Friday, February 29, 2008

I'm Free Again!

Congratulate me! My husband bought a new old car yesterday--finally!

After looking for months at many different models, he decided on a '97 Lexus with 172,000 miles on it. The owner was asking $5,750. The Kelley Blue Book was $6,400, and my husband negotiated down to $5,000. Since this Lexus model was made by Toyota, we know that it'll last for several more years. I'm really surprised by how attractive the car looks, and our mechanic said that it's in great shape. It'll need rear brakes soon and a new battery and cables. What a deal!!

My husband did an abundant amount of research on each car that he considered. He test drove a few, too. It's amazing how many people just handed him their keys and let him take the car for a drive--alone--after meeting him only minutes before. Either they want the car to be stolen so that they'd be able to collect the insurance because it's a piece of junk or my husband looks like a totally trustworthy guy. I hope it's the latter.

After we drove the car home, I called my friend who had agreed to take the Toyota Camry off of our hands. She said that they'd just returned from buying a '95 Mercedes (not diesel) with 117,000 miles on it for $3,500. Her husband found it that day and bought it on the spot. We took months to find the right vehicle. They took one day, and got the better deal, apparently. I'm happy that we won't have to worry about her with a small child and our unreliable car. But I have to admit, I'm a little curious as to why it was so laborious for us and so easy and cheap for them.

Regardless, I'm thrilled that now the kids and I can go out whenever we want to. I love my property, but there were moments when it felt as if we were wearing prison ankle monitors for home confinement. Trapped? No. Just overwhelmed, at times, when I'm not able to complete my tasks by running important errands. Now I can experience the joy of taking all the kids shopping with me. The funny looks. Sarcastic comments. Pointing. We're a circus sideshow, you know. And the funny thing is that my children behave well in the stores. They are aware of the consequences if they don't. The next time I go shopping, the perpetrator will have to stay home with Daddy. No tastes. No surprises. No treats. For those who've experienced that type of confinement, it's enough to keep them in line.

Sometimes I see parents with one or two children having a difficult time. Oh, yes, I remember those days well. It's harder to have fewer kids--for me, anyway (except when it comes to sleep deprivation). People frequently stop me to ask about the children. I feel the constant stares. And I tell the kids that they speak volumes about big families, without ever saying a word.

Our outings have given me the opportunity to perform an odd scientific experiment, of sorts. Whether I have five, six, or all seven children with me, strangers seem incapable of counting to more than four. I take this as a direct reflection on the sorry state of education in this country. "So, you have four?" I'm frequently asked. "No, I have seven--see? Five boys and two girls--seven. Five plus two equals seven. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven."

When I was pregnant with my fifth, a cashier surveyed the boys and asked what I was having. When I told her it was another boy, she spat, "OH! I feel so sorry for you!" I took one look at the boys' crestfallen faces and said, "Please don't. I'm the luckiest person in the world with all of these boys!" We left with big smiles because, regardless of what anyone says, my kids only really care about what I think.

When I had six, I was in the Wal-Mart toy department looking for a birthday present for a friend. My oldest sons were off in the electronics department (because there's nothing more to life than complicated electrical gadgets), so there were only four with me. I turned a corner with two in the basket and the other two hanging off the sides. It was heavy, so I had a hard time stopping it and almost ran directly into an older lady, who proclaimed, "Oh no! Do you think you have enough children?" I immediately replied, "I don't think you can ever have enough children." I find it difficult to explain to my kids why people make comments in front of them as though they can't hear.

The question people ask almost every time I'm in public with six of the kids is also my favorite. Never fail, someone will look at us and say, "Are they all yours?" (Yes, it's also the most inane question.) To which I ask, "You mean are these all my children?" When they nod, I tell them "No . . ." (they smile and give a great sigh of relief--as though they have to care for them) " . . . we have another one in college." I'm tempted to take my camera out and snap a picture of their facial expressions . . . but I would never dream of being that rude.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Growing Pains

As you know, my husband and I started a promotional products company last year to help us overcome our real estate losses. We have been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of opportunity available to us. It's just a bit too much.

To get our feet wet, we took on many very small accounts here in Temecula. It's great to get to know these customers and work closely with them (that's my husband's job), but the profits from these have been small. Minuscule, to be exact. The work involved, on the other hand, in the development of the design and graphics, and the completion of the project, takes many hours. This has distracted us from the bigger accounts.

In two of the other areas that we've branched into, we have very large customers. However, they haven't been serviced by us in a timely manner because of all the work involved with the many small businesses clients. Now that most of the less profitable initial orders have been fulfilled (reorders are much easier), we've decided to pursue only large accounts and service fewer of them. For example, we can have 200 smaller customers or 25 big ones, which would net us about the same profit. Besides volume, of course, this is due to the fact that the products we order have steep discounts at higher quantities. Some of these big businesses order 1,000 or more of the same item with the same graphic, while our smaller clients may make 24-72 piece orders. The work is identical, the profit is more.

Our challenge now, as we suffer these growing pains, is to show our customers at the large accounts that the turn around time is much faster than previously estimated, and to start pumping out the products (there are numerous steps prior to the completion of one new order). By developing a good reputation in a close-nit industry or two, our business will grow by word of mouth and personal customer service. It has already, but with the less profitable companies. So we may have to turn down some new clients, who don't have the volume to satisfy our desired profit margin (unless they can combine orders with other business owners, which has happened in the past).

We're consulting with advisers and mentors about forming a strong foundation in order to start hiring contract employees. Without the proper internal structure to handle the training, management, payroll, and order fulfillment of a single employee (or more), our business would not be on solid ground. We would lose customers by having too many orders and either not being able to fulfill them, or completing them in an unsatisfactory manner.

So, I must be patient, as my ever-so-wise husband reminds me--on a daily (or sometimes hourly) basis. If I get too eager, I think I'll just blog about it instead of bugging him.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Foreclosure Auction

How would you like this job? Would it be worse than being an undertaker? It's kind of depressing to make the final decision as to when a person's home is taken away. It's true that the auctioneer wasn't the one who decided to borrow more than he could afford and then not make the payments. Yet I wouldn't have warm fuzzies at the end of every work day after officially taking kids' homes away from them. As an undertaker, at least you're doing something to comfort a family in mourning. You didn't kill the deceased. He came that way. It seems that, as a foreclosure auctioneer, your killing hopes and dreams, even though none of it was your fault.

I remember when my husband and I decided to thoroughly investigate the possibility of buying foreclosures. It was around 2003 or so and the first step I took was to buy a book on the subject and read it, front to back, in a matter of days. I took notes and researched at the library and on the Internet. We didn't want to be in the market of preforeclosures because of the work and competitiveness (remember all of the "We'll Buy Your Home in 3 Days!" signs?) involved in attempting to contact people who had fallen behind on their payments, and trying to convince them to sell their homes to us. We were attracted more to the process of purchasing foreclosures.

However, our analysis wouldn't be complete until we attended a foreclosure auction. We figured that we would talk to some pros there and get the scoop on how it worked--and whether or not there was any money to be made from it.
When the appointed day arrived, we drove to downtown San Diego and saw the people waiting on the steps of the courthouse for the auctioneer. Several men carrying clipboards were milling around. We found a parking space (wheels crimped, less than 18 inches from the curb, and a full parking meter--because if you park illegally in downtown San Diego, you'll have a ticket from one of the gazillion meter readers in about 23 seconds flat). Then we bounced over to the small crowd.

We walked up to the closest victim gentleman, smiled, said "Hello", introduced ourselves, and stuck our hands out for a nice, firm handshake. The guy looked away. No salutation. No smile. No shake. Just turned around. We figured that he was having a bad day (at 9:00 in the morning?). So we sprung over to the next person. Same thing.

At first, we didn't understand what was going on. We had been holding free seminars for our friends and others in order to show them how we were buying real estate. I simply gave away comprehensive lists of vendors, web site addresses, and areas that we had researched. I spent hours working on a form that highlighted all of the important aspects of investing that we had learned. The packet we compiled was full of useful information, lease samples, and an apartment association folder. We would counsel couples one-on-one, which took much of our time. I answered myriad questions over the phone--everyday. What good would it do me to keep all of that information to myself? I figured that there was enough real estate to go around for everyone.

It was obvious that the foreclosure regulars didn't have our same philosophy in the sharing of specialized knowledge. We approached each of the five or six men until we finally found someone who would talk to us. Unfortunately, he was one of us, so not very helpful. The auction started and that's when we figured out why these people acted as they did. Every single one of them were employees for large companies that were picking up San Diego foreclosures at the time. There were very few houses available, and many on the list were postponed or canceled due to payments being made at the last minute. These workers were afraid that we wanted them to tip their hats as to the amounts they were bidding and for the estimates of repairs needed on these properties. How sad.

We left feeling that we didn't want to take part in something so competitive. These employees were paid to spend their entire time researching each foreclosure and then hanging around the courthouse to try to acquire the best ones. With the responsibility that I had at home, I knew that I'd never be able to compete with that. I also didn't like their attitude. I figured that it may rub off on me if I spent time with them, and that wouldn't benefit anyone in my household.

So we crossed foreclosures off of our list and determined that, eventually, we'd find the right income-producing real estate investment vehicle for us. Unfortunately, two years later, we decided that apartments were the way to go, and the rest is history.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Neighbors, Part II

We moved to that old house by Jack Murphy Stadium after escrow closed and quickly learned that there were no "parents" at the home across the street. The men were independent and in their mid-twenties sharing a home--and they were anything but quiet. We got along very well with them, being in our twenties ourselves. However, it was a constant loud party atmosphere. One day they came over and invited us to their pajama party. How sweet, we thought. So we got the boys ready. We were still home when their guests started to arrive. We peeked out of the window and had to cover the boys' eyes. It was a pajama party alright, but not for kids.

Later, I pulled up to my house to find an undercover detective sitting in a car at my curb, staring intently at the house across the street. Way to be incognito. He knocked at my door and asked me a variety of questions about the men who lived there. I couldn't answer most of them, except to tell him that people came by night and day, and it was one big continuous party. He told me that they were being investigated for selling drugs. What a shock.

The lady who lived next door to the party house was older. She was the street gossip and I dreaded bumping into her when I left my house (we didn't have a garage, so we had to park in the one-car driveway and street). I was leaving with my then four-year-old son, when she cornered me. I had let my son in the car already and was about to buckle him in when she approached. I tried to say goodbye many times, but she would ignore me and continue to talk.

She went on relentlessly about everyone, especially the men who lived next door to her. As I intently watched her lips moving at warp speed, I noticed, through the corner of my eye, that my car starting to drift forward. At first I thought my eyeballs were just rolling to the back of my head, but as the car inched past me, I realized that I had to act quickly. I ran to the driver side door, opened it, and jumped in head first, pushing the brake pedal down with the palm of my hand. My son had been playing in the driver's seat and released the emergency brake. As I lay on my belly half way in and half way out of the car, blowing a piece of grass off my lips, my neighbor looked down at me and said, "You know, you really should watch him more closely when he's in the car." All I can say is that she was lucky my hands were busy.

We moved from there to the idyllic neighborhood of Sabre Springs (north county San Diego). The people on our street of 10 homes all moved in on the same week and we instantly bonded. All had children, except for one couple, two doors up from our house. They were very vocal about their disdain for kids. They were young, but had already decided that they were not going to spawn. Otherwise, we were very happy there until the developer opened up the street to a very pricey neighborhood above us (this was disclosed when we bought the home).

Unfortunately, the builder did not take precautions to ensure that the traffic did not exceed the speed limit when they flew down the hill passed our homes. We tried to reason with the developer to no avail, and the city wouldn't listen, either. This forced us to picket the grand opening and call the television stations so that there would be bad publicity associated with the ritzy development. The next day, a representative from the company called and explained that the city would be installing a stop sign within two weeks--and they did.

No one seemed to pay attention to the stop sign. This was a problem, as there were many kids on our block. Although we didn't allow our children to play in front unsupervised, other parents did. They also let them roam by themselves. We wanted a road bump (aka, speed bump). The city said that it would be impossible because it was a major inlet for emergency vehicles to access the new neighborhood. Also, the street was too wide. Both of these reasons completely precluded installation of a road bump. So I called our council member and had her representative attend a meeting at our house. I made sure that the neighbors would be present and vocal about our need to slow the traffic. There was only one household opposed to the bump--you guessed it. I guess her Corvette was too low to clear the bump, and they were worried about property values. However, because of the traffic on the street, I felt that it would improve property values (we had no trouble selling it years later).

When the time of the meeting came, I was surprised to find the Corvette owner at my door. I graciously let her in. In the middle of the meeting, she stood up and announced that they were opposed to the road bump because it would scrape the bottom of their car, regardless of the danger that the traffic posed to the children, and would fight it tooth and nail. The bump was approved and installed--and the Corvette cleared it by a mile.

Now for the winner of the "All Time Worst Neighbor" award. . .

In this same Sabre Springs neighborhood, as I've mentioned twice before on this blog, there was a man who lived four houses down from ours. He was a very nice guy and helpful neighbor. Everyone liked him. Unfortunately, he's on Death Row right now for kidnapping a child from her bed (six years ago this month), torturing, and brutally killing her. The family lived two doors down from us in the opposite direction of Corvette couple. Yep, a child-molesting killer, living a few houses away, pretty much takes the cake for worst neighbor ever. (D, we will always remember.)

I'm pleased to inform you that after being here in Whine Country for almost five years, we have had the most quiet and considerate neighbors of anywhere we've lived. Maybe it's due to the fact that our houses are hundreds of feet apart. There was a rooster next door to us that was somewhat annoying, but he's been long gone. Everyone here just tries to be considerate of others, and, with a little effort, we live in peace.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Neighbors, Part I

Back in the day when houses actually cost money, the adage was that location was the determining factor in the value of real estate. I'd like to add that the type of neighbors also plays a role in whether or not a buyer finds your area attractive.

We've had our share of unique and interesting neighbors in the various places that we've lived. Most of the time, we don't know who we're going to get stuck with next door or on the same street. Even if we're happy with the personality make-up of our neighborhood, someone may sell and we still run the risk of a loon living within a stone's throw of our abode.

The second place we lived as a newly married couple was an apartment on Mesa College Road in Kearney Mesa (San Diego). (Just in case you were wondering, before that we lived downtown for six weeks, under the landing path of the San Diego Airport.) I walked to my classes at the junior college and my husband rode our tiny Vespa scooter all the way to the Navy Base in Point Loma (on the side of the road because it didn't go over 30 mph). We didn't know our neighbors there, but the lady next door had plenty of male company . . . day and night . . . one at a time. It seemed that she never left the apartment.

We moved out of there when we bought our condo in Point Loma (which was under the departure path of the airplanes). Our first son was 10 months old and we lived upstairs from a young couple. The guy was super uptight. Every time my son made a peep, the neighbor would be knocking on our door telling us to quiet down. A few years later, we had another son. It would bother the guy to no end when our children would run through the 800 square foot condo. He asked if we couldn't go to the library or park or somewhere when the boys wanted to play (mind you, I was working full time and we were rarely home). We were always polite until . . .

My son had had an accident and was released from the hospital just days before Christmas. It was a very traumatizing time in our lives and we were so happy to have him home (although much follow-up care was necessary). We were determined not to buy our Christmas tree until he could pick it out with us. Needless to say, we bought the biggest tree that we could find and my husband dragged it up the outdoor steps to our unit. We were overjoyed at the prospect of decorating the tree and having our son home for the holidays. However, just minutes after we walked in, Mr. Grumpy stomped up the stairs, pounded at our door, and irately stated that the tree dragging incident made too much noise. That sent me over the edge. I told him 1) he should seriously consider never living in a downstairs unit again, and 2) the next time we disturbed him, he should call the police and tell them that the people upstairs are walking around and decorating their Christmas tree. Otherwise, I expected that he never knock at our door again. And he never did.

Our condo complex of seven units was built on a lot that used to contain one house, so we were very close to the apartments next door. One apartment unit was a freestanding structure, like a house. This was directly under the balcony of our master bedroom. Unfortunately, it was occupied by two bachelor Navy seals. It was a party every weekend and we were tired of the noise lasting all night. We would call the owner at 2:00 AM (he was bright enough to have his home number painted on the perennial sign in the front yard). He was annoyed, but couldn't stop the seals from having a good time. We called the police. It would take them three hours to come out and break up the parties.

My husband, being in the Navy at the time, knew the power that the commanding officers had over the men in their division. We thought it might prove useful to videotape the party goers so that they could be identified by their superiors and be busted for disorderly conduct. So, one weekend evening, I stood on that balcony, with my giant camcorder (it was 1989), and called out to everyone who arrived at the party to wave at the camera. The night was over before it began. Within two weeks, the seals moved. It was just too easy.

Soon we were ready for a real house with a yard for the boys. We found one at an open house up the hill from Jack Murphy Stadium in a 50 year old neighborhood called Mission Village. When we went to view the home again, we noticed a few rowdy men in their late teens or early twenties directly across the street. Noticing our concern, the agent assured us that the parents were on vacation and the kids were home alone. Not to worry, she said, it was a very quiet street. We soon learned otherwise.

To be continued tomorrow, when I announce the winner of the "All Time Worst Neighbor" award. Stay tuned . . .

Friday, February 22, 2008

Owned By Credit

Coincidently, I found two news articles about credit cards yesterday. This one is about some of the bad card policies out there. While this story explains legislation that will provide consumer protection against unscrupulous credit card practices.

I think I'll go back to my college and professional employment days (do I even remember them?) to perform some analysis on these news stories. It's sounds boring, I know, but I'll do my best to hold your incredibly short attention spans.

First, you must know that I do not have an objective perspective on this topic (surprise!). Back in the day of owning our albatross apartments and using our credit cards just to stay alive, we had a rate climb from 9% to 16% to 24% for no reason. We just got our bill one day and my husband almost fainted. He called the company and fought tooth and nail for them to reduce the rate, as we had been paying on time every month. The best they would do was drop it for one month because we didn't have advance warning (we were supposed to have received a letter that mysteriously never appeared). So, don't expect me to be too sympathetic toward the credit card companies. On the other hand, I also don't support the use of buying discretionary items on credit, either.

Notice in the first article, "The Worst Credit Card Deals in America," it's necessary to tie in the higher interest rates with mortgages:

"Just a few years ago, card companies were stumbling over each other to woo new accounts, offering all sorts of incentives, like zero-interest periods and lavish rewards programs, to get people to sign up.

Then again, so were mortgage brokers."

And . . .

"Of course, this is also playing out against a backdrop of declining spending and rising delinquencies. Bank profits have been hard-hit by subprime mortgage exposure."

These are true statements, and the economy, as a whole, is tanking, but to make that direct relationship an explicit given is unnecessary. The article could have stood alone without the reference to the loan fiasco. It's like saying, "These companies are so unreasonable because of subprime mortgages." I remember the problems with credit card providers going back many years. They've always tried to rip off the general public. This isn't new.

Surprisingly, the claim is made that there are only six major credit card providers (Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Capital One Financial, American Express, and Discover). Could this be the reason why they're getting away with highway robbery? And, if you want to stay with a smaller bank, the lengths that they go to make an extra buck rival that of the big companies. To have the benefits of a secured "credit" card, you pay a $59 annual fee plus $140 start up fee and 19.5% interest on the purchases you make--as soon as you make them. This is just to use your money, people. Obviously, the only reason to have a card like that is to build up your poor credit in order to buy something bigger with more borrowed money. Right?

Then there's the card with the 9.9% interest rate and $300 limit that charges you $256 in fees right off the bat. So you 1) use almost your entire limit before you even receive the card, and 2) not realizing this, will probably spend over your limit and be charged an extra fee and higher interest rate. What a deal. This card is rivaled only by the one with a $250 limit that charges $200 in initial fees and a 19.92% rate.

And make sure you check your mail faithfully because if you're on a business trip, miss the bill, and your payment's late, you can expect to pay 30% in interest on some cards. Couldn't I get a better deal in some back alley from a guy named Sal with a deviated septum wearing a trench coat? But, with profits down 35%, the banks need to recoup the costs somehow. With such a captive audience, it's an irresistible temptation that proves to be lucrative.

Don't despair. In the second article we have the government swooping in to save the day . . . or to save consumers from themselves, depending how you look at it. It would be ludicrous for Congress to attempt to legislate a ceiling to how much spending we do on credit. The world would cease to exist as we know it--literally.

"The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008, known as H.R. 5244, would protect cardholders from arbitrary interest rate increases and unfair fees . . . (the) bill does not have any price controls. It does not cap rates or fees . . . (It) would prohibit credit card companies from arbitrarily changing their contract with a cardholder . . . The credit card company would also be required to give you 45 days notice in writing that your rate was going to change."

It will also limit "universal default" and "double-cycle billing," and give a longer grace period. Of course, the banks claim that this will only make credit "more expensive and less accessible." Hmmm. Is that a bad thing?

I say that, if your credit card company messes with you, pay off your balance with another cheaper card. But, before you sign on with any of these providers, read the fine print and be determined to pay off your purchases every month. After all, they can't scam you, if they don't own you.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Frugal Tips

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a reader to provide some frugal tips that I've found useful in my everyday life. I don't consider myself frugal. I'm just cheap. With all the money that we lost in real estate, I don't have the luxury of buying much of anything.

I'm allergic to spending money on stuff that I don't need. My children have taught me that shiny new merchandise in the store mysteriously turns into broken ugly junk when it passes through our front door. As I ogle an item that I'm tempted to buy, a vision of what it'll become flashes through my head, and I drop it like a hot potato. So my first tip is not to buy anything that won't last for at least 10 years.

Since I've grown quite attached to the children, I can't give any of them away (plus, some are old enough to find their way back). So I'm not going to say that the best money-saving tip is to have fewer kids. The more you have, the more use you get from the toys that the first one was given for various holidays, birthdays, and for just being born and burping all the time.

Now that we've established the fact that the kids stay, I'm forced to employ money-saving tips in my home. The best way to save on utility bills is to rip the thermostat from the wall the second escrow closes on your home. If you haven't done that yet, go now. Run, don't walk. Believe me, without heating or air conditioning, you'll save a fortune. You live in a state where the temperature drops below freezing? That's what fireplaces are for. Isn't it worth staying up all night to feed the hearth instead of wasting your hard-earned money on natural gas or electricity? Firewood is cheaper than propane. Take my word for it.

When the little ones are hungry, I just make a trip to Costco . . . during lunch. For free food samples. I save so much on our grocery bill that it more than makes up for the membership fee. If we stay long enough, we can have dinner, too. It's so great when Daddy can join us for a family supper and we all sit around the dining room table on display enjoying our plates full of tiny taste cups!

In addition to the tips above, we don't perform frivolous repairs on our vehicles. A hubcap is missing? Oh well. We tried to attach one that we found in the street, but it fell off, too. So what if the van, with gigantic tires, looks like Lucy Ball when she blacked out her front teeth. I can't see it when I'm driving. A door comes off when your teenage driver jolts forward while you're still getting in? Just wear a raincoat if you have to go somewhere when the weather is bad. Otherwise, enjoy the ambiance of cruising through Whine Country in an open sedan on a bright sunshiny day. Don't forget to buckle up!

We do see the dentist every six months because it's less expensive to prevent a cavity than to fill one. We travel to San Diego because that dentist is very nice and charges us a fraction of what others cost. However, we save by not seeing the optometrist regularly. I mean, literally, that we are unable to see him when we finally go in. We can't see the chart for that matter, either. I guess we've decided that having a sparkly smile is more important than reading a street sign.

And, last but not least, learn how to mend. The myriad holes that crop up in kids clothes may tempt you to buy more for them. But it's not necessary. It only takes a minute to thread a needle and close up that pesky eyesore. If you have to sew an item more than once, it may become cinched enough for the younger boy to wear it before his time. Socks, underwear, etc. all can be passed down from one child to the next (as long as they ignore the stains). An added benefit to learning how to use a needle is the money you save on ER visits for stitches. Do-it-yourself is the way to go!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Where Will My Stimulus Money Go?

I'm sure the thought that my family will make a killing when the government hands out free money has crossed your minds. I don't know how much we'll receive, but early reports indicate that we may get as much as $3,300 ($600 for each of us plus $300 for each of the seven dependents). Do we have to stand in line for that or will they just send it to us? I hope the check clears.

Anyway, does the government really think that I'm going to run out and buy a big screen TV, brand new car, or some other frivolous item. Maybe they should check people's credit first and only send checks to the ones who have large credit card balances--because they're sure to go out and perform some economy stimulation. I mean, if I were at risk for foreclosure, is the $1,200-$1,800 that most will receive really going to help? I think not. (Here is an explanation of why the economy may benefit from the plan.) When you contemplate it long enough, the thought of the federal government handing us all money because the economy is sluggish seems like a bizarre solution in a free enterprise system. In the future, can we merely call a toll-free number and make a request when we need a boost every now and then? I'll just ask for a couple thousand here and a few hundred there. Don't want to wear out the proverbial welcome mat.

So, what do I intend to do with my free money? Most likely, save it. Or, maybe, put it into our business. If we use it for our company, and, as a result, it grows, won't that help the economy more in the long run than if I go out and buy a new computer? I guess saving it would have the opposite effect, except for the fact that the banks may do better if everyone forks it over to them.

If I were the government (I shudder at the mere mention), I would allow the checks to be applied solely toward the purchase of goods. The back of the the voucher could outline specifically, in tiny writing, what the general public may buy with their "money". Then we hand it over to the retailer (or retailers, if we want to shop at various stores) and they use it like a gift card, sending totals to the feds for redemption. Would that anger people? I suppose so. The prevailing opinion may be, "Hey, that's my money! You can't tell me what to do with it!" Yes, we are, essentially, paying for the government's supreme generosity through the nose our taxes (although the article I reference states that the higher-income taxpayers, who are not eligible, are paying for it). But, let's not forget that they are under no obligation to give it back to us. So, if strings were attached to the stimulus, we're still ahead.

Obviously, for me, that would be the worst restriction in the world because I don't like to buy "stuff." Ever. I have a house crammed with toys and clothes and everything else "necessary" to support NINE people, three dogs, and 10 chickens (who, by the way, don't live in the house). Take my word for it, I trip over our possessions everyday, and we don't need any more junk. But, if the powers that be want to ensure that the "Stimulus Plan" actually works, they should insist that we use it to their end.

Maybe a general statement on the back of the check will work just as well as a detailed one: "This voucher may be used to purchase any electronic item, such as a big screen TV, computer, cell phone, video game console, or any other expensive discretionary gadget. It may be redeemed as the down payment for a new car, RV, or boat. Dining out is also acceptable. You may spend it on anything that you couldn't ordinarily afford and/or depreciates in value, whose cost you may never recoup." (Maybe they can buy some apartments.)

Somehow, I don't think that spelling it out to the masses will be necessary?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oh, Cow Pie!

I've been feeling bad about my last post. I'm a relatively consistent person, who would rather die than break a commitment. Even though I really only have to answer to myself, I promised that I would write a "column" every Monday through Friday. Fortunately, at this point in my day, the planets have aligned and the clouds have parted so that I have an opportunity to jot something to publish now.

I had mentioned earlier that the entire family endured enjoyed a crippling leisurely hike up a mountain while visiting my son at his college this past weekend. Since there were several adults and teenagers, we took turns carrying the baby on the trail (because it would have been too easy for my son to give us a heads-up so that we could bring the baby back pack). The only supplies we brought along were water bottles. We shoved them into a cloth bag with a cinch string and I carried them until the skinny rope dug into my shoulders. It was loads of fun, but that was just the beginning.

My preschool daughter had been fighting a bout of diarrhea for a few days. For the most part, she felt well and we thought that the worst was over. We were wrong. About an eighth of the way up, she announced that she had to go potty. The others walked ahead while I found a secluded area off of the hiking path. After she was done, I looked down and found a little surprise. It was messy and I had no toilet paper. I had no tissue. I didn't have a piece of paper. And, surprise of all surprises, I didn't even bring my sanitizer because I didn't have anywhere to put it (not that it would have helped much).

Do you remember getting lost in the store as a child? That total feeling of helplessness, no matter how short it lasted? For a moment on that mountain, a wave of panic shot through me. I called to my husband, who looked just as confounded as I. Thinking quickly, he grabbed the tiniest weed leaves that I've ever seen, bunched them together, and wiped. It helped a little, but it was obvious that he had to come up with something else. He told me that, when he went camping with friends as a child once, he had to use pine needles. This mountain was covered in oak trees--the ones with spiky leaves. There were no pines. Thankfully. Glancing around, he took a second look at his water bottle and ripped off the label. All was good with the world once more. Unfortunately, the experience repeated itself (only without the weeds) before we left the hiking trail and returned to campus.

Our target destination was an artist's studio that had been vandalized and long deserted. We were told that it offered a breathtaking view and was a favorite place for many of the students. As we rounded the last bend, we were surprised to see the small fenced property of the studio surrounded by cows and calves--many of them. You know, they appear so serene when you're on the freeway and they're several hundred feet away looking small and grazing lazily. But close up, they are downright huge and scary. They glared at us in a way that warned us not to approach. We knew that the mama cows would protect their young, so we took great pains to avoid them all, but they were blocking the path to the small brick building. Some of them knocked over the sagging chain link fence to escape from our deadly grasp. One calf was actually inside the one-room studio.

As we gingerly entered the yard area, everyone in our group instinctively became aware that they should carefully watch where they stepped. That would be everyone except me. There were tons of old, dry cow pies that didn't make a mess if you landed on them. Uh, I wasn't that lucky. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd never been up close and personal to a fresh pile of cow droppings. It certainly doesn't look or smell like the contents of the manure bags that my dad used every year to feed the garden. It's dark green, very wet, and sticky. It was like trying to retrieve my foot from quick sand. Everyone laughed. HAHAHA! What a riot. My husband reminded me that we had a long trip back home and we didn't want my shoe to stink up the entire van.

After the calf peed extensively and then exited, the people in our group enjoyed themselves as they perused the quaint studio--nice wood-burning fireplace, big windows (that have since been broken and cleared out), party debris (like wine glasses and candles), and a beautiful view. Not me. I was on the grassy knoll, frantically wiping the mess from my white tennis shoes. As the children pointed out various landmarks to my husband, I could be seen on the dirt in the background, rubbing my foot like a mad cow. By now, everyone was posing for pictures and laughing lightheartedly at the joy that they were experiencing in such a secluded and serene environment. Meanwhile, I found a small stick in one last desperate attempt to scrape out all the crud that was left in the deep crevices of my soul (literally and figuratively).

For me, the hike had one overwhelming scent theme. Unfortunately, it wasn't the one that I would have chosen, but it fit quite well with my daily experiences here in Whine Country.

Rotting Mess

Sometimes the posts I write come easily--with many waiting in the queue for publication. Sometimes not. This is a "not" week--already. I've enjoyed waaay too much birthday (nod to the Berenstain Bears) this past weekend. It's been a continuous celebration, and now I'm tired and tapped out.

I can homeschool and care for the kids. I can help run our business and the household. I can go to the movies and out to dinner with my husband. I can travel to visit my son at college and go on a two-hour hike with the entire family and some friends while there (even enduring the endless diarrhea-in-the-bushes-wipe-with-a-weed of my preschooler). I can spend an entire day in the snow in Idyllwild with my family and good friends--even though there wasn't much snow (ice, whatever--it's all the same to me). I can plan a birthday party for my little girl. I can formulate my posts and attempt to entertain you--in addition to doing other writing tasks. I can check my e-mail and respond to everyone who needs a piece of me. I can chase the dogs away from my fruit/vegetable table over and over and over again, while plotting my "real" garden. And I can try to keep up on the real estate news. But I can't do ALL of it in the same four-day time period while being home for a total of only four hours--outside of sleeping, that is.

There. That little whine made me feel much better. I do live in Whine Country after all. Yes, it's a reference to the behavior of children, but, every once in a while, a woman has to get it off her chest, too. You know what I mean, ladies? So I make no guarantees this week, except for the fact that I will try my best to publish regularly, as usual.

All that being said, I do have a little something for you now. I almost didn't post this because I thought that the doom and gloom bubble blogs would have beaten it to death already. I checked quickly and didn't find a reference to it yet. I could be wrong. (By the way, I really, really enjoy Housing Doom, but haven't had a chance to read it regularly. I wanted to link you to an excellent older post that the blogger wrote about being personally responsible for a mortgage which ended in a short sale. She paid the difference, even though it was forgiven, because she made that commitment when she signed the loan docs. But I can't find it now.)

The article that I'm referencing is about the FBI looking into whether or not Wall Street firms hid the risk of mortgage securities backed by subprime loans from investors. This is my favorite quote from the piece: "Prolonged close scrutiny often turns up all kinds of dubious practices that in normal times are under the radar." And that, my dear readers, is exactly my point in highlighting this story.

So, tell me, is something illegal and/or immoral if those against whom the act is perpetrated benefit also? I ask this because no one was complaining before everyone started losing money. Now the fingers are pointing in all directions. Guess what? It was just as illegal when the boom was here as it is now that it's over. You can argue that the investors in these securities were so greedy that they wanted to be blind to the risks. Does that make scamming them legal? If there was any integrity involved with the process in the first place, Wall Street wouldn't be having this problem now--and, due to the excitement of the market at the time, the firms may have made just as much money as they did performing these possible criminal acts. The more we peel away the flimsy plastic wrap that was holding the subprime market together, the more we find that the center is a stinking pile of rotting mess.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Up, Up, and Away . . .

Sorry, folks, no time to post today. We're going up to play in the snow and we're leaving soon, so I have to get myself and several children ready. I'm not used to bundling them up for this type of activity, so they may end up looking like homeless Pillsbury Doughboys.

I did want to update you on my friend who used the How to Sell Your Home in 5 Days program. She sent me an e-mail stating that they've worked out a deal with the interested buyer. Nothing in concrete yet, but she's out shopping for another home, closer to this area.

From the comments that I received, some of you didn't feel that the book reflected a fair way of working with buyers. I've never been in a situation where I've wanted to sell when the market was this slow, so I don't know if I'd use this system. However, how is it different than offering your goods on an auction site, like eBay, where there is a minimum bid requirement ("reserve price amount"), but the bidders don't know what that is? The seller of the home tells the prospective buyers the starting bid, so they know that it must rise from there, and that there's a minimum sales price. I don't see that as being any different, but real estate just seems to push people's buttons these days.

Anyway, our psychotic weather is at it again. Our weekend was sunny and clear, but still chilly. Just for you, I snapped a few pictures of some of the hot air balloons that floated by on Saturday morning.

Hope you all have a great holiday!

Friday, February 15, 2008

How to Sell Your Home in 5 Days

In November, we had a book club meeting for the kids at a house of an acquaintance in Hemet. She has a 1900 square foot home on 2-3 acres, with several out buildings. She said that they'd been trying to sell the house for a year, but no one was coming by to look at it anymore. They'd had it listed with an agent and then went FSBO.

In January, the same homeowner sent out a group message asking for referrals to an escrow company. I was more than happy to recommend the one competent escrow service in Temecula (Chardonnay Escrow--Peggy Pinto) and congratulate her on finally selling her home. She e-mailed me back saying that they hadn't sold the house, but expected to soon because they would be using a system that she had been reading about. A system? I just had to ask, and this was her response:

Hi Carol,

We've had our house on the market for over a year both with and without an agent. I came across a book, How to Sell Your Home in 5 Days. We decided to give it a try. Basically, we run an ad from Wed-Sun offering the home at half of what we think is a fair market value. We have a two day inspection period for interested buyers. We allow buyers to bid on the house. We don't set the price, they do. Hopefully, we get a fair market value for the home set by the bidders. The buyer's happy. We're happy.

Two days ago, I received this from her:

Last weekend we had an open house and more than 25 groups (singles, couples, families) went through it. We also had almost 3 times that many call on it. We had advertised our home for less than half of what we thought it is worth. We had a bidding process at the end of it and we came up with a high bidder. The high bid was not high enough and we explained that to the high bidder. He was still interested, but didn't commit to a higher price...yet. We are not holding our breath, but would appreciate prayers for God's will in this. This way of generating interest in a home is a great idea and I would highly recommend it. We had more people through our house in one weekend than we had in over 12 months on the market.

I wonder if this has worked for anybody who has had problems selling or are trying to get rid of their properties quickly. Here is the author's forum about the book.

On a different note: remember how I bragged posted on Monday about the warm weather that we'd been having? I even published a picture of our view on that gorgeous weekend. It was so warm that we had to turn on the A/C. Some of our trees started to bloom. And I almost pulled out our summer clothes. Yes, I was feeling quite cocky about our sunshine in comparison to all the bad weather they've been hit with back east.

Well, the schizophrenic SoCal weather raised its ugly head yesterday. We were supposed to have a St. Valentine's Day party at the park with several other families, but it was pouring rain. So, of course, I changed the location to my house. Fun? Yes. Happy that my house has durable paint and not-so-nice floors? YES! I didn't have to worry about a thing.

To refresh your memory, this was what it looked like just a few short days ago, with a teeny, itsy bitsy white dot of snow on the upper left peak that was melting quickly:

Yesterday afternoon, it started to snow here, but didn't stick at all. However, our mountain view changed to this:
And it was FREEZING--still is! This side of the mountain hasn't been covered in snow since we've moved here. It's pretty, and the kids are in awe of being so close to it. But I have to wonder . . . the housing decline was more predictable than this, so what's next?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Where's the Berry?

Happy St. Valentine's Day wishes to all of you! I'm blessed to have the love of my life to share this day with--I hope the same is true for you. My kids have a party today, so we had to stop at Wal-Mart last night to buy some candy to attach to the cards that they made for their friends.

When we pulled into the parking lot I thought that it was either Christmas Eve or that they were giving merchandise away. It was packed!! However, when we entered the store, it didn't seem busy at all. Until I approached the St. Valentine's Day aisle, that is. Have you ever been to a department store during a 75% off sale? Well, this was worse. It was so crowded that I couldn't get through. So I parked the kids at the end and told them to send a search party if I didn't return in an hour. What a mess! I didn't find anything because it had all been picked to death. I had to buy some candy without the special pink and red wrapping. I hope the other children eat it.

As you know, I haven't had access to a car on most days, and when I do go out, it's only to run to Costco, Sprouts, and Trader Joe's for some much-needed groceries. My Wal-Mart is in the other direction. That's my feeble excuse for not buying my husband a card, until last night. I have to say, I bought the lamest card of our entire marriage. It was the only one they had left, and I had to fight another customer for it. Our struggle resulted in a wrinkle or two (and maybe a little rip), but I was victorious! Hey, I may be small, but I'd do anything for my guy.

What's in the shape of a heart (almost) and has seeds all over (weak transition, I know, but that's all I have time for). We picked the first strawberry from the seedlings we planted last month! We've been watering and nurturing them for weeks. They haven't been attacked by bugs or varmints of any kind. My youngest son caught some worms on our property yesterday. After I examined them to make sure they weren't slugs, I let him put them in the strawberry planters to cultivate the soil.

Since some of you were so helpful with your suggestions, I thought I'd take a picture of our first fruit to share with you. The kids were so excited!

We don't use pesticides or growing chemicals of any kind, so we didn't expect a large berry. To put it in perspective for you, here it is on a different scale:

Since the children and I have been equally responsible for the garden, it's only fair that we share its bounty. I thought that my oldest daughter was napping, so that I'd only have to divide it between four of the children (the baby wouldn't appreciate a sliver of strawberry)--plus myself. (Hey, I don't have the willpower to pass up a delectable treat like this.) So the tiny berry had to be sliced into only five pieces. I was able to do this, but the ends were almost microscopic. Just as I was about to divvy it up, my "napping" child raises her head from the other room and says, "I want some!" Staring at my expert carving job, I realized that "some" was a strong word. So I took a sliver and cut that in half--one portion for her and one for me. My son offered to pose with his full share of the berry. He got the big piece.

When we buy strawberries at the store, a three pack isn't enough to satisfy one serving for my family. Each child is used to having between 6-10 berries, depending on their size, and they always want more. But the kids were so eager to taste the fruits of their labor, they didn't complain at all.

The children nibbled on their portions like little rabbits in order to savor the sweet, juicy garden-fresh treat. I, on the other hand, popped my half sliver into my mouth and promptly got it stuck in my teeth. There are several more strawberries in various stages of ripening. I'm keeping my knife sharpened, since it's unlikely that we'll be able to pick more than one or two at a time. A few hours after our taste test, I, finally, was able to dislodge the seed and small amount of flesh from my molar. The kids were right--having our own garden was well worth the trouble!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Durability is #1

By society's standards, we have a big family. If any of you have friends--and, no offense, but that's a big "if" for some of you--you know what it's like to levitate to people who have similar interests. So, we find ourselves surrounded by families with six, seven, eight, and ten children. This is normal for us.

You can imagine what's it's like when we have a get-together at our home. If I invite four or five families, it equals 30-40 children at our house. Frequently, it's many more than that. Although most of the kids who come over are well behaved, a group like that is capable of causing some unintentional damage. For example, I've lost count of the number of times someone has walked through the screen door on our slider. So when we're shopping for houses, durability of materials used is now the number one consideration on our list. Heck, sometimes I don't even care what the layout looks like.

Take our walls, for example. They're painted in a glossy finish--ALL of them. It's one of the few houses where you need your sunglasses indoors and out. I didn't choose this, but I love it! We bought it from the couple who built the home. They had three boys and a girl, at the time. The wife would clean the dirt brown stain (which runs along the entire length of the traffic walls in every house where children live) by spraying bathroom cleaner and wiping dry. That made perfect sense to me. But not to anyone with class and style.

When a good friend came to visit for the first time, she did her best to hide the horror of seeing an entire house painted in shiny white (eggshell is too glossy for her). After I explained the rationale behind it, she stated, as diplomatically as possible, "It's not what I would choose."

In the last house we lived in, if I so much as walked too close to a wall, the paint would melt off and I was left with the cardboard layer of drywall. I couldn't even consider scrubbing those clean. I think there's more water in development paint than there is paint. So this was a vast improvement for me.

Floors are another concern with the traffic that we experience at our house. We have "wood" in many of the common areas and down the hallways. It's best described as a weak laminate with a worn-in look. The installation of the floors leaves much to be desired--gaps, air pockets, floating edges. We certainly don't have to worry about anyone damaging our floors--any more than they already are, that is. When we asked the prior owners if there was a warranty on the floors to repair some spots (like there are for the laminates in our rentals), they said that they doubted it because the husband bought the material at Home Depot and installed it himself. That answers it.

It really is a blessing, though, because I don't freak out over every little scratch, pencil mark, drag line, unseen spill left to be absorbed, or dishwasher leak. It surprises me every time someone walks in the door and says, "I just LOVE your floors!" I hope to enjoy my beautiful flooring for a few more years because I'm not replacing it until our youngest (and who knows who that is) is twenty.

We didn't do so well when it came to the durability of the walls, though. They're sturdier and better insulated than those in tract homes, but my boys still manage to put holes through them. I've done a great job of patching, if I say so myself. But it would be so much easier if contractors would hide metal plates behind door knobs and in high activity areas (like where they wrestle, chase each other, and hold their "weapons" in defense). This may cause more visits to the ER for broken heads, feet, and knees, but at least our walls would remain unscathed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Am I Supposed to Disclose That?

I did a double-take when we passed by. I was innocently enjoying a gorgeous drive through Whine Country when I saw a "Bank Owned" add-on stuck to the Realtor's "for sale" sign. It was a very well-maintained two-acre (or so) estate. Don't get me wrong. I would bet that many of the estates for sale in this area are REO, but they just don't advertise it. I have a very hard time determining which ones are which. But this one said it right on the sign.

When I got home, I rushed to my computer to find it. Here, you can see for yourself:

Price $1,200,000 Year Built: 1990
House size: 3,772 sq. feet

Lot size: 101,059 sq. feet
Status: Active
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 4.00


The description states that it's "newly refurbished," and, for a house built in 1990, it sure looks that way from the pictures. But, why would someone put all that money into their house and then walk away? I bet you're thinking what I'm thinking. Refi. Pull out some equity. "Honey, let's put in that freestanding tub we've always wanted." Etc. Interest rate adjusts up. Values drop. Oooops. We dumped all that money into the dang house and now we can't afford the payments or sell it!

I don't know what happened, but I do know we felt that way when we rehabbed and floated the apartments and then had to give them away for next to nothing. Thank God we didn't go into foreclosure!

There's one thing that isn't mentioned in the truncated description above. I happen to know that a private high school is in the planning stages of being built directly across the street from that house. Do you think the agent has disclosed this? I don't know. But, what are agents and sellers legally obligated (we won't talk morally here) to tell you about when they're trying to unload their albatross?

Do they have to tell you if they've shot a rattlesnake to death on the property?
If their child uses the bushes for a toilet?
The neighbor threatened to kill them if they didn't move?
If a stunt flyer practices overhead every night?
The grass keeps dying on the right side of the yard only?
There are mice in the walls?
There's a pungent odor in the laundry room that we they can't get rid of?

Some say that living close to a private high school increases your property value. I question that. Then again, not a whole lot can increase your property value today in Southern California.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Misc. Non-Post

It was such a BEAUTIFUL weekend here in Whine Country that we played worked hard on the property all weekend. The temperature has peaked in the mid to upper 70's for the past few days. It's been like Grand Central Station here since Thursday--and I wouldn't have it any other way. Thus, I had no time to develop a post for today. Instead, I give you this picture of a portion of our view. The hot air balloons were out earlier and one landed by our house, but I didn't think to snag my camera until it started deflating. That doesn't make a pretty picture, so I'll do my best to snap some the next time they float by, and share them with you. Yes, that's a dot of melting snow on the far left side of the top of the mountain.

Also, I've received e-mails from many of you who claim to be enjoying my posts and find them very funny. I just have one question: What do you want? Seriously, though, I'm relaying only the events of my life. If you enjoy reading the adventures of my wacky existence, then thank you for tuning in. I'll continue to do my best to inform and entertain you.

I'll leave you with this from News of the Weird:
As the home-mortgage industry continued to reel in January from the Countrywide Financial Corp. debacle, a federal bankruptcy judge learned that the company, in at least one case (with others suspected), had not only backdated crucial documents but fabricated them altogether and then told the judge the company was merely trying to be "efficient." A court had approved the recasting of a client's debt to Countrywide in March 2007, closing the case, but the next month, Countrywide "discovered" a way to get extra money and thus created three letters supposedly sent to that client before March 2007. However, Countrywide later acknowledged that the letters were actually written after March 2007 but that making up documents was merely "an efficient way to convey" information. [New York Times, 1-8-08]

Friday, February 8, 2008

Good News?

Well, it looks like the government "stimulus plan" is on it's way to final approval. But is the part about raising the maximum government-sponsored loan limit to $729,750 really a good idea? It's true that these types of loans will enjoy lower interest rates, but will they help the homeowners already in distress? I don't think so.

I think these higher limits will "help" others get into houses that they can't afford. If your loan amount is $729K and your downpayment is 10-20%, then your purchase price is between $800-$900,000. Let's say your interest rate is a low 5.5%, then your monthly principal and interest payment will be $4,143. Add taxes and insurance, and it may very well skyrocket to over $5,000.

It's only effective in some states. And, as the article points out, the government is targeting "working-class homes." This is a total disconnect to me. Yes, in some of the expensive states, the average home can be as high as $800,000 or more. Yes, many of these are two-income earners who still have trouble making ends meet. But, now that property values are falling, you're able to buy more than just a "working-class home" for between 800-900K. I think if they want to help the "working class", having a program that aids buyers in purchasing larger unaffordable homes isn't the best place to start. In the neighborhoods with the highest foreclosure rates out here, the homeowners in distress are sitting on mortgages that are no larger than $400-500,000, at the very most. Many of them are between 300-400K, while the house values are much lower. That's the problem.

If you have two or more loans whose values add up to the new limit or less, it could be very useful to refinance them all into a lower interest mortgage. But what if your house isn't worth that much anymore? Oh, sorry, this program won't help you, either. It'll be interesting to see the effect, if any, in the next year or two.

On another note, my daughter's sick. I think the other one is on her way.

Last Saturday evening, we attended an event. We were running late and I had to switch purses because the everyday brown didn't match my outfit. So I grabbed my little black ditty, transferred a few items, and dashed out the door--with my husband and the entire brood waiting for me with the engine running, as usual.

After we arrived, shook hands, gave hugs, and kissed a few people, I reached into my purse, but didn't feel that familiar pink bottle of alcohol. I HAD FORGOTTEN MY SANTIZER!! I wasn't able to sneak away to wash my hands all evening, and, of course, there was my preschooler with her fingers in her mouth. Right on cue, my daughter came down with a fever on Wednesday afternoon (please note: that's the date of my post that states, "Can't be too careful, you know. Do you have any idea how long it takes for a virus to work through my family?"). We'll have to see how the next few days go around here.

No, that isn't good news. But this is: my husband is a genius (seriously, I'm not being sarcastic--I really mean it this time). After the thorough search of the van yesterday (I was going to take pictures of what was found, but I really didn't want to gross you out), he remembered the little black purse from Saturday night. There, tucked in my secret compartment, was my driver license!! It was one of the few things that I remembered to transfer over, but didn't see when I was cleaning it out.

After taking a good look at it, though, it probably wouldn't have been a bad idea to get a new picture after all.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Where, Oh Where, Could My License Be?

I lost my driver license. (No, I didn't make a mistake--it's "driver license.")

My husband brought home our one vehicle early enough for me to take four of the kids to Wal Mart yesterday. After seriously contemplating every item in the store for hours, I loaded up the carts Beverly Hillbillies style, and headed for the checkout lanes. When everything was totaled up, I swiped my credit card (because we get points for using it and my husband would use it on a gumball machine, if he could) and the cashier asked to see my card and driver license.

Now I'm one of those people who has a specific place for everything (some day I'll detail what's in my purse). It's out of necessity. I don't have time to go scouring my house, car, or purse for something that I need right away. Imagine my surprise when I reached into my purse to retrieve my license and it wasn't there. The line behind me started to grow as I started calmly looking in every nook and cranny of my bag. Before I was done, I had turned it upside down and started shaking out the contents over that tiny little check writing shelf. My license wasn't in there. I had to use my debit card with no points. My son, the one with the driver permit (is the DMV allergic to apostrophe 's', or what?), had to take us home. He was proud that his expert driving skills, finally, had proven useful.

With one car lately, it's not like I can go anywhere. I haven't had much opportunity to lose my license. When I drove the van last time, I made a dangerous manuever while I was handing the baby a snack quick stop and my purse flew off the seat. So, today I plan to strap on the hazardous materials suit and ransack my 12-seater from front to back. I may find a month-old chicken patty, a dozen broken toys that need super gluing, seven ripped books that could use packing tape, one smelly sock, a full porta- potty (my daughter has never seen the inside of a public restroom), thirteen jackets (there's only nine of us), chewed gum, melted candy, crayons, trash, and some completely unidentifiable objects (that probably smell bad). And I just hope that I find my license.

Being bummed about possibly having to visit the DMV, wait three hours (I'm not exaggerating about the one in Temecula), take a new picture, and pay money, I also started to think about all of the things that I can't do now that I have no proper form of ID (it's my only picture ID unless you count the Costco card with my face rubbed off):

~Buy a house and obtain a loan--cause you know I have the money to do this now

~Go to Vegas--I thought a walk along the Strip would be good exercise for the kids

~Frequent the clubs where all the celebs hang out

~Get a job--like I don't have 20 already

~Take a plane ride--you'd have to knock me out first

~Get a lager at Killarney's Restaurant and Irish Pub

~Rent a car

~Go on a cruise

~Cash a check

~Take a test drive

~Rent a paddle boat

~Get a fishing license

So, if any of you local readers find a driver license with a picture of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 5'7", 120 pound woman on it, it's not mine. But if she has the same initials, I'll take it!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Don't Leave Home Without It

As a mother, there are certain favorite items that I never leave home without. Many of them also come in handy for me as a business owner and real estate investor. Every mom has one or more important necessities that she has by her side at all times. Below are some of the things that I consider indispensable.

Baby wipes clean everything. As a matter of fact, I think I use them more for purposes other than diaper changes. We always keep a container of wipes in the car. Besides scrubbing sticky snack residue from hands and faces, you can launder an entire Gucci suit using one baby wipe and leaving no marks. Ice cream, mayo, blood (don't ask), coffee, chocolate, seat stains, grease--you name it and wipes can clean it. They also work great for last minute shoe shines.

Your child steps in poop at the park and you'd like to tie the shoes to your radio antennae so they don't stink up the car on the way home. However, with enough baby wipes, you can remove most of the droppings that caused the offending odor. This happened to me last summer with the stroller. I was chatting away with a friend and didn't notice that a giant glop of fresh dog do was stuck to the front wheel. Let's just say that it took more than one wipe to get it clean as the sun set and the park vacated. Security arrived to ask me to leave so that they could close the gate, but when they smelled what I was doing, they said I could take my time, retreated quickly to their pick-up as though they were under fire, and closed the windows tightly.

Same for business. If we have a piece of apparel on display at a hotel or retailer and a stain magically appears, we just pull out the baby wipes, give that puppy a scrub, and, viola!, clean as a whistle. Before I show a rental, I like to ensure that it's in perfect shape. But if there's a telltale carpet stain from the last prospective tenant, I don't fear. Dab, dab. Stain gone.

I also carry a black Sharpie permanent marker everywhere I go. It's attached to my keychain. If I notice a scratch on any of our black shoes, I pull out my magic Sharpie wand and, in a flash, the shoes look newly polished (from a distance, that is). When I look in the rearview mirror and see a gray hair that I missed when I pulled them out in the morning am shocked to discover, I give a quick swipe with the marker and appear 10 years younger. Best of all, when there are nine water bottles floating around the van, we know who each one belongs to because we've put their initials on the cap.

Sharpies come in so handy when I need to make a "For Rent" sign. Or, if a middle school punk decides to pull out our sign and take it home with him again, I can threaten to write "I love my mommy!" on his forehead. He'll be sure to be the talk of the student body the next day. If I'm about to enter a business meeting and notice that I accidentally splashed Soft Scrub with bleach on my black skirt, I whip out my Sharpie, scribble over the faded area, and walk in with a well-dressed attitude.

My personal favorite necessity is super glue. I should buy it by the jug. Unfortunately, they only sell it by the quarter ounce like an expensive bottle of perfume. I need my super glue more than a desire to smell pretty. I don't just fix everything with super glue. I've turned it into an art form. Away from home, I use it for the many knobs, moldings, etc., that break off of the car. Before I reattach something, I clean it with a wipe and adhere it with super glue. Now I'm talented enough to apply it without getting my fingers stuck together. Needless to say, broken items come a dime a dozen in my house. I've repaired every type of medium utilized in the manufacturing of products: most plastics, porcelain, resin, Nerf (foam), rubber, metal, felt, cloth, stucco, paper, wood, drywall, you name it.

For our rentals, super glue has saved the day more than once! An electrical outlet cover is broken and someone's coming up the walk to look at the house? No sweat. I just paint (I prefer the tiny bottle with the brush) the edges and stick it on (hopefully, it's not crooked when I look at it again!). Damaged baseboards? Linoleum curled at the edges? Broken toilet paper holder? Loose screws? I know what to do.

Packing tape comes in a close second in the handiness department. I do throw it in the van when I go out sometimes, but I have to admit that I use it mostly to repair the tons of books that fill our home. It's also convenient for taping up projects by budding artists. During the Christmas season, I wallpaper the entry hall with cards, making the tape two-sided by wrapping it around itself. Also, it's my adhesive of choice for the occasional item that can't be repaired with super glue (like very shiny plastic).

Packing tape has saved the day more than once at my rentals. If I have an abundance of dust or lint after a carpet replacement or for some other reason, I just wrap it around my hand backward and wipe away at the intruding fuzzy mess. It's gone in a flash. I use it to remove lint balls from drapes (and clothing), too.

Where would we be without sanitizer? Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking about the antibacterial soap for washing hands. That stuff is poison and I don't use it anymore. I mean the sanitizer that's made from isopropyl alcohol (a disinfectant). I actually carry a spray bottle of alcohol in my purse. In our van we not only have the gel sanitizer in it's pump container, but we carry an "emergency" 32 ounce container, too. You step in my car, you get a squirt in your hands. What do you think I did after I cleaned the poop off the stroller wheel? It's not like there was a bathroom close by where I could wash with soap and water. I took that sanitizer jug out, poured it over my hands, and scrubbed until the first layer of skin came off.

At the grocery store or Costco, as I approach the stacks of shopping carts, I stealthily glance over my shoulder to the left, swing my head around to the right, and, in one sweeping motion, unzip my purse, remove my pink spray bottle, squirt the basket--the entire basket, with a concentration on the handle--and whip it back in. I'm gone before other customers reaching for a cart catch the whiff of "hospital" and wonder where the doctor is.

In professional settings, I discreetly spray my hands as soon after shaking someone else's as politely possible (it works after the Sign of Peace at Mass, too). I just stick my hand in my purse without removing the bottle and press down on the sprayer. At rentals, I mist the handles and switches to everything--even after the move-out cleaning has been completed. Can't be too careful, you know. Do you have any idea how long it takes for a virus to work through my family? Generally, the first person who had it catches a second bug before the original one is done with all of us. I don't mess around here. Eat healthy, get plenty of sleep and sunshine, use sanitizer. Isn't that in the CDC guidelines?

It's your turn. What do you never leave home without?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Where Have All the Stories Gone?

I've noticed something strange in the headlines for the past few days. I couldn't find one article about real estate. Not one. After digging around, I found this article last night. But it's so unworthy of being news and so boring that it doesn't really count. There was the story in the business section about obscene ads displayed in the mall. Why target one retailer? Hello! They're everywhere in the mall. That's why my kids never go. Then I saw something about stocks. Yada, yada, yada.

I know it's Super Tuesday (woo-hoo), but what happened to the media trying to scare us to death with all of the negative real estate articles? Maybe they grew tired of them, too. MSNBC e-mails me the business headlines every weekday. Let's see, today we have two about Superbowl ads. One about Wesley Snipes (how did he pull that off anyway?), and three regarding Microsoft/Yahoo. We have Toyota, News Corp, and oil prices. A few months ago, there would be at least five articles about the housing market.

So I bounced to AOL and CNN and not a word about how the drop in housing prices will stop the world from turning. I would bet that the Wall Street Journal and other business publications are still reporting about foreclosures, falling interest rates, and the demise of certain lending institutions, but I'm just talking about the mainstream media here.

I stopped writing this post for several minutes because I became distracted by this story on CNN. It's very long (I didn't have time to read all of it), but fascinating--a glimpse into how the other half (or 1% is more like it) lives. I'll stay on my half, thank you very much! But that's the closest I could come to finding anything remotely related to real estate.

OH, NO! Without the news telling me how to feel about real estate values, what am I supposed to do?! Wait . . . I think I may feel . . . what's the word I'm looking for . . . optimistic . . . yeah, that's it. I know that property values are in the toilet. I know that they're falling lower as we speak. I know that, one of these years, it will turn around, then happen again. But, without the constant barrage of the news media (online anyway) blaring negative and depressing teases at me every time I check the headlines, I have an overwhelming desire to be optimistic--all day, not just when I'm thinking about something else. For me, though, optimism comes naturally. I just have to allow it to surface.

Tomorrow is the day after Super Tuesday, but I wonder what the business journalists will be reporting about for the rest of the week.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Car Woes

(Spell check doesn't seem to be working on Blogger lately. I do my best, but I apologize in advance for any glaring spelling errors ; )

We need a new car. Not a "new" new car, but an "old" new car. We've only bought three brand new cars in the course of our 23-year marriage, and don't ever intend to do it again. Can you say "waste of money", boys and girls? At least it is for us. We drive our cars until they die. It was no different this time.

Our '93 Toyota has 250,000 miles on it. It has never needed a major repair. Last year, it started working sporadically--years after the A/C, sunroof, and front passenger window stopped operating. A few months ago, the antennae snapped and the exterior driver side door handle broke. We can still open the door, but it looks like we're trying to break in. I don't worry about anyone calling the police because one glance at our car will convince them that not even the most desperate car thief would want to steal it.

Last November, my husband started shopping for a used car. We consulted with my brother, who knows everything mechanical, and decided on either a used Volvo or Lexus (each between certain years that I can't remember). My husband looked at all of those and other models of used cars. Some were just too expensive (over $14,000). We didn't want to spend more than $10,000. Then, in December, we discovered that good friends of ours were selling their 2000 Toyota mini-van for Blue Book value, which was far less than 10K. They agreed to let us buy it after they found a replacement vehicle first. However, they couldn't locate a car that they both wanted and told us last week that they'd have to keep the van for a while. Evidently, it wasn't meant to be.

My husband was using our car daily, even though it wouldn't start sometimes after he'd turn off the motor. Last year, he ran out of tows with AAA and they let him use mine. However, the car wouldn't start at all about three weeks ago. My son fixed the problem (in the gear shift box--or something or the other), but than it stopped working altogether. We figured that we'd just let it be because we thought we'd be buying a replacement vehicle soon.

Meanwhile, we had promised the jalopy car to other friends of ours (I have to be careful--they read my blog), who would like to have it, warts and all, if the repair to get it going isn't too much. This was thrilling for us because it would be useful to someone else when we no longer needed it. So now, they are waiting patiently for us to find our replacement.

But let's get back to my favorite subject--ME! How has this affected ME? Now my husband uses MY 12-seater van for business. Not only is that a royal waste of gas, but it prohibits ME from going anywhere. The kids sometimes get rides to where they need to go, but that leaves ME stuck here all day, everyday. Last week, I got to go shopping, but I had six kids and a new dog with ME. If I have a meeting, like the women's fellowship group that I belong to, it has to be here. So, who runs around like a mad woman, throwing toys, laundry, and kids into strategic hiding places? ME. Who cleans up after the meeting? ME.

If being stranded without a car happened at our previous house, I would have gone mad. Being in a development has it's advantages. Space is not one of them. I would look out my window and see one house looming to my left, another to my right, and one behind me. I would feel like I was suffocating. If I had been stuck in the house for more than a day or two back then, I would pounce on my husband when he walked through the door and say, "I'm going driving. I need to get out!"

Not here. There is so much space where we live now that, if I have the urge to "escape", I merely look out my window. I ignore the baby pulling at my clothes, the toddler screaming, the older kids debating who finished first, and my teenager's loud Christian music. I grasp my cup of The Original Pancake House decaf for dear life as my soul soars over the vineyards, citrus groves, and now green fields. It's so green from the recent rains that I imagine it looks like Ireland--or Oregon, at the very least. Then my mind meanders to my favorite subject (besides myself) and, when I view all this vacant land, I can't help but try to determine its value and wonder how many houses can fit on it.

However, the worst part about not having a car at my beck and call is when we're clean out of food and my kids get the munchies before my husband arrives with the groceries. My toddler writhes in despair if we don't have any apples. You'd think that I just told her that her birthday had been cancelled. My older kids ask me incessantly when their dad is getting home with the food. I ran out of organic steel cut oats last week. For two days the kids had organic rolled oats for breakfast, instead. How dare I?! Then, when I thought it couldn't possibly get any worse, I ran out of tortillas and sharp cheddar cheese! Oh, the agony of not having quesadillas for lunch! I had to cook the emergency frozen breaded chicken strips from Costco, instead.

Since my husband will be driving the car daily, he's the one who needs to pick it out. I imagine he'll be doing that soon, since the only items left on his to-do list are fulfilling business orders, cold calling, preparing Quick Books for our CPA, attending meetings, playing with the kids, chopping wood, and entertaining moi. Yep, he'll be driving that new old car in no time!