These 4 colors can be the kiss of death when selling your home

Published: Feb 28, 2017 11:10 a.m. ET

A fresh coat of paint is a fairly inexpensive way to refresh the look of your home; the average exterior paint job costs about $2,600, while interior paint costs $1,660, according to Home Advisor. But choose the wrong shade and you could wind up regretting it later. Paint your home with a weird color either inside or out and buyers might turn up their noses, even though repainting is a relatively easy fix.

Fears of hurting a home’s selling price are likely one reason why many homeowners play it safe when it comes to paint colors, especially for a house’s exterior (restrictive HOA rules, which affect 20% of Americans, might be another). Favorite exterior color combinations include white and gray, beige and taupe, and slate and black, according to the 2013 National Home Color Survey.

Neutrals also win inside the home. Hot interior paint colors for 2016 include grays and shades of white, along with natural-looking greens. The love for neutral or natural shades extends to buyers. When Zillow Digs analyzed photos of 50,000 recently sold homes, they found those with rooms painted in certain colors tended to command higher selling prices than expected. Homes with creamy yellow or wheat-colored kitchens, light green or khaki bedrooms, dove or light gray living rooms, and mauve or lavender dining rooms sold for $1,100 to $1,300 more than properties decorated with less popular colors.

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“A fresh coat of paint is an easy and affordable way to improve a home’s appearance before listing,” Svenja Gudell, Zillow chief economist, said. “However, to get the biggest bang for your buck, stick with colors that have mass appeal so you attract as many potential buyers to your listing as possible. Warm neutrals like yellow or light gray are stylish and clean, signaling that the home is well cared for, or that previous owners had an eye for design that may translate to other areas within the house.”

1. Off-white or eggshell

Shades of white might seem like a safe bet when you’re at the home improvement store, but they aren’t guaranteed to be a big hit with buyers. Homes with off-white or eggshell kitchens sold for $82 less than Zillow estimated they would. Instead, people loved kitchens with a coat of wheat yellow paint on the walls, which boosted a home’s selling price by $1,360.

You don’t have to give up gallery-white walls entirely, though. Painting a room white isn’t always a bad choice, especially if the space has great natural light, according to designer Emily Henderson. But if a space is small or dark (like some kitchens), white walls can make a room look “dead” and “flat.”

2. Dark brown

Dark brown walls didn’t resonate with buyers in Zillow’s study. Bedrooms painted dark brown sold for $236 less than expected, while using the same shade in a bathroom lowered the selling price by $469. The color is so disliked by some people that the Australian government considered using it on cigarette packaging to make smoking less appealing, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. (They went with a brownish olive green instead.)

3. Terracotta

It’s not quite as jarring as traffic cone orange, but even a more muted terracotta shade could depress your home’s selling price. Homes with living rooms painted the same shade as an inexpensive flower pot sold for $793 less than Zillow’s estimated price. Light gray was the preferred color in that room.

The negative reaction to orange walls isn’t too surprising, considering surveys have found it’s one of the least-liked colors in the world. (Blue is the most popular color by far, followed by red and green.)

4. Slate gray

Gray is trendy color right now, but all grays aren’t created equal. While dove or light gray was a hit in living rooms, helping to boost a home’s selling price by $1,104, dark gray was a dud. Paint your home’s dining room a slate color and you could lose $1,112 when it comes time to sell. Instead, buyers favored shades of mauve, eggplant, and lavender in the dining room.

By: MEGAN ELLIOTT (This article originally appeared on Credit.com.)

50 ways house hunters can get ready for homebuying season

Jeanine Skowronski, Credit.com7:07 a.m. ET Feb. 24, 2017Home planning. Calculating and checking.

Spring will very soon have sprung — which means “For Sale” signs will be in full bloom — and if you’re hoping to buy a home this year, get ready for a competitive market. Thanks to the Federal Reserve’s continuing rate hike teases and some economic improvements, you can expect to run into plenty of other people while looking at prospective properties.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take now to help make sure your offer on a new home is as competitive as this year’s hot market. Here are 50 ways soon-to-be house hunters can get ready for the home-buying season.

1. Make a wish list

“You’ll waste a lot of time if you don’t know what you want,” Brian Davis, director of education for Spark Rental, says. “Know how many bedrooms you need, which amenities are must-have, and which are desired but not mandatory. Most of all, know your price range and stick to it.”

2. Consult your co-buyer

If you’re purchasing the home with a loved one “make sure you both are on the same page,” Patrick Gobin, associate broker with District Realty Team at New York Living Solutions, says. “Conflicting opinions makes the process very difficult. Example: One person wants a ranch and one person wants a two-story house.”

3. Determine your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)

Here’s how. Remember, a DTI (how much you make vs. how much debt you’re already paying off each month) over 50% or more will severely limit your ability to borrow.

4. Check your credit score

Because it’s going to play a major role in whether you can actually get a mortgage and what rate you’ll pay. You can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com. (P.S. If you have a co-buyer who’ll be on the mortgage, they’ll want to check their credit, too.)

5. Pull your credit reports

There may be a few things you can do to clean up your credit before you apply for a mortgage. Plus, you’ll want to make sure there aren’t any errors weighing your scores down. Speaking of which …

6. Dispute any errors

Credit bureaus have 30 to 45 days to resolve disputes and remove inaccurate information, so if something’s amiss, now’s the time to address any errors that you may find.

7. Pay down credit card debt

Getting rid of big balances can improve your DTI and creditworthiness — and relatively soon, because issuers generally update the credit bureaus on your charges each month.

8. Continue to tidy your credit

You can find 11 solid ways to soup up your credit here.

9. Decide on a down payment

A 20% down payment is considered ideal, since any amount below that will have you paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI). There are programs out there that help homeowners get a mortgage with much less down, which brings us to …

10. Know your loan programs

Most homebuyers have two options: a conventional home loan bought and sold by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or an FHA loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Veterans can also consider VA loans, which notably feature a 0% down payment.

11. Research rates

Your interest rate is going to play a big role in determining your monthly payment, so be sure you know what current rate ranges are being offered — and what you’re likely to qualify for, based on your credit.

12. Prepare for property taxes

Yup, you’ll have to pay the government each year for your land — and you’ll want to get an estimate of how much money you’re likely to owe, since it will seriously affect your housing budget. You can find a full explainer on property taxes here.

13. Account for closing costs

They generally run between 3% and 5% of your purchase price, depending on location and other factors.

14. Feed your emergency fund

Because buying a home is going to put a serious drain on your bank accounts and you don’t want to be down to your last dollar. Experts generally recommend you have at least six to 12 months of income as backup reserves.

15. Figure out how much home you can afford

This will be affected by your DTI, credit scores, prospective interest rate, down payment, property taxes and whether you’ll be paying for private mortgage insurance, among other things.

16. File your taxes

Your mortgage lender is going to ask for at least two years’ worth of tax returns, so it’s a good idea to shore up with Uncle Sam — and print out or download your returns from two prior years.

17. Pick a neighborhood

“Location is one of the most important factors when finding a home,”  David Lewis, owner of full-service real estate agency The Lewis Group, says. “It’s also the only one that you can’t change. Knowing what areas you’d like to live in prepares you to make the jump when it is time to move forward with an offer.”

18. Study the market …

You’ll want to know what you’re in for: What’s the median home price in the area you’re looking to live? Are you in a buyer’s or seller’s market? Are solid homes going for more or less than list price?

19. … & the process

Oh, if only the homebuying process were so simple. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of steps between finding a home and closing on it. Get familiar with all the major steps: pre-approval, home inspection, home appraisal, title search, closing, etc.

20. Hit the open houses

A little window-shopping can do a house hunter good. Visit some open houses ahead of your formal search to get an idea of list prices in your preferred area(s) — and whether your list of “wants” is realistic with your budget.

21. Get a pair of flip-flops … 

… or some other kind of easily removed shoes, because most homeowners or listing agents are going to ask you to leave your kicks at the front door.

22. Search for schools

“If you have kids, carefully examine the school choices and districts available to you,” William Mayben, CEO of consulting firm Wm Mayben and Associates and former division president for National Public Builders, says. There are sites online that can help you pinpoint school ratings, crime rates, etc.

23. Calculate your potential commute

The length of your commute can seriously impact the enjoyment of your home. How much time are you realistically willing to spend in the car, on the bus or on a train?

24. Find a realtor

You don’t have to use one, but there are certainly benefits to enlisting the services of a reputable Realtor or agent. Case in point: They can give you insights into the current market and walk you through the homebuying process. Bonus: The seller pays their commission.

25. Consider a specialist

“If buyers are looking for ranches in the Stoney Gardens neighborhood, they should find a realtor who specializes in (drum roll please…) ranches in the Stoney Gardens neighborhood,” Davis says. “The best Realtors know a specific segment of the market inside and out, and can help borrowers who want that specific market segment.”

26. Vet mortgage lenders

Similarly, you’ll want to research reputable mortgage lenders or brokers in your area to determine who you’re comfortable doing business with.

27. Request recommendations

For Realtors, mortgage lenders and other members of the homebuying team you’ll need to onboard.

28. Get pre-approved

Once your credit is as good as it’s going to get and you’re ready to start your search, be sure to get pre-approved for a mortgage. That’ll signal to a seller and/or Realtor you’re a serious buyer worthy of their consideration.

29. Rate-shop

Just be sure to do so in a 30- to 45-day window, since that’s how long most credit scoring models will group applications for like-financing (in this case, mortgages) as one inquiry.

30. Ready your bank statements

Because your lender is going to ask for them. Note: You’ll probably be expected to turn over brokerage or retirement account statements for at least the last two or three months as well.

31. Request your pay stubs

Most of us direct deposit, but your lender is going to ask for at least two months worth of pay stubs. So, if you’ve been setting and forgetting, now’s the time to track down where to access your paycheck details.

32. Think about what other paperwork you’ll need

Getting some gift money? You’ll have to document it. Just got a new job? Be prepared to turn over more employment verification. Ask your mortgage lender for a full list of all the major paperwork needed to get your loan fully approved.

33. Find an attorney …

Some states mandate a real estate attorney prepare your purchase contract — and, even if yours doesn’t, it can be a good idea to bring one on board. Be sure to research reputable real estate attorneys in your area and get an idea of what they’ll charge you.

34. … & an inspector

Yes, the bank is going to do the appraisal, but the buyer is responsible for the home inspection. You’ll need to find a certified, licensed professional and cover their bill.

35. Learn what to look for …

It’s not just about your wants and needs. When viewing a potential home, you’ll want to, among other things, check out the furnace, hot water heater, roof, plumbing, windows, insulation, HVAC systems, basement, closets and that old shed all the way at the other end of the yard.

36. … & what to ask

Per our partner Realtor.com, you’ll want to ask about the home’s sales history, any renovations the seller has done, monthly maintenance and utility costs and other things.

37. Brush up on your (offer) letter writing skills …

Because in some markets you’ll want to write one to the seller when you make your bid. And, yes, while price is most important, a solid offer letter can be the difference between getting or losing out on your dream home. Good offer letters are generally personal, specific and positive.

38. … & your negotiation tactics

They’ll certainly come in handy.

39. Keep those credit cards on ice …

Big changes to your debt levels can damage your DTI and your credit score — and your lender will check up on those items before closing. That’s why you’ll want to be extra careful about what you’re putting on your plastic.

40. … & cool the credit inquiries
Those can also ding your score and jeopardize your mortgage. So, sure, that Home Depot credit card could come in handy — but it’s a good idea to wait at least until after you close to take the retailer up on their offer (and then be sure your finances can handle it).

41. Determine your DIY IQ

“Assess your abilities as a handyman or handywoman,” Gobin says. “Buying a fixer-upper can be very expensive if you can’t even change a light bulb.”

42. Get a work estimate

If you are looking at a fixer-upper or find a home that has all your major needs, minus one (say it’s missing hardwood floors), research what a particular project is likely to cost you. That’ll help you establish the true cost of the prospective home.

43. Think about resale value

Even if you’re looking for your forever home, because, well, life happens. That’s why it’s good to at least consider what you’d have to sell the home for in order to recoup what you’re offering to pay. (Remember, too, when you go to sell, you’ll be the one paying a Realtor’s commission.)

44. Scout it all out

“Visit your target house during different times of day,” Mayben says. “Pay attention to neighbors’ dogs, traffic, parking, the neighborhood feel and culture. Where are parks, shopping, bike or hike trails, coffee shops, etc.?” Asking neighbors about noise and other possible pain points can also pay off.

45. Map out your move …

Research moving companies — and the costs associated with them — to assess whether your cash reserves are adequate.

46. … But hold off on the home furnishings

Especially if you’re planning to put those on a credit card. The last thing you want is those big balances throwing a monkey wrench into your credit — and your closing date.

47. Start staging your current home

“If you have to sell in order to buy, start working on that end of the deal,” Mayben says. “Maximizing the sell price maximizes the replacement price. Declutter your home for sale. Sell, donate, or otherwise get rid of things you don’t need. Develop a clear sense of your house value.”

48. Get ready to compromise …

“Keep in mind the perfect home doesn’t exist unless you build it yourself,” Gobin says.

49. … & be disappointed

Because you may not get the first, second or even third home you bid on. “Multiple offers are very common these days,” Dorothy Mazeau, sales representative at Royal LePage RCR Realty, says. “You may be competing with one, two, or even twenty other buyers. Houses frequently sell for thousands over their list price.”

50. Stay the course

Still, don’t get discouraged and/or recklessly ramp up your budget. “Know what you can afford and stick to it,” Mazeau says.

Buying a home is a huge financial commitment. If you’re looking for ways to reduce the red ink post-purchase, check out our roundup of 50 ways to stay out of debt.

Jeanine is the managing editor at Credit.com. Prior to joining us, Jeanine’s work was featured by TheStreet, Newsweek, Business Insider, Yahoo Finance, MSN, Fox Business, Forbes, CNBC and various other online publications. Follow her at @JeanineSkoMore by Jeanine Skowronski

Great NEWS! If you’re planning on buying a home in Seattle AND have a heroine habit, now is the time! ;-)

Seattle will be first in nation with site for legal heroin use

JAN 27, 2017

It’s official: Seattle plans to be the first city in the United States to open a site for users to inject illegal drugs – without police intervention.

Officials are making plans for two safe consumption sites — the first would open in Seattle and the second would be elsewhere in King County.

The sites, called Community Health Engagement Locations, are a response to an opioid crisis in the county, health and law enforcement officials said on Friday afternoon. The recommendation came from a task force examining opioid dependence in the area.

More people in King County enter detox for heroin than alcohol, the task force said in a statement. Opioid overdose deaths have also increased. People working at these locations would provide drug users access to health care and treatment.

Seattle and King County are opening these sites on their own — they won’t be asking the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for permission.

In theory, the DEA could storm the safe consumption site, said Sheriff John Urquhart.

“I can’t control the federal government. I can’t control the DEA,” he said. But he said that’s unlikely.

“I’m confident they will understand the needs of this community, just like they have with marijuana,” he continued. “We don’t have the federal government coming in here and making marijuana arrests. I’m not the least bit worried about what the DEA is going to do when the safe consumption site opens.”

Urquhart said his deputies won’t go after someone going to the site.

Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the University of Washington, said 87 percent of drug users in Seattle and King County polled said they would use a safe consumption site.

“It does not increase drug use; it does not increase harm in communities,” Banta-Green said. “It decreases public drug consumption.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, head of Seattle/King County Public Health, added: “This is a local health emergency. We are using an extension of a known, proven and accepted harm-reduction campaign, needle exchanges.

“We are treating this as a local issue, and we don’t routinely – and we haven’t in this case – sought any other authority; we don’t think we need to.”

Next steps are figuring out the exact locations for the sites and funding. County officials will also be looking at what services and staffing are needed.

Seattle is patterning the safe consumption sites after one in Vancouver, B.C. That one is beholden to the Canadian federal government, unlike this one, which is an entirely local effort.

‘Panicking’ Seattle home buyers, spooked by rising interest rates, rush to buy’

Originally published December 5, 2016 at 5:04 pm Updated December 5, 2016 at 6:57 pm

As Seattle home prices continued to soar to unprecedented  heights over the past couple of years, homebuyers still had one savior: very low mortgage interest rates. But even that bright spot is starting to disappear, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a home.

Rising mortgage rates that have swept the country since the election are whipping the local housing market into a frenzy during a normally slow time of year. Some buyers are finding out that they can no longer afford the same house they were approved for just months ago. And others who had been kicking the tires are frantically rushing to seal the deal on their new home, fearing interest rates will rise even higher.

New figures released Monday showed that the number of homes sold across King County soared nearly 30 percent in November compared to a year ago, with similar spikes in Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties. It was the Puget Sound region’s busiest November for home sales in 11 years.

 Price spikes have continued: King County saw a 10 percent year-over-year rise in the cost of the median single-family home, with even bigger gains in Snohomish and Pierce counties, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. The region was just ranked as the housing market with the fastest rising prices in the country, according to the Case-Shiller home price index.

The future isn’t looking much brighter: The number of new-home listings hasn’t kept pace with the strong sales. That’s left fewer homes available on the market, which has the potential to make competition even more fierce.

Realtors say they typically see a surge in home sales when interest rates spike, but the recent rise happened so swiftly it caught many buyers off guard and created a sense of urgency.

“They’re definitely panicking,” said Kimberly Johnston, a managing broker for John L. Scott on the Eastside. “They’re trying to close as fast as they can. I think it is fear-based for a lot of buyers. They do understand their buying power will change if (rates) continue to pick up.”

She’s seen buyers sweetening deals to speed up the process by waiving inspections or putting down more money up front.

Leah Harrison and her husband were anxious to close on a house they were eyeing in Snoqualmie after hearing interest rates could go higher. They locked in their loan interest rate Friday, concerned rates would rise again over the weekend. To secure the deal, they added an extra $10,000 onto their offer for the house.

“It makes a huge difference for us. We don’t have a huge budget so we’re really concerned about getting that rate locked in,” Harrison said. “I was afraid that the longer we wait, and the more we negotiate, the higher the rate could go.”

The average interest rate for the popular 30-year mortgage has risen about half a percentage point just in the past month and now tops 4 percent.

That may not sound like a lot, but it can add up. For the typical King County house, that higher interest rate would add an extra $45,000 to the cost of a house over 30 years. And that’s assuming a “standard” 20 percent down payment — for homebuyers who can’t afford that, the added interest would hit them even harder.

In today’s ultracompetitive local market, where about three-fourths of homes are subject to bidding wars, rising mortgage rates figure to give an even bigger leg up to those who can put in all-cash offers or afford a bigger down payment. And those relying on a mortgage to pay off nearly all of their home purchase might have to look for a cheaper house to be able to afford the costs over the long term.

“Maybe originally they were looking for 2.5 bathrooms, now maybe they’re willing to go with less,” Johnston said. With interest rates, “even half a point is a huge deal to them.”

For others, it simply means more money spent for the same house. Relocating from the East Coast, Paul Berman recently agreed to buy a house in Everett without locking in a mortgage rate and then was stunned after the interest rates continued to climb after the election.

“I ended up playing the waiting game, hoping things would calm down,” Berman said. “They really didn’t.”

He wound up waiting until last week to lock in a deal. He lessened the blow by paying more upfront — buying points to lower the interest rate — but figures the added fees, altogether, will cost him up to $10,000.

“For me, money I was planning to use for furniture or decorating went for closing costs very quickly,” Berman said. He wouldn’t have even bought the house had he known the higher interest costs were coming — but by the time they did, he had already committed to the deal and put down a deposit. “I felt like I had my feet to the fire.”

Kyle Bergquist, a mortgage-loan originator in Seattle for Guild Mortgage, says while people aren’t happy about the rising rates, the housing market is so competitive there’s often not much buyers can do about it.

“There’s not a lot of time for playing rates in the Seattle market,” Bergquist said. “If you get your offer accepted, there is maybe a two-week window” to close.

The interest rates could also affect the boom in refinancings by buyers who have been taking advantage of lower rates. In the third quarter of this year, before the election, the Seattle metro area saw a 56 percent rise in home refinances compared to a year prior, among the fastest growth in the nation, according to Attom Data Solutions, the parent company of RealtyTrac.

This is usually a boring time of year for the housing market — sales typically plummet around the holidays and prices tend to dip a little compared to the spring and summer as fewer people go out home shopping.

But 2016 hasn’t been a typical year for the housing market. The latest shock wave came after Donald Trump’s surprise win helped set off a series of economic events that led to higher treasury yields, which pushed nationwide mortgage rates to their highest point in 1½ years. Rates are still relatively low, though, compared to the historical average.

At the same time, the Federal Reserve next week is expected to increase its benchmark interest rates, which could indirectly impact mortgage rates.

Home costs locally are still a bit below their record levels reached this spring, but have not fallen in the past month, in contrast to the usual late-year slump.

King County’s median single-family house cost $550,000 in November, the same as a month before and up 10 percent in the past year. In a break from prior months, prices rose faster in the suburbs than in Seattle. The pricey area of West Bellevue saw prices soar 35 percent, the most in the region.

The median house cost $615,000 in Seattle and about $759,000 on the Eastside. Each region in the county saw prices increase except for Mercer Island.

Home values grew even faster in neighboring counties, rising 14.3 percent in the past year in Snohomish County, to just under $400,000, and 15.1 percent in Pierce County, to about $288,000.

In Kitsap County, home prices gained 9.2 percent to about $283,000.

 Mike Rosenberg: mrosenberg@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2266; on Twitter @ByRosenberg.

Wave of good results buoys new port alliance

Originally published August 6, 2016 at 8:00 am Updated August 6, 2016 at 12:26 pm
Crews work at the Port of Tacoma in 2015. Now, with Seattle and Tacoma ports operated together under the Northwest Seaport Alliance, this is known as the South Harbor. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)Crews work at the Port of Tacoma in 2015. Now, with Seattle and Tacoma ports operated together under the Northwest Seaport Alliance, this is known as the South Harbor. Seattle’s seaport is now called the North Harbor. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
Seattle and Tacoma ports combined container operations a year ago, replacing zero-sum competition with cooperation.

First things first. The seaport of the Port of Seattle is now called the North Harbor. At the Port of Tacoma, it’s the South Harbor.

This renaming, used by everyone from port commissioners to line employees, is more than symbolism as the Northwest Seaport Alliance marks its first year. It shows how far the two ports have come from decades of blood-sport competition to joining operations.

Thus it was appropriate that the first mega-container ship to visit the Alliance, calling at the North Harbor, was named the Benjamin Franklin.

After American independence was declared, this Founding Father said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

While British gallows didn’t await the rival Puget Sound ports, declining market share most assuredly did, and was likely to get worse.

The Alliance, agreed to in 2014, gives equal voting power to each port commission. Neither port nor county “lost,” an important element to securing cooperation.

John Wolfe, the capable boss of the Port of Tacoma, was named chief executive of the Northwest Seaport Alliance. His top operations deputy, Kurt Beckett, came from the Port of Seattle.

“This has never been done before,” said Connie Bacon, president of the Port of Tacoma Commission. “What the two ports have done is new. There was no book about how to do it. Now we can look back and see it’s a working success.”

Indeed, no modern precedents exist for two large, rival ports to willingly combine container operations. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, dating to 1921, is the closest analogy, but the seaports weren’t equal at the time and the entity now encompasses much more than container traffic. Authorities in Georgia and Virginia were established top-down by state legislatures.

John Creighton, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, said, “Going into any new venture where you had fierce competitors, we expected many more hiccups.” Yet they were few.

 “The commissions are working well together,” Creighton said. “We took a year and a half to hammer it out. That let commissioners and staff build trust and confidence.”

While one snapshot does not signal a turnaround, the combined seaports saw their best month ever in June. They also performed better than California ports last year and are receiving new traffic with the end of container service to Portland.

Combined, the Alliance markets itself as “the fourth-largest container gateway for containerized cargo shipping between Asia and … the Midwest, Ohio Valley and the East Coast.”

It also connects to the second-largest concentration of distribution centers along the West Coast. Bulk, breakbulk (cargo as separate pieces), project/heavy-lift cargoes and vehicles are also major operations.

 Sliced another way, in the Journal of Commerce’s 2015 rankings of inbound and outbound traffic, the two harbors constituted the sixth-largest container port in North America.

Hanging together brings advantages beyond ending the zero-sum game of competing for container lines.

 For example, when the Grand Alliance and Hamburg Sud lines left Seattle for Tacoma before the Alliance was formed, it was a painful loss for Seattle. With the agreement, capacity issues in Tacoma — oops, the South Harbor — were fixed by moving some of the container vessels to terminals in the North Harbor.

The “trip to the bottom” price competition, as Bacon calls it, is over. She calls the Alliance “a very good financial outcome for both ports. Now we can deliver best possible service at market rate or better.”

A new operations center keeps watch over both harbors, terminals, road and rail connections, and outreach to the large web of stakeholders. For example, if a bottleneck appears, the ops center responds. It measures efficiency and reliability.

The Alliance is also better able to make strategic investments. The North Harbor has one terminal that can handle megaships. South Harbor’s Terminal 4 is undergoing $141 million in improvements, with four cranes that can handle two megaships at once. Terminal 5 in the North Harbor — scene of Shell drilling-rig protests — is being reconfigured to take two big ships simultaneously.

In addition, the combination has allowed the Alliance to speak with one voice to cities and the Legislature on such issues as transportation.

This was a nick-of-time coming together. The Alliance was formed before the big drop in shipping brought about by slower growth in Asia and the consolidation of shipping lines. But when a rebound comes, so will the megaships. And the Alliance intends to be ready.

Although the wider Panama Canal is open, Wolfe said he expected little effect in the short term. “My take is that beyond our local market, our market is the Upper Midwest and Ohio Valley. (It’s) more challenging to serve that through the Panama Canal. More costly, too. So we don’t feel as threatened. Our primary competition is the Canada gateways.”

In addition to Vancouver, B.C., the fifth-busiest North American port, Prince Rupert boasts the shortest sailing distance from many points in Asia and a straight shot to the Midwest on the Canadian National Railway.

I’ve never bought the notion that Seattle’s port is analogous to San Francisco and on the way out, while Tacoma is comparable to Oakland, as the region’s viable port. San Francisco was done in by a variety of factors, including the shift to moving seaborne cargo by containers.

As long as we have the 10,000-mile supply chain, both the North and South Harbors are needed. They are the foundation of trade that supports 40 percent of the state’s family-wage jobs.

And thanks to the Northwest Seaport Alliance, the region is in its best condition to compete in a long time.

Bertha’s on track, but this is the easy part

THURSDAY 23, JUNE 2016

Bertha’s making progress. Credit: WSDOT

At Nijo Sushi on Western and Spring, people eat lunch as the world’s largest tunnel boring machine chews the earth directly beneath them, making its way toward South Lake Union.

None know it’s down there. When they learn, none care. One hadn’t ever heard of Bertha. “Hi, Bertha!” said one woman, waving at the ground.

For all the issues around Bertha, apathy is a Christmas gift for WSDOT and tunnel contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners. The tunnel should be done by now. But it’s faced a two year delay, its repair resulted in one of the world’s most precarious elevated highways to settle, and created a really big sinkholein the ground (250 cubic feet big) on the waterfront. Still, as the lunchtime diners picked through the pieces of their bento boxes, they weren’t nervous.

But since April, the tunnel has been merrily moving along, at a pace of just over 40 feet per day. As of this week, the machine has gone about 1,400 feet, doubling the distance it traveled before the it broke down. Tunnel engineers like to measure progress in tunnel rings, and as of Wednesday, the machine was averaging 7 per day, the pace it’s supposed to hit.

The head of STP, Chris Dixon, is supremely confident in Bertha. “The repairs to the [tunnel boring machine] were successful,” he proclaims.

However, there are still two phrases that should keep our tunnel-advocate mayor, Ed Murray, up at night: “overheating” and “losing ground control.” The former was what broke the machine the first time, although no one will admit why. The latter is the worst case scenario beneath downtown, with “losing ground control” meaning sinkholes.

Dixon says his crews have seen no ground movement at all, and that the machine is functioning at a normal temperature. But to be a little bit of a buzzkill, the machine just completed a relatively simple section of tunneling, going downhill (at a 1.6 percent grade) and moving through solid clay, which is ideal for this particular model of machine.

The future is a tad trickier. After flattening out for a little bit, the machine has begun to head toward the surface at a 1.4 percent grade. That will increase first to a 3.6 percent grade, then to 4 percent. Moving upward puts more stress on the machine, but Dixon promises the machine has plenty of capacity left in its tank and should be able to handle it.

Furthermore, the machine will move out of cushy clay and into sand and gravel. Bertha functions by maintaining pressure at its face. That’s harder to do in loose and variable soils. Again, Dixon says not to worry, that the soil shouldn’t be anything the machine can’t handle.

The machine has been refurbished by Hitachi Zosen, and there are a lot more eyes on how it’s functioning now than there were before. The state lost trust in STP, and now has their own people attending the project’s morning progress meetings.

But assurances aside, echoes of confidence in the past ring loudly in the ears of anyone who hoped to be driving underground by now. Dixon himself has said things will not go wrong and then they’ve proceeded to go wrong. Assurances from the project don’t mean as much as they used to.

Curbing Airbnb

Property owners react to proposed rules as Seattle struggles with housing affordability

BY  on June 9, 2016 at 10:39 am

(GeekWire Photo)
A billboard over Seattle’s Ballard Bridge touts Airbnb to homeowners. (GeekWire Photo)When Jordan Schwartz converted his basement mother-in-law apartment in Seattle from a long-term rental to an Airbnb listing, he more than doubled his annual earnings. The huge gains motivated him to turn another apartment, in a three-unit building he owns, into an Airbnb rental, as well.

“We converted one of the units to Airbnb last year, and immediately tripled our income,” said Schwartz, the CEO of Seattle startup Pathable. “As tenants move out, we’re converting the others as well. The second one comes online on Airbnb at the end of this week.”

Pathable CEO Jason Schwartz with the mother-in-law unit he rents on Airbnb.

Pathable CEO Jordan Schwartz with the mother-in-law unit he rents on Airbnb.But those plans may be thwarted by new regulations, proposed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Tim Burgess, aiming to put new restrictions on short-term rentals like those facilitated by Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO.

The proposal splits short-term rental operators into two groups — homeowners who occupy the properties they rent out, and property owners renting out residences they do not occupy. The latter group, Burgess and Murray contend, run their rentals more like a business than a “casual” way to earn extra cash.

If the city enacts the new regulations, short-term rental operators who don’t use their properties as primary residences could not rent them out for more than 90 days per year. The regulations would also require property owners and short-term rentals platforms to obtain new types of licenses. The proposal defines short-term rentals as non-hotel bookings of 29 nights or fewer.

Airbnb and HomeAway — the Expedia-owned vacation rental network that includes VRBO and similar sites — are the titans of the short-term rental industry. They have been growing rapidly in recent years, taking a considerable chunk of business from traditional hotels. The platforms, which allow property owners to rent out rooms and entire units to peers, comprise a new multi-billion dollar industry known as “alternative accommodations.”

Burgess and Murray are concerned that property owners, compelled by lucrative Airbnb listings, are taking housing inventory off the market by converting units into short-term rentals. They believe the proposed regulations will discourage landlords from operating hotel-like businesses where they would otherwise provide long-term rentals for residents. They hope curbing Airbnb and VRBO will help address Seattle’s housing affordability crisis, driven largely by the city’s tech boom.

The proposed regulations have ignited a major debate among Seattle residents and property owners.

Schwartz, for one, has mixed feelings about the changes. “This law would obviously hammer my rental property, but I get it, and don’t necessarily oppose it,” he said. “I’m taking affordable apartments off the market and renting them through Airbnb. That’s bad for Seattle. So, OK.”

Though the rules would have the desired effect on Schwartz, not everyone is convinced that they’re the right approach. GeekWire asked Airbnb operators in Seattle what they think of the proposed regulations and what impact they expect to see.

Impact on Airbnb operators

The intention behind the proposal is to reduce commercially operated short-term rentals while still allowing individuals to rent out their properties or spare rooms on a “casual” basis. But some homeowners say they’re discouraged by the new licensing system.

Betsy Bell rents a spare room in her West Seattle cottage.

Betsy Bell rents a spare room in her West Seattle cottage.Take Betsy Bell, a West Seattle resident who rents out her spare room because she’s on a fixed retirement income and enjoys the company. Because she is the primary resident of the property she rents, the 90-day limit would not apply to her. She would, however, be required to obtain a business license. Because Bell rents her spare room for more than 90 days — about 200 per year — she would also need to get a new Short Term Rental Operator license. Requirements for that include proof that the unit is a primary residence, liability insurance, a local contact number for guests, a signed declaration the unit is up to code, and compliance with safety ordinances.

“I feel the regulations are excessive for homeowners like me,” she said. “Widows who want to stay in their homes (like me) and may have fixed retirement income and want the occasional company a guest provides, might find getting a business license challenging. I can see the value of regulating people who have moved out of their houses and the whole place becomes a cash-generating mini hotel, and the people taking rental units out of the long term rental market in an apartment building.”

The licensing process is also discouraging for Eric Jewett, vice president at Seattle startup SkyKick. He and his wife bought their house in 2014, with the intention of renting out the basement mother-in-law long-term. They were dismayed to find out the property lacked the necessary permit for long-term rentals and posted the unit to Airbnb in 2015. He says that even though his property likely meets the requirements for a short-term rental license, the process is too onerous for individual homeowners.

“We also want the flexibility for our parents to stay there due to the upcoming birth of our son, so we do not want it permanently rented out,” he said. “Therefore, we would likely take it off the market if the restrictions become too burdensome.”

Despite these concerns, Burgess insists the new regulations are designed to protect casual short-term renters, while restricting commercial operations.

Tim Burgess.

Tim Burgess“It is clearly providing economic benefits to hosts,” the council member told GeekWire in an interview. “We don’t want to interfere with that but we do want to regulate commercial enterprises that are converting large numbers of Seattle homes to short-term rentals, instead of the long-term rentals that they are today. That’s where I think the city’s compelling interest comes into play. … How do we protect our long-term rental housing stock while at the same time allowing homeowners to earn some extra money by taking advantage of these rental platforms and the service they provide?”

It’s a difficult question to answer. The experiences of Jewett, Bell, and Schwartz show how challenging it is to protect one group, while restricting another, when everyone involved is using the same technology and model. But Schwartz’s case is one example of the intended law’s effect.

“If the regulations are passed as is, I’ll continue to rent my primary residence mother-in-law apartment on Airbnb, but take the three-unit apartment building units and convert those back from Airbnb units to long-term rentals,” he explained.

Regulation in Seattle

Between its liberal politics, booming tech and business sectors, and early adoption of disruptive technologies, Seattle poses unique challenges for enacting regulation. The debate over the proposed short-term rental rules (and past attempts to regulate gig economy services) demonstrates the conflicting interests of many of the city’s residents.

Greg Gottesman.

Greg GottesmanIn a satirical commentary on GeekWire last week, Pioneer Square Labs co-founder Greg Gottesman criticized the new rules by suggesting some extreme restrictions on other technologies.

“To curb obesity in our city, we should limit the number of OpenTable reservations Seattleites can make to one per month,” he quipped. “To lower the divorce rate in Seattle, we should cap the number of Tinder swipes within city limits to 15 per month.”

Many in the tech and business communities share Gottesman’s sentiments that the proposed regulations miss the mark. But residents squeezed by the competitive rental market are looking to Seattle lawmakers to provide some relief.

“There are an estimated four to five thousand Seattle homes, whether that’s a condo or an apartment unit or a private residence, that are being offered on these rental platforms today,” said Burgess. “Airbnb tells us that since 2009, their volume of users has doubled each year, so we know that this a large, growing sector.”

Burgess says that about 80 percent of short-term rental operators (those renting units for fewer than 90 days per year) won’t be affected by the changes. His intention is to target the 20 percent of property owners who are operating like commercial lodging.

Schwartz, one of those property owners, believes the new rules will help ease Seattle’s housing affordability woes.

“Free Market Me says, ‘Hey, it’s my property, I should be able to rent it however I want,’ but Social Justice Me says, ‘This is good for the community and in my enlightened best interest.’ Net-net, I’ve got to side with Social Justice Me,” he said.

Free Market Me says, ‘Hey, it’s my property, I should be able to rent it however I want,’ but Social Justice Me says, ‘This is good for the community and in my enlightened best interest.’ Net-net, I’ve got to side with Social Justice Me.Jewett, on the other hand, thinks the new rules are just for show.

“The proposed regulations seem to be purely a political ploy to attempt to demonstrate the city council cares about people struggling with rising rents,” he said. “I don’t think they will have any impact on rising rents, and there are many other actions the city could take that would have a larger impact.”

Privacy concerns

Under the new policies, companies like Airbnb and VRBO would be required to turn over some data to the city in order to obtain a new regulatory license. They would be required to provide names and addresses of rental operators and the number of nights the operator has rented on the platform, over the previous 12 months, on a quarterly basis.

Robert Callahan, Executive Director of The Internet Association, a non-profit lobby that fights online regulation, is concerned about the implications of this measure.

“Individuals have a valid expectation online that their information will not be turned over to government enforcement agencies without cause,” he said. “This proposal flips this tenet of privacy on its head, by requiring online platforms to regularly turn over information on their users just to do business in Seattle. This is an inappropriate approach to enforcement, with broader negative implications for the internet economy.”

Burgess says the data is no different than information businesses in Seattle are already required to provide. He does not believe the privacy concerns are germane to the issue.

“The city is not going to be seeking information on guests or people who are using the service and staying in a property that’s been advertised on Airbnb,” he said. “But like we do with any city business license holder, we’re going to know about the host or the operator.”

Still, the data requirement has some Seattle short-term rental operators, like Jewett, up in arms.

The proposed regulations seem to be purely a political ploy to attempt to demonstrate the city council cares about people struggling with rising rents. I don’t think they will have any impact on rising rents, and there are many other actions the city could take that would have a larger impact.“I am not aware of hotels or landlords being required to provide this information to the city and see it as a gross abuse of power and completely unnecessary,” he said.

Perhaps because Schwartz has operated his rentals commercially (rather than casually) all along, he isn’t uncomfortable with the city requesting this information from Airbnb.

“If I were operating a restaurant, I’m sure I would have to tell the city where the restaurant was to get the license,” he said. “So I don’t see a problem with the city knowing where I’m operating a lodging rental business.”

The Seattle City Council will hold its first discussion of the proposed rules at a meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee — of which Burgess is the chair — on June 15. The Council tentatively plans to vote on the proposal in late July.

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Monica Nickelsburg handles a variety of editorial roles, including social media, site production, and the Geek Life beat. Originally from Southern California, she studied journalism and history at NYU before landing in Seattle. She loves arts, pop-culture, and her adopted city. Follow her @mnickelsburg