Thursday, May 31, 2007

Issues, Smissues...(bring out the tissues)

Real Estate negotiations have been relentless, if not downright brutal these past several months in my fair city of Chicago. Grown men have been spotted sobbing at Title Company closing tables and the legal mouthpieces are certainly earning their shekels as the bartering continues deep into the final hour, often times culminating just seconds before the final T is crossed and the keys to Heaven are exchanged for the balance of Escrow. Lately, everyone seems to be grabbing with both hands from the metaphoric candy aisle conveniently located at the check-out counter of the Buyer's Market.

As a Realtor, I too have found myself at the foreront of this high seas Trick or Treat line with open briefcase, taking as much as I can for my own Buyers while, likewise on the List side, slamming the door as quickly as possible on the masked marauders trying to steal a deal from my Sellers. They hover around our properties like pirates in business suits and BMWs--sword and pen in one hand, low-ball Offer in the other, ready to pounce on the residential booty with the longest Market Time. Arrghh.

And once a deal is finally agreed upon, it doesn't end peacefully with simple Mutual Agreement and Signed Contract much less, a bloody handshake. More now than ever it appears, The Inspection is becoming the 'Deal after the Deal.' Whether it's involves New Construction, Condo Conversion or Residential Resale, the Home Inspection Report is becoming the preeminant catalyst in most Real Estate transactions I'm privy to these days. What used to be addressed exclusively in the 5 Business Day Attorney Review Period--conveniently nestled between Signed Agreement and Mortgage Contingency Period--the Inspection Period as of late, has been running right up to and beyond the Final Walk-Through with dollars and Seller Credits being re-negotiated even as the last RESPA is being printed out at the Title Company.

Note From Above: All subsequent Real Estate-centric prayers should be immediately redirected from the Appraisal Department to the Inspection Issue Department. Amen.

I was at a Closing last week and got up twice and headed for the elevators with my Buyers. Twice, we were called back to the table to find a remedy for overlooked Inspection Issues that arose during our Final Walk-Through of the property. Finally, a number was agreed upon and the deal Closed. It was nothing that simple Disclaimer and Disclosure (The Double D's of Real Estate) couldn't have addressed months earlier, had the Seller's side of the deal been more forthcoming. In the third hour at the table, someone went into their pockets for $5,000 (and a few tissues, I believe) more to make the deal happen---and it wasn't me. Sad thing was, we all left the building in silence feeling that no one really won. Even the Attorney attempted to tack on an extra $250 at the end. Maybe brutal is the wrong word, but relentless...for sure.

Geno Petro

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I Ain't Cause I'm Not...

I was recently referred to as an 'anecdotal' writer by a Commentor on another blog I contribute to on occasion. Actually, she didn't even refer to me as a 'writer,' (which is okay with me as I didn't make a nickle last year from that craft)...just 'anecdotal.' And she didn't mean it in a nice way either, I don't think.

I was informed that 'bloggers' in general are not 'journalists' at all but rather, individuals who base their subjective 'spewings and conjecture' on, are you ready?... "personal observation or random investigations rather than systematic scientific evaluation...of the treatment of subject matter in representational art..." (I'll spare you the rest of the diatribe). "Especially real estate bloggers," she added. In closing she mentioned, in kind of a snooty tone to boot, something about, "Man On The Street Reporting" and that it was among the lowliest of literary genres...if even that. "Just look what it has done to local television news." Sounded to me like she got dumped by a real estate blogger sometime in her past, but that would be subjective conjecture on my part. And as she was quick to (or not to) point out, what do I know? I stepped back, put on my Chicago Realtor hat and thought for a few moments as I re-read her Comment.

"Huh?" was my best retort, I concluded. The response seemed appropriate on so many levels--the old implied "I know, I know...I'm dumb, you're smart/you're right and I'm wrong" reverse-psycho, half-hearted sarcastic, ying/ yang 'come back' I learned in the 8th grade (when I also first learned what an anecdote actually was). After a minute or so of further mental debate I went ahead and pushed the Send button--admittedly a weak 'fire back' across the bow--adding my own monosyllabic Response to the modestly accumulating Comment Section below my piece. Let it be known from here 'til Deletion...The author's ('blogger's')reponse was "Huh?"...

I had most certainly happened across the dictionary definition of 'anecdote' in a past life but never thought it was a bad thing, necessarily. I've just always preferred to write in this manner (if I even felt like writing at all, to be honest). It's not like I'm applying for a Pulitzer or even a copy desk job at the Daily Herald, Bugle or wherever. I am purposely not a journalist because I purposely need to make about what a good attorney makes a year. I'm just a middle-aged fellow who sells Real Estate for a living in Chicago and spins the occasional yarn to keep things light--anecdotal, I am told...

I mean come on, do you really care about "Ten Things To Do Before Listing Your Home," "Spring Cleaning Tips," "Market Trends In Hot Neighborhoods?" or other such sophomoric (if even) real estate 101 crapola every other blogger in this field writes about 24/7/30/52/365/infinity...? Don't you already know these things anyway or at the very least, are you not able to figure them out on your own? I pay a monthly fee to have such items addressed in my sidebar or linked to my Home Page so I can write about...well...anecdotal stuff. You know, funny stuff.

So to my beloved Commentor, allow me to add to my three lettered, time stamped "Huh?" the following: The way I see it, I get to be funnier than most attorneys, live in the same neighborhood (two in my condo association alone although at last count, no 'newsmen' that I know of) without ever having had to attend law school or ever pass a bar--of any kind. And as far as whether I do or do not fancy myself a journalist, all I can add is I do have some experience in the field--I was a paperboy once. Oh yeah...... and I sold a house today. So there. That's about 10 grand after taxes, if you're counting.

Sincerely yours,

Man On The Street

photo by answers

Geno Petro

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Marvin Gardens, The Shotglass and Me

For the first seven years of my life I was an only child. Both parents had careers and my mom continued working (as she had for the 10 years of marriage before I was born) until then. When my first sister popped onto the scene in 1963 the Petro family dynamic would change forever in our new, single income home. And while on one hand I had newly found seniority over another living creature other than the dog, Shatzie, I likewise learned to accept my reduced share of cherished parental attention (yeah, was the 1960's. Let's be real) with dignity. A few years later, 'sis' number two came along and instantly, it was an oligopoly--which, if Econ 101 serves me correctly, is at least one more than a duopoly and two or more than a monopoly. In other words, I no longer ran the entire show in the 'age 7 and under' category in our house and soon came to understand that any and all future familial credits and debits, material or emotional, would forever be split at least three ways, ad infinitum. Throw all that 'Only Child' psychological junk right out the window. Enter... 'Oldest Son.' It was my first promotion.

Two sets of Aunts and Uncles, a few blocks away, watched me on an alternating basis almost daily up until this point in time. So to my many cousins, I was the 'orphaned cousin Genie,' the skinniest child ever to walk the already crumbling sidewalks of Levittown, Pennsylvania. And to top it off, because one Aunt saw me "rolling my eyes a lot" she suggested to my parents I wear glasses--as it turned out...big, black ugly ones like Elvis Costello wore in the 80's and high school Science teachers wear to this day, I suppose. I had already narrowly escaped the big, black orthopedic shoe scenario with some quick think 'mimic walking' of my non pigeon-toed peers but my early onset sarcasm (the eye rolling, apparently) put me in thick black frames until I stopped cutting my hair in the 70's when all childhood bets were finally and ultimately, off for good.

So....until that second grade Catholic school year I spent most of my unquality time at my cousins' respective households where I was among the youngest and smallest of the Petro males. There were a lot of Petro kids of all grades and sizes in that particular era, 15 besides me--at least 15 if I recall correctly, so we played a lot of games to pass the time--the kind of games made out of cardboard and toxic lead pieces in taped up boxes--not silicone chips, LCD screens and joysticks, if you know what I'm saying. And being an hour or so west of Atlantic City, we always played Monopoly. It was the best game ever invented, we were sure.

Now, hovering around the bottom of the family foodchain meant my game face persona was, as you might guess... The Thimble. Not The Dog, nor The Racecar.. not even The @#&%ing Iron.

No, GenieWeenieJellyBeanie (that nickname hung in the air until I got bald and heavy and everyone became convinced I was either in The Mob or auditioning for The Sopranos) almost always got stuck with The Thimble. And with such a status symbol handicap (even The Shoe could at least be mistaken for a boot, which is pretty cool) and little, if no knowledge at all of how to best allocate the multicolored $1500 stake, the most I could mentally muster back in those wonder years was to aspire for the yellow corner of the Monopoly Board--Atlantic, Ventnor, and my all time favorite--Marvin Gardens. Maybe even someday hope to own a few little green houses here and there before inevitably--parking illegally in some Park Place tow zone, blowing my Boardwalk rent money at the Casino or searching frantically for my last Get Out Of Jail Free favor from an ex-inlaw--and going belly up for good. I strived to obtain the little green houses. We all lived in Levittown which was nothing but little green houses in the 1960's, if you think about it.

I learned to become risk aversive before the 3rd Grade. I knew to always keep a hidden orange $500 bill in my wallet in case of emergency. My cousin Eddie taught me how to play the game 'on credit', how to collect from a deadbeat sibling, and as I got older...the beauty of compound weekly interest and the importance of passing GO for the 'two big ones.' The biggest, if not the oldest of my males cousins, he took me under his wing and even let me borrow his silver car on occasion, allowing me to move for him or play in his place if he got bored and left the game for greater, greener pastures--usually a girl down the block.

And when Eddie was in the game, no one much argued with the way he counted the dice when it was his turn to move even though the difference between a seven and an eight can be significant in such a game of spaces. In a few years time I began to earn some family respect of my own at gaming table (bedroom floor). I purposely cracked a lens (to look tougher) of my heavy, back-up specs, wore three and four shirts to show (imply) bulk and swore the most venial curse words whenever possible, mostly beginning with H and D, to prove my entrepreneurial points. I was learning about the Real Estate game. Later in life, more than a few of these lessons proved invaluable. Eddie thought my thimble was a shotglass, or at least called it that to make me feel bigger and stronger, I imagine.

"Snake-eyes!...Shotglass Genie passes GO and collects 'two big ones,' he'd say, grabbing half for the rent I couldn't pay a minute earlier on his Boardwalk penthouse. Eddie was always the bank, too. He'd give me a 'side job' as a Teller which meant I was in charge of all the heavy counting, passing out 1500 'big ones' to start the game, and putting everything away in order, back in the taped up box, when all the fun was over.

If you play Monopoly your whole life you eventually learn how to sniff out the dirty dogs and stay away from the dirty deals that usually follow. You learn to pick your partners wisely and keep a cousin Eddie around, if needed. You learn to count in your head and dollar cost average your losses and not invest in the Railway system in lean economic times. You realize that the meat of the market may very well lie in the 'yellow properties' and the not in the heavily mortgaged and luxury taxed 'blue corner' of the city and if you indeed win 2nd Place in a Beauty Contest, just shut up and take the $15. But most of learn how to have fun doing it.

house and thimble image by hasbro

Geno Petro

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The $4,000 House

I once had a chance to buy a house for $4,000. That's right, one four, one comma, and three zeros. Granted, it was last century (scary thought) and about 25 years ago. The town was Slippery Rock, Pennslyvania and was (is, I admit) also home to my alma mater. Yes, I somehow managed to accumulate a couple hundred hours of college credits and a degree or two from Slippery Rock State College and yes again, such a monikered place does in fact, exist. And finally, in summary of this seemingly unending paragraph down Long Term Memory Lane (or what's left of it from that era), it's probably the main reason you are reading this article here and not in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly or any of the assorted 'top shelf ' publications that barely allow writers like me (with degrees from such places) a subscription on credit much less a by-line in the actual magazine.

The rent was $80 a month, the landlord, Charlie--a fall down, snowstorm drunk of Bukowskian proportions, and the setting...well lest I digress too deeply, it was a rock quarry college town in the late 1970's--early 80's fog of my graduate school years. Three miles or so outside of this Western Pennslyvania burgh of mid-to-higher education rested a two-lane stone and concrete bridge and a hundred yards or so below that was nestled, along a rocky and muddy winding descent of rutted roadway, a delapidating park-like community of 1930's circa resort cottages and rusting trailer homes on the banks of the Slippery Rock Creek. Once home to a grand summer pavilion with a painted pony carousel (on display at the Smithsonian for many years in its later life), roller rink, and Olympic sized pool with exhibition style diving platforms, Rock Falls, as it was aptly named, had long since lost its appeal for summer resorters and was all but left for the squatters.

Twenty years past it's heyday, The Falls was now 'home' to a year-round but transient collection of 1960's leftovers; Liberal Arts graduate students, admonished or expelled college professors, twenty or so wandering black dogs from the same lineal extraction, and a bearded and ponytailed platoon of Vietnam Veterans grazing on the GI Bill. Throw a handful of tattoo-branded 'Old Ladies' (biker chicks whose 'Old Men' were either on the lam or in the 'joint' with no actual motorcycles anywhere to be found), the occasional even smaller town runaway, and garden variety of trailer park drunks-- throw them all into the mix and you have before you, the afore mentioned neighborhood of the $4,000 house I once had the chance to buy.

My National Direct Student Loan for $4,500 had just arrived in the Financial Aid Office when the idea was first proposed to me by Charlie B. (He kept his AA designation although he had long since drifted from the pack, as it were). I was the only person with 'real money' in a two mile radius. The check, intended for living expenses, was earmarked to get me through my last semester of graduate school. Charlie B. had a better plan in mind.

He owned two cottages outright and grossed $240 a month in rents from his waterlogged purple corner of the Butler County Monopoly Board. I paid $80, my housemate paid $80, Charlie's housemate paid $80 and Charlie himself, lived for free. We as tenants, were permitted to keep any 'sublet rents' i.e. sofa sleepers ($40 a month), sleeping bags on the living room floor ($30 a month), and outside hammock sleepers ($15 a month in fair climate months). We were also to supply all alcoholic beverages for both houses and Heaven forbid, we ever ran low or actual God forbid, out. And thinking back, the houses themselves were barely habitable with no perc, dried-up water wells and overflowing septic tanks. We showered (most of us anyway) on campus in the Field House. Still, the rent was cheap and the property 'cash flowed' if paid off in full. My first student loan re-payment wouldn't be due for at least 18 months, he reminded me. My landlord might have been a lush but he could count other people's money with the best of them.

Charlie had been on 30 day roar when he came busting into my bedroom with his property deed in one hand and a bottle of Yukon Jack in the other. Again...Bukowskian proportions, I kid you not. He had done the math. With future rents and 'sublets,' I'd recoup my investment in less than three years while living free and clear myself. When I asked about fire insurance he thought for a second then replied, "You don't pay anything for that. No one will insure down here anyway so you make money there, too. You see...maintenance free..."

Maintenance free. $4,000. Renters. Sublettors. Oh, and $500 left over..."for liquor," he suggested. "We'll throw a shindig." He did a little jig jabbing the folded document about my head and thin air like a drunken shadow boxer. I felt like I was being pressured into signing over my last educational stipend. We drank from the bottle. And the pressure was soon on an equal plane with any time share pitch I've experienced since. Even the Mexican cab driver who shanghaied my wife and me to the Mayan Palace in Cabo had nothing on Charlie B. with a snortful of Yukon. I finally agreed, in principle, to think about it while he slept off his bender. Three days later he was back.

"I bought a car instead," I told him. "A 1972 Buick Riviera." This was 1981 so needless to say, it was a junker and perfect for the daily trip up and down the rutted road out of The Falls to get to town and back. I later figured each trip took $10 of value off my vehicle and in a matter of months I would have probably done better with the house deal but such is life and its lessons learned.

I gave him a case of Guiness Stout to make peace and an envelope with $200--two months rent plus my end of the 'sublet' for the current month. He looked like he was going to cry, then hit me, then hug me, then he left and never brought it up again. Honestly, I think he forgot the whole conversation and was just pleased with the booze and by the end of the semester I was gone forever anyway, never to return...

Except twice. Once, fifteen years later I decided to drop by The Falls to see who might still be around. Charlie was long gone, too and my BMW, up to its wheelwells in mud and rocks, had to be towed out of the park. Great, great, great grand descendants of black dogs circled me like a trapped animal, almost sensing I was out of place there with my Fortune 100 job and failed German technology. The house was still standing. A squatter from the next door cottage told me he heard that 'Charlie B.', a rural legend by now, lost both places in a poker game when he was drunk. Not sure how much faith I put in squatters but it made sense to me. Bukowski himself hadn't done much better if you think about it. And if you don't know who he is then you've read and drank way too little in your lifetime. Think Mickey Rourke in Barfly.

Five years later, passing through that part of the state on a business trip, I took the exit ramp off I-79 north on a whim, and returned once more--this time in an SUV. Dogs were there. House was gone. Burnt to the ground (not for the insurance, to be sure). I did the math. Even without the 'sublet' dough, over the years it would have probably been an okay 'buy and hold' seeing that soon after, I abandoned the Riviera on a Pittsburgh bridge when the front left wheel fell off. The $10 depreciation schedule had finally taken its final toll and expired in the middle of rush hour traffic. And while Charlie B. may not have been much of a landlord or an actuary, or even a poker player, he was a pretty damn hard closer and if nothing else, had found a way to collect rent and drink for free.

Geno Petro