Archive for May, 2014

The New Native and Drought Resistant Project

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

by Sean Hess (, Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty ( Join us on Facebook.


Nellie Stevens Holly

Nellie Stevens Holly

Since we wrapped on the First Native Plant Project (read about it here), we’ve already been hard at work on the new drought resistant and native project at my new home.

I moved, literally, just around the corner. And since I lived so close to the new place for the last 13 odd years, I know most of its history.

Back in the day it was a horse pasture. Then they turned it into a subdivision and built some houses right before the real estate market crashed. It sat pretty empty for six years until they started building again in 2012. In 2014 we closed on our house that was once a vacant lot, that was (a decade earlier) the sole domain of Sea Biscuit.

The upshot is, there were very few trees on our lot before they cleared it. When they did cleared it, along with the adjoining lot, to build on we counted six trees down, so we decided that we were going to plant 12 trees to replace the fallen.

The Mother of All (Our) Cherry Trees

At the old house we had a beautiful cherry tree. I have no idea what variety it is/was. It grew right next to the deck and its leafy branches spread out over it creating amazing bower of shade. My kids loved to hop on top of the deck and boost themselves up into the tree and climb it.

The tree almost didn’t make it to be here today. In 2004, Hurricane Frances blew it sideways (along with a nearby sycamore*). The only thing holding the cherry tree up was one of its main trunk roots, which was also lifting the deck and its pilings out of the ground, so I had to cut the root. In retrospect it might have been smarter to cut the deck around the root, but the summer of 2004 was a wild one for hurricanes and there were a lot of other things that needed tending to.

Half of the tree died after the root was cut. The other half took years to come back. These days it’s fully alive again but you can still where I cut off the section that died.

Anyway, the fruit from this tree is really small (mostly just a seed with a varnish of bitter fruit around it) and the tree creates this fruit in prodigious numbers. Birds and squirrels spread them all over so there are always saplings popping up somewhere in the yard.

After we moved into our new house my kids and I  hunted the yard of the old house for cherry tree saplings, and as usual, they were pretty easy to find. I brought six of them over and spaced them out in different places. Not having any idea what the best conditions for growing are, I put some in full sunlight, some in full shade, and some in partial shade. So far, nearly two months later, all the cherry saplings are alive.

As a side note, right next to the original cherry tree and behind the deck there was this wonderful shady spot that my old dog, Cecil, used to love.

He would dig a big hole in the shady spot, and I would fill it in. We fought over that hole for nearly 10 years.

When he died, I buried him there. I like to say we both won the battle over the hole: He got to stay in it, and I got to fill it in.

When we moved I brought Cecil over to the new house, and where I planted him I put two of the cherry tree saplings over his grave. You might think it’s morbid but I think it’s pretty cool. If these cherry trees grow into the amazing shade trees that the original tree is, no one will ever touch the trees and disturb Cecil’s grave, which is what I am hoping will happen.

Moving Red Maples

The other tree my kids loved was a particular red maple (which happens to be a Florida native).

I found two red maple saplings in the yard and replanted them in the new.

One is looking pretty rough but I’m holding out hope that the root ball is still intact and will regenerate. The other is growing famously … it’s like it was never moved. I found both in shade so I planted both in shade.

A small cherry tree sapling was growing at the base of the red maple that is surviving so well. I left the two together … there are several places in our old yard where they are growing together the same way.

New Herbs in Pots

At the old house we had a bay tree and a rosemary bush. We decided to leave these, so we bought new for the new yard.

We also planted some herbs last year for cooking … the parsley and lavender have survived since last summer and into this summer, though both look pretty raggedy. Some of the chilies we planted last year also hung on over what was a really cold winter. Now the chilies are flowering. Hot stuff!

We planted some new basil, lavender, and chives at the new house. I tried a winter planting of basil (I love basil), but only one plant survived.

As I was moving the parsley that survived over the winter I noticed something growing with it: cherry tree sprouts! So I moved these few sprouts to where the red maple transplant is failing. Who knows? Maybe the maple we regenerate from the root and the cherries will grow together with it. If they do it’s going to look really cool circa 2024.

Replacing The Dead Oak with a Nellie Stevens Holly

They new home builder planted some trees for landscaping at the new house. One was an oak that was probably dead before they put it in the ground.

Instead of having the builder replace it with another generic oak, we went ahead and replaced it with a Nellie Stevens Holly (Ilex Nellie R. Stevens).

I saw the Nellie Stevens last winter at the Jacksonville Arboretum. It looks a lot like a Christmas tree when it grows, so it looks really cool. It has super dense foliage, the classic deep green holly leaf luster, points at the tips that holly is famous for, and loads of berries. Best of all it handles xeric conditions (i.e., poor soil), full sun, and drought.

To keep it full of berries from year to year you need a male and female version of the tree, however, it will still get some berries if its by itself. I don’t know how to sex holly trees, but if I figure it out I’ll plant another so it has a mate.

Since this is not a transplant tree I’ll count this Nellie Stevens Holly as our first “official” planting for the purposes of “a planting or donation to a planting group with every sale.”

Adding it Up

So, we had a goal of 12 trees to replace the six lost when they cleared our lot and the lot next door.

We’ve got six cherry trees and a red maple from the first transplant run surviving, a bay tree ready to go in, and let’s count the little cherry saplings we found in the parsley as one more, and then the new holly. So that’s ten.

We’ll work on those two extra trees over the summer and let you know how it goes.

*The Tale of The Hurricane Frances Sycamore

The next door neighbor cut down the sycamore at the base in 2004, after Hurricane Frances knocked it sideways. The tree was hanging about 1 inch from the neighbors roof. The root of the sycamore was lifting up my fence and the fence was the only thing keeping it off the roof.

The neighbor assumed he would be liable for the replacement of my fence if he didn’t cut the sycamore down (plus he would have to fix his own roof if it fell). Since the neighbor never had a survey done he just assumed the tree was on his side of the line … it was not. Since it was on my side of the line, I think it might have been, technically, responsible for the tree. He had the legal right to cut it because it was hanging over and above his property … the tree could not be saved anyway … but he saved me a lot of work and saved work on my fence in the bargain. So, thank you, former neighbor.

The moral, of course, is get a survey when you buy a home.

As a post script, the sycamore tree grew back. Suckers from it’s cockeyed root grew straight up and that tree is now thirty feet high! If you look really closely at the base you can see where the old trunk was cut away. Pretty amazing.

Let us get you planted in a new home so you too can become a Florida “native!” Hire St. Augustine Team Realty! Contact me at the email up top or email Kate Stevens, my partner and Broker Associate, or call (904) 377-2276.

The First Native Plant Garden: Terra Forming and Final Edition

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

by Sean Hess (, Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty ( Join us on Facebook.

Brown Eyed Susans and Blanket Flower

Brown Eyed Susans and Blanket Flower in the Native Plant Garden

Back in the day there was my front yard, and we called it the Valley of Death because nothing grew there.

So we started planting Florida native and drought resistant plants in 2011, and what a difference a few years makes. We’ve got a thriving butterfly garden and several varieties of plants that grow well and don’t need watered. The front yard really looks good and the dead patches, thought not completely gone, are the minority now.

It’s like one of those science fiction movies where they “terra form” a dead planet into something thriving with life. And then Khan shows up and tries to kill Captain Kirk, but then Spock saves everyone, but I digress…

The biggest surprise is that the scarlet milkweed and porterweed, which are annuals that we planted last year, are all sprouting new growth this spring. The unusually cold winter should have knocked them out but there they are springing from the roots. I accidentally knocked the resurgent porterweed out, not realizing it was one of the plantings, but it’s got a few leaves back, so whew!

New Native Plantings

Last September I planted some Florida native viburnum in front of the garage, the most extreme edge of the front yard. But I failed to water it while still it was still in the containers, and two of the plants died before I could put them in the ground.

This spring I went to the nursery to get more in order to replant them, but I saw the mature form and didn’t like them, so instead I bought dwarf versions of the very local East Palatka (also known as “yaupon”) holly (Taylor’s Rudolph Ilex Vomitoria) and planted them in locations on the side of the house. For the two dead viburnums I planted another version of dwarf holly (Ilex Schellings) that supposedly is ideal for full sun and dry conditions. I would have bought more East Palatka but I bought all the nursery had and Ilex Schellings was the only thing left that would fit the bill.

Lastly, I added a bunch more porterweed (red and blue) because it establishes itself so easily and readily, and blooms all summer. A truly awesome plant.

Blue Porterweed and Wildflowers

Blue Porterweed and Wildflowers

The Final Plantings

The porterweed and the hollies are the final plantings I will do in the Valley. The house is on the market (and is currently under contract), so I won’t be living there any longer.

But we are starting a new project in our new place, with its own unique challenges. And I look forward to telling you about that next … stay tuned!

Click here for a link to all the Native Plant Project stories, including where and what types of wildflowers we bought, where to get them, and how to plant them!

Let us get you planted in a new home so you too can become a Florida “native!” Hire St. Augustine Team Realty! Contact me at the email up top or email Kate Stevens, my partner and Broker Associate, or call (904) 377-2276.



The Punch List Blues: Richmond American, Arctic Camo Tile, and the Deadest Oak Tree in America

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

by Sean Hess (, Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty ( Join us on Facebook.

A quick note: If this sounds like I’m blaming the tile guy, I’m not. He’s just doing what and going where his dispatcher tells him. They told him it was a quick job. They didn’t tell him (or me) that it would take half a day just getting the supplies and doing the prep work. It’s not his fault that on day two, the dispatcher sent him to another (new) job first. And part of the reason it took him two days anyway is that he did a very good, very conscientious job. His name was Ray. He even refused a tip at the end. A great guy who did a great job … if he had been the one who did the tile in the first place, it wouldn’t have required multiple trips. So dear reader, here is the saga of the Arctic Camo Tile, and here’s hoping all your punch items go smoother than this one…

Arctic Camo Tile and Repair

Arctic Camo Tile and Repair

So I’m just sitting here, twiddling my thumbs. I’ve got some time … maybe I should write a blog post?

See, I’m waiting for the tile guy.

The Punch List Blues

The tile guy was supposed to be here Tuesday at 8 o’ clock and be out by 10. He was coming to stain and seal the tile in two bathrooms. Eight became 9 but no worries.

Nobody told him there was prep work (not his fault), so 9 became 10:30 so he could run for supplies. I had to go take my daughter to an appointment at 11:30. He clearly wasn’t going to be done by 11:30, so I moved the appointment to the next day, Wednesday.

The work was much greater in scope than anyone at the home office let on. So at 2:35 he finally finished one single shower stall. There was still another bath and tub to go.

“Can I come back on Wednesday?” he asked.

“No, I have appointments on Wednesday.” Actually it was originally my daughter’s Tuesday appointment, but I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t want him to feel bad.

“You can come back Thursday, but it has to be done by 11:15,” I told him. “I’ve got an appointment, can’t be moved, at 11:15.” Which is true (volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters … even my own house doesn’t outrank that). “If you can be in by 8 and out by 11 we can do it.”

“Alright, I’ll be there first thing Thursday.”

And now it’s 10:05 on Thursday and still no tile guy. This effing sucks.

He called about 7:45 and asked if he could come in a bit later. I said no worries. I actually do have someone to watch the house while I’m gone, ‘cos guess what? I don’t have a lot of faith in the tile company.

But “a bit” is rolling on to two hours now, and seriously folks, I already took one day off work just to sit around the house and babysit (I wrote a blog post then, too). I’ve gotta get to work!

Sing along: “I’ve got the punch list blues.”

Artic Camo Tile

Our house was built by Richmond American. For the most part I’m pleased with it.

When we walked through the house the week before closing (and again the day before closing) we came up with a punch list. A punch list is basically a list of items that need to be fixed, generally within the first week of moving into a new house.

There was a breaker that kept tripping, a wash tub basin that was never secured, some minor stucco and paint work, and so on. For all these things the subcontractors that Richmond hired were Johnny-on-the-spot. If we had a problem they were generally there the next day.

Except for the tile.

I’m not sure if the guy who installed the tile did a bad job, or the tile spacers were the culprit, or the grout was bad. But basically we moved into a house with tile grout that went from gray to black to white. It looked like a pattern for Arctic Camo, which would have been choice if I ever decided to hunt snowshoe hare in the shower.

In the big scheme of the world I didn’t think it was that big a deal. Not being a grout experts we (my wife and I) just thought, you know, somebody would come out and fix it. It’s not that we couldn’t use the showers, but we needed to seal the grout, and there was no point getting the grout wet and dirty if it would just mean cleaning it later. So we waited.

And we waited. And we waited.

Two weeks after we moved in a tile guy showed up. He claimed that the humidity made it hard to do grout correctly and that this Arctic Camo grout was normal for Florida, that maybe it was impossible to turn out any other way. I should learn to live with it.

When I didn’t buy that argument this guy claimed the tile was “wavy” on the edges and not uniform and the look simply couldn’t be helped. I should learn to live with it.

When I didn’t buy that he came up with something else … I can’t remember what but I was starting to get agitated.

I finally interrupted him.

I said, “I’ve been a real estate agent and broker for 13 years. I have never, ever, EVER, seen tile that looked like this. My first apartment was built in the 50′s and the period tile and grout on that was still perfect (except that the backing plaster gave way and left a big hole). Every house I see the tile lines are perfect. It has to be fixed.”

So he backed off and his solution was to smear new grout on top of the old. And then he told me not to contact anyone about it for two weeks because it “needed to dry.”

F that. I called the site super a day later, but it still took two weeks to get someone else out.

Bad Tile, or Bad Grout?

The next guy that came out was the manufacturer (of the grout, of the tile?). He came up from Orlando to inspect it.

He blamed the tile spacers for showing through, and blamed the first tile guy for making the problem worse for smearing new grout over the old grout without prepping it.

He said the tile (now) had to be acid washed to get the new grout off (it was flaking off anyway), and that the solution was to stain and seal the old grout so everything matched.

He claimed that scratching the old grout out and re-grouting it would lead to the same problem.

Now, scratching out the grout and installing new is generally the nuclear option when it comes to grout, that much I know. So to claim that scratching and re-grouting would lead to the same problem is like saying either the tile, or the grout, is bad in the first place. It’s like having a self-leveling concrete sealer that doesn’t self level.

So while I nodded my head dutifully I was thinking to myself, “Somebody really effed up and they’re trying to pass the buck. The manufacturer is blaming the installer, and the installer is blaming the manufacturer.”

Basically, what I could gather is that the manufacturer was using a newer type of grout or tile spacer, and if they admitted it was bad they would lose the sale and have to eat the product.

The original tile installer, whoever he was, did a job that was obviously not to form and hoped nobody would notice. Had he raised the red flag himself and said, “Hey, this grout or tile is looking funny and I can’t correct it,” it probably could have been charged back to someone. Now the tile company was already paid and scratching it out or even a total reinstall would have been on their own dime. So my impression was they were doing everything they could to claim it was a “normal” job, then blaming, well, humidity. Which in Florida we have quite a lot of (and plenty of perfect tile installs, too).

A hint to both the manufacturer and installation subcontractor, judging by how busy the tile fixer, Ray, was on my job and all the others they were sending him to: there’s been a lot of bad product or bad installs. Both y’all are gonna get fired anyway. Get your resumes ready.

I hopped online and after doing some research here’s what I think actually happened: The glue they used to fasten the tile wasn’t wiped off before it was grouted and it was the glue sticking to the spacers that was bleeding through.

The upshot to all this is I am missing work for this relatively minor item. A lot of it. To wit, a morning for the Mr. Humidity, a morning for the manufacturer, the first day for Ray, and here I am, writing, waiting for him a second day when I NEED TO BE AT WORK! (Sorry, Ray, losing my mind here … not your fault).

So that someone who did an obviously bad job could pass the buck.

Author’s note: it’s 10:30 and Ray just showed up. Thank God.

Staining and Sealing

So the staining and sealing seemed to work.

Originally the stain was supposed to be a dark gray with white tile (a bit like subway tile, but square instead of rectangular). What they did instead was go white on white so that everything would blend together.

The builder and their reps typically have the latitude to do color switches like that per the original contract. I could have been a squeaky wheel and demanded dark gray but a) it looked fine and b) I’d already waited something like 40 days. I was ready for the tile thing to be over.

I finally got to use the shower and it was wonderful.

After The Tile: The Deadest Oak Tree In The United States of America

The Dead Tree in my backyard

It's not easy being green: The dead tree in my backyard

I’m not a big fan of builder landscaping.

Not because it’s ugly (it’s not … usually it’s very pretty). But the prettiness is usually planted in all the wrong places.

For example, one thing builder landscapers do is plant too close to the house.

I’ve been on countless home inspections where the inspector tells the new owner that the landscaping is too close to the house. When it’s too close it traps moisture against the house.

So that happened on my house as well. Lots of viburnum planted about six inches away from the outside wall and really close to the irrigation lines as well. Viburnum has a huge and tough root “block” when it gets established that can easily push through the irrigation lines (and the plumbing lines) as it grows.

The second thing is they planted river birch and crepe myrtle right under the eaves. Pretty yes, but both these species can grow up to a foot a year, and I don’t want them punching through the soffet. By the way, if you want to see crepe myrtle in its fully grown form, go to the St. Johns County Ag Center where you can walk through an arch of them, it’s really cool.

Anyway, the last punch list item after the tile was the Deadest Oak Tree in America.

Planted right in the back yard this thing was already dead by the walk through a week before closing. It went on the punch list. It’s still there.

The Way You Get A Punch List Done

You have to be a squeaky wheel to get a punch list done, yes. But you have to be polite. Yelling does not help.

And you have to focus on just one or two items at a time.

It really helps that, for the most part, my builder was really responsive to the punch list. All the stucco, paint, concrete, electrical, and plumbing work that popped up was fixed either before closing, or within a week of my notifying the builder (most of the time by the next day).

The breaker issue required two trips. After moving in we noticed a door sweep was missing (a few days to get the part) and the wash basin was unsecured (and it was secured the next morning).

So I approached it with the important items first, and as something got fixed, I asked about the next item.

For example it was like, “Hey the breaker was fixed but now it is tripping again, can someone come out?”

Then when the electrician came out and fixed it, I said, “Thanks for the fast breaker work. By the way, I haven’t heard anything about the tile in a week, can you follow up on that.”

Then, a few days later, “Hey, I noticed the wash basin wasn’t secured, how do I fix it?” And they texted back, “Don’t fix it! We’ll have someone out tomorrow!”

Then, “Thanks for the basin, that was fast work! Any word on the tile, it’s been two weeks.”

So this leads us back to the tree. The sticky issue of the tile is done. No other items have shown up. Now it’s time to address this relatively minor issue of a dead tree.

The thing is, I’m not sure I want to.

The Dead Tree, Again

The dead tree is what is locally known as a “pin oak” or a “water oak.” It’s a very common local tree and a fast liver: It usually grows and dies within 100 years. They get tall and spindly but not too round, and when they die they tend to rot from the inside so when they fall it usually comes as a surprise.

They drop a lot of acorns, and if an acorn falls where you don’t want it and starts to grow, it might keep popping up until you give up. Not a worry if it’s in an area you mow regularly, but it becomes an issue if it grows in an area where you have roses or flowers. You have to hand weed it or trim it For All Time … they don’t go away. In my old yard there you can see where I’ve trimmed some of these back to the ground for 13 years running, and where they’ve popped up again from sucker shoots, year after year.

It’s a bit like running bamboo, but the roots are almost impossible to get at. I’ve taken bamboo out, and used fence pullers to get the occasional rogue saw palmetto out, but I’ve never been able to get an oak out once it’s in.

With that in mind I don’t want another oak (well, maybe a live oak, a live oak would be cool). Since they’ll probably just stick in another pin oak I’m not all fired up and sending out texts to get it fixed.

I’m big into Florida natives so I think I may just choose another variety of native that will work better. I had dwarf versions of the very local East Palatka Holly (aka Yaupon Holly) planted at my old house, it might be nice to have the regular version. We’ll see…

Want a Broker who truly understands what to expect with a punch list? You can contact me at the email above, or call me at (904) 386-8327. You can also email my partner Kate Stevens; she’s a pro with new construction as well!

Find me on Google+.





Getting A House Ready For Sale: Overwhelming

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

by Sean Hess (, Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty ( Join us on Facebook.

These wood floors were cleaned four times.

These wood floors were cleaned four times: vacuumed twice, mopped once, and polished once.

As I was moving out of my house and saw the missing popcorn patches and dingy paint it occurred to me that many, many times I’ve listed homes for sale in exactly this condition.

And when I go into a listing appointment for these homes the owners still want–and somehow expect–full price.

It takes a lot of work getting a home ready for sale. It’s pretty overwhelming, actually.

But you can’t get top dollar unless you put in the work. That means doing it while you’re still living there, or doing it after you move out. I realize it takes a lot of time but here’s how it went for me…

The day after the house was empty I had drywallers come in, scrape the popcorn ceilings down throughout the entire house (including the garage), do drywall repair, and redo the ceilings in what’s called “knockdown” style. This started on a Wednesday and ended on a Saturday. As soon as the drywallers were done, the painters came in and painted everything, including the ceilings. It took them three or four days.

When the contractors were done I came in, and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. I even hired a cleaner to help me for two days.

Days blurred into one another. I cleaned floors, appliances, fireplace glass, everything. With drywall dust you have to vacuum it with special filters and bags, then vinegar and water it, and then you can polish. The wood floors were cleaned a total of four times, the tile floors three times. Lots and lots of hard work.

Then there was all the detail work. Outlet covers, lights, new door knobs, drawer pulls, stove coils and pans, dryer vent covers, caulking the odd piece of missing mortar, replacing ceiling fan blades, cleaning patio ceilings, pressure washing driveways, replacing shelves, new carpet in one room, and dozens of other details that just took time.

I’m still not done with the shelves. They’re only sold in 12′ sections so I will need to cut them in the parking lot (I can handle 9 or 10 feet max). I just haven’t had time.

There is/was the regular mowing and trimming that had to be done anyway while all this was going on, and I still had a new house with boxes that needed unpacking and stuff that needed done.

Finally there was a 1992 Dodge Daytona sitting in the driveway. But for the Grace of God and with a lot of help from my business partner Ron Barry we successfully installed a new fuel tank, fuel pump, fuel sending unit, rollover valve, and used nearly a whole can of starting fluid to get her running. It’s been a lot of fun driving that car around again.

This took many 12 hour days of heading over before work, working some of the day, or taking the whole day off work, and then heading back over after dinner to get this all accomplished.

I’ve told people the house has never looked better. I lived in it 13 years and it never looked this good when I lived in it. The people we bought it from left it in pretty rough shape. Over the years we really cleaned it up, added new floors, a new roof, new appliances, etc., but it still never looked this good.

I am pretty sure of the $ mark that the house will sell over. And I am pretty sure of where I can list it at. But I have no idea what the home will actually sell for.

Whatever she sells for, she will go at the top of her range, because of all the work put in.

If you want your home to sell at the top, you need to do the same things too.

Yes that means spending money. Yes that means possibly taking off work a day or more to get it done. Yes that means work at sunrise and sunset, before and after work.

No excuses. You can’t tell a Realtor you want the best price for your home, and expect a buyer to pay it if it’s anything less than in the best condition you can realistically get it.

Want a Broker who truly understands putting a house together for sale? You can contact me at the email above, or call me at (904) 386-8327. You can also email my partner Kate Stevens; she’s painting her home this week, and it’s not even for sale!

Find me on Google+.