Add to Technorati Favorites Roof Magazine: April 2008

Monday, April 28, 2008

Same House, Lower Price

Back on the market in Mill Valley is a recently renovated house at 45 Laverne ($2.35 million for 2,753 sq ft, 4BR plus office, 3.5BA). Last fall, when we first heard this modern house located behind Whole Foods in Homestead Valley was for sale, the owner was asking $2.5 million. More of the scoop:

According to Zillow, where the owners posted more details about the 1951 house, a major remodel was completed three years ago. Improvements include: a new roof, new siding, four newly renovated bathrooms, a kitchen remodel and a two-story addition. Oh, and also a sauna and steam room.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lots of Foreclosures In California; Not So Many In Marin

Lenders moved to foreclose on 110,392 homes in California during the first three months of 2008, according to DataQuick. The high number of foreclosures was a record for every county in the state except Los Angeles (which was hard hit during the recession of the early 1990s and which, as a result, had even more homes in foreclosure eight years ago than today). What about the local picture? A 166-percent increase in foreclosures in Marin sounds scary, until you look closer at the real year-to-year numbers:

San Francisco 216 420 94.4%
Alameda 1,578 3,194 102.4%
Contra Costa 1,969 4,718 139.6%
Santa Clara 1,058 3,074 190.5%
San Mateo 382 911 138.5%
Marin 118 314 166.1%
Solano 914 2,091 128.8%
Sonoma 407 1,392 242.0%
Napa 88 284 222.7%
Bay Area 6,730 16,398 143.7%

Lenders moved to foreclose on 314 houses in Marin in the first quarter (up from 118 during the same period last year). More than half of the 314 are located in Novato. What the numbers show, overall, is that Marin is one of the three counties in the state (along with San Francisco and San Mateo) where mortgages are least likely to be delinquent. The most likely are Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New Listings: $1.7 Million In Southern Marin

Somebody took a finger out of the dike. More than 60 new southern Marin listings have come on the market in the past week, and here's a sampling of the kind of kitchen you can get for $1.7-$1.75 million:

279 Riviera Dr., San Rafael: $1.749 m, 4 BR, 3BA, 3,347 sq ft ($523 per sq ft)

314 Kent Ave., Kentfield: $1.7 m, 5BR, 4BA, 2,200 sq ft ($773 per sq ft)

2 Overhill Rd., Mill Valley: $1.749 m, 4BR, 3.5B, 2,515 sq ft ($695 per sq ft)

55 Buena Vista Ave., Mill Valley: $1.7495 m, 3BR, 2B, 1,800 sq ft ($972 per sq ft)

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California Scene: Inventory Up, Asking Prices Not

HousingTracker looks at asking prices and inventory in more than 50 metro areas around the country. So, how are things in San Francisco? Um, bad:

Last week, the supply of listings increased in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and San Jose but down (bright spot!) in Riverside and Sacramento. Inventory stayed the same in L.A. As for asking prices, they dropped or stayed the same in all those markets.

In San Francisco, the market closest to Marin, the 12-month trend looks like this:

Trend04/21/20081 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$521,000+0.2%-0.8%-10.9%-13.5%

The takeaway message remains the same: It's not a good time to sell, so don't put your house on the market if you don't have to.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Weekend Reading: Buying a green home in Marin

Lots of things start in Northern California, then spread, trend-like, to the rest of the country. Williams Sonoma, for instance, was born in Sonoma way back in 1956 when the rest of the U.S. had yet to find frozen peas. Banana Republic (Mill Valley, 1978); Smith & Hawken (Mill Valley, 1979); and Restoration Hardware (Eureka, 1980) all debuted here. Mountain biking was invented on Mt. Tam, and the American love affairs with hot tubbing and biscotti originated here, then rolled out like hula hoops to the nation.

So it's a little surprising that the green homes movement actually started in... well, probably Colorado or Washington State. Not to worry, though: Northern California is playing catch up with a vengeance. The whole sustainable-homes thing—as exemplified in Dwell Magazine (brain child of a Mill Valley resident!)—is sweeping across Marin County like a brush fire.

Recently, we visited a pretty amazing, green, luxury home (of all things) high above San Rafael. The 5100-square-foot residence is the first of six units for sale at Live Oak Estates, an eco-friendly enclave with protected (and spectacular) views of Tam. We drove up there with Stacey Stephenson, the first Mill Valley-based real estate agent to be certified as an "EcoBroker," who filled us in on the burgeoning green real-estate scene.

"My mission is to make Marin County real estate a green industry," she said, while driving her Prius (what else?) up the 101 (we qualified for the carpool lane) to San Rafael.

An "EcoBroker" is a graduate of the Built Green course, a Colorado-based program that "encourages homebuilders to use technologies, products, and practices that provide greater energy efficiency and reduce pollution, provide healthier indoor air, reduce water usage, preserve natural resources, and improve durability and reduce maintenance."

Stacey is the first of five brokers certi
fied and practicing in Marin. Business is brisk as increasingly, home buyers are starting to think about sustainability and protecting the environment. "More and more, clients are finding me on Google after they do a keyword search on 'healthy homes,'" she said.

Stacey carries a checklist so she can keep track of the healthy home attributes of her listings. Included: energy-efficient appliances and windows, zoned heating, natural carpets, low-flush toilets and cabinetry constructed "forest-stewardship council certified" wood, which is harvested in an environmentally conscious way. The house at 15 Live Oak Way boasts all of those attributes and more.

The $3.85 million, 4 bedroom, six bath (dual-flush toilets!) home is built in an old chert quarry and feels more like something you'd see nestled in the red rocks of Sedona than NorCal. Much of the 30-acre communities property is set aside as perpetual open space, making it possible to hike from your back door 20 miles to Inverness on protected trails. The horse-shoe-shaped design of the house is ingenious because all the rooms overlook the swimming pool, which is solar heated via a thousand feet of water tubing buried beneath the concrete patio slabs. It features 100% wool carpet with recycled natural padding (no offgassing!); recycled, hand-painted tile and Saltillo Mexican clay tile; and all wall and ceiling paint emits zero or low Volatile Organic Compounds (protects the ozone layer!) Solar panels help power the place, of course.

"Every material that was chosen for this house was looked at from a green perspective," said Michael LeValley, the principal who materminded the project. With listing broker Abby Kagan, Michael and Stacey showed us around the place. "What we're really doing is returning to classical architectural principles," Michael said, as we entered the kitchen, where a recyling station is built into the island cabinets. "It was only post World War II when we got away from paying attention to those principles because of the rush to create mass housing for returning GIs."

We said we loved the house, but noted the paradox of building a giant, sprawling house that's supposed to use fewer of the world's resources. Michael said: "Remember that the first adopters of any new technology are those who can afford. Some people are always going to want big houses, so why
not give them environmentally conscious big houses? Don't you want to convert the biggest consumers first?" He added: "If I told you I could get every Hummer driver to drive a hybrid SUV, wouldn't you feel like we were making progress?" It was a good argument. If only only we could afford the house.

15 Live Oak Way will be shown from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m during an open house on Sunday, April 20.

Last week's weekend reading: The Flipper tries to buy a foreclosure at an auction on the courthouse steps

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Back On The Market

Among this week's "new" southern Marin listings are two houses that were on the market last fall. Trying again (one at a reduced asking price, one not) are:

18 MIRABEL: This $3.85 million house, perched on a ridge above downtown Mill Valley, is exquisitely sited. Not only does it have dead-on Mt. Tam views, it also offers a good-enough-for-a-spy perch to keep track of what's happening below you in town. Why didn't it sell last fall? Well, with only three bedrooms, the dramatic '70s modern style of the house may not appeal to everyone (although we'd move into it in a heartbeat). Also, upkeep. All those miles and miles and miles (it seemed) of boxwood hedges won't clip themselves twice a year.

77 MARGUERITE: This vintage Klyce house (COMING NEXT WEEK: What Exactly Is A Klyce House?) situated in Mill Valley's Middle Ridge neighborhood is back on the market with a price chop, reduced from $2.195 million to $2.075 million. Nice floorplan, sweet yard (we were particularly fond of the well-established rose garden and the blowsy lilac at the bottom of the hill), but no master bath. Laundry is in the garage.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

But on the other hand, Bay Area is the strongest market in the state

A silver lining of sorts. Never mind that the Bay Area has also seen the median home price drop to its lowest levels on record (Note: records started in 1988.) See San Francisco Chronicle story here. The take-away message: Just like elsewhere in the U.S., the closer you are to the action (jobs), the better.

As has consistently been the case, several counties - notably those close to job centers and in affluent areas - were in better shape. In San Francisco, the median price inched up to $755,000, up 0.3 percent from last year - the only county where the median grew. Sales in San Francisco were down 20.6 percent versus last year, a modest drop compared to the 47.2 percent decline in Alameda County, for example. San Mateo and Marin counties saw their medians slip about 4 percent, compared with the double-digit declines of the six other counties.

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Pew: 1 in 33 homeowners will be in foreclosure within 2 years

More fallout from the subprime lending crisis. See here. California, to no one's surprise, is actually doing worse than 1 in 33:

Some states with severe problems have lagged behind. California, where one in 20 homeowners is projected to experience foreclosure, primarily over the next two years, issued a notice to loan servicers encouraging them to agree to wholesale loan adjustments, but as of the end of 2007, had provided little additional help to financially distressed homeowners. California has a task force and is exploring other relief, however, and has proposed expanding the types of loans regulated and strengthening the state’s underwriting standards for high-cost mortgages to prevent future challenges.

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Soon It May Be Easier (And Cheaper) To Find A Rental In Manhattan Than In Marin

Move over, New York City. The famously low apartment vacancy rate in Manhattan—about 1 percent—is not that much lower than the rate in Marin County these days. According to data collector Real Facts, the vacancy rate here in the first quarter of 2008 dipped below 3 percent, making it one of the lowest nationwide. And, according to the Marin Independent Journal, some apartment complex managers here aren't even bothering to advertise vacancies anymore; wait a few days and an empty unit miraculously fills itself:

Josephine Agnew, resident manager at Strawberry Shores in Mill Valley, credited the housing market with boosting the demand for two-bedroom, two-bathroom units. The 202-unit complex on Seminary Drive has been completely occupied for the past year, she said.

Agnew said she gets calls and e-mails from people who don't understand the tight apartment rental market.

"Some of them call and want an apartment in weeks or months and that just doesn't happen in Marin anymore," she said.

No wonder Marin rents have been risking steadily; the average is $1,669 a month.

Photo credit: [Whyfiles]

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"X" Out The Ex-Urb: Shorten Your Commute

Here's an interesting piece from BusinessWeek that correlates rising gas prices with declining home values. If everybody in your town is commuting an hour to work, you may have experienced a steep drop in home prices:

Take Murrieta, Calif., incorporated in 1991. The population of Murrieta more the doubled to 100,000 over the past eight years, as residents traded hour-long commutes to San Diego or Orange County, Calif. for newly built mini-mansions at lower prices. In the past year though home prices in Murrieta fell 31% to a median $329,000.

[Photo credit: Sfgate]

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How To Get Multiple Offers: Anatomy Of A Successful Sale

When we published a list yesterday of all the sellers in Marin who sold their houses above the asking prices last month, it raised a lot of questions. Well, one question, mainly: How did they manage that?

Easy. They did everything right. Of course, you can too. Here's a blueprint to follow, a case study of how the owners of one Mill Valley house flawlessly played their hand and got $1.835 million for a house they listed at $1.795 million:

1. LOCATION, OF COURSE. The 1,021 sq ft bungalow (built in 1946) that the owners bought in 2005 at 74 Nelson (for $850,000) may have been situated on one of the more modest blocks in Mill Valley's family-trendy Sycamore Park neighborhood, but it had one exceptional plus: the lot is adjacent to a popular vest-pocket neighborhood park. It's also an easy walk to Park El
ementary School, Mill Valley Middle School and Tamalpais High School.

2. GET THE RIGHT ARCHITECT. Barbara Chambers, one of Marin's most versatile architects, designed a new, slightly bigger two-story house (1,200 sq ft) that somehow managed to incorporate an open first-floor floorplan, three bedrooms, 2.5 baths and a second-floor family room into that relatively small amount of space. The result was a house sited ingeniously on the lot, facing the street but with a "front" entry on the side of the building.

The exterior, in fact, greatly resembles Chambers' own, larger house a few blocks away, with a two-car garage topped by window boxes facing the street. (See photo, right)

3. KNOW YOUR MARKET. The new floorplan, with three second-floor bedrooms that opened off a central family room, was ideal for a young family. So was the gate in the backyard fence that leads directly to the park and playground behind the property. The Sunday open house a few days after 74 Nelson went on the market attracted a steady stream of young couples, prospective buyers in SUVs outfitted with infant seats.

3. THE PRICE IS RIGHT. The sellers priced 74 Nelson, in mint condition, at $1.795 million, significantly lower than the recent sale prices of two other slightly larger, and lived in, houses a few blocks away—81 Sycamore (sold for $2.185 million in November 2007) and 95 Sycamore (sold for $2.3 million, also in November 2007). Within days of the Sunday open house, they entertained multiple offers. In the end, the house sold for $40,000 above asking, after a mere 31 days on the market at a time when 74 days on the market is the average in Marin.

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How To Get Negative Information Removed From Your Credit Report

Yesterday, a client called and asked about refinancing, so the first thing I did was run his credit and his wife's credit, because they're co-borrowers. Within seconds, I see the wife has a 730 FICO score, but the husband is lower, at 719. They're both still high enough to qualify for the best rates, but just barely.

"Let's see what's dragging you down," I tell him, and then, as I scan the readout, "Uh oh, you have 10 late payments. On an auto lease. That you paid off in 2006."

Of course, he flips out. He says he has no idea why Bank One reported 10 lates. So I say, "We have to get them off your credit report." Then I tell him how:

The first thing I tell the client to do is to dig out proof that he paid that auto lease bill during every single month that the payment was reported late. Next, I tell him to make copies of the canceled checks—or in his case, all the old monthly checking account statements that list the online payments his bank sent—and to send copies to the creditor along with a letter requesting removal of the delinquents.

I tell him to send a letter with the standard wording I tell all my clients to use:

Dear So-and-So, Recently when my credit report was run, I found you reported this account no. xxxx as delinquent. As you can see, by my attached records, this account has never been late. All payments have been made on time. Please stop reporting this account as delinquent and send me evidence you have done so. Please feel free to contact me directly with any questions. Thank you. Sincerely.

You want to get a letter from them saying they're taking it off. That's the holy grail. The phrase "send me evidence" is key.

By law, the creditor has to respond within two weeks. If they say, "No, it was late," then at least you have something to argue about. But they might just go ahead and correct it, because the payments were made, and you have so much evidence that you made these payments that they'll have a tough time arguing about whether the payments were late.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

A Tale of Two Counties

While there's no denying that the real estate crisis is hurting Marin along with the rest of the country—the county's foreclosure rate doubled in the past year, for instance—there's also evidence that an unusually high percentage of listings still are selling above their asking prices. In March, for instance, 12 percent of the 134 houses and condos sold for prices higher than asking. Those listings also sold much faster—after an average of 21 days on the market—than the typical Marin listing, which was on the market for 74 days. Here's a look at those 16 sales by location:

In Corte Madera, two sales:

4 Wildflower, asking price $1,089,000, sold for $1,112,000 (102.1%)
438 Oakdale asking $850,000, sold for $885,000 (104.1%)

In Fairfax:

43 Bay , asking $939,000, sold for $950,000 (101.2%)

In Mill Valley, four sales:

171 Elinor, asking $2,368,000, sold for $2,430,000 (102.6%)
74 Nelson, asking $1,795,000, sold for $1,835,000 (102.2%)
111 Stanford, asking $1,595,000, sold for $1,600,000 (100.3%)
78 Marguerite, asking $899,000 sold for $975,000 (108.5)

In Novato, two sales:

801 Sutro, asking $470,999, sold for $480,000 (101.9%)
27 Lakeview, asking $279,000, sold for $290,000 (103.9%)

In Ross:

5 Madera, asking $2,595,000, sold for $2,800,000 (107.9%)

In San Rafael, three sales:

14 Westwood, asking $889,000, sold for $905,000 (101.8%)
106 Plymouth, asking $649,000, sold for $659,000 (101.5%)
25 Wharf, asking $336,900, sold for $342,000 (101.5%)

In Sausalito:

1 Willow, asking $889,000, sold for $890,000 (100.1%)

In Tiburon, two sales:

143 Gilmartin, asking $4,795,000, sold for $4,800,000 (100.1%)
1837 Centro West, asking $1,250,000, sold for $1,357,000 (108.6%)

How They Do It: An Inside Look At The Techniques One Marin Seller Used To Get Multiple Offers

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Greenbrae Condo Prices: Then And Now

One of these things is not like the other:

Just sold:

632 Via Casitas
2BR, 954 sq ft
Built in 1974

Sold a year ago:
823 Via Casitas
2BR, 954 sq ft
Built in 1974

[Photo credit: Skovgaard]

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Weekend Reading: How do you know if a deal is a steal?

Here's what I'm looking at now: A bank-owned property in Oakland priced at least 40% below its market value in 2005. And the question is: Can this really be the screaming bargain it appears to be on first glance, or am I the proverbial sucker at the table?

The house was built in '02-'03 and was initially priced about $100K more than it's selling for now. (You'll forgive me for not disclosing its precise location; this is business, after all.) In '05, the house next door-same square footage, same floor plan, built by the same builder-sold for another $100K above that.

I know what they were originally listed for (and when) from MLS data. I know what the house next door sold for in '05, and how much was owed to the bank on this one, from PropertyShark, ironically, Flipper's best friend...

That said, the location is iffy-one block over and you're solidly within a well-kept middle-class neighborhood where home values have been holding steady, but one block the other way it starts to gets kind of dicey. There's a small senior living apartment building across the street, and a good public elementary school at the end of the block. And there's one bit of obvious damage: At some point the upstairs toilet was leaking, and you can see the water damage on the living room ceiling. (Since it's bank-owned, I'd be buying "as-is.") But rental comps in the area suggest that, at 30% down, I can easily cover the mortgage, taxes, and insurance and probably would even eke out some positive cash flow. or no deal? Discuss.

Read the Flipper's last adventure here.

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Marin (elementary) Schools of Distinction

Four Marin elementary schools were among those honored as "California Distinguished Schools" this week. They were among 343 elementary schools cited by the state Department of Education across the state—roughly 5% of California's public schools. The program is voluntary, and honors elementary and secondary schools in alternate years:

The criteria for school selection are designed to reflect the consensus of the education community regarding what constitutes a quality education program by incorporating the major themes of state and national policies and research related to effective schools. The criteria focus on all aspects of the school's educational program.

Full list of schools here.
Other, related state stuff here.

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Warning: This house is in a spray zone

Marin County real-estate agents are considering disclosing whether homes are in moth-spray flyover zones, according to the Associated Press. Pesticides, described as "a low dose of a synthetic pheromone mixture approved for use on organically grown crops," are being used to fight the light brown apple moth, which has been feasting on cash crops. Flyovers are scheduled for the Bay Area this summer.

In Marin County, real estate agents are considering amending their disclosure forms to tell future home buyers about the aerial sprays scheduled in the Bay Area this summer and advising them to consult a doctor for more information before closing a deal, said Levi Swift, president of the Marin Association of Realtors.

Though analysts say the spray is unlikely to have any lasting effects on properties in the spray zone or on the real estate market, attorneys said it was wise to notify buyers to ward off potential lawsuits.

"If my real estate agent had knowledge of the spraying activity and didn't tell me, I could certainly sue for misrepresentation," said real estate attorney Lewis Feldman, a senior partner with Goodwin Procter in Los Angeles. "The fact that the government says something isn't harmful doesn't prevent people from filing suit."

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

You don't get many murders in Mill Valley. And at these prices—no wonder.

Case closed: A body found in an unused part of a Mill Valley cemetery in February turns out to be that of a local resident missing since 1964. Her husband, Bruce Jones, an erstwhile San Fransisco longshoreman, appears to be the suspect, but he died nearly 20 years ago.

The killing may have been—what else?—real-estate related. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Bruce Jones told authorities that he had an argument with his wife because she refused his request to have his name placed on real estate that she owned separately. He said that she became angry, walked away down the road - and never returned.

[Picture credit: Tam Valley Improvement Club]

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Marin inventory surged 25% last month—biggest jump in Northern California

Marin County saw a 25% increase in the number of homes for sale last month, according to Zip Realty's blog. (Note that this is for single family and condos only.)

The data, which shows 955 homes on the market in March, versus 763 last month, was culled from the MLS. San Francisco is in second place with 1,342 homes on the market—up 11% from 1,210 last month.

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Welcome To The Neighborhood

After barely a week on the market, a $3.395 million Mill Valley house at 111 Locust Ave.—yes, the one with the new two-story garage that some neighbors would have preferred not to see built—is in contract. Will the sale price will set a new record for Sycamore Park? Last year, 50 Walnut (3,850 sq ft) went for $2.936m; an oldie at 35 Sycamore Ave. (3,876 sq ft) went for $3.1 million.

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Robin Williams Does Mill Valley. A lot.

One of the great unkept secrets of living in Mill Valley is Tuesday Night Comedy Night—"Mark Pitta and Friends"—at the 142 Throckmorton Theater. Local comedian Mark Pitta, who looks a lot like a young Charlie Rose, and has a Jon Stewart-like delivery, does a great job hosting the event.

But the main reason Comedy Night tends to be standing room only (like, buy tickets at least a day in advance) is that San Francisco resident Robin Williams and Mill Valley resident Dana Carvey tend to show up, unannounced. Our neighbor, who goes pretty often, says Williams has been performing there about once a month, and bet that Williams would be there last night. He was.

Williams is so prolific, it's easy to take his genius for granted and forget how unusually gifted he is. You can tell that performing for a room this small is what (we bet) he loves most. (Does he even get paid for this? Doubtful. We wouldn't be surprised if he paid to do it.) Supposedly, he and Carvey use the Throckmorton to work out new bits.

Williams tends to look as if he's channeling something—something very funny and chaotic. We assume he's basically taking dictation from himself, noting the good bits and saving them for later.

One thing we especially loved last night was his riff on Mill Valley, which he says closes down at 8 p.m. He launched into the character of an old town crier, swinging a bell: "It's 8 o'clock! It's 8 o'clock! Everyone inside!" So funny! But you probably had to be there.

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Best Language in a Flyer: Open Houses today

This "original" 3 BR, 2 BA home in Mill Valley at 5 Hillcrest, is still on the market for $1.46 million. (Maybe it's the enormous redwood that lists uneasily at the corner of the lot.) We're starting to collect examples of laudable marketing prose.

From the Sotheby's flyer: "There is so much untapped potential in this 1952 home. It is a perfect canvas for those wanting to remodel..." A perfect canvas: Great title for a novel.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What $1,000 Bought You In Marin In The 1800s

Don't feel bad. We're sure that if you index for inflation, it all comes out even.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Marin foreclosures at a glance

Not a pretty sight, but a really pretty site. Real estate startup Hotpads scrapes national housing data (for sale, rental and foreclosure) and displays it on a map for your browsing pleasure. The foreclosure data comes from RealtyTrac; rentals and for sale data comes from homeowners and real estate agents' sites.

[Story via TechCrunch]

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Market still brisk in Marin?

Houses that cost more than $1 million don't last two weeks on the market in Marin says Redfin.

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Price Choppers: More Tales of Marin's Most Motivated Sellers

With one of last week's price choppers already in contract (we're referring to 171 Stanford in Mill Valley, where the seller cut the price from $849,000 to $795,000), we figured it was time to toss some fresh meat into the water. Here are some sellers who've reduced their asking prices:

Stinson Beach: There are only 325 lots in the Seadrift neighborhood, an exclusive enclave we've always thought exhibited great optimism, built on that spit of land that juts so trustingly out into the ocean at the end of Stinson Beach. The price of one older oceanfront property on the market since October, at 234 Seadrift Rd., has been cut from $3.6 million to $3.3 million. Depending on whom you ask, it either has ocean views or partial ocean views. Either way, they're better than our views. To give you some perspective, the seller of the house down the road at 296 Seadrift Rd., listed at $6.2 million last July, is sitting firm.

Mill Valley: A block or so over from the Stanford listing we discussed earlier, on another of those streets named after colleges, 222 Princeton has Bay views, 3BR, 2BA and a price cut, from $1.275m to $1.175m.

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

WEEKEND READING: A guide to Eichler homes

Many of the urban hipsters we know in San Francisco (and a few friends in NY) want to quit their cramped city apartments and buy retro, mid-century Eichlers. Especially now that prices are starting to drop in Northern Marin.

What is an Eichler home? Joseph Eichler was a prolific builder who had a dream of California living that integrated the outdoors with the indoors. This was very forward thinking in the 1950s when people didn't have houses with big walls of sliding doors that opened onto sunny atria, where they could eat in the garden. But it made perfect sense for California's crisper-drawer climate.

Eichler teamed up with a number of architects to build 11,000, mostly low-cost homes in developments throughout the state. He also built some custom homes. Marin County has an especially high concentration of Eichlers—about 1,600 of them—in six neighborhoods, from Strawberry Point to upper Lucas Valley.

To see what all the fuss was about, we spent an afternoon with David Shapiro, a real estate agent with Frank Howard Allen who's been selling Eichlers for 30 years, and lives in one. Here's what we found out.

We met David at 1075 Las Ovejas Avenue in Terra Linda, one of his latest listings—a three-bedroom, two-bathroom Eichler which is on the market for $769,000. It sits in the middle of an Eichler neighborhood, on the kind of sunny, winding street where you'd expect to see a boy with a fresh buzz cut pedalling his new Sting-Ray. David, an athletically trim man with neat, gray hair and a quick smile, knows this neighborhood better than anyone. "I started in business in the late 1970s and I built it up
by doing a lot of door knocking," he said. "There are approximately 750 Eichlers in Terra Linda and I've been to most of them."

In those days Eichlers were "kind of looked down upon by the real estate community and public in general" as out-of-style tract homes, he added. "But about 10 years ago they experienced a renaissance and now they've really come into vogue and sell for as much—or even more than—houses of other builders."

At 1075 Las Ovejas, David pointed out some of the tell-tale details that make an Eichler a hipster's dream: an open floor plan; a kitchen with two walls of windows that flow into sunny courtyards; beamed ceilings; and a long hall, lined with bedrooms and bathrooms as efficiently as a ship.

Over the years, certain architectural details have disappeared. Most original Eichlers have Philippine mahogany paneling that, in this home, has been replaced with more traditional wallboard. While real connoisseurs prize the paneling, "rarely wold you find it in impeccable condition," David said. "It was pretty flimsy and you have to remember that people raised kids in these houses."

This house is one of three Eichlers for sale in a three-block area. At 1020 Las Ovejas, for instance, another three-bedroom, two-bath Eichler is on the market for $799,000. And around the corner, at 794 Las Colindas Road, the same sized home is $759,000.

You can probably buy any of these houses for less than it would have cost you a few years ago, now that the Northern Marin real estate market has weakened. But you'll face competition from savvy Eichlerphiles. Just last month, one of David's listings, an $810,000 Terra Linda house, sold after getting three offers. Two came in at $775,000; the winner was $785,000.

David offers these tips for would-be Eichler buyers:
1. Thoroughly check out the original radiant heating system (the pipes below the floor) to be sure it's still functioning.
2. Inspect the flat roof to make sure it doesn't leak. ("The beams you see inside are both the interior ceiling AND the roof support. So a hole in the tar and gravel above will leak right in.")
3. Check out the Eichler Network for info on maintenance and atrium gardening.

More on Eichler: "Old Modern Houses With Futurist Ideas"
More Eichlers for sale in Marin.

Last week's Weekend Reading: Buying foreclosed houses with The Flipper

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Friday, April 4, 2008

The Way We Were

Yes, Virginia, there was a Mt. Tamalpais Gravity Train.

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Two, Two, Two Houses In One

The neighbors find more reasons than there are trees to hate the house you're building in Mill Valley—any house. In the case of this pricey new Sycamore Park listing (a just-completed $3.395 million Dutch Colonial-style home at 111 Locust Ave.), the offending feature was a detached, two-story building with a rental unit in the backyard.

A one-story garage would have been fine. But a two-story rental cottage would "tower over our rental cottage," one neighbor wrote in an email message to the city planning department. That was just the beginning.

The owners went to city hall to make an impassioned speech about the house. And about how their family was looking forward to living in the neighborhood. As for that two-story garage/apartment? A perfect place to house grandparents.

With the wisdom of Solomon, the planning commission ruled that a slightly shorter version of the garage could be built. It also asked the owners to investigate whether "prehistoric resources" were buried on the property. (They weren't, according to an archaeological survey.) And finally, it asked the owners to paint the trim a tasteful color. (The city approved linen white.)

We don't know which of these requirements, if any, put the owners over the edge. But they decided to leave the neighborhood after all. Which is why this lovely house is on the market.

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Peek In Your Neighbors' Windows Without Getting Arrested

Go on, you know you want to see what's going on in there.

Now you can, by paging through America At Home, a new collection of photos and essays created by two long-time Marin residents who wanted to give the rest of us a glimpse into the private, everyday—and in some cases, unusual—rituals unfolding inside other people's houses:

From the Mother Goose of Mill Valley (see above) who shares her condo with waterfowl to the Wrigley Field neighbors who installed in-home bleachers to watch Chicago Cubs play, the book created by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt offers a look at what it's like to live in America today. "Wouldn't it be cool if you went up to your grandparents' attic and found a book that showed what home life was like before electricity and the Internet?" asks Mr. Smolan.

In a hundred years, someone will find this book fascinating for the same reason (actually, we already do). In the meantime, at the book's website you can upload your own family photo and make a custom cover for your copy. The book, which retails for $40, sells for $26.40 at Amazon.

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Luxury Apartments For Corte Madera?

The new owners of Madera Vista—one of Marin's largest if not best-kept apartment complexes—are embarking on a $25 million plan to spruce up the joint, according to today's Marin Independent-Journal, which notes that the aging seven-buliding complex has "sweeping views of San Pablo Bay and easy access to public open space."

Tenants in Building 7 were the first to be told to scram (by June 1). Rents, for anyone who might be thinking of moving back into the 126-unit complex after renovations are finished in three years, will set a Marin record:

Apartment broker Scott Gerber of NorCal Commercial Inc. in Larkspur, said Madera Vista will probably have among the highest rental rates in the county. Average two-bedroom apartments go for $1.76 to $1.79 per square foot in Marin and properties at the high end cost about $2.30 per square foot. He said Stellar could end up asking $3,575 for a 1,300-square-foot two-bedroom unit given their investment, the location and the views.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

A New Place to Shop For Mortgages

Zillow today launched a tool to help borrowers comparison shop for loans. At the Mortgage Marketplace, if you enter your zipcode, the amount you want to borrow and your credit score, the site promises to email you lenders' quotes. The site is free for borrowers; lenders pay $25 to sign up. So far, 1,214 users have requested loan information (including us), and lenders have responded with 640 quotes. We're still waiting for ours.

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