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  • 12265 Scripps Poway Parkway, Suite 115
  • Poway, CA 92064
  • P: 858.530.2374
  • F: 858.876.1701
  • E: info (at) sandiegocastles.com
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Free Real Estate Advice

Free Advice
Creative Commons License photo credit: Solo, with others

There is a lot of free real estate advice out there, and sometimes you get what you pay for.

It’s becoming more commonplace for our clients to turn to the Google God throughout the process to either seek elusive answers (“My home has been on the market for seven hours. Why hasn’t it sold?”), or to just make sure we are doing our jobs.  I’m all for checks and balances, but trust is becoming a four-letter word.

The problem is, you can’t always trust the search box. There is some very good information out there, to be sure, but there is just as much horse doodie being spewed that ranges from silly, to wrong, to outright dangerous. My Golden Retriever, the one with one functioning brain cell who eats rocks, could publish a real estate how-to article if he had opposable thumbs, and someone, somewhere would be waving it around as the smoking gun of his own agent’s incompetence.

I found myself again shaking my head when I heard that a client had latched onto this helpful article penned in 2008 and published on MSNBC.com as the final authority on how to “dump” a house “fast.”

Granted, the article dates back a few years, but not much has changed when it comes to marketing a home. Certainly, the general vibe of the market is not measurably different. So, I thought it would be fun to revisit this little public service checklist of yore (“yore” being 2008-ish), particularly given that we were bopped over our heads with it this week, and offer my own annotations.

Let’s start with the Five Biggest Mistakes.

Making small price reductions again and again. I’ll agree with this one. But, the article goes on to say, Find out what your house is worth by looking at similar properties in the neighborhood and price it 10% below them.” 10%? Why not 7 or 12%? How about this for a novel idea? Find out what similar properties have sold for, determine a probable market value and sale price, and price your home very close to that probable price. If it’s priced right to begin with, we wouldn’t even be talking about reductions.

Hiring the wrong broker. No argument here. But the author goes on to say, Personal recommendations from friends and colleagues are often the best way to go. If someone outside the real estate business with nothing to gain is bringing up a broker, you can be pretty sure you’re on to a winner.” (Emphasis added.)

A “winner?” Maybe, but not necessarily. Take those recommendations, and then conduct your own interviews and due diligence. Different folks have different personalities and unique expectations. I like my friends very much, but some of their friends, people they really like, are nut jobs.

Waiting it out. This is mostly correct. But, again, I must offer a big old maybe, maybe not. It depends on your particular circumstances. The one thing I can say with relative certainty where today’s market is concerned is that, if you are waiting for prices to be measurably higher, you need to be prepared to hunker down for a long time.

Showing your house before you get rid of your clutter. Duh. I’ll concede this one.

Not taking the first quick bid. The first offer is often the best, but not always. I suppose it depends on what the offer is, no?

Now here’s the fun part – the tactics for luring more buyers. I’ll focus on my favorites.

Rent a wide-angle lens ($24 to rent for three days). Forgetting for a minute that we don’t rent anything (except Eric, a professional photographer who knows far more about this stuff then we do), we are told that a wide-angle lens will make your home look “larger.” The problem is that buyers get really testy when they walk into a cracker box yet, based on the photos, were expecting a scale model of the Capitol rotunda.

Sell your house on eBay. Oh, yeah. That works. And on Craigslist and in the PennySaver.

Organize a neighborhood open house.  Include a latte cart or a giant inflatable house in the backyard for kids to jump on.” I can’t tell you how many clients have said, “We would have bought that home if they had only had Venti Mochas!” As for the inflatable, that’s fun. Just don’t forget to renew the umbrella policy.

Include a financial goody bag for the buyer. You can… pay for a year of landscaping, pool cleaning or maid service. Be creative and see what kind of incentives you think would entice a buyer.”

I’ve got one! What about setting a reasonable price? It’s so crazy, it just might work. “I know we are priced 40% higher than other homes in the neighborhood, but we have lattes and a bouncy thing. And we’ll pay for your next oil change!” doesn’t seem overly compelling to me, but I could be wrong.

Offer a big broker incentive. Consider offering your broker a weekend in Paris or a luxurious day at the spa.” Hey, now we’re talking! Because I might not do my job just for the promise of, say, our agreed-upon compensation.

Rent a local billboard in your neighborhood. Uh, yeah. That makes sense in suburban San Diego.

The author continues, You could also create magnets for your car to advertise your home (with house picture and contact information). Or dress your kids and their friends in “Buy My House” T-shirts and send them to town. Sometimes whacky tactics like these pay off.” Trust me, do these things and you will not only find yourself friendless, but childless. If you can get your children and their friends to wear “Buy My House” T-shirts, I want pictures, and rest assured you won’t be buying any prom dresses. And if you find yourself toodling around town with promotional car magnets on your minivan, call me. You are dangerously close to an exciting career in real estate.

More on the Science and Art of Home Pricing

Freshly back from our Berg Bicentennial Vacation, I was catching up on some reading when I stumbled upon an article titled “Seven Ways to Make Your Home Safer.” Now, I’m not generally one to be critical of Zillow (insert sarcasm here), and in all fairness, they were talking about burgler-proofing, but they missed a very important home safety tip.

Do not place a rather large gathering of empty suitcases at the top of the stairs if you intend to wander out into the darkness at 2:00 am in a jet-lagged stupor in an attempt to navigate said stairs.

That would be Steve, who coincidentally is the genius who thought the top of the stairs to be the ideal luggage staging area. Fortunately, he was able to right himself somewhere midway between slightly scathed and dead as a doornail. After a brief episode involving cursing like a drunken sailor and blaming the me, the dog, and Samsonite (in that order), he realized he would live to close another escrow, even if his days as a leg model were over.

And this brings us to my most logical segue. Determining home value is some science but a lot more art. (Okay, there is no nexus whatsoever between home pricing and our health insurance deductable, save the fact that the magnitude of the numbers is eerily similar, but it’s the best I can do this morning given that I’m still running on Caribbean time.)

Agent Extraordinaire John Lowe of San Diego Castles Realty fame made a presentation at a recent office meeting in which he shared a big, scary pricing analysis. It’s scary because it has lots of bars and lines and data points. (For our three readers, John is notorious for analyzing the daylights out of stuff, and we love him for this. He’s got spreadsheets, and he’s not afraid to use them.)

What he did was look at sale prices over the past six months in Scripps Ranch. (Data courtesy of the Sandicor MLS, detached homes in the 92131 Zip code, information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed, blah, blah, blah.) And here is what he found:

Scripps Ranch SF Analysis 10/11

 

The red bars represent the square footages of each of the sold properties for the six-month period ending on whatever day our office meeting was last month, while the black and red lines represent the smoothed and linear trend lines for price per square foot. So far, so good. We see what we would expect, which is price per square foot dropping as the size of the home increases. (This is because the biggest component of price is the price of the dirt, not the box built atop, and lot size doesn’t vary much in our area.)

In theory, one should be able to use this graph to estimate that value of their Scripps Ranch Home. Find your square footage on the left, y axis, and move to the right until you intersect the pretty little black or red lines. Voila! Your value! Think of it as the John Lowe equivalent of Zillow’s Zestimate; we’ll call it a LoweValuation. But much like the Zestimate, the LoweValuation is a left-brain approach to a right-brain problem. Every home is different, and the things that are arguably the biggest influencers of market value aren’t the dry, vital statistics.

Sure, size matters. But things like view, location, interior appointments, nature of the sale, and so on can’t possibly be accurately represented in a fancy algorithm or an Excel spreadsheet. You can’t model emotional triggers.

Just look at the individual data points, and you will see that there are wide swings in value among individual homes in similar size brackets. The art form, therefore, is determining whether your home is special (that dot above the trend line) or a little less so (falling below the trend).  This is where (self-serving alert) an agent knowledgeable about and actively engaged in your market can help.

By the way, this was precisely John’s point when he shared his handy work. Statistics are fabulous. They are oh-so helpful in understanding macro trends and the state of a market. But these statistics and the valuation models they spawn – whether they be served up by Zillow, Case-Shiller, or our own Mr. Lowe – should never be considered in a vacuum. Your home is unique, and your mileage will vary.

We’re Number 1! (Or are we?)

We’re #1! We sell more homes than all of the other agents south of Barstow put together. Our clients love us biggest. And by “biggest,” I mean they love us way more than any other agent’s clients love them. That is because we are awesome sauce, with a heaping jug of extra awesome thrown in. We sell our listings faster and for a factor of 10 – or even 20 – more than our “competitors.”

Here is what our clients are saying:

“Kris and Steve were awesome sauce, and we love them biggest! They didn’t suck, and we sold our home for $17 million dollars more than we expected to, in large part due to their brilliant marketing campaign, their expert negotiations, and their attention to detail – like the time Steve met the termite guy. We named our newborn twins after them. (Too bad they were both girls.) Thanks, Kris and Steve!

With undying gratitude,

Name Withheld

I made that up. So what? Is misleading, even false, advertising such a big deal? All the cool kids are doing it.

I was chatting with a prominent local agent this week. He called to voice his frustration with some of the misleading advertising he has been seeing in our community.  The ads have not been lost on me, of course. Many are quite obviously works of fiction, but then this agent and I know how much business others are doing – or not. We know who has which homes listed, and who represented the buyers on closed sales. And we know the reputations of the agents doing business in our local community.

Many, dare I say “most,” home buyers or sellers do not. But they do have access to the data. All they have to do is ask.

In light of my opposition here and on Inman News to the now-defunct Agent Scouting Reports, which were canceled shortly after the pilot aired, it might seem like I am dangerously close to making a case for total transparency in agent production numbers. And, in a way, I am. But that “data” that they attempted to publish was inherently and seriously flawed, not to mention a violation of our own MLS terms of use, so it just threatened to become more misinformation.

As this agent and I grumbled about the arguably ethically challenged marketing approaches of some of our colleagues, the overriding theme was, “How can we police our own?” You see, this stuff not only hurts consumers but it tarnishes an entire industry. Unfortunately, too many brokers are too inclined to look the other direction, either because they are unaware or because they are unwilling to shoot themselves in their bottom line foot.

So, all the home buyer or seller has to do is ask. But, as one Scouting Report advocate said:

If the agent tells me, the consumer, that they’ve successfully closed two dozen transactions in my neighborhood representing sellers, and sold the properties for 99% of market and even saved a few stray kittens in the process, I am supposed to take their word for it.”

No, you are supposed to demand verification. To quote myself from my Inman News column:

I give the average consumer more credit than to just take my word for anything today. My own clients don’t believe my opinions of value, my analyses of market trends, or even my representation of the listing inventory without fact-checking across multiple sites and asking 12 friends. Do you really think the majority of consumers are going to retrieve a self-promotional fluff piece from their front porch and give it the full weight of a tablet just delivered from the mountaintop?

True, some might do just that – take any agent-produced spiel on faith. But our world is changing, and so will this. People know that have a big ol’ Internet at their disposal now, and social search has exploded to the point that the checks and balances of validation among our spheres are the rules, not the exception.

If you are among the growing number of enlightened consumers who want the truth and not just hype, here is my own little consumer alert. The stoopid agent tricks in real estate marketing generally, at least in my area, come in three forms:

  • Intentionally vague, unquantifiable statements. Take, “No ‘ONE’ sells more homes in your neighborhood.” Watch out for words in quotes. That is code for “I can’t really prove it and don’t really mean it. It’s a figure of speech, and I can’t be sued for it.”  Another personal favorite is the self-anointed, meaningless title, like “Top Agent in Client Loyalty.” Really? How, exactly, did we come to this conclusion? “Neighborhood Specialist?” Puleese. Get in line.
  • Quantifiable statements that simply aren’t untrue. “We sell more homes than anyone in the Delta Quadrant!” In this case, they may, but you should confirm. Ask for the unadulterated, ugly MLS printout demonstrating as much. I give our own information to our would-be clients all of the time, and they can see my search parameters right at the bottom so there is no mystery. And beware of the quantifiable statement that comes with too much caveat baggage. “We have sold more homes that closed on a Tuesday than any other husband and wife team with two children in your zip code in the last fifteen years, but only it you consider the last fifteen years collectively, because most of the agents in our market weren’t yet licensed back then or were working in Boise at the time.”
  • Lots of pretty pictures of lots of pretty homes. As I discussed the whole truth in advertising issue with my fellow agent, we were both in possession of the same door dropping showing a collection of “available” and “sold” properties. In the case of most of these home, the agent responsible for the piece was not the listing agent or the buyer’s agent – had never even come within twelve blocks of the homes, except perhaps when he waltzed through during the broker caravan. Presumably, the agent had gotten permission to “advertise for free” the listings of several other, out of area agents. Unfortunately, this little detail was omitted from the fine print, leaving the recipient with the impression that he was in fact the “Neighborhood Specialist.” And I am certain it made the phone ring. That was, after all, the point.

My point is two-fold. Many of us do care about ethics and the integrity of the industry. We do respect ourselves and our customers too much to mislead and misrepresent ourselves into a place at your dining room table. Others, sadly, do not. But, you owe it to yourself to be an informed consumer and know the difference.

Ask the tough questions. Demand supporting documentation. Be inquisitive and, yes, be a little skeptical. And do your own homework. Whether it is through your social network or through your search box, research the agent in question and their body of work. The good agents have large digital footprints that will give you many clues to help solve the mystery.

Redfin’s new Agent Scouting Reports. I call horse hooey.

Brian Boero calls it the “most disruptive online real estate play in years.” He was talking about Redfin’s new agent scouting reports.

Here is the short version. Straight from the MLS to you, Redfin now brings you statistics on closed transactions for every real estate agent who is a member of the MLS in their market areas. They call it their Agent Scouting Report, and it sounds good on the face.

As quoted on the 1000Watt blog, Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman had this to say:

In some cases, what you’ll see is that an agent at another brokerage is a better fit for that neighborhood, an inevitability that has been a source of great controversy within Redfin. Why would we ever help anyone realize that a Coldwell Banker agent is her best choice?

But once you ask that question, you’ve already framed the debate in terms of short-term consequences rather than long-term principles. It leads you down a path where every market analysis concludes that it’s a good time to buy, and every review of a Redfin agent is five-stars.

The world doesn’t need more brokers like that. It needs a broker who will just tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We’ll win more clients that way than we’ll lose — and we’ll win everyone’s trust.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So noble! Except, that is, when the presentation of the “truth” is conveniently inconsistent. I’m calling horse hooey.

It’s important to remember that Redfin is first and foremost a real estate brokerage. They are not philanthropists or public servants. Their goal is to profit, not to selflessly educate and empower the poor, confused consumer. Publishing agent ratings online may or may not be a good idea, but if Redfin didn’t perceive it as a good idea for their business and bottom line, they wouldn’t bother.

The potential gold from agent “scouting reports” is being mined in two ways. First, and most obviously, the data will likely prove to be the SEO mother lode, adding eyes and value to an already (admittedly) robust website providing an awesome home search experience. (This much I am willing to admit. I am a reasonable guy.) What may be less readily apparent is that, despite Mr. Kelman’s protestations that principles made him do it, it is an opportunity to portray Redfin agents as being among the top in production.

First, I’ll begin by saying that while there have been complaints of data inaccuracy in some markets (in fact causing Redfin to temporarily suspend the agent reports in Washington, D.C. and Arizona), my very quick look at the San Diego data suggests the numbers are mostly correct. But, as with all numbers, they are subject to interpretation.

Without caveat or context, the consumer is left to make sense of a bunch of statistics being offered up like tablets from the mountaintop.  And the biggest issue I see is the reporting problem associated with the popular agent team model. This, by the way, is only a problem for traditional agents; for Redfin, it is an opportunity to use imperfect data to their benefit. I believe they know exactly what they are doing, but more on my conspiracy theory in a moment.

Take the typical agent. They work solo. They show homes, list homes, meet the property inspector, the appraiser and the termite guy, they write and negotiate the contracts, and  — well, you get the idea. This agent may close 10 or 20 or 50 transactions in a year, and it’s all there on the website for your enjoyment.

Now, take an agent team. In the team concept, all sales are recorded under the team leader’s name. The team may be a husband and wife team (guilty as charged), it may be a group of agents numbering several or several dozen (effectively a brokerage within a brokerage), or it may in fact be a brokerage. In these cases, the scouting reports for the individual licensees working under the front man or woman will suggest that they have no visible means of support and that your transaction will represent their maiden voyage into the exciting world of real property transactions. The team leader, on the other hand, will appear to be the hottest thing since Tabasco. For the consumer, there is no way to make the distinction.

Who is the better agent? The team leader or the traditional agent who is CEO, COO, CFO, Customer Service Rep, IT Department, and head dishwasher? That is up to the consumer to decide. What is important is that you can’t answer that question just by looking at the numbers.

But what if that’s all you’ve got? Enter Redfin. Unless you live in a lean-to far above base camp, you know that their lead agents do the high profile work – they ink the contracts, and the sales record under their names. Behind them, however, is a host of support staff, from field agents who actually show the homes to transaction coordinators who actually do the transactional work.

As Seattle agent Marlow Harris wrote, “Traditional agents don’t have ‘field agents’ to show homes or millions of dollars of other people’s money to build websites or to refund in the form of buyers rebates… They (Redfin) are doing it to make themselves look good and to manipulate the numbers to give the impression that their agency and individual agents are superior.”

Do I hate that Redfin is publishing this data? Not really, as long as the data is accurate. My numbers are solid. Have at it. What I do take issue with is the feigned higher ground upon which they are planting this flag. Admit that you are publishing statistics for profit and in a way that suggests your agents are awesome sauce compared to the rest of us, other “lesser” agents, and then you might at least win my respect on points.

For the big finish, I’ll offer this interesting observation. If transparency is truly your motive and altruism your end game, why portray the numbers differently for Redfin and non-Redfin agents?

Look me up, and you will find many search choices: Sellers in last 12 months; buyers in last 12 months; sellers in last 3 years; and buyers in last three years.

Now look up a San Diego Refin agent. What you get is clients in the last twelve months. What happened to the buyer/seller breakdown? What about the three-year history?

My guess is that with a little time and traction under their belt, that might change – because the numbers will suddenly smile more favorably on Redfin. That is, after all, the point — make no mistake. Caveat emptor.

Update: Redfin pulled their Agent Scouting Reports yesterday citing issues with the data. That didn’t take long.

Real estate video done right

Video. It’s the next big thing. Or it’s the last big thing that’s still a big thing. I’m not sure anymore, but I prefer the former because I have yet to embrace the medium. That means there is still time for me.

The problem with adopting video in our biz is that it is difficult to do it well. And unless one has a whole lot of time on their hands, a whole lot of extra cash lying around, or a really talented friend who is willing to produce and edit films for beer (all things absent from my arsenal, with the exception of the beer), the result can do more harm than good.

Like the idea of staging a home is to draw attention away from the stuff and to the thing you are selling, real estate video is supposed to showcase a property, and by “showcase,” I mean it is supposed to appear more appealing for having been digitally honored.

Pan and zoom photos set to stock audio is not video. Nor is a two-minute short of a do-it-yourself agent standing beneath an address placard reciting the vital statistics, like my own first – and last – attempt.

“Hi. I’m Kris. This stunning home has four bedrooms, a kitchen, and closets. Follow me while I back away from the tripod and into the glaring backlight of the garden windows while I awkwardly describe all of the special features you can’t see. Like linoleum.”

Oh, I tried the once popular walk-through approach. The advantage is that I can film and talk from a safe harbor behind the lens. But the result is always an epic that can only be enjoyed from the prone position with a fresh prescription of Dramamine. I eventually had to concede that my time was better spent stuffing the brochure box.

Why, oh why, can’t I do this? Beverly Hills agent Eric Lavey nailed it with this property video, a short film really. My big question is this: Can even Eric pull off twenty or thirty sequels a year? My guess is he will become a one-hit wonder, something with which I am quite familiar.

6816 Pacific View Drive, Hollywood Hills from Eric Lavey on Vimeo.

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Office Location

  • San Diego Castles Realty
  • 12265 Scripps Poway Parkway, Suite 115
  • Poway, CA 92064
  • P: 858.530.2374
  • F: 858.876.1701
  • E: info (at) sandiegocastles.com
  • CA BRE# 01853496

Broker Information

  • Kris Berg, Broker
  • CA BRE #01241572