"Yeah, we're totaling your car," Jessie, the claims adjuster said over the phone. "You'll have an additional five days to shop for a new one until your insurance stops paying for the rental. The check will go out as soon as its approved."
I appreciate the call, but I'm not sure if that's good news or bad. I certainly don't want the car back, given the extensive damage from the head-on collision, but I'm painfully aware I can't replace the wagon I've been driving around town for the depreciated amount the insurance company will now send my way. (A 10-year old car doesn't count for much - even when it's a Mercedes.)
To be fair, the outcome wasn't entirely unexpected, given that both cars took a MAJOR HIT! It's just that buying another automobile this year wasn't high on my priority list, especially as Cliff and I had already purchased a used truck for Case's college graduation last spring (go forth and prosper my son) and honestly,we need every available dime for the BIG remodel on Calmar Avenue that has just begun. (Look for my new blog:"Renovation Riptide.com" to debut next week. Less talking and MORE photos to inspire and motivate.)
This would be a good time to remind myself that these are gold-plated problems in the BIG game of life. "Boo hoo, poor me, I have to shop for a new (used) car this weekend . . ." (Unlike houses, cars are depreciating assets.)
Frankly, I don't much like the whole car shopping experience under any circumstances, let alone this unwelcome turn of events (I like fixtures and tile back-splashes, lighting and furniture, fabrics and finishes . . . I love homes!) Not only do I dread shopping for automobiles, the truth is that I know nothing about them. Should I lease or purchase? Go big or go small? Go electric, diesel, or gas? There's more choices than I care to trudge through, when what I really want is just a happy Disney ending.
Sing it with me: "Oh you, pretty chitty bang-bang, pretty chitty bang-bang, we love you, AND in chitty, chitty bang-bang, chitty-chitty bang-bang, what we'll do. Near, far in our motor car Oh what a happy time we'll spend Bang ,bang, chitty chitty bang-bang, our fine four-fendered friend." Luckily, I don't have to know a lot about cars: I just have to trust that the person who is helping me with the purchase knows much more than do I, and then trust that he or she has my back.
Okay, some of you are snickering about now, but gratefully, one of my closest friend's husband is a partner at the BMW/Mini Cooper dealerships in San Francisco. Michael and Teresa have not only used my services for several real estate transactions, they also referred me to Michael's brother last year when it came time for Patrick to buy a home. So while I liked that Mercedes Wagon a great deal, I truly feel I owe my business to Michael. (Isn't that the way it works? Or should?) More importantly, I trust him to look out for my best interest - as I look out for his, and his family's.
Granted, 'trust' is no small feat - especially in the world of sales; especially with respect to the things that matter the most to us: our families, our homes, our investments, our futures. How do we truly "trust" someone else to meet and understand our needs?
Therein lies the rub.
First and foremost, we need to vet the people we hire. Reputation and experience DO matter, but so do personal stories and interactions. Do check out your agent and ask for referrals. Then listen to your intuition. If it's not a "fit," don't force it (even if it's a close friend or family member).
My insurance salesperson doesn't have to be my best friend, but she does have to return my calls when I need her and guess what? She does. (Thanks very much Ruth). And I don't have to be everybody's perfect "fit," but I DO have to work diligently on my clients' behalf and provide a track record that backs up my claims. That's only fair. Trust isn't given freely, it's earned.
Second, COMMUNICATE your needs and speak up if things start to feel less than satisfactory. I have no problem holding people to their word or putting their feet to the fire, NOR do I take offense when others expect the same from me. It's my job to see you through to the end. Once more for good measure; trust isn't freely given, it's earned. Please let me know what you need and don't hold back. I work for you.
Third, once having found the professional that meets your needs, may I politely suggest that you let go (just a little?) and turn it over. It not only frees you up to focus on the next part of the equation, it relieves you of the heavy lifting. If you feel compelled to micro-manage the workload, you'll only make things harder on yourself, both physically and emotionally. Hire great people and then let them do their jobs. It's called delegation.
In my experience, no amount of fretting or worrying is going to change the final outcome. (Yes, I know that's easier said than done, but give it a try.) From one control freak to another - just know that the solution is going to make itself clear, irrespective of our concerns or posturing. We can't manipulate the results, no matter how hard we try, so let's stop trying and play it out. You may be pleasantly surprised.
TRULY, so much of what throws us for a curve is our preset expectations. Divorce yourself from those, and you'll be open to wherever the road leads. In other words: "Follow the yellow brick road."
So surround yourself with good people, take a leap of faith, and trust that things will work out in the end. (They always do.) To paraphrase what I recently said in the San Francisco Chronicle, "All things begin with faith and trust. Without them, everything else is moot." I don't know what car I'm buying this weekend; I don't know that it matters all that much, but I do know it's going to be fine. (It's just a car after all.) In the end, I just need it to run and be dependable. That's kind of what we all need, isn't it?
How can I help you?
"What the hell is a car doing there!?! Was my last thought before violently slamming head on into the grey SUV driving on the wrong side of the street!
At which point both cars buckled, the air bags deployed, and we abruptly came to a dead stop (Ow, ow, ow - yeah that hurts). Let me tell you, that's not a great way to start a Friday evening. To quote Emrile Lagasse: "Bam!" (For the record, no alcohol or cell phones were involved.) Because this is Piedmont, two firetrucks, two police cruisers and an ambulance arrived on the scene in mere minutes, not to mention the many caring neighbors who quickly came with
ice bags and water in tow. Thank you. (I don't recommend it as a neighborhood meet and greet, but they were really wonderful.)
"I'm so sorry," the driver profusely apologized, "that was totally my fault. (Yes it was.) "Boy, I sure didn't need this . . ." she continued.
I'm sure she didn't. Who does? (Nobody.) Especially, as I'd just spent $1600 on a new fuel pump on Tuesday. Still, it could have been sooo much worse. I suspect my wagon is totaled (her ride as well) but better the cars, than the passengers inside them.
Ironically, I'd lived on Littlewood for ten years without so much as a fender bender, and now on my way to retrieving friends for a festive evening out, Jill and I had nearly met up with disaster. To be fair, it's a tough hill and completely blind, but gratefully, the air bags did what they were designed to do and my sister and I walked away a little worse for wear, but on our own two (four) shaky feet.
Darn, we'd just have to take Mike's Tesla to the art opening instead. (Now that's truly traveling in style.)
I'm not really a BIG fan of surprises (unless they involve diamonds) and I'd venture to say that if you are anything like me, you're not either. In the world of Real Estate, there's nothing that unravels a deal faster than an unwelcome surprise OR new discovery. "BAM!"
It's why I not only suggest full disclosure, I SCREAM it!
Unfortunately, not every surprise is as easy to put forth as what we know to be true about our homes: "My front burner doesn't always light." (Is that all? ) "Okay, my neighbors' dog barks when the mail arrives." (Dig deeper.)
More often than not, we have no idea what's really happening behind the walls and under the roof. AS it turn out, quite a lot. From wood-boring beetles, to active termite infestations, to inadequate framing, our beautiful older homes aren't always as "pristine" as we believe them to be.
Unless we are proactively having our properties professionally inspected every few years and correcting any negative findings, our homes probably aren't as "turn-key" as we might expect. (BTW, this isn't a terrible idea.) Even the most meticulous of owners can end up with a long list of unexpected items once we begin to look under the hood.
But, let's just assume you've done everything on your side to correct inherent flaws and to prepare your homes for sale as suggested; "SURPRISES" can still show up in the most unlikely and unexpected of circumstances, as happened to my lovely clients earlier this week on the buy side of a transaction.
We'd put together an almost unbeatable package which included an architectural consultation and a non-contingent ALL CASH offer WELL above asking, only to discover (post presentation) that the Sellers had "friends" they'd intended their parents' house to go to all along. Like the SUV I didn't see coming, I sure didn't see that unexpected 'brick wall' coming - and I wasn't too pleased either. BAM!
To the contrary, I thought my Buyers' offer was a sure winner by a clear margin. It wasn't - and as it turns out, no matter WHAT our offer had been, these 'favored' Buyers were ultimately going to get a second bite at the apple. (Nice for them, not so nice for us.) Now that's a surprise we didn't want, nor "need."
It's a stark reminder that no matter how well intentioned, in the end, we can only control our half of the equation. What Sellers or Buyers do on their end isn't up to us, AND as importantly (for me to remember anyway), "it ain't over 'til it's over."
That doesn't seem fair?
It isn't. (Supply and demand isn't about '"fair.")
The fact is, selling a home to whomever they choose, remains the prerogative of the Sellers - unless race, sexual orientation, or religion come into play. (Discrimination is never acceptable under ANY circumstances.) Thus a Seller can take the best offer and ask another party to meet it, beat it, OR court a lesser offer IF they so choose. While tough to accept when you come up on the short end of that particular stick, here in California, we don't have a closed bidding system for the sale of a home - nor do we have an open one.
Instead we have a hybrid bidding system of sorts, where the Sellers and their agent are the only ones to see ALL the offers on the table and then, are well within their rights to leverage one off of the other. Moreover, it's a listing agent's fiduciary duty to get as much money for the home as they can. If this means "tipping their hand" (or someone else'), subtly suggesting that one might be better served to come back with MORE money and stronger terms, OR outright shopping an offer altogether, it's not only legal, it's par for the course! SURPRISE!
(Didn't I tell you I hate surprises?)
No matter, we'll regroup and soldier on. The next ride is bound to be less bumpy if we just keep our eyes on the road and stay alert for any surprises around the bend. Bam!
How can I help you?
Ever notice that when a piece of mail arrives that says: "Important Document Inside," it rarely ever is?
Instead, it's some unwelcome credit card you never requested, OR even worse, a search offer for documents already safely stowed away in the bank deposit box.
With respect to Real Estate, there's so much boiler plated paperwork now generated with each and every transaction that it's often hard for Buyers and Sellers to identify what's truly important from what is NOT . . .
Unfortunately, between the pound of flesh exacted, and the heavy stack of disclosures and reports that are now required in today's more litigious world, who can blame the consumer for wanting to ignore it all? (Please don't.) And for added aggravation, what's with the redundancies and outrageous disclaimers Sellers and Buyers will never realistically come up against?
A Tsunami disclosure? Really? That makes no sense.
"I haven't sold a property in 25 years," my lovely Seller said in exasperation. "Why do I need all this stuff?"
Ahhh, good question, grasshopper.
This "stuff" is designed to protect you. Disclosure and investigation is the Real Estate Industry's attempt at providing clarity upfront as to a home's inherent defects and flaws, thus avoiding unwelcome surprises later on. So while time consuming and frustrating (to say the least) I am going to politely encourage you to tackle the job, read the disclosures thoroughly, and then answer the questions to the best of your ability. It's worth the effort to be thoughtful about your answers and diligent in your research.
Perhaps the most important documentation among the reports, AND home inspections, AND seller questionnaires, AND transfer disclosures statements, is the permit history. (Bonus points for those who have closed out all their open permits.) This is where the story of your house lives and yes, it matters!
Recently I went on a listing appointment where the elderly Seller - a retired contractor of all things - sheepishly admitted that "No one actually ever finals a permit, do they?"
Why yes, they do.
Moreover, they should and here's why: permits that are initially opened, but never closed run into the unfortunate position of needing to be "finaled" prior to the sale of the home, OR alternatively, of disclosing that the work was done "without permits." (Ouch.)
As you might guess, retroactively closing a permit requires the seller to meet today's current codes - as opposed to the year the improvements were actually undertaken. (In Piedmont, this might include ripping out a perfectly good deck, second kitchen, or full bathroom. Oops!)
Warning Will Robinson!
This nagging task may not be so difficult to accomplish if you put in a snazzy new bathroom just last April, but if you put one in ten years ago, it's very likely that the powder room you thought was "up to code," no longer is. In fact, it's almost a given that it is NOT. A finaled permit freezes the requirements to a specific date in time.
Moreover, rooms that were added with no permits can't be counted in the advertised square footage and that can lead to a significant disconnect for prospective Buyers, not to mention a hefty discount in price. Appraisers don't give the same value to "nonpermitted" or "nonconforming" spaces as they assign to "legal " additions and improvements - no matter how seamlessly they blend in.
As you might surmise, building codes only become more stringent over time - never less - so when contemplating renovations on your home, check with the local building statutes, pull a permit IF required (cosmetic fixes such as new paint often don't require a permit, while anything involving new electrical or plumbing components, exterior windows and doors, or changes to the facade almost always do) and THEN have the improvements signed off on once the work is completed.
Important! Keep a copy of the permit history, the job card, and the receipts for future reference. (You'll absolutely thank me when it comes time to sell.) Receipts allow a Seller to itemize a property's improvements so that the net proceeds aren't as heavily taxed should you realize a healthy profit.
For the record, a single Seller may take a non-taxable gain of $250,000 on the sale of a primary residence, while a married couple can receive as much as $500,000 in tax-free gains. (That's not chump change!) However, you can bet Uncle Sam is going to want to see some proof that you did the work you claim, and that it actually cost what you reported. In other words, you can't just make this stuff up; you'll need the paperwork to support the higher basis. (Please check with your CPA or tax advisor for more information.)
Finally, even if you claim your "nonpermitted" home improvements meet current codes, the cost in perception for the suspicious Buyer is infinitely more expensive than the permit would ever have been. In my experience, this is when a prospective Buyer turns to me and says, "Well if they didn't get a permit for this, what else are they covering up?" When it comes to your home, don't be penny wise and pound foolish.
Without the report card (aka: 'permit history') there's an inherent bias that something is amiss; that somehow corners were cut; (even when they weren't); that the Seller is trying to pull a "fast one." (Not you, of course. I know you meant no harm.)
The moral of the story?
If home improvements are high on your list, do so with the building department's seal of approval. Yes, I know planning departments can be a pain in the you-know-what, and your neighbor's objections may be a whole other story best suited for the therapist's sofa, but it's far worse to begin a job only to have the uninvited inspector show up and plop down a "Cease and Desist Order" that not only stops the project in its tracks,but levies heavy fines to boot. A building permit is worth the extra time, trouble, and expense. In fact, it's gold.
Trust me on this one. It's IMPORTANT!
How can I help you?
"Hi, I'm Julie Gardner," I said to the white-haired and slightly disheveled gentleman as he opened his door and I handed him my calling card. "I work for The GRUBB Co."
I had spotted an unexpected "Home Open" sign while driving down Grand Avenue last Sunday afternoon so promptly made a U-turn and parked. (Knowing the available inventory is critical to my success - as well as yours.)
"I'm keeping the door closed so my cat won't get out," the owner informed me as he hurried me in.
"I'll be quick," I said apologetically.
"Are you selling the home yourself?" I asked, confused by the generic sign, his casual appearance, and a totally empty open, except for a curious neighbor that I mistook for his wife.
"I'm not related!" she quickly corrected me. (She knows dysfunction when she see it.)
"Yes I am," he replied, "I'm not just the Seller and owner of the house, I also have my Broker's license!" (Really?)
The picture was starting to come into focus . . .
While it's not my call, this FSBO (For Sale By Owner) had made ALL of the classic mistakes . . .
"Danger Will Robinson!"
To begin with, the photo above was taken by me, so yes, there were
actually piles of trash outside, next to the store-bought sign.
Once inside, not much improved . . . although the rooms had been emptied, the Seller was clearly still living in one bedroom - with the cat - bright red wall-to-wall carpeted the hallway, and the backyard patio was overflowing with the cast-off junk from the house, which had yet to make its way out front, or better yet, to the county dump. Oh dear; where do I begin to count the ways? "I'll have it on Brokers' Tour next Thursday," the Seller instructed me. "Tell your gang to come by."
"Except that our tour day here in Piedmont, is on Monday," I kindly suggested. "You may want to change the preview if you hope to get a better turn out."
"I don't really care," he responded defensively, "the house won't be ready tomorrow and people will want it anyway." (So much for first impressions.)
He may be right, given the lack of available inventory, but I suspect, it will cost him dearly. Please note, not ALL listings are receiving the same enthusiastic response or results. It only seems that way in the wake of stories of record-setting offers. In this - or any market - PRESENTATION MATTERS!
Contrast this lackluster showing to the next home I saw in Wildwood Gardens where the agent exclaimed that she must have had more than 250 people come through on what was probably the hottest day of the year. Beautifully staged, strategically priced, and appropriately advertised, this sort of "packaging" is the difference between multiple offers - and none at all.
Back at the FSBO, I hadn't even broached the subject of disclosures or point of sale ordinances and beat a hasty retreat with nary a flyer or an MLS sheet to reference later on. (There weren't any.)
On a scale of 1-10, we were looking at a zero. This was clearly a case where the Seller had no clue as to standard protocol, nor any sense of how his home really looked to the casual observer, let alone another REALTOR. (It wasn't good.) Frankly, I couldn't believe he qualified for a license.
I was reminded of an old joke:
"Miss I'll need to see your real estate license," the officer said upon stopping the young woman for a traffic violation.
"Don't you mean my driver's license?" she innocently asked, correcting the highway patrolman.
"Well," he said . . . " not everyone has one of those!"
(Ba-dum . . . thank you folks, I'll be here all week.)
Regrettably; getting a real estate license is as simple as a multi-week online course and passing the requisite test with an acceptable score. Answer the questions right, and you too, can sell homes for a living. Sounds easy, right?
It isn't. (See the narrative above.)
Even with a Broker's license, it's a HUGE mistake to believe that we can be objective about our own homes. (We can't.) All Sellers (licensed or not) benefit from a fresh set of eyes, third-party negotiations, and another, qualified agent at the helm.
While I am willing to concede that the Internet makes posting and finding new inventory almost a no-brainer for anyone with a computer in today's world, that's not really where an experienced Realtor's skills come into play, nor how we ultimately earn our keep.
Preparation, presentation, timing, investigation, packaging, disclosure, pricing, negotiation, and escorting a Seller through the escrow process are all part of the process that go along with bringing a home to market and then selling it for TOP dollar.
On the buy side, we educate, recommend lenders, meet and show properties, keep Buyers current as to comparable sales, follow the competing interest, inform, write offers, thoroughly investigate, negotiate back on new discovery, and once again, guide you through the escrow process once in contract.
Whether buying OR selling, it's an incredibly complicated gig - AND no, not all REALTORS are created equal. What you experience as a Buyer or a Seller, is truly, just the tip of the iceberg.
After more than a decade of helping my clients achieve their goals, I'd venture to say that a real estate education doesn't come in the classroom - and it certainly isn't earned online.
The necessary skills are actually eared through years on the battlefield, in hard-won victories, in understanding the needs of your clients, in listening, adjusting, and advocating. They are built by establishing rapport, sustaining important relationships, staying abreast of the interest rates, building a dependable vendor list, being an ongoing resource, and in thoroughly understanding the marketplace - both on the micro and macro level. Given the unrelenting hours, it helps if you are also incredibly passionate about what you do!
Granted real estate isn't rocket science, but buying or selling a home is extremely serious business and it's also typically, one's single largest investment. Good Realtors take this responsibility very seriously (even if they happen to write humorous, cheeky, informative essays from time to time) and that's no joke!
How can I help you?
"Volleyball at Dracena Park is on!" the email said.
I'd been receiving these postings for several weeks but was hesitant to join in and play. Truth be told, I'd actually met my husband, Cliff, during a "wallyball" clinic at a health club on Telegraph Hill more than 25 years ago and we played both wallyball and volleyball almost nightly, so I don't just love the game of volleyball, I'm nostalgic about it.
Moreover, our gang were regulars at Crissy field on the weekends and along with my sister, Jill, I had even started a weekly, outdoor volleyball league for architects and designers in San Francisco culminating with a BIG annual tournament each year in Golden Gate Park. Still two (plus) decades later . . . I wasn't sure that any of the skills I had acquired long ago would still be readily (or physically) accessible.
As sports go, I truly believe that volleyball is the most collaborative of all team challenges. With 2-6 players on a side, there's a tremendous amount of choreography and communication that has to happen in order to win the point. Without clear communication, you're sunk. I gathered my courage and convinced Cliff to come with me and within a few moments we had essentially taken over our teams. (Neither of us are exactly shrinking violets.)
"The second ball is always the setter's," Cliff instructed. "If you can't get to it, yell 'HELP!'"
"Flatten out your forearms," I suggested to another player" or your knuckles will send the ball flying in all directions. (That would never do.) "You'll get used to the pain."
"Up, up UP!"
And so it went until darkness and mosquitoes chased us off the lawn.
"That was so much fun," Cliff and I said to each other as we walked back to the car. "I've missed that."
"Do you suppose," I asked upon reflection, "that the other players are wondering who the hell invited those 'bossy' Gardeners?" (You can thank - or blame - Dhira.)
"I'd be surprised if they didn't," Cliff responded. "They're probably going to sit down to dinner tonight and and say that 'they just came out to have fun'."
"Who plays games just to have fun?" we both said in unison before breaking into laughter. (It's a very good thing we found one another.)
With a nod to just having a good time, it's no fun playing without the proper technique. In fact, I'll argue that the fun in volleyball relies completely on the technique; the dig, the set, the spike and the rhythm of the back and forth; where everyone is moving, talking and responding in kind; the high-fives, the "great set," "good save," and "way to be there" kind of moments. It's a GREAT feeling to block at the net, to dive for the ball, and to ultimately win the point! But win or lose, it's how you play the game.
I should preface this by saying that Tuesday night wasn't the first time Cliff and I have crossed the line from taking a friendly game into the realm of competition. We are merciless at cards, Pictionary, and word games (don't even get me started with spelling games - I've almost lost friends over it).
I guess you could say that we both like to compete, whether it's on the field, at the game table, or at a friendly volleyball match. It's not about winning, per se (although that's a bonus), it's about acquiring skills and using them to your advantage.(If only I could turn laundry or making the bed into a competitive event!)
Not surprisingly, in the world of Real Estate, I'm often asked to compete, not only for the listing where it's almost a given, but often for the sale as well. With too little available inventory to meet popular demand, most well-priced properties are receiving multiple offers in mere days, so like it not, if you are house hunting, you and I ARE going to find ourselves in heavy competition.
Like any competition, there's a technique involved in "crafting the deal" that requires conscious forethought, hard-won skills, and a plan of action. (A bit of luck never hurts either.) Without a preconceived game plan, we will be scrambling to catch up - and as an aside, chasing the ball instead of being in front of it, is never where you want to be in any sport, but especially not in the game of Real Estate.
Thus, the first critical step when house hunting is to meet with a local lender. Before you fall in love with a home, please, please, PLEASE (!) establish your credit worthiness and GET PREAPPROVED for a loan. (I can't stress this enough.) With tougher lending restrictions firmly in place, what you think you may borrow and what you actually can borrow, may be the difference between what you want, and what you can actually afford. Better to know the boundaries upfront than be disappointed in the moment.
And while we're gearing up to compete, here are a few more successful strategies to put into action:
DO get familiar with the marketplace. With the advent of the Internet, your Realtor is no longer the gatekeeper. Stay on top of what's for sale, what's pending and what's sold so that when it comes time to enter the game, you have context. Without it, you'll be lost.
Write to win - or don't write at all. While "winning isn't everything," losing the house of your dreams sure feels crummy. A lukewarm offer merely pushes everyone else's offer higher and in turn, sets the winning bid as the bar for the next go round. If the numbers seem too high to compete, wait for the next opportunity or opening. It's sure to come.
Understand the difference between a negotiation and a battle: one serves the deal, while the other undermines it. Being adversarial for no good reason never works to your advantage.
Communicate, communicate, communicate! The best interactions come about with strong communication - even those in which I've been called to the mat by an unhappy Buyer or Seller. If I don't know what you need, I can't deliver it, address your concerns, or correct what needs correcting, so speak up. We're here to teach each other. Yes? (Yes.)
Finally, if I come off as "bossy," I'm shamelessly unapologetic about it. Without the 'win,' I'm not much help to you, nor will you want me on your team for very long. While my volleyball skills are exceedingly average (at best) I believe that with respect to Real Estate, you are counting on me to bring my considerable experience and skills to the forefront and I'm intent on doing so. Otherwise, why align with an agent at all, especially one like me who, admittedly, is aggressive by nature. (Okay, it's true.)
In other words, who plays the game just to have "fun?" Isn't that what jigsaw puzzles are for? I want to win.
Serve it up. I came to play!
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 12 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.