"I like the house," my client said, "but I wish we were both doing cartwheels over it. That would make the decision a whole lot easier." That's true, it would. I hear you - a back flip, a handstand, or even a small summersault might suffice. "Yoo hoo - this is the one!" Take it from me, it almost never happens like that.
Thinking about the five homes my husband and I have bought in the last 20 years, there hasn't been a single one over which either of us have enthusiastically jumped for joy (although we were thrilled to be in a position to purchase - I don't want to sound too ungrateful). The truth is, I didn't like any of them much and one house, I absolutely hated.
From our first flat on Seventh Avenue in San Francisco, which was in real disrepair (a recurring theme), to our current home on Littlewood (which we bought for the setting, the garden and the gazebo - not the house), Cliff and I have never had the luxury to buy a "turn-key" home or to just follow our hearts. But to be fair, they all presented a "solution" in the moment and they all turned out to be profitable. Instead, we steered a course and followed a path - which eventually landed us here, in Piedmont (not too shabby)!
However, every single home held tremendous "potential," which got me to thinking that most people don't really buy the home of their heart's desire - they buy the promise of a home; or the promise of what it can be. (Oh and btw, the same is true for marriage. We embrace the "promise;" yes?) But first it begins with a starting point.
This is just as true for the $400,000 buyer as it is for the $4,000,000 one. As evidence, just look at the big, BIG homes here in town that are currently undergoing construction. One was recently rebuilt from top to bottom and rumor has it, that the new owner intends to gut it and start anew. (Really?) The point is, regardless of how much one spends, all homes evolve into what we want and need them to be with some effort and intention. They become ours over time, and often, they become better for it.
A wise and wonderful friend summed it up when he said his motto in life is "expect good," which I love and wholeheartedly agree with, but mine would have to be "aspire." Aspire to goodness, aspire to kindness, aspire to dream . . . With all of the gymnastics the banking industry has experienced and the flip-flops that housing has endured these past few years, purchasing a home in today's world takes real courage. Instead of "jumping for joy," we are often asked to "jump through hoops." (What a drag.)
So in the face of housing gymnastics and all that we risk, of course we want certainty. We want "value" and above all we want to know we have made a good decision. (Wow - that's an ambitious bill to fill.) No wonder buyers are often tentative and fearful. Who could blame them? (Not me.) Buyers are often walking a tightrope and yes, that can be scary, if not downright paralyzing.
But here's what I've discovered along the way (just my two cents) - one can never buy a home in fear, one can only successfully complete this transaction in hope. You have to "aspire" to the dream of home ownership and then deal with each challenge as it arises (and count on it, there will be challenges aplenty). Whether you are facing a multiple bidding situation or you are alone at the negotiating table, you need to progress with belief and with faith or you will be looking for an "exit strategy" from the moment your offer is accepted.
An experienced Realtor will help you outline the pros and cons, encourage you to thoroughly inspect the property, arrange for any specialists to weigh in with their opinions, outline a strategy for purchasing the home, and thoughtfully walk you through the entire process from beginning to end. But even with ALL that information to be gained, at the end of the day the decision to buy must be based on "hope" or you'll look back with regret.
So how's the tale end? It's still very much a work in progress. My current home has come a long way in seven years and I like it a whole LOT better now then when we first purchased it - at very near the height of the market (no, you weren't alone). Still, it isn't perfect by a long shot AND I'm still "hoping" to remodel the kitchen at some future point. Curious readers ask me if I've finished the remodel? The truth is, "yes and no." I joke that "I'm out of money so I must be done" (at least for the foreseeable future) and that's the reality for most of us. Isn't it? That's okay, I've got time on my side.
Still when I focus on the solutions, as opposed to the problems, I find the answers come.
If I am not yet doing cartwheels, I'm warming up for them. I might even jump for joy a little.
Expect good and then "ASPIRE!"
Junuary (no that's no misspelling, given the protracted rainy season we experienced) is finally becoming June and the weather seems to be cooperating at long last. I, for one, am thrilled to finally be packing away the sandbags for good and pulling out the beach towels in their stead.
You know the song, "Uptown Girl," by Billy Joel? Well, I am definitely a "Down Stream Girl." When it's really storming, as it did in droves this year, the rain has a habit of pooling down by my garage door and at times, it gets downright exciting ("pooling" is a euphemism for "flooding). I've even been known to don rubber waders to clear the drains. Whoosh! "Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive, stayin' alive . . ."
Happily, I can now focus on summer chores that include drier projects such as tree trimming, pool skimming and barbecuing. Heck, the Fourth of July is practically upon us. "Heat wave!" (If you are around, don't miss the parade in the center of town or the concert that follows after.) Piedmont 4th of Julys represent Americana at its best with everyone gathering in the center of town in the morning, in the park in the afternoon and at block parties as twilight arrives. "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy . . ."
And if you are bringing your home to market in June, you're in luck. Buyers definitely prefer to shop when the sun comes out. In fact, you'll be right in line with families that are seeking to move during the summer months when "School's out for the summer!" and the weather is warm. How convenient is that? (Pretty darn convenient.) Price your home correctly and it should "Sail away." No kidding! Don't skim over the part where I mention pricing your home correctly. The stock market took a tumble last week and that affects buyer confidence as well as their pocketbooks!
So don't delay, now is the time to bring it on. We should have very good traffic until August when things tend to slow considerably, as families head out-of-town to Tahoe and other destinations far and wide. (I'm ready for Hawaii myself.) "Tiny bubbles . . ."
But until then, expect activity to stay fairly constant. I've been "flooded" with phone calls of late - as have my colleagues - which is the only kind of "flooding" I welcome. Still, with warm days ahead and a vibrant summer market to look forward to, I think it's fair for all of us to "just direct our feet to the sunny side of the street."
But first, I need to pull out those lawn chores - I mean lawn"chairs."
So whether you're"a little bit country or a little bit rock and roll ," (a little bit Piedmont or a little bit Berkeley) let's buy or sell a house this summer together. 'Cuz I'm a "round like a circle, like a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel . . ." Call me.
Yeah, it's definitely time to dry off.
"Sky! Plane! Airplane! Plane crash! Yes, Yes, YES!" screamed the boys in an unbelievable come-from-behind victory in Pictionary last Saturday night, which had all three teams scribbling frantically for the win in a game so loud and wild, that the neighbors surely heard our boisterous antics (and that's not easy to do on my property).
Alas, the boys (who had been so far behind they hadn't even been in contention a few minutes earlier) beat the moms' AND the dads' teams in the final, exciting stretch. A large pile of cast off sketches littered the table while the boys joyfully danced around the dining room in sheer and utter glee (better known as the "victory dance" in my household) while the rest of us laughed and shook our heads with wonder, exclaiming, "Foul!" "Cheaters!" "The game was rigged!" (Mature, I know.) What fun! What silliness and what a surprise in the very last round.
I haven't played Pictionary for a few years now, but like all games, I'm reminded of just how quickly things can change and how a seemingly "done deal" can shift in the last final moments (sounds an awful lot like real estate - yes?).
Ironically, I had been working on a supposedly "done deal" all day long, but the final hurdle lay in the sale of the Buyers' home and ultimately, it had an unanticipated outcome, which resulted in some last minute shifts with respect to the Sellers' end. This is what's known as the "Contingency Sale;" where one successful transaction is based on the successful completion of another. In other words, the two home sales are intimately linked together. It's a roll of the dice to be sure, but for some properties, it may be the best option - in fact, it might be the only option.
As you might imagine, eleventh inning surprises are rarely welcome, but the better news was that the Buyers were were still willing to complete the transaction; they just needed some help to get there . . . It's important to remember that until ALL contingencies are removed, there is always the possibility of further negotiation.
Such are the realities of today's marketplace. Negotiation is part and parcel of every transaction and as such, it requires more flexibility from both buyers and sellers - and in this instance, more creativity as well. With everyone's participation and contribution (and with emotions quietly set aside) we managed to bridge the gap and come to an accord. Happily, the close of escrow is now locked in and the "Sold" sign has been posted. Finally, at long last, and after months of challenges, the deal is "done." Everybody relax and breathe . . .
Situations such as these remind me that things have a way of working out if we stay open to the possibilities and opportunities, if we realistically manage our "expectations," and if we artfully navigate the challenges when presented. That's not only real estate, that's life . . . Moreover, that's the nature of every "deal" in a nutshell - even when we think we're "done."
"House! Lawn! Garden! Real Estate!" (Yes!)
My family is big on board games: Dominoes, Perquacky, Trivial Pursuit - we've played them all and we are all extremely competitive at them (meaning, I'm extremely competitive at them.) I'm especially adept at games involving tiles or cards. It's a tactile thing I suppose. I haven't taken to Internet challenges or the Xbox the way my kids have, save for a game of Spider Solitaire now and again. Give me a good old-fashioned game of cards any day of the week and I'm on board (pun intended).
My dad taught all of six of his kids how to play cards when we were just barely out of diapers and then he taught me and my twin sister the game of cribbage before we entered the third grade - a game I still play to this day (although admittedly, Jill beats me more often than I beat her). Perhaps it's the beautiful hand-carved cribbage board I truly love, but the shuffle of the cards, the rhythm of the count, and the dance of the pegs working their way up and down the board, all work for me.
Last week when I visited my dad at his home in Sonoma, he introduced me to his latest favorite craze called Rummicube. It's a cross between Dominoes and Rummy that manipulates patterns and numerical runs using multi-colored numbered tiles. Bingo! That's a game that's custom fit for me. Suffice it to say that I took to it like a duck takes to water, beating my dad, my sister, Karen, and my mom, in the highest scoring game they've played to date. (Okay Dad. That wasn't very nice of me in your "post-operative" condition but it's the way you taught me to play. You'll beat me next time around.)
If it sounds boring - it's not. The goal is to get rid of all your tiles first, thereby accruing the unplayed points of your opponents, but the skill comes in the form of rearranging the runs already on the table in order to create new opportunities for your pieces. To get there, you might need to change up to half a dozen groupings before making a single move. (It's pretty darn satisfying.) Don't worry if you didn't follow that, my point is, the game is all about numbers and how to shift them in your favor. (Have I peaked your interest now?)
The fact is, Real Estate is often a game of numbers as well, and truth be told, skilled Realtors are very good at manipulating the math. If I need to make an argument for why a home may be priced a bit "overly ambitious" in order to support a buyer's "less than asking" purchase offer, I carefully scan the MLS and pull the sales that support this proposition. Conversely, if I need to reassure a buyer that the home they have just successfully gone into contract on can indeed hold its value (as I did just last week) I can do that too - with supporting data!
Mind you, I don't make this stuff up, if I can't support the numbers, I'll tell you so. Specifically, I won't tell you that your home will sell at a certain price, if current market performance doesn't meet your expectations (even when it costs me the listing). And if I feel you are "overpaying" for a home (a term I take strong issue with, but that's another column altogether) I'll tell you that as well.
I don't manufacture the numbers, but I do work extremely hard to "reveal " the market reality, which comes by way of thorough analysis and a clear understanding of the marketplace and its inventory - not just today but over time. You have to really know the numbers in order to present them in a way that makes sense (makes cents) and is quantifiable - and that takes both practice and diligence. There's simply too much at stake to "gut" it out when buyers and sellers require strong supporting evidence in order to move ahead.
But after all the numbers are in place and presented for your consideration, the reality is that true "value" on any property is quite subjective by nature. Don't mistake my meaning, an appraiser and a lender work with "objective" criteria that qualifies value, but buyers and sellers work more from the gut then they care to admit - and often their Realtors do as well. That's the ART of the deal. It isn't science - it's instincts, nerves - and guts!
While almost all of us start from a pragmatic position - based on what we can (or cannot) afford - within that framework, there's an element of emotion that overlays the process that can't help but tip the scale with respect to "value." Moreover, "value" has a way of becoming a moving target - especially when measuring market demand. Add to that, the deeper understanding that "value" is fungible; sometimes working in our favor and sometimes, against - and the concept of "value," can indeed, become very confusing.
But in today's world (which is the only world in which we can judge) does this home meet your specific needs better than others you have seen? Does it serve your family well? Is it close to transportation or shopping? Is there room to grow? Is there a school nearby? Is there a view? Adequate closet space? Ample storage? A Garage? A garden? Good light? Most importantly, does it speak to YOU emotionally? (Yes?) Bingo! Then good news folks, you've found your next home!
The point is (my point is) these distinctions are "value propositions" that add up to different values for different buyers AND all are criteria that may shift over time, as needs change. Putting aside the math, there's a certain element of faith that comes into play - irrespective of the numbers - no matter how carefully or thoughtfully presented they are.
When all is said and done and analyzed, we are left with our instinct, our desire and our decision. Then all that remains, is to embrace the numbers and make a move. "Fifteen two, fifteen four, fifteen six, a pair makes eight, a pair makes ten, a run is thirteen and a Jack is fourteen . . . " Now what's in the crib?"
I am just coming off three looong days of baseball, having spent the Memorial Day weekend alongside my husband, my younger son, Tristan, his baseball teammates, and a large contingency of family and friends, at what was to be our last Citrus Heights Tournament ever.
Having participated in this same tournament for several years now, first with our older son, Case, and now again with Tristan, it's with mixed feelings that Cliff and I watch Tristan grow up and age out of this particular field of players. Next year he'll move up to his local Piedmont High School team here in town and then it's just a few short years until he's off to college. (My, they do grow up fast.)
As such, Tristan harbored (and shouldered) a lot of expectations going into the weekend. As the only available catcher for his team and after enjoying some exceptional results with the bat all season long (a talent he most definitely didn't inherit from me) Tristan expects - and often delivers - "magic" when he's at the plate, staring down a pitcher.
(When it comes to baseball, Tristan has definitely enjoyed more than his fair share of success.)
After a walk-off hit by a teammate in the first game, the boys were off to a very exciting start. Alas, in the second game, they were soundly beaten and by Sunday night, there was NO possible way to secure a spot for Monday's finals and the tournament trophy - no matter what the result.
Even so, with only one run separating Piedmont from Pleasanton, with two outs on the board in the last inning of the final game, and with two Piedmont players in scoring positions, Hollywood itself, couldn't have written a more exciting ending. (Can you say "clutch situation?") All of us watched with baited breath as Tristan stepped into the batter's box.
Gripping the bat and tapping his shoulder three times (his signature trademark) Tristan set his feet and cocked his elbows in ready position . . . .
The first pitch fouled way down the third-base line. Tap, tap, tap - swing and a miss. Tap, tap, tap - "ball." Tap, tap, tap -" ball." Tap, tap, tap - "Foul!" came the call, as the next pitch slid off Tristan's bat and slammed into the backstop. Tap, tap, tap . . . CRACK! Here's the one we had been waiting for. The ball flew UP, UP, UP . . . before sailing neatly into the left fielder's outstretched glove.
"Out! And that's the game folks," barked the announcer. (Oh, bummer!) That's not the way it was suppose to play out. Sadly, for my son and his team, this wasn't the Hollywood ending they had been hoping for.
Welcome to life. We don't always get to write the fairy tale ending we seek.
You might imagine this is true in Real Estate as well and you'd be right. Given our clients' budgets and restraints, even the best agents don't always get to write the winning offer. Would it surprise you to know that there are times, when I discourage buyers from writing at all? What's that you say? Not write? (Right!)
No matter how emotionally invested you are in a home, there are situations when it behooves you - the buyer - to "opt out" and NOT write, especially when there are multiple offers being presented and you simply haven't the wherewithal to swim in deep waters. In that situation, you are better off treading water and letting the more aggressive players compete for the home, while waiting for an opportunity that better aligns with your circumstances, instead of adding to the mix.
Really? (Really.) Drafting a less than stellar offer on a home that's been strategically priced to create a feeding frenzy, only pushes the rest of the company northward, thereby creating a higher comp for the next listing to hit the street. (Did you follow that?) In short, the house was never intended to sell at its listed price. It's only meant to entice.
Properties priced well below what they should be, often create an auction of this type and they tend to play out with several disappointed buyers who never really stood a chance and one successful bidder who ultimately paid a premium for the privilege. Unless you want to use the experience as a "dress rehearsal" for the next home, several writes, can definitely make a wrong, and ultimately prove very discouraging to the unsuccessful bidder over time (nobody likes being rejected over and over).
Regardless of the seller's expectations, the market is the market and it remains true to form. Savvy buyers aren't easily fooled.
So if your expectations are in line with the market, I can work with that. If it's a fairy tale ending you seek, that's much tougher to abide. Take heart, they'll be other opportunities coming your way (which is what I told my son who wasn't inclined to hear me at that very moment).
Whew, it's tough being a mother. (It's not much easier being a Realtor in these situations either.)
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.