Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Help Me Help You--Part Two

Last time, I blogged about what sellers can do to "help me, help you" --and now it is the buyer's turn. I'm going to be doing a lot of work researching properties, putting together tours for us, creating offers, negotiations, scheduling inspections, and more. And, there is a lot that buyers can do to help make the search and the transaction go as smooth and effectively as possible.

Buyers, you can "help me help you" by doing the following:

Know what aspects of a new home are most important to you. Maybe you need at least 2 bathrooms, or would prefer a nice view. Some people want a walking neighborhood close to stores and public transportation. Or--who knows--maybe you want a fire pole to slide down in the morning. Know what is most important to help focus your search.

Know your motivation. Are you moving to be closer to work or family? Or perhaps this is an investment. Knowing your motivations is key to focusing on the right property.

Meet with a mortgage broker as soon as possible. This way you will know how much money you will have to work with, or if you need to spend a few months on credit repair. And, keep in contact with your mortgage broker as the market changes all the time. If you need help choosing a mortgage broker, check out my recent blog entry on the topic.

Dedicate time to looking at properties. If you are very focused on your home search, devoting your Sundays to open houses is a given. But, you might want to get a jump on the market by taking a day off work to hit a broker tour or to plan a tour with your agent.

Be patient and don't get heartbroken. You might put an offer in on a house you love and get blown out of the water by someone with a much bigger offer or by someone who did pre-inspections. This will help you understand what is necessary to get the type of home you want.

Read all of your disclosures thoroughly. I know they are long and boring, but you are signing your name and initials to every page. This is the time for you to review and ask any and every question that enters your mind, no matter how silly or stupid it might seem.

Plan your finances. The main number people plan for is the down payment, and in today's market you need 20-25% to compete for many of the more desirable properties. But, don't forget that you will also need money for closing costs, inspections, and eventually your moving day.

This is just a quick introduction. Of course there are many other things you can do to "help me help you" and if you are in the market to buy a home, please let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Help Me Help You--Part One

There is that great line in the movie Jerry Maguire where sports agent Jerry pleads with his only client Rod Tidwell to do things that will help him be a better agent on Rod's behalf. He tells him "Help me help you!" Well, as a real estate agent, I often have to ask my clients to help me help them. So, I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on what you can do help your agent do a great job on your behalf. Today's edition is for the sellers in the audience, and next time I'll focus on the buyers.

Sellers, you can "help me help you" by doing the following:

Create a list of all the improvements you have done to the property since you owned it. If possible include receipts and reports. Even if it is something small like having a new ceiling fan installed, put it on the list.

Make a list of any past or potential problems with the property. This will be very helpful with creating the disclosure packet. Any leaks, no matter how small? Are there any noise issues in the neighborhood? Have there been any insurance claims? The list should include anything and everything you can think of. And, if you still have the disclosure packet from when you bought the home, that might be helpful, too.

Plan time and money for necessary repairs and inspections. Investing some money to make your house shine will help your home sell faster, and getting inspections done will show the market that you have taken care of your home. And, make sure to consider putting money in the budget for landscaping and staging.

Know your primary motivation for selling. Perhaps your family is expanding (or shrinking). Maybe you would like a better commute. Is your company relocating you? And, finally, you just might be in to make a profit. Knowing your motivation helps pinpoint the emotions that might affect your decisions in the home selling process.

Gather your financial information so that we can do a "net proceeds" worksheet and figure out what you need to sell your home for. Remember to budget for real estate agent commissions.

Try not to compare your home sale to the one down the street last year or last month. The market is constantly fluctuating and every house is different (at least here in the East Bay). This market requires more patience than the boom times of the last few years.

And, if you can "help me help you", then it will be easier to say, "show me the money!"

There is a long list of great things you can do to help me help you sell you your home. If you have any questions, just let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net. And, next time we'll tell the buyers what they can do to get ready.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Choosing a Mortgage Broker

When you are getting ready to buy a home, one of the toughest decisions is choosing a mortgage broker to work with. This is especially true in today's rocky mortgage market where you don't know who to trust. These are confusing times, so you need to make sure that you are working with a mortgage broker you can rely on.

There are two main types of brokers to consider:
*First, there are mortgage officers associated with specific lenders, like Bank of America or WaMu or Countrywide. They will work with you to find the best deal from their company, and if you are already a customer with them, they will want to keep you as a happy customer.
*Second, there are independent mortgage brokers and they are able to run your profile with a wide variety of lenders to find you the best deal. They are not beholden to any one lender and will want to create a lasting business relationship with you.

Both type of mortgage brokers are fine, but I recommend getting a personal referral from a friend, family member or colleague. If someone has had a successful experience with a mortgage broker, there is a better chance that you will too. (I believe that referrals are the way to go for many personal decisions, from mortgage brokers to dentists to nail salons)

It is also wise to work with someone local, as they will know about special incentives and programs offered by local governments, such as first time homebuyer programs or special rates for certain professions like teachers.

Be careful using any mortgage contact you might get from the internet. While they might offer enticing introductory rates, they could be anywhere in the country and will most likely be more interested in getting you into a mortgage rather than finding the best mortgage for you. The personal connection is not there and probably cannot rely on them.

Finally, no matter who you choose to work with, make sure to get everything in writing, especially any fees associated with the transaction, and get a complete copy of the transaction paperwork. And, if you ever need a mortgage referral in the East Bay, just let me know. I work with many professional and experienced mortgage brokers. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Top East Bay Restaurants

The San Francisco Chronicle just came out with its annual list of the Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area. Of course, most are in The City itself, but they included 14 East Bay restaurants. Of the 14, several are old favorites of mine and others are now on my list to check out. Plus, they left off one of my favorites!

Of course, standard-bearer Chez Panisse is on the list, as well as other favorties like Oliveto and Bay Wolf. Here in Rockridge, they also included the wonderful A Cote and new kid on the block Wood Tavern. Both are great! Another favorite--Pizzaiolo over in the Temescal district--also made the list. One I will need to check out is the brasserie-style restaurant Flora in Oakland's up-and-coming Uptown district.

Now, over on Piedmont Avenue, they include one my favorites--Dopo. What a great place to stop in for a wonderful little pizza!

Also on Piedmont Avenue, they should have included the terrific Park Avenue Bar & Grill. Owner Chris VavRosky cooks up one of the tastiest burgers in town and mixes some mean drinks! Make sure to check them out!

Over on Berkeley's Solano Avenue, I was glad to see Latin small plate specialist Fonda was highlighted, as well as Mediterranean spot Rivoli. Down on Fourth Street, I will need to check out Japanese/California cuisine restuarant O Chame, as well as nearby Indian joint Vik's Chaat Corner.

Through the Caldecott Tunnel, it looks like I will need to go check out Va De Vi in Walnut Creek and Bo's Barbecue in Lafayette.

I love to eat out, so if you ever need a restaurant recommendation, just let me know. Perhaps I'll join you!

(photo courtesy of SFGate.com!)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Lock Bumping--Home Security Concern or Urban Legend?

I've recently come across the phenomenon of "lock bumping" (also known as "key bumping") as a method used by thieves to break into locks. At our friendly, local locksmith, they even had handouts about lock bumping and what you can do about it. A quick internet search demonstrated, however, that it might be more urban legend than widespread problem.

Lock bumping is real, but the question is how prevalent is it. But, you are probably wondering first what the heck lock bumping is. It is a method that allows a lockpicker to easily crack nearly all common door locks. They just figure what caliber of key a lock takes, and then get a "bump key" or "999 key", which is locksmith lingo for a key with all the notches cut to the maximum depth of 9. The lockpicker inserts the key and taps it in a certain manner with a mallet to crack the lock and enter. Videos demonstrating the ease of this method have flown across the internet and local news stations like wildfire. You can check one out right here.

But many officials claim it is impossible to know whether a lock has been bumped or not and whether this is a widespread method. Few thieves have been caught i the act, and it leaves little evidence. In fact, a door that has been bumped and a door that has simply been left unlocked will look almost the same. The excellent urban legend website Snopes.com has a great report on lock bumping. They say it would cause a lot of noise, which would stop most thieves from using the method.

Should you be overly worried about lock bumping. Perhaps, if there has been a proven pattern of lock bumping in your neighborhood. Home security is always an issue, though, and you can always consider a a more secure lock. And, of course, if you have a home alarm system, you are already one step ahead. Consult with your own friendly local locksmith. Or let me know if you have any questions. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Moving Day Tips

Today is the big day--moving day--are you ready? Moving is one of the most stressful things a person can endure. But, some planning ahead can help make things go smoother.

Before the big day, make sure you have taken care of changing your utilities, changing your bank accounts, and submitting an address change to the post office. Drop off your keys with your Realtor and make sure to get the keys to to your new home.

Some things to plan for moving day:

  • Make sure you have enough cash to cover expenses, such as the moving van, gas, food, and even tolls if you might be crossing a bridge. Plan for more expenses than you anticipate.

  • Make sure your pets are happy. Limit them to one room and move them out last. And, make sure to "unpack" them first when you get to your new home.

  • Plan your route. Think about traffic patterns. If you are moving to an area with a lot of traffic, it might be best to avoid rush hour.

  • Check in with a friend or relative along the way, and select someone who might be able to help you out of a jam should one arise.

  • Don't rush the unpacking. Take care of your family and pets and enjoy the first night in the home.
If you need help preparing for a move (or finding the right home to move into!), let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Spring Cleaning Tips

Spring has sprung, so let's get that house of yours looking beautiful for that first gathering or party of the season! I'm not talking about vacuuming and doing the dishes. I'm talking about those little things you always think you should do someday.
  • First of all, get yourself organized and de-clutter your living space. Recycle the old magazines laying around. File away your important mail and paperwork. Organize your photos. You know what to do!
  • Clean your blinds and windows. You don't even need that blue window cleaner. Just a few drops of white vinegar and dishwashing liquid to a bucket of water. Try using newspaper instead of paper towels--it often works better.
  • Wash the walls, too! Use a mop head with a gentle cleanser. Don't apply too much pressure so you don't hurt the paint or wall treatment. It is usually best to start at the top and work your way down. Better to clean the whole wall than to do spot cleaning, which can lead to an uneven appearance.
  • Clean around your fridge. Most of us just clean the inside, but make sure to clean off the top of the fridge, which gets dusty. Pull the fridge out and clean the floor around it. Make sure clean those coils, too, to improve the energy efficiency. And, clean out the drip tray.
  • Flip that mattress. But, vacuum it first. And, it wouldn't hurt to flip the box springs, as well, if you can. If you can't find a washing machine big enough for your comforter, find a friend and shake it out vigorously.
Those are just a few to get you started. Is there anything special that you do each spring? Share your tips as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Favorite Real Estate Statistics

The media is full of information and reports and statistics and projections and forecasts about the real estate market. And, it can get a little confusing. Is it a crisis or a correction? A meltdown or a slowdown? Is it a good time to buy or a bad time to sell? And, when will we hit "the bottom"?

I just returned from another terrific 2-day real estate seminar with Brian Buffini, and thought I would simply share some of my favorite statistics from the event and let you decide where the real estate market is.

*About 1-2% of all homes are in foreclosure. Numbers are higher for certain areas (like nearby Stockton). And 30% of all homes are free and clear of any loans.

*The market is currently down about 13%, but it went up about 38% between 2002-04 and then another 17% from 1004-06. So, is this a correction or a freefall?

*It is projected that there will be 4.5-5 million real estate transactions this year, making it one of the top 10 busiest years in history.

*The average homeowner's net worth is $171,000, which is more than 40 times the net worth of the average renter.

*40% of consumers have never run a credit report on themselves. 40% have also never done a monthly budget, and 40% don't pay off their credit cards each month. Are these all the same people?

*In 2000, homeowners took out $26 billion in equity out of their homes. In 2004, that number hit $139 billion. 2005 was $450 billion. And, in 2006, that number made it to $620 billion. 16% of the money taken out of home equity was used to pay consumer debt and another 16% of it was used to buy more consumer goods.

So, what do you think the national numbers mean? And what is happening in your neighborhood? I know the market is still quite strong here in Rockridge and the surrounding areas. If you have questions about the market or want to know more, just let me know. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Save Money by Going Green

I like to check in from time to time with ways to go green, and this month I will be mailing to my clients a list of helpful tips on ways to save money by going green. Yet another reason that going green is great is because it appeals to both our altruistic side (saving the earth) and the selfish side (saving money). Here is a preview of what I will be sending my clients this month:
  • Ceiling fans use less energy than air conditioners and save you money in the long run.
  • Hardwood floors require no vacuuming, meaning you will save electricity and money.
  • CFL lightbulbs are afordable, long-lasting and use a fraction of the energy of traditional light bulbs. Save more money by getting them at CostCo or one of the many partners with PG&E.
  • Set those CFLs on timers to conserve even more energy & energy costs while you are away.
  • Wrap your water heater in an insulated blanket and turn it to the lowest setting when you are away.
  • See if your city offers solar rebates and take advantage of them.
  • Install solar-powered garden lights. They look stylish and are oh-so-easy! (for more stylish green tips, always visit Ecofabulous.com)
  • Always buy appliances qualified and rated by Energy Star.
  • Plant trees on the east and west sides of your home to keep it cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. The right placement can reduce the sun's heat by 20-50%.
If you ever have questions about greening your home and saving money, just let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Home Design Deals in the East Bay

Well, I'm back from a little break. This time we hit the Rhine River from Amsterdam to Frankfurt with stops in Dusseldorf, Cologne and more. Now, back to the real estate market...and real estate blogging!

I love Ikea as much as the next person, but sometimes you need something a little different. One of the great ways to find unique and affordable home decor ideas is to hit the Alameda Point Antique and Collector's Faire. This where many of the East Bay's top interior designers and home stagers get their goods, so why shouldn't you have a chance at them, too?

I've been meaning to write about the Alameda Point Antique and Collector's Faire for quite some time, but now I don't have to because the SF Chronicle has just run a terrific article about the place. It is a great read full of tips and guidance on navigating about 750 vendors and bumping elbows with about 9000 other early-rising shoppers.

Here are some of the main tips shared in the article:
  • Get there early. Very early! The gates open at 6pm and eager shoppers are already waiting in line.
  • If you see something you like, buy it. It probably won't be there when you come back.
  • Feel free to haggle. One designer recommends asking "How much are you asking?" as opposed to "How much is it?"
  • Some shoppers like the new vendors on the far side because they may not be as savvy as the old-time vendors
  • Grab a map and take notes so you don't get lost.
  • Prices usually drop as the day goes on so that vendors don't have to cart stuff back.
The Faire occurs the first Sunday of each month, so mark your calendars for April 6th. The admission cost is $15 each, but it goes down in price as the day gets later.

This article is a fun read and really gives you everything you need to know about the Alameda Point Antique and Collector's Faire. And, if you ever have questions about interior design and home staging in the East Bay, just let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Countrywide Foreclosures in Oakland & Berkeley

As I've written about before, a lot of people still ask me about buying foreclosures. Due to the media's coverage of real estate market and the sub-prime fallout, there is a belief that there are tons of foreclosure deals out there just waiting to be snapped up. But think again. The East Bay is just different.

Click here to visit a list of Countrywide's currently active foreclosures in California (and dig deeper to look at the whole country). There are over 4200 Countrywide foreclosures in the state as of February 12th. How many are in our neck of the woods?

Well, Oakland has 33 on the list, and your search pretty much begins and ends with that. There is one foreclosure in Berkeley, and none in Albany, Emeryville, El Cerrito and Piedmont.

That Oakland list does offer some deals for people who are willing to put a lot of work into the homes and a lot of patience. Most of the deals are in the $200k and $300k range, but there is one as low as $118,000 and one as high as $744,000. Buying foreclosures takes a lot of time because everything needs to pass through the bank's bureaucracies, and the purchases are "as-is."

I found it to be quite interesting and wanted to share it with you. So, peruse the list and let me know what you think. And, if you have any questions about foreclosures, please let me know. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Inspection Contingency Period

So, you've made an offer on a home and it has been accepted. Congratulations! Within the escrow period, there is the inspection contingency period for you to look into all of the nooks and crannies of the house to make sure it is the perfect home for you. And, if you do find any significant faults, the inspection contingency provides the ability to pull out of the contract.

Now, you probably aren't an expert in foundations or furnaces or termites, so you have to get the experts in to inspect your home. But, what should you expect to inspect? Of course, every home is different in size, history, style and more, but this is a general list to set you on the right path to a successful completion of your inspection contingency period.

General Home—A look at all of the basic systems in the house, from heating and electrical to roofs and windows. The general home inspection can sometimes lead to additional specialized inspections.

Roof—An examination of the age, style and condition of the roof.

Sewer Lateral Inspection—This inspection looks at the plumbing connection from the private home to the city’s sewer system to find any possible leaks or seepage.

Pest and Structural—A investigation of any termite infestation or basic structural defects.

Foundation—A detailed investigation of the home’s basic foundation.

Heater—An examination of the age, type and condition of the home’s heating system.

Electrical—An examination of the age, type and condition of the home’s electrical system.

Plumbing—An examination of the age, type and condition of the home’s plumbing system.

The cost of these inspections can vary from free to several hundred dollars, so make sure to budget that into your plans. If you need a referral to a qualified inspection, check out The Smartt List or give me a call. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The ABCs of PMI

With all of the seismic changes happening in the mortgage markets, one aspect to keep in mind is PMI, aka Private Mortgage Insurance. PMI is when you buy insurance to cover your lender (not you) because you are taking out a loan deemed to be riskier than most.

PMI is usually needed on loans for more than 80% of a home's assessed value, which account for many mortgages in the Bay Area. So, if you are putting less than 20% down on your home purchase, you will most likely need PMI.

How much is PMI? Generally, it costs one-half of one percent of the total loan. So, if your loan is for $500,000, your annual PMI will probably be around $2500 annually, or about $210 per month. That is a lot of money to add to your monthly budget, and it is not always tax deductible.

Because of the major shifts in the mortgage industry, PMI guidelines will also be getting tighter. The private mortgage insurance companies are indicating that they will no longer provide the insurance for 100% financing or even for loans with just 5% down. It appears that a minimum of a 10% downpayment will become necessary. And, if you can't get PMI, then you probably can't get your loan.

There are some ways around PMI. Some lenders will waive it if you get your loan at a higher interest rate, and that interest would be tax deductible. Or, you can get a second mortgage (at a higher interest rate) to help get to a 20% downpayment.

One final note: always make sure to cancel the PMI when you pay down the premium to 80% of the home's value. Don't wait for the lender to do it, even though they are legally required to.

PMI and the changing mortgage market can be challenging to understand, but please let me know if you have any questions. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Rockridge Market is Just Different

Today, Ron Kriss, our broker here at Lawton Associates, announced a comprehensive and historical comparative analysis of the Rockridge real estate market. And, he has concluded that "Rockridge is Just Different." I have worked with Ron Since the mid-90s and we have seen the market in all of its many ups and downs.

Rockridge has long been one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the entire Bay Area, and the real estate market here is atypical. Lawton Associates, an expert in the Rockridge district, has been the top-selling real estate brokerage in the neighborhood for over 10 years.

This chart, compiled by Ron, demonstrates the fact that there were more homes sold in Rockridge in 2007 than in the two previous years. The average list price and the average sold price have gone up every year including 2007. The chart includes a split of 2007 into the first half and second half of the year, to further counter the mainstream media’s point that the market is getting worse. “Maybe things are getting worse in the Greater Bay Area, the State of California, and the United States,” adds Kriss, “but not in Rockridge. Both six-month periods of 2007 were very strong and there was even continued over bidding on many premium homes.”

Ron adds, “Compared to the peak of 2004, there were fewer homes sold in Rockridge in the 2005-2007 time period. This is mostly because there were just fewer homes on the market during this 3-year time period, not because homes were not selling. The number of cancelled, withdrawn, and expired listings over the above chart’s four year period has not changed very much.”

Ron's 2008 Forecast—“ The market could actually get very hot in 2008”

Based on early trends from January 2008 and the proposed increase of the conforming loan limit, Ron also provides a forecast for the next eleven months.

“I can tell you that the spring real estate market has already started off with a bang and there is not enough inventory. This coupled with historically low interest rates has shown us a very robust marketplace so far. If buyers are waiting for prices to drop and sellers to give their homes away, I don’t think 2008 is the year. In fact with the conforming loan limits set to increase under the just signed “Economic Stimulus Package” the market could actually get very hot in 2008.”

If you have questions about the Rockridge market, or other markets in Oakland and Berkeley, just let me know. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Below Market Rate Condominiums

One terrific option for first time homebuyers in any market is the purchase of a "below market rate" condominium. These are generally city-run programs to provide affordable entry to the real estate market for low and moderate income earners, especially in areas where housing prices can be high.

Every program is different, but many cities generally work with developers to set aside a percentage of units that would be designated as "below market rate." For instance, a one bedroom condominium might cost $275,000 instead of $425,000. And, these units are usually required to be as equitable to the condos priced at a fair market value.

These BMR programs have income restrictions and they often have lotteries for high-demand developments. But, the extra paperwork and patience can pay off if you are looking for affordable homeownership. The main downside to these programs is that you will earn little or no profit when you sell the unit, due to restrictive re-sale regulations, and you still have to pay HOA dues. But if homeownership is the goal, not profit-making, then BMR programs are a great option.

For information on the City of Emeryville's well-developed BMR program, visit their website. Berkeley also offers a BMR program, and so does San Francisco. Check out your own city's housing department if you don't live in these cities.

And, it just so happens that I am currently listing a beautiful BMR resale condo in the desirable Terraces at Emery Station building in Emeryville. It is a one-bedrom/one-bath top floor condo with some views of the Oakland Hills. The location is terrific, close to everything in Emeryville, from Ikea to Emery Bay and more. Plus, it is perfect for Amtrak commuters. The Terraces has great amenities, such as a gym with sauna and an entertainment room. And, this BMR condo is listed at just $264,400.

If you would like more information on this BMR condo or how to apply for BMR programs, please let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why I Haven't Blogged in Two Weeks...

Why haven't I blogged in two weeks? Because I'm so busy with my clients! They say the market is busting, but I am not seeing too much evidence of that in our market. This just goes to show you that the real estate market is truly a neighborhood-by-neighborhood market.

Here in Berkeley, Rockridge, and other parts of Oakland, there continues to be a consistent number of homes available for sale. And, buyers are starting to come out of the woodwork due to interest rates that are both low and sane and some great deals that are out there.

So, what does this say about the market in our neighborhoods? Here are some tips for both buyers and sellers.

*Be Patient. At the top of market, sometimes homes were barely on the market before they received multiple offers over asking price. Now, deals are happening, but buyers are being a bit more cautious. Hang on, homeseller, and price it right and make it shine.

*Price it Right. Don't compare your home sale to sales that happened in your neighborhood last year or at the top of the market. While sales are happening, we are not seeing record-breaking profits. If that is why you are selling your home, perhaps it is best to wait until the market goes nuts again.

* Make your home shine. This is always the case, but now more than ever. With a slower market, you need to make sure your home is better than the competition. Fix that fence and paint those walls! The investment will be well worth it.

*Get your Loan Pre-Approved. Talk to a mortgage broker (or call me for a referral) and get your loan set-up. The mortgage landscape is changing constantly right now, and mostly for the better. Rates are low and sensible, so now is the time.

*Don't Get Desperate. Take the time to find the home that is right for you. This might take some patience, but it will be well worth it in the long run. But be prepared! Some properties are still hot and do demand a multiple offer situation.

*Avoid Foreclosure Hype. As I've blogged before, a lot of people think they can get great deals on foreclosures right now but this is a tricky and risky business. Now what you are doing before you move on a foreclosure.

Alright, I'm hoping to get more blog entries out there again after being so busy lately. Next I am going to write about below-market rate opportunities and a great new listing I just put on the market. As, always, I'm happy to help. If you have any questions, just let me know. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Highly Touted Jack London Square Revival

Living in the East Bay for the last 15+ years, it seems like the powers that be are always talking about a revival of Jack London Square. And, it looks like it might actually be on the verge of happening!

First, there is the highly anticipated California Harvest Hall, which is planned to be largest public market on the west coast, rivaling even Seattle. That should be opening in 2009 and promises to bring in a lot of local visitors and tourists alike.

Today, Eater SF has a run down on other great developments in the neighborhood. Among the news is that Cocina Poblano has just opened and offers the largest tequila selection in the east bay. Plus, the upscale hotelier Joie de Vivre has taken over the Waterfront Hotel and will be opening up a new restaurant from local celebrity chef Joey Altman. And, Jack London Square already has one of the best farmer's markets around and lots of history and charm.

So, what about the market? Is now a good time to buy in Jack London Square? I would say so. There was a lot of development in the neighborhood over the last few years getting ready for the promised revival of Jack London Square. Now, there is a lot of inventory. And, with today's market, there are some great deals. Even a quick look at the available properties in the area shows that there are about 70 properties listed at $500,000 and less.

Another great option if you are interested in buying property near Jack London Square is the nearby East Lake Lofts. These are authentic industrial brick-and-timber lofts next to Laney College. These are filling up fast, but some choice lofts are still available.

If you have questions about Jack London Square or would like to purchase a condo or home in the area, please let me know. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Keep Renting? Or Buy? How About a Lease Option!

As most people are now realizing, this is a terrific buyer's market--possibly the best buyer's market in over a decade. With home prices staying steady and even going down in parts of the Bay Area, now is a great time for first time homebuyers to to make a reasonable entry into the real estate market.

But, many first time homebuyers have nervous jitters, and that is very understandable. Not only is buying your first home a huge undertaking, but the media has everyone on edge about the stability of the real market. So, what do you do if you know that now is a good time to buy, but you are still a bit wary? This is the perfect situation to consider a "lease option."

A lease option is when you a rent a property with the option to purchase it a set price at some time in the future. The upside to the lease option is that your rent money will usually be contributed toward the purchase price of the property if and when you decide to exercise your option to purchase it.

For example, perhaps there is a condo you would like to purchase and it is listed at $350,000. A standard 20% down payment for it would be $70,000. If you set up a lease option to purchase it at that price in one year, perhaps you Could then pay $2000 per month in rent on the unit. When the option comes up in one year, you will have paid $24,000 in rent which could be used toward the down payment on the condominium. Of course this is a broad example, and every individual lease option agreement is different, but this illustrates how it might work. And, if for some reason you choose not to exercise the option, your rent money still provided you with shelter for a year.

A lease option is often a great situation for the seller, too. In a slower market like we are experiencing now, it helps entice buyers. And, if they are doing improvements on the property or a condo conversion, this helps keep the building occupied with interested buyers for when the property is ready to sell.

Lease options can be a very effective tool that makes both parties happy, but every situation is different. If you have any questions about lease options, just let me know. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Getting Ready for Tax Season--Part 2

Yesterday, I blogged about getting ready for tax season by helping you decide whether to hire a CPA or do it yourself. Today, I'll provide some tips on getting yourself organized to make your work go smoothly. Of course, everyone's tax situation is different, but these are some basics to get you started. If you have specific questions, contact a tax professional or contact me for a referral.

First, gather your W-2 and 1099 forms sent to you from your employers, of course. Then, if you have any investments or bank accounts, you will need your 1099-B (for stock transactions), 1099-DIV (for stock dividend payments), 1099-INT (for interest on bank accounts and CDs), and 1099-R (for IRA distributions).

Now, you will need paperwork to support your home expenses. Remember that money spent on real estate transactions for mortgage interest, "points" or loan origination fees, and taxes are deductible in most cases. (Additionally, if you spent money on home improvements, hold on to those receipts for the future sale of your home to offset the taxable gain on the sale). Finally, if you made any upgrades to improve the energy efficiency of your home, you might be eligible for a the IRS Energy Credit.

Need more? If your medical expenses were more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, you might qualify for deductions. And, you can even even claim your childcare expenses if you have the right paperwork. Make sure to get the name, address, social security number and amount paid for each provider. As for charitable deductions, you will need written acknowledgement from the organization if the amount is over $250. If it is less than that, gather receipts proving the amounts (even receipts for donated items to Goodwill and other organizations like that).

There are so many more, but these are some of the basics. Make sure to prepare your return early and go over it with a fine-toothed comb! (Is it signed and dated? Are your numbers and calculations correct? Is it neat and orderly?). And, please don't hesitate to contact me if you need a referral or would like to be on my monthly mailing list for valuable information like this. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Getting Ready for Tax Season--Part 1

Each month, I send my regular clients a selection of tips and advice on real estate, home ownership, finances and other life issues. This month, we focus on getting ready for tax season. Today in the blog, I will look at whether you should hire a CPA or do your taxes yourself and tomorrow I'll blog about some of the paperwork you will need. (And, we'll get back to real estate next week!)

Every year, many of us struggle to select the best method of preparing and filing our tax returns. It is never too soon to start thinking about the upcoming tax deadline. In fact, the sooner you make your tax preparation plans, the better organized you will be and the more likely you are to prevent any mistakes or costly accidental omissions. But, do you ever wonder if it better to do your taxes on your own or whether you should hire a tax professional?


This might be the best method if you are itemizing your deductions or you expect your tax return to be complicated. Ask you friends or families (or me!) for a referral to a great CPA. The good thing is that tax preparation fees are deductible and can usually be recouped. Now, it does take time to organize your records to make the CPA's job easier, but he or she can probably tell you what will be needed.


If your tax return will be relatively simple, this is the way to go, especially if you just have one employer and standard taxes taken out of your paycheck. Preparing them yourself can save you money in the short-term but could also reduce your return or, worse yet, increase your amount owed. Also, this method can be more time consuming, but if hassle-free is your preferred approach, going solo on your taxes should work for you.

Another option is to mix it up! You can prepare your tax return and then pay a tax professional to review it before sending it to the IRS.

Tax season comes at the same time every year, but preparing your files early makes the process easier. I’m here to help make the tax season easier than ever! If you need a referral or would like to be placed on my monthly mailing list, just let me know. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Candidates on the Housing Market

Last night, I was watching the Democratic Presidential Debate, and they discussed the topic of the subprime mortgage meltdown and the housing market. If my memory is correct, this was the first time I had seen the topic discussed in depth at any of the presidential primary debates. So, it made me curious what the official stance was from all of the candidates both on the left and on the right.

I thought it would be helpful to present statements and links for all of the candidates' viewpoints, but I could only find statements on this issue from the three major Democratic candidates. The Republican candidates do not address the housing market or the subprime situation on the issue statement sections on their websites. So, here are the statements from Clinton, Edwards, and Obama (alphabetically to be fair!):

Hillary Clinton:
"Foreclosure Moratorium: Hillary will call for a moratorium on home foreclosures of at least 90 days so that a rate freeze can take effect and at-risk homeowners can get financial counseling to help them transition to affordable loans.
Freeze Adjustable Rate Loans: The rate freeze must last at least 5 years, or until subprime mortgages have been converted into affordable loans. A typical subprime adjustable rate loan is raising monthly payments by 30% to 40% for many families, causing a wave of housing defaults across the country."

Read more: Hillary Calls On Wall Street To Address Housing Crisis

John Edwards:
"Insist that any freeze on interest rates – like the Bush-Paulson plan – keep rates low for seven years so housing markets can fully recover and families have the time to escape unaffordable mortgages.
Assure that families can halt foreclosures until their lenders offer help. Every family facing foreclosure will have a right to individual assistance from their lender – such as converting to a fixed-rate mortgage, capitalizing delinquent payments, reducing the interest rate, or forgiving a portion of the loan – so they can keep their home if they can."
Read more: Ending the Housing Crisis

Barack Obama:
"Obama will create a fund to help people refinance their mortgages and provide comprehensive supports to innocent homeowners. The fund will also assist individuals who purchased homes that are simply too expensive for their income levels by helping to sell their homes. The fund will help offset costs of selling a home, including helping low-income borrowers get additional time and support to pay back any losses from the sale of their home and waiving certain federal, state and local income taxes that result from an individual selling their home to avoid foreclosure. "
Read more: Address the Subprime Mortgage Issue

If the Republican candidates had their official views on this topic on their campaign websites, I would quote them and link to them, as well. There are many news reports and YouTube videos about their stances, but no official statements. If I missed the official statements somehow, please let me know.

What do you think of the candidates position on the housing market and subprime situation? I'd love to hear responses from the community.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What is a Reverse Mortgage?

More and more people are becoming curious about reverse mortgages, and I am seeing an increase in coverage about them. I even see banks hanging big banners promoting their reverse mortgages to lure in new customers. But what are they, and are they right for you?

If you are 62 or older and your home is your primary residence, then you can get a reverse mortgage loan based on the value of your home. The best part is that there are no monthly payments on the loan as long as you live there. Payment isn't due until you leave the home, either due to death, selling the home, or moving to a new primary residence. That is what makes reverse mortgages a great income option for seniors. One exception to these qualifications is the type of building you live in. Single family homes nearly always qualify, but condos and small multi-unit buildings are not accepted by all lenders.

Another great feature is that you will never owe more than the home's value at the time of repayment. If the value of your home has declined since the loan was started, the bank has assumed that risk and must absorb the loss.

Now, if you have a reverse mortgage, you are still responsible for taxes, insurance, repairs and other homeowner priorities. Also, be aware of the interest and fees associated with getting a reverse mortgage, including application fees, origination fees, closing costs, monthly service fees and more. The good news is that those fees can be paid for by the loan amount, and that reverse mortgages from local and state government lenders have the best rates and lowest fees.

I wanted to write this post because there are misconceptions about reverse mortgages out there, so I wanted to present the basics. Rest assured that you cannot lose your home due to a reverse mortgage. The federal government defines reverse mortgages as "non-recourse loans" and the lender cannot foreclose. In fact, they never even have the deed or title to the home.

Reverse mortgages have many complicated aspects, but they can be a simple solution for many homeowners looking to enjoy the equity they have built up in their homes. For more information, visit AARP's overview or Reverse Mortgages for Dummies. And, you can always give me a call. I'm always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Corner Unit in a Circular Building"

Okay, time for a few laughs on a Friday. One thing I love about being a Realtor is seeing all the ridiculous wording to describe less-than-attractive properties. You know the ones...the listings that describe a house as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece and it turns out to be the most ordinary house on the block...or worse!

Well, the New Yorker makes fun of these listings in their weekly "Shouts and Murmurs" humor column. Here is the first hilarious fake listing to get you started:

"RARELY AVAILABLE corner unit in circular building. Dramatic floor-to-ceiling walls. Breathtaking, massively proportioned mortgage. This one won’t last: moisture-drenched BR was formerly home to one of New York’s oldest families of termites. Original mold throughout. Architect-designed, carpenter-built, and painter-painted, this 400 sq. ft. jewel box has been lovingly overpriced at $2.8M. Specious!"

Click over to The New Yorker website to read all about the 100% glass building, the Superfund site, the non-existent building, and one listing that is "Incmprhnsble!" Have a great weekend!

(Illustration courtesy of NewYorker.com)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Basics of California Real Estate Withholding

January means tax season is upon us, and there is one aspect of real estate than can be quite confusing when it comes to filing your taxes. That is the California Real Estate Withholding requirements. Legally, sellers of real estate owe taxes on the sale, but it is a complicated process involving many parties. Here is an overview of the basics, in case you need it.

California Real Estate Withholding is a pre-payment of California state income tax (remember, the proceeds of a sale are considered income). A seller can elect to have 3.33% of the total sale price withheld or 9.3% of the gain on the sale.

Now, there are exceptions and exemptions, such as if the house is the seller's primary residence or if it is a foreclosure or a bank-owned sale. But, always consult with a tax expert before assuming your property is exempt.

So, this is where it gets a little tricky. Even though it is the seller's proceeds that are being withheld, it is the buyer's responsibility to do the withholding. And, even though it is the buyer's responsibility, this task usually falls to the escrow officer to make sure it happens smoothly.

At the close of escrow, the seller should receive Form 593 from the escrow officer, and this is submitted with the year-end California state tax return. Think of it like you might think of your income taxes. Your employer withholds taxes, and if you overpaid at the end of the year you will get a tax refund. So even though a chunk of your proceeds will automatically go to the state, you might get a refund if your total tax liability for the year was overpaid.

This overview has been incredibly brief. If you have more questions, check out the state franchise tax board's website, where it has just updated the information on California Real Estate Withholding. Or, just let me know if you have any questions. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Feng Shui Your Way into 2008

Want to start the year off in a peaceful, calming manner? Who doesn't after several weeks of hectic holidays? Implementing some basic tips from the school of Feng Shui is a great way to begin 2008 surrounded by harmony.

I'm sure you have heard of Feng Shui, so you probably know that it is far too complicated to cover in a simple blog entry. But I would like to share some basic tricks that almost anyone can do in a home or office. To begin, Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese art used to create harmonious environments, providing positive energy, invigorating vitality, and peace of mind.

--Welcome your guests with a wind chime at your front door and a blue or black doormat.

--In the bedroom, Place your bed to give you the widest view of the room. Avoid large mirrors, and do not place your bed in alignment with the door.

--Bare walls are a no-no. Hang artwork on the wall in a diagonal or staggered pattern. Highlight the room with the colors of love--pink, white and red. Include healthy plants in your rooms, but avoid dried or fake foliage.

--Remember, less is more. Avoid clutter, and keep counters and shelves clean and organized.

There is a lot to learn about Feng Shui, and every space requires a different approach. There are a number of tremendous resources out there. While I'm no expert in Feng Shui, it is a fascinating field and I would happy to explore it more with you, whether you are preparing to sell your home or just want to make it a more peaceful environment.

PS. In Chinese, "Feng" means wind and "Shui" means water.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Your HOA and Special Assessments

Buying a condominium can be such a great deal and a very affordable way to enter the housing market. But, always look beyond the mortgage at your HOA dues and special assessments, making sure to figure them in to your real estate investment.

Now most people know that you have to pay monthly Homeowner Association (HOA) dues when you own a condo. This goes to take care of the upkeep and maintenance of the common areas, covering everything from general cleaning to security, depending on the building. A low maintenance building might have lower monthly fees, but premium buildings can often have HOA dues over $500 each month or more.

The fee to be very aware of is the "special assessment." This is when the HOA decides that some special maintenance work is needed, perhaps a new roof or paint job. Where does this money come from? Well, it comes from you, the home owner. If there is not enough money in reserves, the costs for the special work will be divided up and split between the homeowners to be paid as a "special assessment." And, there is no predicting how much it could be. It might just be a few thousand dollars here and there, but if the building needs a lot of work or if there is some emergency, your special assessment could be tens of thousands of dollars.

Sometimes special assessments can be paid for in an installment plan, but it is best to be proactive. One solution would be to save money to use in the event of a special assessment, or get involved with the HOA so that you have more of a voice in running the building. For more information, check out my previous blog entry "A New Way to HOA."

If you have any questions about condos and HOAs, please let me know. I am always happy to help. I can be reached at 510-547-5970 x57 or MSmartt@jps.net. HAPPY NEW YEAR!