Real Estate #2 (May 26)

During the pandemic year I stayed home a lot, and fixed up my house: new roof, paint outside and in, floor sanding, minor repairs. Power tools have improved greatly since my last big construction projects in the 1980s and 90s. It made the work very satisfying. Lithium ion rocks!

I thought seriously about moving on to another fixer-upper. So I listed the house as a FSBO (for sale by owner), with plans to use a regular real estate agent if that didn’t work out. Besides the potential to save on commissions, doing it all was educational. Also, easier to coordinate buying, selling, final construction work and clutter removal.

The house went onto Craigslist March 31. That listing was a dud: two agents called, plus one possible buyer who never followed through. In past years I’ve listed raw land a couple of times, and those were much more successful. Not sure why the difference.

Houzeo promises MLS listings for about $400. I signed up, but soon canceled and got a refund. For this area they use a state-wide agency based in New York City. Their contact number on the listings never reached a human. There was no way to reach the owner, or get information about the properties. The phone system seemed mostly designed to sell cheap listing services to other FSBOs. Maybe Houzeo is a viable option in some areas, but definitely not here.

Zillow is probably the most popular website for buying houses, so I put a FSBO listing there on April 15. The process was free, and very easy: just upload text and pictures. It even allowed a website link to the house description website.

Zillow was much more successful. The initial traffic report looked like this:

In comparision, MLS listings around here usually get 1500 hits on the first day, and 3000 after a week. It’s necessary to click through to see the FSBOs, and apparently 80% of people never do that.

One buyer stopped the day after it was listed, but decided no after viewing the outside. Eleven others booked visits. 3 came with buyer’s agents, 6 were solo, 2 no-showed. All were pre-qualified with cash or a bank letter. None submitted offers.

ListWithClever.com offers MLS listings for $3000, promising much better service than Houzeo. For this area, they use an agent in Syracuse (more than an hour drive from here). I didn’t discover them until late in the process, and decided not to go that route. Maybe in the future.

I talked to a few Ithaca agents. One seemed great, but she ghosted me for 2 weeks. The main selling season is short around here, and mid-May is already near the end. Waiting until 2022 seemed more and more attractive. So I canceled the Zillow listing and planted the vegetable garden.

The next day, that first buyer emailed to express renewed interest. They toured the insides twice, and really liked the chestnut trim. A week later they submitted an offer for $12K over my list price.

Meanwhile, on the buying end, there was nothing plausible in Ithaca. A few nearby villages and cities had interesting properties at lower prices. I looked at a few and made a contingent offer on one. However, when they turned on the water, the kitchen floor became a pond, and most of the fixtures didn’t work. No insulation, so plumbing probably froze regularly. The basement looked like the old Windows screen saver with random pipes everywhere.

After canceling that one, I looked at a few others. Unfortunately, it was late in the season and the good ones were all sold. It narrowed down to just one late entry, which had zoning problems.

So, it’s back to the pre-Covid routine at least until Spring 2022. Goldenseal Pro will be finished a few months faster.

Is a real estate FSBO worth doing? I’ve had two prior successes with less expensive properties, so it’s a definite maybe. However, selling a nice residence may work out better with an agent.

For one thing, the agent can honestly not mention flaws, because they don’t know about them. I removed almost all the old lead paint, and was proud to mention it during the tours. But I suspect that people just heard “blah blah blah LEAD blah blah” and were scared off. Better to have an agent who side-steps the issues.

There may also be boundary problems. The house may feel less used when you don’t meet the person who previously lived there. Or maybe it’s just that MLS is needed to bring in bigger crowds. Ultimately I had an 8% conversion rate, which may be reasonable for such an expensive transaction. There was a buyer, but having more viewers increases the chances of a bidding war and a better price.

I checked Zillow to see percentages of listings that are FSBO. Across the US it averages about 20%. The high is 40% around New York City, ranging down to 6% in Houston. There aren’t any obvious geographic trends. No easy way to find the success rates for each method.

As for real estate in general, here’s a Zillow map of houses listed at over $20 million:

And here’s the map for housing under $10K.

Happy shopping!

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com

Change Order Billing & Debugging (May 13)

A long-time user of our accounting software called in recently with a problem in their change order billing. There was a mystery retainage amount that showed up when they billed for the project.

It turned out to be a bug in the printed form. Goldenseal does not track retainage on change orders, but it’s on the printed bill layout. The amount comes from the main project: that works fine for regular project billing, but it is just confusing for change orders. The solution is to use Custom Layouts, and remove that field from the form. Here are instructions to remove it.

This bug has been around for almost 20 years. It’s only a problem for users who create change orders, and also do projects with retainage. Otherwise it just shows zero. That may be why nobody has reported it until now.

For some reason, Change Orders have always been difficult.

Our C++ source code uses object-oriented programming (OOP). Everything is an object, usually inheriting code from parent objects. Allowances, Change Orders, Sales and Rental Transactions all generate income, so they have the same parent. The problem is that some people want change orders to act like miniature projects. Those are job accounts, which have very different parents. There’s no good place to put code that both can use.

For a while, we addressed user requests by duplicating Project code into Change Orders. It became more and more difficult. We finally backed off and decided that Change Orders just need to be their own thing. If you withhold retainage on one, it’s complicated enough to be a separate project. Likewise, if you want a detailed change estimate, create an Estimate record. Those have fancier breakdowns that handle all sorts of estimating quirks. You can link the Change Order to it.

There are some deeper reasons for the bug.

Our estimating and accounting software started out as simple spreadsheets created to run Turtle Creek Carpentry. It was a small remodeling company that didn’t need much paperwork. After computerizing, we took on bigger projects that sometimes involved change orders, retainage, and other fancy stuff. But that only lasted a couple years before the software business took over from construction contracting.

Many of the features in Goldenseal come from user requests, rather than our own needs. Sometimes the programmers must guess how the code should be set up. Sometimes the guesses are wrong. Most programmers do not have in-depth knowledge of estimating, accounting or whatever. There’s a certain amount of faking involved.

We listen to tech calls and user feedback, then fix the bugs to get everything working properly in the next update. It’s something that every software company must do.

Even worse, there is a huge range of construction business types and sizes. They all have different needs. When we add new features, it’s important to not make things more confusing for the users who don’t need them. That takes some judgement and design skill. Sometimes we need to back-track or remove features that are too confusing.

Meanwhile, the past couple months I’ve been wrapped up in real estate selling and buying. It has been interesting, but it’s winding down. More details in the next post.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director
TurtleSoft.com