Monthly Archives: November 2019

The “Stuff” Prayer


It’s been awhile since we revisited the subject of “stuff,” a topic that continues to occupy an inordinate amount of my time as a Realtor. What “stuff ” am I talking about? George Carlin stuff. Jam-packed storage unit stuff. Ubiquitous garage, basement and attic stuff. Stuffed into the back of your closet stuff.

The “stuff ” that keeps spawning best-selling books about clutter, the magic of tidying up and Zen fantasies about living like a monk. The “stuff ” that has launched an entire cottage industry of packers, organizers and house- whisperers.

The “stuff ” that keeps many folks waging endless battles with their own bad habits without really knowing why. The “stuff ” that Realtors wrestle with every day when it comes to selling houses. Ask any experienced agent what the biggest hurdle is to getting listings ready? Hands-down most will say: “Trying to cajole well-meaning homeowners into dealing with their ‘stuff ’.”

For reference: it takes two or three weeks to get an empty house prepped and on the market. It takes six months or more when a seller has to purge twenty years of stuff to get it ready. After helping hundreds of overstuffed clients over the years, I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: selling a house is hard, but finding a home for all the junk in the garage is excruciating.

Near as I can tell, we’re all on the hoarder spectrum. The only difference between those poor souls buried alive by their stuff on reality TV and the rest of us high-functioning hoarders is a matter of degrees. The rationale for hanging on to things long past their useful shelf life is always the same no matter whether you’re navigating through mountains of old magazines or just bending around thirty-year-old skis to get into the car: “What if I need it someday”?

It’s a fascinating time in the culture, a crossroads for aging baby boomers transitioning from the middle third of their lives to the last third. The struggle around “stuff ” is lumped into a whole slew of issues euphemistically referred to as downsizing. Implicit in the term downsize is the notion that a new life in a smaller place means giving up old parts of ourselves we may have trouble letting go of.

Here’s a revised version of the Serenity Prayer for those struggling. God, grant me the serenity to keep the stuff I do need, the courage to throw out all the stuff I don’t need, and the wisdom to know the difference. If that doesn’t help, call me. I’m happy to make a house call and give you some guidance.

How Much is it Worth When it is Free?


What did we do before Zillow came along? Remember when people had to rely on Realtors to tell them how much their houses were worth? And weren’t able to download values in a matter of seconds?

I’m sure the techie types who started Zillow thought they were making the real estate process more transparent when they unveiled their elegant platform to crawl the web and tap into troves of public record information. Best of all, their algorithms were designed to analyze all that big data in a heartbeat and deliver instant gratification to anyone who was interested.

In the first crush of social media in the mid 2000s, people somehow took it on faith that information on the Internet was free. And because it was free, it was more accurate because it wasn’t coming from people trying to sell things – like real estate agents trying to sell houses. Thus, the ubiquitous meme of the Zillow Zestimate was born.

Fifteen years later, the age of innocence for social media is over. Darker truths are becoming more apparent. We are revising notions about what “free” really means and how easily information can be manipulated into “fake news.” Especially when people accept the false promise of random “facts” at face value and don’t bother spending enough time gathering context.

I’m thinking about a text I got a few weeks ago from a buyer interested in a place I had just put on the market for $849,000 four days earlier. It said: “Your new listing looks great! Let me know when it gets down to the price that Zillow says it’s worth and I would really be interested in seeing it.”

Really? When I looked up the Zestimate it was $747,000, even though it had just received 7 offers in those first four days and was already in escrow for $900,000! He didn’t believe me, of course, and I confess I didn’t try overly hard to convince him.

So much for Zillow. And chalk up another bad case of Buyer Disconnect. Fascinating that people would trust an algorithm more than a person, but that seems to be the state of the world these days. Has anyone seen the recent spate of commercials Facebook is running? Thirty-second mea culpas acknowledging the wrong turn they took along the way.

Zillow is a huge corporation that’s publicly traded on NASDAQ. It was sued not long ago by a disgruntled homeowner who said that a Zestimate had torpedoed his home’s value. Zillow also just announced that it will start buying and selling homes through a new program called “Instant Offer.” Somehow, that just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

A Short Stop Along the Periodic Table


Today 10,000 people in the US will turn 65. In another 5 years, that number will jump further into the stratosphere. At the same time more people will be living longer than their parents did. How does this huge demographic shift relate to the decisions we are making today?

There’s not much mindful public dialogue happening around aging or the loosening fabric of our culture. Just an isolated web of separate discussions taking place among small, compartmentalized groups of friends and family members.

Or between a steady stream of inner voices talking loudly inside each person’s head, looking for some larger voice recognition pattern to fit into. This is my own small attempt to connect the thousand threads of the all those conversations. If it sounds familiar, welcome to the club.

Change. There’s nothing more certain. The entire universe is constructed around it. Any single thing along the continuum we call real or permanent exists only as the whisper of a fragment. A quick shutter of a snapshot taking place in the interlude between infinitesimal moments. A short stop along the periodic table as elements transform into energy and back again.

We are all verbs harboring the illusion that we are nouns. Narratives that keep trying to get a fix on our own stories by using abstract calculus as a plot device. Even though we are creatures of change, there’s also nothing we resist more than the “idea of change.”

Our neural pathways are like well-worn deer trails. The more they are used, the more fossilized they become in the underlying strata. When that happens, we hunker down, start to operate on survival mode and fight to preserve what’s already past.

Why do so many people stay in houses they actively dislike? Or places that just don’t work for them? Because the prospect of change is scary. The known known, no matter how unpleasant, is often less frightening than the unknown known.

When we face the specter of change, it often feels like some shadow of our former self is about to step off the precipice into a bottomless abyss. We become convinced that without our accustomed neural pathways in play, we won’t know who we are anymore. Our ego structure will have to learn how to walk all over again, like a stroke patient trying to recover.

But walk the same way we always did? Or, intriguingly perhaps, in a whole new and different way? And that’s where we’ll stop. With the tiny idea that change can actually be something new and interesting rather than fearful and debilitating. It just might be something to embrace rather than resist.

Magical Thinking


Let’s return to something we talked about last year…when the frenzy of the market was fraying people’s reserves of rational thought, and I noticed a widening gap between the public’s popular imagination about how real estate works and how it actually plays out in real life.

There are two parts: 1) Every single Santa Cruz seller fantasizes about wealthy buyers swarming over the hill to pay lots of money for their house. 2) Not all Santa Cruz sellers are willing to do what it takes to attract one of those “unicorn buyers” that are so easy to conjure up in their heads.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that sellers choosing to skimp on their prep are also voluntarily scaling back on their expectations about what those blue sky buyers will pay. No matter which cultural incarnation they assume: rich techie, Facebook/Apple/Google employee, retiring couple from the mythical 650 area code, Chinese national or virtually anyone driving a new Tesla.

From the looks of it, it doesn’t stop some sellers from continuing to ratchet up the $$$ long after the point in time at which they balk at spending one more dime to prepare their place for sale. Almost like it wasn’t necessary to do anything, or even…the less you do, the higher the price should be.

This is this market’s version of magical thinking: aspirational pricing that exceeds reasonable expectation. It’s a trend that will only help hasten the end of an otherwise amazing upcycle. Doesn’t matter whether it is bitcoin or tulips or real estate, things wind down when there’s not enough “there, there.”

It all breeds an odd kind of seller discontent too – in the midst of the best seller’s market anyone in California has witnessed since the Gold Rush. No matter how good the results, more sellers are decidedly unhappy. Five offers? Maybe there should have been ten. Price bid up $50,000 over asking? But we were expecting at least $100,000 over. There’s an embarrassment of first-world problems out there! And way too much Seller’s Remorse.

So here’s the thing, folks. The market is great. But selling in a seller’s market is still hard work. You get out of it what you put into it – and in most cases even more. You can’t take your listing back, once you go on the market. There are no mulligans in real estate. Why not get it right the first time?

The 60 Minutes Syndrome

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Another Home Inspection this week. Another reminder just how risky daily life can be.

Home used to be a place of refuge, a sanctuary from all the bad things that could happen – out there. They used to say most accidents occurred within five miles of home. But after digesting this 60-page tome of an Inspection Report, I’m not sure how anyone makes it out of their home alive these days.

I call it the 60 Minutes Syndrome. Goes something like this: Morley Safer (suspicious show biz name) does a riveting exposé on the dangers of garage door openers – the ones that pin unsus- pecting children and pets helplessly underneath. By the following week, consumer protection advocates are calling for new auto-reverse safety mechanisms.

By the following year, Home Inspectors are citing chapter and verse about brand new garage door codes. They understand (after a lawsuit or two) that if they don’t warn everyone about every possible thing that could harm them, their own asses may be in grave danger. CYA rules. Absolute CYA rules absolutely.

Real estate has moved into strange territory. Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware) has been replaced by Caveat Venditor – Seller Beware – of all those things that can scare the heck out of potential buyers. Home Sweet Home. How can it kill, maim or injure thee? Let me count the ways… Here are just a few of the dangers you never knew you had to worry about…until now:

Does your oven have an anti-tip device? Ever seen an oven fall over on someone? Not pretty.

That naked light bulb hanging in your closet? Stack those sweaters high enough and it’s a fire waiting to happen.

That old dryer vent? It’s filling up with combustible layers of lint as we speak.

How many dyslexic plumbers have installed hot and cold water lines backwards? A special invitation to unexpected scaldings.

Is every stairway a potential stairway to heaven? Risers too high? Too wide? Treads uneven? Handrails too wide to grip?

Deck rails more than 4 inches apart? That’s just wide enough for small heads to get stuck.

And the list goes on…GFCIs. CO2 Detectors. Smoke Alarms. Pool Alarms. Ban all extension cords. Install tempered glass. Clamp open the damper on your gas fireplace. Replace the sharp screws in your electrical panel.

When I was growing up, all we had to fear was the atomic bomb. As long as we listened to Bert the Turtle and remembered to duck and cover and didn’t stare directly into the blast, we were fine. Everything else was gravy.

People Vote With Their Pocketbooks

Vote yes and vote no. Ballot box.

Continuing the conversation…. talking about the changing market and how real estate agents and sellers are scrambling to adjust
on the fly.

As the evidence mounts (more listings, more price reductions, fewer overall sales)
it’s starting to feel like less of a seasonal lull and more like a larger shift in the balance between buyers and sellers. If that’s true, it’s a shift that’s at least a year overdue. This has been the longest uninterrupted seller’s market anyone can remember. A wild ride. But no cycle, up or down, lasts forever.

Which is an easy thing to say in the abstract. But a much harder thing to accept when it’s your house that’s in the middle of a changing market! To help inform some of the difficult discussions ahead, as agents, sellers and buyers struggle to tweak their perspectives, here are a few more observations about how the market communicates its message. Whether it’s the one you want to hear or not.

If you are selling your house… the goal is to sell your house. It doesn’t matter what you think your house is worth. Or what your agent thinks it’s worth. Or what anyone else thinks along the way. The market simply doesn’t care. The only thing that matters is what all those ready, willing and able buyers think your house is worth.

The market can be defined as: how every house compares to every other house that’s for sale. And by how many Buyers are competing with each other at any given point in time. a.k.a the law of supply and demand.

“People vote with their pocketbooks”.

Everyone has heard the phrase. Nowhere is that more true than in real estate. When some places sell and others don’t, it’s the perfect illustration of people voting with their pocketbooks. They compare, contrast and exercise their right to choose from all the available options.

The most fundamental truth about any marketplace is this: At the right price, every- thing sells. Friends, neighbors, relatives and/ or your own inner-voices driven by fear and expectation, can spin the market’s message in a confusing variety of ways. There’s never a lack of excuses about why a house isn’t selling.

But in the end, it all comes back to the same thing. At the right price, it doesn’t matter if there’s too much freeway noise, too much work, too many trees, too small of a yard, (or too big of a yard!), too many steps, too few bedrooms ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Because.. at the right price all of those objections will magically disappear and your house will sell.

Shifts Happen!


We’ve been hearing about a “shift”  in the marketplace, in hushed tones, for quite a while now.  Buyers, Sellers and Agents have all been noticing subtle changes creeping into what has been a lopsided Sellers Market for years. 

People reading the tea leaves have probably picked up on a few signs: One easy one is that there seem to be more actual real estate signs dotted around the landscape. It also seems like houses are staying on the market longer. And there are also more reports about price reductions. And a lot fewer stories about the ten offers the neighbor’s house just received.

Of course, the overall number of sales has been low for years but since the active inventory has also been at historic lows, it stands to reason there would be fewer sales. And while we’ve been hearing that the real estate market in Silicon Valley has slowed, to the uninitiated it still looks like prices are so high over there that it seems silly to think of any  “softening”. 

Some talk about a “shift” has been spurred by the general belief that markets can’t just keep going up forever. That they have to rest and come down every once in a while.  And yet, there just hasn’t been a lot of “hard evidence” about an actual “shift” that anyone has been able to point to.   

Until now of course… The trailing indicators have finally arrived to give credence to what people have been whispering about for months. Closed sales for Santa Cruz for September spell out the details and offer definitive handwriting on the wall for all of us to consider. 

Median Price:  DOWN from $930k in September of 2018 to $795k in September of 2019. For more than a year, the median price has hovered around $900k and this is more than a significant adjustment downward. 

Days on Market:  UP to 56 days in September of 2019 from 53 days in 2018.

% of List Price Received:  DOWN to 98% in September of 2019 from 99% in 2018. This number is based on actual list price at the time of sale, not the original list price. The % of original list price number is much closer to $92% given the drop in median price. 

Average Months to Sell:  UP to 3.6 months in 2019 from 3.3 months in 2018.  This is the longest it has taken to sell a home in quite a few years, signalling a slower, more balanced market.

Number of Sales:  UP from 131 homes in September 2018 to 151 homes in September 2019. Translation: as prices were reduced, more homes sold. 

More on the shifting market next week


Sellers, the Market Is Talking To You


Picking up the thread…. Sellers have selective memories. Fluid understandings about the market and how it works. When things are going well, the machinations of the market seem obvious. When the cycle shifts, the message morphs into a mystery they just can’t seem to fathom.

Do the market’s dynamics function differently in different markets? Is that why a Seller’s ability to “get it” vacillates between such extremes? My own perspective is that the market is an extremely honest feedback system. It tells the truth and delivers a consistent message in every market cycle.

Rather, it’s the gap between people’s expectations and results that tends to fluctuate wildly in different markets. Since expectations arise in the non-rational regions of the brain and results are usually interpreted through the lens of our emotions, both are easy avenues for disconnect.

To help Sellers adjust to the shift that’s going on right now, here’s one fundamental truth about real estate that everyone should hold to be self-evident: at the right price, everything sells. (Yes, it really is that simple.)

If you are one of those Sellers who ís struggling to figure out what the market is saying, here are the six most important ways it is talking directly to you:


Open Houses: How many people are attending your open houses? 10? 50? 100? If you don’t know, find out. If you aren’t having open houses, you’re blowing it. The primary audience for Santa Cruz hails from over the hill and weekends are when buyers come.

Showings: Is your house being shown independently outside of those opens? How many separate showings have you had? Have some Agents brought the same clients through more than once? If you don’t know, find out.

Days on Market: Has your listing been on the market for less than a few weeks? Or more than 30 days? If you’ve already reduced your price, how many days have gone by since you dropped it? If you don’t know, find out.

Feedback: What are buyers and agents saying about your house? What recurring observations are being voiced? If you aren’t hearing the feedback from agents and buyers, your agent isn’t doing their job. Find out.

Request for Reports: How many buyers’ agents have actually asked to see the collection of reports and disclosures that your agent has hopefully worked so hard to help you compile? Find out.

Offers: Have you had offers? Even low ones? Hopefully you know the answer.

These are all the ways the market communicates. In every kind of market. Next week, we’ll discuss how you can interpret the fundamental truth about your price, after you’ve gathered all the feedback.

Summer Review


Here we are…right on cue. It’s the 6th day of summer and, not uncoincidentally, we’ve been talking about the seasonal downshift that often happens right about now, despite all the ad hoc wisdom that likes to insist that summer is the best time to sell a house.

That’s when the weather is warm, the catfish are jumpin’ and the prices are high. But if
you want to hear why that just isn’t the case anymore, read my recent columns that deconstruct the myth of an always-bullish summer market.

Today, let’s catch up on local sales stats for SC County to see if they shed any light on where things are headed. Trying to get an accurate read on what the market is doing from random newspaper articles and posts selling some kind of spin is next to impossible.

So let’s all start out on the same page, with the same stats moving forward. Next week I’ll tender a few predictions about what Sellers and Buyers can expect to see between now and 2020.

Anyone interested in receiving more detailed breakdowns on market trends in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, can email me. I’m happy to forward complete metrics for each. If you don’t understand why it’s important to follow those neighboring markets, it’s time to get a refresher course on how Silicon Valley drives real estate sales here on the Coast.

Here’s a quick review of single family home sales in Santa Cruz County:

Median Price: This number was up significantly year-over-year as it approached an all-time high. It was $945,000 for May of 2019 compared to $863,000 for May of 2018.

# of Closed Sales: This number dropped by about 20%. 147 Sales were recorded in May of 2019 versus 184 Sales in May of 2018.

Average Days on Market or DOM (I’ve written extensively about the importance of days on market as an indicator of market value for buyers): This number increased from 28 DOM in May of 2018 to an average of 36 DOM in May of 2019.

% of List Price Received: In May 2018, sold listings, on average, received 102% of their list price. In May 2019 sold properties received 99% of their list price.

Average # of Months to Sell: In May 2018 it took an average of 2.7 months for a home to sell. In May 2019 that number rose to 3.7 months.

Heading into the summer, these are decidedly mixed results. The median price point is close to its all-time high but virtually every other indicator is down, suggesting that inventory is growing and things are slowing.

More next week.