Blog Archives

Mediterranean Dining at In-N-Out

If you enjoy Mediterranean dining, Hoover’s In-N-Out Grill—in the WalMart shopping center on Hwy 150—needs to be high on your list to visit.

I wouldn’t call the atmosphere elegant, but the food makes up for it.  We’ve visited several times and have never been disappointed.

Colleen and I stopped there for dinner Saturday evening.  She had the Chicken Kabobs, and I had the Chicken Kawerma, one of their signature dishes.  Our dinners, complete with fresh salads and an order of their wonderful Baba Ghanouj appetizer with Pita bread, set us back less than $20.

We left full, happy and satisfied.

Falafeel, lamb, and grape leaves are among In-N-Out Grill’s Mediterranean offerings, but others rave about their hamburgers.

Service has always been friendly and efficient.  Mike, the owner, seems genuinely interested in making sure that your dining experience is a good one.

You can see their menu on their website.  For orders to go, call 205-444-2014.

In-N-Out Grill is open seven days a week:  Sundays through Thursdays from 10am ’til 9pm, and Fridays and Saturdays, 10am ’til 10pm.


The Famous 3.8% Real Estate Tax

There’s nothing like misinformation to cause confusion and despair.

The popular story we’ve heard circulating a lot is that—starting January 1st, 2013—anyone selling a home in this country will be hit with a new 3.8% tax to help pay for President Obama’s new healthcare plan.

Not true.

It’s true that the new tax does take effect with the start of the new year, and it’s true that some real estate sales will be subject to the tax.  But it’s not a real estate tax, per se, and many people selling homes will not have to pay the tax.

So, just what is it?

“It” is a tax on some investment income.  Interest, dividends, rent and capital gains will be subject to the tax, but only for people whose adjusted gross income is above $200,000, or couples who file jointly and whose AGI is above $250,000.

If you’d like information that makes this tax more understandable, check out this one page flyer showing the Top Ten Things You Need To Know About The Tax.

Hopefully, these facts will show that—while the tax is real and it’s about to take effect—its scope is more limited than many people have been led to believe.


Mountain Majesty 300 Miles From Birmingham

One of the great things about living in the Birmingham area is the fact that so many beautiful settings are within such easy driving distance.

Colleen and I just recently returned from time away in the mountains of east Tennessee.

Colors are plentiful at Metcalf Bottoms, one of many popular picnic and camping areas in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

If you’ve never visited the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you’ve missed a treat.

Fall colors typically peak at the mid and lower levels during the latter half of October and first part of November.

This is the park’s busiest time to visit, so be ready for lots of traffic and long waits at restaurants.  But the payoff is seeing an assortment of red, orange, yellow and even purple colors that is a once per year event at most.

While we did not find this year’s colors to be especially vivid, the scenery and beautiful sunsets were still well worth the trip.

Popular places like Cades Cove offer spectacular views, but at this time of year, be ready to spend even more time there than you may be expecting.

A sign on the road leading to Cades Cove during our stay warned visitors that—once on the Cove’s 11 mile one way loop road—they were in for no less than about 3 hours before getting out.

But even during this busy time of year, there are still lots of places to explore—after all, the park encompasses over 800 square miles along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is full of walkways and trails leading you to beautiful scenery and tranquility.

Besides trails that lead to beautiful water falls and mountain views, among our favorite places are the so-called ‘Quiet Walkways.’  They generally do not involve strenuous climbing, and offer a quick, easy escape to settings where you can enjoy total peace and quiet among nature’s handiwork.

As you explore the park, you’ll definitely be taking a trip through history.  The mountains are believed to be between 200 million and 300 million years old, making them the oldest mountains in the world.  Not bad for less than a six hour drive, or exactly 300 miles from our front door to the cabin.

The park is full of places to relax, camp (primitive or RV), hike, stream fish and have picnics.  Horseback and bicycle riding are other popular activities.

With over 800 miles of trails and unpaved roads and elevations reaching to more than 6,500 feet, you are guaranteed not to get bored.  Little wonder that this is America’s most visited national park by far.

So far as I can tell, there is only one problem with spending time in places like this:  The clock moves unbelievably fast.  You can spend a full week and feel as if you got gypped on time.

I consider the Smokies one of the greatest photographer’s paradises the eastern U.S. has to offer.  In this day and age of digital technology, you don’t have to be an expert photographer to capture some scenes you’ll likely treasure having for years to come.  Press the shutter button enough times, and you’re sure to come away with a great shot.

The cabin we chose in Townsend (just outside the park) is one we’ve used many times over the years.  It’s built on the side of a mountain, so from each of three levels, you have a great view looking to the west several miles, and it’s loaded with amenities:  Everything from a hot tub and pool table to satellite TV, hammock and wireless high speed Internet.  It’s rough, I tell ya, rough!

There’s no shortage of cabins offering a great view of the mountains. Our cabin offers this view to the west, which means taking in some wonderful sunsets.

Another amenity getaways to the Smokies offers is one four letter word that’s very popular with lots of folks:  Food.

You’ll find plenty of spots offering delicious steaks, barbecue and seafood, including Smoky Mountain rainbow trout (grilled, fried or blackened).  And then there are almost unlimited varieties of freshly made fudge.  When dining in the Smokies, it’s hard to walk away hungry.

Visiting the Smokies offers clear cut choices in how you spend your time.  We are not fans of crawl-speed traffic, large crowds or long waits.  Places that seem overly commercial in nature are not big draws for us.  Translated:  You are not likely to see me waiting in line to go inside the wax museum!

You can find your share of painted T-shirt shops and thrill rides in places like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (which are full of family friendly activities), or you can opt to spend your time amid much more tranquil and secluded surroundings, as we do, that are only a few miles away.

Colleen and I have visited the Smokies at different times of the year.  Our previous visits have been during off season.  While there’s no fall color to enjoy, the scenery is still every bit as impressive.  More important—to us, anyway—is that going during off season means having most places almost entirely to yourself.

Off season visits mean far less traffic and hardly ever dealing with crowds anywhere you go.  It may be only one or two visitors you encounter on the entire length of a trail.  Some businesses close during off season, but not all.  Instead of a two hour or more wait at most restaurants, you’re far more likely to walk in and be seated.  The atmosphere overall is much more relaxed.

Bottom line:  For us, off season visits are the way to go.

If you are really serious about wanting to get away from it all, this is where you do it.

Regardless of when you choose to visit the Smokies, you’re still likely to come away refreshed, and carrying a renewed appreciation of what Nature has to offer.

So, one word of advice:  Go!


Home Sales in Alabaster’s Lake Forest

A look at home sales in one Birmingham area community:

Birmingham Restaurants Come and Go

The belly dancer is gone.

These seem to be particularly tough times for a number of restaurants in the Birmingham

In just the past week or two, several places we know of have shut their doors.  Some were locally run, while others were part of national chains.

One of the most recent to vanish—Ali Baba in Hoover—had been a favorite for Colleen and me for almost three years.

Competition is fierce. When Five Guys Burgers and Fries opened in Riverchase, it
wasn’t long until Harry’s Place, a long time icon known for its hamburgers and malts,
shut its doors.

In Alabaster, the Hokkaido Buffet shut down only a couple of weeks ago, and now
Cold Stone Creamery is following suit.  Other Hoover casualties include Cafe Luigi and Fish Lips Seafood and Grill.

Earlier this year, at least two Ruby Tuesdays in the Birmingham area closed, including the
store in Vestavia. These were among more than two dozen Ruby Tuesday stores closed
across the country.

O’Charleys restaurants in Pelham and Birmingham were among 14 stores shut down
earlier in the year. Sweet Bones Alabama lasted about three years at the Summit before
closing in February.

It’s expensive and incredibly labor intensive to run a successful restaurant. I’ve known
restaurant owners who would give anything to work a 40 or even 50 hour week; for many,
that’s just fantasy.

What I have seen so many times is that you have to do so much more than serve good
food to survive in the restaurant industry.

You must have a sharp sense of business and innovation.

In the case of Ali Baba, while we were saddened to find the doors locked when we pulled
up with friends Saturday, we can’t say we were totally surprised. We had sensed for
some time that the restaurant’s days were likely numbered. While we enjoyed the food,
Ali Baba never seemed to have a large following, and numbers are what you must have
to succeed.

Belly dancing, a regular Thursday feature for diners, is now a thing of the past with the closing of Hoover’s Ali Baba restaurant.

Ali Baba is a loss to the dining community because Persian restaurants that feature belly dancing are not exactly common place in Birmingham.

When we would ask Ali Baba’s owner how business was, we never got a very optimistic
report. We also saw a series of cuts during the year that started with the elimination
of a Sunday buffet. Not long after that, we showed up one Tuesday evening to find
the doors locked; the restaurant had picked that day as an additional day to be closed each week, effectively cutting off even more chances for revenue.

The restaurant also dropped its participation with, which the owner said cost him money instead of creating new customers. In Ali Baba’s case, I think the biggest factors leading to the restaurant’s demise seemed more outside of the kitchen.  Marketing, exposure and innovation lacked. They seemed to always be looking at ways to cut, instead of trying new things.

In the case of Hokkaido, the restaurant started out on a high note as many places
do, serving fresh, well prepared food. But we noticed a decline during the past
few months, including one evening when steak, one of the main entree choices
at the grill, was not available. They served such a huge variety of food that it left
me wondering how well they could maintain such a large menu.  The answer was forthcoming:  During our last visit, the food did not seem as good.

In the food service industry, you only have to disappoint once to lose business.

Vestavia’s Pappas’ Grill has been another favorite, but it, too, has had to deal with
a tightening economy. The restaurant used to be open on Saturdays and Sundays,
but the owners trimmed back their hours earlier this summer, with the doors open
now only on weekdays. We’re hoping Pappas endures, because it offers some
of the best Greek food we’ve had anywhere.

The cost of simply keeping the doors open continues to go up, with this financial
pressure showing up on menus. At one Mexican restaurant we visit in Pelham, beef
fajitas—once in the $12 range—have shot up to above $15. As much as he likes the food, a friend of ours says he’s cutting back on his visits, lamenting that he can’t have lunch there any more without spending well over $10.

The Bright Star

Having opened its doors in 1907 as a 25 seat cafe, The Bright Star—which now seats 330—has fed generations of families, offering a diverse menu of steaks, seafood and Greek dishes.

Fortunately, the Birmingham area remains blessed with a huge assortment of great restaurants.   One of our favorites—The Bright Star in Bessemer—is still going strong. Any restaurant that has remained in business for over 100 years has to be doing something right.

Other locally owned restaurants—while having been around only a few years—are packing the customers in.  At Alabaster’s Joe’s Italian, don’t be surprised if showing up for a Tuesday or Wednesday dinner still means waiting for a table.

Now in its fifth year, Shono’s Japanese Grill in Riverchase—another spot we hit regularly—is persevering.

Eddie and Flora Cui opened Shonos Japanese Grill in Riverchase in 2007. Customers love the ‘Eddie’s Special’ as well as the grilled shrimp and chicken.

We continue to discover wonderful new places appearing on the scene from time to time, too. On our first recent visit, we decided that Bistro V in Vestavia had scored a home run.

Despite the challenges, entrepreneurs still move forward. At Steak ‘n Shake, which made its Birmingham debut in Alabaster August 23rd, the newness hasn’t worn off.  Don’t be surprised if you have to wait for a table even when visiting at what would seem like a non-peak time.

Across Highway 31, the nearby Dairy Queen re-opens under new management October 1st.

It’s a bold move to open a restaurant in this day and age. For the selfish sake of my culinary desires, I’m hoping more folks will try it, though.

We do like to eat!



Enjoying Cars by the Creek

Living in Birmingham and Shelby Co. has its perks.

If you’re a car enthusiast, you’ll definitely want to check out the many car shows taking place throughout the area.  One of those—Cars by the Creek—was held September 15th in Montevallo, a Shelby Co. city many people love for its charm.

We captured the fun on video and thought you might enjoy it:

Events like Cars by the Creek are a wonderful chance to look back at the love affair Americans have had with the automobile for generations.

If you really want to get in the mood for a car show, here’s a good radio channel to check out:  Car Tunes Radio promises to be the perfect complement.

Activities like Cars by the Creek are one of the many advantages of being able to call the Birmingham and Shelby Co. area home…


Big Changes Coming For Short Sales

Short sales—long dreaded by many Buyers and Sellers alike for taking so long to conclude—may just actually become shorter, after all.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has just announced new rules designed to speed up the Short Sale process.  In the Birmingham area, getting your home sold in a Short Sale can sometimes take 90 days or longer … but that time could wind up dropping in some cases.

Under the new guidelines, which take effect November 1st, if you own a home with a mortgage backed by either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you’ll be able to sell your home in a Short Sale even if you are current on your payments, as long as you can prove a hardship.

The process of getting a Short Sale approved will be further streamlined, since, in some cases, mortgage servicers will no longer be required to gain additional approval from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Both entities will waive the right to pursue a deficiency judgement against borrowers who have sufficient income or assets if the borrower agrees to make a financial contribution or signs a promissory note.

If you have a second loan, the new rules authorize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer up to $6,000 to the second lien holder.  This may help speed up getting a Short Sale through, too, since—in the past—the process has sometimes been bogged down by second lien holders negotiating for higher settlements.

In addition, borrowers who serve in the U.S. military and who are being relocated will automatically be eligible for Short Sale approval, even if they are current on their mortgages.

The changes, backed by the National Association of Realtors, are expected to make Short Sales a more viable option for many home owners who otherwise might have faced defaulting on their loans and being Foreclosed.

Calera and Chelsea to Lose USDA Loan Coverage

If you’re thinking of buying a home in Shelby County’s Calera or Chelsea area and are planning on financing your purchase with a no-down-payment USDA loan, you better get moving with your purchase, because time may be about to run out.

As of October first, the USDA is expected to update the areas that qualify for its loans.  For Shelby Co., this means that Calera—which has long been a popular spot for home Buyers using USDA financing—will be dropped from the eligibility list.   Chelsea is also set to be dropped.

In Walker Co., Jasper will be dropped from USDA loan eligibility, as will Moody and Pell City in St. Clair Co., and Pleasant Grove in Jefferson Co.
In all, more than 90 communities will be removed from the list of qualifying areas.

The change in qualifying areas is not a 100% sure thing.  At least one U.S. Congressman—Republican Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska—is pushing to get Congress to order a one year extension of USDA’s existing eligibility zones.  Others pushing USDA to grant an extension include the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Home Builders and the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Why does USDA plan to change the zones?  The answer lies partly with the 2010 Census.   An existing grandfathering clause allowed any community considered ‘rural’ in 1990 to continue to be eligible for USDA funding until the 2010 Census, as long as it has a population below 25,000 and met other critera.  That clause, which was first enacted in 1990 and extended in 2000, is now set to expire.

So, unless Congress takes action, many communities that currently qualify for USDA financing will lose their eligibility—and for many of those areas, USDA loans are the only source of federal housing funding.


Are Birmingham Area Homes Selling?

From time to time, people ask us, “How’s business?”

If you look around and ask various Agents throughout the Birmingham area how their business is going, you’re likely to get varied answers.  One Agent we spoke with recently has struggled much of the year.  Other Agents we know have been doing much better.   Colleen and I have had an extremely busy year, for which we’re grateful.

The fact is that—regardless of the economy in general and what’s reported in the news media—homes still sell.  That’s because people’s lives change.  New jobs, a change in family size or wanting to be closer to a particular area can be among the reasons.

I’ve heard people thinking of selling their home say, “I’ll wait until the economy improves.”  To be sure, values are still down considerably, compared to previous years.
But that can also be like saying, “I’m going to buy a new car when the models get better.”

Here in the Birmingham and Shelby Co. area, the number of homes for sale in many communities is down considerably, compared to previous months.  In Shelby County’s Alabaster and vicinity, the Birmingham MLS shows 220 homes for sale at present.  This continues to be among the lowest numbers we’ve seen.

This drop in inventory is having an effect.  Homes for sale that we consider excellent deals don’t stay on the market long.  Buyers are out there, and pounce as soon as the excellent deals appear.

I’ve heard some home owners trying to sell without luck lamenting the lack of Buyers.   It’s really not that Buyers are scarce.  It’s just that they’re finding better deals elsewhere; the homes they wind up buying are in nicer condition, have more features, or are priced more attractively (or maybe all three).

A home needs to have pizazz to sell in the current market, and must be priced to grab a Buyer’s attention.
Homes lacking these attributes typically take much longer to sell (we’ve seen homes remain on market over a year before getting an Offer).

When it comes to getting your home sold, there are definitely success stories in the Birmingham area.   Colleen and I recently listed a home in Alabaster that got two Offers and went Under Contract 13 days after going on the market.  The Seller was motivated, priced his home so that Buyers had to notice, and has done a lot of fixing up to make his home look nice.  The payoff to his work is that his home is set to sell, so he can move.

The drop in inventory being seen in some areas around Birmingham is starting to put a bit of a squeeze on Buyers.  The Buyer who sees a really good deal on a home for sale in this area now realizes that there’s a chance to be taken by waiting:  Someone else might swoop in and grab the home in the meantime.

If you’re looking to buy a home in the area, our advice is to think about what’s important in a home to you, as well as area, and to contact us (205-356-5412).  If you’re planning to get a loan, another critical step to take early in the process is to get in touch with a Lender.  Here is a link to some area Lenders we recommend contacting.

Remember that the world of home mortgages can be confusing, because there are so many different kinds of loans and differences in fees, down payments and other charges.   A good Lender will be able to sort this out for you to help to simplify your decision.

Getting quotes from other Lenders to compare is a good idea, too; just be sure to understand that comparing different loans effectively means looking at all the overall costs, and not just a single fee that might be higher with one loan.  You might also ask about “locking” in your interest rate (which involves being assured of getting the same rate if you wind up buying a little later).

By following these steps, you’ll be on the road to being part of the home sales success stories we’re seeing throughout much of the Shelby Co. and Birmingham area.


Birmingham Loans Not As Scarce As You Hear…

It’s no wonder that folks who rely on the news media to know about our world often wind up confused, or sometimes, downright misled.

With the possible exception of politics (no, I’m not going there), I see few better examples of consumers getting misleading information than in real estate.

I have to hand a blue ribbon for disappointment to Marketplace, a program by American Public Media which recently produced a report about the difficulty of getting a home mortgage.

Reporter Gigi Douban in effect focused her magnifying glass on one part of the real estate industry and left folks with the impression that it’s just flat hard to get a home loan. Period.

“Now it’s nearly impossible to get a loan,” the show’s anchor said, leading into Douban’s report.

Douban interviewed people active in the Birmingham real estate industry:  Woody Woodfin, a Lender with Mortgage America; Johnny Montogmery, a Realtor with ERA King; and Jon Mulkin with BBVA Compass.

“There are plenty of folks who want to buy a house, but there aren’t that many who can,” Douban said.

I have no issue with anything anyone interviewed in the report said.

Woodfin talked about the fact that more of the Buyers approaching him for a loan than in the past wind up not being able to qualify.  That’s true.  We all know that mortgage requirements have gotten tighter, something that, in my opinion, needed to happen.

The fact is that getting a loan is difficult.  For some people.

The timing of this story seemed particularly ironic.  On May 14th–the same day Marketplace aired Douban’s report–BBVA Compass announced that it’s expanding its–get this–mortgage operations, and–guess where–in Birmingham, as well as in Tempe, Arizona.

“Even in Alabama, it’s hard to get a home loan,” the headline reads on the Marketplace website.

“Even in Alabama.”  Hmmm.  Is our state supposed to have always been easy street for getting a home loan?  “Well, shoot, Maybel, it’s not lookin’ good for us here in Tupelo, so let’s just head past Pete’s barbecue joint and cross the state line into Alabama.  Anybody can get a loan there…”

In a news release, BBVA Compass cited the rapid growth of its mortgage business as the reason for the expansion.  They’re hiring 60 more people to handle loans.


The bank said 270 people will be involved in mortgage operations in Birmingham.   Pretty impressive numbers, if you ask me.  It certainly suggests that BBVA Compass must have some reason to feel confident that they’ll be helping more people buy homes in the coming years, and, specifically, by writing loans.

Why else would they spend the money?

If the Marketplace report had provided a more balanced perspective, it would have mentioned that there are quite a few sales happening in the Birmingham and Shelby Co. real estate market.

Some in the business even feel the industry is turning around.

April home sales within the Birmingham and Shelby Co. area are up more than 10% compared to a year ago.

The fact is that if you have good credit–no, not absolutely through-the-roof sterling credit, but just good credit–you can get a loan.   Sure, some Buyers are paying cash, but don’t kid yourself; a lot of those sales are being financed.

It’s the people in less than sound financial condition, who are late or have missed payments, or who have judgements against them who likely face mortgage rejection.

With more homes selling, it’s only logical to realize that mortgages are not nearly as impossible to obtain as the media tells us they are.

The problem is that folks don’t always hear what the market is really like.