‘Tis the season for house fires‘Tis the season for house firesHayley RiederRieder

Electrical fire near a Christmas tree

O, Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how dangerous you can be! 

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2011-15 there were 200 home fires yearly that started with Christmas trees. These fires caused an average of six deaths, 16 injuries, and $14.8 million in direct property damage annually.

Fortunately, the NFPA offers simple tips on how to prevent a tannenbaum tragedy.

First, when picking a real tree, choose one with fresh, green needles that don't fall off when touched. Be sure to cut two inches from the base of the trunk before placing the tree in its stand, which should be at least three feet away from heat sources like fireplaces, radiators, or heat vents. The tree should not block an exit.

When lighting the tree, use only lights that are listed by a qualified testing laboratory. Never use lit candles to trim the tree, and always turn off the lights before leaving home or going to bed.

But Christmas trees aren't the only potential danger.

According to the NFPA, U.S. fire departments responded to around 840 home structure fires per year that began with decorations, excluding Christmas trees, in 2011-15. These fires caused an annual average of two deaths, 36 injuries, and $11.4 million in direct property damage.

The Texas Department of Insurance and the State Fire Marshal's Office also have tips for safely decorating your home for the holidays.

Before hanging your lights, check each set (new or old) for broken sockets, frayed wires, or loose connections. Secure all lights on firm supports to protect them from wind damage. Use insulated staples when securing lights, and make sure all electric currents are off while hanging the lights, especially when using a staple gun.

While most Texans don't get a white Christmas, they often experience winter rain. Waterproof all electrical connections, and keep them elevated and a way from rainwater drainage. For added protection, plug lights into circuits protected by ground fault circuit interrupters, which can be found at hardware stores.

When lighting candles indoors, make sure all flammable objects are removed from the area. Keep an eye on children and pets around flames. Opt for flameless, LED candles if you can.

And again, always turn off your lights and blow out our candles before you leave or go to bed. You can also buy timers so you'll never forget to shut down for the night.

If you haven't already, review your home insurance coverage to ensure you're covered in case of a fire or other disaster.

So this year, be sure to deck the halls, not burn them.

The disappearing middle: U.S. job polarizationThe disappearing middle: U.S. job polarizationLuis TorresTorres
​Middle-skill jobs in the United States have fallen over the past three decades. These jobs involve performing routine tasks like bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production tasks (“lever pulling” jobs). As computer and communication technologies have improved in quality and declined in price, these tasks have been increasingly codified in computer software and performed by machines.

Technology advancement has led to an increase in labor demand for nonroutine tasks that require high-skilled workers (e.g. problem solving) and low-skilled workers (e.g. manual tasks). This employment phenomenon where job opportunities have shifted away from middle-skill jobs toward high- and low-skill jobs is called “job polarization."

In addition, U.S. education levels have not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers, thereby increasing the value of educated workers. At the same time, low-skilled workers have moved into service occupations that generally pay low wages. Both factors have contributed to an increase in wage inequality as middle-skill jobs disappear while high- and low-skill jobs increase.

If routine manufacturing jobs are eliminated by automation, forcing workers with medium skills into the service industry, and if the majority of workers with medium skills have no or only some post-secondary education, how can the U.S. solve the structural problem facing the labor market?

The answer is by increasing both the numbers of college-educated workers and training programs in high schools. These would lead to an increase in productivity and higher wages, resulting in a decline in wage inequality.
The fast and the (hopefully not too) furiousThe fast and the (hopefully not too) furiousBryan PopePope
2017-11-15T06:00:00ZInfrastructure & Transportation

​​​​​autonomous car​​

Last year, the Texas A&M University System announced plans for a $150 million ​​research campus here in Bryan-College Station. ​While a wide array of new technologies will be explored at the campus, the one that caught my attention was autonomous (driverless) vehicles.​ 

Until now, my knowledge of autonomous vehicles (AV) was strictly limited to "Johnny Cab" from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall and the self-driving cars in Minority Report. Also, Disney's The Love Bug, but I'm not sure that counts.

Turns out, the concept dates back at least as far as the 1939 World's Fair, where Norman Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit promoted advances in transportation, including aspects of AV technology.

​​​But enough about history. How could AV technology affect real estate markets? Transwestern suggests some possibilities in its new report, The New Industry Driver: How the Rise of Autonomous Vehicles Could Impact Future Real Estate Strategy​

​The report posits that AVs would cause a decrease in car ownership (by as much as 80 percent by 2030, according to one study). If so, Transwestern says the demand for parking across the U.S. may decrease 70 to 90 percent, cutting the need for parking spaces by approximately 60 billion sf.

Assuming widespread AV adoption, office owners and developers may have to rethink how they use parking, whether it is an adjacent parking structure or an underground garage. Transwestern says parking revenue averages 10 percent of a central business district office building’s gross revenue.

The rise of AVs also may add another pawn in the amenities war, the report says. "Features such as curbside pickup and ride-share lobbies could become more prevalent as building tenants and visitors increasingly demand them as next-generation Class A office conveniences."

Transwestern says the industrial sector could be disrupted most by AV technology.

"With approximately 70 percent of goods delivered via long-haul commercial trucks (a percentage that is expected to widen in the future), the introduction of autonomous long-haul trucks would be a welcomed addition to an industry ​struggling from a shortage of drivers. There was an estimated deficit of 48,000 truck drivers in the U.S. in 2015, and this problem is only getting worse."

What about retail?

"Retail properties that could be affected by greater adoption of AVs include auto repair facilities, car dealerships, and the nearly 154,000 gas stations nationwide," according to Transwestern. "Auto car dealerships and auto repair shops may disappear as we know them if private car ownership decreases. Gas stations, which typically occupy locations at highly visible intersections, could be converted to autonomous charging stations as electric vehicles are forecasted to surpass gas-powered vehicles by 2040."​

On a personal note, I welcome AV technology. Outside of The Terminator movies or HAL in 2001, it's hard for me to imagine a computer developing a bad case of road rage.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: A first look at the mortgage interest deductionTax Cuts and Jobs Act: A first look at the mortgage interest deductionWesley MillerMiller

​​​The recently released “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” affects a wide array of industries, none more so than residential real estate.

Changes to the mortgage interest deduction is drawing significant attention across the country. The proposal decreases the cap on newly issued loans from $1 million currently to $500,000, while removing any deductions on second homes. Assuming a 20 percent down payment, homes selling for $625,000 would be the maximum price that allows the deduction of all mortgage interest.

The plan also establishes a $10,000 limit on state and local property taxes, which is particularly relevant to the Texas tax structure. In return, the legislation roughly doubles the standard deduction for individuals from $6,350 to $12,000 and from $12,700 to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Here are a few facts to keep in mind as the debate wages on.

Percent of Texas home sales under and over $625,000

Texas home sales over and under $625,000

Houston knocks one outta the ballparkHouston knocks one outta the ballparkBryan PopePope
​​​That was some World Series, wasn't it?​ My guess is nobody in Houston got much sleep last night.

No doubt the 'Stros huge win over the L.A. ​​​​Dodgers​ went a long way toward boosting the spirits of many Houstonians—and Texans, in general—who are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

With that in mind, Gulf Coast housing markets are the focus of our latest Texas Housing Insight report, which was posted on our website​ this morning.

According to the report, the Texas Department of Public Safety estimated that over 270,000 homes were damaged in the state's five Gulf Coast metropolitan statistical areas. Of those, about 71,000 are currently uninhabitable.

Clearly, this put more pressure on the already tight housing supply. Center Research Economist Dr. Luis Torres, who co-authored the report with research assistants Wesley Miller and Bailey Cuadra and Chief Economist Dr. Jim Gaines, said it also increased demand since 71,000 households were in need of residences.

"Given that Houston alone accounts for nearly a quarter of the Texas housing sales each month, the impacts of Hurricane Harvey will likely reverberate through the state-level data," Luis said.

Houston sales surged 31.8 percent, recovering completely from the previous month's decline and accounting for a quarter of the statewide September increase. That helped offset 4.5 and 3.6 percent contractions in Austin and Dallas, respectively. Sales fell 1.1 percent in San Antonio and were flat in Fort Worth. Texas as a whole had a 2.6 percent increase in sales.​​​​​​

For the record, here's a breakdown of the damage to Gulf Coast homes.
Gulf Coast homes damaged by Harvey
As defined by FEMA, “affected” structures sustained some damage but are habitable without repairs. “Minor” includes structures that are damaged and uninhabitable but will be habitable within 30 days after repairs. “Major” includes structures that are uninhabitable and require extensive repairs that will take more than 30 days to repair. “Destroyed” includes structures that have sustained loss or damage to such an extent that repairs are not economically feasible.
An unusual requestAn unusual requestBryan PopePope
2017-10-26T05:00:00ZCenter News
​​​Tierra Grande magazine
​Every so often we get​ a welcome reminder of how much our constituents value our research. Usually that happens when we expect it. For example, when we're visiting with Realtors at the Texas Association of Realtors convention every fall, or when people visit our offices.

But we received a reminder recently that was a little out of the ordinary, and it caught us by surprise.

A couple of weeks ago, a woman from Houston called us. Her house had been flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Among the many things she lost were her copies of Tierra Grande magazine for the past three years, and she was hoping we could send replacements.

I imagine​ that for most people who'd just lost many of their worldly possessions, a stack of ruined magazines would've been the least of their concerns. But this caller told me she'd worked in real estate since the late '70s, and she's always relied on our magazine in her job. She said she frequently looks through back issues and shares information from them with her clients.

I assured her that we'd be happy to replace her copies of Tierra Grande back through 2015 at no charge. Now she was the one caught by surprise.

"But what about all the other people who call​ asking for replacements?" she asked. "That must get expensive."

I didn't say anything, but I did chuckle. There was a pause on the line, then she said, ​"I'm the only who's called, aren't I?"

I informed her that she was so far, but that we greatly appreciate knowing there are folks out there who benefit so richly from our research. By the end of the day, replacement copies were in the mail and on their way to her.

By the way, should you ever lose back issues of Tierra Grande magazine, all of the articles are available on our website. You can read them online or print them for free.
Three haunted Texas properties that'll make your spine tingleThree haunted Texas properties that'll make your spine tingleHayley RiederRieder
Public Facilities

​​​​​​​If there's one thing Texans love, it's a good ghost story. With Halloween creeping up on us, we thought we'd celebrate some of our favorite haunted Texas real estate.

The Grove is an 1861 home in Jefferson, a small East Texas town around 40 miles northeast of Longview. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Texas Registered Historic Landmark. At first glance, you may mistake the building for a cozy old home. But this private residence is home to more than just the living.

Some call the house one of the most haunted locations in the Lone Star State. The chilling ghost stories date back over a century. The first sign of paranormal activity was in 1882 after T.C. Burke purchased the home. He and his family moved out after only a month. 

Prominent specters in the home include a wandering lady in white and a man rushing through the garden as if late for an appointment. A rascally ghost in the den is particularly fond of the ladies.

In La Grange stands a beautiful Victorian Gothic building now home to the city's visitor center and chamber of commerce.

The former Fayette County jail in La Grange, Texas. 

The former Fayette County jail housed many infamous "guests" during its time, including two members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang. But it's rumored that some visitors never left. 

The most disturbing of the apparitions is the Widow Mary Dach. The mother of three was accused of killing a farmhand who helped her after her husband's death. Sentenced to death in 1933, Mary was to be the first woman sent to the electric chair, but she starved herself to death before the penalty could be given. The suicidal spirit is said to haunt the halls of the historic building.

Fortunately, not all Texas ghost stories are sinister.

The USS Lexington, a decommissioned aircraft carrier harbored in Corpus Christi as a floating museum, is home to a friendly ghost. Up to 200 visitors have reportedly seen this white-uniformed, blue-eyed young seaman.

"Charly" reportedly died on the ship after a Japanese Kamikaze attack off the coast of the Philippines on Halloween in 1944. But the sailor is no haunting figure. Reports claim the seaman is a "polite young man" who shares his knowledge of the ship with visitors.

It may be a coincidence, but the Lexington's nickname has long been "The Blue Ghost." The Japanese Navy reported sinking the aircraft carrier four times during World War II. Japanese sailors believed that the ship was able to return from the grave.

There are so many more Texas ghost stories, but we'll end it there. What's your favorite piece of haunted real estate? Let us know by tweeting to us @TexRec​ with the hashtag #HauntedTXRealty.  ​

Texas real estate licensees by the numbersTexas real estate licensees by the numbersBryan PopePope
2017-10-11T05:00:00ZCenter News

​​​Each month, the Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) posts the number of real estate licenses held and real-estate-related complaints under investigation.

I find the number of licenses (just over 178,700 in August) interesting because our funding comes from fees paid by licensees. But TREC goes a step further and provides a breakdown of those numbers, which gives us deeper insight into the people we serve. Here's how last August's numbers broke down:

  • Real estate sales agents, 131,824
  • Real estate brokers (individual), 33,215
  • Real estate brokers (business entities), 10,204
  • Real estate inspectors (apprentices), 138
  • Real estate inspectors (licensed), 141
  • Real estate inspectors (professional), 2,992
  • Residential services companies (home warranties), 46
  • Registered time-share projects,155

The commission had just over 1,600 complaint cases open at the end of August 2017. They received 519 new complaints that month. They closed 542.

Year to date, the vast majority of complaints TREC has received (30 percent) have involved sales issues (e.g., negligence, rebate, referral, earnest money).

As of the end of August, 83 percent of complaint cases were open no more than six months. Thirteen percent were open six to 12 months, and only 4 percent were open a year or longer.

By the way, if you want to dig deeper into TREC's operations, the commission makes it easy to do. Click here​​ for a list of their monthly staff reports, strategic plans, financial reports, and much more.


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