Monday, December 10, 2007

Q: The flood damage from this awful storm (first week of December) has driven us out of our house.

I just had our gutters cleaned out, but the house still flooded. The house is built on a slab. All the rain water pooled on the slab, came through the walls, and wicked up into the rooms. I didn’t know this, but our insurance won’t pay for flood damage. Now I don’t know what to do.

Sadly you are not alone. Thousands of people are out of their homes, and may not be able to return. Vashon didn’t have as much damage as many places in the state, but there are households even here that had damage.

Your house was built in the 50s, on a slab, and very likely did not have any moisture barrier installed (that is required by building codes today.) In addition, there probably was no drainage system dug around the perimeter to draw water away from the foundation. That would also be standard now.

At this point, you need to pull out the waterlogged sheetrock, which will mold quickly. Get a good drainage contractor to install a “French” or perimeter drain around the house, and find out what else they recommend to prevent this from happening next time. After that is done, replace the sheetrock. A new moisture barrier under that wallboard might be a good idea, too. Discuss it with your contractor.

Most people do not have flood insurance, particularly in Western Washington. There are identified flood plains on Vashon. To see if you are in one, look at the flood plain maps at the King County website. Occasionally, if you are not in a flood plain, you can get some flood insurance coverage.

Most of the damage done by the water in this latest storm is not covered by insurance. In some cases, FEMA, or other federal and state agencies, may be able to offer housing assistance for you.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Q: My folks just sold their home to a couple from out of state.

These people, who were middle-aged, bought it for a second home! I was surprised. First because the house was over $700,000 and that's no "vacation cabin" to me. Second, I've never thought of Vashon as a vacation destination. What could make someone spend that kind of money to be here for just a few weeks a year?
A: Surprisingly, according to recent studies, Washington is a major market for second homes. In fact, according to published studies our state is one of the country's top second home markets. The percentage of our sales that represent second homes has grown over 140% in just a few years. Although there are no specific statistics available from Vashon Island, I would say that from my own experience, that second home sales have increased dramatically in the last 5 or 6 years.

There are at least three things at work here. First, we are a spectacularly beautiful island that is a dream destination for many visitors and vacation home buyers. We offer friendly people, beautiful scenery, close to a major metropolitan city, with a vibrant business and art community. We have water, mountains, beaches, forests, parks and are close to major recreational destinations.

The second issue is that more and more people are making larger sums of money than ever before. The "Microsoft Millionaires" are not the only people who have become wealthy at a young age. The average age of second home buyers nationwide today is 44! While it's sadly true that the poor are getting poorer in our country, the rich are getting richer, and these folks want a second home to go to for relaxation.

The third thing is the simple fact that Vashon has always had many second homes. Most of our waterfront cottages were built by Seattle area folks over 50 years ago for a summer playground for their families. That hasn't changed. We still have people from the region that want a getaway. They can just pay more for it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Going Green: Mold and Moisture In Your Home

It’s that lovely time of the year when the forests and fields are filled with pretty maple leaves and fantastic fungi! Mushrooms and toadstools are everywhere. I enjoy seeing them, but it’s a different kind of winter growth that we’re going to talk about today…mold!

Why is this a “green” issue? Because you get mold when you have moisture where it doesn’t belong, and that is most often the case when you have a poorly ventilated home. Today’s building codes address these issues. A healthy house is also a part of building and remodeling green, and is a part of the requirements to achieve a LEED, BuiltGreen, or Energy Star rating.

The secret to controlling mold is to control moisture. Most of us are used to cleaning away small amounts of mold in bathrooms and kitchen sinks. These are places where there is always moisture in our homes. A little bleach solution or detergent can kill it and it can be wiped away. What I’m talking about today is larger areas of mold that would indicate water leaks from cracked or broken pipes or poor roof drainage that can carry water into your walls and ceiling.

The other major cause of excess mold is leaving areas unheated. In the Northwest, to avoid mold, rooms should be kept at 55 degrees minimum. Keeping some rooms unheated in winter to save on heating costs will cause mold to grow. Better insulation, as well as caulking and weather stripping, are better ways to save money on heating bills.

I have seen a few large mold areas in homes I’ve sold, usually during the inspection. They were usually caused by unseen plumbing leaks or sometimes, just carelessness. Showering with no ventilation, not having a good seal on a shower door, failing to use overhead exhaust fans and just sloppiness can keep a bathroom wet. Mold will grow quickly. Sometimes heating and cooling systems can also create a problem. Using good filters as well as HEPA filters and having your system cleaned and services annually will generally take care of that problem.

Once you’ve located a mold area, clean it carefully and completely with a detergent containing bleach and water. Then be sure it is absolutely dry. If the mold is on carpet or furniture, have it cleaned professionally making sure the cleaning company is trained in mold abatement. If the area is large (the EPA says over a 10 square foot area) call in professionals. But the most important thing is to find and repair the leak that has caused the problem. Be sure bathroom fixtures are properly caulked, ventilation is adequate and that a good exhaust fan is always used.

I have ordered a number of the EPA’s great booklet, “A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture, and Your Home”. I have these available at my office for you to pick up. If you’d like one mailed to you, please call my office at 463-4060. You can also find the information on their web site at:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Q: You showed my house several times while it was on the market and when my agent called you for feedback, you kept saying

the same thing; that it was overpriced. I'd like to hear directly from you about what you think is wrong with my house. It was on the market for months and no one even brought me an offer. I want to put it back on the market next spring, and I want to know what I can do to make it sell next time.

A: What I suggested to your agent and I'll suggest to you is that you take a look at all of the houses currently for sale in the same price range. Even more valuable, take a look at those homes in that price range that sold over the last six months. It may be helpful for you to see what you were competing against.

There's nothing you need to do with your house. It's tidy, clean, well-maintained, and in a reasonably good location. Unfortunately, it is really priced much higher than anything comparable. It has no specific features that would make it worth a great deal more to a buyer working in that price range.

We all think our house is fantastic when it comes time to sell. Nothing helps to put it into perspective like taking a look at the competition. I recently did this for a client who is thinking about selling her home and moving to something smaller. She started out with the figure she said she "needed to get" for her house. I reminded her that the market will set the price.

The value of any house is the price that a ready, willing, and able buyer will pay for it. It's best to price your property properly to begin with and then you don't have to worry about it sitting on the market for a long time. Work with your listing agent to set the best price. If it's the nicest house among several in that price range, you won't have to sit waiting for an offer.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Q: We’ve been looking for property to build a house on and can’t seem to figure out what the expenses will be.

Is there a sort of “ballpark” number that we can use?
It’s very difficult to estimate development costs since each parcel of land has its own set of issues. I can give you some estimates that I use which are not exact, but might give you some idea.
First, you’ll want to find out if there is a well or water share that comes with the property. If not, you will be looking at about $40 per foot to drill a well, plus the cost of setting up the pressure tanks, well house, and any filter system you might want. You won’t know until you start how deep the well driller will have to go. A water share, if it is available, will cost about $10,000 in most systems on the Island.
You’ll also want to do a septic design. This is critical to finding out if the property is buildable and what type of septic system it will require. Figure at least $1,200 for the design. You will also have to do a critical areas review, which will cost several hundred dollars. If there are significant wetlands, you will probably need a wetland biologist and engineering firm to do a study which will add about $2,000. Once you begin developing the land, the cost of installing the septic system will run about $8,000 to $20,000 depending on the type of system required.
Once you begin development you will be paying approximately $3,000 to $15,000 to bring in utilities, depending on the distance from the utility main; $2,000 to $5,000 for clearing and grading; and at least another $2,000 for a simple gravel driveway.
I think it’s a safe bet to assume about $50,000 for development costs on top of the cost of the land before you add in the cost of construction. If it works out to less, good for you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Going Green

In his book, The Toyota Way, author Jeffrey Liker tells the story of a small Japanese auto manufacturer who overcame great obstacles and dramatic setbacks to become the eighth largest company in the world. In 1993 Toyota put together a team of experts to start designing the cars of the future, the cars for the 21st century. From those meetings came, among other ideas, the Prius hybrid. Now rated by the EPA as the most fuel efficient car selling in the United States, it was ridiculed when it went on sale in the US in 2001. Today the Prius is the largest selling hybrid in the world. By anticipating the need and choosing to take a path toward sustainability, this car manufacturer took a huge gamble. Other manufacturers, primarily the American ones, laughed when they saw the Prius until they began to see the headlines that talked about the number of people signing up on waiting lists to buy the car. Those companies have been playing catch up ever since.

I believe that Toyota is a company that may have a corporate culture worth investigating. At a recent conference I attended, a speaker talked about two vital “mantras” that are a part of Toyota’s corporate culture. He believes these same daily “rules” could make a big difference in our individual lives. Those mantras are these:
(1) every day, search out one small way to reduce waste
(2) every day, search out one small way to improve what you do

We could use these same strategies when it comes to making decisions around living more “green” with a goal toward sustainability. Trying to reorder our lives to save our money and our planet can be daunting. If we just took those two steps every day, we could see the same level of success as Toyota. Let’s think of some examples of small steps that could reduce waste and make our homes more green. How about switching to florescent light bulbs, adding more locally grown food to our shopping list, becoming better about recycling everything possible, and buying more items used instead of new? How about putting in soaker hoses instead of wasteful sprinkling and adding weather-stripping which saves enormously on energy costs?

Those are simple steps to take but they can make a big difference. When it comes to making our home green taking small steps is a great way to start. I am often surprised by people who say they want to “go green” and their first impulse is to throw out what they have now and go buy new “green” products. The greenest thing you can do is just use or re-use what you already have! Why add to the waste stream when adding new paint, a good clean up, or finding a different way to use something will save it from the garbage heap?

Today’s green adventure tip: Visit the Second Use store in south Seattle. You will be surprised by what’s available, the great prices, and the fun you’ll have finding things for home improvement projects. Check it out:

Q: The Internet shows a whole lot of houses on Vashon that are in foreclosure.

I've been waiting for a chance to really make a killing in real estate and want to buy up a couple of these places for way under market value. I think I could flip them next year when the market recovers. I've included the list and I'd like your opinions of these homes.

A: There are many foreclosure websites right now and they are a rip off. They just copy the records from city and county sites and charge you a premium for the information. You notice these sites are sponsored by agents and lenders looking for business.

Of the homes you sent me, three are already sold and foreclosure didn't happen. Two are currently in a sales transaction and the lender will be paid out of the sale. Two of the homes are owners who stay a few payments behind all of the time but always make their payments just before the home would go into foreclosure.

In fact only two of the homes on your list appear to actually be about to go into foreclosure. Keep in mind that the banks don't want the house, so are usually willing to work with the owners if the owners can redeem the house by paying back payments. That can happen even if the property is up for auction.

Most of the foreclosures in our area are not the result of the sub-prime problems nationwide, but rather from people who have borrowed too much on a home equity line of credit. They often owe more than the house is worth. That means they can't sell for "pennies on the dollar" since they owe so much. If the lender takes the house back, they will put it on the market for what is owed on it, in most cases. That means there aren't any "steals" out there.

However, there are some homes for sale right now that are a good value for the money. Well-priced homes that are in good condition and in good locations are still selling briskly here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Q: I’d like to open a little dress shop in my home and my neighbor says he doesn’t think I am allowed to have a business out of my house.

There seem to be other businesses around the Island that work out of their homes so I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Can you shed some light on the subject?

A: We are allowed to have “home occupations” in our rural zoning here on Vashon Island but with some rules and common sense regulation. You might want to check in with the King County technician that is available every Tuesday morning at our courthouse, to answer questions and deal with permitting issues.

In general, I believe the best way to describe the rules and regulations are simply the “golden rule” principle. Don’t make life more difficult for your neighbors. That means no big delivery trucks or heavy traffic tearing up the roadway. It would mean no loud or obnoxious noise.

The King County Code specifies the requirement for licensing of some businesses, even in residential zoning, although I don’t believe that would apply in your case. A home occupation must also be subordinate to the primary use as a residence.

It has been my understanding that you are not allowed to hang a business sign out in front of your property and that you cannot advertise your location as if it were a retail business, which must be located only in business zoned areas.

We have many small home based businesses on the Island. The County and the community have always supported such efforts. If what you hope for is a small shop in an extra room or out building where you design and make dresses by order, or have special order products available to a small clientele of people, you will probably be just fine.

However, if what you envision is a retail dress shop with business hours and customers coming and going all the time, you may not be in compliance with the law and the County could shut you down.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Q: I just got a divorce and want to buy a place for myself.

All the places that I’ve looked at that I can afford on my own are real dumps and need a lot of work. If I wait until next year will there be a better selection?

A: We have a much higher inventory of homes for sale at this time than usual. In fact, we are seeing a larger inventory even in the lowest price ranges. Currently there are 15 homes listed for under $400,000 which is really great for Vashon Island.

In any market the lowest priced homes are not going to be award winning. What you have to look for is the most structurally sound home in the best location. Ugly is fixable! Homes that need some work, especially cosmetic, have historically been the best chance to build equity for first time and low income buyers.

Think of this as a transitional purchase. As you build value in the home you will build equity that might translate into something nicer in the future. Waiting to buy will not necessarily bring you any benefit. Prices will continue to go up and inventory may return to our usual, lower levels. If you wait until next year you might have less to choose from and higher prices.

“Location, location, location” is a rule that is still true today. Try to buy in those areas on the island that bring more on resale. Evaluate the houses on the market for those things that most buyers value. Two bathrooms and two to three bedrooms are in most demand. A view is always a high value, as is acreage, if you can afford it.

Another good rule of thumb is to buy the “dog” on the block, not the “castle”. If it’s the nicest home in the neighborhood you may not be able to increase its value as much as buying more of a fixer in a better area. Put in the “sweat equity” and it will pay off for you.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Q: We were going to buy this year but all of this talk about failing loans and foreclosures is making us nervous.

Maybe this isn’t the best time to buy. At your suggestion we got pre-approved and know our credit is good. We also have a good down payment but we don’t want to make a big mistake. What do you think?
This is actually a great time for you to buy! It’s a good market for well qualified buyers. Rates are low, the lowest in many months, and homes prices have dropped in reaction to the financial news. On Vashon, which is a boutique market, we are not affected as much by the crisis in sub-prime lending and foreclosures. However, real estate has slowed all over the country so that’s reflected in a slower market here as well.

We have a higher inventory of homes than usual which is a help to buyers. Although housing prices have gone up even this year, the rise has not been as dramatic as in the past few years. That means that sellers can’t just list their homes for 20% or more above last year’s value and expect a rush of buyers. In fact, a significant number of homes for sale on Vashon have had to drop their price at least once and many are staying on the market longer than usual.

One important thing to remember, however, is that well priced, desirable homes are still selling in just days. Most of the homes I’ve sold this year I sold within the first week on the market. That’s because I had buyers poised and ready to jump on a well priced home that fit their needs.
If a home is well priced for our current market and meets your needs you still need to move quickly to put in an offer. Those homes still on the market after many months are generally over-priced.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Going Green, Pt. 3 of 3

So here we are in the 21st century. The Internet has widened our knowledge and shrunk our world. We have politicians and scientists telling us the grave truth of global warming. And we have activist organizations trying to turn that into positive action. We have Al Gore. It’s easy to get too much information.

By reading books written by some of the pioneers of ecology and modern environmentalism, we can begin to get the background that will help us all make better decisions. None of this is new information. It’s just become more available.

The whole “green” building, sustainable development movement has grown into an almost unwieldy set of resources. Many of the “experts” disagree. There are hundreds of new products and methods out there. There are classes, organizations, books and magazines that can educate and inform. There are Internet sites, stores and consultants that can help. But you have to go slow and study everything.

There are some basics. First, use your head and think things through. What do I mean? Here’s an example: I remember a GreenBuilt Conference I attended a couple of years ago where a speaker asked the audience (there were about 600 of us) how many of us had bamboo floors. Along with a sizable number of people, I held up my hand. He said that we probably thought we had done a great thing using an easily renewable resource for our floors instead of hardwood. But, he added, “How much gas and oil do you think it took to bring that bamboo from China to Seattle and process it?” We all got very quiet. Locally harvested, sustainably-managed wood products might have been a better choice. I had just not thought that far.

Another rule that makes sense of course is to buy locally. Travel costs money, time, and energy, plus contributes to global warming. When faced with choices, I take the one that’s simple. Not necessarily the easiest, but the most simple. The door doesn’t close right? Don’t buy a new door, fix the old one. That’s simple. It all goes back to my parents era of “waste not, want not” thinking.

We all have to balance what we can afford, what we want, and what we think is good for the planet. With luck and education those choices can all be the same thing. Maybe you can’t afford to go solar right now but you can pre-wire your house to be ready for it later and become better informed about the products available. Maybe you can’t afford a new hybrid car but perhaps you can afford to have your old car retrofitted for alternative fuels.

Learn to be happy with what you have and where you are. Fight back against consumerism and the need to buy the latest toys. I just finished reading Sarah Susanka’s new book The Not So Big Life. She is the award winning author of many books, the most popular, The Not So Big House Book. I’ve heard her speak a couple of times and she stresses that what she’s discovered with her research is that people are actually happier with a smaller house and a smaller life. She quotes philosophers who have been preaching this same idea for literally centuries.

I’m happy to discuss specific building ideas, community planning issues, green building materials and all of that. But first and foremost I want to ask you to research the environmental movement. This wasn’t born yesterday, folks. It’s been around a long time. If you want to make a commitment to be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem do some background reading and get up to speed.

This article is the start of a series that will be published from time to time in the Loop. I will details, in each short piece, one or more of the ideas, products, or resources available locally that will help you become more green and your home and life more sustainable.

Going Green, Pt. 2 of 3

It may help to explain the birth of our modern environmental movement by charting it through my lifetime. At 65 I’ve seen a lot of it happen, either from afar or from the point of view of an activist. So please bear with me.

I suppose you could say that my childhood was always green. We called it being poor. Recycling and reuse? Always. Our furniture was someone else’s throw aways and we passed on to others anything we didn’t need. When you have no money, reusing is the only option. But we never felt deprived. We walked or took a bus everywhere. We didn’t own a car until I was in fourth grade which was also the year we finally got a refrigerator. We had an ice box before that.

Even after most folks had a TV, we got by without one. I do remember having an old, second hand television briefly during part of my years in high school. But without a TV, I never got hooked into hours of television watching the “boob tube”.

I was raised by a hardworking, divorced mom who had survived the depression and “waste not, want not” was our total way of life. Hand-me-down clothing from older cousins or clothes made by my mother was the norm. We almost always had a garden. I earned what money I could doing chores for the neighbors. That was my life.

I laugh now at the “discovery” of walking, bicycling, reading vs. TV, recycling, reusing and organic. We always raised stuff organically, because manure was free and we would never have wasted money on pesticides when we could just pick the bugs off. I was lucky that my mother had taken a year of college nutrition classes before she married. She was a great cook. In addition, my grandmother lived with us and since she was diabetic we never had too many sweets. Meat was expensive so we ate lots of fruits and vegetables as well as casseroles and soups with a minimum of meat stock. I was raised on a very healthy, organic diet.

Before you feel sorry for my poor family upbringing let me say that my sister and I never felt poor. Our life was rich is so many ways and we believed in the “waste not, want not” philosophy. My mother believed in education and the importance of bringing culture into our lives. I had piano lessons and dance lessons, regardless of the financial sacrifice. We took advantage of every free concert and lecture available (and there were many in those days) and we all spent many hours in the library.

We were encouraged to take part in the community and expand our knowledge in every way possible. The “nose bleed” sections of the opera and symphony were cheap enough in those days that even my family could afford it. For people wanting to become greener, those are good activities to do with your family today instead of video games and expensive, gas guzzling trips.

any summers we camped out and traveled the West Coast, harvesting fields at u-pick places and canning up our food for the winter. Nothing ever got wasted. We returned bottles for the deposit and bought our food as close to the source as possible. It was simply cheaper that way. I helped out at a chicken farm so that we always had eggs and we lived next to a dairy so milk was never a problem.

I always loved nature and by the time I started high school we had camped out and hiked in almost all of the national parks (they were free then) in the western United States. In the early 50’s I became a Junior Ranger in the National Park Service. It is still an active program for children today, but was far more challenging then. We learned to identify birds, animals, flowers, trees, and scat. We had outdoor classes on the geology of the region and the influence the ice age had on the fantastic formations and dramatic vistas we were seeing. We went on long hikes with rangers and naturalists. I learned about men like John Muir and other farsighted naturalists who helped save those great natural treasures for us to enjoy.

One exceptional summer in Yosemite they offered a photographic workshop and I met an old, gray bearded man who kindled my love of photography and photographing nature. His name was Ansel Adams.

I was introduced to the writings of naturalists Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau. I read the poems and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The work of these and others like them set the stage for the early environmental movement and are still well worth reading today.

In the late 50’s I began to become acquainted with another stream of thought that would lend itself to environmentalism in the future: the beginnings of the “natural food” phenomena. It was these early pioneers who first began to raise alarm about additives in food, use of pesticides and the lack of nutrition in our “white bread” American society. One fortunate day I had lunch in one of California’s first health food restaurants with an enthusiastic man who has been called the “godfather of fitness”. He talked to me about natural food, exercise, and nutrition. I have tried (not always successfully) to follow his lead for most of my life and will never forget my lunch with Jack La Lanne.

Moving on into the 60’s, there was a lot going on in the world: civil rights, anti-war marches, economic changes, and my own early involvement in local politics and community organizations. Through it all, however, my love of nature never left me. With the publishing of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, the environmental movement really got its start.

That book was followed by another eye opener. Nobel Prize winning scientist Paul Ehrlick’s book The Population Bomb, was published in 1968. Thoughtful people began to see that we were using up our resources and that something needed to be done. That was the year that my old VW bus sported the popular peace sign done in green for world peace and ecological awareness.

Another scientist who was trying to wake people up at that time was Garrett Hardin. His paper The Tragedy of the Commons published in 1968 was a serious wake up call concerning overpopulation and the scarcity of resources. He warned of the effects of pollution and the need to limit access to important natural areas to protect them. He was the ecologist who coined the term, “spaceship earth”. His ideas were extreme at the time and to some extent, still are. In 2007 we are still trying to catch up to this man.

It’s striking that in today’s renewed efforts to work toward a sustainable future, little is being said about aggressive population control, which many believe is the most important issue of all. More than anything else, overpopulation is what’s killing the earth and over using it’s resources. The political climate has become very difficult on population control issues and that’s a major tragedy.

While in graduate school in the 70’s, I heard British born economist and social activist Kenneth Boulding speak and discovered that ecology and economics do go hand in hand. Even today that concept is difficult to grasp. He was one of the founders of an entire school of thought and inquiry called Ecological Economics. He warned that nothing can grow forever and that we were going to run out of all of our critical resources someday. His line of thought, as well as Garrett Hardin’s, is still studied in many organizations and academic circles all over the world.
I started back to college in 1971 after years of working and being in business. It was there that I was introduced to Barry Commoner’s amazing book The Closing Circle. He was called the “Paul Revere of Ecology” and his work formed the backdrop for me to do a year long set of science classes called Ecology. The instructor I had was a newly graduated scientist and one of a small handful of teachers around the world introducing this new discipline to the college curriculum. I began to understand the interconnectedness of all things and the impact we make on our world with every decision we make.

In 1973, one of the great successes of the early environmental movement came to pass; the Endangered Species Act. Finally the government and the public had to come to grips with the fact that our activities in the world had caused the degradation of habitat and endangered many of the earth’s animal and bird species. The danger of DDT was well documented and the far reaching legislation that created the EPA also opened the door to decades of activities that not only saved and restored many animal and bird species, but created a nationwide momentum that gave birth to hundred of land trusts and other organizations seeking ways to protect valuable habitat.

That was also the time, in the Bay Area of California that I got a harsh lesson about the importance of water. “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” was the mantra for several years of drought conditions in Northern California. Saving water and being aware of all the ways I could minimize water usage was a lesson I learned well.

Why the comment about water? Because that’s what our future wars will be fought over. There are already skirmishes in other parts of the world over this scarce and absolutely required resource. Once we get solar power online everywhere we will have free, sustainable energy forever. But water is another story and one that we must look at seriously.

In the 70’s I also joined the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and many other organizations struggling to get the attention of a distracted nation. One triumph of that period was the birth of Earth Day which raised awareness and is still an annual event.

I also learned about organic gardening, worm bins, integrated pest management, composting, mulching, raised bed planting, and animal husbandry in the early ‘70’s. I studied dome homes, sod houses, use of solar energy, rainwater reuse, recycling of building materials, and cluster housing in the 70’s too. So much of what is talked about today has been around since the 60’s and 70’s. It’s just higher tech now.

The 1980’s brought us more national and international news concerning toxic waste, nuclear power issues, population explosion, environmental degradation and a growing sense that it was time to do something. Those of us paying attention were also learning about the loss of the Amazon rainforests. But it was not until the 1990’s that we began to see a huge growth in awareness and activism.

In 1992 the UN convened one of the most important international events ever planned. The United Nation Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, also called the Earth Summit. It was then that we began to see that others in the world were also waking up to the problems. In fact it is amazing to realize that many countries are decades ahead of us in sustainability and conservation. If you really want to know what’s happening in business, academia and social/policy change as it relates to the environment, look at Europe, New Zealand, and the Scandinavian countries. We have a long way to go.

Among the leaders of the new environmental consciousness in the early ‘90’s was Hunter Lovins. As co-founder of the California Conservation Project (Tree People), she and her husband, physicist Amory Lovins, founded the well known Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. She was named Hero of the Planet in 2000 by Time Magazine. Her book, Natural Capitalism, which she co-authored with husband Amory and Paul Hawkins, shook the academic and political world. Respected award winning scientists and environmentalists, these three individuals, in great part, introduced the modern concept of sustainability. Meeting Hunter Lovins and hearing her speak has been a real inspiration to me.

(Continued in Pt. 3)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Going Green, Pt. 1 in a series

I’ve been asked to write about what is happening in the world of “green” and sustainable building and remodeling. I’m happy to do so, but after much thought, I realize that recommending a specific book or magazine, class to attend, or even online resource to help educate anyone about sustainability, is like handing them a steering wheel and saying, “this is a car.” There is just so much more to it.
Everyone has on opinion about what constitutes green. Many people know about global warming and have decided, without much thought or research, who they want to blame and what they think can fix it. Many people say that only private business can turn things around. They believe that corporations were the major contributors to the problem and have the deep pockets and the technical know-how to find solutions. Others believe that business cannot be trusted and only the government has the resources to look for solutions to the problem. Other folks mistrust the government AND business, and believe only a citizen-led revolution can change the course we’re on.
I believe that all of these players must cooperate. It will take concerted effort by business, the government, and citizens. Individuals can make a difference in so many ways. First and foremost by changing our own individual habits and lifestyle to be far more green. Next, we must work with thoughtful business leaders to encourage and even demand change in the corporate mentality to begin solving our environmental problems. In fact, this is actually happening at an accelerated rate in many places all over the world.
Of course we also need to work with our political leaders, especially those running for office, to demand that our government become a world leader in fighting global warming and environmental degradation. So far we haven’t made much progress there but we must continue to persevere. Last, we should work with citizen activists to make change at the local level as well as in the global arena.
There are decades of research and writing about ecology, environmental activism, population control, economics, planning, and ethics. All of these play an important role in understanding the scope of what sustainability might look like.
Most of us today, in a world newly charged by the “inconvenient truth” of global warming and all that this implies, are looking for ways to change our lifestyle. We want to discover ways to lessen our “footprint” on the earth. That’s all well and good, but we also need to know that there is an entire world of information and study devoted to the issue of saving our planet. I can’t begin to talk about all of that, but I feel compelled to try. Knowing how to make choices that have the least impact on energy use and resources, as well as choosing what is healthiest for you and your family, is important. But if you have no historic context, then it’s just one more shopping decision.
If you will indulge me, I’d like to speak from my own experience and try to use that to discuss at least some of what has come before our current “green” revolution. I only know what I’ve personally learned, but I’m happy to share that knowledge if it can help you. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start. There are wonderful experienced mentors in our community and I urge you to seek them out to learn more.
To begin, I believe that becoming “green” is not just buying fluorescent light bulbs or reading the right books. It’s changing who you are, how you think, and how you conduct even the smallest detail of your daily life.
Do I do it perfectly? Hardly. I have many “sins” that leave me far from my goal of keeping a low carbon footprint. But I constantly work on keeping a constant respect for the planet at the forefront of my thinking.
Let me give you a simple example of what I’m talking about. I’m in a very paper intensive business; real estate. We buy reams and reams of paper every year. As better choices in products have become available, we’ve come to the following formula: first, we buy only 100% post consumer recycled paper. Next, we reuse every piece of paper at least once. We make copies on the back of already printed pages, and then use the rest for scratch paper. Last, we recycle all of our paper back once again to be further recycled. As technology has changed we can now download material onto disks for storage which saves using paper in the first place.
This may sounds burdensome, but we got into it gradually and now it’s simply a part of how we work throughout the day. How we decide what we buy, how we dispose of waste, and how we educate our clients about these things are a part of it too. Any business can do this; it just takes the will and the commitment. It’s not hard to make the office coffee with shade grown organic coffee. It’s not hard to be sure everyone in an office recycles. It’s not hard to encourage everyone to use alternative transportation or at least drive a bio diesel or hybrid car.
Another example that speaks to how we think concerns automobiles. A friend gave me this story and I must share it. She owns two cars. One is a small, two seat, sporty car that looks efficient and cute. The other is a large van. She explained that she gets nods and smiles of approval when she’s driving alone in her little car which actually only gets 25 miles to the gallon. But, she gets scowls of disapproval when she’s driving the van even though it actually gets better mileage. The other critical piece is that in the van she is carrying seven people who are not driving their own cars! Do you see my point? We need to think and analyze, not just react.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Q: I’m getting ready to sell my house and I’m wondering about your opinion on doing an inspection before I try to sell it.

I’ve heard from friends in Seattle that it’s getting to be more common for the seller to have an inspection ahead of time.

I’m glad you asked about that. I encourage sellers to do an inspection before they put their home on the market. There are several reasons. First, you will see for yourself what any buyer will find out if they have an inspection done. If there are major problems, you can have those repaired which might result in getting more money for your house.
It’s common for a price to be reduced during a transaction based on repairs needed. Or, the seller will have to hire someone to do the repairs. Better to do all of that ahead of time and proudly present the buyer with your inspection and proof that the work has been done. In my experience, that will get you top price and a quick sale.
Another reason for doing an inspection is that you can disclose problem issues on the required seller’s disclosure form even if you don’t plan on making repairs. This adds to the transparency of the transaction and makes it clear to potential buyers what you will or will not repair.
I’ve had experience with a few sales in which the seller had already had an inspection and completed the work called for in that report. The buyers felt more confident that the seller was not trying to hide anything, which caused them to be much more willing to make an offer.
Another tip I would add: call your insurance company and ask for a C.L.U.E. report (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange). It’s a history of any home insurance claims you’ve made. There has been a great deal more attention paid to this report in the last few years, and having that report up front can help a potential buyer say yes to your home.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Letter to Incite the Community

I have given very serious thought to what I'm about to write for at least two years. Some of what I'm going to say will be controversial, but my goal is to incite a community dialogue.

For those of us in the real estate or construction business, our Island's rapid gentrification is no secret. Our home prices have skyrocketed due to consistently small inventory and a constantly high demand. We have a high quality lifestyle, a wonderful caring community and a beautiful natural environment that is the envy of people everywhere. That's what's driving up the prices and changing the face of the island.

A person must have a fairly high income to afford a home here. To some extent we are reflecting a national trend which seems to be dividing us into just three classes of people: the poor, the rich and the filthy rich. There is a disappearing middle class and working class that are surprised to now find themselves qualifying for low-income status.

Here's a sobering statistic from the National Association of Realtors; 40% of all homes sold in the US in 2005 were second homes! Second homes are defined as vacation homes and investment purchases. Amazing isn't it! Least you think I'm just bad-mouthing wealthy people, let me ten you that my real concern isn't about money, but about values.

We have always had wealthy people on Vashon island, or as my grandmother used to say, "The well to do." If it were not for these people we wouldn't have Vashon Allied Arts, the Heritage Museum, Vashon Community Care Center, our wonderful parks and open space, the Land Trust and dozens of wonderful non-profits. These people are the backbone of our community and we would be a poorer, sadder place without their generosity.

What I'm talking about is echoed in what I hear from people around the Island who ask: How do we keep the soul of our community as wonderful as it is now? How do we keep the character of our island the way we know and love it? How do we ensure that everyone, regardless background or of income, will find a place here? How do we keep our community values over time?

I've been thinking about this a great deal. I've been reading about similar issues in communities all over the country. Many towns and villages are facing the same problem There are many reasons for these changes, but the one thing that they all seem to share, which many define as the most basic problem, is the increase in mega-mansions. The McMansions, as they are called in many places, are huge, over-size homes being built in established communities all over the country. They come with an attitude.

According to a recent Article in the magazine Utne, Mega houses are "ostentatious symbols of America’s class divide." As a new generation of very wealthy people flaunt their wealth, community after community is struggling to come to grips with this phenomenon and the changes it brings.

In an interview discussing the McMansion problem in Connecticut, a local town planner for Greenwich stated, "It used to be that for old money, the more money you had, more you hid it." That has been very true for Vashon as well. Many of our citizens with older money choose to live simply. They eschew ostentatiousness and use their money to do good things in our community and the world.

One way many cities and towns all over the country are beginning to address this issue is by limiting the square footage of new construction major remodels. Now, before the property-rights folks get all over my case let me say that I believe strongly in private property rights. HOWEVER, "your rights end where my nose begins" as the saying goes. What I mean by that is simply that using far more than your share of our water and other natural resources is doing me, and our community, damage.

Very large houses take more of our precious resources to build in the first place, and way more of our resources to sustain. If we put a limit on square footage we could save those resources. One example that illustrates this point of view is the fact that the construction industry nationwide contributes 40% to our waste-stream annually. Did you know that? That’s according to the Seattle King County Master Builders Association. Much that is generated by the construction of mega-houses.

Popular books talk about the fact that really large houses are not only a huge waste of material and energy but are not even comfortable to live in. Many of their huge rooms remain empty while the family really lives in only a small part of the structure. It's sobering to realize, for instance, that some of the private homes on Mercer Island and in nearby Medina are larger than the White House in Washington D.C. as well as several Seattle hotels!

California, according to a recent news program, is moving vigorously to control the size of new homes since they learned that air conditioning these behemoths is the major cause of the rolling brownouts that their state has been living with these last few summers.

Cities and .towns all over the country are voting to limit home size. Maryland, Connecticut, Idaho, Colorado, and many other places are outlawing mega-houses and, in many cases, not allowing tear downs of average sized homes being replaced by a 10,000-square-foot house.

I am clearly prejudiced here, but frankly, if your ego is so large that takes 10,000 square feet of house or more to contain it, you may not be the kind of person who cares about our community or its values.

What are some of those values? Well, to me they include both a sense of live and let live and, at the same time, a deep concern for each other and our Island family. It's been my observation that we believe in sustainability and protecting the natural environment that brought most of us here in the first place. We care very much about our independence. We do our own studies, form our own committees, direct our community will to solving problems. We don't like to rely on an outside force to make decisions for us. We value our old Island families with all of their quirks and take pride in our ability to integrate people of different needs and backgrounds into the streetscape of our town.

It isn’t just the use of resources and the esthetic considerations that concern me. It's really my own (yes, I'll admit it) prejudicial attitude about what kind of people need a mansion. I recently went into one of the data base programs I use as a real estate broker and starting looking at the names of well over 20 or so households that have homes over 5,000 square feet on Vashon. There were only a couple of names I knew. It's not that I know everyone on the Island to be sure, but I think I do know most of those involved in our community in some way.

Keep in mind that many of these huge homes are second homes. Several are empty for most of the year. Some estates have two or three houses on them. There is the main mansion which is more than 5,000 square feet and then there is a 2,000-square-foot guest house and, of course, the maid's quarters at 1,000 square feet. Are you surprised at this? There are even a few homes that are well over 10,000 square feet! With a few exceptions these are not folks you see at the local fundraisers or community events. Many of them live very much apart from the rest of us.

Now clearly these folks have the right to live here and not be involved with the community in any way. We have always been a destination for summer people who came and went to their private hideaways and may or may not have interacted with the rest of us. I don't mean to say that only those who want to be involved can live here. I'm just using that as one way to measure values. I hope that as a community we can talk about this and further define what it is that we want to save and come up with ideas for doing so.

My hope is not that we end up with complicated restrictions and conditions like many communities on the Eastside of King County. I don't think anyone here wants to be told what color they can paint their house or how many cars they can have in their driveway. (Yes, there are several places within King County where those rules and more are enforced.) But we have to find a way to draw a line of some sort if there is any hope of preserving what we have.

In my own business I take some care to work with people I feel will be an asset to our community, people who will buy locally, serve on nonprofit boards and cherish our diversity. My own belief is that those kinds of people don't feel the need to own a 10,000-square-foot mansion in order to feel important and successful. Am I wrong about this?

I hear from people in the community more and more that things are changing. That Vashon is changing. I hear more complaints about rude customers, demanding clients and people who treat the help at our local businesses with contempt. More telling even than that is uniformed workers. As I drive around I see yard crews in uniform and visit homes with a uniformed maid or cleaning person. Does that seem like Vashon to you?

At a few events over the last year or two I've begun to notice that the help are becoming invisible. One drops their dirty dishes on a tray without even looking at the person carrying it. One doesn't need to pick up after oneself because "the maid will get it" or "the cleaning crew will manage that." I thought I left that sort of distain in Los Angeles 40 years ago. Maybe it's just that my working-class background is becoming transparent below the thin surface of "respectability" bought with a master's degree in education and many years in business.

As a contrast, I recently attended a wonderful anniversary party for an Island couple I know and love. As I walked in to drop something off in the kitchen, I got in line to hug the dishwasher and cook who also happen to be good friends. They were busy preparing food but stopped a moment to talk to guests and hug friends. That's Vashon to me.

I know my words will upset and anger people, even some of my friends and clients and certainly some of my fellow Realtors. But my goal is to get something going here, folks. I worry about this stuff. I want to see discussions, planning meetings, public commentary. I want to get this ball rolling and see where it lands.

I would like to live here the rest of my life and that could be a while. I'd like to feel as comfortable here in 20 years as I do now. I vote for a 5.000-square-foot limit to any single family residence built on Vashon Island. I believe that if your ego can't fit into that size space then maybe this just isn't the place for you. It can be done if we have the will and the desire to do it. What do you think?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Q: My house has been on the market for three months without an offer.

My agent keeps talking about “staging” it. I think that looks phony and I’m not really ready to pack up a bunch of my stuff yet.

Most buyers are sophisticated today and expect a home will be staged. There are several different levels of staging. Since you’re still living in the home your agent probably wants you to pack up all of your personal items and maybe take out some pieces of furniture. A house looks more open and rooms look larger if there are fewer pieces of furniture in it. You want the potential buyers to imagine their personal items in the home, not get stuck looking at the pictures of your family.
Sometimes agents will bring in plants, art work or special items that add to the charm of your home. All of that can help sell it. Ask your agent to take you around to see the houses that are in the same price range as yours. You may be surprised to see how nicely staged some of them are. If those homes show better than yours, it means you’re not being competitive.
There are also several ways to stage an empty house. Some agents have complete households of furniture that they move in. Others use a “suggestion” of furnishings in each room to make it appear warmer and more inviting than an empty house. Perhaps a child sized rocking chair with a teddy bear sitting in it to make an otherwise small bedroom seem charming. Some of our local agents are very good at it. These houses are sparkling clean and attractive and usually sell more quickly. There are many unconscious thoughts and feelings generated by walking into a house. If it’s crowded and messy the buyer may be anxious to leave and not really look at everything. By staging the house to feel open, spacious, clean and attractive you’re making yours the “pick of the litter”. Remember, it’s no longer your home; it’s just a house you want to sell.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Q: I've been hearing that there have been some foreclosures on Vashon.

I’ve read about foreclosures happening in other parts of the country but I thought that with our good real estate market, it wouldn’t happen here. Does that mean there will be some real bargains now?
We have a good market, but that doesn’t help if folks owe more on their home than it’s worth when they need to sell. Far too many people have been enticed by lenders to refinance and borrow more than 100% of the value of their home. In addition, many people who have purchased homes in the last few years got stuck with a type of adjustable rate mortgage that adjusted upward several times, very quickly, making their payments too high to keep up with. People with poor credit scores, or those that fall prey to predatory lenders, can easily get stuck with this type of mortgage.
There are situations where people may lose their job, have a devastating illness, or a divorce; all of which could have put them in a financial bind. That can cause a family to lose their home through foreclosure. When those houses are put on the market, they should be priced to sell fast in the hope that the seller can beat the foreclosure and retain some credit-worthiness.
As for bargains, I rarely see anything that looks like a real bargain here. What I am seeing is a slow down in the huge price increases we’ve seen for many years. Many listing agents are getting the message that prices are not going up as quickly as in past years, so they are pricing homes accordingly. Those well-priced homes are selling quickly.
However, many over-priced homes are sitting on the market longer and going through price drops before they sell. That can be demoralizing to a seller and can make them feel that they are losing money, when in fact, proper pricing in the first place would have seen a quick sale and they could have moved on with their life.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Q: I would like to have my property re-zoned to business zoning.

The house next door has that and I think re-zoning will make my property worth more. I’m really confused about how to do it. I went to the meeting a few weeks ago about the King County Comprehensive Plan and I don’t really understand the process. Do you have any more information?

What was explained at that meeting was the docket system. As I understand it, during the King County Comprehensive Plan up-date process currently underway, you can fill out paperwork, called a docket,which you can find at the County’s web site, or by clicking here. This will allow you to have the County look at your request for a re-zone for no fee. If they tell you that it looks like it would be possible for the re-zone to take place, you may then submit a formal request for a re-zone. That requires a fee of $1,500.
Even if you don’t submit a docket request, you can start with a pre-application meeting with the County. They can tell you if it’s likely that a re-zone can be granted and approximately what the costs will be. The point of the docket system is to save you the fee if the County would not recommend a re-zone for your property.
According to a senior official in the County’s Planning Section, the average re-zone costs about $10,000, plus $140.00/hour for review time. It could cost a great deal more but they recommend that you plan on the $10,000+ as a minimum. If the property has critical areas (streams, ponds, steep slopes, etc) it will take longer and be more expensive.
A re-zone also requires a public hearing and public notice to every property owner within a 500’ radius of your property. The public has the right to comment on the re-zone, and the County reserves the right to deny your request. To learn more go to: for details.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Q: We are having a problem with a neighbor who has an easement across our property.

He believes that we can’t use “his” road, and that he owns it. He also is upset because he says we aren’t taking good care of the road. What can you tell us about easements?
I’m amazed at how often I get questions about road easements. They are not well understood. You should ask an attorney to review the easement itself just to be sure that there are no unusual features to it. However, here is an answer based on my experience and those easements I’ve dealt with:
The property is yours. You own it, and pay taxes on it. An egress (exit) and ingress (enter) easement just gives someone else permission to cross your land to get to their property, nothing more. Because it’s your property, you can use the road for your own purposes. The maintenance of the road is totally the responsibility of the person benefiting from the easement, unless you have some sort of maintenance agreement.
Another issue I’ve heard about from time to time is the question concerning whether the person using the easement can grant permission to another property owner to use it. Unless there is specific language to the contrary, most easements can’t be passed on to others. They apply only to that single property.
I would start with a letter to your neighbor outlining your rights and his. Include a copy of the easement, which you can find in your title policy. If you want to make this a pleasant relationship, then you might agree to help maintain the road, especially if you are using it. That would be a fair way to handle it.
Again, check with an attorney to be sure that it’s a standard easement with no unusual clauses.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Q: I am really furious with my neighbors.

They put their house on the market and never told me they were going to sell. Years ago we talked about the fact that my daughter and son-in-law loved their house and would like to buy it. They told me that if they were ever thinking of selling, they would let me know first. Do I have any recourse?
Unless you have a written agreement with your neighbors giving you the right of first refusal or right to purchase, you probably have no recourse.
It's very hard to hold someone to an unwritten agreement, although it has been done throught the courts if there is overwhelming evidence of some kind of intent. You would have to check with an attorney for a more detailed explanation. A conversation years ago probably doesn't qualify. They may have even forgotten it completely.
It's very common for people to say, "Oh, I just love your house. Let me know if you ever want to sell it because I would sure be interested." I hear this so often that I would call it "just being polite." Your neighbors may have heard that from several people over the years, so they didn't take it seriously.
I also find it's true that most of the people who express an interest would not seriously want to buy it, or can't afford, or aren't in a position to buy it when it becomes available. So, without a real commitment in the form of a letter or contract, I don't expect you can hold them to anything.
This is a good time to encourage everyone to try to work out some contractual arrangement on property that seriously interests you. It can be recorded on the deed to the property, which means that your interest must be addressed before anyone else can buy it. In most cases, keep in mind that you will have to be willing to pay market price for the property.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Q: I enjoyed the ten week class you sponsored on sustainable/green building and remodeling.

All the speakers were interesting and some were really excellent. I'm left with some confusion about how to determine which "green" elements I want to incorporate into my remodel project. There were so many things to decide and so many products to choose from that I feel overwhelmed. Any ideas where to start???

A: The BuiltGreen checklist is the best place to begin your process. There is a check list for building, and one for remodeling. Look for the checklist on the BuiltGreen website ( and review the whole list. You can work with their point system to help you make choices on your project.
Like so many decisions involving real estate, it's all about trade-offs. The point system lets you choose from a menu of options. By looking at those options, you can get an idea of what works for you, and what professionals recommend to create a healthier, more energy efficient home.
   Let's take an example: Upgrading to a high efficiency water heater is worth 7 points on the BuiltGreen list. But, let's say you really don't want to spend money on that right now. Instead, you can gain up to 5 points for converting your lighting to compact flourescent bulbs; a much less expensive choice. Then, by installing a front-loading or an Energy Star rated washing machine, you can earn an additional 3 points.
   You may be hoping to convert to solar power one day using photovoltaic panels. That can get you 25 green points! But, if that's not in your budget right now, you can gain that same 25 points by replacing carpet (which can have a high level of toxicity) with non-toxic materials such as sustainably-harvested wood floors.
   I also recommend you consider using salvaged materials. There are several stores in the area that offer some beautiful materials at very low prices.
Green remodeling and building address issues of health, site preparation, materials choice, lifestyle changes, and design elements. Get to know these issues using the BuiltGreen list, and then choose what works best for your project.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Q: We are in the middle of buying a house and just got finished with the inspection.

There were several things that needed fixing. The seller prefers to just reduce the price by the amount they think it would take to fix things, but we’re not sure that’s a good choice. We are working with an off-Island real estate agent who says we should ask for an allowance to cover the costs instead. What do you suggest?
I have a preference for having the work done and the seller paying for it prior to closing. I have been doing this long enough to have sold a few houses more than once. It’s always distressing to find that the same repairs that were needed a few years ago are still not completed because the buyers took a price reduction or an allowance and didn’t do the work. It also means that what might have been a minor fix years ago is now a major expense.
The agent involved realizes that, in most cases, his commission will be reduced by a price reduction so that may be why he is lobbying for an allowance. The allowance may be a good idea if it reflects the true cost of the repairs but without bids from professionals who can do the work, neither you nor the seller has any idea how much it will cost. You could take an allowance or a price reduction and then find that the repairs cost twice that much.
I would suggest trying to negotiate having the seller do any major repair work before closing and then offering you an allowance for the smaller stuff that you can do after closing. Keep in mind that some repairs could be called out by the appraiser in which case someone has to pay to have the work done before the bank will close on the sale. Then the most important thing….do the repairs!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Q: My dad is selling his place.

We followed your advice and contacted several listing agents. My sister and I interviewed a couple of them that we liked and had heard good things about. Each of them came up with about the same selling price for the house. Then a third agent shows up (not sure who told him about it) and told dad he can get a whole lot more money for the house. The agent brought comparable sales but they were for very different houses than the other two agents used. I think that agent is a rip-off artist, but my dad liked the price he quoted. What can I do?
There are always agents who will tell a seller what they think the seller wants to hear in order to be the agent who gets the listing (and the commission, of course.) What often happens is that the house will sit on the market for a long time because it is overpriced. In many cases that means the seller is losing money because while the house stays on the market, the mortgage, taxes, and insurance still have to be paid for those many months. Plus, they may lose out on something else they are trying to buy.
One idea might be to drive your dad by the sold homes that the first two agents used as comparables to his house. Discuss the similarities and differences. Then, drive by the places the third agent used to justify his higher price.
Keep in mind that homes should be compared by category. For instance, if your dad has a waterfront home, it should be compared with other, similar waterfront homes. If it is on acreage, it should be compared with homes that are also on acreage. If it needs a lot of work, and is really outdated, it should not be compared with homes that have been remodeled.
I recommend that you look closely at the reputation of each agent: their experience, and most importantly, their integrity. Get references! Find out how long their listings sit on the market before they sell. Choosing an agent is a very important financial decision, so do your homework.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Q: My mother wants to buy a waterfront house on Vashon and I’m trying to talk her out of it.

She has a lovely little place on the Island now where she enjoys her gardening very much. She tells me that she’s always wanted to live on the water. I want to respect her wishes, but everything I’ve seen in her price range would mean parking a long way from the house and walking down steep stairs. Either that, or the house sits on top of a bluff and then she would still have to walk down many stairs. She is still in good shape, but I worry about the future. Many of those places also have tiny lots with no space for a garden. I think she would really miss that. What are your thoughts?
A: Waterfront homes can be wonderful, and being near the water is a dream many people share. However, most of our waterfront homes (especially those that were originally built as weekend or vacation cabins) can have serious problems. A lot of these homes were poorly constructed; not meant to be lived in full-time. For example, septic issues would be especially challenging. Updating a failing or inadequate septic system on a waterfront property can be very difficult and very expensive. There’s also the very serious issue of landslide hazard. King County has maps of the landslide hazard areas, and those maps cover almost our entire waterfront. I would be concerned about that, particularly since we have had some serious slides in the last 15 years.
Here’s a suggestion that might be worthwhile: if it will work financially, maybe she could rent a waterfront home for a year and see if it would work for her. Perhaps she could rent her home during that time. This time would give her the experience of what it would really be like to live on the water. It would be best to try to find a “walk-in” situation, so that she gets a real feel for what that is like.
Once she has considered all of the drawbacks of waterfront living, and experienced it for herself, she will be in a better position to make her decision.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Q: We are shocked at how prices have changed on Vashon.

We've had a home here for 18 years and now that we are retired, we want to buy down to a one story home. My husband has a little back trouble and I don't really like stairs much anymore. Looking at what's available for what we want to pay is very discouraging. I don't think we can afford as nice a home as we have now, even if it's smaller. I hate to think we have to move off the island, but we've started to look in some of the less expensive areas. I'd like to get a referral from you for an agent we can trust on the Key Peninsula.

A: I am sending you a referral to an agent I think will do a good job for you. But, before you pack up and move away, have you considered an elevator? I know this sounds crazy at first, but even the best elevators are a great deal less than the cost of selling a house and then buying a new home.

I recently visited the home of some folks who have a beautiful pneumatic elevator that is being sold by a Canadian firm. Pneumatic means it has no need for a room full of motors and pulleys. Instead, it uses air pressure to operate. I took a ride in it and found that it moved smoothly, with no bumps or jerks, and felt comfortable and safe. It was also attractive!

There are a full range of elevator types for homes now. As the baby boomers have begun to reach retirement age, many industries are catering to them by providing better products for their older years. Elevators are one good example.
I would venture to say that a really nice elevator will cost you less than the closing costs of selling your home. Some of the elevators attached to stairways are even less money than the moving costs it would take to move you to another area of the state. Think about it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Q: I just bought a house here and it’s really in need of remodeling.

It was built in the 60’s and it needs a lot of work. I’d like to incorporate some elements of “green” building into the remodel but don’t know where to start. Also, is that going to make it more expensive?

Funny you should ask. I am sponsoring a 10 week class on sustainable/green building and remodeling starting Thursday, March 1st. I’m bringing in an exciting group of speakers covering things like using recycled products and used building materials, designing for passive solar, “green” remodeling and sustainable landscaping. You can call my office to sign up.

Most people assume that doing a “green” project will cost more money. That isn’t true. Most “green” products are competitively priced, such as carpeting from recycled soda bottles and non-toxic paints. They are also beautiful and easy to use! What can make an impact on your project is time. Many contractors are too busy to take the extra time to locate appropriate used materials or shop for specifically recycled products. That’s where you can make the difference. If you’re willing to do some of the shopping, you can save yourself a lot of money and the contractor a lot of time.

I have a friend who built her entire house using recycled materials. It’s a stunning, dramatic home. She went to the stores that sell recycled products, as well as those that sell used building materials, and got some fantastic deals! She got marble, slate, granite, period fixtures, and top of the line appliances. Her house was made of Rastra, (a concrete form system, made from recycled plastics, that stays in place once the concrete is poured) and positioned her house for passive solar. She did it all on a budget.

I was recently awarded the EcoBroker designation from the National Association of Realtors. There are only 40 such EcoBrokers in the state of Washington. It is a rigorous course of study that I took on because I think it’s critical that we all wake up and realize that the old saying is still true: “waste not, want not."

Monday, February 05, 2007

Q: We have a problem and don’t know who to consult.

Maybe you can recommend a lawyer or someone. We own a rental house here on Vashon and have decided that we want to sell it. We’ve had an appraisal and are really happy with the price we were quoted. The problem is the renters. Their lease isn’t up for a couple of months and we want them out of there now so we can sell the place. My husband has been calling them and asking them to leave and also we’ve been over there with some real estate people who say the house would show better empty. How can we get these people out?

I think that if you plan to engage an attorney it should be to explain Washington Landlord Tenant Law to you. I believe that you are in violation of that law and the renters could have a case against you for harassment. For instance, are you aware that they are entitled to at least a two day notice before you intend to enter the house? They have the right to enjoy their home in peace with no harassment from you or anyone else. The home is theirs until the end of their lease unless they have broken the lease agreement or caused some major nuisance.

You should also understand that selling the house does not automatically end a lease. In addition, I suggest you read the provision of the law concerning taking retaliatory actions against a renter. That could get you into some trouble too.

I would recommend that you speak to them and see if you could buy them out of their lease. If they aren’t willing to leave early, I suggest you wait until they move out to put your house on the market. You made a contract with these people and you need to keep it. They could make it very difficult for you if they wanted to, so it’s in your own best interests to work with them, not against them.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Q: My husband and I are trying to decide between two houses to buy.

The first one is small but it's an old cottage that we could fix up really cute. The other is a larger, newer house but it's just so plain and boring that I can't imagine living there. The first house is too small for our family, but it looks so sweet. The second house has room to spare but it's ugly. In our price range there really hasn't been anything else for a long while so we think that we should settle on one of these. Any ideas?

A: I support remodeling an older house as a way to save the resources required to build new and to make older housing stock more energy-efficient. But, particularly since you have a limited budget, I say go for the ugly, newer house! An older home may be "cute" but it probably needs major infrastructure repairs and upgrades. An older house can easily need new double-pane windows, more insulation, an upgraded furnace or water heater, roof or foundation work, and new appliances. All this will cost a lot without giving you the extra space you need.

Ugly is easier! Paint can go a surprisingly long way to making a house attractive. You can add decorative exterior trim, upgrade the interior finish work, add new appliances, and create a nicer landscape. You can do this over time as you can afford it. I've seen many an "ugly duckling" turned into a "swan" with a little imagination and some sweat equity.

Don't forget that a newer house will probably have decent insulation, double-pane windows, and other energy saving features to start with. I recommend that you do the work yourselves to get more "bang for your buck", and also, keep to a budget. When you are finished, you will not only make it a nicer home to live in for yourselves, but you will greatly increase the home's value.

Remember to look for "green" products to make your home more energy efficient and a safer environment. I have a list of resources for "green" building, so please don't hesitate to contact me for this information.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Q: We want to buy a home on Vashon this year.

We’ve been reading about all the foreclosures around the country and are looking forward to getting a real deal. Prices are really dropping everywhere so we think this is a great time to buy. Should we wait until mid-spring and see if prices really go down, or start looking now?
A: Since Vashon is a “boutique” market you may find that there will be no real “deals” here. The market has indeed “softened” and is adjusting to national economic realities. On Vashon that just means that prices are stabilizing rather than going up. Sellers can’t expect huge jumps in value the way we’ve seen it in the last couple of years. However, that doesn’t mean that prices will be going down.
As for foreclosures, those are rare here. Most people facing foreclosure put their house on the market prior to having the bank take it over. We have witnessed only a few foreclosures over the last 10 years and those resulted in the bank becoming the seller. Frankly, banks and lending institutions are often more difficult to deal with than the original owners, so it’s best if the current owners put their house on the market before there is a real possibility of foreclosure.
As for the best time to buy, that should be determined by your needs. It’s an active market now, even in the dead of winter. There will be more inventory in the spring but the main issue is finding a home that best fits your needs regardless of time of year. That can often take awhile since there is always a small selection of houses in each price range.
I would suggest that if you want to shop for a good deal, you begin shopping for the best financing package. That can ultimately mean more in terms of savings to you than a few thousand dollars difference in price. I’d be happy to make some recommendations of lenders I trust and have worked with in the past. Just give me a call at 463-4060.