Top left: Compass agent Melody Yip chats with homeowners Rachel and Mike Melby and their dog, Nala, on the expansive front deck of their El Cerrito home. Top right: A bistro table and chairs offer an alluring spot for morning coffee. Bottom left: The tall breakfast bar often doubles as a standing desk for Rachel. Bottom right: A vintage rug from the Alameda Point Antiques Faire adds a jolt of color to the white kitchen.

At Home in the East Bay

Outside-the-box search strategies and a stroke of luck landed one family their dream home in El Cerrito — in record time.

Images: Sarah Swangler

“I believe so much in putting your intentions out there, in being positive and authentic about what you need,” says Rachel Lightfoot Melby. “And that’s exactly what happened when we found our house.”

After the birth of their daughter, Rachel, a Google global brand strategist, her husband Mike, the director of consumer products for Asian media company Crunchyroll, and their son Max, 3, found that their two-bedroom, El Cerrito home had become terribly cramped. The family hadn’t planned to move on so quickly from their house of two years — in fact, they considered just adding on the space they needed — but “six to 12 months of living in a construction zone with little kids was just not something we were interested in doing,” says Rachel wryly.

Rachel, Mike, and their children Amelia, 1, and Max, 3, pose in the light-filled living room of their new home. At their feet is a vintage rug from Loom + Kiln, “a huge splurge, and the first thing I bought for our new home,” says Rachel.

Wanting to make the transition as swift and smooth as possible, Rachel reached out to Compass agent Melody Yip, a running club acquaintance whom she’d long followed on social media, for advice. “I said, ‘I’m just so overwhelmed by this, I don’t have time for this, can you just tell me what we need to do to get out of this house and into a bigger one — and start sleeping again?’” Rachel laughs.

Melody, left, targeted El Cerrito homeowners for off-market homes, while Rachel used social media to spread the word about her hunt for a new home.

With such a tight timeline in mind, the two got wildly creative about hunting down a home in El Cerrito’s lean market. They tried everything, from direct mailers, apps, social media, and even a few more unconventional methods too. The work paid off: In a happy twist of fortune, Rachel and Mike scored their new house off-market — and accepted an offer on their old home the very same day they closed.

What’s more, their new digs are so perfect for their family — right down to the built-in backyard swing set and playhouse — that they can only call what happened fate.

Top left: Melody chats with the Melbys on their back deck as their son, Max, plays on the house’s swing set. The swing set and an outdoor playhouse kitted out with electricity were included with the house. Top right: A small wooden bird house now hangs above the playhouse. Bottom: The property included a lemon tree that’s “very, very prolific — I now use a lot of lemons in our decor,” says Rachel.

What strategies did you and Melody use to both sell your old home and then find a new one concurrently — and fast?

Rachel: So not only was Melody selling our house and doing all this prep work for it, she’s working overtime at night trying to find us a house that we can get into right after getting out of our old one. Because the El Cerrito market is so slim and competitive, she did some out-of-the-box stuff; things I didn’t even know were possible. For example, she pulled data on all the homeowners who had three- and four-bedroom homes within a particular zip code and direct-mailed them to see if they would be open to an off-market sale. It was crazy! 300 of these things went out, and we actually got a few bites.

But because timing was everything, I also posted on my job board at Google. It turned out that a colleague I didn’t know was in a very similar situation, and she and her husband had the perfect home for us—we fell in love with the photos before we had even seen it in person. They’d already engaged a realtor for the sale, but I was like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa. What if you didn’t have to do that? What if you didn’t have to pay for painting and staging? What if we could just move in next week? Wouldn’t that be great?!’

“One of the things that’s so cool about this house is that we know the stories of every single owner who’s lived here since the builders built it,” says Rachel. “The last three owners were Googlers. And the family before the first Googler bought the home from the original owners and builders. Everyone who’s lived here has loved it so much, and has taken each previous owner’s story into account. And now its part of our story.”

What was it about that house that made you think, ‘This is it’?

Rachel: The property feels like a mini-compound. It has this great enclosed front yard that includes a big lawn and a deck area, and the house itself is set back and you can’t see it from the street. Then there’s the backyard, which is incredible, too. Having two young kids who just want to be inside-outside-inside-outside all the time, it’s just the perfect enclosed indoor-outdoor space that I never knew we needed. Its completely changed our lives. We feel like we’re outside all the time but not in public view. It’s been transformative.

The Melby’s back deck boasts a mesh canopy held up by thin wires, providing plenty of shade without boxing in the space.

The house also has a separate office space that I’m using as I start my own business this year, a co-working space for women here in the East Bay. Part of my whole dream has been to be in the East Bay everyday. (I’m even starting a hashtag on Instagram, #eastbayeveryday!) That’s another reason why this house is so special — I’ve always thought of myself as the East Bay ambassador. And now as somebody who’s starting a business here and eventually opening a physical space to form community here, it’s just so poetic to me that I’m centering my life around this home in the East Bay.

Max, 3, peers playfully around the couches in the living room. “This was a very easy move for us, all the furniture we already owned moved with us,” says Rachel. “We’d like to eventually purchase some pieces that perfectly match this home, but for now, we’re really content. We want for nothing.”

Did the timing for buying and selling, plus moving in and moving out work as you’d hoped?

It did! We ended up taking out a bridge loan to make the timing work, which was very scary but turned out fine. We got out of it right away because we accepted an offer on our property that came in beyond our expectations. We didn’t just pick the highest offer, though; we read through all the letters and decided we wanted to make someone else’s home ownership dreams come true, to pay our own good fortune forward. We accepted that offer on the same day that we closed on our house. And because of the bridge loan we were able to close in under a week, which was amazing.

Top left: Instead of artwork, Rachel hung a branch found on the El Cerrito hillside above their bed. Air plants and a moon ornament dangle from it. “I was looking for something to hang on that wall that wasn’t visually heavy — I’m not sure where I got the idea,” says Rachel. Top right: Rachel keeps her colorful, eclectic jewelry collection in a mirror from Target turned backside up. Bottom left: A secondhand painting of a mother and child that Rachel bought when pregnant with Max enjoys special placement on the wall. Bottom right: A penchant for bright colors and funky jewelry is part of Rachel’s signature style.

How else was Melody integral throughout both the buying and selling process?

Rachel: Melody has such a calming presence, from the way that she speaks on the phone to her reassurances over email. I’m the type of person who always wants to know all of the details, so not only was Melody soothing and validating throughout the process, she was overly-communicative in the way that I needed. I was like, ‘I need six updates a day, I need to know how many people came to our open house, I need you to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 of how likely they are to make an offer…’

Because I work on the peninsula, I wasn’t physically in the East Bay while all of this was going on, so I relied on Melody to meet the contractors, to come to our inspection, to do all of those things. She was my proxy for everything. We were in sync every step of the way.

Melody, left, chats with Rachel and Mike Melby in their front doorway. “The thing I love most about our house is being able to open all of these glass doors, both to the front yard and the back. Our whole house is just sandwiched between the two open areas,” says Rachel.

When we went to the title company together, we had a round of whiskey and I broke down in tears, telling her that we couldn’t have done it without her and that we considered her like a member of our family. She’s helped us find where we want to spend the next decade or so, and along the way she’s become a good friend.

I’ve just never thought that what could easily be a purely transactional experience could also be so special. What a fantastic memory and story we now share.

Want to work with an agent like Melody Yip? Compass partners with you throughout your home search and sell experience, providing deep knowledge of the San Francisco Bay area real estate market to help you find your place in the world.