Curb Appeal on a Budget

When it comes to selling your house, little changes can have a big impact. You’ve heard the expression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Well, this is where curb appeal comes in. Curb appeal is how attractive your property looks from the outside. Is it inviting or are there distractions like dead plants and ugly garden hoses that draw the eye?

Even without a drought, nice-looking landscaping can be tough to maintain. If you don’t have time for yard maintenance, simply remove dead plants; put in native, drought-resistant ones and let nature take care of itself. For a pop of color, place a few bright, flowering annuals in pots on your porch. Before you leave, make sure you trim the bushes, mow the lawn (if you still have one), weed, rake leaves, sweep the sidewalks and driveway, hide trash cans, and remove any lawn art that wouldn’t have broad appeal. You may love those little gnomes, but not everyone would.

If you want even more curb appeal, consider power washing your house. I warn you that a power washer in the wrong hands (like mine) can do serious damage—like blow holes in concrete—so be careful. Used appropriately, however, power washers can remove dust, dirt and cobwebs to make sidewalks sparkle and siding look like new.

Speaking of sparkle, clean windows make a nice difference inside and out. You don’t have to buy expensive glass cleaner to do the job. I use TSP. It’s cheap and can be used to clean many surfaces (it’s great for removing soot from a fireplace). A word to the wise about washing windows: wash them when they are shaded. Sunlight will dry your windows instantly and whatever is in the water will leave streaks all over your windows. If you skip the power washer, you may want to get a soft brush (one that mounts on a pole for second-story windows) to remove cobwebs and dirt.

The next suggestion is paint. If you’re on a budget, simply paint the house trim, shutters and front door. Don’t be afraid to use an accent color that makes windows and doors stand out. If your front door is natural wood, be sure it’s in good condition. You may need to strip off the old finish, then re-stain and re-seal it. If you can afford to paint the whole house, and your siding is peeling, this is well worth the expense.

If you want Realtors (and others, like emergency responders) to be able to find your house, be sure the house numbers are visible from the street. Put them on your mailbox and on your house. Good lighting also helps. Solar-powered lights are inexpensive and add a nice bit of ambience as the sun sets. Mendo Mill and Friedman’s have wall sconces and lawn lights, as well as friendly employees who can help you figure out what you need.

If you already have sconces, remove bugs that have surely accumulated there and clean the glass. If you choose to replace your sconces, be sure they have the same mounting system as your current ones, or your cheap sconces become very expensive because an electrician will be required to make them work.

If you have patio furniture on your front porch, replace sun-faded cushions and make sure the porch doesn’t feel crowded. Just like on the interior, you can probably remove half of the furniture and you’ll still have plenty left.

I know of buyers who have driven up to a house for sale and decided not to get out of the car to view the interior, simply based on how the outside looked. Good curb appeal can be the difference between a quick sale and no sale.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at or visit If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.




Environmental Assessments – Part 2

Last week, I introduced Environmental Site Assessments and the cost to address any issues found (called remediation): Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. I reviewed the first phase, so this time I’ll review the last two phases.

As a brief refresher, the whole reason for the assessments is to determine whether a property is contaminated and what it will take to fix it. If you’re an investor or lender interested in commercial property, you don’t want to get stuck purchasing (or foreclosing on and owning) a property that will require expensive remediation to address the ills of a bygone era.

We’re talking about anything from a little fuel from a leaky tank or asbestos in ceiling tiles to toxic chemicals disposed of in a way that puts people, animals, or the environment (or your bank account) at risk.

Remember, during a Phase 1 assessment, an investigator will review county records, make a few phone calls, check out the neighboring properties, and try to determine whether contamination is likely. Phase 1 is, for the most part, a paperwork investigation. Many investigations never need to go beyond Phase 1.

A Phase 2 assessment means something from Phase 1 raised an eyebrow. Determining the validity of any potential exposure gets expensive. We’re talking about contractors and engineers taking building material samples, as well as soil samples and water samples at various depths. If all goes well, Phase 2 tests will indicate no contamination and you can kiss then contractors and engineers on the cheek, pay them with hefty checks, and wave goodbye. If contaminants are found, you begin the next phase of your adventure.

Depending on the Phase 2 findings, recommendations will vary. At the very least, you’ll probably be required to install monitoring wells to determine the amount and disbursement of the contamination and whether it’s moving. If it’s moving under your property from one of your neighbors, you may have recourse against the neighbor, but you’re probably not off the hook.

The opposite extreme of monitoring wells in terms of expense (and environmental concern) is complete remediation: welcome to Phase 3. If you thought the wells were expensive (and I’m sure they were), wait until you have a backhoe digging a hole in the middle of your property 50 feet across and 30 feet down (2,750 yards of contaminated dirt-_- that over 250 dump truck loads). And all this dirt goes to a special landfill rated to accept the type of contaminates found in your soil. These landfills charge by the yard of material. This situation is rare, but it does happen.

This helps explain why prospective buyers of suspect properties do extensive testing before taking title, since liability can run to the current owner. It also helps explain why lenders want environmental assessments before lending on suspect property, since their ultimate recourse on a loan is foreclosure and potential ownership of the problem.

By the way, environmental studies don’t happen overnight, nor are they cheap, but they are far less expensive than the possible ramifications of acquiring the property without one.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, feel free to contact me at or visit our website at If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 35 years.

Wells and Water

Believe it or not, when you turn on the tap at home, water doesn’t just magically appear. It depends on a well somewhere, whether it’s a well on your property, a private water district, or at a municipal site. Almost all the water we use comes from wells.

For this article, I’m going to talk about wells on your property. The first thing to know is where to drill, and there are two basic schools of thought on this: either use a geologist and experienced well driller or find a water witch (also called a dowser). A geologist and well driller will review soil types, terrain, history of successful wells in the area, and plant life. And while no single one of these (or set combination) will guarantee you won’t find a dusty hole, their input is incredibly valuable. A dowser, on the other hand, will inspect a property while holding a branch or copper rods to divine the most likely spot for water. (I’d put my money on option one, but that’s just me.)

As you think about where to sink a well, consider where your septic system is (and its leach field—you don’t want to be nearby, especially on the downhill side). You should also consider the ease of getting well-drilling equipment in and water back to your house. Ideally, you want a location uphill from your home with sufficient quantity to allow gravity feeding, eliminating the need for a pressure tank.

Once your realtor has recommended a good well driller, it’s time for the expensive part. The well driller will haul his equipment to your property and put a hole in the ground starting with about a four-inch diameter. Once he’s past the surface water (at about 30 feet), you’ll want to him to find water quickly. The sooner he finds water, the less expensive this will be because he’ll have less drilling and casing to do. To create the well, the well driller will drop a pipe into the ground called a casing. The pipe is full of holes and is surrounded by gravel, and that’s how the water gets in. Then you will have to seal the well to prevent surface water from contaminating your well water.

Next, the well driller will install a pump and measure how much water the well can deliver. While everyone would love 15-20 gallons per minute, people usually hear, “Well, you’ve got about a half-a-gallon a minute.” While that might not be enough for a household with six kids, half-a-gallon a minute is fine for a typical family of four for regular domestic use. You may not have an impressive vegetable garden and lush lawn, but you’ll be able to make coffee in the morning and brush your teeth at night.

Depending on the productivity of the well, you will want a holding tank to give you a little cushion. The well will pump water into the holding tank automatically on a 24-hour cycle—pulling water out of the well, waiting for the water to recover, and pulling it out again until the holding tank is full. When it comes to water, you want both quantity and quality (water must be potable). The two types of contamination are bacterial and chemical. Bacteria can be removed with chemicals, ozone treatment, or ultraviolet treatment. Chemical contamination can be addressed with filters and sometimes a chemical treatment. High iron content leaves nasty orange stains on sinks and toilets, and boron—while not harmful to people—is a death sentence to plants (and extremely hard to get rid of).  So, before you spend a bunch of money sinking a well and building the infrastructure it requires, be sure you have sufficient quantity and quality.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, feel free to contact me at or visit our website at If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 35 years.



Real Estate Investing – Part IV: Commercial Property

This summer I’ve written three “Real Estate Investing” columns covering single family residential properties; duplexes, four-plexes and apartment complexes with fewer than five units; and larger apartment complexes (with up to sixteen units). I recently received a request to write a column on investing in commercial real estate, so here you go.

Commercial property is not for the faint of heart. It’s not too different from the other types of real estate investing, but because of the longer depreciable life there are lower tax benefits and the bigger investment makes it a bigger risk (if you’ve heard of the risk/return trade off, that’s what I’m talking about: bigger risks can lead to bigger returns or profit. Of course, bigger risks can also lead to bigger losses, so it’s best to do your homework to minimize risk where possible.)

When investing in commercial real estate, you’ll want to run a thorough background check of any potential tenant(s), including a credit check and rental history. Don’t give the keys to anyone until the history and credit check come back clean. I’d also screen potential tenant(s) for business experience for the type of lease you’re offering. For example, if the whole reason a potential tenant is opening a restaurant is because his sister-in-law says he’s a great cook, the business plan may not be sound.

Although you may feel uncomfortable asking specific questions about the person’s business plan (especially if you haven’t done this type of lease agreement before), you’d be negligent not to inquire. When turning over an asset worth hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, you want to be certain that the prospective tenant can and will perform the full agreement.

In commercial real estate, you’ll deal primarily with two types of leases: gross leases and triple-net leases. With a gross lease, the landlord is responsible for most expenses, including taxes, insurance, and routine maintenance (the tenant fixes things he breaks). With a triple-net lease, the tenant takes care of virtually all expenses, including taxes, insurance, and all maintenance.

There are pros and cons with both. As a landlord, a primary benefit of the triple-net lease is not having to deal with much property management. You’ll get no calls about a broken window or clogged sewer on a Saturday afternoon. However, if your tenant doesn’t keep up with routine maintenance over the course of several years, the long-term damage can be substantial. And, if the tenant’s business struggles, routine building maintenance is likely to be one of the first expenses to go. Sometimes the ill effects of poor maintenance are not immediately obvious, so trying to recoup expenses years after a lease begins is difficult (bordering on impossible).

As a rule, finding a tenant for a commercial building can take more time than for a residential property, so vacancies can last longer, but because commercial leases are typically multi-year contracts, vacancies are less frequent. As you consider negotiating a commercial lease, it will likely be quite different from the experience you may have had with a residential lease. Commercial tenants may be more along the lines of, “Have attorney; will travel.” If you’re lucky enough to have a major credit tenant (e.g., major grocery store, federal agency, national chain store), you’ll benefit from additional foot traffic and more stable rent. If your building allows for multiple tenants, a major credit tenant will attract other tenants. Because they know they bring these benefits, major credit tenants often play hardball when it comes to lease negotiations. They expect their rents to be lower  than other tenants, and even than operating costs for that space. Depending on how much lower, you’d be smart to play ball.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, feel free to contact me at or visit our website at If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 35 years.