A project, a dream and then fulfillment

#169A in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 1996, Hills Newspapers

We like this man, a buyer who knows what he wants, can afford to buy it, will recognize it when he sees it. He will buy a house.

Michael Studebaker sits with us and talks. He’s in his thirties, tall and good looking – the kind of guy who was always class president.

He tells us that he grew up in Sacramento, came to Berkeley to go to school. He majored in business at Cal with a minor in art history. He talks about one course he took, a project in which he had to choose a house to study.

He drove around Berkeley looking for his subject until one, a house on Glen Avenue, “glared out at me.” He knocked at the door and explained his visit, said he would need to get inside, probably a number of times, learn the history of the house, measure it and draw a floor plan. The owners agreed.

It’s a very large house, three floors, a Craftsman-style shingle with an appealing blend of architectural styles. The original owner built it after losing his house in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and he included within it all of his favorite features from a house plan book.

Michael loves that house. He loved hearing the stories about the house and about the family that still lives there. He taped each room, then drew the plans – had to go back again and again to measure and get everything right. He looked at city records, got the site plan, talked to the neighbors, studied the way the house is laid out, and how its pieces were put together.

He tells us all about parts of it, the back stairwell, for example, used by the Irish servants who would cook the meals and retire to attic quarters unseen.

“While I was working on the house, I thought that nothing could be better than living in that work of art. The people who grew up there had the advantage of living in it,” Michael says. “It was just normal for them. I was envious.”

Michael grew up in a different kind of house, a suburban tract house. “People probably don’t expect to live in tract houses all their lives,” he says, then stops for a moment before going on. “Well, maybe some do, but tract houses weren’t built to be beautiful things. In the Glen house, 80 years later, the things that were beautiful are still beautiful.”

Michael graduated from Cal and took a job as a bicycle messenger. (“It looked like fun, and it was”), later starting his own messenger service, Studebaker Messenger. It looked like he was here to stay. Time now to buy.

This was the first time we’d met, but we’d talked on the phone some weeks before. He’s followed our advice to the letter. Before telling us what he wanted to buy, he’d talked to a mortgage broker, completed a loan application, knew what he could afford.

Now he was handing us his plan, neatly put down on paper. We had never seen anything quite like it. “I’m looking for a structurally sound, yet cosmetically challenged two or three bedroom home in Rockridge, east of College Avenue.”

“In plan to buy in the next 90 days and, within five years, In hope to realize a 25 percent increase in property value with the improvements I make. The home is not a major league fixer but is definitely a project.”

There were other requirements: a relatively new roof, original hardwood floors intact, spacious room proportions, natural light, off-street parking. He had highlighted on the map perhaps 15 streets where the house might be located.

By amazing chance, we had just listed a house that seemed to fit all of Michael’s criteria. We were showing it for the first time the following day, so naturally we told him about it. This house, located on one of Michael’s preferred streets, was built in 1910, has a decent roof and foundation. But every surface inside and out requires attention. It is definitely a project.

We do not handle both sides of a single sale, so we gave Michael the name of another agent just in case it turned out he wanted to buy the house. As he toured the house along with a lot of other people one Sunday, he didn’t talk about what he was thinking. We couldn’t tell if he was overwhelmed by the needed repairs or was simply planning how he would make them.

Because the home is located in a very popular area, there was a lot of activity, in spite of its condition. We estimated that 300 people toured the house in the few days it was on the market. Many who saw it were discouraged. “It’s a lifetime project,” we heard more than once. And “It would take $100,000 to fix it.”

Still, five buyers made offers, including Michael. He got it. His was not the highest offer. He won because he was ready and committed. Before offering to buy, he had done inspections, had become familiar with the work that the house would require, was comfortable with taking it on.

He was pre-approved for a loan. And he had taken the time to write a letter to the sellers telling them why he wanted to buy the house, a message that was well received.

Michael is very excited. We are excited for him. Soon he will be living in the old house, restoring it to “the kind of house,” he says, “that takes everyone in and makes them feel good.”

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