Monday, October 25, 2010

If life hands you rattlesnakes

My husband told me an interesting story the other day. It is the story of George End. George was a graduate of Columbia University in the 1930's. Due to the depression he could not find a job. With a wife and two sons to feed he started looking for any opportunity that would support his family. He heard of a citrus orchard for sale in Florida and bought it, sight unseen. They packed up and headed from Arcadia to a little farm on the Tampa Bay peninsula - fruit growers they were going to be.

What they didn't know was that eastern diamondback rattlesnakes were plentiful in the scrub and pine that blanketed Tampa's southern peninsula and that they were especially dense in MacDill Field - the orchard they just purchased.

He tried making a go of it with lemon and grapefruit trees, but for every two he planted, one would die the next season. "The rattlesnakes were more prolific than the crops I planted," he told the Tampa Tribune in 1940.

Failing at farming was not an option, and with a dense population of tasty rattlesnake he decided to farm them. George and his family set up a snake pit at the end of town, built a cannery (for packaging the smoked snake meat-a cross between chicken and veal I am told),  hired some of the more adventurous locals to harvest the snakes, and sold rattlesnake meat via mail order. He even established his own post office in 1939, the Rattlesnake Post Office, to ship his "snake snacks in supreme sauce" around the globe.
George End literally took lemons and made, well you know. Newspapers wrote of this newly discovered delicacy and overnight, George End's get rich dream put South Tampa on the map. Thousands flocked to see the largest venomous snake in North America. The town was renamed, Rattlesnake, Florida and the family business was profitable into the late 50's.

George End handling one of his diamondback rattlesnakes at his Rattlesnake, Fl canning plant.
I couldn't stop thinking about this story and how crazy it sounds in today's real estate market. I thought to myself: Were there no property disclosure statements back then?  How would the internet and the gorgeous property photos we spend hours ogling over have helped George see this was no citrus orchard!; Did he not have any contingencies, no remedy for misrepresentation? Who was responsible - the buyer for not doing his due diligence or the seller for not accurately representing the property? Were any agents involved?

But then I moved on to the inspiring part of the story. Here we have a hardworking, dedicated and educated family man who served in WWII, got an education, and wanted to provide for his family. When they drove up to the farm in a borrowed Model A and saw only acres of thicket, he didn't turn around. And after a few years of planting trees that never lasted longer than a season, he didn't give up. He never gave up his dream to make something of his life and of the land he bought. He realized "if I can't grow citrus, then I better take what the land is giving me and run with it". And run with it he did.

Good show George End, good show. So the next time life throws us lemons...let's make

Until next week,

la chasse au bonheur 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

They may be camo, but they go on the same way

I just returned from my annual hunting weekend in Northern Idaho. How this relates to real estate is vague, I openly admit, but if you stay with me, I will try to make a point.

This weekend started out a few years ago as a way to spend time with my brother on his turf and has turned into a weekend I will never surrender. My brother and his buddies have welcomed me, a city girl with funny boots and a buffalo plaid jacket (although this year I was sporting my new camo vest courtesy of my bro), into their group like I was born and raised in these mountains.

Black Lake in Northern Idaho
Now, those of you who know me, know I am not a gun toting gal. In fact, I am very much against guns....but this, this is different. I am not going to pretend to know why people hunt. But I do know that these guys use every piece of meat they can, and simply put - it is a way of life for them.

I like travelling east of the Cascades. The people of the Pacific Northwest are as diverse as its geography and it is that geography that plays a great deal into how people live. Crossing the vast Palouse of Central/Eastern Washington you see the Ag world come to life. You can't help but notice how the barns are three times larger than their humble farm houses. How money is invested in outbuildings and equipment rather than on lavish homes.

Crossing the state line into the panhandle of Northern Idaho the mountains rise up to greet you once again and the expansive grasslands are replaced by small mining towns, complete with saloons, assayer offices, and county jail. If you look closely, up the gulches, you can see the old mine shafts from an earlier time. The houses in these towns are simple, usually one, maybe two room wooden structures that provided shelter for a miner looking to make a fortune. Over time, these homes have been added on to, but compact and efficient they remain.

Wallace, Idaho circa 1910, a mining town
It's in a town like this that my brother and sister-in-law live. Pinehurst, Idaho. That was my home this past weekend. At night, Pinehurst became the backdrop to many exciting conversations about Elk... 
Pinehurst, Idaho
...but the days, they were spent tucked on a  mountainside along Black Lake, in the glorious sun, breathing in all of mother nature. "Never underestimate the power of great natural beauty to bring you inspiration, peace of mind, and clarity of thought. In nature you find yourself." Wayne Dyer

Sunrise over Lake Coeur d'Alene
Canada Geese feeding before heading South for the Winter

Marsh along Swan Lake
Here's what nature inspired in me Saturday

Ok, yes, it was a really long day!
But I am digressing from my point. What I have come to realize is that the lay of the land, and the rich history that belongs to each area defines the way its residents live. And it is only in understanding how those two collide that you can truly understand the people who carve out a rich and beautiful life there.

Immersing myself in a world I know very little about opened my eyes to the fact that just like me, these guys throw open their doors and welcome in company, pop open a cooler and hand you a cold one, lend you an arm to help you up a steep trail. They cherish family and home and friends. And just like me, they put their pants on one leg at a time...theirs just happens to be from the fall line of camo from Cabelas.

We talk about creating a gentler, kinder world, and I think putting ourselves in someone else's boots goes a long way to accomplishing this goal. I know I use to have an idea about hunting that was based on how I live here in Seattle and it wasn't until I spent time with these guys that I realized that isn't fair. How they spend their days is just as different as the style, design and function of the houses we live in...but what we feel is the same. I believe, that if we accept this fact, than we will once again work together as a nation.

As I headed out of town this morning, I pulled in for gas and found my brother at the local Exxon, standing in the middle of some friends, waving his hands about, sharing his story about how he came across an elk in the fog....I waved to him 'goodbye' and drove off with a big grin and a grateful heart! Thank you David for a great weekend!

My brother, nephew, Jeromy and Greg

 Until next week,

la chasse au bonheur

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oliver Stone missed a great opportunity

I saw Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps over the weekend, and while I admit to being confused about Oliver Stone's message (I found it garbled, disjointed, and at times, off point), the movie did hit a cord and caused me to pause and reflect.

On the very day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy (September 2008) I listed a home in Magnolia. The news of this event hit my clients like a ton of bricks. You see Allen and Sunny both work in the financial industry and they knew what this meant. They understood that this humbling move marked the next chapter in a tumultuous year in which once-proud financial institutions were brought to their knees as a result of hundreds of billions of dollars in losses because of bad mortgage finance and real estate investments.
Allen and Sunny's home in Magnolia - SOLD 261 days on market Fall/Winter 2008
This wasn't my first conversation with a client about the housing "bubble*". In the Spring of 2008 Steve and Ashley hired me to sell their home. Steve worked in Mergers and Acquisitions and saw the writing on the wall. And while I, and every other agent, spent time gathering data to support the contrary, we couldn't change the inevitable.

* United States housing market correction is a market correction or "bubble bursting" of a United States housing bubble; the most recent began following a national home price peak first identified in July 2006. A housing bubble is characterized by rapid increases in the valuations of real property such as housing until unsustainable levels are reached relative to incomes, price-to-rent ratios, and other economic indicators of affordability. This in turn is followed by a market correction in which decreases in home prices can result in many owners holding negative equity, a mortgage debt higher than the value of the property. 

Steve and Ashley's home in Montlake - SOLD 43 days on market Spring 2008
Looking back, I realized it was a full year earlier that I had my first conversation about the housing market and how the bubble couldn't be sustained (and the impact the subprime market would have on the demise of the market as we know it). This was in the Summer of 2007. Natalie and Terry were relocating back to NYC and hired me to sell their home in Madrona. Terry was, and still is, a very smart financial analyst and understood all too well the subprime* market and the effect it would have on the housing market.

* The subprime mortgage crisis is an ongoing real estate crisis and financial crisis triggered by a dramatic rise in mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures, overheating of real estate and debt markets, with major adverse consequences for banks and financial markets around the globe. Approximately 80% of U.S. mortgages issued in recent years to subprime borrowers were adjustable-rate mortgages (as opposed to amortized loans). After U.S. house prices peaked in mid-2006 and began to reset at higher rates, mortgage delinquencies soared. Securities backed with subprime mortgages, widely held by financial firms, lost most of their value. The result has been a large decline in the capital of many banks and U.S. government sponsored enterprises, tightening credit around the world. 

Terry and Natalie's home in Madrona - SOLD 98 days on market Summer 2007
I remember each of these conversations with my clients like it was yesterday. I remember taking the Pollyanna approach, as I so often do, and reassuring my clients, "I will get it sold". I had done everything right - pricing, the photos, the sketch, staging, marketing, advertising; it had to sell - everything sold!

What I have realized, and watching Stone's movie caused me to think about, is a lot has changed since I was licensed in 2001.

For most of the last decade, Americans treated their homes as sources of ready cash and as brick-and-mortar retirement plans. Most homeowners were overleveraged at purchase with no down payment, no documentation and negative-amortized mortgages, and to add to it, homeowners mined equity with home-equity loans and lines of credit. I know I did! Merrill Lynch ran a very successful program to tap into home equity (they fell victim along with Lehman Brothers in September 2008 with a buyout from BofA).

As we stand here today, 23% of single-family homes with mortgages are "under water", with owners owing more on their homes than they are worth. And analysts expect that share to rise as the housing market bottoms out.

But good has come out of all this, as painful as it has been. Many Americans have had to accept that they will be living in their current place for a long while, even if they had planned to flip or trade up. And while this was not the plan, the good news is that home owners are putting more money into their home in the form of on-going home maintenance, quality upgrades, and thoughtful renovations. This benefits everyone - a well cared for home not only increases the value of the home, but the neighbors' as well.

I am seeing other good come out of this tumultuous market. This bust is giving plenty of first-time buyers, including police officers, nurses and teachers who were priced out of our city, their first chance in years to own a home in the city they work in.

As for myself and my colleagues, we are better agents. I believe in Herbert Spencer's concept, "survival of the fittest"....and markets like this prove just that. The agents who have been able to navigate this market are better informed.

Allen and Sunny, Steve and Ashley, Natalie and Terry are smart, savvy homeowners and knew how to price and when to sell. I am lucky to have them as clients.

What I have learned over the past three years is this...none of us make the market, we just provide the best advice possible for the market we are in. So now, in lieu of "staging" courses, I engage in conversations with financial analysts, bankers, lenders, and accountants. I analyze population, employment, absorption rate, land sale, appreciation, commercial activity and use, days on market, new construction, land prices and land sale, recreation profiling, price per square foot, city and county profiles, and what the market is buying.

So what's my advice....see a house as your home, not an investment. Move-in, unpack and lay down roots. If you have babies, let them share a room; if you need extra money, rent out the basement; if you get a big promotion and need a place to entertain, find a good restaurant. If circumstances do require you to move before your home becomes a good investment (usually 7-8 years for a home valued at $750,000) then weigh your options. Look at home-ownership as a long-term financial commitment, a sturdy shelter and a place to hang your hat!

Now you might find this odd advice for a real estate agent who makes money only when a property is bought or sold, but like I said, I have learned a lot in the past ten years! Until next week,

la chasse au bonheur!

In all my postings, my goal is to provide inspiration and insight into home ownership, real estate, and to provide valuable resources.

I am working on a new website that will provide links to these, and other sites so that you too can stay informed on our ever changing market. I will provide the URL in a future blog.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The emotional buy

While we may like to believe that we are making a purely rational decision, for most of us home purchasing is a process driven by emotion. We are buying a future and need to connect to the home on a personal and emotional basis. Home sale design enables that connection – color and texture create an emotional response, while furniture placement helps buyers envision how to use the space. In an empty house, one’s eye is drawn only to the perceived flaws. Home sale design accentuates a home’s features, enabling one to imagine settling in and living a life there.

This was the philosophy of Jan Sewell, a long time real estate agent and staging icon in Seattle.

Jan Sewell

Jan past away this past week and has left many of us with a hole in our heart. Her talents and generosity will be missed terribly. A successful real estate agent since 1993, Jan was perhaps best known for her staging business. She elevated staging to what we know it to be today - elegant, fun, personal, of quality; and through her keen eye and big, happy heart created spaces that benefited everyone-seller, buyer, agent. You always knew a home staged by Jan was going to show in the very best possible light.

My posting today is to honor Jan and the business she created. She would have liked that! Anything to help sellers accomplish their goal.

There are a number of reasons to "stage" a home. You can use a professional stager, or implement some of these tips and do it yourself. Either way, I hope these ideas inspire and delight, whether your house is on the market now, will be soon, or you just want to edit your living space.

No.1/stay true
Staging should always be tailored to the character of the individual property and to the most likely potential buyers. 
Color, texture and style combine to create the Nantucket feel I was looking for in this New England style Saltbox I listed a few years ago.

No. 2/edit, edit, edit (and then edit again)
If you are still living in a home, stagers can provide consultation services to help you to determine furniture placement, accessorize, and most importantly, help you edit. A good rule of thumb-have only three-four pieces of furniture in each room. For example, in each bedroom you would have a bed, nightstand, chest of drawers or bench, and an accent chair. Limit the amount of items you have on the table tops to one-three items maximum. Remove personal photos.

Note: there are only three items on the nightstand.

Note: only three pieces of furniture in this lovely master bedroom, the oil painting was borrowed from my den as it was the perfect compliment to the wall color...if all else fails, borrow, you'll get it back to them soon enough!

The dining room of this charming Ravenna Bungalow was pared down to accentuate the open floor plan. The mirror reflects 'space' and the open weave metal chairs take up less visual space than traditional chairs.
For the kitchen, remove counter top appliances....if you must, keep one or two at the very most. Make sure you add flowers or a bowl of fruit, a nice cookbook. Everyone likes a clean kitchen!

No. 3/don't let rooms echo
If life has sent you packing, then the need for staging is critical. It is very difficult for most buyers to visualize spaces without furnishings in them, not to mention rooms feel cold and no one likes a house that echos! Fully furnishing a vacant home can be very expensive, an alternative is to furnish only part of the home-the main floor for example. If you go this route, make certain you accessorize all the bathrooms and the utility rooms-a few nicely folded towels, simple painting, a rug to soften the feel, and a smelly soap does the trick for me.

Furniture can be added by a stager or, another option - renting, either way, furnishings bring life to an empty home!

No. 4/create the vision
Many of Seattle's older homes have rooms that don't quite make sense for the way we live today-staging these rooms for a usable purpose adds value to your home. 
An odd shaped room in one of Seattle's historic homes was designed as a young girl's bedroom-count the number of furnishings-un, deux, trois-parfait!

These savvy clients of mine needed to eek out another sitting area so they placed their dining room furniture in an area of their living room and staged the "designated" dining area as a sitting area off the kitchen. They ended up with three distinct areas rather than two.

No. 5/don't forget the loo (and other necessaries)
By simply adding fresh towels, a small rug, simple painting, and some smelly soap you transform a cold space into a valuable asset. Remember bedrooms, baths, and kitchens are the major search items.

Adding canisters, wicker basets, and flowers in a pail add life and charm to an otherwise utilitarian room.

No. 6/merchandise the closets, cupboards and china hutch
Editing doesn't stop in the obvious areas, you need to go deep. Simplify your china hutch and bookshelves by keeping to one color or collection. It could be all white creamware, or polish pottery. For books, box away paperbacks and let the hardbounds shine. If the colors are too varied, flip the books around so the spine is against the wall...this will create a more unified look to the shelf. Add a knick knack here and there, but watch your scale....nothing too small - it will only end up looking messy.
Jon Rosichelli is a stager I use quite a bit, for this home he highlighted the walls of built-ins without making the room too heavy. Jon first started in the staging business under the brilliant Jan Sewell.
Color and texture play a big part in the emotions of buying but I am going to have to leave that for another day...I am now inspired to pick a room, dust off the knick knacks, and edit just a bit. Until next week,

la chasse au bonheur!

In all my postings, my goal is to provide inspiration and insight into home ownership, real estate, and to provide valuable resources.

Jon Rosichelli
Rosichelli/Mendoza Home