Realtors need to know their turf

#532 in a series of true experiences in real estate
May 2007, Hills Newspapers

We met this week a woman who is collecting information, wondering whether or not to sell her large Berkeley house and buy down in size and cost.

Lois and her husband raised their three children in her house but some years ago the kids grew up and moved out and Lois is no longer married. She’s had students stay with her, but no one at the moment. She still works full time but is looking toward retiring, and so, more frequently these days, she considers a change.

Her kids, who have young kids of their own, live in Oakland and in San Leandro. Maybe she’d move to Oakland’s Laurel or Dimond neighborhoods. She imagined she’d like living in a loft but after going to a few open houses, she was disappointed that the lofts around here are not New York-like, open-floor lofts.

Lois asks about capital gains that she’ll have to pay when she sells and she talks about moving her property tax base. If she buys down and she stays in Alameda County, she can take advantage of this “empty-nest” benefit.

“How about San Leandro?” we ask, “It’s in Alameda County.” Lois answers that her daughter and family like it a lot. The elementary school near their house where their children attend is an award-winning school, a very good one. They didn’t know that when they moved there; they just happened to find a house they wanted and could afford and bought it.

“How much are houses in San Leandro?” we ask.. Lois says she thinks they aren’t too expensive. One day not long ago she was with her daughter when they saw a house with a for-sale sign. “It wasn’t open but there was a brochure box in front. It was a ‘grandma’ house on a large lot, too much yard for me. It was priced at a little under five hundred.”

The price sounded to us so promising that I suggested that Lois ask her daughter about a good agent who knows San Leandro, one who’s caring and smart. And I said I’d look at our MLS to see if San Leandro is included. If it is, Lois could go on our website, plug in her parameters, and get emails of new listings.

An hour later curiosity had me at the computer searching MLS. Yes, San Leandro is there, alright, I can easily access the listings. Just to try it out, I called up listings priced at $450,000 to $525,000, and quite a lengthy list appeared.

I highlighted a third of them at random to look at in detail. The houses were small, about 1000 square feet, with some having larger lots but most on regular city-size lots. A few were built in the 1940s but more common were 1960 box-style houses. Many of the listings had been on the market for awhile, 60 days or more, and their prices had been reduced.

Many listings did not have interior photos attached to the MLS listings but for those that did, most had no staging. I found a couple of virtual tours but no dedicated websites for individual houses.

The data I was looking at didn’t tell me much at all. I still did not know the neighborhoods or their names, where they were located, which were considered better and more expensive. Which areas were convenient to amenities, parks, shops. Are there areas with trees and quiet?

This is exactly why Anet and I don’t sell real estate in areas we don’t know. We would not be doing right by our clients if we did.

When people ask us if we’ll help them buy or sell in Alameda, for instance (which happened twice just in the last month), we say, “You need a good agent who knows Alameda.” The same is true for Marin, Napa, Orinda, and now, San Leandro.

Not only do we not know the streets and neighborhoods, we don’t know inspectors, termite people, or other agents. And they don’t know us, which can be a decided disadvantage for our clients.

We haven’t been looking at the houses for sale so, other than what is written on MLS, we can’t know other specifics about listings. Which sold for less because they were peculiarly laid out or the finishes were bad? Who had a pack of barking dogs next door? Or, was a house worth more due in part to fabulous maple floors plus a location where moms and preschoolers go to the park everyday?

Myriad other factors no doubt affected value as well: Point-of-sale ordinances, local traditions and practices, city regulations, etc. Had we been active, observing agents there, we probably would have known about most of these or at least similar info about other houses nearby.

Wow, imagine what it must be like to go to Ohio, say, for the first time and buy a house. Or anywhere new to you. I’ve never done that. New would include locating new grocery stores, dentist, car mechanic, etc. New might also mean septic system, hurricane cellar, well drilling, armadillos in the backyard.

I would certainly hope to find a caring, thinking real estate agent to help me, one who is familiar with Ohio. Or wherever, and who would let me in on all “the skinny.” Because how happy I’d end up being there would no doubt be largely dependent on getting that info so I could use it.

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