1st burn ban of 2009 in effect in Pierce County

I am on an email notice list with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and they’ve sent out a notice that the first burn ban of the year has been put into effect in Pierce County. Here is their release in its entirety:

Message from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency

Stage 1 burn ban called for Pierce County

First Puget Sound-area burn ban of the season and first since a new state law went into effect

January 16, 2009 — Due to stagnant weather conditions and increasing air pollution levels, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is issuing a Stage 1 burn ban for Pierce County, effective at noon, January 16, 2009.

Air pollution levels in King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties do not warrant implementation of a Stage 1 burn ban at this time. Clean Air Agency staff are closely monitoring these conditions and will take additional actions as necessary if conditions degrade to unacceptable levels.

Stagnant weather conditions are entrenched over the Puget Sound area and are expected to persist through Monday. These conditions greatly increase the potential for air pollution to reach levels considered unhealthy for sensitive population groups, especially in Pierce County. In many areas persistent fog and mixing are providing some benefit and helping to keep pollution levels in acceptable ranges.

During a Stage 1 burn ban:

  • No burning is allowed in fireplaces or uncertified wood stoves, unless this is your only adequate source of heat. Residents should rely instead on their home’s other, cleaner source of heat (such as their furnace or electric baseboard heaters) for a few days until air quality improves, the public health risk diminishes and the ban is cancelled.
  • Natural gas, propane and pellet stoves or inserts ARE allowed.
    No visible smoke is allowed from any wood stove or fireplace, certified or not, beyond a 20-minute start-up period.
  • All outdoor burning is prohibited, even in areas where outdoor burning is not permanently banned. This includes recreational fires such as bonfires, campfires and the use of fire pits and chimineas.
  • Burning of storm and flood damage debris is also prohibited.* The Clean Air Agency encourages people to take advantage of free flood-debris disposal coordinated by their county.
  • Burn ban violations are subject to a $1,000 penalty.

This ban is in effect until further notice.

Clean Air Agency staff will continue to monitor the situation to determine when the burn ban can be lifted. You can check conditions and forecasts at www.pscleanair.org/airq/aqi.aspx .

The Washington State Department of Health recommends that people who are sensitive to air pollution limit time spent outdoors. Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks, cause difficulty breathing, and make lung and heart problems worse. Air pollution is especially harmful to children, people with heart and lung problems, and adults over age 65.

This is the first burn ban of the season and the first since a new state law went into effect lowering the air-quality trigger for calling a burn ban. The trigger level was lowered to align with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health standard for fine particle pollution, which was tightened in 2006 to better protect public health. Answers to frequently asked questions about burn bans can be found at www.pscleanair.org/airq/burnban/faqs.aspx .

For additional information visit www.pscleanair.org

Cold weather tips for keeping your home safe

With temperatures dropping into ranges we aren’t accustomed to around here it’s time to review what should be done when it gets below freezing:

If you can, turn the main water supply to the house off and drain the  system from the lowest point and flush the toilets. Leave the cabinet doors open on any sink that is on an exterior wall. Remove any attached hose pipes from exterior bibs, etc.  Also, to put insulation around an exterior faucet you can improvise using a towel wrapped around and secured with a plastic bag and either tape or a heavy duty rubber band.

Also, here for our wood burning fireplace property owner readers, posted with permission from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, are tips and issues to know about burn bans:

New law prompts significant change to residential burn bans Where there’s chimney smoke, there’s fire — and fines

November 24, 2008 — A new burn ban season is upon us and this one will be different from those in past falls and winters.

  • The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency will be calling both Stage 1 and Stage 2 burn bans, often in sequence.
  • Stage 2 burn bans are more restrictive than the more familiar Stage 1 burn bans and ban ALL wood burning, even from certified wood stoves and pellet stoves.
  • Our Puget Sound region will likely have longer burn bans, and perhaps more of them.
  • And more fines may be issued for people violating the bans.

What is prompting this change?

First, in late 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened the 24-hour health standard for fine particle pollution, also known as PM2.5. And earlier this year, our Washington State Legislature lowered the air-quality trigger for calling a burn ban to align with this new EPA standard.

The reason for these actions is to better protect public health because the soot and smoke that makes up these fine particles are associated with serious health effects. The tiny size of these pollutants allows them to be easily inhaled, bypassing the immune system and proceeding deep into the lungs, where they can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including premature death.

So what’s this mean if you heat your home with wood or pellet fuel?

During a burn ban, we’re basically asking people to rely on their home’s other, cleaner source of heat (such as their furnace or electric baseboard heaters) for a few days until air quality improves, the risk to public health is diminished and a ban is cancelled.

If agency inspectors observe a burn ban violation, they will issue a Notice of Violation to the property owner and recommend a $1,000 penalty.

The rules for a Stage 1 burn ban are the same as in the past:

  • No burning is allowed in wood-burning fireplaces, uncertified wood stoves or fireplace inserts, unless this is your only adequate source of heat.
  • No visible smoke is allowed from any wood stove or fireplace, certified or not, beyond a 20-minute start-up period.
  • All outdoor burning is prohibited, even in areas where outdoor burning is not permanently banned.

When a burn ban goes to Stage 2:

  • NO burning is allowed in ANY wood-burning fireplaces, wood stoves or fireplace inserts (certified or uncertified) or pellet stoves, unless this is your only adequate source of heat. Natural gas and propane stoves or inserts ARE allowed.
  • All outdoor burning is prohibited, even in areas where outdoor burning is not permanently banned.
  • If our agency inspectors see any smoke being emitted from a chimney during a Stage 2 burn ban, they can assume a fireplace, wood or pellet stove is in use and a penalty is warranted.

Maybe you’re wondering what “adequate source of heat means.

Did the recent market shift affect Hitler too?

This recently discovered (by me) video on YouTube hits a nerve when it comes to how many are affected by the current market dynamics around the country.  I found this a bit funny, if not unnerving, considering how many people I’ve been talking to lately that are in short sale position.  The discussions are because I’m not just acting as an agent but because of my involvement in a real estate investment group that is buying these kinds of properties. 

What I’ve noticed while doing research is that an oddly large number of agents have been hit by the issue of needing to short sell – you’d think that these would be the people prone to seeing the fallacies of some of these loan products and how they’d impact them in a market downturn, but I’m not going to point fingers since I know as independent contractors and small business owners we are tied to these loan products that got misused during the market hey-day.  Even with my own great credit score, I know that today I probably couldn’t qualify for a loan in today’s market because as a business owner, I must go stated income.  I’m thankful that I was able to change my situation before things went nuts in the industry.

If you decide to watch the video, know that my linking to it here is only to provide a bit of levity to a not so fun situation for everyone right now.  I feel blessed that my business is doing so well right now and that many of my choices to downsize last year seemed to be a lucky break ahead of the curve of what is happening to many right now.

Thanks for the great time, Zillow!

As one of the presenters put it, last night Zillow took a page from real estate agent’s marketing tools and conducted an “open house.”  A certain number of agents were invited to attend, some mortgage professionals, and there were even invites out to buyers and sellers that frequently are on the site. Part of the open house involved sessions where the attendees could learn more about how Zillow functions – one session for marketing and another for the more technical side of the site.  So, my business partner and I split up to cover as much ground as possible.

For me, the marketing session didn’t produce anything new.  But, I guess I hadn’t realized until being there what a “power user” me and my team are with their site. Somehow I thought that the invites had said that they would be introducing new features, but as far as I could tell it’s stuff that we have found and started using as each new feature was introduced.  Plus, we also had already figured out that syndication sites (like Point2, vFlyer) weren’t the best way to get an individual agent’s info maximized for SEO. Although we do still use syndication sites because the go out to a lot of other sites that we just don’t want to spend the cycles having to re-enter each listing over and over and over.  It is very time consuming.  Gotta love widgets, that’s for sure!

Speaking of technical stuff… I was interested to see the data that they gave about the various sites and the stats for user activity.  Part of what was shown here also filtered over into the conversation at the after-function with regard to Zindexes ( and how that is measured and it’s rate of accuracy.

Afterward there was a soiree down at the Waterfront Grill in their private function locale in the former Rippa’s space.  (I’m curious to know where those photos they had taken will end up…. no, nothing tawdry, just lots of PR stuff) Good times had by all and some great debate between agents and Zillow employees alike.  Thanks to David Gibbons, Drew, Mike, and Scott Huber for all of your discussions with us and for being wonderful hosts along with your other employees.  It was really great to meet all of you and we look forward to seeing what else is “up your sleeve.”

Seller financing options

As a bit of a follow up to Ardell’s post below about lease purchase options, another option may be seller financing or a seller carryback.  But, if you choose to go this route how will you handle payments?  One of the best ways to make this less of a burden for the seller is to bring in a third party to handle all of the details associated with servicing the loan terms.

Most traditional transactions with conventional bank financing use an escrow service for handling things such as taxes and insurance.  This is similar but the escrow firm is also handling the servicing of payments, calculating interest and principal payments and such.

An example of a company that provides such a service is Contract Servicing.

Always do your due diligence for any company you will hire, but this might be a good place to learn a bit and find that these services exist for a variety of property contract sales and the myriad ways in which they are negotiated.

Watching trends in the daily market watch of the MLS

I’ve been keeping an eye on some of the daily trends in the MLS and have noticed for several weeks now that price reductions have now outnumbered new listings on an almost daily basis.  In past years, when almost all houses were selling fairly quickly, we noticed that a small percentage of houses required drops and there was usually a decent number increasing their prices.

Now, it seems that as days on market have increased for many sellers we are finally getting that reality check in place that was needed.  Granted, it does seem that the majority of these price drops are in the outlying areas of our MLS region, but the inner-city urban spots are not without their own new reality.

What I like right now is that we’re getting a nice balance of buyer and seller activity, which, for my own personal business/team, means that we’re likely going to be growing our business over the next year or more with some very nice results.

Do you know where to find info on septic systems and your responsibilities?

A client of mine is planning on selling a property soon and he’s trying to get his proverbial “ducks in a row” before going on market.  He asked me about what his responsibilities are with regard to his septic system and he also wanted to know if he needed to do an inspection or pumping of the system prior to selling.  If you are not familiar with this process either as a buyer or seller, here is a great website with details about septic systems for you to learn about.  It’s specific to King County so if you live outside this area you’ll want to see if your own county has a similar website with info for you.

If you just want to learn more about septic systems (also called onsite sewage systems) and how to use them properly and care for them you can read through this information, also from King County.

The pain of over pricing and poor photos… and how not to get bit by them, 9+ questions to ask your listing agent.

I’ve noticed a trend in my business lately.  Several consumers are contacting our team for help in re-listing their home after having a poor experience with a prior agent.  While it is true that selling activity in Puget Sound is lower this year than last, there is still some positive selling activity occurring with some areas of Puget Sound continuing to grow in housing values.

So, with there still being some sales activity why is it that these folks are contacting us?

What I’ve seen as key factors in the lagging sales of these homes is poor pricing and presentation of the properties.  In one case the price had been overinflated by hundreds of thousands of dollars, plus it had poor presentation in photos and staging, so the home languished sitting on market for over a year.

In the majority of these situations things could have been handled differently with the past agent.  And, while I believe that me and my team provide a higher level of service than many others, we know we aren’t the only game in town that can figure out the right mix of marketing, presentation, and pricing for a property.  However, in these instances, I do believe the former listing agents could have done a better job – for certain – but, as a seller, it is also up to you to do a good job of interviewing a prospective agent.  A few good questions by the seller might have led to a different decision about how the house was marketed and led to a better discussion about what impacts the value of a home.  This, in turn, could have led to a more informed decision about where to place pricing.

So, to try and help those of you out there who are considering putting your home on the market, here is a list of 9+ questions you can use to qualify and interview your prospective listing agent.

1.   What methods of advertising do you use, and why?  Can you tell me which will likely be the most effective?  How comfortable are you using Internet advertising methods?

2.   Do you think my home will need prep work or staging to get it ready for market?  What types of things do you suggest for sellers and why?

3.   What is the typical timeline for selling a home that you have represented and how does that compare to the local marketplace?  What percentage of selling price do you typically get compared to list price?

4.  Do you offer any particular programs or services for each home that you sell such as a home warranty, professional photos, etc?  Does your fee determine whether additional services are included or not?

5.  If you don’t provide these additional services yourself – do you at least have companies you can refer me to that if I choose to use them directly to prepare my home more effectively, I can do so?

6.  Are there any special considerations I should have while selling my home such as security, prep for showings, etc?

7.  How often will you communicate with me about the sale of my home?  What kinds of reports can I expect?

8.  Will I get a chance to review and approve any of your advertising or marketing materials such as the flyer, MLS ad, or otherwise?  If not, why?  If I am not satisfied with a piece, will you work with me till I am?

9.  How will you determine the price that should be advertised for my home?  Will you include me in those pricing decisions and explain to me any reasoning for a price above or below my own estimate?

This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive but it will definitely open up a lot of good (or what should be good) conversation between you and the agent you are interviewing.  If the agent is unable to respond to any of these questions then you should seriously reconsider whether or not you will use him/her regardless of if it is a “family friend” or otherwise.  In today’s marketplace it is important that you make the right choice the first time, if you can.  The buying public is much more sophisticated today than even 10 years ago because of the Internet and because of the onslaught of home focused television shows and channels like HGTV.

Fishing season is officially open!

To this title you might ask, “which salmon is available?”  Well, I’m not really talking about fish with scales and fins here.  What we’ve noticed over the past month is that the fishing with low offers is getting pretty common in a lot of price ranges.  These occurred in neighborhoods ranging all over the area too including Greenwood, Phinney Ridge (x2), Bellevue (Bridle Trails), and Mercer Island.

Some of these properties I can understand the desire of investors to lowball and get a bargain.  One of these homes I had listed was already priced to be a good value for the neighborhood so my clients completely ignored some extremely low all cash offers from an investor because they weren’t THAT motivated to sell – meaning, we’d only been on market for about 30 days.  Now, 2 years ago being on market that period of time would have made some people nervous but, realistically, most homes take longer than just a few hours to sell or even just a couple of weeks. So, we ignored the first 2 ridiculous offers and another one came along (still low). We put forward a counter with a very small price change and the buyers took it. WAKE UP CALL!  We’re not in a buyer’s market in the Puget Sound region.  We’re in a balanced market.

What I’ve noticed in talking with all of the agents submitting offers for these various listings I have is that they’ve all bought into their client’s mindset of thinking that “it’s a buyer’s market” and they should be able to really drop prices via their offers. But the agents aren’t helping their clients by doing the work associated with helping “sell” those offers.

Yes, there are some sellers out there that are still hanging on and desperately wishing for the days of the high flying markets we had for 5+ years, but reality is kicking in for most and the scales are becoming more balanced.  This isn’t the rust belt where the economy has sunk and houses have sunk lower.  If you’re a listing agent you had better be able to justify your pricing.  And, if you’re a buyer’s agent you should do the same for your offer.  One lowball offer we received my partner went back and asked the guy to submit his comps that supported the offer.  The agent’s reply was, “well, I don’t have any, it’s just what they wanted to offer.”  Our client almost completely ignored their offer except for some details we pointed out that led us to believe they’d accept a counteroffer with a minor price change – and it worked.

Another listing had an agent providing comps but they just solidified my client’s view that our pricing was right on. We did go ahead and submit a counter with a faster closing date and some small concessions that we expect will be accepted.

I will admit though that with a couple of my buyer clients, who are not in a hurry to buy, we’re doing some of this offer roulette.  We submitted an offer on a MI house for about $100k less than asking price but we also put forward our pricing analysis and comps that supported the price point.  The house had had several large price drops based on other agent feedback as well and it was definitely a cosmetic fixer.  It might have worked out for my clients except that the house got another offer the same day – it was still a very low offer but not as low as ours so the seller started negotiating with them.  But, that’s okay because my clients are willing to wait for the right deal for them.  This house was going to need roughly $200-400k in updates over time so from a cost perspective the price we offered was what they were willing to spend knowing the costs they’d incur later.

Having watched the low offers come in for one of our listings my client provided the impetus for this post by saying in an email, “well, it looks like fishing season is officially open!”  I’m glad that she’s got a good head on her shoulders and a good sense of humor too.  These are the clients you really enjoy working with especially when you can have sensible discourse with regard to your work together, market conditions, strategy, and more.

Happy fishing! 

EnergyStar means more than just appliances… that little blue insignia means "green"

Last week my assistant, Nina, and I attended a class put on by Northwest Energy Star that frankly I was initially concerned would only cover the basics of knowing the benefits of energy efficient appliances.  Thankfully, my concerns were immediately put to rest as the class began and we heard what we’d really be covering – what it means to have a truly energy efficient home and the construction methods that get you there.   WHEW!!!!

A short tutorial about energy prices and how they’re impacting the sales and construction of homes was part of the beginning of the course and underscored information I’ve been reading about for years.  I was pleased to see for many people that they “got it