It will take at least a few years, but the whiz kids at M.I.T. are working on a robot that may guide you through a home that's for sale.
Q. Is it true that some real estate open houses are now being conducted by robots instead of real-life agents?
A. Not yet, but they could be soon.
The elite Personal Robotics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has worked for years to develop what team members call "highly expressive humanoids." They include a robot named Rea, who currently exists in a virtual world, where people can ask questions about buying property.
The group's goal is to create lifelike robots that easily can interact with humans, work with them side-by-side, and learn from everything people ask or tell them.
Results of the possible breakthrough would be unbelievable. Instead of being glad-handed by a human real estate agent when you visit an open house, the robot would greet you and then guide you through the home while pointing out its amenities. Its extendible arms could pick up plastic coffee cups and empty cheese plates that visitors left behind, while its built-in sensors would alert it to replace a burnt-out light bulb or adjust a hyperactive thermostat.
The robots also would allow agents to avoid one of their least-favorite jobs: Spending hours or even weeks showing a home to dozens of prospective buyers. And instead of a human agent asking you to fill out your name and other information when you visit, all the info could be gathered with the quick swipe of a driver's license or other identification card -- much like the info on the card you use at the supermarket or gas station to debit an account or get a discount.
The machines pose some problems, though. One concerns privacy issues, including how real-life agents might use the information from potential buyers that the robots could collect. In addition, automated humanoids may not be able to prevent theft the way an eagle-eyed human agent could if a questionable buyer shows up with the intention to steal personal possessions from the house.
It'll also take some time before the robots could answer legal or tax questions that human agents field on a daily basis, in part because even the whiz kids at M.I.T. have not yet been able to develop a universal program that addresses the intricacies of local and state laws or the rules imposed by the Internal Revenue Service.
That's good news for lawyers and accountants, as well as for reporters who write weekly question-and-answer columns about real estate.
Q. Is it true that O.J. Simpson's Florida home is in foreclosure?
A. As of late January, yes. New York-based lending giant JP Morgan Chase wants to take back the 4,200-square-foot, four-bedroom home that the former football great owns in the upscale Miami suburb of Kendall, although his lawyer has already filed a motion to stop the proceedings.
Records indicate that Simpson paid $575,000 for the home in 2000 but now owes more than $700,000 on it because he allegedly hasn't made a mortgage payment since 2010 and his penalties and fees have been mounting. The property's assessed value today is $478,401, according to the Miami-Dade County assessor's office.
Simpson, now 64, was acquitted in the 1994 murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. But even if he loses the Florida home to foreclosure, he'll still have a roof over his head: He's serving a prison term that could last for up to 33 years in Nevada for a 2007 robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas.
And in the bizarre universe in which Simpson seems to exist, animal-rights group PETA recently asked the lender to donate the Florida home to the organization so it can establish a Meat is Murder Museum on the site that a representative says "would include educational displays that highlight interesting facts about the animals who are so casually converted into sandwich fillings."
PETA wants the house because Simpson was an investor in several restaurants that specialized in selling chicken and ham meals.
Q. My dad is 91 years old and is moving from his longtime house to a permanent nursing home. My mom died two years ago, and I am my dad's only heir. For tax purposes, would it be better for him to deed the house to me while he is still alive, or for me to inherit the property from him after he eventually passes away?
A. It's almost always better to inherit a home than to receive it as a gift before the owner dies.
To illustrate, let's say that your dad purchased the house many years ago for $30,000 and that it's now worth $200,000. If he deeded it to you now and you immediately sold it for a net profit of $170,000, you would owe tens of thousands of dollars in federal taxes on the sale proceeds.
Conversely, if you inherit the home from your dad instead, the value of the property would automatically be "stepped up" to reflect its value on the day he passes away. If the property was worth $250,000 on the day of his death and you sold it for that amount, you wouldn't owe any federal taxes at all.
Talk to an accountant or other tax professional for more details. It might make sense for your father to form an inexpensive living trust now and use it to hold title to his home and other property. After he passes, the trust could enable the house and other assets to quickly be inherited by you instead of suffering through long and costly probate proceedings.
• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Trust, P.O. Box 2960, Culver City, CA 90231-2960.
© 2011, Cowles Syndicate Inc.