Ask a Real Estate Expert: An Interview with Roberta Baldwin
A conversation with Roberta Baldwin, Partner at Chu/Baldwin Homes and Keller Williams NJ Metro Group, explored questions about first-time home-buying, first-time home-selling, the current Montclair housing market, and Baldwin’s own move from Brooklyn to Montclair twenty-five years ago. In the years since, Baldwin has become one of New Jersey’s most respected real estate professionals. She is often quoted in the national media, and has been featured on the hit HGTV show “Bought & Sold” as well as, more recently, on “House Hunters.”
Is it still possible for first-time home buyers to afford a first house in Montclair?
Well, there are a lot of very successful Millennials (and generally younger buyers!) who prefer “done” homes and for whom the starting point is in the fives, which will not get you that degree of finish here in Montclair, NJ anymore. They certainly can either renovate something that isn’t perfect; or they can buy a smaller, perhaps more updated house, but it might be on a busier street, many of which run through many of our towns, or close to the train tracks. If you’re a person who doesn’t have to live on a particular expensive block or have to find a house with everything new inside, you can still edge into Montclair, find a sweet home and then fix it up. That’s what I did, albeit it a long time ago. My first house didn’t even have cabinet doors in the kitchen – they had all fallen off! We were into Montclair as a place to settle, not into instant gratification, which we definitely didn’t get.
What advice do you have for first-time home-buyers?
The number one reason for buying a house is to realize a certain kind of lifestyle that will hopefully fulfill your hopes and dreams and those of family. Aside from being a good investment, hopefully, it must have inherent value to you as a person and have some capacity to help make the memories you are hoping for — to provide an emotional anchor. You want to feel that some day you will be able to recall how your life was completed by the house. Beyond that, for some, the commute must be accessible and the “feeling” of the neighborhood must be right, whether quiet or bustling, hilly or flat, etc. If you need schools, obviously you’ll want them to be a good choice for your particular child. So, school visits are suggested before purchase because school rankings alone may or may not be relevant to your individual child’s learning style.
How do you think people should decide about an optimum time to sell?
There’s never a bad time to sell a house and never a bad time to buy. However, many people choose the spring for selling, beginning in late winter through spring, a January to February through June schedule. Since many people want to be in a house by the summer or at the latest, the end of August, in order to enjoy the summer in the house or to get their kids ready for a new school year, this makes sense. So the market from mid-September through mid-November is historically less powerful in terms of the buyer pool, with so many fall and winter holidays that preoccupy people — and therefore inventory is also reduced, as sellers just decide to wait to list until the next spring. However, if you have a great house, it is going to stand out in any season.
Is staging necessary for a successful sale these days?
Wow. Yes, totally. But staging per se is a separate process from de-cluttering. First the homeowner has to de-clutter, then the agent can stage. In fact, staging is the most important factor, aside from the choice of a galvanizing price point, in the successful sale of a house in a short time. I generally work with sellers for several weeks, even months; occasionally years. That way, I help them envision all the home can be in a competitive market. Tired decor is not seen in a positive light by today’s generally very young buyer pool. Aside from de-cluttering, there’s also the pure freshening of walls and ceilings with au courant paint colors – and the cleaning out and spiffing up of dark basements and attic space. We bring in a design consultant, at no charge, to walk through the house, so the homeowner hears a third party interpretation of what should be done. Then we help the homeowner expedite that meaningful list of simple de-cluttering and potential design ideas – and, finally, we “stage to sell” by replacing furniture, art, rugs, etc. We help to make a house a thing of beauty that will shine through the professional photographs and video that will be projected on the web and will be seen pretty much everywhere in the world. If a house looks tired and sad to potential buyers, they may well just pass it by, not even look at it at all. Some longtime sellers say, well, we think we should just leave the house as it is and let the buyers envision what they want. Our answer is, today’s buyers have no interest in that concept – really!! In some cases, where bringing in furniture and decor is not the way to go, we can virtually stage a property and that can work exceptionally well to show it off online.
How do people decide on an appropriate bid? Is there still room for negotiation once a bid is submitted?
This depends on the individual town. Many have a protocol that they favor by town or by region. In some towns, offers are heard on a Tuesday night. In other towns, the bids are encouraged the first day the listing appears. If an agent is familiar with “how it works” in a community, then that’s a plus for a home buyer choosing an agent. We personally make it our job to understand the psychology of sales in the individual towns we work in. We do not wing it.
Is sending a personal letter about your interest in a house helpful in submitting a bid?
It seems to have become de rigueur. A seller may possibly make a decision based on a phrase, image, or picture. So we encourage people to write letters and it is my job to help them find the language to express themselves. I prefer letters that are 2-3 paragraphs, with a heartfelt message. But I do not recommend letters that are over the top, because then they just lose their charm and the homeowner isn’t moved at all.
How should you choose a realtor?
Today’s world is very different from 10 or 20 years ago, before the internet was flooded with real estate portals with agent rankings and all sorts of promises of higher-level technology if you choose this or that one. If you are thinking of moving to Montclair, NJ (or really anywhere) you want an incredibly honest agent in your corner who is not too pushy but very committed and can clear the way for you to get your house. It also definitely helps that the agent is well known as a person of integrity, who other agents want to work with, because they know the deal will come to fruition much more easily. Many buyers just go with their friends’ agent or go to an open house and just pick that person because it’s easier. I love it when buyers really do work to find the best match. For instance, I used to be a journalist. I wrote for many top newspapers and magazines. I covered the entertainment industry and the arts; I was a top editor before morphing to real estate. I am very good at research and information. It’s in my nature. I also have done real estate here for almost 25 years and have won a lot of top producer prizes because I am a relentless advocate for my clients. My husband and I made the move from Brooklyn to raise a family here, so I have experience leaving the big city for a small city (yes, it was scary, at first). So my advice is, if your are a nascent buyer, you should really find out who the realtor is, what his or her sales history has been, which communities they sell in. It’s an important choice.
What is an average time from initial bid to closing?
Optimally, it is 45 to 60 days, if everyone is on the team working together, including the mortgage entity, and the buyers and sellers are compatible and able to compromise. It is kind of magic when it all comes together. But there can be bumps in the road – discovery of an underground oil tank, a clogged sewer, unprofessional wiring – you name it. Your agent continues to be your advocate in this process, working closely with the attorney and the lender you have hired, to maneuver the course to closing. It’s best for the buyer to use a local attorney who fits in the picture with the local agent because communication is so vital.
Is it important to secure financing first before beginning the process of house hunting?
Most agents will require a pre-approval before showing houses to a new buyer, at the very least one with a credit check. Some lenders are now advertising full approvals up front, but there are caveats, like extremely high credit, and then all the necessity of paperwork later on, which is intensified on final loan underwriting. There are countless lender choices and some buyers just go online or have a friend in Omaha who can do the loan. But using a NJ-centric lender can make a positive difference in a bidding situation between winning and losing because an owner may be skeptical about never having heard of XYZ Mortgage out of Queens – or even dealing with a big lender with a reputation for being slow. Agents here often have expert contacts who can assist buyers in the process of searching out the best interest rate – which is obviously very important to the buyer – and the best overall fit.
Are there any design features you find are particularly desirable to homeowners in the area?
The overwhelming design direction is opening up the house. You have seen that as an architect and I see that frequently as potential buyers walk a house and dream. This can create a challenge in communities such as ours where we have a proud inventory of relatively old houses, built with a very different view of the purposes of the rooms. Many of our young buyers want openness and light; they want to be able to see everything their children are doing while they are cooking, relaxing, or even entertaining. It’s no longer as desirable to have a large foyer, sitting room, and a cook’s kitchen that can’t be seen from family areas. Random upgrades made in the past are not as significant an influence on price these days. When buyers come into the house, they stand in the middle of the living room and they ask the realtor if they can take the wall down. Walls that are bearing walls, of course, can be reinforced, with an architect’s advice, but they cannot just be torn down at whim. Much is possible with the right advice and pocketbook – including now popular extensions to the house if you have the space for it. I would urge any current seller to get professional advice before remodeling before selling – and current buyers to get some advice about whether taking down walls is do-able. Of course, taxes will often go up as remodeling projects are done.
It used to be that people sought out handy-man specials. Do these still exist in Montclair?
A certain percentage of these houses are bought off-market by investors or contractors who knock on doors, make an offer directly to a homeowner, then purchase and renovate by tweaking here and there, then quickly sell. Some homes are owned by banks (foreclosures) and go to auction or occasionally to the local Multiple Listing Service. Then there are the “flippers,” who are prominent in today’s market and do whole-house renovations with full time crews, going from house to house, converting a circa 1900 little Victorian into a totally different home inside, even if the front stays the same, only cuter! To answer your question, yes, there are options here for the investor, but more competition than in the past for these homes in raw condition.
What changes have you observed in the Montclair housing market?
Montclair’s population includes an interesting mix of highly creative performers, artists, writers, artists who have established the bedrock of Montclair as a unique small city – one like very few others in NJ. As we become a wealthier town, though, we run the risk of losing some of that grassroots creativity and drive. But so far this hasn’t been necessarily the case and artists of all types have made huge contributions to where we live, to the spirit of the town. But also, there are towns right around us, such as Bloomfield, Verona, and West Orange that are benefitting from the fact that Montclair’s prices have gone up. Schools in neighboring towns are becoming more desirable, and these towns offer excellent access to Montclair’s downtown, restaurants and parks. Montclair is a magnet, but not everyone will end up calling it home. That is what I always say to people: I can show you alternatives and tell you how they will work for you. Maplewood and South Orange have become magnets as well, for neighboring towns such as West Orange, which also borders Montclair. Passionate realtors are keeping creative and dynamic people in the area by understanding about proximity to Montclair, in areas such as the Brookdale, Oakview and Demarest sections of Bloomfield. My daughter grew up in Montclair and now lives in the cutest home in West Orange with her family. She is as creative a contributor to Essex County life there, just as she was here in Montclair, growing up.
How did you get interested in real estate? What do you see as the particular strengths of a successful realtor?
I have other people in my family who have become Realtors. I come from a home and family that excelled in the arts and in business, and for whom intellectual development is number one. I went into real estate after 23 years, as I mentioned, as a hard-core, driven journalist, editor, author, and marketer, making a mid-career adjustment. I wanted something that would be demanding and challenging, that would take the skills that I have and add a dose of entrepreneurialism to them. In journalism, you need a natural relentlessness to get the story. Every real estate transaction is a story that also has drama and humor around it. It has its own arc and it has its often illusive finish line. Because I was used to completing articles on a 24-hour basis, I have carried over this ability to see a deal through expeditiously. Very few of my deals fall apart. I like to think of myself as a person who can interpret the needs of the people involved in the deal, not just the buyer and seller, and can communicate what it is going to take to close the deal. I am collaborative. I have relationships in place so that the buyers and sellers have the confidence that what I am doing is based on experience. When you are in real estate, you are running your own business. The fascinating thing about real estate is that it covers every aspect of life, touches all strata of society. The opportunity for entrepreneurialism cuts across all socio-economic levels, which makes real estate a great profession, not just a job. As a co-owner of Keller Williams NJ Metro Group, the Montclair, NJ KW franchise, I am most proud of bringing the training we provide to a wide swath of New Jerseyans who have a passion for helping others.
Why should people select Keller Williams as their agency?
KW has a culture of giving, support and education. It is ranked this year as the happiest places to work across all industries. It is #1 in agent count, closed units, and dollar volume in the US (2018). Here in Montclair, our new 10,000 sq. ft office with more than 250 agents is also #1 in sales in Essex County. Why? Our agent training program is #1, again nationally, across all industries. I could go on, but personally, as a “thought leader” here, I feel so good walking in the door, about what I represent, and about the people who work with me as hard as they can to make home ownership possible on every level of society, across many different counties and towns. At closing, KW gives money via KW CARES to people amongst us in need, such as to the Realtors in Paradise, CA who lost their jobs along with the devastating housing losses from fires in the community. You may not know it, but the individual Realtors have a stake in KW. Each franchise gives back nearly 50% of its profit to its most productive employees. KW sponsors life balance seminars on how to be a better person, better family member, better negotiator for clients – pretty much better everything. The company feels that all of its employees should be working at the highest level and it provides the tools to do that. The real estate industry today is complicated and competitive and our company is in the forefront of the technology that is necessary to do the job well. Showing leadership and having empathy for people is what we do with each and every buyer and seller. I love being able to say that!