How to Choose an Agent

IMG_1781 (2)Buying a house can be a roller coaster ride and having a great real estate agent can mean the difference between a gut-wrenching experience and a joyful thrill.  How do you go about finding the right person to guide you through the homebuying process?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Ask your friends and family.  Personal referrals are one of the best ways to find an agent.  People you know can tell you about their experience, what went well and what frustrated them.  They can help you decide if the person who helped them is someone you’d like helping you.
  • Read on-line reviews. Look for specific examples of what an agent did well and what their previous clients noticed about them.
  • Visit open houses.  One of the main reasons agents host open houses is to meet potential clients.  Use this opportunity to visit with different agents to get a feel for how they interact with you.  Are they friendly and knowledgeable? Do they seem like someone you would like to spend more time with?
  • Make a few phone calls.  While not as good as meeting face-to-face, talking to an agent on the phone can give you a feel for what they are like. Do they answer their phone right away?  Do they sound like they are smiling when they talk?  Do they seem rushed or comfortable?

Any licensed real estate agent can show you houses and write offers but you want someone working for you that will look out for your best interests and answer any questions or concerns promptly and accurately.  If you are looking in the Walla Walla Valley, I would love to be that person for you.  Call or email me today. Sarah Bergman, John L. Scott, Walla Walla, 509-240-6826, email:


Obstacles to Home Ownership

big-houseMuch has been written and reported about the difficulties young adults face in our economic times.  Wages have stagnated, inflation has not. An income that could support a family of four fifty years ago cannot pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in today’s dollars.  With the rising cost of higher education, those who have pursued a college degree get saddled with student loan debt whether they graduate or not and it’s an obligation that cannot be relieved by bankruptcy.  Between student loans, car payments, and ever rising rent costs, how is anyone supposed to save for a down payment on a house?

While I would not argue that establishing an independent, adult household is an easy prospect, there are choices that make it harder than it has to be.  Here are a few things that can add to the difficulty of being able to buy a home.

  1. Delaying marriage.  High divorce rates give marriage a bad name.  Here is the good news.  More than half of all first time marriages last a lifetime.  Those that get married and stay married are up to four times wealthier than their single counterparts.
  2. Not delaying having children.  If getting married makes you wealthier, having children makes you poorer.  If you want to have financial stability in life, get an education, get and stay married, and wait to have children until after you are married.  Having children outside of marriage in the new normal for this generation of young adults and it may be a contributing factor to why they can’t afford to buy a house.
  3. Supplementing income with credit. When we leave our parent’s home, we all would like to maintain the lifestyle we enjoyed there.  But, usually that isn’t possible because we don’t have the income to sustain it. Many solve that problem using credit cards. Using a credit card with a plan to pay it off is one thing.  Using a credit card for living expenses is another.  If you cannot live on what you make, you need to find a new job or a new way to live. Borrowing money for liabilities will bring you nothing but poverty.
  4. Buying new cars on credit.  According to financial advice guru Dave Ramsey, car loans are the single biggest destroyer of personal wealth.  Most of us are not auto mechanics and the fear of being stranded along side the road with a broke down vehicle is real.  However, a membership to a discount towing service and regular car maintenance is vastly more affordable than the loan payment, taxes, and insurance on a new car.  If you are willing to make due with a paid off clunker, you will have the means to save for something better and maybe a garage to park it in.
  5. Not tracking spending. When finances are tight, it is important to know where each dollar you earn is going.  If there is always more month than money, it may be time to re-evaluate your life choices. If housing costs are more than 50% of your income, that is not a sustainable situation.  It may be time to consider moving to a cheaper location, a smaller apartment, or sharing with roommates.  If eating out is a huge expense, may be now is the time to learn how to cook.  Brewing coffee at home in a coffee maker can also breath life into a sickly budget.

If you marry young and well, delay having kids for a few years, live within your means, and drive old cars, you will likely be able to buy a home sooner than you think.  Make these mistakes, it might take you a lot longer.


An Argument For Open Houses

I have heard it said that open houses are more for real estate agents trying to find potential clients than they are a means of marketing a home for a seller.  While there is some truth to this claim, agents can make new contacts at an open house, the open house is also a valuable selling tool.

IMG_1705First, an open house provides an opportunity for buyers to tour a property at their own pace without the formality of making an appointment or the worry of wasting someone else’s time.  In today’s information age, most buyers do research on their own before selecting a real estate agent and open houses are one of the ways they can narrow their search criteria.  Second, open houses are a way for neighbors to see what is being offered and how it compares to their own home.  It can inspire them to call a friend who they would like to have as a neighbor or entice them to make an offer themselves.  Finally, an open house provides a seller with instant feedback from the public about the positive and negative features of the home, giving the owner the opportunity to make changes that will make the home more appealing and able to sell.

The following is a list of things sellers can do to improve their home’s first impression.

  1. Sweep the front sidewalk and exterior entry.  Clear any cobwebs or dirt from door and window frames.
  2. Make sure there are bright, working bulbs in all light fixtures and turn them on.
  3. Don’t stuff the closets.  People will open them and you don’t want anything to fall on them.
  4. Open all the blinds and curtains and clean the windows.
  5. Clear the front and side of the refrigerator of papers and magnets.
  6. Clean window blinds and check window sills for dead flies.
  7. Clean the air-intake vent and bathroom fan.
  8. Remove small appliances from kitchen counters to clear as much space as possible.
  9. Take down family photos.
  10. Remove evidence of pets as much as possible.  Put the litter box in the garage.
  11. Live plants are great.  Fake plants are not.
  12. Put your cosmetics and medications away, out of sight.
  13. Clean tubs and toilets
  14. Take out the trash
  15. Make sure the house smells pleasant. Light a candle, bake some cookies, or spray an air neutralizer.

Exterior Coverings

You can tell a lot about a home based on what is covering the outside walls.  A home’s exterior can tell you how well it has been maintained, the quality of the home’s construction, and it’s energy efficiency.  Here is a list of common exterior coverings and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

  • Stucco. Stucco consists of cement, lime, and silica applied in several layers over wood or metal lath. Stucco has many benefits.  Since it forms a concrete shell around a house, a stucco home is very energy efficient. It blocks sound from outdoors, is fire retardant, and resists rot, mildew and mold.  It is easy to maintain and can last over 50 years if well maintained.  On the downside, stucco installation is labor intensive and expensive.  It is not as water resistant as other finishes and does not do well in wet climates.  Lastly, if you paint over stucco, the paint has to be sandblasted off in order to refinish it in the future.Stucco-Home
  • Solid wood siding. Real wood siding comes in a wide variety of wood types and styles, including hand-cut shakes, machine-cut shingles, clapboard, and solid wood. Wood is readily available, can be installed quickly, and has an attractive and popular appearance.  It can be easily replaced if damaged because small sections can be removed without disturbing the rest of the wall.  One drawback is the maintenance wood requires.  It must be painted, stained or varnished in order to protect it from the elements and from insects.  Without regular painting, staining or varnishing, wood will crack, warp or rot.  This can allow water to seep behind the siding, causing damage to the home’s structure.  Also, without some type of regularly applied protection, insects such as termites or beetles will also damage wood. wood-siding
  • T1-11 siding.  T1-11 siding comes in two major grades, plywood and OSB (or oriented stand board). OSB products are made of wood flakes, strands and water-treated with a binding resin and then sealed together using pressure and heat. Both types are relatively strong, inexpensive and widely used in housing developments. However the OSB variety doesn’t hold up as well as plywood. This is primarily due to the fact that, because of the manufacturing process, OSB is subject to water damage over time, causing expansion, rot and general wear and tear. Although it doesn’t cost as much as other types of siding, T1-11 siding is not a good choice for a frame house. The siding is not weatherproofed and can become easily harmed from the effects of snow and rain.  While the plywood variety can be stained, the OSB T1-11  must be primed and painted every 10-15 years.  vertical siding 
  • Fiber cement board siding (Hardie board). Fiber cement is very durable. Because of its cement content, it is impervious to termites, woodpeckers and other pests. It resists rotting, warping, and cracking. It will withstand extreme weather including rain, snow, hail, hot sun, and even hurricane-force winds. Fiber cement is extremely low-maintenance and requires only a periodic washing with a hose.  Like Stucco, fiber cement is fire retardant. On the downside, cement board siding is expensive to install.  It requires more planning, a larger labor force, and takes longer to install due to its weight and composition.  It also has to be re-painted periodically. Although the warranty is usually for 50 years, Hardie board siding finishes are only guaranteed for 15 years.hardie board siding
  • Vinyl siding. A plastic product made to look like wood, vinyl siding is inexpensive and versatile. It comes in hundreds of colors, textures, and profiles. Vinyl siding is made to withstand the elements and resists excessive moisture, insect pests, and rot. It never needs painting and is easy to clean. Insulated vinyl siding prevents heat loss between the wall studs in exterior walls, increasing a home’s energy efficiency.  On the downside, vinyl must be properly installed with water-resistant backing to prevent water from getting trapped behind the siding.  Vinyl can also develop holes or cracks that make a home look rundown. Vinyl doesn’t peel or chip, but it can warp from high temperatures.p_vinylside

These are just five of the most common exterior finishes found in new construction. While a home with cement board siding or stucco may be more expensive, the quality and low maintenance cost may be worth the extra money.  If a home has vinyl siding, make sure it is insulated vinyl and was property installed with water-resistant backing. If possible, avoid new construction that uses vertical T1-11 siding.  It’s cheap and lacks durability.  Wood is a classic finish but requires maintenance.  Be prepared to keep it painted or stained and treated for pests.


Firm Foundations

Failing-FoundationsHave you ever walked into a home and felt like you might fall forward?  When my husband and I were shopping for our first house, we brought a marble with us.  We set it on the floor to see if it would roll away independently.  At one house we visited, it shot like a rocket from the front door to the back.  We didn’t need the marble test to tell us that house had foundation problems.

Homes in the price range for first time home buyers are often older and in need of repair.  However, foundation repairs are not inexpensive.  Most home buyers would prefer to spend their renovation dollars on improvements they can see and enjoy like new flooring or counter tops, not structural repairs.  Besides the marble test, what other things should you look for in a home’s foundation?

The foundation of a home should be visible and dry.  Beware puddles of standing water near a home’s foundation.  The ground should be graded away from the house, allow water to flow away from the foundation.  This is especially important when there are bushes and plant beds around a home.  Dirt can get mounded around the base of the plants, causing water to flow toward the house.  This can weaken the foundation and cause water to get into the house.

Another thing to consider is energy efficiency.  With modern insulated windows, walls, and ceilings, homes seal in heat better than ever before.  However, if the foundation isn’t insulated, heat can escape through the floor and duct system.  If a home has a crawl space, make sure the floor and air ducts are properly insulated to prevent energy loss.

Foundation issues are not always visible to the untrained eye, which is why having a home inspection before purchasing a house is so important.  Your real estate agent can provide you with a list of licensed inspectors in your area.

Countertop Choices

Real Estate is a people business.  An agent’s job is to connect with their client, listen to their needs and concerns, and provide guidance and service.  That being said, it often surprises me how little some real estate agents actually know about houses and the materials used to build them. If you ask about the flooring, the cabinets, or the countertops, often you’ll hear, “I’m not sure.” Some are content to judge a home based on its appearance but for others, more information is needed. Over the next couple weeks, I will share with you the different options available for home finishes and the pros and cons of each choice. Today we will start with countertops.

Laminate (Formica).

DSCN0860 Easily the most common and cheapest choice for a kitchen countertop.  Made from a plastic laminate of paper or fabric with melamine resin, laminate resists stains, impacts, and heat.  It is easy to clean and comes in a variety of colors, finishes, and textures.  On the con side, Seams are visible, it can be scratched and nicked, and isn’t repairable.

Solid Surface (Corian).

imageComposed of acrylic polymer and alumina trihydrate, solid surface counters are heat and impact resistant, stain resistant, and seamless.  They come in a variety of colors and although they can be scratched or cut easily, scratches can be buffed out and repaired.  It is non-porous and waterproof and doesn’t require any maintenance or sealing.


granite-countertopNothing looks as lux as natural stone, featuring rich veining and specks in a wide range of colors. Though strong and heat resistant, granite requires special care to maintain its appearance.  It must be sealed to prevent stains and chips can only be repaired by a professional.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarble is a natural stone with white brightness not available in granite. Unlike granite, marble can be nicked or scratched easily, but those marks can be polished out.  Marble requires sealing to prevent stains, but it stays cools, making it ideal for rolling out pantry dough.  Rare varieties can be very expensive, but more common marble like Carrera is usually cheaper.


Providing the look of natural stone without the maintenance, quartz is an engineered material made from stone chips, resins, and pigments.  It’s waterproof, doesn’t require sealing, and comes in a variety of colors. Like natural stone, it can chip and has to be repaired by a professional.


concrete-countertopConcrete provides endless customization.  It can be cast into complex shapes and colored, textured or patterned. Depending on the mix, it can be stronger than natural stone but quality is dependent on the installer.  Concrete must be sealed with both a topical sealant for stains and a penetrating sealer for heat.


A cheaper alternative to solid stone, tile countertops come in a wealth of colors materials, sizes, and patterns. They are easy to maintain and clean and the surface is heat- and stain-resistant.  However, grout lines stain even when sealed and tiles can chip or crack. It’s a good idea to have extra tiles to repair localized damage.

Now you are ready to decide for yourself the material you prefer. Call me when you are ready to find the kitchen counter you want in a new home.


Walla Walla by Bicycle

golden_gate_park_bike_rentalWhile I love being outside in the spring and fall, I have a hard time with the summer heat.  I tend to stay indoors enjoying the air conditioning.  The one time of day I do venture outdoors is in the evening after dinner but before dusk.  It’s still warm but bearable and I can usually get at least one if not all of my family members to go for a bike ride with me.

One nice thing about Walla Walla is the variety of routes we can take as we explore.  Some are specifically for bicycles and others are just more enjoyable that way.  Every time we ride through a neighborhood, I realize how much I miss while I drive.  Here are some of the places we like to visit by bike:

  • Mountain View Cemetery.  The roads are paved (better than a lot of city streets) and the slight slope makes it easy to cruse up and down the blocks of gravestones.  We often stop and look for specific names or calculate the ages of the deceased.
  • Whitman College Campus. The grounds are beautiful in the summertime and many seniors pose for their portraits along the creek.
  • The Planet Walk Bike Trail.  The Trail runs from the front of the Veterans Hospital Campus to the Amphitheater at Fort Walla Walla.  It’s not shaded but in the cool of the evening is a nice ride with no cars.
  • Mill Creek Trail.  Also protected from cars, this trail runs from Lions Park on Wilbur Street all the way to Rooks Park.  It’s a slight incline going to Rooks so the best part is coasting down from there.
  • Highway 12 Bike Trail.  From Borleske Stadium, there is a steep hill along the golf course.  Once you climb that, it is smooth sailing all the way to the Vista Terrace Park.  Once again, there is a small incline so the ride back down to Borleske is a fast one.
  • Table Rock and Sydney Heights Neighborhoods.  Both developments are off of Cottonwood Drive as you head South of town.  The roads are smooth, wide, and relatively quiet.  When we see a house for sale, we make bets on the listing price.
  • Division Street Parks.  The streets around Menlo Park are smooth and shaded by large, old trees and one can follow Division Street passed Wildwood Park to Pioneer Park.  Division isn’t the best of roads in terms of traffic or condition, but the parks are fun pit stops for a family ride.
  • The Walla Walla Country Club Neighborhood.  Quiet and green, it’s fun to ride around the golf course at the Country Club.  The community on the backside is gated but the streets along the south side are also fun to explore by bike.
  • The Villages of Garrison Creek.  Across from Fort Walla Walla, this neighborhood boasts a nature trail along Garrison Creek for residents to use.  The houses in this development are well-maintained and close together.  It is fun to compare the different colors and sizes of homes in the community and their roads are smooth.  If you start at Fort Walla Walla, you can ride through the neighborhood to Lions Park on Larch Street on the other side.
  • Walla Walla University Campus.  While not as compact as Whitman College, the campus in College Place has multiple buildings to weave around and surrounding neighborhoods to explore.

Decluttering vs. Minimalism

I recently read an article on another blog about living out of a duffel bag and a backpack for a month to see what it would be like.  The author learned that although doable for himself as an individual, it would be nearly impossible for a family as the items required for family life do not all fit in a few bags.  Families need homes with kitchens and gather spaces, entertainment centers and sleeping quarters, as well as books, toys, and games.  Minimalism and children are a difficult combination.

That being said, families can live well and happily without filling every room in their home with stuff.  The key is to find a balance between clutter and minimalism.  Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

  • Making a happy home is about intention and balance.  Be intentional about what you bring into your home and how much time you spend managing stuff.
  • For example, if you have a family of five with 14 loads of laundry after two weeks, you have a lot of clothes in your house.  If dressing your kids well is something you love, great. Enjoy doing laundry.  If not, consider reducing the clothing inventory.  It’s more fun to spend time with the kids rather than washing their clothes.
  • Toys that inspire imaginative play, problem solving, or creativity are worth keeping.  Large plastic monstrosities are not.
  • Teach your kids to be selective about saving papers.  Help them create a portfolio of their best work.
  • Once the designated toy storage area is filled, institute a something in, something out policy.
  • Make purchases based on your actual life, not the life you wish you had.  If you never entertain, you don’t need fancy serving dishes.  Maybe for the entertaining you do, all you need is paper plates.
  • Decide what hobbies are important and make space for them.  Make it easy to engage in the activities you enjoy.
  • Keep up with the latest gaming and entertainment technology only if that is the hobby you wish to invest in.  It will likely be the only one you’ll have money for.
  • Try before you buy.  Rent or borrow sports equipment to see if it’s something you will do often before you buy and have stuff sitting in your garage unused.
  • Invest in experiences as a family.  Go to ball games, concerts, plays, or water parks.  Visit the city, the mountains, or the ocean. Kids will remember the time you spent with more than the stuff you bought.

Walla Walla: A Great Place for Kids

After living in a suburb of Boston for three years, I knew that’s not where I wanted to stay long-term.  Elite preschools preparing toddlers for Harvard, $350 tuition fees for fingerpainting classes, and private memberships to access a local pond made raising  a family there not only cost prohibitive, but exhausting.  While we enjoyed visiting historical sites and the town forest, our connection to the community was non-existent.

Moving to Walla Walla with our kids was a no-brainer.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. We have frequent, free festivals connecting us to our community.  Examples include the Multicultural Arts Festival, the Sweet Onion Festival, the 4th of July in the Park, and the Hot Air Balloon Festival.
  2. We have a vibrant 4-H program in our county and a great county fair each year.
  3. Our city parks and recreation department offers team sports and classes year round.
  4. Our city library offers special programs and reading incentives throughout the summer.
  5. We have lots of history museums like Fort Walla Walla, the Whitman Mission, and the Kirkman House Museum.
  6. We have a wonderful Children’s Museum that can be rented for birthday parties.
  7. We have lots of beautiful and well maintained parks, a splash pad, and a public swimming pool.
  8. The YMCA, Campfire, and many local churches offer affordable day camps during the summer months.
  9. No one has to pay to fish or swim in Bennington Lake and it’s free to hike the trails too.
  10. While we do not have a town forest, the Umatilla National Forest isn’t far away.


De-cluttering 101


One of the most effective ways to make your home feel larger, newer, and cleaner is to remove excess items.  Often we collect things over time and don’t realize how much we have until there is no more room for anything new.  Here are some tips to get started on your journey to a clutter-free home.

  1. Start small.  Don’t try to tackle too much at once and get overwhelmed.  The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  The same principle applies to de-cluttering.  Start with one category (clothes, books, movies, craft supplies, etc.) and allow yourself enough time to sort that one group of items.
  2. Keep what’s used and appreciated, toss what’s broken or guilt-inducing.  Do not keep something because it was a gift or belonged to another family member.  Memories can be held separate from objects.
  3. Don’t hold on to objects that make you feel bad like clothes that no longer fit, home decor that is no longer in style, or towels that are frayed or smelly.  Make room for things that make you happy.
  4. Don’t feel like you need to keep aspirational items, things that represent the person you aspire to be, rather than who you actually are. For example, I purchased a yoga mat and instructional guide, thinking I might take up yoga.  I didn’t.  I bought a food processor thinking I might make bread.  I haven’t.  I bought craft supplies to make cards and scrapbooks.  I did, but not so much now.  It is okay to let go of past goals if they aren’t present goals.  You don’t need stuff reminding you of what you used to want to do.
  5. Enlist the help of a brutally honest friend with a minimalist streak.  I am that friend for a lot of people.  They will give you the courage to let go of things you feel like you should keep but really shouldn’t.
  6. Consider how you can share what you have and borrow what you don’t.  We all have things that we keep because we use them seasonally or sporadically, like the 6 foot ladder to get on the roof or the air compressor to blow out the sprinkler system.  If you don’t have something, rather than buying it, consider borrowing from a friend.  Then return the favor when your neighbor is in need.  This way you can build a friendship rather than a storage unit.