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Luxury Houses Still Selling; Top Picks for Where to Live

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By Lauren Baier Kim

RISMEDIA, July 20, 2007—(RealEstateJournal.com)—Here’s a look at what’s new in real-estate markets across the U.S. from around the Web.

Best places to live

Where’s the best place to live in the U.S.? Middleton, Wisconsin, according to this year’s Best Places to Live list by Money Magazine and CNNMoney.com. The ranking of top 100 communities rates “smaller places” that have a good combination of schools, local economy and safety, among other features. Middleton, ranked as the top spot to live, is noted for its family life, parks, bike trails, beer garden and mix of good jobs and restaurants, the Web site says. This year’s ranking also includes: the 15 top-earning towns (No. 1, Hillsborough, Calif.), the 25 most affordable towns (No. 1, Northbrook, Ohio) and where the most singles are (No. 1, State College, Pa.).

A tale of two markets — or three

While the rest of the housing market is languishing, more expensive homes are performing comparatively well — spending less time on the market and garnering better prices, says a New York Times article. In fact, in places like Manhattan, Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver and Houston, some homes are actually selling for more than their asking price.

What’s propelling the high-end market? Wealthy foreign investors and affluent U.S. families who are less affected by problems in the mortgage market and rising interest rates, the article says.

“To some extent, the rich [are] getting richer,” says an analyst from research firm DataQuick Information Systems, who is quoted in the story. But it’s not all champagne and caviar for the luxury end of the market. Extremely high-priced residences aren’t selling as well as those that are “merely expensive,” with Miami homes priced between $1.2 million and $2.5 million faring better than those priced above $2.5 million, the Times says.

Steve Schwarzman’s expensive teardown Eyes are on the Palm Beach, Fla., residence of Blackstone Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Schwarzman. The home was torn down when Schwarzman’s team realized that the existing 3,000-square-foot residence wouldn’t be able to support a new planned-for second-story addition. So the residence, which was built in 1937 for E.F. Hutton by architect Maurice Fatio and purchased by Mr. Schwarzman in 2003 for $20.5 million, was demolished in 2004.

Robert Frank’s Wealth Report blog post on WSJ.com notes that the new mansion is still under construction and looks like a larger version of the original residence, “The Four Winds.” There’s no telling how many millions Mr. Schwarzman has poured into the renovation, Mr. Frank writes.

Mortgage scams on the rise

Mortgage fraud is prevalent across the U.S., says a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, which highlights some of the most common schemes, including: flipping, getting a home appraised at a fraudulent amount to gain a higher price from a buyer; taking out a mortgage through a “straw buyer,” an unwitting victim or an accomplice whose identity is used to secure a loan for someone with shaky credit and then foreclosing on the loan; appraisal fraud, getting a property appraised for an inflated amount, and often neglecting to make payments on a loan and finally foreclosing ; and foreclosure schemes that trick financially strapped homeowners out of their properties.

To avoid falling prey to such tactics, the Post-Gazette offers tips including: checking the price history of a property before purchasing (to check for inflated home values), researching the ownership of a home through a local tax assessment office or recorder of deeds, dealing directly with a lender or mortgage broker instead of going through a third party, being cautious about “no money down/cash back at closing” offers, getting and reading a complete set of closing documents, not signing documents that have portions left blank, and securing the help of an attorney if you need help understanding your contract.

Towns awash in open house signs

Perhaps it’s an indication of the sluggish real-estate market: in Northern New Jersey, several towns have either introduced or are planning to adopt ordinances that restrict the number and placement of open house signs, according to the Record. One town, Hasbrouck Heights, limits real-estate agents to three open house signs — one on the property itself and two directing motorists to the home — and restricts the size of open house placards to 3 feet high by 24 inches wide. Hasbrouck also requires real-estate agents to secure a yearly sign permit at an annual fee of $100. While a town administrator is quoted in the Record as calling the move to reduce the number of these signs “an issue of aesthetics,” the placards have been said by local residents to be a hazard and block motorists’ view of the road.

– Ms. Kim is a senior editor at RealEstateJournal.com.

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