Ten Things I Look For When I’m Helping You Buy a Home*

  1. In Austin: Are there any open permits for previous additions, swimming pool, HVAC updates, electrical updates? Why this matters: In the past couple of years, the City of Austin has gotten very strict about not issuing new building permits (including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc) until the old permits have been inspected and approved. There is no such thing as permitting in arrears. Pool built five years ago with no permit? Sorry- it has to go before the home gets another permit for anything. (This actually happened to someone!)
  2. What is the foundation? Why this matters: If pier-and-beam, I want you to use an inspector who understands these systems in this environment.  Because pier and beam has not been common in our area since the 1950’s, there are fewer of these homes, and they are not as well-understood by the average inspector as are the more common slab homes. Some inspectors really make a study of the pier-and-beam situations. And, we have two very different soil types in our area, each of which has an effect on the foundation.
  3. How are the neighboring properties zoned, or who or what owns them? Why this matters: You don’t control what you don’t own. For example, you can buy a home that is backed up to what looks like a beautiful greenbelt, but guess what? If it isn’t public land, the use can change and you can have a whole new subdivision just beyond your back fence. If you bought your home for peaceful privacy, you might not appreciate all the neighbors.
  4. Does the home have a septic system, and does it use well water? Why this matters: It is imperative that you have these systems thoroughly inspected by a specialist. There are lots of ways to mistreat a septic system, and you want to know what you are getting into before you buy. Same for the well water. You will want to get a well specialist in to check the system and you will want to assess the water quality and what it is going to take to upgrade a current treatment system, if necessary. Inadequately treated well water can ruin your dishwasher, your clothes washer, your house plumbing, your tubs, your toilets, your clothes, your dishes and drinking glasses. You get the idea. You need to be prepared; that’s why you have me by your side.
  5. What do you see on the survey and what does the title insurance commitment except? Why this matters: I am not a lawyer. Let me repeat that: I am not a lawyer. But, I have looked at a title commitment or two and a survey or two, and if you don’t already have your own lawyer looking everything over related to your home purchase, I will happily point out some things I see that you might want to get further professional help in understanding. Sometimes the survey is obviously not accurate. Sometimes there are puzzling aspects to easements on the property.
  6. Is the property in some category of flood zone? Why this matters: Even though flood zone maps change around here regularly, not everyone has had experience with a flooded home. I would like to help you understand what flood recovery entails, if you are thinking about buying in a flood zone. Also, a previously-flooded house can be harder to sell in the future, so that is something I would want to explore with you.
  7. If the home is in a condominium association, especially, but, also, just a property owners association, we want to look carefully at those documents. Why this matters: In both cases, the health of your purchase is closely tied to the health of the entity that oversees most aspects of the dwelling and the neighborhood. If it is a new condominium association, there is no history to look at, and so you want to ask lots of questions. If it does have a history, you want to examine it carefully, see what lawsuits or special assessments it might be facing; figure out if you want to be tied to the situation. Yes, we will make a point of being out and about to meet potential neighbors and ask them about the association. I am not shy about doing stuff like that to keep you in the know.
  8. What is surrounding the neighborhood you are interested in? What zoning is there? What businesses might be moving in? Why this matters: For example, if you are buying a lower-end home in a neighborhood that is about to welcome the new location of a huge source of employment, you could be in for some good luck ahead when you want to sell, due to demand. Or, if your new neighborhood is one that is about to be bordered by a new toll road, your property could be harder to sell in the future because of noise. Location matters.
  9. What is the sales history of the home? Why this matters: by looking at the dates of sales, as well as the buyers and sellers, we can guess at whether or not this home has been purchased in poor condition and fixed up for resale. Some “flippers” do a wonderful job and you will be glad to live in your remodeled gem. Some “flippers” do a minimal job, putting lipstick on a pig, so to speak, and you could run into foundation problems, water incursion problems, or other expensive problems down the road, even though the amenities look shiny right now. We want to do some research!
  10. What is the local school like? Why this matters: Of course, I will link you with the Great Schools website, but I can make contact with local principals and neighbors with children so that you can hear about school from the people who know. Even if you have no children, a home in a district with a reputation of one kind or another can take on that reputation, too, making it easier or harder to sell in the future.

Because Keller Williams Realty is my brokerage, I have access to lots and lots of other people’s experiences in real estate transactions. I don’t just have to learn from my own experiences; there are about 900 other agents in my brokerage and I can find out what has happened in their experience, too. Not only do I see other agents at weekly meetings, classes, and coaching sessions, we have our own closed Facebook group from which I learn every single day. And, when I take continuing education classes, I don’t do it online. No; I go to the Austin Board of Realtors for my classes so that I am in a room and in discussions with 20-60 people from various brokerages, and I hear about their experiences. I have a buncha stuff filed away in this brain, and I have the purpose of helping to keep you safe in your transaction.

*Of course, there are more than ten, but this is a good start, and it illustrates some things a lot of people wouldn’t think to check.

100_2455

How buildings get built fascinates me. I can’t count the number of times I have participated in  building projects just over the border in Mexico. Here is the early stage of constructing a medical clinic.

Here’s Why You Care About the Municipal Wastewater Treatment System

IMG_3746

Mercer Street, Dripping Springs, Texas

The Dripping Springs Keller Williams business center was honored to host the town mayor, the city engineer, and the deputy city administrator one morning a couple of weeks ago at our weekly office meeting. We had invited them to tell us everything they knew about the wastewater situation, both current and future plans. Would you be surprised if I told you I enjoyed the presentation?

Until thirty years ago, Dripping Springs was an unincorporated ranching community that, with the exception of the gas stations along U.S. 290, pretty much aspired to be left alone. Funny what the growth of the nearby metropolitan area did for those aspirations. The mayor joked that, after he was elected, he was surprised to discover that being the mayor of a small town consisted of more than drinking coffee and showing up for parades! Evidently, he has now become an informal expert on municipal wastewater systems.

Dripping Springs’ growth is very dramatic: many thousands of houses are permitted to be built. The current downtown area of Dripping Springs is extremely charming with early 20th-Century buildings being re-purposed for businesses that fit the needs of 21st-Century residents. BUT. The businesses can’t get the building permits they need to expand. WHY? The wastewater treatment system can’t keep up.

The city has applied for a permit from the state to treat and discharge a whole lot more wastewater than it currently does. This city has invested in a system that cleans the water even cleaner than Onion Creek, into which it could discharge the water. Dripping Springs’ wastewater is much cleaner than Austin’s discharge. You would expect that Dripping Springs would be motivated to dump treated wastewater into Onion Creek, but there’s something even better. Developments and subdivisions are contracting to buy the treated effluent to store on their properties for use in landscape and sports field irrigation . The water is being reused in ponds for fishing, and in other surface storage schemes.

Eventually, because water is so precious in this semi-arid region, the city will be able to take this treated effluent and then run it though the water treatment plant for household and business taps in town. This sounds repugnant, until you realize that is exactly what happens to the effluent now, courtesy of natural waterways and ground percolation. City effluent discharged into rivers all over the region, as well as private septic systems spraying or trickling onto the surface, are re-captured by downstream municipalities which treat it for drinking water. What nature does in its own time and place can be duplicated in a more focused way by each municipality.

This attention to wastewater and to drinking water is what will allow the region to sustain the growth it is experiencing.

Now if we could just solve our transportation situation….

New City-planning Maps for Austin

If you’ve been keeping up with CodeNext, Austin’s evolving zoning ordinances, you know that January’s release of new ordinances without an accompanying release of maps caused angst in the neighborhoods whose inhabitants have spent years trying to keep the  feel of those neighborhoods the same as it has been for decades.

Fitting more people and their activities into the same-sized space requires denser building. Closer together and higher. That is the geometry of the situation.  Totally different feel from vistas and trees, right?

Today, the city released the initial zoning maps. Here is a link to the article in the Statesman: CodeNext zoning maps. You’ll find more links within this article, so study to your heart’s content.

Version 2

Surveying: Up Close and Personal with the Land

If you have ever had the pleasure of driving on a midnight-darkened road out in the countryside, you know the feeling of not being able to see the next curve, the next deer that will collide with your car, or the depth of that ravine just off the edge of the road. It is a risky venture and you have to use all your senses on hyper-alert setting to get to your destination.

Not having any idea where property lines are, where the utilities run, where there is an oil-pipeline easement, or a neighbor’s driveway encroaching on your land is a bit like that drive through the dark. Obstacles can rise up before you and whip the living daylights out of you before you know what happened. THAT, my friends, is the reason civilization invented surveyors. Before you take out that fence, build that pool, or pave that driveway, you really, really need to know the facts about your property.

Here is a good blog on the topic ’10 reasons to have your property surveyed’. If you are buying property using a loan from a bank or mortgage company, they want to protect their investment by having an up-to-date survey before they will let you borrow that money. If you are buying property with cash, you could skip that survey step, but I don’t recommend it.

A couple of years ago, we had surveyors come and map the boundaries of our property so that we could see which trees are ours and which are our neighbors’. We have many live oaks which are a treasure and must be properly cared for to help them outwit Oak Wilt. And we needed to see which storm damage is ours to trim. It is one thing to understand a plat on a piece of paper and quite another to translate that into lines on the ground, through creeks, under brambles, and across expanses of tall grass.

Prickly Pear
Why surveyors wear boots and jeans

Our survey was done in February, but no matter the time of year, here’s what surveyors wear: long-sleeved shirt to protect from brambles and prickly pear, hat to protect from sun and branches, heavy boots to wade through wetlands and deflect rattlesnakes. We have all these on our property, for sure.

Here are some pictures of a few of our survey stakes. Our property line crosses the creek several times, but then, the creek has likely changed course since the land was subdivided from a ranch. One part of our property is on the neighbors’ side of a natural boundary; looking at the patch of ground, you’d swear it belongs to the next house over, but nope, it’s ours.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

New Numbers

IMG_3648
Another happy buyer client. “I love my new back yard with all the sunshine and grass! Thank you, Lynn, for helping my human and me find our beautiful new home.”

The clients of Austin Metrostudy are builders and related industries. “Our survey team drives over 8,500 miles and over 1,000 subdivisions every 90 days to provide you with the valuable information you need on future lots, vacant developed lots, homes under construction, and homes that have been completed.”

A representative of the company made a presentation to a group of REALTORS® on Friday and I will give you a brief report from the 5-county Austin area, and the Dripping Springs/Driftwood area, in particular.

Overall job growth in the Austin area has fallen from 45,000 new jobs/year created in 2015 to 30,000 new jobs/year created currently. However, with growth of 30K annually, it is still a hot job market and demand for homes is up with available inventory down. What does this mean? Rising home prices and a real affordability issue for the City of Austin. For the home-buying population in general, the good news is that annual salaries in the Austin area are $20,000 higher than other parts of the country.

New home builders have caught on to the affordability issue and, not wanting to leave any part of the home-buying field fallow, they are building less-expensive homes in the following ways: the homes are being built on smaller lots to reduce the price of land being used per house; some homes have fewer bells and whistles to make construction less expensive; and subdivisions are being developed farther from the city center where the land is cheaper for the developer to buy.

Builders are now experiencing a decided downturn in available workers, so a new house is taking longer to build, including most custom homes. There are fewer workers available to do the same amount of work.

There are certain pockets that have unique building situations, and my home area, Dripping Springs, is one. The land is hilly, so it is naturally more expensive to build on than flat farming lots are. Also, if you recall from my post about septic systems, neighborhoods in this area need to have their own sewage treatment plant, or each home must have extra acreage to accommodate an individual septic system. More land per home= higher price per home. The other unique aspect of the Dripping Springs area is that it is scenic; many lots have expansive views, which, of course, drives up the home prices.

The observed numbers for 2016, fourth quarter are: 473 new home started, and 378 homes sold/transactions closed. There are 2.9 months of inventory in the area (6 months or so is considered a balanced market, with about the same number of homes on the market as buyers looking for a home.). The number of vacant developed lots (the ‘hood has streets and utilities in place) is equal to a 32.8 month supply. There were 741 new lots in 2016, with 8000 future new lots on the books. 1000 of those have streets in, or excavation has started. The average base price for a new home in the Dripping Springs area is $458,000, and this number has not risen recently.

love to keep track of new homes in this area, whether they are truly luxurious, or less expensive, but thoughtfully planned. One new subdivision with prices well below average is easily in walking distance from the business area of Dripping Springs, as well as from an established historic park. Also, see my post on the truly custom homes in Driftwood.

 

 

 

The Secret Underground

Although the title could be referring to a book review of Dante’s Inferno, or a report on intrigue in wartime, it doesn’t. Today, we’re going to get the scoop on septic systems. How ’bout THAT?

IMG_2977
Using flushable kitty litter BEFORE we lived with an on-site septic system

This post is for all those folks who never lived in the country. And for those looking longingly at moving out of town and into the hills. And for those who have not experienced septic system technology in the past 15 years.

Living in terrain that is not amenable to pumping sewage vast distances to be treated at a central location means that either you personally, or your new subdivision, will have a small sewage treatment plant on the property. I know a little bit about the single-owner kind because I grew up with a traditional drain-field system at my childhood home, and now we have two dwellings and two advanced systems on our property. Texas A&M Extension Service has the best website for explaining on-site sewage facilities.

You will be surprised to know that I compare the maintenance of a healthy septic system to baking yeast bread. Before I lose you entirely, let me explain:

  1. The principle behind baking great bread is to keep your yeast, a living organism, very happy.
  2. The principle behind maintaining a functional septic system is to keep your beneficial bacteria, a living organism, very happy.

That’s it!

The septic system takes effluent from the house and drains it into a tank where the solids settle out, and the liquid is either treated and partially sanitized in compartments then sprayed out onto the landscape, or it goes from the tank into underground drain fields through horizontal tubes arranged in the pattern of tree branches, to be treated and sanitized by the soil organisms. In both cases, bacteria are the heroes that break down the nasty sludge and the effluent water into soil nutrients plus clean water. We ♥love♥ our bacteria!

Here is what to consider when you are using a septic system to treat your effluent: what will make the bacteria very sad? What will make the bacteria sick? What will make the bacteria die? Avoid these!

  1. Too much water running through the system (a deluge!) at once flushes through the tank way too fast and doesn’t allow solids to settle out. This clogs your pumps or your filters. Yuck! Choose the low-water-use front-loading washer and don’t do all your loads in the same day.
  2. Installing the underground tank where rainwater runoff will enter it quickly creates the same deluge problem.
  3. Antibiotics- whether medicines flushed, antibiotic soap and cleaners used, or other chemicals (bleach! phosphates!) poured down the drain- you’re gonna kill off some, or all, of your bacteria and THEN you’ll be sorry!
  4. It takes ⇐time⇒ for the solids to be decomposed by the bacteria, and if you put more through your system in a short period of time than it is rated for, you are going to create clogs, either in the pump, the filter, or in the drain or sprayer lines. Forget the food scraps and the disposal- too much unprocessed solid material at once. No kitty litter (even flushable), no sanitary products, no wipes (even flushable), no nothing that isn’t natural and mushy! Just figure out a different disposal method, or you will be spending thousands of dollars replacing your system early.

On-site sewage facilities, when properly cared-for, are environmentally-friendly and efficient. You can admire them and how well they do their job without causing collateral damage to ground, air, and water. Yay for the little guys!!! Bacteria are awesome!

Your county is going to require a permit in order for you to create a septic system. This is because the specialists want to look at your plans to make sure the idea in your head isn’t going to come out into the world in a way that will pollute a nearby waterway, well, or adjoining property. Also, your county is going to require you to have on file a maintenance contract with an approved contractor that will periodically inspect your system and keep it functioning. No polluted groundwater, please!

My next post will be my favorite yeast bread recipe. Don’t say I don’t have a sense of humor.

Terrestrial Tuesday- Rolling Waters

Can we stop and just talk about flooding for a few minutes here?

Near Wimberley: The Blanco River in winter, being pretty and not killing people

May 2015: The Blanco River after it has killed people and caused untold property damage. Those are cars you see in the foreground.

The north, east, and south side of the central Texas area is pretty flat and used to be clay-soil farmland, after it was no longer range for hunters following the game. The west was ranch land after the native people were driven off, because it had thin rocky soil and hills- not great for a farm, but perfectly fine for herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Now, people are engaged in turning this farmland and ranch land into subdivisions of houses as fast as they can get them built. We are growing!

The area is laced with creeks and rivers, and when it rains a whole lot at one time, those creeks turn into torrents and the rivers turn into monsters. It’s pretty much the case that, in the west, if you build your house far up a hill, you aren’t likely to get flooded. But, in the north, east, and south, the water has room to spread out over the prairie, and you can’t be sure where the next flood will hit.

Nobody got too excited when the farmland flooded, or the rivers in the west turned into torrents on the ranch land. But, when buildings are involved, people sit up and take notice. That’s why FEMA flood maps exist. They show where people are required by law to carry flood insurance. They also show where you probably should buy flood insurance, even if you are not required to.

No one can predict where the next high-precipitation supercell will occur, and sometimes homes in our region will get flooded, even where no flooding has occurred since people have been keeping track. These areas are not marked as flood zones on the Federal Emergency Management Agency maps, but they may be flood zones the next time the maps are updated.

I can use our local multiple listing service to easily look up any property address and see a map of the flood zone for that property and neighborhood. The various flood zones are labeled according to the calculated percentage risk per year of a foot of water covering the ground.

When we have big storms, I call friends all over the area to see if they have had flooding, wind, hail, or tornado damage. When somebody has been flooded unexpectedly, or when flooding has occurred in a neighborhood for the first time, I file away that information for future reference (and go help out the victims). You can be sure that if you are looking at houses in that area, I will be showing you the flood maps AND I will be knocking on doors to ask what the residents saw the last time the area flooded.

There is nothing certain in this world, but if you and I can reduce the chances that your new home will be in a flood zone, that is a good thing, right?

Have you experienced a flood?

Memorial Day flood 2015

Halloween flood 2013