Emptying Your Rice Bowl

UnknownContinuing the discussion…. Emptying the rice bowl: Re-thinking our relationship with all the “stuff” we buy and cram into our houses until the bitter end.

A necessary precursor to designing more graceful strategies for growing older, facing change and moving into the future. Mindfully engaging in real life experiences rather than living a life defined by “things”.

It’s a perplexing time for baby boomers. They’re feeling the onset of their own mortality. Even as they venture down the road towards the last third of their lives.

There’s a dawning awareness that in order to take that next step in the journey, they need a viable exit strategy for the place they are in now.

Making room for the new begins by getting rid of the old. All the baggage that’s been collecting, literally and figuratively, in closets, cabinets, junk drawers and garages. Freeing up space (in the rice bowl) acts an open invitation to replenish the soul with something different.

Thanks to all who sent photos of their overflowing garages after last week’s column. Specially the clever person who photo-shopped in a mountain of rice cascading out of their half-opened garage door.

When you are an over-the-top, habitual collector of “stuff”, it’s helpful to know you aren’t alone in the world. Specially if you harbor at least a modicum of self-awareness about your own pack-ratting proclivities.

As someone who makes house calls to thousands of homes and regularly peers into the intimate recesses of all those overwrought secret stash and storage spaces, I’m convinced that everyone in America belongs somewhere on the spectrum of disorder known as the Horder’s Scale.

Is it a fluke that so many current Reality TV shows are centered around people’s addiction to stuff?

How many shows are there about Horders? Storage Wars? Pawn Stars? What’s all the morbid fascination really about? Why do we love watching people swimming/drowning in their own seas full of stuff?

I think we’ve come to a tipping point in a national crisis of “content(s)”. There’s a shift happening among members of the most privileged generation in history (post-war baby boomers). A realization that perhaps they’ve been filling their lives up with the wrong form of sustenance all this time. A sense that more really does become less when there’s way too much of it.

Sorta like that odd aha moment most children of the TV generation have spontaneously had: The more cable channels there are the less there is that you really want to watch.

It’s as good a metaphor as any for the fundamental struggle of our waning times. Not the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. More like the struggle the haves are having with themselves.

Even as billions of people in less privileged countries are aspiring to become credit card carrying members of the global consumer culture so they can own more of the same stuff that so many Americans have sitting in piles in their garages.

The world economy is based on continuous growth. Expanding production of goods matched by the ever-expanding consumption of goods. Without a lot of thought given to the depletion of the natural, non-renewable resources of the planet.

Look up the tortured definition of the world “consume” On one hand it means eating, drinking and absorbing the nutrition necessary for survival. More often it means the destruction, using up and squandering of anything that gets in its way.

Tuberculosis was once known as “consumption”. A reference to people wasting away from the inside. Perhaps the ultimate challenge for the baby boom generation lies in modeling the way for future generations to step out of the bonds of a consumer culture.

Do You Have the Right Stuff?

george_carlin_0203Welcome to the discussion. It’s Week Four of Real Estate of Mind’s ongoing exploration of home and aging issues. Along with a slew of other ingredients that inevitably find their way into the complicated melting pot that gets stirred up when people start becoming more conscious of growing older.



If you want to pick up the thread go to tombrezsny@wordpress.com . When you get there, feel free to join in. Register your observations. Share your experiences. If nothing else, the font size online is bigger than it is here, so you won’t have to use a magnifying glass to read this.

Today, we are going to talk about a subject that all Realtors are intimately familiar with.  Something near but not always dear to their hearts.  A factor that’s part and parcel of just about every single home transition they have or will ever be involved with – to a greater or lesser degree.

What am I talking about?  I’m talking about that huge umbrella of a euphemism that fits under the heading of  “stuff”.

You know,  “stuff” as in all the stuff that people collect and fill their homes with. All the stuff that people form strange attractions to.  All the stuff that’s in their junk drawers and closets and attics and garages.  In bags and boxes. Piled high on shelves and jammed tightly in corners.

The stuff they are saving. Or the stuff they can’t  bring themselves to throw away. The “stuff” that over time, gets stuffed down like baggage from the past until it is overflowing or taking up way too much room or has gotten so heavy to carry around (physically and psychically) that it makes it harder to actually conceive of picking up to move.

Even if each and every one of us knows somewhere deep in our heart of hearts, that it is all “stuff” that we aren’t going to be able take with us when we die.

Maybe the ancient Egyptians were able to pack a few important possessions for personal use in the afterlife, but there’s not enough real estate left on the planet to start burying even modest members of modern consumer culture with a fraction of the stuff they’ve accumulated.

To get into a better mood for this discussion, try Googling the old George Carlin video on “stuff”. It brilliantly captures our weird, addictive, all-too-human love affair with things.

We’ve spent the last three weeks talking about the huge importance of homes in our lives and their dual roles as our biggest assets and hallowed psychic centering places.  Is there anything that ranks higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than home does for human beings?

But how ironic is it that home so often acts as a huge repository for all kinds of junk that so many people can’t quite seem to figure out how to recycle back into the flow of the world.

It’s my passionate belief that in order to figure out more graceful strategies for growing older, facing change and moving ahead in life,  all those aging baby boomers out there are going to have to get better at rethinking their relationship to the stuff they define themselves by.

What’s important from this point forward?  You can’t move down unless you are ready to give some things up.  You can’t shrink your debt and conserve your personal resources if you can’t quit buying things.  You can’t open yourself up to all those “life experiences” you’d dearly love to have before you leave the planet unless you are willing to empty your rice bowl.

Next week:  Emptying the rice bowl


Home is a Chunk of Change

UnknownWelcome to week three of our conversation concerning the nature of home and it’s intricate relationship with aging issues of all kinds.

It’s an extension of the same conversation that everyone over 50 is already having. If not out loud with family and friends, then at least inside their own heads.   Go to tombrezsny@wordpress.com if you want to catch up or join in.

It is now day 21,900.

If you happen to be somewhere in the vicinity of 60 years old, that’s roughly how long you’ve been on the planet.  It’s also the first day of the rest of the 30 or more years (10,950 + days) you have left to figure it all out.   There’s no time like the present.

Why home? Why this particular discussion in the middle of a real estate section? Where we’re all used to seeing big ads, big homes and big dreams so prominently displayed? (Oops… don’t glance to the right!)

Because the concept of “big” is a fluid one.  Over time it adjusts in scope along with everything else.  It gets scaled down in ways that more naturally reflect normal aging processes and the slow arc that stages of our lives move through.

Things begin to get re-evaluated and re-prioritized whenever life’s realities step in and deem it necessary.

Like:  When you are an aging baby boomer and a card-carrying member of the “sandwich generation.”  (That’s the “adult” population that currently finds itself juxtaposed between responsibilities for older octogenarians and younger millennials.)

Like: When you have to start navigating your own path through the maze of confusing choices around things like retirement planning, social security, pensions, health issues, trusts, long term care insurance and future quality of life considerations.

Homes belong at the center of the discussion. Because they are the centering places for our lives in so many ineffable ways.  They care for us. Provide safety. Security. Shelter. Comfort.  Privacy. Refuge.  An all-important semblance of control over our surroundings.

Homes are also usually the biggest asset most of us will ever own.  An asset that comes in the dubious form of “equity.”  That’s the difference between what we owe and what our homes are worth on any given day.  Equity is fluid but it isn’t really very liquid.

All of which makes it extremely tricky when you are trying to figure out what place your home occupies in your own big picture. So, it’s not so strange we are having this discussion here.  What could be more important?


We are trying to draw a map.  To chart some of the recognizable landmarks in the geography of the future.  And figure out where our own unique lives are at on the continuum and on the playing field, in relationship to everything else.

Through long years of observation, here are a few truisms that I think I may have gleaned. Let’s use them as our “start here” point on the map:

-       Nothing is more certain than change.

-       There’s nothing that human beings resist more than change.

-       Not choosing to change is one of your choices.

-       If you put off choosing long enough, eventually life will step in and make choices for you.

-        When life chooses, you get change by default and fewer options.

-       You are more prepared to handle change today than you will be 10 or 20 years from now.

-       While being a bit fearful, change can also be new and exciting.

-       If the whole idea was to enjoy the fruits of your labor after all these years, what are you waiting for?


More next week…

The Territory and the Map?

Number2This week we are continuing the conversation.  And I do mean the conversation. Go to tombrezsny@wordpress.com to pick up the thread.

Many of you have called or e mailed to share your experiences and observations related to last week’s column. It’s good to know I’m not making all this up in my head. Even if I am making some of it up in my head.

All your stories are remarkably similar. They contain the same overriding questions. The same dominant themes. The same nagging fears.  The same recurring leitmotifs drifting in and out of each narrative. Time after time.

Coincidence? I think not.

We are talking about a huge swathe of aging boomers that’s inexorably inching it’s way through the heart of our culture. An entire demographic of 80 million + people, 50 to 68 years old, that was swallowed whole by history somewhere between the post-war years of WW 2 and the assassination of JFK.

That same (now greying) horde is continuing to migrate forward. Moving slowly through the snaking belly of the beast. Heading toward the tail of time. Digesting life along the way.  From birth to youth to adulthood to middle age to older adult to death.  And so it goes.

Welcome, to the journey dear friends. All of us are living someplace on the great continuum. And we are all getting “there.”

At this point some readers might want to ask:  “What the hell does any of this have to do with real estate?  How can you wax so philosophically about all this big existential “stuff”  when all I wanna do is sell my home?  C’mon, just tell me what my house is worth and what I need to do to find the right buyer.”

My answer?  Selling your home is never just about selling your home.  If you think it is, then, you’re missing the plot. You’ve lapsed into a somnambulistic trance. You’re off track. Sleepwalking from empty room to empty room. Divorced from real life.

When I show up for a listing appointment, ostensibly it’s to talk about selling a house.  But It doesn’t take long to figure out that there’s really some other bigger life transition that’s driving it all.  It’s never about moving for moving’s sake.

For baby boomers it’s things like aging, concerns about health, caring for elderly parents, being closer to kids, getting divorced, planning for retirement or finally just coming to the conclusion that all of us only have a certain number of years left on the planet and it doesn’t make any sense to wait any longer to make them count!  In fact, for a lot of aging boomers – it’s about all of the above. All at the same time.

No the house isn’t the real thing.  Wrestling with the challenges of a huge chunk of change is the real thing.  Real estate is just one small piece of the puzzle. If it was just about “selling the house” it would be easy.

The bigger question and the one that everyone seems to be asking these days is: Where’s the map?  What does it look like? Where can we get help figuring out all these big questions that are coming all at once.   Are there strategies that can allow us to navigate from here to there?

Because of the special nature of home, real estate is often the logical starting point for people first beginning their conscious search for a map. Homes are the largest asset most people will ever own.  At the same time they function as the ineffable centering places of our lives.

Next week we’ll start figuring out how to find a map…or at least begin drawing one.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Number1I keep experiencing a sense of déjà vu lately.  At least four or five times a week,  I find myself in the middle of the same conversation with completely different people that I only seemingly came into contact with randomly.

Coincidence?  I think not.  I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.  Everything has meaning if you pay attention.

The scenario usually goes like this:  A call comes in.  The person on the line is thinking about selling a home. Has a few questions. Wonders if I can come over to take a look.  Wants to begin collecting information. Get recommendations on what they need to do to prepare for sale.

They aren’t ready to sell today.  They’re just trying to get a handle on things.  A better sense of what the big picture of real estate looks like.  Where the market is and how much they might be able to sell for.

All of this is great of course.  It’s what I do.  How many hundreds of these calls and visits have I had over the years? How many thousands of people have I talked to who were at some critical point along the spectrum of change in their lives?

Folks living in different homes. With different backgrounds. Histories. Different jobs.  Incomes.  Different interests. Very different lifestyles.

And yet, there it is. The discussion that keeps coming back around these days with greater and greater frequency.

What invariably starts out as a simple real estate-related Q&A suddenly shifts towards much broader concerns. More substantial goals.  Bigger worries.  Existential dilemmas. Philosophical meanings. Quality of life considerations.

It’s a collective voice.  An echo rising from deep within the culture.  A huge, silent dreaming that’s seeking expression.  Looking around for other like-minded voices to engage with and learn from.

The caller is usually somewhere  between 55 and 65 years old.  They often have aging parents in their 80s or 90s.  Maybe kids close to graduating college or already out in the world.

They are bouncing retirement issues around.  When and how to quit working?  There’s a nascent desire to “move-down” in scope.  Simplify life. Get rid of all the useless stuff collecting in the garage.  Thoughts about fewer stairs.  Less yard and ongoing property maintenance.  A strong urge to be debt free.

Conflicting notions  about whether it makes sense to stay in Santa Cruz or move somewhere else less expensive.  A place with less traffic.  Somewhere with a strong sense of community.  Neighborhoods where you can walk.  Meet other neighbors.  Enjoy interesting cultural offerings.  Outdoor activities.   A life that’s more experience-based.

There are all kinds of unanswered questions swimming around. Floating in and out of the picture.

How much of a nest egg is really necessary?  What about future health issues?  All the confusion about heath insurance, long-term care insurance, family trusts. The vagaries of social security.  The esoteric nature of financial planning.  The lingering memory of our recent financial meltdown.

And how ultimately, does all of it relate back to decisions involving our primary residences?  Homes.  The biggest assets most of us own, as well as the all-important physical, emotional, spiritual centering places in our lives.

Sound familiar?  Welcome to the club.  With slight variations here and there, this is the core conversation that more and more people are having.

Today 10,000 people in the US will turn 65. In another 5 to 7 years, that number will go way up. At the same time people are going to be living longer than their parents did. What does it mean for real estate?

You are invited to join the conversation. Stay tuned.

Market Catching It’s Breath?

Unknown-1I was driving over to Palo Alto this week. Headed up 280, weaving between all the Tesla’s, when I noticed a Prius behind me in the rearview.  It zipped past going 80mph sporting an inconspicuous little bumper sticker that read:  “ Please God, just one more bubble.”

I had to laugh because it gave perfect expression to so much of the big dreaming that’s going on in Silicon Valley these days.  That unconscious sea of inner voices out there, each whispering: “ If I’m in the right place at the right time and all the cosmic tumblers line up, maybe I can hit the jackpot, get mine and get out before the next bubble bursts.”

No surprise that we’ve heard a lot of those voices resonating loudly and clearly in the real estate market this past year.  Musing with the multiple offers.  Bouncing off the bid ups.  Rising in pitch along with list prices.

After surviving the long, tough years of the housing bust it’s good to know that the market’s back on track and there’s still plenty of irrational exuberance left to go around.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to where we left off last week. I had just uttered the phrase:   “How, when and why the market has stalled.” While everyone else recoiled in horror that I could even suggest such a thing.

The fact that so many people freaked-out, shows just how far the real estate market has really come. It’s only been a few short years since home values were wallowing in the lows of the late, great recession.  When we all felt displaced and oddly resigned.

I’m making the argument that the market’s recent “stall” is actually a very healthy sign.  We are right where we should be along the road to recovery.

And just to be clear – prices haven’t nose-dived, plunged or even tanked. They are just flat for the moment. Steady and holding their own.

In February 2013, the median price for single family homes in SC County was $449,000.  Then something crazy happened.  In a two-month flash, the median rose $200,000! By April 2013, it was $641,000.  Déjà Vu all over again. It felt like we had all been transported back to 2005!

Researching the history of sales in Santa Cruz County, I can’t find any other interval of time shorter than two years, where the median price made such a staggering leap.

And since April of 2013? What has the median price done?  Despite a few minor fluctuations, it has pretty much stayed the same.

I know that seems contrary to most of what we’ve heard and read about the market over the last year.  But in some ways perceptions are just catching up to what already happened.

A few months ago, March came roaring in like a lion.  It looked like we might be poised for another quantum leap.  But the urge couldn’t quite sustain itself long enough to become a surge.

I think the market just decided to take a well-earned rest.  Catch its breath after it took off and gave us enough escape velocity to get back into the black.

There’s a far more subtle organic process at work now.  A bigger picture slowly emerging out of millions of individual decisions that different buyers and sellers are making in their lives.

We’ll watch it come into better focus in the next year or two but the message is this: The real estate market went as far as it could go by leveraging lots of quantitative easing and very little inventory.  Now it’s time to build some real inventory, jobs and equilibrium for the long haul.  And that’s good for everyone.

Clean the Windshield & Polish the Rearview

UnknownMid May.  Time for a time out.  Just what the Doctor ordered.

It’s a healthy thing for Agents, Buyers, Sellers and anyone with an interest in real estate to stop on occasion. Take a breath. Gather perspective.   Hit the pause button on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  Check in, check the oil and check assumptions at the door.

These periodic realty checks are meant to power things down. Chase out any ghosts lurking in the machine. Clean the windshield and polish the rear view.  Flush, purge, detox, juice fast and otherwise execute a clean core dump of any and all bogus information we’ve mistakenly internalized as the truth about real estate.

At the count of three we’re all going to turn off, tune out and drop all the mind-numbing noise and well-meaning chatter floating around the market’s ether.

We’ll simply consider where we’ve been and where we are as we head into the great unknown known of the future. (Didn’t Donald Rumsfeld say that?)

This week’s headlines in the Merc, Business Journal, Chronicle, etc. et al,   proclaimed that Bay Area Real Estate is Back!! Or at least back to pre-great recession levels.  Which would mean 2007 levels…since all those mortgages finally hit the fan at the end of 07 before the bubble completely imploded in 08.

So…just a few questions: Is that true? Are we really back? The whole Bay Area? Even Santa Cruz County – here at the southern tip of the Silicon Valley gulag?

There’s so much misinformation and disinformation in information these days that I’m not sure where to start.  Specially cause I know some of you are trying to make important life decisions based on the occasional bones of bold font that the media tosses in your direction.

Here goes:  The notion that real estate prices are back up to 2007 levels is only partly true. Prices are back or above 2007 levels in some of the Bay Areas’ elite local markets like San Francisco, Palo Alto, Atherton.

Los Gatos and Saratoga? Close but not quite there yet.  East Bay? Lagging behind but rising. Santa Cruz County? Definitely doing better – but nowhere near 2007 prices.  In fact, we seem to be at least temporarily stalled for the moment.

Final analysis? Add all those off market multiple offers and wildly crazy overbids happening in a select few areas to the improved market data from most of the rest of the region, average them together and it certainly can look like we’re back to where we left off in 2007 – before we were so rudely interrupted.

But if you are in one of the peripheral areas outside the epicenter  – don’t count your equity before you sell. It ain’t real until escrow closes.  List prices are not comps. Sold prices are.

Here are a couple of warning labels I’d like to stick on today’s column. 1)Santa Cruz is not Los Gatos.  Or Saratoga.  Their $1.5 mill is our $700k.  2) Don’t list your home with the expectation of 22 offers. That’s somewhere else. Not here. It’s an invitation to disappointment.

One more warning about my warnings:  Just because things may not be as good as you imagined them to be doesn’t mean that the market isn’t doing well.  We’ve been terribly spoiled by our checkered past.  We somehow came to believe that if prices weren’t going up at a rapid clip, then they must be falling.

Perhaps a small part of the lesson of our late not so great bubble and recession is that when things are going up too much too fast, that’s the kind of market that’s not real.  And  a healthier market is one that looks more like now. One without multiple overbids and 40% annual appreciation.

Next week:  How, why and where the Santa Cruz County Market is stalled.