Red Trolley's GRAND Opening is This Saturday!!!

Come by Red Trolley Cake and Cone on Saturday July 5th for the OFFICIAL grand opening. There'll be fresh squeezed limeade for a quarter, organic hotdogs for a buck, a live band, a jumpy castle for the kids, lots of yummy ice cream and gelato (my favorite this week is chocolate hazelnut gelato) and a good time all around. It'll run from 11 a.m. til 11 p.m., and I'll be there the WHOLE time.

Address is 2637 W. 32nd Ave.

See ya there!

Mary Beth: Senior Real Estate Specialist

I became a realtor right after I helped my parents move out of my childhood home. They had lived there for 40 years (almost to the day). They had reached a point where the house didn’t fit their needs any more. They wanted a new home with minimal maintenance. They didn’t want a condo or a townhouse or anywhere they had to share walls. They still wanted to have a yard. But they didn’t want to maintain it. I found the perfect place – a new patio home community where the HOA handles the yard work and shoveling. (In fact, I did such a good job finding them a home that I moved into the same neighborhood the next year!)

And then I spent two months helping them with the move. We prepared the old house for sale. We sorted through 40 years worth of belongings. We packed some of it. We gave some of it away. We sold a lot of it – in antique and “retro” shops on Broadway, on Craigslist, and finally at our family garage sale. (If there’s a way to sell or donate household items, I know about it now.) We made decisions and chose mortgages and I did everything I could do to make this really enormous transition easier for them.

And I enjoyed every minute of it. (Well, almost every minute!)

After that experience, I decided I’d like to have the opportunity to help other peoples’ parents the way I’d helped my own. I had learned so much, and I’d found it all so rewarding, that I wanted to do it again. (Well, okay, I wanted to do most of it again. The packing part I didn’t so much need to repeat!)

I got my real estate license six months later. And the first specialized designation I received was as a Senior Real Estate Specialist.

My dad served in Europe during World War II. My parents are part of the “Greatest Generation.” I really love working with that generation, our “seasoned citizens.” They’re straightforward. They look you in the eye. Their handshake is their word.

I have made a special effort, as a real estate agent, to learn a lot about the senior market. I know the types of housing available to them. (I’m a big fan of the patio home concept!) I know the programs available to them. And I know the unique challenges they face in transitioning from a home shared with a family to a home that fits their needs in their retirement years.

I’d like to help your parents the way I helped my own!

Mary Beth: Certified Residential Specialist

There are over one million realtors in the world. That’s right, a million.

A lot of them are “hobby” agents. They don’t do a whole lot. Maybe close a transaction or two every year. Maybe not even that much. A lot more of them are mediocre agents. They make a living at it, sort of. But they’re not necessarily that good at what they do.

So how do you find that one-in-a-million agent who’s going to do the best job for you?

One way to start is by looking for an agent who has earned the Certified Residential Specialist (CRS) designation, which has been called “the most rigorous and professional residential designation available to Realtors.”

Only 4% of those one million realtors attain the CRS designation. We’re the ones doing the lion’s share of the work in the real estate industry. CRS designees earn, on average, three times more than other realtors without the designation.

To become a CRS designee, an agent has to prove high levels of production. In other words, we have to actually close business – sell houses. And then we take classes – lots and lots of classes. We keep learning – about the market, about the business and about looking out for the interests of our clients.

I decided to pursue the CRS designation for the same reason that I decided to join RE/MAX. I wanted to demonstrate that I’m one of the serious ones. I’m not a “hobby” agent or a part-time agent or a mediocre agent. I’m one of the top 4% -- the successful ones, the ones who take this business seriously. I’m not one of the agents who’s in it only when the market is good and the sailing is smooth.

I’m in it for the long haul.

Great New Patio Homes at Lowry

I love Lowry. It's a great neighborhood, the town square is adorable, and it's all just a hop, skip and a jump from the center of town. If living on that side of town made sense for me, I'd move there in a heartbeat. Alas, my family is all on the west side, so I only look longingly eastward.

I spent this afternoon at Lowry with some clients of mine, looking at a new patio home community -- Arbors at Lowry -- going up in the East Park section. They were having a lovely grand opening celebration with sandwiches and cookies, which always makes me happy.

And I have to say the houses are really, really nice.

I'm a big fan of the patio home concept. So much so that I live in one myself. They encompass the best of both worlds -- a detached home on a lot with a yard, but with no lawn care and no shoveling. The HOA handles it all. That works very well for me. When I owned a "normal" home, I used to water my lawn once a month for a day. Not deliberately. I'd just forget to water until the lawn got all dry, then I'd water the heck out of it and eventually the water was running down the street and one of the neighbors would come over and turn it off.

The thing is, I'm not the only one who wants a real house and a real yard without the real work. That's what the Baby Boomers want as they retire. The kids are moving out, and they're tired of the mowing and pruning and shoveling. But they're used to having a real house with a yard. They don't want to go to a condo or a townhouse where they have to share walls.

The Baby Boomers create a seismic demographic shift every time they enter a new phase of life. And as they retire, they're creating an increasing demand for low maintenance detached homes. They don't want yard work. What they do want is ranch floor plans or at least main floor masters so they can get still get to their bedrooms on their creaky, arthritic, ACL-scoped knees. They want patio homes.

That's why I bought mine. It wasn't just the personal convenience. It was the investment. I knew the demand for patio homes -- especially those closer to the center of town -- would grow. And it has. In the three years since I built my home -- three years that have been relatively flat in the Denver real estate market -- my home has been appreciating. Homes rarely go on the market in my neighborhood. And when they do, they sell quickly.

That's why I'm a big fan of the patio homes I saw today. Homes in Lowry are already beating the appreciation odds in Denver, increasing in value in the midst of a flat market. I think that trend is only going to increase as gas prices soar. People like newer houses, but they want to live closer to the center of town. They don't want to waste a ton of money on gas driving to work (or to play!) There are only a few places to find new houses close to the center of Denver. There's Lowry, Stapleton and a few smaller infill areas (like my neighborhood in Lakewood). That's about it.

So take the appeal of patio homes, the past performance of Lowry and the rising gas prices, and the Arbors at Lowry starts looking like a danged good investment. Nice houses, too. Floor plans are well laid-out, and the finishes are high end. Slab granite, alder cabinets and extensive hardwood floors are all standard. Plus (this floored me) the back yards are fenced. That's a big deal in a patio home community. In my neighborhood we can't fence our yards, because the HOA needs to have access to them for mowing, etc. At the Arbors, the HOA actually comes into the fenced yard and mows it. Best of both worlds.

So check 'em out. Better yet, call me and I'll go along! (See June 23rd blog entry below "Do You Need a Realtor To Buy From a Builder?") If you go without me, at least tell Judi Phillips in the office that I sent you. She's very nice.

If you want to learn more about patio home communities throughout the metro area, let me know. I'd love to help!

MB's Client Testimonials Broadcast To Thousands At RE/MAX International Convention

So every year RE/MAX has a big international convention. Thousands and thousands of agents and owners from all over the world gather in Las Vegas to learn, to network and to celebrate all things RE/MAX.

Ad every year at the convention, with much fanfare, they roll out a big new project for all of the agents and bigwigs collected there. This year the big project was a series called "Connecting With Clients", which consists of seven brief video segments featuring RE/MAX clients talking about their wonderful experience with their RE/MAX agent. Agents from all over the world can download these segments from the RE/MAX web site and send them to their clients to demonstrate how great it is to work with a RE/MAX agent.

And, out of those seven segments, two of them featured my clients talking about their experience working with me!!

So, out of all the agents in all the offices in all the world, they chose my clients. Okay, so I do work in Denver, where RE/MAX International is headquartered -- which made it easy to interview my clients. But hey -- there are well over a thousand RE/MAX agents here in town, so that's still pretty good!

Anyway, you can see the segments for yourself. Just click here to see my clients Quinston and Regina, and here to see the Tirella sisters. This one was particularly fun. I was present for the taping. My clients Chuck and Angie were nice enough to allow the RE/MAX film crew to come over to their new house on moving day. Between their families and the movers and the film crew and the poor hapless cable guy who showed up in the middle of it all, it was a bit chaotic. (There were a few family members telling the neighbors that the house was going to be the the set for MTV's latest season of "The Real World.") I left the house while the taping was going on so they wouldn't feel self conscious talking about me while I was there. But as I was leaving, I heard "cut" several times because they kept saying my name when they were supposed to be saying "our RE/MAX agent."

I'm very excited and happy about this. It tells me that I'm on the right track in always striving to put the needs of my clients first. And it tells me that RE/MAX International knows what I already knew -- that I have really terrific clients!!

Home Buying 101 -- Do You Need A Realtor To Buy From a Builder?

The other day, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a while. She had just moved back into town, so I asked here where she was living. She looked at me sheepishly and said “I bought a house. I was going to call you but it was new construction and I didn’t think I needed to and the whole experience was awful and I really wish I’d called you first.”

A lot of people think they don’t need a real estate agent when they’re buying a new home from a builder. After all, they don’t need help finding a new house. The builders advertise all over the internet and the newspapers, and they have those nice models with the helpful salespeople who walk buyers through the whole process. What’s left for a real estate agent to do?

Plenty. First of all, those nice helpful sales people work for the builder, not for you. They’re not looking out for your best interest. They’re looking out for the employer’s best interest. If you don’t have representation, then there’s nobody in the transaction looking out for your interests.

Buying new construction from a builder is a lot different than buying an existing home from an individual seller. First of all, when you buy a home from a homeowner who is working with a real estate agent, the contract guiding the transaction must be the official Colorado Contract To Buy and Sell Real Estate. That contract was drafted by the Colorado Real Estate Commission, and is amended every year, to make sure that buyers and sellers are protected.

But not new construction. If you buy a house from a builder, you use the builder’s contract. The contract drafted by the builder’s lawyers, to protect the builder’s interests. Do you think those lawyers sit around trying to think of ways to look out for your best interests as a buyer? Don’t bet on it.

Second, you have those on-site sales people who, if you have no representation, will be instructing you and guiding you through the whole process. They’re often very nice people. I’ve worked with several of them whom I liked very much. But don’t forget who’s signing their paycheck. It’s not their job to see that your interests are protected.

How often, in this market, do you think unrepresented buyers pay too much for new construction? It’s easy for a buyer to assume that a builder knows the market, and that their homes are priced accordingly. But that’s not always the case, especially in a stale market. There are times when new homes are priced too high. When builders first set prices for a new development, there’s a little bit of guesswork involved. They don’t necessarily know that those initial prices will hold. That can be a big bummer for the first people to waltz in during the initial excitement period and pay the asking price. Because if the homes are overpriced, sales will usually peter out fairly quickly, and the builder winds up dropping the price. And that leaves the initial buyers in the position of having paid more for their homes than everyone else who moves in later. Guess what happens when it’s time to sell?

A good real estate agent will tell buyers when a new home is overpriced, and attempt to negotiate a better deal. If the builder isn’t dealing, he or she will advise the buyers to move on.

Sometimes, buyers attempt to purchase new construction without representation because they think they can get a better deal if the builder doesn’t have to pay an agent’s commission. That isn’t going to happen. Builders know that charging less to buyers without representation means charging more for buyers with representation, which amounts to penalizing buyers for having representation. That doesn’t make them look so good. It also hurts their relationships with local real estate professionals, and they really don’t want that. They need buyer’s agents to show their product to their clients. So they won’t stab us in the back by penalizing our buyers.

The cost of paying a buyer’s agent commission is built into the price of a house. The buyer is going to pay it whether or not any commission is paid. If the buyer is unrepresented, that money just goes back into the builder’s pocket.

The thing is, most builders expect Realtors to accompany clients on their first visit to a community in order to allow that agent to represent the clients. So call your Realtor before you start wandering through open houses. (Not working with a Realtor yet? Call me!) Personally, I'm happy to go wandering with my clients, even if they're not sure they're serious yet. And keep a stack of your agent's cards with you. That way if you happen to pass by a model home and just have to go in, you can hand the card to the onsite person, tell him or her upfront that you're already working with an agent, and make sure the builder will honor your relationship before you go traipsing through the model.

Pick up the phone before you start looking. Call a Realtor. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.

  • I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For This Awesome Ice Cream!!

    So I’m sitting here at my new hangout, which also happens to be Denver’s newest (and best) ice cream shop.

    It’s called Red Trolley Cake and Cone, it’s located on 32nd Ave between Clay and Bryant, and (full disclosure), it’s owned by my sister and brother-in-law.

    I’d say this place is fabulous even if I wasn’t related to the owners. The ice cream is homemade, created right here on the premises by one Denver’s top pastry chefs. And the flavors!! Oh . . . my . . . gosh. There’s the standard vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, of course. (The chocolate gelato is to die for.) But then things get interesting. As I sit here looking at the freezer display, I see ice cream flavors like Cassia Cinnamon, Praline Cookies and Cream, White Chocolate Chip Mint and Bing Cherry Cheesecake, as well as Lemon Meringue Pie Sherbet (with real pieces of pie crust!) In the gelato case, I see twelve different flavors – flavors like Banana Yogurt, Green Apple Sorbetto, Orange Cream, Wildberry Sorbetto, and my personal favorite, Colorado Honey Almond Orange.

    There are malts, shakes, sundaes – and root beer floats that taste like they did when we were kids.

    There’s a reason for that. Did you ever notice that pop (soda, soft drinks, whatever you call them) started tasting different when they stopped sweetening them with real sugar and instead started using high fructose corn syrup? It leaves a weird aftertaste. Not here. Not in anything. Nothing here contains any hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors or colors, or high fructose corn syrup, . It’s all real food. Really. In fact, they make the waffle cones right here on the premises for that very reason – they couldn’t find a supplier who didn’t use the bad stuff, so they put the pastry chef on the job and started making their own.

    Let me tell you, you can taste the difference.

    So here I am on a Tuesday afternoon, with my sweet little one year old niece Audrey on my lap, working. I plan to be here a lot. You might even find me behind the counter occasionally. And, to insure that I still fit through the doorway on my future visits, I’m availing myself of the greatest invention in the world – the Tiny Trolley. It’s a tiny little cone of ice cream, and it only costs a buck. Great for little kids, and for their aunts who want to be able to hang out here regularly without having to buy a new wardrobe.

    So come on by and check it out. The address is 2639 W. 32nd Ave. It’s the very red building on the north side of the street between Bryant and Clay. Hours are Sunday thru Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

    See ya there!!

    The Establishment

    The Proprietors The Proprietors

    The Crew The Crew

    Home Buying 101 -- How Much to Offer?

    So you've found it. It's the right house. It's the one you want. It's home.

    So how do you go about making it yours?

    Once you've decided on the house you want to buy, your agent will prepare an offer. "Making an offer" isn't as simple as having your agent call their agent and say "We'll give you 400K for it." No, that would be much too simple.

    What you will be preparing is in reality much more than an "offer." It is a complete contract which, if accepted, will be the document that guides your entire transaction through its closing. It's done here in Colorado on the official contract to buy and sell real estate that the Real Estate Commission changes every year. As of today I believe the entire contract is 16 pages long. It covers just about every contingency that could possibly occur in a real estate transaction.

    So you have to make decisions about much more than just the price you're willing to pay. You'll be laying out all of the dates and deadlines involved with the transaction, including the date of the final closing. You'll be telling them how much you'll be borrowing, how much you'll be giving them as earnest money and how much you'll be putting down at closing. You'll specify whether the purchase is contingent on the sale of your existing home. Etc., etc.

    So you've got some decisions to make.

    The most obvious is the price. This is a tricky one. Everybody's looking for a formula. "People tell me that the market is depressed, so buyers should always start out 20% lower (or 10%, or 30%, or whatever mood "people" are in that day.) Let me tell you, "people" don't always know all that much.

    There are a lot of factors that go into determining the price at which to begin bidding on a house. First and foremost is the market value. That is determined by looking at what other similar houses in the same area have sold for recently. Not, that's sold, not just listed. People can ask any price they'd like for their house. It doesn't reflect reality unless somebody is actually willing to pay it. Market value is important because it reflects the price that the seller can reasonably expect to get for their house, and gives the buyer a clue as to how low they'll be willing to go.

    Your agent will research the neighborhood, to find out what the sold "comps" (comparable sales) tell you about how the seller has priced the house. Maybe they've priced it high and they're dreaming if they think they can really get that price. Maybe they're realistic and they have a good agent who has researched the market and they've priced their home exactly where it should be for today's market conditions. Maybe they're very eager to sell, so they've deliberately priced it low for a quick sale. All of that will determine what your offer looks like. If they're wildly overpriced, an offer that reflects reality (accompanied by some sold comps demonstrating that reality) would be perfectly appropriate. If they're priced just right or low for market conditions, then the odds of their going for a lowball offer are probably slim to none. If they're particularly eager to sell for some reason, they might be more likely to accept a lower offer. In general, sellers are most likely to negotiate on a house that's been on the market for a while than one that was just listed. In the first few weeks, people tend to actually believe they're going to get the price they're asking. If they've priced low, they may be right. Right-priced properties sell much more quickly than those that are overpriced. Either way, nobody is likely to come down significantly within days of listing a property.

    Too many of today's buyers actually believe everything they hear on the news. They figure every seller must be desperate, that they can get a home for pennies on the dollar, and home owners will jump at the opportunity to give their homes away for considerably less than market value. So they sail in with incredibly low offers, and they're shocked when the sellers say "No, thanks."

    I once received an offer on a recently-listed, vacant property that was already priced very competitively (ie low) because the sellers wanted to sell quickly. The offer we received was for $50,000 less than the already low asking price. The sellers, who had already moved out of state, were offended and said that they weren't going to counter because they didn't consider this a serious offer. The other agent was astonished that they wouldn't even bother countering. She actually asked me "Do they realize they have holding costs?" As if the sellers didn't know that they were writing a check for the mortgage every month. They saw the vacant listing and assumed the sellers were desperate and would take any offer that came their way. They assumed wrong. The house went on to sell -- to someone else -- for about 2% under the asking price.

    I often warn buyers against "offending" sellers with a lowball offer. It's not because I'm worried about hurting somebody's feelings. This is a business transaction. But people who are selling their own homes are not "all business." They're sentimentally attached. They've lived in the home, decorated the home, improved the home. Sometimes they've even done the work themselves. And so, reasonable or not, they get offended when a stranger comes in and essentially says "We think your house is worth waaaaay less than you think it's worth."

    The danger isn't that the sellers' feelings will be hurt and they won't invite the buyers to their Christmas party. The danger is that a) the sellers refuse (as my sellers above did) any further negotiation, or b) they negotiate, but defensively and halfheartedly because they don't like you. They don't want to do business with you. They don't want you to live in their precious, precious home because you clearly don't appreciate it. Trust me -- as the sellers' agent who has had to deliver plenty of lowball offer to my clients -- it's very hard to get them back into the game once they're offended. Even if a deal is reached, the bad feelings tend to color the entire transaction. Inspections are more difficult. Every little issue becomes a major issue because the parties don't trust each other.

    Obviously, you want to get the best price you can for the home you want. And it's your agent's job to help you do that. But part of that is bidding smart, understanding the psychology of the process and acting accordingly. Your agent, if he or she is good, can help you do that.

    And that's the only "formula" I know.

    Home Buying 101 -- Buyers are Liars

    There’s a saying in the real estate world that “buyers are liars.” It’s not that buyers walk in and deliberately tell lies to their real estate agents. It’s more that what buyers think they want in a house and what they actually wind up wanting are often two very different things.

    Case in point: my brother, whom I love very much and who is definitely not a liar. He wanted to buy a house. A house, as in “detached property with a yard.” He was very adamant about this point, because he has a very sweet yellow lab named Jake who needs space to run around and survey his empire and do his occasional duty. So we traipsed around town looking at lots of houses with lots of big yards.

    And then I get a call. That very same brother is very excited. He’s spent the entire morning with a sales rep over at Riverfront. They have a great place that he really loves, and . . .

    “Riverfront? Those are condos. What about Jake and the yard and surveying his empire and all that?”

    “I think I can teach him to pee in a box on the balcony.”

    That’s what we mean when we say that buyers are liars.

    The point is that, when you’re all pre-approved and it’s time to go out looking at houses, you need to keep a dialogue going with your agent about what you need, what you want and what you don’t want. Those needs and wants may change over time, once you’ve seen a couple of houses and get a clearer picture of what’s available. That’s okay. Just keep the conversation going.

    Most buyers have a pretty clear idea of what they want. Some have ideas that are too clear. (“It has to be made of stucco, sit on a corner, and have a kitchen with a window over the sink that faces to the south and looks over a peony garden that’s four feet wide by eight feet deep with a tree in the middle.”) Others aren’t clear enough. (“I don’t care what the house is like or what part of town it’s in, as long as it’s a good deal.”)

    The first time you meet with your agent, be clear about what you know you want – area, size, number of bedrooms, age and condition of the house, etc. He or she will ask you a lot of questions, so you don’t have to come in with a list all prepared or anything. Just talk to him or her about what you think you want, and why.

    You may prefer a newer house. But would an older house that’s been nicely remodeled be an option for you as well? You may say you need four bedrooms, but is that because you need four bedrooms, or do you need three bedrooms and a home office? If it’s the latter, then a three bedroom home with a study might work for you as well.

    People sometimes ask me “How many houses do buyers generally look at before finding the one they want?” That depends completely on the buyer and the circumstances. I had one buyer who decided he wanted the first home we looked at. (Well, the first one we looked at after he realized he wanted a house in Park Hill instead of a condo in the Highlands.) I had another who claims we looked at 70 houses before finding the right one for her. I stopped counting, but I don’t think we hit 70.

    It’s okay to fall in love with the first house you look at. It’s okay to say “Look no more, this is it!” It’s also okay to walk into a house and say “No, this isn’t it” and walk right back out without seeing the rest of the house. You won’t offend your agent. He didn’t build the house, after all. It’s okay to say “this isn’t it” before you even walk in. You don’t even have to get out of the car if you’re certain you don’t like the house, or the area, or whatever.

    Remember that you probably aren’t going to find perfect. But you will find “right” for you. I’m a big fan of giving buyers the time and space they need to find the best house for their needs. It may happen on the first outing. It may not. Some buyers are in a bigger hurry than others, and thus have to choose more quickly. However it works, you should never, ever be pressured by a realtor or anybody else to buy a particular home when you’re not comfortable with the decision.

    The way I see it, the transaction will be over soon enough. But the buyers are going to live in that house for a long, long time. I don’t want them to wake up every morning cursing me because I talked them into buying something they didn’t really want.

    Talk to your agent. Listen to your agent. He or she will probably have suggestions and ideas about your various options, about resale values and a host of other issues related to your search. Take all of that into account. And then remember that, in the end, the decision is yours, and yours alone.

    Well, yours, and the sellers who accept or reject your offer, and the lender who will tell you whether or not you can have the money to buy it . . .

    Home Buying 101 -- Tales of Mortgage Horror

    If anything is going to go wrong in a home purchase, it's probably going to have something to do with the loan. Borrowing money to buy property in today's environment is very, very complicated.

    For your sake, for the sake of your realtor and the sake of everyone's sanity, please choose a good, reliable loan officer with a verifiable track record of successful closings and happy customers. In today's climate, a bad or lazy or irresponsible loan officer can make everybody's life miserable, and can delay a closing or even completely sink a deal.

    A few true stories:

  • Loan officer is planning to come to closing. Loan officer doesn't show up. Neither does the money that is supposed to be wired to close the transaction. Buyer, seller and their respective families -- which include four sick children and a woman with Alzheimers, sit in a room at the title company for two hours, waiting. Finally everybody signs and leaves. Next day, loan still hasn't funded. I spend the morning on the phone with underwriters, etc., until it funds. Loan officer calls me that afternoon and says "I'm sorry I didn't return your call. I was at lunch." You don't get to go to lunch when your loan hasn't funded.

  • Buyer decides to work with a national mortgage company he's heard advertised on the radio. "Loan officer" doesn't return calls, is nearly impossible to reach. After weeks, loan officer realizes that buyer is receiving too many concessions from seller to approve the loan. She suggests that some of those concessions be passed from seller to buyer outside of closing and not be disclosed on the HUD-1 statement. This is loan fraud. Loan officer seems very surprised when I point this little fact out to her. Buyer winds up having to switch lenders two weeks before close. I have several heart failures.

  • Buyer chooses to work with out-of-state mortgage company his employer recommends. This lender's out-of-state loan processor, unfamiliar with Colorado real estate practice, estimates closing costs over $10,000 higher than they will actually be. Buyer calls his loan officer to express his displeasure. Loan officer proceeds to essentially disappear, not returning my calls nor buyer's calls. Buyer is upset, wants to back out of the deal. Closing cost mess is straightened out with the help of my friend, the good lender who isn't even involved in the transaction, and buyer elects to continue. Then, two days before closing, I receive a call from the processor telling me that underwriting has denied the loan because they don't like the appraisal. The appraisal, mind you, valued the property at the purchase price. Plus, the buyer is putting 20% down, so lender is only risking 80% of appraised purchase price. But it turns out that the loan officer, who has long since disappeared, didn't choose an appraiser who was approved by the lender. Buyer calls an officer of the mortgage company. A heated discussion ensues, culminating in the mortgage officer shouting an expletive (that rhymes with "duck stew") at the buyer and then hanging up on him. Buyer's options are to either pay several hundred dollars to have the property appraised by an approved appraiser and hope the results are good, or switch to a new lender at a higher interest rate (rates have risen since he locked the original loan). Either option will delay close by one to two weeks. Buyer once again thinks he wants to back out. That afternoon, I get a call saying mortgage has been approved after all because officer who hung up on buyer felt guilty and pled buyer's case to underwriting. But buyer isn't sure he wants to go through with it. Buyer finally decides to proceed. Closing is delayed two additional days. The day of closing, loan funds aren't showing up at title company. We discover that this is because lender is waiting for some random form that Colorado doesn't require. Loan finally funds. I check in to cardiac ICU unit.

  • I'm not the only real estate agent with stories like this. Fortunately, Colorado now requires loan officers to be licensed with the state. So if somebody screws up, they can be reported. This will hopefully, over time, sift out the riff-raff.

    So how do you find a reliable loan officer? Start by asking your real estate agent. He or she has sat at enough closing tables to know who's reliable and who isn't. Most agents have lenders they deal with regularly. Those loan officers are probably going to go the extra mile for you, because they want those agents to keep referring business to them.

    Other avenues? Ask your friends, family, co-workers what lenders they've worked with, and how it went. If they say "Okay, I guess," move on. Look for the one who says "She was fantastic!"

    Whatever you do, if you live in a state that requires loan officers to be licensed, be sure to work with a licensed loan officer. Not "well, I'm not licensed, but the paperwork will show an agent who is." Work directly with someone who is licensed in your state. And, preferably, someone who actually works in your state. Laws vary widely from state to state. Unfamiliarity with your local laws and real estate customs can be deadly for your deal.

    Home Buying 101 -- Lenders and Mortgages

    After you've chosen a realtor, your next task should be to get pre-approved for a loan. Unless you're one of those rare and coveted creatures who is in a position to pay cash for a house, in which case you can disregard all of this and go on your merry house-hunting way.

    For the rest of us, there are several good reasons to get pre-approved before beginning the search. First of all, you want to make sure you're qualified. Second, you want to see how much money they're willing to loan you. It's a big bummer to fall in love with a house, only to discover you can't borrow enough money to buy it! And finally, in order to make an offer, the seller will most likely want to see a letter from your lender. So it's best to start the process right away.

    Here's how it will work. You will meet with the loan officer, either in person or over the phone. You'll fill out an application, either in person or online. The loan officer will run your credit report. Then you'll discuss your options -- how much you're qualified to buy, how much your payments will be, different programs you can choose, etc.

    Note: In my experience, lenders are often willing to loan borrowers far more money than a prudent person would spend on a home. That's probably changing to a certain extent in this market. But nevertheless, don't think you have to spend as much as they'll loan you. Pay attention to the monthly payment, and make sure it's something you can live with for a long time.

    Things in the lending world looked very different just a year ago. Back then, buyers could borrow 100% of the cost of a home. If those buyers negotiated with the sellers to pay buyers' closing costs, they could actually show up at closing without a nickel. Buyers with lower credit scores could also borrow money, using what were called "sub-prime" loans at slightly higher interest rates. Buyers could also get "stated income" loans where they didn't have to prove or document their income and assets.

    Life is much different today. There are virtually no 100% loans available. Nor are there sub-prime loans. And only the most qualified borrowers can manage to get stated income loans.

    So, you'll have to show that you can put at least 5% down -- unless you're using certain FHA loans that allow you to try to get the seller to pay your down payment for you. You'll also have to provide pay stubs and/or tax returns, bank statements, etc.

    And then, once you're approved, you'll begin the search for the perfect house. Once you've found it and negotiated a price and terms, your loan officer will (hopefully, if he or she is good) swing into action to make sure your loan closes. He or she will review the contract, forward it to the underwriters and follow the results of the inspection to make sure nothing is discovered that will affect the deal or the loan. Then the appraisal will be ordered. The lender will want to make sure that you aren't buying the property for more than more than it's worth, since that lender will own the property if you default on the loan. Lenders usually have their own lists of "approved" appraisers whom they trust to give an assessment of the home's value. If the property "doesn't appraise" -- if the appraiser finds the value to be lower than the purchase price (or at least the amount the bank is lending the buyer), the bank will lend no more than the appraised value minus the required down payment. In this case, the deal is usually dead unless the buyers come up with extra cash, or the sellers reduce the purchase price.

    The lender gives final approval to fund a loan by the "loan commitment deadline", which is usually a few days before closing. This is where the last-minute surprises usually show up. If all of the conditions are cleared, a loan is given "clear to close", which means the lender is committing to fund it. The loan officer then sends "figures" -- a complete accounting of the money due from the buyer for the loan and closing costs -- to the title company, which prepares the buyer's settlement statement. The loan officer should go over these figures with the buyer, and tell him or her how much money to show up with at the closing table. Then, on closing day, the lender wires the loan amount to the title company, the buyer signs a jillion loan and closing documents, and a new homeowner is born!

    Home Buying 101 -- Buyer Agency

    I received an email the other day from a dear reader in Chicago who's getting ready to buy a house and wanted to know some of the ins and outs of working with a buyer's agent. She also suggested that instead of just responding to her, I should respond on the blog so that others may benefit from these little nuggets of wisdom. (Does mild sarcasm come through on your average blog post?) At any rate, it seemed like a good idea. So here goes:

    I'll never forget when I bought my first home, in Arizona. I was driving around with the random real estate agent fate had somehow dealt me. (I seriously don't at all remember how I found him or how he wound up representing me.) As we were chatting, he offhandedly mentioned, "Oh, and you should keep in mind that I work for the seller, not you."

    Excuse me? Hadn't he been driving around trying to help me me find my best home? Hadn't I told him all about what I wanted, and what I could afford? Hadn't he been the one to recommend a lender to me? How could he not work for me?

    'Cause Arizona law said so. The agent working for the buyer was paid by the seller, so he or she owed allegiance to them that was signing the check. What were the implications? Was the agent expected to tell the seller how much the buyer was willing to pay? I never asked. I don't think I wanted to know. The property I bought was a new house in a hot (literally and figuratively) market, so there wasn't a lot of negotiating involved. Just a list price and a contract. If we had been been in a negotiating situation, I can't imagine how compromised it would have been by this "my agent works for the other side" mentality.

    Fortunately, Colorado law is different. We have buyer's agency laws that specify clearly -- the buyer's agent works for the buyer, and owes loyalty and fiduciary responsibility to the buyer. So legally, when you tell your buyer's agent how high you're willing to go in a negotiation, that information stays with the agent and doesn't meander its way over to the other side.

    There was another "blip" in the law that Colorado has remedied -- dual agency. In many states, an agent working for both the buyer and the seller is legally allowed to represent and advise them both. For instance, if I'm representing sellers who are selling their house, and a buyer comes to me without being represented by an agent, I can represent them both in the negotiations.

    There are obvious ethical implications to this. I already know how low the sellers are willing to go, because I've been working with them for a while. Now the buyer has told me how high he's willing to go. And I get to advise both sides. "Hold out for more. I know he can afford it." Or "don't offer than much. They'll go lower."

    Colorado corrected this situation by instituting "transaction brokerage." There are two ways an agent can work with a client in Colorado. One way is agency, in which the agent advises and advocates on behalf of the client. The other is transaction brokerage, in which the agent moves the transaction forward, but doesn't advise or advocate. A transaction broker draws up forms, sees to it that everything is signed and official and legal, but doesn't stick his or her two cents on on what the buyer or seller should do.

    If an agent is handling both sides of a single transaction, he or she must operate as a transaction broker. In other words, that agent can't advise either side, nor can that agent disclose what he or she knows about the other side. Agent has to say "sign here" and nod a lot. Can't say "go higher" or "go lower." Just put on the poker face and say "What would you like to do now?"

    If you're buying a home anywhere but Colorado, one of the first questions I'd ask the agent is how buyer's agency works in your state. To whom does the agent owe allegiance? Will your confidential information stay confidential?

    Good News for Denver Home Sellers

    Forbes magazine just released their list of the 10 best cities for home sellers in 2008. And guess which market came in at #7? Our very own Denver!

    To assess each market, Forbes looked at unsold vacancy rates, construction starts (to see if a lot of new construction would be cropping up and making vacancy rates worse), job creation (to see if buyers would have jobs, so they could buy houses) and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae's new conforming loan limits (to see if those buyers could get loans without having to pay premium "jumbo" mortgage rates).

    Apparently Denver looks good. We have a 3% unsold vacancy rate, which is great news because last year our rate was 23%. A 20% vacancy drop is a very, very good thing. We've also seen a 2% jump in new jobs, and -- best of all -- a 49% cut in construction starts. This makes me happy. Less new homes springing up means less inventory on the market, and more buyers gravitating toward purchasing existing homes.

    And, if you'd like anecdotal evidence to back up the good news, I listed a 1970's Littleton townhouse a few weeks ago, and it went under contract within a week.

    If you really want to feel better about our market, compare it to some of the riskiest markets. Phoenix, for example. When I lived there in the late '90's, housing prices were skyrocketing. Now they've tanked. There are over 53,000 homes currently on the market there. Fifty three thousand. That's over a five-fold increase over the past three years. Can you imagine competing with 52,999 other homes to sell yours? And the Catch-22 is that the local economy is built heavily on construction jobs. If construction starts decline (which they really need to do, with 53,000 existing homes in current inventory), then construction jobs are lost and buyers fall out of the market. It's tough to win in a scenario like that.

    Yep, we've got it pretty good here in Colorful Colorado!

    Top Ten Tips for Repairing Your House Before Sale

    It's getting more and more important to prep a house before putting it on the market. There's a LOT of competition out there. The buyers who are looking at your house are looking at a bunch of other houses in the same area. Yours has to stand out. What's worse, some of that competition is bound to come from foreclosures. And they're going to stand out because they're priced 5% to 10% lower than yours. (I know that doesn't seem like a lot as a percentage, but 10% of $200,000 is $20,000. That's a lot of competition!)

    So if you want to sell your house without letting it go at a foreclosure price, it's got to be in better shape than a foreclosure. Buyers might overlook bent screens, dinged woodwork and broken shingles if they think they're getting a great deal. But at market price, they don't like to see that stuff.

    My favorite part of this has to do with smells. I'm a freak about this. When I'm with buyers, we usually give nicknames to each house we see. It's easier and more fun to remember a home as "Big Plaid Wallpaper House" than as "You know, the one on Vance Court. Two story, blue trim, 2000 square feet . . ."

    And when a house smells, guess what name it gets. "Smelly Cat House." Or "Weird Cologne Trying To Cover Up Smelly Cat House." A bad smell will drive buyers away. So will a weird smell that's clearly an attempt to cover up a bad smell.

    If you're selling a house that contains smelly pets, a smoker, weird or aromatic foods, or anything else with an overwhelming olifactory presence, you need to do some work. Get rid of the source of the smell. (Seriously, it's best if Kitty lives elsewhere for a while.) And then clean or get rid of everything that harbors the smell.

    I know it's hard to tell what your own house smells like. Ask a neighbor. Ask your realtor.

    And take the answer very, very seriously.

    Realtors Bailing Out?

    I just read a Christian Science Monitor article that said that the slump in the real estate market is forcing many realtors out of the business.

    The evidence was mostly anecdotal , with very few actual statistics to back up this theory of mass exodus. The only actual figure I saw was that Oregon Association of Realtors reports an 11% drop in their membership over the past year. Aside from that, it was a lot of talk about "experts" who say that realtors are leaving the business in droves.

    It's not particularly surprising, and not a particularly bad thing, as far as I'm concerned.

    When the market is hot, everybody decides they want to sell real estate. Well, not everybody, literally, but a lot of people. It looks like easy money, and people want a piece of that. So the rolls of the licensees are clogged with agent "speculators" looking to make a fast buck somehow.

    But then the going gets a little rougher. And guess what happens? The Johnny-Come-Lately's bail out. They were never serious about real estate as a career they might have to work at. They wanted the money to be easy.

    Quite frankly, I prefer to work in a market that's a little more challenging. It cleans up the industry. The agents who jumped into hot markets looking to make a quick buck are generally not good agents, and they're generally not a lot of fun to work with. Their incompetence contaminates any transaction they touch. A good agent knows how to make a "go" out of any market. And in a rough market I'm a lot more likely to look across the closing table at a strong, capable real estate professional.

    I like that.

    The market in Denver is not "hot" by any means, but it's not free-falling, either. It's flat. And that hasn't hurt me yet. My business has grown every year since I started, and I don't expect this year to be any different. Sure, I have to work a little harder. But I don't mind that at all. It hones my skills. It helps me to grow as an agent and find more and better ways to serve my clients.

    So I'm not going anywhere.

    A Blog that Writes Itself?

    I was reading Realtor magazine last night, and I saw an interesting little piece. Apparently there is a new service available to Realtors. There is a company -- I don't remember the name -- that will, for $399 a year, set up a blog for you. But wait -- there's more! Not only do they do the initial set-up. They also provide content! Yes, using "ghostwriters", they will provide daily posts to the blog -- newsy little real estate tidbits, apparently. The actual blog owner can chime in periodically if he or she so desires. But his or her actual participation is optional.

    Okay, so call me crazy. Isn't the whole idea of a blog that the blogger gets to communicate with the readers (and sometimes vice versa)? I thought the point of this exercise is supposed to be that you get to know me, not my hired ghostwriters.

    I know I don't post here as often as I'd like. But at least when I do, you can be sure that it's actually me, not some recent college grad from Schenectady working in a cubicle.

    A similar pet peeve involves "canned" newsletters that are available to realtors and other professionals. I guess they serve a purpose, keeping agents in touch with their clients while (hopefully) providing useful information. But if I'm going to send a newsletter to my clients (which I hope to do in the near future) I want to write it myself. I couldn't send out some pre-packaged product and try to pass it off as my own, even if I wanted to. For better or for worse, my own voice comes through in my writing. It would take about two sentences for my clients to say "She didn't write this!"

    I post my own signs. I negotiate my own deals. And I write my own blog.

    Just so you know . . .

    Who'd have thought a zoning dispute could be so fascinating?

    So there's been a battle over zoning going on in the West Highlands/Sloan's Lake neighborhood in northwest Denver. And it's really quite interesting.

    The neighborhood sits just a few miles west of downtown Denver. And it's made up of a very interesting hodge-podge of architectural styles. The first homes were built around the turn of the last century. Many more were built in the 1920's and '30's, as Italian immigrants to Colorado discovered the northwest part of town and made it the "Little Italy" of Denver. The western and southern edges of the neighborhood (especially Sloan's Lake) saw most of their development in the 1940's and '50's.

    It's an interesting neighborhood. Like all areas, it's gone through stages. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Highlands saw significant decline as Denver-ites headed for the newly build suburbs west and south of town. But in the 1990's, neighborhoods like the Highlands -- with their quirky architecture and central shopping districts, located just minutes from downtown -- were rediscovered. The "main street" district at 32nd and Lowell was revitalized. Homes were purchased and updated. Tops were popped.

    And, inevitably, old houses were scraped away to make room for newer, bigger, fancier homes.

    What's unique about the West Highlands is that the homes are small, but many of the lots are big. And many of those lots are zoned R2, which means that two residences can be built on a single lot (as in a duplex or a single family home with a mother-in-law apartment). Which has made the Highlands very attractive to developers who can tear down a single home and build a duplex in its place.

    And thus the battle. The people who want to "preserve" the character of the neighborhood proposed that many of the properties zoned R2 be changed to R1. They argued that "Blueprint Denver" (a 20 year growth plan adopted by the city in 2002) had designated the Highlands an "area of stability" and that the low population density and character of the neighborhood needed to be protected by uniformly zoning the area R1. Opponents, including developers (of course), the National Association of Realtors and others, countered that tearing down old, dilapidated housing to build new homes was revitalizing the neighborhood,that that R2 zoning had been in place since 1957 and was obviously central to our "forefathers" intent for the area, and that changing the zoning wouldn't impact scraping at all -- it would only mean that the replacement homes would be single family residences instead of duplexes. Most important, they said, was that the zoning change would affect the property values of the homeowners involved, many of whom owned property attractive to developers because of its R2 zoning. From what I can tell, property owners themselves were divided on the issue. My guess would be that there were slightly more in favor than opposed. I'm also guessing that those opposing the proposal were largely the owners of older, more dilapidated structures, while those supporting it were living in the lovelier, statelier homes on blocks filled with the same.

    Honestly, I can see this one both ways. On one hand, I was driving down Grove Street in the Highlands (just east of the area of proposed change), looking at the lovely brick 1920's bungalows all lined up, and thinking what a shame it is that, in a generation, this block could be completely replaced by modern structures.

    On the other hand, not all of the Highlands is made up of lovely bungalows. A LOT of these homes were clearly not built to be long-lasting structures. They're small houses that were built by poor people to provide them shelter at the moment. And, 100 years later, it shows. Today, many of those homes are owned by people of limited means. For many of these people, selling to a developer at a good price will allow them to pay medical bills, get out of debt and even to retire, where they otherwise could not.

    I sold one of those homes just last fall. It built in the late 1800's -- a very small house sitting on at 6200 square foot lot. And this house was not particularly worthy of "preservation." It was little and run down and not built to last. Because of the lot and the R2 zoning, the house sold in one day for over our asking price. And that financial windfall saved my client from a crushing load of debt brought on by her husband's illness.

    Sure, there are a lot of homes in the Highlands I'd like to see spared. But first of all, who am I to dictate that to the owners of those homes? And second, zoning changes wouldn't do much to change it. They may slow it a little, because duplexes are attractive to developers who can sell two homes instead of one. But in the long run, it would just alter the demographic of the neighborhood to large single-family homes.

    If there's going to be scraping in the Highlands, I'd really rather see duplexes on those lot than those huge, million-dollar plus single family homes that are springing up in Bonnie Brae and other older neighborhoods. The beauty of the Highlands neighborhood has always been it affordability. It's close to downtown, and yet accessible to people of lesser "means." Granted that has changed somewhat since the rediscovery of the area in the 1990's. And granted that a $400,000 duplex isn't exactly "affordable" to many Denver residents. But it's a lot MORE affordable than the seven figure McMansions that would otherwise be going up.

    The initial rezoning proposal apparently went down in flames at the City Council meeting on January 16th. But I'm guessing this is just the first round. Of course, both sides have their web sites, if you'd like to learn more. is the "pro-zoning change" site, while is for opponents of the idea.


    Remodeling to Sell? Think Twice . . .

    Well, it's out. The annual "Cost vs. Value" report for 2007. It shows how much common remodeling projects cost, and how much they increase the value of a home. Results are divided by region, with some particularly common projects broken down by metro area.

    Guess what? In the Mountain Region, not a single remodeling project recouped its cost. In other words, remodel if you want to live in it and enjoy it. But don't remodel to make money if you're ready to sell. It apparently doesn't pay these days.

    Some examples: Replacing exterior siding was, nationally, a very popular option. Still didn't pay for itself in most places, but the national average gave it an 88% return on investment. In Denver, only a 69% return.

    Adding a deck? Cost will be roughly $10,182. And it'll add just under $8000 to the value of your home. New windows? 75% return.

    And then there's the old standard favorite, the kitchen remodel. It'll cost around $20,000, but only add about $15,000 to the value of the home.

    Why so little return from remodeling these days? Basically, construction prices are going up and home prices are remaining stagnant. So you're paying for the increasingly expensive commodity, but not seeing a parallel increase on the return side.

    Note that this is referring to remodeling jobs, not smaller "facelift" type projects. Painting, new carpet -- projects like that are inexpensive, and tend to give a bigger bang for the buck at closing time. They change the "feel" of a house without the high price tag of a remodel.

    So when it comes to projects that help a house to sell, think small and pretty.

    Multiple Bid Situation #5

    Yup, it happened AGAIN last night. Seriously, this is NOT the sign of a bad market. Yet another buyer put an offer in on a property only to have another offer appear the same night. We'll see who gets it. But regardless, it tells me that there are more than a few buyers out there. After all, not only is this a slow market, but this is supposed to be a slow time of year. And yet, here's a condo with two offers in a day. Again.