House Journal – the Fence

As we settle into our house, I will be writing about some of the work we have done. I have already commented on the plumbing work that escalated, now I will talk about the fences.

fence-2One of the first observations we made when we initially looked at the house was that the fences sucked. Actually two of the three sides of our yard were in pretty bad shape (the back fence is actually OK and serviceable.) We knew we needed to have them replaced.

Of course, there were complications. There always are. Both sides had/have large trees impinging upon the fence. One side, had a smaller tree, but a limb that was hitting the fence, the other has a giant tree (at least 60′ tall) with roots that are lifting the fence.

The cool thing is that both neighbors are ecstatic to split the costs. The bad thing is that the larger tree is big enough that the city needs to issue a permit to have it removed.

The west side is done. The slightly impinging tree has been removed, and on March 25th, the fence was replaced. The speed with which they tore it out, and replaced it was mighty impressive. It is solid, well built with new lumber, and I am sure it will be fully serviceable for a long time.

The East side is still waiting for the permit to remove the tree, but it will be done soon.

House – Interior Painting

While the outside of the house has pretty decent paint, the inside was a bit, uh, hideous. Nothing too awful, but it clearly hadn’t been painted in a long time. The bedrooms had some odd paint colors on some walls, and one was obviously a child’s room with some odd trim.

painting 7Add to that the awful 70’s vintage “popcorn” ceiling, and you have a mess. Fortunately, our real estate agent recommended Mario to work it over. In a mere two days, they have:

  • Masked all fixtures and cabinetry
  • Removed the popcorn ceiling
  • Fixed some drywall damage
  • Replaced the particle board shelves in the closets
  • Retexture the walls and ceiling

Once we choose colors, we will have an awesome interior to come home to.

I can hardly wait.

The Kitchen

Before moving into our new house, we are having a lot of work done. While the “bones” of the house are in good condition, it is clear that some of the extremities were in need of some massive overhaul. The Kitchen Appliances are one of the worst offenders.

As a former professional chef, I am lucky (cursed?) with the ability to make anything “do” around cooking. Old stoves, inadequate ovens, etc, I can survive with it. Hence I have never felt the need to spend the money to upgrade appliances unless they are broken.

Doubly bad, having tagged along with my step father, an appliance repairman, I am pretty good at keeping appliances alive.

Thus, I have worked with some pretty crappy gear in the homes that I have owned. From the AEK at the condo I first bought, to the so so gas range in Tucson (neither good nor bad, but a serviceable GE unit) to the radiative heating stovetop at our Chandler house, I was able to cope.

appliances-11However, now that we have bought a house here in San Jose, it is time to splurge. The appliances in the kitchen (stove/oven, dishwasher, and microwave) are all abysmal. The dishwasher is just yucky, I don’t want to even touch it. The oven/stove? Well, it is a 1970’s vintage Roper that is not only plain, but in pretty rough shape. The burners are the old coil type, and the drip pans, well, instead of spending $15 to replace them, they were just wrapped in aluminum foil.

So we plopped down some bucks for new appliances. Since we are doing a lot of other work to the house, the new appliances haven’t arrived yet, so this will just document the meh that was there. The stove will be a sweet gas slide-in Kitchen Aid unit that will probably be the best stove/oven I have ever worked with outside of a commercial kitchen.

I have already replaced the halogen “can” lights in the kitchen with LED’s, and added dimmer switches, so it is slowly, but surely becoming ours. Next week the plumber comes to fix a few issues, and to plumb gas into the oven area.

I can hardly wait to move in.

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.

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.

Foreclosed Houses

About 7 months ago, we moved to one of the foreclosure hot spots in the country, Phoenix. When I was first looking for houses, I was thought I would be able to pick up one of the many short sales, or foreclosed properties. Clearly, there was a large inventory, and finding a lot of listings in the $150K price range was easy.

However, it wasn’t as simple as that. First, it is pretty clear that you are coming to a bank owned property when you arrive. To say that there is no maintenance on the yard, or the outside of the home is an understatement. You could tell from half a block away. Next, the insides were often rough. If there wasn’t a family living there (about 50/50 chance) the appliances would be gone and you would see damage to a lot of fixtures. Clearly you could tell that the prior owners had given up, and decided to take their misfortune out on the house.

After looking at a couple dozen of these choice units, I was losing enthusiasm for finding a deal.

Then I learned the truth. As someone who was looking for a home, there was virtually no chance that I would be able to buy one of these distressed properties. Whether it was foreclosed and up for auction, or whether it was one of the properties where the bank had acquiesced and allowed a short sale, the people who would be buying the home as a primary residence are pretty much out of luck.

First, the bank is usually not in a hurry to sell the property. They have already recognized that the value they are sitting on is worth much less than they have it on the books for. They are willing to wait for months to close and write the property off. So people who are interested in buying much write a bid, prove access to funds, and wait. And wait some more.

The process is rigged. Only investors are successful in buying these distressed properties. The hope that a family might be able to snatch up one of these is pretty much nil.

We ended up spending $100K more, got a nice house in a nice neighborhood that was bought by an investor, cleaned up, and res0ld.

The good news is that the inventory of bank owned properties, short sales, and foreclosures is shrinking.  The good news is that means the prices are rebounding, and we got in at a good time.