After 30-plus years of practicing real estate, I have been in just about every situation. I have worked with some wonderful professional agents and some real air-heads. I have represented hundreds of buyers and sellers who still call me their friend and a few who wish they had never met me. With all this experience it still surprises me how I can so easily forget the valuable advice I learned 40 year ago from a crusty platoon sergeant. “Never be first, never be last and never volunteer for anything.”
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Erma was referred to me by a past client. She was past 80, a widow and needed to sell her home in order to move into an assisted living center. She should have sold the home years ago but so much of it reminded her of her deceased husband that she couldn’t part with leaving. Her children all live in Southern California where she was moving.
Looking back, I felt sorry for the old gal. She was leaving her home of 25 years, many friends and lots of memories. All the money she had was probably tied up in that old house but I was going to do everything I could to make the transition easier for her. She was appreciative of my help and once told me, “I trust you Ken and anything that you want to do is fine with me.”
Accepting unconditional trust from a client is a serious responsibility that I was not sure I wanted. I asked Erma if she had a trusted son or daughter whom I could work with to assure their mother was making the correct decisions. Upon returning to the office, I called daughter Barbara and we discussed the local market and my marketing plan. I promised that I would provide her with e-mails of contracts prior to her mother signing them. Keeping adult children in the information loop is usually best when working with the elderly.
Daughter Barbara had some exposure to real estate through her husband, a contractor. She and her two brothers were anxious to get mother moved and wanted my feelings as to selling a vacant house. “No problem,” I said. I was actually relieved they were going to move mom prior to listing the home for sale. Although the house looked fine, the furniture was oversized; the walls had too many family portraits and mom had a large collection of collectables. The home would look larger when vacant and Erma wouldn’t be inconvenienced by any showings.
When an owner moves prior to the home selling the listing agent often acquires additional responsibilities not addressed in the listing agreement but I volunteered to take care of everything. A neighbor calls at 10 p.m. to say someone showed the house and left the outside lights on. Erma’s gardener needs access to the garage to change the watering timers. Fortunately, a few weeks after listing the property an offer arrived, subject to a clear pest report. After running the offer by all three children who had taken a sudden interest in the sale, Erma accepted the buyer’s offer and we opened escrow.
It’s not a good sign when a pest inspector disappears in a crawl space for longer than 20 minutes. When an hour had passed and he was still poking around under the house I began speed dialing my preferred list of contractors. The termite damage was extensive. Repairs would run into the tens of thousands of dollars, taking weeks to complete.
It was at this point that I should have called Erma and told her I was taking a sabbatical as her listing agent until she or her designated contractor had the house repaired. But no, I volunteered to obtain a second opinion pest inspection and three contractor bids for the required repairs. Regardless of my good intentions, I had crossed the line from an agent employed to sell a house to Erma’s construction project manager.
The second pest report confirmed the damage and I spent the next month working with three contractors rebuilding Erma’s house. The change orders kept me awake at night. When replacing termite damage, the extent of the required repairs is often unknown until revealed while making other repairs. The discovery prompts the contractor to modify the original estimate with a “change order.” There were eight change orders.
Erma had resigned herself to accepting things as they were but her children began to view me as a leach, sucking their poor mother dry of any equity she once had in the house. Then the accusations started: I had sold the home too cheap; the contractors were inflating their bids; I was in cahoots with the contractors. Two weeks from completion one of Erma’s overly protectively sons arrived from Southern California, proceeded directly to the house and fired the contractor.
During all this turmoil, the buyers had been patiently waiting but when they discovered the contractor had been fired and the house may never be completed, they contacted their attorney. The deal became a quagmire of angry parties with diverse interests. The one thing they all had in common was the person who had invited them to this party, me.
Six weeks later the deal finally closed. Erma is living at Heavenly Village, the buyers in their newly built home and all the contractors finally got paid. Perhaps the next time I will be more cautious of volunteering beyond my agency duties. But then again, maybe not.
Ken Calhoon is a real estate broker in El Dorado County. He can be reached through his Website at kencalhoon.com.