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The Mystery Housebuyer

Different strokes for different folks: From move-in ready to total gut jobs, San Francisco homes for sale

Within an hour’s timespan on a recent Sunday, I got a look at two completely different homes that are on the market and that show the diversity of the admittedly constricted housing inventory in San Francisco. They also demonstrated two different ways of reaching buyers.

The first place was a condominium unit being represented by a real estate agent friend of ours in the Sunnyside neighborhood. A one-bedroom, one-bath unit located in the quiet rear of a 1979 building along busy Monterey Boulevard, it comes with secure off-street parking and boasts an upgraded kitchen and bath and a quiet porch facing greenery. Homeowner association fees are a low $298 a month.

So it’s a nice place, a perfect place for a young professional, a couple, or even a retired owner. Perhaps its biggest asset is its location. It is within easy walking distance to Muni trains and buses, the Glen Park BART station (which also serves as a stop for numerous tech and biotech corporate buses), easy freeway access, multiple grocery stores large and small, and plenty of restaurants.

But after a previous offer had fallen through, the unit was put back on the market with a reduced price (see “BOM: Back on the market,” page 25).

The new listing price was about $50,000 below the market price. Though one might think that’s a sign of resignation or desperation, it is far more likely a tactic to spark a bidding war by inviting multiple offers at an unreasonably low price. The agent told us he expects that the condo will go for the market price or a bit over that in the end.

We then drove over to take a look at another property, this one an old single-family home in the trendy Glen Park neighborhood. As a former longtime resident of Glen Park, I can attest that it has long been a nice neighborhood with friendly neighbors and great little shops and restaurants. But what made it trendy in real estate terms was the addition of Glen Park to those “Google Bus” routes. Well-paid tech workers knew they could buy a nice home in a quiet neighborhood with shopping and still be able to get to work without having to fight their own way through city traffic each day.

As a result, prices in the neighborhood zoomed upward.

Our first clue about the property’s potential was that we had trouble parking. The street was practically blocked with other cars looking for parking spaces or dropping people off in the middle of the street so they could go get a head start looking at the building. We went about a block away and found a spot for the car, then we walked down to the property.

It was a two-story home atop a one-floor garage (which was basically carved out of bedrock). Walking up the stairs, we could tell this was not a house that had been staged, unless there’s some crack dealer chic staging company in town. The walls had partially scraped surfaces, studs showed through holes in some places, the paint was old, the wooden floors in the rooms were faded and scratched but would probably clean up wonderfully, and the floorboards of the steps leading up to the first floor were old, unfinished, and clearly waiting for a handyman’s touch.

Built in 1921, the home had three bedrooms and two full bathrooms. It looked to me as if the house had once had four small bedrooms but at some point the owner had combined two in the back of the house to create a larger bedroom.

The backyard was in frightful condition, but it included a large stand-alone (probably unpermitted) room, which potential buyers could interpret as the possible office or yoga studio or music room or teenager’s bedroom they’ve always wanted to have. All they would have to do is a lot of work. On everything.

The main floor featured a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and one other room that presumably could be used as a sitting room or office. There were so many people milling about, I found myself stepping backward in the kitchen to let others pass by, and I backed into the peninsula counter — which shifted. Luckily no one was hit by it, but it underscored the fact that this house was not prettied up in any way to attract buyers.

That’s because the buyers that its agent and owners wanted to attract were unlikely to be a family looking for something to move into in the near future. The house was priced at $599,000; it was likely to go for much more than that to the type of buyer who was crowded into the house with us. We were surrounded by people who appeared to be small-time investors looking to buy the home, fix it up, and sell it at a good profit. Even paying well over the asking price, they are likely to make hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit.

Looking at the house from the street, our agent friend noted that the homes on either side of the for-sale property had been beautifully fixed up in recent years, and their owners would probably be thrilled that this eyesore between them was going to get a facelift. That will likely make them happy to live through the months of renovation noise from next door.

They say real estate is all about location, location, location. But having the right buyer for the right property with the right neighbors goes a long way toward making the right match.

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