bennett, who held her wedding a few years ago at Disney's Epcot Center and admits to being "a bit of a Disney nut," thinks there are plenty of like-minded souls who would pony up significant bucks to satisfy, as Thomson termed it, their "affinity."
"Disney's selling wholesome living," Bennett said. "And safety. And fun. You can go to the Disney parks at night to eat. There's something going on every night -- there's music and fireworks. You'd have a life, not just a cool house."

A model home at Golden Oak overlooks a pool and lake. Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.
Kurtz, the affluence expert who lives in Atlanta, is less sure.
"Disney gets a tremendous number of upscale visitors, and I think the brand stands for quality and service and integrity," he said. "But I don't see access to the parks as a major item for the affluent people who might be looking at a pre-retirement home."
Still, Kurtz said, maybe he's missing something.
"I spent the night with friends in Orlando recently -- retirees who are absolutely well-off, affluent people," he said. "They buy annual passes to the parks for hundreds of dollars a year, and they have Disney knickknacks all over the house. They have Disney wallpaper in their guest bathroom.
"There's definitely some sort of emotional connection that people have with Disney," he said "But it's a little bit beyond my understanding."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.


Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.

Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.

Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.

Lowe's NAR

Pros and cons of 9 bathtub materials

Private cast iron bathtubs with porcelain inte...Image via Wikipedia

Some keep water hot for longer, but convenience comes at a price

Last month, we discussed some of the many options available when replacing a bathtub or a tub/shower combo.

But what we didn't look at were the many different material choices you have, and since that time I've gotten several questions from homeowners looking change out their bathtub, all with a similar dilemma

-- "I'm not sure what material it should be constructed of."

Let's look at some of the different choices, and try to clear up a bit of the confusion.
To begin with, you might be surprised to find that you have more options than you would have thought. Which one you ultimately choose is going to come down to a combination of looks, comfort, ease of maintenance, and, of course, cost. Let's start with some of the more common options:
Also known as FRP, or fiberglass-reinforced plastic, this is typically going to be the least expensive bathtub material. A fiberglass bathtub is made by forming layers of fiberglass into the desired shape, then coating it with Gelcoat resin.
The advantages are low cost, light weight, ease of installation, and a finish that can be repaired. On the negative side, fiberglass tubs are thin; they flex and don't have a stable feel; they're not very durable; and the finish is prone to fading, scratching and cracking. Personally, it's one of my least favorite materials.
Porcelain on steel
Also sometimes called enameled steel, this is another inexpensive and very common bathtub material. The tub is stamped from a thin sheet of steel, then finished with a layer of porcelain enamel. These tubs are durable and easy to clean. The finish is resistant to most common chemicals, and retains its gloss for a long time. They're also especially useful when replacing fiberglass or acrylic tub/shower units, as they fit in the same 5-foot opening and can be finished off nicely with a ceramic tile surround.
On the downside, they're heavier than fiberglass or acrylic; the surface can rust and chip under impact; and you're very limited in the number of shapes and sizes available.
Acrylic tubs use fiberglass sheets for reinforcement underneath vacuum-formed sheets of colored acrylic. The advantages are pretty much the same as for fiberglass, although acrylic tubs are more expensive.
Disadvantages are that the finish can scratch or discolor over time, although the better grades of tub finishes have now reduced that problem to a minimum. You also have a lot of choices of shapes, sizes and colors.
Acrylic is a good all-around choice, although it may lack a certain high-end appeal for some people.
Cast iron
If you're looking for a material that will last, this would be it. Cast iron tubs are made by pouring molten iron into a mold of the desired shape, then smoothing it and coating it with a thick layer of enamel.
It's probably the most durable tub available, and the finish is resistant to chipping, scratching and denting, as well as most types of chemicals. There are a number of different colors available, and there's a richness to cast iron that's hard to match. The heavy material also tends to retain the water's heat.
On the downside, these tubs are extremely heavy and require extra labor -- and often extra floor reinforcement -- to install. They're also typically going to be among the most expensive tubs on the market.
And now for some less common material options:
Solid-surface materials
Solid-surface materials are relative newcomers to the bathtub market. They're durable; they retain heat well; there are a variety of subtle, natural-looking colors available; and the finish can be repaired if needed. They can also be made in a variety of shapes and sizes.
On the downside, they're somewhat heavy and relatively expensive, and may require a long lead time to get.
Cultured marble
These tubs are made from crushed limestone mixed with resin, then finished with Gelcoat. You have a lot of options for color, size and style, and the Gelcoat finish used with cultured marble is more durable than that used with fiberglass. The cost typically falls somewhere between acrylic and cast iron.
Ceramic tile
Ceramic tile tubs can be made on site to whatever size and shape you desire. You have more design options with this material than any other. However, you'll have to deal with the maintenance of all that grout, and the irregular interior surface may not be the most comfortable to relax on with bare skin.
Stone and wood
You can custom order a bathtub from a variety of natural stone materials, including granite, marble, onyx, travertine, basalt, sandstone and other materials. These tubs are extremely heavy, and require special structural framing to support their weight.
You can also custom-order a bathtub made from teak and certain other woods. As you'd imagine, with any of these true one-of-a-kind pieces you get an unbeatable "wow factor," but it comes with a pretty high price tag.
And, in the case of wood and some of the stones, it's going to require a lot of maintenance in order to retain the tub's original beauty.
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