'Cream Puff' Home Offers Value, But Expect to Pay Top Dollar for It


Every community has them--people who are slaves to their homes.

Whether it's a new deck, driveway or roof, every project is an exercise in perfectionism. At the same time, house slaves are obsessive about routine upkeep. A few leaves fall and immediately they're up on a ladder, cleaning out the gutters.

"These people have a pride of ownership--a compulsion to make sure that there's never anything out of place. . . ," said Monte Helme, a vice president with the Century 21 realty chain.

Those who have cared for their homes like cherished children fall into two categories, in Helme's analysis:

One group is made up of first-time owners, usually young, with a zeal for home improvement. The other consists of the middle-aged and elderly, who have nurtured their homes for decades and have a work ethic that just won't stop.

Homes that have gotten such TLC are known in the real estate business as "cream puffs." To a home purchaser, a cream puff can be an outstanding value. While such homes typically sell at the upper end of the neighborhood price range, they're often more than worth the price because of their excellent condition and valuable upgrades.

"When you're buying a cream puff, you have to expect to pay top dollar," Helme said. "It's like buying a car from a guy who always nurtured it, who took it for repair every time he heard a flutter in the engine and kept it polished up all the time."

Even in a buyer's market with lots of inventory, you can expect to compete for a property owned by a perfectionist. A sharp home shopper with his eye on a particular neighborhood will try to identify such a property the moment it goes on the market--if not before.

"We're talking about something like the Hope Diamond of the housing field," Helme said.

For buyers interested in one of these showplace homes, real estate specialists offer these pointers:

* Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll find a cherished home by scanning newspaper ads.

By the time an extraordinary home makes its way into advertising, it's usually been sold. In all markets, even a buyer's market, these homes are in great demand. Word spreads quickly among neighbors, friends and real estate agents when such a property becomes available.

* It's not enough to be attentive to new additions to the multiple listing service and other computerized home-listing programs.

"You can't really tell what is a cream puff by looking at the listing; you have to go out and see for yourself," Helme said.

* Learn the realty agents' art of "farming" the neighborhood of your choice in search of the right home--or have the agent farm the area for you.

One of the ways agents routinely search for prospects is to go door-to-door or to circulate fliers in a community.

There's no reason a potential home buyer couldn't do the same, Helme said.

"I wouldn't hesitate to spend a Saturday afternoon walking around in your favorite neighborhood--doing a little homework and talking to people who are out in their yards. Better still, let an agent do the walking for you," he said.

* Don't hesitate to talk favorably about a property that has obviously been well-tended.

"This is a case where flattery might get you everything," Helme said. Someone who is obsessed with the quality of his home has developed strong emotional ties to the property and will want to know that a prospective buyer feels the same way.

"A lot of times you're going to have to convince the owners that you're going to be as good an owner and neighbor as they've been," he said.

* Don't make the mistake of low-balling the seller of an extraordinary home.

* If the seller of a cream puff home wants to exclude a chandelier from the sale and you demand he change his mind, the whole deal could explode, cautioned Joan Pittroff, an assistant sales manager for the nationwide Coldwell Banker real estate chain.

"It's a hazard to negotiate with these kinds of sellers because their home is so important to them," Pittroff said. "The chandelier may be worth only $50, but they've carefully dusted and tended it for 30 years, washing every crystal. Try too hard for the chandelier worth $50, and you may lose a house worth hundreds of thousands."

* Never, never insult the owner of a cherished home.

People who have committed a great deal of time and energy to a home will often take personal offense when negative remarks are made about the property. That's because their self-esteem may be tied up in the home, says William L. Golden, a New York therapist in private practice.

"You'd better not negate their beautiful house or invalidate it, or they may tell you to go to hell," he said. "It's very hard to negotiate with them on the basis of knocking their house. If you attack their house, you're attacking them."

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

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