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Friday, May 28, 2010

My life in real estate: Lessons learned from my mom

If my blogging has seemed sporadic these past few months, bear with me… it’s been a challenging year. In December I had rotator cuff surgery and was typing one-handed for a few months. I finally finished physical therapy in late April – the same week my amazing mother, Becky Jones, passed away unexpectedly.

As you might suspect, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother these days. She really did live a good and long life – she would have been 88 in September -- but for some reason, it came as a shock to everyone who knew her that she died so young. I say this because my mother lived her life to the fullest and never stopped moving. Even the day she went to the hospital due to shortness of breath (eventually diagnosed as congestive heart failure), she had already straightened up their home (“I can’t go the hospital with dishes in the sink.”), attended a class at Lake Forest Place and made several calls to discuss her latest project, etc. She was annoyed, when they wanted her to spend the night in the hospital (“This is ridiculous; I have too much to do.”). The next day she suffered a coronary and we lost her.

As I think about my mom, I realize how much I take from her teachings and apply them to how I conduct my real estate business, how I view homes, and how I interact with clients and other agents. So in honor of my mom, I hope you’ll indulge me as I take this time to share some of the lessons my mother taught me along the way.

When it comes to integrity, there is no ambiguity: you either have integrity or you don’t. My mother expected us always be honest and tell the truth; to deal with other people in an above board and fair manner. I work hard to put that principle first and foremost in my interactions with other agents and my clients.

Winning or losing doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s showing up that’s important: being a player; having resiliency, sticking with it. This is probably my mother’s most important lesson to me. It has helped me immensely during this difficult housing market, when there was so much discouraging news everywhere. I chose to show up and stick with it, even when it was challenging and frustrating.

Your word is worth more than a piece of paper. I learned the hard way (see November 9, 2009), that in real estate that a legal contract is the only binding document. But I still stand by my word, because your word is your reputation; your word is really all you have. It’s important and it reflects the kind of person you are.

Abundance comes from abundance. She may never have expressed it that way, but she lived it that way. She believed that everyone could do well and make a contribution to this world. I know she is right – I believe it as well. I suppose that’s why I don’t particularly feel like I compete with other agents; I try to be happy for their successes and hopefully they feel the same for me. I believe everyone can have success and it’s just a matter or working hard and doing your best.

Always assume the best intentions from other people. My mother was unique – she treated everyone (well almost everyone – she wasn’t terribly easy on hospital personnel) with respect and kindness. She rarely spoke ill of anyone. If there was someone she didn’t particularly like she would always point out their positive qualities and leave it at that. Not surprisingly she was beloved by just about everyone who knew her - it was standing room only at her memorial service. While I’m not as good at this as mother was, I try to be courteous to others and not get into gossipy discussions. I find you meet all types in this business; there is no reason to be rude, impatient or unkind.

A deal’s a deal. If you agree to do something or make an offer, stand by it and follow through. My mother never believed in the concept of counteroffers and dragging out negotiations. Make a fair offer and then stick with it… that’s how my folks bought their three homes… one offer only. I know that’s a little unusual, but I did it her way when I bought my house in Lake Forest. My agent was surprised when I wouldn’t counter or budge from my asking price – but I knew I had made a fair offer, so why negotiate?  They could take it or leave it: they took it.

A clean home is a sign of a loved home. My mother always made sure that the brass was polished, the windows were washed, and the beds were made. I notice messy homes when I tour different properties and it always makes me wonder who lives there and whether they have taken care of changing the furnace air filters or kept the gutters cleaned out, etc.

Exterior spaces are as important as interior spaces. My mother loved her garden and patio. To her, it represented another room to the home. Even when my folks moved to an apartment complex in Winnetka, she made sure that there were beautiful planters and other exterior spaces for enjoyment. I find that when I look at a property, the outside is almost more important to me than the inside.

There’s right way and a wrong way to hang pictures and mirrors. My mother was fantastic at hanging pictures. She and my dad would always help me with my pictures when I needed them. When I go into a house, I can always tell if the pictures are hung in the wrong way… same with rugs, sofas and chairs. She always knew how to stage furniture in a room to the make the room warm and inviting. For example, she taught me not to push all the chairs against a wall.

My mother’s classic line was, “You act the way you dress.” I suppose that’s why I never wear blue jeans to work. If I want to be viewed as a professional, I need to dress like one. I suppose that’s a rather anachronistic concept these days, but old habits are hard to break and I can still hear my mother's voice.

I’m sure there are so many other things that I’ve left out. As it is with most people, Mother was the single most important influencer of my life. I still have a hard time believing she’s gone. My brother said it best at the memorial service….

What can I say? She fills me and guides me and always will. She had courage, spunk, and a freshness that bordered on naiveté which always made you smile. She may be gone but I am never alone knowing that she created a filter through which I examine everything I do and think…. I love you Mom and you will be with me always.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

REALTOR® Magazine-Daily News-When Will the Housing Market Rebound?

REALTOR® Magazine-Daily News-When Will the Housing Market Rebound?

My life in real estate: Now why do I need an attorney?

After my selling my Lakeview apartment and before purchasing my next apartment, I was enchanted with a condo on Chestnut Street. I remember seeing it for the first time and feeling how truly lovely it was – spacious rooms and a Southern exposure, beautiful hardwood floors, and while the building itself had no parking, the one next door did.

Two other things worth mentioning: 1. The dining room had these beautiful alabaster sconces that I just loved. 2. I had wanted to have my own washer and dryer. While this unit did not have one, my agent was assured that there many units in the building that did, and there would be no problem installing one.

So I made an offer. This time I knew the value of the unit and negotiated thoughtfully. Turned out the wife of the couple selling the unit was an attorney with one of those big Loop law firms. As you might suspect the negotiations were brutal. When we were $10K apart, I told my agent I was through negotiating and we should start looking elsewhere. The real estate agents wanted to hold the deal together so they encouraged us to meet in the middle. Reluctantly I agreed, but the whole process had left a sour taste in my mouth. It should have been an omen for things to come.

With this real estate transaction, I had a new attorney, Amy. She was sole practitioner who worked out of her home in the western suburbs. A friend had given me her name. This time I was steering clear of the big law firms and wanted someone who specialized in real estate.

Within the attorney review and inspection period, three things happened:

1. When I went in for the inspection, the sconces were no longer hanging in the dining room. They had been replaced with plain brass ones – nothing special.

2. We were informed, that the other units in the building had had their washers and dryers “grandfathered in,” and that the condominium board was not letting other units install new ones.
3. And most important, my inspector went up on the roof and told me the roof was in pretty bad shape and was in need of replacement.

While I was really annoyed with points 1 and 2, 3 was the deal breaker for me. I had no interest in moving into a building that had a special assessment looming in the future. I called my agent and Amy -- I wanted out of the deal.

Amy told me it would be no problem. I could stop payment on my earnest money check. She wrote a letter to the sellers’ attorney notifying them that I was exercising my right to terminate the agreement.

And thus the games began…

The next week of my life was utter hell. I received a certified letter from this woman’s law firm telling me that they were going to sue me for breach of contract; I had no grounds for terminating the agreement; they were going to keep the earnest money, etc. etc. etc.

I was terrified and called Amy. I read her the letter and she told me throw it away… It was just a tactic of a large law firm… they had no grounds for this and to not worry. But I did worry and had several sleepless nights in the process. I kept wondering whether I had made a mistake in not hiring a bigger law firm to handle the transaction… was Amy giving me the right advice?

Multiple certified letters started arriving; I felt I was either being coerced into buying a home I didn't want or being extorted for money. Amy responded to the other attorneys when necessary, but basically told me to throw the letters away, relax and not worry.

I was so irritated with their actions that I even called the Chicago Bar Association to find out how I could file a complaint about these attorneys. They were unrelenting. For them, it appeared to be sport – not practicing law.

And then it stopped – just as Amy had assured me – there was nothing they could do. The contract was null and void. The deal was over and I had nothing to worry about. But once again, it had cost me both sleep and attorneys fees to deal with these people. I was ticked.

So what did I learn from this real estate experience? Several things:

1. The language in a real estate contract is unambiguous… Buyers clearly have the right to walk away from a deal during the attorney and inspection review period. You do not have to buy a home you don’t want to buy. The language in our North Shore purchase agreement is really clear:

In the event the inspection reveals that the condition of the Real Estate is unacceptable to Buyer and Buyer serves Notice to Seller within five (5) Business Days after the Date of Acceptance, this Contract shall be null and void.

2. If there is something that you really want and expect to see in the home when you purchase it, indicate it in the purchase offer. Be specific. Yes, it said that there would be light fixtures in the dining room, but I had not written the alabaster light fixtures. If I had chosen to remain in the condo, I probably could have made more of an issue out of it.

3. If the sellers or their agent indicates that something is possible, make it a contingency of the offer. We should have included something like: “This contract is contingent on receipt of a letter from the condo board permitting the purchaser to install a washer and dryer in the unit.”

4. Just because a law firm is big and has significant resources, doesn’t mean they are right. In this case, they were trying to bully me into staying in the deal. It actually backfired… I was determined to get out of the deal, once their letters started.

5. Just because an attorney is a sole practitioner and has few resources, doesn’t mean they are wrong. I had a great attorney who handled the situation calmly and without fanfare. She knew what she was doing and I should have listened to her right from the get go.

6. Finally, listen to your instincts. When the negotiation process was so unpleasant, it should have been a clue to me that these were not going to be pleasant people to deal with as we went along. I should have walked away when I said I was going to and not have gone along past the point where I planned to stop.

Today, I’m very philosophical about real estate and share this advice with my clients: If the deal is meant to be, it will be – if not, it wasn’t meant to be and there’s another home around the corner. And so it was with me. I ended up moving a block away from this apartment in a building I liked better and the seller was fantastic and a pleasure to negotiate with... that next home was meant to be – this one wasn’t.