Monthly Archives: March 2011

Feng Shui-d Through the Looking Glass

You know that odd, overwhelming onslaught of minimalist-envy that bushwhacks us every time we walk through one of those insanely-staged homes for sale?  Where everything is completely, utterly and uncluttered-ably set up in picture-perfect fashion? Designed to mimic a life totally unlived?  One without a hint of excess baggage stuffed into its closets, stored in its basement, peeking out of its drawers or piled up in its sheet-rocked garage?
The more you wander, the more you wonder whether anyone resides there or not.  Whether normal existence can actually be maintained/sustained in such exacting circumstances.  Whether a tiny, four-walled eco-system based on so much order can really house the wildly chaotic nature of  human beings.   Part of you just wants to scream it out.  “Where’s all the stuff?  Where do they hide the stuff? “

Are there really a few enlightened souls out there who have found a way to move up to the next wrung on the evolutionary ladder of homeownership?  Do the rest of us plodders have it all wrong? Is ocd-inspired asceticism really a full time condition we should all aspire to? Is joining a simplicity circle just the first-step in a longer twelve-step program that will lead us towards unfettered freedom from all things otherwise known as “things”?

There you are at the open house,  watching yourself approach that beautifully-framed, gold-leafed mirror strategically placed at the end of a long, perfectly lit hallway.  Suddenly you find yourself whisked into the wormhole.  Feng shui-d through the looking glass. Sucked in and deposited into the blissful, surreal, close-cropped  ambiance of a Sunset Magazine Ad.   All your zen-most neurons are firing in peaceful sync.  Nirvana must be right around the corner in this heaven of a parallel earth.

Nothing is ever out of place in this place. Appearances are set up and automatically kept up. People can sleep without leaving wrinkles in the sheets. Eat without leaving crumbs on the counters.  Watch TV without ever etching their silhouettes into the pillows on the couch.

Fingers don’t leave prints in this world.  Dirt doesn’t stick. Dust never settles.  Spiders don’t weave webs.  The lawn stays green without water.  Gutters clean themselves. And a cord of wood will burn in the fireplace without ever leaving a trace of ash to clean up.

And you want to buy this house because you want all the exact same stuff in it to be yours – set up in exactly the same way.  If you can just transport your own messy life with all its imperfections to this most pristine of environments, every single thing on the planet will change forever.  Your future will unfold effortlessly from that wondrous moment on.

Sometimes walking through an expertly-staged home resembles the experience of a drug-induced trip.  An altered real estate of mind.  Your eyes take it in. Your brain reacts.  Chemicals are released. Buyers and nosey neighbors ride off on a wave of hallucination for a while.  Why do you think they call it dopamine?

Frequent brushes with the powerful effects of staging are an occupational hazard for Realtors who get dosed with hundreds of these inside-out facades of inner-curb appeal over time.  Thankfully, we also see enough of the behind the scenes truth in our business to keep the other side of the story firmly implanted in our minds.  The rawness of the before helps provide an antidote for all the cooked-up after-effects.

The magnetic pull of staging is strong because opposites attract.  And in reality (as opposed to realty) we are usually very different than the way we photo-shop ourselves or imagine ourselves on display.

Its ironic that good staging usually revolves around removing objects and items from a home first, long before anything new or different is ever put into place. Addition by subtraction lumped under the euphemism of “dealing with clutter.”

Next week we’ll look at the phenomenal success of the Reality TV Franchise “Hoarders” and what our fascination with weekly episodes featuring people going through life and death struggles with their own “stuff”  really says about the inner-hoarder that resides in each of us.


Out of The Comfort Zone!

I decided to hit the road this week. Chuck the laptop. Disconnect my intravenous newsfeed.  Drag myself out of the comfort zone of the Cra-Z-Boy chair.   Venture out into the great unknown of Thursday’s Brokers Open House Tour.

Yep.  A chance to go “live.”  Put the “real” back in the real estate. Visit a few listings up close and personal.  Re-stock the inventory inside my head just in case an actual buyer wanders in out of the wilderness.

Good to double-check.  Make sure I’m not falling prey to any bad habits. When seemingly “everything” about “every” property is available via a simple download, it’s  easy to get lazy.  Tempting to inhale new listings off the MLS with a continuing blitz of virtual drive-bys.

With the best of intentions I scoured the Brokers Tour Sheet in search of excellence.  From the a la carte menu, I made a selection and headed out towards a  rural estate nestled among the redwoods.

That’s when the road paved with good intentions started to go sideways.   I passed 8 open house signs pointing me in the right direction.  But they must have run out. By the time I reached the property, there were none to be found.  I couldn’t tell which long driveway to turn into.

I took a chance. Parked my car. Summoned that reserve of courage that comes from years of showing the kind of remote properties where banjo music hangs in the air and Rottweilers are always on hand to greet you.

I let myself in the front door and heard a ghostly, disembodied voice say “Come in.”  It was a 70’s design where the entryway poses an immediate dilemma. One stairway going up.  The other heading down. I had to pick one. A throwback to a time when baby boomers were young.  And architects loved multi-level gestalts. Long before the West tried to appropriate Feng Shui for itself.

No booties by the door though.  Good sign. Clearly some people understand that too much touring without proper arch support has longterm consequences.  Someone should invent a line of disposable sandals specially-made for open houses.

I chose the high road and emerged into the carefully-crafted ambiance of music, a warm fire and the strong scent of plug-in air fresheners.  A generous spread of baked goods and beverages beckoned.

I was immediately reminded why conventional wisdom always says the owner should be absent during open houses.  In a flash she was on me.  Her invisible force field jousting with the fragile boundaries of my own. Her Agent was close behind.  And then, a second agent. The other half of the real estate “team. ”  I was outnumbered three to one.

Before I knew it, I had a glossy flyer in my hand, a copy of the parcel map, a fresh croissant,  mineral water and a long explanation about why I couldn’t see a guest house that was really one of the most wonderful features of the property. I hadn’t even moved five feet from the stairs.  Is there a second chance for first impressions?

The owner buoyantly suggested  a personal tour. I said no but she kept right on going.   The three of them shadowed me, pointing out the obvious the entire time.

They explained that the dining room had been converted into a home office (which accounted for the desk and the computer.) That the house had been totally 70ish before she completely transformed it (belying the huge fake-rock fireplace still dominating the great room.)

The bedrooms got smaller and smaller as the caravansary piled in. When the four of us crammed into one of the bathrooms my glance in the mirror doubled the number to eight. I felt trapped in a bad orgy.

I saw every small closet the house had, along with a freezing unfinished attic space. I got a full description of the time it took to remove all the invasive scotch-broom in the back. The seller pointed to a smidgeon of sunlight peeking through the trees at the top of a shady 45 degree slope and told me I could find the property line somewhere up there. When I commented on the lack of sun, everyone insisted that it was infinitely sunny at midday during the month of June.  The fact that it was February probably explains the musty smell.

After 30 minutes, I swear I can’t remember a single important thing about this house.  I can’t tell you about the floorplan or what the kitchen or the master bedroom look like.  All I know is that the property is hard to find, full of unimportant details, steep hills, tedious maintenance, inaccessible areas, unfinished spaces and small dark corners.

The good news?  It has great croissants.



Entering the Twilight Zone

Funny what we Realtors stumble across while we’re out there making the rounds on our regular house calls.  Neither rain, nor sea-level snow, nor gloom of market, nor $4 a gallon gas staying us from the completion of our appointed showings.

Funny ha-ha. Funny-weird. Funny-sad. Funny-ironic. It’s all there.   All grist for the mill.  All constant reminder that surely there must be some lesson in this.  Something of value that can be dredged up out of the murky depths of the underwater housing milieu we are swimming around in.

Even if it isn’t going to be home value for the time being.  And even if it isn’t clear what else on earth it could possibly be.

I was previewing a new listing the other day. Another short sale that just came on. One of those places that sold way, way back (further back than we know) in 2005.  The peak of the market that has subsequently flip-flopped to become such a huge black hole for so many.

Specially now that home prices have supposedly regressed all the way back to  2000.  Flipping houses indeed.

Sometimes it feels like the perfect plot twist for an old Twilight Zone Episode.  All that build up to Y2K.  The millennium bug.  In the end, the end of the world that we speculated about and imagined for ourselves just kind of fizzled out with a whimper. Became a no-show. Missed us by a million miles. Far worse than the Comet Kohoutek ever did in 1973.  New Years Eve struck and there was barely a glitch in the stitch of time.

Except now, I gotta go back and ask the question. Did all those computers controlling the planetary alarm clock really get screwed up after all?  Do we actually have our dates all wrong? Did we oversleep and just dream the whole first decade of the new millennium?  Did any of this really ever happen in the first place? Are we just now waking up with a hell of a hang-over after partying like it was 1999? Somehow thinking there was no tomorrow?  (Play Twilight Zone Theme Song App.)

Sorry, my real estate of mind tends to wander to obscure locales while my body is traveling en route and in rote between houses.

Anyway, I was on my way to preview this place. The MLS printout said the owner’s name was Rich. And the comments mentioned that Rich had pumped a lot of additional money into the property after he bought it.   Making repairs. Upgrading features. Customizing the architecture of his original vision.

Insult to injury.  An all-too common story these days.  One that should be getting old  but isn’t.

I arrived at the house. Parked.  Respectfully knocked to see if there was anyone home, before going to get the key out of the lockbox anchored to the hose-bib.  Just as I was fumbling with the knob,  getting ready to enter,  the door swung open slowly, hesitantly.  The barest hint of an ominous creaking sound.

And there, standing in front of me in the entryway, was a tall, sad looking 40- something fellow  holding a cardboard box stuffed full with a mish-mash of discombobulated lamps and picture frames.   Clearly he was on his way out.

Momentarily surprised, not wanting to seem like one of those pushy Realtors invading someone else’s private space, knowing that short sale situations are lose-lose and ofttimes tenuous , I blurted out in my best, smooth-talking, real estate agent voice:  “Are you Rich?”

Right on cue, without missing a beat, no hesitation to speak of, with perfect comedic timing of the rare but subtle gallows-humor sort,  he said without blinking:  “Not anymore. I used to be rich.”

And all I could respond with was silence. One of those occasions when a word is actually worth a thousand pictures.  Specially when it so eloquently sums up all those short sales continuing to flood the market.


Channeling My Inner Car Salesman

As I was pulling out of the driveway this morning, my neighbor  yelled across the street in a booming voice:  “Hey Brezsny, go sell something today would you?”

It’s a game we’ve played for years.  Through thick and thin. Crazy fast or crazy slow markets.
He always yells the same thing and I always try to come back with a different response.  This time I shouted:  ” Hell no! I’m going to buy something today instead!”

That’s what real estate needs right now. More demand side economics pushing us up, rather than the slow trickle of supply side sales dragging us down.

As though it were really possible to “sell” a house in a day anyway –  the stereotyped image of real estate agent as “used-car salesman” notwithstanding.

Maybe there was a time when it was possible.  Way back in some shrouded era when buyer beware was the rule.  And full disclosure wasn’t a gleam yet in a litigator’s eye.  And one page purchase contracts, the equivalent of cocktail napkins, guided the process. And filing out a loan application didn’t seem like an engraved invitation to a full-service water-boarding experience.

I confess there’s a part of me that would dearly love to show up at those million dollar listing appointments, look those would-be clients in the eye and swear that I am completely capable of talking people into buying their home solely based on the strength of my silver-tipped tongue and svengali-like powers of persuasion.

Or at least that I have direct access to the secret font of all knowledge and can discern the exact day and time that the one special buyer they are looking for will walk through the front door carrying a suitcase full of cash and readily plunk it down on the table – no questions asked.

I remember one of those mythical buyers that surfaced way back in the early 90’s.  A guy who actually tried to bring several suitcases of cash in to close a transaction.  It  didn’t go over well with the flustered escrow officer. And it didn’t end very well for the buyer, once the IRS got wind of things.

But who knows? Maybe the car guys are still up to the task.  It’s entirely conceivable to me that someone walking into a dealership not intending to purchase anything that day, could find themselves driving off the lot behind the wheel of a shiny new thirty thousand dollar automobile.  Caught up in the moment. High on new car smell.  Adrenalin fueled by horsepower.

But these days you can get a dose of new car fragrance at the car wash and feel completely reincarnated for at least week.  And it’s tough to accelerate your nervous system through the roof while test-driving a hybrid and trying to merge safely into  65mph traffic on the freeway.

And almost nobody drops $425,000  (our most recent median price figure) let alone a million, without going back at least a couple of times to double-check their own svengali-like power to talk themselves into a terminal  case of buyers remorse.  If not a dozen times.

My personal best in terms of  “selling” a house?  As a listing agent – 2 hours. That was the length of time it took to run the gamut from putting it on the MLS, getting it shown, receiving an offer and having it accepted by the actual “seller.”

My personal worst in terms of “selling” a house as a buyers agent?  7 years. My lame excuse?  The girlfriend half of the equation kept asking her ex-husband, a contractor, to inspect each new love nest the buyers found.  Seems her ex didn’t really want his ex to be happy with someone else afterall, so he kept ripping each prospective house to shreds and x’ing out the best choices.   I’m a little slow to catch on sometimes.

The most offers I ever got on one house?  Thirty eight. The highest overbid? $238,000.  The most dumb-founding moment I ever experienced?  A chauffeured buyer arriving at my ten million dollar listing wearing slippers and a smoking jacket, leading a pet duck on a leash.  One of the most amusing moments?  My own client stripping naked in full view of a Seller in order to jump in and “test out the pool.” (He liked the pool and bought the house.)

So there you have it. Odds are, I’m not going to “sell” a house before the clock strikes midnight tonight.  But whatever happens, I’m sure I’ll have something to say to my neighbor tomorrow.