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Grand Rapids Michigan Named Americas Greenest City

by Mark Brace

The Rust Belt city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, takes on a green patina -- and finds that it boosts business

On a sunny afternoon in Grand Rapids, a group of earnest, middle-age folks is gathered in a conference room, looking at slides of wind turbines and charts about wasteful energy use. A full-bearded man, who looks as if he's just back from a nature walk, talks about his plans to build a home showcasing the latest in low-impact design. At the front of the room, the speaker asks, pep-rally style, "What's the most effective source of renewable energy today? Conservation!"

But this isn't a meeting of Earth-loving Hippies Reunited. The speaker, Michael Ford, is an executive at Cascade Engineering, a plastics manufacturer that makes ducts for Ford, dashboard silencers for Chrysler, and all manner of doodads for other industries, and he's presenting at the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum's monthly meeting. The attendees are top managers from major companies in and around Grand Rapids, the region's commercial center and Michigan's second-largest city. "We are in business to make money," Ford reminds them. They're doing it by turning eco-friendly, in the belief that reducing the environmental cost of commerce will raise their profits, boost the regional economy, and burnish Grand Rapids' increasingly credible claim to the title of greenest city in America.

Grand Rapids leads the nation in the number of LEED-certified buildings per capita. In 2005, Mayor George Heartwell pledged that more than 20% of the city's power would come from renewable sources by 2008; it hit that target a year early, and Heartwell upped the target to 100% by 2020. The municipal government's energy use has been cut by more than 10%. The public-transit fleet features hybrid buses. And here, in the heart of the Rust Belt, manufacturers are leading the greenification charge. Office-furniture heavyweights Herman Miller and Steelcase both have LEED-certified buildings in the area, as do industrial firms such as Cascade Engineering.

Peter Wege, Steelcase's retired chairman, is the father of green Grand Rapids. "In 1937, when I started working in the desk plant of my father's metal-office-furniture company, I learned that we recycled steel to cut costs," Wege recalls. "Seven years later, flying an Army plane into Pittsburgh on a sunny day, I became an environmentalist when I had to ask for tower lights because I couldn't see the airport through the black smog. Those two experiences helped make me an economicologist -- a word I coined to define the balance we need between economy and ecology."

Over the years, Wege ordered various eco-friendly moves, introducing the reprocessing of toxic solvents and investing in a baler for recycling packing materials -- a purchase he cites as a proof of economicology because "once the baler was paid for, Steelcase began saving $20,000 a year." Last year, Wege gave $20 million for the construction of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the world's first LEED-certified art museum.

Wege also popularized the term "triple bottom line" here, listing human welfare and environmental responsibility on par with fiscal profit. Today, that's the most common eco-biz buzzword in Grand Rapids. "Environmental drivers may be the reason companies try sustainable business practices, but eventually business drivers take over," says Dave Rinard, Steelcase's director of global environmental performance. The company's LEED-certified wood-fabrication facility, for example, cost up to 5% more to build than a traditional plant, but it uses about 30% less energy; Steelcase recouped the extra cost in 18 months. It also refined its wood-manufacturing process, replacing harsh solvent-based chemicals with a water-based one. The new finish costs more but proved easier to recover and reuse, and takes just 24 hours to cure wood, compared to 90 days for the toxic solvents. It also makes workers happier. "At the finishing point in most plants, workers wear hazmat suits and respirators," says Steelcase manager Kevin Kuske. "Ours wear shorts and T-shirts."

Like Steelcase, Cascade Engineering sought LEED certification -- its HQ is rated platinum -- and greenification has opened the company's eyes to new lines of business. Its new EcoCart, a curbside trash receptacle made with recycled plastics, has quickly become a hot seller, and the firm has inked a deal with a Scottish company to be the exclusive North American marketer of an innovative wind turbine that includes a plastic propeller produced by Cascade. "Most businesspeople think of instituting sustainability as a zero-sum game," says Cascade founder and CEO Fred Keller. "But it is the right thing to do -- and we think we can make it a good business, too."

In becoming a green center, Grand Rapids is also turning itself into a lab, a training camp, and both an exporter and a magnet of expertise. Keller teaches a sustainable-business course at Cornell University, and it was there that he recruited Michael Ford, one of his MBA students, who has launched two energy-related subsidiaries in the past two years. Integrated Architecture, designer of several of Grand Rapids' LEED-certified buildings, has an expanding list of out-of-state clients drawn by its hometown work. Aquinas College launched the nation's first undergraduate-degree program in sustainable business in 2003, underwritten by a $1 million donation from Steelcase's Wege. "We see ourselves as part of the new knowledge-based economy," says Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group, a consultancy with a growing national business. "We're exporting the information we've learned to other parts of the country."

Matthew Tueth, chair of Aquinas's sustainable-business program, goes so far as to call what's happening in Grand Rapids a "movement" that could secure the region's economic future. "You can make lots of money while at the same time having a restorative -- not just a less-bad -- effect on the environment," he says. "This is not a fad. And if it is, we're done as a species."

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Federal Housing Tax Credit - Detailed Breakdown

by Mark Brace
 Important things to know about the Tax Credit:
*The money is not immediately available to the home buyer! The buyer must fill out a specific form when filing their 2008, or 2009 tax returns. (Note, buyer can file an amended tax return to their 2008 tax returns if they buy a house in 2009, and still get the tax credit in 2009 instead of waiting!) They then receive the money as though they would be receiving a tax refund. Please know this is not a tax refund or a tax deduction, this is essentially a 0% interest loan.
*Must be a first time home buyer OR buyer can not have owned a home in the last three years.
*Buyer can claim a credit of up to 10% of the purchase price, with a max credit of $7,500.
*Repaid over 15-years with no interest.
*$500 per year repayment at time of doing taxes each year.
(Example: If buyer was expecting $1,000 back on taxes, buyer would only receive $500 back. If buyer had to pay $500 on taxes, buyer would actually need to pay $1,000. Caution - if buyer cannot come up with money at tax time there are penalties and fees!)
*If buyer bought/buys the house in 2008, and filed for tax credit on 2008 tax returns, buyer would not need to start repayment until 2010. (Credit available to home buyers after April 9th, 2008)
*If buyer buys a house in 2009, and filed for tax credit on 2009 tax returns, buyer would not need to start repayment until 2011. (Credit available for home buyers up until June 30th, 2009) (Please note the above - tax credit available immediately in 2009 IF buyer files amended tax return for 2008)
*Full $7,500 available for singles with gross income of $75,000 per year, OR joint filings with gross income less than $150,000 per year. The tax credit phases out from there until single filing reaches $95,000, and joint filings reach $170,000. After which no tax credit is available.
     *Important! If buyer is expected to pay (example) $4,000 in taxes on returns, and is applying for the $7,500 tax credit, the buyer would actually only receive $3,500. Vice versa if buyer is to receive $1,000 back on taxes, buyer would actually receive $8,500 back.
*No restrictions on location or type of house.
*No restrictions on what the money is used for. Can be used for remodeling, paying off credit cards, etc.
*Tax credit is not available for nonresident aliens, or if the home is anything other than a primary home.
*If buyer sells house before repayment period and has no gain on the sale, buyer will not be expected to pay the credit back. If the buyer has a net gain, the "recapture" cannot exceed the amount of buyers gain.
If you would like to investigate further, please visit or call me anytime.
Information Provided by:
Zac Ellerbroek
Independent Mortgage Broker - Treadstone Mortgage

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Contact Information

Mark Brace, Realtor, ABR, GRI, CRS, SRES, e-PRO, A
Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Michigan Real Estate
3000 East Beltline NE
Grand Rapids MI 49525
Direct: (616) 447-7025
Cell: (616) 540-7705
Fax: (616) 447-7025

Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices - Michigan Real Estate is a full service, locally operated real estate brokerage company backed by the strength of a solid national and global brand. Our full service businesses include Residential, Commercial, Relocation, Mortgage, Insurance, Home Services and New Homes & Land. Our core values, service philosophy, cutting edge technology, and most importantly our people are what make us the leading real estate company in Michigan. We are committed to providing the highest quality real estate services possible and making each customer's experience one that surpasses their expectations.