For Home Buyers

Real Life Tips for Downsizing

Once again Barrett Sotheby's International Realty will be conducting our increasingly popular seminars for downsizing. Here is an older post with some valuable information, to wet your appetite for the seminar. The sessions are held on four dates in February and you can sign up here.

Barrett Sotheby's International Realty's recent downsizing seminars were informative and inspiring -- and I'm not even planning to move any time soon. Laurie Cadigan, President of Barrett Sotheby's International Realty, offered personal anecdotes about her recent move from Concord to Boston and provided real estate expertise on planning, financing, decluttering, and staging. Marie LeBlanc, President of Transitions Liquidation Services Inc., was on hand to offer strategies for deciding what to keep and what to get rid of to help your move go smoothly.

Cadigan admitted that the whole process of deciding where to move, preparing your house for sale, and then actually making the move was "one of the hardest things I've done aside from childbirth." But she outlined the process, breaking it down into manageable steps:

  1. Where do you want to move? Downsizing means many different things to different people. People move for financial reasons, to pay for college, to simplify their lifestyle. And downsizing isn't just moving to a condo from a single-family home. Many people choose to stay in their community but elect to live in a smaller house. Once you decide on an area or neighborhood, get a feel for the housing stock and what you can get for your money. Barrett & Company offers a daily personalized email service where you can see all the new Massachusetts real estate listings that meet your specific criteria of house size, location, price, number of bedrooms, etc.
  2. Who are you bringing? Downsizing is not only for empty nesters. Cadigan and her husband are sharing their new condo with an adult child who is saving money for her own place. They also brought their Golden Retriever along. Cadigan advised, "Look into condo rules and restrictions about pets or even visitors. Some retirement communities limit the amount of time that visitors under age 55 can stay."
  3. What are your finances? It is critical to understand your finances and talk them over with a financial advisor. This is particularly true for people who may not have bought or sold a property in many years. The mortgage process has changed. For example, people remember bridge loans, which are no longer offered by banks. Some retirement communities also have requirements about the makeup of your financial portfolio.

Finding a place and financing a place are the big decisions. Then downsizers are faced with a million small decisions in order to actually make a move. Cadigan and her family faced a household made up of 30 years of accumulated stuff where every item's fate had to be decided upon. And that went for the kids' stuff too. "I applied tough love for my children," Cadigan said. Each child got to fill two plastic bins worth of possessions that she would store for them at her new condo. If they wanted to keep anything else, including furniture for future apartments or homes, they had to take it with them or pay to store it themselves.

Then she got to work staging her home for sale. "Staging is about making things look airy, clean, and neutral. A potential buyer wants to come in and imagine his or her possessions in the house, not be fixated on your decorating style," says Cadigan. Seminar attendees got to see some great before and after photos of Cadigan's home. Her before slides showed flowered wallpaper and custom draperies in the dining room. Personally, I thought it was charming but I saw her point that I wouldn't know if the person sitting next to me in the audience thought the same thing.

The after picture showed the dining room sans china cabinet, with walls painted a neutral off-white, and the windows bare but clean, with sunlight streaming in. "Believe me it broke my heart to strip down my home," said Cadigan. "No one lives like this. But that is not the point of staging. It's about stepping aside and letting the buyer imagine living there."

LeBlanc said the first thing that people who are downsizing should do is draw a floor plan of their new space. Then draw in the furniture that you think you want to bring. "People either think none of their furniture will fit or they think everything will fit,the floor plan doesn't lie," said LeBlanc. Having a real sense of what you will bring will also help when you get an estimate from the moving company.

Then it is time to sell, donate, or dispose of what you don't want to bring. LeBlanc offered great advice about disposing of trash. If you disciplined yourself to throw out two bags of trash each week for a year, you would have gotten rid of the equivalent of a 30-yard dumpster. She warned that dumpsters cost $1,800 to rent, fill and dispose of the contents. Most houses require two!

She also brought realistic expectations to people's ideas of selling their furniture. The bad news is that most furniture brings 10% of its original purchase price. For those who want to sell, she recommends consignment shops, which take 40-50% of the sale. She does not recommend Craigslist for older people because of the security risk of inviting the general public to where you live.

Household Goods Recycling of Massachusetts (HGRM) in Acton was recommended as a great place to donate furniture, including mattresses and box springs in good condition. Charities that offer pickup services also are good but may not take everything. "The lesson is to plan ahead on your donations," LeBlanc said, "you don't want to have a driveway full of stuff that the charity refused to take the day before your closing."

Auction houses have become more accepting in the last few years as to what they will take into an auction. Don't put too high of a reserve on a piece. If it doesn't sell because the bidding did not make the reserve, you will be charged 10% of the reserve price and get the piece back -- and that is not the goal.

Antiques dealers want to get things for as little as they can so they can make a profit. On the other hand, by buying your piece outright, they are taking on all the costs associated with moving it, and storing it and the risk that it may never sell. If you want to sell to a dealer, invite three to bid and compare their offers.

My personal takeaway lessons from this seminar, even though I plan to stay in my home for many more years:

  • Declutter now or you will pay the piper later.
  • Furniture is not the investment that I thought it was. So I guess I won't feel so bad that my cat scratched my couch.
  • When it does come time to move, there are experts to help you. From experienced real-estate agents, to professional organizers, to financial advisors, no one has to handle this all alone.

Cadigan summed it up: "Downsizing is a massive undertaking that can feel uphill at times. But the result for many people is worth it. We love our new lifestyle. I love having only the things that really matter around me. I love having a closet with only the clothes that I really wear. Downsizing has made us feel freer and younger."

Sotheby's Inaugural Designer Showhouse in New York

Sotheby's auction house in New York recently presented an inaugural Designer Showhouse exhibition. The event, which is sponsored by Sotheby's International Realty, Inc., is, an innovative approach to highlighting the treasure trove of fine art, furniture and decorative arts offered each season at Sotheby's.

A select group of talented interior designers were given exclusive access to the auction house's inventory and shopped the "stacks" to select a group of objects from which six distinctive interior spaces were devised. These objects include paintings, sculptures, prints, furniture and decorative arts which range in date from the 1st century A.D. through the end of the 20th century and encompass a range of artistic and architectural styles from around the world. Here is a peek at their masterful spaces the designers created.

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RYAN KORBAN, known for his retail design including Alexander Wang's flagship store, Balenciaga's men's and women's flagship stores and Fivestory New York; ann-pyne-crop

ANN PYNE from McMillen Inc., the oldest full service interior design and decorating firm in America;daun-curry-1-crop

DAUN CURRY from Modern Declaration, named one of Vogue's hottest new designers; os-1-crop

New York design duo CATHERINE CASTEEL OLASKY and MAXIMILIAN P. SINSTEDEN from Olasky & Sinsteden whose collective background includes time working for renowned names including Bunny Williams, Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, David Easton Inc., Charlotte Moss;

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SHALER LADD of Shaler Ladd Design Corporation who has built his business by providing exceptional service and quality to a loyal client base for which he curates interiors tailored to the distinct lifestyle and tastes of each individual; and, rush-jenkins-1-crop

RUSH JENKINS and KLAUS BAER from WRJ Design Associates, who are renowned for curating and designing exhibits for such luminaries as Mrs. Nancy Reagan and Bill Blass.

These designers were given the freedom to create any type of space and impose any type of aesthetic that he or she desired. The hope is that these spaces will demonstrate how good pieces of fine and decorative art can transcend time and space and that the dialogue between these pieces within a contemporary context not only allows the viewer an opportunity to reflect upon the pieces' historical and artistic importance, but also gives the pieces new meaning and significance in the world of today.

Making a Splash on Pinterest

The meteorologists describe a "heat wave" as "a prolonged period of excessively hot weather, which may be accompanied by high humidity". Here in New England we are in the midst of our third heat wave of the summer.

HOT HOT HOT

And whether you love the heat or hate it, nothing sounds better than a cool, refreshing dip in a soothing aquamarine-colored swimming pool. Since we can't actually give you a pool to dive into to cool off, how about taking a look at some of the stunning images we have collected on one of our favorite Pinterest boards "Making a Splash" for a little imaginative plunge.

Porches Patios and Decks on Pinterest

"'A picture is worth a thousand words.' refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image. It also aptly characterizes one of the main goals of visualization, namely making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly," according to Wikipedia. The phrase, in various forms, first appeared in print beginning around 1911. Over 100 years later, Pinterest has become one of the most popular social media sites and it revolves around pictures, pinned every minute by the thousands. Pinterest.com's About Us page says it is "a tool for collecting and organizing things you love." The format of "pinning" pictures to a "board" allows you to gather images online that speak to you, however you'd like to categorize them and then share those pictures and boards with your friends, both real life and online ones.

Barrett Sotheby's International Realty has a collection of Pinterest boards with a variety of titles such as "Architecture", "Kitchen Inspirations", "A Room with a View" and many more. From time to time, we will share those boards here with you and invite you to follow along with us on Pinterest to see what's been catching our eye and perhaps find some inspiration for your own home and garden. As we head into summer here in New England, there is no better place to start than with Porches, Patios and Decks. Whether screened in or wraparound, flagstone or cedar, we hope you find these outdoor spaces to be inviting, lovely to look at and worthy of a second glance.

Septic Systems: A Personal Voyage of Discovery

I recently sat in on the seminar that Barrett & Company held for its agents on septic systems and Massachusetts Title 5 requirements. Knowledge is power, and as the septic professional said, "When you are selling your house, you are also selling its septic system." The session was informative and technical but it got me thinking of all the fond memories my family has about septic systems. Yes, I am experiencing "septic nostalgia".

You Never Know When Luck will Strike My husband likes to share a thrilling story from his childhood in New Hampshire. When he was eight years old, he entered a raffle at the local hardware store and he won! Imagine the thrill of winning a store raffle as a child. To this day, he says it is the only thing that he has ever won. The problem was that he won a free bottle of bacteria. It was an additive intended to enhance the health of a home septic system. What a bitter disappointment to a small boy. Who wants to brag about winning a bottle of bacteria? The added insult was that his family's house was on town sewer. Helpful Hint:  The presenter on septic systems said that most additives are unnecessary and can even be harmful to systems. In most cases, they should be avoided.

A Surprising Environmental Impact I had never lived in a house with a septic system until we moved out of the city. The first time I was home for a septic clean out/inspection, I was a little nervous. Would it be gross? Would we fail? The man arrived and pulled off the cover that led to the septic tank. I peered nervously in and saw...a second cover about three feet below the first one. That creates a sort of buffer chamber called a riser. But before he could remove the second metal cover, we saw the yellow-spotted salamander. It was just sitting in the riser.

"Oh, those are endangered," the man said. He shook his head. "We can't harm those."

We both marveled at why the salamander had set up housekeeping in the riser. But the man needed to get the second manhole cover off to actually peer into the septic tank. So I grabbed a bucket, and we carefully put Mr. Salamander in it. "Spotty" seemed calm.

The man removed the second cover and I finally got a full view of my household waste now layered as scum, waste water, and sludge. Actually it wasn't that bad. The man pointed out some frothy stuff floating around. "See those," he said. "Those are floating islands of bacteria. That is a sign of a very healthy system. You have terrific bacteria."

He said this with such excitement that I actually puffed up with pride. No bacteria additives needed here! The words "very healthy" and "terrific" kept repeating in my brain. It was as if I had won a contest. It was the same feeling as hearing great news from a doctor. I wondered if I should call my mom to tell her. I came back to reality and decided to go inside the house while he and his crew did the real work (which my dad who grew up in western Pennsylvania quaintly referred to as "honey dipping.")

But what about the salamander? When the cleanout was complete, we put him back in the riser chamber. I hoped we did the right thing environmentally.

Four years later, when we sold our house and moved, we did our Title 5 inspection. A different company came out (just because we'd forgotten the name of the first company). The man again removed the cover to the riser, and there was the spotted salamander, alive and well -- four years later. The lesson I learned between the bacteria islands and the salamander habitat is that a well-functioning septic system is definitely a world unto itself.

Furniture Arranging Waits for No Man

Why does the "weaker" sex have the primordial urge to move heavy furniture? I know that I love it. It is the thrill of getting instant results. It is the thrill of getting something "new" for nothing. When I am in a shopping mood, the best way to overcome the buying bug is to go home and move my existing furniture. Home stagers know there is a lot of potential in shopping your own house.

Men hate moving furniture. My husband takes it one step further, he hates to see furniture moved. So I drag stuff around on my own, and he comes home from work and has a nervous breakdown. It is as if his retreat has been invaded by a warring clan. "Did you have Betty over?" he asks suspiciously. He knows two women moving furniture get really big results.

Often the furniture-moving urge comes on when I make a small home decorating purchase. Mike groans at the sight of a Home Goods bag at the door because he knows the pillow or lamp is an accurate predictor of a coming seismic shift in the living room or den. A new table lamp doesn't just fit into a room. It becomes the room's "inspiration." The room has to live up to the new lamp so everything must be rethought and reshuffled.

Did women have time to rearrange things in the old days? Maybe they were too tired after boiling lard into soap all day. But I think they did make the time. I can imagine my great-grandmother saying in a wheedling tone, "Stosh, can you just move the potbelly stove a little to the right? It will really open up the flow of the room."

My mother tells a story of being eight months pregnant and working on her hands and knees to unroll a huge new living room rug because she was tired of waiting for my father to do it. I see that this moving proclivity runs in the family.

Coming soon: Clever ways to single-handedly move an entire room of furniture

Ranch Dressing

The ranch home has a hard time in New England, primarily because it has no connection to the region's much-cherished Colonial past. But like the rest of the country, New England has its share of post-war ranch homes. Of the over 28,000 homes currently listed for sale in Massachusetts, 17% are identified as ranch style compared to 41% identified as Colonial style. Ranch homes were built in the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The style started in California, and by 1950 nine out of 10 newly built houses were "ranch-types."

Architectural historians have made jokes like, "I'll die if they start trying to preserve ranch-style homes." Well guess what? That day is here. Ranch homes are an American architectural form, and appreciation is growing. Check out Atomic Ranch magazine to see true fan enthusiasm.

The ranches generating negative reactions are likely the tiny post-war houses that many of us grew up in. Sometimes they are derogatively called Ranch Burgers. I was raised in a 980-square-foot, three-bedroom brick ranch in Michigan. Attention current real estate agents: try proposing that housing option to a family with four children. But our ranch-type house represented normal middle-class living in the 1960s. (My parents did add on in the 1970s, but just like many additions, the extra space was added after two kids had already left for college.)

So why the passions for and against the ranch? Like every other house style, ranches have good points and bad points but much of that depends on what you are used to and whether you are a first-time homebuyer or an empty nester.

A ranch is the perfect starter home for a young couple. Imagine coming from a city apartment and having your own beautiful, mature yard and efficient space to accommodate all of your activities, including a huge basement for hobbies or entertaining.

Older homebuyers, or those with disabilities, also appreciate ranches. First-floor bedrooms are essential for many people or simply sought after for their convenience. Affordability in a mature neighborhood has wonderful appeal to first-timer buyers as well as empty nesters.

The rambler is another name for a ranch and it connotes a sprawling custom ranch. The mid-century modern lovers like our California couple house hunting in the Boston area would gobble up a rambler. Because these ranches sprawl, they usually have a large lot to go with them. Lots of glass and retro features add modern appeal.

The large ranch or rambler is appealing to discerning buyers, if they either seek mid-century design or don't respond to "traditional" architecture. Many of these buyers would say that a Colonial is boring. And going up and down stairs is just a pain.

So give the ranch its due and take a fresh look. A open, airy rambler could be the answer to a family's dream. A neighborhood of small ranches could be just the thing for the cost-conscious buyer, proving the adage, "what's old is new again."

Do You See What I See?

My 87-year-old mom is a fan of HGTV. She has always followed the real-estate market and she loves home decorating. But she is hurt by the reactions of young home buyers on HGTV who complain that a house's decor is dated. Sometimes they even guffaw or scoff at a home's yellow printed wallpaper in the kitchen or the dark wood cabinets. To my mom these TV house hunters seem callous, unimaginative, and a bit spoiled. "I've lived my whole life without a walk-in closet," she sighs. "What do these newlyweds expect?"

Now admittedly, I myself would react poorly to seeing bathroom wallpaper done in foil sprinkled with 1970s-era lady bugs. On the other hand, once the world tears out every example of 1970s foil wallpaper, mark my words you will see its comeback featured in Architectural Digest as the latest in edgy sophistication.

So here is some advice for both older sellers and to younger buyers faced with a "dated" home decor:

Advice to sellers: Remember the choices you made when you first bought your home. It was exciting to pick out the furniture or decorate the front hall. Maybe twenty years later, you still enjoy those decisions. So accept that the next family will want to personalize their home too. That is why your real estate agent says to take down the family photos or artwork that is very specific to your taste. You may even be asked to remove or paint over wallpaper to neutralize it. You may be asked to take out wall-to-wall carpeting. You may think that this stripped down version of your house lacks warmth, but it leaves room for potential buyers to visualize their personal belongings in the space.

Buyers may be forgiving of older decor but they aren't forgiving of shabby elements. It makes the home appear uncared for. Even if your kitchen is old, make sure the cabinets and drawers work properly and that there is no peeling paint or obvious staining on walls or ceilings.

A special note for original owners of mid-century modern homes: The good news is that your style of home is extremely appealing to younger home buyers. They appreciate the open, airy spaces and strong architectural design. In fact, the style is so in vogue that these new enthusiasts may expect streamlined perfection in the decor. Your family's antique platform rocker in the living room could be jarring to their vision. If you own such a home, less really is more. Don't be offended if your agent suggests removing a lot of furniture, wall decorations, and rugs. The strength of your home is its architecture.

Advice to buyers: Don't fret about what is often a cosmetic spruce up. Look at the bones of the house, not the furniture. If you hate the paint colors or the wallpaper, just rationalize the work of changing it by telling yourself that you will get to know every square inch of your new home intimately through scraping and painting. If there are pricey elements that are out of date, such as the kitchen and baths, realize that the asking price likely reflects that fact. If you hate a pink bathroom, focus on the space itself, the potential for change, and the choices you will make. And don't decide to change things too quickly. You may actually come to respect those vintage pink fixtures. What goes around, comes around.

Advice to Listing Agents: Work with your older homeowner to explain that staging helps make the home appealing to the widest variety of buyers. For example, hotel decor is generally pleasant and not too specific in taste. Then it is up to the next owner to add their personality.

Lyn Spaeth, principal of Transformations, a staging company located in Lincoln, MA, also points out an important fact: Older homeowners don't realize that their home is often first viewed on photos on the internet. If the interior looks dark or cluttered, buyers won't even make an appointment for a viewing. The goals is to sell space, light, and architectural features and the photos need to highlight those three things.

Advice to Buyer Agents: Let the buyers experience the home but don't let them get hung up on criticizing things that can be easily updated. For example, point out that a dated bathroom may have good potential to be expanded or that its copper pipes are top quality and not easily replicated today. The truth is it is a buyer's market and what they want is what they can probably get. But don't misread all the young buyers. You may find that a home that reminds them of their happy childhood is exactly what they are yearning for.

Colonial Style Homes of New England

When people say that "colonial homes" are their favorite housing style, they are probably picturing a two-story structure with a center entrance and a symmetrical arrangement of windows, often fondly summed up as "five-over-four-and-a-door." In New England, colonial homes, both old and new are generally built of wood.

The towns that Barrett & Company serves have many beautiful examples of Colonial homes, and a surprising number of these are the real McCoy, dating from between 1640 and 1776. These antique homes usually have been lovingly cared for and sensitively updated over the years. They offer their owners history and a homey warmth.

Some traits of Colonial-era homes:

  • Post and beam construction -- now a current trend in modern home-building, showing that what is old is new again.
  • True divided light windows.
  • Construction around a central chimney. This huge masonry chimney runs through the middle of the house and was originally the only heat source for the upper floor. Later, to gain more interior space, early American homes had a chimney on either end of the house.

The Colonial Revival

The Boston area also has a stunning collection of Colonial Revival homes, which were extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s.

Colonial Revival homes:

Were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, which honored the craftsmanship of a bygone era.  Wallace Nutting, a famed collector of early American furniture, produced hand-colored photographs of Colonial interiors, helping spread interest in the revival.

Tend to have a bigger layout and larger windows than true Colonial-era homes because of course central heating was part of the original design. Glass-walled sunrooms and formal gardens set these homes apart from their homey, utilitarian forebears.

Usually have a fine level of workmanship in the moldings and mantels, many historically accurate but sometimes "pumped up" for added drama.

Can range from houses that would be considered estates to modest Dutch Colonials (to be discussed in a future blog).

May include Arts and Crafts elements in the interior, such as an inglenook or a built-in sideboard in the dining room.

Modern Classics

New England residential architects continue to draw on Colonial design traits when building new homes. A large, 5,000 square foot "Colonial" can have game rooms, large walk-in closets, and other high-end amenities but will still rely on classic Colonial details, such as dentil molding, side panels on either side of the front door, and an overall symmetry of design.

Built for the Landscape

Colonial homes of any time period function well in the New England climate. They have simple rooflines and a maximum of usable space for the footprint of the house, making them easier to heat than more "sprawling" styles.