Tag Archives: real estate

A real estate ad dictionary

I did one of these for Craigslist ads some time back and had a lot of fun. Real estate advertising has one of the highest concentrations of known bullshit outside politics or corporate annual reports.

First, I put together as many as I could think of, from my own experience and by viewing about twelve current ads in my area. At that point, running low on damns to give, I deployed my secret weapon: my friends. That makes this part yours, so all of you please take your bows: Nick, Shawn, Mike, Candice, Chris, Jenn, Ragnar, Sonia, Ryan, Jane, Thomas, Susan, Laura, Patti, Keith, Marilyn, Tracy W, Jeff, Deb, Dobbie, Marcy, John, Dennis, Echoe, Linda, Tracy B, Buddy, April, Liz, Paul, Cindy, David, Mrs. K, Sharon, Russell, GDJ, Junko.

Here is our guide to cutting through all the bullshit in real estate ads:

  • “Amazing:” feature exists
  • “A must see:” devoid of obvious external damage
  • “Antique bathroom:” 1920s plumbing, enjoy
  • “A stone’s throw away:” provided you are equipped with a trebuchet, onager, or other ancient artillery device
  • “Back on market!” problem property where the deal fell through for reasons that say a lot about the sellers and their listing agent
  • “Bank owned:” abandon all hope of expeditious purchase
  • “Better than new:” ‘old’
  • “Blank canvas:” they took listing agent’s advice and painted white over the Crazy Cat Lady theme
  • “Boasts:” ‘has;’ we realize houses do not have the power of speech
  • “Bonus room:” ‘room’
  • “Boutique:” we ran out of adjectives and hoped you wouldn’t ask what we meant
  • “Bring your imagination:” and your wallet, because the seller refuses to fix this hovel
  • “Bucolic:” has an unpruned bush
  • “Cathedral ceiling:” bulbs changed by free rappel from beam, or surplus fire ladder
  • “Character:” wear and tear
  • “Charming:” weird and too small, or has hideous wallpaper
  • “Chef’s kitchen:” we’re confident you won’t know that this term has an actual meaning
  • “Classic:” last remodeled during the administration of a president no living person even remembers
  • “Close to bus line:” noisy
  • “Close to school:” enjoy frequent Vitamin Water bottles and Capri Sun bags tossed in your yard
  • “Contemporary:” starkly butt-ugly
  • “Convenient to:” somewhere roughly near
  • “Country living:” hope you don’t rely on the bus
  • “Cozy:” dinky
  • “Craftsman style:” fake Craftsman, wooden box with badly installed trim
  • “Creative touches:” inexplicable mistakes
  • “Cute:” too small
  • “Deferred maintenance:” abject neglect
  • “Desirable:” undesirable
  • “Don’t miss!” ‘exists’
  • “Endless possibilities:” endless liabilities
  • “Epic:” listing agent is under 30
  • “Expansive:” not exactly dinky
  • “Family friendly neighborhood:” usually has the peace and quiet of a grade school playground at recess
  • “Fixer-upper:” needs to be dozed flat and rebuilt
  • “Formal:” likely to sit unused
  • “For sale by owner:” for sale by cheapskate, or by control freak (often both)
  • “Fully updated bathroom:” had the disgusting tile grout redone
  • “Fully updated kitchen:” seller bought new, cheap appliances at listing agent’s insistence, to raise price
  • “Gem:” property for sale
  • “Gigantic ___:” feature is slightly above average size
  • “Good bones:” bad looks
  • “Good neighborhood:” has only “model” minorities, and not too many of those
  • “Gorgeous:” much like other reasonable houses have
  • “Gourmet kitchen:” ‘kitchen’
  • “Gracious:” overdecorated
  • “Granite and stainless steel:” if you can’t cook, at least you’ll feel snazzier failing at teh cooking
  • “Great investment:” not worth what we’re asking
  • “Great neighborhood:” no cars up on cement blocks
  • “Handyman’s dream:” homeowner’s nightmare
  • “Hardwood:” there is some wood in the laminate if you look closely and expand your definition of ‘wood!’
  • “Highly motivated seller:” this is the last step before insurance arson
  • “His and hers closets:” hers and hers closets
  • “Huge ___:” feature exists in average size
  • “Hurry, this won’t last long!” I want to create artificial demand, authentic demand being in short supply
  • “Ikea kitchen:” Euro-phone booth with everything folding out or hanging from ceiling
  • “Imagination:” ‘exasperation’
  • “Includes home warranty:” has visible issues that will make you uneasy
  • “Incredibly:” ‘somewhat’
  • “Instant equity:” will be generated by the five figures in immediate necessary repairs
  • “Large ___:” feature exists in some form
  • “Light and bright:” summer sweatbox with little shade, costs a mint to run A/C
  • “Lived-in look:” For Sale By Hoarder
  • “Location, location, location:” dump in otherwise decent location
  • “Low-maintenance lawn:” dirt, rocks, and weeds
  • “Lush natural vegetation:” bring machete, or if you can afford it, bush hog or even a herd of goats
  • “Make it your own:” paint job done by baboons, carpet reflects their influence and diet
  • “Many original features:” which barely work
  • “Mid-century modern:” all the flaws of mid-century, with a few semi-modern weaknesses thrown in
  • “Mother-in-law suite:” room for your adult kids who keep screwing up and having to move home
  • “Motivated seller:” seller has to be somewhere else by a specific date, or has already moved out and just saw the first bill for absentee homeowner’s insurance, or is fifty grand underwater and running out of money
  • “Move-in ready:” all problems are the sort no inspector will find
  • “Much bigger than it appears:” so small you’ll need a magnifying glass to spot the feature in question
  • “Multipurpose room:” space for the whole family to fight over
  • “Needs your touch:” ‘dump’
  • “Needs TLC:” money pit
  • “New carpeting:” cheapest available carpeting replaced incredibly nasty old stuff
  • “Old world charm:” old school electric wiring
  • “Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:” and when you see it, you’ll see why once is a mercy
  • “One-of-a-kind:” ‘weird’
  • “Open concept:” room for children to throw things, and you can always see them doing so
  • “Open house:” listing agent is hoping to salvage some new leads from this dog deal
  • “Original:” looking beat-up
  • “Owned by handyman:” owned by bookkeeper who fancies himself The Great Renovator, and didn’t know what he was doing
  • “Peekaboo view:” sight of mountain or water obtained by standing on footstool in guest can, while leaning at odd angle and bracing against wall, on about three days per year if you’re lucky
  • “Perfect for the right owner:” perfect for about five potential people out of three hundred million, rest should run far and fast
  • “Photos don’t do it justice:” listing agent saves money on photographers by doing it herself, badly
  • “Possibilities:” ‘missing things’
  • “Potential:” none of the sane choices can work
  • “Priced to sell:” sellers are desperate; crush their souls with your offer
  • “Quaint:” ‘weird’
  • “Quirky decor:” sellers refused listing agent’s tearful pleas to paint over Early Crazy Cat Lady scheme
  • “Radiates:” could be said to have a little bit of
  • “Reduced:” seller has come down to Earth
  • “Remodeled:” owner took a stab at fixing flaws, with middling success
  • “Renovated from the studs out:” no longer smells of Sudafed, anhydrous ammonia, and burnt Drano, plus all cans are gone
  • “Secluded:” at least one side has some foliage that obstructs snoopy neighbors part of the year; far from anything
  • “Shady yard:” don’t even think about a nice lawn
  • “Short sale:” paperwork ass pain
  • “Spacious:” not quite average size
  • “Spacious lot with fruit trees:” messy back yard with ants, varmints, jays, magpies, raccoons, opossums, and hantavirus
  • “Starter home:” free-standing two-bedroom one-bath apartment equivalent
  • “Stop the car!” so that people offended by over-the-top verbiage can have a cookie toss before going inside
  • “Storage shed:” one of those cheap metal Home Depot sheds, still has dents where assembling homeowner kicked it in sheer frustration while issuing creative curses
  • “Stunning:” ‘for sale’
  • “Unique:” no one would make this mistake twice
  • “Unusual:” whose idea was this, and were they at least prosecuted by the taste police?
  • “Updated:” in general, cheap new-looking stuff put in to raise the price
  • “$___ in upgrades:” we raised the potential price by $___ x 120%
  • “Vaulted ceilings:” lots of unlivable space to heat and cool, perfect for spider webs
  • “Vintage:” inconvenient and old
  • “View:” if you squint just right at certain times of day
  • “Well cared for:” sellers finally surrendered, hired a landscape company and cleaners
  • “Wildlife:” feral teenagers
  • “Will go fast!” I want to create artificial demand

Thank you all.

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What your real estate seller may be thinking

In the end, business is done between people, however many barriers we place between ourselves. Since people have feelings and opinions, how we act toward each other can/might affect the transaction. A hobbyhorse of mine is the constant mantra about customer focus, customer service, “the customer is always right,” all that stuff. There is a fine art to being a good customer, and it doesn’t happen just by showing up. To their detriment and discredit, most people seem to expend no effort in that direction.

As an editor, I will reject a potential client who I deem is a problem. Intensely neurotic? Needs a therapist, not an editor. Control freak? Needs to find an editor willing to indulge that. Cannot write at all? Needs to find an editor interested in teaching remedial writing to someone likely to ignore the lessons. Cannot handle honesty? Needs to find a better liar than me. If I lie, I am not doing my work.

But isn’t the customer always right? Not when my name will be credited, she isn’t. The client has every right to disregard any of my advice. I have the right to ask not to be print-credited. I have done Alan Smithees, and I didn’t like doing so, but it’s better than having readers shake their heads at the ‘incompetent editing’ that they imagine was my doing.

In recent months, for the second time in life, I have gone through the process of selling a home. In both cases, the experience filled me with contempt for the buyer. That did not work to the buyer’s advantage, because I had wanted to share a lot of knowledge and kindness. In both cases, I chose not to volunteer that guidance, which could have saved each buyer thousands of dollars and dozens of hours of irritation. I chose not to volunteer it because I was pissed off.

As a real estate buyer, of course, you do not know much about the seller. You could be the world’s best buyer, and have cast your pearls before swine. That wouldn’t be so bad, because here is the basic logic: if you do things right, at the very least you do your own cause no harm, and at the very most, you may gain greatly. If you do not, you eliminate potential benefits. So let’s talk about how to be a good real estate buyer, seeing the transaction through the seller’s eyes.

So you’re shopping, and a place looks appealing. How long has it been on the market? The first three days are the hot period, in which there will be lots of activity unless it is badly priced or marketed. If those have elapsed, and it’s still available in a market with any level of activity, the seller is concerned. The seller must be ready for the property to be shown at any time, which can mean great disruption to normal life. (A seller finding ways to discourage showings is too stupid for a realtor or buyer to deal with.) Thus: if it’s been on the market a while, there’s a reason. If it’s a fundamentally slow market, such as a small town or depressed area, it could be no one is buying. If it’s a busy market, and it’s not selling, it is either too expensive, or there’s something else causing a problem. In any case, if it’s hot, if you want it, you must act. If it’s not, you have more leverage, but may not find out why it wasn’t selling until you go into contract. If it’s hot, the seller has the leverage, but the seller also wants the deal done and over with. If it’s not, the buyer has the leverage, but the seller may be a donkey or a fool. Having been that sort of a fool once in life, I cannot blame the buyer.

Negotiations: once this begins, the seller is in a difficult position. More offers might come in…or not. The house is still showing…and it may all be for nothing. If you require a very tight time window as a buyer, the seller may not be able to respond in time. In any case, you make an offer. If you cannot provide proof that you qualify financially, you are peeing into the wind. No amount of having your agent natter about how you are a young couple and excited, but need a discount because of youth poverty, is helpful to you. A sensible seller will look at that and suspect that your financing may fall through. So: if you want a property, offer what you would be willing to pay. The back-and-forth is excruciating to the seller, and may lead to a better offer making yours irrelevant. If the seller wants more than you will pay, fine; reject it as something you can’t afford. This is your first interaction with the seller, and s/he is taking note of how you behave. If you want it, behave like a serious buyer. If your seller doesn’t behave like a serious seller, well, now you know at least partly why it hasn’t sold.

In contract: okay, agreement has been reached, subject to whatever conditions. The power shifts to the buyer, who orders an inspection and completes the application for financing. Is this buyer a flake who will argue with the lender about documentation, or slack off providing it? What kind of home inspector will the buyer hire, and on what will he focus? The buyer can destroy the deal at any time simply by presenting unreasonable remediation conditions. The seller has removed the property from the market, which means that if this doesn’t work out, that magical first few days of listing can never return, and s/he will have to begin all over again. As buyer, do you prefer your seller relaxed and cooperative, or frightened and defensive? If you want him or her frightened and defensive, you can arrange that, but bear in mind that the seller has the power to cause you unlimited future headaches if s/he wishes. Do you really think the seller’s loathing of you works to your benefit? If so, well, have fun. If not, then do this: arrange the inspection as swiftly as you can. Through the agents, consult the seller about convenient times for inspection, and try not to throw your seller out of bed at an ungodly hour without need.

And get your financing act together, immediately. You can’t know how well the agents communicate, but at the very least, you can require your agent to notify the seller’s agent of every milestone. You don’t think your seller cares that you have just been told you have submitted all documentation to your lender in satisfactory form? Oh, s/he cares. That tells your seller you are not a flake. That means your seller is more confident about the deal. That means your seller has more to lose by not pleasing you. That means your seller will, unless stupid, do his or her best to make the deal go well for you both. Push comes to shove, your seller owns a file and knows where the pipes are, and if you make him or her angry enough, he or she might weaken one. (No, I did nothing of the kind. But I have known people who would.)

All right. The inspection has happened and the seller is nervous as to what you’ll ask for. Newsflash: inspections are not simply a means to an automatic discount. Inspections are a means to learn if the property has serious problems, which I would define as issues costing over 1% of the selling price to remedy. If the seller is sensible, s/he has already had it inspected, and has remedied all important issues. If not, no mercy on him or her, because it’s the seller’s job to deliver the property in good condition. So if your inspection disappoints you by not offering enough problems to milk another grand out of the seller–whom you have at a vulnerable point, and will remember and may resent leverage applied without good cause–consider that the best possible result, and think about waiving the contingency. You want the property. A qualified professional has just advised you that it is in great shape, with only petty issues. Either you doubt your inspector’s competency, or you are greatly reassured. If the former, why did you hire a fool? And who is the fool who does so? If the latter, now is a great time to make points with your seller by waiving the contingency, assuming you haven’t changed your mind about the deal. Once you do this, your seller sighs in relief, and has more incentive to please you.

Financing: your seller would like to know, the minute you know, that your financing is approved. S/he fears that somehow the deal may flounder because of your credit, or because you hired an incompetent financing source (commercial banks are the worst, credit unions are typically best). Your buyer’s agent works for you, but the seller pays her. You have every right to expect your communications and status reports to be sent to the seller. If your agent (or the listing agent) is lazy, you can advise her you will contact the seller directly. The seller’s email address is probably on the paperwork; push came to shove, you could simply drop by. What’s your agent going to do? Turn down her commission? Require your agent to forward your communications to the seller, and expect assurance that this has been done. Not long ago, I was a buyer in a deal where the seller was wonderful but somehow had used a dickish listing agent. We just went straight to the seller with updates. The seller was delighted, and our consideration motivated her to do us a great deal of good. Having seen the deal through her eyes, she wanted to see it through ours.

Walkthrough: it is normal for the buyer to have a final walkthrough, the stated purpose of which is to assure him/herself that the property remains in the condition presented to him or her. However, that is when you might start to see the payoff.  Your seller doesn’t have to meet you; he or she simply has to cooperate for the walkthrough. You would very much rather your seller was eager to meet you, and to share with you the most important information about the property. That’s your time to ask any question, learn about good vendors, foibles, best solutions to endemic issues. And if you annoyed your seller, s/he has no obligation to do a single thing except permit the walkthrough in absentia.

You think that doesn’t matter? Consider this. I had prepared a long document with a core dump of everything useful I knew about this home, which I will vacate within thirty-six hours [this was drafted as I was preparing to leave the home]. I went so far as to print .pdfs of documentation on appliances I had dug up, at great effort, for which our own seller provided us none. I was excited to answer any question the buyer might pose, and eager to offer her a personally guided tour. I can tell you right now that, within the first month, her dog will cost her several hundred dollars she could have avoided with my help. And even though I surrendered some very precious time with my wife in order to be present for the walkthrough, this buyer did two terribly foolish things. First, she showed up with an entourage of no less than six people. Herself, her fiancé, and her daughter–those I understood. The rest were just friends or relatives wanting to lookylou. It unsettled and annoyed me. What was more, they determined that they didn’t want much information from me. They were sure, I guess, that they knew all they needed to know.

Very well. I’ll just chill over here. In plastic-smile silence, volunteering nothing.

After they left, having allowed me to waste my time and having made the experience disappointing for me, I went to my computer and deleted the document. They wanted no information? Wish granted. I also made the decision that, for the short remaining time I was here, I was exempt from any obligation to clean the place up. So long as I delivered per the contract, that was all I need do. I considered tossing the spare filters for the air cleaner, but I didn’t. I thought about tossing the paint cans most relevant to the current situation, though I didn’t. I lost all interest in not leaving clutter in the garage, or sweeping. I would not mow again. The six spare keys? Pitched them. Lawn stuff I wasn’t taking? Couldn’t leave clutter laying around, now, could we? Obviously, I would not and did not harm the property, as I was obligated to deliver it in the proper condition, and I did just that…but no contract requires me to go the extra mile and make decisions in the buyer’s favor.

I wanted it to work otherwise, but for most of the process, as seller, I was over a barrel. And when it came down to it, the buyer managed to communicate to me that I didn’t matter. Appointments occurred with zero choice on my part as to timing. I offered some items for free; the buyer accepted those and then had the nerve to ask for others as well. Seen through my eyes, I had prepared gifts, and they either were spurned, or spurred requests for additional gifts.

Very well.

Ah, perhaps you think it’s always that way? Think again. The house we bought? The sellers chose us, the lowest offer, because they liked us based on how we presented ourselves. I realize it’s un-American, but not everyone is a greedy bastard; some people make decisions for reasons other than the monetary religion of the land. The sellers, unprompted, spent $1000 having an appliance inspected, repaired, and brought to good function. The sellers, when we waived the inspection contingency (less than 0.5% of the property value needing addressing), offered us any and all furniture in the house. They were most reassured by our steady informing them of milestones. When we held the whip hand, we did not use it, and they knew it, and they wanted to leave us the best possible outcome.

And they did. They were my wife’s tour guides on the walkthrough, had already told the neighbors great things about us, and left us a number of happy and kind surprises. We all felt great about the transaction. As buyers, we treated our sellers with courteous respect and consideration, and they repaid us handsomely. We had many chances to destroy that atmosphere; we just knew it was not in our best interests, beyond being just bad business conduct. Showing consideration for your seller is like being courteous to the cop who stopped you. You might not help your case, but you can be sure you did not harm it.

Houses cost six figures, most places. I think it is wise to improve one’s odds in every possible way when paying such a sum for any item. And as a wise man long ago taught me, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line except when dealing with people. The roundabout, wavy line is the one where you see the world through someone else’s eyes, and seek to make that person’s experience better where you can.

Your seller could still be a jerk immune to good behavior, or unable to believe it could mean a considerate buyer. Those are the risks one runs. But I would rather be a very considerate buyer, and at least create the option for an excellent outcome, then be inconsiderate–and never know what I cost myself until the contractor’s invoice arrives, long after the property has recorded.

camping as my own maid

It’s a strange existence, this staging.

No shoes in the house. Slippers by the door. Have to run out to the garage? Slippers off, shoes on, then shoes off, slippers back on.

For contractors, a big sheet thrown down as dropcloth, since contractors always leave a trail of mess and never clean up properly. As a species, they simply do not care, and therefore, this must be managed, since persuading them to leave at gunpoint would be illegal and counterproductive.

Counterproductive has a new definition: “Anything that could possibly delay selling this house.” All activities that will accelerate the sale are productive. All activities that could slow things down are counterproductive, and all counterproductive activities are categorically forbidden. By anyone, at any time, for any reason short of a femoral artery bleed. (If it’s a wrist, take it out to the cul-de-sac; you won’t bleed out that fast, and blood is hell to clean up.)

Park with truck blocking driveway, so contractors cannot enter it. Why? Because I have oil stain lifter down, to soak up the oil that previous contractors’ trucks leaked on the concrete, and they would a) carelessly drive and walk directly through the drying stain lifter, b) leak new oil onto it, and c) not understand why that should bother anyone. No one, period; yes, that includes you, and also you and you; no, don’t care, you will just have to carry your crap a little farther, cry me a river, boo hooo hoooo.

A cloth on the kitchen counter, to be used when opening the refrigerator door to the sparkling clean refrigerator. Microwave, range, toaster, coffee maker, tea maker absolutely off limits. We wouldn’t want the buyers to think we enjoy coffee in the morning.

My poor parrot Alex relocated to the unfinished area downstairs, with a cloth over his freshly scrubbed cage, and a sign pleading as politely as possible that he be left alone, and yes, that means your children should not get just a little peek to find out what kind of bird he is, and no, I simply do not give a damn how curious they are, and yes, if an eager buyer defies this, I hope their kids grow up to terrorize them into a pilled-out zombie state with their antics. I will go down there daily for some reading time in the evening, just to spend time with him, in a concrete-walled space with the cloth off, just so he can have some company, sitting on a piano stool and reading by a bare fluorescent bulb. Because if all this is anyone’s fault, doing, or problem, it is not Alex’s, and he is my pal.

Firearms carefully unloaded, covered with cloth, and parked deep and high up in the unfinished space among air filters, paint cans, and other stuff that hopefully will not fascinate anyone enough to boost a child up for some unsupervised play time.

Personal care stuff like toothbrushes, mouthpiece, etc. stuffed in a drawer after use. Anything very personal stuffed all the way back, so that eager buyers’ children will not decide they are toys.

Brand new towels, about which I do not care, purchased for unused bathrooms purely for appearance. I may actually burn them later just for satisfaction, wasteful as that would be, so stupid do I consider the concept of bathroom display towels not intended for use.

Using only one of the three bathrooms, chosen because it has the only sensibly designed toilet and is easiest to clean (tub and counter and sink all white), which happens to be downstairs. Gotta pee? Do it before the trip downstairs makes you bladder-desperate.

Cleaning all three toilets daily, with wipedowns after any use.

Hang bath towel and floor towel in boiler room to dry after bathing, leaving only the stupid, color-coordinated display towels in their pristine states in the spots where a sane person would just hang the towel to air-dry.

Anything actually utilized to enjoy life, except for office equipment, positioned on a tray that can be put on a shelf or inside a drawer. Remote, nail clippers, etc., go away in seconds, lest a potential buyer be disgusted by any evidence that a fellow human being has any comfort or fun.

All wife’s beautiful and evocative artwork removed, to be replaced with properly vapid garbage that cannot possibly offend anyone, trigger a phobia, or hint at any aspect of who we are as people. Books chosen for display purposes only, making sure that none of them could possibly cause severe moral umbrage, or worst of all, any sense that we actually read.

Daily vacuuming of any carpet that gets any form of authentic usage.

Daily walkthrough of entire home, to see if any gremlins, elves, leprechauns, bees, spiders, or anything else have snuck in when I wasn’t looking and found some creative way to screw something up. Inspect visible pipes and potential water areas.

Daily walkaround of yard to pick up whatever trash blew in (the RV parking area collects a daily count averaging two Walmart bags, receipts, and/or cigarette cellophane scraps), inspect grass for another mow (every three days), and see if the gremlins and so forth caused anything to fall over, shift, or any other depredations, vandalism, etc have occurred. Or worse yet, any new contractors have snuck in and found some creative way to ruin two things while fixing one, not understanding why anyone might be less than joyous about this.

Have gas? Go outside. Shut door behind you, please.

And for gods’ sake, wait for me, so I can lock it behind me and never have to enter this sterilized, overpriced, soulless, accursed house again in all my days. If it weren’t for the cost, I’d just go rent a monthly motel room. Right now.

For this odd period, the imprecation ‘go to hell!’ is equivalent to ‘come visit me!’

It sometimes hurts to negotiate

“It never hurts to negotiate.”

A woman just said that to me about an antique dining chair, which needed new cane or other seating material, I was advertising for $10. And I think most people believe it. It goes on the list of “stupid things people have repeated so long and so often that they assume them to be true.”

To me, negotiation is for when the seller is not offering fair value. Suppose someone’s trying to sell some hummels (fine, long as they are sold to anyone but us; good god, but those things are useless). They are worth maybe $170. Someone lists them for $199. Fair enough: offer $150, end up paying $170-175, perfectly reasonable. Another example: car dealers are never offering fair value, because car dealers simply do not do that, ever. But when the seller is offering more than fair value, it can be counterproductive.

I knew that $20 would have been plenty fair for an antique chair frame that would be worth rather more with a little effort. I listed it for $10. Our conversation went:

“Will you take $5?”

“No. When I’m offering something that cheap, and someone tries to give me half of that cheap, I’d sooner throw it away than go along.” My face was smiling, but my brain was irritated.

She backpedaled a bit. “It’s okay, I have no problem paying $10. You know, it never hurts to negotiate.”

Still smiling: “Actually, sometimes it does.” She paid me, took the chair and left. It wasn’t about the $5 difference; it was about how ridiculous it is to dicker with someone at that level.

Most people don’t agree with me about that, which is yet another reason to have confidence in my viewpoint. Plus, it has worked for me many times in life.

Let’s take a couple more examples. I recently bought some collectibles from a fellow. His advertised price was more than fair; in fact, it was an excellent bargain. I could have negotiated, but it would have been stupid. I’d have conveyed to him that he always had to build in some bargaining room when dealing with me, and if we did future business, I’d have paid for it eventually. Or, since what he was asking was a great price, I could just pay it.

We went on to do more business, and for me, the second deal was the big test. If he tried to deliver less value for the price on the second go, then I’d have known it was time to negotiate–if the value was no longer fair. As it was, he was so delighted, the values kept getting better and better, and he kept throwing in other stuff that I would definitely want but he hadn’t promised. I ended up with ridiculous bargains and all our transactions were most cordial. If I’d put him on notice that he had to fight for every dollar when already offering fair value, I would have gotten only what was promised, and I’d have had to pay a lot more.

Here’s another. My wife and I are about to close on a home in Aloverton (unincorporated Washington County between Beaverton and Aloha, Oregon). The sellers wanted $282K. It so happened that my wife got to meet the sellers when she was looking at the home, and they hit it off very well. Our agent advised us that the value was excellent and likely to draw several offers within the day. She suggested a full price offer, more if we really wanted it.

Well, it was about at the ceiling of what we could afford and finance, but I gambled a bit on the seller’s class and relationship to my wife. Had they wanted maximum dollar, they’d have listed it $10K higher, and probably gotten it. It was evident, relative to the market, that they just wanted it sold. So I told our agent: “Let’s offer them a little over full price, just so that if they get more than one of those, we at least are in the club.” She agreed, and we offered $282,500.

The sellers countered with an acceptance subject to a few small conditions (all easy to accept), and conveyed to us that they would like to accept our offer, citing the relationship with Deb and the good feeling that obtained, but could we please respond quickly so that if the answer were “no,” that they could accept one of the other offers. I asked our agent if she thought the other offers were above full price. She said that if she had to guess, one had probably been about $284K and one perhaps as high as $287K. Of course, we jumped on it.

Then came the home inspection phase, an area where we had already had to bust a home purchase deal due to a dishonest homebrew maintenance seller. This house came back with about $1300 in legit repairs, an abnormally small amount on a house selling for $282,500: less than 0.5% of the value. Considering that our home inspector is an absolute stickler who views his work as educating the client about even the fussiest little issues, if he couldn’t find even 1% of the value, it was obvious the place was in fantastic shape. Even so, by reflex, our agent began preparing an addendum to ask the sellers for $1300. She actually didn’t consult us before she started to prepare this, though that’s not bad behavior on her part; as all such agreements say in bold capital letters, “time is of the essence in this agreement.” She was simply being alacritous, if a bit habitual. Considering what a lazy horse’s ass the listing agent had been by comparison, I wasn’t going to grouse on her over an error in the direction of timeliness. We did, however, need to have a meeting of the minds.

Our agent called me to let me know she had prepared the addendum for our signatures. “L,” I said, “we need to get on the same page. See it from the sellers’ viewpoint. We think it very likely they went out of their way to sell the house to us for anywhere from $2-5K less than someone else might have paid them, all for the sake of wanting us to have it. In their mind, in effect, they have already given us a $4-5K discount. They have been splendid throughout this whole deal, although I have no idea what would move them to use such an atrocious listing agent; maybe they are too unwilling to believe the worst of anyone. So here they are, having already given up $4-5K in their minds, and now–now that they are in contract, have declined the other offers, and would have to start all over again if they reject the addendum–the recipients of that value want another $1300? This will signal to them that we think it never hurts to negotiate. Well, it can.”

“I never thought of that,” she said.

I wasn’t done. (I was not angry, just making my points; it was a cordial-toned conversation.) “What’s worse, it has no teeth. Suppose we ask for that, and they say ‘forget it.’ Would we then bust the deal for $1300 in fairly straightforward repairs?”

“I can’t see you doing that.”

“You’re right. We wouldn’t, which means that we’d just be twisting their arms for a small gain. So if we do as you are suggesting, we will change the entire character of the transaction, and worse yet, we will be doing so at the point where we have less to lose than they do. It would be a tremendous inconvenience for them if the sale failed now, so they’d be almost forced to take it–but they’d be on notice that they’d misjudged our business style and approach to life. Or, given their conduct so far, they might simply refuse, preferring to endure the inconvenience rather than have their arms twisted over a trivial matter. I think we should believe our home inspector, waive the contingency without dickering, and move this whole thing forward.”

“Wow. This is very rare, but I see your point. If you’d like to waive it, that makes sense.”

We waived it. The sellers responded by offering us any furniture in the house. Any or all. While we didn’t expect any such thing, it confirmed that we’d read our people rightly.

On top of that, they’d previously offered us a desk and the bookshelves, made by the husband’s own hand before he became more frail. We had to come up with something, though, lest we seem to spurn their generosity, so we accepted the barstools. Not high value in resale, probably spendy to buy ourselves, and least likely to match wherever they were living.

We also learned, along the way, that the listing agent was not keeping his clients apprised of matters that would directly concern them such as the progress of our financing and appraisal process. If I were them, I’d have been nervous as hell about the possibility that either might blow up. So we took steps, quietly, to make sure the sellers knew immediately when each step had finished, including the point at which all was approved and we were all clear to close.

I find it a bit tragic that I, buying this house sight unseen, will never get to meet the sellers. They seem like the sort of people I’d want as neighbors.

And it would very much have hurt to negotiate.

Real estate protip: identify stupidity early, and back away

Deb and I are in the process of looking for a hovel, hut, or well-appointed army tent in the Portland area. Those cost $250K and up.

San Franciscans can laugh all they want, because I’m laughing at the idea that anyone anywhere thinks any dwelling is worth $750K unless one is so rich one doesn’t care what houses cost, or is an investor. So there.

We made an offer on a house in a Portland suburb, and we saw what we should have realized was a combination of listing agent stupidity/apathy and seller loopiness. The way this works is that the seller either accepts the offer or counters with another. In this case, the seller came back with a weird counter offering two options: raise the price and get a credit at closing, or accept our price but refuse to perform repairs. Well, you don’t want the seller to do the repairs anyway. Better to just negotiate a price reduction and hire the repairs done right than have the seller pick the lowest bid that will satisfy the obligation. However, the counter was too weird, so we rejected it and just reiterated our original offer. They accepted, and quickly.

We should have seen that goofy counter as the first serious trouble sign, and not gotten too hyped up. That’s the message of this blog post.

Then the fun began. First, our highly capable agent began to worm details out of her inept counterpart. The gist: she wasn’t paying her clients much attention, her clients were cash-poor with the wife pregnant and them needing a new place, and the seller fancied himself a Master of Home Repair/Improvement Space and Time. We hired the necessary inspections and awaited the results.

Sadly, the seller had neglected the roof for years. Portland is a very wet climate where all conscientious homeowners must look very carefully at roofs, the weather side of houses, and drainage. The seller had done a remarkably poor job caulking the weather siding, had permitted a lot of moss to grow on the roof, and was unaware (or did not disclose) that he had water and rodent turds in his crawl space. There were other issues, with added potential for mistakes on his part that might be behind walls or bathtubs or sinks he had installed without benefit of professional guidance.

After estimating that it would cost us $12K to bring the property up to basic standards of good weather resistance, we sent the seller two offers: either fix a list of problems himself, or give us $6K off the price and we’d handle the repairs on our own. Lenders won’t lend on worn-out roofs, so we were sure he would just sign the one with the discount. If he wasn’t very careful (or if his agent was a moron), the evil word ‘roof’ would become part of his necessary disclosures should he choose to sell. We sent selected inspection pages to show the problems.

Incredibly, he put into writing that he rejected both our offers (thus making the one with ‘roof’ part of the record, because he acknowledged that one’s existence) and reiterated his price. His agent over-revealed, complaining that he had so little equity he couldn’t lower his proceeds. (However, he did have a very nice boat in his garage, and had wanted a long closing date, because he and his wife had a big vacation planned.)

I cyberstalked him a bit and found out that he worked in accounts payable. Accounts defaultable is more like it.

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt about the place. Who knew what troubles lurked? I had visions of having to pay tens of thousands to rip off an entire mold-filled house side. Plus, he was being a general pill. He had under-disclosed the condition (a polite way to say that he lied), and was now being an ass when caught in his under-disclosure. Deb and I talked it over and decided to trigger the inspection contingency. Back to the search.

Fortunately, the guy will get his just rewards. Now he must disclose the conditions. If he refuses, his agent will dump him. If she doesn’t, she could be in major trouble. In any case, he has to hope for a sucker to come along, a sucker of such magnitude that said sucker will box him/herself into accepting a home with enormous potential downside. He needs a first-time home buyer represented by a lamentable agent. And even then, when the roof is inspected, he’ll have to either fork out himself or convince a buyer to do that–before closing. In the end, if he’s that strapped, he’ll have to keep the house, because he evidently can’t afford to fix it and won’t compensate a buyer for doing so.

And that’s hoping that after the sale, no one happens to send his buyer a copy of the previous inspection report, proving that the seller knew of the problems and failed to disclose.

I really, really don’t like dishonesty in business transactions. Maneuvering is fine; negotiating is expected; compromise is necessary. Lying is punishable.

All the world’s a staging

Those who read even the mundane posts about my actual non-writing life may remember that the last time we listed a house, it went south. I think it finally closed about the time it hit McMurdo Sound.

If you remember that, you may remember all the lessons I codified that I’d learned about this, which I swore not to repeat. Now I’m learning about a thing never before mentioned to me: staging.

In real estate, staging = ‘pretending you don’t actually live like normal people with normal belongings.’ All right, very well. I can avoid trashing the joint for a little while, though I think my beautiful wife would give a feminine harrumph about that. That’s fine, dear. Since my wife is not with me in this house, at least there’ll be no one to blame but myself.

What staging evidently means, in to-do list terms, is:

  • Getting the mover to move most of your crap out of the place. If the staging person says it’ll help the place sell, or if you can’t get by without it for even a day, it stays. Otherwise, it goes into storage. This really isn’t such a bad thing, if one considers it, because it means that at final loadout time, most of it happens from a storage facility into their van, and much of the remainder is the stuff the stager ordered left in place.
  • A complete grounds and interior cleaning. While I can do some of that, the entire job to stagers’ satisfaction is beyond my abilities. Part of that is because I have my wife’s dog, who considers it a form of family participation to destroy landscaping. If I fill the hole in, Fabius thinks it’s a cool game, and digs it back up. When I pick up his gifts, his dog mind says Wow! This is my favorite thing! I better get to dumpin’! Charming.
  • If there’s anything I plan to sell before we move, and that I know is unsuitable for staging, better get cracking.
  • Arranging any minor repairs or touch-ups the stager requires.
  • Taking no offense when the stager goes though the house like a squad of fashion freaks, more or less informing me that I have the taste of an unschooled yak.
  • Getting rid of the pets. (No, of course they won’t be abandoned. Alex, my white-eyed conure pal, and Fabius will head to the new place where Deb will be. But they can’t be here for staging, lest it disgust the buyer. Getting Fabius gone will also enable me to make meaningful repairs to those dog depredations he would otherwise keep depredating.)

Sounds like a hell, doesn’t it? “Hi. This, that, and basically all this crap must go. What savages even bought this? Oh. My. God. When was this grouted, ancient Philistia? And I hope you can get by with one bathroom for a while, carefully cleaned after each use. Yes, I suppose you may shower, provided you fog the place with straight chlorine gas and fungicide afterward. Jeez. Couldn’t you arrange to do it with a garden hose in the yard? Goddamn, look what you eat! How do you not die immediately of some horrible disease?”

Nah. This is great. This is what I wanted: a listing agent with a plan of action, with minions who will tell me what to do or have done, so that I can get rid of this joint coveted property and sod head off to civilization Portland. And yes, we will interview the likely agent at her office, and yes, we will make clear to her what we will consider a successful transaction. And yes, we have even had the discussion, tactfully, about what happens if we need to rescind the listing. I don’t want to make the whole plan. I want the person to make the plan who is paid to make the plan, and to give me clear and sensible direction.

I am told, by people I trust, that selling a house is staging and pricing. The seller has power to affect both. Ask too much per square foot relative to comparables, and it will not appear as a good value, and you’re hoping someone will fall in love with it and overpay. Refuse to present it as an appealing property, and once-excited buyers will find excuses not to want it. We must price it with realism in mind, and stage it with a mighty staging. When it goes on the market, it may be easiest for me to just get the hell out of here for a week.

We tried it the wrong way before, and must accept the fault for engaging (without competition) a terrible listing agent who didn’t offer much of a plan or guidance. Let’s see how the right way works. It’s a nice house, great natural privacy, easy to maintain, convenient to schools (too convenient, at least from my standpoint), low crime area, pretty kitchen, only two owners and one of those for but a year and a half, and more. It doesn’t suck. I want this place in contract with a serious buyer in two days, and I don’t think it works to go half the distance with a plan. Either do it as guided, or forfeit part of the benefit from the immense sum paid out to get it done. In the service of that, I have a tough hide.

I must plan to take a perverse pleasure in being told about the wretchedness of my taste. I can’t really argue. I am a bizarre creature: my work productivity is immune to decor. If my office were a solitary confinement cell at Walla Walla, provided it contained the things I need and I could get out when the job/day was done, I could still function. At times I must remind myself to look away from the monitor: to look outside at the sky, at my wife’s beautiful and loving art on the walls, at the wall of historical, literary and linguistic references behind me, at the globe mobile on which I bonk my head every time I lean over the machine, at the flashing light that informs me I’m already almost out of yellow toner, at Alex, at something besides a computer. If I have zero decorative taste, it is because most of my working life is spent ignoring decorations. Are you using too many adverbs? I care. Is my wall bare cinderblock with rusty metal protrusions from the original forms? I only care if I may scrape my arm open on the metal, as I did in my basement not long ago. The only question in my decorative mind is the balance between wall space for my wife’s art, and bookshelves. The rest, I simply do not care.

We will bring it. We will do as told, get done what we must get done, spend a few hundred on what I cannot do myself. There’s an art to being a good client, and most people do not grasp this in my country. In the United States, most people repeat the adage that the customer is always right. It’s false. The customer isn’t always right, and if s/he thinks s/he is, s/he is a great fool. The customer is right as often as the vendor can arrange for him or her to be without giving away the store.

With that in mind, we must be a good client to our listing agent, and to her staging folks. Because there’s a dynamic that happens, and I know it from my own work. Once a client trusts me, that client believes me when I tell him or her that s/he may at any time contact me for guidance. We work together. I am a knowledge worker, just as a real estate agent is. All I have to sell is the fruit of my grasp of an art. I have had clients I could not help because they were unprepared to receive my help. I have clients who take me at my word and consult me when they are stuck. When my client trusts me, I kick into my very best mode, and I go to lengths most editors would not go. The client who trusts me gets my very best, and at the very best rate.

We will soon see, won’t we, if I have learned?