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Spurt of Home Buying as End of Tax Credit Looms

Published by New York Times

DES MOINES — Nine hundred days after putting their house on the market,
Andrew and Jane Palestini were beginning to think they might be stuck
in Iowa forever.

Jane and Andrew Palestini in their home in Clive,
Iowa. Their house is now under a sales contract for $225,000.

The Palestinis put their home in Clive, Iowa, on the
market in September 2007. “My feeling was it would never be a problem
selling,” Jane Palestini said.

The looming expiration of the government’s housing tax credit pushed
them into action. They dropped their price by an additional $10,000, to
$235,000. Somewhat to their shock, a buyer emerged. The house is now
under contract.

“I can’t feel happy,” said Mr. Palestini, a retired administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration. “Just relieved.”

After several disastrous months for home sales across the country, when
volume dropped by 23 percent, the pace appears to be picking up again.
The number of Des Moines homes under contract in February rose by a
third from the January level. The number of pending contracts jumped 10
percent in Naples, Fla., 14 percent in Houston and 21 percent in
Portland, Ore.

These deals will be reflected in the national sales reports when they
become final, this month or next. There is no evidence that prices have
begun to move in response to the higher volume. Indeed, so many homes
are coming on the market that prices might well fall further.

Real estate agents say buyers and sellers are hurrying to take
advantage of the tax credit, which is worth up to $8,000 for home
buyers. But the last-minute rush is also prompting some foreboding
about what will happen to the market on April 30 when the credit ends —
and whether it is too risky to let it end at all.

James M. Poterba, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this “the exit strategy problem.”

“If you have a short-run program to stimulate demand, it’s always
tricky to figure out how you gently remove it without going off a
precipice,” he said.

Arguments for extending the tax credit a second time are just
beginning. Robert Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale and
co-developer of the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller
housing price index, is an early advocate. He thinks the credit was a
bad idea that nevertheless the market cannot do without.

“You don’t make drug addicts go cold turkey,” Mr. Shiller said. “The
credit interferes with the market in an arbitrary way, but ending it
now would be psychologically powerful. People will be in a bad mood
about buying a house.” He advocates phasing it out gradually.

In some states, worries about the housing market are trumping fiscal
considerations. They are adopting or extending tax credits or other
supportive measures in hopes of bringing the market to life.

California last week renewed a $10,000 credit that proved popular last
year, allocating $200 million for it despite a state budget crisis. New
Jersey legislators just introduced a bill that would give buyers a
$15,000 credit spread over three years. South Carolina recently
announced a $7,000 down payment assistance program for teachers, police
officers and firefighters.

As it has been for several years, housing remains the most coddled and
the most troubled sector of the economy. Outside the realm of real
estate, many of the government banking programs created to deal with
the crisis have ended, and credit markets have largely returned to
normal. On March 8, the Federal Reserve held its final auction in a
two-year-old program that offered banks emergency short-term loans.

A few days earlier, however, government regulators extended a
refinancing program for homeowners whose properties had plunged in
value. Originally due to expire in June, the program has been renewed
to the middle of 2011 “to support and promote market stability,” the
Federal Housing Finance Agency said.

On Monday, just three days after substantially expanding its
antiforeclosure programs, the Obama administration announced another
$600 million to finance innovative measures to help defaulting families
in five hard-hit states: North Carolina, Oregon, Ohio, Rhode Island and
South Carolina. The first round of financing, announced last month,
provided $1.5 billion to states including California and Florida.

Supported by an array of government programs aimed at both reducing
foreclosures and encouraging traditional sales, housing was supposed to
be on the road to a solid recovery.

An earlier version of the tax credit created a rush to buy in the fall,
when people thought it would expire Nov. 30. The housing industry
argued that sales would fall off a cliff if the credit were not
extended and broadened, so Congress went along.

Stan Humphries, the executive in charge of data and analytics at the
housing site, said government support was crucial in
breaking housing’s acute fall in 2007 and 2008, but that it had also
obscured the actual weakness of the market.

“Many people got the sense last year that we had bottomed out and were going to rebound in a V-shaped recovery,” he said.

Instead, the sales volume of existing homes declined in December more
steeply than in any month in the four decades that such numbers have
been tracked. Sales dropped again in January and February. Meanwhile,
the sales volume of new homes fell in January to the lowest level since
record-keeping began in 1963, a record broken again in February.

Buyers who want the tax credit must sign a deal by April 30 but would
have until June 30 to close. Consequently, if sales volume is going to
plunge after the credit expires, it will not show up until the numbers
for July are reported. While Mr. Humphries says he does not expect
sales that month to fall by December’s record rate, he predicts a long
period of merely “dragging along the bottom,” with prices to match.

That was just what the Palestinis were worried about.

If they did not sell by April 30, they anticipated having to lower
their price yet again, to compensate any buyer for the credit he would
no longer get. It also meant they would not get a credit themselves on
buying a new home in Philadelphia, pushing down what they could afford
to pay.

It has been an unexpected ordeal. The Palestinis bought their spacious
ranch house in the Des Moines suburb of Clive for $185,000 in 1995,
after looking for only three days. “My feeling was it would never be a
problem selling,” said Jane Palestini, a retired specialist in adoptions from China. “Ha, ha, ha.”

In early 2007, the house across the street sold in three days, but the
Palestinis spent the summer getting their place ready. By the time they
put it on the market that September for $265,000, prices were falling.

For months, they lived in a state of readiness for prospective buyers.
To minimize clutter, they carted off many of their possessions to
self-storage. They bought new pillows and kept them mounded on the
beds. They bought fresh flowers and baked hundreds of cookies.

The months became years. They know their mistake: They should have kept
cutting the price until they sold. But every dollar they dropped their
price was one dollar less for a down payment in Philadelphia.

Their house is under contract for $225,000. After paying the agent’s
commission and subtracting the cost of remodeling the kitchen, the
Palestinis are at best breaking even. “You just have to ignore how much
it’s going to hurt,” Mr. Palestini said.

At least they have escaped whatever trouble is to come this summer.

Their agent, Jim Heldenbrand, told them he hoped the credit would “get
the momentum going.” But he also mentioned the plans of a colleague in
real estate: As soon as the credit expires, the man plans to get on his
Harley and just keep riding south.

Pinnacle Casino set to move forward

From The Advocate:

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. officials testified Tuesday that all permitting and financing is proceeding on time and the company should soon be able to break ground on Baton Rouge’s third gambling casino, perhaps in May.

Cliff Kortman, Pinnacle’s president of design and construction, told the Louisiana Gaming Control Board that the company had addressed many of the concerns raised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and expected approval of that key permit. Officials with other government agencies have indicated that they would give their permission to proceed pending the corps approval, he said.

The corps regulates construction near and around levees. Pinnacle plans to build a complex that crosses the Mississippi River levee off Nicholson Drive near Gardere Lane.

As announced previously, the Baton Rouge project will include a new single-level riverboat casino; a 100-room hotel; a mix of restaurants and lounges; and an entertainment venue. Pinnacle has spent more than $20 million on the Baton Rouge project so far, the official with the Las Vegas-based company disclosed to the board.

Pinnacle has received proposals to build the boat on which the casino will sit and has been meeting with contractors bidding to build the complex, Kortman said. Final bids from the competing construction contractors should be received by March 24, he said.

Once the permits and contracts are in place, the Gaming Control Board must give its approval before construction can start, Kortman said.

“We anticipate that we will have everything we need for the board in April,” Kortman said. Construction would begin within 30 days of the board’s approval.

“You’re right on target,” said Dane K. Morgan, who chairs the nine-member panel that oversees gambling activities and businesses in Louisiana.

Pinnacle has delayed the Baton Rouge complex three times because of credit market conditions, most recently in October, when the board gave the company until the end of April to let construction contracts.

The Gaming Control Board then voted without dissent to let Pinnacle seek up to $250 million in loans to finance the Baton Rouge project and one in Lake Charles. Pinnacle must first raise $100 million on its own before borrowing the additional funds.

The Lake Charles project, called Sugarcane Bay, is expected to be finished before the Baton Rouge complex. Sugarcane Bay, the sister property to the company’s L’Auberge du Lac casino resort, will include a new single-level riverboat casino; 400 guestrooms and suites; dining and lounge outlets; a multipurpose venue for entertainment and group meetings; and an expanded spa. Pinnacle reports estimate completion of the casino later this year with the hotel charted to open next year.

LSU breaks ground on $52 million complex

From The Advocate

As additional budget cuts loomed, LSU moved forward Friday with a big groundbreaking ceremony for its $52 million Business Education Complex.

The groundbreaking came during the same week that college officials learned from the Jindal administration that lower-than-expected state revenues in February could lead to another $85 million in cuts to higher education — including $34 million to the LSU System — next month.

“In hard times, it’s delightful to have a chance to celebrate for a few moments,” LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said.

Indeed, the event drew about 200 people, nine speakers, LSU cheerleaders, a giant Forever LSU banner and “LSU Means Business” T-shirts.

Just before introducing Gov. Bobby Jindal, LSU E.J. Ourso College of Business Dean Eli Jones noted, “Higher education is critical to economic development” — a notion Jindal reiterated minutes later.

“It (the business complex) is going to rival the finest in the country and it’s going to help our flagship university attract and keep the best and brightest students in the country,” Jindal said.

After the ceremony, Jindal said no decisions have been made on additional budget cuts.

“We need to give another month to see if that was an anomaly or a trend,” Jindal said of the low February tax collection revenues that surprised many.

Jindal then touted his proposed “La GRAD Act” plan to give colleges the authority to increase tuition by up to 10 percent a year initially, in order to increase college revenues, if colleges agree to meet certain performance standards like increased graduation rates.

Jindal also is backing proposed constitutional amendments to dip more into certain education and tobacco settlement trust funds that could improve education and health care funding.

Colleges have seen their state funding slashed by about 20 percent — nearly $250 million — during the past 15 months, including $83.9 million slashed in January, because of declining state revenues.

The 12-years-in-the-making Business Education Complex is funded through $30 million in state construction dollars, $18 million in privately raised LSU funds and a $4 million bridge loan from the private, non-profit LSU Foundation.

The complex was originally meant as a $60 million project with $30 million in private fundraising dollars. But LSU struggled to raise the private funds during lean economic times. However, the recession led to a buyer’s market for construction jobs and lowered the total construction cost.

In November, Jindal reaffirmed the prior commitment of $30 million in state funds for the construction and ensured the funds were immediately available by upping the priority level.

Lafayette-based The Lemoine Co. is the contractor.

Jones has said the building could open as soon as January 2012 or as late as summer 2012, depending on delays.

One of the top volunteer fundraisers for the project, Bill Slaughter, president of SSA Consultants in Baton Rouge, said LSU refused to settle for a smaller project during times of fundraising problems.

“We don’t aspire to be in the middle of the pack; we aspire to be in the top rung of business schools,” Slaughter said. “We purposely thought big. We didn’t want to think just another building.”

The complex is designed as a village of buildings connected by a large rotunda. The 156,000-square-foot complex would include four buildings wrapped around a 14,000-square-foot exterior quadrangle graduate court.

The business complex would be east of Patrick F. Taylor Hall (formerly CEBA), which houses the College of Business and the College of Engineering. The plan is to move the College of Business into the proposed complex that would serve as a cornerstone of the campus. The College of Engineering would have Taylor Hall primarily to itself.

Sites for upper elementary, middle school

From Baton Rouge Business Report

Central Community School officials have purchased two tracts of land off Sullivan Road for $2.45 million. The sites, which total 84 acres, are between Hooper and Joor roads, says Brian Kidwell, director of business for the school system. Design work for the new upper elementary and middle school has already started; Kidwell says the plan is to have the facilities open by the start of the 2011-12 school year.

Capital Region home sales down in February

From the Baton Rouge Business Report

Capital Region home sales were down 6% in February, when compared to the year before. According to figures from the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service, there were 415 homes sold in the Capital Region, compared with 443 in February 2009. Ascension Parish once again saw its sales increase, going from 91 MLS transactions in February 2009 to 94 last month. The average sale price in Ascension was down, however, from $213,461 to $192,596. East Baton Rouge Parish saw its home sales fall by nearly 15%, from 241 to 206. The average sale price was virtually unchanged, from $212,603 in February 2009 to $211,956 last month. Livingston Parish average sale prices increased, from $149,930 in 2009 to $157,000. But the number of homes sold in the parish dropped to 77, from 86 in February 2009. Sales and average prices were up in the other category, which includes MLS sales in parishes such as West Baton Rouge, Iberville and the Felicianas. There were 38 homes sold, at an average price of $166,807, compared with 25 sales and an average price of $154,562 in February 2009. Through the first two months of the year, the number of home sales was down 6% in the Capital Region, to 790, while the average sale price was down 2%, to $189,253.

—Timothy Boone

Sales activity over the last quarter in EBR and Ascension

Sales By Area
Criteria: Status: S, Category: RESIDENTIAL
12/4/2009 to 3/4/2010
Propery Type :D SF
Area # of Sales Total Sales Avg Sales Median Sales
11 EBR MLS AREA 11 60 $9,544,537 $159,075 $149,500
12 EBR MLS AREA 12 3 $239,800 $79,933 $92,900
21 EBR MLS AREA 21 28 $4,582,500 $163,660 $139,000
22 EBR MLS AREA 22 30 $3,564,900 $118,830 $114,750
31 EBR MLS AREA 31 37 $1,636,813 $44,238 $35,500
41 EBR MLS AREA 41 50 $6,609,404 $132,188 $127,000
42 EBR MLS AREA 42 66 $10,783,940 $163,393 $152,450
43 EBR MLS AREA 43 89 $19,819,787 $222,694 $199,500
50 EBR MLS AREA 50 1 $330,000 $330,000 $330,000
51 EBR MLS AREA 51 20 $5,534,100 $276,705 $238,450
52 EBR MLS AREA 52 37 $10,675,725 $288,533 $280,000
53 EBR MLS AREA 53 67 $21,324,919 $318,282 $261,900
60 EBR MLS AREA 60 6 $808,000 $134,666 $134,500
61 EBR MLS AREA 61 35 $12,863,175 $367,519 $240,000
62 EBR MLS AREA 62 28 $9,249,000 $330,321 $303,950
90 ASC MLS AREA 90 168 $32,954,840 $196,159 $177,300
91 ASC MLS AREA 91 67 $13,294,065 $198,418 $176,500
92 ASC MLS AREA 92 14 $2,681,612 $191,543 $170,000
TOTALS 806 $166,497,117 $206,572 $175,000