How June 15 reopening will change restaurants and dining in

You’re vaxxed, tired of takeout, weary of masks and dying to celebrate with dinner and drinks. The good news is that on Tuesday, June 15, restaurants will finally be allowed to serve at 100 percent capacity inside and out.

But can we really expect everything to be the same?

All that pent-up energy could create what one restaurateur calls “The Roaring 2020s,” a golden age of partying. But on the other hand, the lingering effects of more than a year of safety protocols, combined with the present hiring crisis, means some industry insiders are building back cautiously.

  • With restaurants back at 100% capacity on Tuesday, June, 15, some restaurateurs foresee a golden age of partying while others predict a more cautious build up. Sartaj Singh the owner of Cara Mia Italian Restaurant is ready to welcome guests at Cara Mia Italian Restaurant and Bar in Rancho Cucamonga, CA., Friday, February, 21, 2020. Cara Mia is an Italian restaurant off Vineyard Ave. serving classic Italian food. (Photo by James Carbone Contributing Photographer)

  • With restaurants back at 100% capacity on Tuesday, June, 15, some restaurateurs foresee a golden age of partying while others predict a more cautious build up. Amar Santana, chef/owner with his business partner Ahmed Labbate of Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach, Vaca in Costa Mesa and The Hall Global Eatery at South Coast Plaza, has made menu and other changes to get ready for the lifting of restrictions. (Courtesy of South Coast Plaza)

  • With restaurants back at 100% capacity on Tuesday, June, 15, some restaurateurs foresee a golden age of partying while others predict a more cautious build up. Wil Dee, founder and CEO of Haven Craft Kitchen+Bar and Provisions Deli Shop and co-founder of Chapman Crafted Beer in Orange, says he will abide by all regulations set by the state for operating his bar. He holds a Hemp Ale, a good match with their Strawberry Shortcake, in foreground. (File photo by H. Lorren Au, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • With restaurants back at 100% capacity on Tuesday, June, 15, some restaurateurs foresee a golden age of partying while others predict a more cautious build up. Wil Dee, owner of Haven Craft Kitchen + Bar in Orange, watches as California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a noontime coronavirus update in which guidelines to reopen dine-in restaurants were addressed, on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • With restaurants back at 100% capacity on Tuesday, June, 15, some restaurateurs foresee a golden age of partying while others predict a more cautious build up. Cara Mia Italian Restaurant and Bar has had to pause lunch service because of the hiring crisis. (Photo by James Carbone Contributing Photographer)

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Here’s what some Southern California restaurant owners have to say about what it will be like when restrictions are lifted and you’re ready to hit the town.

Reservations

Make them. Many diners are still leery of sitting inside. The relaxed rules on expanded patio dining spaces, with restaurants allowed to spill out onto sidewalks and parking lots, will remain for the rest of the year, Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced. Not every restaurant can guarantee outside seating, so smart diners should reserve ahead or pick a spot with a giant patio.

“We’re super fortunate that we actually have more patio seating than we do interior seating,” said Sidney Price, owner of Noble Bird Rotisserie in Long Beach. “We have a massive wraparound patio with great views of the marina. And so we haven’t hit a point where we have felt overloaded in that area.”

Even if you prefer sitting inside, it’s still good to reserve. Many restaurants will not be able to ramp up immediately because of the hiring crisis, and limited hours and seating capacity mean fewer tables will be available. In Rancho Cucamonga — where inside seating is preferred during hot summer days — Cara Mia Italian Restaurant & Bar and Magic Lamp Inn will not serve lunch until staffing improves. It’s so bad that owner Sartaj Singh has had only one weekend off in a year and a half.

“I’m working seven days a week,” he said.

He’s willing to pay dishwashers $18 an hour and still has a tough time finding servers, cooks and other workers.

“They apply,” he said. “Then they have conditions. ‘Well, I can only work two days a week. Or I can only work this day.’ Sometimes we say, ‘Please come work whenever you want.’ We put them on the schedule and they still don’t show up.”

Some demand to be paid in cash. Singh doesn’t work that way.

But it’s not just the independents. Larger restaurants and national chains have had special hiring fairs. Some offer bonuses. At Sushi Roku, new hires get $250 once they’ve stayed for 90 days.

“And we’re doing referrals,” said Lee Maen, founding partner of Innovative Dining Group, parent company of the restaurant, whose locations include Newport Beach, Santa Monica and Pasadena. “If a server of ours refers a friend and they get hired, we’ll give them $250 as well.”

Even fine dining rooms are having a tough time finding workers and have adjusted serving hours accordingly. Amar Santana, a “Top Chef” runner up and chef/owner with his business partner Ahmed Labbate of Vaca and The Hall Global Eatery in Costa Mesa, and Broadway in Laguna Beach, has closed Broadway on Sundays and Mondays and returned to the kitchen as a fill-in line cook.

Regulations

Owners are still monitoring the rules about masking, sanitizing and other protocols. Most said they will do whatever is required, but they’ve grown weary of admonishing customers to wear masks when they leave the table.

“From what I saw on Saturday night at one of our restaurants, the public is kind of done with the masks,” Maen said. No matter how guests behave, he’ll make sure his employees are compliant with any state, county and city safety rules. “Until they tell us you don’t have to wear a mask, we’re going to wear masks. And when they say you don’t need to, if an employee or a team member wants to continue, that’s absolutely fine with us.”

Many restaurateurs are also keeping some social distancing in place because customers just aren’t ready to sit as close to the next table as they did pre-pandemic.

“We will not have the same configuration,” Price said. “I definitely feel that guests want some more space. And we as a team want more space. I can’t imagine my restaurant in this moment packed wall-to-wall, how it was before.”

The bar

Don’t immediately expect a swinging, free-range scene at the cocktail bar either, says Wil Dee, founder and CEO of Haven Craft Kitchen+Bar and Provisions Deli Shop and co-founder of Chapman Crafted Beer in Orange.

“(Customers) cannot be within six feet of a service area. I know that that’s going to come as a shock to some people,” he said.

Plenty of bars are disregarding the rules, but smart owners won’t sling drinks like Deadwood saloon bartenders.

“We have a lot of people coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I just want to grab a beer.’ They don’t want to sit at a table,” Dee said. “They just want to be able to belly up to the bar, go to that edge, drink a beer and then leave. It almost seems like a bigger song and dance to have a host go there and say, ‘Sit here sir or m’am and here’s your menu.’”

Dee understands it, occasionally does it himself. And pre-pandemic, he said that dynamic added liveliness to the bar. But customers will just have to be patient.  “It’ll come back slowly but surely,” he said.

If you can’t stick around, grab some cocktails to go: The governor has announced that rule will be in place through the end of 2021.

The menu

Don’t think you’ll get the entire pre-pandemic menu. Most restaurants had to make changes in order to offer takeout only and they’re still making changes these days due to lack of supplies or increases in food prices. Even major international corporations are dropping menu items; Business Insider recently reported that Starbucks could lose 25 items due to supply chain issues. Local chefs have had to get creative.

“It’s 40% more for just about everything,” Santana said. “So we have to rewrite the menu. And we have to have more suppliers providing us stuff. It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous, what’s happening right now.“

Sometimes he’s forced to use a cheaper cut of meat, but now that he’s on the line he can show the other cooks exactly how to prepare it and monitor their progress closely.

“I can train them better. So now I’m able to run my business with less staff.” It reminds him of working in New York after 9/11.

“A lot of people lost their jobs. So only the best employees were kept in those restaurants to pick up the slack for the people that got fired,” he said. “So they were able to make more money, more profit because they were more efficient. And I think that’s what’s happening. It’s happening to me right now. My staff has gotten more efficient.”

The vibe

When all the pent-up energy of sheltering in place is released, it could feel like a party for years to come. In a recent Nation’s Restaurant News story, Andy Barish, a managing director at global investment banking firm Jeffries Equities, wrote that “starting later this year and through 2024, according to our analysis, the chain casual-dining industry could be setting up for some ‘golden years’ of growth.”

And, according to a report from industry watcher Black Box Intelligence, April became the best month for restaurants based on sales growth in over three years. Although traffic was down 4.2%, most of that sales escalation “can be attributed to unusually large growth in average guest checks.”

So diners are already splurging.

“Everyone’s talking about ‘The Roaring 2020s,’” Maen said. “People are excited to be out, and there’s an energy. Every week that goes by it’s more and more.  I think after the 15th, a lot of people are going to really have the green light to go out and it’s going to be a big surge. A lot of the restaurants are very, very busy and it’s a great thing.”

Restaurant owners are thankful, Price says, and you might notice that reflected in the service.

“I think it’s going to be really positive and just soul lifting for all of us to have people back in the restaurant,” she said.  “To be able to say hello to them and exchange pleasantries and see them smiling and enjoying the space that we built for them. I think it’s going to be awesome and positive.”

How LoanDepot’s Anthony Hsieh went from cashier to mortgage billionaire

By Lisa Lee and Davide Scigliuzzo | Bloomberg

When Lake Forest-based LoanDepot made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year, Anthony Hsieh became a rarity among the ultra-rich: an Asian-American multibillionaire.

For the 56 year-old, it was the culmination of a decades-long quest to take on the hyper-competitive mortgage industry. It’s also given him a fresh impetus to be more visible and to inspire others, drawing on some of his own struggles as an immigrant to the U.S. from Taiwan.

“I have a unique opportunity,” Hsieh said. “Because of my success I have effectively crossed over and earned the respect of non-Asians, and that gives Asians lots of pride.”


Related: LoanDepot CEO buys Newport Coast mansion for record-setting $61 million


His perch at the top is a far cry from a Sunday afternoon 42 years earlier when a masked man burst into his family’s liquor store in Long Beach, pointed a gun to his head and demanded he empty the till.

Those frantic minutes spent fearing for his life gave Hsieh one of the most important lessons of his career. He credits the experience with helping him to confront discrimination and hostility he would later encounter as an Asian American breaking into the finance industry, and which ultimately helped catapult him to lead one of the largest mortgage lenders in the U.S.

“You learn early on about self-protection and survival,” said Hsieh, who would face two more armed robberies while working behind the family’s checkout register. “I wouldn’t exchange it for anything.”

His parents settled in California after moving from Taiwan in the early 1970s with Hsieh and his two sisters, giving up comfortable lives so that they could raise their children in the U.S. His father started out as a grill cook before saving up enough to open his own store.

Because they didn’t speak English, Hsieh helped with all the family’s major financial decisions, from purchasing cars and appliances to taking out a mortgage.

“I’ve been protecting my parents since the age of eight,” he said. “I became their adviser, I became their loan officer, I became their translator.”

It was that upbringing, he says, that instilled in him the resilience and determination needed to go head-to-head with some of the biggest banks on Wall Street in one of the most cutthroat corners of finance.

Serial dealmaker

Hsieh’s fortune is now about $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He’s one of only a handful of Americans of East-Asian descent to have turned U.S. companies they founded into multibillion-dollar businesses, alongside the likes of Eric Yuan of Zoom Video Communications Inc. and Jensen Huang of Nvidia Corp.

Unlike many billionaires that made their fortune in Silicon Valley after graduating from elite U.S. colleges, Hsieh attended Cal State Fullerton and was quite removed from the upper echelons of the tech world.


From the archives: Pioneer of online lending brings new ideas to the yacht business


Indeed, his leap into finance happened largely by chance.

His parents had hoped he’d become a doctor, but knowing that their son was scared of blood, they were willing to settle for a dentist. Instead, Hsieh followed the advice of one of his baseball teammates and applied for a job as a loan officer at a small mortgage lender. He was hired on the spot.

After just four years at the company, Hsieh realized the business had more potential than its owners could see. So he approached them with an offer to buy the entire firm. Once at the helm, he ditched typewriters and fax machines, aggressively expanded online and renamed the company LoansDirect.com.

“I just felt like I could do it better,” Hsieh said. “I didn’t know what my skill sets were, I just felt confident, I felt competitive. I had a great work ethic.”

It was the start of a series of ventures that would turn Hsieh into one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the hyper-competitive mortgage industry. After selling LoansDirect.com to E*Trade Financial Corp. in 2001, he established HomeLoanCenter.com, the first online platform to offer a full suite of mortgage products in all 50 states. By the time he sold it to LendingTree in 2004, the company had 800 employees.

Mortgage boom

But it’s from LoanDepot that Hsieh reaped most of his fortune. The company logged its best year on record in 2020 as the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to near zero in response to the coronavirus outbreak, turning mortgage lending into one of the pandemic’s biggest winners.

LoanDepot’s digital-first approach has made it one of the fastest-growing home-loan providers in the U.S. With over $100 billion of originations, it was the seventh largest mortgage originator in the country in 2020 and the second largest to go directly to consumers.

In February, the company completed a long-awaited initial public offering. While the listing only netted around $62 million in proceeds — a fraction of the amount initially targeted — another $200 million was distributed to shareholders, including Hsieh and his co-investors, through a debt-funded dividend roughly a month later.

The question is whether such rapid growth can be sustained.

Shares of LoanDepot have fallen more than half from the peak reached shortly after the listing. The outlook for mortgages, meanwhile, has weakened with only 35% of consumers believing it’s a good time to purchase a home, according to Fannie Mae, and growing inflation risks could further dampen sentiment given possible price appreciation and interest-rate hikes. Housing starts have slowed, as have existing home sales and refinancings.

Hsieh has now turned his attention to millennials, many of whom are purchasing their first homes. While most are used to doing business online, that familiarity doesn’t necessarily translate into a better understanding of interest rates or closing costs.

“They are very savvy when it comes to utilizing digital tools, but that doesn’t make them financially literate,” he said.

$1.5 million settlement over Laguna Beach sewage spill approved

A $1.5 million settlement with the city Laguna Beach stemming from a 2019 spill that sent 1.7 million gallons of sewage into Aliso Creek and the ocean was approved Wednesday, June 9, by the San Diego Water Quality Control Board.

At the time of the massive spill, the ocean was closed for a 16-mile stretch from Crystal Cove in Newport Beach to Poche Beach in Dana Point.

The settlement calls for the city to pay $785,780 in fines and use the remaining $748,278 to help fund improvements to make such spills less likely in the future.

“Having the proposed project in place will be a valuable asset while the city develops and implements its broader plans for improving wastewater management and protecting public health and the environment,” said Chiara Clemente, the water board’s enforcement coordinator. “It’s encouraging to see these funds applied to wastewater infrastructure improvements.”

After a corroded sewage valve ruptured on Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, sewage flowed for three days into Aliso Creek and the ocean at the Laguna Beach State Marine Conservation Area, according to the water board. To make repairs, sewage was then diverted and released at Bluebird Beach, which is in the Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve.

Orange County home prices jump $117,750 in year — or $13.44 every hour

Orange County’s median home price soared in the past year at a rate equal to $13.44 an hour.

Low mortgage rates fueled demand just as a wave of young adults enter key homebuying years. Plus, vaccinations helped lower coronavirus risks and trimmed the pandemic’s broad economic challenges. As a result, price records tumbled in a buying pace last seen well before the Great Recession.

DQNews/CoreLogic’s report on closed transactions in Orange County from April shows …

Prices: The countywide median of $872,750 median was up $117,750 or 16% over 12 months. Over 10 years, gains averaged 7.2% annually. The latest median breaks the record of $835,000 set in March.

Past 12 months? Six records set. That $117,750 gain equals appreciation of $13.44 in each hour of the past year.

Sales: 3,920 existing and new residences sold — up 98% from lockdown-scarred April 2020. It was 2005 when April had more sales. Last month was 30% above the 10-year average buying pace for an April.

Past 12 months? 38,712 Orange County purchases — up 13.8% above the previous 12 months and 11.4% above the 10-year average.

Too hot? Check “Bubble Watch” columns by clicking here.

Here’s a look into key slices of Orange County data for April …

Existing single-family houses: 2,549 sold, up 108% in a year. Median of $988,500 — a 19% increase over 12 months.

Existing condos: 1,097 sales, up 91% over 12 months. Median of $615,000 — a 14% increase in a year.

Newly built: Builders sold 274 new homes, up 51% in a year. Median of $975,000 — a 6.6% decline over 12 months.

Builder share: 7% of sales vs. 9.2% a year earlier. Orange County builders’ slice of the market ranks No. 3 among SoCal’s six counties.

How cheap is money? Rates on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage averaged 2.98% in the three months ending in April vs. 3.41% a year earlier. That translates to 6% more buying power for house hunters.

At these rates, a buyer with 20% down would pay $2,937 a month on the $872,750 median sale vs. $2,681 on last year’s $755,000 median. So during the past year, the typical house payment is 10% pricier.

How swift is the purchasing pace? Homes sold averaged just eight days on the market in the Inland Empire; 10 days in Los Angeles and Orange counties, Zillow reported.

So is this market risk free? By one calculation, the Inland Empire is the nation’s fourth-riskiest market. Los Angeles-Orange County was No. 32 of 47 metros studied.

Sign up for Home Stretch newsletter by clicking here.

Around Southern California, according to DQNews’ latest report on closed sales in April compared to the pandemic-slowed year-ago period …

Six-county region: 25,857 sold, up 86% over 12 months. Median? record $655,000 — a 20% increase.

Los Angeles County: 8,381 sold, up 101% Median? record $750,000 — a 19% increase.

Riverside County: 4,669 sales, up 81%. Median? record $489,750 — a 20% increase.

San Bernardino County: 3,347 sold, up 67%. Median? record $436,500 — a 24% increase.

San Diego County: 4,347 sold, up 74%. Median? record $700,000 — an 18% increase.

Ventura County: 1,193 sold, up 82%. Median? $705,000 — an 18% increase.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at jlansner@scng.com

How to win a bidding war: New homeowners share their strategies

After a futile, three-year search for a house of their own, apartment dwellers Arthur Grijalva and Michelle Moraveg considered moving back to El Paso — or living out their days renting a studio apartment.

Perhaps, Moraveg thought, they could put their first child in a dresser drawer when they start their family.

Then, after getting outbid again and again, the Texas transplants crafted their winning strategy for buying a Southern California home: Bid higher. Act fast. Streamline their offer.

It worked, and on May 27, they moved into a cozy corner house in a leafy Burbank neighborhood.


Related: Bidding war tips: Do’s and don’ts for homebuyers


To get it, they paid $150,000 over the asking price, waived their right to cancel based on a low appraisal or high home repair costs and closed the deal in two weeks.

“We kept waiting for (the market) to crash, and it never crashed. So we decided to bite the bullet,” Moraveg said. “You just have to accept this is what it takes to live in LA and be a homeowner.”

Grijalva and Moraveg are two of 87,000 “winners” in Southern California’s housing market this year, a market featuring one of the most intense buying frenzies in three decades.

Market watchers say frustrated losers far outnumber the winners, with ultra-low mortgage rates, bulging numbers of millennials on the hunt and a pandemic-driven desire for bigger homes boosting demand.

Bidding wars are common. Desirable, reasonably priced homes are rare.


Related: Bidding war tips: Do’s and don’ts for homebuyers


The number of homes on the market dropped 20%-50% this spring from last year’s levels, figures from several data firms show.

Zillow reported homes in Los Angeles and Orange counties are selling within 10 days. In the Inland Empire, the average time for a sale is eight days.

“It’s a huge challenge for buyers,” said Amy Cimetta, an agent for Vista Sotheby’s International Realty in Manhattan Beach. “Unfortunately, buyers have to remove as many hurdles as possible. Sellers are getting 10-20 offers. The buyers who stand out are paying all cash or removing financial contingencies.”

Interviews with agents, home shoppers and a Zillow home trends expert show it takes more than just cash to win a bidding war, although that’s still the biggest factor.

Home shoppers also need to get pre-approved for financing, become adept at using real estate apps and prepare to act as soon as a home in their price range hits the market.

  • Daniel and Rio Baeza sit outside their new home in Ontario with their children Logen, 14, and Collin, 18 months, on Friday, June 4, 2021. The Baezas, who had outgrown their two-bedroom rental condo, decided to buy a house after months of frustration trying to buy a new townhome. “We were looking and looking and getting discouraged because we kept getting outbid,” Rio Baeza said. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Arthur Grijalva and his wife, Michelle Moraveg, with their dogs Otis and Calical at their new home in Burbank. After getting outbid on seven other houses, they decided to offer $150,000 over the asking price for their home and to complete the transaction in half the time it normally takes. “You just have to accept this is what it takes to live in L.A. and be a homeowner,” Moraveg said. (Courtesy of Arthur Grijalva)

  • Joe Ramondetta outside his new four-bedroom house in Placentia. Quick action and deft negotiating by his agent helped Ramondetta avoid a bidding war and buy for $15,000 below asking price. He believes the seller could have gotten $30,000 to $40,000 over the asking price had he considered more buyers. (Courtesy of Joe Ramondetta)

  • Logen Baeza, 14, plays fetch with Penelope, a Labrador-pit bull mix, in the backyard of the Baeza family’s new home in Ontario. Daniel and Rio Baeza bid $10,000 over their price cap to win their bidding war but almost lost the home when the appraisal came in $13,000 too low. Their agent agreed to forego $10,000 from his commission to make the deal happen. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Daniel and Rio Baeza stand outside their recently purchased Ontario home with their children Logen, 14, and Collin, 18 months, Friday June 4, 2021. The couple fell in love with the house while standing on the street waiting for a chance to go inside. “I was just praying this would be the house for us,” Rio Baeza said. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Daniel and Rio Baeza show off their new welcome mat outside their recently purchased Ontario home with their children Logen, 14, and Collin, 18 months, Friday June 4, 2021. “I could just see memories being made in that home, and it brought so much joy,” Rio Baeza said. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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A lot of buyers are giving up after getting outbid over and over, agents say. Some are refinancing their current homes and remodeling.

Others are waiting to see if prices will drop, said Amanda Pendleton, Zillow’s home trends expert. But unless there’s a new crash, they risk paying even higher prices or higher mortgage rates down the road.


Related: Southern California home prices jump $1 every 2 minutes


“Your buying power is going to be lower the longer you wait,” she said.

Pendleton noted not all homes have bidding wars. Zillow reports 58% of homes in the L.A. metro area are selling at or below their asking price.

“There are stories of homes being bid up. But the majority are not,” Pendleton said. “So, stick with it.”

“It takes a lot of perseverance,” Cimetta added. “ … When you go the extra mile, that’s what it takes to get the property.”

Here are stories from several homebuyers who did.

A $1 million decision

Arthur Grijalva, 33, a manager with the U.S. Space Force, and Michelle Moraveg, an actor, had 15 minutes to make a $1 million decision: To bid or not to bid on a Burbank house after having just 15 minutes to see it.

In early March, Grijalva and Moraveg were among 74 groups of buyers with appointments to view an 1,800-square-foot house in Burbank with a brick-mantle fireplace, hardwood floors and remodeled kitchen. Out front, the double-door entryway had beveled-glass windows, and a majestic oak tree towered over the corner lot.

The home was listed for $949,999.

The house was cute, “had good energy” and that beautiful tree in the front yard, Grijalva said.

The sellers got a dozen offers in just a few days.


Related: Credit scores don’t predict mortgage default risk


Studying comparable sales, Grijalva calculated the home could be worth $250,000 more than the list price. So he put in a $1.1 million offer or $150,000 over the list price. The couple also waived their inspection since the owners had said they wouldn’t pay for any repairs. And they waived the appraisal contingency because Grijalva was confident the home was worth that much. To be even more competitive, they agreed to complete the transaction in just two weeks. Escrows typically take 30-45 days in a normal market.

The seller had just one other offer for around the same price, but it was “all cash” — meaning the buyer wouldn’t need a mortgage.

Then, Grijalva and Moraveg composed a “love letter,” describing who they were, telling about the family they planned to raise in the home and the careers they hoped to build there.

“We instantly fell in love with the cozy living room overlooking the magnificent tree in the front yard,” the letter said. “We can already envision decorating the grand tree with Christmas and Halloween decorations to get into the holiday spirit.”

They looked forward to setting down roots in Burbank and making the house “our forever home,” they wrote. They included a photo of their two dogs, Otis and Calical.

Writing love letters, popular in sellers’ markets, has fallen into disfavor in the past year because Realtor groups fear it could encourage housing discrimination. But the couple says their letter clinched the deal.

But now they had to get through escrow — and in just two weeks. They battled over the cost of termite repairs and raced to get their financing and inspections done. They estimate the home needs about $20,000 worth of upgrades.

But a low mortgage rate — just 2.25% — helped bridge the costs.

“Just the fact the interest rate was so low made it work so much better,” Grijalva said.

A low appraisal

The listing agent was late.

So Rio and Daniel Baeza walked up and down the street, standing outside the Ontario house they had an appointment to tour, giving the home and the neighborhood the once-over.

From the curb, they liked what they saw.

“It was beautiful,” said Rio Baeza, 34, who works the night shift as an operational director for FedEx Ground. “I was just praying this would be the house for us.”

Once inside, the couple liked the home even more. It was spacious, updated and had ceiling fans throughout.

“I could just see memories being made in that home, and it brought so much joy,” Rio Baeza said.

The couple made their decision on the street outside the home right after their tour.

“OK,” their agent said. “I’ll go let them know you want the home.”

With three children and two dogs, the family long had outgrown their rented two-bedroom condo in Chino.

At first, they wanted to buy a new townhome, but homesites were quickly selling out and prices jumped $15,000 by the time they picked out a lot. So, they decided to shop for an older house instead, looking in the Ontario, Chino and Upland areas.


Related: 50 offers, 1 house: Buyers squeezed in bidding frenzy as prices vault again


They had been approved to pay up to $550,000, and there were 25-30 homes in their price range. But they were selling fast.

“If I didn’t go that day or the next day, they were ‘sale pending,’ ” Rio Baeza said.

The first house they looked at listed for $540,000 but needed about $20,000 worth of work. And someone had died there, “which really turned us off,” Rio Baeza said.

“We were really discouraged. If this was our price range, and this is what we got, we were going to have to look at really lowering our expectations or saving more,” Rio Baeza said. “Or taking another loan out just for upgrades.”

Then, they visited the second house, a one-story home listed for $535,000. They told their agent right away they would buy it, but another buyer already had bid $558,000.

“The seller said if we could give them $560,000, they would sell it to us because we were a young couple that reminded them of when they were just starting out,” Rio Baeza said.


Related: Inland Empire 4th riskiest US housing market


They won their bidding war by going $10,000 over their price cap. But they still almost lost the house.

First, the loan appraisal came in $13,000 too low, launching a new round of negotiations. The problem was solved when the Baezas’ agent, Peter Perez of Coastline Properties, waived $10,000 of his commission and the sellers came down an additional $3,000.

Then, the sellers tried to back out of the deal after their bid to buy a replacement home fell through.

“It was really scary,” Rio Baeza said. “They were trying to cancel our escrow. But the lender said that’s impossible. The house had been paid for.”

The Baezas gave the sellers an extra two weeks to find a home to rent.

On April 10, Daniel Baeza’s birthday, the family moved in.

“When we got the keys and started to have the popcorn removed (from the ceiling), that’s when it started to feel like our house,” Rio Baeza said. “When they delivered our fridge, (it hit me), this is real. We just bought a house.”

Getting there first

Joe Ramondetta didn’t believe his agent when she told him “you can’t bid under the asking price in this market.”

Not until he got outbid on three houses.

Ramondetta, 62, a property manager for a financial institution, thought sellers would counter-offer if he entered a low-ball bid.

When he asked why the sellers of an $800,000 home didn’t counter his $730,000 offer, they said, “we got six bids.”


Related: How much higher can home prices go?


The next house sold for $100,000 over the asking price with 11 offers.

“I was getting very discouraged. … People were paying $50,000 to $100,000 over (the asking price),” Ramondetta said.

Finally, Ramondetta told his agent, Corine Peterson of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Anaheim Hills, “I’ll do whatever you say.”

Peterson was the first to call when the next home in Ramondetta’s price range came on the market. She managed to convince the listing agent to give Ramondetta the deal — without entertaining any other offers — if she got the offer in that same day.

The only problem was she couldn’t find Ramondetta.

“I wasn’t around,” Ramondetta said. “She put little snippets together and tracked me down. She was driving around every block and looking for my car. … And then, she saw me in the window.”

“We have to get to the agent right now,” Peterson told him when he came to the door.

This time, Ramondetta offered to pay the asking price, $830,000. And after the inspection, Peterson convinced the seller to drop the price another $15,000.

“This woman is a go-getter,” Joe Ramondetta said of Peterson. “She really has the gift of gab. I don’t know how, … she actually got (the seller) to come down $15,000 in a market where there are five to 10 bids.”

‘Just do it!’

Elvia Del Cid was ready to give up her dream of buying a home.

People were paying ridiculous amounts, way out of proportion to their actual values, she thought.

“We can’t do this,” she told her husband, Jean Silvestre, 37, a foreman for a construction company. “It’s too much.”

But her husband kept rooting for the American dream. And her 20-year-old daughter, a student at Cal State Fullerton, got involved, searching online after classes for homes her mother should consider.

“You can do this,” her daughter kept saying.

Del Cid, 43, a children’s social worker, had been living in a Norwalk apartment for the past 20 years. About a year ago, soon after Del Cid and Sylvestre married, they started to think about buying a home since they now had two incomes. With a price cap of $550,000, they started their search in December.

They made offers on six homes, but kept getting outbid, Del Cid said.


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“I felt like my heart was being crushed one time after the other,” she said. “After we started getting experience and kept getting outbid, my husband said we need to find one we feel comfortable with and make a higher offer.”

Then, they looked at a three-bedroom corner house in Whittier that had an updated kitchen, granite countertops, new air conditioning, a large covered patio and a workbench in the garage.

“Elvia, this is the home,” Silvestre said.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but the more I walked through the home, the more I realized it was a well-cared-for home. It was well maintained,” Del Cid said.

But the price was $599,000, or $49,000 above Del Cid’s and Silvestre’s price range.

“I couldn’t let myself get excited. I needed to do a lot of numbers,” Del Cid said.

When she finally agreed to make an offer, her agent pushed her to go higher.

“This home could be yours,” their agent said. “You have to make a higher offer because they have other offers.”

Twelve other offers, it turned out. She bid $640,000 — $90,000 above their price range.

But she knew. This would be just like the other offers. Her heart would get crushed again. She couldn’t take it anymore. Time for a pause, she thought.

The phone rang just before midnight the next day after a long day at work. Silvestre was in the shower.

“Elvia, are you still interested in the home?” her agent asked. “Yes,” she said.

“Well, they’re willing to consider you. They’re interested in you making a counteroffer,” he said.

“What do you mean, a counteroffer?” she asked.

“If you offer what they want, they’ll go ahead and make a deal,” he said.

Silvestre popped his head out of the shower: “Make it!” he said. “Just do it!”

Del Cid raised their offer to $655,000. Then she hung up and called her loan officer. At 2 or 3 a.m., the loan officer called back with numbers showing they could afford that price, along with a letter of approval. 

Her agent called back at 9 a.m.

“They’re willing to accept your counteroffer,” he said.

Then came a flurry of paperwork and electronic signatures.

During escrow, the sellers agreed to pay off the rooftop solar panels and pay for minor termite damage repairs.

On March 22, the home was theirs. They ended up paying $105,000 over their original price cap, but their low mortgage rate offsets that cost somewhat. It was the right decision, she now believes.

“We definitely overbid,” Del Cid said. “But that’s the world we live in now. It’s crazy. It’s a jungle out there.”