Archives for category: real estate transactions

HOME SECOND HOME

 

 

Upon arrival at my daughter, Kelly’s new second home, I encounter scenic mountain views, fresh air, and initially, solitude. I hear rustling leaves, chirping birds and the burbling of a babbling brook. The hubbub surrounding her primary home in Brooklyn recedes. So, too, does the effect on my lower back of the as-good-as-possible three-hour drive. But is this purely paradise? Not exactly — within twenty-four hours, Kelly introduces me to the pool man, the pest man, the tree man, the lawn care man, the general maintenance man, the generator repairman and the tractor repairman. (Apologies for the anachronistic-seeming gender designations, but it is what it is.) All these men knew Kelly would be arriving, except for the last two; they came in response to the maintenance man’s call informing them that repairs were needed. Rest assured, they all have their hands out for payment.

 

*****

 

My wife and I once owned a second home. For added degree of difficulty it was in Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country 2,800 miles south of our then-New Jersey home. How we came to own such a property is a long story. In brief, an opportunity arose in 2003 to obtain something special. For the price of a garage in northern Jersey, we bought an acre lot atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Every time we thought about our acquisition, the part of the brain devoted to happy things fired neurons. We planned to build a house. We interviewed builders. We contemplated sunsets.

By early 2004 our project commenced. We’d hired a husband-wife team who’d moved to Costa Rica from California a decade earlier, herein referred to as “Tim” and “Lisa.” Tim was the builder and Lisa the designer, decorator and landscaper. We embraced several of her dream concepts that no one had before, namely: an interior garden to separate the living room from the master bedroom; a waterfall in the family room; and, a roof line that appeared to be floating above clerestory windows.

When Tim faxed photographs of the cleared lot before we even owned the property, we were thrilled.  We wondered how he had achieved this feat.   Was it pure trespassing?   Was it bribery of local officials? We chose to consider it extreme efficiency. Things are a little looser than in New Jersey, to say the least.

Each month, roughly in conjunction with the timing of our wire transfers, Tim sent photographic updates. To my surprise, construction proceeded on time and on budget. The story of our house in Playa Hermosa is NOT a horror story about being ripped off in a real estate scam. (Luckily, we turned down opportunities to invest in, among other things, a marina “guaranteed to be completed by 2005” which still does not exist. We also turned down a share of a teak plantation that might break even by 2040).

Our experience of second home ownership, initially so exciting, is a litany of little irritants, the “death by a thousand cuts,” that gradually erodes enthusiasm.  It is said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Indeed, once completed, our house could have appeared on the cover of “Architectural Digest.” But it contained plumbing and electrical systems seemingly completed by trial and error.

The infinity pool, achingly beautiful as it led one’s eyes straight to the ocean beyond, leaked in myriad ways. Was it the plumbing? Cracks in the liner? In the tile? The pool man suggested the daily loss of a foot of water might indicate we were in a “special evaporation zone.” In eighteen months of ownership, the mystery never resolved.

We received a faxed picture of mold forming under the roof during the rainy season. “$1,000 should do the removal,” wrote our property manager. Another email told us about the irrigation system prone to being run over by the lawnmower. “Don’t worry,” wrote the manager. “It’s only a few hundred…every few months.” The front gate, a wrought-iron creation by a local artist, looked beautiful. If only it operated without repair for more than a few months at a time.

And the staff, oh, the staff. It included: one property manager, two rental agents; a succession of lawn companies; a “weed man;” two pool-related teams, one to maintain the water quality and one for structural matters; a “gate man;” a cleaning crew; and, an irrigation manager. If only it included an irritation manager.

 

*****

 

For a year or so, we experienced our adventure as originally planned. We visited often, hosted friends and family, and reveled in how different it was from our humdrum existences at home. But the sheer weight of aggravation and complication wore us down. To defray costs we occasionally rented the house to strangers.   After damages wrought by a large percentage of such people my outlook soured. For years afterwards, I referred to tenants as “a lower form of humanity.” Only time and large security deposits eventually restored my mood.

We put the house on the market and sold in October 2006 for a windfall profit. What geniuses we appeared to be! The worldwide real estate market sputtered to a standstill shortly thereafter. But we weren’t clairvoyant, just exhausted.

Kelly is still in the glow of new second home ownership. We hope it never wanes. But experience sometimes outweighs hope. For my part, I now enjoy visiting OTHER people’s second homes.

 

 

 

 

 

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AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


 

 

As of this week, we are homeless.  This is not in the desperate sense that we are living in a box under an overpass, but we no longer own a home.  We sold it several days ago and are living in a room at a friend’s inn for the next several months while our new townhome is constructed.  We chose to live at the inn because it allows us the total flexibility we need in terms of moving out.

 

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This wrinkle on the American Dream appeals to me.  Essentially, in the highway of modern life, we are parked temporarily on the shoulder.  My wife, Katie, is skeptical, but I strive to point out the myriad ways in which this brief break from responsibility is refreshing.  Much of the enjoyment, for me, is due to the absence of bills, including, but not limited to, the following:  water, sewer, electric, gas, trash, maintenance, landscaping, mortgage, taxes, insurance and homeowner’s association.

Selling this concept to Katie took a positive turn when she looked around our graciously appointed temporary home, and noted:  “If this bedroom were in Manhattan, we’d be paying thousands of additional dollars each month.”  Indeed, big city dwellers would look at our present situation as the lap of luxury.  Still, I admit, in many ways, it isn’t easy to give up that big, high-ceilinged slice of suburbia.

 

*****

 

We’d bought our house in Chapel Hill in early 2007.  Coming from New Jersey, North Carolina real estate appeared to be half-priced.  The prevailing mentality at the time was: “the more house you buy, the more money you’ll make whenever you choose to sell.”  While that may still (or once again) apply in locations like Manhattan or San Francisco, one is ill advised in much of the country to invest in a single family home with an eye towards making a hefty profit.  At present, a house is a place to live, not a gushing oil well.

 

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Marketing our home turned out to be challenging.  While the local market is “hot,” the golf community containing our former home is decidedly cool.  Whether or not related, demographics, the economy, and the decline of Tiger Woods have curtailed the cohort of buyers clamoring to hear the thwack of clubs in close proximity.

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Also, as the sensation of the reality show, “Tiny Homes,” attests, enthusiasm for six bedroom homes is in decline.

th-2.jpeg   We gradually changed our listing from six to five to four (!) bedrooms to garner more traffic.  Two of our bedrooms became “Flex study” and “Flex bonus room,” respectively.

The biggest factor in selling a home, as every real estate agent repeats, is price.  Following an exhaustive study of the local market our Realtor originally established a price that made complete sense – about ten years ago.  After only a month, and virtually no showings, we agreed to lower the price substantially.  After another month, we lowered it again and, as noted above, began to lower our bedroom count.  We could not affect the square footage and other attributes, however.  One prospective buyer noted, in what may be a first in real estate history:  “House has too many bathrooms.”

 

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*****

 

When our agent suggested a third, major price reduction, we balked.  It’s not (entirely) about the money (really, it’s not); we just felt if no one looked at our house, no one could possibly fall in love with it.  We needed traffic and some way to distinguish our house from the hundred other homes on the market in our community.  Thinking back to a tried and true New Jersey tactic, I suggested the following to our Realtor:  “Instead of lowering the price, let’s offer the selling agent a $5,000 bonus.”

“Oh, I can’t do that,” said our agent.  “It just feels icky.  Agents might show the house for the wrong reason.”

The reader can insert the most profane response imaginable to cover my thoughts at that moment.  Still, it being North Carolina, I responded politely:  “Well, I’d appreciate if y’all would just give it a little try for a week or two.  Let’s see if some folks’ll actually come out and see the house.”

 

*****

 

During the next two weeks, our house had eight showings, double the number from the two previous MONTHS combined.  Two couples came back for second showings and then fell over each other to schedule third showings on the same day to make offers.

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The passive-aggressive in me could not resist asking our agent:  “Do you think the bonus has had an effect?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I think the price reductions have just finally sunk in.”

Whatever.  Readers can draw their own conclusion.  We contracted to sell to a couple who, I’m informed, prefer our community’s golf course to the one where they presently live.  Also, the gentleman is a toy train buff who will enjoy the 2,680 square foot basement for a major installation.  And what of the $5,000 bonus?  The buyer’s agent chose not to take it due to the “awkwardness.”   Instead, she suggested we use the money to bridge the gap between her customer’s offer and our counter-offer.  I LOVE these classy, unsullied southern real estate agents!

*****

I’ve assured Katie I won’t want to live in a furnished room forever.  After a few months, I’m sure I’ll be ready to ease back into the traffic jam of residential real estate.  But following thirty consecutive years of homeownership, and the recent stresses of selling, I’m happy to take a break.


HOME FOR SALE

 

Our house is for sale and the experience is somewhat unnerving. Like a high school senior with applications to ten colleges we have no idea what or where our lives will be in ten months. The only thing for certain is uncertainty. Not only do we not know when or for what price someone will buy our home, we have no idea what sort of buyer to expect. We learned that lesson the last time around.

 

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*****

 

In 2008, in the depths of the most recent housing and stock market busts, we put our house in Ramsey, NJ up for sale. Two years earlier, in the flush of the real estate and stock market booms that had preceded the busts, we’d impulsively bought a house in North Carolina and started a two-year process to move south.

The timing cost us money, but no need to second-guess water for having flowed under the bridge. In the world of bold real estate moves, the relevant cliché’ is: “You win some, you lose some.”

Concurrent with the downtown in the 2008 market my wife, Katie, obtained her real estate license. Cause and effect? Bad luck?

 

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I know this: In six months on the job she had customers who missed appointments; customers who couldn’t make decisions; and, customers who made the attitude “the customer is always right” impossible to maintain. Despite working every weekend she never made a sale nor obtained a listing.

But she did have the inside track on listing our own home. I interviewed her carefully:

“What commission will you charge?” I asked.

“None,” she said. “We’ll save at least 1.5%.”

“You’re hired,” I said.

 

*****

 

In anticipation of listing the home, Katie had a carload of agents from her office visit and offer suggestions.   As a result, we moved furnishings around and painted several walls. We weren’t exactly “staged,” but some wisdom from experience was put to work.   A cedar shake contemporary with unique window shapes and exposed beams, our house was not for everyone. For a buyer with traditional tastes (ninety percent, according to studies), our house would not appeal.

Concerned that selling might be a slog we listed on September 1, nearly a year before our mid-2009 move date.   If a buyer appeared and offered a reasonable price, we would do the deal, regardless of closing date, even if we had to move out early. After all, our likeliest buyer would be open to the unusual, the absurd and the lack of any ceilings over most of the first floor. We couldn’t risk losing them.

The first few showings weren’t promising. “Weird,” said one review. “Too modern for us,” said another. One customer was open to a contemporary home but required a swimming pool.  A foreign customer indicated he liked the interior but wanted us to replace the exterior siding.

“Is anything wrong with it?” Katie asked.

“No, they just don’t like it,” said their agent.

“That would cost $40,000,” said Katie.

The agent offered the telephone equivalent of a shrug.

Several other lookers needed to sell their homes first, a contingency we wouldn’t consider. Most were simply not interested, either due to price or location or the sheer unusualness of the construction. Since the etiquette is for the homeowner to not be present for a showing I never saw the prospective buyers. Feedback filtered from realtors to Katie over the telephone.

 

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*****

 

One evening Katie received a phone call from a shopper who said he’d located our listing himself on his computer.   Though on-line shopping is now the norm, in 2008, buyers were just beginning to shift from having a realtor compile a list of houses for them to see. The caller (called Joseph herein) had no agent and, therefore, would be Katie’s customer if he chose to buy. We were excited at the prospect of saving an additional 1.5% but also concerned he was wasting Katie’s time.

“Does he have a family?” I asked.

“No, he’s single,” said Katie.

“He wants a four bedroom house in the suburbs for himself?” I asked.

“He said he wants to see it,” said Katie. “It can’t hurt, right?”

“Good point,” I said. “So is he coming out next weekend?” I asked.

“Actually,” he wants to come tomorrow morning at 7,” said Katie.

“Seven a.m.!” I said, intrigued. “Why?”

“He said he works odd hours,” said Katie.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Sounds strange. I’ll hang around to see him.”

 

*****

 

At night, before falling asleep, we speculated what Joseph might have found attractive about the on-line picture of our house.

“Maybe the rhombus-shaped windows,” I guessed.

“Maybe the decks shaped like a ship,” said Katie.

“Or the pile of boulders in the front yard instead of grass. He won’t have to mow them,” I said.

By 7:20 the next morning we’d heard nothing from Joseph.

“Probably not showing up,” I said, the voice of skepticism.

“Don’t be negative,” said Katie, though she was also fighting the fatigue of dealing with disappointments.

At that moment a massive black Range Rover sped around the corner and pulled into our driveway. I peaked through our bedroom blinds to see it stop abruptly just inches from our garage door. The driver remained inside behind tinted glass for several minutes talking on a cell-phone, long enough for me to express more negativity. “Joseph might be a mobster.”

 

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Finally, he emerged, a middle-aged man with medium-dark features and a long, black ponytail. He had earrings, tattoos and wore a leather jacket. “This guy is not Mr. Suburbia,” I reported to Katie while we went to open the front door. “Looks more like Cheech or Chong.”

The doorbell rang and Katie greeted Joseph while I hung back, curious but vigilant. Though his affect was far more motorcycle gang than soccer dad he was soft-spoken and polite.

“Sorry for being late,” he said. “I work crazy hours.”

“What do you do?” asked Katie.

“I’m a drummer in a band,” he said.

 

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“Wow,” said Katie. “Our children might know your band but we’re not really up on the local music scene, so….”

“You might have heard of us,” he said. “The Allman Brothers.”

“THE Allman Brothers?” repeated Katie.

“The ONLY Allman Brothers,” he said, smiling.

Joseph walked past us through the foyer and gazed into our living room, while we were still processing our shock. He didn’t appear to notice the cathedral-like ceiling; he didn’t look out the windows to the woods beyond; he didn’t remark on the vast expanse of open space. He walked straight to the fireplace, the most traditional part of the entire house.

“Is it a real fireplace?” he asked, a dreamy expression on his face.

“Yes,” said Katie.

“Does it work with wood?” Joseph asked.

“Yes,” said Katie. She glanced at me as though to say: “This is weird.”

“Can you make a fire?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Katie, who motioned to me to gather some wood.

“Can I sit here?” he asked, taking a seat on a couch in front of the hearth.

He watched as we got the flames going. I couldn’t help wondering why the most unexceptional aspect of our house appealed so much to this famous musician.

 

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We sat down on a sofa across from him and watched the fire crackle. Katie and I hoped the flue would clear the smoke more effectively than it usually did. Joseph looked like the most contented man on earth.

After the fire died down he took a quick look around the house. Finally, he said: “I’ll take it. I’ve always wanted a working fireplace.”

It certainly was not up to Katie to point out that every house in our neighborhood had a fireplace. Probably, most houses in our town had fireplaces. Over the next few days I worked out the terms of the contract with the drummer’s attorney. He barely negotiated off our asking price. We closed two months later.

 

*****

When our daughter, Sarah, was little, her favorite books were the Berenstain Bears series. One was entitled: “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.” The expression always stayed with me but I’d never applied it to my own life until dealing with our buyer, the vaguely scary-looking sweetheart of a man who played drums for one of the wildest rock bands in history. Due to my ecological sympathies, my view of massive SUV’s is still reflexively negative. But my view of pony-tailed, tattooed, earring-wearing, leather-clad men is as non-judgmental as can be.