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Home Forum Extra

Seattle Times business reporter Elizabeth Rhodes posts the answers to your real estate questions as they pop up during the week. Join this ongoing discussion, which also features reader reaction to real-estate articles appearing throughout The Times.

Home Forum, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 1845, Seattle, WA 98111

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October 31, 2007 10:16 AM

Construction delay causes buyer dilemma

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We signed a purchase and sales agreement to buy a new home in Redmond and made a $15,000 deposit. The house was supposed to be completed next spring. The builder has just informed us that he is running 4-5 months behind schedule. He gave us an option of opting out and getting our deposit back. With real estate being in soft mode, do you suggest getting out of the contract? Its hard to get a 3-bedroom (1,300-square-foot house) in that area for less than $500,000.

A: I hesitate to suggest what you should do because I don't know enough about the market conditions in the neighborhood where the house is to be built.

If I were in your position, I'd start by asking myself a few questions.
Am I committed to having a new house or would a resale home be acceptable?
Am I committed to moving in next summer?

The answers to those may affect your next move.

King County homebuilders' costs primarily are driven by land, which is expensive because of growing scarcity. But construction costs are climbing, too. So builders may not be in a position to lower their prices next year. Therefore I wouldn't count on them going down. Sometimes builders will cut the price on a model or two, but across-the-board cuts aren't predicted.

It's possible that resale home prices in your area will flatten or dip slightly in the coming months. Buyers who've owned for a number of years likely have enough equity (unless they've done cash-out refinances) to allow them to cut their price and still come out ahead.

I suggest you talk to a couple of real estate agents in your area, including at least one who specializes in new homes. Ask them about market conditions and what they'd be thinking about if they were in your shoes. That should give you enough information to make your decision.

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October 30, 2007 4:01 PM

Landlord wants renter to pay grease fire damages

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My tenants' grease fire caused $3,000 damage to my rental house. Rather than make an insurance claim, I decided to pay repair costs myself. However I would like to be reimbursed. Can I send my tenants a letter stating they owe me $3,000 due to their negligence? Or is there another option?

A: Depending on how your lease is worded, you may not be able to tap your tenant for the three grand.

"Case law in Washington says the landlord's insurance is for the benefit of the landlord and the tenant," says Seattle attorney Chris Benis of Harrison Benis & Spence. "The key is the idea that the tenant is an implied coinsured under the landlord's policy."

Therefore, if you request $3,000 from your tenant, your tenant can refuse, arguing that insurance covers both of you and he/she shouldn't have to pay. Courts would back your tenant up unless your lease has a clause that says your insurance covers you alone and your tenant isn't an implied coinsured. That kind of clause isn't standard.

You could try to recoup some of your costs by asking your tenant to pay your insurance's deductible amount. Benis says it doesn't matter whether you file an insurance claim or not.

You could also try to keep the tenant's damage deposit. However Benis says the tenant might successfully argue the insurance-coverage angle to keep it.

"A lot of these claims end up in small claims court, and I've seen country justice go both ways," he says.

His advice: appeal to the tenant to voluntarily pay something. That person "might feel appropriately bad about this and not want to have a future reference from you (to their next landlord) about their causing a fire."

Two final notes: a landlord's insurance policy covers the structure and not the tenant's possessions. That's why tenants need their own renter's policy. Also, tenants who knowingly damage a rental don't have the protection of their landlord's insurance. They're responsible for their own damage.

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October 29, 2007 2:59 PM

Buying property near flood zone

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I'm interested in buying a Renton property that has 300 feet of creek footage, which on a FEMA map appears to be outside a flood zone. I'm concerned this could be the result of grandfathering, and the flood zone boundaries could be changed at some time. I want to build on the property in the future, but my understanding is that if the land is redefined as being within the flood plain no building will be permitted. How can I investigate this further?

A: Ryan Ike, a flood-plain specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says he wishes more people would ask your question before they purchase property that could be flood prone.

That's especially important right now, Ike says, because FEMA has preliminary flood maps that may replace the effective maps currently in use. These new maps have been created for much of Western Washington. Now it's up to local jurisdictions, which are in the process of reviewing them, to decide what happens next, Ike says.

He suggests you contact Renton's Planning/Building/Public Works Department.
"Ask them based on the currently available and the preliminary maps what the city would allow to be built on the property," he suggests.

"There are building options even if it is in a flood plain, but you'll want to make sure you coordinate with the city. They'll help explain all that."

Ike says jurisdictions will hold public hearings before preliminary maps are made permanent, and those hearings will consider how the maps may affect local building regulations. Information on federal flood insurance will be available at during the meetings.

FEMA does not have a Web site with a list of those meetings. Ike suggests people living in or near a flood-prone area, or those considering buying or building there, contact their local government's building department to see when a hearing is being held.

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October 26, 2007 10:00 AM

Seller ponders capital gains tax bite

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: When my common-law partner and I split 20 years ago, we signed a quit claim deed and I got the house. Now I've sold it and am trying to figure out capital gains. Would they be based upon the value when we signed the quit claim? If so, how can I figure out what fair market value was then?

A: Certified public accountant Chris Dowsing, of Morrow Kessler & Dowsing in Seattle, says that when the quit claim was executed, the house was either a gift to you or a sale to you. Knowing which is the key to determining your capital gains obligation.

If it was a gift, you get what's called a carry-over basis, meaning that capital-gains tax is figured based on the home's "basis," loosely defined as the original purchase price.

If instead you bought out your former partner, the calculation is based on the home's new basis -- its market value at the time of the quit claim.

(Other factors, such as subsequent home improvements, also affect the basis.)

Contact an appraiser if you need a historic property valuation for tax purposes.

Additionally, it wouldn't be a bad idea to run your numbers past a tax preparer to make sure you haven't left anything out of the equation.

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October 25, 2007 10:00 AM

Town-home owner ponders fence repair

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We live in an association of zero-lot-line town homes in Snohomish County. A fence separates our property from the town home next door. Is there specific law determining responsibility of fence repair or replacement; shared or otherwise? Are there enforceable statutes to ensure the neighbor pays their share? Our covenants do not make any mention on this topic.

A: First a little bit about town homes. A type of housing where two or more homes are attached to each other to form a row, they can be either a zero-lot-line development or a condominium.

The difference isn't in their appearance. It's how they're created legally, which in turn gives owners different forms of ownership.

With condominium town houses, the interior of each unit is individually owned, but the land is held in common by all the owners.

In that case, the condominium association generally would be responsible for maintaining and replacing fences (unless the governing documents say otherwise).

In a zero-lot-line town-house development, the owners own their town houses and the land under them. The property lines run through the common sidewalls of the units.

Seattle attorney Samuel Jacobs, of Mosler Schermer Walstrom Jacobs & Sieler, says "very frequently the covenants for zero-lot-line town houses will address maintenance and repair issues that inherently require the participation of all the owners." Putting on a new roof is one example.

However not all zero-lot-line covenants address these issues, and it appears yours are silent, at least as far as fences are concerned.

Because zero-lot-line housing is a fairly recent development, Jacobs says a few jurisdictions responded by enacting requirements for them. So it's worthwhile to check with yours to see if there's a rule that applies to fence maintenance.

Otherwise, Jacobs says that because you own your own land, the fence situation is no different than it would be in any single-family home neighborhood. You and your neighbor get to work out any accommodation you choose regarding the fence. Laws generally don't address fence maintenance or replacement or the costs involved.

If you do decide to replace your fence, "make sure that at a minimum you have the neighbor's consent to go on their property," Jacobs counsels. "You want to avoid an argument that there is destruction of property (the fence, which the neighbor might have an interest in) or trespass."

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October 24, 2007 9:00 AM

When trees overhang sidewalks

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I live in a section of Kirkland that's generally well-kept. However some homeowners let trees hang over sidewalks, or let their shrubs block sidewalks, so you have to move out into the street to avoid the branches. Are the homeowners liable if you injure your eye while walking at night? Is there a law that says you must keep your shrubs from blocking a sidewalk?

A: If you're injured by someone's property while walking on the public right of way, you could well have a case against the homeowner. Indeed, getting injured by an overhanging branch would be akin to tripping over a bike left on the sidewalk, presuming the municipality prohibits such obstructions. Both would be considered negligence.

So what's the city of Kirkland's position on overhanging greenery? This is where the Internet comes in handy. Like many local cities, Kirkland has put its laws and regulations online.

And like many governmental sites, it has a search function so citizens with questions like yours can easily find the answers. (For those without computers at home, Internet access also is available on computers at public libraries, which are also likely to have printed versions of local laws.)

Thanks to the efficiency of search engines you don't even have to know the precise name of the local laws. Type in Kirkland city laws. Or Kirkland city code. Or Kirkland laws. Up pops "Codes and Laws of Kirkland" which leads to Kirkland's Municipal Code. That's what you want.

Then type sidewalks into the Kirkland site's search function, and here's part of what you get:
19.04.010 Obstructions in right-of-way.

"It is a simple crime for any person to drop, deposit, leave or permit to be deposited upon a street or sidewalk or within other portions of the public right-of-way any object, structure, construction material, equipment or other natural or artificial thing which obstructs or tends to obstruct vehicles or persons traveling thereon.

"Such a deposit is a public nuisance. As an alternative to, or in addition to, issuance of a citation for violation of this section, the city may take such action as may be necessary to abate the nuisance. Whenever the nuisance poses a present danger, the city has the authority to cause its immediate removal.

"Any person violating this section shall be liable to the city for the costs of the removal of the nuisance."

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October 19, 2007 3:00 PM

Defining who must be a contractor

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I heard a new state law was passed this summer that requires homeowners to be general contractors if they have any work done and sell or lease the property within 12 months of the work's completion. Is this accurate?

A: Not quite, says Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, which regulates contractors.

Rather, the new law says that if you buy a property for the purpose of fixing it up and selling it within a year, you must be registered as a contractor with L&I and be bonded. (Ditto if you buy land and put up a "spec" house.)

Fischer says the law is intended to protect consumers from amateur "flippers" who purchase a house to upgrade and sell quickly and try to do so using homeowners' exemptions.

For example, owners who do electrical repairs on their own homes are exempt from L&I contractor rules. But those who do repairs to quickly sell an investment property now are not.

A homeowner who's owned their home for more than a year doesn't have to meet the contractor registration requirement. Fischer says L&I realizes people do buy intending to live in and upgrade homes and then sell. "That's OK," she says.

Also exempt are those who buy rental properties, fix them up and then rent them.

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October 19, 2007 8:00 AM

Reader questions rising property taxes

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: According to my King County tax valuation, my Central Area town house is now valued 62 percent higher that what I paid for it in September of 2006, and my property taxes are increasing more than $1,000. Given the onset of a major housing slump, including the decreased rate of growth of Seattle home values, do I have a better case for petitioning the county for a lower valuation?

A: It's not likely because "at this time we have not seen a decline in property values in most areas," says Lynn Gering, chief appraiser for the King County Assessor's Office. Instead, what is declining is the rate of annual appreciation, from the double digits of a year ago to single digits now. Further, price growth isn't declining evenly. Some neighborhoods are falling off less than others.

"If the market value and assessed value were to decline, it would not necessarily mean a reduction in property taxes," Gering says. That's because there are many elements in play, including the costs of various voter-based levies and such that determine much of what constitutes a property tax bill.

Homeowners who want to appeal their valuations before the King County Board of Appeals/Equalization (and several thousand do annually) must do so by the deadline: July 1 or 60 days after receiving their valuation notice, whichever comes later. To prevail, they must be able to demonstrate that the fair market value of their property is less than the assessor's valuation.

For more information see the board's website or call 206-296-7300.

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October 18, 2007 9:44 AM

Readers wonders if jumbo loans are available

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

An Oregon reader, Greg, sent the following comment and questions:

Thank you for such a well written and informative article entitled "Growing mortgage crisis spreads to jumbo loans".

My wife and I live in Portland and are in the middle of a home purchase using a jumbo loan. We have great credit, down payment, no debt etc... Should we be worried like the couple in your article? Have things settled since your article? Who are the solid lenders out there for jumbo loans?

A: I don't think you should be worried about getting a jumbo loan, i.e. a mortgage greater than $417,000. There's definitely jumbo money out there to be had, particularly for buyers like you with strong credit, a healthy down payment and good debt-to-income ratio.

I can't recommend lenders. What I can advise readers is to go with a well-established lender and closely monitor the loan process all the way through so there are no last-minute surprises.

The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees some lenders, has lots of information on its website about getting a loan.

Good luck with your home purchase!

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October 18, 2007 9:30 AM

Association vexed by speeding drivers

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our recreation community has a private road that's two miles long. The more we improve it the faster drivers go. The sheriff can't enforce a speed limit because it's private property, but we're wondering if we can. Would hiring an off-duty sheriff's deputy to clock speeders have any weight in court? Could we rent a radar gun and patrol ourselves? Our bylaws allow us to set reasonable rules and penalties for infractions. Finally, what happens if a speeder causes an accident? Could the association be sued? Could the association sue the speeder?

A: Court isn't your remedy. Enacting a homeowners association no-speeding rule is. Then the association, or an agent it hires, can patrol the road and write up speeding as a rules infraction, says Seattle attorney John Coe, of The Coe Law Group. Speeders could then be fined in accordance with your rules on infractions.

However the mechanics of making this plan work may make you think twice, Coe says.

First, you'll have to amend your governing documents to require owners to submit to the board their names and the names of anyone who rents their property, plus addresses and vehicle identification.

Then you must give every speeder who's caught a notice to show up at a hearing if they want to contest the fine.

And you must apply the law evenly, which means you can't just stop speeders on some days or at certain times. You'd have to be prepared to catch them all the time. So if you decide to hire a deputy, be prepared to staff 24/7.

A better solution, Coe says, would be to make it harder for people to speed. Brightly colored speed humps -- a larger version of speed bumps -- are one solution. Other neighborhoods have tackled this problem by diverting the roadway slightly with center plantings or traffic islands so it no longer offers drivers a straight shot. Finally, your association should prominently post its own speed limit signs.

As for whether your association could be sued by a speeder, that depends on the situation, Coe says, and whether there was negligence.

If the accident was partially caused by negligent road design or maintenance, the speeder might have a case. Likewise the association might have cause to sue a speeder if that person drove negligently and damaged commonly held property.

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October 17, 2007 10:30 AM

Lack of affordable housing frustrates reader

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Denise, a reader, shares her concerns and frustrations about real-estate prices and the lack of affordable homes. While there's really nothing -- save pressure from buyers -- that will cause sellers to make their homes less costly, there are resources for middle- and lower-income buyers that can lead them to in-state programs geared for them. Some are housing programs. Some are loan programs.

The nonprofit Washington Homeownership Center is a central clearinghouse for this information. They have a website as well as a toll-free line (866-600-6466).

Denise writes:

It is time for the real-estate industry to admit housing prices have outpaced incomes in this area.

When will the lenders and real-estate agencies admit the current glut is due to pricing homes in excess of what the market will bear? Adjustable-rate loans have added to foreclosures. When will they understand their actions lead to stratification of income earners? The market glut will continue to rise if the current trend does not change.

The Seattle Times published an article stating the current sluggish market is due to falling prices; buyers are adopting the "wait and see" attitude. Again, this erroneous statement points to the fact the industry does not understand the buyer, nor are they willing to admit their errors. Buyers are not waiting to see what the market is going to do. We are waiting for affordable homes, just like we have for years.

Reading real-estate articles for the past nine months concerning the housing market glut of available homes, sluggish buying and difficulty obtaining a loan in this region is embarrassing (we have a great city) and depressing. In all of the articles written in this area and other states, I have read only one line (it was from your column) that refers to the housing market prices rising faster than the low and median income.

It is not only the first-time purchasers who are affected. Many families who have homes to sell cannot because the market prices have risen to the point purchasing their next home becomes impossible. First-time buyers with median incomes cannot obtain loans for the current market. Lending agencies consider a loan for $4000,000 a risk. Since an average one-car garage in an alley costs $400,000, it makes obtaining a loan impossible. Median-income buyers, those who earn roughly $40,000 to $50,000 are hardest hit by mortgage rates. Families surviving on low incomes have many grants and low-cost loan options available to purchase a home. Median income earners do not.

Those who earn more than I have a variety of homes they can purchase. I am a single parent with a master's degree, 20 years experience in my profession earning $54,000 per year. I have very good credit, yet I cannot afford a home, condo, townhouse or tree house more than $170,000. On paper, I earn $54,000 a year, however with my net monthly income, I cannot afford a mortgage in excess of $1,300 a month. I work in South Seattle, however; if I want to buy a home I will need to purchase in Ashford, Ocean Shores, Lakewood or Arlington. It makes the commute a bit long.

Housing prices will need to drop $30,000 before most of us can purchase a home. Since this is unlikely to happen, what are the real-estate and lending agencies plans to correct the market glut, making homes more affordable for more people? Or are these industries willing to take a "wait and see" attitude while their head rests safely in the sand?

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October 12, 2007 4:18 PM

Reader protests "gloom and doom" news

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

A local real-estate professional takes issue with the Oct. 6 story headlined: "Let the buyers rejoice; home sales, prices fall."

Well Elizabeth, you've done it again and I cannot refrain from a response. The media feed on any glimmer of bad news they can find and over the recent few weeks it has been refreshing to see some very positive articles regarding the Seattle housing market but you have undone all the good they may have provided.

The Seattle Times has focused on the doom and gloom of the national housing market and mortgage lending issues. We, in the Seattle area, have been insulated from most of this in our marketplace. Foreclosures are low, people are paying their mortgages and prices have continued to rise. This is due to the fact that there is a healthy job market in our area, limited land on which to build new homes and a healthy supply of buyers.

Buyers have been frightened away from the market with all the doom and gloom. Those who waited out the frenzy find they will pay more for the home than last year. There very few areas where this is not the case. Sales have slowed because buyers fear the banks are going out of business and prices of homes will fall dramatically and they will ultimately loose money. This is what you and others at the Times seem to promote with scary headlines.

We are in a natural cycle and home prices may dip slightly but there is too much going on in our area favorable to a healthy housing market for it to last long. How about selling the idea that owning a home is a good thing, it is shelter, a tax write off, a potential savings plan as a result of appreciation over time. Flipping homes is not a wise idea in this market. Most home owners do not plan to sell in the short run. If they do they should be advised to not buy today but the normal buyer should get in while they can because we are not building any more land so prices will not stay down for long!

Growing inventory is a result of an unnatural low number of buyers in the market due in part to fewer mortgages available to riskier borrowers and in part due to fear. Many buyers are out there, sitting on the fence because you and other Times writers do not encourage them to jump in while the going is good. Fourth Quarter is the best time to buy and now is the time to get a home, before the spring rush and escalating prices!

The home with the 100,000 dollar price reduction, it was overpriced for the features and benefits it provided. The Seller is not loosing money. The law of supply and demand caused many buyers to buy homes with less features just to get a home. Today, they can select from several that meet their wishes and will not settle for inferior properties that are overprice for what they offer.

Sellers thinking of moving up should consider selling now and reap the benefit of today's prices. They may net less but they should also be paying less. If they buy up, even minimal appreciation on the new home will be more than that same percentage of appreciation on their existing home so they come out ahead.

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October 12, 2007 1:06 PM

Buyer questions land prices

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My husband and I are looking into buying land to build on in the future. When we look at real estate listings and the information available from the county, we notice that there are 2-acre parcels assessed at the same value as 5-acre parcels nearby. Is there anyway we can find out why the 2-acre parcel is worth more per acre than the 5-acre parcel? Where can we find enough information in order to make an informed decision about what land to buy?

A: As counties assess real-estate for tax purposes only, it's important to understand that assessed value is not market value, i.e. what buyers pay. (Many county assessors have Web sites; check yours to see if the local assessor explains valuation methods. If not, give your assessor's office a call.)

What's really relevant to you is the fair market value. If you question market prices, the best person to answer your concerns would be a real-estate agent who specializes in land sales in the area you're considering. That person should be able to explain local land pricing to you.

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October 12, 2007 6:30 AM

Contractor says no contract is best

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We're about to do our first home remodel. It's mostly cosmetic upgrades, but could run into the thousands. We've interviewed three contractors. The one we like best says we don't need a contract and suggests we hire him on a time and materials basis. He says customers usually save money this way. Is this true?

A:There's a fairly straightforward way you can answer your question. Ask the contractor for names of past clients, then ask them if his time-and-materials bill was below what other contractors had bid.

Otherwise, conventional wisdom says that contractors have the most incentive to rein in costs when they're bidding against other contractors and putting their prices into their contract.

Once they're working time and materials only, you have to ask yourself: what's their incentive for keeping costs down? They already have you as a customer.

Seattle attorney Tony Scisciani, of Scheer & Zehnder, questions working without a written contract. He says you may save money by going this route, but asks "at what expense? What else are you sacrificing?"

What makes these questions important, he says, is the nature of remodeling. Almost without question your contractor will encounter an unforeseen issue that will throw the project off somehow -- a given that contractors themselves stress.

Therefore you should "assume that it's going to take longer and be more difficult and more expensive" than expected, Scisciani advises.

While Washington courts do recognize oral contracts, a well-written contract can better help you deal with these unforeseen situations.

"The magic words for a contract are 'meeting of the minds.' If you can memorialize expectations on both sides, at least you can take comfort in knowing that if something arises you have a framework to understand what happens next," he says.

A written contract has other benefits. It doubles the time you have to file a breach of contract claim, from three years for an oral contract to six years for one that's written. It can protect warranty claims. As Scisciani points out, manufacturers usually won't honor warranties unless their products are installed according to their specifications. While you can tell your contractor to do that, writing it into a contract strengthens your position.

A written contract can also include a specific completion date (and penalties if that is not met), a payment schedule, a requirement that permits be used and an agreement of what type of materials will be used.

Finally, Scisciani stresses that any contractor your hire should be registered with the state Department of Labor and Industries and be bonded and insured.

For tips on how to protect yourself when hiring contractors, as well as to check on registration, go to this L& I Web site:

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October 11, 2007 9:30 AM

Reader questions median home price relevance

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

An Eastside reader sends this comment and question:

It seems to me the "Median Home Sales Price", used to indicate how much homes are appreciating, is skewed by new home prices, especially in neighborhoods like mine where older homes are being torn down and mega-mansions are being built. Wouldn't the median price of "re-sale" homes be a more accurate indicator of housing appreciation?

A:I absolutely get your point and I'd separate new and resale home statistics if I could. However the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, which furnishes housing sales statistics to the press, doesn't break them apart. That said, area-wide medians are only indications of where the market is moving. That's their strength. They're not a reliable indicator of the value or appreciation of any one property. For a ballpark indication of what a particular home is worth, try

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October 11, 2007 6:30 AM

Damage causing tenant denies responsibility

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: A tenant left my rental home with a huge amount of damage. Broken toilet seats, broken cabinet doors and window coverings, towel bars torn off the wall are just part of it. This person claims that because there was no walk-through when she rented she's not responsible for any damage. Do I have recourse when I can prove the house was not damaged like that when she rented it?

A: There are two reasons landlords should schedule a walk-through to fill out a property-condition checklist with a new tenant. One is to collect a security deposit.

"The law says if the rental agreement is not in writing, and if you don't have a written checklist signed and dated by both parties, you're not allowed to collect a security deposit," says Tacoma attorney Dan Lazares. Obviously without a deposit you have no automatic remedy for collecting on damages.

The second reason is to create a written record you can use as proof when you take the ex-tenant to court, which is what you'll have to do now to collect. You can sue in Small Claims Court if your damage claim is less than $4,000. You won't need a lawyer.

"The fact of there not being a walk-through in the beginning does not prevent the landlord from suing, but may ultimately affect the landlord's ability to prevail," Lazares says, because "the landlord has no readily available proof at the commencement of the tenancy of what the parties agreed to."

Still, you may prevail if you have proof of the home's prior condition. Photos that are dated are an excellent source. Otherwise, Lazares says anyone who's an independent party and can verify the condition at the time of possession is a possible witness on your behalf. People who worked on the house, neighbors and even the tenant who immediately preceded the damage-doer might be willing to help you.

To prevent this situation from repeating, Lazares suggests you inspect your property inside and out every three to six months. Just make sure you give your tenant 48 hours notice, as the law requires, before scheduling an inspection.

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October 10, 2007 3:30 PM

Dealing with a combative owner

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: How can condo boards protect themselves from an association member who harasses and insults board members on a continuous basis? In our case, the individual has a long track record of circulating hateful letters about the board to other owners, attacking individual board members' actions and character. This person also calls board members at home to shout at them and insult them. Since this person's behavior is getting worse, we want to protect not only ourselves, but future board members.

A: "It sounds like business as usual in many associations," says Seattle attorney Jim Strichartz, who has heard numerous complaints akin to yours. He estimates that roughly 3 percent of condo dwellers generate 98 percent of the problems, and most associations of any size have at least one member who specializes in some form of mischief.

But reining this person in is a difficult task that isn't always possible, Strichartz warns. Indeed, the only approach he's seen be truly successful is mediation, where the board and the antagonist sit down with a mediator to try to resolve their conflict in a way that dissolves hard feelings. (For more on mediation and a list of mediation services go online to

Otherwise each board member who's feeling harassed or maligned can turn to the courts. Option one is to get a civil anti-harassment order through the district court in which the condominium is located. A lawyer is not needed.

"What it requires is two or more incidents of harassment that have been aimed at a particular individual," Strichartz says.

Legally speaking, harassment is conduct meant to intimidate or scare or pressure a person. It is not, however, being hard to deal with or being at odds with the board's decisions.

"Certainly owners have a right to criticize actions by the board they don't agree with," says Strichartz.

But don't count on a court order fixing the problem. Strichartz says that perpetrators often fight back by filing a countermotion claiming that they're the one being harassed.

Option two is filing a lawsuit based on provably false and derogatory statements made about a board member or members. That's illegal. If the perpetrator is making such statements about a board member, that person can hire an attorney to sue for damages, Strichartz says.

One last option is to try to move the perpetrator in a more positive direction by getting him or her involved in the association's operations. "Sometimes that works, but sometimes it's not worth it to deal with them on a regular basis," he says.

Finally, there are cases where nothing solves the situation, Strichartz concedes, "and you just hope to outlive the person."

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October 9, 2007 9:48 AM

Reader wants home-sales numbers

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

A reader responded to the Saturday, Oct. 6 story about September home sales by asking:

Q: Do you know how I can get a hold of the Northwest Multiple Listing Service data?

A: We publish much of the monthly home-sales data the MLS gives to the press.
The first numbers are printed in chart form with the monthly overview story, the one you referenced in your question. (They also accompany the online version of the story.)

Then on successive Sundays, in the Real Estate section, we run maps and neighborhood breakouts for King and parts of Snohomish and Kitsap counties. The first Sunday we do houses, the second we do condominiums.

When we run these depends on when we get the numbers from the multiple listing service; we don't get them on the same day of the month, so we can't guarantee when the Sunday maps/numbers will run. But generally it's the second and third Sundays of the month.

Otherwise, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service makes some monthly numbers available on its public website. Here
you will find the most current news release and statistical charts.

You can find them on the website of the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors. Click on a link for the news release or the "Northwest REporter" logo.

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October 8, 2007 1:32 PM

Questioning home sales numbers

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

A reader named Don sends this question regarding the home-sales story that ran on Saturday, Oct. 6:

Q: I am a bit confused by the information in your article. The stats you show for the number of closed condo sales comparing September 2006 to September 2007 show 866 closed sales in 2006 and a total of 798 closed sales in 2007 or a total decrease of 68 closed transactions in Sept. 2007.

In the body of your article you said; "Meanwhile, sales are lagging. Offers accepted last month on 1,541 King County houses - a 32 percent drop from the number in Sept. 2006. Likewise, the county's condominium offerings were up (a startling 74.2 percent, including new condos)..."

Can you please clarify these facts for me?

A: With pleasure. The story was based on the two sets of sales numbers released by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

One set is "closed sales," i.e. sales transactions that have been completed. Those are the numbers you refer to that run in the charts that accompany the story.
We use those numbers for two reasons: we're absolutely sure the sales went through and those numbers are accompanied by median sold (not listing) prices.

But their drawback is this: They reflect deals that were first inked anywhere from two weeks to two months earlier and simply closed in the same month.

The other set of numbers provided by the MLS are called "pending sales." They're deals agreed upon by the buyer and seller in a given month, but not yet completed.

The drawback to them is that they can fall through. But the plus is that they're more current than closed numbers because they, much more than closed sales, reflect sales activity in a particular month. That's why I said "accepted offers" in the story; that's all they are. The MLS doesn't provide sales prices for pending sales because officially the homes are not yet sold.

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October 5, 2007 3:19 PM

Enforcing a no-renter rule

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: With much effort on the part of the board, and expense to the association, we were able to pass a rental ceiling requiring all future sales in our Bellevue condominium be to owner occupants. Now we're having difficulty enforcing this. Some owners are putting several names on their deeds and daring us to figure out who's occupying the unit. They have extended family that they want to have living in the unit. We have no way of knowing if they are family members. As a matter of fact, we have no way of knowing if the legitimate owners are actually living in the unit. At present, an owner has asked to have a niece move in even though our declaration says only owners may live in their unit. We're asking our attorney about this. Any ideas for solving this problem other than voluntary compliance?

A: Hopefully your documents provide a framework for forcing compliance. If the new rule is clearly worded that occupants must be owners, then that's the deal. So the niece doesn't make the cut unless she's on the deed. But if she is, then she does have the right to inhabit. Ditto in other cases where there are multiple names on the deed. Officially they're all owners.

If the board has doubts that an occupant is an owner, then it would seem they have the right to ask for proof, such as the deed, that would document it.

Lastly, your association should have a procedure, including a fine schedule, for people who break the rules. Implementing this is your solution.

That said, since you are using an attorney, it would be worth your time to revisit this person to see if he/she has any other suggestions. Perhaps your documents need to be tweaked to get the best results.

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October 4, 2007 11:01 AM

Does adding hardwood floors pay off?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I'm thinking of replacing my vinyl kitchen floor and the wall-to-wall carpet in the adjoining family room with hardwood. Will this pay off at resale?

A: Buyers, in general, do see hardwood floors as a plus. However there's no way to know how adding them to your particular house will affect the sales price without knowing more about your home's general condition, your neighborhood, how long you plan to stay in your home -- and how home sales are fairing at that point.

Right now, for instance, the number of for-sale homes is growing rapidly. So having new floors could be a plus that gets your home sold. But with so much competition for buyers, prices are soft and you might not get the cost of the floors back.

Additionally, you have to consider your competition. If most homes in your neighborhood already have hardwood, your adding it won't make your home stand out (and it's the standouts that bring the big bucks). It will only bring it up to the rest of the neighborhood.

Finally, studies have shown that updating kitchens and baths are the two improvements that return the most at resale. Updating is only beneficial for a few years. Ten or 15 years out, a home improvement may be looking worn and outdated. At that point it returns nothing.

For the best take on what adding hardwood to your home will do resale wise, contact a local real-estate agent. They'll know your neighborhood and should be able to tell you.

But the real deal is this: if you want hardwood floors, you can afford them and plan to be in your house long enough to enjoy them, let that be your guide. A house, after all, is foremost a home.

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October 4, 2007 10:17 AM

Explaining condo board-members' obligations

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I've been on the board of my professionally managed condominium for three years. As I'm learning more about board members' financial responsibilities, I'm being met with resistance from fellow board members unwilling to make necessary changes to protect ourselves and our assets. Would you explain a board member's obligations? What should the other homeowners expect from the board? Where does the board end and the management company start? Does the management company have an obligation to explain the fundamentals to us rookies?

A: Seattle attorney Dan Zimberoff, with Barker Martin tackles your questions in order.

State condominium law obligates board members to use the "business judgment rule" in running the association's business. This means they must use "ordinary and reasonable care" rather than the higher standard of fiduciary responsibility.

"The basis for this makes sense," Zimberoff says. "They're volunteers, not paid for their role. They come from all walks of life and many of them the first year have no experience."

Therefore, he says, they shouldn't be expected to have the "heightened duty of care" one would expect of an accountant, attorney or other professional who might handle association business. But they do have to be careful and prudent.

Board members have an obligation to serve the association above their own personal interests; in practice this means, for example, that they must recuse themselves from voting on issues where they are personally invested. For instance, if a board member owns a large dog, he or she shouldn't participate in a vote on whether to limit the size of pets.

Homeowners should expect their board to follow its own governing documents. While this sounds like a no-brainer, Zimberoff says, "One of the biggest pitfalls I see board members make is they shoot from the hip in responding to a homeowner rather than just following their governing documents. A lot of issues that arise are governed."

Homeowners also should expect their board to "manage and lead the association and to work with experts, such as legal counsel, etc." But what this means can vary significantly depending on whether the association employs a professional manager to run day-to-day operations.

As for where the board's duties end and a manager's begins, Zimberoff says each association determines that for themselves. But in general, "The board sets strategic guidance. Then you have a management team that implements and carries out that plan. Daily operations are handled by the manager."

Management companies have no legal obligation to educate board members. However, Zimberoff says, managers realize it's in their best interest to have an educated board, so they're usually willing to pass on knowledge.

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October 3, 2007 9:33 AM

Senior questions legality of rent increases

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I live in a senior citizens' park for manufactured homes located in South King County. After rent increases of 3 or 4 percent a year, management is now raising it almost 10 percent. Despite this, management isn't maintaining the property. Our fence has been down for months; management says it wants the men who live here, all older, to repair it. Are there any laws controlling rent increases for seniors?

A: Some years ago the Washington State Legislature took up the issue of rent controls and decided against allowing cities and counties to implement them. So the answer is no, there are no rent controls for seniors or anyone else.

As for the fence repair issue, unless your lease says tenants have to maintain the park owner's property -- and that's highly doubtful -- park residents can ignore management's request to fix it.

But what you might want to do is gather residents together to let management know what you think about the rent and maintenance situations. Don't worry about getting into hot water for speaking up. It's illegal for landlords to retaliate against tenants.

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October 1, 2007 4:14 PM

Failing retaining wall vexes neighbor

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My neighbor's retaining wall of railroad ties has deteriorated in places and allowed ties and soil to encroach onto my property. Several requests over the last three or four years to fix this problem have been ignored. What are my options?

A: Yours is one of several recent questions from readers concerned about neighbors either failing to maintain existing retaining walls or building new ones that appear to be insufficient to do the job.

Seattle attorney Brian Lawler, of Lawler Burroughs & Baker, gives general advice for dealing with these situations.

Legally speaking, you may have a case of trespass or nuisance. So one option is to retain a lawyer to explore a legal resolution. That could culminate in a court order compelling the neighbor to stop the trespass. But Lawler doesn't recommend this option unless you cannot resolve the situation in a less adversarial way. There are several possible steps you can take.

First, he recommends you get a survey of the boundary between yourself and your neighbor. "People have very strong ideas about where their boundaries are, and they are often wrong," he says. They should "get the survey, otherwise they may find themselves guilty of trespass."

If your neighbor is currently building what appears to be a substandard wall, call your city or county building department. Often permits are needed, and if your neighbor was required to get one and didn't, or isn't building up to snuff, the local code enforcement folks may resolve that.

Once you're confident that an existing problematic retaining wall is your neighbor's, call your county's dispute resolution service. They offer advice and mediation for resolving neighborhood disputes, and many do so for free. (A statewide list of county mediation programs is available at

With your permission, a mediator will call your neighbor to request a meeting between the three of you. This puts your neighbor on notice, in a non-confrontational way, that you are serious about resolving this situation and willing to work with them.

"Sometimes the mediator is tonic on the water and can smooth out otherwise heated communications and get them flowing back and forth," Lawler notes.

If this approach doesn't work, then write your neighbor a polite but firm letter explaining that their retaining wall is encroaching on your property and you're worried about damage. Politely let the neighbor understand that if they're aware of the potential for damage and fail to remedy it, their homeowner's insurance will not pay for any resulting damage.

If your neighbor still doesn't act, contact an attorney.

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October 1, 2007 10:12 AM

Finding an agent, part 2

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: In a recent column, you answered a question about how to find a diligent Realtor. One tip offered was:
Start by looking for a person who specializes in your target neighborhoods. Preferably you'll want a full-time agent (many work part time and do just a few deals a year) who's handled numerous transactions.
I'm interested in your advice on how to do that? Is there a place to find out how many transactions a realtor has conducted within a certain timeframe and geographic location?

A: There's no public database that will give you this information, so the easiest way to find it is to interview the real estate agent and his/her boss. The boss, usually called a broker, manages all the agents in a given office. The brokers know who the full-time agents are and who has expertise in listing homes or selling homes. Often agents specialize in one or the other.

Additionally, most large companies give awards (gold, silver, etc.) for top performers. Agents who have lots of sales will be award winners. Ask smaller firms how they recognize their top agents.

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Recent entries

Oct 31, 07 - 10:16 AM
Construction delay causes buyer dilemma

Oct 30, 07 - 04:01 PM
Landlord wants renter to pay grease fire damages

Oct 29, 07 - 02:59 PM
Buying property near flood zone

Oct 26, 07 - 10:00 AM
Seller ponders capital gains tax bite

Oct 25, 07 - 10:00 AM
Town-home owner ponders fence repair







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