Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tales of 3 Cloudy Titles

A "cloud on the title" (according to my New York Real Estate Exam Review book) may be defined as "Any document, claim, unreleased lien or encumbrance that may impair the title to real property or make the title doubtful; usually revealed by a title search and removed by either a quitclaim deed or suit to quiet title." Bottom line, you don't want to "buy" property from a seller who can't unequivocally prove he or she has the legal right to sell it to you.
Sometimes it may be tempting, but it's always a bad idea.

Tale #1

Right after the "Velvet Revolution" in then-Czechoslovakia, in the spring of 1990, my Czech-born husband and I were in Prague where he was excitedly exploring all nooks and crannies of the beloved native city he had not seen since his hasty departure when the Russians sent their tanks rumbling through the streets in 1968. A posting in a cafe caught his eye- a "hunter's cottage" with land was available for $10,000! Unable to resist, we let ourselves be driven deep into the forest to view an archetypal whitewashed & thatch-roofed cottage offered for sale by a taciturn Russian officer soon to be on his way home. My husband was ready to have the money wired from America the next day; he was sure this bargain was going to be snapped up instantly if we faltered. But there was no easy mechanism for determining legal title at that time in the chaotic atmosphere of the disintegrating Soviet Empire; indeed, there were no reliable professionals handling private real estate transactions at all. For all we knew, the "seller" would disappear with his money and then the rightful owners would appear to claim property that had been confiscated from the Czechs long ago by their Russian occupiers. (Such restitution has happened very often in the years since, and rightfully so.)

So we passed on that opportunity, and waited 10 years before legally acquiring a small apartment in an Art Nouveau building on Korunni Street, near a streetcar line and small cafes.

I really did not want to live in an isolated cottage on the edge of a deep, dark woods anyway.

MORAL: You can take the New Yorker out of Manhattan, but you can't sell her a pig in a poke.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Shabby Chic Weekend Remodel

Okay, peeps: imagine that you need to sell your apartment or house in a hurry (you just got that long-awaited job in Paris or Los Angeles and you have no time to install new European fixtures or paint the master bedroom). The first Open House is next week. Eeek. Possibly you suddenly need to sublet your place furnished so you can go on that location shoot......Or maybe you just need to uplift your spirits and inject a jolt of creative energy into your hard-working bod.
Here goes: Designate the sum of $160. $120 will be for your remodel. $40 you will donate online to your favorite candidate or charity. You will now gather your old dishtowels, pot holders and shower curtains. Wash and donate to Goodwill when you buy the items below.With your precious remaining $120 you will trundle over to your local Target or Bed, Bath & Beyond (or its equivalent) and buy cotton dishtowels in any of the following colors: olive, dark purple, soft teal, oatmeal. If they are a real bargain, mix in a black & white plaid one. Add two black cotton potholders (small square ones). If the color scheme of your kitchen is a more retro yellow/red/black palette, you may buy red plaid or solid black towels and red potholders. No flowers on anything, please. (We'll go to the real thing, donch'a know.) Your new shower curtain should be white on white stripes or black and white stripes. (Okay, I'll let you get away with gray or silver stripes.) Next, you will go to your local Goodwill/Symphony Thrift Shoppe/Salvation Army and buy one funky glass lemonade-type pitcher and one glass fruit bowl (could even be old-fashioned Pyrex). Plain plain plain is the key word. (Did I say plain?) Buy a pound or two of green apples at your greenmarket or health food store, and a $5 bunch of daisies. If you are lucky enough to live near wildflowers, pick a bunch of those. If you have a few dollars left, buy a pump container of eco-friendly handsoap in a green scent like cucumber or kiwi...never, EVER, with antibiotic additives. (They just lower your resistance when you will really need it! Don't get me started.) If you have some extra mad money, buy organic cotton sheets (Pottery Barn has fab sales). Hang shower curtains, put flowers in pitcher on kitchen table, wash bowl and put on table with fruit in it. Sit down and eat an apple. If you don't feel better I want to know why, peeps!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Remembering Gene Upshaw- and his brother Doug

This week I was startled to see in the headlines that NFL Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw (one of 61 players to make it in on the first ballot) had died. He carried the Oakland Raiders to three Super Bowls, two of them winners. The obituaries describe Gene as "having a fine, understated sense of humor, and considerable depth," and being "introspective and reflective." I did not know Gene, but I did know his brother Doug back in San Francisco in 1985, and they must have been raised by some kind of mama and daddy back in Texas.
Doug Upshaw was slight, and gentle and funny. We knew he was rumored to be the brother of NFL great Gene Upshaw, but Doug never boasted about this. He was the only African-American agent in my real estate company at the time, but he was not exceptional in being gay. (This was San Francisco, after all.)
He once came to work in a raccoon coat to die for, vamped around the office and let us all try it on.
Doug also happened to be a CPA. When I needed to make a sudden move to a new house (there had been a tragic suicide by hanging on an outdoor porch behind my current home, and I couldn't bear to stay there any longer), Doug helped me put together a home loan application quickly and expertly. I feel I owe the success of that move to Doug. In many ways, it was the first move in a series that helped me and my family beyond reckoning.
Not long after, he fell ill with the scourge sweeping San Francisco that has now become a global challenge which transcends any differences of race, gender, class or national identity. At the time, such an illness was a secret to be hidden from family and society. Doug suffered a slow and agonizing death, surrounded by loving friends.
Doug, your brother Gene was lauded this week- but you, too, will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shocking ( and Sexy) Swedish Land Use Law!

This past July I spent a month in Sweden visiting relatives & trying to get a grip on the ways of this somewhat shy & mysterious people. I happened upon a marvelous booklet put out by the Swedish Institute, stocked in an official tourist information kiosk (open 24 hours!) set in the middle of a busy Gothenburg cobblestoned square. Called SWEDEN & SWEDES, it was incredibly well-written, telling me much more about Strindberg than I really needed to know....BUT. I chanced upon this amazing passage (backpacker alert):
"Love and respect for Nordic nature is a key element of the Swedish soul and modern society. In Sweden there is an ancient and globally unique law known as the "common right of access," which gives everyone the right to move around freely (as well as to raise a tent, pick berries, mushrooms and flowers and so on) in nature- even on private property- as long as they are not in sight or hearing of a residence."

Does this not absolutely knock your socks off? (The question, of course, that immediately occurs: does this include non-Swedes?) I await responses!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Real Estate Fables, C'est Moi

A few words (and a disclaimer) about how this blog will be structured. In New York State only a real estate lawyer is legally able to give advice and counsel in the field of real estate. Thus, the nuggets of wisdom gleaned from my own experience and mistakes (and triumphs) will be doled out here in the form of anecdotes/fables, followed by a moral. If you are thinking Aesop, you get it. NOTHING I say here should be the basis for any specific decisions you make without first consulting your real estate lawyer to see what best fits your particular case. Interestingly enough, in California (where I first received my license and worked for more than 15 years) title companies handle real estate escrows, and lawyers are rarely consulted during standard residential real estate transactions. I came to see the long-suffering title officers as angels-in-disguise (a shout-out to Eileen Gallagher). They work for a set fee rather than an hourly rate, and plough through tons of paperwork with nary a complaint. However, the downside of not using lawyers is that the real estate agent winds up acting as a sort of lawyer for the transaction (by default), executing the multi-page contract and negotiating all the terms and contingencies. This is very time-consuming and fraught with all the legal pitfalls you might expect. It is, in short, nerve-wracking. Being more in control entails feeling much more responsible if the deal begins to hit a brick wall. (Which happens VERY often.) So I was quite happy to learn, upon transferring my career to New York, that lawyers take over the transaction once the buyer and seller agree on a price. Let them earn their money, I say. The peace of mind I experience in exchange is priceless.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Poodles on the Roof?

For years I have been contemplating a way to share the hard-won knowledge I've accumulated as I navigated the rocky paths of motherhood and authorship, paying my bills through the unlikely venue of selling real estate on both the left & right coasts. It's been quite a ride, encompassing the AIDS crisis in 1980's San Francisco, the 1989 earthquake, a major housefire, the dotcom boom & bust, my daughter's graduation from Wesleyan and a difficult divorce from my Czech-born husband....but somewhere in there I managed to complete my coming-of-age novel, begin a memoir of my Greenwich Village childhood, and learn an awful lot about termites, plumbing, co-op rules, tax-free exchanges and why homeownership is the best second job in America- as well as being the foundation for feelings of security and joy that can enhance every other part of life. (I've also learned that real estate disputes bring out the worst in people but what else is new?)
Growing up in a series of small rented apartments and grungy hotel rooms in New York's Greenwich Village, I never thought that someday I would own a little farmhouse in upstate New York and a one-bedroom loft with brick walls in a converted high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, or that I would be someone who could give helpful advice to first-time buyers from all over the world in the two hottest real estate markets in the United States.
But I do, and I can.
I hope my words will help you to make intelligent real estate decisions, and give you an inside look into a process that too often does not serve the needs of the anxious and confused client.
Or maybe you will just be amused and that will make me happy too.

POODLES ON THE ROOF is dedicated to all my customers and especially to my French-speaking client who asked for a contractor's inspection to make sure that the roof above the Manhattan penthouse he was buying was not going to spring a leak down into his apartment- there were puddles and pools of water above his prospective unit, and my client told me he was concerned about the "poodles on the roof". I realized then how fond I am of my clients and how much I love my day job.

Thank you for giving me the inspiration to finally get this blog on the road!