Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gratitude in Times of Trouble

If you’re reading this 50 years from now, you should know that 2017 wasn’t just another benign blip on the calendar, but one full of troubles. And joys. A year full of natural or manmade disasters. A year filled with people striving to make things better.

We’re nearly at the end of 2017, and San Francisco’s blue sky is smoke-choked from out-of-control wildfires burning down lives, property and whole mountainsides.

What can we do? We’re all asking that question. The answer, for now, is not much except wait for the smoke to clear. Then we’ll see.

While we wait, I’m making a list of gratitudes, and I’m sharing here the work- and real estate-related ones:

  • My livelihood, which has enabled me to raise my children, pay for their education, and send them off to save the world
  • My colleagues at McGuire, a safe, inspiring and supportive workplace, managed primarily by women
  • My tireless cohort and friend Laraine Hsu
  • Media whiz Garrett Distor
  • Mentor and inspiration Jamie Comer
  • Coach and boss Alex Buehlmann
  • McGuire superheroes Jessi Greenlee, Lauren Bensinger, Aviva Kamler, Whitney Palmedo, Shelly Bowes, Gary Palamo, Carlos Rivas, Tanya Alexander
  • The hardest-working mortgage banker in the land, Susan Costello
  • The San Francisco real estate brokerage community, comprised of so many intelligent, passionate, smart, caring people
  • Thank God for California.
  • San Francisco, where everyone wants to be (if they’re honest with themselves).
  • My home, without a garage or a dishwasher but whole and on an evergreen (in every sense of that word) San Francisco block
  • The people whom I have the privilege of representing and who make my practice of real estate a true practice

For all this – and more – I am grateful, grateful, grateful.

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

Finding the Season in San Francisco

I lived here for nearly a decade before I realized that – yes – San Francisco has an Autumn.

I grew up in Virginia, where Fall hits you in the face every which way you turn. And then I lived in Sun Valley, Idaho, where a magnificent display of red, orange and gold in September is topped off with sugary white by late October.

It’s more subtle in our city. The sun burns more gravely in its journey from bay and ocean. The sound of crows and ravens fill the air. Dry leaves skitter across sidewalks. Persimmons and pumpkins appear at produce stands.

For a bigger eyeful of Autumn, you can drive north or east for a couple of hours. But it’s also possible to feel Fall more intensely during a visit to Golden Gate Park.

I walk in the park as often as my schedule allows, and am always astounded to find myself mostly alone. Every square inch of teeny-tiny Dolores Park is jammed with people, dogs, kids, Frisbees, 12-packs, guitars, drums, boomboxes and every form of marijuana on weekends, while Golden Gate Park stretches peacefully out to the Pacific like a perfectly smooth picnic blanket.

You can visit the museums (the deYoung or the California Academy of Sciences), or the Japanese Tea Garden, or the Children’s Playground. You can stroll around Stow Lake and up to Strawberry Hill. Or dally in the Shakespeare Garden. Or circle Spreckels Lake. There are trees and plants everywhere starting to change into winter attire.

Although, hands down, the best place for feeling the season (whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter) is the Strybing Botanical Garden. The walking is easy and there are innumerable spots where you can sit and reflect, or eat a sandwich, or watch the kids run around in the grass.

Best of all, it’s FREE to San Francisco residents. When was the last time YOU were there? Wait! You’ve never been? Well, check it out now…

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.

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.

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.

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.

Feels Like the First Time (30 Years Later)

Real estate and me go way back. 35 years in fact, to a time when I was a reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express and one of my beats was real estate in Sun Valley.

Funny thing is I didn’t know one thing about real estate back then. Points? What are points? And why do we need them?

But then I moved to San Francisco and – after a couple of years freelancing and working in PR – I got my real estate license. That was 30 years ago this month.

I’d tell you that I’ve “seen it all” over three decades, but there’s something new every day.

For example, just last week, I visited the soon-to-be home of my client “A.” A’s middle-school kids came along, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen children get so excited about a house. They even asked to sample the Hetch Hetchy tapwater from the kitchen faucet and declared its temperature and taste “perfect.”

To see people so happy – or frustrated, angry, sad, pensive, anticipatory, surprised – is a job perk that cannot be overvalued. Mine is a very human business, and I love the intimacy of it.

So, as a way of celebrating my 30th anniversary as a Realtor, here are snapshots of five memorable moments from my career:

Standing on the large deck of my listing with a buyer’s agent and her newly-married clients, the wife asked if she could please turn a cartwheel. She turned three and about three weeks later that property became her home.

Out on brokers’ tour and in the middle of walking through a tenant-occupied property, my buyer became ill and had to run for the bathroom. Let’s just say the mark was missed and I’ll never forget how cheerful and reassuring the listing agent was while helping me clean up the mess. (That agent, whom I now consider a friend, won’t soon forget either.)

Back in the days when multiple and over-asking offers were a new thing, I sat down with my sellers at the kitchen table where they’d eaten meals for 20 years. It had been hard to let go and even harder to get the house ready to sell. (Plus the husband had been skeptical about my price-low-sell-high strategy.) When I read the price of the winning offer, the husband grimaced. His wife looked at him and then me, her face drained of color. We all were silent. I wondered how he could be unhappy with the 25%-over-asking offer. Then he put his hands over his face and wept with relief.

While reviewing company listings on a Wednesday, a colleague and I walked through an entire Pac Heights mansion, from garage to the attic. As we left – scratching our heads about how poorly the house “showed” – a maid, dressed in a starched uniform, approached us and asked if she could help us. Turns out we were in the wrong house!

As a new agent, I went door knocking. This was a suggested way to generate business. Since I was new to the city, new to real estate, totally without connections and someone who followed directions, I did what my manager recommended. On my second afternoon of canvassing, a man answered the door and – I kid you not – said, “Oh! You must have been sent from heaven. I just arrived here from New York City last night. I’m staying here with my friend and I have a week to find a place to live.” I got so excited that I failed to give him my card or obtain his name and phone number, and instead ran home to tell my boyfriend about my luck. Later that evening I returned to the house and left a note under the door. We closed on his condo – my first sale – about a month later.

That was in 1987. Still today, whenever someone chooses me as their representative or whenever a client reaches their end goal, the thrill is there. It always feels like the first time. 

I am grateful.

A portrait of the Realtor as a young woman.

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.

Will This Floor Plan Work For An Orgy?

Years ago I represented a single female buyer (let’s call her “Eve”) who belonged to an exclusive community of sexually adventurous yet socially conscious people. Their organization’s primary raison d’etre was the staging and attendance of private “play” parties.

As a member of the board of directors of the association (let’s call it “Honeycomb”), Eve wanted to be able to host events at her home.

And because she had practiced being respectful of others’ needs and explicit about stating her own needs – at sex parties, for example – she was exceptionally unequivocal about the features her home should have.

Eve knew how to ask a new Honeycomb member if he or she had been recently tested for STDs and could she see a copy of the results. She wasn’t shy about requesting more lubrication, or less pressure, or no talking. So, it was easy for her to tell me that her house had to have either 3 bathrooms or the capacity to create 3 bathrooms.

Her list also included:

• A neighborhood where street parking or paid parking was relatively abundant. (This was before Uber and Lyft.)
• A single family home, preferably detached, where a dusk-to-dawn gathering wouldn’t upset neighbors.
• A good heating system so scantily-clad Honeycombers could stay warm.
• Windows that could be fitted with effective privacy coverings.
• A preference for more rooms vs. large rooms, to accommodate a variety of small group encounters.

Eve’s shopping list provides a more-eccentric-than-average example of how vital it is for a buyer’s agent to observe and evaluate properties as if looking through his/her client’s lens.

I can instantly check all the boxes on someone’s list – bedrooms, bathrooms, outdoor space, kitchen/dining configuration, tech-shuttle proximity, etc. But there’s almost always an unstated or indefinable list of needs that require some divination on my part. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a property that lacks a critical feature on a buyer’s list, yet has something that makes me think, “This must be the place.”

So, somebody buys a house with no parking – even though that somebody told me, “No way. Do not even tell me about it if it doesn’t have parking!” All because somebody fell in love with the lemon and avocado trees off the back deck.

I’ve represented buyers with very particular needs: A single family home with no steps to the front door. A Noe Valley property with western views that didn’t include Sutro Tower. A home with a garage big enough for six dragon boats and a car. A house with a yard suitable for a pizza oven.

In every case:
1. We found the “right” place.
2. The end result didn’t precisely match our starting vision.
3. The homeowner’s exact needs changed over time.
4. The way they inhabited the property changed, too.

As for Eve, she got her “right” house, and she’s lived there happily for 15 years. She let her Honeycomb membership lapse and got married. And the property near Golden Gate Park – with radiant heat and 3 bathrooms – is now home to an active family of five.

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

Vacation, anyone?

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Especially if Jack is trying to buy property in San Francisco.

Jill needs a break, too. Especially if she is representing Jack in the search for his dream home.

Residential real estate is a 24/7 deal. Successful Realtors (unlike doctors, lawyers and maybe even Indian chiefs) are on call all the time. So are buyers. You might say our motto is “We Never Close.” Continue reading Vacation, anyone?

How Icebergs Are Like Realtors

So, you’ve been selling San Francisco real estate for almost 29 years. You’ve embraced the changes: Learning to gather signatures electronically rather than in person. Trading the 5-pound Multiple Listing book inked on newsprint for an online search site. Wielding an electronic lockbox key rather than twisting the dial of a combination lock.

You’ve learned how to avoid trouble for your clients. Unlike a lot of newbies, you understand what the Liquidated Damages clause in the SFAR contract means. Just as you know the Real Estate Transfer Disclosure loophole hasn’t been cinched until your Agent’s Visual Inspection Disclosure is signed.

You know to warn all your clients that something surprising almost always goes wrong with an escrow. “It’s not a matter of if,” you say, sagely, “It’s a matter of when and what.”

And then the federal government passes new legislation about lending disclosures. This new law is designed to protect consumers. (As if improved Truth In Lending documentation – rather than sweeping reform of the banking and credit system – will prevent another economic meltdown.)

For months before its October 2015 debut, the San Francisco Association of Realtors warns of the impending arrival of the TILA/RESPA Integrated Disclosure (TRID) Rule. Seminars are held. Bulletins are posted. One title company gives everyone a plastic Frisbee-sized wheel for determining “Consummation Dates.”

TRID wheel

But this is all meaningless until you actually see a transaction through:

You make your closing a week longer than normal, to allow for TRID’s 3-day waiting period and Murphy’s Law. You explain to your Buyer that he will be among the first TRID guinea pigs.

You powwow in advance with Seller’s Agent, just to be sure she will explain to Seller that things could get weird. Seller’s Agent says it’s all cool. She and Seller will hang loose, even though Seller has another closing that hinges on this one. There’s enough spaciousness for a small delay, she says.

The loan is approved.

Title gathers all the info needed to close both sides of the deal. This includes property taxes, homeowners dues, move-in fees, move-out fees, HO-6 insurance, prepaid interest, loan fees, credits, commissions, city fees, transfer taxes, home warranty plans and so forth.

Lender takes all the detail supplied by Title and translates it into a federally-mandated format which Buyer must review and approve before the 3-day waiting period begins. Easy, right?

Wrong.

When doing their transcription, Lender mistakenly gives Buyer an $18,000 credit from Seller. Lender also omits Title Insurance Premium and forgets to fill in Prepaid Property Taxes. Altogether, this creates a $25,000 shortfall on Cash Due at Closing.

Buyer receives the form and calls you. He is delighted that he doesn’t have to come up with as much money as he’d anticipated. The amount is $25,000 less than he’d estimated. He’s going to call Schwab and reduce the amount of his wire. How fantastic is that?!?

Wait a minute, you say. You say this because your spidey sense tells you something ain’t right. Plus you’re keenly aware that, under the new regulations, any material change to the TRID disclosure kicks off another 3-day waiting period. Which delays loan documents. Which delays closing. Which damages Seller. Which costs Buyer. Which is your fiduciary obligation to prevent.

So you start investigating. And – after a day of confusing back and forth with Lender and Title and Seller’s Agent – you find the errors and get them corrected. The transaction closes on time. Everyone is happy.

You add this experience to your Iceberg. As in:

A lot of people think what we Realtors do is easy. They think we drive around in nice cars and look at pretty houses and get our clients to sign some papers and – voila – we’re paid a gazillion dollars.

A real estate agent is like an iceberg (as SF real-estate-guru Ray Brown famously said). Folks can only see a tiny portion of what he or she does and knows. The true mass of the Iceberg is invisible. And GINORMOUS. And it’s made up of tons of ice crystals, each one consisting of a tale akin to the TRID saga (which I’ve boiled down to a succinct outline).

It’s impossible for agents to fully convey to potential clients their value and depth. To do so would be as time-consuming, boring and futile as rowing a dinghy down to Antarctica and saying, “Here. Check out this iceberg. You can only see 5% of it but, trust me, what’s out of sight is quite impressive!”

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.

Query: Is My Agent Crazy Trying to Save Me Money?

Q: Why would a Realtor you are buying with want to negotiate down the cost of the property?

A: The last time I looked in the mirror I didn’t have dollar signs for pupils. 28 years as a successful Realtor in San Francisco, and I still haven’t abracadabra’d my blue eyes to the color of bright green cash.

That’s because my commission is — honestly — THE VERY LAST THING on my mind.

If you haven’t stood in my shoes, or if you’ve never purchased or sold a home with the help of a truly professional agent, it’s probably difficult to imagine that someone could be motivated by a wish to serve rather than a financial incentive. Yes, this is my livelihood. Yes, I like making money. Yes, we Realtors are paid relatively “big bucks.” (Though there’s more — or, I should say, less — to that than meets the eye. A topic for another time.)

But I work primarily for my clients’ happiness. Sometimes that means I “make a sale.” Many times not. But their happiness translates into referrals to their friends, family and associates. And THAT is how my business grows. Call me dumb like a fox, but I like making my clients happy.

Hence, I’m always shocked and taken aback when people assume I am a money-grubbing shark. I feel injured when they regard my profession as one where you get “money for nothin,” as in the famous Dire Straits song about rock and roll.

To quote an even older smash hit: “She works hard for the money, but you never treat her right.” Perhaps that’s an unfortunate comparison, since Donna Summer was singing about a ladies bathroom attendant, but I KNOW I have a heart of gold.

So do the majority of my successful peers. Which explains why an agent would strive to negotiate a lower price for a buyer!

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 and originally appeared as the answer to a Quora question.