Monthly Archives: November 2009


(This article was first published in 1997)

Ah, if life or real estate really were only as simple as a Budweiser beer commercial. In sixty short seconds, we could discern the hidden meaning of existence by staring deeply into the third eye of Spuds McKenzie. Or we could routinely coax ourselves into a profound meditative trance by breathing in sync with the esoteric rhythms of those magic Clydesdale hooves as they trotted proudly down the middle of Main Street America.

But no, unfortunately, that Bud’s not for you or for any of the rest of us in the real, real estate world.

There are always more questions than answers when it comes to buying a home. Or when going through any of the other major life transitions that are lying out there in wait for us. So tell me this, intrepid fellow traveler on this remarkable journey we all car-pool in together…Are we ever going to get all our questions answered?

Nope.  Forget it. Not a snowball’s chance in the proverbial big down under.

But how about this as a consolation prize? Can we get a lot of our questions answered? You bet! And if you think that constitutes “just settling”, think again, because last I checked, some is almost always better than none.

Fate, providence, kismet, divine intervention, synchronicity. karma, luck – whatever name you use for “it” in the lexicon of the daily universe you happen to stroll around in – “it” always reserves the last choice for itself.  The ultimate say. The final word.The proxy vote. The consummate contingency.

The more I endeavor to understand this fascinating form of soul work known as real estate, the more convinced I am that the overriding caveat to buying a home is that no matter how many questions you have, no matter how many answers you get, there is still going to be that last little leap of faith that you have to take all by your very lonesome.

A small but oh-so-significant leap over what may feel like a giant chasm opening up under your chair at the escrow sign-off table or an infinite abyss welling up in your own gut when the moment finally arrives when, with trembling hand, you have to write the one of the biggest gut checks you’ve ever have to write in your life.

Some people are better at doing “the leap of faith” than others.  Some seem to be able to draw from a deep, mysterious, hidden well of courage when the moment of truth inevitably rolls around.  Others turn to jello at the first hint of  full commitment. Some sink into a fast free fall or start sounding a high emotional pitch when the going gets just a little tough.

With assistance, Buyers can put themselves through a kind of mental and emotional boot camp to prepare themselves to recognize the big moment before it actually arrives.  Training that teaches them some of the rudimentary tools of proper prior planning and helps them get over the hump before the hump morphs into an insurmountable mountain.

One simple piece of advice is this:   In the beginning of your home search start by paying attention to all those little things  you actually can control in the real estate process – recognizing that there is so much that is going to be beyond your control as you get further down the road.  If you go step by step in premeditated fashion  and cross a bunch of nagging requisites off the list up front,  you’ll be surprised at how much energy and brainspace you can free up for the future.  The idea is to save and garner and hold enough synaptic juice in reserve so it is available when you finally enter the steel cage for the wrestling match with all the tougher, more unanswerable, more uncontrollable questions that are inevitably going to arise to challenge you.

You might as well  acknowledge right from the start that you aren’t going to make it through your home buying experience without experiencing plenty of existential doubts, second, third and fourth guesses, sweaty palms in the middle of the night, sudden onslaughts of decision deficit disorder and  heavy bouts of fear and loathing caused by pre-buyer’s and post-buyer’s  remorse. Expect more than a few visits from the dreaded what-if monster – sliding out from under your bed or rattling loudly from inside your closet in the wee hours. The what-ifs will always shake your sleep with a host of  their favorite old refrains:  What if I lose my job? What if the economy goes to hell? What if the roof starts to leak? What if I stretch myself too far? What if I become a slave to my mortgage?

Change is hard. But you’ve got to buck up if you are going to make it through in one piece with a modicum of grace and good humor. Customizing and reciting your own version of the serenity prayer is also good medicine.

There’s something else you can do  for yourself while you are at it. Don’t jump into the car on the first day of your house hunting process, convinced that you are under some biological imperative to identify the perfect home right away. Instead, try easing slowly into the car and head out on the town without any preconceived pressure or sales hype hanging over your head. Simply decide that what you are going to do is conduct  “research”. Go on a  mindful exploration and an interesting informational scavenger hunt. Simply take a ride and see what you see.

Since the “market” is a hard to perceive phenomena based on an invisible matrix of how every home compares to every other home in your area, viewing a lot of places over time helps you develop a gut sense for what the market is, where it stands and how it operates and evolves cyclically through the ongoing machinations of the great Invisible Hand”  that Adam Smith so clearly saw.

Re-framing your house hunting as research takes the onus off the hurry up and go buy-buy consumer addiction that our culture insufferably promotes at every turn.  The research mode smoothes things out and creates a more comfortable atmosphere to ask questions and pursue answers in.

No house you look at is ever a waste of time. Banish that silly notion.  The houses you look at when you are house hunting don’t all have to be perfect. In fact none of them are going to be perfect.  You often gain as much from seeing and talking about what you don’t like in a house as you do from seeing lots of features and amenities that you do like.

House hunting takes place over a period of time that is different for different people. One size, one house,  one style does not fit all. To own a home, first you have to be willing to own your own process. Yours – no one elses. Not your agent’s. Not your parents. Not your cubicle mate’s at work. And one of the most important things to remember is that there are no stupid questions. Never apologize to your agent, your lender, your escrow officer for asking anything.

True, some of the questions that pop  into your head and jump out of your mouth may sound more like zen koans rather than the rational precepts of a more staid and linear Newtonian universe – but go ahead and ask them anyway. Honor whatever comes up for you. Check it out. Don’t leave any of those stones un-turned. They can create disturbing ripples if they get tossed away before they get checked out. The learning is in the asking and in thinking it through just as much as it is in the answers themselves.

The real estate control consortium – Central Command in Sacramento – seems to have its own trouble discerning what is important and what isn’t important when it comes to turning out well-rounded, worldly-wise Realtors who can act as worthy ombudsmen for clients going through major life transitions.

When I took my real estate first licensing test, the folks at the State Department of Real Estate (in their infinite wisdom) seemed quite concerned that I know exactly how many square feet were in an acre of land as well as the intricacies of the original Spanish Land Grant system along with the exact definition of alluvial accretion.

Now that I’ve been in the business for way more than a hundred dog years I realize how irrelevant most of those details are and how little use they are when trying to put together the jigsaw of the big picture for real people.

What follows is a sample of  the kind of questions that seem much more important to me when it comes to my client’s best interests in their journey through the mysterious underbelly of a real, real estate transaction.

Some of these questions may sound odd at first, but there’s a method to my madness. In real estate, fact is always stranger than fiction and when the going gets strange, you have to be able to embrace its complexities.

Here goes:

Why is there truly no such thing as a good market or a bad market.?

Why do so many Agents/Brokers claim to be #1 in real estate at the same time?

Why do the number of lawsuits in real estate increase in direct proportion to the enactment of consumer protection laws?

Why does more real estate paperwork make it less likely that clients will read the most important things you share with them?

Why is earthquake insurance really just life insurance for your house?

Why do most appraisals come in at exactly the agreed upon purchase price of a home?

Why are some termite companies known as buyer’s termite companies while others are known as seller’s termite companies?

Why isn’t location, location, location the most important thing in real estate?

Why is the fourth dimension the most important and least acknowledged dimension of real estate?

Why doesn’t a Seller have to accept a full price offer?

Why is almost everything you read about real estate already old news?

Why is there always a catch to an as-is offer?

Why ask why?  Not just because you like to blast down the brewskies.  But because you are about to buy a home that holds a unique place in your life. It is a foundation for shelter, privacy, comfort and safety and the center of balance for almost everything else you do. Home is four special walls, a roof and a handful of rich dark earth that nourishes your soul at the same time it is probably the biggest single financial asset that you’ll ever own.

That’s why.


November 29, 2009

The proper establishment and maintenance of reasonable boundaries is an occupational hazard for many Realtors. Although you aren’t likely to see CAL-OSHA jumping in to legislate anytime soon. The blurring of the lines between a client’s and a professional’s needs,  goes part and parcel with important work that involves helping people navigate through big transitions in their lives.

Unfortunately, early on, most Realtors gravitate towards one end of the spectrum of possible choice or the other – which means, that they often get stuck in a lopsided position in the end, with almost no choice available that will allow them to adjust and adapt appropriately to different situations, as they arise in the course of a normal day’s work.

Some Realtors forget or don’t bother to establish strong enough boundaries in the beginning. Their personal containers are so porous, they end up taking on most of the heavy duty trials and tribulations their clients are experiencing. It is not unusual to hear stories about them waking up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because they have become de facto dopplegangers, sympathetic twins, destined to live out their client’s worries.

Other Realtors,  as soon as they feel the initial pangs of a tough situation approaching. one that may demand a  heightened degree of empathy and require them to walk some distance in another  person’s shoes,  react with a swift preemptive, defensive strike, shutting down and hunkering down into their own human bunker mentality, deciding that it is probably safest to treat people like they are all widgets driven off the assembly line of life.

To be a good Realtor, you have to be able to consciously expand and contract the apertures on the exoskeleton that surrounds you like  a net that both connects you to the world and protects you from it at the same time. If the openings in your net are too small – almost nothing gets in or through. It is hard to help someone when you are closed off to the touch of a reasonable feedback loop. For others, the spaces in their nets are huge and  gaping  24/7 –  practically big enough to drive a Mac Truck through on a moment’s notice. Its impossible to be a great helpmate to a someone when you are always in danger of a head-on collision.


WholeRealEstateCatalogueKnow the Realtor who has everything? Special occasion coming up and you don’t have a clue what to get him? Relax. Here’s a list of real products I am unveiling as part of the comprehensive WHOLE REAL ESTATE CATALOGUE. I’ve been working on it in my spare time. It’s the definitive one-stop shop for everything and anything real estate. Yes, the web site is coming. The promotional book tour starts next spring. This is just a sneak preview of some of the special products that no aspiring real estate aficionado should try to buy or sell homes without.


Got a hard to sell home that’s literally driving you crazy? A million dollar view of the Monterey Bay drowned out by a sea of cars whizzing by on a busy freeway? Noise so loud its impossible to concentrate on all that beauty right in front of your eyes?

Relax. You simply need the right tool for the right job. You need a device that’s been tried and tested by generations of people, young and old, who have fallen in love with the soothing sounds of the ocean over and over again.

We’re talking about the all-natural, 100% effective Shell Phone. No messy batteries. No electrical connection required. Bring Shell Phone to your next open house. Whenever a loudmouth buyer complains about the dull roar of the highway ruining his view – just hold your magic Shell Phone up to his ear and dial in the emotion of the ocean. Guaranteed to transform the cacophony of even the worst rush hour traffic into a mindful meditation on the waves of bliss.

Armed with your trusty Shell Phone, the surf is always up. And your sales volume will be too. We sell seashells by the seashore so that you don’t have to! Remember, life’s a beach and then you buy. So don’t delay. Order now and get a free subliminal sales tape with every purchase.


Talking Turkey About Real Estate…

I hope most of you out there are still floating on a warm, post-Thanksgiving high after pigging out on too much turkey. Tripping in a mellow sea of tryptophan, eyes glazed over in reverie like soft candied yams. A welcome sense of euphoria acting like a soothing balm placed over the lingering malaise of worry and exhaustion that has been gnawing at our bones for quite a while now.

Tryptophan is euphemistically known as “nature’s own prozac”. It is an amino acid found in large quantities in the indigenous bird we have coincidentally chosen as the centerpiece for our distinctly American feast day. When digested into the bloodstream it has the magic effect of releasing large amounts of serotonin into our brains. And with more serotonin cascading through our synapses…well… events cascading around us in the middle of the biggest recession since the great Depression don’t really seem so “immediate” or “overwhelming” anymore.

Better living through modern chemistry. The more we consume, the better we feel. Hmmm. That sounds vaguely familiar… Let me chew on the meaning of that in between mouthfuls.

Meanwhile, just ignore the 5,000 pound turkey buzzard still circling over the marketplace. It can decide how dead or alive real estate really is later on. We’ll continue to relax and go with the flow of the slow. Give ourselves permission to sink deeper into the lazy bubble of couch world where we can grab second helpings of leftovers and watch brightly costumed characters on TV beating the stuffing out of each other and dishing out concussions. Who needs bread and circuses when there’s turkey and football available in Hi Def!

This is the perfect time for real estate to take a recess from the recession. Real estate can officially declare itself on holiday until well after the first of the year – or in the case of you wanna-be sellers biding your time – until that surge in the market you are so desperately hoping to see next spring either arrives in full bloom or decides to pull a no-show of conspicuous non-consumption.

For now at least, there aren’t going to be a lot of expectations about the state of real estate. If higher sales numbers don’t materialize, if prices don’t keep edging up over the next few months. – that’s ok. We are all conditioned to believe that they aren’t supposed to. Part of the holiday tradition is that nothing happens in real estate around Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years. Everyone just figures that everyone else is staying home for the holidays rather than running around trying to buy one or sell one.

The only significant buying and selling supposed to happen is up to small time shoppers and big box retailers. Black Friday was yesterday, I’m assuming you got off the couch long enough to do your patriotic duty to shop till you drop and spend the economy back into existence. Today is Black Saturday. Get busy. Only real estate is on vacation.

This year’s Thanksgiving has been a tough one to figure out how to carve. It isn’t easy to rattle off a long list of things we should be eminently thankful for after going cold turkey from the all-you-can-eat, buffet of debt that everyone had such an inexhaustible appetite for not so long ago. These are leaner times.

But maybe these are the best kind of times to give thanks in. Thanks we have to think about. Thanks we have to tweak our perspectives to see. There are all the obvious little thank you’s: Thanks for the extension and expansion of tax credits. It is great to get paid to buy a new home. Thanks for extending the conforming jumbo loan limit for another year. Maybe more higher end sales can happen. And special thanks for the low interest rates that soften the sad fact that prices haven’t really fallen into the range of more first time buyers yet.

And thanks for the bigger things too: I’m thankful that the entire real estate market didn’t collapse like a house of cards along with the entire global financial system. I’m thankful that this time of trial and testing gives us a chance to re-vision what it important in our lives and how our relationship with the world can change.

And now, finally, it’s time for the best part of the Thanksgiving ritual – the wishbone. Before you make any split decisions, close your eyes and dream up a few new things that will be good for everyone. Not just Buyers. Or Sellers. Or you. Let’s imagine and wish for a very different kind of market than the one we’ve had. Then we’ll start talking turkey again when real estate resumes after the first of the year



The Rorschach Test for Real Buyers

A few months back, I published excerpts from my new random house book, Self-Test for Pseudo-Sellers, right here in the Saturday Sentinel. I’m sure it is destined to rise to the top of the shopping cart on and a number of you have since called to ask about my other self-help real estate tool called The Rorschach Test for Real Buyers.

The Real Rorschach is something I designed for married couples, domestic partners, spousal equivalents and of course, all those Agents out there, who want to avoid developing irreconcilable differences around the irreconcilable differences that frequently arise in the home buying process.

It’s fascinating how often real estate agents become defacto emotional go-betweens
in their relationships with dysfunctional folks ostensibly house hunting together. If the pattern continues long enough, Agents can become full-fledged co-dependents in a rather strange and messy ménage-a-morass.

Suffice to say, no two people can feel totally simpatico with every aspect of every home they consider buying – even if they have an undying commitment to spend the rest of their lives together. Just like a good marriage, buying a good house means compromising on smaller differences and recognizing and enhancing those things that have the ability to nurture both people..

I call the inevitable cul de sacs that people sometimes find themselves circling in, in their house search, edge points. Edge points are aspects of a property that one person may feel completely positive about but the other may feel just as strongly negative about – or perhaps just not feel anything at all about – except blah. Edge points require lots of discussion and mindful effort in order to polish and smooth out the rough spots.

If too much edginess surfaces in a prospective property and there isn’t enough common ground to build a foundation on, then it is simply time to move on to another house. When one Buyer is from Mars and the other is from Venus, the Agent for both can be in a world of hurt, caught in a gravitational pull between them that opens up into gaping chasm on the way to a bottomless abyss.

What can an Agent do to avoid potential pitfalls that can grow that wide and that deep? Here are a few thoughts… Insist that both people look at properties together from the very beginning. Don’t let one be the go-fer and the other sit back armed with overriding veto power, out of touch with the whole context of the marketplace. Remote viewing doesn’t work very well in real estate. Both buyers should be fully invested and involved at every stage. Push your clients to keep talking about their hopes, dreams, desires – i.e. – their lives – because that is what is going to take place within the four walls they will eventually purchase. Encourage them to stretch the envelope at each edge point they encounter. Explore the shadows. The basements. The closets. The scary places in the back of the garage.

And if all else fails, be prepared to use The Rorschach Test for Real Buyers. Designed to simulate an attractive glossy real estate magazine, each page features a different Rorschach inkblot “house” along with random generated nonsensical copy “describing” all its features. Separate the two clients and show them each Rorschach “ad” independently. Record their impressions of what they see. Watch what flows to the surface in their waking dream and pay heed to the clear voice of the unconscious buyer that lies within each.

I stumbled onto the Real Rorschach Test years ago when I was working with a young couple. I had inadvertently spilled a cup of coffee on a featured home ad in the paper, making it almost unrecognizable. The idea light in my head went on and I asked the husband what he saw in the almost unrecognizable blob of stained newsprint. He visualized “a large home with small payments, low maintenance yard, a three car garage and a private library with a big screen plasma TV and surround sound.” His other “half” (the right brain?) saw a moderately sized home with a lush green lawn, a huge family room where lots of quality time could be spent and a beautiful master suite with Jacuzzi tub and his and her walk-in closets.

Right away I sensed something amiss in the impromptu test results and decided that some radical therapy was in order before we ever got into the car to look at anything. I think it helped preserve our working relationship as well as their marriage. Sometimes the best realty reality check is to just sit back for a moment and ask yourself: What’s wrong with this picture? Or what’s right?


Bridging Bardo

bardo-pond-set-and-settingWhen the going gets weird and the path suddenly isn’t lined with bright lights and beacons to illuminate the future anymore, what choice do we have, but to reach into our secret stash and try to coax a little clarity out of all that sage advice we’ve been hoarding?

My opening gambit on this week’s chessboard, is to invoke the simple Wisdom of the Bard.  “All the World’s a Stage. And the men and women are merely players.”

It sets the tone for this moment in history. An experiential “aha” moment that brings a fuller appreciation for the proverbial old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

And I’m  adding a little Wisdom of the Bardo to the mix as well.  Bardo refers to the Tibetan realm of the afterlife. The transitional state that lies between two different incarnations.  Not surprisingly the Wisdom of the Bardo  is exactly the same as that of the Bard:  “All the World’s a Stage.”    This place, this market, this time are all just a stage we are moving through.  Or as  George Malley put it after his flash of inspiration in the movie Phenomenon:  “Everything is on its way to somewhere.”

So we continue our lay-over between real estate lifetimes. Our intermezzo. The interesting interlude after the end of the third act.  Hopefully,  we’ll use the opportunity to assess the karmic debt we’ve accrued and make good choices about how we are going to pay it down when real estate finally gets to wherever it is going.

But in the meantime, in the slow here and now of  Bardo, I admit, I’ve been a sorry soul – much too sad and much too troubled. Even though I know in my heart of hearts that this too shall pass.  I finally figured out why I’ve been in such a deep funk lately. It is simple:  I miss the people.  I miss the players.

I miss the Appraisers who are dropping out of the business. The one’s who remember what properties sold for 10, 20, 30 years ago. The one’s who know the difference between 3 blocks to the beach and 6 blocks to the beach. The one’s who intrinsically understand why Meder Street and Cherryvale Avenue have always been greatly appreciated. The one’s who are at home in this marketplace – rather than in San Jose or Hollister.

I miss all the Title People downsized into the efficiency compartments on corporate cube farms.  Parceled out of  Santa Cruz.  Nominally, still there, but tucked under that invisible cloaking device called a voice mail system.  Available by e mail but who might just as well be sending us google earth maps from Mumbai. Software upgrades just can’t explain a set of complicated easements to a real buyer with real questions about real, real estate.

I miss the helping hands of the cadre of caring local escrow officers.  I hate to see them being co-opted on a regular basis by their distant Southern California cousins who have no business doing business here  simply because they have offices close to so many of the troubled financial institutions peddling their toxic assets in Santa Cruz.  Yes, in theory, escrow officers should all be perfectly interchangeable. One size should fit all situations. But escrow-speak in SoCal is a different business dialect than we speak here in NorCal and no one can convince me that clients are getting the same quality of service and a “neutral” fair shake from escrow personnel who don’t have any real stake in our community.

I miss a market that used to revolve around organic sellers – the euphemism that’s now used to describe real people going through real transitions with real-life concerns motivating them and informing their decisions. I miss a market that should by all rights be rife with opportunities for excited first time and move-up, organic buyers.  Instead they are getting bludgeoned into submission by the mind-numbing machinations and jackass pranks of institutions that control both the selling side and lending side of so many would-be, could-be, should-be transactions.

I miss my local Realtor colleagues who in so many cases have given way to a strange and motley cast of nameless characters who don’t seem to be able to return a phone call or muster up a hint of concern about others.  Temporal apparitions who have ridden into town on the coattails of  REO clunkers and who will soon disappear back into the outlying woodwork whenever the foreclosure inventory finally sunsets.

Yes, I miss the people.   All those warm dedicated souls biding their time in limbo right now, waiting in Bardo for rebirth.  witnessing  the last gasps of a dying market paradigm  being run into the ground by the ghosts  in the machine.