"Hey honey," I enthusiastically said into the phone, "What time does your plane get in?"
"Uh, I don't know, I'll figure it out," Case replied, distractedly; his head still in his classes at school.
There is tremendous satisfaction in sending one's kids off into the world, but it's also reassuring to see them returning home for the holidays. Case is in his sophomore year at the University of Arizona and he's pretty much got the rhythm down. As is appropriate, he's grown incredibly independent.
Me? I'm still struggling with parenting l-o-n-g distance - I can't seem to help myself. I want assurances that Case has booked the shuttle bus to the airport, has checked in online, and has his ID in his wallet. I suppose it's a mother's prerogative; I reserve the right to "mother" my boys (or was that smother?) In any event, my elder son will be home this evening and that's cause for celebration.
Of course, this is the season when the concept of "home" resonates like no other; when celebrations tend to dominate our social calendars and why shouldn't they? Traditions are a wonderful thing. In spite of the challenges the world is facing (or perhaps because of them) Thanksgiving aligns our priorities and sets the stage for the very, "merry" season that follows. Along with the merriment, I find it fitting to pause and acknowledge the many gifts, for which I am truly grateful today -
Our younger son, Tristan, is coming off a fantastic football season his Freshman year at Piedmont High; my husband, Cliff, continues to work at what he loves, still makes me laugh, and remains dedicated to us all; and Case has adjusted beautifully to college life, while diligently navigating his studies (or so he tells me). As for me, I've enjoyed my most successful year to date with a busy 2012 spring season on tap.
I was reminded just how lucky I am at a good friend's chili cook off last weekend (just a small gathering of more than 125 emphatic Cal and Stanford football fans! ) and was pleased to know so many people in the room; grateful to have carved a place in our picturesque community and happy to call Piedmont "home." It couldn't have been a nicer evening - in spite of the rain (now that's a great party). Moreover, the chili was unbelievably tasty. BUT it was catching up with new and old friends alike, and the lively conversations that ensued, that truly made the evening resonate - even days later. (I'm all aglow!)
It's turkey time again, and it would be remiss of me to not to give THANKS for all that I have and all that I've been given. It's been a truly worthwhile year, largely due to all of you, to your support, and because of your referrals, your friendship and your belief in me. (Did I say "thank you?") Thank you.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving with family and friends and I wish you all a joyous season. Gobble, gobble.
I'll be sending out the Perspective every other week, as I do this time of year. There's are fewer introductions to speak of and we all tend to get very busy. It will ramp back up come February, when the Spring Market begins to bloom.
"Sudden death!" Scott emphatically declared when the score was tallied and a three-way tie emerged. (Games gets slightly competitive in my household, notoriously egged on by my mischievous husband Cliff.) We'd invited two other couples over for lasagna and cards on Saturday night and then proceeded to get rowdy as the lead changed hands several times. Three more rounds were dealt until I'd eliminated both my husband and Scott, in turn, and finally emerged the clear victor. "Winner, winner, chicken dinner! " I sang, jumping up from my chair in a little move I like to call "The Victory Dance." (None of this gracious winning stuff for me - I'm happy to rub it in!) At which point, Cliff proceeded to lodge a complaint. (He's a poor loser.)
"Sorry we didn't play better," came the apologetic email the next morning from our friends who had unhappily found themselves trailing throughout most of the evening. "That's to be expected," I replied, "the other four of us have been playing cards together for a very long time." Indeed, we have and while I don't get to play very often, like Bridge, this particular game, requires a good amount of strategy as you maneuver to acquire a set number of tricks (not to mention some lucky hands). Of course, it takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it. While "practice" doesn't necessarily make "perfect," it certainly improves one's odds.
That's true of every skill set I can think of. The more we do it, the better we become at it - a life lesson I try to impart to my kids as well. Certainly it's a mandate I've found to be especially true with respect to Real Estate. Given that each transaction presents new and unique challenges, Realtors sharpen and hone their skills over time and through a good deal of practice. After years of successfully helping buyers and sellers achieve their objectives, one constant remains - the market is ever changing, OR to put it another way: Real Estate is a moving target. Depending on where you live, on the other players at the table, on current market demand and taste, on falling or rising interest rates, and on the health of the economy as a whole, the sands beneath are feet are constantly shifting. How can we expect Buyers or Sellers to keep time? When it comes to novice Buyers and Sellers, there's isn't much opportunity to practice. Without years of cold, hard experience on which to draw, they tend to be uninitiated or in the worst case scenarios, out of step with the market realities altogether. While Buyers tend to go through a few dress rehearsals before finally getting into a deal that "sticks," Sellers typically don't have that advantage - they only have ONE house to sell. In the vast vast majority of cases, Sellers are returning to the market after years of being away, which doesn't allow much time to master the steep learning curve. Depending on their ability to quickly adapt and adjust, this is where my "years of practice" prove especially helpful as I try and bring some clarity to what potentially - and probably - lies ahead . . . .
Like cards, we can only play the hand we are dealt. Sizing up the suits, coming up with a plan of action, then strategically laying the cards down in order to achieve the best results are part and parcel of every transaction. In truth, we're not always dealt a great hand. Sometimes, it's a loser - no matter how skillfully we play the cards. Sometimes, the circumstances and the markets, DON'T work in our favor. And sometimes - in fact, quite often - we DON'T get to determine the outcome as much as we would like. (Remember, we don't get to control how others play their cards.)
Take heart, there's always another hand to be dealt. There's always another game to play. If you're not victorious this round, you are sure to make up for it on the next. Therein lies the mystery and the challenge.
Thankfully, there's no "Sudden Death" in Real Estate - just an attempt to play better than your opponents and trump the opposition. (Although I have to admit that I've been known to jump up from my desk and engage in an impromptu "Victory Dance" now and again.) Even after all these years, it still feels really good to win.
Shall I deal?
"That can't be right," I despondently thought, as I studied the appraisal report I had just received in the mail. Having survived months of renovation hell, Cliff and I had decided to refinance our home to better take advantage of the historically low interest rates currently being offered. I had mistakenly assumed that the property's value would rise dramatically, given all the fantastic improvements we had just made to our home. Wrong! In fact, the number was still WELL below the price we had paid when we bought in the rising tide of 2004. Ouch! "This is way, W-A-Y too low," I muttered to myself. (Sound familiar?) Clearly, the appraiser didn't know the finer points of Piedmont Real Estate. She appeared to have given the land NO value whatsoever, challenged me about the accuracy of the square footage on record, and more disconcerting, had missed the fact that our house has four bedrooms - not three. With barely a glance, she might as well have phoned in her conclusion. Didn't she notice the beautiful new hardwood floors? OR the sunny new staircase that now opens to a BIG media room downstairs? OR the new master suite and bathroom that's nicer than most of the hotel rooms at the Ritz? (Evidently, not!) Listen, I'm not unfamiliar with this territory, I counsel my clients all the time that appraisals are only one person's "opinion of value" and that they don't necessarily reflect the true "market value," of a home when it comes time to sell. Appraisals, as a rule, have a propensity for being conservative - especially in today's much more conservative world. Gone are the days when appraisers could easily justify a higher value than surrounding sales - based on demand alone. Understandable from the lender's POV I suppose, but opinions aside, DAMN - that hurts! I was outraged and quickly phoned the bank to tell them so. Luckily, my husband and I have enough equity in our home that our ability to refinance and take advantage of today's low, LOW interest rates, isn't going to be heavily impacted - irrespective of the poor appraisal we received. It's only our pride that has been incredibly bruised. Still, glancing at the report, I felt personally offended, as if my house somehow hadn't measured up. I flashed back to my seventh grade cotillion and the cute boy I had asked to dance. (I wasn't the prettiest girl in the room, but I made up for it with PERSONALITY!) He took one look at my metal braces, my octagon glasses, and my homemade pink taffeta dress and said, "Uh, I think I can do better." (DAMN, that hurts and NO, I'm not still bitter.) The fact is, that rejection, at any point in life, doesn't feel good. We want to know that others approve and admire our homes, our taste, and our choices. And certainly, it feels absolutely awful when Real Estate professionals are "educating" us as to our home's current value, especially when we "feel" they may be mistaken. Don't you see my beautiful collection of stoneware pitchers? Can't you understand how much time and effort I've put into the garden? Don't you know my mother-in-law gave us that antique table? (Evidently, not.)
Compared to the values of yesteryear - when prices soared AND when many of us bought - it's downright disheartening to come face-to-face with the unwelcome truth, which is that our homes may be worth far less than we think, and often, much less than what we paid for them in the hey day. (I feel your pain.) It's hardly better when aggressive Realtors price our homes for competition and encourage us to strip our rooms of everything that make them, quintessentially - ours. Say what? Get rid of what? You don't like that? (How dare you.)
Feelings aside, try and keep these opinions in perspective. If you aren't selling your house at this point in time, the appraiser's opinion (or even the Realtor's) carries very little weight with respect to the market or your home's intrinsic value. Who cares if they don't like your wallpaper? (With respect to the bank, unfortunately, it carries quite a bit.)
AND if you are thinking of selling your property soon, keep in mind that you will be working within a "relative" marketplace. While you will undoubtedly realize less gain on the selling end then you would have had you sold in past years (or in the worst case scenarios, actually lose dollars on the sale) you will also pay less on the buying side, which should dramatically help offset any loss you are bound to experience. In the Pollyanna words of Doris Day, "Que sera, sera."
Certainly, I now have a better sense of how you all feel when I get those panicked phone calls about the appraiser who just "skewered" your home's value (I agree, that's not nice) but few homeowners are immune to a softening marketplace. For better or worse, the market is the market and we can only work in the market in which we find ourselves today. Hold on and wait it out, if you prefer. Otherwise, adjust your expectations appropriately.
Try to take the unwelcome news with a grain of salt, roll with the punches if possible, and if not, let's work on challenging the appraiser's opinion to better reflect the real value as we believe it to be; appraisers are by no means, infallible (and neither are Realtors).
If all else fails, I have got really good documentation with which to challenge my annual property tax assessment (I knew there was a silver lining somewhere). Should you decide to sell, you will need to trust the opinions of the open market and the demand from qualified Buyers in deciding your home's true "MARKET VALUE." Ultimately, it's up to them - not the appraiser.
Care to dance?
My wonderful neighbors, Tim and Rhea Gerrity, own a busy enterprise that supplies auto parts to gas stations and dealers throughout the Bay Area - General Auto Parts - www.GeneralAuto.com. After a hard day's work, it isn't uncommon to see one of Tim's cars parked out in front of their handsome home up on Littlewood, a few doors down from me. They're not easily missed, given that each car wears a different hat - literally! I'm not kidding. Perhaps you've seen his smart fleet of white Toyota Prius around town that don everything from a Raider's Football helmet to an A's baseball cap? In addition, they have cars that sport a Shark's helmet, a policeman's cap, a fireman's hat and a host of others that are vendor specific sponsored. Now how smart is that? (Pretty darn smart.)
The GRUBB Co. doesn't have an official hat (although it's not a bad idea) but it got me wondering, if push came to shove, what hat would my car wear? As the author of The Piedmont Perspective, I might mount a typewriter on top for everyone to see, but as a busy Realtor, it might be more apropos to display an A-frame instead. The fact of the matter is, I wear so many hats on a day-to-day basis, that I'm hard pressed to limit the choice to one; the Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker!
Nor am I alone by any means - partner, mother, Realtor, community organizer, board member, tour guide, weekend warrior . . . and so the list goes. On any given day, any one of us might don a chef's hat as we whip up a batch of brownies, to be replaced by a chaffeur's cap as we drive the kids' carpool, to be replaced by a nurse's cap as we mend a bruise (or a broken heart). Such is the challenge of every busy adult as we just plain juggle . . . life!
Ideally, when I work with Buyers, I'm not juggling; I am instead, seeking to define what hat I'll be wearing with respect to my client's goals from the very start. "Let's determine whether you want this house at a bargain, or whether you want this house," I've been known to say, "because they are two entirely different intentions." (They are.) What's more, they employ two very different strategies. The first allows you to throw a "low ball" offer at a house and walk away unfazed if you don't get a response, while the second aims to at the very least keep the ball in your court, if not deliver you the property altogether. ("Congratulations, you got the house!")
With Sellers, the conversation goes more along the lines of, "Is your intention to 'test" the market or is it to actually sell the house in this more conservative marketplace? Will you be taking your house off the market should the house fail to sell at your asking price, renting it instead, or will we set a protocol for a price reduction within two weeks time, should the market indicate a different expectation?" In short, what hat would you like me to wear? These aren't always easy conversations to have when clients are hoping for a "Hail Mary" result after getting battered about by the economy, but at least, with clearer communications, we should know what to expect from one another as we progress through what can be a highly charged and often emotional process. (Don't worry, I'll be wearing my circus hat, in case you need a safety net below the high wire.)
Here's the reality, whether it's a hard hat, a gardener's cap, a decorator's chapeau or some other fancy head gear you'll need me to fashion, rest assured, it can be done. It's just that it's easier for everyone involved, if I am really clear as to your intentions going in. When each of us articulates and commits to the outcome we desire from the very start, the ride is typically more productive and much more dependable as well - a lot like those nifty Prius cars Tim and Rhea count on for marketing their very successful business. Pretty clever!
Hey Tim, what's the next hat on board? Can I nominate a GRUBB hat? I'm sure our marketing department can easily come up with one.
Readers: What hat do you wear most often? What hat should Tim mount on his next company car?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 18 years and has published more than 670 essays on life and real estate.