All posts by Jim Wasserman

Flat-screen TV is near the top on many Sacramento gift lists

Employee Robert Brown, foreground, helps customer Broc Hervey load a 50-inch Samsung LCD television into his vehicle at the Natomas Best Buy store on Christmas Eve. Hervey, a student at Sacramento State, said he saved for three months to buy the TV.

They’re what people wanted most after computers or cash, the flat-screen TVs nestled this morning beneath Sacramento-area Christmas trees.

Analysts say 2009 was the year when wishes most easily came true, with prices finally breaking the $499 barrier on their relentless way down.

“We narrowed it down to a 40-incher between $400 and $500,” said recent UC Davis grad Brad Brown, roaming Best Buy in Elk Grove in the season’s final shopping hours. It will be his first flat screen, coexisting with student loans.

At higher price points, too, holiday buyers this year could finally stop waiting and just say yes.

“It’s time for one of these,” said retired teacher Lynda Ledbetter of Sacramento, sitting outside Fry’s on the doorstep of Christmas Eve. “It’s his Christmas present.”

This morning her husband, Robert, will open a 46-inch $1,699 LCD flat screen, which he liked for its lower energy usage.

Similar entertainment delights await thousands of capital-area households today. The whoops and shouts signal another mass arrival of fresh technology.

Buyers in the United States have taken home 100 million flat-screen TVs since 2005 – a third of them this year alone, says the Consumer Electronics Association, a Virginia trade group.

Not only do these sleek newcomers take TV watching to a new level, they also will increasingly change how homes are designed and apartment leases are written.

All these new family friends will displace thousands of bulky older TVs. American homes are already packed with an average of 2.8 sets apiece, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

You can’t just throw these old TVs in the trash. In Sacramento, they either have to be put out at the curb for special collection or dropped off at county waste facilities.

For more information on disposal options, visit the California Integrated Waste Management Board Web site at Electronics/.

You can also take old TVs to an e-waste collection drive, an increasingly popular event with sports teams and nonprofit groups.

Increasingly, those hefty remnants of technology-gone- by will be going right out the door, or maybe into the spare bedroom. Britt Beemer, chief executive officer of America’s Research Group in South Carolina, predicts 2010 will be an even bigger year for flat-screen sales.

“We’ll probably sell more of these in the next two years than in the last 10,” he said.

A recent Citibank survey of Californians, indeed, revealed that two-thirds of consumers who put off buying flat-screen TVs this year “for financial reasons” will buy one in 2010.

This explosion of sales is well on its way to eliminating the old-style “entertainment niche” that is a fixture of most post-1960 houses, said Lori McGuire, president of McGuire Research, a Sacramento building industry consulting firm. These are recessed spaces for cabinets and deeper TVs built into the living room – much like those for refrigerators in the kitchen.

“Pulte and other big corporate builders are leaving the niche behind,” she said. It’s now an option. Other builders are downsizing the niche, making it more cabinet-sized to hold a flat-screen TV and accessories such as DVD players and video game consoles.

“Some builders are also eliminating the fireplace as a standard feature,” McGuire said. Why? You guessed it. Eight decades after the Federal Radio Commission issued the first TV station license in Maryland – and 40 years after color television became easily affordable – the 46-inch flat-screen TV is the new family hearth.

Americans now spend an average of four hours and 49 minutes watching television each day, according to New York’s Nielsen Ratings.

Architects and interior designers increasingly say they design furniture, walls and windows in main living areas using a large flat-screen TV as the focal point. Cable outlets in all rooms, along with computer wiring, are also typically standard now in new homes, said McGuire.

For many who get flat screens this morning, the question this afternoon is how to mount it. These new TVs can be placed atop cabinets or mounted to walls with mounts ranging in price from $70 to $250.

Don’t go the wall-mounting route if you rent, said Cory Koehler, a senior executive at the Rental Housing Association of the Sacramento Valley.

“Most rental agreements have a deal where the resident must get prior permission for an alteration, and this qualifies as one,” he said. “An alternative is to buy a nice stand.”

The introduction of ever-larger plasma and LCD televisions has caused energy use to jump in the past decade. Combined with associated devices, such as DVD players, TVs now account for 10 percent of household energy use, according to the California Energy Commission.

As more consumers join this mass-market phenomenon, utilities such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Pacific Gas and Electric say they’ve been successfully pressing manufacturers to make flat-screen TVs more energy-efficient.

Last month, the Energy Commission approved the nation’s first mandatory energy-efficiency standards for televisions, which will take effect in 2011. Three-quarters of the televisions sold in the United States today already comply with the regulations, which won’t affect already-purchased televisions.

SMUD planner Janis Erickson said units manufactured next year will be 45 percent more energy-efficient than those now in many homes. By 2012 they’ll be 60 percent more efficient.

Erickson said today’s LCD models, which are most popular with consumers for their sharper images, use less energy than the plasma models, which are more popular with sports fans for being faster and eliminating blurring.

“They should be pleased with whatever they bought,” she said. “Chances are if they bought in the last year it’s one of the energy-efficient ones.”

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Homebuyers gain an edge with Internet searches

In the colorful, centuries-long history of house hunting, when have so many buyers come to the table knowing so much about prices, neighborhoods and school test scores?

Probably never. Credit an average 16 weeks spent browsing the Internet before buyers contact a real estate agent to get serious. Fifteen years into the World Wide Web, home searches once defined by riding around in agents’ sport-utility vehicles – a process in which agents knew all and a buyer knew little – have been thoroughly recast.

Buyers – 84 percent of whom use the Internet for house hunting, according to a California Association of Realtors study – have taken on much of the information gathering formerly done by agents, who occupy the middle of a transaction and typically get a commission of 6 percent of the sales price, 3 percent for the seller’s agent and 3 percent for the buyer’s agent.

A variety of mostly similar Web sites now enable buyers to browse homes for sale, probe a home’s transaction history, gauge its tax bite, compare area values and even see, via aerial photos, whether the neighbors have planted grass in the backyard.

This maturing of real estate Web sites has raised questions about where 519,000 California agents and brokers fit in and opened some debate about the size of their commissions. At least one online brokerage is trying to redefine the agent pay structure to gain business by making it cheaper to buy and sell.

Still, buyers and agents alike say the sheer complexity of buying and selling homes is keeping the current system largely intact. House buying as a click-here and do-it-yourself job is still much in the realm of fiction. Today, only about 5 percent of real estate sales occur solely between a buyer and seller, said Glenn Kelman, chief executive officer of Seattle’s Redfin, an online brokerage aiming to simplify home buying.

Even the most Web-savvy buyers balk at trying to close a deal without an agent.

“I can buy $100,000 worth of stock with the click of a mouse. But I can’t buy a $100,000 house without going through a ton of paperwork,” said Adam Bradley, an Elk Grove information technology staffer. Early this year, he found an attractive listing online and went so far as to make an offer without actually seeing the house.

“We submitted an offer based on the pictures and the Google map showing me an overhead and a street view, and then we went out and saw it that weekend,” he said.

But Bradley turned to an agent to navigate the daunting process of buying the house and closing escrow in May.

Many agents, especially younger ones, say the Web is enhancing, not damaging their careers.

“Last year I had 26 transactions and 14 came from the Internet,” said Erin Attardi, 30, of Lyon Real Estate. Agents traditionally have gotten clients from referrals or from doing open houses.

“Most of my business comes from the Internet,” said Attardi, of Sacramento. “It comes by way of my blog. I get a lot of business from Trulia. I get a little business from Zillow. But mainly it’s my blog. People follow me on Twitter or find my Facebook page.”

Said Attardi, “I got my license at the end of the housing boom. I knew I wasn’t going to be getting any referrals. This was my strategy from the beginning.”

Even as the Internet lessens buyer dependence on real estate agents, it’s also making it easier for them. A 2009 Home Buyer Survey conducted by the California Association of Realtors showed that buyers who used the Internet, on average, visited 13 homes with an agent. Buyers who didn’t use the Internet needed an average of 25 visits before deciding.

Chris Saizan, 26, a Keller Williams agent in Elk Grove, said he’s established a relationship with a Bay Area real estate search site,, that brings “four or five phone calls” daily. Among clients closing escrow this month are a couple from Fiji who searched the Sacramento housing market from thousands of miles away.

Saizan pays Movoto 30 percent of commissions from clients it sends his way. But that’s just one site among many where his listings appear.

“When I get a listing, I enter it into our (Keller Williams) system. It automatically links to, to Trulia, Zillow and all those other Web sites,” he said.

Such sites have become a big bang in the online universe during the past five years. Others such as, and also provide streams of visual and written information to help buyers investigate neighborhoods, property taxes and histories of individual homes. Sites that either rely on advertising or paid subscriptions distinguish themselves by specializing in automated home value estimates, highlighting price reductions or predicting values 10 years from now. Add to all this the sites of local and regional real estate firms, local newspapers, the public site of Sacramento’s Metrolist Services Inc. and those of individual agents.

In Antioch, Michael Mohr spends hours online at these sites looking for houses in Orangevale and Rancho Cordova. A state correctional officer who hopes to move closer to his work in Folsom, Mohr checks values and comparable sales trying to decide if the market is nearing some kind of bottom. It’s much different than 1994, he said, when he mainly found U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development listings online.

“This time I’ve got a lot more tools,” he said. “But I still feel that I need to use an agent so all the T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted. I would do this on my own if it wasn’t for how difficult it is.”

Some online sites recognize that buyers are doing more of their own work in finding houses. They’ve tried to win clients by cutting agent commissions. is among them, entering the Sacramento market this year. The broker refunds half of its 3 percent buyer’s agent commission, contending agents often just guide buyers through the paperwork.

“You’re probably not going to see millions of real estate agents in 10 years if Redfin succeeds,” CEO Kelman said this week.

But even that will leave plenty of work, some agents say. Saizan, asked if real estate agents will be around for a while, answered, “I would argue that with exclamation points behind it.”

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