Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Stuff Whisperer

Unknown-4Continuing our discussion about “stuff” and the way that it impacts Real Estate. Below are excerpts of a conversation with The Home Weeder, a thoughtful observer of the human condition and an empathetic advisor/guide for those trying to reorient their relationship to stuff. She offers a full-service approach for those feeling a little overwhelmed. I call her “The Stuff Whisperer” – a title she hasn’t officially sanctioned yet, but anyone that needs help with their stuff, should contact her. Claire Rubach/clrubach@gmail.com/thehomeweeder.com

HomeWeeder: There’s a phrase I hear over and over again when I first meet people to see what kind of help they need: “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know where I got all this stuff.” And yet, there it is.

REOM: So how do you explain our penchant for more “stuff”

HW: I’ve been a social worker for 25 years. Experience tells me that almost every big issue people struggle with takes place in the context of the social milieu they live in or were raised in.

REOM: And what’s the larger cultural context relating to people and their stuff?

HW: Most of the people I work with range in age from 50 to 90 years old – aging baby-boomers to their octogenarian parents. Both generations had profound experiences that shaped their notion of stuff when they were growing up.

REOM: One grew up in the Depression Era.

HW: Right, our parents or grandparents were raised during the Great Depression, a time of significant hardship and deprivation. The basic necessities of life were difficult to obtain. Food. Shelter. Jobs. Clothing.

REOM: My parents were both born in 1925 and they never want to throw anything away. It’s almost part of their DNA. It is shameful to waste anything. When you do get something, take care of it. Make it last forever. Hand it down to your kids.

HW: That’s right. Then figure that that generation was just reaching adulthood, when they plunged right into WW2, a time when severe shortages and rationing of goods was a way of life.

REOM: And shortly after the end of the war, all those baby-boomers started to arrive on the scene.

HW: Yes, the wave of births came with the end of the war. Suddenly the incredible industrial effort that sustained the US through the conflict was directed back home. The country launched into one of the longest periods of economic growth the world has ever known. Suddenly there were Levittowns springing up. New products and new inventions. America emerged from WW2 as the most powerful nation in the world. We were on a roll.

REOM: And then?

HW: Well in some ways we¹ve been on a roll ever since ­ promoting the values of our consumer culture. And of course, television, which had actually been around since the 1920s in some form, finally exploded onto the scene, helping to usher in Madison Avenue.

REOM: And Madison Avenue was all about inventing new and more sophisticated ways to get people to buy stuff.

HW: That¹s right. Kind of sounds like Google doesn’t it?

REOM: Reminds me of my favorite quote about the internet: “I saw the best minds of my generation inventing new ways to get people to click on things.”

Next Week: More of the conversations

10 Easy Steps to Curing Your Inner-Hoarder

Unknown-3Continuing to wade through more weighty questions about the nature of “stuff”. The stuff we fill our homes with. The stuff we consume, collect and cart around like excess baggage. The stuff we have such a hard time dealing with as we get older and events suggest that it’s time to make a change. Move-down and scale back. Transition into another lifestyle involving less stuff and more connection to the “experience” of life.

If you are wondering whether this is a suitable subject for a “real estate” column, I recommend you talk to your favorite Realtor. Ask him/her to share a few stories about the complicated relationships people have with their stuff. How all the layers of ambiguity and inertia around stuff can profoundly affects someone’s ability to even “think” about selling their home – let alone doing it. Even when they know it’s a good idea. And even when, in some instances, they know they have to.

Or talk to someone who does home staging for a living. Is there a more instantly recognizable cliche in the era of “Million Dollar Listing” than the impeccably staged house that everyone knows bears no resemblance to the way any of us really live? But somehow in its abject, impeccable falseness still possesses the ability to elicit powerful, visceral fantasies about a perfectly ordered life where everything is always in the right place.

Most professional stagers say that most important part of their work lies in getting rid of things people have filled their homes with. The delicate euphemism most often used is “de-cluttering.” But the “de-cluttering” process is often best achieved through the use of an indelicate 40-yard dumpster, large pickup truck and crew of three beefy guys. Staging a home well, like aging well, is a process of mindful addition by mindful subtraction.

We all live somewhere along the “continuum of stuff.” More or Less. Somewhere between the enlightened Zen Monk who maintains a rigorous attachment to owning nothing and the poor soul that was out-ed in last week’s episode of A&E’s Extreme Hoarder. The person who suffered helpless attachment to just about everything she had piled into the strata of high snaking canyons winding through her rooms.

Judging by your emails, many of you have self-diagnosed issues with stuff. And many want to know exactly what to do with their stuff – asking for some miraculous solution along the lines of “10 Easy Steps to Curing your Inner Hoarder.” But Rome wasn’t built in a day and the mountain of possessions most of us have amassed over a lifetime isn’t going to disappear in a day. Peace of mind isn’t going to come from a short trip to the landfill or a quick intervention by the Salvation Army. This is a much longer haul headed in the direction of quality of life.

Next week I’ll share excerpts from a recent conversation I had with an expert in the field of “stuff.” A thoughtful and empathetic observer of the human condition. And a mindful helper/advisor/guide for those trying to reorient their relationships to their own stuff. Her business is called The Home Weeder and with a master’s degree in Sociology and a 30 yr career in counseling, she offers a full-service approach to those who are feeling a bit buried.

Bonfire of the Sanities

Unknown-2Regarding last week’s column “Emptying Your Rice Bowl” – an expanded meditation on the nature of all the “stuff” people fill their lives and their houses with ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Kudos to the clever reader who sent me the photo-shopped picture of his two car garage with door lifted up and a man-made mountain of rice spilling out onto the pavement.
But the prize goes to another reader, a certain local celebrity historian who shall remain nameless. He sent me the following paraphrased missive:

Dear Sir:
Next time you come snooping around our house looking at all of our “stuff” I’m going to sic the dog on your snooping ass!
I’d write a longer e-mail but I’m going out to rummage through one of our three storage lockers. Two of them date from October 1989 when we moved a lot of fallen-down-“stuff” out of the house. It was just going to be for a couple of months…The third locker was acquired when the other two filled up, parents died and we couldn’t bear to part with their “stuff”.
But seriously, I’m reading down the column, nodding and shouting at my wife, “Read this! He’s talking about US! He’s been in the HOUSE! He knows our problem!” And then…I lift the paper and turn it over thinking that maybe the rest of the column is on the back ’cause we need you to tell us what to DOOOOO about our “stuff”! Tell us what to DOOOOO oh wise one.
I guess we’ll just have to call the dumpster company and get them to drop one close to the house. Then we can just open the front door, jack it up and tilt it forward so we can let all the “stuff” run out!

S.L.

I know it all sounds so silly. And yet, all so painfully close to the funny/tragic, ironic truth that almost everyone out there can relate to.
How do I know? Because I’m a Realtor and I’ve been to your home. Or at least tens of thousands of other homes like it! And I’ve talked to you about your stuff. Or at least thousands of other people like you who were wrestling with the pathos of their own relationship to what they’ve consumed, collected and carted around over the years.
Together we’ve organized their stuff. Hidden it. Hauled it. Stored it. Put it in pods. Thrown it away. Staged around it. Together we’ve dealt with all of it like it was one big metaphorical bonfire of the sanities. At least for those willing to crawl out from under the weight of their own “stuffing” it was.
The great thing about real estate is that in order to sell a house and move on you actually have to do something. You can’t just talk about doing something. Next week I’m going to start telling you what to do with your stuff. The big question is: Are you going to do what I tell you to do? That part will be up to you.

That’s it for this week. I’d say more but I don’t think I can “stuff” any more words into today’s column 🙂

The Glass Half Empty

Unknown-1Emptying the rice bowl. Re-thinking our relationship with all the “stuff” we buy and cram into our houses until the bitter end. As 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 acts an open invitation to replenish the soul with something different.

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 Hoarder’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 Hoarders? 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 our 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. Sometimes life is better when the glass is half empty. Or more.

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 their own consumer culture.

Can’t Take it With You

UnknownToday, 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 that¹s 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 there¹s 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.

Of Melting Pots and Zeitgeists

Unknown-4Summer is winding down. As usual, I’m waxing a little philosophical on the cusp of another fall season. Maybe it’s a good time to sit back and catch up on the current state of the real estate market. And consider where our own lives are in relation to the market-at-large that’s always at work out there, whether we happen to be paying attention or not.

Most of what the average person thinks he/she knows about the real estate market originates in two places: 1) The daily headlines they see and hear in newspapers and other television/media outlets they tune into, and 2) Impromptu stop-and-chats they have with friends and neighbors in innocuous public places like Shoppers Corner, Soccer Games and the DMV.

When it comes to real estate, everyone has an opinion and everyone has a story to tell. Whether that story is based on a recent experience, some long-held belief or some vicarious third-hand account they feel compelled to toss back into the melting pot of the collective zeitgeist.

But here’s the thing – neither of our primary news feeds has a whole lot to offer when it comes to actually weighing the complicated choices and making the important life-decisions that come with buying or selling a home. Those headlines are way too big to scale down and draw vital personal conclusions from. And the small anthology of apocryphal stories that gets donated by friends is way too limited in size and vague in details to risk the future on.

Just a quick reminder: There is no national real estate market. In the same way that there isn’t any national weather forecast. There’s only local real estate and local weather. Every community has its own micro-climate for both. A unique set of conditions that creates high/low pressure zones and influences prevailing winds. There are even hyper-local markets that change quickly and radically in the space of a few blocks – like those sunny blue skies that often turn into a thick blanket of fog right around the Park Ave. Exit on Hwy 1.

The real, real estate market is made up of thousands of people making thousands of decisions influenced by thousands of thousands of other factors, large and small, on a daily basis. The bigger the sample of all those decisions all those different people are making that you have access to, the more accurate your educated guesses about future buying/selling are likely to be.

As we head into the fall, the most important thing that buyers/sellers should know about the real estate market is this: Despite all the difficult lows and amazing highs our market has experienced over the last 8 years, from the dark days of the meltdown to the Silicon-fueled rush and multiple-offer crush of recent years, remarkably, incredibly, after all of it, median and average prices in Santa Cruz County are still not back to where they were when the market peaked in 2007. Close, but no banana.

What a long, strange trip it’s been, going all that way only to end up almost back in the same place. Or is it the same place? Let’s talk more about that next week.

Yogi is My Yogi Redux

Unknown-3Two stories caught my eye this week. One – heightened concern about new regulations for residential loans (google TRID) going into effect after Oct. 3rd ( almost certain to cause delays in escrow.) And the other – the passing of Yogi Berra, all-time great Yankee Catcher. The synchronicity of these two stories was an eerie reminder of a column I wrote back in 2009, when underwriting guidelines were getting increasingly convoluted (causing frustrating delays in transactions.) At the time, I invoked the wisdom of Yogi Berra and as I reprint portions of that column below, on the eve of the Oct 3rd date, I feel compelled to invoke another famous Yogi-ism: “Holy Cow! It’s déjà vu all over again!”

Excerpts from Real Estate of Mind, October 2009

I’m wracking my brain. Looking for a simple expression that comes within a few million miles of explaining this to you. This odd place real estate has stumbled into. This strange dream it has woken up in. This brave new world where some kind of unintelligible intelligence has hijacked the process.

I don’t mean one transaction. I mean all of them getting sucked into the same wormhole that grabs socks between the time they go into the washer and are supposed to come out clean and smooth from the dryer. Welcome to escrow. The new and unimproved version. Where transactions go to drag on, in a bone-numbing, jaw-dropping, torturous drip of delay-without-closure.

What do we call this period between when escrows are supposed to close and when they do close? Purgatory? The Twilight Zone? Extra Innings? The old notion of Close of Escrow (COE in Realtor-speak) was something you could count on. It wasn’t a liquid. Or a gas. It was a solid you held in your head. There was a contract. Wheels were put into motion that would eventually converge in time and space. And voila – the deed would record and money would change hands. Now COE has become a fuzzy, moving target, constantly getting pushed back in time.

Didn’t underwriting get the memo? Or perhaps they did and they lost it? Maybe they got the memo but want us to verify that we insured it? Or certify in a separate memo that we really sent it in the first place? And that needs to be a non-faxed, non-scanned memo with wet signatures delivered in person to the processor, who will move it along to the closer, who will run it by the committee, who will assign it to the great decider-er for a really quick turnaround.

Folks, the system is in the throes of a grand mal and my brain hurts. I’d love to explain it to you but I’m waiting for someone to explain it to me first. In the meantime, all I can do is summon the wisdom of Yogi Berra, the man known as Mr. Malaprop, for answers to the avalanche of malaproperty-isms we are experiencing. Yogi-isms are just about the only things that do make sense in this impasse of an escrow juxtaposed between the now and maybe never.

Try this one: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Or: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” And if you are in the middle of an escrow that isn’t closing:. “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Me? I’m sticking with this one: “I wish I had an answer to that because I’m tired of answering the question.”