Archive for September, 2007

Unsold homes hit 18-year high in U.S.

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Price index records biggest drop since 1991

Annette Haddad
Sun

Laurie Frank’s Hollywood Hills home was built in the 1920s and was once owned by the French entertainer and actor, Maurice Chevalier. What she has wrought, post fire, defies definition, just like the woman friends say.

Reports this week signalled worsening conditions for the distressed U.S. housing market.

The supply of unsold homes in the United States ballooned to an 18-year high in August as demand for existing homes fell to a five-year low, according to a report by the National Association of Realtors.

The Washington-based trade group blamed the onset of the global credit crisis last month for the drop in sales.

“The unusual disruptions in the mortgage market resulted in a fairly high number of postponed or cancelled sales,” said Lawrence Yun, the group’s chief economist.

Also this week, a separate report indicated that home prices were falling at an increasing rate.

The S&P/Case-Shiller home prices index, which tracks results in metropolitan areas and is considered a leading measure of U.S. single-family home prices, showed an annual decline of 4.5 per cent for the 12 months ended in July, representing the biggest drop since 1991.

Sales are expected to continue their descent, further weighing down prices, as the effects of the credit crisis continue to play out, other analysts said. Mortgage rates rose in the last month, and lenders have tightened their standards for qualifying borrowers, affecting the ability of the most creditworthy consumers to obtain loans.

“August’s sales do not reflect the full impact of the credit crunch, which hit financial markets in mid-month, since most sales were financed with loans approved weeks beforehand,” said Patrick Newport, an economist with research firm Global Insight.

What’s more, the supply of unsold homes is expected to grow.

In August, almost 4.6 million houses were for sale, a supply that would take 10 months to sell if no additional houses came on the market.

But that’s unlikely, in part because more and more homeowners who face onerous monthly payments on their adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, will put their homes up for sale or fall into foreclosure.

“Unfortunately, we think inventory is likely to rise even higher in the coming months as the sales pace slows further and upcoming ARM resets add to the inventory,” said Daniel Oppenheim, a housing analyst with Banc of America Securities.

Adding to the inventory woes are builders who have their own supply of newly built houses to unload.

Despite the use of deep discounts and incentives to woo buyers, Lennar Corp., the country’s largest builder by revenue, Tuesday reported a worse-than-expected third-quarter loss.

“Heavy discounting by builders, and now the existing-home market as well, has continued to drive pricing downward,” chief executive Stuart Miller said. The Miami-based builder took another huge writedown on its land holdings and said it would continue to trim its work force to control costs.

The company reported a net loss of $513.9 million in the three months ended Aug. 31, far worse than analysts expected, after having earned $206.7 million in the year-earlier period. Revenue fell 44 per cent.

“Consumer confidence in housing has remained low, while the mortgage market has continued to redefine itself, creating higher cancellation rates,” Miller said.

In August, total existing-home sales fell 4.3 per cent to an annual 5.50 million units in August, the realtors trade group said. That was down from 5.75 million in July and a 13-per-cent drop from the pace of sales in August 2006.

Los Angeles Times

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

 

High-def camcorder weighs in at 268 grams

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Gillian Shaw
Sun

Sanyo Xacti HD1000 digital camcorder

Spy Gadgets Micro-Camcorder

Kodak Easyshare All-in-One Printers

Sanyo Xacti HD1000 digital camcorder, $1,100

“Smallest” and “lightest” have to be among the favourite adjectives of the folks in tech public relations and why not? Who wants to be the only one at the party lugging around a brick-sized camcorder? Weighing in at 268 grams, the latest in the Xacti line records in full high definition MPEG-4 video with AVC/H264 video compression that lets it record 85 minutes of full HD (1920x1080i ) on an eight-gigabyte secure digital high capacity (SDHC) memory card or more than five hours on the lower 640 by 480 resolution. And it takes four-megapixel still photos. Of course smallest and lightest here counts only among consumer full HD digital movie cameras. If your needs are more furtive, read on.

Spy Gadgets Micro-Camcorder, $295

Here’s a camcorder so small it makes Sanyo’s Xacti HD1000 look like it’s on steroids. From spygadgets.com, it’s little enough to slip into a pack of chewing gum. It records up to 33 hours of video on a one-GB micro security digital card and its internal rechargeable battery recharges with a USB connection. One charge keeps it going for more than two hours. Unlike the Sanyo HD camcorder this one isn’t aimed at recording family birthday parties and holiday videos, but it could have a certain appeal to the amateur gumshoe.

Ion Audio TTUSB05, USB turntable, $150

Dust off those old vinyl records and plug Ion Audio’s next generation USB turntable into your computer to transform your record collection into digital form. Comes with MixMeister’s EZ Vinyl converter software that converts vinyl tracks directly to iTunes. Ion has also released the TTUSB10 in its latest generation USB turntables, at $250 a more deluxe version with extra features. The USB port lets you hook both these turntables up to either a Mac or a PC.

Kodak Easyshare All-in-One Printers, from $130 to $330

Coming in three versions, the lowest priced 5100, the 5300 at $230 and the 5500 at $330, Kodak’s new line of all-in-one inkjet printers promises to lower your ink costs. With sticker shock coming not at the price of printers but at the price of the replacement ink cartridges, Kodak is clearly hoping consumers will opt for its solution to printing photos and documents. The ink for these printers comes at $12 for a cartridge of black ink and $18 for a five-ink colour cartridge. Kodak puts the cost of a four by six-inch print at 13 cents using its Photo Value Pack.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

 

TechCrunch shows off the best of renewed ‘ Web 2.0’

Friday, September 28th, 2007

CLAUDINE BEAUMONT
Sun

Analysts, bloggers and venture capitalists are always on the lookout for the next Google, YouTube or Facebook, and one of their prime hunting grounds is California’s annual future- tech jamboree, TechCrunch. It’s the brainchild of Michael Arrington — blogger, technology evangelist, and serial entrepreneur — and Jason Calacanis, a self- styled “ entrepreneur in action” and venture capitalist. Start- up companies submit plans of their venture to the TechCrunch panel, who invite a few to showcase their products. Exhibitors gain publicity and exposure, as well as having the chance to talk to investors.

If this year’s TechCrunch was anything to go by, it seems to be boomtime again in the dot- com industry after the lean years that followed the first dot- com crash in 2001. The conference panel received so many “ great applications” from new companies that they doubled the number of exhibitors from 20 to 40.

The revitalized fortunes of Internet companies are due in part to the endless appetite for all things “ Web 2.0”, the term for the next generation of technologies that utilize social- networking, peer- topeer sharing tools, and user- generated content. Even respected technology blogger Tim O’Reilly called Web 2.0 a “ business revolution in the industry”.

Judging by some of the start- ups on show at TechCrunch earlier this month, the panel agrees. Web 2.0- based initiatives dominated proceedings, and some of the ideas were so innovative that you could almost smell the money that will be thrown in their direction.

Mint ( mint. com), which scooped the $ 50,000 US prize, is the perfect example. It’s a browser- based personal finance application that allows users to track their bank accounts, credit cards, and other spending in one place. Similar banking tools have existed before, but it’s the aplomb with which Mint does it that marks it out. It can alert you to upcoming bills, unusual transactions and low balances; it will also suggest alternative deals that could get you a better rate of interest.

Flock ( flock. com) is a social web browser which aggregates all your socialnetworking information into a single window, while doubling as a conventional browser. It will pull your friends’ Facebook profiles into a sidebar, allow you to share content between blogs or websites, and alert you when friends have updated their entries on Flickr, PhotoBucket, Facebook, etc.

TripIt ( tripit. com) has the potential to be the next big thing. If you’ve ever organized a holiday with friends, you will understand only too well the mountain of information you generate; the e- mails, itineraries, and alternative suggestions for flights or accommodation. TripIt is a travel info- dump: set up an account, email all your travel plans and confirmations to the dedicated address, and it will help you to build and manage an itinerary that can be edited and accessed by multiple travellers. It even embeds Google Maps of where you’re going, Wikipedia entries on cities and sights, and airplane seat advice from SeatGuru. I’ve been using the test version for a couple of weeks, and can honestly say I will never plan a trip without it again.

Orgoo ( orgoo. com) is also in beta, but it promises to integrate all your instant- messaging, video- conferencing, text messaging and e- mail into a single portal, or, as they put it, “ communication cockpit”.

 

Dead Can Dance

Friday, September 28th, 2007

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Identity theft – It’s worse than people think

Friday, September 28th, 2007

‘The truth is it may already have happened’

Frank Luba
Province

Surrey-based identity theft expert George Greenwood says that credit-card and debit-card fraud is just a small part of the problem

Canadians don’t have any idea how bad the identity theft problem is, says Surrey author George Greenwood.

“Most people have the feeling that they are careful, they do the right thing, so therefore it can’t happen to them,” said Greenwood, author of a new book called In Your Good Name.

“The truth is, it may already have happened and you don’t know about it,” he added. “It’s way below people’s radar.”

Greenwood helped draft a Surrey Board of Trade resolution calling on Ottawa to strengthen the Criminal Code against identity theft and patch loopholes against possession of other people’s personal information.

The resolution, unanimously approved earlier this month at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, also calls for the creation of a passport-like document for victims of identity theft so they could verify their identity if challenged.

Phonebusters, a police task force set up to target telemarketing fraud, received 7,600 calls from identity-theft victims who had lost more than $16 million in 2006.

But Phonebusters believes that figure represents as little as five per cent of the actual total.

The Canadian Institute of Mortgage Brokers and lenders reported that mortgage fraud jumped 400 per cent between 1999 and 2001, with fraud totalling $300 million in 2001 alone.

Greenwood himself wonders how there can be five million more social insurance numbers active in Canada than there are residents.

Greenwood said credit-card and debit-card problems are just a small part of the identity theft problem. A bigger concern is people coming into Canada and appropriating another person’s identity.

Anyone with your medical Care Card, for example, could get treatment that would go into your record — possibly complicating other treatment you might require.

Greenwood is also writing another book on the topic but this time he is collaborating with someone who committed commercial identity theft. “What he could do in a place of business will curl your hair,” he said.

In the meantime, Greenwood has four upcoming seminars on helping people prevent identity theft. The next event, which is free to the public, is Oct. 14 at the Pacific Inn in Surrey.

More information is available at www.itcanhappentome.ca

© The Vancouver Province 2007

 

B.C. sales for 2007 will tip over the 101,000 mark

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Nothing but blue skies

Ashley Ford
Province

A solid job market draws people west and they all need someplace to live, says Royal LePage

If you are in the B.C. housing industry, there isn’t a cloud to be seen on the far horizon.

The B.C. Real Estate Association revealed yesterday that more than 100,000 homes will be sold through the multiple listing service this year, only the second time in history that has happened.

Sales will tip over the 101,000 mark, but not match the record set in 2005, when 106,310 homes changed hands. The 10-year average is just under 78,000 units.

“Exceptionally strong consumer demand over the summer months has changed the outlook for this year from declining home sales to the second highest on record,” said Cameron Muir, the association’s chief economist.

“While eroding affordability is squeezing some potential buyers out of the market, the housing stock is increasingly diverse, providing a mix of home types that appeal to a wide consumer market,” he said.

Royal LePage weighed in with its own numbers yesterday, showing third-quarter sales were stronger than expected in Vancouver and Victoria. It’s all down to a vibrant, diversified economy, the real-estate company said.

That, in turn, has created a very solid job market that continues to draw people west and they all need somewhere to live, the company said.

Prices continue to rise but there appears to be little “sticker shock” and there are plenty of first-time buyers in the market.

The average residential price in B.C. will climb 12 per cent to $437,000 this year, but Muir said he thinks there may be some price relief next year.

“While home prices continue to face upward pressure, the rate of growth is expected to moderate,” he said.

The B.C. average price increased 18 per cent between 2006 and 2007 and is forecast to rise at a more modest eight per cent between this year and next.

While housing starts are forecast to decline seven per cent to 33,900 units this year — and another four per cent to 33,000 units in 2008 — multiple starts, the most popular housing product, will hold firm.

Multiple starts now comprise 62 per cent of all new residential construction in B.C.

In Vancouver, the highest price appreciation came for condominiums, which increased by 14.6 per cent on average to $419,750 from 2006 and 2007. The average price of a detached bungalow rose 11.8 per cent to $787,500, while a standard, two-storey house increased in value by 10.7 per cent to $879,000.

© The Vancouver Province 2007

 

Nat Bosa – local Vancouver builder holding off building in San Diego & Los Angeles for few years

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Derrick Penner
Sun

Vancouver developer Nat Bosa lays claim to bringing the highrise condominium to Orange County Calif., but has no qualms about putting the brakes on construction as the housing market falters there.

Bosa Development Corp.’s 28-storey twin-tower Marquee project in Irvine was the first highrise condo project within the county, Bosa said in an interview.

However, with Orange County being one of many American markets in a sales slump, Bosa added that he will wait to proceed with his next Orange County venture, a four-tower complex on a seven-acre site also in Irvine.

“I was supposed to start last year,” Bosa added, “but I’m probably not going to start them until the middle of next year.”

Bosa said San Diego, where he is also building condominiums, is also at the bottom of the real-estate cycle, and “I’ve seen quite a few of them since the ’70s.”

He is not alone. Other developers, including Canadian firms that went south of the border to jump into hot U.S. markets have also put projects on hold while times are tight.

Orange County‘s condo market exploded after Bosa Development started the Marquee project, the Orange County Register said this week.

However, the Register reported that some 17 of 37 proposed highrise condo projects might be delayed due to slumping markets.

Bosa added that the collapse of the American subprime mortgage sector has compounded some of the market’s difficulties, making it harder for buyers to get financing.

“Getting a mortgage three months ago was like a walk around Stanley Park,” Bosa said. “Getting a mortgage now is more like walking the Grouse Grind. It’s tougher.”

Joe Werner, chief operating officer of Intergulf Development USA Corp., a subsidiary of Vancouver‘s Intergulf Development Group, disagrees. Buyers with good credit can still get financing, he said.

However, Werner added that buyers don’t feel any urgency to jump into the Orange County market, especially pre-sale units, which is the reason Intergulf is holding off on construction of a 216-unit, 25-storey project in Long Beach.

Intergulf will “wait until it hits bottom before we proceed,” Werner said. “This is not the time to build. Things have slowed down quite a bit.”

Werner estimated that sitting on the Long Beach site will cost $600,000 to $700,000 a year in financing costs, but waiting a year or two to start construction on it “it’s not a big deal, in the overall scheme of things.”

So, instead of starting work on the Long Beach building in the summer of 2008, Werner said they will likely wait until the winter or the spring of 2009.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

 

BC homes sales to surpass 100,000 BCREA housing forecast (Fall 2007)

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

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Great sushi at moderate prices

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Sushiyama has expanded next door and the extra space is being gobbled up by customers

Mia Stainsby
Sun

Sushi bar at Sushiyama on East Broadway on a busy Friday night. Photograph by : Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

SUSHIYAMA

371 East Broadway, 604-872-0053. Open for lunch and dinner; closed on Sunday.

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

I’ve meant to write about Sushiyama for the longest time but it looks like they’re doing just fine without me.

Since I visited last in early summer, they’ve doubled their space, taking over a store next door, and still, the place is full. Now, at least, people don’t have to cool their heels wishing diners would hurry up and leave.

It’s a husband and wife operation (Francesca and Alex Shin) and they offer reasonably priced but fresh and tasty fare; the sushi is the mainstay.

They have about a half dozen specials made with fish from Japan — usually in the form of sashimi (blue fin tuna, red tuna, mackerel, baby yellow tail when I visited last) as well as a cooked appetizer. A sashimi plate with four pieces of fish is a modest $4.25.

There’s a long list of maki sushi but nothing gets out of hand when the chefs try something different — none of those overloaded rolls, which are so messy and unappetizing. One I liked was Sakura Roll, which had “soy paper” instead of the usual nori envelope; inside I found cucumber, shrimp, carrots flavoured in ponzu. Very nice.

A couple of others I wolfed down were the Super Calamari (squid, crab, avocado) and Mango Mango (mango, of course, tuna, lettuce and cucumber). The sashimi special that day was dazzlingly fresh — no complaints.

I like to try tempura at a new Japanese restaurant because good tempura batter is the mark of a good chef. Here it was light and crispy, as it should be.

The restaurant attracts a varied customer base. Near my table were three generations (including an infant) of a Japanese family; a young punk couple; two young women; and a corporate couple.

“When expanded, customer happy,” says Francesca, “because waiting, 20, 30 minutes.” Such patience says there’s food worth waiting for inside.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

 

Moroccan dishes learned at home, cooked for family

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Owners Abdel Elatouabi and Leo Fouad have conjured up a bit of Marrakech or Casablanca in dining haven in Gastown

Mia Stainsby
Sun

Melissa Ribeiro displays golden beet salad in a rose water and pomegranate vinaigrette, pine nuts and goat cheese and Brad Blake holds braised short ribs, seasonal vegetables and caramelized onions with raisins over saffron couscous at La Marrakech Moroccan Bistro. Photograph by : Stuart Davis, Vancouver Sun

LA MARRAKECH MOROCCAN BISTRO

52 Alexander St., 604-688-3714. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday; dinner from 5:30 on Saturday.

Overall: 3 1/2

Food: 3 1/2

Ambience: 3

Service: 4

Price: $$

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

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When the belly dancer approached, all a-jiggle, my husband pleaded urgently: “Trade places with me.”

I didn’t and she pursued and there he sat, a jaunty veil thrown over his shoulders, vociferously resisting entreaties to dance.

“C’mon! You’ve played to bigger audiences,” I hissed, referring to his abduction onto the Cirque de Soleil stage. I know belly dancers are part of Moroccan culture but this crowd wasn’t buying in. They ignored the dancer and the otherwise great ambience at La Marrakech Moroccan Bistro in Gastown.

Yup. Another great little food spot in Gastown (add to Jules, Boneta, So:cial of late) and we loved it despite the belly dancer (albeit a good one) and the Mad Max social scene on East Hastings that we wove through to get there. The restaurant, by contrast, is a cocoon of warmth and hospitality.

Owners Abdel Elatouabi (former owner of Bravo Bistro on Denman Street) and Leo Fouad have conjured up a bit of Marrakech or Casablanca in the former Jewel of India space.

Servers, dressed in traditional jabadors and fez, approach with elaborate handwashing gear (and sprinkle rosewater on your hands as you leave). The lights are low; Moroccan music fills the womb-like dining room. And a detail I appreciated — the cutlery didn’t go skateboarding down the slope of my plate smack-dab into the food as it often does these days.

The menu features the kind of dishes Elatouabi (the chef) cooks for his family, the dishes he learned from his mother and father, both food lovers. Appetizers run from $7 to $16 and mains are $15 to $25.

Couscous and tajine (stew) are what people know best of Moroccan cuisine, and you’ll find those here. But first, don’t miss Les Salades de Fez, a triplet of salads, including zaaluk (roasted eggplant), taktouka (grilled peppers) and matisha khiare (tomato cucumber). For a smaller refreshing starter, the golden beet salad in rosewater and pomegranate vinaigrette with pine nuts and goat cheese is tasty. Or for something more substantial, the bastilla d’djaj (braised chicken in saffron broth with almonds and orange blossom honey in phyllo-like pastry) and bastilla b’diala (marinated, dry-aged oxtail, braised with Moroccan spices and dried fruit on pastry) offer delicious tastes of Morocco.

I much preferred the stewy dishes to the more lightly sauced meat and fish. K’sksou royale (braised short ribs, vegetables, raisins over saffron) was tender and delicious and la casserole d’essaouira, with ling cod, mussels, prawns, scallops and merguez sausage in saffron tomato broth featured fresh, nicely handled seafood.

However, I wasn’t as keen about the pan-seared halibut with chermoula (overcooked, and the sauce was too light and thin for the dense fish) and while pan-seared duck breast with apricots and pistachios and carrot harissa sauce sounds like it’s full of flavour, it wasn’t.

For dessert, the m’hancha (pastry with almonds, orange blossom honey) was fine but I loved the accompanying fresh nougat and would have been happy were that the centrepiece. A matcha-flavoured financier with chantilly cream, raspberry sauce and pistachio praline was not remarkable.

What surprised us, though, was the Moroccan wine on offer (Bernard Megrez Kahina syrah grenache) with a concentrated flavour of black cherries. It was delicious. And to finish, you’ve got to try the lovely tea of crushed mint leaves (several varieties) and green tea.

 

© The Vancouver Sun 2007