Real Estate Musings - Useful Tips and Topics and Photography

Austin Small Houses – Part 1

Interested in Small Houses in Austin?

This is the summer where small houses, and  itty bitty houses – ranging from microhouses, to tiny houses to just merely small houses are all the rage on the Internets.

The tiny house movement has been picking up steam for years. Just recently two tiny house builders’ tiny houses have been shared so many times, it is almost impossible not to run across the articles:

  • MiniMotives – a woman loses her regular home to foreclosure, then builds a tiny home from salvaged parts
  • hOMe – a couple with two children lives in a 207 sf (plus 110 sf loft) tiny house

Fascinated yet?

Well, we sure are.

We’d love to live in a tiny house one day, but for now we’re just going to write about them, starting with merely small houses in Austin and working our way towards tiny.

Small house in east Austin - look at the gorgeous blue!
Small house in east Austin – look at the gorgeous blue!

Where are the Small Houses in Austin?

To answer that question, we turned to the local MLS to look at sales data.  In the past 12 months (so, between 8/14/2013 and 8/13/2014), 112 houses smaller than 800 square feet have sold.  Here is a map of where they were located:

Austin houses under 800 square feet
Austin houses under 800 square feet
  •  The median price for these small houses was $201,500 (range: $59,000 to $540,000).
  • The median size was 720 square feet.
  • The smallest house was a mere 336 sf and sold for $59,000.
  • The most expensive house was 779 square feet (and sold for $540,000) in Bouldin (a very hip, urban area of Austin).
  • The median age of these 112 small Austin houses was 64 years old.
  • You can see from the map that most are clustered east of I-35, east of downtown.
Small house in east Austin, Texas
Small house in east Austin, Texas with a yellow front door

Photographing Small Houses in Austin

Well, clearly it was time to drag out the camera and go take some photos. But where to start?  How about in this neighborhood, south of E 7th Street:

Small houses in Austin east of downtown
Small houses in Austin east of downtown
  • The median price of these 18 homes was $281,325 (range: $160,000 to $340,000).
  • The median size was 720 square feet.
  • The median age was 75 years old.
  • Most sold in average-to-poor condition and half sold for cash.
Small house with a bright blue front door in east Austin, TX
Small house with a bright blue front door in east Austin, TX

I wish I could share which house sold for what, but I can’t – that data is confidential.

I set out to photograph those 18 houses, and soon ran into a snag – the streets in this area are narrow and tend to have cars parked on both sides. Several streets had road construction crews tearing up the asphalt and quite a few houses were undergoing serious rehabilitation, which means dumpsters and lots of work trucks parked out front.

So, I gave up shooting the 18 small houses in this area that sold this year and instead took photos of a whole bunch of little ones – ones that looked to be 800 sf and under, to share here.





How to Lower the Value of Your Austin Home: 12 Easy Tips

Worried About Your Property Value?

I hear about folks who are worried about what their home is worth. They want to know what they can do to improve the value of their home. This is especially true when the home is about to go on the market and the owners (sellers) are hoping to get top dollar.

Often they overlook what they’ve done to decrease their property value.

So, here are some of the ways to lower the value of a home. Once things like this have been taken care of, then it makes sense to think of projects that can be done that can actually add value.

  1. Let your six Rotweilers tear up the backyard and chew holes in the fence.
  2. Install burgandy and forest green carpet, especially in the bathrooms. Especially up and over the edge of the tub surround.
  3. Be as ecletic as possible, and make sure the paint and wallpaper in each room has a theme such as “Barbie’s Palace”, “The Tiki Lounge” and “The Dino Den”, complete with plastered and textured boulders on the walls.
  4. Paint the solid wood cabinets with cheap flat paint in bright colors.
  5. Let the drains leak under the sinks to make sure the cabinet interiors are nice and rotty.
  6. Patch the roof with different types and colors of shingles. Bonus points for red or yellow.
  7. Put on an addition and make sure you don’t pull permits.
  8. Drain the pool and let it fill with rainwater, leaves, dead rodents and mosquitos.
  9. Tape up broken windows instead of replacing them, since a little water coming in never hurt anything.
  10. Install a drop-down ceiling on a metal grid, instead of scraping the popcorn or abating the old asbestos ceiling texture.
  11. Make sure the flooring is mix-n-match, and buy whatever is on sale for dirt cheap at the local home improvement center. Bonus points for low-quality laminate flooring in the kitchen and other wet areas (unless, of course, those areas already have carpet).
  12. Don’t clean up after your pets. Everybody loves cats and dogs, and no one will mind the accumulated thatches of hair stuck to the baseboards, especially in the kitchen near the food bowls.

Who Buys Homes Like This?

Each item on that list is a real nuisance to remedy. If you’re okay with selling your home at a discount, then just leave this stuff for someone else to fix. That often knocks out a lot of potential buyers since many have no idea what it might cost to fix each of the items on the list. Others might have an idea of the cost to repair something but don’t want the hassle.

The most likely purchaser for a fixer-upper (and yes, these items put a house into that category) is an investor, flipper or bargain hunter.

If you’re considering doing any of these things to your home . . . don’t. If you must paint a room in a theme, be prepared to neutralize it before you put the house on the market.

Clean It Up Before You List

When I sold my own home last fall, I re-painted all of the rooms that were overly-customized (Purple! Stencils! Ceiling Clouds! Orange!), and installed new carpeting that matched in all of the bedrooms. I even carpeted over a gorgeous (in my mind) custom concrete floor in the downstairs master bedroom because the agents in my real estate sales office thought the swirls of charcoal and black would be a deterrant to potential buyers.

The gigantic custom loft came down in the boys’ bedroom because it obscurred a window, and a handful of cracked windows were replaced (as were ALL of the screens, since many were warped, some were torn, some were missing and all were a little tatty after 25 years). A custom mesquite bathroom countertop that had water damage was replaced with granite (expected in the area).

Although I don’t have dogs, I have kids, and they had completely trashed the grass in the backyard. It took a few months for the new sod to take root and fill in, so if you’ve got a similar problem make sure to leave enough time before you list the home to get the grass looking good again.

If you’ve seen horrors like the list above in homes in your area, please share your stories in the comments, below!

And . . . a hat tip to Ryan Lundquist. His Sacramento Appraisal Blog sets the standard for appraisal blogs and this article is my twist on his post from a few weeks ago.

The Overpriced Home: Figuring Out The Problem

Can You Spot The Overpriced Home in a Neighborhood?

Which Home is Overpriced?
Would you know if one of these homes was overpriced?

Hint: it’s the one that isn’t selling. (Ooooh, imagine that – an overpriced home not getting any offers!)

You know, the one that has been on the market so long no one even notices the sign any more. Sunday home-shoppers don’t even slow down (they’ve already seen it) as they cruise on by to another Open House. Neighbors speculate on why it’s not selling and what that means for their own chances of selling (when they get around to it).

But if you ask the seller . . . it’s priced right. They just KNOW it because someone told them so.

So how do YOU avoid becoming one of the non-selling sellers of an overpriced home?

Know Thy Market When Pricing a Home for Sale

Picking the right price for a home is part art, part math, part intuition, part experience. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with an overpriced home – and that can really hurt your chances of selling it anytime soon.

The person coming up with the numbers needs something to go on. You know . . . some actual data to use to figure it out. Emotions need to be checked at the door – as strong as they may be, they just get in the way of what needs to be done: get the price right so the house sells as fast as possible at the highest price possible.

Let me share an example with you so that you can see why just breezing through some other local listings, or recent sales isn’t quite enough to nail the price on a listing. What you learn here could save you a lot of time and money (and teeth gnashing).

But It’s Priced Right!!!

I ran across a listing a while ago that stuck out in a sea of data as an outlier – a data point that looked out of place.

At first, it was a bit confusing: the price per square foot was clearly under other homes of similar size and age in the area. The photos in the MLS looked okay. The photos themselves weren’t that great, but the home looked presentable in them. The neighborhood and schools are considered desireable. Other listings were selling in just a few weeks.

And yet . . . this one was still on the market. It was still on the market despite several downward price adjustments, each of which made it look more and more favorably priced than the competition.

And yet, other houses were coming on the market and selling and this one was . . . sitting. It was the classic overpriced home.

The Big List of Small and Not-So-Small Things That Matter

To re-cap: at first glance, the priced seemed reasonable. But at deep-gazing, the price was way off, from a combination of these things:

  • The house was built by a lower-end builder in a subdivision of homes built by better builders: it did not have the same quality of original fit-and-finish as the typical home in the area.
  • The fixtures (faucets, light fixtures, shower surrounds) were original, and in a bright-brass finish.
  • The house did not appear to have been well-maintained.
  • The fence was rotty.
  • The playscape was falling down.
  • Some cabinets had sharpie (?) markings and other scribbles on them.
  • The bathrooms had dated (and peeling) wallpaper.
  • The flooring that looked like hardwood was actually super-thin, poorly-installed laminate.
  • The floorplan was awkward.
  • The house was crowded with too much stuff (that had been moved aside for the photos).

On other words: it really wasn’t comparable to the other homes for sale, or other homes that had recently sold.

Those homes were mostly updated, mostly built by better builders, mostly wall-paper free and were in better locations within the subdivision. They were better presented (de-cluttered), and more importantly: more accurately presented in the MLS.

The photos in the MLS for the non-selling home looked better than the reality – by a long shot. wshen you add it all up, the price for this home was just too high – it was overpriced.

What To Do, What To DO?

If you’re home isn’t selling, and you want to know why, it might be time to step back and take a cold, hard look at it.

Look at the list above, and talk it over with your real estate agent.

How DOES your house compare? Don’t be tempted to stick with the “but, we priced it right!” party line that has gotten so comfortable in recent months.

If it’s not selling, the price isn’t right.

To get your price, you may need to do a lot of work.

If you don’t want to do the work, you’ll need to lower the price to the point where someone else might be willing to do the work. And, if it’s really stale because it’s gotten the reputation of being an overpriced home, you may even need to slightly underprice it, just to get folks back to take a second look, or to generate some new traffic.

After all, the point is to sell the house, not just list it for sale – right?

Condo Plumbing: Some Things You Need to Know

Condo Plumbing can be a bit tricky.

If you own a home (or have in the past), you probably know a bit about plumbing.

When you need to work on it, you can turn off the water. Easy Peasy!

This is so not the case in many condos!

Shared Waters Systems for Condos

Condos are often on a shared water system. By shared, we don’t mean just on city water, we mean shared, as in: the pipes run from one unit to the next, or they’re all fed off of one (or more) main valves. Shutting off the service to one unit may mean shutting off the service to all of them in the complex, or to a bunch of them that are in the same building (if the development has multiple buildings).

If you want to do some plumbing work on your own unit, you need to schedule a maintenance period with the HOA (Home Owners Association). The HOA is often managed by an HOA Management Company.

This might take a few days, or it could take a few weeks.

Working on Condo Plumbing

You may or may not get to pick your shut-down time to work on the plumbing in your unit. The HOA might tell you when you can do it, and then you get to work within that time frame.

You must find a reliable plumber that will show up on time, and make sure the job is completed before he leaves, so that the water to all of the affected units can be turned back on. Some HOAs will want the licensing information for the plumber before approving the maintenance, so your friend Joe-the-handyman who will work for beer and $20 might not pass muster.

And here is the painful kicker to all of this: shutting off the water isn’t as simple as just shutting off the water like it is for a single-family home. The water may take a while to drain from the system. It could take 20 minutes, it could take an hour or more. More units = longer time to drain.

And then, let’s say the work gets done, and the plumber wants to tests the work for leaks. It also takes a while to turn the water back on. Sometimes the plumber won’t have permission to turn the valve back on – maybe the maintenance guy has to do that, and you might have to hunt him down, first. And if the new connections leak, it’ll take the shared plumbing system a while to drain again before more work can be done.

A Real Life Condo Plumbing Story

You may be asking: where do they GET this stuff they write about?

Real life, of course.

Here is a real life shared condo plumbing tale of woe.

  • Woman buys condo.
  • Hall bathroom is UGLY.
  • Woman orders new countertop for hall bathroom.
  • Counter is delivered and can’t be installed because the water shut-off valves under the sink don’t turn all the way off, which means the faucet on the old counter can’t be removed.
  • Woman learns that replacing the shut-off values requires shutting off the water main for 8 units.
  • HOA gives permission after checking plumber’s license, notifies residents of 4-hours for a water-off maintenance window.
  • Maintenance man shuts off main valve at designated time.
  • Plumber and woman wait and wait and wait.
  • The plumbing system takes an hour to drain before work can start.
  • Plumber replaces two shut-off valves under the sink.
  • HOA maintenance man turns water back on.
  • New shut-off valves work properly.
  • Woman pays plumber $180 for two hours of work that would have taken 20 minutes for a single-family residence.

And that would be the end of the story . . . except . . .

  • When the water is turned back on, some debris (scale) in the hot water pipes of the older plumbing system clog the shower valves in both showers.
  • Both showers that used to have full water pressure now have very low water pressure.
  • Fixing THAT is going to require another planned maintenance, and the HOA doesn’t want to approve it quickly due to the inconvenience to the other unit owners.

Bottom Line on Condo Plumbing

When you live in a development like a condo where some resources are shared, it just takes longer to get some stuff done. More coordination is necessary. More people are going to be in the mix for getting stuff approved, scheduled, and completed.

That doesn’t mean don’t buy one, it just means: know what you’re buying and make sure you’re ok with the trade-offs that condo living brings to your lifestyle.

Tilt Shift Lens: Avoiding Perspective Distortion

The Tilt Shift Lens Avoids Perspective Distortion

building leaning backwards from perspective distortion or architectural distortion
Have you ever wondered how the architectural photography you see in magazine and coffee table books avoids the architectural perspective distortion commonly seen as FOBS (Falling-Over Building Syndrome) that plagues most amateur real estate photographs, including the majority of those taken for listing real estate for sale?

See the really crappy architectural photography example at right in the photo we took in Taylor, Texas last month.

(Seriously, we took that one and brought it home to edit planning to use it on this site, and not as an example of bad real estate photography!)

The answer to correct architectural perspective lies in the use of a very specific type of lens called a Tilt and Shift lens (through frequently called a Tilt Shift Lens). More specifically, the Shift part of this type of lens permits the photographer to eliminate, or reduce architectural perspective distortion.

Illustration for why tilting a camera makes a building lean backwards

How Does Perspective Distortion in Photography Happen?

What do we naturally do when we want to photograph something that is too tall for the normal view of the camera? We lean back and point our camera upwards, effectively tilting the plane of the sensor of the camera away from the building. Even a little tilt like this can introduce visible perspective distortion.

If we’re really lucky, or really in a hurry, we might not even be standing front-and-center of the building, and then we have a leaning back, leaning over, all edges wonky building in our photo, like the first one in this article.

To give you some incentive for reading more, here are two photographs to better illustrate what I’m talking about, although both were taken with the same Canon 24mm f/3.5L Tilt Shift Lens, only the second one employed the Shift function of the lens.

Bad: Distortion

Example of Architectural Perspective Distortion

Better: Less Distortion with a Tilt Shift Lens

Example of Correct Architectural Perspective
Now, that wouldn’t be the best example of architectural photography or real estate photography but it should suffice for the purposes of this article. I was really trying, really I was, to get you a few really good ones. We packed up the kids, and headed over to my current favorite spot for architectural photos in Austin (Mueller), had dinner, then located the PERFECT building! It was tall, well-lit at night and free of parked cars in front. I enlisted my 9 year old son’s help and set up the tripod and the camera. And then, Oh No! No CF card! Augh! Not in the camera, my bag or the car! Augh! Drove home, grabbed the CF card and went back to the Arboretum with just my 4 year old son in tow. While he worried me by playing on the grass of the parking median, doing flips and singing really loud songs, I set up the tripod in the middle of the street and waved cars around me while I grabbed a few shots for this article using the tilt shift lens that has become my favorite lens of all time!

example of architectural perspective distortion

Methods for Avoiding or Correcting for Architectural Perspective Distortion

There are a few different ways to avoid, or correct for the perspective distortion in real estate photography commonly seen as FOBS (Falling-Over Building Syndrome). Let’s talk about the ones that don’t use a tilt shift lens, first.

1. Back Up, No, Back Up Even More
You can back way up, until the whole building is in your viewfinder, without having to tilt your camera upwards.

  • The main advantage of the Back Up, No, Back Up Even More approach is that you can use any camera, even a point and shoot.
  • Disadvantages of the Back Up, No, Back Up Even More approach, however, are many.
  • You might be so far across the street that your images are full of cars and pedestrians, trees and utility poles.
  • You lose significant details of the building because so many of the pixels in the images are full of the stuff you didn’t want in your picture (people, cars, etc.).

2. Stand on Something Really Tall
You could also stand on something really tall, like a really tall ladder, or take your image from the roof of a building across the street, or out of the edge of a parking garage.

  • The main advantage of the Stand on Something Really Tall approach is that you can use any camera, even a point and shoot.
  • The disadvantages of the Stand on Something Really Tall approach are many.
  • I mean, really, who carries a 20 foot ladder with them?
  • How many homeowners or business are going to let you on their roof?
  • How many fantastic architectural specimens or multi-story homes are across from a parking garage?

3. Correct in “Post”
Some degree of perspective distortion can be corrected in post-processing, i.e. on your computer, to mimic the effect of using an actual tilt shift lens. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop both have the ability to adjust images to re-align out-of-alignment edges and leaning buildings.

  • The main advantage of the Correct in “Post” approach is that you can use any camera, even a point and shoot.
  • The disadvantages of the Correct in “Post” approach are many.
  • You have to edit each photo individually, to pull the top or the edges of the building back into alignment. (I’ll be writing another article on this soon).
  • You lose some of your resolution because your adjusted image will have wonky edges and will need to be re-cropped, which cuts out some of your data.
  • Your image is unlikely to really look “right” because you’re effectively compressing some of the data and expanding some of the rest, so the clarity and sharpness of detail won’t be consistent.

4. Use an Ultra Wide-Angle Lens
Ultra wide-angle lenses will permit you to get closer to a building while avoiding some of the need to tilt the camera back to get all of the subject in the frame.

  • The main advantage of the Use an Ultra Wide-Angle Lens approach is that a wide-angle or ultra-wide angle lens like the Canon 10-20mm can be purchased for most DLSR cameras, and even the iPhone has a little lens that can be attached to increase the angle of view.
  • One (significant) disadvantage of the Use an Ultra Wide-Angle Lens approach is that most wide-angle lenses have distortion at the edges. You may have avoided some of the distortion associated with FOBS (Falling-Over Building Syndrome), but you will likely introduce edge distortion and your pictures still won’t look professional.

*Whew*, now that we’ve covered some of what you might have been thinking when you first started reading this article, we can get on to the good stuff:

5. Use a Tilt Shift Lens
The most exacting approach, as you may have guessed by now, is to use a Tilt Shift Lens, commonly designed and sold as a Tilt and Shift Lens.

  • Using a Tilt Shift Lens, or more specifically, a Shift Lens essentially makes the camera think you ARE on top of a really tall ladder, while keeping the plane of the camera’s sensor parallel to the face of the building.
  • It does this by shifting the lens up a few (or many) millimeters relative to the camera’s sensor.
  • A few millimeters mat not seem like a lot but when you figure the sensor of a full-frame Canon camera like the 5D Mark II is 24mm high, a few millimeters is actually quite a lot.

Clear as mud? I thought so! Here is another tilt shift lens illustration that might help.

Diagram showing the difference between a non-shifted and a shifted lens

The Canon Tilt+Shift Lenses

We have a single tilt+shift lens from Canon, the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II. This lens is a wide-angle lens that is amazingly sharp and distortion-free from edge to edge which means we can take photographs free of architectural distortion. This lens has +/- 12mm of shift capabilities and +/- 8.5 degrees of tilt. (The glorious benefits of Tilt will be the basis of another article).
Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens
My Canon 5D Mark II is a full-frame camera, with a 24x36mm sensor.
This means that the 12mm of shift in the lens is 50% of the height of the sensor. In easier terms, this means that as I shift the lens up, while watching the effect using the Live View feature of the camera (the screen on the back), it’s like someone is raising the camera 10, 20 or more feet in the air.

That means even pretty tall buildings can be encompassed in the frame without having to lean the camera back at an angle – see the images of the Cheesecake Factory earlier in this article – a building that is probably the equivalent of 4 to 5-stories tall.

I did a LOT of research before buying this lens, and even then, I erroneously thought it was the Tilt function I needed.

When the sales guy (Cole) at Precision Camera here in Austin told me it was the Shift feature, I was baffled. I kept asking (over and over and over, because that is how I am), why that was better than just squatting down low, or raising the tripod up higher. I even demonstrated my question by squatting down and jumping up for him.

I didn’t get it, at all, that the 12mm of shift is relative to the sensor of the camera (24mm high), NOT relative to the height of the camera vs. the building.

I had to see it to believe it, so now it is time for a little bit of video so you can see it, too.

Other Canon Tilt Shift Lenses

Canon makes several lens in their tilt shift line-up. The two most popular ones with architectural photographers are the one we have, and the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L UD Aspherical Ultra Wide Tilt-Shift Lens.

Check out the video – you might decide that a tilt+shift lens is the next one on your list, too!

Architectural Photography Using the Canon 24mm TS-E

Comparing Images for Architectural Photography

Here is a quick comparison between three different camera/lenses. Although the one taken with the Canon 24mm TS-E took longer to set up the shot (5 to 10 minutes to set up and level the tripod), it saved me that much in post. I shoot RAW, so the edits were a quick white balance adjustment, and a contrast curve and that was it. My second favorite lens for shooting real estate is the Canon 17-40mm f/4, one of the cheapest L-glass lenses in the line-up. For a “cheap” leans (about $1000), it totally rocks.  The last photo was taken with an iPhone 6, for kicks and grins.