House Hunting Journal – hidden meaning in real estate listings

Any serious time spent looking for homes for sale in the Bay Area, and you begin to learn some key codewords. You begin to think like Alan Turing deciphering the Enigma.

In the way back time, when I was first hunting, in the pre-internet era, the code words were clumsy. For example, “A Mountain View” didn’t refer to being close to the now-Google headquarters, but instead was East Side San Jose (Gang land).

Now, there are these gems:

  • Good Bones – This is a wreck. You will need to do significant work to make it livable. It probably was a rental for a decade or more, and the tenants probably crapped in the corners. Seriously, appliances will be straight out of the 50’s, and the carpets will likely be removed as they were health hazards. Yuck. These will be bought by contractors, tarted up, and flipped for a $250K profit.
  • Some TLC needed – A little less dire than the “Good bones” house. You can probably live there, but it will be like your first crash pad out of college.
  • Low Crime – the fact that they feel the need to mention this in the description is an indication that it is a crime infested hell-hole. Go to the SJPD crime map, and expect the neighborhood to be lit up like a Christmas tree.
  • Good Starter Home – Meaning that it is in a mediocre neighborhood, and the current owners didn’t want to tart up the place. Expect to spend $20K to make it comfortable.

Of course, you learn the gradations of the neighborhoods. Often just moving across the street will greatly increase the pleasantness of your living experience. Where we are currently renting an apartment, just east of Blossom Hill road, spitting distance from Oak Grove High School. Not a terrible neighborhood, but a lot of crime, and gang activity.

Cross Blossom Hill to the west, and the neighborhood is better. Yes, it is a high traffic area (3 schools within 1/4 mile) but you fear a little less for your life. There is still graffiti, but much less prominent.

Going further west, you cross the 85 freeway. Neighborhoods get a little better. Less traffic, the houses and yards are better kept. Schools are “meets expectations” and property values are a bit higher. Cross to the west of Santa Teresa, and you again get a bump.

And, if you are wealthy, bump over the hill to Almaden Valley, drop at least $1M and you get Willow Glen schools.

The further west you go, and the further north of Monterey Highway you go, the better the neighborhood.

Of course, even some cities with great reputations have bad areas. Check out the crime map of Sunnyvale to be shocked.

House Hunting Journal – 1000 Square Feet is really small

Looking at listings until your eyes bleed, and you see something that looks promising. Nice yard, well maintained, spruced up interior. 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms. Sounds good.

Then you hit the open house. Your instincts are correct, fabulous yard, kick-ass kitchen, indoor laundry (a RARITY in Silicon Valley). Nice.

But then you realize that at 1100 square feet, it is tiny. When the master bath is the 1/2 bathroom, you begin to think that 1100 sqft is too small, especially with a cramped floor plan.

Too bad for this house, as the neighborhood was awesome, and it was close to the hills and the open space.

This is the death knell for the downtown San Jose houses that are < 1000 sqft. Way too tight for us and our greyhounds.

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The Middle Class – Its Origin

Politicians love to rant, and one thing they agree on is the importance of the Middle Class to the economy. It is taken for granted, and all that yada-yada.

Like this middle class has always existed, and been the lynchpin of progress, but that is not true.

This is the first of a series of posts on this thing called “the middle class” that is so popular.

In the beginning…

The genesis of the so-called middle class came from late medieval Europe. Previously, there were just three classes, Nobility, Clergy, and the Serfs. The nobility held all the power. They granted privilege to the Clergy to keep the nobility in power and to control the vast unwashed serfs. This worked (not well, but well enough) until the 14th – 15th century. Around this time, the rise of the merchant class, serfs who became traders, and profited quite handsomely, but still weren’t allowed to become landholders (where the power really was) began to gain some power.

Along with these two classes were trade guilds, skilled artisans who had a desired skills and thus a higher standard of living. That said, their position was little above the Serfs, without a lot of security.

As the Monarchs seemed to love to fight wars to gain territory, or to avenge wrongs and slights, they needed funding, and merchants had access to a lot of money. They loaned this to the warring Monarchs, and thus established a relationship above the serfs, but below the nobility.

Over the course of the next 3 centuries or so, merchants became master traders, plying their craft around an expanding horizon. THe discovery of the new world, trade routes to Asia and the middle east brought wealth. With this came the need for the professions. Banking, and Law rose, to join the merchants in this thing that was above a serf, but, again, below Clergy and Noble class.

Many of these professions had their origins in the guilds, groups that determined who could joined, the number of members, and prevented members from degrading their power. Think of today’s ABA, or AMA, and the parallel is clear.

This is the genesis of the middle class. As more professions gained cachet, and earning power, they were added to the middle class. But always remained the vast serfs who were on the bottom rung with little chance to climb up.

This was the status until the 19th century.

Next up: The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the capitalist.

House Hunting Journal – Slogging through Open Houses

A short post today. The hunt is on, and how the game is played here in Silicon Valley is that you pretty much have to hit open houses.

How different this was than our experience of selling in Phoenix. There, open houses were drains on the agent’s time. They would come, set out some cookies, and wait. And wait. And wait.

In 3 hours (or sometimes 5 hours, as they often started at 11 instead of 1) they would count it lucky if they had more than 5 visitors. And, truth be told, at least half of them were neighbors looking at the “competition”.

In Silicon Valley though, the Saturday and Sunday open houses are wild. Gourmet snacks are common, well staged houses, and throngs of people.  Literally scores of groups of people. Some stay for a few minutes, some for an hour, allowing the agents to gauge interest. But always, even in the worst looking houses in the worst neighborhoods, the cars keep coming.

For a buyer, knowing that you will need to compete against all the potential suitors, it is a groaner.

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House Hunting Journal – Neighborhood Research

One thing the Internet has enabled in a huge way is the investigation of the neighborhood. Since we are placing an offer on a house we like, and we have learnt to not trust the Trulia crime map (it says our apartment is lowest crime, HA!)

Fortunately, there are many options. Since we are in San Jose, we can use the SJPD Crime Map website to see what activity is in your area. (I would bet my bottom dollar that most modern police forces have something similar). I trust it, because it seems to correlate well where we live.

It lists vehicle thefts, vehicle recoveries, robberies, burglaries, and even where registered sex offenders live (more on this later). You can get some detail on the disposition, and actions, as well as a macro view of the density of crime.

(Hint: I was astounded at how much crime happens in Sunnyvale, a "good" city…)

You also see some trends. Neighborhoods with higher housing prices (i.e. where the "richers" live) have a lot of burglary. Near public places you find more assaults. And so on.

Of course, there is another tool for tracking registered sex offenders. The "Megan's Law" website. Once you accept the disclaimer, you can search by city, address, zip code,county or even name. Looking up zip codes is an eye opener. Sweet zombie Jesus there are a lot of sex offenders. From child porn aficionados to "Lewd acts on a person under 14" (why 14 seems magic is something I just don't want to know), to rape and others.

There are a lot, I mean SHITLOADS of sex offenders. Even in affluent areas.

Well, the offer is in, and we are crossing our fingers. We will still go to open houses this weekend, as we know that the odds are so-so.

House Hunting Journal – The Zaniness of Silicon Valley Real Estate

Housing in the Silicon Valley has always been different, but upon returning, it is crystal clear how odd it is.

Our experience selling our house in Chandler, AZ was typical. You clean it up, fix all the warts, put it on the market, and are inconvenienced for months as agents (infrequently) bring parties through. Your life sucks as you have a 30 minute warning to get out for the next group of shoppers. Every time, you are hopeful that they are the ones who will buy. You will do a half dozen open houses, where on a good weekend day, you might get 4 groups of people walking through.

Then 5 months later, you get an offer you can accept.

Here, it is like this. You put your house on the market on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you schedule an open house over the weekend, where HUNDREDS of people will come through, and the following Thursday you accept offers, and pick the one you like best.

Depressing.

House Hunting Journal – You need an agent

In many ways, it is a glorious time to be looking for a house, the Internet provides wonderful tools to search, Trulia, Zillow, and others are easy to search, and useful for checking out properties, but they do have a downside.

Unfortunately, they are plagued with out dated information. Often houses you are looking at, and watching are under contract, or otherwise not available.

Additionally, it is impossible to determine if the house is a short sale or other distressed condition. So a place that looks fabulous suddenly looks like a pig.

Having a good agent is invaluable. They have access to details hidden from the public facing tools.

Fortunately, we have a great agent, and he has been super helpful. We haven’t found our house yet, but the search has become more interesting.

Yep, it sucks that the MLS has a monopoly on the inside track, but it is the state of the world.

House Hunting Journal – Neighborhood considerations

Continuing on the thread of house hunting in Silicon valley – the search for a decent $700K house to buy – yesterday Barbara scratched one folly off her dream list.

One thing that is charming about the downtown San Jose area is the “Craftsman” house. Typically built about 100 years ago, small lot, small house and tons of character. You see some that are extremely well done.

There also happen to be many that fit our price range nicely. So it is not surprising that there is some attraction to them.

However they do have some deficiencies:

  • They are small. Often much less than 1,000 sqft. They were built at a time of simpler pastimes, and really weren’t designed with the concept of a “living room” for the TV or other activities.
  • They are often in neighborhoods that are, uh, sketchy. There is a reason why they are affordable, and that is because they have always been affordable and thus attracted a comparable clientele. Working class, but also a fair amount of crime.
  • They often are in need of a lot of repair. Yes, many/most on the market have upgraded kitchens, with better appliances, but unless a prior owner spent major coin, they often have ancient plumbing and wiring that was designed for much lower draw than the current typical household.

The one that Barbara viewed yesterday had all these flaws. Her comment was that in the middle of the day, the neighborhood didn’t feel safe. What about walking our dogs at night?

It was in the Burbank district of San Jose, just north of Santa Clara, and a place that I used to bicycle through as fast as I could when I rode to SJSU, so it has been sketchy a LONG time.

Any neighborhood that makes our current digs seem like a huge step up, is not a place to consider.

Bicycling Log

I have always had a passion for bicycling, and have recently gotten back into Mountain Biking. That and the layoff has engendered some commentary.

  • Thorns suck. No, seriously, fuck them. I bought Mr Tuffy’s and still I get an occasional puncture. Grrrr
  • Patch kits. I remember the “green” box patch kits with round and oval patches, glue, and a scrubber to roughen the tube. Now they have these sticker patches that are easy to use. But they suck, because they all leak. Temporary at best.
  • Saddle boils. Nasty. Painful. ’nuff said.

But it is not all bad. I had old (and I mean OLD, like 11 years old) bike shorts. I recently bought some new Pear Izumis with the gel pad in the crotch area. WONDERFUL! Took a little getting used to, but wow, they are great.

House Hunting Journal – Hidden Clues

Real estate in the bay area is a bit surreal. Words and phrases often have subtle subtext that isn’t obvious if you haven’t been steeped in it.

One thing that you quickly learn is that the price often isn’t what they want the house to sell at.  Clues to this are prices that are too precise.

For example, knowing that you can afford $700K, you can be looking at some great properties that seem to fit. Great yard, good neighborhood, nice kitchen, and big enough. Cool, $699K, you can afford it.

Bzzzt.

Your agent breaks it to you gently. It will sell well above $700K. This is the game as it is played.

Or, how about this, you have been watching a listing, it hasn’t been plucked (closed in a few days) so you think you might have a chance. You drive by, you do all the research you can.

You finally call your agent, and he tells you that they will accept offers Thursday, and they are expecting 10 or more qualified offers.

Sigh, you are positioned to lose again.

The glory and curse of the Internet. You have access to Zillow, Trulia and Homes.com, but key details are missing, only accessible to agents. I am sure this is to maintain their iron clad grip on the MLS listings, but it sucks for us small fish.

All I want is a house where I don’t fear for my safety, have “enough” room, and it is comfortable for my dogs, all for $700,000 dollars. Is that too damn much to ask for?

Apparently so.

Oh, and my doctor told me to lose weight. Add that to the “shit I already knew” pile…