As any visitor to Los Angeles who tries to navigate the roads immediately finds out, this vast metropolis does not follow a neat grid. Where one neighborhood ends and the next one begins is often fuzzy. Rarely are there clear markers. Nor do the landscape or properties change significantly from one neighborhood to the next in many cases.
Not a simple system, it is one that evolved over time as Southland populations grew and changed and sought to carve individual identities out of the faceless sprawl.
The ambiguous boundaries can be particularly confusing to home buyers. They also can be cause for concern when property values and school systems differ by community. Take Adele Rennie's situation.
Earlier this year, Rennie, an office manager for a West Los Angeles private school, purchased a home in Sherman Oaks. Or was it Van Nuys?
Nearly a year into residency, Rennie still isn't sure. Her neighborhood is bordered by Magnolia Boulevard to the south, Burbank Boulevard to the north, Sepulveda Boulevard to the west and Kester Avenue to the east. Despite its Van Nuys ZIP Code, she considers it to be in Sherman Oaks. And so do real estate agents who work in the area.
"I'm 100% certain it is Sherman Oaks," said Sheri Wegand, a Coldwell Banker Realtor who does a lot of business there and in Van Nuys. In fact, every home that comes up for sale in Rennie's neighborhood, including the one she purchased, is listed by agents as Sherman Oaks.
Yet when Rennie signed escrow papers, some documents said Van Nuys. Others said Sherman Oaks or Los Angeles. And one week after she moved in, she received a flier stating the two communities were in dispute over her little pocket of the San Fernando Valley.
"If all of a sudden I had to write Van Nuys, the word that comes to mind is 'ouch,' " Rennie said. "I like the esteem that comes with Sherman Oaks."
The issue goes beyond esteem. A Sherman Oaks address is worth more than one in Van Nuys. Wegand estimates the difference at "10% or more" for an equivalent property.
Because Rennie has no plans to sell her house, whether it is actually in Sherman Oaks or Van Nuys is not a pressing concern. "I love the neighborhood, and I love the house." Still, she said, "if it came around, I would fight for it being Sherman Oaks."
Border confusion isn't limited to San Fernando Valley neighborhoods.
"The boundaries of Culver City look like they were made by a drunken cow," said Martin Feinberg of Coldwell Banker, West Los Angeles. Culver City, unlike Van Nuys or Sherman Oaks, is an independent city with its own services and school system. "It's the oddest shaped little city, with a big tail that goes almost to the ocean."
Consequently, Feinberg said, properties that may not technically be in Culver City often are listed as such. "Sometimes it's more reasonable to advertise a property as Culver City rather than Marina del Rey," he said, or Mar Vista, Palms or Los Angeles. "For instance, I just had a property that sold over on a street called Hutchison, right next to the old Helms building. Maybe six houses south is Culver City."
Feinberg listed the house as Culver City even though the multiple listing service maps used by real estate agents placed the house in Beverlywood. "But clearly it's not Beverlywood," Feinberg said. "It's a judgment call." It is not, he added, "an exact science."
Adding to the confusion for buyers, said Toby Bradley, 2003 president of the California Assn. of Realtors and co-owner of Home Realty & Investments in Santa Barbara, is that often a particular property receives such services as water, trash and schools from different areas.
"When we identify a property, we identify it by mailing address," she said. "But the mailing address just involves the post office. It doesn't tell you everything about the characteristics of that property. A Santa Barbara address may not be a Santa Barbara school district." Ultimately, it's best not to assume anything.
While there are many disclosure requirements, there aren't any about location per se unless it is a material fact, Bradley said, meaning something significant about a property, often something unseen, that might effect a buyer's interest. "There are so many things that could matter to someone. How do you know what's a material fact sometimes?"
But what about the buyer who wants Culver City schools and finds homes listed as Culver City that technically aren't? In some cases, these homes even have a Culver City ZIP Code. A cluster of homes right behind Culver City high school fit this description.
"If something matters to you," Bradley said, "ask about it, at least in escrow."
Of course you can ask before you even submit a bid. But in a fast-moving market, this can sometimes work against a buyer. It can turn out that while you were doing your research, she said, "three other offers have been put in."
Wegand directs many of her clients to the Los Angeles Unified School District's Web site, www.lausd.k12.ca.us/, when a question about schools arises. The site allows users to enter specific addresses. If an address is within the district, it will list the respective schools.
Wegand also recommends prospective buyers phone schools directly. After all, she said, "they change boundaries every so often."
Despite the lack of clear-cut disclosure rules regarding a property's location, there are protections in place for buyers.
"One of the contingencies on purchase is review of the title report," Feinberg said. This document is generally provided by the escrow company, which gets it from the title company.
"When you get the title report, it's very clear where the property is," Feinberg said. "It specifies the city, the county and the state. It's a legal description. If you were surprised or, even worse, if you were tricked, you could exercise your contingency at that point and be out of the deal without penalty."
And what if buyer and seller have already signed on the dotted line and the property has changed hands?
"There might very well be damages," said Stephen Claman, a real estate attorney with Los Angeles firm Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger & Kinsella, if it can be shown that the agent misrepresented the location. That said, Claman admits it can be difficult to know what's where.
Whether buyers consult the post office, the Thomas Guide, the tax assessor, www.mapquest.com (this last suggestion from the Van Nuys district office of the mayor) or some other entity, one thing is certain: Location matters.
"Real estate is very location sensitive," Feinberg said. "That will probably never change because it's one of the things you can't change about a house."
In the words of Bradley: "The reason 'location, location, location' is a cliche is it's actually true."
Leslee Komaiko is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.