The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Odd Lots: Records, Staying, Leaving

Homeowners who lose their homes to wildfire, flood, tornado or another national disaster often lose the records needed to prove their losses -- for tax purposes, obtaining federal assistance or reimbursement from their insurance companies.

Fortunately, you can reconstruct your destroyed records or obtain copies of key documents.

For starters, ask the Internal Revenue Service for copies of previous tax returns. They’re free at by clicking on “Get Your Tax Record.” Or order them by calling 800-908-9946.

Your credit card companies and banks can provide copies of past statements, either hard copies or digital. This should help put a value on items that were lost.

To reconstruct property records, contact the title company or attorney who handled the closing on your house. If you’ve made improvements to the place, call the contractor who did the work to request a statement verifying the job and its cost. Otherwise, written statements from anyone who saw the house before and after the project may suffice, at least according to the IRS.

When no records of any kind are available, owners should check with their county assessor’s office for any old records that may address value or cost.

Homeowners aren’t moving on, at least not nearly as fast as they did just nine years ago.

According to a recent Redfin report, typical American homeowners had spent eight years in their homes in 2010. This year, they’ve spent 13 years and counting.

The reason isn’t hard to decipher: There aren’t enough affordable houses on the market. Plus moving is stressful, to put it mildly.

That people are staying put longer actually exacerbates the housing shortage. Take seniors age 67 to 85: Because they’re not moving on like they used to, there are 1.6 million fewer houses on the market, according to a report from Freddie Mac. If elders need cash, they can always tap into their equity by any number of means.

Even as they bemoan the lack of affordable housing, some state and local jurisdictions are aiding and abetting the inventory problem by putting policies in place to help reduce seniors’ property taxes, making it less burdensome for them to remain in their homes. In Texas, for example -- where Redfin found owners tend to stay the longest -- those over 65 can defer their taxes until they sell.

Speaking of moving, there are some things your moving company won’t or can’t take. Leftover fireworks, for example, are a definite no-no. So are outdoor plants, which are barred from being taken across state lines by Uncle Sam for pest control purposes, among other reasons.

OCD Moving Services in Northern California has a long list of hazardous materials it won’t carry, including acids, ammonia, car batteries, gasoline, pesticides, propane tanks, SCUBA tanks and cleaning solvents. Perishable foods are verboten, too, because they can spoil and attract rodents.

It’s always wise to keep personal valuables, sentimental items and sensitive electronics with you when you move. Ditto for animals.

OCD advises that every moving company will have a list of items it won’t transport. Ask for it so you won’t be surprised.

Here’s the latest version of a scam involving liens against our homes and other property: It arrives in the mail, in an envelope designed to look like it came from a legitimate government entity. But it didn’t. The nonexistent agency will boast a legitimate-sounding name like the “Bureau of Tax Enforcement.”

Inside is a letter threatening to seize your property or place a lien on it based on overdue taxes. This scam may reference the IRS to confuse potential victims.

If you receive such a letter, the IRS says you should contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration to report it using the IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting webpage. When reporting the scheme, include the keywords “IRS Lien.”

To cover all the bases, also scan or copy the document and send it to Report it to the Federal Trade Commission using the FTC Complaint Assistant on, and also to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center -- also known as IC3 -- at

If you plan to buy a newly constructed house next year, figure it will take the builder a little more time than they tell you. Such is the nature of the labor shortage hampering the business. Access to skilled workers remains the top business challenge for builders, and the predicted modest growth in new-home sales in 2020 is likely to worsen the problem.

The deficit affects a broad set of trades. Four out of five builders report shortages of framing crews and carpenters, but a majority of builders also are having a tough time finding qualified bricklayers, concrete workers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, painters and HVAC specialists.

Half of all building sites sold at a new record high of $49,500 or more in 2018, according to Census Bureau data. But when adjusted for inflation, lot values are still below the peak registered prior to the housing boom.

Given that lots are smaller these days and housing production is still below par, it might seem surprising that costs keep rising. But Natalia Siniavskaia, an economist at the National Association of Home Builders, says the trend is “consistent with persistent record lot shortages, (and) significant and rising regulatory costs that ultimately increase development costs.”