The Trouble With Escrow

When it comes to most anything, it’s safe to say California leads the way.  Mario Salvio and the free speech movement at Cal Berkeley in the early 60’s; the environmental movement of the 1970s began following the Santa Barbara oil spill even medical marijuana in the mid 1990’s.  Regarding innovation, it’s hard to argue that California isn’t the world leader given we are the birthplace of the microchip and all that has followed.  When it comes to real estate, California’s no different.  Her licensing is one of the nation’s most respected and stringent.  In fact, a California Brokers license like I have, is honored in more states than any other without relicensing.  (Learn more about Tim here)  So naturally as a leader in so many ways, you would think we are cutting edge with regards to the method or process we us to transact real estate.  This is evident in our use of escrow.

If you’ve ever bought or sold a piece of real estate in California, you know we don’t use mortgages rather, a deed of trust (a cutting edge benefit to the lender) and we don’t use an attorney to close. California is an escrow state.  This means that there is a neutral 3rd party at the center of a real estate transaction (Picture Rich Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly game with a bag of cash in one hand, keys to the property in the other, crossing his arms and handing the keys or the money to the buyer and seller).  hand-with-money-compressedThis is fundamentally what escrow does.  Unlike many states where closing is done at a table with lawyers, buyers and seller sitting across from one another, California relies on an escrow service to conduct and facilitate the transaction.  Escrow generally runs smoothly so most people don’t give it much thought, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rife with potential problems.

Let’s start with the question: What is escrow in the first place?  Escrow is at the center of the process, essentially the hub of the real estate transaction wheel.  Once a contract has been negotiated the broker(s) send the paperwork to escrow.  The escrow company, as dictated per the terms of the agreement, receives the contract, assigns an escrow number and “opens escrow.”  Escrow then sends instructions to the parties restating the terms agreed to in the contract: Price, timelines, closing date, earnest money to be deposited, financing terms if any and commissions.

Escrow will order the Natural Hazard Disclosure Report, any homeowners association documents and the preliminary title report.  Eventually they will coordinate the preparation of an estimated closing statement for the lender and at the end arrange the signing of loan documents with a notary public.  Escrow then notifies the title company who sets up and records the deed.  Upon confirmation of the recording of the deed at the county recorder’s office, title sends the money back to escrow where they tally the final figures, payoff any liens and distribute the proceeds to the appropriate parties.  There is no “meet at the closing table” and there are no lawyers involved.  It’s very efficient as compared to the “old way of doing things” as it is done in many Eastern and Midwestern states.  California once again is leading the drive towards a better way of doing things.  Alas however, there are some flaws.

I recently completed a rather persnickety transaction that exemplified some of the problems with the escrow system.  First is the issue of the property condition and possession.  As we neared closing a final verification of property condition or walk through, was performed.  (Search for your dream home here) This is designed to ensure the home is in substantially the same condition at closing as it was when purchased.  But as it turned out, the seller left personal belongings behind so the house really wasn’t fully empty at closing.  Yikes!  Problem 1: How does a buyer know if the seller isn’t required to be out prior to closing, that the seller has everything out or is even out at all?  Answer: They don’t.  Unlike sitting at a closing table where the seller has moved and the home is ready for turnover and keys are exchanged for cash, with the escrow system the buyers have no know way of knowing if the seller is actually out.

The second problem is the property condition.  With the walk through taking place in the days leading up to closing and with the seller still in the home, you can’t really see everything.  I once had a walk through where the home looked fine, but once we closed and the seller moved out we found a large potted tree had leaked water on the wood floor and underneath was ruined.  What then?  Fortunately, the seller was still in town, recognized the issue and agreed to pay the buyer to have the floors refinished.  But what if they would have already left?  How would the buyer collect?

The third issue is regarding possession.  With escrow the buyer’s loan funds, the down payment is in and everyone is ready for the close but the seller doesn’t actually have the money, it’s still with escrow.  It’s not until after the close that escrow sends the money to the seller.  Let’s say it’s the end of the month and the recorder’s office is backed up, not at all uncommon.  The recording eventually happens but not until after the escrow’s wire cutoff through the Federal Reserve Bank.  freserve3Huh?  That’s right, wired funds must pass through the Federal Reserve and they close around 2 pm Pacific.  So the deed is recorded and the buyer is the legal owner and ready to take possession of their new property, but the money hasn’t been deposited into the seller’s account yet.  This just happened to me and making matters worse, it was the last day of the month which also happened to be a Friday.  So not only did the buyer get the property before the seller received their proceeds funds, the seller had to wait until the following Monday to get their money!  And lest you think this rarely happens you’d be mistaken, it happens quite often.  Unlike a closing table where the keys are exchanged for the money, escrow always and by definition has to set up the recording and then record the transfer all before seller gets their money.   In the transaction I just closed, the seller was livid that the buyer was going to have the keys before they had their money and wanted me to hold the keys and not give them to the buyer, even though the property had recorded and the buyer officially owned it!  Thankfully in that example, escrow was able to rush the file through and beat the wire cutoff with just minutes to spare.  That didn’t stop the seller from giving me an earful however.

So it goes that California’s use of escrow may in fact be the most efficient method of exchanging real estate for money, it is not without a certain amount trust that everything will work out right and everyone will do and perform as they should.  Something that traditional closing easily avoids.

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Real Estate In The Conejo Valley August 2016, What’s Happening

Every August my wife reminds me it’s August. Usually by saying something like, “It’s August, don’t freak out.” Or “Don’t freak out, it’s August.” In general, whatever she says usually contains don’t freak out and August. She knows after 26 years in this crazy business, that it’s always slow in August. She has to remind me because it always seems to catch me by surprise. You’d think that I’d have figured it out by now, but truth is, it always freaks me out. 2016 has by every measure, been an outstanding year for real estate. Total unit sales are up. Prices are up. Rates are down and inventory while still tight, is a little better. Employment is up and incomes are even rising a little. If this were the Goldilocks story, you’d say the porridge is piping hot and just right! (Search available homes here).

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Great Family Home in Dos Vientos Ranch

Yet I find myself wondering if this August is different than the rest. Is this seasonal slowdown a signal that the market is ready to shift and should I be bracing myself for a market correction?

So let’s look at the market here this August, in the Conejo Valley.  First let’s talk about August itself and why my wife always reminds me it’s August. See the thing about real estate is that there are seasonal tendencies or patterns that emerge. For example, the Super Bowl is more than just the end of football season, it’s the kick off for the Southern California real estate season too. Most consumers think that summer is the best time to list their home to sell. Fact is, I like to list just before Super Bowl to get a jump on the market. My best months, year in and year out are February through May. Spring is our area’s strongest market. You see by mid May life starts interfering with real estate. Mother’s Day, Memorial Day; Father’s Day and graduation and before you know it it’s 4th of July. It should be noted that there are structural changes impacting the market, at least there are here anyway.

It used to be that school started either immediately before or after Labor Day. But now some districts are staring as early as the first week of August. This kills the month of July because now instead of August being the final vacation month and the school supply buying month, it’s starting in July. This has conspired to make July almost as slow as August.

North Ranch Home Listed at $990,000

Since spring is the best market, sellers usually get their price and spring buyers find some of the best properties come up for sale. As I mentioned, inventory has been creeping up. We started the year right around 500 units for sale. Currently we are around 600. Up, but not more than we should expect for this time of year really. In fact, we have almost exactly the same number of units available as we did last year this month. But does that explain the general malaise I’m seeing in our market?

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Ben Johnson Fairway Home – Perfect for Entertaining Guests

2016 is also an election year and if you haven’t noticed, it’s a bit unusual and it’s the news. If it’s an election year, it’s also a Summer Olympic year. All this conspires to make August 2016 even slower than usual. The question then is, is it a good time or a bad time to buy or sell? The answer is, I’s always a good time to buy or sell real estate. There is never a time when there aren’t excellent opportunities to buy real estate, but you do need the right agent in your corner helping you along the way. (Contact Tim Here).
So what’s the market like? It’s good in some areas, great in others. Remember, real estate is a local and some argue, hyper-local business and it’s also a seasonal business. Home with pools sell best in summer. OK, I know what you’re thinking, “Spoken like a true Realtor,” right? Yes, but seriously, it is always a good time. Let’s start with the buyer part of the equation. If the market is slow, what are sellers going to have to do to move their home? That’s right, be more willing to negotiate. Thus a buyer can get a better buy than just a few months earlier.

For the seller though, yes you might have to be more flexible on price, but what happens after you sell? You likely go and buy something to replace your sold home with. And that means you’re also buying when the seller needs to be more flexible. Plus, when prices are up like they’ve been, you are cashing out and taking some profits off the table. Trying to time the market, any market, is not only impossible, it’s wrong. Trying to time the market almost always leads to missing out on great opportunities.

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New Listing in Rancho Conejo

I currently have a home with owned solar (no electric bill) and don’t think for a minute that isn’t a popular amenity when we’re running the air conditioning every day (for all listings visit So the market is good. It’s August. School just started for our largest local district today. Labor Day is just around the corner and then it’s onto September, which is traditionally a very good month in real estate. So you think you might want to buy before September? Maybe so and have I got the home for you!


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April 2016 Case Shiller And What It Means Looking Forward

April 2016 Case Shiller And What It Means Looking Forward

Yesterday morning Case-Shiller reported an average 5% gain in home prices across the country.  Portland, Seattle and Denver lead the nation with gains year over year in the 10% range.  Many of the 20 Cities used in by Case-Shiller, report at or above bubble peaks. house_bubble_new By any measure this is good news for homeowners and while growing more expensive, hopeful news for home buyers.  The question on everyone’s minds of course is, can it continue?

I hear talk amongst my fellow Realtors that they are concerned that values are too high.  Are we in another bubble they ask?  Obviously all anyone can do is guess, but some have more empirical data to guess than others.  Case-Shiller bases their calculation on data from the 20 largest metropolitan statistical areas or MSA.  This is a large swath of data and why so many watchers of real estate look so closely at it.  Myself, I only have data on my little corner of the world, the Conejo Valley and the real estate along the Ventura/Los Angeles County line (search available inventory here).   Thus my opinion reflects the unique idiosyncrasies therein.

The area I work has prices starting in the mid $200’s (a few condos) and venturing into the occasional 8 figure property.

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5520 Wembly Drive  Oak Park, CA

When I run my numbers which I do monthly, I focus on the supply side.  I look not at the prices but the inventory and the percent change month over month.  Since in a normal year I list about 7 homes of every 10 I sell, supply is very important to me.  Supply also is a great indicator on the direction of any market.   In part because I’ve been tracking so long, I know for example that in fall of 2008 there were just over 1,300 homes on the market in my little valley and that 10.5% of the available homes were under contract.  Last month available inventory stood at mid 500 units for sale and over 40% over the available homes were under contract.  This is a picture of a healthy albeit tight market.  By tight I mean not a lot of homes on the market.  In fact, if we had more homes under $750, the % of homes under contract I predict, would be higher because this is the most popular price range here.

To the question of a bubble, Case-Shiller makes no such suggestion.  Rather, they speak to the low interest rates environment, consumer confidence on the overall economy, low unemployment and of course, the shortage of available housing.  My personal belief is that to have a bubble you have to have some type of artificial demand booster.  Preceding the Great Recession, mortgages were easy to obtain with many buyers, particularly right before the crash, able to obtain a mortgage with little or no income, down or credit.  Not exactly a solid foundation.  In the late 1980’s, prior to that bubble burst, lots of money was coming in from Japan.  Stories of Japanese investors showing up to model home complexes with a brief case filled with a couple hundred thousand dollars, are the stuff of legend.  Some might point to the declining number of Chinese buyers as something to watch.  I would imagine that Chinese money which has had little or no real impact on my market, would be of importance in cities like San Marino and Montebello where the Chinese population is significant.  The strength of the dollar has slowed European and Russian money coming over and buying prize properties in New York, Miami, Beverly Hills and the like.  Most of my colleagues from the Westside of Los Angeles report slowness in the trophy property market; the $10M+ range.  My area has not experienced much of this kind of money so the impact has been minimal.

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Check out the best in California Lifestyle right here in the Conejo Valley!

Moreover, if I were to hazard a guess, I would suggest that the majority of cities across the country have had little or no impact by foreign investors.

So back to the question of a bubble, the absence of artificial stimulus like easy money or foreign capital suggest the key component of bubble making is missing.  This leaves me to conclude we are not in a bubble.  Moreover, as Case-Shiller suggests, it is the economy and the availability of low interest rates that is driving this market, that and very low inventory.  So what should we be watching for then as an indicator of what is yet to come?  Clearly the strength of the economy is now and always will be the bell weather of the real estate market.  When the economy falls into recession, housing should and will follow.  This is healthy.  What isn’t healthy is when the real estate market is the leader in the declining economy like it was in the two previous housing bubbles.  The thing I can’t stop looking at is the simple demographics of our population.  The population isn’t getting smaller.  Homebuilders are still not building enough housing and certainly not enough apartments and lower price point homes.  Heck, in areas like Coastal California and Ventura County in particular, (contact Tim here) slow growth ballot initiatives look to continue forever a slow-to-no development environment.  The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality keeps builders from building only furthering limited supply.  Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT’s) are holding huge numbers of homes off the potential “for sale” market by permanently or near permanently, converting their massive inventory into rental properties, further constricting supply.  Baby boomers just now 70, are not selling in mass and by and large, are staying put.  Another reason of constrained supply.  And lastly, the Millennials are only now starting household formation and will be looking at buying homes, fueling the demand side of the housing equation for the next 15+ years, all the while in a tight inventory environment.  Will Brexit bring down the US economy?  Unlikely.  If anything, it will only strengthen the dollar and the 10 year US Treasury which is the driving force behind mortgage rates.  Strong US bonds mean low rates of return and this means even lower mortgage rates. So for as long as our economy continues to expand and unemployment remains static or declining, we should be in for a continuing climb upwards on home pricing.  This is good news for would be sellers and encouraging news for would be homeowners in that the future is bright and home price appreciation, far from over.

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Relocating To Thousand Oaks And The Conejo Valley: What You Need To Know


The first thing you need to know about relocating to the Conejo is that it’s pronounced Koh-nay-hoe not Cone-Joe.  Conejo means rabbit in Spanish.  The Conejo Valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth and arguably the most special in Southern California.  The weather is near perfect.  The schools incredible.


For more school info click here

You can go for a breathtaking hike with ardent hikers or your 5 year old one minute and then at the beach the next.  We are located midway between Downtown Los Angeles (think Lakers, Kings, Clippers, world class museums and Broadway theater) and Santa Barbara (think romance, wine tasting, art walks and shopping).  Both are 45 minutes without traffic so allow for 1.5 hours as a rule, this is greater LA after all.  We have a regional trauma center and hospital and a fashionable indoor-outdoor mall with Nordstrom’s.  You’ll find employers like biotech giant Amgen, food giant Dole, music giant Guitar Center, insurance giant Anthem, the newly relocated LA Rams and the list goes on and on.  Home to nearly 200,000 people (about 400,000 when you factor in neighboring Calabasas, Camarillo, Moorpark and Simi Valley) it’s a fantastic place to live, to grow old in or to raise a family.

Thousand Oaks, the area’s largest city, has more than a thousand oak trees.  They’re beautiful and grand.  Should you find one on the property you like, be advised that you can’t cut it down.  You can’t even trim a branch if it is larger than 4 inches in diameter.  Suffice it to say the fines for damaging or removing an oak tree in Thousand Oaks are hefty.  We do love our oak trees and they are protected.  We also love our open space and the Conejo Valley is completely ringed by protected regional, state and national park land including the majestic Mt. Boney, the last mountain in the Santa Monica Mountain range.  It makes for spectacular outdoor scenery and activities but it also means you won’t find many new homes being built.

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Mt. Boney

The Conejo Valley rests atop the Los Angeles and Ventura County lines.  For example, Westlake Village which is home to our most expensive real estate, was incorporated in 1981.  However, Westlake Village makes up only half of what we consider Westlake.  This is because a California city cannot be in two counties.  Thus, when Westlake Village

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Westlake Village

became incorporated only the LA County side was allowed to do so.  The Ventura County side was absorbed into the city of Thousand Oaks.  The zip codes for Westlake south of the 101 Freeway are 91361 for both counties.  The address used is Westlake Village.  Go north of the freeway and it’s 91362 and called Westlake Village for both counties as well.  More significantly, the school districts are entirely different.  If you want your kids to go to Westlake High School (Conejo Valley Unified School District) you must live on the Ventura County side.  The LA side goes to Agoura High (Las Virgenes Unified School District.)

In 1982 Agoura (pronounced Uh-goor-uh) incorporated into Agoura Hills, leaving behind a swath of homes over the Ventura County border in unincorporated Ventura County.  This area originally known as Agoura now bears the name of Oak Park.  Oak Park has its own zip code: 91377, its own government and most importantly its own Blue Ribbon school district (Oak Park Unified School District.)  Unlike Westlake, Oak Park successfully resisted incorporation into the city of Thousand Oaks.  When you ask someone about Oak Park the first thing they mention are the schools.  Since most of the schools throughout the Conejo Valley have Great School rankings of 9 out of 10 or better, the fact that Oak Park is known for schools means something special is going on there.

To recap the craziness of the various municipalities and the County Line, we’ve got two Agouras, two Westlakes and three schools districts.  There are unincorporated areas as well as 3 sub-cities in Thousand Oaks: T.O. proper, the aforementioned Westlake (part of T.O.) and to the south west, Newbury Park.  Temperatures by the way vary from Agoura Hills to the Newbury Park by as much as 15 degrees on a hot summer’s day.  Newbury Park is cooler since it’s closer to the ocean.  Nothing demonstrates this unique nature of our boundaries better than Westlake Island (and yes there actually is a lake in Westlake).  The entrance to the gated island is by way of a street named La Venta.  This is derived from LA/Ventura because the road is literally the county line.  In fact, “The Island” is smack dab in the middle of the lake (Search for Westlake homes here) and is literally divided in half.  Half on the Ventura side, half the LA side.  The Conejo is also home to three other lakes.  Two that you’ve likely not heard of are Lake Lindero and Malibou Lake.  Malibou Lake (yes like caribou) was a cabin-on-a-lake getaway for Hollywood Celebrities as early as the 1930’s.

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Malibou Lake

I can picture some famous Hollywood actor bouncing across the San Fernando Valley on a then two lane Ventura Blvd., up and over the Calabasas grade then left into the canyons, finally pulling up to a cabin nestled above Malibou Lake in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.  Homes with lake rights are actually part of a co-op called The Malibou Lake Mountain Club and offer a truly unique lifestyle in the mountains while only being 7 minutes to Agoura and the 101 freeway.  The lake many people may have heard of is Lake Sherwood.  Built around the sensational Jack Nicholas designed PGA quality golf course, this community of mostly single family homes starts in the $2M’s with town homes in the $1M range.  The Sherwood Country Club has hosted the Tiger Woods Open


Lake Sherwood Golf Course

and Greg Norman’s Shark Shootout golf tournaments and boasts the only tennis club that features all 3 court surfaces.  Lake Sherwood was named after Sherwood Forest because Errol Flynn’s 1938 classic film Robin Hood was partially filmed there.  Lake Sherwood is unincorporated Ventura County and like it’s even more expensive horse ranch neighbor Hidden Valley, has no municipal government.  Resident children attend the Westlake schools on the Ventura County side.  In addition to our amazing public schools, the Conejo has a multitude of private schools including La Reina Catholic Girls High School and Oaks Christian which spans all ages and has had their share of famous name alumni/alumni parents, plus a bunch of other parochial and non-parochial including the esteemed Carden School.

Another curiosity for most first time visitors here is that the Pacific Ocean is both to the west and the south.  We are located on the odd part of the California coast line where the state bends so that the ocean is on two sides.  Not a big deal but this tends to throw off your sense direction since the 101 freeway runs north-south from San Francisco to Los Angeles except the portion from Ventura to the San Fernando Valley, where it runs east-west.

As for housing… that’s my expertise.  In spring 2016, the least expensive single family home was in the $500K’s.  Prices range to 8 figures when you include Sherwood, Hidden Valley and a handful of homes near the North Ranch Country Club in Westlake.  The median is somewhere in the mid to upper $700K’s.  You can also find town homes and senior housing where prices are under those marks and even into the $200K’s.  Neighboring Calabasas is generally comprised of pretty high end, gated neighborhoods while Simi Valley, Moorpark and Camarillo (pronounced Kamm-a-ree-oh) offer a greater variety.  If you ask residents in each of those adjacent cities, they will tell you all the reasons they actually prefer their town to Thousand Oaks, Westlake or Agoura.  In Moorpark for example, when the little league season opens, the entire town shows up for the parade.  Moorpark also is home to Moorpark College part of the Ventura Community College system and a natural feeder into UC Santa Barbara, my alma mater.  Drive down the major streets of Simi or Moorpark and you’ll see banners heralding local young men and women who are serving in our military.  Heck, Simi Valley is home to the Ronald Reagan library.


Ronald Reagan Libary

Camarillo will tell you that at sea level you don’t need air conditioning and that it’s home to the Camarillo Airport, the outlet mall and Cal State University Channel Islands with its newly created school of engineering.  Located on what was once the California State Mental Hospital, the buildings of CSUCI also claim to be the inspiration of the Charlie “Bird” Parker song, Relaxing In Camarillo.  Being a professional musician and Arista recording artist in life BRE (Before Real Estate) I love that trivial fact…  Other nearby major universities include California Lutheran (also known as CLU or locally referred to as Cal Lu) the off season training grounds of the Los Angeles Rams and Pepperdine University in Malibu.  Yes, Malibu and everything it offers, is just 13 minutes from the Conejo Valley via Agoura Hills or Calabasas.

Moving to a new area can be a big life-change, but the Conejo Valley is one place that it shouldn’t be.  The Civic Arts Plaza

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Civic Arts Plaza


offers great entertainment, touring shows etc., CVUSD has wonderful programs for kids in the autism spectrum, Moorpark has great horseback riding; baseball and soccer reign supreme in all the towns and I believe virtually every religion offers multiple places to worship.  We even boast a Mosque in Newbury Park, copper dome and all.  The canyon roads are popular for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts as well as cyclists including a portion of The Amgen Tour of California, not to mention vintage watering holes like The Old Place and The Rock Store.  So if you’re moving to this area, consider yourself blessed to have such a wonderful place to call home.



The old timers still use 1000 Oaks, Ca on their return envelopes (thinking about buying or leasing?  Visit  here) and will proudly refer to our Valley as God’s Country, because it really is that beautiful.  There’s a lot to talk about if you are relocating to Southern California.  As a native Californian, California real estate broker, Certified Residential and Corporate Mobility Specialist, I’d like to help with your relocation (contact Tim here).  Whether you’re looking for a luxury estate property or a more modest family home or condominium, let me welcome you to your new home right here along The County Line.


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Should I Buy The Most Expensive Home In The Neighborhood?


There’s an old adage in real estate: Never buy the most expensive home in the neighborhood.  But what happens when you want to?  What happens when the best home in the neighborhood really is the best home and you want it?

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Obviously the idea behind the adage is that if you buy the least expensive home in the neighborhood, your property value and capital appreciation would be “pulled” up with the neighborhood as a whole and thus the gains you’ll experience will be greater than more expensive properties.  I’ve seen this and it is undoubtedly true.  But so what?  If the only goal of home ownership is capital appreciation, then sure, it makes sense, but home ownership is so much more than that.

I have always taken the position that I want to try and buy the best of something that I can afford because by buying the best, I’ll never have regrets.  Now some might call this wasteful or missing the big picture.  I however take the position that the difference in money between something outstanding and something good, is seldom large enough to warrant the trade-off.  For example, a few years ago I listed and sold a home that the largest lot and the best view.  The home had a pool which most lots in this neighborhood couldn’t handle; it sat atop the hill with views as far as the eye could see, with snow capped mountains in the distance every winter.  honey creek rearWhen I met with prospective buyers I would tell them, this is the best and only one person can own the best.  Many would be buyers hemmed and hawed.  “Sell it for money like the comps down the street,” they would say.  I explained that quality costs and only one can own the best.  Believe it or not, I’ve I actually sold this home three times.  When it was new I told friends of mine, it was the best and they went for it.  They put it tons of upgrades and spared no expense.  The second owners paid a substantial premium for that home at a time when no one was buying anything.  The third owners did the same and in each case they gladly paid the premium and I know for a fact that if you ask any of them they would tell you, it was worth every penny.  The old sales master Zig Ziglar used to say, “It’s better to apologize for the price once, than the quality forever.” As many of you who follow my writings and visit my


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Facebook Business page know, I just finished a substantial remodel of my home.  It was Hell, but the end result is gorgeous.  I probably spent 15% more than I needed to get all the details and amenities I wanted.  Let’s face it, being in the home-selling business I see lots of cool features.  I can tell you unequivocally that people will always pay when a home has been done up correctly and the design vision of home complete.  Take for example a mid century modern home.  When an owner of an Eichler for example, has decorated in the Atomic Ranch 2396 Hood Dr. Wideor Googie furniture, Eames etc. style, the house looks incredible and people jump at it, fighting over it even.  Same is true for any architectural style.   I recently saw a Craftsman style applied to a basic tract house single story.  The owner had sandblasted the eaves and painted them brown.  The siding and stucco were an olive color, the windows had been done in with the red clad on the outside, wood on the inside, a very expensive window, yet the package was so convincing that you’d think it was a Greene and Greene in Pasadena somewhere.  The seller wanted a 30% premium.  A side bar on that home: It didn’t sell for the premium the owners wanted, but not because there weren’t takers, but because the owners found that they could make a small fortune renting it on AirBnB  because the style was so cool.  This is a new and unique time we find ourselves in isn’t it?

The point I’m trying to get across is that in every neighborhood, in every city, someone bought the most expensive home just as someone bought the least expensive.  Someone will always be willing to pay the premium.  Do you get every penny out if you do buy the most expensive or make yours the most expensive?  Not always for sure, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth every penny you spend.  Remember a home isn’t just an investment, it’s your sanctuary; the place you raise your children and create the memories that last a lifetime (Search available inventory here).

I have a philosophy on money and savings and it’s this: We have to plan for the future and  live for today and we won’t know if we got it right until it’s too late.  Thus I try not to be too hard on myself when I want something a little extravagant so long as I can afford it.  On that note, I have to run.  I have two clients buying the most expensive homes, on the biggest lots with the most incredible views, in a new home neighborhood this morning and I’m so excited for them, I can barely contain my enthusiasm.  Someone will always buy the best and I’m thrilled to have it be my clients.


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Tight Inventory: Continued Multiple Offers Or Housing Bubble?

620 Kingwood Web-18There is probably nothing so disheartening in the real estate world as writing an offer only to find you are not alone.  With Coastal California inventory still so tight especially in the “more affordable price range” of under $1 Million, multiple offers are back and in full force.  It’s not like they really went away exactly, great properties priced right often have multiple offers.  What makes the current situation so difficult is that it’s no longer just the great properties, it’s also the pretty great properties.  In fact, it’s even the pretty good ones so long as they are priced right.  It appears that there just aren’t enough good, well priced properties to satisfy the demand.  This begs the question, are we in another bubble? In summer 2006 I was at a BBQ in Palos Verdes and a friend’s friend was telling me how he’d been buying distressed properties in the Inland Empire at a discount and renting them but that he and his partners had begun liquidating because the market was over heated and the bubble was going to burst.  I smiled and explained that there just weren’t enough homes to meet the demand and that I couldn’t see that we were in a bubble at all.  I had actually thought the bubble was going to burst in 2004 and when it didn’t, I was “all in” to borrow a poker term.

What I didn’t understand at the time, was the reason the demand was so high was that loans were being made to people who weren’t qualified.  If people actually had to qualify, demand would be much lower.  In fact, demand was so high and loans were so easy that at the peak of the bubble home ownership nationally stood at over 69%, the highest level on record.  So what about today, is today different?

Of course every real estate cycle shares certain common elements, that mainly being supply and demand. supply_demandv2It may look different but it’s always about supply and demand.  In the late 1980’s heated demand was fueled by money pouring in from Japan.  Mid 2000’s it was easy financing.  Today you could argue historically low interest rates are the driving force and the absence of inflation makes investing in real estate more attractive than the equity markets.  (Questions?  Ask Tim) I might be willing to accept this if it weren’t for the obscenely high rents and the continued difficulty in obtaining a mortgage.  Rents are so high in greater Los Angeles in fact, that the average Southern Californian renter is spending roughly 50% of their income on housing.  That’s highest in the nation.  Clearly this must be unsustainable.  Yet what is the alternative?  City close is where the jobs are.  Sure, people will move out farther and commute, but that has a cost in time, productivity and money so many will choose high rent as the willing sacrifice.  Owning is unquestionably the better scenario when compared to renting.  While this isn’t always the case, at current rent levels, it surely is.

Consider for a moment a 3 bedroom apartment in suburban Thousand Oaks for example, where there’s decent employment, great schools and commuting distance to the major metropolitan centers, doable.  You get a 3+2 with lovely wall to wall carpet, vinyl in the kitchen, not the nook by the way, white walls, fiberglass insert showers, Formica counters and no garage for $2,350 a month.  Whaaaat!!!???  You think I’m kidding don’t you?  I’m not.  Oh and it was built in the mid 1970’s with single pane windows.  That is somewhere roughly equivalent to a $400,000 house payment.  Owning really is cheaper than rent.  So when everyone goes out to buy, that will create vacancies and rents will come down accordingly right?  In theory that might be possible but the reality is not everyone has the down payment, credit or income to afford a $400,000 home.  So rents are high and likely to stay that way and that means continued attractiveness for home ownership from those who can.

Then there’s the demographics and specifically I’m referring to the aging Baby Boomers and the Millennials.  BB_46-64The Boomers were the largest population group in American history (1946-1964).  They are just now hitting 70 and have begun the very slow migration out of large homes and into one story’s and then assisted care etc.  But as we live longer, Boomers too stay in their homes longer, many choosing to bring hospice in rather than move to some facility somewhere.  This means that while they may be in the process of selling they are doing it slowly and then buying so the net change is really zero in terms of % change in home ownership.  Simultaneously the long awaited arrival of the Millennials is finally upon us.  Millenials (1982-2004) are actually a larger generation than the Baby Boomers, something economists and demographers never imagined possible two decades ago.  For Millennials, housing formation has just begun, albeit later than any generation previously and this is creating new pressure on the lower end inventory, first time buyers and midsized homes in the “more affordable” sub $1M mark (Search available inventory here).  So tell me, which of those two generational examples suggest demand is going to wane anytime soon?  Try neither.  Add to this the lack of construction from 2008-2012 during the Great Recession and the rise in population through immigration and birth rate and guess what?  Lots of pressure on available inventory.

Then there’s the challenge of getting a loan.  Not that it’s like it was in the Housing crisis, it’s not impossible today, but you have to be qualified.  No ifs, ands or buts.  In fact, the percentage of home ownership today in contrast with the 69% of 2006, is below 64%, the lowest on record.  This is why we are not in a bubble.  If we are feeling a shortage of supply and home ownership is at record lows, there really isn’t enough housing.  Not enough close-in homes, not enough condos, not enough apartments.  Sure there are areas like Detroit where there’s lots of vacancies and no jobs, but go to any urban center where there are jobs and you’ll find the same scenario over and over: inventory is tight.  This is not to say that the cycle of boom to bust isn’t going to happen ever again, it always does to some degree when the economy slows and people lose jobs.  But I don’t see a scenario where supply exceeds demand for at least 15 years.  Not until the Boomers really do make their way towards assisted living and even then it will take another 15 years to work through that.  That’s 30 years folks.  Until then, expect tight supply and the trend of multiple offers to be the norm.



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Remodel Or Don’t Remodel, That Is The Question

Remodel Or Don’t Remodel, That Is The Question

Let me begin by saying I have just about finished an exhaustive 3 month remodel.  Remodeling is a challenge and frankly, you’re probably better selling and buying a new home already updated– just sayin’, it’s tough. image1 (sellers take note, fix your place up and buyers will want it way more…)  What did I do?  New floors, baseboards, doors, window sills and wainscot; built ins, carpet and paint, kitchen cabinets, counters and appliances, lighting.  Well the lighting isn’t done yet, but you get the idea.  Mostly first floor.  I think Shakespeare himself would have a hard time defining my experience.  Romance, tragedy, comedy…  Because of this endeavor, I have several new appreciations and observations to share.

The first thing you need to know is that if you are going to remodel, don’t live in the home while you do it.  Pack everything up and find a place to take you, your family and your pets.  Pay for packing and storage before one person sets foot in your home.  Here’s what happens if you don’t:  You will spend the next however many months living in filth.  You’ll destroy or throw out many of your favorite things because they will be uncleanable.  You’ll be lucky if you don’t get divorced or arrested for going “Postal” on anyone of a number of people.  So to be clear, remodeling is dirty business.  The dust is beyond anything you ever thought possible and living through in it, nearly impossible.  Yet everyone thinks they can handle it.  I know I did…

The second thing is, hire a licensed general contractor.  You want someone who is accountable and overseeing everything.  Understand however that even in doing so, you will still be making tons of decisions (remodeling is the land of 1000 decisions) and mistakes are part of construction no matter how well you plan or how good your contractor but it will cost more money… that is, so long as you don’t count the money you lose by not being at work and making the money you normally would make during that time.  You have to understand that remodeling is not just about money and decisions, but about time.  Remodeling is extremely time intensive and stressful which eats even more time in lost productivity and without a contractor, you better count on being at home all the time.  I speak from experience because I chose to general my job myself (I help all my clients get their home together to sell, so I figured, of course I can general my job.  Nothing to it… Ha!)  As a result, there are still several items that aren’t done and there’s no one to get them done other than me.  Moreover, the money that you’ll be paying a plumber or electrician etc., is much more than what a general contractor will pay for the same job and those “retail” costs for labor add up really fast.  Believe me there are no savings there.

Third, it costs so much more than you can even imagine.  (Memo to buyers: upgrades are worth every penny because you don’t want to have to do them yourself!)  The adage that it will cost 20% higher is not true, it’s more like 30%+.  Why?  Because you change things as you go along.  I’m speaking of course of change orders, of which there will be plenty.  There will be opportunities presented to you during your remodel that are “Do it now or forever hold your peace.”  And there’s no, “I can always do it later.”  There is no later.  Oh, you’re skeptical are you?  Ok you need an example, how about this:  you’re putting in new flooring and you’ve already decided that you’ll put in new baseboards.  But what about the baseboards upstairs or in the room or rooms, you aren’t touching?  image_2Are you really going to bring back a contractor later once you realize that the old ones look terrible when compared to the new ones? Moreover, that it will never be cheaper than right there and then?  The cabinet man that was working on my kitchen got a call from the job he’d just finished.  The job was in Beverly Hills which is a pain to get to even when you live in Beverly Hills.  The owner had been unable to decide if he wanted dividers in his kitchen drawers.  The job is otherwise done when of course he realizes that he needs dividers.  So he calls the cabinet man who tells him it will cost $800.  “$800???” the owner screams, for dividers?  The cabinet man explains that since he is no longer on the job, he has to come and measure which means 1.5 hours in the car each way.  Then has to get the material, cut it, drive back to install on another day so that’s three days.  Had he been asked while he was there anyway, maybe $150.  I hadn’t planned on putting in new entry doors, but once the trim and casing went in, I realized that the old door looked like dreck and I needed new doors.  I got the doors on sale, just $1,800.  But then I needed hardware: $750.  Then they had to be hung, never cheaper since the guy was there already, there’s another several hundred and oh yeah they need to be painted and stained, $800 more.  The decision in was never cheaper but wasn’t cheap: total cost $4,000… uh, that wasn’t in the budget…  Those types of questions and opportunities arise throughout the entire process.  Delay and you’ll pay way more down the line or you just live with it.

The fourth thing:  Resist the temptation to buy everything cheaper on line.  First if it’s wrong, and it will be, you’ve got re-box and ship it back.  This costs both time and money.  Second, it may look great on the Restoration Hardware or some such sight, but it’s very probably poorly made overseas and too expensive to pack and return.  Plus, the contractor or trade hired to install it has to sit and read the instructions since it’s not something he regularly uses.  Can you hear that?  It’s the sound of the dollar meter running in the background while your guys sits and tries to figure out what the heck you bought and how it gets put together.  Think doll house assemblage on Christmas eve only you’re paying some guy $185 to figure it out.

The fifth thing: perfection doesn’t exist in construction, not on most budgets anyway.  My wife has a friend, The Switchplate Lady ( who paints outlets and switchplates to look exactly like the stone or wood they are attached to.  She’s truly amazing and an incredible artist.  As you can imagine for such work, the Switchplate Lady (aka Sandy Brodsky) works Malibu and Brentwood, Beverly Hills and San Marino, Lake Sherwood and Palos Verdes.  image_3In other words, mega mansions in 7, 8 and 9 figure range.  One such mansion for example, took up an entire city block of Brentwood!  In these homes, a cleaning crew sweeps and dusts behind the workers.  No worker is setting a paint thinner can on the new carpet and they don’t just brush sawdust onto your new wood floors.  If a miter joint is off by a quarter inch, it gets torn out and redone.  On most remodel budgets however, that quarter inch gets you a shrug of the shoulders and a “Well no material is perfect,” kind of talk.  Disappointment is part of remodeling and perfection simply doesn’t exist, no matter ow talented your contractor.  Oh and your floors get scratched, things get broken, paint gets splattered, not everything fits together as it should and no matter how much time you thought it was going to take, it takes significantly longer.

My story is not unusual, in fact it’s downright common.  As you can see, the decision to remodel is not one to be taken lightly.  So when your parents or friends or Realtor tells you, “you can always remodel that after you move in,” be very careful and remember remodeling takes time, money, a lot of patience not to mention very strong relationship.  So if you’re home shopping and see a home that needs work and another more expensive one that doesn’t, don’t forget my story and buy the more expensive one.  If you just love your home and it’s time to remodel, then move out, hunker down.  “It’s a lot like giving birth,” people say… to an elephant maybe.

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