Monthly Archives: September 2013

The New Alchemy

attachmentWhere were we? Oh yeah, continuing our quest for certainty and search for the Holy Grail of Home Valuation.
Take-away from last week’s Real Estate of Mind?  Online information about your home’s value is often perceived as more accurate and truthi-er than what you get from a local Realtor. Because it’s free!
That seemingly benign real estate website you logged on to isn’t selling you anything right? Ergo:  The info must be true!
Unlike some Realtors who may have an agenda of their own when they come to your house, sit down at the dining room table and tell you what they think your home is worth. 
Prior to pulling out one of those thick brag books that demonstrates how many bazillions of dollars of real estate they ‘ve sold and why they are more Number 1 than all the other Number 2s!
There’s aculturally pervasive, uneasy sense that Realtors are always trying to sell people stuff.  Convince them of things.  Perhaps they are trying to talk you into listing your home for less than it is really worth because there’s already a silent buyer waiting in the wings. 
Or perhaps, in the case of a listing appointment, the Realtor is trying to “buy your listing” as it’s known in the vernacular.  That’s when Agents tell Sellers what they want to hear. Flatter their dreams to secure the listing. 
Proof of the pudding only comes later as days on market accrue and it becomes clear the inflated list price was never close to market value.
The online Zillows, Redfins and Trulias of the world are viewed as different. Outside the realm of human foible. Above temptation.  Fair and impartial.  They employmagic alchemical formulas known as algorithms, that like God, work in mysterious ways. 
These secret formulas transmute ubiquitous everyday information into gold. Aggregating lists of common household ingredients. Real estate facts and data culled from scavenger hunts across the public domain.  Thrown together into a hugemelting pot of information. Subsequently cooked down and clarified through a complex set of brainy mathematical functions. 
Everyone knows numbers don’t lie. And machines can’t lie. It’s simple. You just type in your address, press the return key and voila!  There’s your home value.  Calculus as the New Alchemy.  Good as gold.   
But all magic shows are designed to capitalize (monetize) on an audience’s tacit desire to buy into illusion.  In this case, the trick is a massive misdirection worthy ofHoudini, David Copperfield or the more hip Chris Angel as played by Zillow,Trulia and the much hipper Redfin. 
The entire timemega-Real Estate Sites are ostensibly converting leading information into precious gold, they are doing the exact opposite. Using the promise of gold to turn people into leads. Mining them as raw commodities they peddle back to those very same Realtors that no one quite seems to trust in the first place!
As quoted last week: “ Anytime you are on a site and think the content is free, you are the content.”
If you ran a Zillow Zestimate  on your house recently, pay close attention. You may noticeZillow ads starting to appear regularly on your Facebook page. Or random spam mail about real estate and house-related services showing up in your in-box. All trying to sell you something – because you’ve been punk’d.
Zillow is a giant, 24/7 open house designed to lure visitors in the door. It doesn’t matter whether they are real buyers, neighbors or just lookey-loos.  There’s a sales pitch waiting in every room. Names and contact information are automatically captured. Downloaded to the highest bidder.
If anyone is interested in seeing how Zillow sells you back to us Realtors – e mail me.  I’m happy to share a few examples. It’s not a pretty picture.  Their idea of us is even worse than the norm.  Apparently we are all commission-driven fanatics lusting after their lead(s). 
Thus the inherent irony that lies at the core of consumer culture. The consumer ultimately becomes the consumed.  The new information economy doesn’t offer exemption to anyone.  It just makes it easier to buy a ticket on the A Train.
Close your eyes and think about it for awhile …you can almost hear Charlton Heston shouting “Soylent Green is People!!”


Hearts and Minds

HeartsandMindsThis week we continue our search for the Holy Grail of Home Valuation.   Why?  Because everyone wonders what their home is worth.  Now or in the future.  It’s always the biggest question.  And wonder can quickly become hardcore worry when people are facing significant change –  like buying or selling their home.

Nothing odd about that.  Home is the biggest asset most of us will ever own.  And home is also the hallowed bastion of refuge, privacy, comfort and security that nourishes our lives.  It’s both a real place and a symbolic place of centering for people.  Of course we worry about it!!

When home and the concept of it are in a state of flux, people tend to gravitate toward anything that offers them a heightened sense of certainty.  They want as much of it as they can get their hands on or wrap their minds around.

Certainty helps people anchor their hopes. Quantify their fears. Quell those nagging what-ifs.  Without a little certainty, selling a home feels like a high-wire circus act. Walking a slippery slope without a net sheet below. Balanced on the precipice of that yawning chasm known as the unknown.

But is there really such a thing as a little bit of certainty?  Is it possible to be 20% or even 50% certain?  If you aren’t totally certain then you aren’t really certain right?  Anything less than 100%  certain and it’s all just another guestimate (or quantum probability)  – whether it’s offered up through the medium of experienced analysis, intuitive insight,  algorithmic aggregation of detail,  some ritual form of reading the tea leaves or anything else.

Enter Zillow.  The trending poster-child of certainty in the increasingly crowded suburban strip-mall of Home Valuation.  The recently anointed oracle of truth and big data sooth-saying.  By far the flashiest new player on the national real estate scene – as witnessed by the company’s recent media coup – scoring a town hall-style interview with President Obama on housing policy.

Real Realtors were conspicuously absent for the yahoo’d and much ballyhoo’d Zillow web event.  They were busy sulking about their White House snub. Nursing their wounds back in the stately, cigar-filled. mahogany-paneled boardroom of the NAR (National Association of Realtors) which I’m convinced must share the same bunker/headquarters with the NRA (you all know this smoking gun).

They tried to do damage control.  Issuing media releases pooh-poohing  Zillow as an upstart “real estate entertainment site”  while frantically consulting their own programmers about upping’s profile to earn the same kind of street cred that competitors like Trulia and Redfin (& Zillow) have garnered with the general public.

There’s a huge shift that’s happened/happening and traditional Real Estate’s branding is way behind the curve.  I’m not sure how many hearts and minds Status Quo Real Estate ever really won, since Real Estate Agents are often considered just a little higher up the food chain than their poorer second-cousins that hawk used cars for a living.

However many hearts and minds we had in our corner in the past… that number is shrinking.  People don’t trust us as much as they should or could.  The profession and the industry from individual Realtors all the way up to the Regional MLS to the CAR and NAR should own up to it.  And change.

Bottom line?  The average person sees traditional Real Estate as always trying to sell them something. Industry information geared towards control and “making more sales.”

Zillow on the other hand is perceived as being accurate and free. Direct data and non-partisan information not filtered through salespeople wanting a piece of the action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a wise-person said:  “Anytime you are on a site and think the content is free,  you are the content.”  So the other bottom line:  If you are on Zillow you are getting sold.  Literally and figuratively.

To be continued next week.


Home Valuation: Holy Grails and Sacred Cows

HolyGrail051Welcome to another installment of Real Estate of Mind folks. Tryin’ to keep it as real as possible here.  I know…Real Estate is already supposed to be the Real Thing. Real Property. Solid Ground. Stable Brick and Mortar.  But sometimes it feels more like a drug-induced altered estate of mind when you are inside it.  Anything but the immovable terra firma it’s cracked up to be.

Trying to make sense out of real estate isn’t easy when so many conflicting ideas are competing for chunks of our brain space at the same time. A task made even more difficult by brains that weren’t really designed to distinguish between interesting facts and creative fiction in the first place.

Human beings are elaborate story-telling machines. Serial random-story generators. In the beginning, God hard-wired us with circuits full of neurons and synapses imprinted on a sea of glia.  In the end, he downloaded algorithms and told us to go forth and multiply our stories.  And after that? He rested and said:  “When in doubt…pray.”

That’s our immutable nature and ongoing nurture. Toss any of us a few crumbs of information and we’ll happily, unconsciously construct a plausible narrative in a New York nano-second. Any day. Any way.

Give us lots more data to organize, infintessimalize and wig out on and we may eventually reach a tipping point. Brain lock down on some compelling storyline that becomes completely intractable. Ready to go to war to protect the hallowed turf of our ideas and constellated belief systems.

Real Estate of Mind isn’t here to tell you what to think. Just to encourage you to think.  Perhaps offer a few simple perspectives to stick under your thinking caps while quietly cogitating.  Meanwhile don’t forget to question authority.  Subvert any paradigm anyone tries to sell you. Even if it doesn’t seem like they are selling you. Even me.

Today? We’re beginning our several installment search for the Holy Grail of Home Value.  Where does it come from?  How do we find it?  We’re going to start by taking a quick survey from A to Z. In 500 words or less.

A is for the Appraisal that comes after a buyer and seller decide on price.

B is for last night’s Barbeque where people were talking about how hot the market is.

C is for Chinese investors purported to be plowing all cash-offers into SF luxury properties.

D is for Real Estate for Dummies that still recommends  3 different CMAs from 3 different agents.

E is for Everyone that gives you advice when you buy and sell – whether you want it or not.

F is for the Fear of paying too much or leaving something on the table.

G is for all the Guesses you make – educated and otherwise.

H is for the real estate Headlines you’ll read between now and whenever.

I is for the Interest Rates people get fixed into and fixated on.

J is for all the ways people Justify their decisions.

K is for Knowing what you can’t Know.

L is for the canned Listing Presentation(s) you are going to hear.

M is for Median Price figures that don’t always add up to much.

N  is for the evolving New Normal that doesn’t feel very normal.

O is for that One Perfect Buyer that might be out there.

P  is for Peak of the Market Prices that become the yardstick.

Q is for Quality of Life considerations that should fit in somewhere.

R is for the Remorse  everyone feels both before and after.

S  is for Search Engines that make TMI more possible.

is for the Truth the market eventually reveals.

U is for Urban Myths that still exist – like real estate as a seasonal phenomenon.

V is for all things Virtual that make it seem so real.

W is for the Wiggle room you think you need.

X is for X-factors of fate, blind luck and divine intervention that help decide the outcome.

Y is for You.  Your money.  Your house. Your decision.

Z is for Zillow the recently anointed oracle of all things real estate.

More Next Week:  The rising phenomena of Zillow Zestimates  and what it all means.


Under House Arrest?

CageDoorHere’s a short meditation on change for buyers or sellers who are feeling a little stuck.  There’s a lot of that going around these days.

Prevailing wisdom says there are no two ways (or even three or four ways) around it.  Change is scary. But is that really true?

Something hit home with more clarity this week while I was in the middle of moving to my new Real Estate Home at Sereno Group: It’s not real, actual change itself that’s scary.  That’s a clever illusion we get used to entertaining.

Or perhaps an obfuscation that you/we/I  manufacture to make it harder to wander outside the perimeter of our own tightly-constructed brain maps. Past the established fence line in our own backyards.  Towards the great unknown that looms large like a dark ego-less abyss without any apparent handhold to grab onto or solid ground to step up on. Mostly because we haven’t actually had the chance to integrate the new-ness into unconscious loops or comfortable self-definitions yet.

It’s really the thought of change that’s the most scary thing.  The yet to be experienced prospects of change. The future imagining of what change might be like.  The embracing of the fear of fear itself that’s most fearful.

On autopilot, we often erect elaborate obstacle courses full of “what ifs”  in our heads. One’s that seem too tough or insurmountable.  That run us around in circles.  That obscure our sight.  Wear us out.  Test us on levels we didn’t necessary volunteer to be tested on.

What if I get an offer on my house but can’t find another place to move? What if I buy a new house and lose my job? What if prices go up? Or down? What if I can’t stand the freeway noise? What if the neighbors are too loud? The list of what-ifs could/can go on forever. Ad infinitum.

And that’s what’s truly scary. The absurd lengths that so many of us often go, to avoid change.  That’s the most insidious of all the bogeymen-creatures hiding in our closets.

When people are struggling with change, something odd becomes apparent.  Doing nothing does exist as a default selection on the spectrum of choice.  In other words, not choosing is a choice too.  It’s  “None of the Above” on the multiple-choice test of life.

What is it about us that makes it so much easier to do nothing and remain content to spin our wheels in the same place rather than move forward into full engagement with a new and different place (Perhaps a really exciting and life-affirming place simply because it is new and different) ?

That brings us to what’s so great about working in real estate. It’s a core thing that goes way deeper than status or success or the desire to pay the mortgage on our own homes.  It’s the privilege Realtors have of being regularly invited into people’s homes to share in their most intimate processes/struggles/triumphs around change.

Twenty-three years now and counting.  And I have yet to work with any buyer or seller who wasn’t going through some major transition.  Home is inexorably intertwined with every passage in life. Home as a metaphorical extension of self and home as an actual physical exoskeleton erected around us.  All the biggies: birth of twins, death of a loved one, marriage, divorce, coming of age, empty nester, health, job loss or promotion…

Realtors don’t always feel privileged every minute of every day of course. There are times we feel like throttling a client when the bad and the ugly of their human nature eclipses the good.  Or stupid human tricks become the temporary special du jour.

But that’s what makes it more rewarding on those frequent when we help/witness people summon up courage and navigate past their fears. Maybe in the form of  a first time buyer rising to the occasion. Or a recently widowed spouse finding a path forward.

Brain maps are like ankle bracelets for minimum security offenders.  Doing the time isn’t that bad. The three hots and a cot can be pretty cushy. Except for that little electrical jolt we might feel, we can step over the invisible boundary whenever we want.

Fascinating to consider the irony of it all.  Home being our most important place of security, comfort, safety, privacy, refuge but knowing that it’s a place that can also become a prison as well… House arrest can lead to arrested development. And arrested development.


Circling Birds: Part Deux

GirlBirdsThis goes out to all you circling birds. You don’t mind if I call you circling birds do you? Ok. It might help if I told you what circling birds are…You can decide for yourself if the flight pattern fits.

Whenever I sit down with Sellers thinking about putting their home on the market, the conversation inevitably turns to a kind of “active imagining” of who the buyer for their place might be.

Everyone wonders. What does the profile look like? That mysterious Buyer X who is going to emerge from the shadows of the great undefined “marketplace” – made up of a constantly shifting mix of people. All different ages, demographics, life circumstances, future goals, agendas, motivations, desires, needs.

Sometime, somehow, someone is going to decide on this one right place, out of all the other possible places lined up like addresses on the lottery board. A buyer that’s going to pull it together. Summon up courage, and resources. Proactively take the steps necessary to make it home.

My answer to most Sellers is that the person most likely to step up sooner rather than later isn’t someone who just started looking or is just getting around to thinking about looking for a home.

Rather, it’s most likely going to be one of those circling birds out there. And by that I mean one of those anxiously active, very frustrated buyers who has already been flying around for months – without arriving at their destination.

Yep. Circling birds have been at it for a while. Applying themselves. Doing their homework. Making the rounds. Trying to define what they want as they go.

Circling birds are tracking the market. They are hooked up to an intravenous fiber optic line that’s feeding them search engine e mails and a steady dose of new listings and price reductions hourly, daily and weekly.

They are remarkably knowledgeable about what has sold. What’s gone into escrow. What prices used to be. They know their own little market niche better than most Agents because that’s all they are looking at. They see the tree. Not the forest.

Circling birds have tromped through those atrocious bank-owned properties that give us all the creeps. And other tired old places that could only be classified as “the dregs” of the market. Some have already made offers awhile back on a short sale or two. Exhausted their patience while waiting for a response. A few have lost out in multiple offer bids for a really great place. Felt bitter pangs of disappointment. Dragged their hearts up and gone back into the trenches to look.

Each of these experiences and every house hones their focus and desire. Brings them closer to home. Narrows the parameters surrounding their future landing pad. They’ve looked high and low. At everything on the radar. Good, bad and ugly. They’ve grown more sure of what they want – through the process of elimination.

And that’s the whole thing Sellers. Circling birds are ready to go. And the inventory is exhausted. There’s nothing else to look at except that next best thing that comes on the market – your place!

When your house goes on, all those ready, willing and able buyers are going to sit up and take notice. They are going to bug their Agents to show it to them. They’ll be doing virtual drive-bys on google earth on their lunch hour. They’ll be doing drive-bys coming home from work. If it looks right and priced right, they’ll swoop in on the first day or for that first open house.

Make sense? So…what’s the big take away? The $64,000 answer to the $64,000 question? Ponder this: What happens when you put your house up for sale in this kind of market and nothing happens? Birds descend but they don’t stick around to roost? You accumulate enough weeks on market without an offer that you begin to feel like road kill that even the buzzards won’t touch?

What was that old Real Estate Mantra again? At the right price everything sells. At the right price all objections disappear. Hmmm. Might be that extra $64,000 you tried to add on to your $640,000 list price…. Just sayin’ Sellers…


Rearranging Molecules on the Fly

MolculesReal estate …in the end, it’s all about movement right? The market is always moving. Buyers and Sellers are always moving. All of us are in some stage of moving always. Coming and going in time. Coming and going in space. As Buckaroo Bonzai used to remind us with his insightful brand of crazy zen wisdom: “Wherever you go…there you are.”

Yep. Ya’ gotta move. Move in. Move out. Move on. Move up. Move Over. Move forward. Move past. And of course, you have to remember to keep things moving right along… (note to self).

It’s the prime directive. One big tidal wash of waxing and waning, transition and transformation. From the first nano-second of the Big Bang to this very moment not an ounce of original energy has died. It just changed. Energy is matter. And energy will always matter. Occasionally each of us grabs hold of little to make a quantum leap into the future. Rearranging our own molecules on the fly while launching into the next orbital path.

I’m moving on as the new logo at the top of Real Estate of Mind suggests. I’m leaving Monterey Bay Properties in Capitola, my home for the last 17 years. Taking up residence just a stone’s throw away (geographically-metaphorically-speaking) at the Sereno Group in Soquel.

Like all change, this one comes with its own complicated, push-pull admixture of thoughts, feelings, memories. I have a sad sense of departure all wrapped up and infused with a profound sense of excitement and anticipation.

I’m going to miss Robert and Sanders and Katy, Iris, Winnie, Bernie, Caren, Kathy, Richard, Barbara, David, Linda, Matt, Steve and everyone else. Yuriko’s beer-butt chicken. Matt’s gummy bears, Amber’s morning “Hey Brezsny, ‘Sup? “

For that matter I still miss Steve and Neal and the gang at my very first and only other brokerage – Karon Properties. I value the years I spent there learning the ropes and honing my chops under Steve Karon’s watchful-eye and earnest friendship.

It’s been a great run. And it’s always tough to leave the comfortable space of all things familiar to venture into unknown territory. So many of us get so routinely lulled into thinking about the past (woulda coulda shoulda) or fantasizing about the future (will be could be should be) that we often get stuck not acting or moving forward mindfully in the present (do be do be doing).

You’d think Realtors would have this moving stuff down pat. You’d think that a Realtor would be so fully versed in his knowledge of change in all its forms, after having helped thousands of people move over the last 23 years while working through the biggest things in their lives – births deaths, marriages, divorces coming of age, aging, health, family, empty nesting –

that this would all be old hat. No biggie. Water off of a duck’s back. Piece o’ cake.

But I guess it goes to show – Realtors are really human beings first and Realtors 2nd. It gives credence to my sorta joking/sorta not-joking assertion that the BRE (used to be DRE – don’t think they named it after me) should require Realtors to buy and sell their own residences every 3 years because it would keep them in better touch with the hopes and fears and dreams their clients go through on a daily basis.

Life experience is a huge tool in a Realtors tool box. A giant plus on their resume. It’s difficult to imagine someone who hasn’t been through a few big changes in their life being able to empathize and pragmatically advise people going through huge changes in theirs. It’s not the kinda thing they teach at Anthony Schools or something you can glean from a continuing-ed webinar.

So now the looking ahead part. What am I looking forward to at the Sereno Group? What’s this new moving experience all about?

It’s about the vision I share with a company that uses the phrase “Redefining Real Estate” boldly next to its name. That unites a group of innovative, like-minded, forward-thinking professionals around a culture of social responsibility, service to community and connection to eachother. That understands doing well as a business flows from doing good as a business.

It’s about being a local in a locally owned and operated company rather than one corporately owned from a distance (like New Jersey). One that focuses on quality of agent rather than quantity of agents. One that “gets” that bigger isn’t always better. Rather, better is always better.

And it’s about all those connections that criss-cross back and forth between here and over the hill. The affinity that those busy surfing the web and the waves of excitement happening in the epicenter of Silicon Valley have with the waves and the beautiful blue waters of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.

Sand is made of silicon. It only seems natural that so many of those successful entrepreneurs would want to find their way back home to the sand sooner or later. My new Sereno office colleagues in Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Willow Glen are ready to assist.