"We're thinking of downsizing," the nice gentleman said at my Sunday Open last week at 610 Blair. "Ideally, my wife and I would love a home with a view (who wouldn't?) but unfortunately, our current home is much larger than we need at this point in time."
"Got it. Are you currently working with an agent?" I politely inquired. (Hey, I know an opening when I see one.) "Uh no, we just wander in from time to time when a sign catches our eye," he sheepishly responded. "We live around the corner and we don't really need an agent just yet, but we love opens . . . plus our daughter has a friend who just got her license . . ." ("All you need is love, love. Love is all you need . . .")
Oh dear. I hear you (and the Beetles) but I respectively disagree. In our uber-competitive world, you're going to need a whole lot more . . . Aside from the fact that ALL Realtors are NOT created equal (experience can only ever be earned over time) Buyers are much better served when they bring a knowledgeable Agent into the process from the start instead of waiting until they have identified a home they desire and then attempt to play catch up.
While it may seem that Realtors are fast becoming redundant, or (perish the thought) virtually replaceable (what with the advent of Zillow, Realtor.com, Trulia, Grubbco.com, and any number of other well-mined real estate SEOs) the fact of the matter is that a fair number of homes are quietly traded in "off market" sales. Which is to say that as a layman, you will never hear about these "off-market" opportunities at all, let alone come across them on the WORLD WIDE WEB.
Still, you wouldn't think that anyone would be interested in selling "off-market" in such an exuberant environment, noted for producing multiple offers - would you? Yet for a certain percentage of Sellers, the "off-market" Buyer presents an elegant and far less intrusive solution AND saves the unwelcome hassle and expense of painting, staging and presenting invariably bring to the process - not to mention, cleaning, purging, packing and often moving out altogether . . . (yes, selling is inconvenient to say the least.)
Moreover, "off-market" sales have the advantage of keeping the deal under the radar - an important consideration for some folk, who frankly, don't want the whole town talking about their private business. (Imagine that?) Please note, It doesn't follow that these "off-market" properties can be bought for less than their MLS listing counterparts. In fact, if you're the Buyer, be prepared to pay a premium for an "off-market" listing - not a discount.
Unless a Buyer is willing to pay enough to keep the Seller from "testing" the marketplace instead of accepting YOUR very compelling offer, there is simply NO incentive to sell behind closed doors. In truth, 'off-market' Buyers are paying NOT to compete with other willing and able on-market Buyers and for that, there's a price to be paid. (Sorry, but that's the skinny.) So repeat after me: "This isn't a deal, it's an opportunity. This isn't a deal, it's an OPPORTUNITY!" Or put another way, value is in the eye of the beholder.
"Okay, so how do I find these 'off-market opportunities'?"
You don't, we do - via phone calls, industry networking, and mining the inside track. Ironically, just as the market appears to be waning as we move towards the holiday season, there is a tremendous amount of strong activity taking place behind the scenes. In fact, a fair number of Agents are already meeting with potential Sellers to begin preparations for Spring 2015. (If that's you and you haven't yet contacted a real estate agent, may I gently encourage you to pick up the phone and call me?!)
Looking forward, my colleagues and I are replenishing the listing/housing stock as we speak, AND within that upcoming inventory, there are likely to be a few candidates who upon learning of the heavy lifting required, will sigh, turn to us and say: "If you know of anyone for whom this house might be a good fit, feel free to bring them by."
"But how do I know I'm not overpaying for this 'opportunity'?" You don't, and what's more, Sellers, in turn, don't know if they could have faired better had their properties run the full course of marketing and exposure either. In short, both the Buyer and the Seller have to agree to live with the unknown - and the question marks that are always inherent in these sorts of transactions. So, before proceeding, understand that good will and trust are never more important than in these "off-market" 'opportunities.' Otherwise, move with the pack and good luck to you. You'll be in very good company.
Finally, a final plug for my often maligned profession: a Licensed Agent will help you prepare to compete, make sure you are preapproved through a local lender, educate you as to current market value, advocate for your interests, and beat the bushes on your behalf. And the best part of this equation, is that Agents are paid only when and if we successfully close a transaction. What's more, here in California, our fees are assumed by the Sellers - not the Buyers - so in essence, you gain the experience, skill and wisdom of our many years of practice - at the expense of the Seller. (Thank you Mr. Seller!) Now there's the deal.
Hey, you can love Real Estate, love the marketplace, love the Internet, and love cruising the Open Homes every Sunday of your life, but you are still going to need an agent you can trust to lead you to the homes that are currently active, those that are coming soon, and those that may never appear . . .
How can I help you?
Years ago I nearly ended my "best friend" status on the spot with my childhood pal, Heidi B., when she loudly announced upon leaving the movie theatre: "That was stupid; I don't get it . . ." Heidi and I had just seen Steven Spielberg's movie, "E.T., The Extra Terrestrial" and I had almost (almost) choked up and cried (something I try never do at the movies as it embarrasses the hell out of me). Can I just state for the record that NOT getting E.T. is akin to NOT getting the "Wizard of OZ?"
C'mon, who's heart didn't melt in the last scene when E.T's finger lights up at Elliott's temple and he says, "I'll be right here," while Elliot pleads for E.T. to stay; big fat tears running down his cheeks? (Evidentially, Heidi's heart was unmoved.)
Clearly, we were at a crossroads in our thinking.
Even then, the concept of "home" was near and dear to me.
I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "home" the past several months; about the many different manifestations of "home," and about transitions in general. Gone are the days, when your parents bought a house, had a few kids (or three, or four, or five, or six . . .) adopted a dog and cat, added on a room, converted the garage, and grew old in the house as the house slowly began to grow old around them. Yeah, that flocked, metallic wallpaper didn't really stand the test of time . . .
Today's world - and the concept of "family" in general - has expanded to include all walks of life and from where I sit, that's the way it should be. From newly single, to newly engaged, the reasons for buying and selling are as varied as the buyers themselves. Welcome to the world of homeownership (and all that it entails). Whatever the change; no matter how welcome, or necessary, it doesn't necessarily make the transitions any easier. In my own immediate family, the year has been ripe with tremendous change, beginning with my parents who sold their much-loved condominium in downtown Sonoma earlier this spring.
Now in their eighties and with a few significant surgeries behind them, the steep flight of stairs were becoming unmanageable and the large garden my mother lovingly tended, represented more work than pleasure. While slightly conflicted, they were ready to let go and spend their weekends taking road trips - not weeding.
Truth be told, an uncomplicated life makes very good sense for my folks at this stage of the game. (Truth be told, an 'uncomplicated life' probably makes good sense for us ALL at ANY stage of the game. Good luck with that.) Ditto for Cliff and me, who seized an opportunity to sell in order to move to another opportunity (and then another). Two home moves in three months may have been pushing it a little, but as my sister, Jill, remarked, "I don't think you do 'easy'." Sigh, she's probably right.
And speaking of Jill . . . she too, has made a recent change, selling her lovely East Sacramento home and transitioning back to the Bay Area after a 20 year absence. She now resides in an industrial loft in trendy Jack London Square that's sitting nearly empty while she waits for her house to close so she can move some of her belongings and actually have a sofa on which to sit and a bed in which to sleep. Won't that be a relief? (Yes, it will.)
The BIGGEST transition however, awaits my mother-in-law, Zee, whom, after careful consideration, will move into an "Assisted Living Community" tomorrow with the help of her supportive and loving family. In her case, she's not just giving up her home, she's giving up her independence and the life she's so carefully constructed these past 40 years.
It's a lot to ask of a woman who's prided herself on her independence and ability to hold her own. At our suggestion, prodding, pleading, and insistence we want her to focus on her health and we think she's earned the right to live worry-free for a change. It hasn't been easy. (No one expects it to be easy.) What Zee wants and what she needs are not entirely compatible and that's the conflict as we age, but she's firmly on board and that's at least half the battle. She's due an unencumbered life after so many years.
In my practice, I've had the honor and the pleasure of watching doting grandparents move closer to their grandchildren, expecting parents move up to accommodate a new arrival, transplanting families move across country for work, empty-nesters forge a new path, and senior citizens fall in love and remarry, AND I've encouraged bold young families to take off for the unknown - and that's just this year alone . . .
"Julie, we're thinking of moving to Europe!"
"Good for you. Do it! "
I've watched Buyers and Sellers move up, move down, blend families, separate, buy for the very first time and give up home ownership altogether. I've seen them trade homes for condos with views, stairs for all-level living, and space for simplicity and ease. The point is, beyond basic shelter, a home should serve our needs first and foremost. When it doesn't, change is in order and entirely appropriate. If I've learned anything at all, it's that "home is where the heart is." I didn't make up that tried and true adage, but it sure fits.
Whether you relate to "There's no place like home," or to "E.T. PHONE HOME!" Dorothy and E.T. both "got" it, my folks "got" it, Zee is "getting" it, and I like to believe that Heidi "got" a sense of 'home' along the way. Wherever she landed, I'm wishing her well. Hey, "I'll be right here," whenever you decide to move on.
How can I help you?
A few weeks ago I spent the day working myself into a real tizzy. I'd headed to Petaluma to tend to my mother-in-law, Zee. Due to degenerative health issues, life has become significantly more challenging for Cliff's mother as she struggles to meet the growing demands old age humbly presents. For a women who has traveled the world, walked the Great Wall of China, has been awed by the Fjords, shopped the Paris flea markets, and literally worked a job she loved up until last year (she's been the Ever Ready Bunny!) a compromised life is very difficult to accept, even at this late stage of the game.
My generation isn't just seeing our kids off to college, we are also helping our parents navigate the mind fields of aging. In both cases, there's a tremendous amount of stress, anxiety and expense that accompany this journey. It's inevitable, I suppose, but hardly welcome news from anyone's perspective.
I'd already spent a good deal of time working my way into a bad mood while stuck in TRAFFIC between Novato and my final destination. Crawling along at a glacier's pace due to freeway construction (actually, glaciers move faster) I was getting grumpier and grumpier by the minute, but when my cellular phone froze up, I really boiled over.
Without a functioning phone, I-pad, or desktop at the ready, I was unable to respond to text or email when I finally arrived and (because I'm really important) that just wouldn't do. Every fiber in my body wanted to throw that *&)"!*# phone against the wall and SCREAM!
Hours later, when I headed home (more traffic across the Richmond Bridge) and straight into my local Verizon store (or Mecca, as the case may be), the steam was virtually coming out of my ears!!!
"How can I help you?" the polite, young clerk asked. (What a set up.)
I may have been too far gone (forgive me).
"Please, please, PLEASE just make this right," I responded VERY emphatically, "my business depends on being responsive in a timely manner!" (Breathe, breathe, breathe, BREATHE! I told myself over and over . . . to little avail.)
Two and a half hours later and minus a few hundred dollars (thank you very much), I was back at work answering email. For the record, I didn't fully take my frustration out on the sympathetic clerk, but I am embarrassed to say that I DID let a phone ruin my entire day. (What? I let a phone ruin my ENTIRE day. Really???)
"Apologies for getting back to you so late," I sheepishly wrote to my client, "but my internet hasn't been functioning . . ." "Don't you just love it" she kindly responded, "when technology dies and you don't have to be a prisoner to email; isn't it nice to be present and focused on what's in front of you for a change?"
OMG, who thinks like that? Yes, it is. (Light bulb moment. Thank you, Ashley.)
Instead, confronted with the unexpected, I'd quickly defaulted to frustration and irritability; anger and rage. Clearly, the universe had conspired against me. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I was distracted by how quickly I could attend to my own problems. As you might imagine, these actions don't carry the best of intentions with them.
It's a reminder that some of this stuff (most of this stuff) we just don't get to control. So perhaps the best we can do is to have some clarity around the challenges we face, to understand when and where we may have some impact, to look for solutions, to move into action, and then to let the results land where they may . . . and when none of these words of wisdom work, to change OUR perspective! (And by "our," I mean "mine.")
Not surprisingly, the world of Real Estate is filled with "challenges" as well - it's truly the nature of the beast.
And so the list goes. The answers depend largely on how you define your goals and your needs, the timing of the marketplace, your financial position and liquidity, where you plan to live next, how much work needs to be undertaken, the current condition of your home, AND your level of risk and tolerance. Under the best of circumstances, selling and buying are highly stressful and emotionally charged events. Believe me, "stuff" is going to come to the surface. Ride it out. This too, shall pass.
Not surprisingly, the decision to sell (or buy) is typically predicated by a significant life event: a birth, a death, a marriage, a divorce, a job transfer, a job promotion, your last child going off to college . . . AND then the move comes about. Of course, it's going to be stressful. Why should it be anything else?
Which means that much of my job as your 'Realtor,' is to provide answers to your questions, to listen to your concerns, to communicate effectively, to help guide you through these life events as gracefully as possible and to navigate the challenges that come about (they always do). Gratefully, I have a large contingent of people/labor/vendors behind me who bring their collective strengths, skills and talents to the equation as well. We are poised (and trained) to put one foot in front of the other until the objective is achieved.
Good thing my phone is back in working order. I'll need it!
How can I help you?
Sing it with me: "It's a hard knock life for us, it's a hard knock life for us . . . " Say what? The moving truck arrived (once more?!?) last Friday and we loaded the basics and headed to our temporary quarters on Echo, off Piedmont Avenue (the broken sewer pipe in the basement was the last straw).
Cliff, Tristan and I will probably camp out here for the next several months while construction gets underway on Calmar Avenue. The rest of our items have gone into storage and probably should be donated altogether, but that's another story for another column, and a job for another day (I'm beat).
Although our current space is much smaller than our last home, I couldn't be more thrilled to have a working shower once again and to be able to walk to restaurants and the theatre. I'm discovering that it's an incredibly convenient trade off, as is the ease of compact living.
It's also a sweet respite from the funk we've been living in the past several months and the unnecessary stress that has been endured by the entire family. After half a dozen remodels, you would think I would have known better.
You would think . . .
In hindsight, this should have been our move from the start; as it turns out, the renovation is just too ambitious a project and there's virtually NO room that will be left untouched once we begin. Between you and me, I'm too (a) neurotic (b) OCDC (c) impatient (take your pick - they all apply) to live in chaos (been there, done that). Sooo I guess the big take away is to look ahead and then plan appropriately.
Given that Sellers have one last opportunity in the Fall Market to sell before the holidays set in and the market softens, as is typical this time of year (no one likes to move between Thanksgiving and Christmas), I'm speculating that unless your home is already headed to the marketplace, you may be looking at NEXT spring to sell and that's exactly what you should be doing as you plan ahead.
Moreover, you should be interviewing Realtors now to help you achieve this all important goal. While there's always a good deal of blood, sweat and tears involved with any move - no matter the circumstances - the best advice I can give you is to roll up your sleeves and get to work well ahead of your projected sales date.
Having just been a Seller myself, I can speak on this topic with some authority. In fact, the smartest thing I may have done last year (besides hiring a GRUBB agent to co-list our house) was to prepare our home early so that the property was completely ready when the Spring Market bloomed. (No, Christmas vacation is NOT too soon and it has the added benefit of allowing your college-age kids to sort out their belongings while they are on break.)
Because of the unseasonably sunny weather last January and February (aka: the "drought") the spring market arrived earlier than expected and with a few final touch ups, we were set to go. As a result, our sale on Littlewood Drive had a nearly unprecedented result. In short, we weren't chasing the market - the market was chasing us (!) and how sweet is that? (Very.)
Unfortunately, far too many Sellers wait to see what the marketplace is doing before jumping in (along with the rest of the crowd). This not only makes for a very stressful couple of weeks of scrambling, but it also changes the dynamics substantially when you are competing with many other 'like-kind' homes in the neighborhood.
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
- Thomas Edison
Or put another way, "What are you waiting for?" Anticipation and preparation are everything when it comes to attaining top dollar for your home. So once again: here's my Top 10 To Do List for those of you with a move in your future (whether it's sooner OR later) . . .
Oh, and you needn't navigate this list alone - assisting you is part and parcel of my services. In other words, that's what I'm here for!
How can I help you? (I'm setting my Spring calendar now.)
Trivia Time: From what musical is the first line of this essay? Lattes at Mulberry's for those who respond.
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.