Archive for April 2005

Rising cost of housing hits hard

By Siobhan McDonough
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The American dream of having a job and owning a tidy home is becoming a fantasy for more people.
Housing prices are outstripping wage increases in many areas, meaning more people are either spending above their means or living in dilapidated conditions, according to a pair of studies being released Friday by the Center for Housing Policy, a coalition pushing for more affordable housing.
It's generally accepted that a family should not spend more than 30 percent of its income on housing to ensure there is enough money for other necessities.
But in a recent six-year period, the number of low- and middle-income working families paying more than half their income for housing has increased 76 percent. In 2003, 4.2 million working families spent more than half their income on housing, up from 2.4 million in 1997.
The problem is even more acute for immigrant working families: They are 75 percent more likely than native-born working families to pay more than half their income for housing.
Barbara Lipman, the research director for the center, said a full-time job doesn't guarantee families a decent, affordable place to live.
"The problem seems to be impervious to economic conditions because the number of working families in this situation has grown during the boom-boom '90s and early 2000s," she said. "More families are competing for a limited supply of affordable housing. The price is going up faster than the wages of working families."
One of every eight families in the United States — or 14 million — had critical housing needs in 2003, defined as paying more than half of income for housing or living in run-down quarters. The center found homeowners now are more likely than renters to have critical housing needs — 55 percent of the 14 million are people who own their homes.
Meanwhile, the median-priced home in 2003 was $176,000, up more than 11 percent from 2001. During this time, national median salaries went up only 4 percent for licensed practical nurses (to $33,000), 3 percent for elementary schoolteachers ($43,000) and 7 percent for police officers $45,000).
Even though some people move farther out to find more affordable housing, their commuting costs increase and consume a chunk of their savings. The group found that for every $1,000 that families saved by moving farther out, they're only $225 ahead because their transportation costs go up so much.
"Choices are a bit grim — commuting longer distances, working longer hours, having another wage-earner in the family, taking a second job," Lipman said.
For renters, the center found a worker needed to earn $15.21 an hour in 2003 to have a two-bedroom apartment that did not consume more than 30 percent of income. But the national median wages of retail-sales workers and janitors were under $9 an hour.
In Los Angeles, the median income for a construction laborer was $29,050, more than $70,000 short of what was needed to qualify for a mortgage on a median-priced home of $335,000. A laborer made only half the salary required for such a mortgage in Atlanta, New York and nationally.
A stock clerk making the median income of $22,210 in Grand Rapids, Mich., earned just more than half of what was necessary to buy the median priced home for $130,000. The gap was wider still in St. Louis, where the median home cost $139,000.
In the rental market, a paralegal earning the median income of $21.26 an hour in New York City made more than enough to get a two-bedroom apartment that did not consume more than 30 percent of the paycheck.
But a paralegal earning the median $16.32 an hour in Chicago would fall short of the $17.85 an hour needed to have a two-bedroom apartment without undue stress on the budget.
The findings also indicate housing problems are far from limited to central cities. Most homeowners with critical housing needs lived in the suburbs.
For renters, more than half lived in central cities.
Lipman said government must do more to aid construction of affordable housing through zoning regulations. Communities need to work with developers and allow them to increase the density for market-rate housing. In exchange, developers must allow for a certain amount of affordable houses, Lipman said.
The Center for Housing Policy is the nonprofit research affiliate of the National Housing Conference coalition. Mortgage giant Freddie Mac paid for the report.

Continuous downspout? It's unwise — and ugly

Q: I have gutters and downspouts from the upper roof of my two-story home that drop water down onto a lower roof. The lower roof drains this water down into the gutter below. It seems like this increased water flow on the lower roof would cause much more wear there. Why don't the downspout pipes continue from one gutter to the next?
A: Downspout lines are not extended across the roof simply because they are not attractive. When you have a long run from one gutter to the next, a large pipe running down the roof is a hideous sight. Furthermore, a pipe on the roof is subject to damage from people stepping on it or tree limbs falling on it, and it is more prone to plugging (as is the gutter).
More importantly, a downspout running down the roof would have to be secured to the roof. That would mean putting nail or screw holes into the roofing. Every hole is a potential leak point.
There are ways to attach this pipe without holes through the roof, but the cost is prohibitive. Thus, another reason you will not see continuous downspouts.
All that said, you raise an important issue about roof wear.
Roofing materials, particularly in composition roofs, are subject to greater wear beneath drains. Sometimes that extra wear requires replacement of a small roof section before the remaining roof fails.
Leaks inside walls are more likely if step-flashing isn't installed correctly — where upper walls meet lower roofs on a pitch. Ever see water screaming out of a second-floor downspout, onto the lower roof and right off the edge laterally? This happens a lot because the roof overhang always has a slight outward tilt.
Do I have a better solution? Nope. Like everything else, it is a trade-off and ultimately a function of the design of the building.


If you are considering buying a brand-new or older condominium, here are the five key questions to ask to avoid buying a bad condo:
A sharp buyer's agent should have the monthly condo fees for comparable nearby condo complexes easily available. Be sure to ask what services are included for each complex because that can make a big difference.
For example, the condo where I currently own has a monthly fee that includes heat, but not air conditioning and other utilities. Also, we have voted to annually raise our monthly fees by 5 percent to increase our maintenance reserves.
That wise policy came in handy last year when the elevator needed $23,000 of repairs, which we easily paid from the reserves without a special assessment.

Before making a purchase offer for a specific condo, the seller or the listing agent should give each serious prospective buyer a copy of the CC&Rs (conditions, covenants and restrictions), the by-laws, rules, recent financial statement, and minutes of the board of directors meetings for the last six months.
Prospective condo buyers should ask lots of questions, such as, "Are any special assessments or increases in the monthly fees under discussion?" Also inquire about the maintenance reserves.
There is no absolute minimum replacement reserve guideline, but two standards are (a) at least two to three thousand dollars per condo unit, and (b) 25 percent of the annual gross income for the homeowner's association should be in the reserve account.

Except for very small condo complexes, the best condo complexes have professional outside managers. Be very wary of buying in any condo complex where one of the condo owners is the manager.
Ask how long the professional manager has managed the complex; the longer the better. For example, the condo complex where I currently own a condo has had the same management company for more than 25 years.
Professional managers usually save the association the amount of their fees by obtaining low bids on quality services and by offering expert advice based on their experience managing similar condo complexes.

If the answer is more than 10 percent renters, that's not a good sign. When there are more than 20 percent to 30 percent renters, most mortgage lenders either refuse to make mortgage loans or they charge above-market interest rates. The result is condo resales can be hurt.

Most condo owners are very friendly. They don't mind telling prospective buyers what they like best and least about their condo. Better yet, ask current condo owners, "Would you buy here again?"
If you receive satisfactory answers to these five key questions, plus others you want answered, it's time to make your written purchase offer.
However, be sure your condo or townhouse purchase contract includes a professional inspection clause. That means, after the seller accepts your purchase offer, you have 10 to 15 days to obtain a professional inspection of the specific condo and the visible common areas.
When buying a brand-new condo, be cautious of any builder or developer who refuses to allow such a professional inspection. Perhaps the builder is concealing defects or serious construction mistakes, which a professional inspector will discover.

Pit-stop snacks can tip the scales

By Charles Stuart Platkin
Syndicated columnist

Many of us will hit the road this summer, and that means fueling up — our cars and ourselves. Convenience stores are becoming quick-service restaurants in our time-starved culture, a phenomenon that can be costly if you're counting calories. Take a look and see if you can make the right choices to stay fit.
7-Eleven Slurpee or a pint of Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream
Of course the ice cream has more calories, but the difference is smaller than you might think. A Coca-Cola Classic Slurpee has 330 calories and about 88 grams carbs for about 22 ounces. The 40-ounce Slurpee is nearly double at 600 calories, 160 grams carbs.
By comparison, a pint of Haagen-Dazs has 1,080 calories. But a Haagen-Dazs Vanilla & Almonds Bar has only 320 calories, 12 grams fat and 22 grams carbs.
Fit Tip: Try a 12-ounce Crystal Light Raspberry (or Lemon-Lime) Ice Slurpee for just 50 calories or a 22-ounce for 90 calories. Or have the Diet Pepsi Slurpee — it's virtually calorie-free!
Potato chips vs. Terra Chips vs. peanut butter sandwich crackers
They're all pretty much the same caloriewise because the chips typically come in 1.5- or 2-ounce bags.
• Terra Chips (per ounce): 140 calories, 7g fat, 18g carbs
• Wise Potato Chips (per ounce): 150 calories, 10g fat, 14g carbs
• Frito Lay Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers (one package): 210 calories, 10g fat, 23g carbs
Fit Tip: Choose the smallest bag of chips — don't pretend you're going to share or save some for later. Or try a fresh-fruit cup or an apple, orange or banana for a lower-calorie, more nutritious snack.
Sausage, egg and cheese on English muffin vs. a banana-walnut muffin
The banana muffin may sound safe, but it packs 605 calories, 30 grams of fat and 72 grams carbs. The breakfast combo is a better deal at 450 calories, 24 grams fat and 37 grams carbs.
Fit Tip: Go for small packs of cereal (90 to 150 calories) and use skim milk. Also, if you're getting an egg sandwich or burrito, choose either sausage or ham or cheese — not both meat and cheese. And you can always remove one of the links or take off some of the cheese before you heat it up.
7-Eleven 1/4-pound Big Bite vs. Don Miguel beef steak burrito
The 1/4-pound Big Bite hot dog has 365 calories, 34 grams fat, 2 grams carbs and 1,138 milligrams sodium, plus 120 calories for the bun, which has 22 grams of carbohydrates, 210 milligrams of sodium, 1.5 grams fat all of which adds up to 485 calories.
It's close, but the 7-ounce burrito has 390 calories, 8 grams fat, 61 grams carbs and 930 milligrams sodium, making it the better bargain.
Fit Tip: Get the 1/8-pound Big Bite hot dog for 280 calories (including the bun) — not bad if you only have one. Watch the condiments — especially the cheese and chili, which can add more than 250 calories. When it comes to burritos, stick to the 5-to-7-ounce size (300 to 500 calories) and avoid the 10-ounce (600 to 700 calories).
Ready Pac Chicken Caesar salad vs. Mediterranean-style turkey sandwich vs. a Hot Pocket Ham & Cheese
Be careful — the salad package reads 230 calories, but there are two servings, so the total is 460 calories, 42 grams fat, 8 grams carbs and 1,220 milligrams of sodium.
The Hot Pocket Ham & Cheese is the worst at 540 calories, 18 grams fat, 74 grams carbs and 1,410 milligrams sodium.
The turkey sandwich (400 calories, 14 grams fat, 43 grams carbs and 1,540 milligrams sodium) is the winner.
Turkey is normally a healthy choice, but beware: Most convenience-store sandwiches are prepackaged, so you can't "hold the mayo" or the high-calorie special sauces.
Fit Tip: Sauces load on calories, so scrape off any excess — just 1 tablespoon of mayo (the typical base for many sauces) has 100 calories. Look for low-calorie soup; many times all you have to do is heat it up or add hot water.
Nutri-Grain Bar vs. Power Bar vs. Clif Bar vs. Snickers
The Nutri-Grain bar is lowest in calories, but it's also about a third of the size of the others. If it satisfies you and you don't mind the sugar and the processing, it would be your best bet.
• Nutri-Grain bar: 140 calories, 3 grams fat, 27 grams carbs (contains high-fructose corn syrup)
• Chocolate Power Bar: 230 calories, 2 grams fat, 45 grams carbs (contains high-fructose corn syrup)
• Chocolate Brownie Clif Bar: 240 calories, 4.5 grams fat, 45 grams carbs (organic and contains no trans fat)
• Snickers bar: 280 calories, 14 grams fat, 35 grams carbs (contains sugar and saturated fat)
Fit Tip: Probably the hardest part of leaving a convenience store without buying anything unhealthful is staring at the candy bars while you're waiting in line. Stay focused and avoid impulse buys.
Arizona Iced Tea with ginseng vs. Gatorade vs. OJ
The iced tea has 175 calories and 45 grams carbs for a 20-ounce bottle, while 16 ounces of Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice Original has 220 calories, 52 grams carbs, 900 milligrams potassium and all that vitamin C. In terms of calories, however, Gatorade wins with 50 calories, 14 grams carbs per 8 ounces.
Fit Tip: Choose no-calorie flavored coffee, like 7-Eleven's chocolate cherry coffee, and use skim milk.

Pros and cons of negotiating real estate sales commissions

By: Robert J. Bruss

Listing agents need an incentive to sell your home.

Spring is the best time of the year to list your house or condo for sale. The obvious reasons are this is the season when there is the largest number of prospective home buyers in the market place and it is the traditional time of year when most home sales take place.
This year is an especially good time to sell your home because (1) mortgage interest rates are still affordable for most buyers and (2) in many communities there is a shortage of houses and condos listed for sale. Despite the listing shortage, recent statistics from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders show home sales continue at a near-record pace nationwide.
Smart home sellers, even those who think they can sell their homes alone without a professional realty agent, know they should interview at least three successful local agents to learn the details involved in a home sale and the probable sales price for their home.
Among the many questions to ask each agent you interview for your listing is, "How much is your sales commission?"
As a home seller, do you realize sales commissions are negotiable? Most states now require listing agreements to say, "Real estate sales commissions are negotiable" or similar wording. But most home sellers don't understand the pros and cons of sales commission negotiations.

HOW HOME SALES COMMISSIONS ARE SPLIT. Most home sellers have no clue how home sales listing commissions are divided when a sale occurs. But they are sure realty agents are grossly overpaid for very little work, especially when a home sells within a few days of being listed for sale.
Regardless of the commission rate, there are usually four parties involved. They are the listing broker, the listing agent who represents that broker, the selling broker, and the selling agent who represents that broker.
For example, suppose you have a $100,000 condo to sell and you agree in the listing to pay a 6 percent sales commission. A buyer offers to purchase for the full $100,000 asking price. When the sale closes, that $6,000 sales commission will go $3,000 to the listing brokerage and $3,000 to the selling brokerage. Of these amounts, the listing agent will receive $1,500 (or more depending on the agent's commission split with the broker) and the selling brokerage will receive $3,000 with the selling agent receiving $1,500 (possibly more, depending on that agent's commission split with the brokerage).
In other words, of the 6 percent gross sales commission, 3 percent goes to the listing office and 3 percent to the selling office. Those amounts are then divided with the individual agents, according to their commission split agreements with their brokerage office.
But most home sellers and buyers don't understand their agent might take home as little as 1.5 percent of the gross 6 percent sales commission in our example.
Of course, the agents can agree to alter the commission split, such as 2 percent to the listing office and 4 percent to the selling office.
However, if either the listing agent or the selling agent works as an independent real estate broker, he or she would be entitled to keep the entire 3 percent listing or selling share in our example. Or, if the listing agent also finds a buyer (called a dual agency), then the sales commission is split between the listing agent and the brokerage.

HOME BUYERS SHOULD NOT NEGOTIATE SALES COMMISSIONS. If you are a home buyer, because sales commissions are paid by home sellers, it is not your job to negotiate sales commissions.
But you should understand what is going on, behind the scenes, with your money paid to the seller. For this reason, be sure to make a purchase offer that includes enough cash for the seller to pay their realty agent's sales commission.

WHEN HOME SELLERS SHOULD NEGOTIATE SALES COMMISSIONS. As a real estate broker for 38 years, I fully understand the economics of home sales commissions. But sellers should be aware that as home sales prices rise, the average sales commission rates are falling.
According to a recent nationwide survey by Real Trends, a highly respected real estate research firm, the average home sales commission rate has fallen to 5.1 percent of the sales price.
This result shows sales commissions really are negotiable. Traditionally, home sales commissions were 6 or even 7 percent of the gross sales price and many agents refused to negotiate.
If you have a modest-priced house or condo to sell, perhaps below $200,000, don't expect your listing agent to be very flexible about reducing the traditional 6 percent sales commission. However, if you are selling your $500,000 or higher priced home, that's the time to talk about "adjusting" the sales commission.

FLAT-FEE SALES AGENTS. In some communities there are so-called "flat fee listing agents" who will sell your home for a standard fee regardless of its sales price. However, some of these agents offer less than full service, such as expecting the seller to host weekend open houses and then phone the listing agent when a serious buyer wants to make a purchase offer.
A big drawback of these flat-fee agents sometimes occurs when a prospective buyer is represented by a "buyer's agent." Such agents will be reluctant to show such a "flat fee" home if the selling agent will receive less than the customary 3 percent of the sales price.
However, many flat-fee sales agents offer full services, including the ultra-important local multiple listing service (MLS) access with display at the popular Internet site where many prospective home buyers begin their searches.

DISADVANTAGES OF LOW SALES COMMISSIONS. As a home seller, if you think it would be smart to reduce the traditional 6 percent sales commission to 5 percent or 4 percent at the time of listing your home for sale, think carefully.
When your listing shows up in the local multiple listing service with only a 2 percent sales commission to the selling agent, do you think many agents representing buyers will show your home when similar homes offering a 3 percent commission split to the selling agent are available? Of course not.
Statistics show most home sales involve both a listing agent from one brokerage and selling agent from another brokerage. The sale is usually a result of the local MLS, the most powerful sales tool available to home sellers and their listing agents.
Another disadvantage, if you can convince your listing agent to accept a reduced sales commission is your listing agent might not be enthusiastic about selling your home. If your listing agent has other homes listed for sale at 6 and 5 percent commissions, but your home is listed at only 4 percent commission, he or she might not put as much time or effort into selling your low commission home.

THE HIGHER THE HOME SALES PRICE, THE MORE NEGOTIABLE THE SALES COMMISSION. If you are selling a "low end" house or condo, don't expect to negotiate much on the sales commission. The reason is the listing agent has to do just as much to work to sell your inexpensive home as to sell a higher-priced home.
However, if you are selling a "high end" home over $500,000 or $1 million, most real estate listing agents are willing to negotiate on the sales commission.
But beware some brokerages have strict sales commission rules for their sales agents. For example, I recently learned about a "famous name" nationwide brokerage that has a rule its sales agents cannot accept home listings less than 5 percent.
If I were selling my multizillion-dollar home and a representative of that brokerage wouldn't reduce the sales commission, I would just move on to another successful broker who will accept a reduced commission rate.
However, home sellers should remember the big pitfall of reducing the listing sales commission too low because it reduces the incentive for local agents representing prospective buyers to show your home. In fact, if your home is not selling, the solution might be to raise the sales commission above the local customary rate.

WATCH FOR "ADMINISTRATIVE FEES." In addition to the sales commission, some listing brokerages add an "administrative fee," typically $200 to $500, for handling all the office paperwork. As a home seller, look for this in the listing agreement.
If you don't want to pay that charge on top of the sales commission, most listing agents will still accept your listing if you cross that fee out. But the agent then usually has to pay it out of his or her pocket to the brokerage for office services.

SUMMARY: Real estate sales commissions are fully negotiable. However, home sellers who reduce their commission often cut the listing agent's incentive and, more important, the incentive of other local agents representing buyers to show and sell their homes.

Who can get a VA loan?

Millions of veterans and service personnel are eligible to participate in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Home Loan Guarantee Program, which in most cases requires no down payment. VA loans can be used to buy a home, build a home, improve a home or to refinance an existing loan. After issuing a certificate of eligibility to the vet, the VA guarantees the loan to the lender up to $203,000. VA loans frequently offer lower interest rates than ordinarily available with other kinds of loans. To qualify for a loan, the first step is to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility (complete Form 26-1880). Call (800) 827-1000 for more information about VA programs.

Eastside home prices break records;

South County inches higher2005-04-07
by Clayton Park
Journal Business Editor
Home prices last month soared to a new record high on the Eastside of $400,000 -- up $50,000 from last year -- while prices in southeast King County remained significantly higher than a year ago.
The Eastside tied with Vashon Island for the highest median price for homes and condos sold last month in King County.
Area real estate agents are reporting bidding wars for homes, particularly for those that are more affordably priced or near major employment hubs.
One older "fixer'' house in Kirkland received 11 offers last week, with the winning bid nearly $40,000 more than the seller's asking price, which was in the $250,000 range, said Ken Bacon, managing broker for the Redmond office of Windermere Real Estate.
The median price for homes and condominiums sold on the Eastside last month rose to $400,000, up from $381,000 in February and $349,990 in March 2004, according to a new report issued Wednesday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
The median price of homes and condos sold in southeast King County last month was $259,900, down a sliver from $259,950 in February but up nearly 9 percent over the median price of $238,970 in March 2004.
The median price for closed transactions in Seattle last month was $355,000, up from $334,000 in February and $311,200 a year ago. Southwest King County had the lowest median price of any area in the county: $244,700, up from $234,950 in February and $212,750 a year ago.
Countywide, the median price of homes and condos sold last month skyrocketed to $324,950, shattering the previous record -- February's median price of $309,950. The countywide median price a year ago was $280,000.
The Kirkland-based Northwest Multiple Listing Service tracks sales of homes and condos on a monthly basis throughout most of Western Washington.
The median price means that an equal number of homes and condos sold for higher and for less than that amount.
J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate, reported this week that March was the "best month ever'' in terms of home sales conducted by agents of the 74-year-old Bellevue company.
Scott attributed the record sales to local job growth, a shortage of available homes, relatively low interest rates, and a "historically active housing market'' during this time of year.
Of the 1,304 homes and condos sold on the Eastside last month, the area east of Lake Sammamish had the highest number of closed transactions: 320.
"That's affordability,'' said Bacon of the reason why demand in that area is so high.
Bacon said condo sales have been on the rise in the past year, now accounting for roughly one-third of all sales conducted by agents in his office, "which was never the case before.''
Compared with the average price of single-family homes on the Eastside, condos are "more affordable,'' newer and as a rule in better condition than comparably priced single-family homes, and in most cases "closer to where (buyers) need to commute,'' Bacon said.
Despite the high prices for homes and condos overall on the Eastside, there are still some single-family homes with asking prices in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, but "they're going to be fixers'' -- older homes badly in need of updating, Bacon said.
Those thinking of bidding for an affordably priced fixer home need to "act fast'' and be prepared to compete against multiple bidders, including professional home remodelers, Bacon said.
"We're seeing a surge in contractors buying older, fixer homes,'' he said.
Of the 782 homes and condos sold in Southeast King County last month, the Kent area had the most of any area within that submarket: 196.
As of the end of March, the pending number of sales of homes and condos totaled 1,530 on the Eastside and 988 in Southeast King County. The Eastside had 1,602 new listings, while Southeast King County had 1,020.
The average number of days that homes and condos sold last month were on the market was 53 for the Eastside, compared with 66 a year ago, and 48 in Southeast King County, compared with 68 a year ago.

Is Syrah the wine variety to set Washington apart?

The Associated Press
SEATTLE — It was very much a long shot.
When vintner David Lake suggested planting a new variety of red wine grapes on a steep hillside at central Washington's Red Willow Vineyard in the late 1980s, it seemed like a risky move.
White wines had dominated the state's wine industry for years, and while the sturdy Rhone variety with hints of blackberries, black currants and roasted coffee seemed like a perfect match for the state's diverse soils and climate, grape growers were unsure it could survive a harsh winter.
After the deep freeze of 1996, growers knew they had struck wine gold with syrah.
Nearly a decade later, the number of acres planted tops 3,000 — about 10 percent of the state's more than 30,000 acres devoted to wine grapes, and syrah ranks among the top three reds in the state, behind cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
"Syrah is one of the great grapes of the world, it's one of the great three — cabernet, syrah and pinot noir," said Lake, the director of winemaking for Columbia Winery who recently marked 25 years in Washington state winemaking. "A lot of great European varieties haven't necessarily found a home in the New World, such as sangiovese. But some have really been rediscovered in the last 30 years or so."
Those include syrah, a grape that ripens fairly early, is hardier than merlot and tends to produce wines that develop more quickly in the fermenting process — a point that is especially favorable for a region where new wineries are opening their doors almost monthly.
Washington is the nation's No. 2 wine producer behind California, with an industry valued at $2.4 billion, according to the Washington Wine Commission, a promotional state agency financed with fees on member wineries and growers. The state is home to more than 300 wineries and 300 wine grape growers who harvested 100,500 tons of grapes last year.
The harvest was down from the record crop of 111,700 tons a year earlier, but 2004 could have been far worse because of a severe winter freeze. New vineyard acres coming into production helped balance out the losses.
At Lake Chelan's Tsillan Cellars, one-third of the roughly 40 acres planted are syrah. The acreage may not change, but the wine itself will evolve as vintners experiment, winemaker Katy Perry said.
Syrah grapes are more susceptible to cultural practices, such as water management, trellising of vines and methods to alleviate sunburn, she said. Those techniques, along with cool evening temperatures and the micro-climates of individual vineyards, create subtle nuances.
After years as a vintner for other wineries, Perry has decided to strike out on her own. Tildio Winery opens April 16, and one of its primary varieties will be syrah.
"A lot of different varieties are being planted and I think everybody is throwing their hand in at trying syrah, at least a little," Perry said. "It's going to be fantastic."
Syrah currently makes up about 25 percent of the production for Columbia Winery, one of the state's larger wineries. That could increase to as much as 40 percent in the future, said Lake, who has dreamed of experimenting with the variety since a visit to France's Rhone wine region.
Consumers first want to know a winery can make a four-square, substantial wine, Lake told an audience Saturday at a Taste Washington wine event in Seattle. Then vintners can perhaps back off a bit to create a wine with more finesse.
Growers and vintners in Idaho and British Columbia also are taking note and beginning to produce great syrah.
"Now, with the climate going through a warming phase, syrah seems very well able to thrive," Lake said. "It all really depends on the style you want to make. It's a very versatile variety for us, and although it hasn't yet won the acclaim of our cabernet, I believe it has a bright future."

Happy anniversary

Sometimes you just need a nice weekend a way from the kids. We found a wonderful bed and breakfast located in Gig Harbor. Our hosts Greg & Lalaine Wong were such a delight. We enjoyed the delicious breakfast that was prepared for us as seen in the photo with my wonderful wife Mercedes (left) Good friend Dayna (middle) and myself.
Aloha Beachside Bed & Breakfast captures the spirit and experience Hawaiian hospitality at it's finest. Staying in Wailele room. It feature a queen-sized feather bed, full bath, and a bayside balcony to enjoy the sights and sounds of Puget Sound.
Soaking in the hot tub, quick work out in the exercise room or relaxing in the sauna is a wonderful way to guarantee a good night's rest.
Be sure to set a little time aside to enjoy life with your friends and family.

Are there guidelines to how much a buyer should offer?

Now you’ve found the house you want, how much should you offer to pay for it? This can be a tricky puzzle, because there are no carved-in-stone guidelines. Some homes are overpriced, while others are a "real steal" at the full asking price. Here are some tips:

Ask your agent for comparables
To determine a fair purchase offer, ask your agent to prepare a written comparative market analysis showing the sales prices of similar neighborhood homes that sold recently and the asking prices of comparable homes currently on the market.
Compare the details
To calculate your best offer, compare the features of the home that interests you with the features of similar homes that have sold recently in the same neighborhood.

April is the month to tend to flowering plants

Fertilizing flowering plants — perennials, annuals and roses — always makes the list of April tasks. But with a summer drought anticipated in the region, water conservation is a first priority, so I recommend fertilizing less than in a year with more normal weather. More fertilizer means more growth, which requires more water to maintain.
Perennial plants such as peonies, summer-blooming lilies and daylilies, Shasta daisies, and columbine — all the flowers you'd like for a bouquet in the house — will thrive nicely on one moderate fertilizing during April. If you did it in March, the flowers will not need it again. I use a kelp-based fertilizer with a 6-8-8- ratio and apply it only once a year. If the soil has been well-amended with compost and a fertile mulch — one derived from animal manure — you could skip the spring perennial fertilization altogether this year.

Rose care
For roses, fertilize after pruning, as many of you have already done in March, and then in June after the first set of blooms, instead of the monthly dose that is often recommended.
Fertilizers with organic sources of ingredients — those derived from living materials like cottonseed and kelp — supply nutrients slowly and help with steady rather than too-fast growth.
Chemical fertilizers with lots of nitrogen shove the plant into hasty leaf production, which is just the opposite of what's desirable in dry seasons. Use soaker hoses or other efficient methods to water roses.

What to trim, deadhead
Shearing plants fits into the April schedule as well. Hedge-trimmers, hand-powered or electric, work well on bloomed-out spring ground covers such as white candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) or ground-cover phlox (Phlox subulata).
Removing the flowers, but allowing the foliage beneath to stay intact, will help the plant produce fresh foliage that looks attractive all summer. Shearing also works on herbs that went through winter with ragged flowers or foliage.
Trim sage, rosemary, lavender and artemisia to shape. For years I've used a pair of sheep shears that wandered into the garden tools somehow, giving me the spring impression of shearing woollies as well as bloomers.

Caring for rhodies
Rhododendrons and azaleas will roar into bloom this month, and their faded flowers bring up the question: Do I deadhead these things, or not?
Gardeners at the
Washington Park Arboretum grow thousands of rhododendrons, many of them far too large for removing the spent flowers. They bloom on without flower deadheading. If the rhododendron is very small, such as the 1-foot 'Blue Diamond', it will generally drop flowers just the way all azaleas do. So if it's too tall to reach or covered in tiny self-cleaning flowers, no action is needed.
But when the plant shines prominently in the landscape, most gardeners take the old flowers off to improve the beauty of the plant. Some research indicates that the shrubs flower better in the following year if they aren't throwing energy into making seeds. The choice is yours.
Rhododendrons certainly look sleeker in the landscape when they aren't daubed with brown seed heads. Deadheading is difficult to do with gloves on, so expect sticky hands from the sap.

Round up thirsty plants
Flowers requiring ample summer moisture — calla lilies, primroses, filipendulas, astilbes and Japanese iris — should be grouped and given their own soaker hose or other irrigation.
What to plant
Besides being a good time to tidy up the yard, April is also the time to start work on a vegetable garden. "
The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide: Planning Calendar for Year-Round Organic Gardening," (Seattle Tilth, 2000), suggests the following vegetables for planting this month: radishes, carrots, beets, broccoli, onion sets (for small salad onions), spinach, bok choi, snow peas, sugar peas and potatoes (from seed potatoes).
Vegetables to start indoors for late May transplant when the soil warms include these heat seekers: tomatoes, squash and basil.

From the Nascar Garage

Kevin Harvick's team has learned the hard way about the new qualifying/impoundment rules for 2005.

The new qualifying/impoundment rules for 2005 have bitten one team already. The Richard Childress-owned GM Goodwrench Chevy qualified in the top 5 at Las Vegas but was sent to the rear of the field because crew chief Todd Berrier installed an illegal fuel cell in the car that was rigged to appear filled to 22-gallon capacity while actually holding just five gallons. With less fuel, they were able to move more weight to the front of the car to improve handling. In the past, teams could qualify with the fuel load of their choice. Not so anymore.

"It wasn't a points event. It was a qualifying event," Berrier said. "When you get caught with something, if you had to play it over again you'd probably play it a little bit different, but that's my nature, it's how I've always addressed things."

The reasoning for trying to slip one by NASCAR is confusing in that Harvick’s team is guaranteed a starting spot by virtue of being in the top 35 in owners points.

Berrier appealed his four-race suspension, but the suspension was upheld. Harvick, however, overcame the loss of Berrier and won the Food City 500 at Bristol last week.

Space Needle (Seattle Center)

1961 Seattle, Washington, USA Edward E. Carlson, designer

The 605 foot (184 meter) Space Needle was designed by Edward E. Carlson for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. The futuristic structure has become a symbol for the city, and is home to festive events such as the annual New Year's Eve fireworks display.

The structure has gone through many transformations. Early plans called for a tethered balloon. Carlson's plan called for a soaring needle topped by a disk reminiscent of a flying saucer. The structure required a 120-foot-square underground foundation. 467 cement trucks spent an entire day filling the hole. The completed foundation weighs as much as the Needle.

Massive steel beams form the slender legs and upper body. The structure is designed to withstand a wind velocity of 200 miles per hour, but storms occasionally force the facility to close. Several earth tremors have caused the Needle to sway. However, the original designers doubled the 1962 building code requirements, enabling the Needle to withstand even greater jolts. The Space Needle was completed in December 1961, and officially opened four months later on the first day of the World's Fair, April 21, 1962. The Space Needle is in the midst of a $20 million revitalization effort. Nearly every aspect of the 1962 World’s Fair centerpiece has been or is being updated, including the entry level, restaurant, and Observation Deck, all the way down to the grounds surrounding the attraction.

Revitalization Fact SheetThe following information is a press release from the Seattle Needle Corporation.

Pavilion Level
The official World’s Fair poster in 1962 showed a grand spiral entryway leading to the elevators that would take guests up the 605-foot Space Needle. That vision is now a reality with the addition of the two-story, glass-enclosed Pavilion Level. The Pavilion, which replaced the old retail, ticketing and lobby facilities, resembles a transparent nautilus encircling the base.

SkyLine Level
The updating of the SkyLine Level – the meeting, banquet and special events facility nestled 100 feet above the Landmark’s base – began Phase II of the Space Needle revitalization project. Using the design direction of the SkyCity restaurant as a foundation, the challenge is to create an atmosphere complementary and clearly associated with the restaurant, but radiating its own unique personality.

Restaurant Level
The eateries known as the Space Needle Restaurant and Emerald Suite were closed forever in March 2000. In their place, a completely new restaurant, SkyCity, was created at the Space Needle. A dynamic new décor, vibrant uniforms, and a fresh new menu featuring a variety of Pacific Northwest entrees is helping establish SkyCity as one of Seattle’s top dining destinations.

Observation Deck
Based on the Space Needle’s “Live the View” theme, the redesigned O Deck offers a 360° unobstructed view. All O Deck activities have been moved to the inside portion of the level, giving visitors a clear walking path and vantage points from every angle. Not since the Landmark opened in 1962 has there been this kind of viewing experience at the Space Needle.

ExteriorMirroring the orbiting form of the Space Needle’s “flying saucer” top, and the base addition, the Broad Street turnaround is a circular valet and drop-off area on the south side of the Space Needle, and the gateway to Seattle Center. The north plaza also was redesigned and expanded as a more inviting and alive place for people to meet and gather, with landscaping and seating added.

Legacy Light
The Space Needle’s Legacy Light was first illuminated on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000, and has been shown on major national holidays. A beam of light that shines skyward from the top of the Space Needle, the Legacy Light honors national holidays and commemorates special occasions in Seattle. The Legacy Light is based on the original concept of a beam of light shining atop the Space Needle, as depicted in the official 1962 World’s Fair poster.

Seattle Space Needle Official Site

Cool Web Cam

Space Needle Web Cam

Seattle water supply the outlook

The current water supply outlook remains good. Seattle public utilities (SPU) is closely my tree snowpack and hydrology is holding water levels in the mountain storage reservoirs above normal levels for this time of year while staying within reservoir led management levels. last week, the mountain watersheds received about 1.5 inches of precipitation in the Cedar, and 2.1 inches in the Tolt.

Snow accumulations in the Cascade Mountains are well below normal for this time a year; the lowest we have seen in many years. snowpack is about 9 percent of normal in the Cedar and 23 percent of normal and the South Fork Tolt watershed. Although recent warm heavy rains have resulted in melting the most of our snowpack, we have about two months of winter/spring left for snow to accumulate. Therefore SPU is carefully watching how the snowpack builds throughout the remaining part of the snows season.

At least the ski resorts are open for now. My all you skiers and snowboarders enjoy your Spring skiing.

It's time for tulips in Skagit Valley

The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival officially starts tomorrow and continues through April 30 with the disclaimer "bloom dates according to Mother Nature." Being unpredictable is part of Mother Nature's considerable charm, and with the mild winter this year, the tulip fields didn't wait for the festival and are already in bloom. Early-bird visitors last weekend were treated to daffodil fields in full bloom with at least some tulips in bloom at all fields.
To see the tulips at their peak, plan your visit during the next few weeks. An online bloom map is updated regularly, or call the festival office for the latest updates.

To drive down public roads and look at colorful tulip fields costs nothing, but stopping and parking is regulated during tulip time; locals earn a few dollars charging for parking in their fields or yards.
Beyond the fields where bulbs are cultivated for harvest, show gardens are also a lure. Roozengaarde and Tulip Town are the two largest venues, both offering gift shops, cut flowers and early ordering of bulbs for your own garden. Tulip Town's fields feature 60 varieties of tulips and a windmill, built using the blueprints of a windmill in the Dutch hometown of Tulip Town owner Tom De Goede's family. Tulip Town is open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily in April at 15002 Bradshaw Road, Mount Vernon; admission is $4, free for ages 16 and younger. For more information, call 360-424-8152 or see .

Roozengaarde's 3-acre show garden is planted with more than 200,000 spring-flowering bulbs in colorful displays. The garden, at 15867 Beaver Marsh Road, Mount Vernon, is open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily in April, with admission of $2. For more information, call 360-424-0419 or see .

A variety of farm activities, art events and other attractions in Mount Vernon, La Conner and the surrounding area continue through April, no matter what the blooms or the weather. The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival office at 100 E. Montgomery St., Mount Vernon, is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through April, with festival brochures full of information to plan your visit. The brochures are available during office hours, or at the Mount Vernon Visitor Center next door on evenings and weekends. For more information, call the festival office at 360-428-5959 or see .