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By Robert J. Bruss
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page F16

Q DEAR BOB: I live in a high-cost area. Although my apartment rent is low compared with the costs of owning a home, I realize there is no advantage in being a lifetime renter. I have a great job producing good income, but I can't afford to buy even a starter house. Is there any hope that I will ever own my own home? -- John R.

A DEAR JOHN: Yes, you can buy your own home even in a high-cost area. Anyone with a decent income can afford to buy a house or condo. But please be aware your first home probably will not be your ultimate dream home.

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However, in a high-cost area, you need to get a little creative.

You might want to do as I did when I bought my first home in a high-cost area. Realizing I would have to really stretch my budget to afford a single-family house, a friend suggested I buy his three-unit triplex so the rents would help me pay the mortgage and property taxes.

It wasn't my dream home, but it was a start. I moved into the two-bedroom house at the front of the property. There were two rental units at the rear. The rents from those two units paid my mortgage and I paid the property taxes, insurance and maintenance from my job income.

Living next door to your tenants is not the most fun thing in the world. They know where to find you if there's a problem. But it was convenient for me to knock on their door if they ever "forgot" to pay the rent on time.

About 12 years later, I sold that property at a huge profit (thanks to some improvements and inflation) and bought my current single-family detached house. You can do the same thing. Consider buying a small income property as your first home and live in one of the units to get started with ownership.

DEAR BOB: With the continued increases in home prices, condominiums seem to be the only option available to many potential buyers. I see that some condos are built on leased land. Would you recommend buying a primary residence condo on leased land? -- Schaefer P.

DEAR SCHAEFER: No. The reason it is not wise to buy a condo (or any building) on leased land is, as the lease draws near its end, the market value of the condos rapidly plummets. That's because, when the land lease expires, the building becomes the property of the leasehold landowner.

However, if the land lease contains a favorable option for the condo owners to buy the land during the lease term, that might be advantageous. If the lease is for at least 15 years with an option to buy the land, then the land lease payments to the landowner are tax deductible as itemized interest under Internal Revenue Code 163(c).

To illustrate, suppose you buy a condo in a new complex built on land leased for 40 years. The developer probably has arranged to offer mortgage financing because most lenders won't lend in such a situation. As time goes on, it will become more and more difficult to resell those condos, except at drastically reduced prices.

Even condos built on land leased for 99 years have the same problem. Of course, you won't be around when a 99-year land lease expires and the landowner acquires title to the building. But there are no advantages for buyers of condos built on leased land and lots of unfavorable possibilities.

DEAR BOB: I have a tall shade tree in my back yard. My neighbor asked me to have the tree trimmed where the tall branches hang over her property so she won't have any leaves fall in her yard. She claims her rosebushes don't get full sun. This is our only shade tree. Can she force us to trim our tree? Should we? Do we have to? -- Mary Ann H.

DEAR MARY: The "tree rule" in most states says a property owner can, at his own expense, trim branches (or roots) on a tree belonging to a neighbor back to the property line. However, a "rule of reasonableness" applies.

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