Friday, December 29, 2006

After the recent storm and power outages it’s clear that many people, especially those new to the Island and country living, need some help and advice. During the storm I was out checking on an empty house that I just sold, and met the new owner who had come over from Seattle to assess the damage. As we talked, she said, “I think we need a class in Country Living 101.”

I thought about that and realized that there are many things most folks don’t know about what to do in a power outage, or how to prepare their home for a storm. I decided to put together some information to help people prepare for bad weather and also as a reminder to all of us about those things that should be done in a weather emergency.

We have this in the form of a brochure that you can view and print by clicking here, or drop by the office for a copy. It’s a start, at least, at “Country Living 101”, and I hope it will be helpful.

In the meantime, remember to reach out to those in need if you’re doing OK, and ask for help if you need it. This is a wonderful, caring community as we rediscovered last week in the big storm.

I wish you all a safe, happy, and healthy New Year and thank you for your business, referrals, and continued support.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Q: My wife has been bugging me about painting our house.

I like the color it is and the paint is in good shape. She says we need the house to be one of those modern colors to look good for re-sale. We don't plan on selling in the near future, so I don't see the point. Besides, I hate those new colors. They all look like baby food colors to me. You know, sort of mashed up spinach green, predigested squash orange, and baby oatmeal gray. Is it really important to have your house ready for resale at all times?

A: I'm guessing that you're close to my age and went through avocado green and harvest gold. It's dejavu, isn't it? I also don't personally care for the muddy colors (painting professionals call it chalky) that are so popular now, and I suspect they will become unpopular quickly. However, that's a personal prejudice rather than a professional opinion. I also believe that in the hands of really good decorators there are always good, long-lasting color choices.
As to your question, I can't think of any reason to paint a house if the paint is in good shape and you like it. I do advise people to always think of resale when they buy or remodel because everyone will sell someday. However, unless you foresee a sale in the near future, repainting now serves no purpose.
It is important to acknowledge that paint should be kept in good condition. Most modern siding is seriously damaged by water and needs good paint to protect it. Cracking paint is not just ugly; it's a major problem for your siding.
I hesitate to sound like a marriage counselor instead of a real estate broker, but it's possible that your wife is feeling that the house is just dated and she wants a change. You might look for colors together and see if there is one you can both live with. It's better to paint the house than have an unhappy mate, so you might consider painting just to keep a happy home.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Q: I just moved here and can't believe the hours that the local businesses keep.

When are places open? It seems that some restaurants and several other businesses are closed Sunday and Monday, and some are closed Tuesday. Some stores are open on weekends but other businesses are not, and most places close really early. How do they expect to do any business if they're not open at the convenience of their customers? I guess I just have to keep shopping in the city.

A:
All small towns have this issue. Small businesses can't afford the staff to cover 14 to 16 hour days, seven days a week. The businesses are, for the most part, family-owned and run. These folks already work long hours and even when they're not in the store they are making deliveries, picking up supplies, or doing on of the million other things that are required when you have a small business.
Most of our larger stores that can afford more help are open extended hours. However, this is not a big city and we don't have a lot of large franchise stores. Part of the charm of a small town is doing business with families who live and work here. Our shops have unique products, often made right here on the Island, that you won't find in large franchise stores.
Restaurants in particular need time to clean, re-stock supplies, prepare some food items ahead, and do the bookwork. That means that there must be a day or two each week set aside for those chores. Fortunately, we have many wonderful restaurants to choose from. You just have to learn their hours.
We have no K-Mart here. There is no Wal-Mart or McDonald's. Most of us hope fervently that there will never be a big box store or large chain operation here.
Most American towns and cities look alike. They have the same stores with the same merchandise in identical shopping centers. Living in a small town is not about shopping convenience. Slow down and learn to flow with our "Island time." You'll live longer!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Q: We were talked into buying a house last summer without doing an inspection.

Our agent told us that there were other bids and that those offers were not subject to any conditions. She said that if we wanted to get the house we couldn’t have any conditions or contingencies. Now, after all of the rain, we have a leaking roof. The roof seemed OK but obviously it is not. My wife and I are really upset and need to know how to recover the costs to fix the roof.
A: Your first step is to repair the roof before there is further damage. A competent roofer should be able to tell you what needs to be done. It may not be as bad as you think. It could be leaking due to poor caulking or flashing around a skylight or chimney, for instance. It’s also possible, of course, that the entire roof needs to be replaced. Get at least two opinions and bids.
It’s always important to have an inspection as a part of a home sale. There are people who make offers without that contingency but in many of those cases a quick preliminary inspection before making the offer is always a good idea. But it has to happen fast if you want to be competitive.
I recently sold a home with a similar scenario. There were three very good, competing offers. None of the three contained contingencies or an inspection clause. However, all three parties had done a quick, professional inspection before tendering their offers. That might have been a good idea in your case.
Without knowing all the details of the situation I can’t make any recommendation as to your next steps. That should be done by an attorney in any case. However, if you feel you were unduly influenced into giving up your rights, you might want to start by talking to your agent. That would be the fair thing to do. Perhaps when she understands that her recommendation lead to problems for you she will offer to help.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Q: When we closed on our home, we were shocked at some of the fees we had to pay that we didn't know about.

We signed papers anyway because we were down to the deadline on our contract. We chose this lender on the Internet because it looked like they had the best interest rates. Now I'm not sure what we got. How could we be better prepared next time?

A: Choosing a lender is just as important as choosing the right real estate professional. The wrong decision on either one can cost time and money, plus a lot of stress. I prefer to deal with local banks and mortgage brokers that I have had good results with in the past. My experience has not been good with loans available in "cyberspace." My clients have ended up with expenses they didn't really anticipate, rates that were not as quoted, and even serious problems with the transaction itself.

It's important to understand that the lender "calls the shots" in most transactions. Without the lender's agreement, most buyers can't buy. Without meeting the conditions placed on the loan by the lender, the deal can't close. It can be frustrating dealing with Internet lenders where there is no single loan officer responsible, nor any physical location to visit.

The government requires many "truth in lending" documents to be given to buyers. These documents inform borrowers about the fees they will be paying, and other facts. Sadly, these documents are not simple and straightforward, and are even confusing. A good loan officer will walk their clients through these forms so that the lending process is clear. Internet lenders do not offer this kind of service.

It is possible that once you add in the cost of any surprise fees, or changes in the points being charged, you could have done just as well with a local lender. There should be no suprises when you reach the closing table. In the long run, I would rather see my clients work with a trustworthy local loan officer or mortgage broker who can sit down with them and explain the entire process.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Q: We bought a waterfront place six months ago and now have a real problem.

The septic system has failed completely and the septic people we’ve talked to say that it’ll take months to try to get a repair project through the County. They also warned us that it will be very expensive because it was an inadequate system to begin with. Apparently the elderly lady who lived there didn’t use much water. When we moved in with our family of five we “blew out the system” in his words. We’d like a recommendation for an attorney since we want to sue the real estate agent that sold us the house.

A: I’m sorry to hear of your troubles. Many of our waterfront homes have very marginal septic systems and, sadly, your story is not all that unusual. I am not an attorney of course, but you should review the booklet The Law of Real Estate Agency (available in our office). Under state law an agent does not have a duty to investigate matters or do research. They must disclose material defects, but only those known to them or obviously observable by anyone.

In my practice of real estate, I do a great deal of investigating, but frankly, this puts me at risk because I am stepping beyond the role assigned to me by law. I have had many years of experience with things like failed septic systems, flooding basements, slide hazards, and other such issues, so I am very concerned about what can be seen and (even more importantly) what can’t be seen.

I think that most of the best agents are willing to dig a little deeper to discover everything they can about a property when they represent a buyer. But keep in mind that real estate agents are not inspectors or engineers and some of these problems and defects are not easy to discover. It might have taken a real leap to consider that your larger family would have overtaxed the septic system.

Q: My brother just made an offer on a manufactured home on a few acres on Vashon.

It's a 1996 so it's only 10 years old but I told him that they don't last more than about 15 years anyway. Can you please set him straight?

A: Oh, boy did you ask the wrong person. I promote manufactured housing as a good alternative to those who want acreage but can't afford our $500,000 to $700,000 price tag for custom construction on acreage. It's been a long time since factory built housing was called a trailer. I've sold manufactured homes here that are 30 years old and still providing a solid home for a family. Some have needed upgrades, as do "stick built" homes that old, but they are doing their job of providing a home. I currently have three such sales of manufactured homes on acreage. None of these buyers could afford acreage unless they purchased manufactured homes.

Today's manufactured homes are built to the same basic code as any other housing. They all have 2 X 6 exterior walls and energy efficient insulation. They have the same electrical service and plumbing that is code in any home. Newer manufactured home have sheetrock walls, vaulted ceilings, spacious rooms, wood floors, soaking or jacuzzi tubs, at least three bedrooms, two bathrooms, dining, and family rooms.

Once the home is sited on the property and landscaped with the addition of porches and decks, they are indistinguishable from "stick built" homes. Our company recently sold a lovely manufactured home that was in high demand. People didn't even realize that it was manufactured!

Older mobile homes in mobile home parks can lose value and often deteriorate, but newer manufactured homes are attractive and roomy with all the amenitites that most people want in a home. If finer finish work is desired, that can be added later just as it is to "stick built" houses.

Just be happy that your brother will have a home with some acreage in our wonderful community.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Q: I'd like to know what I can do with recreational property.

That's what the real estate agents call it when it's not buildable. Couldn't I just build a little rustic cabin? How about a storage building for my boat?

A: After doing some research and conferring with King County personnel I think the easiest answer is that you can't do anything with recreational property except maybe picnic there. That's why these parcels are usually so inexpensive. If this is a waterfront parcel, the King County Critical Area Ordinance as well as several state laws, including the Shorelines Management Act and the Aquatic Reserve Area restrictions don't allow buildings of any kind within a substantial set back from the water. Even if it's not waterfront, you can't have a living space without an approved water source and septic system and most recreational properties don't have enough space to accommodate both. In addition, many don't "perk" for a septic system.

As for a small building for a boat, keep in mind that an accessory building must be just that, accessory to a house. If no legal house exists on the property you will not be allowed to build anything. Sometimes people drive a self-contained RV to their lot and stay there for short periods of time. That's probably alright as long as they take the rig to a dump station regularly.

Some recreational lots are not waterfront but may have steep slopes that limit building. Some are inland properties and have no critical areas but are not large enough to accommodate a septic drainfield or are too wet for a septic system. We have many of those located in areas with a very high water table.

We have many parcels of land that are not buildable on Vashon. They often sell over and over again as one dreamer after another thinks they can accomplish what others have not been able to do. The best choice for these properties is to sell them to a neighbor who might want a little more land.

Q: I've been looking to buy on Vashon for some time now and I'm really disappointed in the quality of the homes available.

I realize that I'm not in a high price range but most of the places I see have really cheap finish work. Even most of the remodeled house are done cheaply. Any suggestions?

A: Except for the most expensive homes built in the last 10 years or so, the majority of Vashon Island's homes were built by people of modest means. The Island was settled by fishermen, farmers, and merchants. Most of our houses are simple, with no "bells and whistles". To find homes with expensive trim work and finishes, you will have to look at the higher-end new homes or more expensive remodels.

I believe in following the old "form follows function" rule. You can always change trim work. Buying a house based on the finish work is like buying a car based only on its color, the quality of the upholstery, or how you will be perceived by others driving that car. Now I realize some people do make decisions that way (witness Hummers and sports cars) but I think the vast majority of us decide on a car based on its reliability, safety, fuel economy, and comfort.

To carry that metaphor a step further, how reliable is a sports car? (I can say that they are not very reliable, having owned a few in my younger years.) How economical is it to drive a Hummer? How safe are the tiny retro 1930's looking cars? If you buy one of these it's because you really want it and must overlook their limitations.

I recommend that you look for a house that has good, basic construction, functions well for your family, is well located for your needs, and is comfortable for you. Add the bells and whistles later. If you've always dreamed of a fancy bathroom, go for it. But realize that advertisers and home improvement writers have convinced you that you must have granite countertops, but they don't function any better than Formica.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Q: I was so surprised to talk to you about buying land and having you be so negative.

I just wanted to buy a little piece of land to hold onto in case I decide to come back to Vashon someday. You lost a sale because now I'm going to work with someone else.

A: You are welcome to work with some other broker or agent, of course. A good percentage of my business has always been land sales and I've worked as a consultant all the way through the building process with many clients. Because of that I want to be sure people are aware of all the limitations and issues of building in rural King County. I also want them to have a firm and realistic understanding of the time and money involved.

It's not at all unusual for a parcel of land to sell every few years as one owner after another comes up against cost issues or building limitations. I don't want that to be the experience of people I work with. Even after disclosing everything I know or can find out about a parcel of land, there can be surprises once the buyers begin their development process.

I always stress to those buying land that they should develop it as soon as possible. Just because you have an approved water system and approved septic design now, does not mean you will get those in the future. I've seen examples of land that even became unbuildable because regulations changed while the owners were not paying attention.

My goal is not to be negative, but rather to be realistic. I have a client right now who will be putting in a much more expensive septic system, a more sophisticated water system, and spending far more on utilities than she would have if she had developed sooner. You should learn all you can about the land and the building process and then develop the property as soon as you can after buying it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Q: I recently retired from a government job.

Even though I get a good pension I'm still in good health and bored. I do volunteer work, of course, but I'd like to make a little money too, not just do "good works". I have friends trying to convince me that I'd be good at real estate. I've looked into the schools and licensing requirements and I've looked at lots of websites to see what training there is. My wife said that I should ask your opinion about it. I'd like to stay here on the Island.

A: Your timing might not be the greatest, I'm afraid. It's common, when there is a hot market, for many people to come pouring into the real estate business looking for a "piece of the action". Currently we have over 60 licensees on the Island. That's for an average of 250 sales a year. As they say, "you do the math".

Many of the agents working on the Island, like elsewhere in the country, are part time. They may do just one or two sales a year. That is extra money for them, of course, but working part time often means they aren't able to keep up with all the changes in the industry. It can mean they never become fully trained to make the best decisions and properly advise their clients.

It can be troubling for their clients who rely on their agent's knowledge and experience to guide them through a transaction. If the agent has little knowledge and even less experience it can cause some serious problems. Also, keep in mind that in our current market you have to be fast and competitive as well as knowledgeable.

It amazes me, after almost 20 years in this business, that there's still always something new to learn. I have years of experience in other businesses, years of training and education in real estate and a master's degree, but I still can't begin to know everything there is to know about real estate. It may look easy, but believe me, it is not. Best of luck.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Q: I am looking to buy on Vashon but I'd like to work with my Seattle real estate agent.

We've worked together on a couple of sales and I really like him. He told me that he's not familiar with the market here and with issues that might be important. He suggested a referral to someone here. I don't know how that works. I also don't know how commissions work. He said he could get part of the commission when I buy over here but I just don't get it.

A: Referrals are common in real estate. For instance, I recently had an investor who wanted to buy a small apartment building. We don't have anything like that available so I referred him to an agent I really trust on the Kitsap Peninsula. That agent found my client a good deal and I received a small part of his commission when the transaction closed.

I applaud your Seattle agent for realizing that he probably doesn't know our market well enough to properly represent you. He's also probably not knowledgeable about things like septic systems, wells and critical areas. Teaming up with a local agent familiar with all of that will be better for you.

As for the commission disbursement it commonly goes something like this: the commission is divided, often about half and half, between the listing agency and the selling agency. Then each agency pays out any referral fees due to referral companies or to other agents. Next, they often pay out franchise fees to the parent corporation (like Windermere or John L. Scott) and may also pay in a small amount to a non-profit arm of the corporation for community and charitable work.

Last, each agency pays a portion of the remaining commission to the agent that actually did the transaction. The amount of that "split" is based on company policy and is very flexible. Agencies may set the percentage of the split by number of transactions the agent has done during the year, or by years of service, educational background or other criteria.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Q: I've tried several real estate agents here and I'm getting very frustrated.

None of them seem to be able to find me what I want. I'd like to start working with you since you come highly recommended.

A: I'm always happy to hear that folks are recommending me and ordinarily I'd be happy to try to help you. However, after our initial little talk I have to tell you that what's wrong is not that your other agents haven't been able to "find" you anything, but rather that you are unwilling to accept what is available.

Some real estate professionals do use terms like "I've found you the perfect house" and such. But let's face it, houses don't show up under a cabbage leaf to be found by the most eagle eyed agent. They show up on the Internet, on the multiple listing service or sometimes, as a "for sale by owner" ad. All of us have access to this information. The best agents make a fast connection between a new listing and a client whose needs would be met by what that listing has to offer.

On Vashon we have a very small inventory of homes to sell at all times. If you're in the lower price ranges the possibilities are even more limited. I always make sure that my clients understand that regardless of their price range they aren't going to get exactly what they want.

None of us got our dream home when we moved to Vashon Island. We settled for the best thing we could find that was affordable for us. What we got was something far more valuable than the perfect house. We got a wonderful community filled with caring people in a natural environment that is exceptional.

What has to change is your attitude. You are unrealistic and will never own your own home here unless you begin to listen to the voice of reality. Give your last agent another chance and this time, open your mind to what is really possible.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Q: I'm thinking of moving to Vashon and have a question for you.

I've looked at ads for real estate agents and also looked at the company web sites. Everyone says they are an "award winning" agent, or have the "most integrity" or have the "most experience". Some have a bunch of initials behind their name that are supposed to impress us. Why should I believe this stuff and how do I really choose an agent?

A:Most professionals and trades use similar kinds of advertising. From doctors to car repair shops all businesses are trying to win your confidence. In most cases such advertising is really intended just to enhance name or brand awareness.

According to a recent study done by the National Association of Realtors that looked at the sources used by potential real estate buyers in choosing an agent, very few used advertising as a way to choose an agent. The biggest percentage, 44%, were referred to a specific agent by a friend or relative.

An additional 11% used an agent they had been happy doing business with in the past. 7% (higher on the west coast) found their agent using the Internet. The smallest category was printed advertising.

Personal references are the bests way to choose any professional. If I need my car serviced I don't reach for the classified ads, I ask friends to recommend someone they've been happy with. When I select a doctor or dentist I don't care what their ads say, I want to hear from people I trust that I'll be in good hands. Real estate is just as important.

Talk to people around town and ask them who they trust in the real estate business. Find out who has a great reputation. Experience matters, but not as much as depth of knowledge. Some "old timers" are loaded with valuable information, and some are moss backed folks who haven't kept up with the huge changes in our industry. I recommend that you interview agents, ask for references and most important, talk to people!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Q: My husband and I spent a year fixing up our place to sell.

We've been listed for months now with not one offer. We thought we had priced it well and it really looks good compared to how it looked when we bought it a few years ago. Is the market just getting slow now or what?

A: Having been a do-it-yourselfer myself for many years, I can sympathize with what you're going through. I've done major re-modeling to homes myself and was able to reap the rewards of that sweat equity in the form of a good profit. But times have changed and expectations are different than they were years ago.

The change in our market that you're experiencing is simply that our prices have gone up considerably in the last few years and, for that additional money, buyers expect a better quality house. Buyers tend to notice the rough edges of improvements done by the homeowners themselves. Things like molding that doesn't quite match, cracked tile, messy caulking, flooring that stops an inch short, new but really inexpensive carpet, cheap plumbing fixtures and off the shelf bargain cabinets are a giveaway that the work was not professionally done.

While you are comparing the house with all of it's improvements to the way it looked when you bought it a few years ago, today's buyers are just seeing what is there now and comparing it to homes in the same price range. If other homes selling for about the same price have better finish work and higher quality fixtures most buyers think that means it's a better house.

While location, privacy and square footage are all important considerations in choosing a home to buy, the way a home presents itself when the buyer walks in is probably one of the most important. You may simply have to reduce your price to attract less picky buyers for whom your improvements are a plus and not a minus.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Q: We're getting ready to build our home and have run into a really exasperating roadblock.

A water share came with the lot when we bought it and now the County is requiring that we do all kinds of things to the water system before they will approve our septic design. The neighbors are not happy with us and we really wanted to start off on the right foot. It's also costing us money we hadn't figured into our budget. Is there some other way around this?

A: There are dozens of Class B water systems on Vashon Island. These small systems serve anywhere from 2 to 14 residences and are managed by the property owners themselves. Unfortunately, many of these systems are out of compliance with the County Health Department. There is requirement to test for bacteria and nitrates regularly, for instance. There is also an annual report and fee that must be filed with the County.

In addition, a plan must be submitted to the County when the system is going to be expanded. Connecting your new house to the system is an expansion and so a new plan is needed. There are other systems on the Island currently struggling with additional issues like easements for water lines not properly drawn or water lines in the wrong places.

There is also the need to keep pressure tanks and storage tanks well enclosed in a building that's properly insulated and kept free of vermin. (I can't tell you how many filthy, rat infested well houses I've seen with no current water sampling being done.) There is no way around getting the work done and I'm afraid you will have to pay for it. That is unless there is a written agreement from the other residents served by the system saying that they will contribute to expanding the system. It would behoove you to be pro-active and be sure that your system is in compliance in every way. Not just to follow the rules, but also to be sure you're providing your family with safe water.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Q:We were talked into making an offer without doing an inspection because the house was new.

Now that we've moved in there are all kinds of problems. There isn't a vapor barrier under the house which I think is code, some of the light switches don't work, one of the windows won't close and the front door and one sliding door are not properly hung so there is a big gap under them when they're closed. There are other things but this is just a sample of some of them. Should we sue the real estate agent or the builder?

A: Don't sue anybody! That's overkill and not necessary. Most new homes come with a one year warranty, although it's not a law that they have to. I'm sure that the builder would be happy to come back and make the needed repairs. Give him or her a chance to do the right thing. Most new homes have a few things wrong and contractors expect that they may have to make a few adjustments.

I would also say that there is no point in suing your agent. It may be that he or she felt that doing an inspection would make your offer less than competitive. I personally recommend inspections regardless of the situation and believe that they are necessary even on a newly constructed home, but your agent may have had reasons for choosing not to do one.

It would be a good idea to sit down with your agent and talk over the problems you're having with the house. I'm not talking confrontation here, just talk it over with him or her and find out the reasons for not insisting on the inspection. It's also a good idea to ask for your agent's help on getting everything put right. It can't hurt to have your agent at your side when you ask the builder to come back and make needed repairs and adjustments.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Q: We enjoyed your article about "Built Green" since my wife and I want to build here.

Our frustration is finding resources. We've looked at a few of the Modernist modulars like the Glide house and just find them too stark. We want to design our own home but want it really "green". Where do we start and what is "green" anyway?

A: Green building encompasses many elements. Start with a designer who understands "green". A major element is energy conservation. That means heating, cooling and insulation. The first step is choosing a site for the house so that you get plenty of passive solar heat in the winter but shade and cooling breezes in the summer.

Next is using energy efficient methods like in-floor heating, on demand water heating, extra insulation, well insulated windows, proper caulking and solar panels. Remember that you need proper ventilation.

Another part of green is using non-toxic materials. Many building materials, especially carpeting, countertops, most paint as well as wood floor finishes contain toxic chemicals. The fumes from these put toxins in the air inside your home for years. Many children have developed serious illnesses from these products and adults with allergies can be affected.

Another part of green is using recycled materials as much as possible. Plastics that have been recycled into floor covering for example, reusing of recycled cabinets, and using older wood floors from salvaged properties all save energy and contribute to saving the earth. Outside the home there are things to do too, like saving and using rainwater, composting, using native plants for landscaping and minimalizing impervious surfaces.

Consider using sustainably harvested, local wood to save old growth and the cost of transporting exotic materials across the world. You'd be surprised at what's available in the region. Look at these sites to get started: Built Green Program of the Master Builders Association: www.mba_ks.com , Cascadia Regional Green Building Council: www.cascadiabc.org, Northwest Eco-Building Guild: www.ecobuilding.org , Northwest Energy Efficiency Council: www.nwec.net , Washington State Recycling Association: www.wsra.net, Sustainable Northwest: www.sustainablenorthwest.org. That should get you started.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Q: We can't decide what to do about buying another home.

We were recently married and each have a house on Vashon. Mine is a small cabin in the woods and my husband has a really nice large home. We sort of want to keep one for a rental and sell the other so that we can get a new place that's just "ours", with no past connections to his former mate. That may sound stupid, but it's what we really want to do. The problem is that mine is paid for but not worth much and his is worth more but heavily mortgaged. Nothing seems to work out financially. Ideas?

A: After looking at your little cabin I can see that an addition could work really well. Your husband owes a large mortgage on his house but he will still make enough selling it to afford a good sized addition to your little house. That could mean you are free of a mortgage and in a house that holds no bad memories.

Many times the answer to a problem isn't to buy or sell real estate. Sometimes just looking at all of the options available to you opens the door to a great solution. Of course I'd love to sell you a new home, but that probably isn't the best solution for your problem. The problem is really the desire to be rid of the memories that your husband has of his former wife. By selling his home he gets rid of that problem and by involving himself in a remodel of your home he has the chance of making it his own.

Sit down and think through what you could do with your little house to make it a shared dream. Then put your ideas on paper and start talking to builders, designers or architects. I'll bet you can come up with something that solves your housing needs, puts you in a great place financially and fulfills your desire for a shared "nest" to start your new life together.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dear Readers, I just returned from the "Built Green" annual conference and I want to share some of the excitement of that event.

"Built Green" is the trademark of one of the fastest growing builder organizations in the country. It is supported by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish counties and includes hundreds of architects, designers, builders, landscape professionals and developers (yes, there are "green" developers) from our region.

This year they decided to include real estate professionals in their program and, although there were only 18 of us out of the 600 plus attendees, it's a start. Being a "green" Realtor has always been a part of my business so it's good to see others in my profession getting involved in sustainability.

I believe that the best way to make a commitment to sustainable development is to "recycle" a house rather than build new. One of the keynote speakers was David Johnson, contractor, designer and visionary who is a leader in combining environmental design and excellence in residential construction. He was a dynamic and inspirational speaker and I came away with his most recent book, "Green Remodeling; Changing the World One Room at a Time". I highly recommend that you read it.

This book is full of excellent advice, tips and resources. It takes you totally through the process from choosing an architect or designer, selecting a contractor, finding energy conservation products, choosing building materials and discovering what you really want your home to be. There are resources for finding recycled and less toxic building materials and state of the art heating systems that will save you money as well as save our planet's resources.

Here are some of his words, "Each decision we make today regarding energy use, building materials, and water consumption will have a long lasting impact on future generations. We have a responsibility today to make the wisest decisions possible to address the environmental issues we face." He added that the building industry uses 40% of all our planet's resources. He thinks it's time they address conservation and sustainable design.

Amen!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Q:We sort of rushed into the purchase of a piece of land and now we just don't know where to turn for help.

We didn't know about septic systems (I know that sounds naive but we came from a large city) so we didn't have the land "perked". Now we've started the process of getting a septic design and are blown away by everything we have to do. We have to get something called a Critical Areas Review (for $800 deposit and it could go higher) and then the design itself, for $1,500 plus King County fees.

We have to drill a well, which will be at least $10,000 according to the well driller, plus the cost of developing the water system, whatever that means. Plus, we've talked to the County and they say we have to prove the lot was subdivided before 1972. We don't even know how to begin doing that. We're thinking of selling the land and forgetting the whole thing, but we really do love the property and Vashon Island.

A: Take a deep breath and let's talk. Of course you should have looked into all of this before you bought and you should have worked with someone who would have educated you about it beforehand, but you didn't. Don't despair. Others have been there before you and managed to get through this.

Go one step at a time. Take the advice of the excellent King County Technician who comes out to the Island every week. He will walk you through the process. If you really feel like you're floundering there are folks who will act as a project manager for you and do the County paperwork for you.

As for the date the lot was subdivided, that should be in your title documents. Call your title company and have them find the proper document to prove the age of the lot. If you are working with a local builder they're often willing to be involved in the land development process. Read, study, learn. Take your time and get it right.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Q: I read in a newspaper article recently that there are a lot of million dollar homes for sale on Vashon.

I was surprised! I knew prices were going up but had no idea it had gone so far. The agent they quoted said she had eight or ten million-dollar listings right now. Is that possible? It's probably because of rich Californians coming here, isn't it?

A: That quote had to be an error or you read it wrong. We had only six houses listed and sold for over a million in all of 2005. Those homes were listed by a number of different real estate agents. So far this year two homes have sold for just over a million and five are currently on the market at over a million, each with a different real estate agent. It isn't Californians who are "ruining" Vashon. We have people moving here from all over the country and a large percentage of our sales, I would guess at least a quarter to a third, are people who already live here.

The issue of gentrification on Vashon isn't about million dollar houses. The critical issue is that the bottom of the market, where you can find the most affordable homes, has changed dramatically in the last two years. It's getting very hard to find any home for under $300,000. It's also beginning to be difficult to find a home on acreage or with a view for under $500,000.

The increase in housing prices is certainly not restricted to Vashon or even to the West Coast. We've seen dramatic change all over the country. But in addition to general real estate values climbing, we have to accept the fact that Vashon Island is a "boutique" market. We have very little supply and a growing demand. It isn't even just "outsiders" who want to move here that are pushing our prices upward. Lots of local folks are trying to buy down for retirement, purchasing rental homes for investment, buying homes for aging parents or trying to move up to larger homes as their families grow.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Q: I was amazed when you told me what my house is worth today.

I bought it for $260,000 in 1998 and, although I've done a few nice things to up-date it, I really haven't changed it enough to double its value. You pegged the asking price at about $525,000 and the listing agent you recommended to me agreed. How did all this happen? I'm not complaining, mind you, I'm just sort of stunned.

A: It's difficult with our tiny market to get a real handle on pricing. The best way for most of us to grasp the changes is by using situations like yours. There have been many homes sell over the last year that doubled in value in six or seven years. In fact, there have been some that doubled in much less time.

I took a sampling of 20 houses that sold in 2005 that had sold the last time in 1998 through 2000. Most had gone up at least 50%. Many had increased in value 80% or more! Of course there are specific issues with each property that can mean it will go up faster than the average. By the same token, some houses went up only 25% to 35% in that time period. But let's face it, that's still a huge gain.

We are not alone in this incredible cost spiral. Prices have gone up significantly all across the country. In the Western part of the country most major areas have seen an increase of between 15% and 40% over the last year and a half, according to the National Association of Realtors. Our Puget Sound region saw and increase of between 15% and 27% depending on location, over the course of 2005.

Add to that national and regional trend the fact that we have a high demand and a very low inventory of homes on Vashon and you have the recipe for inflated housing prices. There is no end in sight so be sure to reinvest your gain quickly.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Q: My daughter and son-in-law want to buy a house here but don't have much money for a down payment.

I'm retired on a small pension and can't really help them. I've been reading lately about "no money down" loans and "interest only" loans and those scare me. I think it will really get young people in trouble to go so deep in debt. I read that some economist in Washington said that those who buy with no money down could lose money if prices decline. What do you think?

A: There is not likely to be a "bubble" effect on real estate prices here. Real estate prices are cooling in the center of the country, as they always do after a runaway market, and prices are predicted to fluctuate everywhere in the country this year as the market tries to stabilize. We, on Vashon, are not a part of that process since we are a "boutique" market with constantly high demand and perpetually low inventory. The Seattle real estate market has always been very volatile but it has not effected our prices much at all.

I've also read dire predictions of buying with a low or no money down programs. What many are forgetting is that we've had such programs for over 50 years! The FHA and VA home loans have always been low or no down payment, and have been used to get people into homes for generations. These days, all lending institutions can compete or even do better that these government sponsored programs, so they are no longer the only source of low down payment offerings.

I do advise against the "interest only" loans. Even though the value of property will continue to go up here, therefore increasing the equity in the home, it seems to be counterproductive to think that you'll have the same mortgage you started with even after 20 years of payments.

Remember that to build financial security one needs to start by owning their own home, so I encourage you to support your daughter and son-in-law in their plans to buy.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Q: We just lost out on a house we wanted to buy because another offer had something called an escalator.

It sounds like those movable stairs in big department stores. What is that and how does it work? We thought we would get the house because we offered full price and were the first offer made. Doesn't being first count for anything?

A: I can understand your confusion. To start with, the seller is under no obligation to accept offers in any specific manner. They can even take an offer that is for less than the asking price if the terms are more acceptable to them or for any other reason. Let's say you offered full price but your offer is contingent on selling another property. Maybe the other offer was for all cash and those buyers had already sold their other home so that wasn't going to be an issue for them. Obviously the other buyer's offer is less risky for the seller.

A seller might have other concerns that are as important or more important than the price. Maybe they need extra time to move out so an offer that has a negotiable closing date is better for them. Maybe they have to close fast for tax reasons so a two week closing is their best choice even if it's for less money. Sellers can even take an offer for sentimental reasons. Maybe they have dogs and really favor an offer from a family they know also has dogs! As long as they are not discriminating against anyone who is in a protected class they can chose whomever they like.

As for what's called an "escalation clause," or sometimes an "agreement to beat highest offer addendum," this is an agreement from the purchaser that says that they will beat any offer made, up to a maximum amount. It's often used when there are competing bids on the same property. It's possible that was what happened to you. The property actually sold for more than the listed price. Consult with your agent about ways to make yourselves the winning bidder next time. Good luck!