All posts by cynthia

About cynthia

Titles: Writer. Mother. Realtor. Status: Here Now: San Francisco Then: Shenandoah Valley

What Stagers Wish You Knew

Staging may be the single most vital investment homeowners can make in the successful sale of their home. Akin to hiring a Fairy Godmother to transform a mushroom into a mansion, staging – done well – is miraculous.

Yet it’s often misunderstood and underappreciated. That’s why this post (my second installment of a regular featured called “What They Wish You Knew”) focuses on stagers.

Here are seven “good-to-knows” regarding home staging:

Resist the urge to become an instant expert in interior design while your home is being staged. Thinking you know best what should and shouldn’t go in a staged room is sort of like telling your dentist how to extract a tooth. Some things are better left to the expert.

Asking the stager to “work with” your things or some of your things won’t save money and the result (with few exceptions) won’t be as alluring. Your stager conjures a fresh, unique vision for your property and your old possessions tend to just gum up the flow. Plus, any savings from keeping stuff in place will be offset by the cost and effort of moving twice or thrice.

Remember that stagers are not designing the space to appeal to your taste. The whole idea is that you are selling and moving. So just because you don’t like that particular table doesn’t mean it should be swapped out. The point is to appeal to buyers. And stager are the professionals who understand what “sells” a home in today’s market.

Nobody – not you and not even most agents – can imagine a space better than it can be staged.

If a stager suggests that you do any of these half dozen possibly painful (and seemingly unnecessary) things, don’t resist: 1) Refinish or re-carpet entry stairs. 2) Paint kitchen cabinets. 3) Refinish floors. 4) Paint walls. 5) Get new appliances. 6) Clean up the garden. Don’t think of it as “wasting” money on something you didn’t get to enjoy. Think of it as being clever and getting a high ROI on your cleverness.

Stagers care. They put their hearts into the choice of items for your home. It’s not just a bunch of stuff. As one of my favorite pros told me, “I have a deep, personal attachment to each and every accessory in my design collection. I remember where each piece came from. So when anything – even the cheapest candle holder from Ross or a napkin ring from Goodwill – breaks or gets lost or stolen, it hurts.”

Stagers are some of the best designers and interior decorators in the business. I hear a variation on this all the time: “Wow. Everything looks great. I should have had the stager in when I first bought my house.” To which I reply, “Yes. What a great idea! How about you give her/him a call – right now – about your new place?”

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com.

Dulce Domum

Think “luxury” and the adjectives that arise are ones like “prestigious,” “opulent,” “expensive,” or “unique.”

But how about the deliciously plain and oft-neglected word “understated?”

It’s delightful to step into a grand, architecturally significant loft from a funky freight elevator. Or to drive up to a lavish estate via a gravel drive secured by a humble wooden gate. The surprise only heightens one’s sense of prosperity and good fortune.

A prime example of such restrained sensibility is 1050 Filbert Street, currently for sale in San Francisco. Located on the east slope of Russian Hill, it consists of a main house and separate guest quarters. All that’s evident from the street is a boxy two-car garage. The casual observer might say, “Meh.”

But behind its ordinary entry door and down a flight of simple stairs is an elegant oasis – one that’s been thoughtfully remodeled and reimagined for a luxurious yet understated lifestyle. Its muted design is key to its charm and value.

It reminds me of an episode from the book The Wind in the Willows (a children’s classic focused on a group of woodland critters whose genteel lifestyles feature some fabulous real estate): Mole and Rat are lost in The Wild Wood and stumble upon “a solid-looking little door” belonging to Mr. Badger’s house “in the side of what had seemed to be a snow-bank.”

Badger invites his unexpected visitors in for supper and ushers them “down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage, into a sort of a central hall” which leads to “a large firelit kitchen,” which author Kenneth Grahame describes in such delightful detail that it makes me wish I knew Badger myself:

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burned a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney corners tucked away…Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased…in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

It’s the sort of kitchen you’d see in an Architectural Digest spread about an English country house. The restored cabinets date back to the 18th Century. A dishwasher has only recently been installed. Baskets hang by the door so the cook can gather vegetables from the kitchen garden. A well-worn table serves as additional counter space and for casual dining.

There’s nothing new or bespoke. The architect’s name is lost. But the understated estate is the very essence of luxury. It offers comfort and solace. It pleases the senses. It welcomes and delights friends. And it frames and supports a meaningful life.

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com. This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away?

I live at the border of the Liberty Hill Historic district, just a two-minute huff away from the golden fire hydrant that quelched the fire that ravaged the Mission district after San Francisco’s Great Earthquake. My house sits on 20th Street and is a curious-looking late-Victorian cottage that is a close relative of what’s termed an “earthquake shack.

It was built in 1906 or 1907 on a lot made vacant when firefighters and volunteers dynamited (or let burn) the structures on the north side of the street as a fire break. Rescued from destruction by that intervention and by the famous golden fire hydrant at 20th and Church, the stately homes on the opposite side of my street are intact. Almost daily, groups of people gather with their tour guides to gawk at those handsome facades.

In the middle of an ordinary day, I’m sometimes halted in my tracks by the realization that those Victorians have stood there for 125 years. They practically loom over pedestrians, like members of a jury. Observing, listening, judging. Positioned on an upslope, their fronts are like somber, vigilant faces.

They watched silently after the quake as the Mission rose from the heap of ashes strewn from 20th Street to Market. They stood by as the train tracks on the block were ripped out and – later – new sewer mains planted and utility poles erected (and, more recently, buried). They’ve outlasted the graves that once filled Dolores Park and were relocated to Colma.

They repeatedly see the street repaved and its sidewalk squares torn out and re-poured. They watch as a recurring sinkhole on the west end of the block caves in every five years or so. They’ve had garages dug beneath their foundations, and the natural springs on their lots funneled into drainage systems.

They’ve endured as San Francisco soldiers marched off to at least six wars. They’ve surveyed crowds of people thronging toward Mission Street or Market Street to protest for women’s suffrage, civil rights and gay rights.

The women who’ve slept in their bedrooms have worn corsets and bustles, or miniskirts, or all-leather ensembles and multiple piercings. People from all over the globe have called them “home.” Recently, children have grown to adulthood in their rooms, but can’t leave because they can’t afford a place of their own.

Sometimes at twilight, if I squint my eyes just right, I can imagine all the houses are brand new. It’s the 1890s. There are no cars. There are no hipsters toting 12-packs of PBR to Dolores Park. There are no skateboarders bombing the hill. The Great Earthquake is still 15 years away and the California Gold Rush is not so far in the past.

We think we have all the time in the world, but San Francisco’s present is rapidly becoming its history. Everything – including the venerable Victorians on my block – will eventually fade away.

So, let’s celebrate our beautiful city right now. Call me and I’ll meet you today at the Golden Fire Hydrant to enjoy the view of the skyline. Tomorrow it’ll be forever changed.

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com. This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

Help Your Realtor Keep It Real

Things get personal with residential real estate. They get intimate. No wonder, since “home” is where you live, eat, sleep and do all the other things that humans do.

This is why good agents become their clients’ familiar friends. A close relationship – if client and agent are lucky – inevitably develops. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my practice.

Yet there’s a downside. In interacting with people we love, it’s a challenge to remain honest. We align ourselves with our friends’ wishes and dreams, and pretty soon objectivity and candor go flying out the nano windows.

Example: Betty and Bob’s condo has it all. A panoramic bay view, 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, 2-car parking, a remodeled kitchen and a private deck. 75 prospective buyers have visited the house over three weeks of marketing. Nobody has made an offer.

Betty is now reviewing all marketing materials. She asks their agent, Joan, to change the order of the photos on the website. She suggests that Joan should highlight the fact that there’s a garbage chute in the hall: “We have just LOVED having that trash chute,” she says, in all sincerity, “I don’t think people appreciate how convenient it is not to have to walk the garbage downstairs.”

Okay. The truth is that spotlighting the garbage chute’s presence won’t make one iota of a difference, and the photo sequence on the website is inconsequential. 75 buyers were drawn to see the property. The problem is simple: The price is too high.

But Joan, who has guided Betty and Bob through property preparation and staging over the course of several months, has begun to see the house through Betty’s and Bob’s lenses. As her clients’ perception of the value of the condo has risen – in proportion to the amount of effort and thought expended on readying it for sale – so has Joan’s opinion of value.

Joan belatedly realizes they’ve set the price too high by $100,000. Yet she hesitates to share this sobering truth. She doesn’t want to upset Betty and Bob because she cares about them, and she knows this will upset them.

Smart clients can help their agents avoid this trap by explicitly inviting the truth they don’t want to hear.

It’s sort of like parenting. You ask your teenager to be honest about how that bag of weed ended up in the glove box of the Prius. You promise him or her that – as long as he or she is truthful – you won’t get upset. Once the air is cleared, next steps can be calmly and coolly identified.

So, prudent buyer, be sure to ask for blunt answers to questions like these:

  • Is it wishful thinking to hold out for 3 bedrooms at this price in this neighborhood?
  • What offering price would make you feel 98% confident about our chances of winning?
  • Are there terms in this offer we should eliminate in order to be more competitive?
  • Is my lender up to the challenge of this market?
  • How have other buyers solved this issue/overcome this difficulty?
  • Am I sabotaging myself in any way?

Savvy sellers, request frank responses to questions like these:

  •  Do we need to follow the stager’s recommendation that we remove the carpet and refinish the hardwood underneath the entry stairs?
  • Is this listing price one that will evoke a “run-don’t-walk” response from buyers?
  • Are there enhancements we’ve refused to consider that you think would bring us a great return on investment?
  • What are our blindspots where our home is concerned?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about our approach to selling the house, what would it be?
  • For which selling-related tasks (purging, organizing, painting, etc.) should we get professional help rather than trying to DIY?

Buying or selling a home is a process that unfolds differently in every situation. But the relationship between agent and client is the key to every successful transaction.

Show your agent that you, too, are invested in the relationship. Let them know you’ll love ‘em even if the truth hurts. Then, listen carefully and keep an open mind.

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com.This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

Real Estate Poetry: Shall I Compare Thee To A Beehive?

A regular participant in my writing workshops recently introduced me to the “Country House Poem.” Something I knew nothing about!

According to Wikipedia, it’s a poem in which “the author compliments a wealthy patron or a friend through a description of his country house.” Popular in early 17th century England, there are numerous examples of them.

Here’s an excerpt from a 1568 poem by Geoffrey Whitney that compares Combermere Abbey to a beehive:

There, fertile fields, there, meadows large extend;

There, store of grain with water and with wood.

And in this place, your golden time you spend,

Unto your praise, and to your country’s good

This is the hive, your tenants are the bees –

And in the same, have places by degrees.

Perhaps I should bring back the Country House Poem – or a variation of it. I could write a tome for each of my clients after close of escrow. Or I could write silly real estate poetry for my own entertainment, with verses like these:

For the (relatively) inexpensive tenant-occupied, fixer 2-units in SOMA that sold on an alley block around the corner from a popular rave venue:

Though urine soaked with walls grafitti’d

And rents so low one can’t be greedy

This home in progress path is planted

N’er take low-cost square feet for granted!

Or for the $2,250,000 2-bedroom 1500 sq. ft. top-floor condo overlooking Dolores Park:

Where else can you spend fifteen hundred a foot

With roof rights on which a nice deck could be put

For watching the revelers in Dolores Park

And hearing them long, long, long after it’s dark?

And don’t forget the Outer Parkside surf shack that broke the one-million-dollar ceiling on a 40-something avenue:

Tsunami, liquefaction and dam inundation

Might give you a moment of slight hesitation

But Ocean Beach beckons to you and your dog

Especially on rare days without any fog

Clearly, I have some serious work to do if I’m going to revive this art form!

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com.This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

What House Painters Wish You Knew

Today I’m writing the first of what I hope will be a regular feature at RealEstateTherapy. Let’s call it What They Wish You Knew. “They” being various professionals associated with the business of real estate.

First up: What House Painters Wish You Knew.

Painting is one of the trinity of property improvements guaranteed to enhance value when selling. (The other two are floors and lighting.) Painting is about as close to magic as you can get, and if you want the spell done right, you hire a magician.

And that magician – your painter – would like you to know these things:

Catalog your colors for when you move out or sell. It’ll save you money because the painter won’t have to charge you for the time it takes to match the color.

Ideally, you’ll go one step further and save your paint. This also cuts costs because it makes touchups easier in the future. Even if you have the color formula, a new mix may not match an old mix. Results vary from store-to-store and over time. But the paint stored in a can will age along with what’s on the wall.

If you’d rather not pay your magician to do detective work, don’t just point to a pile of old paint cans and say, “I’m pretty sure the paint you need is there.” Sort through yourself in advance.

Painters aren’t movers, and it’s less costly to paint vacant rooms. So if you say you’ll empty a room’s contents prior to painting, then do it. If you agree to move everything into the center of the room, then do that. Otherwise, be ready for additional costs or delays.

There’s no such thing as “just touching up.” Homeowners envision they’ll save money if the painter can simply dab a little paint here and there. But touch-ups only go so far, especially given the difficulty (and costs associated with) matching paint. It’s often easier to paint whole walls or rooms.

If you’re not already committed to a particular paint color (and, therefore, brand) ask your painter if he/she has a preference about brand(s). Brand preference has to do not only with ease of application, but also with location of the paint store. If your San Francisco painter has to drive to Serramonte to procure paint from Home Depot, it’s going to cost you extra.

Unless your painter is a professional colorist, don’t ask him or her to advise on paint colors and finishes. (One of the best painters I know is color blind!) Give him or her exact instructions about shade and sheen.

Realize that the best painters may be ones who are so experienced and skilled that they get their work done speedily. In other words, more time doesn’t necessarily mean a better result. Look for painters with great references and ones who bid by the job, not by the hour.

Prep time, plus procurement of and cost of materials add up quickly, so resist the temptation to look at a finished room and think or say, “What was so darn expensive about that? That was easy. I could have done it myself!”

The truth is that very few of us mortals are qualified to do painting all by ourselves. Better to go pro, then stand back and enjoy the results.

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com. This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

Outdoors San Francisco for the Non-Outdoorsy

Now that it’s feeling a little bit like summer and the worst of the June swoon seems to be over, your friends are all like “Hey, let’s hike up Mt. Tam and then run over to Sol Food for Cubanos and Ponches.”

And you’re all like you don’t want to drive across the bridge and crawl through west Marin and get all hot and sweaty and wait in line for food  and then fight traffic INTO the city on a Saturday night when you could just stay home on the sofa.

You don’t particularly like the great outdoors. So — just for you — I’ve compiled a few tips for face-saving things to do IN THE CITY with your outdoorsy friends.

Bearish (as in Polar) in the Bay

You: Walk to the end of the pier at Aquatic Park. Look for seals, sea lions, other wildlife. Walk back.

They: Drop in as guests at the Dolphin Club or the South End Rowing Club (depending on which club is open to public that day). Swim in the (most recently) 57-degree water. Meet you at Buena Vista Café for Irish Coffees.

Strawberry Hill Excursion

You: Walk around the path “inside” Stow Lake – accessed from either of two pedestrian bridges leading from the cement walkway that circles the lake. It’s uneven, rocky and made of dirt. Your shoes will be slightly soiled so it’s almost like hiking.

They: Run up Strawberry Hill, pause to enjoy the views, search for the strawberry patches that supposedly still exist. Meet you at the Chinese Pavilion near the fake waterfall. Discuss the many dining options near 9th and Irving. Pick one.

Boating on Stow Lake

You: Bring a parasol (or umbrella that resembles a parasol). Climb carefully into rented boat. Adapt a reclining pose evocative of numerous Impressionist paintings.

They: Row or paddle you around Stow Lake. Harder than it looks.

Seal Rock Adventure

You: Check tide tables for next “lowest” low tide at Ocean Beach. Walk out and touch Seal Rock (normally inaccessible by foot except during abnormally low tide). Hold your nose because of the bird poo.

They: Jog south on Ocean Beach to Fort Funston and back, then meet you at Louis’ for a classic American breakfast with a view.

Fool Around at Dolores Park (if you can find parking or a place to sit)

You: Join a drum circle. Purchase edibles. Maybe get a sunburn.

They: Play hacky sack, practice outdoor yoga or do contact improv. Maybe get a sunburn.

Baker Beach Au Naturel

You: Take off all your clothes (at the north end of Baker Beach). Lie on the sand.  Maybe get a sunburn. Call Lyft to drive you to Rob Hill.

They: Take off all their clothes and bravely skinny dip in the surf. Hike uphill from Baker Beach to Rob Hill, set up camp (reserve ahead), start grilling hot dogs.

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Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire.  For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com. This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

Real Estate Trivia: Who Said It?

1. “There’s no place like home.”

Origin debatable. Number 23 in the top 100 American movie quotations, this phrase was invoked by Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. The character says something almost identical in the Frank Baum novel of 1900, but it was also the last line in the 1822 song Home! Sweet Home! Regardless of its source, it’s true – possibly because it’s vague enough to cover any unique home experience.

2. “The way you live in a place and the way you sell are two entirely different things.”

Cynthia Cummins. I remind sellers of this, as they contemplate purging possessions, moving out before marketing, or paying for staging. In a sophisticated market like San Francisco, selling a house is about 3 parts theater to 1 part realism.

3. “Home is where one starts from.”

T. S. Eliot. A great first line from Four Quartets “East Crocker,” a poem you might want to read sometime. Eliot started in St. Louis, Missouri and suffered from a congenital double inguinal hernia as a child. This meant he didn’t get to play with other children and spent a lot of time alone. Hence, he became interested in – you guessed it – literature!

4. “Sellers stage.”

Cynthia Cummins. Another of my favorite sayings. It’s a nod to the old real estate adage “Sellers sell,” which means that if you’re selling you take steps that result in a sale. In the classic sense, this means you hire a professional agent, follow her advice, respond in good faith to offers and so forth. In San Francisco, one of those crucial sale-producing steps is staging.

5. “The fellow who owns his own home is always just coming out of a hardware store.”

Kin Hubbard. The humorist’s humorist, who also said, “The only way to entertain some folks is to listen to them.” The hardware-store quote is self-explanatory.

6. “Buyers don’t buy in a buyer’s market.”

Cynthia Cummins. The “right moment” always seems to be in the past. This is a phenomenon buyers inevitably experience if they wait for the market to reach the bottom.

7. “Home is the nicest word there is.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her “Little House” books notwithstanding, Wilder endured plenty of “not nice” hardships growing up on the prairie, including near starvation, poverty, violence and life-threatening winter weather.

8.  “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

Not Mark Twain. This favorite San Francisco aphorism is usually misattributed to Twain. He did say, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” But nobody knows where that famous SF summer quote originated.

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com.

This Must Be The Place

As a young adult – just out of college – I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho to be a ski bum. The idea was to wait tables for a living big enough to pay rent, feed myself, party with new friends and slide downhill on my secondhand Rossignols every once in a while.

Turns out my tip jar didn’t exactly runneth over, so for the first year I lived with roommates. But soon I got a job as the junior reporter at the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper and a salary of $14,500 a year. I decided it was time to get a place of my own.

My housing budget of $400 a month didn’t go very far.

After an extensive search, I rented a ground level apartment near the Warm Springs chairlift. It was a one-bedroom in-law unit beneath a two-story “Swiss chalet” that housed a family of five. At the front of my apartment was a picture window, but the bedroom and bathroom were subterranean.

Deprived of natural light, it wasn’t long before I started feeling anxious and depressed. Getting out of bed in the morning became increasingly difficult. My appetite waned.

As the winter progressed and the snow piled up in front of my single window, my mood worsened. My alcohol intake increased. The glare of the white landscape gave me headaches, and sunset made me homesick for Virginia. I cried daily, and began to feel jealous of the good fortune of those around me.

It never occurred to me that my rabbit hole of an apartment might be partly to blame. But when I moved from that dark cave, everything instantly brightened up.

Which is to say: Home can make us happy or it can make us unhappy. So when you’re contemplating signing a lease or a contract for a purchase, take these five steps:

  1. Make a point of observing your sensations when you enter the space. Then notice if there’s any sort of lift or excitement in your body.
  2. Follow your nose when you first walk inside. In most people, smell is the most direct, intense and tricky of the senses. If you’re twitching, you’d better figure out why.
  3. Be sure you take a seat in every room, because most people don’t stand the whole time they’re home. (Good news: It’s likely this test will make you feel better about the house.)
  4. Ask yourself if there’s anything about the home that feels like a sacrifice or compromise, apart from the financial outlay and the limits within a limitless universe.
  5. Pay attention if anything inside – or outside – the house irritates you. If there is irritation, will you be able to learn to accept it? Or can you change it? Be honest.

In other words, don’t ignore your intuition. If you’re not getting at least a tiny feeling of “This Must Be The Place,” then best to keep looking.

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com. This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.

Could You Be Loved

Selling real estate is a delicious, high-stakes game. It’s completely extraordinary – because most people don’t spend millions of dollars every day. And yet it’s completely ordinary – because lots of people buy homes.

Still, it’s a game.

I loathed Monopoly as a kid – except for the tactile pleasure of handling the color-banded deeds, the understated Chance and Community Chest cards, the fake money, the dice, and the iron, my favorite token.

The plastic houses and hotels scared me. I was okay with paying $200 for Reading Railroad; that seemed like an honest deal.  But no adult had ever bothered to explain what a mortgage was and I was terrified of going bankrupt. I didn’t want to put up a big red hotel on Connecticut Avenue just to watch that pale-blue deed be plucked away by my landlord brother.

I didn’t know I’d be a Realtor one day.

After three decades spent selling real estate, I can name a few parts of the game I don’t appreciate. Yet, I’ve learned it’s a noble and fun profession. I help others navigate a route to home ownership, a destination with no clear map or legible key – no matter how many apps they come up with.

The layperson thinks the game is about dollars and interest rates and market trends and bedroom counts and school districts. It is. And it isn’t.

Buying or selling a home is really about love. It’s about people just wanting to know that they’re going to be okay. It’s about them wanting to know, “Will I be loved?”

Could you be loved? Yes, you could. Yes, my clients are.

You see, my personal real estate playlist is heavy on Bob Marley. Because I get high on helping my clients feel AND BE safe and empowered while playing with big big big bucks. Real bucks, not funny money.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” I say, when the game gets scary, “cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Cynthia Cummins is a Top Producer and Partner at McGuire. For info on SF real estate visit http://CynthiaCummins.com. This article was re-posted at McGuire.com.