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

Friday, March 11, 2011

Welcoming A Fabulous Agent to our team: Mamood Moktari

Mamood Moktari has joined the prestigious East Bay firm of Berkeley Hills Realty. The team brings a quarter century of experience helping buyers and sellers in the East Bay and beyond.
“We’re delighted that Mamood and Uma are joining us at Berkeley Hills Realty,” says firm co-owner Bill McDowell. "I've known them for a long time, and I have great respect for their smarts, energy, and commitment to their clients."
Mamood Moktari
Mamood was born and raised in Teheran. He came to the United States in 1975, three years before the revolution, and attended the University of Louisville and San Francisco State, studying small business management. Prior to real estate, Mamood managed a number of local restaurants, including eight years at what is now Saul's.
Mamood got his real estate license in 1988, and comes to Berkeley Hills Realty after a decade of selling properties at several prominent local firms. His primary focus is single-family homes, though he has also worked on apartment complexes, and commercial sales and rentals. He has extensive property management experience, and is very familiar with the Berkeley and Oakland rent control ordinances.
Over the years, Mamood has sunk deep roots in the community. "I'm a very Berkeley person," he says, "I like the intellectual atmosphere and I like exchanging ideas and opinions with people. When you're in Berkeley, you can be who you are."
Among his other talents, Mamood enjoys bicycling. He once did the AIDS ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles and raised close to $10,000, he says proudly. He has also volunteered for BOSS (Berkeley Oakland Support Services) and at the Berkeley Emergency Homeless Shelter. Finally, he confesses to being something of a homebody: "I love to read and cook, and taking care of my three kids."

To contact Mamood Moktar
Mamood Moktari cell: 510-685-1415 510-524‑9888 x 60

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, the 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.
Berkeley Hills Realty is locally owned by two longtime agents. They are committed to nurturing a successful partnership with our clients, our associates, our staff members, and our real estate colleagues throughout the East Bay. Our associates are a select group of fewer than twenty agents. Our ongoing mission is to ensure the client’s best interests are of the utmost importance. That mission includes a dedicated effort to place the best and most polished tools available into the hands of our associates. With highly competitive commission earnings and exceptional support services, we take great care of our agents so that they can take great care of their clients.
For more information, call 510-524-9888 or see our website, www.berkhills.com.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

DRE Issues Short Sale Consumer Alert

The following alert was first posted in September of 2010.

DRE Consumer Alert: “Warning Regarding ‘Short’ Sales”

If you find yourself in a situation where your financial circumstances either challenge your ability to make your home mortgage payments or you are no longer able to make the mortgage payments at all, you will be presented with a series of difficult options that will have an impact on your personal and financial life for years to come.

One of the more familiar options is foreclosure. In a foreclosure, the bank/lender (owner of your loan) decides to sell your house as a means to get back the money they loaned you. However, in this current real estate market, some banks/lenders are not exercising their foreclosure rights and instead have opted for either “loan modifications” or “short-sale” deals. Since it appears that successful loan modifications have not been very prevalent, this alert is written to discuss another option that is currently available to the banks/lenders: short sale transactions.

Short Sale Transactions:

What is a short sale? To put it simply, a short sale transaction is a sale of a property in which the outstanding debt (in the form of mortgages – such as purchase loans, refinance loans, home-equity loans, or one of the various other types of loans secured by your property) was more than the price for which the property was sold. Example: 1st and 2nd mortgages totaled $470,000.00 and the property was sold for $325,000.00. The sale price was $145,000.00 “short” of the amount that the seller had originally borrowed – thus the term “short sale.” Since the banks/lenders were essentially paid back less than what you borrowed, you could be deemed to have received a debt “forgiveness” of $145,000.00. A sale of this type requires bank/lender approval.

While there are many reasons why a bank/lender would choose this manner of sale, the important question is: What should you (as the seller of the property) know about this type of sale? If you participate in this type of sale, please be aware that:

1. In some instances, you may be sued by the lender/bank for the money that was “forgiven”.
2. The amount you did not pay back, which is a form of “debt forgiveness”, may be taxed by tax agencies for the “forgiven” amount. In the example above, you may be taxed on $145,000.00. For Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act and Debt Cancellation tax information visit: http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=179414,00.html
3. If there are other lenders or lien holders (such as a 2nd or 3rd loan), the holders of the second or subordinate liens, may file a deficiency judgment in civil court against you to get their money back, even though the first lien holder allowed debt forgiveness.

These are just three major consequences of choosing to sell through a short sale. Therefore, it is very important that you seek:

1. A licensed and qualified real estate agent to represent you in these types of transactions. To determine if the person is licensed by the California State Department of Real Estate and/or to check on a license status, please visit our website at www.dre.ca.gov.
2. The advice of an accountant. To obtain the status of a Certified Public Accountant or a Public Accountant, please visit the California Department of Consumer Affairs - California Board of Accountancy at www.dca.ca.gov.
3. The advice of a lawyer. To obtain the status of an attorney, please visit the State Bar of California at www.calbar.gov.

In addition, contact a free United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-approved housing counselor at www.hud.gov or contact your lender directly.

In April of 2010, the federal government will offer financial incentives to push short sales through a program called Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives. The program is designed to spur home sales and one of its components will be providing government payments to homeowners (for moving and/or relocation expenses). For more information, please visit www.makinghomeaffordable.gov.

Be aware that in response to this new program there may be an increase in the number of companies soliciting homeowners in distressed situations and offering to conduct the short sale negotiations with your bank/lender in exchange for charges and fees. Their interest may not so much be to help you as it may be to try to be the vehicle through which they could “flip” the short sale for a profit.

Flipping of Short Sale Properties: Either an unscrupulous agent or a short sale negotiator will misrepresent the true market value of the property to the bank/lender and/or fail to forward all offers to the bank reflecting the true market value. They try to buy it themselves through the use of “straw buyers”, many of whom are limited liability companies, which are their alter egos. They will use false broker price opinions or appraisals to support a depressed valuation. Once the unscrupulous agent or a short sale negotiator has convinced the bank of the false value, they have their straw buyer purchase the property and immediately attempt to sell it at the true market value, re-visiting buyers who had made legitimate offers. Had the property been sold for the most amount of money that the market will bear, the potential tax consequence to the seller is diminished. Conversely, by accepting an artificially deflated offer, the seller’s potential tax liability is increased.

The key elements for you as a homeowner to look out for are:

1. Short sale negotiators must be licensed real estate brokers (or a licensed real estate salesperson where that person is working under the supervision of his or her broker).
2. Real estate licensees wishing to collect an advance fee in connection with performing short sales must first submit an advance fee contract to the DRE for review and then receive from the DRE the issuance of a no-objection letter relative to that contract. All advance fees collected thereafter under the terms of that contract must be placed in a trust account and handled as client trust funds.
3. Any and all payments must be fully disclosed and made part of the escrow documents. If there are any fees to be paid “outside” of escrow, this may be the red flag that the payment is illegal.
4. If your agent explains that the buyer is a fictitious person or entity or your buyer is purchasing the property under a power-of-attorney or is a limited liability company (LLC), this may be a red flag that fraud is involved in your transaction.
5. If you are told that an unlicensed processor, negotiator or facilitator is handling your short sale, this is a red flag that unlicensed activity is taking place. Only real estate licensees, California lawyers acting as lawyers and investors acting on their own behalf can engage in short sale negotiations.

If your house is already listed with a real estate broker and the broker recommends the services of a “short sale negotiator” or its variations, “debt negotiator”, “debt resolution experts”, “loss mitigation practitioners”, “foreclosure rescue negotiators”, “short sale processors”, “short sale coordinators”, “short sale expeditors” or some other type of unlicensed short sale or debt specialist, ask him or her to provide you with a printout of that person/company’s real estate licenses.

If you are considering engaging in a short sale transaction, you should fully educate yourself about the mechanics of the process and the related legal and ethical issues and work only with legitimate professionals. In addition, become aware of other options that made be available to you by visiting the Homeownership Prevention Foundation at www.995hope.org.

Finally, if you become aware of information about fraudulent short sale activity, please contact the DRE’s Enforcement section in Sacramento or at the office closest to you, or via the Internet at http://www.dre.ca.gov/cons_complaint.html. In addition, report suspected scams to the California Attorney General’s Office at www.ag.ca.gov, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at www.hud.gov, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation at www.fbi.gov.

For additional information on Short Sales, please review the Department of Real Estate’s web page on Consumer Alerts: Short Sales – An Overview and Warning to Real Estate Licensees Re: Fraud, and Legal and Ethical Minefields, which may be accessed by visiting www.dre.ca.gov/pdf_docs/article_shortsales03_2010.pdf.

(Source: http://dre.ca.gov/pdf_docs/ca/ConsumerAlert_ShortSales.pdf)