Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's a neighbor to do?

Today I participated in an exchange with a frustrated neighbor regarding the amount of effort it seems to take to get public resources directed to particular traffic and safety issues. I thought it was worth re-posting here.

My neighbor P____'s posting:
At the risk of offending others, I want to say that Not every street can easily be organized. Maybe [the street in question] as a whole can be organized, but this block is populated by very nice people who 1. don't speak English, 2. don't like meetings, 3. think things are fine. Believe me, I've tried.

My response:
Unfortunately what P_____ says is true. We have similar issues here. I have worked as a volunteer cat behaviorist in the locked ward of the SPCA and I would rather "herd cats" than try to organize my neighbors. But when I say "organized" I am referring to approximately 10% of the households. There are only 6 out of over 60 households on my large block who regularly participate in our block group efforts. Our one project has been dragging on for over two years. There was some opposition, plenty of apathy, a bit of suspicion, quite a few non-English speakers, and some very discouraging comments. Yet, it is a start, and we less-than 10% managed to get over 70% to agree to our speed bump petition. We hope to see the result of our labors before the end of the summer. I have also made a couple of new friends among my neighbors and deepened my friendship with others.

At the end of my work day, and some days it never really ends, I would rather not go to a meeting, circulate, a petition, or distribute fliers. And I really do very little of it. Especially compared to some of the real organizers and like Daniel, Edward, Carolyn, Hoang, and Ruth. Sometimes it's more than enough to just feed the screaming cat, throw away the mail, and get some dinner on the table. Cynicism, lethargy, the lure of electronic devices, and just plain fatigue work against participation. But if, every once in a while, just a few of us would aspire to emulate Adlai Stevenson's homage to Eleanor Roosevelt*, I believe that we will see some change for the good. What is the alternative making some effort to improving our civic suffering? Do we make some small effort in hope of reaching a tipping point of success, or do we just take the advice of Job's wife to "Curse God and die"?
*"She would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world."

Monday, May 14, 2007

8 Important Issues About Condos

After talking to thousands of people about buying condominiums, co-ops,(see more about co-ops in my earlier post),and town homes in the Bay Area I have developed a list of the top features that they are looking for, or should look for, when considering their purchase. It’s time to put it all in one place where it’s easy to see and convenient to use as a checklist. Perhaps, if I have overlooked something, one of my readers can add a missing essential.

1. I don’t need no stinkin’ laundry room: Private laundry is the single most important feature that buyers don’t want to give up if they are choosing a condo over a single family home. Convenience, privacy, sanitary issues, and security all figure in to the decision. They are all valid reasons on an individual basis, but I can add another from a professional point of view. As a broker I am seeing that most new construction and conversions now include washer/dryer hook-ups. Sometimes, in the case of small units, a European washer/dryer single machine is offered. This trend has effectively created two classes of condos: with and without laundry. Resale value will be better in those with their own appliances in the unit.

2. Home, home on the range: for the late part of the 20th century electric ranges and ovens were typical of many multi-unit buildings whether built as condos or apartments. In our area where cuisine is highly prized and a the lack of a nice kitchen is sometimes a deal breaker, a gas stove increases desirability for a significant portion of the buyer market.

3. Where do I put my stuff: storage, both long term and every day is often an issue. Space in most condos is allocated efficiently and sparingly to maximize profitability in an environment where land costs are very high. Having that extra closet, or a near by storage locker, can make a big difference.

4. Love me, love my dog: Pets are a wonderful part of life for many of us. In fact the ability to have a pet, without a landlord’s approval, is one of the major satisfactions of moving from renting to owning. Just be sure that your pet(s) fit within the community’s rules. Typically you are allowed to have one pet less than 25 pounds. Sometimes two cats are allowed, or any combination of cats and dogs as long as they are each within the size limits. Check the rules carefully before wrting an offer and certainly before removing your inspection contingency.

5. Parking: cars are a major fact of California life and households with two or more cars are common. A second reserved space, even if it’s tandem, is a welcome feature. Even the ability to park in a non-reserved guest space is a real plus. Check into this carefully if you need extra parking. In some communities the guest spaces are just that, for the temporary use of guests. While visiting a friend in Honolulu I assumed that I could keep my rental car in a guest space in his garage overnight. It turns out that guests must vacate by midnight or get towed. After many hours of holo-holo (Hawaiian for driving around)looking for parking, I decided to do without a car on my next visit.
Also of high value to homeowners are larger and individual private garages as opposed to a space or spaces in a shared garage. Sometimes it’s about doing some work on your car, but more often the issue is storage and convenience.

6. The great outdoors: having a private space, whether it’s a deck, patio, balcony, or yard is a wonderful addition. Sometimes it becomes adjunct storage space for bikes or strollers. Sometimes it’s your alternative kitchen when the weather permits. Again, make sure that the community standards allow your intended use. For instance, one community in Castro Valley community has a fire safety rule restricting the type of barbeque grill you can use.

7. La la la la I can’t hear you: Noise is a major issue and it’s not always someone else’s noise. It could be your own sound system presenting an aggravation to other owners. That’s one of the reasons why stand alone units and any units that have minimal shared walls command a premium.

8. HOA Dues: The more services you have, the more you will pay in HOA dues. The typical elements of community dues are: insurance for the overall structure, water, trash, utilities for the common area, management fees, and reserves. Beware of low dues, yes I said low dues. Dues are supposed to accumulate enough savings to replace or repair major components. It’s the equivalent of a house owner figuring out that the house needs painting in five years, that it will cost $6,000 to do the job, and then putting $10 a month in a savings account to accumulate the cash. In a shared housing community, the owners could face an assessment, a demand for an additional financial contribution, to pay for repairs when a community has insufficient reserves to do the work.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"As Is"

It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.
--President Bill Clinton testifying at the
grand jury investigating the Lewinsky affair.

"As is" does not mean much in and of itself. Sellers still have to tell buyers what "is" is. There are a variety of laws regulating what must be disclosed in a residential real estate transaction. In California sellers are specifically required to disclose any knowledge of un-permitted work, the existence of lead based paint, a death on the property during the past three years, and a host of other things. Agents involved in the transaction are also required to make disclosures. Once the sellers and the agents have done their statutory and fiduciary duties, they can then negotiate for buyers to take the property "as is", meaning really "as disclosed". Even so, buyers can expand the definition of "is" by having inspections. Sometimes buyers will waive inspections, relying on their own knowledge and the existing documentation. There is nothing wrong with that. It can be a good tactic to make an otherwise unacceptable offer attractive to a seller. But any seller who insists that a buyer cannot have inspections is begging for a lawsuit for fraud. It's one thing to shorten the inspection period. The seller does not want to waste time or lose other offers. It's something else entirely to preclude any inspection. If a seller wants a buyer to purchase a property "as is" then the seller should give the buyer an opportunity to determine for themselves exactly what the meaning of "is" is.