Are Zestimates Accurate?

June 13th, 2015

By Donna Lutkins, Cascades Resident and Realtor, Keller Williams Dulles

“Zestimates” are automated property value estimates that appear alongside properties displayed on Zillow. Zestimates are often taken as gospel by both buyers and sellers — if it supports their position. For example, if the Zestimate is low, then the buyers will quote Zillow when making an offer on a home. If the Zestimate is high, the seller believes their home should be listed at that quoted value. Before we go much further… here is a funny short YouTube video worth watching first.

Real estate agents around the county often have to explain to their clients why a Zestimate is not the most accurate source to assess the value of a home they’re looking to sell or purchase. Zillow does not know, and cannot know, the specific characteristics of neighborhoods or homes that can affect the home value – e.g., does the home back up to an undesirable neighborhood, does the home show well or is it in disrepair compared to other homes in the neighborhood, does it have upgrades, does the home smell? Zillow simply pulls data from a number of sources, many of which may not be accurate. It’s also common that the information Zillow provides is out of date – homes may be listed as active but were sold or taken off the market months before. Zillow also does not pull records directly from the MLS (Multiple Listing Service). Much of the listing information on Zillow is uploaded by real estate agents, so if the agent doesn’t input correct information, the data displayed can be incorrect. Garbage in, garbage out.

So how does a homeowner or buyer accurately determine the value of a home they’re looking to buy or sell? The first step is to contact a local professional real estate agent that knows the specific neighborhood and the most current market values. Most agents will create a free CMA (Comparable Market Analysis) on your home that will be much more accurate than a Zestimate. While a CMA is not a formal appraisal like the one you would receive from a professional appraiser paid for by a lender, it is an accurate estimate of your home value as it relates to other recent home sales in your neighborhood and takes into account the total condition of your home, including upgrades and other specifics. Also, unlike Zillow, the information an agent accesses to create a CMA is pulled directly from the MLS. An accurate CMA is then used as a solid foundation to create a realistic pricing/offer strategy to purchase or sell a client’s home quickly at the best possible price.

Bottom line, beware of Zestimates… While it’s fun to get an instant value on a home that you’re looking to buy or sell, remember that real estate professionals know that Zestimates are notoriously inaccurate and misleading and they will never rely on a Zestimate to determine the real sales or purchase price… If you want to get an accurate home value estimate, let an experienced agent provide you a free CMA. You’ll be glad you did!


Top Kitchen Remodeling Trends 2015

March 14th, 2015

Top Kitchen Remodeling Trends 2015

This blog post is reprinted with permission of its author, Mina Fies, CEO and Founder of Synergy Design & Construction

Ever noticed no matter how many people you have over, they ALL end up in your kitchen?

The kitchen will always be the heart of your home because it’s where you prepare food for your family. All that love and nourishment creates an energy that draws people in – like a magnet. It’s part of what makes your home your home, and when you’re aligned with your space, you feel balanced.

So although we’re talking about the latest aesthetic trends, what’s most important about your kitchen is making sure you’re in LOVE with it! Madly, deeply, profoundly in love, embracing it as if it’s a part of your family.

You may not be in that place right now (that’s probably why you’re reading this article). That’s okay; one of the biggest pitfalls we fall into is completely ignoring our space because we’re going to renovate it “one day.” Problem is that the “one day”, turns into a year, then 3, and before you know it, 10 years have passed by and you’re still cussing at that blind-corner cabinet of yours every day.

The good news is you don’t have to be ready for a huge kitchen overhaul to start embracing your kitchen! Sometimes, it’s as simple as reorganizing the cabinets, using containers, baskets, and spice shelves to give it a fresh feel. There are also a lot of after market accessories you can add like pull out shelves and lid hangers to help contain the chaos and make you feel more balanced in your space.

If you’re ready for a little more than that, some of the trends below can still be incorporated (changing out the faucet and putting a new color on the walls) without doing a complete renovation.

Growing trends for 2015:


Grey is the new beige.

Instead of painting your walls beige yet again, consider putting grey on the walls for a fresh, crisp look. There are plenty of shades of grey to choose from that have both cool and warm undertones, so it’s easy to find a hue that suits you. As an added bonus, pull a little of that grey into your backsplash with a unique tile and/or metal accents.


Multiple cabinet colors are all the rage.

Whether you choose to have your base cabinets a different color from your wall cabinets, or set your island off with a different cabinet and/or countertop, the mixed, eclectic look is in.


Touch less or hands-free faucets

They continue to rise in popularity, and with good reason. As technology improves and more options become available, so does the desire to have these ingenious plumbing fixtures available in your home. Moen has been leading the charge by adding their MotionSense® technology, which allows you to turn on the faucet 3 ways (waving the hand above, at the base, or with the handle manually). Since they’ve added it to 12 of their most popular faucets, you should be able to find an option that suits your style from modern to transitional.


Planning for Technology

Is the key to every kitchen remodel. Most families have a slew of phones, tablets and laptops and all of it needs a discreet place to charge, so the kitchen doesn’t end up looking like an electronics store. Placing hidden outlets and USB ports inside upper cabinetry or base cabinet drawers is an easy way to keep everything out of sight, yet close at hand.


Industrial lighting

Continues to grow in popularity. Even the most modern kitchens can pull off a unique, industrial light that adds interest. Whether you choose a fixture with a textured metal, or a shade that is reminiscent of an old dock or speak easy, adding something unexpected makes the entire space shine.

Remember, no matter where you’re starting with your kitchen, keep in mind to do what you can with what you have and give it a little love!

Downsizing Tips

March 9th, 2015

Downsizing?  Tips on How to Begin

By Donna Lutkins, Senior Real Estate Specialist, Cascades Resident and Realtor, Keller Williams Dulles

Moving is acknowledged as among the most stressful experiences in a person’s life.The prospect of packing up a beloved home, with decades of accumulated belongings and all the memories attached, can seem overwhelming. And, with aging parents this can be a particularly daunting task.

Leaving a family home can be a bittersweet event that involves revisiting many joyful and sometimes painful memories. During the process of downsizing we may be surprised at how attached we have become to our possessions and how difficult it might seem to part with them. In many cases, possessions have been accumulated over a number of years and not everything can (or should) be moved. What results is the need to sift, sort, donate, and dispose of a variety of personal items. Here are some useful downsizing tips.

How to Get Started

As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” So it’s best to break the process into single steps…

  • Start with the rooms you use the least: Begin the sorting process in these rooms and avoid cluttering the areas of the home used regularly.
  • Measure the items you want to take with you: Do they fit in your new home?
  • Create a sorting system: Sort items by using stickers, making piles, or making detailed lists of what will be kept, what will be given away and what is still undecided.
  • Write down family history: Take the time to write down special memories or any family history that is connected to special items. Do you have a height wall in your house? Take a picture of the wall before you paint over it. You can even make short narrated videos of special items.
  • Work in scheduled blocks of time: Plan to sort items for periods of no more than two hours at a time. The process of revisiting memories and making decisions about items you have lived with for many years can be emotionally exhausting.
  • Start early and don’t rush yourself: Be sure to plan plenty of time for the sifting and sorting process. Take moments to laugh at old pictures, read old letters, and grieve for losses. If you can’t decide what to do with an item, set it aside and return to it later.

Now what do I do with all this stuff?

  • Identify those items you want certain family members to have and consider giving them now.
  • Get rid of things you no longer need: Be realistic about what items you use regularly and what items you are just used to having around.
  • Consider having a garage sale or home auction: Having enough items that are likely to net a profit (furniture, antiques, electronics) may make the effort of having a garage sale worthwhile. If you have items of value, you can hire a service agency to catalog and appraise your possessions and coordinate a home auction for a percentage of the profit.
  • Donate to charity: For those items you cannot give away as gifts or sell for profit, make a tax-deductible donation to charity. Many charities will pick-up donated items. Consider thinking of specific organizations for specific items… for example, donating your professional wardrobe to an abused women’s shelter or giving old musical instruments to a school music program.

If you or your parents are thinking of downsizing, consult with a Realtor that specializes in senior real estate assistance services and has a SRES (Senior Real Estate Specialist) certification.

To search for active adult communities, check out my website at

9 Ways to Save on Your Kitchen Remodel

February 24th, 2015

9 Ways to Save on Your Kitchen Remodel

A designer shares key areas where you can economize — and still get the kitchen of your dreams

Houzz Contributor
When you’re investing in a home remodeling project, you want to make sure that the results not only please you but add value to your home and save you money. Never is that more true than in a kitchen remodel, where costs can added up so quickly that your budget can all of a sudden seem like pennies in a jar. To avoid that and keep costs in line, and yet still get the kitchen of your dreams, here are a few of my favorite ways of getting the most out of a tight budget.

Do You Need A Prenuptial Deed?

February 19th, 2015

Here’s a question that pops up from time to time when an unmarried couple is purchasing a home together…

Written by on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 9:58 am
Question: I am divorced with two children and plan on getting married again soon. My fiancee and I want to buy a house together. We have discussed the disposition of the house upon our respective deaths, and have agreed that on her death, I will get complete title to the property, but on my death, my half interest will go to my children.

Is this possible? If so, how do we title the house? If not, can it be done by Will.

Answer: Yes, it is possible by deed. But you should also have separate Last Wills and Testaments as well as a carefully drafted pre-nuptial agreement..

Let’s first review some basic information about the various kinds of deeds.

Sole Owner: this is the most basic way that title can be held. One person is the sole owner of the property. Upon the owner’s death, probate proceeding in the jurisdiction where the deceased is domiciled must be instituted. The property will either be given according to the Last Will and Testament or by way of the laws of Intestacy. Every state (and the District of Columbia) has laws which spell out who will inherit property in the event there is no Will. For example, a spouse has top priority, then children, etc. However, it is always desirable that every homeowner have a Will.

Tenants in Common: under this arrangement, two people own a percentage interest in the property. Although the most common practice is for each owner to have a 50 percent interest, this is not a legal requirement. For example, if two people buy a house, and one puts up a larger share of the money, the split can reflect the investment in the property.

Since each person owns a portion of the property, upon death, that interest will be handled in the same manner as with a Sole Ownership. If there is a Will, the terms of that document control. If there is no Will, the law of Intestacy will apply. Once again, probate proceedings must be instituted.

Joint Tenants: here, the parties jointly own the property. Upon the death of one party, the surviving owner automatically becomes the full title owner. No probate is required. Although there are a few states in this county that permit an uneven percentage ownership in a joint tenancy arrangement, the great majority of states require that such title be held on an equal 50-50 basis.

While it is not absolutely necessary, it is recommended that if persons hold title as joint tenants, the deed should read: X and Y, as joint tenants with rights of survivorship.

There is an interesting — and relatively unknown — fact about joint tenancies. Either joint tenant can unilaterally sever the relationship, merely by preparing and recording a deed, which will have the effect of changing the relationship into a tenant in common arrangement.

Tenancy by the entireties: this is reserved exclusively for husbands and wives. In the event of the death of one spouse, the surviving spouse becomes the owner of the entire property and probate is not necessary. Unlike joint tenancies, however, a tenancy by the entireties cannot be unilaterally changed. Only divorce or mutual agreement can create a change. If property is held as tenants by the entireties, and there is a divorce, the property automatically (by operation of law) becomes a tenant in common situation.

Now, let’s get back to your question.

You want the deed to your property to reflect that upon the death of your wife, you will become the sole owner of the property, but on your death, your half interest will go to your children.

The first thing that both of you should do is prepare Last Wills and Testaments. Each of you should have your own attorney assist in the preparation of these documents. You want to make sure that down the road, no one can claim that they did not understand the transaction and were coerced into signing certain documents. These Wills should spell out the intention regarding the property disposition.

As for how the deed should be titled, this is a difficult question. If the property is held as joint tenants, then upon the husband’s death, the wife will become the sole owner. She may or may not want to honor the wishes of her deceased husband and will not convey any portion of the property to his children.

If you hold title as tenants in common, upon the death of the husband, his Will can spell out his desires. But in many States, a wife has a statutory right to claim what is known as an Election against the Will, and this may also defeat the husband’s intention.

Here’s the way I would prepare the Deed to the property:

Wife and Husband as tenants by the entirety as to one half of the property, held as tenants in common with the two children (and they must be named) as to the remaining half. Subject, however, to a life estate in the Wife for so long as she lives.If the children are minors, title must be vested in a Custodian under the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act.

Let’s play this out and see if it works. The children will at all time own half of the house. If your wife predeceases you, by operation of law you will own the other half. Your Will should give instructions as to the disposition of your house.

On the other hand, should you die first, your wife (again by operation of law) will own half of the house. Because you have given her a life estate, she should be able to live there as long as she wants.

This is obviously only the basic legal structure. You will have to resolve such issues as who pays the mortgage, real estate taxes and other house-related expenses during the time that the Wife has the right to live in the Property.

You also have to agree on the role of the Children, both during the period when you are alive and after your death. Are they legally obligated to make any payments toward the upkeep and maintenance of the property? What rights, if any, do they have to live in the property after you die?

This is not a simple matter and you are strongly advised to seek separate legal counsel to assist you. You should also prepare a pre-nuptial agreement before you get your marriage license.

Home Repairs That Bring You The Biggest Return

February 18th, 2015

Performing quick fixes before selling a home can definitely pay off, but which home repairs bring the biggest return? This can depend on a variety of factors such as:

  • Time of year
  • Location of the home
  • Market temperature
  • Competing inventory

There is no hard and fast rule, but there are some general guidelines that apply to most homes. For example, each year the National Association of Realtors publishes the Cost vs. Value Report with Remodeling Magazine, which features various home project costs and returns in four regions, including a national average.

Flooring Fixes

  • Hardwood Floors
    If your home has hardwood floors, that’s what buyers want, and it would pay to have the carpeting removed and the floors refinished.
  • Carpeting
    If your sub-floor is plywood, then replace the carpeting with light tan. Neutral carpeting is your best bet for resale.
  • Ceramic
    Replace chipped or cracked tiles. Clean or replace the grout. But don’t install ceramic (it’s too expensive) unless it’s for aesthetic reasons in an entry way.


Paint Ceilings & Walls

Buyers spend more time than you would think staring at ceilings. They are looking for signs of a leaky roof, but what you don’t want them to see are stains from grease or smoke and ceiling cracks. Ditto for walls. Nothing says freshness like new paint, and it’s the most cost effective improvement. Use fiberglass tape on large cracks, cover with joint compound and sand. Paint a neutral color such as light tan.

  • Wallpaper
    It’s not that all buyers hate wallpaper. They hate your wallpaper – because it’s your personal choice, not theirs. And they hate all dated wallpaper. Get rid of it. The easiest way is to steam it off by using an inexpensive wallpaper remover steamer.
  • Wood paneling
    Even if your wood paneling is not real wood but composite, you can paint it. Dated paneling must go. Older wood paneling such as walnut, mahogany, cedar and pine, has gone out of style. Paint it a neutral and soft color after priming it.
  • Textured ceilings
    Older popcorn ceilings with the “sparkles” often contain asbestos and if disturbed are health hazards. Say goodbye to it. But even recently sprayed ceilings turn off buyers. It’s not expensive but it is time consuming to remove. Lay down drop cloths and scrape it off. You will need to repaint.

Kitchen Improvements

Appliances and cabinets are typically the most expensive items to replace in a kitchen. If you don’t have to replace them, you’ll save a ton of money. However, if your cabinets are dated and beat-up, your house might not sell if the cabinets aren’t replaced.

Kitchen remodels return nearly 100%. According to Remodeling Magazine, the high-end kitchens don’t return as much as the mid-range or minor kitchen remodels. Most buyers won’t pay extra for a built-in Sub Zero refrigerator, professional 8-burner stove, undermount sink or travertine floors.

  • Cabinets
    Resurfacing is your least expensive option. This involves attaching a thin veneer to the surface of the cabinets and replacing the doors and hardware. If your cabinets are painted, add a fresh coat of paint and new hardware.
  • Counter tops, sinks & faucets
    Granite counters are not always necessary, but ask your agent. Simple laminates, newer faucets and sparkling sinks will also sell. Buyers don’t want to spot leaky faucets or stained sinks.


The national average of recouped cost is more than 100% for bathrooms. New floors, fixtures and lights payoff.

Roofs & Exterior

If your home needs a new roof, bite the bullet and do it. Even though most roofing tear-off jobs take one to two days, buyers shy away from buying a home if the roof needs to be replaced.

  • Patch cement cracks in sidewalks
  • Resurface asphalt driveways
  • Plant flowers
  • Caulk windows and doors
  • Replace doorknobs and locks
  • Fix or paint fences


Overall, buyers want to buy a home that has no deferred maintenance, newer appliances, updated plumbing, electrical and heating (including a/c), modern conveniences and is ready to occupy.

Use of Drones is Prohibited by FAA

January 26th, 2015

Use of drones (aka unmanned aerial vehicles) is becoming quite popular among Realtors who want to show off their clients’ homes and neighborhoods in a unique way…from the air. This is especially true for larger homes with acreage. However, as you might have seen from the recent drone incident at the White House yesterday, the FAA is scrambling to deal with how to regulate drones and drone usage among the general population who enjoy flying drones for sport, and commercial photographers, some of whom support real estate professionals. Bottom line, the FAA has prohibited the use of drones for real estate marketing, at least for the time being. The use of drones for such purposes may lead to the assessment of substantial fines and penalties, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) Board of Directors.

NAR added that they support efforts to create new federal regulations to allow for the future commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicle technology by the real estate industry. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 tasked the FAA with implementing clear-cut regulations allowing for the commercial use of UAVs, by no later than September 30, 2015.

So, if you’re a homeowner who is looking to create aerial photography of your home, you may have to wait to legally hire a drone photographer.

2014 Mortgage Debt Relief Act Extension

January 20th, 2015

Just before Christmas, President Obama signed a bill that extended the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act retroactively to cover mortgage debt cancelled in 2014. The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act (MFDRA) prevented homeowners, who went through a short sale in 2014, from being taxed on the amount of their home mortgage debt that had been forgiven. For homeowners to qualify for a tax break in 2014, their short sale must have closed by December 31, 2014.

The Act was only extended through December 31, 2014. Congress is expected to debate further extension of the Act as part of a larger tax package in 2015. In the meantime, mortgage debt forgiven by a lender in 2015 might count as taxable income.

For more information and details, click on the link below:



7 Top Tips For A Successful Home Sale

January 16th, 2015

As seen in the January 2015 issue of the Cascades Current newsletter

Every seller wants their home to sell quickly AND at top dollar, however it’s not luck that makes that happen. Here are seven helpful tips to prepare your home for a successful sale.

1.     Disassociate Yourself With Your Home
Say to yourself, I’m not selling my home; I’m selling a house.” Buyers are looking at your home through their own eyes. What you think your home is worth is not always what they feel is a good value based on its condition or décor. Listen to your real estate agent’s advice on preparing your home for showing and how to price it to sell.

2.     De-Clutter!
People collect an amazing amount of junk and the longer you’ve lived at your house the more junk you seem to have. If you haven’t used an item in over a year, you probably don’t need it. Think of this process as your head-start on packing for your move.

3.     Look like a model home
Remove pieces of furniture that block or hamper easy movement from room to room. To make your dining room seem larger, remove extra leaves from your dining room table. Leave just enough furniture in each room to showcase the room’s purpose. Don’t forget to clean your off your kitchen counters and remove “refrigerator art.”

4.     Remove Favorite Items
If the chandelier in the dining room once belonged to your grandmother, take it down before the buyer sees it and falls in love with it.

5.    Make Minor Repairs
Look in your bathrooms and re-caulk and grout if needed. Repair all wood rot and make sure to replace all burned out light bulbs.

6.     Make the House Sparkle!
Have windows professionally cleaned…you will be amazed what clean windows will do for a house! Make sure the siding and deck are pressure washed. Remove all cobwebs and dust on all ceiling fans and light fixtures. Clean out any musty-smelling areas. Odors are a no-no. Here’s a Realtor’s secret… place small bowls of whole coffee beans around the house to get rid of odors. It really works!

7.     Go outside for first impressions
Does the house welcome you? Do you have curb appeal? Many buyers won’t get out of the car if they don’t like the exterior of your home. Make sure your bushes and trees are trimmed and repaint faded window trim.

9 Legal Tips Every Renter Should Know

January 16th, 2015

These tips were developed to help you understand your rights and obligations as a renter generally. Your rights and obligations are most often determined by the terms of your lease and laws that vary greatly among the states and provinces. Call a qualified attorney who can review the lease document BEFORE you sign it and explain your rights and obligations.

  1. Understand the terms of your lease before you sign. One common mistake renters make is signing a lease without fully understanding their rights and responsibilities. Leases are written by attorneys representing your landlord, not you. It is advisable to have your own attorney review your lease before signing it. An experienced real estate agent is also someone who can help you review and negotiate your lease.
  2. Purchase renters insurance. In the event of a disaster, your landlord’s insurance may only cover the property the landlord owns. Renters insurance is generally affordable and offers protection not only for your personal belongings, but also against many personal injury claims that occur on or near your rental property.
  3. Your landlord may be responsible for making repairs in a timely fashion and for keeping the premises safe and in compliance with health and other codes.  However, the landlord’s responsibility varies depending on the terms of the lease and state or provincial laws. Always consult with your attorney and ask them to review the lease with you.
  4. In most cases a landlord must give you notice before entering your home. However, this may be subject to change depending upon the language of your lease or the local laws that apply to it.
  5. Never stop paying rent to settle a dispute with your landlord. If you believe that you have a claim against your landlord, you may not be entitled to withhold your rent. Always talk to your attorney immediately if you have a dispute with your landlord. Even if you have a legitimate claim against your landlord, the landlord may still be entitled to evict you if you do not pay your rent.
  6. Under most circumstances, your landlord cannot take your property, change your locks or turn off your utilities merely because you failed to pay rent. However, the landlord may be able to file eviction proceedings against you in court. Call your attorney if you have any dispute with your landlord.
  7. Do not break a lease without understanding your rights and responsibilities. In some rare instances tenants can break a lease without notice, but laws vary and it is important to understand the proper procedure for breaking your lease. If you need to get out of your lease before it expires, call your attorney first.
  8. Generally, the landlord’s cost for repairing normal wear and tear cannot be deducted from your security deposit. Before moving into and out of a rental property, take detailed pictures of each room. Before and after pictures may be helpful if the landlord claims damages you did not cause.
  9. Your landlord must return your deposit in a reasonable amount of time. Specific time frames may vary.