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Real Estate Matters

Water, wells and real estate prices

My front lawn, once a large lush inviting area, is beyond brown now. It looks bleached. It looks like it has been sluiced with Clorox and is yelling for its nakedness to be covered. However, I take solace in the fact that I am a good citizen.

Driving through Menlo Park and the surrounding cities, I see lawns in various states of desperation. I suppose some people are trying to save enough of their lawns so they can be resurrected this winter upon the touted arrival of El Nino. If you subscribe to the Old Farmer's Almanac prediction for this winter, (based on a secret formula that founder Robert B. Thomas designed using solar cycles, climatology and meteorology), California will have some rain early in the season but that will dry up and the drought will continue. Or you may chose the more upbeat prediction from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (not based on a secret formula) that El Nino has an 90 percent chance of lasting through the upcoming winter and an 80 percent chance of lasting into early spring. If El Nino does not arrive at all, well, let's not think about that.

Some people have already thrown in the towel on their water-sucking grass and I see a lot of inventive "drought-tolerant" landscaping. Many gardens are now covered with these long-bladed, light green, billowing-in-the-breeze, sea grass-looking plants, and those are interspersed with flowering plants with the tags still on them. Any spot that does not have new vegetation planted is smoothly covered with fresh, deep-hued bark. It all looks very clean and zippy now. Other people are taking a wait-and-see attitude and taking intermediary steps. Choices range from just covering up the whole disaster area in bark to spraying the still remaining, Darwin-esque blades of grass with specially designed grass paint (about a $100 for the sprayer mechanism plus the grass paint itself, for those interested and don't forget the face mask). I did see a house in Palo Alto whose owner had simply put about a dozen potted plants randomly in his front yard just proudly sitting on what can only be described as cracked, brown earth.

Then there are those houses that have lush green lawns. It's like they're living in Kauai. The first question that comes to mind, of course, is do they have a well or are they just rich, bad citizens. My best friend lives in Atherton on an acre, and his lawn and landscaping are lush and fantastic. He told me his water bill was $55 dollars in July. He has a well. It was on the property when he bought it about 25 years ago. He has to have it checked regularly by the San Mateo County authorities, and has to have a backflow valve and all the other proper mechanics. I think of the money he has saved during those 25 years that is, very roughly, the cost of four years of a college tuition.

Now, albeit late in the game, I am interested in wells. Here are some basic facts I have discovered. You can still get a permit to dig a well in Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. This surprised me a little bit, as the water table is a moving target. With the water table dropping because of lack of rain, one can only assume that wells only add to the dropping of the water table. However, according to Garcia Well and Pump, a long-established local company, the depth to which they have had to dig wells to hit water has not really changed during the past couple of years. The cost of a well is dictated by the depth you have to go to get deeper than the water table, and how fast you want to pump, if you want a storage facility and on and on. Average prices range from about $30,000 to $80,000.

As a real estate office manager for decades here on the Midpeninsula, we (news flash!) have seen prices go sky high and especially for new construction which is all over the place. I just took a quick poll of some very active local builders, and not one of them had considered putting in a well. I guess they all remember what JP Morgan said when a reporter asked him about the cost of maintaining his yacht that was for sale (as he had bought a bigger one), "If you have to ask, you can't afford it." Let's hope these new construction buyers are good citizens, too.

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This article appeared in print in the 2015 Fall Real Estate publication.

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Wendy McPherson manages about 145 agents for Coldwell Banker in two Menlo Park offices, plus Woodside and Portola Valley. She can be reached at WMcPherson@cbnorcal.com.

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