I used to work at Books & Books in Salinas

I got to reminiscing today.  I was thinking about people who influenced me, and Kurt Hartman of Books & Books in Salinas, CA was one of those bosses who was extremely tough, but ultimately a great businessman.

For as long as I could remember I’ve had a job.  First it was a paper route, and then when I was  too old for that, I worked in a bookstore.  I got the job at the best independent bookstore in Salinas in 1985, when I was just entering high school.  Before I tell the story about how I got the job, let me talk a little bit about Kurt.

Books & Books started out in a little spot in a strip mall at the corner of Main St, and San Miguel Ave.  The store was first located immediately to the left of a Lucky’s supermarket (it’s now a Save Mart I think), and when it outgrew that tiny spot it moved across the parking lot next to the Quiznos.

My parents would take me there as a boy, and I’d get to pick out a book every so often.  But the owner, a gruff old man named Kurt, would always keep an eye on me.  His distain wasn’t limited to me, but to all children, and every so often a customer, too.  I honestly was afraid of him, with his wiry old grey hair, and his quick, and bright eyes.  “Don’t touch that unless you are going to buy it” and “Time is Money” were two phrases I’d hear frequently on my visits.

He always seemed like a mean old man, and I recall very clearly my first real interaction with him, the one where I asked him for a job.

As a teenager, I needed money, and the best way was for me to get some part time work after school.  My folks suggested I apply for a job at the bookstore Kurt owned, and I was reticent, remembering all of the bad interactions I’d had throughout the years.   I put on my Sunday best, hopped on my bike, and rode the 7 blocks to the bookstore.  I chained it in front of the store, and rolled down my pant leg.  I was so nervous going in, but I had practiced what I was going to say.  Simply, and politely ask for a job application, take it, and get out as fast as I could.

Kurt was sitting on his usual perch: a four legged  wooden stool right behind the big black counter. He was reading the trades or something.  I was 14, and already taller than him, but when I came through the glass door, I felt about 2 inches tall.  My hands were probably sweating as I walked up to the counter, and asked for a job application.  I didn’t ask if he had any openings, and he sensed this, and replied “What makes you think I have a job for you?”

Wait!  This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.  The exchange I had practiced in my head was much simpler.  I didn’t have to answer any questions at this point.  Only pick up an application and go.

My voice probably cracked as my brain spun thinking of an answer.  I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was something like “I need a job, and I like books, so I thought I’d ask you for a job”.

“What makes you qualified to work at my Bookstore?”

“I’ve volunteered at the public library for a summer, and had a paper route for 4 years before that” I answered.

He seemed satisfied with my responses, or at least wanted to be rid of me, so he reached under the counter, and tore off an application from the packet.  He didn’t give it to me, but instead put it on the counter and said “I have pretty strict hiring requirements.  Not just anyone can work here you know.  I don’t really need much help right now because my staff is full.  Take this, and when you have filled it out bring it back to me.”

Of course I didn’t have a leather folio or even a paper folder to carry it home in, so I carefully folded it, put it in my back pocket and headed home.

The application was a standard one page form.  Personal details were on the front, and employment questions on the back.  Strangely enough, I had more information for the back than I did for the front.  Since I hadn’t been to high school yet, or even college, so I had to leave all that blank.  All that was completed was my contact info.

But on the employment part I put down my volunteer job, my paper route, and 3 personal references who I had done yard work for, or who were friends of the family.  I do remember having to ask my parents what some of the questions were like military service, or if I was a felon.

The next day, I put on the same outfit, rode the same streets and parked my bike in the same spot.  Kurt was sitting in the same place doing what appeared to be the same thing.  I walked through the door with my completed application, extracted it from my back pocket, unfolded it, and handed it to him.  He didn’t even look up.  Muttering, “I’ll take a look at this later”.  There was nothing I could do.  I had to wait.

Several days later I got a call.  I got the job, and started on the very next monday at 3:30, right after school. What I didn’t know is that  both Kurt and my father were members of the Chamber of Commerce at one time, and he arranged for me to be able to work there without much fuss.  Of course I didn’t know about their deal during this whole process until many years later.  I can only imagine what a stink he would have put up if that arrangement wasn’t made.

I ended up working there for over 5 years.  Up until I graduated High School, and then off and on after that.  I remember unpacking heavy boxes from Ingram, sorting shelves alphabetically by category, and of course calling people when their special orders arrived. On the weekends I would open the store, and on weekdays I would close up shop.

Al the while, Kurt guided and molded the way I do business.  He taught me to do what I say.  He taught me about customer service (he would tell me how to do it, not to follow what he did), and I learned all about the workings of a small business, from the cash register, to the dumpster in the back.  Buried under a very tough facade was a nice man, and I am grateful that I was able to see that every so often.  He kept his personal life very separate, but I did know that he was a survivor of the Holocaust (you could see the numbers tattooed on his arm), and that his brother was the famous Magnum Photographer Erich Hartman.

One of the very first things Kurt had me do was to begin reading the 100 best classic books of all time.  I had to know what people were talking about when they came in he told me.  It took me the better part of 2 years, but I did it.  When it was slow, and I was working alone I would sit on that very same 4-legged stool and work my way through that list.  And the best part was, I got to keep the books for free.

As I worked there, I got to know the customers.  There were the regulars – the people who came in every week to pick up a magazine or two, or the ladies who would get the latest hardcover best-sellers.  There were the how-to guys who browsed the woodworking section, and the coin collectors who came in for the yearly numismatic guides.  At the beginning of the school year, we would stock up on all the required reading books, and every teenager for miles around would come in to get their copies.  Every so often a visitor to Salinas would stop by, as we had the largest selection of John Steinbeck Books in the county.  I can’t remember for sure if Kurt ever met John Steinbeck, but for some strange reason I think he did.

I had some great co-workers.  There was Tisa, the 20 something free spirit, Francisco, Kurt’s right hand man, and Dante, the Goth who had a photographic memory.  In the early 90’s Kurt decided to sell the store to his good friend Harry, and he and Lynn who also used to work there bought it together.   Several years later, Harry died, and Lynn and I lost touch.

Some evenings when it was really slow, I’d lock the door for a few minutes and go next door to the ice cream shop that used to be where Starbucks is now.  All the cheerleaders worked there, and I’d get a free scoop or two just for working next door.

I am very grateful for the years I had at Books & Books with Kurt, and although we didn’t communicate for years after I left, I was saddened when I learned he died in 2004.

PS;  I had to put up a photo of my old elementary school, as I don’t have any pics of the old bookstore.

Best Trulia Profile

Did you know that over 90% of Real Estate Searches now start on the web?  That’s why it is so important to have a great profile on all the major Real Estate websites.  As soon as I got my license one of the first things I did was sign up with Trulia, Zillow, and Realtor.com.

But it goes beyond just creating a profile.  You have to “be out there”.  Answering questions.  Touring properties.  Being active on the web, in addition to regular real estate marketing techniques is so important to be successful.

Today I got a little notice that I’m one of the best on Trulia.  At least my profile views are within the top 1%.

I track very carefully where my clients hear about me.  A lot come from referrals, and a lot also come from the web.  My marketing philosophy is really quite simple.  Where ever people go when they are looking for a new home, I want my name to be there.

Thanks everyone for making me part of the 1% on Trulia.

Requesting a higher option fee

The other day, I advised my clients to reject a contract for an unexpected reason, the option fee submitted was too low.

When I get a receive an offer on a house there are a bunch of things that I immediately look at and use to evaluate if it is an offer that I will recommend by clients accepts or reject

  1. The sales price
  2. The Financing.  Is it a cash offer or will there be a mortgage?
  3. The Earnest money amount
  4. When is the closing date
  5. The Termination option (or the Option Fee, as it is commonly called)
  6. Who is paying for the title policy
  7. Who is paying for the survey
  8. If there is a residential service contract being asked for, and who is paying for it.

Each of these 8 things are totally negotiable, and cost money that comes out of someone’s pocket.  And as a seller of a house, you can reject any offer based on any reason.  So be sure to carefully evaluate everything and make sure it is to your liking, because once you are under contract it is hard or even impossible to change things.

The buyers have a few more options to get out of a contract than the sellers.  But as time goes on, they get more expensive.  There are two different points where a buyer can cancel a contract.  The first is at the end of the option period, and the second is after that, but involves loosing their earnest money (and possibly more).

As soon as a contract is executed, the clock starts ticking.  You are in escrow, and each side has a bunch of things to do, as outlined in the contract, to make sure everything happens by the closing date.  You can’t back out, unless…

Unless you use the option period.  The option period is a short amount of time at the very beginning of the contract that the buyer can purchase.  Option checks can be anywhere from $250 – $1000 or more, and generally last a week.  That’s 7 calendar days (not business days).  During this time, the buyer can back out of the contract for any reason, and all they loose is their option check.

Since this is a way out of the contract, I like to see a higher option fee, and the other day I advised my clients to reject an offer because the option check was only $50.

I didn’t want my listing to be tied up for a week while they decided to kick the tires of the house.  You see, if the house is under contract, you can take backup offers, but the first contract is the one that has to be done first.

Right now Austin is in a deep Seller’s market.  There are a lot of people looking to move to Austin, and not a lot of places for them to live.  If they are serious about buying a house, they need to back it up.

I’ve been burned before at the last minute by buyers cancelled out at the very last minute because they get cold feet.  It is a waste of time for everyone involved.  Of course it is their right, but it costs them money.  And I believe the higher the option fee, the more serious they are as buyers.

TAR 1902

I hate it when buyers get cold feet.  Today I got, via email, a copy of the TAR 1902 form, the Notice of Termination of contract.  Exactly 9 hours before the option period for the contract was to expire, I got an email from the buyer’s agent with a link to a Docusign form signed by the buyers.

Here’s how it went down.  About a week ago I had some buyers for one of my listings.  This particular house had been on the market for only 4 days, and I’d already received one low-all offer for the home from a flipper (71% of the asking price) that I presented to my sellers, and they of course rejected it.  I was informed that the couple who put in the offer were first time homebuyers, and I even got a letter from the agent saying how excited they were to be able to buy this house.

Cool.  This is exactly the kind of people I like to be able to work with.  A family who wants to move into the area, and fix up the house.  This is the best kind of client as they become proud home owners, and make upgrades that are in line with what is in style, and eventually increase the value of both the home, and the neighborhood

My sellers accepted the offer, and they buyer exercised their right to an option period.  An option period is basically buying a way out of the contract if they need it.  I like to do this for most buyers, as it gives them the ability to make an offer on a home, but get a little more time to do some inspections and research to see if it is priced correctly, or if there is a lot of work.  Option checks range from $250 – $1000+ (depending on the price of the house), and generally last for a week.

When you get an option check as a seller, you should immediately give it to your client, and tell them to cash it as it is their money,  The buyer is buying a way out of their contract.  They paid you money to do it.  It’s your money.

The seller immediately scheduled an inspection for the house, and it came up with the usual items that needed fixing. Most old homes have some issues, and in this section of Austin, there were the usual problems.  Nothing I didn’t see when I priced the house, and nothing unusual for the age and style of the home.  No surprises here.

But the inspection took a little longer than they wanted and they needed to get some repair estimates from some contractors.  So they asked for an additional 2 days for the option period.  I talked it over with my clients, and although I was reluctant to offer it in this market , we decided that it was OK, and granted them the extra time.

Well, they came back with a reasonable list of repairs, and wanted a credit to the overall price of the house.  I didn’t see anything unusual about this, and this is a normal part of negotiations.   No worries.  Again I went back to my clients and they asked me about the requested repair credits, and we came up with a number as a counter offer.  I had them sign the amendment, and as I was on my way back to the office to present it to the sellers, I got an email with an attached TAR 1902 form.  This is the paperwork needed to exercise their ability to back out of the contract during the option period, and get back their earnest money, but they loose their option fee.

I was shocked!  I didn’t even get the chance to negotiate!  They never got to see the reply to their counter offer.  They just got cold feet, and wanted out.  And they had spent a pretty penny, too.

So now the seller was out $250 for the option period, and probably another $300 or more for an inspection, plus all the time and effort of making an offer.

There really is nothing that I as a realtor selling your house can do when a buyer decides to use this procedure during the option period.  It’s the way the system is set up, and if the buyer is willing to pay (which they were), they have the right to get out of the contract.   If they were to wait until the end of the option period and wanted to back out, they would forfeit their earnest money, which is a more significant sum.

Again I’m not worried.  The Austin market is a seller’s market, and I expect to get another qualified offer on the home in the next day or so.

Stay tuned! and be sure to subscribe to my blog to learn what happens next.

If you are thinking of moving to Austin after SXSW

It’s March in Austin.  The weather is absolutely beautiful, and thousands of people have descended on Austin for the annual SXSW festival.  This three week gathering has everyone from bloggers, to movie stars, to the latest and greatest musicians.  Tech companies plan a year in advance to show up with their latest and greatest.  Celebrities can be seen eating a breakfast taco.  It’s a fun time and well worth the trip.

But what if you want to stay after SXSW ends?  What are your options?  What is Austin like the rest of the year?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that Austin doesn’t change much once SXSW goes away.  Of course the streets open up to regular traffic, and there aren’t as many hipsters around.  But the tech scene is still here.  And we ARE the live music capitol of the world.  Heck, you can even see a movie star every so often at the Four Season’s Lobby or the Bar at the Driskill.  And yes, about 130+ people move here everyday.

But where will I live if I move here?   That depends.  There are three four main areas of town that most people want to live in, and each has its own feel and price range.  They are, downtown, SoCo, East Side, and of course Westlake.  Some would also mention the Allandale/brentwood/Crestview part of town, but if I mention that newcomers should move there I’d be run out of town 🙂

The AustonianLet’s start with the downtown area.  Austin keeps building new high rises, A lot of newcomers either buy or lease an apartment in them, and get to experience first hand the city center.

Of course the average cost for a new condo has crossed the $1M barrier, and the prices are only going up.  These are perfect for the post IPO crowd that has a bunch of cash burning a hole in their pocket.

A short or long term lease is much more reasonable, that’s for sure.  No matter what you choose, the views are amazing.

Austin SoCoSoCo, or the South of Congress area is one of the places that is going to see a lot of change in the coming years.  It is the heart and blood of what makes Austin the town it is.  Food trucks, funky shops, and some unique locals call this part of town home.

Behind all the cool stores, and restaurants are some great neighborhoods.  Travis heights to the east, and Bouldin Creek to the west.  There are cool old houses (mostly 2 bedroom), and some updated places too.  I’ll be honest, the houses go fast here.  If you want to buy or rent, make sure you have an agent who is used to working in this fast paced market where new listings are active for only a few hours before an offer is in place.

The East side is a large section of town East of highway 35.  It stretches from highway 290 to the north to past ladybird lake at the south.  There really is no eastern boundary to the east side.  The best way to describe this area is Gentrification.  There are some great areas, and some up and coming sections.  Of all the places, this is easily the most affordable, where you can get a decent 2 bedroom house to rent for $1,200/month, or to buy in the low $200,000’s.  Lots of local artists call this part of Austin home, and there are some incredible shared work spaces and holes in the wall to eat at.  But as with any up and coming area, there are good pockets, and other areas to watch out for.

Westlake is the “high rent” part of town.  The homes are very expensive, but are quite impressive.  The schools are the best in town (if you have kids), and a lot of the entrepreneurs own homes in this section.

If you are lime most people, you want to explore the city and that’s totally cool.  I help a lot of people relocate here, and over 80% like to rent for a year or so in an area to get a feel for it.

Also, be sure to check out my apartment database, or condo guide if you want.  They are some of the most popular pages on my blog.

Modern Paint Color

I’ve written about paint colors before.  Painting a room is the single biggest thing you can do to freshen up a room, and has the biggest bang for the buck.

But the number one question I always get is “what color should I paint”?

I know know the answer, and will share it with you.

One of the great things about being a JB Goodwin agent is that there are so many experienced agents who are willing to share their secrets and tricks of the trade.  One of the brokerage’s more successful agents, Peggy, is an experienced house flipper, and she sat down with a bunch of us and told us anything we wanted to know.  She has a great Tumblr account where she  shows before and after photos of the houses she does.  The talk that she gave to us went much deeper, and she revealed all of the little things nobody ever talks about.

What color should I paint?


When you walk into a house that Peggy has remodeled, you immediately feel at home.  She takes a home that was built for the 1970’s lifestyle and updates it to suit today’s modern family.  Doorways are removed, kitchens are gutted, popcorn is scraped off of ceilings, and so much more.  She works on everything.  And when she is done, she stages them with tables, rugs, and artwork.  You can easily imagine where all of your furniture would go.

Bathroom color scheme

Every room has a fresh coat of paint on it.  And the colors she chooses are the ones that everybody wants, but never knows.

Let’s start with the ceiling.  It should be white.  Use a regular white ceiling paint.  Don’t try to get all fancy using a semi-gloss or eggshell or other funny sheen. Stick to the basics.   I also always recommend to remove all texture.  Scrape off that acoustical foam, otherwise known as ceiling popcorn.  Then resurface, prime, and paint.  Your room will look immediately bigger.

On to the trim.  This is the wood around the windows, doors, and baseboards.  It should be crisp, and bright, and white.  Dover White is the exact color to use, and use a semi-gloss.  This paint can be purchased at Sherwin Williams, and is the perfect color to make your room pop, and look spanking brand new.

Now on to the best part.  What color to paint the walls.  I learned there are three basic color palates you can use.

There is the MD palate, The CL Palate, and the NT.

Wait.  I thought you were going to tell me what paint colors to use.

But I did.

What color should I paint my room You see when you go into Home depot, and look at that display of paint colors, each little sample has a code at the bottom.  They are kind of hard to see in this iPhone pic, but they are there. And they look like this
htc-nt-20u or hdc-cl-17u
I’m not sure what the htc or hdc codes mean, but the nt means neutral tone, and the CL means contemporary living or something. The last three letters/numbers are the actual paint color like: yuma sand, sand fossil, sandalwood tan, or cotton grey.

All the samples with the NT code will all match each other.  Every single one.

All the samples with a CL will match each other.   Perfectly.

Simple!  So just pick out a color you like, look at the code, and find other samples with the same code.  Your house will match perfectly!  I promise!