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ABOUT REAL ESTATE: What’s hot, what’s not in new-housing market this spring

Question: We instantly fell in love with a newly built home in a housing tract that’s under construction. The only thing that worries us are the vaulted, 14-foot-tall ceilings in the living room and two of the three bedrooms. Wouldn’t those high ceilings make it very expensive to heat or cool the home?

Answer: Not necessarily. Most new homes, especially those with vaulted ceilings, use extra-heavy-duty insulation and other energy-saving tools to keep heating and cooling bills as low as possible.

Ceilings 9 feet tall or more are making a comeback in new housing developments this year, builders said in a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders. Other relatively new additions to the most-popular amenities list include energy-efficient windows and appliances, programmable thermostats and a guest room that can easily be transformed into a family room or even a spare kitchen.

Walk-in closets in the master bedroom, two-car garages and granite counterparts — all of them old standbys — once again made the most-popular list.

What features are on the decline? Builders say they include elaborate outdoor cooking areas, outside fireplaces, and foyers and living rooms that have two stories. Sunrooms and laminate countertops aren’t “hip” among most new-home buyers anymore either, developers say. Nor are whirlpool tubs in the master bedroom or carpeting on a two-story home’s main level.

Real estate trivia: Believe it or not, the island paradise of Hawaii has the lowest average property-tax rate in the nation: just $482, according to the financial-resources website WalletHub.com. The highest is New Jersey, with an average of $3,971.

Q: My wife and I bought our home in 1998. She passed away (cancer) in 2006, and now I’m finally ready to sell our home and use the proceeds to buy a small condominium. My wife’s name is still on the title to the property. Will this cause a problem when I try to sell?

A: No, although it may require you to file a little extra paperwork.

In most states, a homeowner who wants to have the name of his or her deceased spouse removed from the title to a home must file a copy of the spouse’s death certificate with the county recorder. An “affidavit of survivorship” also must be submitted.

You can get more information from the recorder’s office or from the closing attorney or escrow agent who will handle the transaction. Though you can file the needed documents when the sale goes to closing, it would be better to complete it now to ensure that the deal is completed as smoothly and quickly as possible.

Q: We filed our federal tax return in February, and were looking forward to a big refund based on all of the new deductions we were entitled to receive after buying our first home last year. The check from the IRS hasn’t arrived yet. When can we expect it?

A: The IRS claims to issue most refunds within 21 days to taxpayers who file their returns electronically, and within six weeks for those who file a traditional paper return.

Still, a variety of issues can cause delays. The most common problems include missing or incomplete forms (including those that are simply unsigned), poor documentation, and those that are impacted by the fast-growing number of refund-related identity theft or fraud.

The best bet way to track your refund status now is to visit www.irs.gov, the agency’s website, and click the “Get Your Refund Status” button at the top of its home page. After entering a few pieces of information that only you should know, you’ll get an update in a matter of seconds.

An alternative is to call the IRS toll-free number, 800-829-1040. You’ll get the same update, but it easily could take an hour or more, because that phone line is swamped with calls at this time of year.

Q: I don’t have a living trust, but I already have a will. Will my home and the rest of my estate still have to go through probate court after I die?

A: Yes. Many homeowners mistakenly think that completing a will can allow their belongings to automatically pass to their heirs. In reality, every will must go through the costly and time-consuming probate process so a judge can rule on its validity and settle any claims made on the estate.

Conversely, property that you place into an inexpensive living trust does not have to go through probate, and instead can quickly pass to your heirs.

David M. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate, Inc.

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