Category Archives: Advice

“Must Haves” You Might Not Need

Guess what? There are some things on your “must have” list that aren’t must-haves.

You don’t need a dishwasher. Seriously, some of the your most productive and creative ideas can arise while doing the dishes (or taking a shower – what is it about water and creativity?). I’ve lived without a dishwasher for 7 years and I don’t miss it. In the time it takes to rinse and load, you can wash the dishes by hand.

You don’t need a garage. Because you don’t need a car! At least not in San Francisco. You can walk, use public transportation, take advantage of Uber or Lyft, call a taxicab, use a car-share service for the occasional errand, rent a vehicle for that out-of-town weekend, ride a bicycle, drive a scooter, or arrange carpools. All of which costs less than a vehicle and its upkeep, and much less than the additional funds needed to purchase a house with parking vs. without parking. (Even with a job that requires regular use of a car at all hours of the day and night, I’ve survived without a garage. And I live just a half block from Dolores Park – epicenter of one of the worst neighborhoods for street parking EVER.)

You don’t need a wood-burning fireplace. Some big candles and a faux mantelpiece substitute very nicely and you won’t be filling the air with Presto-log exhaust or smoke.

You don’t need an en suite bathroom. You can accomplish everything you need to accomplish in a bathroom located in a hallway. Put a lock on the door if privacy is a concern.

You don’t need private outdoor space. Have you seen the condition in which most outdoor-space owners keep their outdoor space? We’re talking dry grass, wilted and rambling plants, bicycle storage, layers of city soot, moldy mushy lemons, dead plastic toys, cigarette butts from that party last February. Note the numerous, well-maintained and inviting public spaces in San Francisco.

You don’t need a remodeled kitchen. Fabulous food can be prepped on a cutting board on a two-foot-wide sink-side Formica countertop and cooked on an electric Kenmore stove that doesn’t vent to the exterior. If you want something grilled or odiferous, go to a restaurant. San Francisco has more eateries than any other city in the United States.

You don’t need to be in a top floor condo. I’ve lived on the top and on the bottom and, trust me, noise travels both ways. If you’re on top, you have an added responsibility to tread gently. Trying to avoid making unwanted noise can quickly become as annoying as hearing unwanted noise.

Naturally, there are exceptions. Maybe you’re a secret agent working on a top-secret project that’s vital to our nation’s security and, therefore, you must have a garage for Spymobile. Maybe you’re a Red Witch from Game of Thrones whose job requires that a wood-burning fire be available 24/7 for flame-reading what the Lord of Light has in mind. Maybe you’re Jacques Pepin and you can’t get your knife on over Formica.

But if you think it through, many of your must-haves can be eliminated. And “doing without” can be refreshing and freeing. In a city where real estate always involves compromise, cutting down on required features makes all the difference.

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

Sentimental but Useless? Snap a Photo!

Stuff gets in our way. As I’ve said before (and will probably say again), it’s our belongings that most often entrap us and prevent us from moving smoothly and happily through the stages of our lives.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these remarks:

  • We can’t downsize because there’s no place to put all our stuff.
  • We can’t entertain because our dining room is cluttered with our stuff.
  • We can’t sell because I need to first find time to go through all my stuff.
  • We can’t move because my spouse can’t let go of all her/his stuff.

With very few exceptions, most would-be home sellers are trapped by the possessions they’ve accumulated over time. Decluttering is difficult enough, but it’s especially challenging when it comes to sentimental items: Children’s art, hand-me-down quilts, pottery hand-thrown by a beloved uncle, glasses from 20 years of Napa Valley wine tastings, bongo drums purchased for the 5-year-old kid who’s now 38, half-crumbled dough ornaments from Christmas 1994.

Luckily, items with “meaning” (but no present-day value or practical use) can be easily disposed of IF you follow this advice, gleaned from a Real Simple article: Tear down the museum!

If it’s out of sight and out of mind on a regular basis – tucked into a box in the basement or stacked in a corner of the garage – you should sell it, give it away, recycle it, or throw it in the trash. But, first, snap a picture of it.

The very act of taking a picture creates a small ritual for saying goodbye and thanking the object for its service or existence. Plus you can promise yourself that you’ll always have a digital record of the red bunny rabbit that Billy drew on the back of a Pasta Pomodoro menu in 3rd grade.

Not that you’ll ever look at the photo EVER again. It’ll simply allow you to LET GO.

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.

You Need an Agent

Finding a house is the easiest part of buying in San Francisco. Winning it and getting through escrow are much more challenging.

It’s a competitive marketplace for buyers, and those who get the keys to their dream home have the support of a topnotch team. Your team captain and primary ally is your real estate agent.

Always, always, always begin by shopping for your agent, not for your house.

To learn more watch the full video click on the picture.

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.

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.

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.

Every Time We Yearn

Armchair real-estate-shopping can be immensely pleasurable. Like traveling to Paris via the pages of Travel + Leisure, it’s fun to tour a la internet through a $15 million Pacific Heights mansion.

When fantasy moves closer to reality things get trickier.

As a friend and client lamented about her partner who spends several hours each week trolling Trulia: “She’s always looking at places just a little more expensive than the house we bought. Like she’s just wishing we could have spent a tiny bit more. And meanwhile, I’m like, ‘Hey, honey, we still have boxes to unpack! Help me!’ ”

In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes, “Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.”

This is one reason my kitchen is extremely non-updated and likely to remain so. I’d rather focus on being content with its “as-is” funkiness than on planning, executing and paying for a remodel I hope will make me happier. (Besides, my depression-era Blue Ridge Pottery dishes match the vintage chartreuse cabinets and I adore the 1940s O’Keeffe and Merritt range.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for renovation and decorating. I believe the aesthetics of our environment have a profound impact on our health and well being. We just need to be mindful of why we’re visiting and revisiting the photo of that $5,000 Art Deco sofa on Houzz.com.

Desire – for more, for different, for better – is essential to all human commerce. If we didn’t buy and sell real estate, the world would keep on spinning. But it’s unlikely I’ll be out of work anytime soon. Buyers will be buying and sellers will be selling and brokers will be brokering so long as people keep on switching jobs, getting married, having children, divorcing, dying, remarrying, downsizing, retiring or moving.

What matters – before, during and after these transitions – is the presence and acceptance we bring to every moment of our lives, regardless of where we sleep, where we hang our flat-screen TV, and whether or not we have parking or low HOA dues or directly-accessible outdoor space.

To quote Alain de Botton again, this time in The Art of Travel, “The sole cause of a man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

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. Originally posted in May 2014 under a different title.

Striking out in San Francisco? Here’s a Giant heaping of help.

The game of baseball serves as a metaphor for just about every aspect of living. Buying real estate is no exception.

To learn more watch the full video click on the picture.


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.

Less Lipstick = More Value

Last week, I offered some home-buying tips on how not to be fooled by staging. This week, my focus is on why empty and unstaged properties should be ranked at the top of every buyer’s must-see list.

I always say that my “dream home” for buyers is one with stained shag carpeting, an active roof leak and cat pee in every corner. Anything that combines ugly, stinky and neglected is enticing to me.

Or, as a contractor friend once said to me, “More pig, less lipstick.”

Some piggy properties are major fixers suited only for developers. I’m not talking about those oinkers. I’m talking about properties where the seller didn’t bother taking any pains with presentation. These empty or non-staged homes offer special advantages for buyers.

Advantage 1: Non-staged properties photograph badly. The lighting is dim and the empty rooms look small and sad. On MLS, dismal photos (or a lack of any photos) repel many buyers. These buyers swipe ahead to the next, more attractive looking listing. This means less competition for the poorly-presented house.

Advantage 2: Non-staged properties convey the impression that something is amiss, otherwise the sellers and their agent would care more. Busy buyers have infinite choices but finite time for viewing them, so they eliminate the “houses that must have something wrong with them” first. Fewer shoppers mean fewer offers.

Advantage 3: Lack of staging may mean the seller isn’t being well represented. The listing agent isn’t employing an effective marketing strategy (which would include staging), so there’s a chance he/she will not be very strategic about pricing or offers or negotiations. This also can mean a better value for the eventual buyer.

Advantage 4: Lack of staging magnifies flaws and implies neglect. For example, in a warm, well-lit, furnished living room a tiny superficial plaster crack strikes a buyer as a good excuse to change the paint color after closing. In a cold, dark, vacant living room that same crack worries the buyer that the foundation is crumbling. It’s all psychology, but this psychology works in favor of the buyer rather than the seller in an unstaged house.

Bottom line for San Francisco buyers: Don’t skip homes with no staging and/or no online photos. Go see them. And when you see them, consciously strive – with your agent’s help – to see them as if they are staged. Apply the lipstick yourself. Then make an offer.

For part one of this two-part post, go to link here.

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.

Pay-Per-View or Free-Per-View?

Looking for a sweeping view in New York City? You probably need to take an elevator to a very high floor.

Looking for a panorama in San Francisco? Walk just a few blocks and chances are good you’ll find one.

My job takes me throughout the city almost every day, and I never cease to be amazed at the unexpected views around every corner. I’ve begun collecting photos of some of the most surprising ones.

Sure, it’s grand to gaze out at the Golden Gate Bridge or the Pacific Ocean. But there are many other charming vistas available.

Do you have a favorite to share?

Click on the photo to watch the full video.

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.