Category Archives: Selling a Home

When Is a Room a Bedroom?

bedSquare footage? Who cares about square footage? It’s the number of bedrooms in a home that’s usually the key indicator when sellers advertise and buyers search for homes online.

Which raises the all-important question: What’s a bedroom?

In real-estate tradition, a bedroom is a room that has a closet as well as a door you can close. Makes sense: If you’re going to sleep in a room, you’ll want to be able to close the door. And when you wake up, you’ll want to grab some clothes from the closet.

From the standpoint of the seller, this standard means that you’ll have trouble fudging the number of bedrooms. Clever staging won’t do it: Just putting a bed into a room doth not a bedroom make.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop some sellers from trying to expand the definition of a bedroom. I recently attended an open house for a place advertised as three-bedroom. The upstairs level clearly had only two.  The basement was unfinished. The main floor seemed to have all the normal rooms you’d expect on a main floor, with nothing resembling a bedroom.

I asked the agent, “Where’s the third bedroom?” Ruefully, she inclined her head toward a space off the living room that was obviously a den, with a couch and TV. No closet. The agent explained that the seller had once used this as a bedroom, and knew that people would prefer more bedrooms, so the seller insisted on advertising it as a bedroom.

Now, it’s true that buyers prefer more bedrooms. But for the buyers who really need a third bedroom for their large household, a room with no closet just isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to feel nothing but disappointment as they view the home.

And for the ones who are looking for a third bedroom because — as is common — they need a home office, there’s a perfectly good way to advertise it. Call it a bonus room! You see it in listings all the time, and the home-office seekers pick up on this quickly.  Such buyers might even prefer a home that doesn’t come with the price markup that’s expected for an additional bedroom.

Last I looked, the three-bedroom — no, make that two-bedroom — house I visited was still on the market.

In Housing Limbo, Sellers Scramble to Find New Homes

IMG_4418“I really hope I don’t have to move in with my mother-in-law.”

“I’ve had to move into a rental in a scary part of town — there goes my down payment for the next house.”

“Well, at least my parents haven’t done anything with my old room.”

These are all from stories I’ve heard on the local, Bay Area grapevine.  Anecdotal accounts, it’s true. But I’d hazard a guess, from the current state of the real estate market, that plenty of other recent home sellers are having the same trouble.

They couldn’t afford to buy a second house before selling the first one — banks aren’t exactly sympathetic to carrying two loans these days. But after the sale is done, they have nowhere to go. Inventory is low, and in this part of the country, multiple offers are becoming normal again — at tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the list price. (Remember when the market felt so slumped that it could never unslump? Weird.)

The only silver lining to the low inventory is that buyers are often so grateful to be in contract to buy a home that they’ll bend over backwards to accommodate sellers’ needs to stay a little longer, an arrangement outlined in Nolo’s Q&A, “What happens if we’ve sold our old house without buying a new one?” But even the most sympathetic seller isn’t going to want to wait around forever.

Athletes Who Over-Customize Their Homes May Have Trouble Selling

foosballIt’s not a problem that most of us will ever have — but it’s a good reminder of the general principle that homes fixed up with special features to suit the owner might eventually drive away would-be buyers. “Over-customization,” you might call it. Athletes with multi-million dollar contracts seem particularly prone to this syndrome.

Take a look at Tiger Woods’s $6 million digs for example: It’s not easy to dwarf a house with its own amenities, but this place comes close, with a tennis court, diving pool, lap pool, running track, boat slip, and golf green.

According to “Broke,” the 30 for 30 film by Billy Corben, one of the first things an athlete often does after hitting the big time is to buy a house for Mom. And another one for himself — a big one, with lots of rooms, perhaps a bowling alley or two. And then he goes on to buy a few more houses for friends and relatives. The title of the movie should tell you where all this often winds up, with the houses on the market or in foreclosure within a few years.

Alex Rodriguez is getting credit, however (in Darren Rovell’s article in ESPN), for having had the foresight to add nothing more than an indoor batting cage to his Miami Beach mansion, even while he poured in over $7 million worth of  improvements. (He added white oak flooring. a zen garden, a rooftop deck, and so on.) A-Rod bought the place for $7.4 million and recently sold it for $30 million.

The buyer was not an athlete, but a businessman. And that’s “an important distinction,” says Rovell,  “since so many athletes customize their homes so much that they find trouble selling them to anyone outside the sports world.”

So, there you have it. Best stick to a foosball table, that you can take with you when you move.

Disclosures, Schmosures: First, Make Sure Would-Be Buyers Don’t Get Hurt!

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAA recent California case is being hailed as an expansion of the listing real estate broker’s duty to warn buyers of dangerous conditions within the house. The case is called Hall v. Aurora Loan Services, LLC, 2013 DJDAR 5460 (April 26, 2013). In many ways, however, it’s a reminder of how common sense, rather than reliance on the letter of the law, can save home sellers a whole lot of hassles — such as broken legs and lawsuits.

Here’s what happened. The home seller, prior to putting the house on the market, commissioned a home inspection. This is a common practice among sellers in order to get a heads-up on home defects and potentially fix some of them before buyers have a chance to use them as negotiating points. The inspector’s report mentioned that the pull-down stairs leading to the attic needed “repair and replacement.” (Not, obviously, the stairs shown in this artsy image.)

Wouldn’t you think common sense would be screaming in your ear at this point, “Fix it!”? Or at least put up a warning sign? Or at least ask more questions if you weren’t entirely clear on what the report was saying?

But neither the seller nor the selling broker did any of that. Instead, in keeping with California disclosure obligations, they provided copies of the inspection report to everyone who visited the house. One of those visitors was a real estate agent with her clients. The clients ascended the stairs, the real estate agent followed, the stairs collapsed, and the agent fell and broke her leg. Lawsuit time!

Not terribly surprisingly, the court said, in essence (yes, I’m paraphrasing hugely here),  “Don’t just hand people the darn report, tell them the stairs are dangerous!”

But really, the most pithy commentary on this whole sad sequence of events was offered by the bloggers at the Law Offices of James J. Falcone, who said: “The [court] opinion doesn’t say how the clients, now stranded in the attic with the agent writhing in pain on the floor below, got out of the attic.” Indeed, court opinions often leave out the most interesting facts!

That Drone May Shoot Your House — In a Good Way

earthI was feeling like all real estate news had turned into an endless loop of the same material (c’mon, how many times have we seen that St. Joseph statue story already?) when I came across this item from Paul Hagey and Inman News: “Drones are ready for real estate.”

That’s right, tiny unmanned, remote-controlled helicopters are becoming affordable, and photographers are figuring out how to stabilize them for high-quality pictures and even video,  allowing prospective buyers to see views of your property that you’ve never experienced yourself.

You’ve got to admit, this is cool stuff. Even cooler when you read the part about how not even a normal plane or helicopter can get low enough — in the 300-feet-over-your-house range  –  to take photos with of similarly impressive detail and depth of field.

Of course, not every property will look good from the air. Last time I looked at my house on Google maps, it looked like a square of gray (that being the roof) set against a lot of other gray (those being the neighbors’ roofs and the cement of nearby roads) plus the occasional dot of green (uh oh, I really should prune back that jasmine vine). But the nearby high school swimming pool looks really great.

So if you’ve got a house with a pool, you may want to be an early adopter of this drone method of real estate advertising. The same goes if you’ve got a luxury property that looks more shapely from the air than my little square of gray. Or if you’ve just got a really stunning roof.

Really? Sellers Can Paint the Walls in Actual Colors?

For a while there, “neutrals, neutrals, neutrals,” seemed to be running a close second behind “location, location, location,” for favorite real estate tag line. Home sellers were advised to paint as much of their house as possible before putting it on the market — and to paint only in inoffensive yet alluring shades of what you and I might call tan, grey, and white. (The paint vendors, of course, call them “bisque,” “barley,” and other similarly tasty terms.)

SONY DSCBut hold everything: The word on the street now is that “bold colors” work very well if you’re trying to sell your home to “millennials,” or buyers currently in their 20s and 30s. This according to experts quoted by Richard Eisenberg in his article “How Boomer Home Sellers Can Hook Millennials.”

If you believe the paint companies, “Emerald,” “Aloe,” and “Lemon Sorbet” are what’s trending now. In fact, florals, patterns, and wallpaper are said to be making a comeback, too.

Pity all the home stagers whose websites include “Before” and “After” pictures in which they painted over perfectly respectable colors with shades of blah!

Home Sellers: Don’t Spill Precious Beans to Prospective Listing Agents

flageolet_bigIf you’re doing your due diligence when preparing to sell your home, you’ll talk to two or three real estate agents or brokers about the possibility of representing you in that sale.

Brokers are typically generous with their time at this stage — they’re experts in the field, they love touring houses and talking about real estate, and they (of course) are hoping you’ll sign up with them and ultimately pay a chunky commission on the sale.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Things can get very chummy during these initial conversations, and you may even feel with each broker that, “This is the one.”

Better keep at least some cards close to your chest, however, as described by columnist Ken Harney in his intriguing and disturbing article, “Agents not obligated to keep secrets when they don’t get the listing.” If it weren’t for an April Fool’s joke played by a real estate broker — who pretended to have set up a website, “LostListings,” in which the unchosen masses of prospective brokers could sell information gleaned from those initial conversations — this topic might not have made it to anyone’s radar screen. The joke website suggested, for example, that brokers might reveal things like the seller’s desperation to unload the house quickly to avoid foreclosure, or defects the seller was hoping not to have to disclose.

Not everyone caught on to the joke, however. (That always happens!) And a conversation ensued along the lines of, “Okay, so how much can a broker who no longer has a direct relationship to the seller ethically reveal?”

For the brokers who ARE in contract to sell someone’s house, the answer is clear. They must maintain confidentiality, subject to any exceptions set out by state law. (In some states, for example, listing brokers must tell buyers about material defects within their knowledge that would not have been readily apparent to the buyer or an inspector.)

If I’d had to guess, I would have said that prospective brokers would also have a professional obligation to keep confidential any information they learn from home sellers. That’s what lawyers have to do — in fact, Section 1.8 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules for Professional Conduct specifically addresses the nature of lawyers’ relationships with prospective clients, saying, “Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has learned information from a prospective client shall not use or reveal that information, except [some narrow exceptions].”

Well, guess what? Apparently no such rule has been written for real estate agents and brokers. Harney interviewed the National Association of Realtors’ (NAR’s) top legal official, Laurie Janik, who said, “The Realtor Code of Ethics does not impose any duty of confidentiality with respect to information provided by a prospective seller client who does not engage the Realtor.”

Harney also spoke with the ethics columnist for Realtor Magazine (also senior vice president and general counsel of Prudential Alliance Realtors in St. Louis), Bruce Aydt, who agreed that the Code of Ethics says nothing about information divulged during listing presentations. Aydt noted, however, that sellers in these conversations likely “have an expectation of privacy ….” Yup, that’s just what the lawyer for the disgruntled home seller would write in the 100-page legal brief to support a lawsuit against a loose-lipped broker.

To be fair, no one is claiming that there’s been a rash of — if any — instances where selling brokers revealed confidential information about a prospective client. I’ll bet most of them have enough business savvy to keep mum. But if you’re thinking of selling, you might not want to put this theory to the test. Unless you want the word on the street to be, “We just won the zillion-dollar lottery and are moving to the Bahamas, you can sell this dump for $1 and we’ll still be rich!!,” keep it to yourself.

The Seller Has No Place to Move to Yet: Will Your Purchase Close?

IMG_4405Found a house to buy? You’re probably feeling lucky, while many other home buyers remain frustrated at the present dearth of “For Sale” signs (not to mention properties). Low housing inventory breeds low housing inventory, with sellers thinking, “How can I put my house on the market when I don’t know if I’ll be able to find another house to buy?” along with “How can I afford to buy another house until I’ve sold this one?!”

Would-be home sellers are all but stuck — unless a buyer is willing to sign onto a so-called “seller purchase contingency.”  This portion of (or addendum to) the home purchase contract says that the deal will not close unless the seller finds another home.

If you’re the buyer, and you love the house in question enough to risk either waiting extra time for it or losing it altogether, you might want to sign onto such a contingency. But read its terms carefully first, and sound out your seller. In particular, you want to find out how far down the road toward a new house the seller will contractually need to be before your sale will close, and what steps the seller has already taken toward finding a new home.

As pointed out by Bob Hunt in the RealtyTimes article “Seller Purchase Contingencies Require Care,” the California Association of Realtors (CAR) has issued a new (as of November, 2012) addendum for just this purpose, called the “Contingency for Sale or Purchase of Other Property.” (Note: It’s not that this contingency is a new concept — real estate agents could, in the past, add language to this effect in California as well as in other states — but the contingency has become more commonly used, which apparently led CAR to issue the new form.)

The language in the new addendum is favorable to California buyers, requiring only that sellers have “enter[ed] into a contract to acquire replacement property” within a certain number of days (17 is suggested in the contract) in order to remove the contingency and allow the original deal to close. In other words, buyers who sign this addendum don’t have to wait around to make sure that the sellers’ deal actually closes on time or at all — they just need to hope that the sellers get as far as a signed agreement with another home buyer (and actually removes the contingency).

Seventeen days isn’t a very long time in which to not only find a house but enter into a purchase contract. You may want to give the sellers more time to begin with. But to make sure you’re not going to be strung along for nothing, it’s also worth making sure the sellers have been taking the appropriate steps toward finding a house.

California Realtor George Devine (co-author of Nolo’s How to Buy a House in California) says, “The seller is motivated to act in good faith here — otherwise he or she risks losing you, the willing buyer. Nevertheless, in a situation like this, you (most likely through your agent) should be asking pointed questions of the seller, like, ‘Why are you selling? How many houses have you already looked at? Have you made an offer on any? If so, at what stage are the negotiations?’ If, for example, the seller hasn’t really looked around at all, but wanted to test the market and see what price his or her house would command before taking the next steps — or is already in escrow, but with a 180-day closing period — you might want to think twice. “

If a Home’s Walk Score Is Low, How’s Its Parking Situation?

parking_ResidentialParkingWe’ve long known that a home’s walk score is a big factor in its value: A 2009 study found that homes with above-average levels of walkability (to amenities such as stores, parks, schools, and public transportation) sell for anywhere from $4,000 to $34,000 over homes whose walk scores are merely average.

Millennials in particular are taking an interest in walking or biking, whether for lifestyle or pocketbook reasons, thus sending the car industry into a state of worry about declining purchase rates.

Still, with one car out there for every two Americans, there’s a good chance that folks buying a house are going to want at least one spot for their vehicle, as well. The 2011-12 “Cost vs. Value” report from Remodeling Magazine found that a standard (not upscale) garage adds about $33,000 to the value of a U.S. single-family home — not enough to make it worth the $57,000 price tag in building a new one, but certainly enough to warrant calling attention to a garage that’s already there.

First-time homebuyers don’t always appreciate the benefits of a garage, but those who go without soon learn. Circling the block night after night in order to park at your own house is no fun. Neither is waking up to find that your car has been relieved of its catalytic converter.

With condos, or homes in jam-packed urban areas, buyers may have to pay separately for a parking spot. If you thought condo fees were high, get ready for some new sticker shock. As Bob Hunt reports in RealtyTimes, parking-spot prices in San Francisco have gone as high as $1 million, and in San Francisco, up to $90,000 back in 2011. Do we hear $100,000?

Whether you’re buying or selling, considering these proximity and transportation issues will help to both place a value on the property and  estimate the costs and ease of life for the owner.

“For Sale” Signs Still Important Home-Search Tool

A recent Washington Post article, “Conn. real estate agent accused of stealing competitor’s for sale signs from in front of homes,” got me wondering: Are yard signs still that important? Or was this overly competitive agent skulking around in vain, in a world that’s become Internet-driven? (Allegedly skulking, that is.)

Here’s what the National Association of Realtors (NAR) tells us about how home buyers locate the place they want to buy:

Information sources used in home search:

  •     Internet: 88%
  •     Real estate agent: 87%
  •     Yard sign: 55%
  •     Open house: 45%
  •     Newspaper ad: 30%
  •     Home book or magazine: 19%

Yes, the Internet tops the list, but over half of home buyers still rely on a yard sign — and why not? Seeing a “For Sale” sign on a neighboring house is sure to get some buzz going. Not to mention the fact that if you see a house ad, and then drive by to take a quick look, the yard sign helps spot the place.

So, if you’re selling a house, make sure to use a yard sign. (Most everyone does, but some sellers have been known to refuse, for privacy reasons or because they’re embarrassed at having to sell when the reasons are financial.) And then make sure that sign doesn’t walk off during the night!

For more marketing tips, see Nolo’s articles on “Preparing and Showing Your Home.”