New home sales surge in September

The news keeps getting better on the housing front, and that should have a big impact on consumer choices in the short term and in the next couple of years. The economic collapse of 2008 has seen the U.S. economy slowly rebounding to per-recession levels, but the housing market has been stubbornly sluggish. Of course this affects the job market, particularly in construction, and also consumer choices. Many more people are renting these days, even with historically low mortgage rates and depressed home prices.

Now we may be seeing a real rebound, and smart consumers will react to these developments. For example, new home sales jumped in September to a 2.5 year high.

Home builders received more good news Wednesday morning as sales of new single-family homes in September surged to their highest level in 2 1/2 years, the Census Bureau said.

New home sales grew 5.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 389,000 last month. The growth was a significant rebound after new home sales fell off in August to a revised rate of 368,000. That followed a two-year high of 374,000 in July — more indications that the new home market is recovering in fits and starts.

Sales were up 27.1 percent from September 2011.

The median sales price of a new home sold in September was $242,000, down from $256,900 in August. There were 145,000 new homes for sale at the end of September, up from 141,000 in August.

Many prospective home buyers have stayed away from the market as they didn’t want to buy before it hit bottom. We’ll, the bottom seems to have arrived in many parts of the country, so it may be a great time to go home shopping while interest rates remain this low. As we see more activity and increased home values, we’ll also continue to see more home refinancings as another way to take advantage of the low rates. With that we’ll probably see many home improvements as well, from new kitchens for the wife to new man caves for the guys, along with larger maintenance projects like garage doors, roofs and back patios.

The decision to rent or buy is a difficult one for many people, regardless of whether they’re married or single, and sometimes people get too worried about price. The lifestyle issues frankly are more important. But in terms of timing it’s always best to buy when a market is coming out of a bottom, so it’s a great time to start paying more attention.

  

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Sons of Anarchy 5.07: Toad’s Wild Ride

SPOILER WARNING: This post will appear every Wednesday following a new episode of “Sons of Anarchy.” It is intended to be read after seeing the show’s latest installment as a source of recap and analysis. As such, all aspects and events that have occurred up to and including the episode discussed are fair game.

After the final scene of last week’s episode revealed what everyone already knew, that the Nomads were behind the home invasions and Clay was the one pulling their strings, the opening of “Toad’s Wild Ride” filled in some new information: the specifics of Clay’s deal with his new lackeys. When Clay tells them to get out of town for a while, Frankie Diamonds (who’s played by Chuck Zito, the former president of the New York chapter of the Hells Angels) responds, “What about our deal? We get you back at the head of the table and we get a piece of your end.”

As Unser put it, “Who has something to gain by making the club weak; turning the town and the sheriffs against them? Suddenly the pretty guy they gave the gavel too, he ain’t looking all that smart.” But we’ve always known it was Clay, and we’ve always known Clay’s only goal since losing the presidency was getting it back. So I suppose that stuff’s not really new either. Here’s what is: Clay’s finally dropped the whole “lion in winter” act.

Clay’s been slowly regaining strength (both literal and figurative) for some time, but he’s continued playing the weak old man. Last week, his doctor told him things were looking up health-wise and he no longer needed the oxygen tank. Nonetheless, Clay put it back on as soon as he left the office and lied to Juice about his uplifting prognosis. Now, he’s ceased putting on airs (pun intended), or at least modified his bullshit. He no longer argues with the people who hate him, he simply agrees that they have every right to. He tells Tara she’s “supposed to hate [him], like [she] does,” and Jax that “I know you think I’m the devil, son, and you’ve got every right to assume that I’d be the one setting fire to your table.” Although he follows up the latter by proclaiming his innocence, hence modified bullshit.

But let’s pump the breaks on Clay for a moment, with six episodes left there will be plenty of time to talk about his misdeeds. Instead, let’s talk about Juice. Last season, Juice was suicidal. Roosevelt blackmailed (hey, another pun) him into snitching and he was forced to kill his “innocent” brother Miles as a result (I put innocent in quotes because let’s face it, these guys are a bunch of gun and drug-running thugs, affable though they may be). Chibs noticed something was up with “Juicey boy” and tipped off Clay, who granted him the “Men of Mayhem” patch partly because of the adept way he’d handled the Russians and Mayans, but also as a way to lift his spirits.

Juice was a broken man. That patch, and the honor and respect it represented, as well as Clay’s words when he gave it to him (“I love you, son”) were exactly what Juice needed at that moment. Clay became the badass, white biker father he’d never had, and ever since, he’s been loyal to Clay to a fault. Now, Clay’s pulled his most devoted apostle into the whirlpool of his deceit, and that loyalty could land Juice on the wrong end of a gun.

Ever since we found out the tragic circumstances of JT’s death, there’s been no question Clay will lie, cheat, steal, and even kill to save his own skin. We saw that this week, when he set up the plan to eliminate two of the Nomads (including GoGo, whose DNA will implicate  him in the home invasions). In one fell swoop, he attempted to distance himself from his minions and regain some of Unser’s trust (although I don’t think old Wayne will believe it for a second). Based on the preview for next week’s episode, Juice is in for a double whammy. He’ll come clean to Clay about the blackmail and killing Miles, and Roosevelt is going to reveal to Jax that he ratted in return for Clay, who’s responsible for the death of the sheriff’s wife. It’s obviously well within Clay’s playbook to set up this mess as a distraction from his own misdeeds. The preview ends with a Son on his knees with a gun to his head. Here’s hoping it’s Frankie and not Juice, (WARNING UPCOMING SEMI-SPOILER FOR “THE SHIELD,” ANOTHER FX SHOW KURT SUTTER WORKED ON) who’s always been to SAMCRO as Lem was to the Strike Team (END SPOILERS).

One last thing on the Jax/Clay situation: At least one of the guys involved in the drive-by was black, which complicates things a bit. It could mean Pope is somehow involved in the Clay/Nomad deal. Alternatively, it was mentioned that Warren, the con man played by Joel McHale, runs with a crew. So it could’ve been his guys getting revenge. After all, it seems silly to get a name like McHale to play a one (and one-tenth) and done character. If he’s just going to disappear now, his familiar face did nothing but detract from the suspension of my disbelief, which is a point in favor of this option. But the far more likely scenario is still that Clay hired a random black gang banger so he could make Pope a scapegoat. After all, Clay’s really only ever had one move when he needed to bail himself  out of trouble: blame it on the blacks. Think about it, Donna got shot, blame it on the blacks, Opie shot me, blame it on the blacks, and so on and so forth.

Now, on to the episode’s last bit of drama: Gemma falling asleep at the wheel and crashing with the Teller children in tow. Filthy Phil had a concerned look on his face as Gemma buckled the kids in. After all, she’d been smoking pot and maybe drinking just a little bit earlier and had likely been awake for more than 24 hours dealing with her car getting stolen, Unser being attacked, and the rest. The sequence ended with what appeared to be Abel’s blood dripping onto his stuffed toad, hence the title “Toad’s Wild Ride.”

The scene was foreshadowed in Jax and Gemma’s earlier conversation, in which mama bear revealed that her overbearing, possessive love of Jax stems from the early death of his older brother Thomas. Said discussion led to Jax advocating for Gemma to watch the kids for the weekend, despite Tara’s misgivings, which in turn led to the fateful crash. Is the death of Tara’s oldest child (I know, Abel’s not technically her child, but still) the final step of her transformation into Gemma? Well…

Here’s the thing, I’m still not positive Abel’s dead. Jax and Gemma’s discussion could have been a red herring. Maybe it was Gemma’s blood, or some grape juice. Maybe Abel’s alive but seriously injured. Sutter’s been known to pull that kind of thing before. Remember when we were all convinced Juice had hung himself? Because I sure do. Maybe it won’t be Tara turning into Gemma because of the death of her eldest child, but Jax turning into Nero because his son is now handicapped.

The result could be any of these things, or none of them. Here’s what we know for goddamn sure: Tara is going to tear Gemma to shred regardless. Remember when she beat the shit of Carla for almost getting Jax killed? That was one thing, she knows the kind of life her husband lives. But her children? And after she continually reiterated that she was trusting Gemma in spite of her best instincts? Gemma is in for a (overly due) beatdown. Tara’s rage could also land on Jax. After all, it was his idea to trust Gemma with the kids in the first place.

No matter what, this episode moved a whole lot of interesting plot lines forward and set the tables for a few more. I have to admit I was worried about the show falling off after a few of the season’s weaker episodes, but after this week I’m sure we’re in for the same thing Toad was. Get it? A wild ride.

Check out the preview for next week’s episode below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

  

Product Review: Proraso Shave Foam and Pre-Shave Cream

When I was a kid, it was easy to locate a barbershop thanks to the telltale barber’s pole located on the outside of each establishment. And I always wanted to crack that barber pole open and see what it felt like, it’s texture, assuming that its taste was not that far off from a peppermint.

Most barber poles are gone now, but the sentiment, style and quality of a bygone era is thankfully still maintained by the gents at Proraso.

Proraso is an Italian company that has been specializing in men’s shaving for over 80 years. In many ways, it is a remnant of how seriously men used to take the duty of shaving; it was an experience to be enjoyed, not a task to be hurried through.

The first thing I noticed about the pre-shave cream was the texture. It isn’t a cream in the gloppy, lotion sense. When you stick your finger in, it doesn’t necessarily cover your finger, but rather encompasses it – it has a feeling akin to something lighter than air, really. Loaded with eucalyptus and menthol, you can feel the refreshing sensation that is in store for your skin the minute you remove the lid and catch a whiff, before you even apply it.

Once you do apply it, your skin begins to tingle within a few seconds. Honestly, it felt great to just leave the pre-shave cream on and hang out for a few minutes, letting it settle before I added the shaving cream.

Shaving cream gets a bad rap these days, thanks to the cheap stuff in a can that you can get at almost any store. That stuff is so light and airy, in many cases, it feels as though you’ve barely applied any of it to your face prior to dragging a razor across it, which makes for a substandard shave. But the Proraso shave foam had a different volume, felt heavier yet still light, and had its own texture as well. It is a foam, not a cream.

It’s the kind of shave foam that a barber would lather the back of your neck up with after a haircut and annihilate the hair with a straight razor, before that was outlawed.

I could feel the same refreshing, clean, open skin feeling for a full 20 minutes after the shave. It evoked the kind of feeling that makes you want to rub your hand across your freshly shaved skin because it feels so crisp and alive. And it left a clean surface with no stubble or whisker untamed. Also, my skin didn’t feel dried out or scaly after that feeling abated; instead my skin felt protected and solid.

I really like the old school appearance and feel of Proraso. Don’t let the canister fool you – it isn’t the bland, “Brand X” canister you can get at any store for $5 dollars. This is like your grandfathers shaving cream: bold, full-bodied, and undaunted by the fact that it’s a legit, old school shaving cream in a time of gels and other gimmicks.

Buy the Preshave Cream for $13 and a canister of Shave Foam for $12 by clicking here.

  

Blu Tuesday: Vampires, Asteroids and Bohemians

Don’t be deceived by the small selection of titles in this week’s column, because there are a lot of great Blu-rays hitting stores that weren’t available for review, including the 30th Anniversary Edition of “Blade Runner,” a special edition of the “Universal Classic Monsters” collection, and Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike.” That doesn’t mean that the following Blu-rays aren’t any good, but the ones that aren’t featured are even better.

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”

There have been quite a few movies about the end of the world released over the last two years, which means that either people are more miserable than I realized, or the Mayans were right. Of course, the problem with basing a story around such a bleak topic is that it’s depressing – something that “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” tries to avoid by injecting some humor into the proceedings. But even though it fancies itself a rom-com of sorts (albeit one with a dark and not so chewy center), there’s nothing very funny about the apocalypse, and so “Seeking a Friend” is never able to become the movie it wants to be. Though the idea of pairing Steve Carell with Keira Knightley may sound strange, they work well together. It’s definitely a welcome change of pace for Knightley from the stuffy period pieces we’re used to seeing her in, and she brings some much-needed emotional weight to the film. It’s just too bad that the end product is so unbalanced, because “Seeking a Friend” had more than enough talent (between its two stars and the various cameos) to suggest it would be better than this.

Blu-ray Highlight: It may seem a bit weird to hear people like Patton Oswalt and Adam Brody on an audio commentary for a movie they’re barely in, but the two actors help make the track – which also includes writer/director Lorene Scafaria, her mother Gail, and producer Joy Gorman – more lively and entertaining. Brody, in particular, does a good job of keeping the group on course by asking general questions about filming.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”

You’d expect that a movie called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” would have a certain amount of humor to it, but save for a couple unintentional laughs, Timur Bekmambetov’s big screen adaption of the Seth-Grahame Smith novel plays things surprisingly straight. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it was meant to help sell the comedy of its ridiculous premise, but the movie is starkly serious and almost completely void of any fun. Granted, watching Lincoln slice and dice vampires with a silver-tipped axe provides some amusement (especially when we finally get to see the older, bearded version in action), but those moments don’t come often enough. Benjamin Walker proves himself an adequate choice for the role of the 16th President, and Dominic Cooper is good as Lincoln’s vampire hunting mentor, but the movie always seems to be just on the precipice of embracing its comic potential, only to resist at the last minute, and in that regard, it fails pretty spectacularly in delivering the kind of B-movie guilty pleasure that its whimsical title would suggest.

Blu-ray Highlight: In addition to a fairly informative audio commentary by writer Seth Grahame-Smith, the disc also includes a collection of production featurettes (ranging from a basic making-of documentary, to more specific departments like make-up effects and fight choreography) that fans of the movie will definitely want to check out.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday”

John Schlesinger’s 1971 British drama “Sunday Bloody Sunday” may have been really well-received when it was originally released in theaters, but it doesn’t quite hold up by today’s standards. Though there’s no question that it was way ahead of its time (and some might even say groundbreaking) in the casual treatment of its gay relationship between Peter Finch’s closeted doctor and Murray Head’s bisexual artist, it’s also incredibly slow and boring at times. I love a good character study just as much as the next person, but none of the characters in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” are fascinating enough to hold your interest, and when a movie relies on its characters as much as this one does, that can prove troublesome. The constantly shifting perspectives makes it very difficult to connect to any of the three leads, and there are a few weird moments scattered throughout (like the pot-smoking kids, the dog’s death and the flashbacks) that feel random and completely pointless. It’s still worth checking out for Finch’s performance, but it’s questionable whether the movie deserved the Criterion treatment.

Blu-ray Highlight: There’s not as much on tap as some Criterion discs, but fans will be happy to discover a nice collection of interviews with John Schlesinger, actor Murray Head, and others that worked on the film, as well as an interesting retrospective on the movie by Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann titled “On Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

  

The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Richard Hammond (“Top Gear,” “Richard Hammond’s Crash Course”)

Although the History Channel has done an admirable job of trying to bring “Top Gear” to America, there are many viewers who still view the U.S.’s take on the series as a pale imitation of the original UK version…and, yes, if you’re wondering, I am one of those viewers, thank you very much. Not that there’s anything wrong with Adam Ferrera, Tanner Foust, and Rutledge Wood in principle, but to my way of thinking, they can’t hold a candle to Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May. I mean, I’m not even a car person (and, boy, is that an understatement), but I’ve been enthralled by the adventures of Clarkson, Hammond, and May ever since I first discovered the series a few years back.

Indeed, I’ve found their presences so uniformly enjoyable that I’ve even followed them over to their various solo exploits. For instance, if you’ve never seen “James May’s Toy Stories,” head over to Hulu and check it out post haste…but, hang on, before doing that, perhaps you’d better watch “Richard Hammond’s Crash Course,” which actually makes its debut this evening on BBC America. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Mr. Hammond during this summer TCA press tour, and we chatted about this new series as well as the one which made him a household name amongst automobile enthusiasts, not to mention various and sundry other topics.

Bullz-Eye: You’re all but ubiquitous on UK television nowadays, but how did you find your way onto TV in the first place?

Richard Hammond: I started as a radio host 24 years ago, in 1988. Local radio, a small station in the UK. I stuck with that for the better part of 10 years and eventually started doing TV. Car-related TV, because that was always my passion. And that opened into other types of TV, but I stuck with the cars as well, and then eventually auditioned for and got “Top Gear” when they re-launched it.

BE: Being a re-launch, I guess it was both a proven commodity as well as an unproven one, since it was all new.

RH: Yeah, it’d become quite old-fashioned and, as happened, it was taken off air because viewers had dwindled, but then it came back as an entirely new thing.

BE: Presumably you were pleasantly surprised when it took off as well as it did.

RH: Weren’t we, though? [Laughs.] Yes, but it wasn’t immediate. We were very lucky. We were afforded the opportunity to grow organically over time, because it was only a small show, so we could be allowed to evolve. We never set out to create the monster we created. We set out to make the best car show we could. That, honestly, is all we ever set out to do. And it was what it was, and it grew to what it became, and it found the appeal it found. We were just lucky. It was a perfect storm. The perfect combination of event, context, characters, appetite…it all came together.

BE: It’s very much a car show for people who aren’t even car aficionados.

RH: Well, we kind of do that to save the viewer the bother. We’re car geeks. I mean, I collect cars. I’ve got…oh, God, dozens of them at home, ranging from pre-war to immediate. But it has to have that at heart. We occasionally…not in recent years, but there was a time when we’d be asked quite regularly, “Are you really a car guy, or is it all put on?” You couldn’t pretend! But you don’t have to be a car fan to watch it, because cars, generally speaking, are fascinating to everyone because they affect all of us. Even if all you ever do is get in one to get a ride to school, they’re still part of your life, be it as a symbol, a means of communication, a means of transport, even as self-expression.

BE: What would you say has been the most fascinating aspect of “Top Gear”? You’ve been to so many countries, done so many things…

RH: Well, I’ve grown up there! I was 30 when we started, I’m 40 now. That’s a big period in a chap’s life! [Laughs.] Both my daughters have arrived since then. Lots has happened. It’s been a part of my life for a long, long time. That’s probably the big surprise. No, the bigger surprise is what’s happened to it! It still takes our breath away how big it’s gotten. We can’t believe it.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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