Monday, March 31, 2008

Auction House Advice

(Update for "Heard It Through the Grapevine". Here is my reply on the SDCIA message board.)

I received this message from a friend today:

Hi Carol,

Here is the link for the home auction that I was telling you about on Saturday. I would like to get your thoughts on this.

REDC (Real Estate Disposition Corporation)

Thanks.

This was my reply:

We've never been to an auction house event before. The only auction we attended was the one on the steps of the courthouse in San Diego when the market was rising rapidly. You should go just to observe at first. The one aspect that you may want to pay special attention to is how much more than the starting bid do the houses sell for.

If you have any inclination to bid, you need to be very prepared, since there is no right to rescission. Here are just a few suggestions:

1) Visit the property beforehand and have it professionally inspected.

2) If repairs are needed, have a contractor give you an estimate and then add 50%, just to be safe.

3) Ensure that the title is free and clear.

4) Know what the rents are in that area by looking through the newspaper and calling about the houses with For Rent signs.

5) Find a good property manager before you get started.

6) Know your total monthly expenses, including, but not limited to the payment (principal, interest, property taxes, and insurance), HOA fee, gardener (if included), vacancy rate, repairs, and management fee (usually 9-10% of rents collected--lease up is one full month of rent).

7) Most importantly, know what the property is worth by independent research and don't bid a penny over--no matter what. This auction house offers a 1% coop to agents. You may want to hire a good one to go with you. They could look up the comps, review the title, and visit the property with you before the auction. My favorite agent in this area is Jeff Rose. Let me know if you'd like his number.

I've heard that these auctions sometimes hurt the small-time investor because they haven't done their homework and feel the property is worth more than it really is. Don't pay attention to the figures that the auction house gives you.

8) Ensure that you have your financing for the properties that you are interested in set up beforehand. Call the lender, give them the address(es) and go through the pre-approval process BEFORE you set foot at the auction. Then, once there, you can compare the auction house lender rates and fees with those that you garner on your own. However, if you notice on the FAQ page, it states that, if you use your own lender, there is no contingency on loan approval. So, they must make quite a bit of a kickback from the lenders present. Plus, they want to ensure that the properties close and they're not stuck with inventory.

9) Also, take notice that you will be paying 5% OVER the sale price of the property as a Buyer's Premium.

Since I haven't done this before, there may be myriad items that I am not considering. My list is merely a start. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know. When you go to the first auction to observe, talk to as many people as you can. The first question you ask is, "Have you done this before?"


If any of you have experience in this area, please help my friend out and post your suggestions.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Working Both Sides

The other day, I was faced with these headlines from the business section:

~Egg McMuffin inventor Peterson dies
~Housing advocates protest Bear Stearns bailout
~New home sales fall to 13-year low
~Mortgage bankers cleaning up mess they made
~Too soon to look for housing market bottom
~Court: Accounting doomed New Century
~Economy nearly stalled at end of 2007
~Oil tops $107
~Bus tours show off foreclosed homes

Still preferring to live in a state of avoidance, I clicked on the story about the Egg McMuffin. Just in case you were wondering, the creator of the famous McDonald's breakfast sandwich died peacefully in his home in Santa Barbara at the age of 89. I wonder if he ate his invention regularly.


That didn't take very long. Hmmm. As my cursor considers each and every headline, I wonder which story is the least depressing. Well, if the mortgage bankers are cleaning up their own mess, that should be an uplifting tale, if ever I heard one.

The article starts out by telling us about the owner of a mortgage company, which went defunct last summer. Now he runs an auction house for major lenders. Do you think he had that planned all along? I can imagine the meetings in back rooms in the middle of the night, lit only by a bare light bulb that swung slowly from the ceiling:

"OK, the plan is to continue lending money to people who'll default within 2.3 years. When we can't sell the loans off to unsuspecting investor groups anymore, and we're stuck with more devalued property than we can all live in, we'll officially open the auction house according to the business plan that we drew up three years ago. We'll develop a respectable reputation by selling the homes our mortgage company owns and then make a killing doing it for other troubled lenders and investors. It may not be a long-term business, but that's okay. After we ride that wave, we'll start a company that charges hefty fees with a guarantee of erasing foreclosures on credit reports.

As I continue to read the article, I realize that the caption and lead-in are all a front for the real topic--PennyMac (Countrywide ex-prez buys troubled loans from banks). I finish and feel just a bit cheated. It's the same tease concept used on TV news. The title of the link is misleading. It sounds like the mortgage industry has decided to take responsibility and make everything right so that we can all function as normal again. Of course, I knew that it wasn't about that because, if that were the case, it would be splashed in huge print everywhere--and I'd get a notice of breaking news on my e-mail.

But I didn't expect that "Mortgage Bankers Cleaning Up Mess They Made" meant that the heads of lending institutions, who hold great responsibility for the state of our economy, are now making money by providing a service to "help" with the chaos they created. Man, these honchos are shrewd. While I admire the concept of re-forming your business plan to reflect the economic model of the time, this smacks of a set-up. Have borrowers merely been pawns in a game of greed by executives of companies who foresaw the results of their dastardly deeds years before the general public? (I feel like I just wrote the description of a chilling new novel.)

I could learn a few things from these crooks businessmen. Maybe I'll buy some more apartment buildings, run them into the ground (I'm skilled in this area), sell them for a profit (because this is my fantasy),
and then offer the new owner my services of operating the properties more efficiently in order to provide cash flow. And I'll charge him a fortune, but he'll be desperate enough to be satisfied with just an itsy bitsy income.

There's something dirty about mortgage bankers who hand you the foreclosure notice in one hand and a refinance (at a cost, of course) letter in the other. I'm sure that these aren't the only unusual business practices that will be coming out of this loan fiasco.

Some others may be:

~Vandals who draw graffiti on vacant properties and then solicit the note holder to hire their painting company to remove it.

~Repo men who take your belongings to a warehouse, which then offers to sell your possessions back to you for half of replacement value (because you're broke and can't afford full-priced goods).

~A landlord who forces your eviction through the foreclosure of his single family rental, but offers you a unit in his apartment complex down the street. Moving will be costly, though, because you didn't stay in the first house for the full term of the lease.

This proves that, when you have a business mindset, you carry within yourself the ability to create your own income. Some of us exercise honesty and integrity in our endeavors. Others rake in the dough, while proclaiming by their actions, "Ethics? Who needs ethics?"

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Heard It Through the Grapevine

When I first created this blog, it was all about the traffic. How do I start a support group if the investors who need support don't know about me? So, I would poke around on other blogs and leave relevant comments that included my site address. This was all fine and dandy until I was pegged as a flipper and enemy #1. That wasn't accurate in any way, but it happened nevertheless.

For those reasons, I don't read anything that's written about me because it may distract me from my purpose here. I decided that I would write what's on my heart and mind regardless of what anyone else says, and, if others are interested, well, then, by golly, they can read it, too. It's worked very well so far. The responses that I've received over e-mail and in person have been overwhelmingly positive.

I also rarely check my site meter any more. I just don't care to. However, I decided to take a look last week to see if anything unusual was going on and I noticed an inordinate amount of hits coming from San Diego Creative Investors Association Message Board. "Oh, well," I thought, "more bad news, I'm sure." I didn't link to it. Then I received an e-mail from the moderator inviting me to join. That must mean that I'm really being vilified this time! A few days later, with the kids still on Easter break, I decided to check it out. Someone had started a thread about my blog and his comment was very positive. The thread continues with another poster synopsizing some lessons that may be learned from my experience. He echoed some of what I have been thinking lately. Very cool.

It goes downhill from there, but I looked around and I like the site. They're not crazy over-the-top about investing or not investing. Many seem to have the voice of reason and experience. If my husband and I had consulted with some of those regulars before we invested, maybe our outcome would have been a bit different. I decided to join and post a reply on the thread about my blog. My registration was quickly accepted, but, since that time two days ago, the message board states that I'm not an "approved member." Huh? I've even e-mailed the moderator twice, but received no response. I have a reply all ready to go, so if they ever allow me on, I'll link you to it.

Since I hadn't been on my site meter for a while before I discovered the SDCIA board, I was surprised by how many readers I've been getting everyday. I haven't commented on other sites for a couple of months, at least, but many people have found this blog anyway.

Yesterday, I had lost the link to the SDCIA board and had to access my site meter again. This time I noticed that my numbers were even higher. That couldn't possibly be good. Many of the readers were linked from a site called Live Learn Invest.com. After my relatively good experience with the investors association, I decided to see what was going on there. This is what I found:

Another Real Estate Blog - But Different - Well Maybe

March 26th, 2008 by Kenric

Overcoming Real Estate Losses is a blog that I’ve been slowly reading during the past two weeks. I am mentioning it here because it’s one of those blogs that you start reading and you wonder how you just spent two hours reading a blog.

OK, I take exception to the "Well Maybe" about being different, but the part about spending two hours on my blog and not realizing it is about the biggest compliment that you can pay a writer (unless he fell asleep while reading it and woke up two hours later)! I want to show my appreciation by having you all link to that site from here. I spent time reading a few pages and saw that, in some ways, the writer's experiences mirrored ours (he's done better for himself, though). He, like ourselves, started a business that he's running now. I haven't gotten the flavor of the whole blog yet because I don't have time to read many posts in one sitting. I'll have to do that over time. Let me know what you think.

Also, check out Blogtations. You just may see a quote from someone you know. It's right under the one about--how can I describe it--um, primal love.

Enough pride for now. Just thought I'd share some positive experiences that I've had lately. The tide changes so quickly online that I wanted to memorialize this moment with a post of it's own.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Glutton for Punishment

I haven't written about real estate for a few days. Gee, I wonder why that is? I made the mistake of reading all the bubble blogs on the same day (the kids are on break, after all, and I had some serious catching up to do). How much of "the economy is melting and real estate is worthless" can a poor soul take? Sometimes I have to slap myself (quite literally, I'm afraid) in order to snap out of the too-scared-to-move trance that these sites put me in. I have to remember the perspective (it's just like reading the news).

Since I have little power over the outcome of this treacherous economy, I'm determined to look forward and continue to plan for our future. I can't help but be excited about opportunities in single family residences that await us. We've proven that it's a niche where we can succeed--and time is on our side. The prices in Riverside County seem to have dropped much lower than other parts of Southern California. Frankly, San Diego has a way to go before I would touch it again as an investor. But I'm still watching and waiting.

I don't want my site merely to regurgitate the news (without substantial comment by moi) or be a duplicate of other real estate blogs out there. If I address the sub-prime market (e.g., Bear Stearns) and how high the foreclosure rates have skyrocketed, would you be interested in reading it? I wouldn't. I can get the economic analysis anywhere by a variety of experts. I'm here to give you one person's viewpoint. I'm not sticking my head in the sand, by any means, since I do read about current events. But, right now, I've OD'd on bad news. So, for today anyway, this investor's perspective is all about a little distraction.



As I've outlined in great detail here, I've had some challenges in my life recently: financial stress, attacks from killer bees, one family car--and the list goes on and on.


However, I dare to say that what I'm doing now is probably the most idiotic adventures that I've ever undertaken. I'm a soccer mom. Not for one kid--oh no, that would have been just a minor interruption to our lives. Not for two--that would have been barely manageable. I am the mom of three kids on three different soccer teams. Please stop laughing at me. There were compelling reasons for us to finally break down and put our younger kids in organized sports (I'll get to them in a minute).

Our first son played a variety sports. His favorite was soccer, and he stuck with it for many years. He's still on teams even today as a senior in college. The leagues he joined had a couple of short practices a week and one one-hour game on Saturdays. It was merely a hobby.

Our second son fell in love with baseball. After years in baseball leagues, I've come to one conclusion: baseball is evil. He would have three long practices and two 10-hour games (well, it seemed like it, anyway) a week. There was nothing else in life when he played baseball.

I attended most of the games, until his last year. I never could concentrate on the slowest moving game in the history of organized sports. However, I was fascinated and entertained by the hard-core league parents. They had the set-up down: folding chair with cover and cup holder, cooler with dinner (because there is no family time during baseball season), thermos with hot water to make tea or coffee or hot chocolate, favorite treats from the snack bar, blanket for warmth due to the frigid cold nights that the spectators are subjected to (or portable fans for the searing hot days), and, of course, we can't forget the folder used to keep every stat of the night. They even knew all the team members' names. Did all the players have names? What's wrong with screaming, "Go Number Two!"?

After suffering through the practices and games, and rejoicing at the end of the season, I was disappointed to find that we had to endure the play-off and championship games. Then, when summer was half over and I'm begging for my life back, my son was chosen for All Stars. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!! Of course, the parents who were baseball fanatics couldn't be more excited that the season NEVER ENDS. They even voted for more optional scrimmage games before the playoff and all star games. Were they nuts? In some cases, yes, I'm sure.

I wonder if I was the only parent at the play-offs praying that our team loses--just to stop the madness. I'd never broach it with another parent for fear of being beaten to death with an aluminum bat. Not that anyone would notice or care. They might miss a play.

After my son decided that joining a baseball league kept him from participating in other endeavors (like, oh, let me see. . .living, maybe?), he didn't opt to sign up again. Since then, we've been successful in distracting our other children when they ask to play on a team. My husband offers a baseball clinic one and a half hours a week for homeschool children, and myriad other activities to keep the boys busy.

However, one day a few weeks ago, during a very weak moment, my husband and I agreed to sign up the three youngest boys to play on a spring soccer league that our good friend coaches on. He has three kids in it, too, and it seems to run smoothly for them. We knew that we could have him as a coach for two of the kids, but the other one would be with someone else. How bad could it be anyway? The spring soccer season is eight measly weeks. We can withstand anything for eight weeks, right?

Wrong!! I didn't factor in that each of the children would have two practices and one game every week. That means that there are practices in our family four days a week. Plus, my husband's baseball clinic is on the fifth day. Did I mention that we also have to pick up my teenager from the junior college and work at about the same time as the practices twice a week? The worst part is that our family dinners--which we had every single night--are now extinct. Not only is our time together gone, but we are reduced to eating unhealthy food because the league is only too happy to schedule practices during dinner (baseball clinic is in the middle of the afternoon). For me, gaining some weight wouldn't be a bad thing, but I don't want to do it by eating too many hamburgers. Besides, I'm more concerned for our overall health than anything else. The cost of playing organized sports is more than the sign-up fee. We also need to factor in our time, the game accessories (cleats, etc.), the price of gas (as I gun my 12-seater to make it on time), and eating out.

Needless to say, I complained a lot the first week because I cherish our time together more than anything else. But now I see how excited the boys are. They have so much fun, and wake up in the mornings eager to go to practice, even if it's not for another 12 hours. They have great coaches (especially our friend, who has such a wonderful way with children) and can't wait to play their first game this Saturday. So, in the end, I guess it'll all be worth the sacrifice. After all, don't I always tell the kids that they can't truly appreciate something (like enjoying their time on a team) unless they've earned it through hard work and sacrifice? I still can't wait for this short season to end, but the joy that my children are experiencing makes it worth the effort.

I just have one question: whose game will I attend when they all play at the same time in different locations?

Maybe I should join the track team.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

R.I.P, Honey Bee

Sorry MamaE, but the exterminator came out this morning. Your dreams of running a raw honey operation from your backyard and chewing beeswax gum have been dashed.

For the deal of $150 (he charged me $200 last time), the bug man returned to finish the job he started in November. I tried to get him down to $100, but no can do.

He said that, to keep them out this time, we (read: husband) should spray the interior of each compartment with KILZ general purpose primer (which I thought was just for water damage) and use expandable foam to seal them both. It's so helpful that he waited to suggest this, since we would have saved quite a bit of money if he had told us after the first hive and before we painted the window. Oh, well.

This video is 1 minute and 11 seconds. I suggest you put your volume up and watch till the end. And, no, I did not get stung. Enjoy!

video

Monday, March 24, 2008

Great Selling Point: FREE Honey!

Who says that there's a bee shortage?

Family has so many bees living in walls of home that honey drips out, discoloring wallpaper

Associated Press
Last update: March 12, 2008 - 9:45 PM

SAN MARINO, Calif. - The situation at the Stathatos house on Virginia Road is getting sticky. So many bees live in the walls of the stately Tudor home that honey drips out of the walls, discoloring the wallpaper in the dining room.

The bees had been good tenants, peacefully coexisting for years with the home's human residents, Helen and Jerry Stathatos.

But lately the house has become a hive of activity, with bees buzzing around an upstairs bedroom, said Dustin Mackey, a bee removal expert with Bee Specialist.

Mackey made a house call in late February to vacuum the busy insects from a window frame and seal the floor in the bedroom.

"You walk into the house and it smells sweet," Mackey said. "I felt like I was in a jar of honey." Mackey said Jerry Stathatos said the bee problem had been going on for at least 20 years, but living in an apiary never bothered the family.

Calls Wednesday to Helen and Jerry Stathatos were not returned.

Mackey said Stathatos decided against removing the bees because it might require them to pull down several interior walls, where "thousands, maybe millions" of bees have taken up residence.

"They are making honey and we can't even get to it," Helen Stathatos told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune newspaper.

Just outside the front door, near a hole the bees use to enter the house, Mackey saw thousands of bees "just hanging in clumps."

"They've got the most beautiful garden you've ever seen, with flowers all around the house. It's the perfect environment for bees," said Mackey.

Yes, this couple has some definite problems. I guess they didn't need the sub-prime market to render their house worthless. Who has the fortitude to live with bees for 20 years and allow honey to seep through the walls? The only thing worse would be walls full of rodents. I get the heebies just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, at this very moment, I have my very own developing bee hive.

On Wednesday, March 19, we noticed a raucous swarm of bees hovering around the window of the playhouse that our neighbor gave us in November. This is the day the swallows usually return to San Juan Capistrano. Sometimes we have swallows trying to build their mud nests under our eves. It's quite a messy nuisance. I can tell you, though, it's not nearly as bad as this:

video

When I called the exterminator, the lady who answers the phone told me that they had received many reports of bees swarming, but that the insects were just trying to protect the queen bee and, more than likely, were not building a hive. She said that I should save my money and wait 24 hours for the bees to disburse.

On Saturday, forty-eight hours later, the window of the playhouse looked like this:

video

One guess as to why the two videos taken on my cheap digital camera are so shaky. I don't swat at bees (that would be dumb), but I was dancing around quite a bit because, to get a good shot for y'all, I had to stand directly under the bees.

There's something I haven't told you. When our kind neighbor offered us this very cool two-story playhouse, he told us that there was a beehive in it and he intended to put an insect bomb inside to kill them. You see the side that the bees have swarmed on now? Well the hive was on the other side of the same window, in a small compartment. We told him that we'd rather not shower pesticides in the entire dwelling where my children would be playing on a daily basis just to kill the bees in a small exterior cavity. So we called the exterminator and he charged us $200 to drill a hole in the wood and spray a small amount of pesticide (it took about seven minutes). We had to clean out the hives ourselves ("we" = my husband).

With this repeat, it's apparent that for bees there's no place like home.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Promise that Lasts Forever

It's hard for me to focus on real estate, the economy, or even our business when we are so close to Easter. Last year like now, we were still debating whether or not to keep our apartment buildings (even as they were listed with agents). We would be convinced to sell them because we had been paying into them every month since the closings in 2005. Then we'd hear the promises of our property managers and decide to give them more time to recoup our initial investments and subsequent losses--only to be disappointed, frustrated, and worried all over again. I can't even remember last Easter due to all of the stress that we were under.

This year we may not have any money, but we don't have the stress, either. I've been hearing about the inevitable fall of the major banks due to their large exposure in the sub-prime lending market. People are debating about where to put their money. Some recommend various trading sites as being relatively "safe" to transfer investments into. We have two rentals that are still worth much more than what we paid for them and are occupied by long-term tenants. This is not a bad time to be sitting on the side lines. I don't worry about where my money is--because I already lost it last year. After living expenses, any profit left over is put right back into our growing business. That's an investment that I don't worry about because it's under our complete and total control.

It's so easy to prospect clients for promotional products. As some businesses start to flounder in this economy, they need to advertise more than ever (OK, so they may not be a long-term customer). They also want new and unique products to sell in their stores. There are not many promotional product companies that actually cold call on prospective customers. Most rely on mailings, storefronts, and/or word of mouth. Not us. My husband's degree, training, and specialty is business and sales. He's just doing what he knows best to support his family--and it's really paying off. We don't have a fancy web site or slick ads, but we do have awesome customer service and support---not to mention low pricing on most competitive products.

Wow! I feel like this post is a commercial, but that isn't what I set out to write about. Sometimes when I get started, I never know where I'll end up! However, if you've noticed, I don't tout the name of our company. I have shown you some of our products, like the compressed tees, and they're still selling well, especially our awesome San Diego designs. But there are thousands of other items that we market now.

I can honestly say that, without the complete failure of our apartment endeavors, we would have never been motivated to start this, or any other, enterprise. As I see it now, being physically in charge of our business while it's new (whether it's managing properties ourselves, running a retail establishment, consulting, etc.) is the only way to ensure its success. We had to trudge through all the muck to get to where we are supposed to be, which is right here, right now. Slow learners, aren't we?

This blog is about real estate (the good and the bad), our recovery from investment losses, and a bit of family life thrown in for some good fun. However, my story cannot be complete without the mention of my faith (which I have done on occasion). If I avoid the subject in fear of offending someone (although I hold no judgments whatsoever), then you'd never have a sense of who I really am. And, if I expect you to take valuable time from your way-too-short days to read these posts, then the least I could do is be real with you.

Now, as we emerge from the ruins, and during our most serious time of crisis, our faith was the only thing we had to hold on to. At any moment, we could have lost our houses, apartments, and most of our possessions. Our friends could have even disowned us in disgust. But we knew that God would never abandon us as long as we cried out to Him. And cry we did. The act of prayer alone gave us peace and hope--two things money can't buy. It seemed to take forever--and we certainly didn't make the money that we desired--but, at the eleventh hour (much later, actually), our apartments sold and we were relieved of a majority of our financial burdens. So, we may not have earned the profit that we wanted (and felt we deserved), but we were given exactly what we needed.

Tonight is the beginning of what Catholics call the Triduum (trid-yoo-uh m)--or the Three Days (from tonight through Easter night). This evening we remember the Last Supper, tomorrow we commemorate the covenant signed in Blood (the Crucifixion), and on Saturday night/Sunday morning we celebrate the Resurrection (the Easter season continues for 50 days, ending on Pentecost Sunday). It is a promise of eternal life--one that never leaves us disappointed, frustrated, or worried. Christmas is a big Christian holiday, but not nearly as important as Easter. So, with that very insufficient explanation, I will not be posting again until Easter Monday (or just Monday for my non-Christian readers).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I Just Have the Sharpest Scissors

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in years. I took my three youngest boys to the barber.

I usually cut their hair myself. Even though we are on Easter break, I find myself busier than ever. One reason is that I have a list of tasks that I need to complete for our promotional products business. We just fulfilled a huge order for several stores in San Diego (YIPPEE!). Our new strategy was a step in the right direction, but I have much more work to do now. I've been gearing up for this and have been excited for the past two weeks. I knew that I'd be taking on a more active role and felt just as I did on my first day of a new job. It's so great to get my hands dirty on something other than a diaper, but it would be better if I could focus.

I have a long list of commitments that I made in the Monday morning meeting with my husband. I thought that I'd finish them yesterday. Well, it's Wednesday, and I've made a dent, but I'm still not done. Yesterday, I received a call from a supplier of new items that we want to carry. I wasn't expecting any more business calls for the day and was nursing the baby. The number was from Minnesota and I thought that it was the parents of one of my son's college friends. It wasn't.

The vendor bombarded me with information about his products, so I pulled the baby off to grab a pen. This didn't go well with her and she started to scream---into the phone. He paused for a second, as though wondering if he had reached a professional place of business or a day care center. I asked him to hold, but couldn't find the right button on the phone. I handed the baby to her older brother and mouthed the word "dates". She loves the date pieces rolled in wheat flour from the bulk at the local health food store. I was able to slip away and take the notes that I needed in order to get the stats and cost of the product--it's more involved than you might think. (Note to self: develop "Vendor Inquiry" form to document needed information.) Luckily, I didn't forget anything!

Between work duties, I had been telling the boys all week that I'd be giving them a haircut. Today, I reminded them every five minutes not to start a big project or game because they'd be getting that haircut. I even made them change clothes, so that they wouldn't get their soccer practice outfits itchy.

I've been cutting hair ever since my husband was in the military. Our armed forces have very specific regulations in regard to their hair. I had been accompany my husband to the barber on base, when, one day, he asked if I thought that I could do it myself. It looked simple enough and we went out (to Fedco--remember that store?!) and bought real barber scissors. They were very sharp--in the mid 80's, that is.

Well, that segued into my being the designated hair stylist for our homeschool group in Poway. I'd get so stressed and nervous cutting people's hair that it would take me ages to finish. No one complained, though, because it was free. I would do it in my friends' yards, the parks where we met, or pretty much anywhere. Once someone asked me if I was a hair stylist. I said, "No. I just have the sharpest scissors of anyone in the group."

Over the years, I saved lots of money and gave my family cuts that they've enjoyed. As I've had more children (thank God for girls who don't need to cut their hair if they don't want to!!), it's been harder to squeeze an hour cut (times six, if you count my husband) into my schedule. My husband and oldest son visit the barber, but the others like me to do it, especially my teenager because he knows that I take great pains to make him look good so he doesn't embarrass me.

Yesterday, I just ran out of time, and I knew that the rest of the week was booked. So if I didn't do something drastic, my children would look like Neanderthals on Easter Sunday. I wanted to go to the barber closest to our house (seven miles away), but my husband said it would be cheaper if I went to one a bit further. He said that they charge less for boys than the $9 they do for men.

We walked into an empty shop and the two barbers there started to work on the boys immediately. Ten minutes later, all three were done and their hair looked fabulous. But the "men and boys" cut was the same price--$10!! No credit cards (there go our AMX points). I happened to have enough cash in my purse for the cuts and tips. When I walked out, I thought I had someone else's children by accident because I hadn't seen my kids' faces in weeks. Super cute!

Visiting the barber meant that I didn't have to stoop for hours straight, no yelling "HOLD STILL!" every 30 seconds, no one staring at us from the road, no tiny pieces of hair lodged into the skin of my inner arms for days (no matter how many times I change my clothes and shower), and no "ouch" from the scissors that are no longer the sharpest (even though I've had them sharpened by professionals).

But paying so much for something that I could do myself didn't sit well with me. Next time, I'll figure out how much I could make for our business in the time that it takes me to cut my kids' hair. If it's fiscally practical, I'll stick some phone books on the resin patio chairs, pull out my sharp rock scissors, and wrap rubber bands around my sleeves at my wrist before I call the boys over.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Attempt to Flip and Go Broke

My friend (the same one we traveled with--yes, the couple still talks to us after spending four days straight attached to our hips) told me about a commercial he heard on the radio for the "Flip and Grow Rich" program. I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing it yet, but I assume it has something to do with Armando Montelongo from A & E channel's "Flip this House."

Regardless of who is behind the commercial, how big is your ego when you think that you can sell a giant load of poop to average people like me? Do you really think that anyone listening to the radio will believe you when you tell the
m that they can buy a property, fix it up, then turn around and sell it right away, and make lots of money in this market? Puhleeeze!

So, I might find a house like this to flip--with a nonexistent kitchen
:
Let's say that I worked 100 hours (over the course of two-three months) installing everything (not counting any permits that I might need), and spent only $15,000 because I did it myself on the cheap. Am I supposed to sell it quickly when it's done? By then it would be worth the market value at the time that it was purchased. But, when it's finally ready, real estate, most likely, will have declined even more. So I'd be stuck with something that I threw money into, but can't sell. After you factor in the mortgage payments of a vacant property, there's fat chance that I'd recoup my investment, much less make a profit.

It's unfortunate that those who have touted "flipping" real estate in the past have not changed their "investing" model in order to stay current with the market. That's what most successful business people would do. It's almost like they want to pretend that their way has always been, and always will be, the most profitable.

You may live in a neighborhood and have noticed that a house has been for sale for two years, with regular price reductions. You've also noticed an inordinate amount of "For Sale" signs on every street corner. I doubt you'd say, "Hey, it looks like that house down the street is a really good deal. I could buy it and then turn around and sell it again for a profit that will cover all of my costs of acquiring and disposing of the property, and then some." It would go against every grain of common sense that you possess. So, why are they trying to sell us on this now? There must be someone out there who thinks that this is a good time to flip houses which are declining in value as we speak.

I'm not familiar with Armando Montelongo, so I did a teeny bit of research. It seems that he has a mentoring program along with a book--and his family owns several business in Texas (some of which are defunct). I did a quick search on the site of the organization with absolutely no teeth Better Business Bureau and found this complaint history (he seems to be in some type of network) for Premier Mentoring, Inc.

Now, we can say that 99 complaints in the last three years is no big deal considering the volume of customers they must have. But then I stumbled upon this site. Don't let the April, 2007, date turn you off. Comments are being posted all the time and there are some for the past day or so. All of this took me five minutes to find. So, if you're ever tempted by a slick radio or TV ad, do some research before you fork over your dough. The money for an unrealistic program is the least you'll lose. If you follow the advice of some of these "gurus" you may just lose as much money as I did in apartments (and I didn't even have to buy a program to do it.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are You a Guest or a Host?

I had another adventure this weekend. It wasn't a vacation like last weekend, that's for sure.

My friends, who moved to Virginia, had bought a preforeclosed house in Temecula before we met them (because if we knew them at the time, we would have tried to talk them out of it). They were trying to save the house of a couple with a young child. The agreement was that my friends would buy the house and the couple would rent it from them (for the amount of the mortgage payment, which was interest only) until they cleaned up their financial act, at which time they would buy it back for what my friends paid for it. My friends gained very little from the agreement up front, but thought that it would be worthwhile to help out other human beings. (These are the same people who saw someone fall off a freeway overpass, exited to turn the car around, arrived at the scene, and gave the man CPR long enough to sustain his life until the ambulance took him to the hospital.)

Yes, believe it or not, people like that do hang out with people like me. I know it's surprising, but it's true. If I knew them before they entered into this agreement, the first thing I would have told them was never to mix business with charity. Unless you're running a philanthropic organization, you need to be in business to make a profit. If you want to give someone a charitable contribution, then don't expect your donation back.

Unfortunately, they found this out to be true the hard way. The couple had recently filed for divorce and told my friends that they would be vacating, which they did. With the drop in market value out here, it's devastating to them. Their objective now is to get a tenant in there as fast as possible. They have a property manager who received an expensive estimate from a cleaning crew because the tenants left so much stuff in the house, garage, and backyard. So my friend called to ask if my teenage son would like to earn some money by merely moving the items from around the interior and exterior of the house to the garage, so that they could replace the carpet, hire a painter, and have the house professionally cleaned. No problem, I said.

My son and I pulled up to the house on Saturday and there was a fancy car in the driveway, so I called my friend to ask if anyone was supposed to be living there. No. (This kind of freaked me out because a house that we owned in the same neighborhood was broken into while it was vacant and someone was sleeping inside.) When I rang the doorbell, no one answered, so I used the key to unlock the door and hesitantly peeked inside. I called and called and it appeared as though the house was, indeed, vacant.

Now I had to find out who the car belonged to. I noticed the neighbor next door moving one of his vehicles, so I thought I'd start there. This was our very snarky exchange (I was really annoyed):

Me: Excuse me, sir, but do you know whose car . . .
Him: Yeah, that's my car and the owner was here this morning and gave me permission to park there during my garage sale.
Me: Uh, the "owner" is my friend and she lives in Virginia.
Him: No, I've known the "owner" for five years and she gave me permission to park there.
Me: Do you realize that the previous owners were going into foreclosure, so my friends bought it two years ago, and they've been renting it back ever since?
Him (with long face and sassy come back): No, I didn't "realize" that.
Me: You don't have permission to park there. Now please move your car (with twisted "I'm so annoyed by you" face).

A minute later his wife ran out with the keys and apologized for parking in the driveway. We talked and I realized that her husband was just as confused about the situation as I was when we started our little discussion (the "renter" was there this morning to drop off items for their garage sale). He came out and we joshed and everything was good with the world now that we were both on the same page. Evidently, they had been taking out the trash, having their gardener mow the lawn, and fixing things for the house next door, thinking that they were doing their friends, "the owners", a favor. They felt burned, but said that they would continue to fill the trash cans every week until the piles of rubbish lined up against the full length of the wall were depleted.

Speaking of trash--it was time to enter the house. It was in shambles. There was stuff everywhere. Much of what was left behind was still in their original packages unopened. Since the PM had given my friend the heads up about it days before, she had contacted the woman's divorce attorney and the husband himself (the state of California is extremely particular about the steps to follow when disposing of a tenant's abandoned possessions). Each claimed that they did not want anything left behind and they would sign forms attesting to that. Therefore, my friend wanted me to give the salvageable belongings away before she hired someone to haul them off.

What a pigsty! The backyard had not been maintained for years. The house was filthy and needed new blinds, screens, carpet, and other repairs. The garage door and opener were broken, as was the back gate. They left stuff in cabinets in the kitchen, bathroom, linen closet, office, bedrooms, backyard, and garage. OK, I almost can understand the totally irrational individuals who blame the banks for their foreclosures and then trash the place before leaving. But these people were hurting my friends who had saved them from uprooting their daughter and having to move from their home--not to mention that their credit didn't have a foreclosure on it, either. They were the ones who had a favor done for them, yet they repay my friends by leaving the house looking like a trash heap.

There was so much there that the couple apparently didn't want or need, which would be a treasure for someone else. THESE PEOPLE HAD FINANCIAL PROBLEMS!! Yet they couldn't stop themselves from buying, and subsequently leaving behind, many new material possessions. Not only that, but many necessities like soap, laundry detergent, toilet bowl cleaner, dishwashing drying agent, shampoo, make-up, frozen items and other food that rotted after they left, etc. were still new, but left in the house. Didn't they have to go out and buy some more unopened packages of those? I guess that they also didn't need their money (yes, lots of coins that they had saved!), towels, hangers, unopened bottles of wine, an office desk (still in it's plastic wrapping) and chair, a couch, bookshelf, utility tools, brand new weight set still in the box, movies still in wrappers, cases of cleaners and food, and so much more. It's really unbelievable!

Even if these items will be useful to someone else, didn't they stop to think of what a hassle and expense it would be for the owners, who, did I mention, were doing them a favor, to dispose of it all? I understand that the financial stress and anxiety from the divorce may be overwhelming, but does that mean they have a right to treat others so poorly?

My son spent five hours in there, worked his tail off, and was only able to clean out the small downstairs area and get everything into the garage. It's still filthy, but that will be taken care of when the house is professionally cleaned. The PM is bringing a military wife through tomorrow because she will be leaving the area in a couple of days. I hope she has the vision to see past the mess and to what the home will look like when the cleaning and repairs are completed.


With 20/20 hindsight, this is a message that my friend sent to me (yes, she's profound, too!):

I remember how hard S. and I have worked every time we have moved to leave the house in really good condition. S. says that it is the difference between people who are guests and people who are hosts. People who don't think about how their actions effect other people or the world around them are guests. They don't think to help out or do their share. People who are hosts are the people who end up doing the lion's share of contributing to the common good. The renters are so busy blaming each other that they don't see how they are hurting other people. Well, thanks for reading. I am pretty frustrated at this point, and I knew that you would understand on some level. On the other hand, you would have never been stupid enough to try and help people like them. Your vision is better about stuff like this. Sometimes our rose colored glasses get in the way. I guess I always try to believe the best in people will come out -- lesson learned hopefully.

So I ask myself, do my daily interactions with others indicate that I am a guest or a host in this world?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Perfect Present

After spending fifteen minutes an entire week searching for the perfect present for my husband's birthday this weekend, I think I finally hit paydirt.

This shirt says "B4 you even Ask..."
~Yes, these are all my children and they're awesome!

~Yes, we have television; we just don't need it!

~No, this is not some sort of daycare; it's 24/7!

~Why should we fix it if it's not broke?

~Yes, we know where they come from...God.

~We had planned on two, my spouse just can't count.

~Yes, we've heard of birth control; no birth and no control.

~You should enjoy our large family; our kids will be paying your social security.

~We didn't plan the first few, why start now?

~Are we done!?! We're just getting started!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Things That Make You Go "Huh?"

I've been busy for the last week (well, except for my little vacation) being inundated with information about an inane verdict by a California judge that homeschooling is, technically, illegal. Huh?

I would give you a link right about now, but the information that I've received has been pieced together slowly and isn't all in one place. There are many facets of the case to consider. If you're not familiar with this story, a family court judge, who was hearing a case about alleged child abuse, issued a ruling that, not only may the parents involved in the case not homeschool, but no one has a right to do so in this state. Um, I'd like to see him tell all 166,000 (just an estimate, it's probably double that) homeschooled children in California that they have to now attend a public school to ensure that they are not being abused at home. Huh? Can you imagine that many children flooding the public school system all at once? They'd beg us to keep educating them at home.

Since February 29, my inbox has been smokin'. Directly after the verdict, our terminator of a governor said that he would support any legislation that makes homeschooling legal. The State Superintendent of California Public Schools also made a statement in support of homeschooling and that nothing in this state will change. The Home School Legal Defense Association filed a brief to depublish the court verdict so that it is only applicable to that case, and not the general public.

Today, Clear Channel will broadcast a show (Roger Hedgecock) in support of homeschooling. All families are encouraged to participate at the studio or to write a testimony to be read on the air.

This is what I sent in:

As my children beg me to let them "play" with the flashcards of the presidents of the United States yet again, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the latest ridiculous court ruling.

I've been homeschooling for over 11 years. The oldest of my seven children will be graduating from college in two months with a 4.0 grade point average. I'm not so sure that could have happened if I didn't homeschool him starting in the 5th grade.

You see, I don't "teach the test" to my kids. Although we stick to a strict academic schedule, my focus is to teach them the love of learning. Once that's ingrained, they will seek knowledge independently for the rest of their lives.

Personally, I'm not worried about the future of homeschooling in California.Traditionally, when those in power try to take away a basic right, like the right to defend ourselves or educate our children, the masses unite to ensure that our freedoms prevail. Homeschoolers are unique in a sense that we don't like to bring attention to ourselves, unless it's absolutely necessary. You see, the government has a track record of making the lives of homeschoolers and their families miserable (even though most of us follow the law). So waving a flag and jumping up and down tends to do us more harm than good. However, in this instance, many are voicing their opinions that they have a right to school their children at home.

In our case, if the judges of this state are so far gone that they want to legislate how my husband and I raise our children in our own home (when they are well cared for and happy), then we'd just pick up and move. Yes, I would uproot our family and find a home in a different state because I so strongly believe that the right of the government to legislate the masses ends where my right as a parent begins.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Thanks to the US Dollar, NYC Real Estate is Hot

Isn't New York real estate always hot? Now our dwindling dollar makes it especially appealing to people who don't live in this country.

Many worry that the real estate market in the US will never recover. However, if foreign businesses and private parties are dumping millions of dollars into New York properties, I'm confident that we don't have much to worry about. I'm more concerned with inflation after the hundreds of billions of dollars being pumped into our economy than I am about property values.

I don't get it. We have a very weak dollar, and the Fed tries to help out by making it worth even less? I've never claimed to understand economics because it's the most boring subject on the face of the planet of the complex concepts involved. So maybe someone can explain this to me--in simple terms, like "the Fed thinks that this ridiculous move will save the economy from crumbling," except with more description than that.

Even though the exchange rate is favorable for these NY purchases, firms in other countries wouldn't be buying them if they thought that they'd be completely worthless in a few years. Unless they want a big US tax deduction, that is.

Let me help some of these businesses that are so desperate to own a little piece of Manhattan. Here is beautiful, albeit tiny, condo (or apartment, as you East Coasters call it) for sale. For a cool $1.295 mil, this 822 square footer can be the pride of any foreign firm. Oh, yes, why rent at an exorbitant rate when you can buy for even more?

Come on! I never want to hear about the outrageous property values in Southern California again--ever! This is what you get for the same price on Coronado Island, where the most overpriced properties in San Diego County are located. At least here, you live right next to an ocean that you can enter and enjoy for most of the year.

So maybe some of those foreign companies should come out this way to escape the hustle and bustle of New York and the financial district. Manhattan could be their home, while Southern California could serve as their vacation location.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Unreality TV

My disdain for the media's slanted views has been revealed many times on this blog. It takes much effort to read or listen to a news article and then be forced to decipher where the truth lies. I need to pay attention to what the political views of the station or site owners are, the personal opinions of the journalist, what sources are used, etc, before I'm able to interpret the information presented to me. Usually, it's not balanced enough for me to form my own opinion. Does anyone else relate to this experience?

Anyway, when I did have television, I would watch everything reality. Don't be grossed out because, five years ago, reality TV was still in its infant stage. It took off right shortly after 9/11 and we stopped watching in the spring of 2003. It was such a unique and enthralling concept to me, so I started with "Survivor" and went from there. Now that I read about the various themes of these shows, I'm glad that I'm not tempted to watch because it's apparent that the art of reality TV isn't real at all. Series are sometimes loosely scripted, but, worse, the content is edited by producers to present any slant they wish. The network develops plots where, in real life, none existed. They manipulate situations to have us believe that there's a good guy and an evil antagonist. So it may be entertaining, but it's not real.

I suppose there have been many "reality" shows about real estate, too. I've read about some that involve flipping, redecorating, building, and so on. I haven't seen any, but I did hear that the one about flipping highly misrepresented the money being made and the exact events that took place. It doesn't matter to me because the last place where I'd want to learn about real estate is on a reality show.

Well, it seems that the downturn in the real estate market hasn't slowed the production of these real estate shows. I wonder if the 2:00 am infomercial with the guy sitting in front of a video of the ocean in a Hawaiian shirt is still playing--it would be a little out of sync with the shape of the economy right now.

It seems that television execs feel that flipping houses is still a relevant and timely subject matter for a show:

"Flip That House" will become more reflective of the economy, said Brant Pinvidic, TLC's senior vice president of programming. Not every "flipper" gets rich quick. The show will make sure every time at the end to clearly outline how each investor did, he said.

"If the programming reflects the attitudes in the community and what people are feeling it will do better than if the programs feel outdated," Pinvidic said.

Newsflash: It's outdated already! Someone needs to tell this guy that, except under ideal circumstances, flipping has gone the way of the dinosaur right now--unless you consider a 7-10 year hold/sale a "flip". It'll be interesting to see if this show portrays the real "reality" of the market conditions. Why don't they have a show called "Flip This Stock"? Wouldn't that teach viewers practical lessons on how to invest?

I'm still watching this market. If I had the money to invest, I probably would have bought another rental by now. However, in conjunction with the rest of the economy, I'm trying to figure out where sale prices and rental rates will be in the next six months. I only see sales headed downward and, for me, that's very exciting. I just hope and pray that I won't need to sell anything in the next few years. It's like the difference between watching a rain storm while inside of a house versus while changing a flat tire. Sometimes it's just more comfortable to be an observer rather than a participant.

It seems a stretch for reality TV to try to mirror this chaotic economy, especially when shows are traditionally taped many months in advance. By the time they're ready to air, it may be a whole new ball game. Then maybe the series could be labeled a comedy instead of "reality".

Monday, March 10, 2008

Adventures

"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."--G.K. Chesterton

A few weeks ago, friends invited us to vacation with their family in Yosemite National Park. Since I'd rather die a slow and painful death than camp--especially in the freezing cold--we decided that we would go in together on a cabin rental inside the park. My family was excited because we had never been there before.

We drove together in a 15-seater van, which barely fit the 13 of us and all of our necessities and food. Snow clothes are bulky. We left on Thursday for the six hour drive northeast. Four adults and nine children. Nine hours later, we finally had arrived.

It was after midnight and we quickly ran through the four-level cabin that was built on the side of a mountain surrounded by towering sequoia trees. There was plenty of room, but, unfortunately, there were plenty of flying carpenter ants, too.

The next day we all went skiing. Technically, I didn't ski, but I stood around for hours watching the baby eat snow and routing for everyone in our group. That was fun (actually, I use the baby as an excuse not to ski). The weather was nice and, in the middle of the day, those of us who bundled up for snow found that it was quite warm, especially my four year old, whom I had forced to wear a snow suit fit for blizzards in the North Pole.

About 15 minutes before the lifts closed, my snowboarding teenager and skiing husband switched gear. My son flew down the mountain about four times before my husband was able to strap his other foot into the snowboard after jumping off the lift. As the workers started to break down the barriers and line ropes, my husband lay in the snow at the top of the hill unable to get the snowboard to work for him. He'd stand up and fall down. My son skied up and down the mountain a few more times and noticed that my husband hadn't made it once, so he went up to help.

I was so relieved, but, unfortunately, he wasn't much help. I saw the ski patrol zoom up, but they just passed right by him, kicking some snow in his face. Then the lift operator walked over to him as he lay sprawled out on the snow to return a walkie-talkie that my son had lost. My husband asked him if he'd give him a hand, but he was already gone. Finally, after the mountain was deserted and my friends, the kids, and I were shivering cold, my husband flopped himself to the bottom of the slope and we went home. He was sore.

That evening, we decided that the giant flying and crawling ants were too much to take on a vacation, even though it reminded us of home. Our friends, who had made the arrangements, called the management company. The rep said that it's common for the wooden cabins to be infested with carpenter ants. Thanks for letting us know. They offered us another property, so my husband and our friend scoped out a couple and found a suitable replacement. So, on the second night of our vacation, we had to pack 13 people spread onto four levels and move. That was not fun. But the new location proved to be cleaner and not infested.

On the last full day there, our friends, who have been to the park several times before, took us on a hike. That would have been the perfect time to wear our snow clothes, but, since it had been warm the day before, we didn't. On our way to the trail, we stopped here at Bridalveil Fall . . .

. . . and at a lookout where you can see the rock formation of El Capitan (in the left center) and the (tiny) point of Half Dome (in the background on the right center).
Some of the park was closed because of all the snow, but we were able to hike to Vernal Fall. This is a picture of the stream at the start of the trail. The scenery, rock formations, and incredible views of this 3,000,000 acre park is rivaled only by the Grand Canyon. The sheer number and size of the trees can't be compared to anything else that I've ever seen in California.

By Sunday, it was time to pack up, yet again, attend Mass at a church in a nearby town, and head home. We started to experience car problems as we descended the mountain, so we stopped while our friend tried to arrange for a replacement rental, but there were no other 15-seaters available in Fresno. Just as we were about to opt for two mini-vans, our mechanical difficulties seemed to have worked themselves out. We popped into a shop to get it checked out, and were told that it was safe to continue home. Between all the potty, eating, gassing, and coffee stops, we arrived at our house 13 hours after we started. No complaints from anyone (except the baby who screamed for much of the way--I think I lost the hearing in my right ear).
We were sorry to see our adventures end and so thankful to our very patient friends, who planned such a great getaway. It was so peaceful in the park, especially since there is no cell phone or internet service. But it was time to get back to reality.


The kids were so exhausted that some of them slept until 10:00. It's almost 4:30 and they're still sluggishly plodding through their school work. I, on the other hand, have my own tasks to perform. Neither of the rentals had a washer and dryer, so this is the mountain that met me this morning:

Unfortunately, I still had bags of laundry to open, but thought I'd take a break and snap a picture of what I had collected so far.

My husband's birthday is coming up this weekend, so I need to shake off this post-vacation fog and figure out what I'm doing. If anyone has any suggestions, please share.

First, though, we need to pick up 13 more egg-laying chickens. These actually lay eggs, unlike our egg-laying chickens that don't. They're from a friend who's moving, and I've bought her eggs in the past, so I know these little birds can produce.

Anyway, it's back to the daily routine for me. I think next time I'll plan a vacation after my vacation.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Having a Housekeeper Is Overrated

As I ran around the house throwing things under beds and into closets, my options for hiding our junk were limited. You see, I was getting ready for the housekeeper.

No, I wasn't embarrassed that the housekeeper would see a mess in my home. I would put items in their places (or at least out of the way) so that she would be able to do her job. I didn't want to pay someone to "neaten" up my house. I needed someone to clean it. So, I made sure that the beds were made and the toys were put away.

When we actually had money, we hired someone to clean our house every other week. For many years, we had a housekeeper who was extremely competent and loved what she did. When she moved, we found that her positive attitude and pride in her work were rare attributes of other domestic workers who we hired. Try as we might, we were never able to replace her quality of service.

We decided to try out a variety of new housekeepers to see which one did the best job. Since we didn't know any of them well, I was forced to stick around for the six hours that it would take them to complete the work. (That's for a flat fee. Somehow it would take longer if we paid them by the hour). This necessitated the kids and me to hide in other rooms as they moved throughout the house. I dreaded the days that my house was being cleaned. I would be exhausted from neatening it up and stressed from doing my best to keep everyone out of the way.

When our longtime housekeeper would be done, it would look like we lived in a well-kept hotel. I would take for granted how sparkly and new it felt. No dust. No crumbs. No hair on the floor. It stayed that way for about 45 minutes until the kids would mess everything up again. Sometimes I would delude myself into thinking that we could wait a whole month before we had her return in order to save money, but, after 15 days, and an inch of dust, it was obvious that two weeks were my limit.

However, once she moved and I couldn't find a satisfactory replacement, the house didn't look so great after the cleanings. I was left with streaked mirrors, dirt on the floors, dull looking appliances, towels that weren't folded into thirds, and no little crease on the end of our toilet paper roll. So I had to wipe, vacuum, and, well, clean, after the housekeeper left. Not to mention that everyone else we hired was way more expensive than our favorite.

Our rentals were a different story. We used services to perform the move-out cleanings after our tenants left. Considering what it looked like to start with, they did a pretty decent job. Yes, it costs three times as much, but it's worth it.

Maybe I would have been more satisfied if I had kept the house messy before our cleaner arrived, just like in the rentals. After making the beds, picking up a few toys, and placing them where we'd never find them again, I'm sure it would have appeared that they did a great job. Then I would have felt that I got my money's worth.

It's up to us to keep our house clean now. There are times when I miss having someone else take the time to do what needs to be done. But then I remember the hassle of having a housekeeper, and I rationalize that it's better this way.

I'm taking a break for a few days and hope to be back on Monday, at the earliest. I'll fill you in on what I've been up to then.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Why Are Mortgage Rates Jumping?

I sit here staring out my window and appreciating the flowering plum trees in full bloom. It's so green here because of all the rain this season, but the flip side of that is the overabundance of weeds--everywhere. I haven't noticed if any of the foreclosures in town are suffering from too much overgrown grass rather than the pervasive yellow, dying lawns. I'm hoping that someone will buy them soon and transform them back to integral parts of a neighborhood again.

I don't have much time to appreciate the whispers of spring right now. I'm busy writing and editing other projects, so my post is short today. I found this article about why mortgage rates seem to be increasing, even as the Fed keeps lowering them. Hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Throw Aways

Rarely a day goes by that my baby doesn't throw something of value into the trash. It's our fault. We never can resist the urge to teach our toddlers where the "trash" is. It's easy to pick up a piece of wrinkled paper left by one of my older children, hand it to the baby, and say, "Go throw this away for Mommy, please." They gladly run over to the trash and, on tiptoes, watch it fall as they drop it in.

Unfortunately, they don't stop at real trash. Everything goes in the can: silverware, plastic cups, toys. It never ends. We catch most items before the bag goes out to the curb, but our forks and spoons do tend to suffer from attrition at the time our toddlers are about a year and a half. I hate to see something useful turned into trash.

As I watched her try to throw away the top to a sippy cup yesterday, I flashed to the foreclosed homes that I've been reading about. Not only are they constantly highlighted in news articles, but bank owned homes are everywhere we go. Mostly unkempt, empty, with windows like hollow eyes staring back at gawkers like me. Houses that were once the excited dream of buyers--who put every last penny into upgrades and furnishings, hoping that it would be worth the cost one day. Now they're just throw aways. Trash. Something that had value, at least to one family, is nothing more than a shell that now litters nice neighborhoods. How sad.

I love real estate, especially single family homes. I love them for who was once inside. The lives, the characters of the people, the laughter, the struggles, the pitter-patter of young life, the dreams that house contained are what make it so special. When I walk into a home, especially when it's vacant, I can almost hear the sounds that it once held--echoing through it's now empty halls. I like to guess why the previous owners chose the interior colors and decor that they did. Much focus and contemplation must have gone into those decisions. Much design and heartache must have been poured into the planning and construction of the elaborate landscaping.

Houses speak to me. But I ignore what they tell me because I'm able to look at them objectively as investments and nothing more. However, every house has a story. That's why real estate is so appealing to me.

And that's why it's so sad to see a home that's been taken by (or, in some instances, given to) the bank. Throw aways. With all the money lost by the owners and now the lenders, houses have no value. No financial value, that is. Ask children what their home means to them. I doubt they'd describe it as a "good investment" or an "equity barrel." They'd tell you that they like their house because of the tire swing hanging on the tree in the back. Or because they could climb over the fence to visit their best friend next door. Or because, on the window ledge outside their bedroom, there was a nest of robin's eggs. Or because pencil marks on the wall in the hallway mark the progress of their growth since they were twenty-four inches tall. Or because their hand prints are permanently affixed to the cement laid in the side yard.

How is a child supposed to react when that's all gone? Some parents may not tell their children of the impending eviction until the day before, or when they start packing to move. Others may warn them as soon as they miss one payment. Is it easier either way? I know that families move everyday for other reasons. Usually it's for a better job, bigger house, military transfer, to live closer to relatives. Even though it's still hard for a child to leave under those circumstances, overall, it's a happy occasion or one that offers something to look forward to.

Many of those who suffered a foreclosure may buy another house one day. But, in the mean time, families have been robbed of memories that may never be reclaimed or, worse, that may be too sad to ever think about again.

I wax poetic about this issue because, until the day that both of our apartment complexes were sold, we could have been in the same situation. We never missed a house payment, but we knew that, within a month of two, we would. As a matter of fact, my husband and I, as we attempted to save what little equity we had left in the properties, were also planning for the worse. Where would we live? What would we tell the children? Will they miss it here as much as we will? We determined that, as long as we had our faith, health, and each other, it didn't matter where we lived. But it was just a rationalization to the loss that we would feel once we were forced to move. As it is, it didn't happen and we never became a statistic.

Thank God.

Monday, March 3, 2008

VeggieNet

(My eleven-year-old thought of the title of this post when I told him what I wanted to blog about.)

Well, we've finally entered the 21st century. I now have a faster Internet connection! I'm not sure what it's called, but it goes through our cell phone service provider. It's cheaper and faster than satellite. My husband and son attached a little cell phone-looking device, called a "card," to my computer and now it's so much faster than dial-up. I have to use a new browser, though, and I'm trying really hard to get used to it. I had my old one for many years, so this is tripping me up big time.

The speed at which it loads videos is amazing. What would take our dial up four hours to load, takes only seconds with this service. So, if I'm offered a video while reading a news story, I've been tending to click on it. I've resolved that I've missed absolutely nothing for the almost five years that we've gone without a TV hookup.

The other day, I was reading a story about a reunion, of sorts, for the cast of the 70's show "One Day at a Time" on the Today Show. It was one of my favorites back then. (Why is it that I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I have total recall of the words to the theme songs of every show from the last 30 years?). Oh, look! There's a video! At first, I watched intently to see what the stars from back then look like today, but after about three minutes of the 10 minute clip, I had to exit. What a royal waste of time! I can't sit here all day and watch old people reminisce about fictional characters and how they "impacted" society 30 years ago. I'm raising the future generation of this country. The ones who will make a real impact. This video addiction (which just started) must end! (OK, I won't watch anymore--except for that teenager who sings like a pro on American Idol.)

That was the "Net" part of my title. Now for the "Veggie." We planted our little vegetable garden yesterday afternoon. We have two acres, but our garden is about 4' X 8' or so. We had to make it that size because that's all the good chicken wire we had left, plus the planter is already primed and irrigated next to the house. We just had to pull all the weeds and place the fence around it.

We had been preparing the site for days (because the kids are "helping," it takes twice as long just a teeny bit longer). Yesterday, the boys and I started digging holes for the plants. They were out getting a tool for me when my leg started stinging. I didn't see anything below me, so I stared intently at the ground under my foot. Sure enough, the dirt was moving and I knew that I'd hit an ant hill. So much for my completely "organic" garden. I had to eradicate them before the kids jumped back over the fence. I tried to keep it contained, but starting off the enterprise with pesticides is probably not going to get me my Organic certification. What's the attraction to having ants crawling all over my produce, anyway?

As we continued to dig, I started to break a sweat. It was so cold in the house and so hot in the backyard that I felt as though my yard was just south of the equator and my house was up further north. Anyway, I digress. We planted tomato, broccoli (my kids are addicted to it raw), red onion, and celery plants. I hate celery, but I thought it was parsley when I bought it. One of my sons was perusing all the little plant containers after we brought them home and asked, "Mom, why did you buy celery?" I looked over and said, "Oh, honey, that's not celery, it's parsley." He said, "Well, the sign says 'celery.'" I thought that the store had made a mistake. I tasted what looked like parsley leaves to me, and, sure enough, it wasn't.

Then we put down cucumber, bell pepper, green onion, and snap pea seeds. We kept the strawberries (we're up to five berries a day now) and four other tomato plants in the pots on the table with the bird netting. One side of the planter is exposed to the yard, the other butts up against a wall. Gophers are able to get in through the yard side, so I planted the celery closest to that spot (maybe they'll hate it as much as I do--or eat it first, anyway). I planted my personal favorites--tomatoes--back by the wall, and everything else in between.

Let the race begin . . . who'll enjoy the "veggies" of our labor first? The rodents or us? I bet on the little furry nuisances.