The Ballard Community

Ballard MapThe community of Ballard is located in northwest Seattle. Ballard is famous for its Nordic roots, Ballard locks and wonderful family-focused neighborhoods.

According to the City of Seattle, Ballard is made up of a group of smaller neighborhoods, including Sunset Hill, Loyal Heights, Whittier Heights, West Woodland and Adams. In practice, Sunset Hill and Loyal Heights are normally broken out as distinct neighborhoods, while the other areas are more commonly called “Ballard”. In addition, real estate agents sometimes lump parts of Crown Hill and Phinny Ridge into Ballard.

Downtown Ballard is a wonderful walking district centered on Market St and Ballard Ave. The area is filled with great shops, dining, and lots of resident artists. Much more information on the local scene can be found at:InBallard .
Some local venues of interest include:

Nordic Heritage
Ballard’s nordic heritage shines through in the attitude of the locals (pretty laid-back and family oriented), the historical sites (such as the nordic heritage museum), the Luthern Churches all over town, and the many festivals in the area (such as the Seafoodfest and the annual Norwegian Constitution Day Parade.

Ballard History
Here is a description presented by the Ballard Historical Society:

In Ballard, you’ll find a microcosm of Pacific Northwest history, tradition and architecture. Bordered by Puget Sound, Shilshole Bay and Salmon Bay, Ballard has a rich history filled with maritime connections. Originally home to mill workers, fishermen and boat builders—many of whom emigrated from Scandinavia—Ballard was a separate city until annexed to Seattle in 1907. Today Ballard maintains its character as a small town within a big city, blessed with varied architecture and a notable Historic Landmark District.

Ballard Community
Ballard has a very strong community with lots of local parks, very good schools, a new library (complete May 2005), and an active community center.

Real Estate Information
Most of Ballard was built-out between 1890 and 1940, with a higher percentage of older homes the closer that you get to the canal area. The price of homes in Ballard varies tremendously. While there are still “deals” to be found for around $300K in some parts of Ballard, many homes with a view of the Sound can go for upwards of a million dollars. There is so much that could be said about real estate in Ballard that I’m not going to even attempt it here… If you want to find out more, try my Ballard Info category of listings.

Ballard Blogs
A great way to get a feel for Ballard is through the many people who live here. Conveniently, I’m not the only Ballard native with a blog. Are you a Ballard Blogger who wants to be added to this list? Just let me know! Here are some others:

Other sites with information on Ballard:

Not all Home Loans are Created Equal

[photopress:14dust.jpg,thumb,alignright]If you read no futher, here are two key things you should do when getting a mortgage:

1) Get a “Good Faith Estimate” in writing!
2) Get a “Good Faith Estimate” from at least one mortgage broker and one bank.

Now, for those of you who want some more information…

When looking to finance a home, there are two general places you can look for a loan:

  • Broker
  • Bank

Also, you always have the option of paying for your home with cash. Sellers love all-cash deals. However, if you are planning on buying a home with all cash, quit reading now and call me up directly! I do backflips to keep my “all cash” clients happy!

If you can find a top-notch mortgage broker, hold onto him/her and don’t let go. A good broker has access to hundreds of loan opportunities and can find deals that just won’t be offered by your local bank. However, the downside of using a broker is that you’ve added one more person to the food chain that expects to make some money off your home purchase, so make sure that you comparison shop and that your broker earns their commission. If you are wondering where to start looking for a broker, I’d be happy to offer you some advice based on people I’ve worked with. Or, try the following acrobat (*.pdf) file that lists the members of the Seattle Mortgage Bankers Association. Some of the brokers I’ve worked with (and like) include:

  • Alla Strok, potential bonus: she’s fluent in Russian

Just about every major bank (and smaller ones too) offers mortgage loans. In addition, the competition has spread to on-line banks with eTrade and Schwab now offing very competitive loans. I see no downsides to getting a “good faith estimate” from Schwab. They claim they will even give you $500 back if someone can beat their good faith estimate. Some banks to consider include:

Or, if you prefer, here is a full list from the google directory of banks that operate in Washington: banks and institutions

Some Mortgage Terminology
We might as well clear up some mortgage terminology so that we are all talking about the same language.

  • Good Faith Estimate: The law requires that each broker or bank give a “good faith estimate” regarding the details of their loan. In practice this means that each broker or bank will give you a quote (based on an analysis of your finances including credit history) in a very similar format that makes cross comparisons quite simple. These good faith estimates are shockingly easy to read, so demand one from anyone that tries to give you a mortgage loan. Are you having trouble reading the good faith estimate? Have your broker explain any questions to you. If he doesn’t take the time to explain the details, go with another broker.
  • Points: Fees paid up-front on your mortgage loan in order to lower the interest rate. Paying points make the most sense if you are planning to keep your loan for an extended amount of time. If you are planning to refinance or sell in the near future (less than a five years), points probably don’t make a lot of sense.

Loan types

  • 15- or 30-year fixed loans lock in an interest rate for an extended amount of time. The beauty of these loans is that the interest rate you paying will not go up for the life of the loan. For buyers looking to stay put for a while, these can be a take the guess work out of the future.
  • 3/1, 5/1 or 7/1 ARM loans lock in an interest rate for a short time frame (typically 3, 5 or 7 years depending on the type) and then change to an adjustable rate that changes based on the Federal Interest Rate. The loans are best for people who want some short-term security regarding their rate, but are willing to accept potentially higher rates in the long-term to save some money now. These loans tend to work well for people who are planning to move in a few years or whose income is still on the rise. If your income is likely to rise in the future, you can probably accept higher interest payments later in order to lower your payments in the near future.
  • 1-Year Adjustable loans are just an extreme version of an ARM. These lock in interest rates for a year, and then change to an adjustable rate that changes based on the Federal Interest Rate. Again, these loans are best for people who want some short-term security regarding their rate, but are willing to accept potentially higher rates in the long-term to save some money now. These loans tend to work well for people who are planning to move in a few years or whose income is still on the rise. If your income is likely to rise in the future, you can probably accept higher interest payments later in order to lower your payments today.
  • Jumbo loans are loans for over a specific amount (I believe the amount is tied to the area that the loan is being given in). According to the Seattle Times, the current amount is $322,700. They charge more because the bank’s investment has more to lose with larger investments.
  • Interest-Only loans are for a select few individuals and investors that are willing to add some risk to the situation. The idea is that you pay only the interest payments on the loan so that the principal balance does not go down. If you are in a neighborhood where prices have gone up considerably over the last few years, then an interest-only loan might have been a good option. Some times investors use these interest-only loans so that they can invest more but keep their monthly payments at an acceptable level. Interest-only loans are too risky for me, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work well for your situation. UPDATE: I was shocked to read that interest-only loans represented 1/3 of all home loans (nationally) last year. I knew that they were popular, but I hadn’t realized the extent. Politics in the Zeros. LA Times

Where do you start your search for a loan?
The process is really quite simple. Assuming you live in Seattle, check out the Seattle Times Mortgage Rate chart. (every major newspaper publishes something similar if you live elsewhere). This will give you a general feel for the rates that you can expect to find. However, note that this list is not comprehensive, and the banks are always finding ways to attach strings to these loans they advertise, so be skeptical of the data as presented. The next step is to demand that a Good Faith Estimate from at least one broker and one bank. Compare the results. Continue to ask for Good Faith Estimates until you are comfortable with the results.

The Power of Competition
There is so much competition in the home mortgage business, you could easily be lulled into believing that all the loans are nearly the same. However, my experience has shown that brokers and banks can often dig a little deeper and find a better rate if prodded. For example, when I went to get a mortgage for my home in Ballard, I had both a broker and Schwab bank give me a Good Faith Estimate. Schwab Bank clearly had the lowest rate, and when I showed the rate to the broker, he reevaluated the loan portfolio he had developed and found a much better deal. I showed his new loan proposal to Schwab and they beat his estimate by over 0.1%. I returned to the broker with Schwab’s new rate, and he admitted that he simply couldn’t beat it. Over the life of my loan, adding a little competition to the process saved me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

General Tip
Be realistic about your credit rating. If you have excellent credit then you can expect better options. With bad credit you may have to search harder to find a deal. With that said, a good broker can find a loan to finance just about anyone. If you go straight to a bank, the loan officer’s there are not always so forgiving.

Loan Calculators

At some point I may develop a slew of loan calculators for this site, but there are so many good ones already on the web, that it is low on my priority list of things to add… The free tools available on eTrade Loan Calculators include:

  • Monthly Payment: Find out how much your monthly mortgage payment will be for any rate or program.
  • Amortization Schedule: View your payment schedule and see the monthly breakdown of principal and interest payments.
  • Affordability: Not sure how much home you qualify for? Find out using our affordability calculator.
  • Compare Loans: Simultaneously compare up to three different loan programs.
  • Renting vs. Buying: Does buying make sense?
  • Debt Consolidation: Find out how much you can save by consolidating your high-interest debt into one low, tax-deductible monthly payment.
  • Available Equity: Quickly calculate the amount of equity you have in your home.

Other loan calculators are available all over the web, although very few of them seem as clean as eTrade. Here are some more you may find helpful:

Do you know of a different and useful calculator? Let me know and I’ll happily add it!

New Ballard Library to Open May 14th!

[photopress:new_ballard_library.gif,thumb,alignright]The ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library is getting ready to open! The latest from the library’s website says that it will be open May 12th 14th!
By the way, this does mean that we will be without a local library for a month as the existing site will close on April 10th.

Update: there is quite a celebration planned for this Saturday!



Professional Photography for Your Listing

Do you have a truely remarkable home? I’ve found one of the best ways to bring out the special charactoristics of a home is by bringing in a professional photographer. My favorate photographer to use is Wendy Baker Photography. She does amazing work!
To see some of the work that she can do bringing out architectural details, check out her architecture gallery. Or check out some photos from a listing I recently sold in Sunset Hill.

Wendy Baker

Are you interested in having a professional photographer of this caliber on your side when you list your home? I offer this service to all my remarkable homes!

Community Calendar

I’ve recently added a Ballard Community Calendar to my website. I created this calendar out of frustration with missing many events in Ballard that I was just not well publicized. I would really like to have all the interesting Ballard events in one place. Hence, I decided to build the calendar! It can be found here:

Would you be interested in adding to and/or updating this calendar? Email me and I’ll set you up with a login and password so that you can update the calendar. Or, if you prefer, just email me the event and I’ll post it on the calendar!

Where did I get the events that are currently listed?

I populatd the calendar with events that I culled from the websites listed below. Are you aware of another website that I should check periodically to see if it has been updated? Leave a comment and I’ll check that site as well!

Slightly more technical
I chose to use WebCalendar for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons include:

  • The calendar database is compatible with the database I’m running for this blog (as a matter of fact, they are actually running off the same database!
  • It is open source software.
  • It appears to be getting frequent updates and has a development community that appears to be quite active. in practical terms this means I can go to forums like this one on SourceForge and get my questions answered
  • It has the ability to separate events out by categories and users. This is nice if we ever decide to have mulitple types of users, then users can easily filter to the events that interest us most!

If you have any interest and/or ideas about how to add to the Ballard Community Calendar, then please leave comments or contact me.

Return on your Remodel Investment

Yard WorkWhen looking to remodel your home you have to be clear about your objectives. Are you doing it for personal reasons? Or to add value to your home? Many home improvements don’t pay for themselves in terms of adding value to your home, while others are no-brainers if you can make the improvements. How do you find out which improvements are appropriate?

If you are making the improvement to add value there are definitely some resources that I can help point out. The National Association of Realtors posted an article that explicitly listed the pay-off for various home improvements. However, they don’t publish that information on the web, so if you would like to have specific improvements (like how much value can I add with a new fireplace?), then email me. I have a number of resources. If you are looking for general information, the Seattle Times posts articles occasionally that give overview statistics.

This article mentioned that the “Best Investment Bets” were:

  • Kitchen: Replace countertops with a quality, low-maintenance material, such as granite.
  • Bathrooms: Replace vinyl with tile or slate. Use dark grout that won’t show dirt.
  • Family room: If you don’t have a fireplace in the room, add one. If your hearth is half-baked, make it better.
  • Master bedroom: Add an organizational system to the closet, especially if you don’t have a walk-in.
  • Basement: Adding a bathroom — or rough-ins for a toilet, sink and shower — is the place to start.

Why do many home-improvement investments not pay for themselves? Mainly it has to do with people’s expectations. If you are adding or fixing something that people expect to be there, then it won’t add much value to your home. For example, people expect that the plumbing system works. If you have to pay $5,000 to fix the plumbing, you just aren’t likely to recoup that money through a higher home price. Same thing with a new roof.

March Sunset Hill Real Estate Newsletter

For people interested in the Sunset Hill market, I’ve just posted the March edition of my newsletter here:

March 2005 Newsletter. Note that this file is quite large (about 1 Mb), so if you have a dial-up connection, it will work best if you “right-click” on the link and use the “save link as” feature to save it directly to your hard-drive.

In addition to listing the sale prices for various homes within the neighborhood, I always try to give some good tips and/or advice on the local real estate market. If you would like to receive a hard-copy of my monthly newsletter (or simply an email notification when a new version is available for downloading), just let me know by emailing me.

Sunset Hill 2004 Year-in-Review

Are you interested in selling your Sunset Hill home?
Are you interseted in buying a home in Sunset Hill?

I put together a report that documents the the sale price of every home that sold in Sunset Hill in 2004. Not only does the report highlight trends, but it also lists the average sale price of homes based on a variety of factors, such as number of bedrooms, home size, year built, etc.

The document can be found here:

Sunset Hill 2004 Year-in-Review. Note that this file is quite large (about 1 Mb), so if you have a dail-up connection, it will work best if you “right-click” on the link and use the “save link as” feature to save it directly to your hard-drive.

If you would like a hard-copy of this document, just let me know by emailing me.

Mapping Seattle

house on waterAppropriate for a high-tech City, there are many digital mapping options. Listed below are some of my favorite ways that I view Seattle (while sitting at my desktop!)

1) Redfin gives you a birds-eye view of Seattle with great aerial photography. It is a very easy (and FUN) site to navigate. I should also note that Anna is a listing agent on the site.

2) Next up is Google Maps. There is no need to bother with Mapquest or Yahoo Maps anymore. Once again, Google has done it right. The site is a lot of fun and I especially like that you can zoom around with the arrow keys on your keyboard. While you’re at it, try doing a local search on something you like to visit (I did Bakery). I ended up with all the local bakeries around my house! UPDATE: On their march of progress, google added satellite imagery. Kottke gives a great description of how this is not necessarily a new technology (mapquest had this ability at least 4 years ago), it is just implemented much better!

3) If you really want to get down to details, check out the on-line GIS maps provided by the City of Seattle. This site is wickedly powerful in that you can see property information for EVERY residential property in the City all via a convenient (albeit slow) interface (no more trips down to the public library for “public” information). It includes previous sale information for each property… Not that I’ve done this :), but it can also be used to “remember” the name of a neighbor. As long as they are the owner of the house, then their name will show up on their parcel data.

4) The City of Seattle puts out a great bike map. I went ahead and ordered a free hard-copy version of these maps, and I use it regularly.

5) Seattle Neighborhoods. Did you know that the City has published exact boundaries for each of the Neighborhoods in Seattle? Very cool reference!

UPDATE: I’ve built a program called gHomes to my site. It is a great way to search for your next Seattle or Eastside home.