While there are many natural hazards that are commonly discussed in the San Jose area, such as earthquake faults, flood planes, and liquefaction zones, there’s one which comes up frequently on the east coast but is largely ignored here in the Valley of Heart’s Delight. The question is this: is there a radon risk in Silicon Valley homes?
First, though, what is radon?
Per the EPA website, “Radon (chemical symbol Rn) is an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas. It comes from the natural decay of uranium and radium found in nearly all rocks and soils. Radon can move up from the ground into buildings through openings in floors or walls that are in contact with the ground.”
If the idea that a radioactive carcinogenic gas can enter your home or workplace completely unnoticed spooks you, that’s understandable. Thankfully, it is uncommon to find radon at high enough concentrations for concern in Silicon Valley. It’s helpful in that regard that it’s a region with few smokers and few basements, both of which can increase the risk.
That being said, radon can be found all over the world, and similarly, homes high in radon can be found anywhere, though they are more or less common depending on where you are.
So how do you know your radon risk?
Santa Clara County is considered to be a moderate, and not high, radon area. Different geological conditions may make an area more or less prone to high levels of radon gas, though, so even here it is possible to have a radon risk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey have mapped by county the average potential radon levels in the area, divided into three zoning (Level 3 being the lowest and Level 1 the highest average measurement zones) for buildings without radon remediation. Santa Clara County is a Zone 2 area per the map linked to above. Check the map at Berkeley Lab Columbia Univeristy Radon Project page. Areas with the greatest risk, and which suggest remediation, are those in Zone 1. The are counties with predicted average indoor radon screening levels greater than 4 pCi/L.
If you would like to check your home’s radon risk levels, there are two tests you can use to measure indoor exposure: a short-term test and a long-term test, and both are affordable. The short-term test only takes a few days, might cost around $15, and is a less reliable way to get results quickly. Long-term measurements take a year and uses detectors placed one on each living level of the house (so approximately $25 for a single-story, $50 for a two-story home). These are much more accurate, so they are the ones preferred by researchers and home owners, but the results will take longer to reach and the cost is higher.
Worst-case-scenario, you have measured 4+ pCi/L (picoCuries per liter of air), the level at which the EPA recommends remediation. Now what? Prepare to spend a few thousand dollars (a great bargain to keep you and your family healthy). The standard treatment involves the installation of a pipeline and fan system which will pull the seeping gas from the ground beneath your house and redirect it outside where it can disperse safely in the air. The only apparent downside to this procedure (other than the time and cost of installation) is that your heat and air conditioning costs may rise slightly. Check with the experts, though, to get the full scope of both the risk and the remediation impact.
Read more at the pages listed below.
An appraisal is an opinion of real estate value by a licensed appraiser, employed when a house or condo is under contract or sale pending with a mortgage, so that the lender does not over-invest. In other words, when an appraisal is used in escrow, it is to protect the bank which is lending money on the property. Appraisals may be used at other times, too.
Market value is what home buyers and sellers will agree on as the sale price of a property. When Realtors work up a comparative market analysis or competitive market analysis, they try to figure out where the home will sell in the future, or what the market value will be. They will also strive to bring that sale price to the top of the possible range of likely values – or go beyond it.
Put another way, appraisals attempt to determine the most precise value for what a home should be worth. Home buyers may or may not agree with an appraisal’s results, though. The appraisal value does not equal market value. The market may find the property to be worth more or less than what an official appraisal states as the worth of the real estate.
With an appraisal, there is a subjective element to the opinion of value. For instance, if a brand new kitchen sink is tangerine in color but in great condition, will the appraiser ding it for being unpopular, or value it higher for being new? I can tell you that most Realtors would take off projected value for that poor color choice – but I doubt that an appraiser would. How about a flag lot? Is that worth more or less than a standard lot on the street? Most buyers would prefer a home on the street, and that may impact the sale price, but will an appraiser devalue a flag lot? Maybe.
Or with a view, how much is it worth? Recently I sold a Saratoga home with a fantastic, once in a lifetime view. The appraiser who came out for the bank downplayed the view as not having much value at all. The home buyers who bid on the property, though, thought it was all about the view.
Fair market value is when there is just one buyer (or couple) and one seller (or couple) and the property is purchased with no undue pressure on either side. It’s not a fire sale for the seller. The buyer isn’t competing in a crazy multiple offer situation. The appraisal will have the best odds of matching market value in this circumstance, but even then, it’s no guarantee. In the San Jose area, if there’s only one buyer for the residence and it’s a moderately priced piece of real estate, there may be something wrong that makes buyers somewhat devalue the home. (This is because we have perpetually low inventory – at least as of this writing in 2017.)
In a rapidly appreciating market, appraisal values often lag the probable buyer’s value (or market value). This is because appraisals are always backwards looking in time. They consider the closed sales. If a property closed escrow 3 months ago, that purchase price was probably agreed upon 4 months ago, since most escrows run about 30 days. With multiple offer situations, we may get 6 offers on a Silicon Valley home and four of them can be at a certain number – but the appraisal comes in lower.
Home buyers decide on their pricing based on sold homes which are similar as well as the current competition and the trajectory of the market. In spots, they say “run to where the ball is going“. If you run to where the ball is now, you will miss it. So too with an actively changing market.
Sometimes the market gets soft, either generally or in certain pockets or pricing tiers. When that happens, home sellers can find themselves frustrated if there was a recent appraisal but home buyers don’t agree with the stated value. “But the appraisal said it’s worth MORE!” Buyers don’t care about the appraisal. If the buyers who step up to the plate with an offer are the only ones bidding, there’s a good chance that the ultimate sale price negotiated will be the true market value. That does not make the appraisal wrong, it only means that either prices have gone down a bit since the appraisal or that market conditions have created a lower sale price.
Interested in buying a rental property? Perhaps you were thinking that a 20% rental property down payment would do the trick to get you started as a real estate investor? That may work in some places. In most of the U.S., though, you’ll need 30% down to be “cash flow neutral”, meaning that you aren’t losing money each month. In pricey Silicon Valley, though, often it takes more than a 40% down payment on an investment property just to break even.
Today a friend and past client asked me exactly this question. The investment property in mind, a townhouse, would pull in a monthly rent of about $2600 to $2800 when occupied. (Remember, you have to also factor in at least some vacancy rate.) The list price for this townhouse is about $650,000. (Side note: with a condo or townhouse, insurance coverage is probably going to be a lot less costly than with a single family home. The estimates below are for a townhome.)
Where do you think the cash flow neutral or break even point would be in terms of the down payment? That question is today’s case study. Have a look at the various scenarios of 20% down, 30% down,40% down and 50% down:
If my calculations are correct, you really need to put about 50% down to buy this particular Santa Clara County townhome and have it support itself.
Is that a good deal? Not really. At least not if your main focus is cash flow.
There are other places in the country where you can put a lot less down and break even or have a positive cash flow.
Of course, cash flow is one motivator. Another, though, is appreciation. Depending on your own goals, you may be far more interested in appreciation than cash flow. If that’s the case, Silicon Valley may be exactly what you’re looking for as an investment buyer. Those places where the down payment can be smaller may not have the same upside potential with appreciation as we have here in the San Jose area, or the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole.
Interested in becoming a real estate investor? Have a good down payment saved? Please call or email me and we can chat. If Silicon Valley isn’t the right place for you to make your real estate investment, I can introduce you to wonderful Realtors in other areas where the numbers may be more favorable.
What is the function of a title company or title insurance company in real estate purchases or refinances? In Silicon Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California generally, title companies perform two specific services:
- provide title insurance for real estate being bought or borrowed against
- provide escrow services, acting as the neutral third party which takes in the deposit money and holds it during the escrow period, disbursing all funds when escrow closes and having someone go to the county recorder’s office to record the deeds to complete the sale
Title insurance companies research the title history, find out what recorded easements may exist,reveal any encumbrances (leins, clouds on title, etc.). An escrow officer from the title company is usually the professional with a notary’s license who will sign off home buyers and sellers on the final documents, too.
There are many other services that title companies provide. Many people wonder how to hold title, and while neither your Realtor nor your escrow officer can advise you on how to do so, the title companies all have a little 1 page handout explaining the major concepts for each option on how to hold title.
If you need to sign off on the final documents out of town or even out of the country, the escrow officer and her or his support staff will work with you to coordinate it. (It can be a little tricky if overseas and outside of the U.S.).
If you are selling your house or condo and discover that an old loan that you paid off is still showing up in the preliminary title report, the escrow officer at the title insurance company will work to get it resolved and removed.
The customer service department at title companies can research the chain of title, too. Sometimes it’s quite interesting as the chain brings you back to the time of patents and land grants, with hand written deeds in a style of cursive which is somewhat foreign to us today.
There are many other things that title companies do – big and small – and most of them are “behind the scenes” that few of us ever witness directly, but without which no one would be able to close out sales with the safety net of title insurance which we value so much.
Title insurance can be a confusing concept, but I wrote about it elsewhere on this site.
The sign off is an appointment in which home buyers and sellers sign the final papers which will lead to closing a few days later. (In some states, the closing happens when all parties sign, and both sellers and buyers meet at the same time for the official paperwork. Not so here in Silicon Valley, though.) Usually the appointment takes place at the title company which is also handling the escrow – that is the norm in northern California. Sometimes either buyers or sellers cannot be available during regular business hours. In that case, they have an option of paying for a mobile notary to do the signing at their home or some other convenient location.
The closing, or close of escrow, takes place when the deed is recorded with the county at the County Recorder’s Office. Usually each title company will send one person to record all of the deeds scheduled to close that day for that firm. Once a particular property has been recorded, we say “it is on record”. Someone from the title company will call or email the clients or the real estate agents (or both) to confirm that it’s on record. For short, they often say “we have confirmation” – meaning that they’ve been told that the deed was recorded. The property transfer happens when the deed is recorded – not when the papers are signed.
$938,000 : 236 W RINCON AVE C, CAMPBELL2 beds, 3 baths
$1,639,000 : 4763 W Hacienda AVE, CAMPBELL4 beds, 3 baths
$1,249,000 : 364 Shamrock DR, CAMPBELL3 beds, 2 baths
$1,299,000 : 2221 Central Park DR, CAMPBELL4 beds, 2 baths
$1,765,000 : 1132 Fawn DR, CAMPBELL5 beds, 3 baths
$2,350,000 : 1424 Maysun CT, CAMPBELL5 beds, 4 baths
$1,350,000 : 686 Harriet AVE, CAMPBELL4 beds, 2 baths
$1,299,888 : 1458 Patio DR, CAMPBELL3 beds, 2 baths
$898,000 : 1116 Capri DR, CAMPBELL2 beds, 2 baths
$1,180,000 : 2120 La Miel WAY, CAMPBELL3 beds, 2 baths
See all Real estate in the city of Campbell.
(all data current as of 10/18/2018)
Listing information deemed reliable but not guaranteed. Read full disclaimer.
One big challenge we have in today’s Silicon Valley real estate market that we didn’t have 20 years ago is the proliferation of misinformation on real estate or home values due to the prevalence and popularity of online home valuation websites. Everyone wants an easy answer, but often the easy answers aren’t all that accurate.
Sometimes my clients present me with “THE VALUE” of property per one of these online sites and in some cases, they challenge me to disprove it (Zillow says it, so it must be right, goes the thinking). If they want to buy a house which is listed for more than the auto-comped value, it may cause some emotional anguish. And if they want to buy one which is listed for less, they may feel a little giddy – unless multiple offers are looming. Same with home sellers. They agonize when Zillow, Trulia or some other big name site places a worth on their property which is less than what they feel it should be. (It is not uncommon for most home owners – including real estate agents, by the way – to feel that their home is really going to sell for 5-10% more than is likely. But this is an additional problem.)
Over the last couple of days, I used various web sites (Eppraisal, Trulia, Zillow, Chase, FindTheBest, SmartZip, DataQuick, HomePriceReview), some of which you may have heard of and perhaps others you haven’t, to spot check the value of a particular house in San Jose’s Cambrian area (95124, Cambrian Gardens in the Little Branham area). Most of these provide the number or range without an account or email address. A couple of them came from other sources (SmartZip and Dataquick) listed, so is second hand info in those cases. Also, some of these which do require your contact info will provide what you give to a real estate agent who will then want to follow up with you (HomePriceReview, for one).
What might surprise a lot of people is the huge discrepancy in values given.
In our sample of the San Jose house above, the estimated value ranges from $624,239 all the way to $888,000. That’s a whopping $263,761 difference, which is more than a typical down payment, well more than 30%! Zillow’s stated goal is right in line with this spread, though. Zillow says it targets being within 20% of the correct value 80% of the time.
How can they disagree so much?
Some Silicon Valley home buyers do not want to have their own buyers agent, but instead expect that they can find properties in the San Jose area that they want to see and request that the listing agent show it to them in a private appointment. These same potential buyers may be surprised that the listing agent may refuse to show them the listing outside of a regularly scheduled open house – that is, if the seller is permitting open houses.
What’s going on?
In earlier articles we’ve discussed the need for a buyer broker agreement (verbal at the least, but possibly in writing) and why you, as a buyer, ought to have your own representation at the negotiation table. (If you missed these, see the links under “related reading” below.) Today I want to dispel the myth that the listing agent is required to open up and show condos or houses for sale to anyone who calls and requests seeing them and explain why that’s the case.
Showings of homes for sale are determined by the listing agreement or contract between the home seller, the listing agent or Realtor and the broker
The most important thing for buyers to understand is that the accessibility of the home for viewings depends upon the agreement, verbally or in writing, between the owner of the property and the agent/brokerage hired to market, negotiate, and sell the real estate. It’s not an “on demand” situation where an interested buyer can insist on seeing the property as desired. Here are some of the expected scenarios and reasons why showings are somewhat restricted most of the time: Continue reading
What does it mean when real estate professionals, journalists and consumers refer to a “hot seller’s market“? Simply put, it means there’s an imbalance in the market which is very much in the seller’s favor. In terms of supply and demand, it translates to far more demand than available inventory for sale (supply). It’s a good time to sell, but a hard time to buy.
We measure or note the market conditions using a variety of data points;
- days to sell (and days on market for all homes, including unsold)
- sale price to list price ratio
- absorption rate (months of inventory, weeks or days of inventory)
- number of listings available vs pendings and recently closed homes
- rapid rise in home sale prices, especially if to unsustainable levels
- number of offers received on a property at once (multiple offers)
- buyers upping their price and improving their terms voluntarily, without getting a counter offer
- buyers writing offers with few or no contingencies, fast close of escrow or other extremely strong terms
- overall market trends of inventory lessening, prices rising, buyers getting more desperate – how all of these look when viewed as a whole
While some of the above can be easily tracked on our multiple listing service, some are not findable anywhere except in conversations with real estate agents who are actively working the market, writing and receiving contracts. What isn’t tracked includes the number of offers placed on a home for sale, whether buyers are engaging in “bidding war” tactics such as upping their price before even getting a counter offer, or offers with no contingencies.
$1,490,000 : 942 Highland TER, SUNNYVALE4 beds, 4 baths
$1,198,000 : 933 Amador AVE, SUNNYVALE3 beds, 2 baths
$1,248,000 : 575 E Duane AVE, SUNNYVALE4 beds, 2 baths
$950,000 : 880 E Fremont AVE 620, SUNNYVALE2 beds, 2 baths
$638,888 : 346 Dunsmuir TER 2, SUNNYVALE1 bed, 1 bath
$798,888 : 602 Arcadia TER 305, SUNNYVALE2 beds, 2 baths
$1,898,000 : 1403 Mallard WAY, SUNNYVALE4 beds, 2 baths
$899,950 : 716 Lyrelake CT, SUNNYVALE3 beds, 2 baths
$1,288,000 : 209 E Duane AVE, SUNNYVALE3 beds, 2 baths
$1,598,000 : 961 Bluebonnet DR, SUNNYVALE4 beds, 2 baths
See all Real estate in the city of Sunnyvale.
(all data current as of 10/18/2018)
Listing information deemed reliable but not guaranteed. Read full disclaimer.
Savvy Silicon Valley home buyers tend to look at properties with an eye toward what they can change versus what they cannot change. It’s a pain, but not really so hard, to make cosmetic fixes or upgrade a house or condo. It’s more work, but still possible in most cases, to move walls around. With some houses, an expansion may be an option.
But the one thing that cannot be changed is location issues. Things too nearby like high voltage power lines, train tracks, freeways, schools, busy roads, commercial properties, less expensive properties or types of residences (such as apartment buildings) will pull the property value down. Similarly, being on a T intersection, having neighbors with run down houses will also impact pricing because again, the home seller cannot control or mitigate their impact. The question is how much of a home pricing impact will it be?
From a slightly busier than normal street to a quieter one, it could be as little as 3-5%. Being directly on a main road, it could be 10% or more. Pile up several unfixable issues and it will possibly be more, perhaps 15%, or higher. In general, 10% is a good working number to use but it could be too high or too low based on your particular situation. Continue reading
Many of my east coast friends and relatives have told me that when they close on realty transactions, everyone goes to the same table – buyers, sellers, the attorneys for each and the real estate agents for each. Not only do they all meet in one room to finalize the deal, but when it’s over, the property transfers title right then.
Not so in Silicon Valley!
Here in northern California, buyers and sellers sign off separately, and almost never are lawyers involved. The closing or sign off happens 5-7 days prior to the deed being recorded and title transferring. The buyers often have both their real estate agent and their lender present to answer any questions. This final paperwork is most often done at a title company’s office. Also for the seller, it’s usually at the title company and the agent is present.
What happens on the day of closing, then? There are two main events that take place on the day that escrow closes and the real estate sale is finalized. First, the title company gets the deeds recorded with the County of Santa Clara. One employee goes to the county recorder’s office and gets each deed recorded for that company’s closings. When finished, he or she phoned the branches and confirms that recording did take place. The escrow officer or assistant will then call (sometimes email) the Realtors or licensees involved and tell them “we have confirmation – we are on record”. The agents, in turn, notify the buyer(s) and seller(s). The second thing that happens is that the new buyer gets keys to the home! This is true even if there is a rent back, since the buyer is now a landlord, even if it’s just for a little while.
$2,200,000 : 185 La Canada CT, LOS GATOS4 beds, 3 baths
$780,000 : 17945 Madrone DR, LOS GATOS2 beds, 1 bath
$1,599,000 : 485 Cresci RD, LOS GATOS4 beds, 3 baths
$2,195,000 : 156 Massol AVE, LOS GATOS4 beds, 3 baths
$1,788,000 : 21001 Shear Creek RD, LOS GATOS4 beds, 3 baths
$1,649,000 : 164 Belcrest DR, LOS GATOS6 beds, 3 baths
$1,375,000 : 18400 Overlook RD 8, LOS GATOS3 beds, 3 baths
$2,438,000 : 251 Littlefield LN, LOS GATOS3 beds, 2 baths
$4,150,000 : 440 Santa Rosa DR, LOS GATOS5 beds, 5 baths
$4,299,000 : 15280 Blackberry Hill RD, LOS GATOS5 beds, 4 baths
See all Real estate in the city of Los Gatos.
(all data current as of 10/18/2018)
Listing information deemed reliable but not guaranteed. Read full disclaimer.