Diane Ratkovich

Diane Ratkovich
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 31 January 2007
Temperature: 12F
Ceiling: brilliant sun
Ground: freshly dusted snow
Wind: SSW at 10mph

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TT with HD: Diane Ratkovich

[Ed. note: Diane works with Prudential Snyder & Company. More information on Diane's website. With all due respect to her domain name, dianerocks.net, on 31 January, she did not rock, but rather tottered. She mentions below that she lives at Sunward Cohousing. ]

HD: First of all, welcome to the teeter totter!

DR: Thank you.

HD: And I think congratulations are in order, because you're setting a cold-temperature teeter tottering record! I think it's around 12F degrees.

DR: Oooh, wow!

HD: The previous record was 21F degrees, so you're breaking it by a lot.

DR: Yeah, I am!

HD: So you'll definitely have bragging rights around town.

DR: Thank you!

HD: Is this going to work for you, tottering-wise?

DR: Yeah, I love it, it's great.

HD: So of course, the big news here locally for real estate people is the impending departure of Pfizer. Has your phone been ringing off the hook with people wanting to know how to sell their house without taking a huge loss?

DR: Yeah, yeah. Since we have done quite a bit of relocation work with Pfizer, we've brought in a lot of clients. Right now, for me about 10 people, who are feeling the pain and trying to decide what to do. People are conflicted about going. Most people would like to stay and find a way to make it work. But most people I am working with do not know what they should do at this point. So they're just kind of on hold.

HD: So they're not clear about whether they're even being offered a job elsewhere with Pfizer?

DR: Yeah, so they don't know if they're going to be 'left' here or if they'll be offered a job. Some people are tired of moving, because it wasn't their first move for Pfizer, and they want some stability in their home life. And they don't know if that will be possible. So it's scary. It's scary on a lot of levels for a lot of different people.

HD: I would guess the first piece of standard advice is, Don't panic ...

DR: ... exactly ...

HD: ... and put your house on the market for half of what it's worth! Have you gotten any calls from people who are basically looking to 'pick the bones'--people who are thinking now might be really good time to buy a house, because you could get a lot of house for much less than what it would have been worth in a market where Pfizer was still here?

DR: I think that's just starting to happen. People are getting in position to do that. Actually we've had the same amount of buyers for the last couple of years, just double the number of listings, so that's why it seems like we don't have such an active real estate market. A lot of people are holding on to houses much longer. But buyers are still hesitant, because they don't know if it's hit bottom truly, and they're afraid to buy. And then since there are so many people it shakes their foundation for their own job security. I think people are still hanging back a little bit and trying to figure out, is this a good time, especially first-time home buyers. We're seeing them come out a little bit more, given the time of year. Usually it's a time when people are starting to come out anyway for purchasing in the spring.

HD: So to what extent is there a robust market for people who live in Ann Arbor and who are looking to upgrade from the house they're living now, or perhaps not upgrade, but just change locations to a better location? So for example, Lou Rosenfeld said he and his wife looked for a while in Ann Arbor for another different house, and they ended up changing directions and moving out of town. But is it a large number of people who already live here, essentially know the neighborhoods and know where they would like to have a house, and would like to buy one there as opposed to where they're living?

DR: Well, I think up to the last couple of years, people usually went out and found a house that they fell in love with and then put their house on the market as they were pursuing that purchase. I think people are becoming more conservative, rightfully so, concerned about what they'll sell their current home for, before they want to get invested in another house. People discretionarily putting their house on the market at this time is what a lot of people are holding back from, even though they would like to be living somewhere else. It was better a couple of years ago with people doing that.

HD: One of the things that City is considering doing--and as best I can tell will likely follow through on in some way--is to revise the Historic District guidelines or codes--or ordinance I guess is what it is. And I can remember when we bought this house, one of our questions was, What's the deal with the Old West Side Historic District? I don't remember if it was our Realtor or neighbors, or who, but I remember hearing the reassurance, Don't worry, Dave, it's only the first 15 feet of the house, because it's a streetscape district--all the rest you can do what you want, your backyard is yours to do with what you want. But it looks like it's going to be revised so that all the districts will have a 360-degree assessment of the property. So if I want to build a permanent structure like a teeter totter in the back yard, then technically speaking, I would need to file that with the Historic District Commission--and things like that would get approved by staff, I've been told, as opposed to going before the Commission. But I'm wondering, do you think that will make it harder to sell homes in this historic district if the guideline is a 360-degree guideline?

DR: I think it will give people reason to pause, thinking what they want to do in the long run, and the again thinking about re-sale value. But generally speaking, I think people will kind of go with the flow, the way they have up to this point. I think people who want a home on the Old West Side, and in the historic district, they're not going to get that quality of a house anywhere else. So you kind of take the good with the bad. I don't think it's going to be a big prohibitor of people buying in this area. I mean the bureaucracy sometimes doesn't make sense or people get bogged down in that--people wanting to make the really fine improvements to their home--but I think the reality of it is that it'll keep some consistency. I mean, the goal of the whole program is to keep some consistency with the historical feeling of it and that's what people are coming for. So there's advantages to it too. You can't park an RV in your driveway. If everyone had an RV in their driveway, ...

HD: ... is that in fact not possible to park an RV in your driveway??

DR: I don't know exactly what the City ordinance is, but I know in many new subdivisions you can't do a lot of things like that. But there are some City ordinances that you can keep it as storage only for a certain period of time.

HD: I've always wanted to ask someone who's actually in the real estate business what they think of a teeter totter in the backyard as an enhancing amenity adding value to the house. Now there's no right answer to this, but do you think it adds or detracts from the value of the house?

DR: [laugh] It definitely adds to the value of the house, unless you're really afraid that your children will kill themselves. We have a few of those paranoid parents who want everything in control [laugh]. But in general, it's a definite addition to any piece of real estate!

HD: Good. So you mentioned RV's parked in the driveway as something people might not want to see. There's been some discussion over in Ypsilanti of revising the ordinances about animals to allow people to keep not RV's, but chickens in their backyards. I don't know if you followed that story last summer.

DR: No, I didn't follow that story.

HD: On its face it might sound odd or strange for someone to want to keep chickens here on the Old West Side, but in the spirit of sustainable economies, Ann Arbor is a place where there's a great deal of receptivity, I think, to the idea of alternative, sustainable transportation, sustainable living, green living--the City has various and sundry initiatives in place. So sustainable agriculture in the form of poultry in your own back yard seems to me to fit in as part of that. So I'm seriously contemplating how feasible it might be to have a couple of chickens here in the backyard. So I'm wondering, not as a real-estate person, but as a neighbor, if your next-door neighbor put a chicken coop in their backyard and started keeping chickens, what would your reaction be?

DR: I think that would be fantastic. Actually, as a child, growing up in Chicago, and always having a longing for the country, there were people down the street from us who had chickens. That was one of our little field trips with my mom and my little sister in a stroller, was walking down the block to see the chickens in their backyard. It was great memory. If the people across the way from us were responsible about the way they treated their chickens, and they cleaned up after them, so it was not an egregious smell in the summertime when I had my windows open, or there were so many that the noise level was increased, then I would love to have chickens, as long as they were responsible chicken owners. That's what I want, for them to take good care of those chickens. And then bring me eggs!

HD: So do you remember growing up, did you get eggs from the people with the chickens?

DR: We may have, but I don't remember that. Could be that's what we did on the walks.

HD: So I can put you in the pro-chicken column?

DR: Yes. Actually, since I live in Sunward Cohousing, we've had chickens a few times there. We actually just passed a proposal to have llamas on our property. One family wants to have llamas, so they'll be responsible for them. And she wants to be able to take the wool and weave with it. So we just approved having llamas in our backyard. We're really excited about that.

HD: Now, what's the name of the Cohousing where you live?

DR: It's Sunward Cohousing, right off of Jackson Road.

HD: Oh, okay, this is where Doug Allen ...

DR: ... yes, Doug Allen.

HD: Now, does he run that, or does he just live there?

DR: No, he just lives there, we all run it. [ringing from phone] I thought I had turned it off!

HD: Okay. So. Chickens.

DR: Sustainable living is the issue that we're talking about. I think the impact of something like Pfizer, where they come in and everybody puts all of their eggs in one basket ...

HD: ... [laugh] yeah, yeah ...

DR: [laugh] ... and they pull out and so many people are hurt by it that it's a good time to be thinking about it. I like the thinking that Ann Arbor is doing encouraging Pfizer employees to stay here and work on start up companies and keep things a little bit smaller and closer to home and build with what we have here.

HD: But realistically speaking, now, for someone who's in the business of selling houses, doesn't it make it a little harder to sell a house to the average bear, if it's a block where there's chickens in the every other backyard, or even if there's just chickens in one of the backyards? If I started raising chickens here--Ann Arbor would have to change its ordinance first--but if I were to have chickens here in the backyard, it'd become known as one of the streets where there are chickens, and I could imagine that it might decrease property values and make it harder to sell houses on either side.

DR: It depends on who you're selling to. Every buyer is different. And so some buyers may come into a neighborhood that has alternative people doing things that kind of don't go with the flow, they might think that's great. That might be a selling point for one person.

HD: So you think someone might be willing to pay a premium ...

DR: ... pay a premium to live next door to you, have eggs delivered fresh from Dave! I think that sounds like a good plan! I think it really just depends on your buyer and what their values are and what they're looking for. But yeah I think when you think traditionally of real estate, anything that looks 'different' from the status quo for real estate properties, I think we tend to kind of think that way. But once you really start working with people out there, that's not really the majority. There are people on every point on the scale.

HD: So there's this standard joke I guess that the three most important things in real estate are location, location and location. Bu you just mentioned the idea that ultimately it's people. When people ask what the neighborhood is like, in a way, what they're asking is not, what's the architecture like, what's the density like, what they're really asking is what are the people like who live on this street? So I would imagine that'd be a little difficult to assess for you as somebody who's facilitating the process, you can't know every neighborhood intimately at that level. So how do you go about answering that question as a general strategy?

DR: Basically, it's against the law for me to answer that question with any of my personal opinion or experience. So what I do is I try to connect people with local organizations in that neighborhood and other people so that they can have their own experiences with them and make their assessment. Even sometimes people without kids, I'll say, Go to the school! Especially when school's letting out, see who comes to pick up their kids. What do they talk about? What do they like to do? Is that something you feel consistent with? Does it feel like home? You know, if there's a library or a grocery store in that neighborhood like Jefferson Market or something, go there. I know Ann Arbor pretty well so I can identify a couple different areas and often a person. You know, talk to this person and walk around on a Saturday morning, if it's this weather or in the summer and see who's cutting their grass. So you get the feel for the neighborhood. Because I know where I would prefer to live, what areas I like better, but I can't make that judgement for other people. So my job, if they're not familiar with Ann Arbor, is to give them the tools by which they can assess the area and if it's a good fit for them. That's what I'm concerned about: is that a good fit for you?

HD: Given the recent snowfall over the last couple of days--we've been getting one or two inches every day--the kind of neighbors I value are the ones who will do a little extra bit of the sidewalk, not just their own. The last couple of days, by the time I've gotten out the door, the sidewalk in front of the house has already been swept. That's the kind of neighbors we have on this street.

DR: That's a great street to be on.

HD: But to me, the gold standard, the yardstick, by which I measure neighbors is, Are they the kind of neighbors who will let you put your garbage in their blue trash bin? You know these blue City trash bins? Do you even have them out where you are?

DR: No, in Scio Township we do, but at Cohousing we have a big dumpster and a big recycling.

HD: Then I'd have to say you're missing out.

DR: I know!

HD: It's a way to connect with your neighbors over a pleasant issue.

DR: Trash?

HD: You know, you can have a conversation on this block that goes like this: Sure, you can put your trash in my blue bin, I've got a little extra space! So on that score, I'd put my neighbors up against any neighborhood in Ann Arbor on that score.

DR: I can just walk into my neighbor's house if they're not home, grab a gallon of milk, and pour out what I need, and walk in and give them the milk back and visa versa. I often come home and find the oven on and they're baking the two extra dishes they had that are at a different temperature than the ones they were baking in their oven. It's the same kind of concept.

HD: Yeah, but that's taking it to a whole 'nother level, to kind of an extreme, I guess, huh?

DR: Yeah.

HD: I feel like I've been one-upped.

DR: Well, you have to come to Cohousing and visit!

HD: Well, back to the llama. So there's somebody there who's going to spin that wool into yarn and knit it into sweaters or something?

DR: Yeah, ... the woman who made the proposal wants to have the llamas and care for them and get the wool and knit sweaters and scarves or things like that.

HD: Will these be available, say, at the local Farmer's Market?

DR: I don't know, that's a good question. I think she's just been focussing her energy on getting this proposal through Sunward Cohousing to keep llamas in the backyard.

HD: Well, listen it is pretty cold, so I'll just ask if you've got anything else on your mind, and then we can hop off the totter.

DR: No, it was nice, it's been a lot of fun, and I'm glad to have been invited.