Wednesday, March 28, 2012

To Sell a Home in this Market

We recently closed on the sale of our former home in Ballard and it was thrilling.  From when we listed the house to the moment the deal closed and the money transferred, it only took 3 weeks--no kidding.  But it did not come without some level of risk.  Timing and great guidance were with us.

We hung onto this home after we moved into our current house in December 2010 because the economy/market was so bad then.  While not wild about renting it out, we couldn't bring ourselves to sell in such a soft market.  Clearly it was a gamble. While the market in 2012 is now on an upward swing, it is nothing like the pre-2008 real estate pricing insanity.  Truth be told, it still didn't allow us to recoup all of the six years of improvements we'd put into the house.  But we did better than if we had just sold it when we moved.

We were VERY lucky to have had renters come in right after we moved who took excellent care of the home.  As a seasoned landlord, I know renters can be a mixed blessing because if you get the wrong folks in there, they can damage your home/investment which can set you back more than if you had just left it vacant.  But this couple was so great that I remember telling Ken that we'd never find their equal so we'd have to sell as soon as they decided to leave.  Sure enough, they purchased another house toward the end of their lease and we sadly bid them farewell.  So in January 2012, with the home vacant, we began in earnest to ready the home for sale.  There was not much inventory on the market in January and even though it was right after the holidays, we began to hear tales that multiple bid offers were happening for good homes in Ballard.  We were motivated to do everything in our power to have that too.

Based on the stellar experience we had with RedFin (hi-tech real estate agency) when we purchased our current house, we would not have worked with anyone else for this sale.  One thing that really impressed me about this company and it's business model (beyond the 1.5% savings on commission), is the "team" approach.  You have a lead Realtor who is supported by field agents and coordinators.  This means that your lead agent is your main liaison for the transaction and they know the market, pricing, strategy, negotiation but you also have other agents who are working for you too.  In the case of a buyer, field agents open houses for you and provide notes/feedback about properties.  In the case of a seller, they meet you at the home when you sign the papers to list and help write the marketing copy.  Since they are in the field all the time, they know everything about inventory and neighborhoods.  Then when you need meetings, inspections, contractor bids and stuff like that, the coordinators help arrange all of that.  And your whole team communicates among themselves so it's a seamless hand off from one aspect to another.  

As someone who loves logistics and project management, this structure and it's fabulous execution impressed me a lot.  Nothing slipped through the cracks.  Fact is, when we were buying our current home, we may have spoken to Trevor (our main agent) on a daily basis but we never met him face to face.  It was only when we put the other house up for sale that I finally met him in person.  But it didn't matter.  With phone & email, he was always available to us.

The other thing that impressed me as a tech-geek is the company's embrace of technology.  Their website is well thought-out and designed to aid in detailed home searches and to provide resources for buyers and sellers.  They use a digital system to sign documents which meant many trees were saved in our transactions.  But most important, Ken & I could simultaneously sign the same document when he was at work and I was at home via computer, thereby keeping the process efficient and speedy.  It's not a big surprise that RedFin is headquartered in Seattle where technological integration is prized and expected.  I think it might be easy to assume that because of the tech aspect working with these guys would be like shopping at Macy's: hello customer service?  But we found it to be quite the opposite.  I felt that the entire time the team knew their stuff and communicated amazingly.   

Then there is the other inconvenient truth of what "motivates" traditional real estate agents.  Because commission is based on the end sales amount, is there really incentive to negotiate hard and get the very lowest price?  Doubtful.  Also if you are savvy and you have an idea of what and where you're looking for/at, an agent who scouts houses for you and drives you around in their car is probably overkill.  I also dislike the "salesy" feel from some of the realtors I've interacted with in the past.  I just wanted to be in league with people who were motivated to get the best deal and do the best work possible.  Period.  The way RedFin compensates their folks is based on customer satisfaction which is exactly how it ought to be.  Ultimately, we felt they provided better overall service given the tiered agent structure compared to individual real estate agents who have to be all things to all people.  And with a few friends and close relatives who are traditional real estate agents, I don't say that lightly.  

Things that helped us:
  • Make the perspective buyer see that you cared for the house.  Quality repairs, upgrades and products used should be noticed throughout the house.
  • Before listing for sale, fix little items that might be called out in an inspection.  In our case, our living room and dining room outlets were not grounded despite being 3-pronged.  The easy and legal way to do this without ripping out all of the existing electrical wiring was making all of the outlets GCFI (having the test/reset button).
  • Tone down colors/paint that might repel or distract a buyer.
  • Stage the house!  It is worth every penny.  Extract your emotions from how you had things arranged and allow a professional to realize the potential of the interior of the home to it's fullest extent.
  • Make sure every inch of the house is clean including the inside of closets & the inside of the fridge.
  • Spruce up planters and window boxes with new flowers to give a homey feel as have the yard landscaped or at least tidied up.
  • Lights and heat need to be on when people visit.
  • Don't list the house on a holiday weekend or during Superbowl weekend.  
  • Traffic is highest in the first 2 weeks than at any other time.  Make the best impression out of the gate.  The longer a property stays on the market, the more the perception that something is wrong with it sets in.
  • When pricing the house, have a professional (realtor) run a comparable analysis so you know exactly what houses like yours are selling for.   Use this knowledge and be realistic.
We ended up getting 10 offers on the house and sold it for well over listing price.  We attribute those results to a few things that are specific to this home: the house is in a desirable neighborhood near a park.  But the things listed above anyone can do.  It gave us the most solid position to negotiate from and everyone had to come to the table with their best serious offers.  

So good luck to everyone who might be selling or buying homes right now.  I hope this is helpful.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Babymoon #2

Just when it starts to be possible to take romantic weekends away, we decide to double-down and have another baby.  Ah well.  At least we got to take one last indulgent trip by ourselves, also known as a Babymoon.  We also took one in August of 2009 before Sidney was born and enjoyed it but I was very pregnant.  This time we went when when I was only 19 weeks so walking wasn't so much of an issue and my energy level was better.

Because I am a sucker for a inclusive deals and we needed some place within reasonable striking distance of our designated Sidney-sitters (Mom and Cindy in Portland), we chose the Oregon Garden Resort in Silverton, Oregon.  But we didn't know anything else about this place.  The deal included the room, one night's dinner, breakfast buffet, spa credit and admission to the Gardens.  The spa, the accommodations and the Garden were great, however the food was surprisingly terrible.  Surprising since this is a resort after all, they cater/host lots of weddings in the high season and their dining room looks the part of a nice destination.

I initially had high hopes for dinner because my green salad was delicious and signaled a good start but to no avail.   We have never considered ourselves "foodies" and Ken will just about eat anything, but despite that we both couldn't believe how bad it was.  My salmon was severely overcooked, flavorless and adorned with blueberries (???).  It sat atop a plate full of cheesy orzo that had way too strong a smell/taste so I extracted the salmon and deposited it on my bread plate.  Ken's seafood pasta dish was regrettably not much better:  rubbery, tasteless scallops with uninspired and overcooked vegetables.  We held out hope that the apple crumble dessert would redeem the meal but instead they took a "more is better" approach and piled over-sweetened, tasteless apples over even sweeter crumble with ice-cream and a half shaker's worth of cinnamon.  So much cinnamon.

Did we complain right then?  No, because surrounding us was a restaurant full of patrons who seemed to enjoy their food so much that our neighbors in the next booth were taking pictures of their entrees.  (Seriously.)  Perhaps that was just one isolated meal, we thought; an off night for the kitchen.  But as we talked about it on our way back to the room, we both supposed maybe a) that's why we got such a generous credit and b) perhaps this reflects a lack of discerning taste of the recurrent patrons.  An informal poll taken by the talkative musical entertainer in the lounge later that night revealed that most people in the lounge at that moment were from towns quite close to Silverton.  So it was plausable.

Next morning's breakfast buffet (also complimentary with our package) confirmed that the kitchen still didn't have its act together and settled for food service of  a budget 3-star European hotel.   Upon the first sip of Ken's orange juice, he remarked, "Is this Sunny Delight?"  Indeed it was.  We quickly finished our cardboard-like waffles and reconstituted eggs, deciding that no more meals would be eaten at the resort.


 For two people who don't have much interest in gardening or plants, we tend to visit them on vacation a lot (see trips to Canada & Ohio).   This time of year, the Oregon Garden was not the most impressive but from walking the grounds one can see that in June, it will be spectacular.

Even now, many birds and wildlife make their home in the garden and they are fearless so you can get pretty close to them.


There is also a delightful area called the Children's Garden with amusing topiary plants, a large sandbox with buried "dinosaur bones", an outdoor train set (runs in the summer), flower pot people and a delightful in-ground Hobbit house.  I even tried it out.

Other favorite parts were the sensory garden, trees encased in water filled planters, the fields of daffodils and a resident Loch Ness Monster.  While this garden is not as historic as Butchart, it definitely has much to offer and the variety of plants/garden themes was stunning.  Definitely worth a visit and only 50 minutes south of Portland.

We drove to a recommended Thai place for lunch in downtown Silverton about 2 miles away from the garden and strolled about the main street looking at some of the cute shops.  It was then time to head back to the resort for our spa massages which were so needed and so awesome.

We then headed to Mt. Angel which is the home of a giant Glockenspiel.  This Glockenspiel only had 4 times daily that it "played" so we enjoyed some delicious food their restaurant then at 4pm stepped out to enjoy the show.  The town of Mt. Angel has a long German tradition and evidently Oktoberfest is a major big deal.  This is definitely worth seeing--very unique.

Cindy told us about Silver Falls State Park which is located 15 miles south of Silverton and it was definitely worth our time to go check it out.   On our way there, we crossed the 45th parallel (equidistant between the North Pole and Equator), witnessed two horn-less bulls headbutting in a field next to the road (cow fight!) and could not contain our amazement as we passed fields and fields and rows and rows of Christmas trees.  Literally, millions of Christmas trees were out there and while it shouldn't be so surprising given the climate, it makes you wonder who buys ALL of these trees?   Oh, these people evidently.


We saw Snoqualmie Falls on our last babymoon and so it seemed only fitting to see another waterfall for this one.  South Falls was within easy walking distance of the parking lot and it was nothing less than spectacular.
Didn't quite make it into the timed shot.


It seems to me, waterfalls are a fitting metaphor for pending parenthood.  The inertia of natural forces and free-fall that one experiences in new parenthood can be overwhelming but once you settle into the pool below life begins to flow and calm down.

We ended our adventure with dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Silverton and I checked in with my mom to see if Sidney even realized we were gone.  (She did, but was having a ball with the grandmas.)  The rest of the evening we spent relaxing in front of our computers.  Just the way we like it.

Great weekend but eventually reality must return.  We returned to Portland late Sunday morning to fetch our spawn and return to Seattle.   Of course, a little time away lets everyone appreciate each other and Sidney was very happy to see us (the feeling was mutual).  Special thanks to the grandmas and the supporting cast of adults/relations who made this weekend getaway possible.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My photos from the Ballard Basement Band: Rockstar Experiment

Yes we did get outside.  Once. 

But this is mostly what happened...

Week in Rawk: Part 1

I suppose it goes without saying that we all have dreams.  Those that are attainable, those that are not and those that can be approximated.  This would probably count as the last one.  I don't know if I was inspired by the video game 'Rock Band' or the TV show 'Glee' or the audacity of a hobbyist musician husband but I thought, "what the hell, I can be a lead singer."  I don't have the moves like Jagger at 18 weeks pregnant nor the showmanship (or the ego) of David Bowie but I like to sing me some karaoke and no one else wanted to sing so therein lay the opportunity.

Since we moved into this house at the turn of 2011, Ken has earmarked half of the unfinished laundry room as his music studio.  It was originally an uninspiring space, as he would say, but it allowed him to have some room to practice the Theremin and drums.  Unfortunately, the entire house was at the mercy of these sounds as well.  Oliver, our cat, must not have thought too kindly of it because he began to pee around the base of the Theremin and around the cords.  The instruments were then hastily put into storage and Ken was MOTIVATED.  He decided by mid-year that a music studio would be "built"-- one that was soundproof, inspiring and most importantly had a locking door.  It took awhile to get this project off the ground (finding contractors and audio specialists) and it took even longer to build since it began at Thanksgiving and went on until Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Because that's always the best time to start a remodel/house project: when you have guests and holiday celebrations.  But I digress.

Ken sent photos and a message to his two former college band mates (Charly of Ohio & Dave of North Carolina) simply saying, "Build it and they will come."  And sure enough, a set list began to compile, tickets were bought and Ken began getting up at 5:30am each morning to practice.  This is what we were up to all last week.  We were just back from California and boom we were right into what I lovingly call "The Ballard Basement Band: Rock Star Experiment."  Since the guys have a deep-seeded love of Rush, the set list contained the most number of their tunes.  I insisted from the beginning to also pay tribute to the Black Keys Brothers album because it moved me so much and we ended up doing 3 of those songs too.  Radiohead, The Smiths, The Killers, old Genesis and Band of Horses also had a song or two represented.

Dave, finally gets in a picture.


As the OCD-prone perfectionists they are, the guys took great pains to achieve sounds as authentic as possible.   As the only band member who is not musical nor musically trained, I couldn't figure out why this accuracy was so important and let's be realistic, this is just a bunch of people in the basement, playing covers.  We're not recording a record, we're not performing out, we're not trying to be the next breakout act on YouTube.  But this is where the process is just as important as the product.  That's what I learned from this experience after all was said and done.  

Endless fiddling

This is the kit that makes it all possible.

Charly and Ken practicing and practicing

Ken in his "spare time" (I say that ironically) wrote a program to compile MIDI patches for the drums & the 3 keyboards.  There were a lot of patches (sounds) for these songs too.  Radiohead has 5 musicians and our band only had 3 so the guys had to double up on instruments or have multiple banks of sounds to switch back and forth from.  In a number of the songs, Ken plays keyboards and drums simultaneously.  Where I was once convinced my husband couldn't multitask, I now know better.

My contribution besides the passable vocals was to set up video recordings.  I tried to mount a camcorder to the track light which worked except that the video is upside down.  Not a problem really because I am told you can get editing software that will flip it.  I have not yet tried to do this yet but it will happen.  Because of the room configuration I had to run one camera on Dave, Charly and me and a separate one pointed just at Ken on drums and keyboards.  (This should be interesting to sync up.)  At this point because everyone has returned to their day jobs, there's only been time to do one trial mix down of one of the 12 or so songs we did.  Ken is using Garage Band to accomplish this and like everything else in this project, he's winging it.  But also like everything else on this project, perfection is the goal.  I am really hoping to get the final mix down of at least one song and edit video to it in the next week or so.

Stay tuned for part 2 in which I detail the wacky hijinks of the week itself.  It has everything: Sun Chips, needless trips to Everett, laptop surgery, using Theremins as collateral.  It's awesome.

(All these great photos were taken by Dave Purnell, the bassist and head banterer, by the way.) 

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Santa Cruz'in, part 2

Santa Cruz is known for being a "hippie town" and it is home of University of California Santa Cruz--the mascot of which is a Banana Slug.  Most people know this because of Pulp Fiction.  We went up to the campus and they sell a lot of banana slug merch at the bookstore.  They are certainly proud of it.

Linda R. Chen © 1994 Miramax Films
But it is a sleepy resort town and a college town all rolled into one.  They have many of the comforts of home: a Whole Foods, a Farmers Market, cool restaurants (Cafe Brasil--the banana pancakes are to die for) and water views.  They also have a wharf that you can drive out on to that has shops and restaurants.  

Under the wharf, many sea lions congregate on the beams and pilings that support that structure.  There are openings so you can see them.  Sidney loved looking at them and laughing at the noises they made.

This is adjacent to a large amusement park with a wooden roller coaster and other carnival type rides.  (None of which I went on at 17 weeks pregnant.)  I also saw a type of Brazillian beach volleyball called Footvolley where you can only hit the ball with part of the body you use in soccer--so feet, head, chest.   It looked so hard but very cool.

The seafood & chowder I was able to sample did not blow me out of the water but perhaps we weren't eating at the right places.  At any rate, it was a lovely trip and great that we were able to spend time with family we normally see on the East Coast.  This time for travel we took Southwest Airlines which was okay but it showed Ken and I that we have hit our limit of being able to travel only with one child.  This time we each had our own suitcase and we took Sidney's carseat so all of our hands were full.  We couldn't take one thing more so I think traveling with two kids via plane (in the short term) will be a non-starter unless we have porters and nannies with us--which is pretty much a 0% chance.

We will enjoy what traveling we have left before Intruder-us arrives.  

Friday, March 02, 2012

Santa Cruz'in, part 1

We just got back from a week long trip to Santa Cruz, California which is about a 1 hour drive from the San Jose area where Ken was working for the week. Sidney and I accompanied Ken so that he could participate on an important project with his team locally and we did not miss out so much on Daddy time at night. We did this last year too.   But this year we stayed in a large house with Ken's folks who flew out from the East Coast as well as his sister-in-law, her husband.  Also, Ken's brother Ed and Ed's girlfriend came up from San Diego for a few days to join in the fun.  It was an amazing home with a killer view and a grand kitchen.

For once in my life, the bed was great but there were no curtains in any of the east facing bedrooms.  This meant when the sun came up so were you.  That was at about 6:30am.  Not a great time of day for me.  Sidney unfortunately adapted to this schedule and she is still getting up that early.  Many parents will have no sympathy for me but she was a solid 7:30/8am riser and now alas...  But daylight savings change is coming up on my birthday this year, March 11.  (I guess that is my birthday present from the universe.)  So this may be a good development.

The home was near a park that had a huge pond with all kinds of various water foul.  We took bread down two separate times to feed the ducks and such.  But they were pretty aggressive and I had to put Sidney up on a park bench so that she was sort of out of harms way.  On the second day as she was feeding them, she didn't release the bread from her hand fast enough and one of the evil ducks nipped her finger.  She was just surprised by it and a little upset.  But mostly it was fun to watch the ducks and other birds.

There was also some great playground equipment/structures to play on.  

The weather was great for a few days then it turned to what we usually expect here in Seattle.  I packed a little too optimistically so I wore the same sweater almost everyday.  But the day these pictures were taken was a one of those warm perfect days that you expect from California.