What Makes Mike Tick? What’s In It For YOU?

21 Questions to ask a Realtor


  • I see one of the most popular blogs you have written is 21 questions to ask a realtor. Why did you write this?
  • Most people select an agent based on a non-real estate relationship. I recently talked to a hard-money lender who had foreclosed on a local property. He said he had a friend from out of town who would sell the property at a discounted commission. My response was: “If he is truly a friend, he will recommend you list the property with a local expert who will get you the best price and least risk and stress rather than saving a few bucks on commission.”

How would you answer your own questions?

  1. Who do you work for? Most agents will say, “ABC Realty” or XYZ Real Estate. I say, “I work for my clients, the company I associate with works for me. You have to look at who is writing the check. Who is paying me?
  2. Will he be genuinely focused on your property? Agents spend most of their time looking for more business. I once had an officer manager who just signed up listings, put them in contract, then relied on the other agents, loan brokers and escrow officers to get the deal done. This made him a lot of money. But did it really serve his clients’ best interests?
  • I don’t work with a lot of listings or buyers. I also have bought and sold lots of property for myself When I represent someone else, I tend to get the thinking my customer.
  1. Does he have sales skills? An agent will rarely talk directly to the other principle. The only sales skills will be in talking to you, the client, into compromising or accepting less service than you need or deserve. I like my clients to make wise decisions based on information.
  2. Does he have a good solid real estate education to protect your best interests? Education comes in 2 ways: academic and experience. Current academic real education comes from online courses, most of which are in marketing and sales with little to do with protecting and serving the client. Mine brokers courses came from actual University of San Francisco coursework, such as Real Estate Law, Contract Law, Appraisal, etc. My experience is not just lengthy, but wide in variation, giving my clients a large resource of solutions and ideas to maximize their profits.
  3. Is his education current on recent marketing and legal aspects to protect you?
  • The Board of Real Estate requires 45 hours continuing credits every four years to maintain a real estate license in California. Any education most agents get on top of that is all about marketing and sales, and getting clients to do what we want. The last time I did this, I did it online in 53 minutes. This is shameful.
  1. How does he maintain his education?
  • ARTICLES I have written for real estate insider magazines for the past few decades and have been interviewed on radio stations. This takes lots of research and understanding of the topics. I also own property. Staying at the cutting edge of real estate issues is not just a passion, but protects my real estate, and is a huge resource for my clients.
  • What is his experience?
  • Experience comes from years of working in the industry but also varies over locations, and different markets.
  • What do you mean by different markets? There is a National Market, California Market, Bay Area Market, Marin Market, City Market, Neighborhood markets. Your house’s value will fluctuate reflecting all of these markets. And then you have residential markets, commercial markets.
  • How can location experience make a difference in an agent’s performance?
  • There are so many little differences between counties, cities, neighborhoods … and many of these can be overlooked by an out-of-town agent. And these little mistakes can be costly for a seller or buyer. Or worse, cause legal problems.
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Sure, just on closing instructions, who pays the title insurance varies from county to county. Mandatory city inspections vary from city to city. If an agent doesn’t know the requirements of a sewer inspection, the seller may get held responsible for not just the inspection but repairs even after close of escrow.
  1. Will his company provide support and be flexible for your needs?
  • This is a conflict of interest I have run into a few times over the years. The company I worked for would get very successful. The bigger they got, the more procedures they placed upon us agents. It would get to the point the procedures were in conflict with my client’s best interests –I call it regulation strangulation. I always go back to question number 1 to “Who do I work for?” I choose based on who will support MY CLIENTS interests. I need a company who is flexible to let me do what I need for my clients.
  1. Are testimonial and referral letters available?
  • Since my testimonials are pretty out-standing, and I have quite a lot of them, I can’t really shoot down this one. But I would look to see what they say. Are they just glorifying the agent or do they relate actual experiences?
  1. Does he have a written marketing schedule customized to your needs?
  • Most local agents use the same “put the property on MLS on Tuesday, brokers open weds or thurs, brokers open on Sunday. Look at offers Monday or Tuesday. The problem comes in if the schedule doesn’t fit, or prove to be successful.
  • I use a spread sheet. I sit down and go over the schedule with the sellers to make it fit into their schedule. Leaving time to deal with problems doesn’t get on marketing schedules.
  • What do you mean?
  • EXAMPLE San Jose Property, agent had all the right features on his “Getting Your House Sold in Five Days” program. On the Friday before, a slightly over-priced offer came in before offers were to be looked at, and he signed another listing who wanted an open house on Saturday. Then a nasty letter came in from a neighbor about a tree and a fence issues. This eliminated our open house on Saturday. Then on the Sunday open house he told buyers we already had an over-asking price offer and that there was a pending issue with neighbors over a tree and fence. This scared off the other buyers eliminating our chance for multiple offers to bid price up even more. He just didn’t know how to handle 2 listings. The tree and fence issues just overloaded him.
  1. Is he capable of getting your property staged? Staging used to be a method of arranging current furniture to make the house presentable to buyers at minimal cost to the seller. The process was “Clutter, Clean, Color.” Now staging hasn’t gotten to be “remove all your furniture, paint a certain color, bring in new furniture and decorations.” Its great if you have an empty house and several thousand dollars extra cash. But there are several levels of staging to meet different budgets.
  2. Is he internet savvy with his own website? When websites first became popular, I had my website ranking, organically, on top of even the local major companies. I got lots of leads. But maintaining this site and ranking took so much time I didn’t have time to serve my clients. Now my websites and internet presence is to display my listings in a custom manner not necessarily offered by MLS templates, and provide information to all to help them make informed decisions.
  3. Will his web site provide information and expose buyers to your property? That’s an easy one. Just look at their website. Most agents simply use their companies’ template site. Others mostly use sites to glorify themselves. But do they actually provide you information to help you make wise decisions or market your property?
  4. Will his websites get your property on the top real estate search engines? Nearly all property search websites pull data directly from the MLS. Other search engines have no accountability for accuracy and will maintain defunct and inaccurate data just to boast they have more listings. Sites like Zillow and Trulia have been a curse to the consumer filling them with inaccurate data and delusions of confidence in their knowledge.
  5. Will there be a custom PropertyAddress.com website? The objective of this is to get information on your property to directly to buyers. This saves the agent time. But, it eliminates the agent having a chance to talk with buyers. My objective of marketing is to get qualified buyers to look at the house, not give them the ability to pass judgement on your house based on limited data.
  6. Will there be a flyer box on the sign? Again – no chance for agent to consult with buyers. Most buyers don’t get everything they want. It’s all about compromise. A good agent may show the house does in deed offer what the buyer needs. I found with flyer boxes, the calls almost disappeared. This saved me a lot of time, but did not serve my clients need to sell the house at the best price.
  7. Are samples of his marketing efforts provided? Most content in listing packages is aimed at impressing sellers. I would want to see examples of real MLS listings, craigslist ads and flyers. How does he write ad copy? Does he use agent slang or chopped words to save space? – can be confusing. The purpose of ad copy is to entice buyers to look at the house, not flood them with information.
  8. Does he have an assistant or escrow coordinator or will he personally handle your transaction? Friends and clients call me a “control freak.” I look it as you pay me a lot of money to manage your real estate transaction. How can an assistant do a better job than someone who knows and understands your situation? Disclosures are an excellent example. Assistants (and frankly most agents to save time) will email disclosures to clients to fill out themselves. I insist on sitting down in person, or at least going over each statement on the phone. Disclosures can save or hang you. Making these statements wisely justifies a “control freak” as a seasoned guide.
  9. Will he have a team of a buyer agent, selling agent, maybe marketing? If you have an agent who runs a team, you are probably better off with a team member. The agent you signed with is what the industry calls the “Rain Maker” and out charming and signing up the next customer. But wasn’t it the experience and savy of your Rain Maker who you hired?
  • Me, I am a control freak. You are paying for ME. I am hands-on with all my deals as if they were my own properties.
  1. Is there a SERVICE GUARANTEE? Guarantee or what? The agent will give you back all the commission you didn’t pay him? My favorite version of this is “If I don’t sell your house, I will buy it myself.” Of course the agent picks the list price, the guaranteed sales price includes a discount.”
  2. What is the biggest mistake sellers make when chosing an agent?
  • Creating a “who can get me the most money” bidding war.

The “F” Word in Real Estate

The “F” Word in Real Estate – Part 1 (2013)

The “F” word?” He said. “You can’t publish that.”

“Fiduciary,” I replied.

“Fiduciary? What’s that?” he said.

Fiduciary duty of utmost care, integrity, honesty and loyalty…”  Remember that line? Lost in the small print in the agency disclosure? Maybe some of us remember; we certainly have forgotten what it means.   We have forgotten who we work for.

The U.S. financial structure has become a hierarchy of scandals. Real estate agents marched buyers into houses well beyond their means. Loan brokers used the house price to determine the income stated on the loan application, and white-out for the rest.  Appraisers fabricated their “opinion of value.” We joked that M.A.I. meant “made as instructed.” Mortgage companies bundled these toxic loans.  Wall Street packaged the bundles in confusing investments like derivatives, manipulated ratings and investment insurance, and swindled the world.  And everyone relied the fact that ‘U.S. real estate values always goes up.’  The “F” word had become “fraud.” The rich get richer, the poor go homeless, and everyone in between picks up the tab for both ends.

Blame the government.  Our government was originally set up with a system of checks and balances. Sure. Our tax payment checks going into the balances of Big Money. Did anyone see what was going on? Sure, they all did.  But they were too busy playing games of lobbyists, pork barrel, and ear marks. TARP, HAMP, HAFA? The government is smoking HEMP and making me LAFA.


Our judicial system is supposed to protect us.  The “justice” system is a game of interpretation, manipulation, and exploitation. A game played by attorneys, overseen by judges (attorneys), and the rules are made by politicians (attorneys), and all simply work for the highest bidder. There is no justice in the justice system. No fairness. No right or wrong, truth or integrity, just a war zone for professional soldiers with no accountability.  Shouldn’t the truth simply be the truth?

The banks will sort things out. Banks are hording bail-out money to pay their own salaries and bonuses. Banks are no longer in the banking business. They buy and sell paper, gobble up smaller bankrupt banks at cents on the dollars, then get reimbursed from the FDIC–all in the name of “keeping people in their homes.” They bundle up loans and homes and sell them off with inside deals to their buddies at huge discounts for them to flip for a profit.

 “The market will regulate itself,” Alan Greenspan. Read Michael Lewis’s latest book “The Big Put” on how some clever bonds traders smoked the engine in the world economy. You won’t feel so bad about yourself next time you blow a couple billion in cash.

DRE will regulate us.  ATTENTION REALTORS: DRE HAS LEFT THE BUILDING. I recently took my 45 hours of continuing education online. It took me, in all, about 45 minutes. When I exposed this to other agents, they didn’t moan at the demise of our profession, they asked me for the website address. To test this, I took a friend’s license number, my visa card, and my email address, went through the test, and handed him his continuing education credits.

Agents are professionals. Agents take listings completely out of their area of knowledge. Offers for buyers are written on property the agent has never seen. Agents choose between getting paid and integrity daily.

Certifications.  Being enticed to (1) gain entrance into the cult of REO agents, I took the foreclosure specialist and short sale expert courses.  (2) I didn’t expect to learn anything. (3) I knew I could greatly cut the time with the online course over the normal 2 day courses. Two out of three ain’t bad: I didn’t learn anything; the internet courses took only a couple hours; I didn’t get any REO leads.

Let buyers and sellers beware. We already let them search our big treasure box: the MLS. We bury them in disclosures to limit our liability. Buyers rode the wave of real estate speculation with no ‘skin in the game.’ They took cash advances on their credit cards to pay their mortgages.  Then they took out equity lines to pay off their credit cards. But, bless their hearts, people still need the help of a real estate professional.  We better have something to offer besides a lock box key and a tank of gas.

But what can we do? If we want things to work, fixing them is not enough. We need to stop breaking them.  The problem started with us. Without sub-prime deals, there would have been no subprime loans. We need to start the solution. Tune in next month to find out how to save the world in 9 easy steps that you can do at home.

Michael Williamsen is a real estate broker and free-lance writer in Marin County California, on the “Golden side of the Gate Bridge.”  Michael is often radio talk shows’ guest for his over-the-top direct approach to current real estate issues. This article comes in response to the “Real Estate Hangover of 2009.”

16 Questions to Ask An Agent Before You List

16 Questions to ask a Realtor.

  • 1) Will he be genuinely focused on your property?
  • 2) Does he have a good solid real estate education to negotiate for you and protect your best interests?
  • 3) Is his education current on recent marketing and legal aspects to protect you?
  • 4) Does he have substantial experience over up and down markets?
  • 5) Will his company provide support and be flexible for your needs?
  • 6) Are testimonial and referral letters available?
  • 7) Does he have a written marketing schedule customized to your needs?
  • 8) Is he capable of getting your property staged?
  • 9) Is he internet savvy with his own website?
  • 10) Will his web site provide information and expose buyers to your property?
  • 12) Are samples of his marketing efforts provided?
  • 13) Will he market your property directly to potential buyers?
  • 14) Does he have an assistant or escrow coordinator or will he personally handle your transaction?
  • 15) Is there a SERVICE GUARANTEE providing you with the ability to cancel the listing agreement if you are not satisfied for any reason?
 16) Has he asked you to review all your numbers?
Don’t be surprised if Michael Williamsen gives you different answers than most other agents.

5 Reasons to be a For Sale By Owner

Selling Your House? 5 Reasons to be a For Sale By Owner

With homes selling quickly and prices rising, some homeowners may try to sell their home on their own, known as a For Sale by Owner (FSBO). There are several fun issues for the vast majority of sellers. Here are five:

  1. You Can Negotiate With A Wide Selection of Fun People

You will meet many types of buyers and professionals, all can mess with your price:

  • Buyers want the best deal possible – want the commission too
  • Buyer’s agents solely represent the best interest of the buyers
  • Buyer’s attorneys usually mean you need your own
  • Home inspection companies get paid to find problems with the house
  • Appraisers most often don’t know the immediate neighborhood
  1. Exposure to Prospective Purchasers

Recent studies have shown 90% of buyers search online for homes. Only 20% looking at print newspaper ads, mostly at the agents. Real estate agents have internet strategies to promote the sale of your home. Do you?

  • Results Come from the Internet

Where do buyers find the home they actually purchased?

  • 44% on the internet
  • 33% from a Real Estate Agent
  • 9% from a yard sign
  • 1% from newspaper
  • (nearly data comes right off Multiple Listing Service)

The days of selling your house by just putting up a sign and putting it in the paper are long gone. Having a strong internet strategy is crucial.



  1. FSBO Offers Wonderful Challenges

The paperwork involved in selling and buying a home has increased dramatically as industry disclosures and regulations have become mandatory. This is one of the reasons that the percentage of people  going FSBO has dropped from 19% to 8% over the last 20+ years. The 8% share represents the lowest recorded figure since NAR began collecting data in 1981.



  1. You Can Negotiate the Saved Commission with Buyers

Many homeowners believe that they will save the real estate commission by selling on their own. Realize that the main reason buyers look at FSBOs is because they also believe they can save the real estate agent’s commission. The seller and buyer can’t both save the commission. Studies have shown that, nationally, the typical house sold by the homeowner sells for $210,000 while the typical house sold by an agent sells for $249,000. This doesn’t mean that an agent can get $39,000 more for your home as studies have shown that people are more likely to FSBO in markets with lower price points. However, it does show that selling on your own might not make sense.

Bottom Line

Before you decide to take on the challenges of selling your house on your own, sit with a real estate professional in your marketplace and see what they have to offer. Maybe they will buy you coffee!

Stock Market or Real Estate – Which Roller Coaster Are YOU Riding?

How Does the Stock Market Affect Real Estate? … and My BIG TIP.

Has the stock market peaked?

Is it time to cash out?

Where do you put the money?

Historically, the stock market and real estate market were regulated separately and investors would go back and forth in the markets. When the real estate market peaked out, investors moved their profits into the stock market which had been fairly flat the past couple years. Then when real estate profits peaked, they moved back into the stock market.

In the past decade, rather than riding one roller coaster to top, getting off and jumping on the other roller coaster at the bottom, both markets were combined into a giant twisty-twirly roller coaster.

In 1999, deregulation signed by President Clinton, allowed banks (banksters) into the stock market, and stock traders into real estate. Not quite so simply or directly, but through bonds witch-like secret potions called derivatives.

Greenspan said, “I’m a math guy, and even I don’t understand derivatives.” He then went on to say, “The markets will regulate themselves.”

“We need to find more ways to get people into houses,” said President Bush.

Previously, banks were allowed to give out mortgages on funds limited by their cash holdings and government-backed programs such as FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Wall Street genius traders recognized deregulation as the new Wild-Wild West with the opportunity to create more money for real estate loans, packaging them into bonds and many new security devices to sell to the world. This flooded the real estate buying market with loose money for loans.

Real estate values are base on the simple premise of supply and demand. High demand and low supply creates higher value.

With lack of regulation, lack of responsibility, lack of accountability … basically legalizing corruption … the stock market created a huge demand by buyers on a limited supply of real estate, resulting in the crazy appreciation of the early last decade. Lenders, recognizing the end had come, halted their lending  resulting in instant elimination of demand, dropping-off-the cliff of real estate values, then massive loan defaults, foreclosures, short sales, and the collapse of many banks and financial institutions.

Realtor.com gave me an award for “Online Marketing Excellence” in 2009 for my viral article “Real Estate Hangover 2009” — sort of like sharks awarding the sheriff in “Jaws” for posting “Shark Warning” signs on the beach. They knew no one would read the signs, and by this time the roller coaster rides had crashed into the shark-infested water.


So now, rather than the historic see-saw of investors moving back and forth from stocks to real estate roller coasters, the financial markets have become blurred.

Financial bloggers debate:

“Stock market investors are fearful of a correction and will return to the safe harbor of real estate.”

“Sellers, recognizing they have recovered losses of the last decade and the frail economy, may want to move their equity into smaller and safer investments.”

“Buyers will hold off on real estate purchases weary of their job security.”

“Concerned the real estate values have peaked, interest rate increases will chase buyers away, and a weak economy will prevent buyers from buying, sellers are asking if it is the time to sell.”

“The younger generation watched the destruction of their parents retirement do to the real estate crash. They want nothing to do with real estate, happy to be renters and simply enjoy their lives.”

“The new generation has seasoned stock options and investments. Worried over the safety of these investments, they will return to the traditions of real estate.

“Sellers will hold onto to their property as of buyers continues to drive prices up.”

My BIG TIP? Don’t take stock tips or any short cuts with your future. Do your own homework. Use a calculator. It doesn’t matter who is to blame. Your life is based on your decisions. Make decisions based on financial common sense. Stocks have many indicators – ignore them and say hello to the sharks. Buy a house to call home, a place of your own, to be in control over your housing expenses, to raise kids and for them to call ‘home,’ flowers, pets, a place to use in your retirement. Stop pretending to be and investor or speculator, and be a home owner.

You may ask the common question about your real estate holdings: should I stay or should I go? Please look for the next article I am working on called: “Real Estate Roller Coaster.”

Is real estate safe?

Will real estate continue to go up?

Will real estate go down?

Should I sell my house now?


“Why fool around with realtors that don’t understand the complexities of Marin real estate. Mike’s experience can make a big difference when buying and selling. He has smart clients who rely on his expertise and trust his advice. He has made a lot of money for a lot of people.” L. Nibbi, Investor/developer

When asked who he works for, people are expecting him to say a real estate company. Michael Williamsen’s patent answer: “I work for my clients, the company I associate with works for me.”

Would YOU like a no-cost, free, no commitment or obligation chat about YOUR real estate thoughts with Michael Williamsen? YOU can reach him at

Michael Williamsen, Real Estate Broker # 00839110

415-713-2223 cell





Michael Williamsen, Broker Agent Magazine Agent of the Month

By Shannon Hartsoe August,2008 in Broker/Agent Magazine

With his trademark sense of humor, Michael Williamsen jokes that he doesn’t care if you misspell his name with an s-o-n instead of s-e-n, he’ll still cash the check. He favors himself as an old school gentleman, holding doors open for other people, and helping others load plywood into their truck in the hardware store parking lot. “I like to leave a smile on everyone I meet.”

Having represented buyers and sellers in several hundred transactions and several dozen on his own account since 1982 you might think he would feel comfortable in knowing the business. Williamsen has a bachelor’s degree in Information Management Systems from the University of San Francisco. “I try to keep technology tamed so my clients can make informed decisions.” Williamsen takes numerous classes each year in marketing, sales, and legal aspects of real estate – always on the prowl for new ideas. “I don’t believe in perfection, but the pursuit of perfection. That keeps me going beyond what used to be ‘perfection’.”

Shunning the traditional coat and tie in favor of blue jeans and print shirts, he doesn’t appear to be a typical real estate professional. “My philosophy on investing is 1) make the money, 2) keep the money, and 3) make the money make money for you.” Williamsen says. “My clients are more concerned with the quality of their investment, profit, safety, and reduced risk and stress than my fancy suits.”

The Foundation

  Williamsen’s Alaskan childhood summers were consumed by hard work and baseball. He spent his mornings working with his father salvaging old buildings, and pulling up the halibut skates or crab pots. Afternoons on the baseball field taught him the rewards of hard work and persistence — twice helping his Little League teams to the state playoffs. Though he was very shy as a child, he was extremely creative. When he introduced creative financing, his mother knew the family Monopoly Games would never be the same. It just seemed natural that he would apply his creativity in everything else he did.

“My father was a Lutheran minister,” he says. “He never judged me, but I could always sense his approval or disappointment. I learned a lot from him. Even now I still sense his presence and strive to earn his respect. His belief in everlasting life really made the trials and setbacks in his life seem insignificant. It’s an amazing perspective.”

A family move put him in a small farming town in Eastern Washington. As the new kid in town, it was baseball that gave him instant acceptance with many new friends. Knowing him now, it’s tempting to think that it was Williamsen’s determination and persistence helped give his team the state high school baseball championship two years. But he begs to differ and says it was baseball that helped him gain self confidence, determination and persistence.

Williamsen went on to work in a variety of jobs including his own lawn mowing business at age 14, working in the hay fields of Eastern Washington at 15-16 and clerking in grocery stores from ages 16-22. The common denominator? “I learned the meaning of hard work and customer service. I always keep in mind who I work for; I work for my client, my company works for me.” While living in Washington, he had his first taste of investing success — purchasing a “fixer upper” for $11,000, renovating it almost entirely on his own, and then selling it for $29,500!

Turning Dirt Into Gold

In 1977 Williamsen moved to California and quickly got into buying property, and helping his friends get into their first homes. In 1982 Williamsen took the next natural step and got his real estate license.

Once Williamsen had his license, there was no stopping him. Quickly, he built a reputation as the one to turn to when results were critical, surprising everyone, it seems, but himself. Though residential properties make up more than 80% of his business, he is also something of a land guru. Connecting particularly well with the local builders, he began to help them find, develop and sell projects, then re-invest into the next project, earning him the nick-name the “Lot Guy” of Marin County. And for good reason; since the 1980’s, Michael Williamsen has had his fingers in a large percentage of Marin’s land deals. “I love the creativity of the deal and the design and development of new homes.” In 2006 Mike was awarded the RE/MAX Hall of Fame. “I actually earned it in 2004 – I was just busy to notice that I had qualified.”

His clients have grown accustomed to “the smile.” It happens when someone tells him that something can’t be done. “I have a nose for finding overlooked deals,” he says with a laugh. “Some of my clients have made a fortune on deals that others said couldn’t be done.” But, though he is creative, he’s anything but careless. His depth of experience in the purchase, development and sales of not only homes, but fixer uppers, spec houses, as well as commercial and land acquisition has often netted his clients a higher return and with less stress. “I always look at the potential future potential of a property. It’s the single biggest investment most people make so it’s a good idea to do it wisely. I am quite analytical. If I sense that it’s not a good deal, I tell them.” Rob Fitzgerald, one of Williamsen’s long-time clients, agrees. “The best deals I have ever made were the deals that I didn’t do. Mike Williamsen has kept me out of those disastrous deals.”

The Man, the Legend, and the Future

Though Williamsen’s real estate success is undeniable, he describes the true measure of his success by what he gives back. “I get a kick out of helping clients accomplish things they didn’t know they could.”  Out of the dozens of awards he has earned, the older ones that actually found space on his wall are now covered with pictures of his family, or the many baseball and basketball teams he has coached. “Real estate has helped me to do more of the things that I enjoy.  My son’s trophies mean a lot more to me than my own.” Williamsen says “I’ve always lived life on the playing field rather than in the bleachers.”

What are his latest favorite achievements? “I have spent several years developing a website to provide information and services to my clients. It is going so well, it is taking on a life of its own!” His son, Bryan, now 12, is his continued inspiration. “He’s smarter than I am, keeps me challenged, and he trusts me.” And, he adds with a laugh. “He already pitches faster than I do!” He recently added a new hobby. “I told my friends I was thinking about writing a screenplay. They all said I couldn’t do it.” Williamsen just finished his first screenplay and has started his second. Asked what will Williamsen do after real estate? “What do you mean? I am just getting started.”

Michael Williamsen

California Real Estate Broker # 00839110

851 Irwin St, San Rafael, CA 94901




Seven Sins of Dirt Deals

So many prospective land-buyer inquiries had the same few misconceptions, this this article was written as a letter to  as a warning to what they were considering. It became so popular, it was published in a real estate trade magazine, and Michael was invited to participate in radio talk shows.



by Michael Williamsen

Common Mistakes in Buying, Selling, and Owning Land

Published in Pro/Agent Magazine

March 2009

Becoming the “Lot Guy” or the “Dirt Demon” or the “Duke of Dirt” was even less glamorous as it sounds. I chased infill lots, the deals with the smallest paychecks, the longest escrows, the least chance of closing, and the strongest potential for getting sued. But hey, I could wear jeans and tennis shoes. The spec builders promised that if I found them a good lot, they would give me the golden pot at the end of the development rainbow, the listing on the house. Rarely did they. I always believed that I would get the ‘next one.’ But the lot buyer that really gave me anxiety, forcing me to turn to writing as therapy, was the ‘wanna-be-builder/owner’ or as we call them the ‘retail buyer.’ I would babysit these buyers through development school only to have them go buy a 40 year old condo from their newly licensed cousin. I soon began recognizing the tell-tale signs of these dreaded buyers. These are my favorite with my responses:

1)  “I want to build to build my dream home.” My standard reply: “Sure, you can buy a lot, you may be able to build a house, but it ain’t gonna be no dream.” Zoning limitations, setbacks, height restrictions, building ordinances, size limitations, deed restrictions, building moratoriums, design review boards, planning commissions, city councils, appeal processes, neighborhood opposition all may just turn your dream into a nightmare. Be flexible. The ego of having everything your own way will be expensive in both approvals and construction, and, unlikely to happen.

2) “I found a lot I really like.” What you see is usually not what you get. Roads, fences, neighboring houses aren’t necessarily indicators of property lines. The property will rarely start at the edge of the road, or the sidewalk, or your guess of the day. You may need to bridge across a down slope gap, or excavate a hillside just to get to your property. Easements or encroachments can give others the right to use your property, or prevent your use of the property. Utilities may not be available or very expensive to get.

3) “I want to hold land as an investment.” Sure, property values go up, but so do building costs and fees, often faster than values. You won’t get any income from land to help pay the mortgage. You probably won’t get any tax benefits. The value of land is determined by its potential use. Zoning changes and limitations may greatly decrease your land’s potential. Long term holding of land is not investing – it is speculation. Go to Vegas.

4) “I can save money by building myself.” Cities, neighbors, utility companies, and many other entities which have a say in your project all want to cure their problems with your checkbook. Surveys, soils engineers, architects, designers, application fees – here a fee, there a fee, everywhere a fee-fee. Then after you get your design approved there are structural drawings, working drawings, energy calculations, and of course more fees. Water meter fees, sewer fees, service fees, hook-up fees, school fees, traffic mitigation fees, park fees, and on and on and on. One local town came up with “Non-Specific Mitigation Fees” just to be safe they didn’t leave any coins in your pocket. Then there is the construction loan with more fees, points, and appraisals. Building costs have likely gone up since you started this project. Each delay releases your subcontractors from their time commitments and each change opens negotiations of their original bid. A big financial “OUCH!”

5) “I will borrow money to buy a lot.”   Land financing is not like regular house financing. Down payment and qualification requirements, points, fees, interest rates, due dates are very different. There are basically three stages of financing: land advance/purchase, construction, and take-out financing (when the home is completed). Each stage has its own requirements and costs, and risks. Owner financing has risks for both seller and buyer, and agents – judges think we are supposed to know this stuff.

6) “What’s the rule of thumb for ….” There is one rule of thumb in land development: If you rely on rules of thumbs, you will get eaten alive. There is no easy way to get away from doing your home work right in the first place. Check out all your costs up front. Leave yourself room for error. Check out comparable sales of similar finished homes to make sure your project will justify the costs. It usually won’t. Get very specific with all the details. Don’t be afraid to walk away from losing money, and saving yourself to go through this again.

7) “I’ll represent myself.” You may be in and out of escrow several times with those “dream home” buyers while they get their education on the first six sins above. Also, there are the spec builders. These guys are real pros, the sharks that feed on the flesh of naïve land sellers. They like to “make my profit going into the deal.” You may save a real estate commission, but an experienced land agent will greatly reduce your stress and risk and increase your net profit.

Land sales are the wild, wild, west of real estate. Land contracts and disclosures are completely different than in homes sales. Land buyers and sellers are treated as sophisticated investors. As with any investment, keep your eyes open and insist that your buyers do their homework well themselves. Don’t get caught telling them what you heard from city hall, or from the utility company, or you will be writing the next article on dirt deals.

            Michael Williamsen is a real estate broker in San Rafael. Licensed in 1982, Michael has become known as “the Lot Guy.” Michael has represented buyers and sellers in well over a hundred development transactions and many projects as a principle. He has consulted on many development projects including single family, multiple family projects, sub-divisions, and remodels. Currently involved in a local neighborhood association as the chairman of the development committee, Michael’s goal is to provide affordable housing that enhances the neighborhood and supports neighborhood safety, traffic, and parking.

“The best development deals I have ever done, were the ones I didn’t do. You only have one chance to go bust. Mike Williamsen puts deals together that make me money.” R. Fitzgerald, Developer

Mike’s advice is always direct and to the point, never self serving.” L. Nibbi, Novato, Investor/Developer

Would YOU like a no-cost, free, no commitment or obligation chat about YOUR real estate thoughts with Michael Williamsen? YOU can reach him at