Fall Real Estate 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000 & Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

Diary of a whirlwind home sale Diary of a whirlwind home sale (September 22, 2000)

Sometimes timing can make all the difference in getting what you want

By Barbara Wood

A little over a year ago my husband and I made one of the best financial decisions we may ever make for our family--we decided not to sell our house even though we'd already bought a new one.

Nine months later, in a real estate market gone crazy we changed our minds and put the house back on the market, selling it 10 days later for $200,000 over our earlier asking price--a 22 percent increase.

That may not seem remarkable in this hyperinflated real estate market, but it was to us. Homes in our old neighborhood of Skylonda, an unincorporated area off Skyline Boulevard near Highway 84, have traditionally taken around nine months to sell. When we purchased our home 15 years ago, it had been for sale for three years.

The area is lush with redwood trees and lovely vistas, and in the excellent Portola Valley school district. But it's also a 12-minute steep winding drive to central Woodside or Highway 280. That drive limits the number of people, and real estate agents, who will even look in the area, even though the prices are sometimes 50 percent less that they'd be in the "flatlands."

It was no rare insight into the housing market that prompted us to take our house off the market, however. It was panic. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stand to live in the house we'd bought, and I wanted my old house to still be there if that was true.

We had bought a historic, but tiny, farmhouse, right across the street from our three children's school, on a lot twice the size of the one we had, all at a price we could afford. But we hadn't been planning to move and the whole purchase had been rather impulsive.

So when we hadn't received an offer two weeks after listing the house, we advertised it for rent. We asked what we considered the outrageous amount of $3,300 a month, which covered the house's mortgage, taxes and insurance. It rented immediately.

Six months later, with plans for an addition to our farmhouse in hand and after the removal of about 500 cubic yards of vegetation from the yard, we were ready to sell the old house. We wanted to put it on the market in May, usually a great month for home sales.

We chose Ellie Gross Bullis of Coldwell Banker in Portola Valley to represent us. Two years earlier, in a much slower market, she had sold a nearby home in six days with three competing offers and was highly recommended by our friends who had bought that home.

When our renters, who hadn't returned calls asking if they'd mind if we started showing the house, called to say they wanted to move the next week we bumped the process into high gear.

Although I'd heard selling an empty house can be a deadly mistake because it makes the sellers appear desperate, Ms. Bullis convinced us it would be a good move.

We were under a deadline because Ms. Bullis had a month-long vacation scheduled in June. The house was to go on the market May 15, two weeks after the tenants moved out. A luncheon for brokers, designed to lure real estate agents into checking out the house, was planned two days later with the first open house that weekend.

I took on selling the house as my main job. I was given a list of tasks to accomplish by Ms. Bullis, from replacing missing outlet covers to cleaning out junk we'd left in the basement. I also had the job of reviving the garden, which had been ignored for nine months.

My contractor, Augie Klein, of August Klein Construction, was a hero. He sent in workmen after they'd spent the day at other jobs to paint and make minor repairs.

Ms. Bullis suggested we hire Susan Constantino to "stage" our house. I thought staging was a very expensive process involving renting a whole houseful of furniture, but I was wrong.

Ms. Constantino came to our house and picked out some easily transported furniture and accessories that we already owned and had me move them back into the old house. This was supplemented by some of her things--a rattan dining room set, wicker living room furniture, and more accessories.

She brought in fresh flowers from her garden, put fluffy towels in the bathrooms, and paintings on the walls.

She charged by the hour, with a small fee for the use of her things that only kicked in after the first two weeks. The total cost for staging the house was less than $500.

While I worked on my list, Ms. Bullis arranged all the inspections and reports we needed--septic tank, termite, chimney, home inspection, title report and copies of the county's records of building permits.

She also arranged to have the house put on the Coldwell Banker Web site, complete with 360-degree photos of several rooms in the house.

By working night, day and weekends, including a morning with a group of friends who helped me plant 75 one-gallon plants in three hours, we met Ms. Bullis' deadlines.

The asking price was $50,000 more than we had asked the previous June, an amount I knew in my heart was way, way too high. I figured we'd be lucky to get what we'd asked before--after all no one had wanted it at that price.

We also put on our calendar a date a few days after the open house for "taking offers," a practice spawned by the current real estate market. Even if a potential buyer wanted to immediately make us an offer, they had to wait until the appointed day.

By the offer date, about 10 days after the property was listed, we had three potential buyers, one of them a local real estate agent who had hosted one day's open house and decided she wanted to live there herself. Realtors representing the buyers not only gave us their offers, but also told us all about their clients. In addition to the real estate agent, there was a divorced woman with two dogs, and a family of five who had previously lived in the area. Two said their clients absolutely loved the house and had to have it. One offer was for our asking price, and two were substantially over it.

My husband and I looked at each other in disbelief. It was more than our greediest dreams. We countered the two higher offers with an even higher figure, and worried about what we'd do if they both agreed to pay that amount.

Fortunately, the decision was made for us. One buyer accepted our counter, the other agreeing to pay a bit less. The high bidders were the family of five, who asked to have escrow closed three weeks later.

Six weeks after our tenants had asked to move out, the proceeds of the house sale were transferred into our accounts, and our adventure in the wild real estate market of 2000 had ended.

Barbara Wood is an Almanac staff writer.