I Dig Dueling Digs

Zillow, which seems to produce new features almost daily, has birthed something totally unique. As a member of Zillow’s board of directors, I usually get previews into what’s coming through the pipeline, but with this release, I hadn’t seen too many of the details.

Dueling Digs is like nothing I’ve ever seen on a real estate site. It’s pretty simple, really: You are presented with two photos, and click on the picture that you like better. After ten “duels,

From 'A&E's Flip This House' to You!

[photopress:REIA__Image_Download__flip_this_house_logo_jpeg_from_mhv_reia_1_.jpg,thumb,alignright]Have you been watching the current real estate market and wondering how  to find the pot of gold in it? Fix and Flip guru Than Merrill from A&E’s Flip this House will show you how right here in Seattle on October 11. Than, like many other saavy investors, is building his business taking advantage of sellers in trouble.  Even though Seattle seems to be somewhat insulated from the current trend across the nation, there are still great opportunities to grab up distressed properties. Banks are looking to unload properties as are many homeowners on the brink of foreclosure.  These often become the inventory and raw product for the ‘fix and flippers’. But how do you find these elusive properties?

My husband and I have been involved with about 2 dozens ‘fix and flip’ properties, but finding the right properties at the right price, i.e., below market, is a challenge. As a realtor, I live and breathe the mls, but once a property hits the mls, it’s generally going to be sold at retail, and paying retail is not the way to make a profit on a ‘fix and flip’.

There are several real estate investment groups in the Puget Sound area that will help you get started and offer advice in marketing, legal issues (recently, state law passed requiring a flip in less than one year to require a contractor’s license.  More about that later) and tips of the trade. Says Shirley Henderson, President of REIA, ” flipping is profitable and a lot of fun if it’s done right”.  And the members want to help you do it right.  Usually they have monthly meetings and from time to time offer educational events to help their members. Members are happy to share their knowledge and are there to help each other.

On October 11, The Real Estate Investors Association of Washington (REIA) is hosting a fabulous Special Event straight from television land.  Than Merrill of A&E’s ‘Flip This House’ will be speaking at a this very low cost event ($15)  to show you how he and his team did 30 deals his first year and after that, double each year over the next 2 years.  The team has 260 deals under it’s belt at an average of $27,000 profit per deal.  $7,000,000 in three years, I could live with that!

If you’re interested in learning how he did it, join REIA on October 11 from 6-9pm to hear about Than’s systems and marketing to find those distressed properties and fix them for the best financial return.  This will be my first ‘fix and flip’ seminar and I’m anxious to hear from the best. Of those 2 dozen flips my husband and I have done, we’ve had varied results (yes, some were losses) because we didn’t have the systems in place to find the bargains.

Hope to see investors from Seattle turn out in big numbers. Make some great connections. Maybe you will decide that this could be your next career.

Trends – New Construction & Remodel Finishes

I view trends more from the standpoint of how people who are buying homes view the trends, moreso than how people who actually live in their homes view them.

“The carpet that “has become extremely popular of the last few years is the Textured or Frieze style. It is also referred to as the ‘trackless’ or ‘no foot print’ style. This style is very good at hiding traffic and doesn’t show vacuum lines. A Frieze is a lot like the Textured style except that the twist is much heaver with the Frieze. A good quality Frieze styled carpet can be one of the most durable styles you can buy and holds up extremely well under heavy traffic.”

[photopress:textured_1_2.jpg,full,alignright]I took the quoted language from a carpet site, to show the difference between Texured and Frieze. They look about the same to me. One thing I have noticed is that on bare feet, some feel terrible and stiff and others feel great. You may want to give it a bare foot test both on the carpet sample at the store and then again when the carpet arrives before it is installed. One of the advantages of viewing homes with bare feet and slip on shoes. Doesn’t look as professional I guess, but I pick up a lot more imperfections in the flooring with bare feet.

Along with this trend comes darker carpet colors in sage green and brown tones, or at least a darker beige. No more black dirt borders around the edges. I for one am happy with this trend, but remember to keep the walls light if you are going with darker carpet. You can still use sage green paint with a darker sage carpet, but keep it light with only an accent wall in the darker color and the rest of the room in a lighter version. I find adding white paint to the darker one keeps the same color tone, better than playing with all the paint chips trying to match the light with the dark. From what I’ve seen in some homes, not everyone has a “good eye” for matching tone, so adding white cuts down on the error factor.

Hardwood floors are more popular than ever. People talk more about bamboo for the “green” factor, but I SEE more wood than bamboo. Newer townhomes are using a lot of Brazilian Cherry, shifting from narrow plank to wide plank recently, and in the darker version. I’m looking at the thicker version myself, but the thinner pre-finished version, that can only be refinished lightly once or twice, is what I see most in newer townhomes in Seattle.

My favorite subject is knobs! and handles. And here we see a big change. Nothing changes the look of a kitchen and bath more cheaply than changing out the cabinet hardware.

If you have these white ceramic knobs,[photopress:white_knob.jpg,full,alignleft]

a quick change out to brushed nickel or stainless knobs [photopress:kn.jpg,full,alignright]does the trick.

I just sold a condo with the white knobs, and will probably give him all of my brushed nickel knobs, because while I was looking at knobs for this article, I found this great one!! [photopress:glass_knob.jpg,full,alignleft] Anyone who has been to my house will know why 🙂

But the really big news is in the two hole pull vs. the knob.Anyone who has anything that looks like this: [photopress:out.jpg,full,alignright] in gold or brass or even in brushed nickel,

there is a big change to this round extended bar style, either in stainless steel or brushed nickel [photopress:in.jpg,full,alignright]

Low flow toilets and old houses


A relative of mine just replaced the old high-flow toilets in all 5 units of his building with low flow toilets. The result: a water bill that is $100 a month lower – the replacements should pay for themselves in six months. The toilet of choice: Toto Drake. It’s approximately $200 and it gets rave reviews on the internet.

I live in an old house (1908) with the requisite sloping floors and rusty iron pipes that come along with it. We already have low flow toilets (usually excellent Sloan Flushmates) which were purchased on Consumer Reports rave reviews. See the second rave review above – the only toilet they liked better than the Toto has a flushmate system. HOWEVER! Consumer Reports clearly does not have an old house that has charmingly rust-flecked, low pressure water. See, the Flushmate system works by storing up pressure from the pipes in a sealed tank and uses that pressure to forcefully push water out when you flush. There is no need to rely on gravity to move water through Flushmate toilets, although there are no mentions of them being used in space on the internet. When you put one of these suckers in a house with rusty pipes, little bits of rust get into the workings of the tank and the flushes get progressively worse over time until you’re left with a toilet that pushes the tank water down about a half inch on the flush and then gurgles at you. When this happened, I found myself cussing (a lot) at an inanimate object.

So last Thursday I found myself doing a midnight toilet installation of a Toto Drake. It comes with excellent instructions which should be supplemented by these instructions. And now that it’s done, I very highly recommend it. In fact it’s amazing. For decency’s sake, I will not go into further details.

The moral of the story:

  • New house? Get a Flushmate
  • Old house? Get a Toto Drake
  • Hate money? Keep your high flow toilet

Watch Out Below!

While I-pods are a great way to catch up on the numerous webinars posted during working hours, they can be a bit dangerous when the listener removes themselves from the world around them. Let me give you a little example of what I mean by this.

Last weekend, my son and his pregnant (yes, I’m proud!) wife needed my husband’s (Randy) assistance updating his 1/2 bath prior to listing his home for sale.  Here’s the setup: 2 story bungalow with a basement. 2nd story bathroom directly above main floor bath using same waste pipe that drain straight down into waste pipe in basement floor. Becuase 2nd floor bath had pvc pipe and basement had the old cast iron, the best thing to do was replace the whole pipe at the same time. So, of course, they pulled the waste pipe out of the main floor bath, disconnecting the 2nd story bath from the waste pipe in the basement. All’s well and Randy is getting ready to reinstall from the 2nd floor waste to the basement by handing the pipe down to son Ryan in the basement. [photopress:ryan_and_randy_in_the_shit_hole.jpg,thumb,alignright]Great great plan, all is going well, but my lecture was over, I removed my headphones, and ran up the stairs to use the only operating bathroom in the house except that, you guessed it, one flush and whoosh, down thru the 1st floor bath directly into the face of my darling son Ryan, bounced off him and onto his computer and everything on the desk that he was working on!

 The moral of the story is: Don’t visit your son! 

Phinney Neighborhood annual home fair, Sunday, Jan 28th

Phinney Neighborhood Center is hosting their annual home fair this weekend. This is a wonderful event with a lot of great information about home upkeep, upgrading, and overall design concepts. Several builders and architects attend this event and provide their expertise in a comfortable environment. One of my clients, Kirk Jolley, of Kirk Redo is usually in attendance as an exhibitor. He’s got great woodworking and finishing skills as I’ve seen his personal residence that he rebuilt after a former owner’s long neglect and I’ve seen many of his client projects, including the floor of my own home office – and he’s a great guy too! I’ve also volunteered in the past to help at the event as a member of the Phinney Neighborhood Association but sadly can’t make it to this year’s event. However, I do believe it is a great opportunity for people that are considering making changes to their home in the coming year to start getting educated about the process and to get some wonderful design ideas.

HOME DESIGN AND REMODEL FAIR : Imagine, Explore, Build
Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave N.
Admission: $5 for PNA members, $8 for the general public, children under 12 Free

The 10th annual Home Design and Remodel Fair will offer local homeowners a chance to meet with trained professionals and get advice on remodeling and home improvement projects.

More than 75 exhibitors ranging from general and specialty contractors to landscape professionals to architects and designers will be on hand to offer advice and resources needed to complete any home improvement project. Many of the exhibitors have a “green” emphasis.

Presentations will also be featured throughout the day. Topics include everything from choosing a contractor to stocking your toolbox.

The presentation schedule includes:

10:30 Choosing & Hiring a Contractor
11:10 Remodeling for Resale Value
11:50 Financing Your Remodeling Project
12:30 Working with an Architect

12:45-1:15 in the Blue Room
Q&A with Around the Home & More KOL Radio hosts Kevin Liger & John Kappler

1:20 DIY Mini Home Inspection
2:00 Making the Most of What You’ve Got
2:40 Tools for the Homeowner
3:20 Design/Build: What is it?

Bathroom Remodel

Can you totally remodel a 3/4 bath for only $3,500 in 48 hours? One of my clients recently purchased a house that needed a remodel of the basement level 3/4 bath. I have lots of before and after pictures in my head, of “what is” vs. “what can be”, but it is often difficult to convey that information to my clients.

So, for my client who closed escrow last week, I am going the extra mile.  This morning I ripped out my own basement level 3/4 bath, and am attempting to upgrade it to today’s standards for only $3,500 in two days or less.

Our basement level bathroom had two interior walls. One separated the shower from the toilet to give the shower three sides.  The other separated the shower and toilet area from the double sink counter via a wall and pocket door.  Chopping up a 5′ x 9′ bathroom with two interior walls was way too confining.  The biggest complaint of the users being that the square front door shower was too small and too dark, as the walls surrounding it cut it off from the light.  So first thing the guys did when they arrived this morning, was to knock out all of the interior walls.  It looks bigger and brighter already.

[photopress:sh.jpg,thumb,alignleft]The picture in my head of the finished bath, included a larger shower unit that only utilizes two walls instead of three. The one I see used most often in newer townhomes. Before hiring the contractor, I picked out the shower unit over at Lowes.  The total cost was just under $700.  The plumbing needs to be moved a bit to the right.  The door to the shower being angled on the front provides access from the largest open space in the room, the center, instead of the left or the right.

Finished bath will include replacing the 3″ tile countertop, too much grout to clean.  The floor, which was a rug that would get wet and never seemed to want to dry out, will be replaced with a stone look one piece floor.  All brown wood towel bars and towel rings will be gone and replaced with brushed nickel.  The wicker over the toilet cabinet will be replaced with a white and brushed nickel upgraded version.  In other words, a total transformation!

Can this all be done for less than $3,500?  Good question. As agents we are often frusrated by the inflated prices buyers attach to needed upgrades.  Often a buyer will look at a bathroom like this that needs updating, and attach a cost of $15,000 to the improvements needed.  When we say it will only cost $5,000 max, they really don’t believe us.  So once again, I am putting my money where my mouth is and am out to prove that a 3/4 bath can be totally remodeled for less than $5,000. If I can cap the cost to $3,500, I think  suggesting others can do so for no more than $5,000 will be an honest representation.

Off to Lowes to get towel bars and towel rings and whatever else is needed.  I’ll report the final total cost with a break down in the comments section when we’re done.

Light Fixers – Before and After

As a follow up to Ardell’s post about finding those homes where the owners just didn’t take the time, or have the money/energy to bring the home to retail condition, I’d like to share a few before and after photos. These two sets of photo are from light fixers my wife and I rehabbed last year (our first two, actually). We put about $15K total into each property, and each sold within a week of listing.


This first set of photos shows the before and after condition of the kitchen in a small rambler up in northeast Marysville. We used the existing cabinets, adding new pulls and hinges for a simple update. New paint, vinyl flooring, appliances and fixtures rounded out the upgrade.

This second set of photos shows how a little paint (and some nice staging) can go a long ways. This home is in Shoreline.



If we had chosen to do the work ourselves, we could have cut down total rehab costs to close to $10K. Now, on the other hand, as a preview for a future post on major rehabs, here’s a final before and after (total costs for this job in the $120K range). This one is on the market right now, but in the spirit of neutrality, I’m going to hold off on discussing this in detail until after it’s sold.



Where are those bargains?

[photopress:kit.jpg,thumb,alignright]In the last six months, two of my clients purchased homes that were real bargains in a hot market.  That was earlier in the year of course, when the market was stronger than it is now in the last quarter.

To me a bargain is a house where I can be confident that if the new owner calls me to sell the place in a short period of time, I can resell it at a higher price, regardless of market conditions.

I find that my definition of bargain is not a one size fits all definition.  Often when someone tells me they got a real bargain on a house, I have to zip my lip (no easy feat for me).  Their definition of a bargain is something that sold for way less than other homes in the neighborhood, you know, the bargain that will always be a bargain, both when they buy it AND when they sell it.  That’s not a bargain to me, that’s the bottom of the barrel choice that will always be cheaper in any market, and will go down the furthest in a tough market and up the smallest percentage in a good market.

While everyone wants a real bargain and everyone wants some assurances that if the bubble bursts they won’t lose money, I find that most people will not buy a true bargain.  Wanting anything you buy to go up in value always and indefinitely, is not realistic.  Often agents and flippers end up with the houses with the most profit potential, because people who are buying homes to live in them take a pass on the best values.  That’s what makes them bargains, most people won’t buy them.

Take a good hard look at the photo above.  Now that’s a real bargain!  I look at that and foam at the mouth.  A 72 hour do it yourself (mostly) makeover would improve the price overnight!…well, over two nights to be more accurate.  A weekend project.  Let’s remake just what we can see in that photo together.  Let’s make this a real “how to” demonstration.

There are three things there that I would need to hire someone to do.  By quickly defining which things I need someone to come and do, and scheduling that work before I begin, they can be finished by the time I am finished the do it yourself part.  It needs new flooring (whether it is in good shape or not…it has to go!)  It needs a six panel white door over on the right there and it needs a new light fixture.  I can’t lay a floor or hang a door or switch out a light fixture.  Maybe I could do that last one, but I prefer that owners not touch wiring if they don’t really know how to do that well.

1)  The first job is simply going out to buy the new floor, purchase it at the installed price and schedule a date and time for the install.  In this place the floor is so busy and awful, just a new one piece floor or lowest cost more neutral alternative is sufficent.  The change in appearance will be dramtic at a low cost.  Instant increase in potential sale price of home.

2) YOU go out and buy a light fixture and six panel door.  This is where people make their biggest mistake.  They hire a handyman at the lowest possible price, and then pay him to go to the store!  $25.00 an hour is a great price to get someone to change out a light fixture or hang a door.  But it is too high a price to pay someone to get stuck in traffic on the way to Home Depot, Lowes or Fred Mayer, or all three looking for just the right light fixture.  Buy the two items and anything needed to install them, like new hinges and door knob, and have them ready and waiting for the handyman you hire for the switchout of the two items.

3) Now for your part, which you can do while you are waiting for the floor install appointment and while the handyman is doing his two jobs.  Always work with the handyman, doing other things.  He’ll be more productive if you are taking down that wall paper while he is changing out the light fixture and hanging the door.  Just is…don’t ask why 🙂

Your part is to wet down that wall paper really well with wall paper stripping solution BEFORE you start peeling it, so you don’t damage the drywall.  A lot of people start gouging with scrapers and ripping dry strips that pull at the drywall, without wetting it down well.  Stripping rule is the same as hanging rule.  Wet three strips well, one at a time.  When you are done the third, go back to the first and take it off, wet the fourth then go back to the second, etc…  (My next door neighbor when I was a kid was Mr. Vitale…the wallpaper hanger.)  If you are lucky, that is “strippable paper” and the wall behind it was painted several times with semi gloss or “sized” before the paper was hung, and the wall will be ready to paint when you are done.  Wash off all of that glue before you start painting!  You don’t want a muddy paint job because some of the paint is mixed with old wallpaper glue.

Now let’s look hard at that photo one more time.  Doorway on left has no wood, just wall paper, so we’re done with that.  Back door is already white, but with a thin dark wood trim like the baseboard.  OK, let’s paint the back door trim only (not door), the base trim around the room and the door trim around the brown door on the right.  What color?  The same color as the back door and new interior six panel door, which is white. The new light fixture is hung and it’s tight to the ceiling now, so you don’t HAVE TO put your table exactly under it like you do with a hanging light.

[photopress:new.jpg,thumb,alignright]You have now transformed the 80s look into a “bright, light and airy” updated and clean look…all in 72 hours!  And if you call me and say, we want to move, I can sell the house for more than you just paid for it. 

Don’t walk away from the house that looks like the photo at the top.  You’ll pay at least $10,000 more for a house where the owner put in 72 hours worth of work and a few quick work projects.  Buy the true bargain.  Good location.  Good floorplan.  Ugly floor, ugly wallpaper and dark brown trim.

Buy the really good, well maintained, but really UGLY house.  It’s the bargain of the marketplace in any market.  Simple definition of this type of house is a “cosmetic” fixer. 

What makes a house a “tear down”

[photopress:tear_down.jpg,thumb,alignright] Here in Kirkland, a lot of people complain that the builders are tearing down homes and putting up “McMansions” in their place.

I can walk up and down the streets of Kirkland and “label” each and every house I pass. “Remodel project”, “tear down”, “fixer”, “builder’s dream come true”, will sell “as is”, etc… The number one reason a house becomes a tear down is due to years and years of deferred maintenance. Often these homes are owned by people who inherited them or who purchased them many, many years ago when they were dirt cheap. The increase in taxes over the years suck up any money the owners might have had to make improvements. They have just enough money to get by and the moss overtakes the roof, the wood rot overtakes the fascia boards and siding, the trees get bigger and bigger and crack the foundation, birds make nests in the rotted fascia boards. It’s like a used car that finds its way to the scrap heap, once the cost to repair exceeds the book value.

“Book Value” of a house equals the value of the lot. The value of the lot is based on it’s “highest and best use” and based on its “potential”. If the lot would have a view IF it were a two story house, than the highest and best use of that lot is to put a two story house on it. If that gives the lot a value of $650,000, then that is the value of the dirt. People have a tendency to value a property by what is on the lot and say, “Oh I wouldn’t pay more than $350,0000″ for that house!”. If the lot is worth $650,000, then the house can’t sell for $350,000, no matter how awful it is.

Take the house in the photo above. Would you spend $650,000 to LIVE IN IT? If you would pay $125,000 to live in it, and a builder will pay $650,000 to tear it down…well then I guess everyone has to agree that it is a “tear down”. But they don’t all agree that it is a tear down. People never all agree on anything, do they?

They don’t agree because they like having a little tiny house next to them that doesn’t block their view. They don’t agree because they don’t want the noise of the builders putting up a new home next door from morning until night, day after day, so they can never take a nap in the afternoon again until the new home is finished.

They might all agree that it should be torn down, but they want it to become a new park or playground…as long as no one every comes to play in it and make noise 🙂 They never ALL agree that it should be torn down and become a “McMansion”, especially if they live in the cute little bungalow next door.