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The Real Estate Adviser

Buying from an unknown property owner

Dear Steve:
I have lived in a two-flat building in San Francisco for 42 years, the first 22 with my family in one of the two units (where my mother still lives), and 20 years in the other flat. I've rented the entire time and have not had a written rental agreement for about a decade. I split my time between the two flats. We're extremely fortunate to benefit from rent control. A hands-off realty firm manages the building.

This is my family home and I don't want that to change when my mother, who is 86, no longer occupies her rental unit. I am interested in purchasing the building but don't know whether I am being realistic or how I would go about it. I am a single, 50-year-old female with no dependents and an excellent credit record and stable income. How do I broach the subject -- and with whom? What are my options should the owner decline my offer?
I Kept My Hearth in San Francisco

Dear I Kept:
First, broach the topic with the realty firm you're sending your monthly check to. Call the company directly, tell them your intent and ask for the name and contact information of the owner. If you have no success on the phone, send them a letter with a request that they forward it to the owner.

Neither approach may work. The property manager may not want to lose an account and may ignore you or say something like, "The property isn't for sale and you shouldn't bother the landlord."

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Your next step then should be to visit your local property tax assessor/appraisal office. The name and mailing address for the owner of every property is listed there and is available to the public.

In many cities and counties, this information is easily accessible on the Internet. The International Association of Assessing Officers provides a state-by-state listing of assessing office Web sites. For your building, visit the San Francisco Office of the Assessor and type in your address to get the owner's name and address and property-value information. Or, call 415-554-5516.

And remember: Despite what the rental office may say, just about every property is for sale at the right price.

But know this going in: Property values have changed a bit in many areas of the country, including the Bay Area in the last four decades, as you no doubt expect. And as a model tenant, it's likely you've kept up both flats well and your place is in good shape, perhaps minus some minor upgrading.

Realtor John Lee of Pacific Union San Francisco, a 17-year veteran in the business locally, estimates your beloved two-flat domicile is probably worth $700,000 to $800,000, depending on where it's located.

I'm not sure what you're paying in rent per month, but after all those years, it's a safe assumption that it's well under market rate of newer units that were built after June 1979, which aren't regulated by San Francisco rent control laws. So if you buy your place, your monthly payments will likely skyrocket. Still, there's nothing like home ownership and the knowledge that you control the fate of the other flat in a building that has been your home for 42 years.

With your good credit and a hearty down payment, the place could well be yours. The owner may agree to sell it to you (as an obviously motivated buyer), and then move on to another income-producing property elsewhere in town with a pretty profit in pocket.

Should the owner decline to sell, your only option is to remain in your flat and hope your new neighbor is tolerable. If another family member of yours is interested in filling the vacancy, the owner/landlord could probably accommodate that as a concession, assuming you'd want that.

Good luck!

-- Posted: Jan. 17, 2004

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