Friday, April 27, 2007

The Value of Us. Part 1.

Real life examples often illustrate truths better than any academic argument possibly can. This is such a case, but I'm going to couch specifics so it doesn't look like I'm trying to ridicule; I'm not. But I don't think anything has come this close to illustrating that good agents actually are worth everything they get in commission:

I've done a lot of business in a particular neighborhood. The homes are homogenous, built roughly the same time: Mid to late eighties, a few as late as 2000. The builders vary somewhat in quality, so some developments within the neighborhood demand a higher price than others; and most have been upgraded – new roofs, siding, kitchens, baths, etc. – at some point. Average sold price in the last year is around $720k, the average size 3000 sf, the average $/sf is around $234. It's safe to say I've been in most of those homes, plus those currently active and pending. There was a time during the frenzy a couple years ago that the average days on the market for this neighborhood was less than seven days and selling prices averaged a little over list; now the time is 47 days, and sellers are averaging a five percent reduction in their original list price.

There. That's the background.

A few days ago I was looking through Craigslist and came across an ad for a home I hadn't seen on the MLS. In a very nice area on a terrific lot, both backed and sided by greenways. The ad was nicely written, though included things like "Great investment!" that would never be written by a professional. In it the sellers argue that since the lot is so nice, the $/sf shouldn't count as much. True enough: greenbelts can account for as much as five to seven dollars a square foot, fifteen to twenty thousand dollars for a 3000 sf home.

Unfortunately, that's not what they have in mind. The price they're asking is $63/sf higher than any home that's sold in the last year – including, it should be noted, a number of homes on greenbelts. At the barest minimum the home is $150,000 over priced, likely closer to $180,000. Even if they found a buyer it would have to be a cash buyer; it would never appraise for a loan.

But more: The photos – Craigslist allows four – are of A) an exterior, which emphasized a tree, the garage, a dormer and a lot of hipped roof; B) children playing outside; C) either a den or the living room, emphasizing lots of furniture and knick-knacks (see: DECLUTTER!); and C) a darkened picture of a bath tub. Nothing that would actually help sell the house.

Then, yesterday, the home appeared on the MLS. The sellers had gone to a discount broker - $295 to list!! Why pay more??? – who had earned exactly whatever was charged: The same four pictures, plus four more, including one of a toilet; a half filled out listing; a price exactly $6000 less than the Craigslist price; a buyer's agent commission of 2% when, as noted elsewhere, the norm is 2.5% to 3%; and no provision for a lockbox, making showing much more difficult.

Anything's possible? Nope. No chance in the world this home will sell under these circumstances.

Here's my guess: Armed with the urban legend that brokers only care about themselves, they had several in to give comps, and the agents were at least honest enough to tell them the price the sellers had in mind was out of the question. It's even possible one or more turned down the listing: marketing costs are considerable, especially now; with no chance of a return they walked. And agents are fanatically cognizant of reputation: having their name attached to a listing $150k over market is bad business.

So at the very least, the sellers are out $295 plus their time and angst. If they really want to sell – rather than just play the market – and eventually have to hire and listen to a professional, the home will have the negative taint of its present listing. Chances are very, very good they'll net less than if they'd hired the right person in the beginning.

Please! Be represented. Hire the best, and listen. It's in your interest!

UPDATE: The buyer's agent commission has been raised to 2.5%. All else remains the same!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Any time I can invoke Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the Seriously Depressed Android, I do.

Those words, of course, are on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book especially relevant to someone (Arthur) whose home had just been demolished – the entire Earth, actually – to make way for an intergalactic highway. Things are never as bad as they seem.

And they aren't! NAR has just released info to the effect that March existing home sales were down the highest level since 1989, 8.4%. Headlined on Drudge, I expect it will make The Oregonian tomorrow.

But: As I've noted before, home sales reflect contracts entered into 30-60 days prior, when most of the east coast was under a blanket of snow. So: Duh.

Which means it means exactly nothing to what's happening in the Portland Metro area. Total sales for the month here were down less than one percent; dollar volume was up. Inventory is at 3.8 months, as opposed to over 7 months nationally. As seller's expectations continue to align with those of buyers, inventory will decline even more.

Don't panic!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Free the Market! Free the Market!

I read Bloodhound Blog frequently. Mostly inside real estate for those connected to the profession, it's still fascinating reading for anyone interested in what may lie ahead in the buying and selling of homes.

It has many excellent contributors, but is run by Greg Swann, principal broker of Bloodhound Realty in Phoenix. Greg's a terrific writer, writes, I believe, a weekly column for the Arizona Republic, and knows the business thoroughly. But what keeps me coming back is his passion for the free market, which is almost always defined as what's best for you, the customer. That means he's more interested in making agents better agents as opposed to better salespeople, and that he occasionally has to go against the protectionist orthodoxy that can invade our industry and your rights as consumers of our services.

Thus yesterday this was posted. Briefly, from the Arizona Republic:

An Arizona regulatory board has ordered to stop offering its online estimates of home values.

The Arizona Board of Appraisal has issued two cease and desist letters to the popular real estate Web site, claiming Zillow needs an appraiser license to offer its "zestimates" in Arizona.

"It is the board's feeling that (Zillow) is providing an appraisal," said Deborah Pearson, Board of Appraisal executive director.

Granted it's Arizona, not Oregon; granted it's obtuse on so many levels it approaches parody; and granted it has almost no chance of getting anywhere: it's as if the American Library Association issued a cease and desist to Google.

But it's symptomatic of how industries in general, and ours in particular, react to innovation that's perceived as competition: Gather the lobby, circle the wagons, and regulate that competition out of existence. Greg says it well:

This is Rotarian Socialism in action. The so-called regulatory body serves at the beck and call of the putatively-regulated industry. They have no hope of doing anything but making themselves look ridiculous in public, but they have to answer to their allegedly regulated masters no matter what.

Zillow does what it does very, very well. It's decidedly not entirely accurate, but it admits that up front.

What it does do is make me better at my job. Almost every client – both buyers and sellers – with whom I've worked knows the site, and has used it. I have to be better at justifying any comp I do.

One last thing: Bloodhound believes – as do I – that good agents are worth every penny they charge, and then some. The business is changing, and rather than shrink from competition and new ideas, we can thrive on them.

We have to.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Home Buying Process (6) Escrow and: Possession!

  1. Hey, it's been a month! I thought you said…

    I wrote a term paper once – Spring term – titled Spring Fever. In it I made the case that the phenomenon is real, that people really do slow down and procrastinate more as the weather turns from grey to not grey. Turned it in almost two weeks late. Got an A.

    That's my excuse and I'm sticking with it.

  2. Still looks pretty grey to me but, whatever. Shouldn't you follow the Imus example and apologize?


  3. Thank you. Now: We have an agreement! I've bought a house!

    Almost. The escrow period – when the transaction is put into the hands of a neutral third party, usually a title company – can be as short as a couple weeks in the case of a cash transaction, to as long as sixty days or more if one or the other party need the accommodation and both parties agree. The point is it's a crucial period, can be enormously stressful for both buyers and sellers, and you need to know what to expect so there are no surprises.

  4. Oh, dear. Should I be afraid?

    Good heavens, no! Just know what to expect, and lean on your agent: as noted, this is where they can earn their keep! [An aside: be very careful of outside suggestions. They can be well intentioned – or not – but can lead to confusion and more stress than necessary. Again: listen to your agent. He or she has the all the necessary information, and, if you hired well in the first place, has your best interest in mind.]

    Time is of the essence. Sounds perfunctory; it's not. It's a crucial part of the Sales Agreement. Each stage of escrow has a date attached, and both parties need to agree – in writing – if those dates are extended. Pay close attention to those dates!
    [Your agent will be there nagging you.] Otherwise you can find yourself in breach. Briefly:

    Loan application. If you're applying for a mortgage, you have three business days [Note: 'business days' excludes weekends and holidays] to make the actual application. This does not mean you can't change lenders later in the transaction, just that you're making a good faith effort to get the process rolling.

    Disclosures. Unless it's new construction or the seller is a bank or holding company, the sellers must fill out a four page disclosure form outlining any problems with the property that they're aware of. Because of past siding problems there's an additional Siding Disclosure, and if the home's older than 1978, a lead based paint disclosure. The listing agent will get them to your agent immediately. Go over them carefully: if there is anything you need explained, get the explanation! Unless you've waived it in the agreement, from the day you receive the disclosures you have a five business day revocation period in which to terminate the agreement if you see something that's unacceptable to you. You get your earnest money back, with no agreement necessary from the seller.

    Preliminary Title Report. Will be ordered as soon as escrow is opened. Gives information on any outstanding liens, any easements, whether the seller has clear title and is therefore able to sell. Look it over carefully with your agent!

    Inspection period. Can't say this too many times in too many ways: GET YOUR OWN INSPECTION. Even if it's new construction, even if a recent inspection done by someone else is available. It's the best $350-$500 you'll ever spend. Should it turn out everything's perfect, you've bought peace of mind! If you have friends with references for a good inspector, terrific; if not your agent will have a list of two or three.

    Unless it's modified in the agreement, the inspection period is ten business days from the date of the agreement. Note in those ten days it's necessary not only to get the inspection, but any follow up inspections (sewer scope, oil tank, pests, etc. ), any appraisals to quantify repairs of any problems that may exist, and a negotiated addendum for any remedial action necessary on the part of the seller. So it's best to schedule the inspection as early as possible.

    If, within the inspection period, you find the property unacceptable in its current condition, or can't reach an acceptable agreement to get repairs done, you may file an addendum stating your Unconditional Disapproval of the property, terminate the transaction and receive your earnest money back. Note: If by midnight of the tenth day of the inspection period no agreement has been reached, no notice of disapproval has been filed and no extension agreed to, the inspection period automatically sunsets and you've accepted the property as is. Watch those dates!

    And, do I need to say it? Listen to your agent!

    Appraisal. Most mortgage brokers will wait until the inspection period is over before ordering an appraisal; no sense spending the $500 or so unless you're sure the property is up to your expectations. Lenders, of course, need the appraisal to ensure the home they're lending on is worth what you're paying. Even if there are discrepancies – not often, but it happens – any differences can be negotiated with the seller.

    Financing. The final piece! This is where a good mortgage broker is invaluable: He or she will stay in contact with you and with your agent, keeping things moving so there's no delay in closing. You can still expect odd questions from the underwriter "Why, in 1906, did your great great grandmother not pay for that crab on the San Francisco waterfront? … Earthquake? What earthquake?" but good brokers (and agents) buffer that kind of thing.

    Signing. At least two or three days prior to the closing date, the lender should have packaged all the loan documents and sent them to the escrow officer. There the escrow officer will process them, ready them for signing and prepare you a preliminary closing cost estimate, the net amount you need to bring in to sign, in the form of a cashier's check. You'll also have the option of getting copies of the documents you'll be signing so you can read them in advance, and prepare any questions you may have. Then – and prepare the muscles in your hands and fingers in advance – signing! Have your agent make the appointment at least one day before closing. He or she will very likely be with you, possibly your mortgage broker, and a good escrow officer can explain in detail the three or four stacks of stuff you'll be signing. Clarify anything about which you're not sure! If all have done their homework, there should be no surprises, and it's actually a fun time; you're only hours away!

    Closing! Note closing is the day funds are released and the deed is recorded. The escrow officer will call your agent when each occurs; after recording, it's time to CELEBRATE!!!

    You own a home!

    Now: wasn't that fun?

  5. YES! But: Is this the last we'll talk?

    Not necessarily. Are you ready to sell?

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Green, Green Update

Bless The Oregonian. When the editors get on a theme, they hammer it!

A few weeks ago it was a billion column inches devoted to the new green listings data point on our local MLS. Since then we've had green lumber and green building. This morning we have green cars on the front page and green clothing in the business section.

Again, this isn't a bad thing. Green products sell, all other factors being equal. The Prius is a popular car because it delivers great gas mileage without a great deal of sacrifice in performance, and a relatively small premium on the initial investment. Hua, the new clothing retailer, is at least saying the right thing: if the clothes aren't right – and competitive with other brands – nothing else matters. And it doesn't (though I note the article didn't contain any pictures of the actual product).

Back in the early '90s, when I was still in the shoe business, a local company came out with a line of completely recycled footwear. Special rubber for the soles, uppers of recycled something or other, even the packaging was all from recycled paper. There was enormous hype, and all the department stores bought into it. Might have worked, too, except they were manifestly unattractive, overpriced, didn't fit and fell apart.

I think the brand and the concept have been resurrected, but their website doesn't work and the only product I can find is at half price. Perhaps it's because … well, you be the judge.

All of which is the long way to update the MLS numbers: There are now 171 designated green listings. Out of 10,442.