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  • 12265 Scripps Poway Parkway, Suite 115
  • Poway, CA 92064
  • P: 858.530.2374
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Staging – One way to mess with the demand side of the equation.

There is something for everyone out there, but “custom” is limiting. It limits the buyer’s choices and it limits the seller’s opportunities.

We tend to toss the word around in real estate advertising like “custom” means better. I am as guilty as anyone of grabbing this little cop-out word when my random adjective generator is approaching cyclical failure. “Custom cabinets,” “custom window coverings,” “custom fresco depicting interpretative dance moves performed by small woodland creatures and mystical garden gnomes” – these are all beautiful things. They are beautiful, that is, to the person who ordered them.

Custom just means that is was made to order – for one person’s own liking. And that’s why we stage homes.

The idea behind staging is to neutralize. Everyone likes a family room. Not everyone digs a family room with an Elvis motif (and I’m talking about the old Elvis in the jumpsuit, not the young one – he’s OK).

Everyone loves their children (well, most everyone, and only when they aren’t dropping their cell phones in the toilet, but I digress). The point is that not everyone loves your children – at least not enough to appreciate their likenesses displayed on every square inch of drywall. While you are thinking “Aw!” your buyer is thinking Spackle. And they get distracted, now having been reminded that they need to order a new computer to replace the one into which their own daughter poured a Venti peppermint mocha. Sorry. I digress again.

Some things can’t be staged away, of course. You loved the builder-option maple cabinets but your buyer fancies the Euro white. Your buyer dreams of a walk-in pantry, and your garage looks like a Costco distribution center because you don’t have one of those guys. In these cases, you have two choices. You can be patient or you can set your price accordingly.

As for the other stuff, the “fixable” stuff, just remember that every personalization, whether it is a religious artifact, personal photos, a bold paint scheme, or a book case filled with all back issues of Kitten Taxidermy Weekly, speaks to your buyer. It says, “Not my house.”

Unless their name is Homer HendelBergenHeinzel. Then you just might be in luck.

Home Inspections Gone Wild

2010  Mexico 164 Temple of Venus--another look
Creative Commons License photo credit: jjjj56cp

Here’s the deal. Property inspections are out of control. There. I said it.

If you are purchasing a home, be it new or gently used, of course you should have a property inspection. It would be irresponsible not to. Homes are big, expensive things, and no one wants to buy a big, expensive thing that is going to fall down or otherwise implode during the housewarming party.

Tomorrow (“tomorrow” being some day after today, in blog speak), I will present my own list of dos and don’ts when requesting seller repairs. Still stinging from a week spent in Silly Land trying to help a selling client negotiate their way through a list of buyer demands on a pristine,12-year-old home that suggested it was in only slightly better condition than the Mayan ruins (because the Mayans didn’t replace their furnace filters, like, EVER!), it’s an overdue public service announcement.

In the meantime, here is a rerun from 2007.  Sadly, it’s all still relevant.

It was 9:00 AM on a Saturday. The setting was idyllic, an ordinary residential street in an ordinary suburban neighborhood. Later, when the story of the day was retold, those who survived the ordeal would recognize that this day’s overcast skies and the threat of rain were in fact omens of the impending ugliness. Yet, on this morning, the unsuspecting families in this otherwise orderly community had not fully shaken the comforting bathrobe of a peaceful night’s slumber and were blissfully unaware of what was to come.

And come, they did. The insurgent troops appeared seemingly out of nowhere, the tanks and Hummers and traditional vehicles of aggression replaced by their modern-day counterparts: Lexuses (Lexi?), BMWs, and one lone pick-up truck. The soldiers converged, but stealth was not necessary this day. This would be a battle of hand-to-hand combat. And, as in most contests for sovereignty, there would be no victors.

“Good morning. I am Earl from What Were You Thinking? Property Inspections. Let’s take a look at this deathtrap, shall we?”

Over the course of the next three days, I will have the honor of attending three property inspections. The homes under assault will range from the 45-year-old property to the 10-year-new. I can guarantee that the reports for each will be indistinguishable save the buyer name on the attached personal check.

Inspection reports and inspectors are funny this way. The foundation slab split entirely in two with evidence of past civilizations wedged in the gap and the tub that might benefit from a little recaulking will be presented as having the same DEFCON 1 level of urgency. Tricky things are inspections. The inspector is charged with finding fault, the buyer and their agent are charged with sorting through the list of horrors to differentiate the truly important deal-breaking items from the ordinary, cosmetic, wear-and-tear issues, and the seller is almost always left feeling offended and defensive.

It is all negotiable, of course, but negotiations directly between principals most often regress to conversations involving hot glue guns, potato peelers, pinking shears and other commonly found and readily available weapons of everyday home life. This is why it is essential that the real estate agent accompany clients to the property inspection. Left unattended, the agents would only return later to find the buyers and sellers beating the crap out of each other with rusty lead-based paint cans and Fiesta Ware to determine who will be paying to have the back door rescreened.

Now, as I gear up for the first of my inspections this morning and prepare to don my big girl Realtor uniform and pile into my shamefully under-armored VW Bug-Mobile, I take a moment to glance around my own homestead and wonder, “What if I were the target today?” At my home, where there is no ruling government, where anarchy reigns and where the rebel factions (15 and 17 year’s old respectively) have methodically set about destroying the very society in which they must coexist for the foreseeable future, the final inspection report summary would probably look something like this.

“House utterly sucks. For the love of man, run!”

My home just had only its seventh birthday, but where inspections are concerned, this is immaterial.

  • Bathroom #2 – Fossilized arachnids in shower stall pose health risks. (They are pets, stupid. They have been there so long, I have named them.) Toilet flushing mechanism needs replacing. (Does not! Just lift the tank cover and pull on the chain attached to the little floaty-thing.)
  • Kitchen – Chips in granite counter tops noted. (Yes, I know. After years of repeatedly whacking the corner with empty wine bottles as I whisk them off to the recycling bin, that is considered ”normal wear and tear”. At least I recycle!) Kitchen faucet leaks. (Only when you turn it on REALLY BIG.) Microwave makes unusual noise when operated. (Does the coffee get hot or not? I would submit, yes.) Oven, when heated to 350 degrees, registers only 342 degrees. Recommend service. (We have a, what did you call it, oven?)
  • Presence of pets suggested by stains on floor covering over there (five-spice chicken), there (squirrel parts), and there (we prefer not to speculate). Recommend cleaning carpets if sensitive to dander. (Hey, buddy! Don’t touch that dog hair! I am saving up to make a new dog some day.)
  • Laundry – Accumulated lint in dryer vent poses fire risk. (Where is this laundry room of which you speak?)
  • Garage – Many areas inaccessible and not inspected. (Items to convey: Two Barbie Dream Houses, three bikes with flat tires, one “All About Me” poster from Mr. Ferguson’s 1995 Kindergarten class, and assorted rollerblades which only fit Gary Coleman. Items not to convey: Gary Coleman.)
  • Exterior – Areas of dead or dying landscaping noted. Recommend testing/adjusting irrigation. (Recommend not owning a 95 pound male dog who eats five-spice chicken, furry rodents, and a largish rock on at least one known occasion, and squats like a girl.)
  • Bathroom #3 (children’s bath) – Water damage to drywall noted next to tub/shower enclosure. (Duh. At least they bathe.) Plumbing at sinks could not be inspected due to under-cabinet storage. (And, where would you like them to store their empty hair-product bottles, the entire line of Tammy Faye Bakker Make Me Pretty products, and Tiger Beat magazines and returned homework assignments dating back to the British Invasion? Wait a minute - So that’s where my Cuisinart went!)

I could go on, but I’m already depressed. I am off to invade someone else’s previously safe-haven. Time to go to war.

Expressing gratitude and a little etiquette primer.

Turkey, After.
Creative Commons License photo credit: ilovememphis

First of all, on this, the day after the day we are supposed to express our gratitude for all of the things in our lives that we hold dearest – our families, our friends, our health, and the little twisty tops with which vintners are more frequently adorning their mid-priced Chardonnays – I want to offer a belated shout out to our three readers. We are eternally grateful for you because, without you we would have, well, no readers.

With the perfunctory gushing out of the way, I found it oddly incongruent that during this season of good will toward men, of hearth and home and really bad green bean casserole, our own California Real Estate magazine felt the need to devote an entire article to “manners.”

“Agents report that professional courtesies are as rare as no-doc loans,” the article began.

What? You mean people can be inconsiderate, rude, and even (gasp) mean at times?

The piece is littered with several helpful inset boxes, like the one on key courtesy that advises we should be returning the key to the lockbox and closing it after showing, and that we should never give the keys to a friend (although they would make a nice white elephant gift, I suppose). Sadly, as duh-ridden as this handy guide to opening and closing doors is, too many tend to forget that they are invited guests and that some attendant modicum of responsibility and civility comes with the territory.

There is more, of course. Agents, it seems, should return phone calls, keep appointments, and refrain from trash talking other agents. Apparently, beginning a listing appointment with the proclamation that “Agent Alfred is a puppy-hating shyster who jaywalks, lies on his tax returns, and runs with scissors” is poor form for a licensed professional.

The thing is, they got it right. Agents do these things – a lot. But agents are people, and the reality is that people of all feathers tend to misbehave from time to time. With that, I offer you my own handy pocket guide to etiquette. Since the California Real Estate magazine has the agents covered (“You might be a class act if you… introduce buyers to the sellers if they are home when the property is being shown”), I will gear mine towards the consumer.

It is bad social etiquette to:

1.     Call your agent fifteen minutes before an appointment, one you scheduled two weeks ago, one for which your agent has spent hours preparing, has planned her day around, and has changed into her big girl clothes, and one to which she is already en route in sideways rain and rush hour traffic, only to cancel.

2.     Schedule an appointment to see a home and never show.

3.     Schedule an appointment to see a home, fail to show, and then ignore all future attempts by the agent to contact you to reschedule, unless of course you are in traction or have been hog-tied and left for dead in the coat closet by evil-doing intruders because some agent re-gifted your key to a “friend.” In those cases, you get a pass.

4.     Call your agent and request a tour of eight homes with two-hour’s notice. Actually, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but assume that it might not be possible for your agent to turn down the heat on the pot roast, leave his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah during the Hora, or ditch the other clients he is meeting with at that precise moment. And if it isn’t possible, at least feign some understanding about the whole competing demands thing.

5.     Be late. If your agent was able to set up the eight-home extravaganza tour, he had to estimate arrival windows as a courtesy to the sellers and, in the case of “shown by appointment” homes, give a precise time. Showing up even thirty minutes late because the game went into overtime can bring the whole house of cards down and place your agent squarely in the “bad manners” article in the next issue of the California Real Estate magazine.

6.     Send out a query to multiple agents. And, I’m not talking about a listing or buyer interview here. You should interview multiple agents to represent you. I am talking about the queries I get a half-dozen times a day, like the ones originating from “I would like more information on the home at 123 Main Street,” reads the pre-populated contact form. And the email goes on to tell me, “Three other professionals received this inquiry. Be the first to respond!”

The whole footrace, may-the-fastest-draw-in-the-west-win approach is fine if you are interviewing agents based on their responsiveness. But absent more information, I don’t know if you are just testing the feature on your own listing, if you are seriously shopping or have just an idle curiosity about your neighbor’s home for sale, if you already have an agent, or if you are playing with Daddy’s computer again.

7.     Lie. Don’t say you aren’t working with an agent when you are, just so you can get in to see a home today because your licensed cousin is at the football game waiving his foam finger in my general direction.

8.     Tell white lies. Don’t say you aren’t working with an agent because your intent is to only work with the listing agent once you find the right property. We can handle the truth, and we will show you our listings if you are qualified and truly interested, even under those circumstances.

9.     Engage multiple agents to search for and show you properties simultaneously. This is another version of the “may the best man win” approach, and you really should pick one. It’s not like shopping for a car (despite the obvious and popular comparison). Agents are not paid – for their time or for their hard costs – until escrow closes. They are not salaried; they are independent businesses with limited time and resources. If you never buy or sell, if your plans change, or if it takes a really, really long time (expressed, even, in geological time) – we are totally down with that.  But in return for the agent’s loyalty, they deserve the same. And if you feel an agent isn’t deserving, you shouldn’t be working with him.

Most people are genuinely respectful, honest and a pleasure and honor to deal with. Others, alas, just like some real estate agents, can be knuckleheads. The California Real Estate Magazine asked, “Is there room for manners in tough times?” I’m not so sure the tough times have a whole lot to do with it. Sure, we understand that for many, there is no joy in Mudville right now. We are sympathetic. And because of this, we try our best to practice Goodwill Toward Mean, always giving the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes, where all people are concerned – real estate agents and real people alike — ornery is just ornery, and a little refresher on the rules of basic etiquette is not such a goofy concept after all.

Stats Man on the "average" Scripps Ranch home

Stats Man shouldn’t really be this big, because today he just brings you some little stats.

Here is a quick look at the “average” home in (you knew it was coming) Scripps Ranch. The following table shows the profile for the average home on the market, in escrow and recently sold. (For all of you statistics wonks out there, the ones who actually understand complicated stuff like standard deviation and decimal points, I know it’s a small sample. I also know that there is a difference between “average” and “median;” as for the latter, trust me that they were about the same.)

Oh, and Sandicor wants me to tell you that this data was pulled from the Sandicor MLS on 11/19/10, represents detached homes in the 92131 Zip code, and is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. In other words, I might have messed up, but I am pretty sure I didn’t.

What’s this mean? Well, first of all, sale prices are about 7.5% off list prices (about 6% if you consider price per square foot). This laughs in the proverbial face of a previous post in which I said that historically, come rain or shine, homes will sell on average within about 4% of their list price.

What gives? Was I wrong? Blasphemy! What we have here, I believe, is a growing disconnect between buyer expectations of bargains and seller perceptions that the rules of the current market do not apply to them. And, case in point, here is a fun fact: 65 of the 120 active listings (students of the math sciences will recognize that this is over 50%) have gone through a price reduction.

And patient (stubborn) doesn’t always pay. Even with an approximate 6-month inventory of detached homes on the market, the average market time for homes sold in the past two months was a mere 45 days. What’s notable, though, is that of the sold properties that had to suffer a price reduction (about 41%), the average market time was 69 days as compared to 29 days for the homes that were priced within striking distance of true market value to begin with.

Oh, and one more thought. Note the trend for the recent pending (“under contract”) properties. They are less expensive, albeit smaller, on average. This is consistent with the general buyer migration away from McMansions and toward “right-sized” properties and is also, I believe, indicative of a tough lending environment. And when I say tough, I mean qualifying for a loan these days is about as simple as climbing Everest in chainmail. (Don’t try it; it won’t work.)

With that, Stats Man has run out of steam. And he has an appraiser to meet.

Boring Stuff About Contracts and doing your own thinking

phone icon illustration (abstract)
Creative Commons License photo credit: ::: Radar Communication :::

If you have a “smart” phone, you are familiar with a helpful little feature known as auto-fill.  As you type your message, it recognizes that you’re are generally a moron incapable of combining letters to complete words, let alone meaningful sentences. It knows you might need a little assist.

The cool thing about this feature is that it not only acts as a quasi-spell check, but it knows the words you frequently type and recognizes that you might be about to use one again. Auto-fill does the thinking for you so you don’t have to.

“The seller missed an initial on page six,” wrote the escrow officer. And being the wired girl I am, I was able to receive the message and respond from my place in line at the “12 Items or Less” lane. (Yes, it should be “fewer,” but Von’s doesn’t have the benefit of auto-fill.)

“Danger!” I wrote smugly. “I will get hernacky latitude.”

Being one accustomed to proofreading only after I have hit the “send” button, I was left to ponder. What the hell did I just say?

Danger! I mean, Dang! I know there are a lot of words in the English language, and I am pretty sure “hernacky” isn’t one of them, which can only mean one thing. I have used this term before and, if I am not more careful, I will probably make the same mistake latitude. I mean lateral. Uh, again at some point in the future.

The biggest issue I am having right now with my “smart” phone is that it randomly replaces my periods with smileys. I guess I tend to insert the smiley face too often, and now my auto-fill feature “just assumes.”

“I just talked to lender,” I wrote. “Your loan documents were eaten by a rabid pack of hyenas and closing will be delayed until March :)”

Every week seems to have a theme for me. This week in real estate, the theme is contracts. No one seems to read them anymore, and few seem to really understand them. This week, agents seem to be relying on the auto-fill feature to bind their clients.

My biggest challenge this week has been trying to Negahban — o0ps, negotiate — a Contingency of Purchase or Sale (COP) contract. We’ve talked about this one before, but this was the first time I was involved in a transaction involving both a contingency for the buyer’s sale and a contingency for the seller’s finding suitable replacement home in the same package (with two of the former and one of the latter). In what is shaping up to be a four-house choo-choo of concurrent closings (God willing), you can’t file this one absentee. The contract is starting to look like the work of Rube Goldberg, and one misstep could have a serious domino effect and leave at least three families living in pup tents at the community park – or worse. They could all be living in my guest room and noshing on my leftover pizza.

But, as I said, we have skinned that cat before. No, instead, this installment of Boring Stuff About Contracts will deal with our Residential Purchase Agreement as it relates to contingencies. I’ll also include a little bonus about the Notice to Perform.

For the first time in my long and Illinois – illustrious, that is – career, I had to issue a notice to the seller to perform. This particular transaction has been a challenge from the start because of the rather unique circumstances:

  • The home was “listed” by an auto-fill kind of agent who had agreed to put the listing in the MLS for a fee and go away. “Email a copy of the contract once signed, and we will change the status,” read the MLS remarks. And that is the extent of communication I have had with this agent during the entire 38-day process.
  • Absent an actively involved listing agent (and despite the fact that the MLS suggested that his contract with the seller was an Exclusive Right versus Open listing which carries some attendant fiduciary responsibilities), I was left to deal directly with the unlicensed seller.
  • The unlicensed seller was of the flipper ilk, and this particular transaction involved a double escrow. Although we had an accepted offer and an open escrow, the “seller” did not yet actually own this home, a home he was purchasing through a (drum roll) short sale. This is perfectly legal, by the way, as long as it is disclosed up front, but it does come with some baggage.
  • Two weeks into the process, we get a notice that the seller (the one who does not actually own the home) is being reassigned — to another unlicensed seller who does not actually own the home.
  • Our escrow company is 120 miles away and knows only that San Diego is in North America.

Now, none of this is insurmountable. What it meant, though, is that I had to be on the balloon (ball!). And I couldn’t take my eye off the ballot (oh, whatever) – not when I had disclosures signed by a now-defunct “seller” but not the new “seller,” not when I was told that my buying client should fund before she received a clean title report, and not when escrow suggested that we should just close before we received homeowners association documents for review because “there has been a little delay and we certainly don’t want to hold things up.”

But, back to the boring stuff about contracts. The standard California Residential Purchase agreement specifies numerous disclosures to which the buyer is entitled and gives the buyer 17 days by default to review these disclosures. Fair enough. But what if you aren’t getting any of those guys? That is where the Notice to Perform comes in.

We usually think of the Notice to Perform in terms of buyer performance. The buyer has to remove his contingencies in writing within time frames or the seller has the right to cancel.  The seller also has obligations; namely, the seller is obligated to provide all disclosures to the buyer within a certain number of days (7, by default), and if they fail to perform, it is the buyer that is in the position of issuing the demand.

And here is where it is important to revisit a fun fact. Since we use the “active method” of contingency removal, the buyer’s 17-day contingency period becomes 18, or 19 or 30 absent written removal of those contingencies. Absent written contingency removal, the contingencies live on.

The second fun fact is that absent a full complement of contractual seller disclosures, the buyer is under no obligation to remove their contingencies. In fact, upon receipt of a disclosure at any time in the process, the buyer has a minimum of 5 days to review and accept. Finally, even if the buyer has removed all contingencies, the minute a new disclosure is delivered, all bets are off. The buyer has a brand new five-day period to waive this brand new contingency.

I’ll spare you the details, but we will be closing, and we will be closing only after my client has enjoyed all her rights and privileges under the contract. And, if you are still awake, there is a point here. Contracts are big, bad legally binding documents. The purchase agreement specifically spells out obligations of both parties, and you should be darn sure your agent understands your contract, explains it thoroughly to you, and defends your rights for the duration of your transaction.

No two transactions are alike, and each will involve their own unique circumstances and challenges. You can’t auto-fill. The results will be discussion. And what I really mean by that is they will be disastrous.

(Disclaimer: I am a real estate broker, not an attorney. I just feel like one some weeks. You should always consult an attorney with your legal questions lest your agent be sued later for practicing law without a license and all that stuff.)

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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)
  • CA BRE# 01853496

Broker Information

  • Kris Berg, Broker
  • CA BRE #01241572