Post-wedding paperwork, Part II

A few days ago I wrote about adding a new spouse to the title of your home after getting married, and a reader commented that he wondered if the tax benefits provided to same-sex registered domestic partners would be the same as the benefits for married partners. I’ve done some research into the and will preface this post with a big fat disclaimer: I’m not an attorney, I’m not a CPA, I’m not a tax advisor, and I don’t play any of these on TV. I’m summarizing what I’ve found and I’m encouraging anyone who needs advice on how to hold title to real property or how to file their taxes to consult their financial gurus. There. That’s out of the way. Now, on to what I’ve found out.

Because we work in San Francisco, I will focus on California, which allows domestic partnerships as well as same-sex marriages.

In a nutshell, in terms of owning property, the demise of Section 3 of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 and partially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013) has now allowed same-sex married couples to enjoy the same benefits given to opposite-sex married couples. In California, both same-sex married couples and registered domestic partners can hold title as community property with the right of survivorship. Same-sex married couples also benefit from the other 1,137 protections and responsibilities granted to married couples from the federal government.

Our reader’s question was about domestic partnership vs. marriage. He asked: “is there any benefit or disadvantage from a real estate perspective to marrying vs. remaining in a domestic partnership? Doesn’t *seem* like there’s much tax difference between the two because of our robust DP benefits here in California.” My research didn’t produce any substantial real-estate-related differences; domestic partners can hold title as community property and thus receive the tax benefits associated with that method of holding title.

So, in California, if we look just at real estate, I didn’t find any major differences between same-sex marriages and registered domestic partnerships. If any readers know of anything that I didn’t discover in researching this topic, please let me know in the comments or via email. I’d be happy to post an update if I missed anything important.

Post-wedding paperwork

Say you own a home by yourself. Then, OKCupid or or your sister or your roommate or your personal trainer hooks you up on a date that turns out really well, and time passes, and you get married. Yay! Congratulations to you and yours. (Shameless plug for happiness: I just got married at the beginning of March and am on my way through the paperwork to-do list that follows the nuptials.)

This is a real estate blog, so I’ll start with things to consider about your property now that you’re married. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume that there’s only one property. If there are two: lather, rinse, repeat for home #2 (with a few modifications that I’ll mention later).

OK, you’re back from the honeymoon and it’s time to get busy. No, not like that — this is a G-rated blog! I mean it’s time to decide how you’d like to hold title to your property. If you live in California, which is a community property state, property acquired before marriage is considered separate property — i.e., it belongs to the spouse who owned it before getting hitched. If you want to own the property jointly with your spouse, you can add him or her to title by way of a grant deed that you will sign granting ownership to You & Your New Spouse, husband & wife (or wife & husband, or spouse & spouse) as community property with right of survivorship, if that’s what you choose. I’m not a tax advisor nor am I an attorney so I will say that you should seek the advice of a CPA or an attorney about how to hold title; there are some pretty significant tax implications that make this a very important decision.

How do you accomplish the change to title? Talk to your attorney or your favorite escrow officer to draw up the deed, then have it notarized and recorded in the public records in your county. A few caveats: Check with your lender to make sure that adding a spouse to title is acceptable (most lenders are OK with this but you don’t want to find out the hard way that your lender is not). Most jurisdictions do not consider adding a spouse to title as a taxable event and no transfer tax would be due, but again, it’s worth checking before you start deeding.

For the sake of discussion regarding insurance, let’s add a second property to the mix. Presumably you and spouse will live in one and rent the other. Be sure to convert the insurance for property #2 to the correct type of policy for a rental property. And it’s a good time to review the policy for the home that you’ll live in — make sure you have sufficient coverage for personal property (which might need to increase based on the belongings that Spouse moves in).

These are just a few tips for post-wedding paperwork. Let us know if the comments if you have any other property-related tips.

See a downed or low-hanging power or phone line? Here’s what to do.

File this under: what to do if you see a wire drooping very low off a power pole, you’re pretty sure it’s not an electrical wire because you know those are located at the very top of the pole and the droopy one is several feet lower than that.

First of all, you might think you know for sure that it’s not an electrical wire, but don’t be a hero and try to touch the wire.

Second of all, why am I writing this? I’m writing this because a few days ago Matt and I were driving down St. Mary’s Avenue in Bernal Heights and we saw just such a droopy wire hanging across the street. A tall SUV would have taken it out. It looked like this:

Low-hanging wire across St. Mary's Avenue.

Low-hanging wire across St. Mary’s Avenue.

I figured I’d be a good citizen and try to head off any wire-related disasters, so I called the SFPD non-emergency line…and waited on hold for about 15 minutes. So I gave up on that and called 311, which answered right away. They told me that any time there’s a wire-related fiasco — either a low wire or a high wire — one must start with PG&E, which is the sole arbiter of the very important question: “Is it an electrical wire or a phone wire or what?”

Continuing to be a good citizen, I called PG&E to report this situation, and they took it from there.

PG&E’s website says that if you see a downed power line, you should call 911. 

Never, ever touch a downed power line or go near one. Power lines are not insulated like power cords. Always assume the power line is live.

  • Don’t touch a fallen power line or anything touching the wire.
  • Do not touch anything or anyone in contact with a fallen power line or other equipment.
  • Keep children and pets away from fallen electric wires.
  • Do not drive over a fallen power line.
  • Call 911 immediately to report a fallen power line.

This concludes our public service announcement for the day. Be safe.

Whole Foods on Market Street opening November 6

This morning, like the grocery geeks we are, Matt and I took a tour of San Francisco’s newest Whole Foods, opening next Wednesday, November 6. It’s located at 2001 Market Street @ Dolores, the site of the former S&C Ford dealership.

Photo tour (click on any image for a larger version/slideshow):

A few nuts & bolts first…

Number of Whole Foods Markets in San Francisco: 7

Approximate square footage of new store: 27,000

Number of parking spaces for the store: 63

Number of those that are for electric cars: 2

Hours of operation: 8:00 am – 10:00 pm every day

Official opening day/bread-breaking: November 6, 9:45 am (They don’t cut ribbons, they break bread. Cool, huh?)

While the Safeway across the street continues quaking in its staid corporate boots, I’ll describe some of the unique features of the new Whole Foods.

Just to the left of the main entrance is a two-seat shoeshine stand, operated by a local vendor called A Shine & Co., adjacent to a wall of what our tour guide called “man products.” By which she meant “men’s grooming stuff,” like shaving gear and skin care. The shoe shine stand will be open daily until about 6:00 pm.

Now for some unique-to-this-store food items. Oh, Whole Foods, you had me at sausage on a stick, made in house and available in the grab-and-go section. There will also be locally made gelato with flavors like Blue Bottle Coffee (Ok, you had me at sausage on a stick AND Blue Bottle Coffee gelato). The bakery will put out mini foccacia in a variety of flavors daily.

Every Whole Foods has a hot bar, but this one amps it up with an entire section of the hot bar with all Paleo foods. If you’re throwing a cheese tasting party and you need 250 kinds of cheese from around the world, they’ve got you covered. They’ll also sell honeycomb from Steve’s Bees in Orinda and tell those of us who are unfamiliar with honeycomb how to pair it with cheese. Who knew?

Now I’ve got to bust on Whole Foods a little bit for a cake with a big ol’ carbon footprint. They’re selling cakes called Baum cakes and they’re flying them in from Denver. DENVER. That’s far away from San Francisco, even though a layer cake cooked in a rotisserie sounds really damn cool.

You don’t own it, but you have to maintain it

Your sidewalk, that is.

In San Francisco, the city owns the sidewalks, but adjacent property owners are required to maintain them. So, if you step out front one morning and see white dots and/or stripes painted on your sidewalk, be aware that the city has tagged your sidewalk as needing repairs. You may wonder why you would have to fix something that the city owns. It’s codified in Section 706 of the Public Works Code, which says:

It shall be the duty of the owners of lots or portions of lots immediately adjacent to any portion of a public street, avenue, alley, lane, court or place to maintain the sidewalks and sidewalk area, including any parking strip, parkway, automobile runway and curb, fronting or adjacent to their property in good repair and condition.

And why do you care? Because you don’t want to be on the wrong end of a lawsuit from someone who trips on an uneven sidewalk in front of your property.

Any person who suffers injury or property damage as a legal result of the failure of the owner to so maintain the sidewalks and sidewalk areas shall have a cause of action for such injury or property damage against such property owner. The City and County of San Francisco shall have a cause of action for indemnity against such property owner for any damages it may be required to pay as satisfaction of any judgment or settlement of any claim that results from injury to persons or property as a legal result of the failure of the owner to maintain the sidewalks and sidewalk areas in accordance with this Section.

photo (1)


The culprit in this photo is the tree; its roots are pushing the sidewalk squares up, resulting in an offset, marked by the white lines, that is unsafe for pedestrians. According to the San Francisco Department of Public Works, problems with sidewalks include:

* Missing pavement

* Raised, sunken or uneven pavement

* Holes or cracks in the pavement

* Missing sewer vent covers

Along with the telltale white markings, a property owner will receive written notice of the problem from the Director of Public Works. The owner can decide to do the work by hiring a contractor directly, or may participate in the city’s repair program.



The government shutdown: What’s it doing to SF?

We’re now nine days in to the Tea Party Temper Tantrum, otherwise known as the federal government shutdown. Depending on whether you’re a tourist or a resident, an applicant for a home loan, someone who wants to eat a crab sandwich overlooking the Pacific or a dog owner who whose pup needs a run at the beach, the local effects of the closure of the government will be different.

Because this is a real estate blog, I’ll start with the effects on homebuyers (and refinancers). Included in every home loan application package is a form called 4506-T, which gives the lender the right to pull copies of the borrower’s tax transcripts from the IRS to verify that they match the documents provided by the borrower. But there’s no one home at the IRS to provide the transcripts. During the shutdown many lenders are waiving this requirement, but don’t count on that happening! If you are currently buying or refinancing a property, stop everything you are doing and call your lender to find out how they are dealing with this. If they’re not waiving the requirement, and the shutdown continues, your loan could be on hold indefinitely.

It might not be as important as a home loan, but a visit to Alcatraz is high on many visitors’ lists when they come to San Francisco. But the Rock is closed until the government reopens.

Alcatraz. CLOSED during government shutdown.

Alcatraz. CLOSED during government shutdown.

So is Fort Funston. Instead, consider taking Fido to McLaren Park.

So are Lands End Lookout, the Warming Hut and many parking lots at Crissy Field, and the Cliff House, which defied orders to close for the first several days of the shutdown.

North of San Francisco, Muir Woods is closed, as is Pt. Reyes.

So what’s a visitor to do? All is not lost for those hoping to visit an island in San Francisco Bay. Hop a ferry to Angel Island, which is a California state park and is open and operational. Take a cruise on San Francisco Bay. Stop and smell the roses (and the redwoods, and the hundreds of other natural attractions) at the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Or, write a letter to your congresscritter and tell them to do their damn job.

Two years, +7.4%

Almost every time Matt and I sit down with new clients — either buyers or sellers — the question comes up: “Is every property selling over the asking price? Are we back to that market?”

That market — the overheated market that came to a rather unceremonious end with the financial implosion of 2008 — saw double-digit price increases from one month to the next. Yes, some neighborhoods saw values go up 10% from one month to the next. The market saw many buyers writing offers with no contingencies at all, not even for inspections.

But that was then and this is now, and in between, some things shifted quite dramatically. Fast forward from September 2008 to September 2010, when the average ratio of the selling price to the original listing price in San Francisco was 95.4%. This statistic was drawn from MLS records of sales citywide of condos and single-family homes, not including TICs or unit buildings. Walk forward a few more months, to January 2011, when this ratio was down to 93.3%.

To say the least, these numbers were not very San Francisco-like, considering the relative strength of our real estate market over the decade prior to the 2008 financial market drama. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the market in San Francisco shuffled along with many homes selling under asking, inventory shrinking as owners who had the option of waiting to sell keeping their homes off the market, and buyers looking for great bargains.

But look what started to happen in 2011:


There were a few blips along the way, but the ratio of the selling price to the original listing price has steadily climbed through September 2012. As of September 30, the ratio is 102.8%, the highest it has been in years.

There are a number of factors at play here, some anecdotal and some measurable. First, anecdotally, after a few years of buyers not being sure that they would have a job in the coming months, buyers now seem to be much more confident overall about their financial situation and their job security. The measurable stuff comes into play, as well: the stock market is up, interest rates are lower than they’ve ever been and contrary to some beliefs, it’s very possible to secure a loan to buy a new home.

2012 has seen a very robust real estate market in our beautiful city. I hope the ratio doesn’t go up so much that we find ourselves in an overheated market again. What this says to me is that it’s a better time than it’s been in years to sell a property. Buyers might be faced with a more competitive landscape, depending on preferences about property types and neighborhoods, but with money being as cheap as it is, it’s still a good time to be a buyer in San Francisco.

Can you name the neighborhood that’s shaped like a bell?

San Francisco is a city of many neighborhoods: from the well-known Chinatown and North Beach, to the hipster Mission, to the one that has streets laid out to look like a bell. Yep, a bell. If this doesn’t ring a bell (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I’ll fill you in.

It’s St. Mary’s Park, which is part of Bernal Heights on the real estate map, tucked in the southwest corner of Bernal, just north of the Excelsior.

How, you might ask, did a neighborhood end up with streets laid out in the shape of a bell? Look no further than the name of the neighborhood — the first St. Mary’s College opened in the area in 1863. Tuition was $60 per academic year for day students $250 for boarders (lights out: 8:30 PM — just like my days in college).

The college moved to Oakland in 1889, and in the 1920s the Catholic Diocese subdivided the land and sold some for development. The bell shape of the streets is a reference to the school’s church bell.

In addition to its spiffy bell shape, the neighborhood is home to the St. Mary’s Park and Recreation Center. Located on Justin at the end of Murray Street, this park is a well-kept secret. But if you have a dog, like to play tennis or shoot some hoops, this is a great park to visit. There are also baseball diamonds, a playground for the kids, and bathrooms.

The St. Mary’s Park Improvement Club has some more great history of the neighborhood, as well as a blog that was last updated in 2006. And, according to a recent New York Times article, there’s a neighborhood newsletter: “The monthly newsletter, The Park Bell, is delivered by a papergirl; articles announce potluck dinners and seed exchanges, and offer updates on the health of neighbors. The recipe editor’s job is open.” How cute is that?

If you’d like more information about the neighborhood, drop us a line.

Remodeling inspiration

Last year, I had the pleasure of helping a friend from college, Alex, buy his first home. During his search process, he considered many different types of properties, from brand-new condos in SOMA to two-unit buildings in Glen Park (and a few others in between). Then we came across a single-family home in Midtown Terrace. Let’s just say she wasn’t ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.

The house was built in 1955 and appeared to be almost 100% original: sad little brick fireplace in the living room, not very user-friendly kitchen (no dishwasher, for starters), scuffed up oak floors, green and yellow tile bathroom with no storage at all. Somewhere along the way someone installed new windows, which we found out had been recalled by a now-defunct manufacturer. Awesome.

Then along came Alex, his partner Lance, and their designer, Kevin Sawyers of Sawyers Design. Almost one year later, Alex and Lance now live in a home that can be described as nothing less than a masterpiece. Gone is the wall separating the kitchen from the living room. Gone is the green and yellow tile in the bathroom. Gone are the awful windows. Gone is the 1950s version of a Home Depot-grade kitchen.

In place of all that is an open, inviting home with a tasteful, thoughtful design aesthetic that tips its hat to the mid-century origins of the house, but brings it squarely into the 21st century with beautiful, modern finishes.

I could babble on and on about this place, but I’ll cut myself off and go straight to the photos. I guarantee that each one of these is worth many more than a thousand words. Or, if you’re like me, no words at all — I was speechless when I saw the place for the first time. I’ll give you both the before and after, so you can see just how much has changed.

Alex's old kitchen.


New, fabulous kitchen.

Alex's old bathroom.


Another view of the original bathroom.


No, it's not a spa or a hotel suite. It's Alex's new and fantastically improved bathroom.


Original living room.


New living room. Check out the fireplace.


Picture a wall between the living room and kitchen. Now look at this.

There are plenty more before and after pictures on Kevin’s business page on Facebook. Check them out, drool a lot, and when it’s time to imagine your own dream home, call Kevin.

Eliminate unsightly lines

Nope, I’m not moonlighting as a copywriter for cosmetics advertising…I’m talking about getting rid of above-ground power, phone and other communication lines. You know, the ugly ones that are prime targets for falling branches in windstorms and that are known for falling down in earthquakes.

I’m lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that banded together about 15 years ago, got itself in the undergrounding queue, and saw all of its overhead lines placed underground. We now have quaint old-timey looking streetlights and a streetscape that is blissfully free of a spaghetti bowl of lines. You know, the way things are built these days in the ‘burbs.

But we’re not the ‘burbs, and even though the city of San Francisco knows it would be immensely better off with all overhead lines placed underground (think: after the Big One comes — how will emergency crews cross thousands of downed lines to perform rescue operations?), there’s one big problem.

There’s no money.

In fact, back in 2007, the city’s Utility Undergrounding Task Force reported that, “Utility wire undergrounding in San Francisco is coming to a halt. When the current 45.8- mile plan ends in 2008, undergrounding will cease for the next twelve years unless we create new ways to fund and implement the program.”

But…there is a way. Property owners can form a “property-owner funded undergrounding utility district” to get their area all spiffed up and utility-pole free. In 2008 the approximate cost for trenching and replacing streetlights was $562 per linear foot, resulting in a cost of about $14,000 per home with a 25-foot frontage.

The SF Department of Public Works estimates that the process for these districts would take between 2 1/2 years and 5 years.

Step 1: Determine district boundaries (1-2 months)

Step 2: Circulate petition (2-4 months; 60% of owners on each and every block must sign the petition)

Step 3: Legislate underground district (2-4 months)

Step 4: Form assessment district (1-2 years)

Step 5: Construction (1-2 years)

So, if you’re jonesing to bury the power lines in your neighborhood, grab your nearest agreeable neighbor, your clipboard, and your community organizing skills, and get started!