Archive for December, 2010

The Mexico Quandary: Safety or Savings?

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

MICHELLE HIGGINS
Other

Tourists walk along the beach in front of Zazilkin, a hotel with rustic cabanas in Tulum, on the Yucatán Peninsula. Michael Nagle for The New York Times

WHEN Alex Trettin and his wife, Jenn, suggested to family and friends that they take a group vacation to Mexico, the reaction was mixed. About half of the group of 29 immediately signed on for the November trip to the Riviera Maya, south of Cancún, where they would visit Maya ruins, fish and lounge by the pool at an upscale resort for the bargain price of $150 a person a night. The other half hesitated, citing concern about Mexico’s continuing drug war.

“My aunt stated she hoped we didn’t have any issues with the drug cartels,” said Mr. Trettin, a Mexico-travel specialist in Tacoma, Wash., who assured everyone that the beach resort they were going to near Playa del Carmen was far from the violent clashes they had seen on television. Ultimately, they all went, but the concerns that some in the group expressed are indicative of the quandary many travelers face when they consider the safety risks versus the convenience and affordability of a vacation in Mexico.

While most of the drug-related violence has been in the northern border region of Mexico, far from the Maya temples of the Yucatán, the regional cuisine of Oaxaca or the beaches of Baja California Sur, violence has erupted in tourist destinations like Acapulco and the state of Michoacán, home to the famous monarch butterfly sanctuaries. Even Cancún’s safety was questioned earlier this year after eight employees of a strip club there were killed when a group of men threw Molotov cocktails into the building in an area not frequented by tourists.

To combat the perception that violence has been widespread, tourism officials in Mexico have invested $30 million in advertising and social media initiatives to spread the word that much of the country is safe for tourists. “Visitors have the right to be well informed,” said Alfonso Sumano, the regional director for the Mexico Tourism Board for the Americas. Many of the affected areas, he said, “are very far from the destinations tourists visit.”

The latest travel warning, issued by the State Department in September, urged American citizens to defer unnecessary travel specifically to Michoacán and areas along the northern border, including Tamaulipas, and parts of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila, where tourists generally don’t go. Yet, ever cautious, it stated, “violence has occurred throughout the country, including in areas frequented by American tourists.” Visitors were encouraged to stay on main roads in daylight hours and to remain in well-known tourist areas.

All of this has made travel to Mexico a hard sell lately, but travel agents say the negative publicity has also made Mexico among the best values out there as resorts lower rates or add free incentives to entice travelers. When asked where agents are recommending travelers go to get the most for their dollar this year, 70 percent said Mexico, according to Travel Leaders, a major network of agents.

“A lot of clients will come here and say, ‘I’ll go anywhere except Mexico,’ ” said Kate Rosevear, owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Plymouth, Mich. “Quite often we’ll be able to talk them back around to it based on the value.”

Some of the deals agents and tourism officials point out include Casa Ticul, a boutique hotel in Playa del Carmen, which is offering 20 percent off rates of $171 a night to travelers who book a January stay by the end of December. Villa del Palmar Cancún, a new all-inclusive resort in Playa Mujeres with a Greg Norman-designed golf course, has rates from $186 a person a night during the holidays and a rate of $142 a person a night after that — up to 60 percent off. And St. Regis Punta Mita is offering butler service, a third night free, a $50 resort credit per room and a glass of Champagne with its Welcome to Paradise deal from $580 a night for stays starting Jan. 11.

Mexican Destinations, the Mexico Villa brand of the rental company VacationRoost, has trained its agents to educate clients who call with safety concerns about how far its villas are from reported violence, and is offering specials of 25 to 50 percent off. One deal is Casa del Sol, a four-bedroom, five-bath property on the Pacific Coast in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, where rates have been slashed to $750 a night, from $1,500, in early January.

The pricing strategy seems to be working. The number of international tourists arriving in Mexico by air from January to October was 8.2 million, according to the latest data from the Mexico Tourist Board. That is an increase of 17.8 percent compared with the same period last year, when Mexico endured a down economy, H1N1 scares and drug violence. Visitors are up 6.4 percent over the same period in 2008, which was considered to be one of the best years for travel to Mexico. The number of American travelers increased by 13.4 percent, compared with the same time period in 2009.

Many resorts say safety is at the top of their guests’ minds. “When our reservations manager receives requests, the first question that is asked is if there has been violence in this area,” said Giorgio Brignone, the proprietor of Costa Careyes, a luxury resort two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, which has added free airport transfers to and from Manzanillo. To put jittery travelers at ease, the company has placed ads in magazines promoting “a different Mexico.” In addition, the company’s Web site highlighted the 24-hour security at the resort.

Part of the problem is that many travelers are unclear about where the violence has occurred and how it might affect their vacation, Mr. Brignone said. “People don’t realize that there are many regions and areas in the country that are not affected by the violence and drug wars,” he said. “It’s like saying I will not go to Dallas, or New York, because there are problems or riots in Los Angeles.”

Still, there are some tourist destinations travelers should steer clear of, at least for now. “I would not encourage my family to visit Acapulco right now,” said Josh Miller, who lives in Mexico City and is the general director for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for Control Risks, a risk management firm. “While a wonderful place to visit,” he said, “violent confrontations have been spilling over from the military effort against the cartels.” Travelers should also hold off on visits to Michoacán, in central Mexico. The state is a stronghold of La Familia, a drug cartel known for bold ambushes.

Popular resort areas, including Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa and Cancún’s resort strip are generally safe for travelers, Mr. Miller said, particularly if visitors stay within the resort’s boundaries. “Mexico is a volatile place,” he said. “You have to have your itinerary planned out quite well, consider transportation and stay abreast of latest developments.”

Some travelers who have been to Mexico before are surprised when friends express safety concerns. “Everybody was like, ‘What? You are going to Mexico?’ ” said Tina Youtsey, a dog groomer from Milan, Mich., who went to the Riviera Maya with her teenage daughter last month. “Seriously,” she said, “the drug lords aren’t hanging out at the resort.” Having visited Mexico two times before, she added, “I wasn’t really worried.”

© Copyright (c) New York Times

Tips For Enjoying Los Cabos

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Other

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Home stagers reach out to troubled women

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Cheryl Rossi
Van. Courier

Kulli Yee was one of a dozen designers who redecorated two rooms at Sereena’s Housing for Women in the Downtown Eastside. Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

Kulli Yee was one of a dozen designers who redecorated two rooms at Sereena’s Housing for Women in the Downtown Eastside. Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

Heather Kleim was fretting about what to wear to a meeting with a real estate agent when she had a reality check.

Kleim, a 33-year-old owner of a home staging business, saw a news story about Louise Edwards, a Kamloops woman who has helped women and children in need in the Downtown Eastside for more than 30 years.

“She knows what it’s like to live life having absolutely everything that you need and she just saw a really great need down here,” Kleim said.

Kleim, the owner of Epic Empire Designs, contacted the reporter to get in touch with Edwards.

Kleim and Heather Stewart of HS Home Staging started the City Stagers Meet-up group of professional designers and industry partners with a mandate of community involvement. With so many of their clients wanting to purge household items, helping those in need of furnishings seems like a natural fit.

Edwards spoke at one of the home stagers’ first meetings. She told them about Sereena’s Housing for Women, located in the former New Wings Hotel that’s kitty-corner from Oppenheimer Park. Run by Atira Women’s Resource Society, it provides a home to 56 women dealing with medical and mental health problems. Many work in the street-level sex trade.

The building had a TV and breakfast room that was laid with chipped, painted plywood floors and was painted sterile white before City Stagers and their volunteers arrived.

Kleim asked Sarah Louie, program manager of Sereena’s Housing, for a wish list of furnishings and everyday items Sereena’s needed. The home stagers tweeted and blogged to draw donations.

Kleim told clients she’d cart away their castoffs. At one point, her one-bedroom apartment in the West End and the basement of her boyfriend’s home were stuffed with goods.

The designers wrangled free paint, flooring, art, a stove, a dishwasher and crafting supplies. Go Truck Go donated its time to transport the goods. The flooring was put down in the breakfast and TV room, which was painted golden yellow and green by a volunteer.

The women gathered at Sereena’s on Monday to pull together the finishing touches and spruce up the room with new seating areas and a Christmas tree.

Residents, Louie said, were annoyed they were barred from the breakfast and TV room that morning. But they had volunteered to clean the new floor after it was laid because they were so pleased with the change.

The stagers were to add a desk to an adjacent and under-used room so Louie can be stationed there and the space, which is big and bright, used by the women. Louie was glad for the donations from City Stagers because Atira has no money for furnishings. But communal rooms are important in the building where residents live in little rooms and share bathrooms and kitchens.

The designers brought donations of clothes and small presents for each resident. “It’s been a great way to get to know each other on a personal level,” Kleim said of the work of the Meet-up group of 15 women. “It’s a nice group of women helping women.”

© Copyright (c) Lower Mainland Publishing

Sales forecast to climb 6 per cent in 2011

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Other

50,000 GIFTS: The 23rd annual Christmas Wish Breakfast in Vancouver drew donations of more than 50,000 toys and other gifts for needy children this year. Photo: Pan Pacific

The British Columbia Real Estate Association forecasts that residential sales across the province will decline 12 per cent from 85,028 units in 2009 to 74,950 units this year, before increasing 6 per cent to 79,700 units in 2011. “Consumers are responding to a double-dip in mortgage interest rates,” said Cameron Muir, BCREA Chief Economist. “While housing demand waned in the province through the spring and summer, the added purchasing power from low borrowing costs combined with gradual improvement in the BC economy has trended home sales higher in recent months.” “A moderate increase in B.C. home sales is expected next year coinciding with employment and population growth,” added Muir. “However, the 79,700 unit sales that are forecast for 2011 are well below the ten-year average of 85,500 units.” A record 106,300 MLS residential sales were recorded in 2005. The average MLS residential price across B.C. is forecast to climb 7 per cent to just over $498,000 in 2011.

Lender urges end to 35-year mortgage loans

TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, told a recent mortgage conference that the government should cut the maximum mortgage amortization from 35 years to 25 years. “We see a world in which low interest rates and excess liquidity has created asset bubbles all over the world,” Clark told reporters. Clark says Canadians have been following a policy of: “‘Don’t save. Take a longer period to spread out your payments.’” “I don’t think that’s good public policy,” Clark said. The idea of reducing amortizations has been floated before, most recently this year when it was speculated that the Finance Department might cut the maximum amortization to 25 years. The government last changed amortizations two years ago. At that time, they were cut back from 40-years to 35-years on high-ratio mortgages. However studies show that, in almost all cases, people who take 35-year amortizations plan to pay off their mortgage much quicker. In fact, the average Canadian gets rid of their mortgage in 1/2 to 2/3 of their original amortization, according to insurer sources. In other words, due to pre-payments, people pay off their 35-year mortgages in far less than 35 years. Realtors also note that ending the 35-year amortization would allow less first-time buyers the opportunity to purchase. So far there is no indication that the federal government is moving to shorten the maximum amortization period.

Copyright Real Estate Weekly

Banker calls for end to 35-year mortgages

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Other

BEST HOUSE: This custom house (over 3,500 square feet) in West Vancouver captured the Award of Excellence from the Urban Development Institute for British Pacific Properties. Photo: UDI

TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, told a recent mortgage conference that the government should cut the maximum mortgage amortization from 35 years to 25 years. “We see a world in which low interest rates and excess liquidity has created asset bubbles all over the world,” Clark told reporters. Clark says Canadians have been following a policy of: “‘Don’t save. Take a longer period to spread out your payments.’” “I don’t think that’s good public policy,” Clark said. The idea of reducing amortizations has been floated before, most recently this year when it was speculated that the Finance Department might cut the maximum amortization to 25 years. The government last changed amortizations two years ago. At that time, they were cut back from 40-years to 35-years on high-ratio mortgages. However studies show that, in almost all cases, people who take 35-year amortizations plan to pay off their mortgage much quicker. In fact, the average Canadian gets rid of their mortgage in 1/2 to 2/3 of their original amortization, according to insurer sources. In other words, due to pre-payments, people pay off their 35-year mortgages in far less than 35 years.

More buyers can afford homes

RBC Economics Research has released a report saying the proportion of pre-tax household income it takes to own a home declined in the third quarter of 2010 after a full year of deteriorating home-ownership affordability. Lower home prices and mortgage rates were the reasons for the recent improvement. “The improvement in affordability during the third quarter has relieved some of the stress that had been mounting in Canada’s housing market over the past year,” said Robert Hogue, senior economist for RBC. “After appreciating rapidly during the strong rebound in resale activity last year and early this year, national home prices recently came off the burner and retreated modestly as market conditions cooled considerably through the spring and summer.” RBC said it took 40.4% of household income, on average across the country, to own a bungalow between July and September. That was 2.4 percentage points lower than the second quarter. The cost for owning a standard two-storey home fell 2.5 points to 46.3% on income, and the affordability rate for condominiums was down 1.4 points to 27.8%. Looking at the percentage of household income needed to own bungalows in major markets across the country, it was 68.8% in Vancouver, 47.2% in Toronto, 41.7% in Montreal, 38.2% in Ottawa, 37.1% in Calgary and 32.7% in Edmonton.

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The home of the future – condominiums

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Other

NEW CONDOMINIUMS: The demand for condominiums is linked to lower prices, but also reflects a growing number of people downsizing and living alone.

Judging by demographic trends, sales and construction activity, the future of housing is leaning sharply towards condominiums and townhomes. “Condominium apartments and townhomes now represent one in two residential sales in Metro Vancouver – their universal appeal attracting entry-level purchasers to affluent, experienced buyers,” notes a study released last month by Re/Max. The demand for condominiums is linked, of course, to lower prices, but it also reflects a growing number of people downsizing and living alone. Today, 9.9 per cent of Canadians live alone, including more than one million seniors. Single people also account for 27 per cent of the population. As the baby boomers age, 38 per cent of long-term marriages end in divorce, and those that stay married often downsize to a condominium from a house when they become empty nesters. Virtually all of Canada’s housing demand growth will come from this aged 25 to 34, reflecting the maturing of the baby echo generation. “These buyers, many of them singles or young professional couples, support continuing moderate demand for condos, particularly in urban centres close to employment opportunities,” said a recent study by Scotiabank. There is also high demand for condominiums from both local and off-shore investors, according to local Realtors.

Long term mortgage rates rise

TD Canada Trust and the Royal Bank of Canada have increased some of their fixed-term mortgage rates by as much as one-quarter of a percentage point, effective Wednesday. At both banks, five-year mortgages, one of the most popular among Canadian homeowners, will rise by 0.25 of a percentage point to 5.44 per cent. Rates on three- and four-year mortgages are also increasing by a quarter of a percentage point, while one-and two-year rates will go up by 0.15 of a percentage point. Rates for mortgages that have six, seven, and 10-year terms will be unchanged. While Canadas economy remains relatively strong and the Bank of Canada has been hiking interest rates, concerns over the U.S. recovery continue to simmer.

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