Category Archives: Neighbors

Why Non-Parent Homebuyers Should Care About School Quality

Who’s thinking about school in the middle of summer, right? Well, I went to a neighborhood party yesterday, which was heavily attended by parents of toddlers, and the primary topic of conversation was where they were going to send the little ones when they grew up.

Our local schools, for the most part, are lousy. In fact, I probably wouldn’t live here if they weren’t. Low school quality is the very factor that allowed us, along with various other childless buyers, to afford a place here. So part of me was inclined to yawn and turn away at this topic of conversation.

Yet I was also watching the laws of supply and demand in action. If school quality doesn’t improve around here, or the parents don’t feel able to shell out for private school, many of these friendly neighbors whom I’m just getting to know will be moving in a few years.

If and when they do move, local “for-sale” inventory will rise – and other buyers will have to go through the “will we have kids, can we deal with the local schools, and if not, is it worth buying now only to have to move in a few years?” analysis.

For many, the answer will be no. For me, that will mean less neighborhood stability, and less home appreciation for my own abode.

If you’re a homebuyer currently scouting out the market, it really is worth having a look at how your local schools are rated, whether or not you have, or plan to have children. Fortunately, there are lots of great research sources for that, such as City-Data and GreatSchools.org.

Enclave of Sex Offenders a La “Arrested Development” = New Real Estate Reality?

FINGERPRINTRemember that episode of the popular TV series “Arrested Development,” where a member of the once-wealthy family tries to unload empty houses in their development by selling them to sex offenders?

If you laughed then, you now need to solemnly admire the show creators’ prophetic powers. According to Inman News’s reporting on this topic by Teke Wiggins, the increasing accessibility of data on where registered sex offenders live could ultimately “herd offenders into enclaves, depressing home values in some neighborhoods and scaring away families with children.”

Here’s a bit of the back story. All the relevant data – for-sale home listings on one hand, addresses of registered sex offenders on the other — has been available online (and as apps) for a while. (Federal legislation known as Megan’s Law mandates that each state collect information on registered sex offenders and make it publicly available, though many states specify that the public may access the information only for certain reasons, and not for others. California, for example, prohibits using the database for the purpose of denying housing.)

What’s new and different, however, is that various online services have begun merging all this data – although in some cases later “de-merging” it, as RealtyTrac (a major U.S. source of real estate listings) did, possibly in response to outcry from real estate agents and industry insiders as well as some legal issues. (See “RealtyTrac Wipes Hyperlocal Neighborhood Info From Listings.”)

You could look at RealtyTrac’s latest action cynically and say that the real estate industry doesn’t want to promote any feature, however snazzy, that puts “sex offender” warning flags right next to images of homes where prospective buyers might have hoped to raise children.

In the blandest economic terms, sex offenders in the neighborhood tend to depress home values. In fact, according to Wiggins’ article (“Sex offender data threatening home values, tarnishing neighborhoods and frustrating real estate agents”), knowing where a registered sex offender lived pushed down home values by 4% for those properties within a tenth of a mile of the offender’s house, in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County. That data is from a study done by Jonah Rockoff, associate professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.

The direst of warnings came from real estate agent Steve Clarke who, reacting to RealtyTrac’s initial data merge, stated, “This could literally bring down property values all over the United States.”

Yikes. But doesn’t Clarke’s statement cut both ways? If the U.S. is littered with sex offenders, then shouldn’t home buyers simply realize that it’s nearly impossible to find an area where everyone is sane and harmless? You could move to a “sex-offender-free zone” and still find local folks convicted of various other crimes as well as crazy neighbors who have 25 cats.

I don’t mean to minimize the fear that a homebuyer, particularly a parent, might have when considering the prospect of living near someone with a history of sexual assault, rape, or other such offenses. But as Wiggins rightly points out, there’s a “potential for sex offender data to mislead and spook consumers.” He details a story in which neighbors were spreading the news that a local 17-year old was a sex offender – but it turned out that his offense was to have had sex – apparently consensual sex — with his 15-year-old girlfriend, after which the girl’s father pressed charges. (In some states, a conviction for consensual sex, that is, statutory rape, can result in a registration requirement.) The young man’s actions hardly seems like the sort that should inspire panic and bring down local home values.

Wiggins also notes that the accuracy of sex offender databases is questionable. Changes of address may not be entered into the database for some time, if at all. And offenders often fail to register.

After talking to some criminal law attorneys, I can add a few more reasons why prospective homebuyers shouldn’t stir themselves into a frenzy looking at sex offender maps:

  • A minority of sex offenders commit subsequent offenses. According to the Huffington Post, “Contrary to popular belief, as a group, sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all the crime categories.” (See “Sex Offenders: Recidivism, Re-Entry Policy and Facts.”)
  • Not everyone who is charged with a registerable sex offense will end up on the sex offender registery. A good defense attorney will do everything possible to avoid an outcome that requires registration, a life-long duty that will limit the client’s ability to get jobs and housing long after any jail time has been served. Particularly when the prosecution’s case is weak, clients will enter into plea bargains to lesser, non-registerable offenses, like assault.
  • The most common sex offenders are the people you might least suspect. According to the organization Parents for Megan’s Law, “Most child sexual abuse, up to 90%, occurs with someone a child has an established and trusting relationship with.” Friends, babysitters, family members, coaches, and others are commonly identified in studies and statistics of child sexual abuse.

Not all of the above news is exactly comforting. But it points to a larger truth: We can’t completely isolate ourselves or our children from danger – not in the homebuying process, nor anywhere else. The best bet for parents worrying about their children’s personal safety is to teach those children what to watch out for and encourage them to talk to parents or other adults about any inappropriate behavior.

Will a “Premiere Party” Help Sell Your Home?

mimosa iStock_000012039452XSmallThe trend-spotters at Oakland Magazine have been at work, with a recent article titled, “To Sell a Property, They Throw a Party.”

And not just any party: It’s a “premiere party” (usually for a luxury home in an affluent neighborhood), to which the real estate agent invites hundred of neighbors and other prospects.

They might serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres (will I ever be able to spell that without looking it up?) or perhaps chocolate chip cookies. They might create an art show with work from a local artist. One agent even commissioned a bagpipe player.

The odd thing is, most of the article discussed not what benefits parties like these offer the home seller, but what they can do for the selling agents, who — in the hot, hot, and already hotter Oakland market — find they’ve got to work hard to set themselves apart and attract clients. As one agent told writer Mike Rosen-Molina, “Listing agents are looking for tools that every agent might not have and ways to convince sellers to list their home with them.”

Okay, so do such parties really help sell your home? Especially given one agent’s acknowledgment that, “Buyers will see the home anyway; anyone looking won’t miss the property.”

The answer seems to be that such parties create a “buzz.” They get people talking, and create a sense that the property itself is an object of desire. And, while no agent quoted in the article came out and said this, buzz like this can lead to every seller’s dream: Offers over asking price, and possibly a bidding war.

 

 

They’re Tweeting About This House!

IMG_4987Well, it looks like a charming young couple was intrigued by the open house, and is moving into our “cottage.”

(When selling a house with less-than-impressive square footage, it’s important to use appealing words like “cottage” rather than “matchbox” or, God forbid, “birdhouse.”)

Like any smart homebuyers, they’ve done their looking around (two other places within sight of my kitchen window were visited and rejected) and conducted a thorough home inspection.

I believe they were then convinced by the following home features:

  • Room for a growing family. (The Oak Titmouse lays from three to nine eggs.)
  • Solid construction. This one was built by Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses, known for complying with the International Standards of Ornithology.
  • Security. Try as you might, Mr. Squirrel, you’re not getting your head in that front door.
  • Quiet neighbors. (Well, the neighbor’s dog does have it in for the postal carrier. Let’s say “relatively quiet.”)
  • Sunny location. But not too sunny.
  • Cleanliness. As is recommended, I removed the old nest last year and cleaned the inside with boiling water. Every responsible home seller should behave similarly. (With perhaps a little less of the boiling water.)
  • Proximity of restaurants, bars, and other amenities. The water in the nearby birdbath gets changed daily, and there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of seeds on a nearby ledge. How’s that for a Walk Score?

I do notice, however, as the moving in progresses, that they occasionally have trouble getting their furniture in the front door. Next time I trust they’ll wise up and carry a tape measure.

 

 

Good Laws Can Make for Good Fences

broke fenceI’ve heard of at least three fence disputes among friends and neighbors within the last several weeks — enough to have me rushing to the Nolo website to see what we’ve got on the matter. A lot, as it turns out (see “Neighbor Disputes“).

The various stories have been good reminders that the law covers more of our everyday lives than we sometimes realize — but also that you’ve sometimes got to do the tough work of talking matters through with a neighbor when the law seems inadequate to deal real life.

At the “That’s easy, the law has the answers” end of the spectrum, I know of a neighbor who watched a ten-foot-high fence being built on the property next to hers, right up against the sidewalk. She rightly suspected that city ordinances prohibited anything of such a height without a permit. Her first conversation with the owners (who were new to this country) produced a “Who cares?” response. But soon after she placed a call to the city,  she watched the neighbors’ workers saw the fence down by about seven feet.

Also in my neighborhood, a homeowner who shared a fence with a neighbor decided she didn’t like the fence aesthetically — even though it was in perfectly good shape — and asked the neighbor to pitch in on a new one. That neighbor was unhappy about seeing the old fence go, and refused to foot part of the bill. Indeed, there’s no law that requires neighbors to pay for a replacement fence when there’s nothing wrong with the first one. (If the fence were falling apart, it might be another matter, as described in Nolo’s FAQ, “The fence on the line between my land and my neighbor’s is in bad shape. Can I fix it or tear it down?“) But the unwilling neighbor did end up offering to help with the work, simply for the sake of maintaining neighbor relations.

In another situation, a new homeowner replaced an old, worn fence that surrounded her property — without consulting the neighbor on one side, believing that, since that neighbor had none of the same style of fencing on the remainder of his property, and the “pretty” side of the fence faced her way, it must be her fence, to do with as she would. Angry neighbor reaction ensued! In this case, the law seemed to favor the angry neighbor, since “Boundary fences are owned by both owners when both use the fence.” In any case, a batch of homemade cookies helped restore neighborly relations.

Maybe I should start offering recipes on this blog, along with law links!

Should Sellers Have Warned About Neighbors’ Holiday Lights Display?

holiday lightsHow would you feel as a new homeowner if, with Halloween barely over, you watch your neighbors get out ladders and start gearing up for a massive  holiday display — complete with lights by the thousands, inflatable snowglobes, an open garage full of displays, and music?

That might be cute for the first five minutes. Or if it were a mile away. But then your cat starts coughing at the fumes from the lines of visiting cars, the blinking lights create a horror-show strobe effect on your bedroom wall, and the tune to a certain carol takes up permanent residence in your ear.

So why is it that I’ve met scads of homeowners who say they weren’t advised of such neighborhood holiday shows by their home seller? In one case, it was the seller himself who was the local manic decorator — and didn’t warn the buyer to expect kids knocking at the door in December, wondering when the “Santa’s Workshop” in the garage would open.

Most states in the U.S. require sellers to warn buyers of not just physical issues with the home, but environmental or neighbor-related issues that could have a material effect on its value. In California, for instance, the Transfer Disclosure Statement asks about “neighborhood noise problems or other nuisances.” Not every light show is a nuisance, of course — but at close range, or when a house attracts unprecedented traffic levels, it’s no stretch to say the seller should warn the buyer. (Of course, most homes are sold in summer — and who’s thinking about holiday lights then?)

Oddly, I can’t find any record of U.S. lawsuits against sellers for failure to disclose local holiday light displays. It’s not as though buyers are shy about suing home sellers for nondisclosure, of everything from past crimes on the property to neighbors’ regular loud arguments and late-night parties.

And neighbors have brought lawsuits against the owners of homes with overwhelming displays alleging nuisance. (Perhaps that’s the more relevant path to getting results, given that a few bucks from the home seller isn’t ever going to fully compensate a homeowners for the lost sleep from those blinking red lights.) Some have even explored even more creative approaches — check out attorney Rich Stim’s blog on, “Can We Report Neighbor for Blasting Copyrighted Christmas Music?

Or could it be that homeowners feel just too Scrooge-like suing over what’s meant to be a bit of holiday fun? In any case, if you’re a home seller, you can avert some future bad feelings by telling your home buyer what’s ahead — or at least leaving them your Santa costume.

Charles Ramsey and Amanda Berry Story Illustrates Importance of Good Neighbors

htbh4_2When buying a home, you want to live near neighbors like Charles Ramsey, who will rescue you in a tough situation, right? By the look of it, Ramsey wasn’t living in a fancy house or in a luxury neighborhood. But sometimes other community qualities are just as important when homebuying — a truth that buyers sometimes forget in the midst of admiring the kitchen or reviewing the inspection report concerning the home’s physical condition.

There are limits on how much you can find out about your potential new neighbors, of course. Ramsey himself illustrates this, noting that he could have saved Amanda Berry and the other kidnapping victims a year before, if he’d only known what his neighbor Ariel Castro was up to. He says, “That’s why now I’m having trouble sleeping.” But he didn’t have any idea that the women were there; despite the fact that, “I barbequed with this dude. I ate ribs and listened to salsa music [with him].”

Such limitations shouldn’t stop you from trying to find out what a home’s neighbors are like. A good way to start your research is simply to knock on doors to houses surrounding the one you’re thinking of buying. You probably don’t want to ask whether they’re up to anything that the police would like to know about! Simply explain that you’re interested in purchasing, and ask about how they like the neighborhood, what they’d change, whether they know of any neighbor disputes or recent crime or problems on and around the house for sale, and so on.

If the neighbors are forthcoming, you may learn a surprising amount about both the condition of the house and neighbor relations. If they’re unpleasant or hostile, that tells you something, too. They may be difficult to deal with, or be carrying a grudge against the home’s current owners.

You can also ask the home’s seller for information, through your and their agent. Good questions might include:

  • Have disputes arisen with the neighbors? If so, how were these resolved?
  • Do you and your neighbors share the same idea of where your property boundaries lie?
  • Do the neighbors smoke, make noise, have difficult pets, or do anything else that impacts your use and enjoyment of the property? (This type of information may appear on the disclosure form, but most likely not.)
  • How do you and the neighbors handle fence repairs and trimming of trees on the boundary line? (Most of this should probably be shared, but if you find out that the sellers have been dealing with such things alone or shirking their duties, you’ll need to plan ahead for some delicate neighbor negotiations.)

Add your own questions as relevant to the area and property. And for more information on how to research a home before buying, see the recently released new edition of Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home,