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Archive for September, 2009

10 Ways to Pick the Right School District

One of the most important issues for homeowners is selecting a property in a good school district.  As your Realtor, I cannot legally offer my opinion about a specific school or school district but what I can do is steer you to good information on the topic.

This past weekend the Washington Post did a great article on “10 Ways to Pick the Right School District.” Here, in a shortened version, is what they suggest:

1Visit the school and ask to speak with the Principal. On a tour of the school, see if it’s well maintained, and if there is artwork and schoolwork on the walls. Prepare your questions and ask to speak with the Principal…if the Principal is unreachable, that may be a bad sign.

2If the district has gone through several recent superintendents, this also may be a bad sign.

3Talk to parents. Ask the school for the contact info of the officers in the PTA. Talk to parents, and listen.

4 Listen to your kids. With young kids, this may not matter so much, but jr. high and high school children will have opinions. See if the schools have extracurricular activities they’re interested in.

5Check the data. There are many, many statistics and reports available to help in your choice, if you look online.

6Look for a challenging high school in the neighborhood. When looking at school stats, don’t just look at test scores, since those can be misleading and are affected by a number of variables. Examine college level Advanced Placement courses, college level tests, and other such statistics.

7If an elementary school meets your standards otherwise, don’t look at test scores. Plenty of elementary schools with low test results have great teachers interested in raising the achievement of each and every child.

8Make sure the middle school has a strong math program. It is to a student’s advantage to study algebra before high school.

9 Don’t count on a top high school to get your child into a top college. The more brilliant the student body is, the more your child may lose out in the competition for the most prestigious colleges.

10Go with your gut. Unscientific, but trustworthy. Take everything into account, then do what you believe is right.

The Post has also added an education blog site called The Answer Sheet, A School Survival Guide for Parents (and Everyone Else). The site features pertinent articles as well as daily updates on school closings, schedules, events, etc.

For the complete text of “10 Ways to Pick the Right School District” click here.

And if you decide on a school district here in Northern Virginia, give me call and we’ll find that perfect house.


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently 3 Comments »

10 Things Your Real Estate Agent Won’t Say

MSN Real Estate posted an article recently on 10 Things Your Real Estate Agent Won’t Say – the first of which was:

1. “Your open house is really just a networking party for me.”
Hire a real-estate?broker to sell your home, and one of the first things he’ll likely suggest is hosting an open house so that potential?buyers can casually check out your property on a weekend afternoon. But while open houses are promoted as a great way of finding a buyer, a National?Association?of?Realtors?study found that their success rate is a mere 2 to 4 percent.

No matter. Holding an open house serves another important purpose — for the broker. “It gives him a database of clients,” says Sean McNeill, an independent?real-estate?broker based in New York City who says that he doesn’t like open houses, preferring to match clients with appropriate buyers. “

At open houses, you get all kinds of people walking in. Some are (trying) to see how much they should sell their own places for; others just want to get a look at what’s out there.” All are perfect?pickings?for?a?broker looking to increase his roster of buyers and sellers. “Think about it,” McNeill says. “The broker is devoting a couple hours of a weekend. He won’t do that unless it helps him in a big way.” But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a seller should forgo an open house altogether — “It’s still a real?good?way to showcase your house,” McNeill says.

I have to say, this one really gets me.  First, I take exception with the fact that McNeill says “the broker is devoting a couple hours of a weekend.”  Excuse me.  The couple of hours that the house is actually open is preceded by days of working with sellers to get their home in tip top shape.

Then there are pictures to take, brochures to design, postings to do on multiple online sites, comps to have ready on neighborhood properties, signs to put out, balloons to blow up, etc., etc., etc.  It’s not hard work – and I do it gladly –  but it is  more than a couple of hours (or maybe it’s just a couple of hours in New York City?).

Second, anyone who thinks this is the way a Realtor builds a significant data base is sadly mistaken.  Is it a way to meet more people?  Sure.  Ultimately though, it is about showcasing your house to a wide variety of folks.

Is it the only way to sell your house?  NO.  It is simply one option and a lot depends on location and type of property. You and Realtor should work together to make that decision.  That being said, I sold my very first property to a couple who came to see an open house I was holding.  Six years later I did an open house on the same property because my clients were “moving up”  – and yes, we sold it to someone who came to that open house.

Want to know more about buying and selling in Northern Virginia from someone who does it everyday?  Give me a call at 703.927.4554 and lets talk about what an open house can do for you.



Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently No Comments »

4 Great Ways to Be a “Leaf Peeper”

Here in Northern Virginia we are lucky enough to be in easy driving distance of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the mountains of western Maryland when we are ready to go “leaf peeping“.

But sometimes you just want – or need – a bit more.  Something that adds an extra edge.

Thanks to a terrific article in the Washington Post, we’re happy to offer you  4 Great Ways to be a “Leaf Peeper”.  Try these on for size and see what you think:

  1. Ride a gondola in Vermont
  2. Take the zip line in Massachusetts
  3. Soar over Pennsylvania in a glider
  4. Climb a tree in Virginia

I’ve got my eye on the gondola in Vermont.  What about you?  What kind of “leaf peeper” are you?


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently No Comments »

Pork Barrel Barbeque (BBQ) is Coming to Alexandria! Part Three

Ok, we’ve told you how much we love barbeque and we’ve told you about how Pork Barrel BBQ got started.  Now it’s time to talk about how Heath Hall and Brett Thompson have become media darlings and why Pork Barrel Barbeque is coming to Alexandria.

Shortly after their appearance at the Food and Wine Festival at National Harbor, Heath and Brett were contacted by local restaurant legend “Mango” Mike Anderson, owner of Mango Mike’s on Duke St.

Mike and business partner, Bill Blackburn had been on the lookout for a restaurant to locate in Del Ray and when they heard about the phenomenal taste sensation that is Pork Barrel Barbeque, they knew they had a winner. Little did they know that they were getting so much more than good food.

Heath and Brett are a virtual public relations machine.  In addition to talking their way into supermarkets and specialty shops, they won a spot on ABC’s Shark Tank where they picked up one investor; they appeared last Saturday on Fox and Friends in New York; this past week they were on News Channel 8 and for they next few weekends they will be making appearances at local Harris Teeter stores to promoted their All American Spice Rub and Sauce.  And they do it all with good grace, humor, and a deep seated belief that “reward lives in the House of Risk.”

Down to earth and smart as whips, Heath and Brett know they are riding a wave of phenomenal serendipity and they are taking nothing for granted.  Because no matter how much publicity they get, if the food doesn’t deliver, well, game’s over.

And that’s what we are really here to talk about – the barbeque.  Pork Barrel Barbeque will occupy the corner spot in a small new mixed used development at the corner of Mt. Vernon Avenue and Oxford – 2312 Mt. Vernon to be exact.  The restaurant will seat between 75 and 100 with take out expected to be a big component.

Although the menu is still in development, Alexandrian’s can look forward to pulled pork, ribs, brisket, homemade sausages, chicken and traditional “sides” – coleslaw, potato salad, cornbread, etc.  The pork shoulder alone will spend 14 hrs. cooking over a fire of hickory and oak wood. 

The only down side  – Pork Barrel Barbeque will not open until Spring 2010.  It’s going to be a long cold winter  . . . .Can’t wait that long?  Go to their Web site and order a jar of All American Spice Rub and the Barbeque Sauce and start dreaming of better things to come.

Trust me, we’ll be there with bells on when Pork Barrel BBQ does open and you’ll hear it here first.


Related stories:

Pork Barrel Barbeque (BBQ) is Coming to Alexandria! Part Two

Pork Barrel Barbeque (BBQ) is Coming to Alexandria! Part One

Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently 10 Comments »

A Day at the 2009 National Book Festival

Today was the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, DC and although the day promised rain, nothing could dampen our spirits.  Eager to claim our press passes and stake out our seats, we packed up and headed out about 9:00am.

Thirty minutes later when we got off at the Smithsonian Metro stop, the crowds were heavy and already filling the tents.  We staked out our seats in the Mystery and Thriller tent- second row, stage right – and Virginia headed to the media tent for our coveted press credentials.

A disclaimer – The National Book Festival is a huge event, drawing well over 100,000 folks with individual tents devoted to fiction and fantasy, poetry and prose, history and biography, teens and children, we knew we couldn’t see everything so we decided to devote ourselves to Mysteries and Thrillers.

First, let me set the scene.  Each genre has its own circus size tent with a stage, sound system and rows and rows of chairs.  The speakers are formally introduced, talk for 10-15 minutes, then take questions for their remaining time.

Some folks come and go between speakers, others stay put for the whole day – like we did!  We saw 12 authors in all but for expediency we are going to focus on our “favorite four.”

First was Michael Connelly who, while nursing a sore throat, was a game participant.  He talked about witnessing a robbery at the age of 16, how his character Hieronymus Bosch came to be and how writers “live for the moment that the wave (of ideas) comes.”

Next is an author new to us, Craig Johnson.  A real life cowboy from Wyoming, Craig does an award winning series featuring a small town (Western) police force.

The real surprise though is that Johnson could have a second career as a stand-up comic.  We laughed from beginning to end and would have loved an encore.

Our third pick is Lee Child.  We had a chance to talk briefly about the adventures and misadventures of protagonist, ex-Marine Jack Reacher.

Child told us that in addition to large print and audio books he does a special edition for a group of 200 ex-Marine Corp radio operators who have lost their eyesight and its done in Morse Code.

And our fourth and final pick  –  Lisa Scottoline.  A former prosecutor from South Philly, Lisa had us rolling in the aisles while celebrating the good work of librarians who opened the world of books to her.

We also made a quick trip to the media tent for some pictures of Paula Deen.  Much smaller than she appears on TV, she exhibited the same warmth and down home humor that have made her a darling of the airwaves.

By now it had started to rain so we beat a hasty retreat for the Metro home.  Wonderfully sated after a full day of books and authors at the 2009 National Book Festival, I’m ordering Chinese for dinner and tucking in with the new Michael Connelly.

I’ll let you know how I like it –


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently No Comments »

10 Coolest Small Towns in America

Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine recently did an article on the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America.  We love checking out small town in our travels and will definitely be keeping this list for future trips.  Only one of these towns is even remotely close to us here in Northern Virginia but we still thought it was worth sharing.

It’s a good reminder that small towns – and the folks who call them home –  have much to offer.  The Frommer criteria?  Great coffee, food with character and shop owners with purpose.

10 Coolest Small Towns in America

Cayucos, CA (population 3,000)   – half way between San Francisco and Los Angles, Cayucos is a mellow beach town with serious food and serious waves.

Lexington, VA (population 6,867) – “right out of a Norman Rockwell painting” and set between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains.  Home to Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute.

Breaux Bridge, LA (population 8,200) – world’s crawfish capital, one hour southwest of Baton Rouge; “right after the hurricane (Katrina), families took in people they didn’t know from Adam and put them up.”

Tubac, AZ (1,900) – galleries are framed by mountain views in the high desert 25 miles north of the Mexican border.  There is no traffic and no traffic lights.


Wallace, ID (population 1,000) – every building, including a brothel, is on the National Register of Historic Places; 87 miles of nearby trails are great for cyclists.

Saugerties, NY (population 5,000) – 100 miles north of New York City, Saugerties claims to be the book capital of the Hudson Valley.

Mount Vernon, IA (population 4,651) – a 20-minute drive east of Cedar Rapids, Mount Vernon sponsors a sidewalk chalk festival  but the town, because of liquor license restrictions is strictly BYOB.

Jacksonville, OR (population 2,750) – just over the California border and a refuge from the tourist whirl of Napa, Jacksonville is “all about the bucolic southern Oregon life.”

Rockland, ME (population 7,680) – “Rockland is filled with folks who have seen what the world has to offer and want to be here.”

Whitefish, MT (population 7,723) – a 35 minute drive from Glacier National Park, Whitefish is “at once folksy and stylish.”

So there you have it, the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America.

We’ve been to Lexington, VA (for a great wedding) and to Rockland, ME (another great wedding).  What places on the list have you visited?  We’d love to hear from you.


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently 1 Comment »

Choosing Your Realtor

You have decided to stop renting and you want to buy a home of your very own.  It’s scary, it’s a big purchase and you’re going to need help from a professional Realtor.

Not only are you going to need a professional, you are going to want someone  you can talk to, someone you can trust, and someone who makes you feel comfortable about the process.  So, how do you go about choosing your Realtor?

1) Ask friends and family for recommendations but don’t be afraid to do your own research too.

2) Choose a local Realtor.  He or she will know the area better than an “outsider” and will have access to a list of vendors (plumbers, electricians, etc. that might be useful to you once you find your property.  Any money that you might save by using Great Uncle Harry or Third Cousin Susie from “back home” will be lost in their lack of knowledge about the local market – right down to specific neighborhoods.

3) Ask for references – he or she should be willing to give you the names of previous clients.

4) Don’t be fooled by a Realtor who tells you they have “special” access to information.  All Realtors’ have access to the same data base  – it’s   how they use it that counts.

5) Don’t be “wowed” by someone who quotes you massive statistics about the sales they have made.  Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t.   It’s what they will do for you that counts, not what they did for someone else.

6) Don’t be “wowed” by someone who shows off all the latest technology or put off by someone who is showing a bit of gray.  It’s not a case of technology vs. experience – it’s a combination of both.

7) Look for someone who is generous with resources and time.

8) Finally, find someone you feel comfortable with.  Someone who is willing to walk you through the process step by step.  Someone who is willing to answer any and all questions.   Someone who can anticipate and help solve any problems.   Someone who is going to help you find the house that you want rather than just making the sale.

Buying a house should be fun and exciting.  Choosing your Realtor is just the first step.

Want to know more?  Give me a call at 703.927.4554.


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently 1 Comment »

Pork Barrel Barbeque (BBQ) is Coming to Alexandria! Part Two

Ok, so the other day we shared our personal love of barbecue and how it even made an appearance on our wedding day.  Today we are going to dive right into the heart of the matter and tell you how Pork Barrel Barbecue got started and why it’s coming to Alexandria.

Heath Hall and Brett Thomson met as staffers in the office of U.S Senator Jim Talent of Missouri.

Conservative politics was a given but they also shared a mutual love of slow cooked pork, smoky ribs, tangy sauces and a strong belief in the power of small businesses.

One night, during yet another long session on pork barrel spending – and while eating pizza for the fifth night in a row – Heath and Brett had what can only be called a eureaka moment. Why not start their own small business and why not call it Pork Barrel Barbecue?

But, being the smart young men that they are, they did not quit their day jobs.  And they decided to start small, with a single product, a seasoning rub.  Fast forward to December 2008.

After endless experimenting in Heath’s kitchen and trial and error experiments with family and friends,  Heath and Brett found a manufacturer and then a distribution system – pounding the pavement.

Their very first customer was our friend Steve Gatward at Let’s Meat on the Avenue in Del Ray. Their products now sell in 65 stores (including Harris Teeter, Ukrops and Balducci’s) in 4 states and the District of Columbia and on the Pork Barrel Barbeque Web site.

Their next move was an appearance at Beer, Bourbon & BBQ day at National Harbor and then the Food and Wine Festival (also at National Harbor) where they met local food writer/critic and personal chef Jordan Wright.  From there they moved to the Safeway National Capitol BBQ Battle in late June.  And here’s where it gets interesting.

Armed with their trusty backyard Weber grill and a batch of sauce that Heath “whipped” up the night before, the boys went up against the legends of barbeque, some of whom were rolling with $40,000 custom grills.  In a David and Goliath moment, Heath and Brett took 2nd place with their sauce and 4th place with pulled pork!

Capitalizing on their win, they replicated the sauce for mass production and had it on the market within two weeks.

Next?  A call from local restaurant legends “Mango” Mike Anderson and Bill Blackburn.

We’ll wrap up this amazing story how about how Pork Barrel Barbecue is coming to Alexandria in Part Three so stay tuned.

I am soooooooooo hungry,


The pulled pork picture is Heath and Brett’s entry at the National Capitol BBQ Battle

Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently 4 Comments »

The Smallest House in Alexandria, VA – and Maybe the United States.

The smallest house in Alexandria, VA – located on Queen Street in Old Town  – is actually one of the smallest houses in the United States:  it is a mere 7ft. wide and 36 ft. long.

It’s history goes some thing like this:

John Hollensbury, a brick maker, built the tiny house in the 1830s, for his daughters, Julia and Harriett. The “lot” on which it was built was actually a narrow alley between Hollensbury’s house and his neighbor’s.

Local lore has it that Hollensbury built the house because he wanted to keep his neighbor’s oversized carriage out of the alley, where it scraped the walls of Hollensbury’s house. Thus, the construction earned the nickname “Spitehouse.”  Unfortunately we don’t have any recorded information on how Julia and Harriett liked living in their very own doll house.

The house was last sold in 1990 for $125,000.  Owned by an individual who has his primary residence in North Arlington, he uses the Queen St. house as a weekend retreat.

The front door opens directly into the living room where there is a “normal” size sofa.  Beyond that is a steep narrow stairway to the second floor.   A cupboard beneath the stairs holds a small microwave oven.  On one wall in the kitchen is  a counter, a small sink, small four-burner gas range and under the counter Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer.

A wooden table is pushed against the other wall where three can dine comfortably. If it is pulled out and someone sits on a built-in bench at the end of the counter, four or more can use the table. At the rear is a door to the patio. Shelves and small built-in cabinets add storage space.

Upstairs, a bathroom with a claw-footed tub/shower is at the rear. Storage space lines a narrow hall beside the stairs, and a bedroom with a large single window overlooks the street. A full-size double bed is pushed sideways against a wall; it is made up as if the side against the wall is the head but you sleep the other way.

Now a 350 sq. ft. house might not be your dream, but if you are interested in looking in other historic properties in Old Town Alexandria, give me a call at  703.927.4554 or email me at [email protected].


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently 3 Comments »

When is the City of Alexandria Liable? Part Two

As you can imagine, the thread on our neighborhood listserv regarding what and when the City of Alexandria is liable for homeowner damages was quite lively.

The general consensus seems to be that the first response of the city is NO but that patience and persistence often win out.  One neighbor wrote (I paraphrase): about four years ago, the city allowed a private contractor to bore holes underneath the sidewalks  to lay fiber optic cable. In the process, they broke 80 yr. old clay sewer pipes that worked great.

The damage resulted in sewage backing up to my house and causing $14,000 worth of damage.  I fought it tooth and nail. It took close to a year, but the city finally leaned on the contractor’s insurance company to cover the damage. It seemed the city attorneys first response to every problem like this is to push it back on the homeowner. I was relentless and threatened to get the local newspaper to write about it.

It was only then that the city attorney relented and agreed to lean on the contractor to get his insurance to pay.  You just have to document everything with photos and memos and continue to press the city council and city attorney so they know you are serious. 

From another resident: a garbage truck hit my parked vehicle and they (the city) tried to tell me it was my fault.

Interestingly, the one respondent who sided with the city on the issue of the tree damage was an insurance agent.  This neighbor filed with her auto insurance and then asked the city to conduct regular inspections of the tree, which they did.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer here except that the City responds on a case-by-case basis.

My non-attorney advice –

Have a story you’d like to share about dealing with the city?  Let me hear from you.


Posted by Michael Bergin | Currently No Comments »

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