Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Building for resale value: Feng Shui afflictions to avoid

Three things matter in real estate: Location, Location, Feng Shui.

When my parents learned we had won the bid on our house in Green Acres, Palo Alto, they congratulated us profusely.  "Asians like to buy in that neighborhood," said my father approvingly.  "Mmm hmm," I responded, as if I had known that all along.  (As an Asian kid, you've got to take credit for good decisions whenever you can.)  Wondering if there was any truth to the statement, I ventured on a fact-checking mission.  Here's what I found from the 2010 US Census Bureau:
Asians in California:  13%
In San Francisco Bay Area:  23.3%
By city:
  Cupertino: 63.3%
  Sunnyvale: 40.9%
  San Francisco:  33.3%
  San Jose: 32%
  Mountain View: 26%
  Los Altos: 23.5%
  Palo Alto: 21%
  Menlo Park:  9.9%
  East Palo Alto: 3.8%
Asians in our Palo Alto zip code (94306): 29.5%
Asians at our neighborhood high school (Gunn): 34.9%
Indeed, like a weird murmuration of starlings, Asians are flocking to the South Bay in record numbers and nesting in our hood.  Not knowing what to make of this information, I turned to our all-knowing real estate agent, Erika Enos who told me a cautionary tale about an Asian ailment called tetraphobia.

Early in her career Erika worked with a young Asian American couple looking to buy their first home.  They scoured the Peninsula in search of the perfect abode.  When they finally found it, they drafted up an offer, signed the disclosure papers, prepared a deposit, and waited with crossed fingers like all hopeful buyers.  When the seller accepted their offer they rejoiced at their good fortune.  However during escrow, the young couple took their parents (who were generously helping them with the down payment) to see what would soon be their new home.  Much to their surprise, they got no further than the front door when their parents demanded that they not buy the house.  The reason?  Bad feng shui.  The inauspicious house number: 444 would lead to certain demise, they insisted.  In the end the couple, like all good Asian kids dependent on the largesse of their parents, backed out of the offer.

Whaaa?!  Stories like these make my head explode.  What other crazy Asian deal breakers do I not know about?!  Half out of fear and half out of a desire for ultimate perfection, I decided our house plans  would undergo an audit by a critical Asian eye.  A real Asian too, not a twinkie like me and definitely not my parents, disciples of the of McFrugal school of thought, who said they'd have no problem buying a 444 house for the right price.  No, I need ruthless Asian scrutiny...I want feng shui for anal retentives...whatever it takes to get an A+ in Asian studies, I told my husband shaking my fists in the air as he backed away slowly.

Fortunately for us, my Singaporean friend Dr Jin Peh happens to be a feng shui master.  (Side note for parents: Jin actually finished med school and residency and could be a doctor but has found much more success as a feng shui practitioner).  Not only is Jin the resident feng shui columnist for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, but he also globe trots around the world doing feng shui assessments for clients in places like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.  Who cares about Facebook millionaires and their new money?  Once the Feng Shui doctor is done with us, our house is going to be fit for a rich Arab sheikh, I say.

Dr. Jin's Feng Shui Afflictions to Avoid

1.  No front door - back door alignment
Jin says when deciding whether or not to buy a house, "note the position of the front door; is there a direct line between it and a window, balcony or bedroom door? If so, say no!"  When the front door directly faces a back door or window it is believed that energy or "chi" (and wealth) will come in and flow right out.  We originally had a window directly across from our front door, but we shifted it over to the left out of view of the front door.  This was easy enough to do at the planning stages and didn't have any impact on the aesthetics of our house.  Phew, close call!

2.  Avoid the T-junction
This blog post is
brought to you by the
letter T & number 4
A classic feng shui concept is one of poison arrows and "sha chi" which refers to negative energy attacking your house.  A common example of a poison arrow is a road that points toward your front door, which is why most feng shui believers will not buy a home situated at the end of a street facing a T-junction.  Regardless of whether you want to call it sha chi or not, most people are not fond of headlights shining into their windows as cars approach at night or bad drivers careening into their lawn.  Landscaping and adjusting the placement of the front door and windows can alleviate such issues, but generally these homes translate to lower resale values.

3.  Beware of house numbers ending in 4
The reason the number four is considered inauspicious is because in many Asian countries the word four sounds similar to the word death.  Saying "I live at 444 Cherry Lane" is the same as saying "I live at death-death-death Cherry Lane."  When it comes to house numbers, the last digit is the critical one.  In fact, in many Asian buildings there is no fourth floor or any other floor that ends in four.  It's not always going to be a deal breaker, but consider it analogous to a house number of 13 or 666.  On the flip side, the number eight, which sounds like "fortune" in Chinese, is considered good luck.  This is why realtors often choose a selling price that ends with 88--double fortune to lure in Asian buyers (sure enough, our house was listed this way).  Fortunately our house number doesn't end in a 4 and we're not at a T-junction, so we're in good shape so far.

4.  Stay clear of sleep & health impediments
According to the feng shui doctor, when sleeping, there should not be any overhanging structures (i.e. lights, overhead fans) above your body.  The same principle applies to exposed beams and uneven or vaulted ceilings which are believed to apply downward pressure to the body.  Ideally there should be a flat ceiling above a bed for the best health.   Beams are believed to cut into the body's energy and other overhead obstructions interfere with the natural flow of chi.  Beds should not point towards a toilet, be on the opposite side of a wall as a toilet, or be located directly above the kitchen stove.  Beds should not be placed underneath a window or on the same wall as the bedroom door, as it is believed a solid wall is necessary for proper support.

Argh, so many rules!  We started worrying that we wouldn't be allowed to have a bed in the master.  Fortunately, the good doctor told us that the bed can face the bathroom as long as no one who is sleeping in the bed has their feet pointing directly to the toilet door.  If this happens, the doctor recommends that you keep the door closed when sleeping.  One best practice that our architect follows is she always tries to design bedrooms in a way that allows for at least two possible bed configurations.  This gives residents the flexibility to decide what works best for them and avoid taboo furniture placements.  As for overhead, we chose coved ceilings that slightly raise the height of the room but are mostly flat and chi-friendly.  In the guest suite we decided to forgo our original plan of vaulted ceilings and exposed beams since we want our favorite feng shui master to have a restful night sleep when he visits us (and it was the perfect place to put attic space instead).

5.  Bedroom doors facing each other
Another key feng shui principle is that bedroom doors should not directly face each other or a bathroom.  Ideally, the door to a child's bedroom should not be opposite that of their parents, otherwise "conflicts may arise," says Jin.   Unfortunately, it looks like our future kid #2 may have to deal with some conflict.   We originally had the master and bedroom #2 facing each other.  The rooms are separated by a long wide hallway so we were able to shift the doors a couple feet over.  We weren't able to completely avoid an overlap, but the two doors are now slightly offset from each other.   Jin agreed that the new configuration was much better...maybe I'll only be half of a tiger mom.

These are just a few of the more common afflictions to avoid.  There are so many considerations when it comes to placement of rooms, doors, windows, stoves, toilets, furniture, landscaping, and the list goes on.  In the end, my true twinkie came out and I opted to for a pass/fail rating instead going for the A+.  Much to our relief the feng shui doctor gave our house plans his stamp of approval.  For those of you who want to learn more, I highly recommend Jin's book, Feng Shui: a Hong Kong Perspective.  It's an easy-to-read collection of over 250 feng shui columns that have been published over the last five years in the South China Morning Post.  You can purchase an electronic copy here or buy the book from Amazon UK.  I have a copy in case any of you locals want to check it out.  Below is the table of contents and a few sample excerpts.  You can also read Jin's latest feng shui articles here: South China Morning Post.

Feng Shui : Living in Harmony
- A Hong Kong Perspective

Chapter 1: Feng Shui Theory
Chapter 2: The Bedroom (Click To Preview)
Chapter 3: Children and Pregnancy

Chapter 4: Colours, Numbers and Water
Chapter 5: Date Selection
Chapter 6: Festivals
Chapter 7: Decorations and Symbols
Chapter 8: Doors and Windows
Chapter 9: Exteriors
Chapter 10: Feng Shui Calculations
Chapter 11: Internal Shapes and Structures
Chapter 12: Mirrors
Chapter 13: The Office and Work
Chapter 14: Other Rooms (Click To Preview)
Chapter 15: Spiritual Matters
Chapter 16: Chinese Astrology
Chapter 17: Chinese Names

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Building for resale value: closet space & jacuzzi tubs

Mr Big:  We're getting married.  Should we get you a diamond?
Carrie:  No.  No.  Just get me a big closet.

Conventional wisdom says if you're going to invest in home improvement, put your money in the kitchen and master bathroom.  It's what buyers notice the most and gets you the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to resale value.  Conventional wisdom also says that a master bathroom should consist of double sinks, a toilet, walk-in shower and separate tub.

My first major remodel was a kitchen plus master suite addition to a three bedroom, one bath starter home I bought in Mountain View.  Being single at the time, I didn't need the space but wanted to add resale value to the house and was planning ahead in case that certain someone special ever decided to show up.  I was on a tight budget but on the top of my splurge-worthy list was a deluxe whirlpool tub with jets for the master bathroom.  I rationalized that like a great mortgage broker, a luxury tub would save me from having to pay for spa services and I fantasized about evenings filled with champagne, rose petals and romantic bubble baths for two.  Sadly, faster than you can say "Calgon take me away" my bubble was burst...
"Don't waste your money, honey," warned my real estate agent, Erika Enos.  "The jets are loud, they require maintenance, age quickly and you'll probably only use it a few times a year.  Put in an extra closet instead," she advised.  
One of the many things I love about Erika is she's a shrewd and frugal immigrant who doesn't hesitate to tell me when she disapproves, especially when it comes to overspending.  Erika says no to about 95% of the things I want (the sign of a truly great agent), so when she approves of something, I know it's got to be good.  Erika's been stretching dollars for my family since 1984, when she helped my parents buy their first home in Palo Alto for a whopping $135,000.  In the nearly thirty years of working with her, we've always come out ahead on any Erika-assisted purchase, including a self indulgent downtown Palo Alto condo I bought during the peak of the dot-com frenzy in 2000.  After the market crashed I was sure that I'd never recoup my costs but when we sold it five years later, Erika orchestrated a savvy 20K kitchen and bathroom makeover that yielded a 186K return.  That's when I began to appreciate the value of a remodel done wisely and vowed to run all spending plans by my newly appointed Ukranian CFO.

Sadly, the jacuzzi tub did not pass the Erika test.  Unfortunately, I didn't entirely listen to her.  At the time I couldn't imagine why I'd need more closet space so I went ahead and installed a basic, no-frills soaking tub instead.  Fast forward two years and three bubble baths later when my future husband moved in and I realized that my walk-in closet was designed for a stubborn bachelorette (capacity: 1).  In the spirit of sharing, I cleared out precisely two linear feet in the corner of my closet for him and generously offered the office closet for overflow.

For our new house, I decided to defy convention and not put a tub in the master bath.  Sometimes building practical solutions for the way you live is worth making a resale value tradeoff.  Instead we will be using the extra space for his and her closets.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Three cheers for the Facebook IPO: Hype, hype, hurray for housing prices!

"I'm glad we already bought our house," said my husband as he forwarded me this New York Times article tonight.  Amen.  As someone who has done PR for the last decade plus, all I have to say is perception is reality...

If Silicon Valley Costs a Lot Now, Wait Until the Facebook Update

For another take on Silicon Valley real estate and the "new, new money of social media" check out today's front page Wall Street Journal story about Sheryl Sandberg's new construction project in Menlo Park:

Neighbors Try to Decide if They Like Facebook Exec's Modern House

P.S.  If any of you newly minted millionaires are reading this, we'll be selling our house in Mountain View next Spring.

If you're looking to buy or sell in the Bay Area, check out my follow-up post:  Pricing strategies & Palo Alto real estate: how to win in an insane market.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Building for love & resale value: from mud rooms to granny units

Back when we were single my girlfriends and I all had our "man I will marry" lists.  These were wish lists with qualifications and deal breakers for what we wanted in our future spouses.  Criteria ranged from the practical (smart, generous, employed), to the aesthetic (tall, dark, no back hair), to the peculiar (can beat me in a swim race, lets me have a claw foot tub, doesn't pat my dog with a stiff hand), and so on and so forth.

Claw foot tub optional (some exceptions may apply)
Some were admittedly silly (I ended up taking the plunge without a swim race) or misinformed (my friend's husband is as furry as a bear and she loves it) but many of the qualities were symbolic of the kind of life we wanted to live.  They reflected our values (loves travel, opens doors for others), tastes (eats spicy food), and upbringing (not loud, doesn't complain about my parents' English).

When planning the design of our new house, I asked all of our friends what was on their "perfect house" list.  Sure enough, items ranged from the practical (sink in laundry room, ample storage space, guest suite), to the aesthetic (high ceilings, natural light, open floor plan), to the peculiar (his & her master toilets, claw foot tub, mantuary with wet bar).

Balancing a home that suits our needs over the next decade while still making it appeal to as many potential buyers as possible has required some thoughtful planning and creative compromises.  After numerous discussions with our real estate agent, architect, family members and friends, here's what we've decided makes sense for our house:

The Basics
4 bedrooms
We decided our "typical buyer" would have two kids so we're putting the master along with two kid-sized rooms upstairs.  Our real estate agent (who is thankfully guiding us through this whole process) was adamant about having at least three bedrooms clustered together since families with young children don't want the master to be separated from the other bedrooms.  On the ground floor we put a guest suite (aka a second master).  Having the guest room on the first floor allows for more privacy and also makes it easier for elderly visitors since they don't have to trek up and down stairs.

3.5 bathrooms (including a Jack and Jill)
The first floor will have a half bath (aka powder room) next to the family room.  Both the master and guest suite have their own bathrooms.  After some debate, we decided to put a Jack and Jill bathroom upstairs accessible from both bedrooms because my husband doesn't think that kids should have to streak down the hallway their skivvies like he had to when growing up.  #firstworldproblems

Upstairs laundry room
The laundry room will be conveniently located near bedrooms (no schlepping loads of laundry up and down stairs).  It will have a large sink and plenty of cabinet space for linens.

Two car garage
No debate here.  Neither of us wanted to park our car on the street.  And my husband says our next car will have to be plugged in, so we're putting a big fat outlet in the garage too.

Great room
This was on the top of our wish list probably where we'll be the majority of our time.  Our great room is the biggest room in the house, combining the kitchen with a breakfast nook and family room.

Formal living room & dining room
These were hard for us to agree to because we live a pretty casual lifestyle -- we don't have huge dinner parties and the only family members that use our current living room are the dogs.  Ultimately, the urging of our real estate agent and my parents' insistence that "any one paying that much for a house is going to want a formal area to entertain" convinced us to stick with convention.   (Besides, we'll need a living room for the piano when I turn into a tiger mom.)

The Upgrades
In addition to the basics, we decided to add some special upgrades to make the home our own.  This is where our awesome architect got creative about space and added special touches to conform to our lifestyle.  Some of these will enhance resale value while others will be loved by us and may (or may not) delight others.

1.  Mud rooms
While I like living in a neat house, I (unlike my husband) am not neat by nature.  This is why we decided to put not one, but two 6' x 7' mud rooms in our house.  Mud rooms are transition areas between the indoors and outdoors where you can keep shoes, jackets, bags, leashes, keys, mail and all the clutter that would otherwise collect on the kitchen counter or be tossed somewhere within reach of a pesky little critter who likes to chew on Louboutins.  We have the primary mud room between the garage and kitchen with a closet, bench, and storage area for shoes and everything else needed when heading out of the house.  We have a secondary mud room connecting the back yard patio and guest wing to the main house.  It's located behind the dining nook and will be used to store dog food, bulk items, a wine fridge, BBQ stuff and other back yard equipment.  This mud room will have a sink for cleaning up after frolicking in the yard and my favorite dream house features -- the on-demand dog water fountain...still working on the details of how exactly to construct this, but trust me, it's going to be awesome.

[Update for do-it-yourselfers: Check out Better Homes & Gardens: How To Build a $324 Mudroom.]

2.  Flex rooms
The idea behind a flex room is spaces that are flexible enough to be used in multiple ways.  We agonized for days over whether or not to dedicate 130 precious, precious square feet to a formal dining room that we would hardly ever use.  As a compromise, our architect made our breakfast nook large enough for a dining room table and then designed a separate formal dining room with track doors so that we can use the space as a study instead and convert it back to a dining room when we want to sell the house.  Similarly, our first floor guest suite will have a Murphy bed that hides in the wall so that we can use it in a variety of ways and mud room that's ready to flex itself into a kitchenette.  Which brings me to the best bonus feature of all...drum roll, please...

3. The Multigenerational wing
Our "multigenerational wing" (aka guest suite) has something for everyone.   It's the killer must-have accessory for the modern day home.  If you don't believe me, believe the New York Times who says, Multigenerational Housing is a Real Estate Growth Niche.  (My favorite line is the FOBy one about how Asian buyers, in particular, "come with the whole family.")  Stereotypes aside, the article points out that these days buyers are increasing looking for homes that can accomodate elderly parents, "boomerang kids"who come back after college, live-in nannies, distant Chinese cousins, etc etc.

My parents don't live with us but indeed if you ask my dad what's on the top of his list for my dream house, it's a granny unit.  While he's been fantasizing about it my whole life, I'm actually rather skeptical that my cruise-hopping parents will ever cash in their IOU.  As a result, we were reluctant to create a completely separate unit and instead placed a "guest wing" at the back of the house that is joined by a mud room.  If any of our parents ever decide to move in, we can convert the mud room (which already has a sink) to a kitchenette by adding a small cooktop, microwave and proper fridge.  The guest suite has its own bathroom and an entrance from the back patio, so we can even close off door between the mud room and the rest of the house for additional privacy.  In the meantime, when we don't have guests we can use the space as a play area, crafts room or possibly even the man cave that my husband's buddies have been begging for.  And who knows, maybe someday when we're too old to trek up and down stairs, we'll move into the multigenerational wing.

Our Multigenerational Flex Room by Jeanine Unteleitner

So there you have it, the must-have checklist for our future house.  It took us about two months to compile, consider and negotiate the items on our list.  Not too shabby considering it took me for-EVAH to find my perfect spouse.  He was well worth the wait.  When it comes to building a home together, nothing beats having a partner who shares your values, tastes and lifestyle.

Next time you need some entertaining dinner party conversation, ask the people around you what's on their "perfect house" and "perfect spouse"'d be surprised by their champagne wishes and caviar dreams.  Cheers to my friend Laura who stayed true to her search for the perfect husband and San Francisco home.  Not only did she marry a man who let her have a claw foot tub, he also helped her demolish their bathroom to install it.  Now that's true love.  Check out their epic bathroom remodel and the birth of "Claudette" here.

As for me, I was lucky enough to be a college educated, ENFP, athletic daughter of immigrant parents who wears high heels and loves dogs, allowing me to meet all the criteria on my husband's list except knowing who this is:

Seriously? Is this list-worthy? #kayfail