Friday, February 18, 2011

To Buy or Not to Buy: Condo Realities

by Tom Knight

So many clients have recently called me regarding the possible purchase of a condo that I thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts on the subject, particularly since I live in one. Most condos are significantly less expensive to purchase than houses in the same area, so it’s easy to understand their appeal. However, the old adage “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) applies even more to condos than to single family homes. That is because a condo is like an iceberg: there’s a lot more beneath the surface that you can’t see. Proceeding slowly is the best course of action, lest one encounter a collision of titanic proportions with possibly damaging condo realities. Just what are some of those hidden hazards?

When you purchase a condo you are actually buying the air space between the walls, floor and ceiling, and a fractional proportion of the entire “common area.” There are many rules about what you can and cannot do to alter your home, and indeed, rules about how you can even LIVE within it. The first rule of thumb is to become familiar with Homeowners Association (HOA), the quality of management, the financials of the association, and any history of litigation or special assessments. Then there is the question of monthly dues. How much are they, what do you get for your money, how often are the dues increased and by what percentage. Check out the rule book while you’re at it. If you are rock drummer, a condo is probably not your best bet.

Here are some general observations: very small condos, such as those found in large homes which have been divided into just a few living units, carry the greatest risk for special assessments and higher maintenance costs, while providing the fewest, if any, amenities. Old estate homes made into condos may seem incredibly charming and located in upscale neighborhoods, but keep in mind: that old plumbing, wiring, roof and foundation may need major renovations soon which could cost a bundle.

Condos quite recently built can be highly attractive. They seduce the young buyer with sparkling stainless steel kitchens, gleaming granite baths, and dramatic two-story vaulted living spaces. The architecturally designed abundant glass and steel features reflect the best of HGTV. They’re hip and cool and all that jazz. But beware, beneath the flash is often found a troubled HOA groaning under the weight of delinquencies and foreclosures. That’s because new complexes just sold a few years ago at the peak of the market are now worth only half as much, so expected contributions to the Reserve Fund do not meet projections. Down the road the money may not be there to do needed maintenance, and essential repairs might then be funded by special assessments. Not every new condo is in this financial bind, but many are. Detailed study of the HOA financials is required before purchase. One other thing about the newer condos: they are almost always multi-level homes, certainly not the best for young toddlers or seniors tilting towards the geriatrics ward.

Really large condos come in two flavors: high rise and sprawling. High rises can have spectacular views, but quite often the windows won’t open. That’s a no-no for my wife. And do you really want to haul your groceries up an elevator every time you go shopping? The sprawling complexes are often older, built when land was still cheap. Such places may seem more like apartments, and in fact, many were first constructed as such and subsequently converted to condos. If you remember your college apartment, didn’t you have to take your dirty clothes down the hall to the laundry room? Older condos may not have washer/dryer hookups in the units, truly a pain in the booty for many. Sound proofing in older buildings can be far below current standards, meaning you may be hearing more of the neighbors’ activities than you would care to (TMI). Older condos can be noisy. One advantage larger complexes have over smaller: the amenities are usually far superior. I live in a larger condo with 1246 homes. It has four swimming pools, multiple tennis courts with lighting at night, a gym, racquetball courts, a sauna, a steam room, pool tables and a very comfy clubhouse with a commercial kitchen you can use for those huge family reunions. I don’t think you’ll find those benefits in your 20 unit condo. You’ll be paying a club membership off campus for many such perks.

When it comes to financial risk, there is one really good thing about the big places: the financial burden is shared by many, so there is less risk of a catastrophic assessment. Another important consideration in this day and age: Our condo is large enough to provide full time security service, 24/7/365. I appreciate that when my wife is coming home from an evening meeting. Actually, there are quite a few reasons why I enjoy living in our condo. Convenience is a big one. We can walk to many shops, including Trader Joe’s (good turkey meatballs) and Trader Vic’s (home of the original Mai Tai). Starbucks and Chevy’s are next door too, providing appropriate beverages depending on where you are in your day.

We are located on the shores of the Bay. The Boardwalk affords a lovely area to stroll and bird watch simultaneously. I never have to mow the grass or do any yard work, but the 26 acre campus looks like a park. I can come and go as I please and don’t worry about a thing. Included in our dues is water, garbage, cable TV, insurance on the building, even free current movies at the Clubhouse, as well as the many other amenities I have already mentioned. We are at the foot of the Bay Bridge and can see the Toll Plaza from our balcony. If the traffic’s not bad we can be in downtown San Francisco in 15 minutes. It’s true that we hate to do laundry in the downstairs laundry room and our downstairs neighbor is a little strange, but overall we love our condo home and continue to enjoy living there each and every day.

If you are thinking about buying a condo, check out these websites:
-Yahoo Finance: Home Buying Tips, “7 Questions You Must Ask Before Buying a Condo.”
-eHow: “How to Buy a Condominium.”

Tom Knight, Broker Associate
(510) 710-1458

Monday, February 7, 2011

Confessions of a California Seafood Lover

by Tom Knight

You can get fish in the middle of Nebraska, but there’s something lacking: THE SEA. When your restaurant is on pilings over thirty feet of water with fishing boats parked outside, it’s reassuring that your catch of the day might actually have been caught THAT day. Not to mention the ambiance accompanying the food: salty fresh air, screaming seagulls and diving pelicans… I call it the “ocean entertainment” factor which somehow just seems to make the food taste better.

My wife and I have carried on an old family tradition for many years: The SUNDAY DRIVE. Often we do not have any destination in mind, just a direction to point the car as we head out on the highway. Somewhere along the way our appetite kicks in and the hunt is on: fresh seafood on the water’s edge! Over the years we have had terrific fun discovering great seafood restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond. Lately we had the idea to make a list. Here goes…

Seascape Café, Trinidad. It’s a long ways out there, but the fresh crab omlette breakfast makes it worth the drive. The wharf is right at the café. Walk out a ways after your meal. What did you notice that’s different from other coastal stops? The ocean is crystal clear. Purple and orange starfish are abundant.

Arena Cove Restaurant, Pt. Arena. We recommend a stay at the Coast Guard Inn B&B where we once rode out a hurricane. Great clam chowder and excellent sunny views from the second floor dining room. This place has the feel of a small fishing village which is little changed over decades.

River’s End, Jenner. One of the most spectacular views of any coastal eatery, this place has a commanding view of the mighty Russian River entering the sea. Check it out in the winter after a series of storms. And check out the food. My wife says “best scallops ever!” This is definitely an upscale seafood restaurant, so plan to spend some time savoring the cuisine. It’s a dining experience.

Tony’s Seafood, Marshall. Your guaranteed attitude adjustment on Tomales Bay. It’s small and they don’t take cards, so bring cash and a good appetite. This is the real deal for local oysters. Give me a crab salad, a bunch of sourdough bread and a carafe of white wine… whatever my troubles were, I’m leaving this joint happy. Come early, it can get crowded.

The Point, Rio Vista. The Delta is a place which time has passed by. We have searched for years to find some fresh seafood right on the water, and this place is definitely hard to locate, but worth the effort. Some of the best crab cakes at very reasonable prices. No tourists here, only locals who know the score.

Nantucket, Crockett. This is the best place I have ever found which combines my two passions: train-watching and seafood. Be careful crossing the tracks, 49 AMTRAK trains a day roll by the back door. There a couple of tables on the outside deck where you can see ships passing on one side and trains on the other. Does it get any better than this? Under the Carquinez Bridge, just south of the C&H Sugar Refinery. Nothing fancy, just grab a beer and some fried calamari with a friend… you’re set!

Seafood Peddler, San Rafael. My grandson Dominic thinks this place has the best fish and chips ever, and it’s hard to disagree. We keep coming back to this place and enjoy it every time. Good food, good service, good location (try lunch on the outside deck if it’s sunny) and a very satisfying Bay Area fresh fish experience. Your dependable Marin County seafood eatery on the canal, with boats passing by.

The Ramp, San Francisco. This is the “anti-tourist” on-the-water spot to eat in the City, just off Third Street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. Ships in drydock, an industrial area, it’s not what you would expect for such a fun place. It’s a favorite local hangout with great drinks, warm here when it’s cold elsewhere in the City. Good food and lots of laughter. Just describing it makes me want to be there again. Perhaps this is where Otis Redding composed “Dock By the Bay.” A terrific S.F. secret!

Crow’s Nest, Santa Cruz. This well known popular hangout at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor can be a little noisy and rowdy on Friday nights, but that’s part of the fun isn’t it? If you can get an outside table at sunset you are in for a treat. The splashing waves on the breakwater and sailboats gliding in and out can be mesmerizing. A giant prawn cocktail and a chilled Boony Doon white wine and you’re set.

Nepenthe, Big Sur. Perched high a cliff hundreds of feet above the sea, no place has more drama than Nepenthe. Folks, it’s SPECTACULAR. Sit yourself down at the south facing outside bar, get one of the special menu drinks and gaze down the coast. You may find yourself mingling with the rich and famous who frequent this place, and it’s not cheap. Coastal atmospherics are more than worth it.

Olde Port, San Luis Pier. When the schools of mackerel are swimming, this place at the end of the San Luis Bay Pier just past Avila Beach provides a ringside seat to the most amazing feeding frenzy we have ever seen: hundreds of pelicans diving into the water, packs of hungry sea lions lurching out of the water like dolphins, thousands of screaming gulls fighting for scraps. It’s a watery chaos in all directions. Drive slowly out on the creaky wharf. The seafood is a fresh as you can find and a great local wine list.

I missed a lot of places, but I gave you our favorites. Others where we have enjoyed dining include The Dead Fish in Crockett, Yankee Pier in Larkspur and Lafayette (neither on the water, but great food), Skates in Berkeley, Trader Vics in Emeryville (where the Mai Tai was invented, really), The Tides in Bodega Bay, and the Moss Beach Distillery near Half Moon Bay.

Maybe you have a favorite not on our list. If so, please let me know, We are always on the prowl for the next new culinary adventure. Happy Dining!

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