Wednesday, December 21, 2011

NAR overestimated real estate sales by 14% | Inman News

NAR overestimated real estate sales by 14% | Inman News

The National Association of Realtors says it overestimated home sales by more than 14 percent since 2007 because an adjustment that the trade group makes to data it collects from multiple listing services to account for sales that take place outside of MLSs got out of whack over time.
NAR says it's fixed the problem and "rebenchmarked" statistics going back to 2007, when it said its adjustments began to diverge from previous assumptions about how many sales take place outside of MLSs.
The trade group blamed much of the problem on a decline in "for sale by owner" sales -- properties not represented by real estate brokers and therefore not listed in an MLS.
NAR said consumer survey data show FSBOs accounted for 9 percent of sales in 2010, down from 16 percent in 2000.
"In addition to a decline in FSBO transactions, more builders began marketing new properties through real estate brokers (and those sales) weren't completely filtered from the existing-home data," NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement.
"Some property listings on more than one MLS, and issues related to house flipping, also contributed to the downward revisions."
After rebenchmarking 2010 data, NAR now says there were 4.19 million existing-home sales last year, down 14.6 percent from the 4.9 million sales the group previously reported. For 2007 through 2010, sales and inventory were 14.3 percent less than previously reported, the group said.
NAR said the rebenchmarking doesn't affect previously reported median home prices or months' supply of homes for sale. Previously reported month-to-month trends in housing sales were also unaffected, because sales for each month have been revised downward.
Although rebenchmarking will also be done at the state level, data reported by local MLSs and Realtor associations is still valid, because those numbers are published before they are adjusted.
The need to rebenchmark NAR's existing-home sales statistics is generating national headlines that could damage the trade group's credibility.
Anticipating NAR's revisions, the Greater Tulsa Association of Realtors in Oklahoma last week issued a press release reassuring consumers that "the newly revised national data has no impact for local homebuyers" and that "rates are (the) lowest in history and it's still a great time to buy in Tulsa."
Phoenix-based broker Jay Thompson said that so far his clients haven't voiced any concerns about NAR's need to revise its existing-home sales statistics.
"I think within the real state industry we're probably more concerned about it, and certainly more aware of it, than consumers are," Thompson said.
The MLS numbers "are good and solid," he said, and his clients put more faith in the MLS-based local market reports he provides them with rather than media reports on national sales figures.
"The mainstream media tends to blow these things out of proportion," Thompson said. "I have no evidence that buyers and sellers pay any attention to the numbers that come out of NAR. They see the headlines but it never comes up in conversation."
NAR's national statistics are important to economists, policymakers and others who make decisions based on macro-level data including national home sales.
The benchmark revisions, for example, will require the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to make a small downward adjustment to its estimates of national gross domestic product (GDP). That's because the bureau relies on NAR's existing-home sales figures to estimate real estate brokers' commissions on the sale of residential structures, most recently pegged at $55.5 billion a year, down from a peak of $109.9 billion in 2005. 
If that figure were adjusted downward by 14 percent, the $7 billion reduction would have only a slight effect on the U.S.'s $15 trillion GDP. Brokers would not be affected because they collect actual, rather than estimated, commissions.
NAR said that in the process of rebenchmarking, it consulted with the Federal Reserve Board, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, the Mortgage Bankers Association, the National Association of Home Builders, CoreLogic, and individual economists.
The latest, rebenchmarked data from NAR shows existing-home sales increasing by 4 percent from October to November, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.42 million homes -- a 12.2 percent increase from a year ago, when homes were selling at a pace of 3.94 million units a year.
Housing inventory was down 5.8 percent from October to 2.58 million existing homes for sale, a seven-month supply at the current sales pace. Inventories peaked at a record 4.04 million in July 2007, NAR said, citing the rebenchmarked figures.
The national median existing-home price was $164,200 in November, down 3.5 percent from a year ago.
Distressed homes, including short sales and homes repossessed by lenders, accounted for 29 percent of sales in November, down from 33 percent a year ago. NAR said 19 percent of home sales were lender-owned properties and 10 percent were short sales.
All-cash sales -- mostly to investors -- accounted for 28 percent of existing-home sales, down from 29 percent in October and 31 percent at the same time a year ago.
First-time buyers accounted for 35 percent of existing-home sales, up from 34 percent in October and 32 percent in November 2010.
Breaking down existing-home sales by category, NAR said single-family home sales were up 4.5 percent from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.95 million, a 12.9 percent increase from a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $164,100, down 4 percent from a year ago.
Existing condominium and co-op sales were unchanged from October, with transactions closing at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 470,000, up 6.8 percent from a year ago. The median existing-condo price was $164,600, down 0.2 percent from a year ago.
Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast were up 9.8 percent from October to an annual pace of 560,000, a 7.7 percent increase from a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $240,200, down 0.1 percent from a year ago.
Existing-home sales in the Midwest were up 4.3 percent from October, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 960,000, a 15.7 percent increase from a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $133,400, down 4 percent from a year ago.
In the South, existing-home sales were up 2.4 percent from October to an annual pace of 1.74 million, a 12.3 percent increase from a year ago. The median price in the South was $143,300, down 2.1 percent from a year ago.
Existing-home sales in the West were up 3.6 percent from October to an annual level of 1.16 million, up 11.5 percent from a year ago. The median price in the West was $195,300, down 8.4 percent from a year ago.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Living Large with Less

by Rebecca Nemeth

Anyone who’s looked for their first home in Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, or Kensington (or wants to downsize into something more manageable) has noticed that we have homes in an array of sizes. While most homes here begin at 900 square feet and go up from there (typically up to about 3,000 square feet), we do have a few that are teensy. I’ve seen a few as small as 500 square feet.

Why would someone build something so small?
Sure, its possible that people just had less “stuff” in 1920 than they have now, but have you noticed that even smaller “tiny houses” are getting increasingly popular now?

The historic precedent – Why Albany has some Relatively Tiny Homes
In Albany, for example, the city subdivided some lots into parcels of 3,800 or 3,300 square feet, and even as small as 2,500 square feet. Fortunately builders like Charles MacGregor took on building nice quality homes on these small scale lots in the 1920′s and 1930′s. This allowed people who were probably then “blue collar” homeowners to afford a nicely built home with details like dining room built-in cabinetry, curved archways, recessed niches, and beautiful fireplaces. The layouts follow a typical Craftsman style, with logical layouts that don’t waste space, and that integrate the kitchen, living room, and dining room into more open public spaces than Victorian homes did. These single story homes were usually 850 to 1,000 square feet, huge compared to today’s 65 (yes, 65) to 500 square foot Tiny Homes.

Urban planners and environmentalists will tell you, small is beautiful. Here are a few reasons why.

Smaller homes make it easier to have strong, interconnected communities. Smaller homes can be built closer together, on smaller lots (such as the semi-urban lots that are common in Albany and Berkeley), making it easier to support something like Albany and Berkeley’s Solano Avenue, an old school type of Main Street with locally-owned businesses, and an array of city parks. You’ll find many neighborhood shopping districts and parks like these throughout the 1920′s era parts of the East Bay.

Smaller homes make it easier to have good public transit. Because more people can live closer together, the community can support an excellent, robust public transit network with features like our BART trains and AC Transit buses.

Smaller homes are better for the environment. From an energy conservation standpoint, smaller homes use fewer resources to build, require less energy to heat and cool, and the owners will be using furniture and items that serve double or even triple purpose (so they’re buying less furniture, etc.).

Smaller homes are easier and more affordable to build yourself (vs. a larger new home).
Plans for many smaller homes are readily available online, especially if you’re interested in the micro-size Tiny Homes that have become more popular in recent years. Cheap building plans, designs with an eye to energy efficiency and easy of use, fewer materials needed, and fewer “man” hours needed to build a home = a less expensive home.

Smaller homes more affordable to own. A smaller home = a smaller purchase price. That means you may be able to pay all cash and not have a mortgage, or have a very small mortgage. A smaller purchase price = smaller property taxes. And smaller homes also = smaller utility bills. Every heating and lighting dollar can go into usable space instead of that huge atrium or “living room” people don’t actually live in.

Smaller homes may be the best fit for the available empty lots and suit what city building codes will allow. In our area, any lot that could be built on in conventional ways has been built on. But you may find some smaller lots, or some that would accommodate a smaller home in part of the lot. Also, most cities limit the amount of living space you’re allowed to have relative to the size of a lot (for example, in Albany that ratio is 55% of the lot size). Many cities also have set-back requirements, which state how far from a house must be from the lot line or the neighbor’s house.

For more information check out these articles and blogs on Tiny Homes. Many include plans for building your own tiny house.

Yahoo article on “Five Tiny Homes You’ll Love”:
Tiny House blog:
Tiny Green Cabins:
Tiny House Design:
Tiny Texas Houses:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Service With a Smile, Your Smile

There seems to be a trend these days: everything costs more and what you get is less.  OK, I know I’m just another “old guy” who remembers the “good old days”  when things like this were taken for granted: 

Fresh cold milk was delivered to your doorstep. Butter and cottage cheese too.
The gas station attendant not only pumped the gas, but cleaned the windshield, checked the oil and gave you a free map. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, gas was 35 cents per gallon.

Postage stamps were 5 cents, except for air mail: that was 7 cents. Mail never got lost and there was no such thing as “junk mail” to clutter up the mailbox. The mailman was a friend.

People actually used words like “please” and “thank you.” If you gave a gift, you could reasonably expect to receive a handwritten thank you note.

Everyone nowadays seems to be stressed out, in a hurry, and pissed off. That’s why it’s such a shocking experience to encounter old-fashioned service, so extraordinary these days. And that is why I wish to briefly acknowledge the outstanding service I recently received.

Men’s Wearhouse: I bought some good sports coats and dress shirts for work several years ago. The coats get heavy use with all the stuff I carry in my pockets, such as my real estate electronic key, my iPhone, business cards and my wallet. Recently I put my wallet in my coat pocket and it went right down to the bottom corner of my jacket. Something’s wrong with that! I decided to go back to the store with my coat. They said, “if you can wait just five minutes, we’ll have that fixed for you.” Indeed they did. The pocket was sewn back together, my coat was good as new, and there was no charge. Prompt, courteous, efficient service. Kuddos to the Men’s Wearhouse. I will return again and again.

Pastime Hardware:  It’s a crowded and busy place, and easy to see why. They have everything you could ever need or imagine and much more. But so does Home Depot. The difference? Pick a number, just like Baskin-Robbins. Your number will come up quickly and a well-informed employee will escort you to wherever it is in the store you need to go to find the item in question. Sometimes you might not even know what you need to solve a home repair, but never fear, they know the answer! In my case, I have an old swamp cooler up at my country house. The belt which drives the fan was starting to fray. The clerk took the old belt, measured it on a wall device, looked up the number, got a long pole and fetched the replacement belt from high on the wall. A couple of minutes and I was out of there. Kuddos to Pastime Hardware. They’ve got it all, including the best customer service anywhere.

I am a real estate agent at Berkeley Hills Realty. Nothing is more irritating to a buyer or seller than having to wait hours or worse yet, days for a return call. Not with our agents and not with me. I will answer your e-mail or phone call right away. It’s about “old-fashioned” customer service. Courtesy, caring, efficiency and professional expertise are the services we provide. Sometimes it’s good to be “old-fashioned.”

Tom Knight
Broker Associate
vm 510-524.9888 x56

DRE #01441406

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New Pop Up Restaurant in Rockridge starring Guest Chefs!

That's right Rockridge has a new pop up restaurant starring guest chefs! How cool is this going to be? Every two weeks there will be a new chef, new menu, new type of food. I love it! The restaurant will be opening by Oliveto (watch out Gourmet Ghetto....Rockridge is on the culinary rise)! Chefs apply online and everything is provided for them including staff, cashier, and booze. The chef just needs to bring his or her ingredients. First up is the Oakland Fire Department as they will be cooking for a fundraiser from Nov. 4-6th and then followed by a grandmother from Mexico. Oh yum...homemade enchiladas, tamales and menudo. Can't wait!

Check out their website:

written by Gina Odom, Realtor

Friday, October 28, 2011

Introducing Our Two New Agents: Gina Odom & Krista Miller

By Eliza Sarasohn

Berkeley Hills Realty is delighted to welcome two stellar agents to the fold: Gina Odom and Krista Miller. “Both Gina and Krista practice kindness first and real estate second — an important asset in today’s complex and emotional market,” says Berkeley Hills co-owner Tracy Sichterman. “Krista brings a professionalism infused with both kindness and determination, not to mention an energizing aptitude for new technologies and social media.” Adds Bill McDowell, Berkeley Hills co-owner, “Gina has great intuition, grounded in an extensive knowledge about everything real estate.  She knows how houses are built and she understands the nuances of our market.”

Gina Odom
Entrepreneurial Spirit, Insider Know-How 

Gina Odom has an inborn knack for real estate; she’s been assessing properties practically all her life. “My family owns a construction business; I’ve been looking at blueprints since I was a little girl,” says Odom. After learning the ins and outs of the family business, Odom realized that “I didn’t want to wear a tool belt — I wanted to work with people.”

That, combined with an entrepreneurial spirit led Odom to real estate, an industry in which her deep knowledge of home construction has served her well over the past eight years. “I know how to manage a contracting project from start to finish, how to estimate drywall, how to spot a cracked foundation,” Odom says. “I can tell my clients how much it’s going to cost to knock out a wall, or when they should advocate for a second opinion on a project.”

Along with sound construction, Odom also appreciates the fine art of the deal. “True negotiation — finding common ground for both the buyer and seller — is an art,” says Odom. “I’m a natural problem solver. I love sitting down with the other agent and finding out how to make it happen.”

When she’s not helping her clients buy and sell properties, Gina enjoys soaking up the best the Bay Area has to offer: surfing, cycling in the East Bay hills, and camping with her husband and infant daughter. She invites prospective clients to get to know her on her blog and website

Krista Miller
Tech and People Savvy 

With her MFA in painting, Krista Miller began her career as a fine artist, designer and art teacher, showing at galleries around the Bay Area. But in 2004, Miller shifted her artist’s eye to real estate. “Being an artist and designer, I have a real attention to detail — I’m focused on color, space and organization,” says Miller. “This sensibility naturally lends itself to helping my clients envision themselves in their homes, or if they’re selling, I can help them stage and creatively market the home to appeal to the right buyer.”

Her teaching background affords Miller a keen sense of people along with an enduring patience and clear communication style that’s won her a devoted clientele. “I’m a hand holder — I love working with first time home buyers,” Miller explains. “I’m happy to explain the process from top to bottom and I can sympathize, because I recently picked up our family, sold our old home and bought a new one.”

Miller now lives in Albany with her husband and her “two adorable curly haired girls.” “I like working in residential and I think I end up attracting a lot of families as clients, because that’s the stage I’m in. Having my own young kids, I understand the importance of safety and stability in a neighborhood, and I know about local school districts and kid-friendly play spaces.”

Miller brings tech savvy and innovative marketing skills to Berkeley Hills Realty. She runs her own real estate blog,, and loves cooking up outside-the-box approaches to spread the word on her properties, often incorporating social media and video. “My relationships don’t end when the transaction is over,” says Miller. “The people that I end up working with often become my friends.”

When Krista isn’t at work she can often be found running along the Bay trails, eating Scharffenberger chocolate, or laughing with her family until her stomach can no longer bear it.
About The East Bay Specialists
Berkeley Hills Realty has long been recognized as one of the market leaders in East Bay real estate. Founded as Berkeley Realty, our firm has more than fifty years of experience with residential properties in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Kensington, Piedmont, El Cerrito, and Emeryville. We are proud of our excellent reputation throughout the East Bay community and among our colleagues in real estate. At Berkeley Hills Realty, we strive to promote that reputation through specialized service and local expertise. With small-business ethics and a big worldview, we engage the latest advances without losing sight of the individual.

1714 Solano Ave., Berkeley CA 94708  ·  510.524.9888  ·

Halloween Fun is Upon Us!

One of my favorite holidays is Halloween. I loved it when I was a child and I love it as an adult. Now that I am a new mother, my Halloween acitvities have shifted gears.

Oakland boasts a ton of family fun activities for celebrating Halloween including parades, spooky haunted houses and pumpkin patches. In fact, just across the Bay in Half Moon Bay, the largest pumpkin of the year was grown. 

This year I am really excited for the parades. Watching all the kids in their Halloween costumes trick-or- treating down the road makes for much entertainment. There are two parades in particular that I think are worth attending in Oakland: The Rockridge parade and the Piedmont Ave parade.

And if you are anything like me and you love to be scared check out this great link for haunted houses across the U.S., you just click on your state and it will lead you to some scary fun. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Berkeley Hills Realty's Famous Baby

Our very own real estate agent/momma, Gina Odom, made headlines yesterday as her baby girl had a brush (and cuddle) with greatness.  President Barack Obama touched down at San Francisco International Airport for a brief fundraiser at The W Hotel.  He was greeted by a select welcome committee which included Berkeley Hills Realty's agents Gina Odom and Tracy Sichterman.  Our agents stepped out of the spotlight as Gina's baby, Josie, clearly stole the show.  President Obama offered to take the crying baby saying, "Let me try, I've got a reputation for being pretty good at this."  Known as being a "baby-whisperer" The President held the baby sweetly to his shoulder for a moment-- creating a memory to last a lifetime. 

Watch the video from KTVU Here.
Learn more about Gina on her blog:


Friday, September 30, 2011

Rockridge Rocks!

We have a new listing coming on at 5899 Lawton Ave in the Rockrdige district of Oakland. The house is a 3 bedroom, 2 bath modern home which features concrete floors, new counter tops made from recycled material, new paint & fixtures. The floor plan is ideal with the master bedroom on the bottom floor leading to the backyard, and two bedrooms opposite of each other upstairs. There is a bathroom conveniently located on both levels. Not only is this house fantastic but the location is incredible and just a few steps from College Ave.

College Ave runs through Rockridge, Elmwood and Central Berkeley. The part of the College Ave located in Rockridge has some of my favorite shops and restaurants. From Lawton (3 minute walk),  turn right and head North on College, you will pass by many cute shops and restaurants. At Market Hall you can find 8 unique shops including my favorite wine shop, Paul Marcus Wines and my favorite butcher, Sun Farms. Not only can you get some shopping done for the dinner party that evening, but you can also grab a bite to eat at Oliveto either downstairs for a casual experience or upstairs for a fine dining experience.

At the corner of Keith and College, you can also find BART, public transportation that runs throughout the East Bay. The district of  Rockridge is centrally located with easy access to all freeways including, Hwy 24, Hwy 13, Hwy 580 coupled with the BART stop makes Rockridge ideal for commuters.

Further South, you will find additional dining and shops including a few of my favorite wine bars/restaurants. Both TOAST, a restaurant with small plates and an incredible wine bars (make sure you try Andrew lane Wines) and Wood Tavern where you will find incredible American cuisine and a forever changing menu is worth the short walk.  Afterwards, head over to Tara's Organic Ice Cream shop where you will find unique flavors like plum-ginger, pumpkin or lavender. It's definitely worth crossing the street.

In addition to the fabulous shopping and dining in Rockridge, it is home to one of my favorite parks, Lake Temescal. Here, you can enjoy an afternoon of laying under the trees, hiking around the lake, fishing, or taking a swim. A few friends from my mommy group and I met here the other day with our babies and had a lovely picnic. It was nice to get outside and completely forget that I was in the hustle and bustle of a major city.

Once you begin to explore Rockridge and pick your own favorites, you will see why this district is such a hot spot and why so many want to live here. Real estate values have held strong through this rough economy and the community just keeps getting better!

By Gina Odom, Realtor:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

As of July 1, all single-family homes in California with a fireplace, gas-burning appliance or attached garage are required to have carbon monoxide detectors installed. It is estimated that 30-40 Californians die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning. The California Senate Bill 183 is aimed at decreasing this death rate. A similar law will go into effect in 2013 for condominiums.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and orderless gas. Symptoms resulting from inhaling the gas are often mistaken for the flu. Carbon monoxide (CO2) detectors will alert occupants to the true danger.

CO2 detectors should be placed in or near each sleeping area. For extra precaution, one may also be placed 20 feet away from each gas appliance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Can You Have Your Cake and Eat It Too? (Part 2)

edited from article originally posted in the Berkeley Voice, Real Estate Section, June 10, 2011

The Hills Newsgroup recently published our article discussing the importance of putting in some effort to make a house a dream home, especially in the Bay Area. The next question is which improvements make the most economic sense? Kitchen and baths are often good choices to upgrade and offer high returns on investment. However, most of the difficult choices involve other living spaces – such as a family room, deck, media room and so on. We often help clients with these decisions.

We recently advised a client not to build a deck on the upper level because it would ruin the beautiful lower level patio that leads to the garden, by covering it from above and having the deck supports go down in the middle of the lower patio. We recommended a much smaller cantilevered deck which wouldn’t interfere as much with the lower patio.

We advised another client during the purchase of a house in Kensington. The clients wanted a play room for their children. We found a house with a huge semi-basement space that was begging to be converted into living area.

We discussed various possibilities with them and got preliminary estimates from a couple of contractors for them to consider, prior to making their offer for the house. They were pleased that they could achieve their dream space, even though it was not visible at present. They made an aggressive offer and they won the house in a multiple offer situation.

Six months ago, we had another client who wanted a three-bedroom house close to shopping and public transportation. We found the perfect house that was half a block from the bus route and main artery of the city. It had only two bedrooms, but plenty of room for expansion. Our happy client is in the middle of a renovation to add on a third bedroom and a family room and bath downstairs.

Most homeowners don’t think to ask the advice of a Realtor in advance of the improvements. We recently spoke to sellers who had spent an enormous amount of money putting in skylights, energy efficient windows, new drywall and a fantastic garden. But, the square footage of the tiny house was the same after the 100K in renovations, and the bathroom and kitchen were not considerably changed. When we did a market valuation of the property, it didn’t look like they were going to get their money back! That was unfortunate, but they realized that it was all worth it for the last 10 years that they lived in the house; working on it and raising their child in it had given them tremendous pleasure.

Ultimately, not all decisions have to be made with an economic justification. If that were the case, would we even have kids in this modern society? We do things that are just to improve the quality of life and make us feel good. Go ahead, make your dream spaces. Keep in mind the financial impact to your pocket book, but don’t let that be your only decision making factor.

Click here for Can You Have Your Cake and Eat it Too? (Part 1)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sky Camp: Let Your Imagination Soar

by Tom Knight

Imagine, if you will, you are returning by air from the East Coast, preparing to land at the Oakland International Airport. As you cross the last row of hills on your descent, suddenly the vast open space of the Bay Area appears below… the bay, San Francisco in the distance, bridges, miles upon miles of houses, buildings, highways and byways stretching out far below you in all directions. Suppose it’s night: the twinkling lights sparkle like a vast illuminated electrical quilt and the dark space of the bay is like a black cat stretched out asleep in the center. Imagine you freeze frame that moment and live in a place with that sensational airplane view locked in, a place with that instant of recognition that you are home. There is a place like that: Sky Camp.

Imagine you live on the edge of the forest full of ferns and wildflowers. You hear the echo of owls hooting through the night woods, see red tailed hawks soaring on the afternoon updrafts below you, just as you remember seeing on your last visit to Big Sur. You have miles of hiking trails beginning in your backyard, the solitude of the wind in the trees punctuated by the chatter of the Steller's jays. Yet, you are not quite lost in the wilderness. You gaze out from your perch at the panorama of civilization a thousand feet below. There are no cars passing by. You live at the end of the road, the top of the hill. You live on the fringe of the urban jungle. There is a place like that: Sky Camp.

Imagine the warm winter sun on your outside deck, a quiet beginning of your day with your first cup of coffee and croissant. In your garden patio, sheltered and bright, your Adirondack chair puts you in the relaxed reclining mode for happy hour. Rhododendrons above, roses below, who needs Golden Gate Park? A fresh Acme seeded baguette from the Berkeley Bowl, some camembert from Marin County’s Rouge et Noir, a bottle of spicy Zinfandel from Amador County’s Renwood Winery, some fresh cherries from Frog Hollow. “Eat local” they say. “Slow food” they say. You’re there: Sky Camp.

The floors are wood, the walls are wood, the open beamed ceiling is wood. Is this a cabin in the pines of Tahoe? You throw another log in the wood stove and gaze awhile out the floor-to-ceiling windows. No. You’re on the urban fringe, living on the edge of the beautiful Bay Area. You are at the top of Panoramic Hill. You are where daydreams come easily. You are at Sky Camp.

Not just a house or a place. An experience for a life time. Sky Camp. Imagine it yours.

For images from Sky Camp:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bill Before the House May Make Houses Harder to Afford

From my in-box today:
“A draft bill to be discussed at a House subcommittee hearing today would raise the minimum down payment to 5% and would also make a significant cut to the maximum size of loans backed by FHA in many parts of the country. The maximum FHA loan size in expensive parts of the country is already scheduled to go to $625,500 from $729,750 on Oct. 1. However, in areas where home prices are more modest, that limit is scheduled to fall as low as $271,050. The bill would allow those limits to fall even more—to 125% of a county’s median home price.” -Russell Doi, RPA Mortgage
These changes will be a hurdle for many buyers. Buyers with great cash flow but low assets may find themselves pushed out of the market. Buyers basing their price range on the current $729,750 loan limit may have to lower their sights by more than $100,000.

Buyers searching in the $800,000 price range and looking to use the maximum loan, your window of opportunity is closing. All buyers with low down payments should consider buying now. With buyer-friendly legislation, interest rates below 5% and home prices relatively low, now could be the best time to make the move.

This may also create a temporary market surge for sellers who can come quickly to the market, as buyers look to capitalize on the existing rules. Particularly if your home is in a price range that benefits from the large conforming loan limit (usually properties over $800,000) and for homes in the "starter" price range (under $500,000 in this area) where down payments tend to by lowest. Houses sell for the highest dollar amount when they appeal to the largest amount of buyers. The proposed changes are enough to restrict affordability and move some currently active buyers to the sidelines.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Make your Home Buyer AND Lender Friendly!

The mortgage world has changed. Just as buyers have discovered new hoops to jump through, Sellers are also finding that their properties are under greater scrutiny. Making your property match lender expectations can help increase your pool of potential buyers and ultimately ensure that your home sells for the highest amount possible.

The following checklist is Courtesy of Monica C. Di Perna, Guarantee Mortgage, NMLS #116494/DRE #01244107

A. Ready the Property for an Appraisal (Eyes of the Lender)
  1. Chipped paint must be repaired
  2. Roof or other useful component/mechanical system (appliance etc.) must have 2 years useful life
  3. No Broken windows/No sign of mold (An appraiser can suspect it and state a suspicion on the appraisal)
  4. Health and Safety Hazards will be disclosed
  5. Large holes must be repaired
  6. Safety rails where needed
  7. Inoperable Plumbing must be repaired
  8. Structural/Foundation problems must be repaired (many 100 year old homes still have existing foundation-big red flag)
  9. Water Heaters
  10. Any sign of water damage/stains will be addressed
  11. If appraiser suspects termite infestation, lender can require Termite Inspection and Termite Clearance of Section 1 items.
B. Permit History:
  1. Any additions need permits or will not count as value
  2. List of recent improvements from owner so you can match up permits
  3. Pull the list of permits if client doesn’t have them to make sure they match improvements
  4. Special Agreements with Neighbor that may not show up
  5. Best place to go is City’s building & Planning Department. Permits and Property conditions can be viewed online for the City of Berkeley.
C. How does an appraiser determine Value for Lending Purposes? Price Vs. Lender Valuea.
  1. Sales within past 90 days
  2. No more than 20% difference in square footage/parcel size
  3. No more than 1 mile in urban area and 5 miles away in rural market

*****Always have ready to give to Appraiser: List of improvements, permits, special agreements, and Condo Packet (CCR’s, Budget, Bylaws, Articles, Master Insurance Policy, HOA Cert)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Can You Have Your Cake and Eat It Too?

by Uma Moldenhawer
(the following is a summary of an article posted by the Hills New Group on May 13, 2011)

A real estate buyer often needs to prioritize between 2 primary attributes – location and features of the property. You have already heard by now that Location, Location and Location (has to be said 3 times for max effect!) is all that matters in real estate. There is proven value in that old saying. While property features (such as the style of the property, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen size…) often can be changed, convenience and desirability of a location can’t be easily modified, and definitely not over a short period of time.

Buyers don’t always understand the trade-offs associated with prioritizing a great location. We have had buyers say, “Even though we are willing to spend 700K on a home in the Berkeley area, we still feel like we are settling for it rather than getting our perfect home.” A Berkeley location often dictates higher prices and homes that are smaller and older when compared to most of the country. So, how do you avoid compromise? With a little imagination, you can have your cake and eat it too. Think creatively about how to manipulate property features and make a house your own sweet home.

We walk our clients through all the possible rearrangements and renovations for the subject property, to come to a conclusion on whether this is the right property or not. Sometimes fulfilling a dream is more than just finding the right house. It often requires helping buyers visualize some amount of remodeling and rearrangement. Your dreams are unique, so it is difficult to find exactly what you are looking for in the existing inventory of homes. This means either a compromise or a willingness to make changes: Be it a new paint color, a new deck or knocking out a couple walls. I believe that you should compromises only if the changes are not feasible, do not make sense economically or if you do not want to deal with the hassle.

“Think of the possibilities, not just what it is today. This is our philosophy when evaluating the features of the property – think about the possibilities and if that still doesn’t meet your needs, let it go.”

If creative visualization fails, it may be worth compromising a bit on location, especially if it is determined that a particular feature is of greater importance. Recently, we held an open house in Albany, where Mamood and I met a sweet young couple who told us that they were burnt out from searching for a home. They had been out every weekend, and it had already been 4 months since they started their search! When we asked them what feature was most important, their number one criterion was “large lot size” with the ability to garden. I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “then why are you looking in Albany where most of the lots are 5,000 square feet or smaller? You should be looking in Berkeley or Kensington.” They were tiring themselves out by looking in the wrong location. And remember to bring your creativity: If there is concrete or a deck in the wrong place, it can be removed.

For the blueberry cake (pictured above) recipe click here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fair Weather and Eco-Friendly Commutes

As a Bay Area Green Business, we think a lot about Eco-friendly homes and Green lifestyles. Using our Realtor cars less is a great way to lower our carbon footprint. It only takes me thirty minutes to walk to work, and I often much more relaxed than after the five minute drive. Still, I am a creature of comfort. I hate to admit to being Mother Earth's fair weather friend, but a nice day just makes it easier to leave my car at home. In May, gorgeous Spring flowers provide an extra treat! Since we have had a number of walk worthy days lately, I would like to share a few links that make planning your trip easier:

Berkeley's Bike/Walk map
Walk Oakland ~ Bike Oakland (May 12th is Oakland's Bike to Work Day.)
Open Street Maps (Zoom in -- This map shows walking paths in Kensington, El Cerrito, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and everywhere else on the planet.)

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Click here for events in the Bay Area. When celebrating, consider leaving the car at home.

Photo courtesy of Robert Mueller.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

EPA's Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule

We pride ourselves on smoothly guiding our clients through the home buying process. We recently helped our buyers through an issue relating to the EPA's Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting rule which went into effect in April of 2010. The buyers’ sale was delayed for two months with good reason. During the escrow period, it was discovered that the sellers had their house repainted by a painting company that did not take all the precautions required under the new law. The painting company power washed the loose paint chips and dispersed them all over the property and into the neighbor’s yard, resulting in the neighbors filing insurance claims and lawsuits. We were able to bring all parties to the table and facilitated a satisfactory resolution and there was a happy ending to this story.
Note to Homeowners: Please be careful when having the exterior or interior of your old home (built prior to 1978) painted.
Call us for a copy of the EPAs Renovate Right brochure. 1 800 Hi Berkeley.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Choosing a focal point in your kitchen:

By Mykah Larkins

Interested in giving your kitchen a face lift? Not sure where to begin? One way to start is to pick a focal point, an area of your kitchen that you already like that you can build around.

I chose to build my kitchen around the new Viking stove. I originally thought that we would be getting the typical stainless steel kind. Once we started visiting the sales floors, however, I immediately noticed they actually came in colors, lots of colors! There was a pale green that was really pretty, but I realized right away that it was very popular color at the time. Many homes I had seen were using this particular green for kitchens, bathrooms, accent pillows, you name it…it was everywhere. I thought that it might be one of those trendy colors that would become out of date rather quickly. Not the best choice for a 600 lb. stove.

The other color that caught my eye was the burgundy Viking. It was gorgeous. The color was rich and classic and I really couldn’t imagine not enjoying it anytime in the next decade. I had to have it. Once the Burgundy color was chosen for our new stove, everything just started coming together. For cabinets, there were many shades of wood that would look nice with the stove, but we could tell right away that the richer medium tones were the most complimentary. Next was the countertop, and a visit to the granite shop. So many choices, but we knew it had to have some burgundy in it. That narrowed it down somewhat. The tile for the floor was a little tougher, we didn’t want everything to be red, but it had to work with the reds we had already chosen. So, we ended up with kind of a swirly terracotta, brownish-red tile and it even has a little green in it. It looks lovely and better yet, hides all the dirt. Lastly, we had to pick lighting. Again, we didn’t want just your basic stainless steel colored pendant lights hanging from above. We wanted something eye catching that warmed up the room. After all, this was going to be a place to cook, entertain and hopefully invite some scintillating conversation. The funny thing is, it wasn’t hard to choose at all. That burgundy stove that helped us get started was also helping us complete the task in no time at all. Six months from start to finish and we had a beautiful new kitchen. And it was only after we painted it deep red, that I read an article informing me that the color red causes people to feel hungry. How appropriate. The other part I read was how red is the color of passion, love, warmth, power and excitement: Perfect for my new kitchen.

Tour this kitchen at it's Open House, Sunday April 10th

Open 2:00 to 4:00

11 Ramona Ave, El Cerrito

Offered at $695,000


This heavily upgraded split-level home is just a half block from Memorial Park. The floor plan offers terrific separation of space with two generous bedrooms and one large bathroom on the upper floor and the master suite below. The gorgeous remodeled kitchen boasts a Viking Stove & granite countertops. Creekside setting is perfect for entertaining.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Memories From El Cerrito’s Blake Street

by Tom Knight

In 1948 my parents bought a new 2 bedroom 1 bath house at 7210 Blake Street in El Cerrito for $9,000.

I was three and very eager to explore the rural neighborhood which seemed to me like a vast land.

There were a few older homes in the hood, but no sidewalks, curbs or gutters, and lots of puddles and streamlets in the winter. Much of the area was still open fields punctuated by an occasional barn. Across the street were row upon row of glass greenhouses marching up the hillside, inside of which grew roses and hot house tomatoes. As boys, we used to take small Leslie salt shakers, sneak into the greenhouses and sample the tomatoes for quality. They were good, very good! Another attraction was a huge pile of brilliant yellow sulfur which was apparently somehow important in the greenhouse operations. We used to combine some of this sulfur in old discarded wine bottles to concoct strange mixtures which would layer out in different colors after being shaken. I cannot tell you all of the other ingredients which were added to these bottles, though I do remember some of them. At the top of the hill above all the greenhouses was a large open concrete water reservoir full of big bullfrogs. Only a very tall fence topped with sharp wire kept us out. Those frogs were really big and very loud, especially at dusk.

Also across the street was an old horse ranch with barbed wire fences, piles of sawdust, old barns and buildings, and a creek running though the middle. Just recently I discovered that this was the fading remnant of the Poppy Hill Creamery. I never knew the hill we climbed had a name, but I do remember poppies and lupine growing there in the spring. In the summer the long grass turned brown and dry, becoming very slippery, making a terrifying downhill run on large piece of cardboard, at least until the El Cerrito Fire Department burned it as they did every year, supposedly to prevent wildfires. Clearly, this was prior to the era of air pollution control. Actually, the fire department in those days burned lots of things just for practice or to get rid of stuff, things like old barns and even the remnants of the Hutchison Quarry rock mill where the recycling center is now located. That was one HOT fire.

There were no trees on the hills. We planted those later when I was a Boy Scout. In fact, a motorcycle club used to conduct an annual hill climb race up the face of the hill, a dusty, noisy, raucous event, very impressive to a young boy. There’s nothing quite like watching a full size Harley cart-wheeling 300 or 400 feet downhill without the rider. It’s amazing no one got killed, although I’m not sure about that. The top of the hill was relatively flat and a truly great place to fly a kite, particularly in the summer when the fog would blow in though the Golden Gate. It was also a place littered with broken glass bottles, evidently from many late nights of drinking. It had the fabulous view of the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the bay in the distance, so must have been the perfect party spot. Unfortunately, I was too young to know about or participate in those sports.

Creeks were open, had banks of slippery gray-blue clay and often grew watercress which tasted peppery. In the winter after heavy rains the creeks were fascinating attractions and in places formed deep pools upon which we floated makeshift rafts. We also floated boats and sticks down streams, especially during fierce storms when the action was fast and muddy. Later, as creeks were put underground in large diameter cement pipes and culverts, we used to adventure down them on Flexies, dangerous sleds on wheels which were later outlawed due to so many gruesome and sometimes fatal accidents. These dark tunnel expeditions became less interesting as they filled with spiders and webs.

This time of year, the spring, a certain war game was played using readily available bombs: dirt bombs. These were only available when the grass was tall and green and the soil was still moist after spring rains, so large clods could be easily pulled from the earth. These “dirt bombs” could be hurled rather long distances with considerable accuracy and resembled comets with green tails of grass streaming behind lethal dirt balls. Usually the only damage was to pride and clothing, though once in awhile a rock embedded in the dirt could draw blood with a direct hit. There was plenty of motivation to aim well, but duck often. Makeshift forts of plywood were hastily erected for protection, and with a good neighborhood turnout, sides were taken and skirmishes turned into battles royale! Free fun for all.

Trees were always of interest. Large groves of Eucalyptus trees had peeling bark which was useful for various projects. Sometimes paper wasps would build large hanging pods high up on a outward extending branches, obvious targets for our slingshots. There seemed to be many more bees and beehives in those days and getting stung was a mark of courage in battle. Slingshots became of less interest once we were old enough for bows and arrows. I shudder to think now of how reckless and dangerous these “toys” were. One favorite was shooting an arrow straight up and dodging the arrow when it returned to ground at the same high velocity with which it was fired. Most of us survived.

Other trees on our mental map included neighbors’ fruit trees, particularly at harvest time. Mrs. Tingley next door had a green gage plum which was fabulous, well worth the climb. Yards were not fenced, so it was pretty much open picking season when things were ripe. Obviously part of the fun was stealing without being caught. We were actually rather innocent and didn’t take anything we didn’t eat. The Lauenroths had good apricots. Even the honeysuckle was sweet at the right time of year. There was a big bush on Navellier just north of Gladys I would sample every day on the way home from Castro School. For fragrance, it was hard to beat the knarly old pepper tree on Blake just below the Hackbarth’s house. Trees were landmarks, rope swings over the creek in some places, fresh fruit in others.

Snakes. You had to be quick, because they moved so fast through the grass. Once in awhile you could get lucky and find a pretty good dead one on the street which worked sufficiently well to scare the neighborhood girls. Actually, anything dead was of great interest and could be put to some use. This was an age of transition, from rural to urban. Fields gave way to sub-divisions. All aspects of construction held interest. You could put your initials in the wet cement of foundations and sidewalks. You could find lead from plumbing projects to re-melt into sinkers for fishing. Sand piles for chimney construction were perfect for jumping into from the second story window openings. Paint can lids were instantly transformed into flying saucers long before Frisbees were invented. Any open field would do for football or baseball. For basketball there was the Castro School playground, or if it rained, the Chung Mei Home had a real gym with the most amazingly shiny hardwood floor. They were so generous to share such a treasure. It was always a fabulously good day to play there.

Roller skates were quite different then. They were all metal and had metal clips which you would tighten down with a skate key over the soles of your shoe. These were the toy of choice to make use of the all new sidewalks going in. Those metal wheels on the cement sidewalk were loud! Bicycles were a heavenly invention. I didn’t have one for awhile, but realized that an older girl across the street had one she never rode. It didn’t bother me in the least that Carolyn Bowman’s bike was a “girl’s bike.” The first thing I would do after I got home and changed clothes was to go across the street and politely ask if I could ride Carolyn’s bike, which I rode until dark and dinner time. I could never thank her enough for that great privilege. When I got my first bike the next Christmas, the Bowmans were probably quite relieved. My biggest ride: on I-80 out to Hercules and back before it opened to cars. I also used it every day to deliver the Berkeley Daily Gazette. I can still fold a paper into the throwing triangle.

In retrospect, it is easy to see from this perspective that I witnessed the very last days of rural El Cerrito and its transformation into the suburban town it is today. I was a kid who heard the shrill whistle and ran out into the street to see a steam locomotive pass at the bottom of Blake Street, the orange fire flickering in the firebox and smoke billowing from the smokestack. The tracks were located where BART is now. We had to wait in long lines of cars to get on the ferry boat to San Rafael for a day at the beach, usually out at Drakes Bay long before it became a National Seashore. We had Sunday picnics after church on the hills overlooking the construction of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Walking to school meant traversing fields and snaking through barbed wire fences.

The land was still just a little wild, full of streams and frogs, lots of mud, water and fire every summer. You could find blackberries and watercress to eat, and hiking in the hills was an adventure for a young boy with a sense of curiosity and wanderlust. There were the cuts, scrapes and bruises, poison oak and bee stings, but it was a good life, and at the end of the day being tired meant a sound sleep in a warm bed after a good home-cooked meal eaten with parents, brother and sister at the dining table. Dad liked to joke, because the table was round and his first name was Arthur, that he was King Arthur and we were the Knights of the Round Table. Such was my life on Blake Street in the late 40s and early 50s.

Friday, March 18, 2011

C.A.R. open letter on short sales

March 10, 2011

An important message from the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®:

I write on behalf of the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, whose 170,000 members continue to witness the devastating consequences the home foreclosure crisis is having on California’s families, neighborhoods, and communities on a daily basis.

The number of families affected by foreclosure is staggering. During the past three years, more than 640,000 Californians have lost their homes. With the number of homeowners who owe more than their home is worth hovering at 30 percent, experts predict there will be many more foreclosures in 2011 and 2012. Unless we take immediate, aggressive action to assist these homeowners, any meaningful recovery in the housing market and overall economy will continue to be delayed.

Tragically, only a fraction of those who face foreclosure will remain in their homes when all is said and done. Those whose incomes and financial circumstances meet strict guidelines may qualify for a loan modification that will reduce their monthly payment to more affordable levels. Yet the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) is expected to prevent only 700,000 to 800,000 foreclosures nationwide before it expires at the end of 2012, and the program does little to help those homeowners who are unemployed or otherwise no longer able to meet their financial commitments. Their last hope is to sell their home, which often means convincing their lender or the investor who “owns” the loan (and, in many cases, the holder of a second mortgage lien and the mortgage insurer) to accept a “short sale.”

With a short sale, homeowners with a proven hardship negotiate an agreement to sell their home for less than the balance owed. Although not every homeowner or mortgage is eligible, those who are able to finalize a short sale avoid a foreclosure on their credit record and can move on with their lives. Last year, 20 percent of home sales in our state involved short sales.

Short sales can play an important role in our state’s economic recovery by accelerating the pace of home sales and reducing the inventory of bank-owned homes on the market. There are other benefits as well. Homebuyers who can qualify for a mortgage at today’s low interest rates also are able to purchase a home at below-market prices. Banks get a nonperforming asset off their books and avoid the headaches associated with disposing of assets they don’t want to own in the first place. Neighborhoods have fewer abandoned homes, and local businesses have more customers with money to spend.

Unfortunately, many homeowners are unable to successfully negotiate a short sale. According to a recent survey of 2,150 California REALTORS® who have assisted clients with a short sale, only three out of five transactions closed – even when there was an interested and qualified buyer.

What’s the problem? For one, no two mortgage agreements are the same, so it can be difficult to standardize short sale processes and procedures. Many homeowners have second mortgages, which further complicate matters. Then there’s the challenge of convincing multiple parties to take a financial loss or, in the case of loan servicers, to forego fees they otherwise might earn during the course of the foreclosure process. Poor and slow service by many banks and servicers has only exacerbated the problem. Horror stories abound from potential homebuyers and REALTORS® forced to wait 90 or more days for a response to a purchase offer or being required to fax short sale applications or other paperwork as many as 50 times. These delays discourage potential homebuyers from considering a short sale purchase and undermine the process for those who short sales are intended to benefit – the hundreds of thousands of families facing foreclosure.

Increasing the number of closed short sales by speeding up and streamlining the short sale process is one important way we can help California families avoid foreclosure and move our economy closer to recovery. That’s why the California Association of REALTORS® is taking steps to enable more families to arrange a short sale. Recently, we advocated for improvements to short sale guidelines established under the federal Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternative (HAFA) program. We’re meeting with major banks, U.S. Treasury officials, government-sponsored entities (including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), and others to urge them to standardize processes, comply with federal guidelines, improve communication with other stakeholders and increase staffing with the goal of eliminating service issues. We’ve also offered our members training in every aspect of the short sale process so they can assist their clients.

But we can’t do it alone. That’s why we’re focusing the spotlight on short sales and calling on regulators, elected officials, nonprofits, business organizations, companies, and individuals with a stake in California’s economic future to resolve this issue and others that get in the way of a recovery. It won’t be easy, and some compromises will be required. The important thing is that we need to act today. Our families and our communities can’t wait any longer.


Beth L. Peerce