Norah Jones at the Green Building in Brooklyn

23 Sep

Norah Jones at the Green Building in Brooklyn

Old buildings have a magnificent echo. The bones of the building and the thousands who have walked through it reverberate for those that enter today. Take a moment and think about a particularly beautiful old building that you’ve walked through. How did it smell? What hue were the spoiled yet lovely walls? Was the floor concrete or did it retain the original stone or wood?

When I need a mental detox, I like to walk through an old building, or at least to think about the ones that I have walked through.


Lessons I learned while searching, negotiating, and buying my first home

23 Mar

I just finished purchasing a condominium in Austin, Texas.   As a young professional, I stupidly assumed several things about the system that I learned to be absolutely false: (1) the system is structured to protect the buyer, (2) it is fair, (3) it is rational, (4) you can rely on the advice of professionals in the industry, and (5) moving fast is of the utmost importance.  What follows is the practical advice and “instinct reinforcement” that I wish someone had written down and given to me before I began searching for a home, while I was in the negotiation phase, and before I completed the purchase. I attempt to break down the players, their incentives, how you should handle them, and must-dos during the process.  Given that the real estate market in Austin APPEARS hot, I think the advice below is particularly critical.  A lot of this is content the real estate industry doesn’t want you to read or take to heart.  Because if you do take this advice to heart, you’ll take longer to buy your home, you’ll get a better price (more on why they care about that!), and they will have to work harder to earn your money.  Yes, this is YOUR money.  My favorite part of this post is on the Players and their incentives.  Spoiler: I’m skeptical.  

DISCLAIMER: Nothing contained here is legal or financial advice.  I am not a Realtor, and I am definitely not your Lawyer or your Agent.  I am just a regular buyer like you.  I will make no money whether you buy a house or not, although I (and the rest of the buyers out there) will benefit if you act in your best interests instead of letting someone convince you to do something irrational.  I wrote this post because I think knowing these things is the first step to having a functioning real estate market, which I think has been sorely lacking in this country for some time.  See: Financial Crisis circa 2008; see also Financial Crisis circa 1980s.   

For most people, buying a home is the biggest investment of their lives.  In order to do this right, you need to harness your skepticism and be as thorough as humanly possible.  Think to the time you were the most skeptical about something.  Was it when buying a used car? A new television? Buying curtains? Purchasing an expensive piece of jewelry? Your home purchase is at least 10x the cost of those things.

Don’t be shy.  And don’t ever feel that you are asking too many questions, or being too difficult.  I am saying this because the various players in the system may make you think that you’re worrying too much, or that the market doesn’t allow you to take so long to decide, or some other reason to shut up and decide.  If you believe nothing else, please believe that they are wrong, and you are right.  It is your money.  Not the bank’s.  Not the realtors.  Not the appraisers.  Not the mortgage brokers.  And not the seller’s.  Take your time and don’t rush any part of this process.

Understand the Real Estate Process or it will break you

No one ever explained the nitty gritty of the process.  Maybe this is something my Realtor should have done, maybe I should have done more internet research, but in any event, I didn’t have a framework in which to make decisions.  I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

It all begins with the search, whether its on the internet or through a Realtor.  When you find the first property you like (yes, you’ll like more than one!), you will decide whether or not to make an offer.  Typically, a condition of making the offer will be that you obtain a pre-approval letter from a lender.  If you haven’t already done this, you will then have to rustle up a mortgage broker or a bank that will ask you for your pay-stubs, bank statements, and other documents.  This person will then run your credit history before giving you a letter that says you are pre-approved up to some amount of money for a loan.

After you have this letter (and maybe sometime before), your Realtor will have you fill out a Purchase Contract for the home, which will include the purchase price, the amount of money you plan on putting down, special conditions, and “Third-Party Addendums” like a Credit Approval contingency document.  (More on the Credit Approval Contingency Addendum in a moment).

One thing you should know is that its perfectly fine to make a written offer without filling out this incredibly long document.  Indeed, the document is meant to intimidate you and make you feel like your Realtor is some sort of legal expert.  (They aren’t.)  Sometimes it is more efficient and faster to submit a written offer without negotiating all of the terms contained in the Purchase Contract.  Of course, you will need a more detailed contract later.  The point here is just to let you know that you have options beyond just what your Realtor mandates you to do.  They don’t control the process.  You do.

The Credit Approval Addendum is actually quite important because it states that you can back out of the purchase (and still get your Earnest Money back) if you are denied for financing.  The most important terms in this document deal with the term of the loan (15 or 30?), the interest rate, and the principal amount.  To be safe and to maximize your options, you should ensure that your Realtor puts a lower interest rate in this document.  On the first contract I signed, the interest rate was 4.0%, which didn’t commit me to paying that much in interest but did commit me to continuing the transaction as long as I could get a loan at or below 4.0%.  It’s better to put a number as low as possible because it allows you to back out in case interest rates go up, or your credit isn’t as good as you thought, or just as another out.

If and when the seller accepts your offer (you may sign a lot of revisions to the Purchase Contract before this happens!), you will enter what is known as the “option” period.  This is typically 7 or 10 days that you get to have an inspector go out and inspect the property.  (More on this in the Inspectors section).  After the inspection is complete, you enter the “Earnest Money” period, where backing out of the contract becomes a lot tougher.  Ideally, you should do your negotiations for price reductions based on the inspection during the Option Period.  No matter how hot the market is, the seller does not want you to back out, and may be fine with reducing the price.  There is never something wrong with asking.  So go ahead and ask!

While the inspections are going on, you’ll also be signing lots of forms from your bank.  Read these forms carefully.  You’ll also be asked to make choices on who to use for your homeowner’s insurance.  This choice almost doesn’t matter because the companies are typically all the same.  Go with the one that appears the most straightforward.  Reward their honesty and transparency.  You will appreciate it in the long run.  Another option you have is to purchase this insurance from the same company that provides your car insurance.  Its not always true but occasionally you save some money this way.

There will be a thirty to sixty day lag between when your offer is accepted and when you actually close on your home.  (This will include the option period and the earnest money period, which lasts until the moment of closing).  To break it down, you sign the Real Estate Purchase contract at or around the stage when you are making your offer.  It is only at closing where you sign the documents that will commit you to repaying the mortgage loan, transfer the title to your name, etc.  You’ll bring a check for your down payment to closing and the bank will wire the remainder of the purchase money to the seller.  After the wire transfer has occurred and all the documents are signed, you will get the keys.  This is not the end of the process, its just the beginning of fifteen to thirty years of home payments!


Understanding The Real Estate Purchase Contract

But before you get to even your option period, you will sign a Real Estate Purchase Contract.  I want you to understand this document inside and out.  If you hire a Realtor, have him or her walk you through this document clause-by-clause.  (More below on why you might not want to hire a Realtor!)  Realtors aren’t lawyers but they know this contract back and forth.  Or at least they should.  In Texas, the real estate contract is under 30 pages.

If your Realtor can’t or won’t explain this document.  Fire this person immediately.  This is the agreement you sign with the seller to buy your new home.  You need to be absolutely comfortable with this.  And your Realtor is making a 3% commission to explain it to you.  If you still don’t understand a term in the contract, or you’re not comfortable with it, just cross it out!  There is no legal requirement for you to use the MAJORITY of the terms in this Real Estate Contract.  (The exceptions are typically notices like the Notice of Lead Paint, or similar clauses.)   In most states, this contract was written by a lawyer representing REAL ESTATE AGENTS.  It wasn’t written by someone with a buyer’s interest at heart.  So don’t treat this like an immovable force.  It isn’t, you can change this document as much as you like.  If things are still confusing, don’t be afraid to ask a lawyer representing you for advice.

Again, don’t agree to terms you don’t like just because a real estate agent insists you have to.  Real estate agents very rarely have law degrees.  They are just regurgitating the words they were told to say by the state Association of Realtors.  So don’t listen to their complaints of how its “unusual” to change a term or that you’re making them do too much work.  They work for you and if they don’t like it, they can quit.  (Realtors are very easy to find, no matter where you live.)

Recently, we ran into a Realtor that was complaining about “having to put in 9 or 10 offers before my buyers bought a house.”  I was offended by his frustration.  The Real Estate Contract is a form document.  The Realtor fills in less than 20 blanks on any given document, 15 of which never change (such as YOUR NAME).  Do not worry about your Realtor having to do too much work.  It’s on a computer and its actually easier to modify than pressing Control F in Microsoft Word.

Making Offers and Negotiation — Negotiate often, and negotiate hard.  Our Realtor asked us a version of this question several times: will it matter to you that this house cost an extra $5,000 or $10,000, considering how much you’re already paying? This is a loaded question.  The answer is ALWAYS going to be NO.  If you think in the “big picture” $5,000 never matters.  Guess what, if it doesn’t matter to you then it shouldn’t matter to the seller either! But I bet the seller won’t so casually reduce the price, will he?

Questions like these are designed to get you to not want to negotiate.  In other words, reject the premise of this question because all it does is inflate your sales price, inflate your Realtor’s commission, and reduce the amount of work he or she has to do.  Do not be afraid of low-ball offers.  Make them a couple of times.  It actually feels good.  I advised a friend on his transaction recently and he ended up paying LESS on the house than he was initially thinking of offering.  Yes, he paid less AFTER negotiating from his low-ball offer than he would have if he the seller had said yes to the price he was originally going to offer.

One way to negotiate your real estate purchase is to ask the Seller’s Realtor “I don’t want to insult anyone.  What’s the lowest I can go without your seller considering this to be insulting?” Make them give you a number.  And if its really close to the asking price, just say “actually I was going to make a lower offer, is it even worth making it?”  At this point, most of them will ask you what that offer was.  They might even take it to their client.

During negotiation, the seller’s agent might say things like “that’s too low, I can’t take that to my client” or “my client will not accept that.”  Be nice and ask “ok, maybe thats true, but do you mind asking for me.  I don’t want to walk away without your seller at least knowing what I want.”  Believe it or not, this works.  None of this is effective if you’re shy or afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.  If your Realtor isn’t willing to do this hard work and hard negotiation, you have to either make them do it, fire them, or keep them but take over the negotiation.  In our case, it ended up being the final option.  We weren’t happy about having to take over negotiations but it was the only way for us to be able to sleep at night.  There’s no saying it will definitely happen to you but be ready for this outcome if you end up hiring a real estate agent.


Condominium v. Home

This might be the topic of another post but I do want to briefly address this.  The short story is that you should make sure you ask these magic questions before buying your condo, and definitely before the end of your option period: (1) Are there any major assessments coming up? (2) What are the condo fees? (3) Can I see a copy of the condominium association documents, financial statements for the association, and copies of the last three months of board meetings?

Look at these documents closely and ensure that the association manager isn’t taking a big fee, or that the association doesn’t have major bills it needs to pay.  Guess who pays the bills for the costs incurred by the condo association? The new paint? The new railings on the stairs? The pool maintenance.  You do.

The least asked but most important determination is whether this condo property is well-managed.  Whether you can sell your condo in the future, and how much you can sell it for, is dependent on the amount of upcoming maintenance, the fees, the bank balance of the association, and so much more.  When you buy a condominium, you agree to work with the other owners to resolve issues that arise.  Make sure you understand the obligations you incur.  The condo association documents are a great place to start.  And even though they are legal documents, they are actually quite easy to understand.


The Players

Now that you know the process, and the contract, you need to know the Players involved in the Real Estate Industrial Complex.  As you prepare to choose the people you will hire, it might be helpful to read reviews from buyers like you on a site like AngiesList.  See what others have said about these people and look beyond reviews that say things like “she was great and helpful.”  You need more substance than that.  Don’t hesitate to ask any of the players below for references from their most savvy clients.  If the clients the players below refer you to can’t say anything more than “he showed up on time” or “he was great,” then you need to consider hiring other people.

The Skinny on Hiring a Realtor

Think carefully before you hire one.  In fact, start from the presumption that you don’t even need a realtor.  You should understand how to do everything yourself, and you should be ready to do everything yourself, even if you hire a realtor.  This is because your realtor has competing incentives–close the sale, maximize the commission, work with as many clients as possible to have as many opportunities for commissions as possible, do a good enough job to get a referral, don’t get too nasty with other realtors (who also may be a source of referrals), and prevent the deal from falling part.

I’d like to tackle each incentive and explain what that means for you as a buyer:

  1. Close the Sale — Your realtor gets absolutely nothing if you don’t buy something.  You will often hear realtors say “my services don’t cost you anything, the seller pays the commission.” (This statement actually isn’t true.  The contracts that Realtors make you sign says that you have to pay their commission if the seller refuses to do so.  This is another clause you might want to strike out!)   Think about that “my services cost you nothing” statement for a moment.  First, it means your realtor needs you to buy something or the seller won’t be paying him anything.  Second, it means that the seller is no doubt charging you a slightly higher price to compensate for the fact that he or she has to pay a commission to your realtor.  When your realtor says something that sounds absurd, dig in your heels and ask more questions.  Just two weeks ago, we were re-inspecting our property and noticed an issue with the deadbolt and the door.  Our realtor replied “oh, I’m pretty sure your HOA will take care of that, I wouldn’t worry about it.”  Your instinct will be to believe everything your realtor says, and he may be saying it in completely good faith, but don’t forget that as you get closer to the finish-line, your realtor’s mind and pocketbook have an incentive to fudge.  The closer you are to the end, the less your realtor will want to rock the boat.  But it is your job to make the realtor rock the boat on your behalf.  You must ceaselessly question what they tell you, regardless of whether you consider them to be trustworthy.  
  2. Maximize the Commission — If I had a dollar for every time my realtor, the seller’s realtor, the broker, or someone else that is part of the real estate industrial complex told me “you’re getting a great deal,” I would have been able to pay for the house in cash.  This entire industry runs on flat fees and commissions.  The implication of the commission is that EVERYONE (except you) wants you to pay as much as possible for this house or condominium.  If you pay an extra $30,000, each realtor gets 3% of that sum, which is an extra $900 apiece.  If you get a realtor, push him to negotiate aggressively for you.  And not on stuff like whether you get to keep the appliances.  That is $3,000.  Deals don’t fall apart over $3,000.  So both realtors will be eager to enter negotiation to demonstrate just how much they care about you and the seller.  But that is $90.  They don’t care about $90.  The practical consequence of this is that your realtor has to do a potentially delicate balancing act: get you to pay as much as you are willing while also not letting the price get so high that you’ll walk away.  How does that manifest itself? Simple.  Your realtor recommends making something close to your final offer now instead of “low-balling.”  As justification, your realtor will say “well, you don’t want to get into a back and forth and have them walk away,” or “with the market moving as fast as it is, they are probably getting lots of offers, you want yours to be competitive.”  The truth is, your realtor has NO IDEA whether the seller is getting lots of offers or not, especially because the only source of that information is the seller’s realtor, who benefits from creating hype around the market generally and the property specifically.  Don’t listen to your realtor on this.  Put in whatever offer you think is reasonable.  During negotiation, never feel pressured to go higher than you feel is right.  In fact, don’t ask the realtor what would be a good offer.  He has no idea but his incentive is for you to offer more, because that maximizes the commission, and maximizes the chances of closing the sale.
  3. Maximize the number of clients — Your realtor gets paid per sale.  It’s simple enough that the best way to maximize your income is to maximize the number of potential clients who are interested in purchasing a home.  The practical consequence for you is that your realtor will be very busy.  At the beginning of your relationship, your realtor will take you to see lots of properties.  As time goes on, your realtor will have less and less time and the reason cited will be “I have to go see a house with other clients.”  This is true.  This will make you feel frustrated and it will make you want to start doing stuff on your own.  It certainly happened to me.  The major lesson here is that you have to be ready for this eventuality, and ready to just do more work yourself.  Whether its looking at listings yourself, going to see listings without your realtor, or even calling the seller’s realtor to negotiate directly, you need to be prepared and willing to do this work.  You will have to do this work.  What happens if you don’t? This is when you actually lose out on opportunities to buy because its fewer attempts that you are making.  The even bigger lesson here is that a realtor is often not the way to avoid hassle, or to have someone else take care of the BS for you.  Indeed, it might be the opposite if you are having the delays associated with your realtor having a lot more clients than just you.
  4. Your Realtor wants referrals — This is probably one area in which your interests are well-aligned with your Realtor.  Referrals are the cheapest way for your realtor to make money.  You should regularly mention how many of your friends want to buy homes.  This may or may not be true but its one way to make sure your Realtor stays prompt, responsive, and reasonable when it comes to price, etc.  You could also mention that you hope to sell the home a few years later, thereby letting the Realtor know that if they do a good job for you know, they could represent you on the sale a few years later.
  5. Maintaining Civility — During negotiation, your Realtor already has an incentive to keep the price high because it maximizes the chances of closing a sale and ensures a higher commission.  But the less obvious reason is that your Realtor wants to maintain a good reputation in the community and maximize chances of getting referrals from the Realtor on the other side.  You should never ask your Realtor to yell or do anything that isn’t civil.  But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t force your Realtor to aggressively negotiate.  Sadly, your Realtor will likely tell you that a lower price, asking for appliances, or one of the dozens of little items you can ask for will be met with a firm NO.  Don’t listen to this.  If you want $3,000 off because the inspection revealed that the house will need work in the next 2-3 years, ask for it and make your Realtor go to bat for you.  “It won’t work” is a copout.  It is what your Realtor says when they don’t want to negotiate.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking.  I was amazed with the number of times my Realtor told me that a tactic wouldn’t work, only to have it result in a lower price.  Oftentimes, I had to make the calls myself.  Be ready to do that.  Knowing that I would make the call made my Realtor more willing to do the job.
  6. Do No Evil (that might result in the deal falling apart) — The closer you are to the transaction being final, the less your Realtor will want you to ask the seller for price reductions, for fixes to the home, or for concessions of any kind.  This happened to me multiple times.  My instinct told me to be firm.  My heart told me to let it go because my asks were small and inconsequential in the scheme of things.  Thankfully my instinct won out.  Towards the end, you will be tired of the process, and you will want to listen to your realtor on the “things will be ok; this isn’t that big of a deal; the HOA will fix it; I’m sure it won’t cost very much; we can figure that out later,” and other such excuses.  For your sake, don’t let this happen.  Your Realtor isn’t being dishonest.  It is just human nature to want a long process to be over.  Unfortunately, the process is structured to make discovery of these problems happen at the end of a negotiation, instead of at the beginning.  Your Realtor has to understand that you’ll walk away over something small, or they won’t fight for you when it means the deal may or may not fall apart.

Understanding Real Estate Appraisers

Everything is bullshit.  No, seriously.  As I mentioned with Inspectors, understand that Appraisers get their referrals from Brokers and Realtors.  Its actually worse than the structure with inspectors because an appraisal before the asking price means that bank can’t lend you the money.  The bank will not lend you $300,000 for a house that is worth $290,000.

Now here’s the really messed up point–appraisers know your purchase price BEFORE they go “appraise” the property.  They know the number they have to make for the deal to close.  Since appraisal is an art not a science, they can find comparables that support the purchase price, or say that small differences in the comparables make up the gap.  I honestly don’t know how you fix this.  But you NEED to know how much this house is actually worth.  Because YOU pay.  The bank will come after you if and when its clear the house isn’t worth what you paid for it.  If you can, ask the bank/broker to refrain from telling the appraiser your purchase price.  See what they come back with when they don’t know how much you’re paying.  “But that might kill the deal,” you say.  Yes, that’s true.  But you want the deal to die if you’re paying too much.  Or you want the ability to tell the seller the house isn’t worth as much and that they better reduce the price.

What to Know when Hiring an Inspector for your Real Estate Purchase

Inspectors will be the ones that tell you whether what you see is really what you’re getting.  Houses can be made to look a lot better on the outside than they are on the inside.  A good inspector will tell you everything that could be wrong.  He or she will literally crawl underneath the house for you.  Your inclination on inspectors and other professionals will be to ask your Realtor and trust your Realtor’s recommendation.

In order to determine if you should listen to your Realtor, its helpful to go back to incentive structures for a moment.  Inspectors get the majority of their business from referral.  Referrals come from realtors and mortgage brokers, both of which don’t get paid unless the deal closes.

So let me paint two different pictures for you: “Inspector Gadget goes to your house to make sure there’s no problems.  Inspector Gadget sees lots of little things and illustrates in vivid detail, takes tons of pictures, and tells you that the cost to fix these things will total $10,000.  Armed with that information, you ask for concessions.  But the seller doesn’t want to reduce the price.  You dig in your heels because its $10,000 worth of repairs on a $200,000 house.  This is real money! You walk away because the seller doesn’t agree.  Your poor Realtor loses out on the commission because Inspector Gadget just ‘had’ to tell you how much things would cost and be so incredibly thorough!” How many referrals do you think an Inspector who constantly finds things wrong, resulting in dead deals, is going to get referred? 

Let’s paint a different picture: “Inspector Gadget goes to your house, takes pictures, points out these little issues, says nothing about cost, indicates they are ALL MINOR.  You’re happy.  You have no reason to ask for a concession.  ‘The inspection came back GREAT,’ your Realtor exclaims.  You complete the purchase.  Your Realtor gets 3%.  How many referrals do you thank an Inspector who takes an ‘optimistic’ view of the home and keeps deals together is going to get? 

The bottom-line here is pretty simple.  Hire your own inspector without getting a referral from anyone other than a friend whose inspector found lots of things wrong.  Do some aggressive googling if you need to.  Pay more for an inspector that has constantly been employed by buyers.  Ask prospective inspectors for copies of reports they have done, if they are at liberty to release them.  Ask them for references and then call those references and ask how much stuff an inspector found wrong.  If it was an older home, the inspector should find things wrong.  If they didn’t, this is a massive warning sign.  The inspector is a super important part of this process FOR YOU.  Get the best one you can find.  Don’t let this be an afterthought.  You have to know what it is you’re buying.  You want the Inspector that is so thorough that he hasn’t met a house where he is unable to find a lot of flaws.  You want pessimists on this one.

Mortgage Brokers and Financing your Home Purchase

 The most common diatribe I heard was “listen, the banks and mortgage brokers have an incentive to make sure you don’t pay too much because its their money and they want to get repaid.”  Sadly, the world bears no resemble to the truthiness contained in this statement.  I had a really good mortgage broker and I would recommend her and her team any day of the week.

But you need to know that mortgage brokers get paid when the deal closes.  Every person they refer to you and everything they do will be to make sure the deal closes.  The broker is a person.  They don’t get paid on installment for 30 years.  No, they get paid a fee for closing that loan.  They do not have your back.  No one in this process does.  Ask for a copy of the loan agreement (and other docs) that you will be signing.  Ask for this at the beginning.  Don’t wait until three days before you sign to ask for this.  (By law, they don’t even have to give you a few hours, although the good ones will give you a couple of days before closing day.)   Shop around for rates.  Ask about different loan types.  Watch this Khan Academy video on Buying vs. Renting.  Play with this spreadsheet Salman Khan developed to help you understand what impact different mortgage rates and loan terms have on the financial outcomes you will achieve.

The Title Agent

Title is the document proving that you actually own the home.  The Title Agent will be recording your name as the owner in the county records.  He or she will be the last person you see before you get your keys.  They are also the person who will be handling all the document signing at closing.  All of it.  Ask them for copies of these documents beforehand.  Review them.  Call them and ask them what clauses mean.  Double-check the hell out of these documents.  The Title Agent on our transaction put the wrong number for the amount we had ALREADY paid for earnest money, which is supposed to come out of the total.  We actually paid $3,500.  The Title Agent had $2,000 as the number.  If we hadn’t read through these documents thoroughly, we would have been out $1,500.  Once we notified them of the error, they corrected it immediately.  But the lesson is that you shouldn’t just blindly rely on the Title Agent, who is preparing tens of thousands of pages of documents a month.  You have to read them at a microscopic level.  This is your house.  It is your transaction.  You have to read these things.  You are the one on the hook for the next 15 to 30 years.


Phrases you should safely ignore

All of the below phrases are innocuous.  Too bad that too much of the time they either aren’t true, self-serving, or both.  Keep a count of how often you hear these phrases.  It’s a good barometer for how often people are trying to bullshit you into making a hasty, incomplete, or downright bad financial decision.

“I wouldn’t worry about it.  It’s not a very big deal.”

“You’re getting a great deal!”

“It made appraisal.  Don’t worry about it.”

“We’ve worked really hard on this deal.  Do you want it to fall apart over 1% of the purchase price?”

“This is a competitive market, make your best offer now.”

“If you don’t act soon, someone else will buy it…”

“Who knows if you’ll be able to find something like this again…”

“This is a good price.  I bet it goes for more than they have listed it at.”

(Realtor walks into home, looks longingly at 9 foot ceilings, or presence of hardwood floors.  Realtor looks to you)  Realtor: “This place has some great features.”


Final Remarks and Words of Cautious Optimism

You’re unlikely to encounter any other industry where people are so enthusiastic, chipper, and telling you how great everything is.  Don’t buy the hype.  You’re buying a home.  You’re buying it because you want to live there.  Unless you’re already rich, this is going to represent a significant portion of your wealth.

I’ll be the bearer of bad news.  The system is designed to defeat you, to deceive you, and to make you do things that you don’t even understand the consequences of.  Luckily, I am on your side.  I will save you.  Ok, just kidding.  Only you can save and protect you throughout this process.  Be tough, call bullshit, and don’t get caught up in anything that anyone says.  Trust your instincts.  Don’t be afraid of walking away.  Actually walk away.  Buy less than you can afford.

You can do this right if you just disregard what the world is trying to get you to do and instead do what you know in your heart and mind is the most responsible thing to do.  This process is going to suck.  But at the end of the day, you’re buying yourself a home you can make your own and a chance at a good financial investment.  I don’t know what the real estate markets will bring.  But take my advice and put yourself in a position for the best possible outcome: win, lose, or draw.

Workplace happiness — inspired by Google

24 Jul

“Oh my God, this cafeteria food is amazing.”

“I can’t believe they have healthy soda-alternatives everywhere.”

“Free bikes!?!?”

“They’ll send a bus to my house to pick me up and take me to work? Where do I sign up?”

These are just a few of the reactions I had today at the Google World Headquarters. As I spewed effusive (and warranted) praise on Google’s unadulterated love for their employees, a friend of mine stopped to ask “but what could a law firm, or an accounting firm do to get the loyalty and productivity that Google receives from its employees?” In other words, my friend was saying “listen that’s great for a tech company, but what about a workplace in a traditional professional service industry?” And the question–as well as my own experience as an attorney at a big law firm–made me sit down and write.

The benefits of working at Google (or a similar workplace) can be grouped into two categories: (1) they remove every obstacle to doing great work, and (2) they provide you with every reason for why you would want to do great work. It’s less than obvious but the latter is actually more important. As a Googler told me earlier today, “where else can I build something that will scale to, and be used by 500 million people?” The very idea of such a thing inspires awe beyond being part of something big, it reveals the potential reach of one’s work. Not every employer can provide such benefits, but its nice to at least understand how exceptionally talented people are inspired.

So what can your workplace do?

First, identify the things that you as an employer can do to improve workplace life in a way that makes your employees feel truly exceptional. Note that my tone asks you to identify communal benefits, not individual. So don’t just say “I could pay them more.” Monetary rewards  are hardly ever the solution. For google (and maybe for you), the answer is incredibly high quality coffee, tea, juice, and other food. When you walk around a Google micro-kitchen, you feel exceptional because its easy to conclude that only the exceptional would be offered odwalla juices, illy espresso, mighty leaf tea, and the tastiest and healthiest snack-food alternatives. The little things are much appreciated on late nights and on weekends. If you upgrade the quality of the basics, the effect will be infinitely more profound than a mere 5% raise.

Shouldn’t your employees feel exceptional too?

Second, offer opportunities for non-professional development. At Google, this means lecture series, yoga classes, and constant engagement with co-workers that are interested in things beyond just their work. Feed intellectual curiosity because it creates a virtuous cycle. Word gets around that you value hard work and creative thinking, not just one or the other.

Third, discover and communicate the reasons why your company is doing what it does. Every law firm has a slogan but how does the slogan translate to purpose for your work and opportunity for your team? Even though your answer may not be as obvious as Google’s, it is just as important.

You might read these three pieces of advice and say “it’s not our job to provide food, fun, and life fulfillment; we’re professionals.” Googlers are professionals too. Amateurs, or people who don’t take work seriously, don’t produce $2 billion in quarterly profits and 20% annual growth. Google hasn’t made these investments of time and money just because it feels like the right thing to do, they’ve consciously concluded that these ‘perks’ are the optimal way to produce great work, and in turn, massive profits.

Ultimately, you must ask yourself, if you want your employees to make great work product a major priority in their lives, don’t you have to make their lives a major priority of yours?

The 1954 Model – Adventures in Father-Son-Son Fitness

11 Feb

“Dad, you need to start working out,” I pleaded for the seventeenth time.  (Ok, I don’t know exactly how many times I begged..) “I’m in great shape, my weight is 135 pounds, it always has been, always will be,” my father proudly, and predictably responded. “Plus, I brisk walk!”  Per our routine, I rolled my eyes, laughed into the phone, and changed the subject to his and mom’s plan for their trip to India.

Despite his insistence, Dad is not 135 pounds, and he hasn’t been since I was 15 years old.  The real weight on his 5’3″ frame is closer to 148 or 150.  His cholesterol isn’t terribly high, his blood sugar is pretty balanced as well,  and his resting heart rate is freakishly low–like 53 beats a minute low. Dad’s boyish face is his pride, and he takes special pleasure in reminding me of just how young he looks.  And it’s absolutely true, he doesn’t look a day over 46 or 47.  To the extent that you might pay attention to his pot belly to begin with, his big and broad smile make you completely forget that he’s not the healthiest person out there.  Or at least it makes you feel bad to be bothering him at all!

As far as the eyes, and the blood work tell us, he’s borderline unhealthy–so what’s the fuss? Well, if you’re a 28 year old male that admires and adores his father, you want him to be a lean, mean fighting machine.  You don’t want to consistently be saying a version of  “dad, we have a family history of diabetes and heart disease, stop eating that fried onion….”

Building Junior Roger Federer’s? 

There he his, my father moving backward, almost as if in slow-motion, with racket chopping upwards to give the ball an imprecise but architecturally sound arc.  With an enormous smile on my face, I’m backing up three or four feet behind the baseline, waiting for it to reach my nose so that I can whack it back to him.  My brother, four or five at the time, is cheering us on.  He loves seeing us run back and forth, and we love putting on a show.  He has his own junior tennis racket and he’s swinging it, mimicking our every move.

That was father-son-son fitness in the 90s and we played almost every day.  Dad’s insistence that we play sports–that I take lessons, that Rishi (my kid brother) play soccer–formed the basis not only of our incredibly strong bonds but for the way we live today.

When I look back on running the bases as fast as I could, or chasing tennis balls, or doing very slow (and inelegant?) Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shakes,”  I think I begin to understand the nature of what Dad taught me.  It isn’t passion, or even commitment, it is sheer immersion in the physical world.  And maybe as I type this, that one-ness is more important than ever.

The Brilliant Plan

If you’re incredibly lucky, you can simply drive over to your parent’s house and start a workout program with your dad. If you’re (somewhat) unlucky, you already live at home and so all you have to do is get off the couch! For those of us in between, we’re trying to coach dad with phone calls, videochats, and articles on the benefits of being lean.  Or maybe, you’re like me and you’re using your younger brother’s visits home to create commitment on dad’s part.  No matter, it often still doesn’t work.

Luckily, I was scheduled to go to visit my parents in Saudi Arabia and I let dad know in advance that we were going to create an effective and tough workout.  Ever optimistic and willing, dad was “ready to go the day after you recover from jet lag!”

The town where my parents live is a playground for the active.  Our home is less than 5 minutes walk from a golf course, a soccer field, a 25meter swimming pool, a full gym, and several tennis courts.

But dad basically stopped playing sports.  I couldn’t get him started on a routine that might stop when we were done.  My first instinct was to create a social atmosphere for him but to do that was to rely on the intensity of others. And I suspected that his friends and co-workers were more docile than anything else. What to do?
In the middle of my trip (so many days after the jet lag wore off), we finally got to the business of putting dad on a workout routine.  In Austin, I’ve been experimenting with interval training and I decided to introduce dad to my methods.  “Dad, we’re going running today.”  My dad got a quizzical look on his face and immediately said “I don’t run, but I’ll do a brisk walk, it is just like running.”  My brother, suspecting that this was about to become a common debate, cut dad off and said “dad, you are running today.”

The fall, winter, and early spring are absolutely gorgeous in Saudi Arabia.  The affectionately cookie-cutter houses gleam in the sun.  The flowers, bold and bright from carefree watering, sway from side to side.  Even the rattle of the bushes makes you feel like you’re in a suburban community outside of San Francisco.  At night, the fake Christmas trees twinkle–if you didn’t pay attention to the walled compounds, you would feel like you were just in America.

Good fortune smiled upon us early.  As we got to the soccer field, my dad noticed my Vibram FiveFingers and started asking me about the benefits of barefoot running.  He had heard me talk about it before but was for the first time actually interested in why I had chosen to wear them.  “Dad, these Vibram FiveFingers are great, I don’t have back pain anymore, I don’t have knee pain, plus it just feels so good to actually feel the grass, or the dirt, or whatever it is you are running on,” I exclaimed.

Being on the soccer field excited my father.  He kicked off his shoes and said “ok, I’m going to run barefoot first.”  For being in a desert, the grass on this soccer field was particularly lush–even moist.  We stood in the middle of the field and my brother said “dad, let’s sprint, let’s run as fast as we can down this field!”  I joined in, “dad, come on its like a couple hundred feet, let’s just see what we can do.”

Seconds later, my brother took off. Immediately, I started chasing after him.  I’m not sure if my dad laughed, sighed, or had no emotional reaction but next thing I knew I could hear his feet thumping behind us.  I slowed down to let him catch up to me and before I knew it, he had passed me.  I was watching his shirt flail in the wind before I gunned it.

A few moments later, our first sprint was over.  Dad was breathing hard but smiling big.  Sweat coming down his face, I could see the pride in his smile.  Almost immediately, he said “let’s race, but let’s do the entire soccer field this time.”  Needless to say, his joy was not something either my brother or I had predicted.  Instantly, he had turned from the reluctant warrior to the challenged father who wasn’t about to let his kids outrun him.

This time, dad took off, and without giving us any notice! I won’t tell you who ended up winning (hint: my brother runs like a gazelle) but at the end, I knew we had built a fitness habit in him.  As we left the field after 30 minutes of walking and sprinting, my dad laughed and said “this 1954 model still runs, and almost as well as the 1983 and the 1991.”

Positioning, Analogies, and assimilation for immigrants

22 Nov

RIM positioned the Blackberry as an “interactive pager,” because pagers were something people could understand. While the device was actually was doing email, people understood it as “the pager that you could respond with.” While phrases like “mobile email and packet switching” didn’t mean a thing to RIM’s first customers, the “interactive pager” positioning proved important in attracting early adopters.

via Hubris vs. Humility: The positioning challenge | VentureBeat.

Yesterday, I was at my favorite All-American chain restaurant–the Olive Garden.  Our group was talking about how two of us were particularly adept at arguing by analogy.  The two being picked on, me and one of my good friends, are both immigrants.  We began chatting about why it was that we liked and learned so much through analogy.  Ultimately, we concluded that for immigrants analogies are everything.  Indeed, only through analogies can an immigrant get a good frame of reference for learning a new culture and for assimilating in that new culture.  For an immigrant the cultures which are more prone to analogy are simply friendlier, easier to understand, and ultimately most convenient to adopt as their own.

Which brings us to Research in Motion and the thinking behind their decision to brand the blackberry as an “interactive pager:”

RIM, the Blackberry and its network had more inventions per square inch than most startups. The founders could have easily described the product as “the first packet-switched interactive messaging network.” Or they could have said, “corporate email now seamlessly forwarded from your company’s network to your pocket.” They did none of that.  The founders swallowed their pride and simply introduced the Blackberry as an “interactive pager.” Their board, with no need to prove how smart and creative they were, agreed.

Maybe what makes certain parts of the country so good for immigrants is that the “positioning” of American culture is so heavily reliant on analogy.  We’re at our best when we shelve our pride.  I think Blackberry and their market positioning decisions are a simple example of not only successful business but also an example of how learning and integration by immigrants works.

Publishing companies of the future

11 Nov

What Zynga understood is that you need to go where the consumers are, capture those audiences, build a direct relationship and then diversify channel partners. This is happening in spades now on YouTube as a new generation of viewers is being served up by a new generation of TV production houses that are currently under the radar screen of many people. This will change in the next 2 years.

via The Future of Television & The Digital Living Room | Both Sides of the Table.

Maybe more appropriate is to call these small production houses the media companies of the future.  Think about why media companies have traditionally been bundled–its because being a media company required a lot more than just the ability to create, it also required the ability to distribute.  But not today and not in the future.

Reflections on location-based services

23 Sep

Why do or why should consumers value location-based or “check-in” services?

  1. It’s a quick and easy way to meet up with your friends.
  2. The game aspect of it is fun.
  3. Love knowing what friends are up to and where they are.
  4. It’s yet another piece of context for us to use when talking to our friends.  If I know that you were at a great Mexican place yesterday, I can ask you about it and you don’t even have to tell me that you were there.
  5. Tangentially, eliminates the “what have you been up to question” so that we can get straight to what is your opinion of X, Y, Z place.  It’s a good place to begin a conversation.
  6. Love knowing what complete strangers think of a place.  Plus its cool to know how recent their opinion actually is.  For example, I love telling Gowalla what my favorite food at a restaurant was.
  7. Rewards.  There’s little reason why you can’t set up a system that allows restaurants to give rewards to peopel that actually spend money at an establishment.  But its not clear why any electronic rewards program is better than the paper stamp card.  Sure electronic is two-way, so now the business can actually keep up with their customers and vice versa, but seems like a lot of transaction cost.

So, let’s ask a tougher question, why do or why should local businesses love location-based services?  What’s in it for them?

  1. Customer feedback.  This is available through Yelp alone but maybe you can learn something about your business if the last 20 people to have been there have raved about the chocolate mousse or complained about the lemon bar.
  2. Know your most frequent customers.   Maybe give them rewards based on what they spend, but this requires linking up their purchase history with every specific store.
  3. Lure in addiitonal customers with discounts or just by letting them know what you have to offer.
  4. Lure in additional customers based on what friends think about your establishment.
  5. Lure in additional customers and the friends they have with them, this is what is aiming to do.
  6. It could help them build community by advertising events to people that are around the physical location.
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