Will Virtual Assistants Change the Real Estate Game?

Will Virtual Assistants Change the Real Estate Game?

Hint: Yes, and Maybe Sooner than We Thought

While finding shelter may be one of the oldest human instincts, the way we find shelter may be about to change drastically—at least when it comes to buying or renting a new home.

In early December, 2015, a father-son team, Miquel and Ami Berger, of Albany, New York created an app that works with Amazon Echo–one of the many devices currently available in the U.S. that offer electronic virtual assistants. In the case of Amazon, the assistant is named “Alexa.”

Virtual assistants, from Alexa, to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, respond to vocal prompts and do everything from finding a coffee shop to getting directions to The American Museum of Natural History to turning on the lights in your home– depending on how digitized and wired-up your life is. (For a humorous explanation of the benefits and limits of various personal assistant devices, or “the genie in the hockey puck” read OnComp’s blog.)

So, how does the app work? Pretty much like having a conversation with an agent or relator who has every MLS listing in their head–albeit a formal and limited conversation. First you ask Alexa to “open real estate.”  Alexa will then say, “welcome to your virtual agent” and you’re off. Do you want to buy, rent or sell? How many bedrooms? What’s your price range?

The app is being tested in the Berger’s hometown of Albany and is one of only a few on the market.  

Does that mean the market is limited? Will people really use a disembodied electronic voice to find a new home? Trends indicate that yes, this is the next technology step in house hunting.

According to the National Association of Relators, in 2015, 51 percent of home-buyers found their house on the internet and 34 percent used an agent. By comparison, eight percent of home-buyers saw a yard sign or an ad for an open house.

Digital assistant apps are, essentially, where the internet and the agent are one and the same.

Still seems far-fetched? Well, remember when phones were only used to make phone calls?

Like smart phones, virtual assistants are getting smarter and more useful every day. In June, Fortune magazine reported that Alexa had more than 1,000 skills, due the multitude of apps being developed for the Echo device.

If the use of digital assistants explodes the way smart phone use in general has—64 percent of American adults now own a smart phone, which is nearly double the number reported in 2011 according to the Pew Research Center– then asking an app to find you a place to live could become common-place. The same Pew survey also reports that phones are already used for everything from checking on health conditions to applying for jobs.

Is it such a stretch, then, to imagine a scenario where a frustrated renter is standing in their tiny, galley, kitchen and walking Alexa, or Siri, through filling out forms for a mortgage? One that will cover a larger home with a real kitchen!

Take into account that 35 percent of the homes purchased in 2015 were by first-time buyers, and that the median age of first-time buyers was 32. These older Millennials, despite their generation’s bad-rap, are tech-savvy grown-ups who need a great place to live.

Where are they going to look for information?  Clearly, not the newspaper or yard signs.  But asking a personal, digital, agent to find the perfect home?

That’s not just in some far-off, fantasy, future—it’s here.

The Impact of Soda Taxes on the Economy: Boom or Bust?

The Impact of Soda Taxes on the Economy: Boom or Bust?

In the past six months, five major cities/counties have passed taxes on sugary soda drinks, but this movement has been building momentum for years. Hawai’i deferred such a tax in 2013, and California cities made unsuccessful attempts in 2012. Former New York Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on 16+ ounce sodas was thwarted. “Forty times, city or state governments had proposed taxes on sugary soft drinks, failing each time,” reported The New York Times.

The pattern finally broke when Berkeley gave the green light on a soda tax in 2014. Earlier this summer, Philadelphia legislators placed a tax of 1.5 cents per ounce on both regular sugar and diet soda beverages. In the fallout from the presidential election, it may have gone overlooked that voters in San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, California, as well as residents of Boulder, Colorado, all approved sugar soda taxes that will soon begin to take effect. The taxation rate for California cities will be 1 cent per ounce, and Boulder will tax at 2 cents per ounce. Since the election, Chicago’s Cook county has also passed a beverage tax that includes artificially-sweetened diet sodas. It is expected that some of these costs will trickle down to consumers, rather than resting solely with retailers. The tax would therefore reduce sales by making an unhealthy habit more expensive.

So what changed over the past few years to see these measures successful, with voter support? Public perception has shifted to embrace the amassed evidence: that the increase in sugar consumption–noteworthy in America over the last few decades–is detrimental to one’s health. The Berkeley tax essentially certified those health findings and marked the altered mindset of the masses. According to Business Insider, “Berkeley, California’s soda tax, which passed in 2014 and went into effect in May 2015, has resulted in a 22% drop in soda consumption in low-income neighborhoods, according to one study.” However, it’s worth noting that the same information that led to approval of the tax may have already affected people’s buying habits.

But the health argument alone was not enough for Philadelphian lawmakers: Mayor Jim Kenney made the case for raising revenue with the tax, revenue that could be used toward issues closer to people’s hearts. “The promise of prekindergarten energized the city’s education advocates, who joined with public health advocates. […] Ultimately, the soft drink tax revenue won’t pay just for prekindergarten, but for a host of city programs, reflecting the priorities of the council members who voted for it.” The city expects to see an additional $91 million a year from the soda tax revenues.

It’s not surprising that lawmakers made the decision based on funds, when you consider the millions spent by the soft drink industry lobbying against such measures. The money in this game is considerable: $5 million to fight the tax in Philadelphia, provided by the soft drink industry, Teamster union, and local grocery stores, spent on lobbying and marketing. That figure pales in comparison to the California campaign, which spent $40 million to try and stop the tax; half of those funds was provided by the American Beverage Association.

The soft drink giants maintain that the soda taxes discriminate in the sense that soft drinks are grocery items, which opens the door to more taxation on common foods. They also claim the taxes could cost jobs and hurt business. “Sandy Douglas, the president of Coca-Cola North America said in a statement: ‘We believe there are better alternatives for encouraging moderation in sugar consumption than higher taxes.’”

However, recalling that recent shift in public perception, “experts said that sugary drinks’ increasingly bad reputation made it an appropriate political target.” As Gail Cole notes, taxing superfluous items is a time-honored tradition, taking precedent from taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. Would-be Americans once famously rioted over a tax on tea, combined with a British law that supplanted American tea merchants.

Business Insider reports that a recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health anticipates not only that Bay Area residents will drink 20% less soda, but will see a 4% decrease in diabetes by 2018 and a drop in obesity as a result. “This reduction in rates of obesity and diabetes would cut healthcare costs in the San Francisco Bay Area by $54.9 million over 10 years.” For Boulder, the study found that “the incidence of diabetes would drop by an estimated 10% in the city. Healthcare costs would decrease by $6.4 million over 10 years.”

A study in the American Journal of Public Health (funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) addresses the soft drink industry’s charge of job loss as a result of the tax: the tax could actually lead to more jobs and more spending money. And soft drink companies are already future-proofing their portfolios to meet public demand for less sugary drinks, so the soda tax will have less and less impact as they continue to expand those products lines.

Ultimately, the fallout from soda taxes could include health benefits and savings, an increase in available spending money, more job growth, and a prekindergarten program in Philadelphia. If soft drink execs are correct, we could see more grocery item taxes, designed to capture revenue for the city, and job losses. With the newly enacted soft drink taxes, we’ll soon have five cities’ worth of data to analyze, so only time will tell.

Check Out NYC’s Vintage Holiday Subway Line

Check Out NYC’s Vintage Holiday Subway Line

A lesser-known holiday tradition for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is to put vintage subway cars–usually on display at the New York Transit Museum–back in service, but for a limited time only. The “Shoppers Special” operates annually on Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, departing several times a day from the 2nd Ave. station and making local stops along the 6th Ave F/M line to Queens Plaza.

This special 8-car train consists of R1/9 “City Cars” that ferried passengers throughout the city from 1930 to 1970, along unrecognizable lines like the AA, BB, CC, EE, and H. As the MTA puts it, “The jazz composer Billy Strayhorn would have taken a City Car to Sugar Hill when Duke Ellington told him to ‘Take the A Train.’”

This special subway ride will transport you in more ways than one: the train cars are decorated with era-appropriate ads, as documented here by Business Insider. And the cars themselves are a nostalgia trip, with “rattan seats, ceiling fans, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash style windows, and roll signs” (MTA). Swinging metal hanging “straps” help brace standing riders: the swinging lets you sway more with the motion of the train than the parallel grab bars in their modern counterparts. The light bulbs overhead consistently flicker offfor one thrilling momentbetween stations. The antiquated emergency brakes, relatively low ceiling fans, and insistently closing doors all mark a charming but less foolproof era.

23947146023_4c410f0e54_z

To ensure subway riders don’t play a game of chicken with the subway doorsas current cars allow and present-day commuters routinely testMTA operators are stationed in every car of the Shoppers Special. The ceiling fans and air vents provide excellent ventilation and a whoosh feeling of truly traveling that is missing from the current enclosed subway cars. That may be in part because the doors between cars are left open on the Shoppers Special, to encourage riders to cross over and continue their journey between eras.

While most of the train cars are from the 1930s and 1940s, one car looks noticeably different: because it was designed to look noticeably different. Car No. 1575 looks more contemporary because it was a prototype, meant to replace the older cars that compose the rest of the throwback train. It’s still a noticeable departure from the current subway car, however.

Commissioned for the Independent Subway System (IND) and operating for over 40 years, the R1/9 cars that comprise ⅞ of the Shoppers Special are the basis for the current subway car R160 model, and even the upcoming R211 cars. The durability of the R1/9 model cars is evident in their long run, and in the smooth ride enjoyed by modern straphangers: a mixed bag comprised of surprised New Yorkers, New Yorkers in the know (some even dressed for the occasion in period wear), tourists, and many delighted children.

24465647142_68f2bfd99e_z

The popularity of this yearly tradition demonstrates the public’s avid interest in an older New York, documented by projects like the Tenement Museum. The New York Transit Museum gives a good glimpse of what commuting might have looked like in the early or mid-20th century. This photo tour by Business Insider serves as a quick introduction. Articles by Smithsonian and Untapped Cities describe additional hidden wonders and subway secrets:

  • abandoned subway stations/platforms/levels
  • the underwater graves of subway cars
  • a long-running subway beauty pageant
  • a pneumatic subway car that stretched one city block
  • armored Money Trains that carried subway fare money to a secret room in Brooklyn for counting
  • a fake Brooklyn townhouse that functions as a ventilation shaft and emergency subway exit
  • the Signal Learning Center at 14th Street station
  • a small, subway-accessible NYPL branch
  • the entrance to the historic Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square station
  • the Masstransiscope art installation at the abandoned Myrtle Ave subway station
  • a bedecked private subway car–every commuter’s fever dream

Interest in such an integral New York institution will never abate. So the next time you’re riding the subway, consider that your car may host a nostalgia ride 50 years from now…

Will Fresh Food-Loving New Yorkers Embrace Urban Agriculture?

Will Fresh Food-Loving New Yorkers Embrace Urban Agriculture?

For all of Central Park, Prospect Park, and the many other parks scattered throughout the city’s boroughs, green space still feels scarce in New York City. Living in a city ironically nicknamed the Big Apple, people all too easily become disconnected from nature and forget that their food–particularly fresh food–must be imported from outside the city limits. How can a city renowned for its cuisine maintain its reputation with such limited access to green space? Farm-to-table takes on a new meaning when the nearest farm is miles and miles away.

Luckily, city dwellers are celebrated for making the most out of small spaces. New Yorkers are famous for it, living as they do in one of the densest cities in the world. But even making the most of space does not guarantee that green things will grow when and where you want them to, particularly in polluted urban conditions. Sustainable rooftops are in development throughout in the city; vertical growing and gardening is also a popular green space saver.

Urban agriculture and green space expansion are increasingly popular investments with offices and residential complexes. They can add significant, long-term value to a real estate holding and heighten the appeal for other investors and buyers. Developing urban agriculture in the form of sustainable rooftops, vertical plant walls, and other designs is also planting a stake in a community, essentially underwriting people and their connection to nature and to each other.

Curbed profiled Gwen Schantz, who fell into the New York urban agriculture landscaping scene as it gained popularity over the past decade. Schantz points out that the disconnect between city dwellers, food sources, and green space makes environmental education even more urgent. “’It can be very difficult for New Yorkers to make connections between themselves and the source of their food,’ Schantz explains. ‘We don’t really connect a lot with nature, we don’t connect a lot with farming, but it’s really important for people to know where food comes from.’”

Urban Land Magazine quotes Sibella Kraus, head of Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) in Berkeley, saying that “urban agriculture is not just a way to grow vegetables, but also a way to strengthen communities.” Kraus points to cities developing “greenprints” for urban agriculture growth as a strong sign of people’s priorities.

In addition to fresher food, urban agriculture can teach urbanites about the environment and how to better preserve it. “Out of sight, out of mind” cannot hold sway in an age when more people than ever are gravitating toward cities, but the environment is simultaneously suffering a decline caused by human intervention. Now, when we can appreciate fresh food more than ever, we need to take steps to ensure our access and implement sustainable environmental measures. Recognizing urban agriculture as an asset to real estate development aligns business interests and conservation efforts.

The Impact of Decreased Car Ownership on Real Estate Markets

The Impact of Decreased Car Ownership on Real Estate Markets

Ridesharing and carsharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar are already decreasing the need for car ownership, particularly for people living in crowded urban areas. Uber and Lyft are also simultaneously building an autonomous fleet of self-driving cars, further reducing the car requirement. Taken together, these trends will drastically change the face of transportation and commuting in a country currently heavily reliant on cars. If both ridesharing and driverless cars seriously undercut the once unquestioned obligation of car ownership, what impact will this lifestyle shift have on the real estate market?

Transportation historically triggers growth. Cities have grown up around major ports of call, with transportation extensions unfurling outwards from these hubs. People have organized their lives around access (to work, school, food, entertainment, nightlife, etc.), but time and convenience have borne the cost. So once the issue of access has been addressed in favor of time and convenience, what options open up for commuters?

The availability and affordability of ridesharing, combined with driverless cars, will likely lead to expanded urban sprawl. Workers will no longer need to invest in expensive urban real estate when they can simply move farther away. The accessibility of remote working technology can even monetize their commute. Rush hour is no longer a threat, since you can capitalize on the extra time in the car by working, communicating, organizing–even eating, sleeping, or exercising!

Ridesharing and driverless vehicles may eventually be preferable and economical in terms of comfort, efficiency and even the environment, compared to urban and regional public transit options. This Chicago Tribune editorial compares the outcome of driverless cars to the evolution of the smartphone, extending that analogy beyond providing a digital footprint to solving for in-person appearance.

Once commuters arrive at work, they surely will not miss the extra hassle of parking their car–it will either park itself or pick up another fare. This means parking lot space and restrictions will be drastically reduced, freeing up real estate–especially expensive urban real estate–and precipitating development. Businesses and apartment tenants will also be off the hook for financing parking levels in their buildings. Real estate development will, likewise, have less to worry about once building codes reflect minimized parking requirements.

Even homeowners will directly feel the effects, as ridesharing and self-driving cars free up garage space for storing, living, redecorating, and renting. TechCrunch predicts the self-storage industry could take a hit and Airbnb could see more business, as homeowners reclaim an estimated 15% of living space.

The revolution doesn’t stop at recovering precious time and square footage: former car owners will also save a tremendous amount once they eliminate insurance premiums, car repairs, and maintenance costs. This increased spending capacity will certainly influence other industries in unforeseen ways.

However, the revolution is still a decade or two in the future. The rate of urban versus rural transition will certainly vary, determined by infrastructure, regulation, and demand. And self-driving cars have a ways to go, to account for safety, economy, reliability, and availability. But when all the pieces align, the real estate market will inevitably be stimulated, and people may finally regain that most elusive commodity: time.

How Food Trucks Give Real Estate a Delicious Boost

How Food Trucks Give Real Estate a Delicious Boost

We are all aware that the way of shopping is changing: more people are opting to shop online and sales in brick-and-mortar stores are suffering. Closures of JCPenney and Sears have threatened to close entire malls, since these anchors – otherwise known as key tenants — tend to drive traffic to the rest of the mall.

Surprisingly, even Macy’s flagship store in New York City considered selling its space. Although e-commerce may be driving consumers away from malls and shopping centers, food is reeling them back in.

From Necessity to Obsession

This growth may have something to do with the newfound food obsession taking over social media. Just think about the number of “food porn” posts, enticing recipe videos from BuzzFeed’s Tasty, and the unique “how it’s made” videos from INSIDER food you see daily. In addition, millennials now value experiences — such as eating interesting and unique foods – over owning material items. And according to The Pew Research Center, millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, meaning this is the core group advertisers want to appeal to the most.  

So, what type of food is bringing people back to shopping centers? You would expect that it might be trendy fast-casual restaurants like Shake Shack or Panera that are bringing people in. However, it’s the fast-changing and diverse population of food trucks that are bringing crowds back to these shopping locations.

Why Food Trucks?

“Food trucks are basically the pop-ups of the restaurant business,” said Melina Cordero, CBRE’s head of retail research in the Americas. “They come in, they can set up, they’re low cost, and they’re constantly changing.”

Today’s consumers are craving diverse options of specialty ethnic foods that are prepared and served quickly. However, food trends change so rapidly that it’s hard for brick-and-mortar restaurants to keep up. This is a perfect storm for food trucks. It’s a low-cost and fast way to give consumers what they want, and restaurateurs who don’t want to take a big risk can still cash in on the restaurant business. The trends and trucks change and move so frequently in fact, that this website tracks where food trucks are based on your zip code or the type of cuisine you’re looking for.

With all these amazing “blink-if-you-miss-it” opportunities to experience a diverse array of food, people want to try it as soon as they can so they don’t miss out. So let them focus on eating at a specialty food truck that’s parked outside your store – because these customers might wander in to take a look at, and maybe even purchase, your merchandise.

What This Means for Real Estate

Let the food trucks do the work for you to bring sales to your stores. If the truck is extremely popular and lines are always long, you can almost guarantee there will be a lot foot traffic – to both the food truck AND your store.

While people are waiting in line, they’ll look around at their surroundings. If they happen to be standing in front on your store, they might want to purchase the warm fleece jacket on display in the window. If you get enough people who plan to buy your merchandise while waiting in a food truck line, you’ll make a profit without having to put out any money yourself.

Although it might seem like a large crowd outside of your store can be a nuisance, this might be a sure-fire way to bring more foot traffic into your store, which will bring more money into your company’s pocket.

The Empire State Building in Photography and Film: A Storied History

The Empire State Building in Photography and Film: A Storied History

The Empire State Building is an iconic pulse of the New York City skyline, standing apart from the cluster of skyscrapers in the Financial District. It serves as a helpful directional signpost for residents and tourists, who simply have to look up to tell if they are walking uptown or downtown. And for decades the building’s tower lights have broadcasted significant events through color schemes projected against a stark, starless sky. How can a simple patch of land–originally a farm, then the site of the Waldorf Astoria, then the base of the tallest skyscraper in the world, for a time–become one of the most recognizable mastheads of New York City?

Screen Shot 2016-11-29 at 1.15.01 PMEven while under construction, the Empire State Building was a favorite subject of the visual medium. Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine was hired to document the historic project in 1930. Famous for his socially progressive portfolio, which helped lead to child labor reform, Hine documented an interesting angle of his assignment. He brought the skeletal building to life on film through the crew of 3400 construction workers–mainly immigrants from Newfoundland and Scandinavia, as well as Irish-Americans and Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. To match the fearless competence of these men “‘”strolling on the thin edge of nothingness,’” as described by C. G. Poore in the New York Times, Hine had to take extreme measures. His remarkable, floating photographs–now available online in the NYPL digital collection–do not reveal the lengths the photographer went to in order to capture the laborers’ daring feats. “In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.”

Less than two years after it was opened by President Hoover in 1931, the Empire State Building was immortalized in the 1933 classic movie King Kong. Juxtaposing the animal kingdom with an urban jungle, the mammoth gorilla meets his end perched atop the Empire State Building, swatting planes from the sky and clutching his delicate human prize. Although the original and remakes use footage shot on soundstages and rely heavily on special effects, King Kong helped to embed the Empire State Building in people’s minds as a permanent fixture in the New York City skyline.

Even after the World Trade Centers surpassed its height in the early 1970s, the Empire State Building went on to have a long, storied film career. Synonymous with the Big Apple, the structure has become representative of American prosperity and ambition.

It has featured in the destruction wrought by dystopian films, like Independence Day (1996) and Oblivion (2013), as a symbol of human achievement pitted against the destructive forces of alien invaders and Mother Nature. It has appeared in superhero films, like The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Superman II (1980), as a hallmark of New York pride and perseverance. It has been depicted in movies like Elf (2003) and Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) as a signal for New York newcomers. It has figured into romcoms like An Affair to Remember (1957), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and–perhaps most famously–Sleepless in Seattle (1993), as a crucial rendezvous, a measure of long-distance relationships, and a metaphor for larger-than-life love. And since 9/11, the Empire State Building has become even more critical to the New York cityscape–as a sign of American endurance.

NYC’s New Statue of Liberty Museum Will Open in 2019

NYC’s New Statue of Liberty Museum Will Open in 2019

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most iconic landmarks in New York City, not to mention all of America and the world. A gift from France and welcoming beacon to immigrants, Lady Liberty has a storied history. It stands to reason that there should be a museum to honor her legacy and the many citizens she’s ushered into the United States.

This will be exactly the case on Ellis Island come 2019. A $70 million dollar museum is being built in devotion to the 130-year-old statue’s compelling past, present, and history. A groundbreaking ceremony on October 6, 2016 unveiled gorgeous renderings of the Statue of Liberty Museum, which will be designed by NYC-based architecture firm FXFOWLE.

The museum is a collaboration between the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and the National Park Service. Entry will be included in the $18 ferry ticket price; this way, all visitors to Ellis Island will have access to what’s shaping up to be a stunning exhibit.

According to Business Insider, the 26,000 square foot museum will have four segments. First is the entrance way, featuring a mural comprised of 50-star sculptures made from iron bars donated by Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower. These bars supported the statue for 100 years, and will now serve as a gorgeous and patriotic embellishment for the new museum.

Further inside, a theater space will introduce visitors to the museum and the Statue of Liberty’s history. Past the theater, an area called the Engagement Gallery will take the experience further with interactive exhibits that detail the intricacies of the statue’s construction.

Lastly, a beautiful exit space will let visitors add their own photos and signatures to an interactive wall, allowing them a place in the Statue of Liberty’s living legacy. The entire museum will be constructed out of the same material as the statue—Stony Creek granite, bronze, and plaster—while a beautiful grass-covered roof keeps the space lush and green.

As New York City evolves, it’s always exciting to see our most treasured historic relics honored by new development projects. Many of us can trace our ancestry to Ellis Island, so its significance in American history cannot be overstated. In its early stages, the new museum appears to do our country, city, and ancestors proud. As this project comes to life, it will no doubt become another chapter in the Statue of Liberty’s incredible story, making the destination all the more memorable for tourists and New Yorkers alike.

Secret Rooms and Passages in NYC Real Estate

Secret Rooms and Passages in NYC Real Estate

When it comes to New York City real estate, most residents wish they had more space: to open up a wall and discover a whole extra room would be nothing short of a dream come true. But in a city with 27,000 people per square mile — the highest population density of any major US city — what you see is what you get, and usually what you pay for too.

But the idea of hidden rooms and passageways, even in New York City, is more than just the subject of millennial imaginations. A recent New York Times article tackled just that: hidden spaces, both new and old.

The older hidden spaces, surveyed by the Times, served practical purposes. In one Brooklyn church, for example, a stairway leads to a secret basement the size of a city block, once part of the Underground Railroad. Inside the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s a hidden Cold War bunker. Though you might enjoy the idea of secret passages for the novelty, many people have relied on them historically to stay safe.

That’s not to say secret rooms can only be bunkers. One couple in Brooklyn, for example, discovered a crawl space large enough to transform into a quirky playroom for their young daughter. Others pay contractors like Creative Home Engineering as much as $25,000 to build secret rooms into their homes for aesthetic or personal reasons.

In her three-bedroom apartment on 15th Street and Fifth Avenue, finance worker Sara Nainzadeh had a secret entrance built, opening up to a private office by a tug on a Shel Silverstein book. Asides from storing her safe, the room acts as a retreat from the world.

A couple in TriBeCa, the Watsons, have a secret room built entirely for books: a secret library that doubles as a guest room. Their Duplex on Warren Street is selling for $19.5 million.

Still, others have them implemented as a sort of long-term investment in an uncertain future. With the growing state of technological and government surveillance, many think a private escape is more than worthwhile. If there were needs in the past for such safe spaces, who is to say, 30 years down the line, they won’t be useful again?

Hopefully most of us will never need secret rooms for life or death reasons. But if such spaces do come back in style, why not run with it? A little intrigue in real estate is never a bad thing.

Is NYC Ready for a Solar Revolution?

Is NYC Ready for a Solar Revolution?

In the past few years, New York City has made significant strides to meet Mayor de Blasio’s 2014 commitment to decrease greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, as well as Gov. Cuomo’s goal to source half of statewide electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

But the challenges obstructing New York City’s bid to go solar can make the process seem convoluted for homeowners and expensive for building owners, since the installation is an investment. The most apparent obstacle is the scarcity of sunlight–the result of tall and densely-packed buildings constantly casting each other in shadow. Aside from that obvious drawback, installing solar panels requires applying through the Department of Buildings (DOB), negotiating with massive utility companies like ConEd, and complying with fire codes.

8jLdwLg6TLKIQfJcZgDb_Freedom_5

Each of these issues, however, has recently been addressed. Installation costs can be significantly offset through rebates and tax credits, and reduced further by joining a solar purchasing group. The wait time for the DOB application process has been minimized from months to weeks. And the role utility companies will play has been carved out by the New York Public Service commission. Brooklyn SolarWorks has even developed a workaround for the tricky problem of applying solar panels to flat rooftops without violating the fire code: a canopy system that raises the panels above roof level.

Currently, most solar systems in New York City are attached to suburban single-family homes, although building owners and management companies are beginning to come on board for the long-term cost-savings. In September, de Blasio showed off a solar panel system at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. And earlier this year, the city introduced Solarize NYC, a campaign to make solar energy more affordable and accessible. While challenges remain, the solar movement in New York City seems to be picking up speed.

Use Google’s Project Sunroof to see how much solar energy can save you. Visit EnergySage’s New York Solar Marketplace to evaluate your installation options. And check out CUNY’s NYC Solar Map if you’re considering going solar.