I just bought a new high-end condo! Nothin’ but air!

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about buyers of high end new condos looking to get out of a deal they signed at the height of the bubble. My firm has been lucky enough to be able to help out some of these buyers (my next post will focus on whether small buyers are entitled to use any legal leverage necessary to extricate themselves from a bad business deal — like any big developer would — or whether buyers should “accept the consequences” of their actions and just write off the earnest money).

In handling these cases, we’ve come to appreciate the “new” model for high rise condo development. First, though, some background about the “old” model for condos (and you condo experts please forgive me for a general discussion of the issue that does not apply to all condos — there are many variations — but which provides background for my larger point). When you purchase a condominium, you are buying the exclusive right to use a particular unit. You typically own this unit exclusively from “the paint in” — i.e. the unit and all its fixtures are yours to use as you please.

However, the walls, the structure, and even the land itself is owned by ALL of the owners as a common element. In other words, if your unit constitutes 1% of the total building, then you also own 1% of the whole common building (i.e. excluding other units) AND the dirt on which the building sits. The remaining owners own the remaining 99%, with each ownership share correlating to the size of each individual unit. So, even though you bought a condo and not a house, you still own — with others — real property, dirt, your own very small piece of planet earth. Because every piece of real property is unique — there is no other one exactly like it anywhere — and because humans are earth-bound (generally speaking, at least in terms of everyday living) real property has always been considered a good long term investment.

So what’s new? For various reasons (to allow for a hotel within the building, to allow the developer to retain an ownership interest in the property, etc.), large condo towers these days (such as Washingto Square Towers in Bellevue, Olive 8, and several others) are built “on” air, detached from the earth. If you bought one of those condos, you don’t own any dirt at all — only the building and airspace above the ground. Say WHAT?

Here’s how it works (again speaking generally — every project differs in the details, I am sure). The developer will create two parcels: a parcel on the ground, up to a certain height, and an “airspace” parcel above that. These are separate legal parcels, each with their own Parcel Number. The condo will be built in the “airspace” parcel. Owners will have an easement across the “land” parcel to guarantee access to their home in the “airspace” parcel above. I guess this could be described as a “man’s castle in the sky”.

I own a condo, and I take some comfort in knowing that I own dirt. The dirt will have value (unless/until we arrive at some “Mad Max” style future) regardless of what catastrophe strikes my condo. Presumably, my fellow owners and I will always have the option of selling that dirt to someone else (it would probably require 100% agreement and so its very unlikely, but it is at least theoretically conceivable). But what if you own only air detached from the dirt? Well, it seems to me you’ve got something much less valuable. And kinda weird too — who wants to live in an “airspace” home?

Redfin Circles Back to an Old Biz Model…

Redfin‘s been through so many business models over the years, I can completely understand why some folks would think that Redfin is entering a new area by working with real estate agents, but I can’t help remind folks that this is a business model that they’ve tried in the past… and it failed miserably the first time.

In only the 2nd time Redfin was mentioned on RCG, Anna was upset (to put it mildly), that Redfin had gone from being a company that did only referral business to agents (accepting a 20% cut), to including a flat-fee option for FSBO’s to get their listings in the MLS.  (Jun ’05)

A few months later, RCG agreed to give Redfin a 2nd chance after they had dropped all references to the flat-fee option for sellers from their website. (Oct ’05)

However, the Redfin evolution when Glenn Kelman took the helm of Redfin in Sept ’05.   From this article Galen published in Jan ’06, Glenn Kelman is being quoted talking about Redfin’s referral busines to agents saying:

“How do we make money now? People sign up for a real estate agent… The real estate agent and Redfin share the fruits of that.”


I SOOO wish I had a screenshot of Anna’s profile she had on the Redfin site back in early ’05 because the content on the page would be shockingly similar to the current agent profiles.     I can’t remember exactly what the profiles looked like, but I’m almost positive they listed the agent’s recent transactions and had consumer reviews (I vaguely even remember a star system for the agents).

I honestly wish no ill will on the Redfin folks and wish them the best in their latest endeavor.   It’s just that the blogger in me can’t believe so many folks are letting them get away with saying they are doing something new.   About the only thing I see new with this program is that they are charging a 30% referral fee instead of the 20% they used to charge to agents back when Anna took part in ’05.

Real Estate 101 – Improving on "the basics"

[photopress:h.jpg,thumb,alignright]For the last few weeks I’ve set aside Friday mornings to get together with a small group of agents to talk about their Real Estate Business. Not everyone will succeed by the same means, and there are as many different ways to approach this business, as there are people in it. This is the time of year to take a step back and re-evaluate what you have been doing, and take the necessary steps to fix what is broken. This applies not only to each and every individual real estate agent, but companies as well. The times have changed…time to change with them without “throwing away the baby with the bathwater”. I’m going to go back and attempt to improve on the basics. For those who never learned “the basics”, you may find this helpful. For those who know the basics, let’s try to move a step forward together.

Basics: Year one = 12 “things”. I am going to change some traditional principles here, with regard to “things” to expand them from 3 to 4, and to eliminate the word “listing” from our vocabulary. I would like to elevate “having a listing” to “having a seller client” if and when possible, to remind us that we represent people who sell property. We are going to evenly weight representing a seller client and representing a buyer client, breaking from tradition here. An idea whose “time has come”, don’t ya think?

Most offices in the past had a big chalk or white board with three columns titled “Listing”, Listing Sold” and “Buyer Controlled Sale” or similar language. Given the changes in our industry since 1989, every company should change that system, to the one I recommend here. Every office should create a “Virtual Board” on an agent only, password-access website. The “board” should have four columns marked, Property for Sale, Property Needed, Property Sold and Property Found.

Column 1) A seller hires you to represent him in the sale of his property. You put “123 Peachykeen St.” on the board in the “Property For Sale” column. That is a “thing”.

Column 2) You meet a buyer at 123 Peachykeen St, but they don’t like it. You decide to help them find a property to buy, and they agree to hire you. You put “Mr. and Mrs. notPeachykeenSt” on the board in the “Property Needed” column. That is a “thing”.

Column 3) Joe Agent from another company faxes you an offer on 123 Peachykeen St and your seller client accepts that offer”. You put “123 Peachkeen St” on the board in the “Property Sold” column. That is a “thing”.

Column 4) Mr. and Mrs. “not PeachkeenSt” submit an offer on a property and that offer is accepted by the seller. You put “Mr. and Mrs. notPeachykeenSt – 123 SomewhereElse St” on the board under “Property Found”. That is “a thing”.

It is very important for agents to track “things” and not just sales. Columns 3 and 4 are sales. Columns 1 and 2 are the actions that create the sales. In a balanced or buyer’s market, every item in column 1 should produce 1 sale in column 3 and 2 sales in column 4. Given most of the Country is coming out of a hot seller’s market, it is a good time to review the basics, and go back to when property was on market long enough to produce 3 sales from every property for sale.

A new agent should have 12 “things” by year end. A second year agent should double their sales from the first year, and reduce the number of “things” in Column 1 and Column 2, that did not result in a sale. When an agent reaches 36 “sides”, by doubling their sales each year, they reach a crossroads, but that’s another article.

For now, the goal of every agent is to get to 24 to 36 sides per year. A side is representing the buyer OR the seller in a real estate transaction. The goal is to have 12 properties to sell each year, and sell them. From those 12 properties, you should be able to assist 24 buyers in finding a home to purchase. 36 “sides” equals 12 Properties Sold and 24 Properties Found. The number of sides between 12 and 36 is somewhat affected by the price range you are selling. If your average sale price is $200,000, then you will need more sides than someone whose average sale price is $600,000.

Now everyone get out your “boards” from last year. Examine Columns 1 and 2 very closely and be very honest in answering where you may have failed in assisting your buyer and seller clients in achieving their objective last year. Not what “they” did, but what “you” did not do for them.

Look at Colums 3 and 4 and examine what you did right in those scenarios. Contrary to popular belief this is NOT a “numbers game”. Every property you do not sell equals a failure for you seller client. Every person whom you did not find a property for, is a failure for your buyer client.

It’s is now time to do your 2007 Business Plan. Some of you will need to hone up on your skills, to get more of Column 1 down to Column 3, by converting more of your Properties for Sale to Properties Sold. Some of you will need to hone up on getting more of Column 2 down to Column 4, by honing up on your skills of finding the right properties for the right people. Others may need to make better choices with regard to columns 1 and 2, or reduce the costs of attaining them.

Focus on the clients and not just the numbers. Why couldn’t you sell 123 PeachykeenSt? What did YOU do wrong, not what did the seller do wrong. Why couldn’t you find a property for Mr. and Mrs. notPeachkeenSt? What did YOU do wrong, not what did they do TO you. If you think your clients failed…you will not be able to implement an effective business plan for 2007. Once you accept the responsibility for all of your business and non-business in the prior year, you will improve on your business and business plans in every year out into the future.

If you DID achieve the goal of 36 sides, but don’t feel you made enough money, then your problem is in either in the cost area and not the client area, OR you need to elevate your price range.

Questions? Feel free to ask away.

How far is too far to commute?

[photopress:round_and_round.jpg,thumb,alignright] The most common question I get from people moving to Seattle regards their potential commute… The question typically follows this format:

“How far away from my work can I live and still have a reasonable commute?”

It doesn’t really matter whether the person is planning to work in Downtown Seattle, Downtown Bellevue, the Amazon Campus, or the Microsoft Campus, because a “reasonable commute” is different for each person.

Some people are willing to drive an hour to save money on a home (or be able to afford a home for that matter), while others want a commute that is less than 20 minutes. Across the country (and especially in the Seattle area), the farther you are willing to drive every day, the less you have to pay for a home.

Interestingly, my work as a transportation planning consultant has put me in contact with some very interesting resources. For example, I recently came across these five maps that were put together by the regional government (PSRC) that give a great indication of the average commute:

These maps are great if you know the area you are going to be working (say Downtown Bellevue) AND you know that you are willing to commute a specific distance (say 40 minutes) because then they can help you put a definitive boundary on your home search!

NOTE: These maps are created “topographical-style”. If you are new to this, imagine that the graphic is displaying a huge mountain centered on the point of interest (like Downtown Seattle). If you move anywhere within the first circle (the top of the mountain!), then your commute to Downtown Seattle would be less than 20 minutes. However, the farther out you live, the large the hill you have to climb to get to work. For example, if you were to move to Issaquah, then you could expect about a 40 minute commute to Downtown Seattle.

By the way, the maps are a little dated (they are based on 1997 data), but the commute patterns have not changed much in the last 8 years, so the trends are still pretty accurate.

The same regional model that was used to create this data also spits out data for future years! Wouldn’t it be great to have the same maps for future years (2010, 2020, etc.) so you could gauge how your commute might change? This can be done! And if there is sufficient interest, I’ll put something like this together!