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Have a Safe and Enjoyable Labor Day, 2014!

John Askins
Royce Realty - Houston


The beach is so central to California's identity that the right of surfers and sun lovers to access the sand is guaranteed in the state Constitution.

But now so many local landowners want to block public access to their chunks of the coveted coastline that there are several hundred alleged violations pending before state officials, including a highly charged case in which Vinod Khosla, a green energy billionaire, is fighting surfers over access to a beach south of San Francisco.

Property owners and the public have clashed over beach access nationwide. In Hawaii, for example, the state has sanctioned landowners whose overgrown vegetation blocked paths to the strand. But the fight has proven particularly rancorous in California, where two-thirds of the state's nearly 40 million people live in the counties that hug the coast.

"We've been involved in beach access cases in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Maine, Hawaii and Texas," said Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the non-profit Surfrider Foundation, "but California continues to stand out because of the intense development pressure ... in combination with the incredible popularity of the beaches."

Along California's 1,271 mile coast, from San Diego to the foggy coves near the Oregon border, there are more than 1,150 access points, or nearly one per mile, meaning points where the public is supposed to be able to reach the beach. They range from state parks to stairways to narrow sand paths. In areas where the public has "historically used private property" to reach the shoreline, the state creates access points through that property via easement or purchase of a sliver of land. Otherwise, the public is not supposed to cross private property.

In densely populated Southern California, however, only 60 percent of the access points are actually open to the public, according to the state agency that monitors access, the California Coastal Commission. The issue is most pronounced along the world-famous Malibu beachfront, a 23-mile-long strip north of L.A. that is home to many celebrities. Of 20 points that should be open in Malibu, say state officials, only nine are usable.

Some residents use tricks to protect their property – everything from security cameras to fake garage doors and traffic cones to block parking. Others just hire lawyers. Government officials and beach access advocates say that landowners are using the legal system to delay enforcement.

Linda Locklin, who leads the coastal access program for the Coastal Commission, said it comes down to "the private beachfront homeowner who wants to maintain a private beach feeling." Some, she said, "will use all resources to keep it that way."

Attorney Marshall Grossman, who is on the board of the Trancas Beach Homeowners Association in Malibu, said those cases are few and far between. He said the right of property owners deserves equal weight with the rights of the public.

"That's something that is lost all too often by those who claim that the beach belongs to them without distinguishing between that part that is owned by the public and the part that has been purchased, paid for and where taxes are paid each year by individual property owners," said Grossman.

In the most famous Malibu battle, entertainment mogul David Geffen tried to block the public from his beachfront property. When Geffen purchased the property, he initially agreed to an easement that would allow beachgoers to reach the oceanfront. Later, in a protracted and unsuccessful legal struggle, he tried to block access. Now the public can reach the beach via a gate next to his home.

'Bureaucratic Overreach'

The highest-profile current case, however, is unfolding far to the north, on Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay.

Entrepreneur Vinod Khosla made billions by cofounding the computer firm Sun Microsystems, and has since poured some of his profits into green energy ventures, and some into Democratic Party coffers. He contributed $1 million to a pro-Obama SuperPAC in 2012, and last year hosted a fundraiser at his home in Portola Valley, south of San Francisco, in which attendees paid $32,400 to have dinner with the president.

He also spent his wealth on an 89-acre parcel overlooking Martins Beach, a stretch popular with surfers. His new purchase included a private road off of the Pacific Coast Highway that provided the only direct access to the beach. Because of California law, the family that had owned the property for the previous century had permitted surfers access to the beach via the road, and had also built a parking lot and charged surfers from $2 to $10 to use it. For decades, locals used the lot and enjoyed the beach.

But after Khosla purchased the property for more than $30 million in 2008, he wanted to do things differently.

San Mateo County warned Khosla that he would need to maintain the beach access provided by the previous owners and mandated by the Coastal Commission. Khosla sued the county, and lost.

In 2010, after complying with the county's wishes for two years, Khosla permanently locked his gate, blocking the road and the parking lot. He added security guards and signs reading "Beach closed, keep out."

In late 2012, a group of surfers ignored the no access warnings, walked down the road and paddled out into the waves. When Jonathan Bremmer and four of his friends came out of the water, they were arrested by San Mateo County Sheriff's Office deputies.

Prosecutors promptly dropped charges against the so-called "Martins Beach Five" for criminal trespassing, but the incident sparked civil litigation and legislative action. Bremmer, who said that he had surfed at Martins Beach in order to test the law, filed suit against Khosla, alleging that Khosla was violating state law by blocking access.

The Surfrider Foundation filed a second suit accusing Khosla's Martins Beach LLC of failing to seek permits necessary to change the access through the property that had been allowed by the previous owners. Khosla is fighting both suits.

"If it came to a discussion about it, then I would win," said Bremmer. "But it turns out that I'm not the one with billions of dollars."

Khosla scored a legal victory late last year, when a judge ruled that Khosla was not violating the law by blocking Bremmer and the other surfers from his property because of special land rights on the specific tract of land that dated back to its pre-statehood Mexican owner. That ruling is currently under appeal.

Khosla, who declined to be interviewed on camera by NBC News, has said through his attorneys, on his Martins Beach LLC website and in the San Francisco Chronicle that he is simply protecting his freedom in the form of his private property rights and is the victim of "bureaucratic overreach."

"This dispute is about making sure private property rights are not abrogated by a runaway administrative body," said Khosla.

Khosla accused state and local officials of being unreasonable. "They have been taking an extreme view and don't want to compromise on anything," Khosla told the Chronicle. "One day out of the blue we got a letter from the county saying we had to have 1973 [parking] prices and be open 24/7."

In June, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill giving the Coastal Commission power to levy fines of up to $11,500 a day against any property owner who illegally blocks public beaches. Where many of these cases used to end up in court, the new law means those cases will be adjudicated by the Coastal Commission, which may mean they will be decided more quickly.

For now, Martins Beach is open to the public. But on a recent summer day at the beach, surfer Mike Wallace told NBC News he knew his years of enjoying the local waves may end if Khosla prevails in court. "It's really ironic that somebody with those kind of green venture capital credentials is trying to close a beautiful spot like this," said Wallace.



Real estate practitioners in vacation spots across the country say the market for second homes is hot as buyers grow more confident given signs of growth in small businesses.

The median vacation home price is down from a peak of $204,100 in 2005, but agents in some locales say prices are beginning to spike upwards as the distressed inventory is all but depleted.

Vacation-home buyers are snapping up higher-priced properties, although Jennifer Calenda of Michael Saunders & Co. in Southwest Florida says prices will not necessarily rise after the labor Day weekend. But with inventory hitting lows in Sarasota, Manatee, and Charlotte counties, she says buyers "are saying 'we better hurry up.'"

Inventory is so scarce in some markets that some real estate professionals report multiple offers; and with prices probably at the bottom, Trulia economist Jed Kolko says people ready to make a cash purchase or who can qualify for low mortgage rates should strongly consider buying now.

source:  Investor's Business Daily

Interior designer Vicente Wolf’s new book, Lifting the Curtain on Design, says simply, "White can do everything. Painting a room white simplifies the environment. It brings it to its essence."

Wolf, who has spent most of his career trying to expand small places in New York City, relies on white strategically throughout an apartment. His approach could work in properties elsewhere.

"I almost always use different shades, different finishes. That's what gives it depth. Even if you were to use the same color, it would read differently in different light," Wolf says.

The color white emphasizes the furniture and the art in a room. "Let's say you have 81/2-foot ceilings, flat walls and no detail at all," Wolf says. "You put an 18th century chest in the room, and suddenly you have a different sense of architecture."

source: Orlando Sentinel
The latest  economic reports included some good growth grooves for the unofficial end of summer. Second-quarter gross domestic product growth was revised to more than 4%, the durable goods new order rate rose to the highest level in its history, and an index of consumer confidence returned to territory not seen since October 2007. 

However, a pullback in personal spending, a slower growth rate for personal income, and a decrease in new home purchases introduced a beat of caution.

Consumer confidence continues its rise for fourth month

The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rose in August for the fourth consecutive month to 92.4, up two percentage points from July's 90.3. Its highest level since October 2007, the index also exceeded economists' expectations of 89.

In addition to their overall confidence, consumer confidence in the number of jobs also rose. Those responding that jobs were "plentiful" increased 2.6 percentage points to 18.2%, while those categorizing jobs as "hard to get" declined 0.3 percentage points to 30.6%.

However, expectations for income growth were down 2.2 percentage points to 15.5% in August. In addition, more consumers expected their incomes to fall, 11.9% compared with 11.1% in July.

"As consumer confidence continues to grow and household fundamentals continue to improve, consumer spending should be a larger contributor to growth for the second half of the year. However, headwinds do remain, with wage growth being the one of the major threats," said Vanguard economic analyst Ravi Tolani.

Personal spending stalls and income growth slows

Personal spending in July contracted 0.1%, the first time since January that this rate has decreased. According to economists' consensus estimates, the rate was expected to grow by 0.2%. A 0.7% decline in spending for durable goods, including motor vehicles and parts, was a key driver for the overall drop. Purchasers also pulled back on nondurable goods, such as food and energy; that spending decreased 0.2%, compared to a 0.2% increase in June.

Personal income grew .2% in July, half of the .4% rate of consensus estimates and more than half below the .5% it grew in June. The increase was the smallest in 2014. While income growth slowed, the personal savings rate increased to 5.7% of disposable income, up from 5.4% in June.

New home sales wilt again in July

Sales of new homes declined for a second consecutive month, the Commerce Department reported. In July, the seasonally adjusted rate was 412,000, down 2.4% from June's upwardly revised rate of 422,000 and below economists' expectations of 430,000.

The rate has gyrated during 2014. From a high point in January of 457,000, it dipped to a low of 403,000 in March, rebounded to 454,000 in May, and then declined again during the past two months. However, year-over-year sales were up 12.3% from 316,000 in July 2013. At current sales rates, a six-month supply of new homes was available for purchase.

The average sale price for new homes rose almost 2% in July and was up 3% on a year-over-year basis. At the end of July 2014, the average new home price was $339,100, while in July 2013, it was $329,900.

Builder confidence as measured on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index rose in July for the third consecutive month, up two percentage points to 55.

The economic week ahead

Economic reports scheduled for release next week include: the ISM Manufacturing Index and construction spending on Tuesday; factory orders and the Federal Reserve's Beige Book on Wednesday, productivity and costs, international trade, and the ISM Nonmanufacturing Index on Thursday; and the employment situation on Friday.

source:  Vanguard Group


One result of the Fed's quantitative easing program has been continued low interest rates which have helped the average American to save more than $3,000 a year, according to a USA Today analysis. 

Interest payments on mortgages have contributed to some of the largest savings. USA Today reports that mortgage interest payments have fallen 30 percent since peaking in 2007. 

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Americans spent 5.8 percent of their after-tax income paying interest on mortgages, credit cards, car loans, and on other debts — the smallest share since 1977.

Indeed, interest payments have fallen drastically on debt. Interest payments averaged $469 per month at the end of last year compared to the $728 per month peak in 2007.

source:  USA Today


In the Center for Housing Policy's Paycheck to Paycheck study, researchers reveal the gap between wages for workers in the vacation industry and the costs of housing in more than 200 U.S. metro areas. 

"One of the most overlooked aspects of this recovery is that for many workers, incomes are not rebounding in step with local housing markets," said CHP senior research associate Maya Brennan, co-author of the report. "Even in a strong sector like travel and tourism, wages have not kept pace with the rising costs of renting or homeownership." 

Paycheck to Paycheck: A Snapshot of Metropolitan Housing Affordability for Travel and Tourism Workers details trends in housing affordability for workers in five jobs: waiters and waitresses, automobile mechanics, housekeepers, flight attendants, and front desk managers.  Of those five, only flight attendants earn an average wage high enough to afford the mortgage on a median-priced U.S. residence.  Workers in two of those jobs — housekeepers and wait staff — are unable to afford the typical rent on either a one- or two-bedroom apartment in any metro area. 

"The continued improvement in housing markets across the country is good news for current homeowners...however, the turnaround in housing prices — driven by investors in many markets — along with the still-tight mortgage market, has kept it very difficult for moderate-income families to afford to buy a home," noted CHP Director Lisa Sturtevant. "There is a fundamental tension between a housing recovery and housing affordability.  The solutions are higher wages or greater access to affordable housing."



To see the speed of demographic change in Texas, look no further than its largest city — Houston. Only 40 percent of the city's population is non-Hispanic white, and by a Rice University count, it's the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America.

"Houston is an immigrant magnet," says Glenda Joe, a Chinese-Texan community organizer whose extended family came to Houston in the 1880s.

"Texas looks like me. I'm half-Chinese; I'm half-Irish," she says. "I also do business; I work with universities; I also ride horses. That's what Texas is."

At about 35 percent of the population, Latinos make up the second-biggest group in Houston after non-Hispanic whites or Anglos, according to Census numbers. But Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing group — doubling between the 1990 and 2010 census to about 7 percent.

"There is no majority group here, not even close," says Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist who studies Houston's demographic change. He and his research partners put together the analysis that gave Houston the title of most diverse metropolitan area in America. If you look at the four major ethnic groups — Anglo, black, Asian and Latino — all have substantial numbers in Houston, with no one group dominating. It comes closer to having an equal balance of each group than you would find in New York or Los Angeles.

The city's transformation to an international megalopolis happened quickly, and only within the past few decades. As the metro area shot to nearly 6 million people, 93 percent of all that growth was non-white.

"Houston runs about 10, 15 years ahead of Texas, 30 years ahead of the U.S., in terms of ethnic diversity and immigration flows," Emerson says. "So it is fundamentally transformed in a way that all of America shall transform."

Jobs fuel the transformation. The energy industry remains a huge player, but there's also the Texas Medical Center, burgeoning biotech and a bustling shipping port. Despite crippling humidity, long commutes and a reputation for refineries, Houston's cheap land, affordable homes and low barriers to doing business have lured immigrants from all over.

"You are here to make your fortune; you are here to move ahead in the world. You are about making things happen. There's no way that you could be a leader here in this community and not recognize that," says Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is a minority among politicians. She's the only female mayor among the top 10 most populous cities, and she's one of the only openly gay politicians, period. And she's learned a few lessons about governing a place where different cultures combine.

"Too often what happens in a state capital or in Washington is that it is about parties and partisanship, not about the practical realities of running something. Cities have to run," Parker says.

For her, running the place means embracing the sociological situation. Houston is remarkably practical that way. Just ask seventh-generation Chinese-Houstonian Glenda Joe.

"It's inexorable. The change in terms of leadership, the change in terms of how we look — it's inexorable," Joe says.

source:  NPR


Home owners may find higher electricity costs are taking a bigger chunk from their wallet. The average price of electricity to residential customers reached its highest point in May than in the past two years, increasing 3.4 percent year-over-year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In May 2012, customers were paying an average of 11.90-cents per Kilowatthour nationally. Flash-forward to May 2014, customers are now paying 12.84-cents per Kilowatthour.

The New England region has seen some of the largest price increases year-over-year. Prices in the region have soared 11.31 percent in the past year. The Middle Atlantic had the second highest year-over-year increases at a 5.53 percent increase from May 2013 to May 2014.

The seven most expensive states for electricity costs are:

  • Hawaii
  • New York
  • Connecticut
  • Alaska
  • Vermont
  • Rhode Island
  • New Hampshire

Meanwhile, in these seven states you can expect to pay some of the lowest costs for electricity:

  • Washington
  • Idaho
  • West Virginia
  • North Dakota
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Montana

source:  BUILDER online


The priciest ZIP code in the country boasts a median home price of more than $4.5 million, according to a list by Forbes that tracked home prices of more than 20,000 ZIP codes nationwide to determine the most expensive areas. 

Appraiser Jonathan Miller, chief executive of New York’s Miller Samuel, told Forbes that he’s seen an increase in listings that fall under the luxury bracket this year. “It’s not that we’re seeing prices rise, it’s that we’re seeing more activity,” Miller told Forbes. 

Here are the five priciest ZIP codes in the country, according to Forbes. 

1. Alpine, N.J.: 07620 

Median home price: $4,550,000

2. Atherton, Calif.: 94027

Median home price: $4,295,000

3. Sagaponack, N.Y.: 11962 

Median home price: $3,595,000 

4. Hillsborough, Calif.: 94010

Median home price: $3,499,000

5. Beverly Hills, Calif.: 90210

Median home price: $3,469,891

source:  Forbes