Category Archives: Uncategorized

You’ll Scream When You See How Much Americans Spend on Halloween

basketHold on, a yawning gap has been revealed in Nolo’s accounting for likely first-time homeowner expenses: Halloweeeeen!

You think I’m kidding. But that’s because, back when you lived in Apartment A on the 14th floor, you didn’t have to worry about lining your front lawn with styrofoam gravestones or filling your candy bowl in preparation for hordes of little princesses or,  God forbid, Miley Cyruses.

Take a look at your neighbor. He’s probably already affixing a giant fuzzy spider to his front entryway. Americans currently spend a collective $1.96 billion on outfitting their home for this holiday. I’ll leave the “per-household” calculation to someone whose math brain wasn’t apparently eaten by zombies, but given that my household accounts for about $10 of that sum, you’ve got some serious slack to  pick up.

And beware: If you live in one of the zip codes identified by ZipRealty as the “best places to trick-or-treat,” your bowl of candy had better be cauldron sized. Here in the Bay Area, San Francisco’s “West of Twin Peaks” neighborhood made the list.

For more (and more serious) tips on budgeting for home ownership, see “The Essential Guide for First-Time Homeowners.”

Must Home Sellers Disclose Past Burglaries on the Property?


Crime is up in my neighborhood, as it is in many locations across the United States, according to the FBI. If your home has ever been the site of a burglary, you know all too well the trauma and sense of violation such an event produces. But is this new part of your home’s “history” something that you need to share with prospective home buyers?

Most U.S. states require sellers of property to disclose a variety of information about the property to buyers. Exactly what is significant enough for sellers to disclose usually hinges on what is “material,” or will make a difference to the value of the property. This can go beyond the basic physical realities, like a cracked foundation or leaky roof. Sellers are also expected to disclose less tangible truths, like the house’s reputation as being haunted or location in a low-ranking school district. In fact, houses that were the site of violent or horrific crimes are widely considered to be “stigmatized,” which sellers are absolutely expected to disclose to buyers.

But your average burglary isn’t horrific. The neighbors won’t be pointing at the house years later and saying, “Ooh, it still creeps me out to think that that place got burgled.” By the time “years later” rolls around, many other houses in the neighborhood are also likely to have had their laptops, cash, and jewelry spirited away.

In most U.S. states, the standard disclosure forms that home sellers fill out do not, in fact, ask about past burglaries. As Michael Crowley, real estate broker with Spokane Home Buyers explains, “An ordinary burglary wouldn’t be considered a material defect to the property, so I wouldn’t expect a seller to disclose it. As I remind my buyers, there’s crime in every neighborhood. Still, I can think of possible exceptions, mostly in unusual circumstances; like perhaps if a neighbor had broken into the house repeatedly in the past and might do so again in the future.”

If you’re a prospective home buyer, your best bet for predicting what will happen in your home’s future is to check local crime statistics (which you can likely do online, through the police department). You can also check the house’s insurance “CLUE” report, which might show past burglaries. (That’s assuming the homeowners put in a claim; some don’t, worried that it will jack up their rates.) And there’s nothing to stop you from asking the seller and the neighbors about past burglaries at the house or in the area. Information from the seller could be particularly useful to help you figure out the house’s vulnerable points. There may be a good reason for those unsightly bars on the window . . . .

If you’re a seller filling out the disclosure form, however, consider what Stephen Bloom, Broker-Associate at Lawton Associates in Berkeley, has dubbed the “Safeway effect.” According to Bloom, “It’s worth asking yourself how the buyer would feel if he or she were chatting with a new neighbor in line at the Safeway and says, ‘I just moved in,’ only to have the other person say, ‘Isn’t that the house that got broken into last year?’ News like that might shock the buyer.” And unhappy buyers may eventually find something to sue the seller over, even if it’s not precisely the same issue.

The farther into the past the burglary is, however, the less relevant it will seem to all concerned. How long is long enough? Bloom suggests, “Where I work in California, if there was a death on the property within the last three years, the seller would have to disclose it. I’d use same rule of thumb for a burglary and similar crimes.”

The law doesn’t seem to have all the answers in this case (as in many cases). Sellers filling out the disclosure forms might be best off imagining the buyer’s point of view and remembering that it’s often psychologically better to over-disclose than to let home buyers encounter surprises later.





This Blog’s a Winner!

At the 2012 NAREE conference in Denver last week, this blog received the “best of 2011” award. The judges said, “The writer explained how the latest real estate news affected readers and how they could react to it. She offered legal tips, common sense advice, and observations on the real estate market in language that readers could understand. Her high-level expertise and light-hearted spirit showed through.”

“The author” (that being me) looks forward to bringing you more such offerings in the future. In the meantime, it was a treat to spend time with many accomplished journalists, reporters, and other real estate industry experts at the conference. A full list of the award winners’ can be found in this NAREE press release.

And, if you’re looking for some great reads, here some of my favorites from among the winners:


Home Buyers Still Learning to Look Past the Staging

For every story of a home seller who had a successful sale only after “finally” having had the home staged, there are multiple untold stories of buyers who either couldn’t see the house’s potential until it was staged, or were dazzled by the staging into overlooking its faults.

Take, for example, the May, 2012 issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, which contained an article called “How to Sell Your Home Fast,” by Patricia Mertz Esswein.

Esswein tells the story of the Barbers, in Minneapolis, who spent months trying to sell their high-end home in a hot location — without luck, apparently owing to the fact that their furnishings did nothing to minimize the house’s long, narrow living room. Only when they moved their furnishings out and got a stager to redo the living room with “smaller-scale” furniture did an offer come in.

So, were the early buyers unimaginative, or was the ultimate buyer fooled by a mini-sofa? Hard to say. But now seems like a good time to offer up another tip to buyers on how to scrutinize a well-staged home.

TIP: Remember, your office will never look as cute — or as clean — as this one.

Space for a home office, whether it’s in a converted garage, closet, or bonus room, can be an attractive feature in a home. But if your home office is anything like mine, it’s a thicket of electrical cords, equipment, and supplies.

Kind of makes you nostalgic for that typewriter on the desk, doesn’t it? (But I’d never go back to a typewriter, ever.)

With that lesson in mind, take a closer look at any potential home office space, particularly if this is an important house feature for you. Does the space have sufficient electrical outlets? Space for a printer, shredder, file cabinet, desk, bookshelves, table, and so forth? Make sure the basics meet your needs before you start planning where you’d put the little globe.

Market Transitions Confusing for Buyers and Sellers

A column in my local paper by Arthur White, titled “Change is in the air,” describes how he and other agents at Red Oak Realty in Berkeley and Oakland have “noticed a swell of real estate transactions that encountered multiple offers.” They list ten examples of homes that received between two and 21 offers, which naturally leads to “pushing prices up.”

Meanwhile, I can point to plenty of houses around Berkeley and Oakland that are sitting unsold, or sport “price reduced” signs. How is a seller supposed to enter a market that seems to be simultaneously hot and cold — and how is a buyer supposed to place intelligent bids?

For sellers, the advice White offers is the same as has been true throughout this tough market — though the message is still not penetrating to every seller: “Remember, not every listing gets into a bidding war. The difference lies in the listing price: Buyers don’t compete for overpriced properties, they compete when a property is priced in a way that is ‘too good to be true.'”

I know firsthand how emotionally difficult it can be, not to mention financially worrisome, when you advertise a price for your home that seems like you’re ready to give it away. But it has been proven to work over and over again, as the years of slow-moving real estate sales have dragged on.

Meanwhile, for buyers, White advises “courage and prudence” in a competitive situation. Don’t lose your head just because you imagine that the other buyers are going to outbid you by some unknown amount. Looking at average prices of comparable sales in the past few months should continue to be your guide. And if you lose out on this house, well, the market is still far from super-hot — and another one will come along. (In fact, maybe you’ll find one that’s been sitting on the market so long that the once-unrealistic seller is ready for a major price reduction.)

Single-Female Homebuying Trend Shows No Sign of Slowing

Fifty years ago, a single woman had trouble even qualifying for a mortgage. Today, National Association of Realtors statistics show that single women account for nearly twice as large a share of the homebuying populace as single men, both for first-time buyers (24% versus 12%) and repeat buyers (17% versus 9%).  Their median age (in both cases) is 41 years, meaning we’re probably looking at both young unmarrieds and the recently divorced.

Ginny Mees gives an interesting rundown of the facts, figures, and history in her article, “The Female Face of Real Estate.”  And if you’re a single woman starting your home search, check out the tips in the Nolo article, “Single-Woman Homebuyers: What to Consider.” It covers issues like affordability, safety, and strategizing for a possible future move or expansion of your household.



Hands Off That Frass!

I had one of those moments that define homeownership recently: Took a book off the shelf (a built-in bookshelf in our 1915 home) and saw a little pile of what looked like chewed up wood behind it.

“I’ll get the vacuum,” my husband said, thereby earning himself points for helpfulness, but not for long-term thinking. We clearly had pests at work. But without being able to show an expert what the pest had left behind — the “frass,” in industry lingo — there would have been no way to determine whether the pests were termites (our first assumption) or something else.

The inspector himself was a bit mystified, but took a sample back to his office to show everyone else. I picture them all there, huddled around, with no greater earthly fascination than our little pile of frass. The conclusion: carpenter ants.

So, put your vacuum away for now, and study up on likely home pests, by going to this free article on Nolo’s website, drawn from Essential Guide for First-Time Homeowners, by Ilona Bray and Alayna Schroeder: “Common Home Pests.”

Real Estate Still Beats Gold as an Investment!

At least, that’s the conclusion of Ted Jones, Chief Economist at Stewart Title, who spoke at the recent National Association of Real Estate Editors in San Antonio Texas.

Despite all the recent talk about gold being the hottest investment out there, Jones notes that, over the last 30 years, “Real estate outpeformed gold two to one.”

He adds, “If you had bought a median-priced home in January of 1980 and sold it last month [May of 2011], it would have gone up in value 207%. If you had sold gold after holding it for the last 30 years, it would have gone up only a little.”

And that doesn’t even take into account the benefits of actually owning a house, which you can enjoy living in or renting out. What can you do with a piece of gold for 30 years? “Look at it!” says Jones.

Of course, you could argue that the next 30 years aren’t likely to be as rosy for the housing market. Nevertheless, Jones observes that some increase in demand is inevitable. By the year 2050, the U.S. population is expected to increase to 400  million people, not including undocumented aliens.  (The current U.S. population is 311,623,562.) Those folks will eventually need housing!