"Your windows are set to arrive on Thursday," my contractor, Benny, said to me.
After months of gloomy, rainy winter construction, I was finally going to see the new downstairs rooms without boards over the openings. Cliff and I hadn't originally planned to replace our windows but the unexpected discovery during demolition that the ceilings were actually a foot and a half higher than we thought, meant that our home's original windows were really too short for the new family room and bedrooms now underway (plus they were single-pane. Yikes!).
Having gone back to Design Review for approval, and then mandatory neighborhood input, had cost our project a month, and manufacturing the casement windows had added five weeks more. In the meantime, our job site had essentially been shut down while Benny took his loyal band of merry men and "filled in" with smaller projects. Now, we were - at long last - back on board and the beautiful, new, TALL, wooden windows would be installed by Friday.
Let there be light!
As a "serial renovator," I have learned that home construction projects are always full of unexpected surprises. In this case, the added height was a positive - as was the extra three feet behind my sons's previous closet space (although the added expense was not)! Still, with windows in place, and inspections signed off, we were finally in a position to start closing up walls and laying floors.
This is when it gets really exciting!
You would think that after four previous home renovation projects, I'd have the construction process down pat AND be able to anticipate the "unknowns" with more precision, but I don't. The truth is, that until the demolition is complete, it's virtually impossible to know what will actually reveal itself behind walls and in ceilings. I learned long ago that if I stay open to the journey, these unexpected "surprises" aren't mistakes - they are often opportunities. What's more, I know that it is completely appropriate to refine as we go!
I like to remind buyers that the house-hunting process is essentially the same - we refine as we go.
My colleague here at The GRUBB Co, Karen Starr, sums it up beautifully when she compares house hunting to solving a Rubik's Cube. "It's a matter of shifting, shifting, and shifting until click, it all falls into place!" (She's right, of course.) None of the "rejected" properties are wasted; each "nonstarter" helps carve out the ultimate destination and helps me refine your search criteria as well. So while you refine, I adapt in response. The more feedback I receive, the better I am at directing you toward appropriate choices.
Now that the Spring Market is upon us, it is once again time to start sharpening those Rubik Cube skills and putting them into action. This is where the Sunday Opens really come into play in a way that online shopping can never replace (not that the INTERNET isn't an incredibly useful tool).
So dust off your shoes, pull out your maps (does anyone actually use old-fashioned maps anymore with the advent of GPS and Google maps?) update your mortgage pre-approval letter and get out there. (I will happily send you a Sunday Open Home Guide each week to guide you on your journey.)
Until you personally place yourself in the homes, walk through the rooms and envision your lives there, you will never be able to feel the all-important "click!" When you do, it's as if the boards were removed and new windows suddenly appeared.
Let there be light!
"Can I have approval please? I need approval..." came the plaintive request over the intercom system in CVS last week. I couldn't help but chuckle as I listened to the monotone plea from the uncomfortable cashier and flashed onto the image of Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live. His self-reflective monologues always ended with "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and dog gone it, people like me." Now that's approval!
In real estate, the need for approval is no less important. Sometimes, the approval one seeks, comes via validation from friends and family in the midst of a Sunday Open. Sometimes it arrives by way of your agent through careful analysis of the numbers. Sometimes, the approval comes during inspections when all is going well. And every once in awhile it arrives along with the moving boxes and the neighborhood welcoming committee. With so much at stake, most buyers don't just crave approval, they need approval before moving happily forward with their purchase. And why shouldn't they? We all feel better knowing that a smart decision was made and our decisions are confirmed when others believe it too!
Likewise, Sellers also need approval. When sellers bring their homes to the market, it can be an invasive, gut-wrenching process. Having purged their shelves of old art projects, well-loved books and all manner of collectibles; having patched, painted and staged their home so that it is barely recognizable to them or their kids, and having gardened, cleaned and swept the inside and out so that it's darn near monastic; sellers naturally want their home to be "popular" with the buying public.
When it isn't - despite their best attempts - it's a bit like being the kid who wasn't asked to the prom (okay, that kid was me). No matter how much we love our homes, we want to know that other people love them as well. Unlike stock investments one randomly buys and sells, homes are largely emotional statements - for buyer and sellers alike.
Still, regardless of how "emotionally compelling" a home presents, it must also feel like a "good value" at the end of the day in order for a qualified buyer to step in. Or to quote the supremely dynamic, Tina Turner, "What's love got to do with it?" The truth is that neighbors, friends and buyers can all "love" your home but if it isn't priced right, the chances of it selling are greatly reduced in our more conservative marketplace. (Sorry!)
Having seen a dramatic correction in home values the last few years (even in high-end communities) many buyers feel inclined to exercise restraint in their next home purchase. This is especially true of first-time buyers who come to the table with NO equity from a previous home. Even those who might comfortably afford more, are often buying less expensive homes and who can blame them? More seasoned buyers have experienced first hand the shift in power.
So if waiting isn't in your game plan, you will want to list your home with a market value slightly under neighborhood comps. And if you've been on the market for more than two weeks without an offer coming forward, it may be time to reduce your asking price. When your demands meet market expectation, you're likely to get "approval" in spades.
"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and dog gone it, people like me!
"I've got a guest pass for you," my friend Carol emailed me. "join me at my hip-hop class this evening. It starts at 6:00 and I'll meet you there a few minutes before we begin."
I had become fast friends with Carol after helping her and her husband, Larry, sell their Piedmont home last year. Both now retired, Larry plays competitive tennis on the senior circuit and Carol is learning Spanish, skis regularly, practices yoga, takes pilates, and dances! (I want Carol's life - she's a woman after my own heart.)
Digging out my sweats and dusty jazz shoes, I headed over to the Oakland Hills Tennis Club and decided to give it a try. Sure, it had been more than 25 years since my last real dance class, but if Carol could do it, why couldn't I?
"One, two and three and four, tap, tap, jump and clap!" our perky dance instructor shouted out. "Pivot, pivot, step-ball-change, turn, touch, turn, kick!" I took a position at the BACK of the room and tried to follow the other 15 women and the two brave men who compromise the class as they gleefully gyrated through the routines - each one more difficult than the last. With respect to "hip-hop," I was quickly coming to the realization that I was more "hop" than "hip" (an observation my boys have long held, much to my dismay).
Over the last few years, the real estate market has become decidedly, less "hip" as well - as buyers "hop" from one home to the next, while tentatively remaining on the sidelines - in spite of incredibly favorable interest rates, rising affordability indexes and improving economic indicators that should be spurring them comfortably forward; a mystery many REALTORS are struggling to comprehend (including me.) Isn't this the market you BUYERS have been waiting for ???
Listening to an interview on NPR last week, a financial expert (and now author of a best-selling book about investing) explained the disconcerting, but all too human, disconnect. "We all know the old adage, 'buy low and sell high,' he said. "But in practice, market trends record exactly the opposite, time and time again!"
He went on to explain (now I'm paraphrasing) that when markets are strong - indicating high consumer confidence - money pours in. When markets are in decline - indicating low consumer confidence - money flows out. As a result, almost ALL investors (whether it's stocks, real estate or some other form of investment) buy HIGH and sell LOW! (Ah, that makes sense - if not good "cents.")
Although counter intuitive, investors tend to chase the market as opposed to taking advantage of it, while waiting for others to jump in first and validate their choices.When emotions, instead of facts, run our decisions, the outcome is decidedly more "hop" than "hip."
"And five and six and seven and eight, shoulder, shoulder, hip, hip!" Okay, I was starting to get it (at least, I was no longer bumping into the other women in class). With some more practice, I might just be able to figure this out as long as I kept moving in time with the beat.
I have confidence that you'll figure it out as well. Just don't wait too long. Today's opportunities are actually very "hip!" (I'd hate for you to miss out.)
"And one and two and three and four. . ."
r"Are you all right?" my ski buddy yelled down at me from the slope above.
"Not really," I thought, digging my poles, skis and goggles out of the snow. This was only our first run and I had already tumbled thrice - this time, head first into the fresh fallen powder, after deeply burying my tips. "I'm fine!" I lied, as I struggled to upright myself.
In truth, neither one of us had any business on this advanced slope but we had taken a wrong turn and DOWN was our only option. Unfortunately, we were too far dwon to turn back and too high to do anything else but work our way to the bottom (hopefully alive and intact!).
"You're sure?" Alison yelled back. "Yes, I'm okay," I responded between heavy breaths. I was already sweating from the sheer effort of digging my way out of the snow and the reality of the bumpy terrain and the likelihood of more bad falls ahead was a bit discouraging, if not downright daunting.
Just the day before, I had literally flown down these mountain runs with speed and grace. Expertly guided by my good friend, Debbie Kelley, I fooled my weekend companions into thinking I actually had some respectable skills. What a difference a day (and an unexpected winter storm) make . . . now, I resembled a human snowball! Eight to ten inches of fresh powder had revealed my true abilities, not to mention . . . I had snow in my pants!
Having taken up skiing relatively late in life, I will humbly admit to favoring the groomed slopes over the more challenging fare. Give me "corduroy" anytime and leave the moguls to snow bunnies who came out of the womb with skis on their feet and poles in their cribs - not to those of us who took up the sport along with our children! Where were those ski patrol guys anyway?
To add insult to injury, about 20 yards over, a group of carefree four year olds and their instructor, gleefully snow plowed down with little concern, while above me, the chair lift's line of sight only increased my mortification. "Great," I thought, "I'm the 'cautionary tale!'"
Faced with embarrassment or broken bones, I could only laugh as I slid on my hindquarters to safer ground, while behind me, Alison picked her way down the "experts-only" incline more gingerly than I ( My other friend, Debbie, had skipped a second day of skiing for a good book and a nap back at the condo - a better plan in hindsight).
Embarrassment aside, let's admit it, NO ONE wants to be the cautionary tale - and certainly not when it comes to real estate. Watching homes come to the market vastly overpriced, I often wonder, just what was the seller thinking? But to take it a step further, I wonder what their Realtor was??? After all, we agents are the ones who set the bar.
Of course, I've been in the game long enough to know that in these circumstances, it often isn't the REALTOR setting the price - it's often the Seller. But truth be told, as agents, we need to be willing to talk "market performance" with Sellers and encourage them to set more realistic expectations when the list price and the selling price are bound to be DRAMATICALLY different than an owner wants or needs, especially when we - the professionals - know that going in!
This isn't to say that Realtors always set the list price correctly (we don't) but with strong market analysis, reliable comps, and ample local experience, we should be able to set the value within striking distance - OR to encourage you to reset the asking price in quick measure. This isn't for our benefit, it's for yours. If you set a price too high, you'll soon discover that "DOWN" is your only option. If the goal is to sell your home quickly, the smartest thing you can do is to meet the market demand - and the sooner you do so, the better (or you too will be facing bumpy terrain and bad falls)!
Of course there are times when a seller insists we "float" a price significantly higher than we might have suggested for a few weeks, but it's not mine (or any reputable agent's) first choice. It's better known as "testing one's luck." Here's the reality: "luck" doesn't sell your home - "perceived value" and experience does.
More importantly, the outcome for those homes that have languished on the market is often much, MUCH worse than those properties that entered the marketplace priced competitively and were quick to sell. Buyers can (and do!) quickly judge a "good value" and will pass on your home, to compete for another down the road - even if they ultimately pay more for it! (Remember, it's all about "perceived value.")
So avoid the price bumps in the road and leave the moguls, steep hills and the "cautionary tale" to others who take a wrong turn. (It's much harder to laugh off a missed market opportunity than a soft fall in the snow.) Learn from my experience - there is an easier, softer way and while I can't guide you there on skis, I can certainly do so with respect to the marketplace!
See you on the slopes! (Look for me on the blue diamonds from here on out.)
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 600 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.