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      Boston Real Estate

      Boston Homes Hit Record Jump in January

      If you're looking to get ahead of winter and break the cold spell with some good news, look no further. There's plenty of rosy things coming out from the real estate sector, particularly at the beginning of this year, as home values increased in January, well above the national average, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.

      Homes in Boston and its surrounding areas rose by 8 percent year-over-year in January to $351,600, and 10.7 percent in the city of Boston to $418,300, faster than the national increase of 6.3 percent over the same period. Elsewhere near city proper, home values also increased dramatically: Brookline ($591,500), Cambridge ($541,800), Newton ($793,100), and Somerville ($435,800) surpassed their prior peak home values. In short, values in these communities are as expensive as they've ever been, so if you still want to buy, perhaps now is the best time ever before spring selling season arrives.

      What comes alongside this bit of news is no surprise, however. The biggest problem facing Massachusetts buyers right now is the lack of immediately available inventory which is the main culprit of why prices seem to not be stabilizing, and in fact, is escalating rapidly. As Boston is one of 13 of the 35 largest metro regions to have a falling inventory of available properties, the tightness in the number of homes for sale is likely helping to keep home value appreciation at a boil in the area, relative to the national pace. The number of homes listed for sale in the Boston metro was down 11.2 percent annually in January, the 27th straight month in which inventory in the area has fallen year-over-year.

      However, with more than a dozen mid- and large-scale developments to becompleted this year, inventory should rise back up, and could therefore taper down further increase in prices. This is precisely the reason why, if you're still in the market to invest, now until the start of the spring selling season is your best bet to get into the game. One caveat though: if you go in now, you will be faced with limited, yet choice listings; but if you wait until summer, you'll risk inflated prices. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It's all a matter guts, we say!

      Finally, and as if to prove to you that you're not alone if you make the decision to take a go of the current real estate climate, we're also proud to announce that alongside figures pertaining to home values in January, home sales have also soared to its highest level since 2007.

      In fact, single-family home sales in Massachusetts increased by 5 percent in January -- the highest number recorded for the month in six years. The surge, it seems, comes on the heels of two months of modest decreases in sales volume. January home sales in the Bay State increased to 2,728, up from 2,599 in 2013. The last time sales volume was bigger in January was in January 2007, when 2,953 houses were sold.

      Another thing to note about sales transactions for the same period is that there are perhaps more cash buyers now than ever before. In previous periods and in previous years, cash buyers traditionally accounted for a mere 10 percent. However, December 2013-January 2014 figures reveal that more than a third of all transactions in that period were cash deals.

      Condominium sales for the month also did well, rising to 1,144 in January from 981 in 2013, a 16.6-percent increase. This is the first January since 2008 where condo sales broke the 1,000 barrier. The median condo price in the Bay State increased by 24 percent to $300,000, the highest January median price for condos since data has available in 1987. In January 2013, the median price for a condo was $242,000.

      With reports from TWG and Zillow.

      America's Two Most Exciting Suburbs Are In Boston

      Generally, the words "exciting" and "suburb" are never uttered in the same breath. In fact, if you look at recent pop culture-particularly coming out of the 1980s-suburbs are set up to play the proverbial second fiddle to their bigger brethren. They're shining beacons of the boring life, where the biggest thrills include mowing lawns on the weekend and picking the kids up from school on time.

      Only that's no longer totally true.

      Though most Bostonians already know this, the city's life doesn't depend solely on the the streets of the City of Boston alone. Though there are tons and tons of developments happening right now within the great expanse of neighborhoods that compromise Boston - there are, more so, developments happening around downtown itself. In fact, if you were to look Boston as a whole, you might find that the city sleeps well within the hours of its operation, and come to the conclusion that nearby suburbs offer more to do at night than the city itself.

      That indeed seems to be the case, as a leading real estate website has just named Cambridge and Quincy as America's most happening 'burbs across all states of the country. The two 'burbs are also the only places in the Northeast that made it to the Top 10 list by Movoto. Here's the complete ten rounded down:

      1. Cambridge, MA 2. Quincy, MA 3. Berkeley, CA 4. Miami Beach, FL 5. Santa Monica, CA 6. Lakewood, OH 7. Jacksonville Beach, FL 8. Tempe, AZ 9. Santa Clara, CA 10. Evanston, IL

      WHAT EXACTLY MAKES THEM "EXCITING"?

      There were several factors that led to the pronouncement of Cambridge and Quincy on top. These criteria are deemed necessary in order to provide a lifestyle that does not restrict residents to home entertainment alone. In other words, each suburb in the US were subjected to a rigorous "lifestyle check" that provides options and opportunities to still live a city life, without necessarily being in the "hottest" zip codes. In particular, these criteria of factors narrowed down the results, closely considering other conveniences offered in cities near them:

      • Nightlife per capita (bars, clubs, comedy, etc.)
      • Live music venues per capita
      • Active life options per capita (parks, outdoor activities, etc.)
      • Fast Food restaurants per capita (the fewer the better)
      • Percentage of restaurants that are fast food (the lower the better)

      What Makes Cambridge So Cool?

      When most people think of Cambridge, they either a) picture classrooms full of students at Harvard and M.I.T. with their noses buried in books, or b) say "Hey, isn't that in England?" From now on, when we think of this Boston suburb, we're going to think "excitement."

      True, a big part of Cambridge's success in this ranking has to do with the fact that it's home to not one, but two top-tier universities. Its population of 18- to 34-year-olds is, as a direct result, a whopping 49 percent, easily clinching a 1st place win for the city in this criterion by nearly 6 percentage points. Cambridge was also in the top 10 overall for active life options, live music, and nightlife.

      Cambridge has one nightlife option for every 1,002 residents, and when they're spots like The Druid and The Comedy Studio, that figure gets even more exciting. The city also ranked in the top 10 for its low percentage of fast food restaurants compared to all dining options. This means your tastebuds will be subjected to fewer McDonalds and exposed to more A-grade eateries like Hungry Mother and Craigie On Main.

      What about quintessential Quincy?

      Excitement clearly runs in the Boston area family. Located not half an hour from our No. 1 most exciting suburb, Quincy is nevertheless far enough away that it has its own unique scene. It's one that, for instance, relies much less on a young population to get the fun times rolling, as its 13 to 34 crowd makes up a (much) smaller 27 percent of its populace.

      Despite the drop in our most exciting age group, there's still plenty to keep the days and nights hopping in Quincy. It placed fifth overall in terms of active options with spots like Olindy's standing out, and a respectable 25th for live music and nightlife. So, whether you want to belt out some questionably-in-key karaoke at Fuji 1546 or down a few pints at The Fours, you won't be wanting for evening activities. Plus, any town that has a restaurant called The Fat Cat among its huge 96 percent of non-chain dining spots gets a thumbs up from this feline-friendly blogging crew.

      So, if you're on the hunt for a new place that's close to Downtown Boston but gives you a better breathing room, you should definitely consider these two star suburbs that Metro Boston has to offer.

      The Case of Cold Weather, Hot Prices

      However true it is that the polar vortex has struck yet again, plunging the thermostat to deep freeze temperature levels once more, it seems that real estate has been resilient enough to thaw itself out just in time to prep for the spring season. And if that stands until summer, it would appear that this year will be yet again a banner year for home sales.

      DECEMBER NO LONGER A DEAD ZONE

      Traditionally, December is seen as a 'dead zone' for the real estate cycle. This however, is no longer true. In fact, home prices in the Boston area have increased in value by 3.6 percent compared to November 2012, and an across-the-board  increase of 8 percent compared to December 2012. If that isn't a clear enough indication of what is come for properties in Greater Boston, then we don't know what is.

      The number of 'hot leads' have also increased in the month of December 2013 according to both Trulia and Zillow, up almost 30 percent from the same month in 2012. In other words, more and more people seem to be eyeing - or at least inquiring about the purchase of a property in the coming months. This perhaps is a right move to gear up for any huge jumps in home prices that will surely seep in starting May, just in time for the highly-anticipated June, July, August and September selling season.

      Despite all of this, there is also a key statistic to consider: the inventory of unsold homes dropped nearly 20 percent from November to December. And compared to 2012, December 2013's inventory of unsold homes is 30 percent less that of the previous year. Take that, winter! This is a very huge plunge, and a vote of confidence to sellers out there who are considering the sale of their properties.

      NEW HOME SALES DISAPPOINT BUT STILL DRASTICALLY BETTER

      In a not-so sharp contrast with existing homes that sold and continue to steam roll through sales, December deals of new homes disappointed pundits and analysts alike. HOWEVER, before you blow out your horn about this, new home sales are still up from previous years. In particular, the total number of new homes sold for the year 2013 amounted to 428,000 - an increase of 16.4 percent compared to 2012, and is in fact the highest since 2008.

      December has traditionally always been a tough month for home sales in the Northeast, with frigid temperatures blocking house hunter's motivations. In total, new home sales fell by more than 36 percent compared with November of the same year. Our take on this: don't fret. Home builders aren't afraid of this, as builder confidence is at all time high, and in fact 84 percent of the 900 home builders surveyed nationwide say that 2014 will still be a good year.

      So, is it finally time to start the sales engine? We certainly think so.

      The Future For House Hunters

      The current real estate recovery is like a marathon. Last year, buyers and sellers sprinted out of the gates at full speed, fueled by low interest rates and affordable home prices. The press as well as social media were full of stories about limited housing inventories, bidding wars and multiple offers. In 2013, real estate was indeed very sexy and headline-worthy.

      As we move into 2014, it's clear we've only run the first few miles of this marathon. Last year's excitement will surely wear off, and there will be a lot less flashy magazine covers, posts, tweets or evening news stories about real estate. Most experts predict a slower, steadier, more even "pace" this year in most of the country, even as mortgage rates and home values inch up.

      However, all of this doesn't mean 2014 won't be as good a time to buy real estate. It helps to look at the bigger picture. Sure, we likely won't see interest rates as low in 2014 as we did in 2013. But to put that into perspective, interest rates were as high as 18 percent in the 80s, yet people still bought homes.

      As you approach buying a home this year, it helps to focus on the long term by keeping the following five best practices in mind. You might wonder why they sound familiar - that's because these were best practices for homebuying a generation ago. And they'll most likely still be practical when the next generation of home buyers sprints out of the gate.

      Buy when you're ready: Just because you didn't buy last year when the market was super hot doesn't mean you've missed out. Could you have gotten in when the rates were at their lowest and values near the bottom? Sure. But were you ready to buy then? Probably not. The main thing to remember is that you should buy a home when you can afford it, you have your financing and you've found a home that meets your needs. That will always be the best time to buy.

      Homebuying is a journey: Despite how quickly the world works today, you can't force a home purchase. It's not like buying a television or a laptop. A home is a much more expensive and somewhat complicated purchase. It's where you can feel safe and calm from the outside world, a place you can customize to your needs, and where you will make lasting memories. Because of this, buying a home comes with emotional and practical implications on top of the financial ones. Remember that a home is your place to live first and an investment second. Take the time you need to find the right home.

      Don't be driven by data: If you watch the nightly news or read news online, you'll hear real estate market predictions and numbers on a national level. And at any given time, you'll likely get conflicting real estate forecasts. A lot of information and data will come at you from many different angles - including social media. Don't take anything to be an absolute. Always keep your own goals and needs top of mind at all times.

      Real estate is local: The national real estate news headlines may be about multiple offers and bidding wars. But that situation may only be relevant to one part of the country or even to just a handful of cities. Meanwhile, the neighborhood where you want to buy a home still has distressed sales and is more of a buyers' market.

      All that really matters in real estate is what's happening in your own community. If you're interested in getting into the market, follow the local economy and housing markets. Go to open houses and learn. Get connected to a real estate agent who has "feet on the street."

      Go with your gut: There's no one who knows your financials better than you. You know your down payment amount, credit score, amount of savings and the upper limits of what you can afford to put toward homeownership every month. Apply what you know about your finances to your local real estate market. You know the neighborhoods, the commercial districts and the types of homes for sale. By merging these two, your gut will inform you on what's a good buy, when it's the right time to buy and how to approach a purchase.

      In 2014, stay focused on what you know, stay local, take your time and don't let outside forces sway your decision to buy a home. People have bought and sold homes for years, at higher prices and with higher interest rates. If you're in it for the long haul, consider yourself at mile 3 of a 26-mile marathon.

      Off-Season Home Selling Secrets

      Boston, fog, winter, selling secrets, off-season sales

      It's been said that spring and early summer are the best times to sell your home. Competition among buyers can be fierce during these warm months and for whatever reason, the data has consistently shown that homes sell for more in spring and early summer. Maybe there's something psychological to warm weather that entices buyers or maybe it has something to do with the fact that families want to settle in before the school year starts in the fall.

      Either way, it's not always possible to choose when to put your home on the market, especially in a complex market such as Boston. But while spring might be the busiest time of the year for real estate transactions, homes get bought and sold every season of the year. Here are some tips of the trade for selling your home in the off-season winter months.

      Staging for Snow: In many parts of the country it gets cold and snowy during the winter. In Boston, climate is essential since snow is prevalent. This said, make sure that you stage the outside of your home accordingly. Shovel the driveways and be sure to clear ice away from walkways and doors. Buyers want to feel safe and comfortable when they're looking around. This also applies to multi-family homes, as well as converted and condo'ed out units.

      Just because your grass is brown or your house is covered in snow doesn't mean you can't stage it successfully. Try to highlight the house with tasteful winter-themed decorations that are aesthetically-pleasing. Houses for sale in the winter tend to show especially well when they're decorated. If the holidays have passed, make sure to also take away those decors, since it'll seem like you're stuck in time. Instead, replace holiday decorations with neutral winter-themed items.

      Remember than the purpose of putting up these decorations is to create a warm feeling for buyers. It might even help your house seem more attractive than it would be in the warmer months. Make sure that you choose tastefully, though, ones that will appeal to a wide variety of buyers.

      Leave the Lights On: Once daylight saving time ends, it can get dark pretty early. Consider putting your outdoor lights on a timer. That way, when prospective buyers show up, the house will look bright and cheery instead of dark and dreary.

      You can apply the same idea to the inside of your house too. Make sure that the heat is on before buyers arrive and that the place is clean, smells fresh and is warm. Just like with your last job interview, first impressions are everything. This is doubly so for real estate, so you really want to "wow" buyers when they pull up to your house and walk inside.

      Stand Out From the Competition: During the winter and cold months, there may not be as many buyers but there also aren't as many sellers. Often times, off-season buyers need to move quickly, whether due to job relocation or major life changes, so be ready for them.

      In order to make your property stand out, consider adding a video to your listing or creating a small website to showcase your home. Sometimes freebies don't hurt either. If you know there's going to be someone touring the place, it won't hurt to leave out treats for them to enjoy whilst going around your property. Remember that you want to stand out and be remembered in the end. The average buyer looks at 4 properties before they make a final decision. So it'll be good for you when you've made an excellent impression since you'll likely to stump out the competition, as long as the property meets the buyer's wish list. In fact, with the market right now, you can even end up getting more for your property if you're willing to go that extra mile.

      Realtycheck: How Does 2013 Compare?

      The Greater Boston Association of Realtors just released their most recent market statistics for the city, with figures that highlight the changes in specific neighborhoods throughout the city on a detailed month-to-month and year-to-year basis. Like any report, this one packs a punch - specifically to certain areas which we've highlighted for you below:

      Tidbit Tells:

      • It seems that the median sale price for Boston single-family properties was up almost 18% from last year to $426,750.
      • The inventory of Boston condominiums for sales was down by about 1/3 or roughly 30% from 2012.
      • Boston condos seemed to turn over much faster in November 2013, down to 49 from 69 in 2012.
      • Counting all of 2013 up to November, the average days on market for Boston condos was down by 45%, or roughly about 45 days.
      Bulging Back Bay:
      • The number of single-family home sales in Back Bay spiked more than 200%, with year to date sales of $7,037,500 compared to $3.1 million last year during the same period.
      • Alongside the sales growing was the average days on market these properties lingered for, this year it was higher at 189 days, significantly disconnected from 2012's average days of market of zero.
      • However, it's an all together different picture for condos - average days on market this year (January to November) was at 55, down 42% from 2012's 55 days to sell.
      In Surprising South End:
      • Days on market for single-family homes was way down to 38, about a 50% difference from 2012.
      • 100% of listings in the South End fetched and closed for asking, or even higher in certain cases.
      • Median sales price for South End condos was at $995,000, almost 42% higher than last year's median sales price of $702,000.

      A copy of The Greater Boston Association of Realtors' Monthly Housing Report can be found here.

      Double Digit Rally in November & Millennium's Milestone

      House Price Increase Growth Diagram Boston International Real Estate BostonIRE BIREWith the holidays over and the new year starting to roll out, it does well to think and reflect about the past year's performance. In particular, homes in Massachusetts continued their upward trend in November, climbing 10.4 percent year-over-year and beating out other key metro areas.

      Nationally, the Bay State didn't do quite as well, with the national average home price increase pegged at 11.8 percent in November year-over-year. Though the price increase is still bullish, November's upward trend wasn't enough to unseat the state's record high levels of October 2005, being 12.5 percent off figures from that month. And though national prices edged out the states' property price increase for the month of November, Massachusetts is still closer to its peak levels compared to the nation's, which is 17.6 percent below its peak in April of 2006.

      Compared to the five states registering the largest year-over-year home price appreciation in November included Nevada ( up 25.3 percent), California (21.3 percent), Michigan (14.34 percent), Arizona (13.5 percent) and Georgia (13.3 percent), Massachusetts' dilemma with its quantity and quality of inventory suggests that the price increase could have been greater if there were more listings to play with, as this would have spurred price wars hence tipping the scale towards the sellers. Compounded monthly and compared year-over-year, home prices in Massachusetts have appreciated every month in 2013, spurring a steady yet more humble growth outlook for 2014.

      In Other News: Millennium Place's Milestone

      It looks like Millennium Place's marketing machinery has done a good job selling its inventory of available units. The developers, who have been aggressively marketing its units, is about to approach a "sold out" status, only after a year's worth of pushing the plush residence's properties. This, after Millennium Place circulated emails yesterday, announcing that everyone's favorite Downtown Crossing condo complex was nearly sold out.

      Given that Millennium's marketing only launched its aggressive push officially in October 2013 (though pre-selling started in the Spring), this feat is a testament to the city's real estate comeback, especially in that part of the metro's map, giving confidence back to the once "forgotten" neighborhood and to nearby developers and investors alike.

      According to the Millennium's email yesterday, only five of the condo complex' 256 units remain for the taking, consisting of 2- and 3-BRs above the eighth floor. A quick search of the building's inventory shows that the most expensive unit is the 1,505-square-foot on the 14th floor, which currently is asking $1,505,000.

      Contact us now to get a glimpse of the available units, and take advantage of them while they last! Call (617) 505-1781 now.

      A Look at Real Estate in 2014

      Though it seems like Spring is so far away from now, people and pundits alike are already thinking of how the year will be for real estate transactions. If you're thinking of selling, now is the best time for you to be organizing the steps you'll need to take to cash out on your property. If you're investing, perhaps the beginning of the year is the best time for you to find out what you're pre-qualified for, to help you narrow down your affordability search. This is especially important nowadays, when 2013 saw such a surge in home values across the country. The only difference - most everyone agrees - is that for this year is, prices will increase more slowly, giving property hunters a wider window to work with.

      First thing's first: everyone agrees that home prices will rise in 2014, albeit at a slower, more steady rate compared with the past two years. Why?

      Well, the housing recovery has pushed up home prices nearly everywhere. In the past year, home prices rose in 225 of the 276 cities monitored by real estate data and analysis agency Clear Capital. Prices nationwide increased  by 10.9 percent, pushing the median price for existing homes up by $30,000, to $215,000. For people who have waited to sell their home or refinance their mortgage, that's good news.

      Rising home prices in Boston enabled so many homeowners to refinance their first mortgage last summer and pay off a second mortgage that had an 8.2 percent interest rate (this is why foreclosures in the Bay State are at an all-time historic low).

      What's ahead In 2013, a sense of urgency drove traditional buyers hoping to take advantage of still-affordable home prices and historically low mortgage rates. Buyers found selection limited and were often forced into bidding wars with investors and other buyers who paid cash. Sellers reaped the rewards in terms of quick sales, often above the asking price.

      Almost half of the 276 cities tracked experienced double-digit increases in home prices, led by Las Vegas, with a gain of 32 percent (Boston at 10.6%). Such spikes reflected a continuing correction to the overcorrection. Buyers and investors rushed in to snap up homes with prices that had fallen too far. Homes continue to be affordable, despite recent run-ups -- on average, prices are still 31.5 percent below their 2006 peak. The percentage of monthly family income consumed by a mortgage payment (assuming a mortgage rate of 4.1 percent) is just over 15 percent, on average, compared with 23.5 percent in mid 2006, signaling property's affordability compared to peak levels.

      Market observers agree that home prices will rise in 2014, but at a slower, more steady pace compared with historical trends. Forecasts tell us that home prices nationally will rise by 3 percent to 5 percent in 2014, about the historical average. You can even say that in terms of notability, the most notable real estate trend for 2014 is that it will be "un-notable", since it will mostly be an echo of 2013.

      However, not everyone agrees that the year will be "un-notable". The Conference Board, a nonprofit association of businesses, found that the percentage of consumers nationally who intend to buy a home in the next six months was the highest since 2000. Adding to the push: pent-up demand among young people who, hampered by lack of jobs or insufficient income, have been living in their parents' basements or sharing apartments with roommates.

      As home prices continue to rise, more owners who had been underwater -- meaning that they owed more on their mortgage than their home was worth -- will emerge from the sidelines and start selling and buying homes.

      A sellers market three things about home sellers, real estate recovery, home buying, home equity, closing a property dealIn 2013, sales of existing homes and condos rose by 11 percent, to 5.29 million -- almost the highest level in four years. The National Association of Realtors expects sales to remain about the same rate in 2014. Sales nationally have increased across all regions and in all but one price category (properties $2 million and up), signaling a broad-based recovery.

      Although sales of entry-level homes (priced at $100,000 or less) have fallen by almost half in the past year in the West, they're still rising in the Northeast, where the job recovery has lagged behind other regions. Sales of homes priced between $750,000 and $1 million have risen the most.

      Nationally, the supply of homes for sale stands at five months' worth. (Months' supply is a measurement of how long it would take to sell everything at the current pace of sales. A market balanced between buyers and sellers has about six months' supply of homes.) The current level slightly favors sellers, but in many cities inventory is much tighter. For example, the Boston Metro area had about a months' worth of supply in September. Experts say the housing market has moved toward a shortage. This will persist through 2014.

      Why is inventory so low? In some cities, institutional investors have been scooping up properties to rent out. Plus, builders cut way back on new-home construction during the bust, and homeowners who bought at the top of the market are still reluctant to sell until they can recoup more of their investment. Some are still underwater, unable to pay off their mortgage with what they'd get for their home.

      In Boston, home prices didn't fall as bad as other metro areas during the economic downturn however, longtime homeowners reaped little or no profit when they sold during this time. But with the housing market's rebound, sellers' prospects have improved. Boston property owners last year saw the fastest turnover of their investments in years, with some homes going under agreement in just 2 days, influenced by the influx of "sleeping investors".

      However this influence will wane as the fewer properties become available (or even disappear!) in 2014. Once, whole the city was ripe for the picking, but investors must now dig deeper at the neighborhood level, exposing areas that are a little bit farther away from the city, but still close enough to be attractive. That's a job probably best suited to smaller numbers of local investors who know their markets best, or are working with highly-knowledgeable real estate agents.

      Where will new supply come from? Most people who list their homes for sale expect to buy another one, so it's a wash in terms of net inventory since they'll just be gobbling up one after another. According to the National Association of Home Builders, just less than half as many homes were started this year as in a normal market. The agency forecasts that a normal pace of housing starts won't resume until late 2015. Tight credit, land and labor, as well as rising costs for materials, are constraining builders.

      Distressed properties are still adding to the supply of homes nationally, but foreclosure filings are falling. In fact, Massachusetts saw its lowest levels of foreclosure filings in 2013. This is because fewer homeowners are losing their homes as the economy improves, home prices (and home equity) rise, and lenders agree to more short sales.

      And so, if we were to summarize our own outlook for real estate in 2014, we would likely advise bargain hunters to start their search early, and sellers to market appropriately. We are, after all, in the home stretch of getting through the economic crisis, and getting the buyer-seller balance back to the normal real estate sales pace is important to keeping the industry - including its participants (you!) - happy throughout the coming year.

      5 Home Security Tips: Holiday Season Vacation Checklist

      As the weather turns colder, snowbirds are locking up their homes and heading off for a more pleasant clime. Others are flying across the country to visit loved ones for the holidays, or simply escape the stresses that culminate the day after Christmas.

      Whenever you choose to get away, your pre-trip preparations should include home-security measures, so you won't leave the family's most expensive possession -- your home -- vulnerable to burglars.

      A few simple steps can mitigate the risk of a break-in -- and a home insurance claim: Do everything possible to make yourself a lousy target for thieves. How? By following this list of five things to check before leaving home.

      Ask neighbors to be your eyes and ears

      Alerting neighbors to your vacation plans and asking them to watch your property is paramount. Essentially, that's the best advice for low-cost home protection.

      People who are retired or who do not work outside the home are often the best lookouts. They are familiar with what is normal for your street and can take note when a van appears in your driveway.

      Instruct neighbors to call police if they see any suspicious activity. It's also wise to give a trusted neighbor a spare key to your house. That's better than leaving a key under the mat. Don't attempt to hide your spare key, thinking no one else will find it - that's one of the key reasons why "effortless" break-ins happen.

      Secure all doors and windows

      Doors and windows provide the main entry points for thieves, so make sure they are secure.

      Using deadbolts and locks that are pick-resistant, drill-resistant and able to withstand substantial force, such as kicking. These kinds of locks should be installed on all doors that are outside entry points, including the door from the garage into your home.

      Exterior doors should be made of wood that is at least 1 ¾ inches thick, or should be clad in metal. Sliding glass doors require a dowel in the bottom track to keep the door from being pried open. Anti-lift devices can prevent anyone from lifting the glass up and out.

      Securing windows depends on the type of window installed. For example, double-hung sash windows, with upper and lower halves that move up and down in tracks, require a key-locking security sash lock. Casement windows that swing open can be secured by removing the crank handle from the window's opening mechanism. Glass doors and windows should be shatter-proof and break-resistant.

      Remember to check all locks before you leave. Always keep in mind that the best locks in the world can't protect you if you don't use them.

      Don't leave a burglar-friendly yard

      Most homeowners know that well-trimmed hedges and bushes deny burglars a key place to hide before breaking in. But it's also important for home security to prune low-hanging tree branches, which can give thieves access to the second floor.

      If you'll be gone for a long period, make sure someone mows the lawn regularly or shovels promptly after snowstorms. An untended yard is a sure giveaway that no one is home. Good exterior lighting also can keep thieves at bay. Some lights can be programmed to turn on at dusk and off at dawn, while others have motion sensors, so they'll turn on when someone walks by them.

      Lighting should be focused on the entry ways into your home. The general rule is that lights always make burglars nervous.

      Arm the alarm and alert the police

      A good home alarm can keep burglars out of your digs. Even security signs and stickers can be effective deterrents.

      But an actual alarm system might earn you a discount on your home insurance. As with locks, alarms are only good if you set it before you leave. So before you pack your bags, be certain your system is working.

      We suggest doing a monthly test, or even run it a few days leading up to your vacation. Make sure it is communicating with the monitoring service. Do not underestimate the value of a good alarm system.

      If you live in a small neighborhood that's easily patrollable, you might also want to alert the local police department about your vacation plans. Many law enforcement agencies have a "vacation check" program, especially in Massachusetts. Officers or volunteers will make random stops at your home and do a cursory check.

      Do sweat the little stuff

      Overlooking the little things can negate all of the home security steps already tackled. They are easily undermined if you leave your porch light on 24/7 and you don't have your mail and newspaper deliveries stopped while you are gone.

      A buildup of papers on the front stoop or a mailbox stuffed to the brim can be almost as bad as putting up a billboard telling thieves that no one is home. Plus, an overflowing mailbox attracts another type of criminal. It is also a gold mine for identity thieves.

      We also suggest that homeowners put a few interior lights on timers. They can give the appearance that someone is home - this is always a deterrent to break ins.

      Finally - for those who are home insurance (theft) policyholders - remember to keep valuables such as jewelry and important papers in a secure location. Don't leave them in plain sight, such as sitting on the desk in your home office, that on its own could be a cause for the insurers not to compensate you.

      Boston To Hit Landmark Levels This Holiday

      As 2013 ends, we in the real estate industry have been fortunate enough to witness the city's climb out of the recession; in fact, it is well within striking distance of a pretty big landmark. By the end of next year, if not before, the Greater Boston area will have recovered all the real estate value that vanished when the bubble burst and Great Recession hit.

      How exactly is that about to happen?

      Well, this year has been a start of a rosy buying and selling season, that seems to spill over to 2014. You see, Boston-area real estate values peaked at $604 billion in 2005, before going on a six year soon that bottomed out at $502 billion in 2011. Since then, the real estate roller coaster has headed back up, and back up sharply, soaring $46 billion alone in 2013 to $568 billion. A repeat performance in 2014, or anything close to it, will bring us back to peak values in 2005, which stood at $604 billion.

      You have got to be wondering whether this recovery is all "too much, too fast". Some would even go as far as say that the startling speed with which prices are coming back seems "very bubbly". The $46 billion jump on real estate values across the Boston area we saw in 2013 eclipsed even the $22 billion run up from 2004 to 2005 as the housing bubble reached its peak.

      But with skyrocketing consumer confidence, increasing number of home repairs, record-low unemployment levels, and a staggering number of developments going up almost every month - the "bubble" might be just a bust of an idea. Nationally, prices are also rising and are well within the rates the city is experiencing.

      So, what's the take away? Well, there's two. If you still want to buy at bargain prices, there's no better time than scouting for some properties during the "off-season" period of the year (i.e. winter); you might not be getting a steal, but at least you won't be losing out riding the wave just yet. Lastly, another takeaway would be for all the sellers or at least those considering it: if you're out to make the most, there's no better time to sell than now. But if you're still uncertain about letting go, Spring is always only a few more months away.