Category Archives: HouseStories

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.

Remodeling? Watch What You Wish For

I’m good at instant remodeling. I can walk through a property in San Francisco, and add a second bathroom, redo the kitchen, knock out the wall between the living and dining rooms, and landscape the garden.

All in ten minutes.

Verbally.

Luckily, if a client who’s considering a remodel needs more information than what’s available with a wave of my hand, there are professionals who can provide estimates of what renovations will cost.

But there are less-tangible costs that can’t be neatly quantified or anticipated. Some examples:

You lusted after white walls, raw wood and Carrara marble for months before buying your own fixer. For another year, you obsessed over which white, where to put the wood and how to afford the Carrara. Now everybody wants green walls, bamboo floors and mosaic tiles.
Immeasurable cost: The pain of not being able to re-remodel anytime soon.

While the kitchen was being smoked and reborn to the tune of $200K, your family camped out in the dining room for six months with the old fridge, a countertop microwave and a toaster oven. Now it’s all over and you’re missing the intimacy of cramming everything and everybody into one room. It’s lonely in your new culinary showplace.
Immeasurable cost: Realizing that remodeling doesn’t necessarily bring you closer as a family.

Ah, inertia! That pale-blue-on-dark-blue-on-Williamsburg-blue-on-cobalt-blue bathroom really had to go, and you spent $10,000 on plans (and nearly got a divorce arguing over the shower design.) The Japanese-inspired motif was understated and would have been stunning. But instead of hiring a contractor you let 15 years go by and now it’s time to sell. For staging purposes, you pay $500 to have the tub and sink re-porcelained in white. It looks pretty darn good.
Immeasurable cost: Kicking yourself for having not mini-remodeled sooner.

The traffic on your busy street has only gotten worse since you moved in 5 years ago. So, that triple-pane glass you installed made a huge difference. You’re definitely sleeping better. But there’s no getting around the fact that thousands of cars driving by on a daily basis throw a lot of soot into the air. That, coupled with the noise, makes opening the window untenable. You may as well have a solid wall there.
Immeasurable cost: Regret that you didn’t spend an extra $50,000 to buy the property one block removed from the “vibrant” street where you now live.

What you thought would take one year morphed into a five-year project. Now your vacation getaway is finished and it’s truly stunning. It has breathtaking views, an infinity pool, a fire pit and a two-bedroom guest cottage. Too bad your daughter’s in high school now and never wants to go there – with you.
Immeasurable cost: The time you spent poring over tile samples for the kitchen, bath, family room and courtyard could have been devoted to playing on Ocean Beach with your 12-year-old. Before she got a smartphone and ceased knowing you exist.

Moral of the story? Watch what you wish for by taking time to dive deeper into what you really want. I’m expert at guiding you through easy exercises to help shape your vision. A cup of tea, an hour, and we’re done.

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.

It’s Raining

When sellers fill out a Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement in advance of listing a house for sale, I often hear something like this:

“Remember that huge rainstorm we had last winter? Right around Valentine’s Day? Some water came in along the bottom of this window. See? But, you know, the wind was blowing in this funny direction. It never blows that way. So we think it was a freaky one-time occurrence. Do we need to disclose it?”

“Yes, you need to disclose it,” I will say.

Then my client will ask, “So how do I disclose that? What do I write?”

And I reply, “Write down what you just told me, but don’t theorize about the cause of the leak or suggest it was a freaky one-time occurrence.”

In other words, when it comes to disclosure, there’s no need to put any spin on the truth.

And when in doubt, dear Sellers, ask yourselves, “If we were buying this house, what would we want to know?” Common sense and kindness go a long way toward protecting everyone involved and upholding the spirit of the law regarding disclosure.
However, full disclosure doesn’t mean a new homeowner isn’t going to have water intrusion problems. When rain comes pounding down for 7 weeks in a row, all that water is going to figure out some new places to go.

It’ll makes it way through foundation walls when the earth becomes saturated. It’ll overflow a lightwell when the drain gets overwhelmed or clogged. It’ll creep in the gap created when the wind blew a couple of roof shingles away.

The problem with water intrusion is that it can be mysterious and difficult to diagnose accurately. Better to have a roof leak – usually easily pinpointed and its resolution pretty clear – than a slow-spreading stain down an interior wall or a puzzling puddle in the basement.

In my role as the always-available real estate concierge, I can help. I can’t (usually) stop the water myself, but I can refer you to appropriate tradespeople. Just give me a call, and remember that eventually wet turns to dry. One way or another.

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. 

Be It Ever So Humble (or Not)

Last year I was privileged to sell a significant and extraordinary home – the grandest of my career.

During the escrow I carefully avoided calculating my commission. Instead I faithfully cleaved to my 29-year practice of bringing the highest level of care to every transaction, regardless of price tag. I rooted myself in my fiduciary role, and I wouldn’t let myself or anyone else count proverbial chickens.

The house was newly constructed on spec, but as soon as I entered I sensed its character. It was grand but homey, impressive but understated. No spurious details or garish flash. (Except perhaps an overabundance of laundry rooms and too many video screens over the family room bar.)

This house felt right. Big, but right.

It was designed and built by people who brought artistry and integrity to their work. People who dreamed into its manifestation and who offered it up for the lucky stewards – my clients – who would make those dreams a reality.

I found myself daydreaming into the house on every visit. There was the window seat where the couple could read side by side on a rainy afternoon. There was the pool where the future kids could swim on a hot, sunny day. There was the outdoor hearth where friends could gather on a crisp Sunday afternoon in October.

The dream was alight in the eyes of the affable listing agent and in the smile of his capable assistant. I watched them watching my clients as they, too, caught the dream. The builder and developer gave us all a grand tour, beaming with pride in their labor. The foyer lit up with our shared excitement.

Of course, even a dream house isn’t perfect. The escrow for its purchase included a few prickly patches. The months ahead would bring punch-list and maintenance issues. And life after closing won’t be “happily ever after” because that only happens in fairytales.

In the aftermath and middle of a real estate transaction, it’s easy to get mired in details of the deal. As an agent, I must focus on the nitty-gritty elements while simultaneously holding to a bigger vision of “home” and what it means for my clients.

In 1987, I sold my very first buyer a home. I remember being deeply worried about my ability to be a “salesperson.” The first surprise of my new career was the discovery that I wasn’t really selling anything. The property sold itself to my client, and I facilitated the purchase.

The second, more profound surprise was that I deeply, earnestly wished for my client to have his dream come true. I wanted him to obtain his personal version of – say – Hearst Castle.

His castle turned out to be a $250,000 condo that needed some cosmetic refreshment. Yet it was located in a pleasant “quintessential-San Francisco” neighborhood and the wee patio outside the living room was sheltered and inviting.

Even as a rookie, I observed how the space spoke to him. I understood how his desire for sanctuary swept him toward making an offer. My job was to help him obtain his ideal SF nest while watching out for his safety and bottom line.

This is something some buyers and sellers (and, regrettably, many agents) don’t grok: The model Realtor makes the sale, but also shares and preserves the client’s vision of home, even when the client loses sight of it.

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home
–from the song Home! Sweet Home! by Bishop and Payne

Whether it’s a downtown studio condo or a wine-country estate, there truly is no place like home. Holding that dream is my calling.

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.

Catering to the Client

The job experience that best prepared me for a future as a Realtor was the year I spent working for a caterer in the resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho.

During that stint, I filled every available role except accounting and planning. I did shopping, ordering, recipe research, food prep and rental management. I worked as server, hostess, cocktail waitress, dishwasher, cook, busboy, sommelier and buckwheat crepe maker.

My boss Susan ran her business out of her house a few miles south of town. In the winter months, her garage served as walk-in cooler and freezer. Especially between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when we had at least one and sometimes three or four parties every day. I’d arrive at Susan’s before breakfast and work all day and night, pausing only to change out of my cooking clothes and into my waiting clothes.

I learned how to be adaptive, attentive and ready to do whatever odd task was essential. That might mean inspecting freshly killed ducks for shotgun pellets. Or putting a client’s kids to bed because the babysitter was a no-show. Or delivering pumpkin pies in a snowstorm.

I particularly recall a New Year’s Eve gig for a famous Motown diva who was wintering in a large and lavish ski “cabin” near Dollar Mountain. She wanted goose with all the trimmings for dinner, followed by brunch the next day. For 50 of her closest friends.

The Wood River Valley was experiencing a cold snap. Cold enough that we’d been chilling wine all week by just setting it outside for half an hour. Cold enough that Susan’s old Suburban wouldn’t start unless it had been plugged into an engine heater. Cold enough that we had to figure out how to safely defrost six frozen (plastic-sealed) geese that had been stored in a snow bank on the shady side of the house.

The solution was to put them in Susan’s bathtub, with some cold water, where they would gradually thaw without blooming with salmonella. It was the only bathroom in the house and the geese needed to defrost for at least 24 hours.

On the day before the diva’s party, I spent the morning prepping bouillabaisse for 100 – up to my elbows in fish and garlic and grossed out from all the shrimp deveining I’d done. It was imperative that I shower before heading out to tend bar and serve food.

So I ended up taking a cold shower while straddling the cold geese in Susan’s cold tub in cold water up over my cold ankles.

And while my job as a Realtor can be quite lovely and even glamorous, there are always times when I have to improvise and do the job nobody else wants to do: Use a paper clip to unlock the bedroom door where an open-house visitor has inadvertently trapped the tenants’ cats. Clean up raccoon poop from the tradesway. Persuade a homeless person to find another doorway to sleep in. Unclog a commode. Shine up a splattered kitchen faucet using toilet paper. Put an onion in the oven to mask last night’s fish smell.

Whatever it takes. Whatever is needed. I know how to cater, and I can shower with frozen geese.

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.

Boogie-Boarding Home

During our initial interview, my client Sandra handed me a spreadsheet. It specified all the features her new home should have, arranged in descending order of importance. Here are the top 10.

  1. Fireplace
  2. Parking
  3. Single family home
  4. Not on a busy street
  5. View of some water
  6. 3 bedrooms or 2 + den
  7. 2 bathrooms
  8. Walk to coffee
  9. In-unit laundry.
  10. East of Arguello and north of Fell

We conducted an exhaustive search, touring and/or considering several dozen properties over a dozen weeks.

Guess how many of those top-10 features her eventual home included? Two. The property was on a quiet block and had its own washer and dryer.

This incongruity between aspiration and actuality happens because our dream of home can’t be translated neatly into a checklist. There are too many intangibles.

In Sandra’s case, she knew her future home (a condo, not a single family home) was “the place” as soon as we entered the front door. And I guessed it from the hesitant excitement I read in her sideways glance towards me.

“Property sells itself” is one of my favorite real-estate adages. By that I mean there’s nothing anyone can say to “sell” someone on the desirability of a home. The buyer either feels it, or they don’t feel it.

It’s like boogie-boarding. You belly onto the wave as soon as you enter a property, but you sense almost instantly whether or not you’ll ride the board into shore.

It’s kismet. It’s chemistry. It’s love, not real estate.

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.

Small Pleasures

If you’ve lived or listed property in a doorman building, you know all about the culture of full-service living. You probably have your own story (or stories).

Mine today concerns a stunning listing that I had on (and off) the market over about nine months. In other words, it took as long to find our perfect buyer as it takes to grow a new human. Yet – after sampling all the proverbial porridge available in similar buildings – our “Goldilocks” finally turned up and made a satisfactory offer.

This stock-cooperative had an exceptional door staff. The doormen (all were male) saw me in and out of the building at all times of day, in all kinds of weather, accompanied by all sorts of agents and buyers. I got to know them, and grew to like them.

Three of them had watched the door for 40, 30 and 20 years, respectively. Of those three, two consistently greeted me cheerfully by name. One always put an extra flourish on the last syllable of my name: Cynthi-AH.

But the most seasoned doorman – let’s call him Bob – never chitchatted or spoke my name. He performed his duties solemnly and formally. Every time I entered, it was as if he’d never seen me before: Which unit was I there to see? Did I already have a key? Would I sign the guest book?

Despite my concerted effort to bring a smile to his face, I never saw the corners of his mouth lift even a micro-inch.

Until the day we closed. In a last ditch attempt to get Bob to crack (and because I wanted to thank the entire staff) I personally delivered an expensive, large and gorgeously girly strawberry cake. Bob greeted me soberly, and waved me over to the podium to – once again – sign and date the guest book.

Beaming at the audaciousness of my gift, I proffered the cake. At first Bob just stared at the pink confection like he’d never seen a desert before. But when I explained it was for him and the crew, he broke into a big grin and laughed and squeezed my arm.

It made my day.

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.

Grateful for Another Year!

On a recent trip, I caught a few minutes of a real estate “reality” show on the close-captioned TV monitor at the airport.

I don’t know if I was seeing Flip or Flop, Buying Naked, or Love It or List It. But it was blatantly obvious that the show depicted the practice of real estate about as accurately as Lost depicts being stranded after a plane crash on an uncharted island.

For me, real estate is a noble calling. I’m privileged to work on behalf of my clients – each of whom has his or her rich and unique story.

The first tale (and sale) of my 2016 real estate year involved wonderful clients who managed to prepare and stage their family home while living in it with two young children. They proved that with perseverance, patience and faith it CAN be done!

After a brief and intensive search ranging across the city from Bay to Breakers, this cutest couple and their beloved Emma found a dream fixer in a favorite, hip SF neighbrohood.

It was a family affair on the day of our happy walk-through. My buyers had previously failed to acquire a nearby house, due to a surprising and, frankly, unfair listing-side scenario. In hindsight, that loss was a blessing because it led us to this superior, extra-darling home.

To be truthful, the house pictured above closed at the end of 2015. But I just love this photograph of my client playing her violin in her new home, and I haven’t had another occasion to use it. What made this day extra sweet was the fact that her old rental had prohibited the playing of musical instruments!

I’ve shared only a few glimpses of what real estate looked like in 2016 from my perspective. Suffice it to say I’m grateful for a job where business isn’t just about business. It’s about sanctuary, family, friends, love and all the wonderful things this life can bring.

If you know someone who could use the help of a trustworthy real estate ally in 2017, please know you can count on me!

The (Grown) Kids Are Alright

Books are filled with characters who struggle with transitions in their home lives.

  • Scarlett O’Hara: prattling on incessantly about getting back to Tara.
  • King Lear: using estate planning as a means of father-daughter bonding.
  • Emma Bovary: redecorating her house for the umpteenth time.

But for now, let’s consider Oliver Twist — plaintively mourning the mother and home he never knew “on a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die.”

Sadly, there are many real-life examples of orphaned and displaced children who suffer unnecessarily. But with only a wee bit of attention from Moms and Dads, most children are amazingly resilient.

In my real estate practice in San Francisco, I often see parents agonizing about how the sale of a home will affect their progeny.

Parents worry that moving kids from one school to another will derail their education and cause their social ruin. Or they fret that a step “down” to a less expensive or rental property in the case of a divorce will irrevocably damage the child’s self esteem. Or they assume that staging and marketing will be overly disruptive of family rhythms.

These concerns aren’t frivolous, yet the impact of change is largely mitigated when parents focus simply on loving their children rather than on controlling the situation. The physical manifestation of “home” –castle, cottage or condo – doesn’t really matter.

This is especially true when it comes to the anxieties of soon-to-be empty nesters. Parents whose babies have flown the coop too often compromise the quality of their mature years by overestimating the effect their home sale will have on their GROWN children. For example:

  • Tim and Betsy who “can’t possibly” downsize because their adult children must “have a bedroom” whenever they visit. Never mind that one 35-year-old son lives in Australia and the other owns a four-bedroom house in Portland, Oregon.
  • John who broaches the subject of selling his Ashbury Heights house every six months with his daughters Amelia, Annabelle and Amy. The 40-something “girls” react emotionally and without thinking about John’s needs. Amelia cries. Amy becomes silent. Annabelle advocates for John go into the Bed and Breakfast business in order to keep the house.
  • Rick and Roger who can’t sell because Roger believes selling the family home is synonymous with selling out the family. Roger has nightmare visions of an empty house at Christmas, while Rick quietly fantasizes about a family Mele Kalikimaka on the beach at Maui.

For the parent or parents who opt to stay in place, fears can eventually become reality. The house empties of people while stuff accumulates. Dust gathers. The dining room becomes a year-round tax-prep headquarters. The basketball hoop over the garage door rusts and droops. The back stairs sag. The paint yellows. Nobody sets foot in the yard except to sneak a cigarette or let the dog out.

20 years pass in a flash. And suddenly it’s too late to buy that financial district condo, or NYC pied-a-terre, or Sonoma bungalow. There’s no time for a transitional scenario. It’s straight to…Okay, so maybe that’s me being overly dramatic.

My point is this: Take time to visualize and consider “life after kids.” Be honest about the qualities you want in your life as you age. Don’t give in to sentiment about the loss of the family home.

Your children will soon understand that YOUR HEART is where HOME is. But first – like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz – you’re going to have to learn it for yourself.***

***I can help. I’ve gone through it myself and I’ve counseled dozens of clients through these transitions. Email me or call.

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

True Real Estate Tales

by Bogdan Dada

Two months ago, my newsletter featured a post about the inevitable surprises that arise during real estate transactions. (You can read it by clicking here.)

In the interim, new astonishments have risen, written their stories and become the stuff of legend.

There was the hair-raising Case of the Too-Fast Closing.

And the confusing Case of the Car Included in the Sale.

And who can forget the just-plain-dumb Case of the Last-Minute Pre-Closing Lender Requirement to Paint a 2’ x 4’ Patch of Exterior Wood Siding.

The latest thriller I’ve encountered is one I’m entitling the Case of the Emotional Roller Coaster of Trying to Buy a Bank-Owned House. It bears telling, though some details have been changed to prevent identification of property or players.

The house in question was a cozy storybook cottage in a quaint San Francisco neighborhood. It had languished on the market for 45 days at a too-high price of $1,000,000.

Jack and Jill – the cutest couple of first-time homebuyers you’d ever want to meet – encountered the house on a hot, sunny, slow-open-house Sunday. It was love at first sight.

(I’m talking about the sort of love that’s reserved for the runt of the litter down at the SPCA. The house was going to need some grooming and fattening up, but its basic bones and personality were great.)

Jack, Jill and I talked it over and decided to write an offer. Soon, the horror began.

Monday, 9:00 am: We offered $975,000 ($25,000 less than asking) with clean terms. Sensible.

1:00 pm. The listing agent called me to say the bank (which owned the property) was considering our offer. Encouraging.

Tuesday, 9:00am: The bank countered us at $999,000. Discouraging.

12:00 pm: We restated our offer of $975,000. Persistent.

1:00 pm: The bank agreed verbally to $975,000. Amazing.

4:00 pm: The bank sent its version of the contract for Jack and Jill to sign. Bureaucratic.

4:05 pm: Jack and Jill signed the contract and I prepared to return it to the bank for signature. Procedural.

4:15 pm: The listing agent informed us the deal was off because a competing offer had been submitted by another agent in the listing office! Bummer.

5:00 pm: The bank countered Jack and Jill and the competing offer with a simultaneous “highest and best” demand. Depressing.

Tuesday, 9:00 am: The listing agent called to say the bank had changed its mind and was honoring and accepting our $975,000 offer after all! Wonderful.

9:15 am: The listing agent called to say the bank had changed its mind again and wanted our “highest and best” instead. Cruel.

11 am: Jack and Jill submitted their highest and best offer of $1,05,000. Courageous.

5 pm: The listing agent called to say that the competing offer from his/her colleague’s clients was just a little higher and just a little better than Jack and Jill’s highest and best. Utterly deflating and upsetting.

And so the tale ends. Jack and Jill will not be buying THAT cozy storybook cottage, but I trust we will soon find a far superior house in which they will live happily ever after – or at least until it’s time to upsize.

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