Inspect this!

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The next step in the escrow process is getting an inspection of the house.  Even though an official home inspection isn’t required by our mortgage company AND even though Rick could do much of the inspection himself (as a Structural Engineer and Architect), we wanted fresh, unbiased eyes on the house to see what we otherwise might miss.

Our real estate agent recommended Elite Home Inspection.  Jeff’s son, Brett, is in the biz, too, and guess who gets to climb under houses and into attics?  Yep, the young’un.

The purpose of a home inspection is to look into all the nooks and crannies of a home and test all the systems.  Does the A/C actually cool the air?  Does the dishwasher come on?  Does the gas stove light up?  How are the seals on the dual-pane windows?  Evidence of a roof leak?  Are there smoke detectors where there should be smoke detectors?  And so on and so forth.

It’s a great way to find out what you’ll be in for when you get the keys to the house – or to renegotiate the purchase agreement – or to find out if you should to back out of the deal.  For this house, the only way we’d back out is if we found out the house is sliding into a sinkhole…something big that would keep the mortgage company from funding.  Most little things we can deal with ourselves, such as a sprinkler control leaking or getting rid of ivy – such an invasive little cuss!  Once Rick went to visit a potential client and they had ivy coming into their family room – INTO the house through a hole in the wall…they thought that was the cutest thing!  Ivy is destructive, people, burn it, burn it all!

In this pic the ivy has been pulled off and this is left.  It will take a knife and sandpaper to get it all off!

In this pic the ivy has been pulled off and this remains. It will take a knife and sandpaper to get it all off!

But I digress…

In some areas, and for some types of loans, things like broken windows, evidence of termites or a missing toilet would have to be fixed/mitigated/replaced prior to the loan funding.  Anything that might make a house unlivable – like a nonfunctioning bathroom, duh.

We do have to provide a pest report to the loan company, which has been scheduled for the next couple days, if I remember correctly.  At that point, we’ll find out if we have to have someone come and treat the house for termites and whether it’s a simple deal or we have to tent the house.  I say ‘we’ because we are going into this ‘As Is’ sale with a full understanding that it is ‘As Is’, not like SOME people who don’t understand what ‘As Is’ actually means!  And, yes, I’m talking to you, previous-buyer-who-acted-like-termites-never-happened-in-your-world-ever.

Those tunnels are left by the termites eating their way through the wood.

Those tunnels are left by the termites eating their way through the wood.

Those little brownish pellets look like grains of sand.  You might a little pile of them on the floor, by a tiny hole...we did (not this house, tho)

Those little brownish pellets look like grains of sand. You might a little pile of them on the floor, by a tiny hole…we did (not this house, tho)

Oh, before I forget, when/if you ever have termites mitigated at your home, make sure that the evidence of droppings or mud casings or whatever are swept away.  I have had 2 instances where the termites were dealt with via tenting and/or spraying and the detritus wasn’t removed.  Meaning, of course, that the next inspector sees it and notes ‘evidence of termites’ on his report and the cycle repeats.

Anyway, we have a ton of ivy to get rid of, tons of it all around the deck and starting up the side of the house.  It’s beautiful, isn’t it, on a college clocktower but not on a house with wood siding!  It’ll tear it up, tiny bit by tiny bit…

The Tower at San Jose Statue University.  Lovely

The Tower at San Jose Statue University. Lovely

Based on the report – which was provided a speedy 2 hours later!  – we have a leaky sprinkler control and the A/C doesn’t cool down as far as it should – and the day wasn’t even very hot.  So, we know that we’ll be repairing or replacing the HVAC system in the next year or 2 or 5.   Plus some other little things we’ll be dealing with that cause us no grief at all, like cleaning out the gutters.

I asked the people who live there now – very nice granddad, dad (and his girlfriend) and son – what items might belong to them so we’d know what we’d have to replace;  i.e. the fridge might be theirs since sometimes tenants have to provide their own.  They said only the fish in the pond and the potted plants!  Whoo-hoo!  That means the ceiling fans, the clothes washer and dryer, the refrigerator AND the hot-tub stay?!?  Awesome!

Of course, one never knows for sure until one gets the keys – maybe the actual owners will haul something away (even though all that info is supposed to be included in the purchase agreement – what is excluded from the sale, that is to say).

While the inspection is going on I go into each room and take notes about lighting, paint, carpet, linoleum, etc.  Pretty much everything needs paint, but there aren’t big holes in the walls that I can see.  The tile work in the master bath shower is lovely!  The tile in the kitchen?  Not so much.  Its beige with dark brown grout.  On white cabinets.  >sigh<  I can never get away from dark brown grout, can I.  Well, the counters aren’t not too bad as far as chips go; there are only a couple small ones that I could see.  It could be worse – this I can live with.  And the carpet merely needs cleaning, at least for now we can live with it, as well – its beige, it’ll go with whatever furniture we scrounge up.

This is NOT the carpet...but we expected to have to buy a place like this.

This is NOT the carpet…but we expected to have to buy a place like this.

As Rick and I wander around the house taking measurements and notes, we are surprised to find things in even better condition than we remembered.  The tile in the entry is great!

This is NOT the bathroom!  We feel so lucky to have found a house in such good condition!

This is NOT the bathroom! We feel so lucky to have found a house in such good condition!

I’m afraid to get excited.  And Rick?  Well, of course, he has already designed a new kitchen with more windows!  It’s what he does, poor guy, he simply can’t help redesigning things.

We won’t be redoing the kitchen anytime soon, though.  Based on the estimate our bank has given us for the cost of the sale, most all that we’ve saved will go to the down payment, so it’s a good thing we don’t have to buy a washer/dryer!  Remember when I said we’d be scrounging up furniture?  We have no furniture for this house except for a dining room table!  My mom did offer us her family room loveseat, with its green and pink plaid cushions…  Which we are happy to take, yes, we are! 😉


We’re Buying A House (but won’t hand out the cigars just yet…)


 We’ve been talking with the same Real Estate Agent, Rob, for years.  He’s with Intero, like me.

It began when we discovered an area which looked like a great place to live and we would wander there every now and then thinking of the possibilities of retiring there.  Rick was there once without me – I dunno why he would be house hunting without ME!  He went into an open house and Rob was there ‘holding’ it.  They got to talking and Rick really liked how Rob had lived in the area for 30 years and had been a contractor in the past, actually having built some of the homes there.

That knowledge gave Rob a unique perspective into the homes, who built them, how they’ve been remodeled over the years and how they’ve kept their value (or not).

So, when we were pre-approved for a loan, we called him again and asked him to show us some available homes.

We were able to see 5 homes that day.  4 within our budget (or slightly out of it) and 1 way out of our range – it’s good to see what homes are going for even if it isn’t the house you want or in the perfect area, with the amenities.  Education about the market is important, as I’ve said before.  You won’t know a good value otherwise.

What houses did we see:

1.      The Wreck:  Well within our budget but needed a lot of work everywhere before we could move in.  That would end up costing us more than our budget, so no.

2.      The Smoke House:  Lovely location, greatroom floorplan with room for a future addition – which was required since the living area was a little small, and a terrific master suite.  I called it the Smoke House because it reeked of smoke and dog urine, blech.  Still, it’s a possibility… if we scrub every surface with Pine-Sol.


>hack< >cough<


Yappy rat dogs

Yappy rat dogs

dog 2 dog 3 dog 4


T The Pizza Hut House:  Lovely location, greatroom floorplan, more living space but less master suite space.  So-named because of its roofline.  It’s a possibility.

Like this, kinda...

Like this, kinda…


     The Fountain House:  FanTAStic house location, gorgeous fountain at the entry (hence the name), beautifully remodeled with extra windows in the greatroom – oh, this had the same floorplan as the Smoke House.  One weird thing was that the front bedroom had been remodeled with a granite-topped counter and little granite counters at waist-level along the walls plus some high wall cabinets.  What?  What was that about?  Lots of wine tasting parties?  Did I forget to mention the FOUR, yes four, ceiling vents?  Hmmm, we’re thinking it was a cigar club, or pot club?  Interesting because whatever it was, it didn’t smell smoky at all.  This house was just out of our budget. Rob called the Listing Agent who said he expected the house to be bid up from is listing price because of the beautiful remodel and the location.  Out of our reach…

5.      Outside-the-perfect-area House:  Pool!  Big backyard!  Lower price!  But it was a two story without a lower master suite or even a study, so our plan of retiring there wouldn’t work, unless an elevator was installed.  Didn’t push any of our ‘yes’ buttons, probably because it wasn’t a greatroom floorplan.

With the market the way it is, we can’t lolly-gag too long.  Homes are snapped up pretty quickly these days.  So, which house?  #3.  Since we are going to make an offer on The Pizza Hut House we can no longer call it that.  It becomes the Tiki Hut…because its roofline curves.

pic courtesy of

pic courtesy of

Long story short: offer, counter-offer, and a counter-to-the-counter later and we now have a valid Purchase Agreement!

I took our deposit check to the local branch of the Escrow Company (Old Republic) and Escrow is being opened as we speak!

Keep in mind; we’ve seen a lot of homes in that area over the years.  We also have looked in homes in other areas, other cities, and on and on.  We could pay cash for something but it’s not an area with a strong future, an area with lots of police activity, if you know what I mean.  We are comfortable that this is a good house for us for a good price, based on our research and the expertise of our Agent, Rob.

Next steps:

1.      Home inspection: Inspector will check out the property to see if all the systems work – plumbing, heating/ac, dishwasher, etc.  Look for evidence of termites and such.  Certain issues will trigger a Section 1 item that must be dealt with (mitigated) prior to the loan going through.  Things such as a broken window or toilet are considered habitability concerns and must be replaced or fixed as a requirement by the bank.  Smoke detectors are required in every bedroom, you know.  Not only that, we are buying this house ‘As Is’ so any repairs will be done by us OR we can back out of the Purchase.  Say the inspector notices that the roof is caving in, we can cancel the contract.

2.      Appraisal:  Appraiser will determine value.  Higher than our offer?  Yay for us!  We have equity immediately!  Value lower than our offer?  Boo!  Bank may not fund or may require us to have a larger down payment to cover the lesser value.

3.      We inspect the home:  Are there any surprises?  What do we need to repair or replace prior to moving in?  For instance, holes in the wall?  The bank isn’t concerned with those, but we’ll want to fix them.  What condition is the carpet?  Clean or replace it?  Things along those lines.

Hmmm, roof installation methods are seriously substandard!

Hmmm, roof installation methods are seriously substandard!

I'm sorry, but this doesn't qualify as a smoke detector.

I’m sorry, but this doesn’t qualify as a smoke detector.

This house-hunting expedition has been kinda weird since we’ve always purchased properties with the idea of living there awhile, fixing the place up and then moving on.  This house we want to stay in forever (I was going to say ‘we want to die in’ but that seems morbid, not to mention poor grammar).  So it has to meet a different level of needs.  Single story or a space on the ground floor that could be turned into a master suite, good area in which to retire and especially a place that has enough attractions for grand-kids, -nieces and –nephews, so they want to visit.

If all the inspections and appraisals and loan funding fall into place (I don’t assume anything), then we’ll talk more about the house itself.  But for now, it’s all about the process 😉

Is it now or never?

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In the economic downturn, nay, the Great Recession, we almost lost our shirts. We were lucky to have sold our house just as the market was starting its crash but unlucky enough to be in the frickin’ middle of flipping a house (which makes it sound so frivolous, which it wasn’t – the house was fantastic!) when everything came to a screeching halt.

The brick wall we hit.

The brick wall we hit.

That fantastic house we were trying to flip sat on the market for about 6 months before a cash buyer walked in and stole it (aw, that’s not a fair way to describe it but she did get a superb house for the price!). Anyway, we didn’t get much for the house, certainly not the nest egg we were hoping for.

Pic of the house we flipped but didn't make a fortune on.

Pic of the house we flipped but on which no fortune was made.

Back to the crash… It was October and suddenly our clients were pulling their heads into their shells and contractors planning to build houses on spec disappeared. Business fell to about 25% of what it was. We held on as long as possible, tearfully laid off our two wonderful employees, Kim and Bre, and moved into the space above our office. It had a full (yet tiny) kitchen and bathroom, and 3 rooms, which we took as bedrooms and living room.

I’m glossing over the hell we went through during that time and I gained 20 lbs…



Oh, I forgot to mention that in the high point of our economic existence, we also bought a piece of property in the foothills with a marvelous view and were working to develop it. That process took so long – even with our expertise – that we no longer needed nor wanted a 4000sf house on 4 acres of land.   So we put it on the market and sold it.

OK, now we have a little money in the bank and we have been able to stay afloat in the sucky economy by selling everything we could: Goodbye Maserati, goodbye Indian and Harley motorcycles, goodbye 12′ trailer, goodbye Chickering piano, goodbye Victorian-era mantle that we hoped to one day install in our fancy custom home!

I really loved our road trips!

I really loved our road trips!

We stick our heads out of our cave, beginning to wonder if we can buy a house now that the economy is turning (BANG! January was busy!) and hit a wall.  Banks tell us we must have our 2012 taxes in hand before a bank can consider us for a home loan.

We wait until our taxes are done by our superb accountants at Abbott, Stringham and Lynch (great name, eh?)…watching as home prices climb up and up and up. Will we be priced out of the market by all-cash buyers? Flippers are backing away now that the easier pickings are gone (2012 was really their year). They’ve helped to bring the economy back up, so I can’t complain too much. Other cash buyers are people who want to own a home for themselves but have to ‘bid up’ the price in order to get one of the few homes that are for sale. They don’t care about appraisals, either.

I’m looking at homes listed for sale at around $400k and they are actually sold for $80,000 more than that!  Damn, I’m getting depressed.  Our max is around $520k.  Oh, yeah, we could buy in other neighborhoods where the prices are cheaper but then the commute is longer and/or the potential for rise in value is smaller.

And, here’s the thing:  The Great Recession lasted, what, 6 years?

We are looking ahead toward retirement.  Do we have time to flip another house before we retire?  Do we chance flipping now and buying our retirement house later?  Will we have energy for our retirement house later?  Will we even qualify for a loan on a retirement house later?  Why am I talking about a retirement house anyway?

We don’t have a primary residence, we live in an apartment above our office.  We can’t retire here.  Its a beautiful house, but its not senior citizen friendly.  Its a great investment property, for sure, but not a place to spend one’s twilight years.

We want a ‘go-to house’.  You know what I mean?  Our kids are going to be having kids and we want to have a place they want to go to.  Spending time with the grandparents won’t be fun in an apartment above an office with a 5000sf parking lot as a back yard.  So, looking toward the future, what are the best options?

Let's go to Grandma's house!

Let’s go to Grandma’s house!

Its a puzzle we are working on…and I’ll be keeping you in that loop 😉

Land Ho!

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Ah, the ancestral homestead…all that space and freedom to do as you darn well pleased on your own land.

Pretty, isn’t it…

Nowadays, buyers and renters are looking at the high cost of housing and thinking “Hmmm, vacant land…”  Well, don’t expect to buy land and plop a modular home on it – or even an RV.  In my area, buying vacant land is not always a cheaper solution to the high cost of housing.

Land.  I remember seeing movies about the ‘olden days’ when people could get land for free.  The government was actually handing out parcels of land…for free.  There was such an abundance of land (still is, in fact.  Drive, fly or take the train across the United States, you’ll get an idea just how vast and empty our nation is.) that people were encouraged to homestead.  Move out West and leave behind grubby city living.

What did folk look for in land back in them olden days?  Land needed to have access to water, flat areas for farming, grassland for grazing, trees for shade and for lumber.

Homesteading meant that you’d camp on the land and begin to create a ranch or farm.  Grow your own food, raise livestock and have some way to trade or pay for things you can’t grow.  You’ll need to build a barn for the animals, sheds for tools, a house for the family, bunkhouses for the workers.  Add an outhouse and maybe a lean-to for storing the grain/hay for the animals and you’re done!

Oh, wait, we forgot about water!  Need a stream close by or you have to dig a well.  I have heard about people who dug a channel all the way to their place from a stream that wasn’t on their land – hoping no one would notice.

What do we need today for our very own homestead?

Generally speaking, we need electricity, gas, water, telephone, sewer, TV/cable and internet.  And, if you are one of the nouveau riche, you’ll want to start a boutique vineyard or raise goats and maybe try your hand at making goat cheese!   In fact, here’s a recipe to help you get started!

Aren’t these baby goats adorable!

Here’s what you need to know about buying land – wherever you choose to build, the city or county will want to make sure the land can support you living there.  Is water available?  Is there sewer available?  Is emergency access available?  Is the ground stable?  Was the property created legally?  In other words, someone can’t just sell you a piece of their property without jumping through hoops of fire.  Lots can’t be split willy-nilly, you know.  There are rules for this sort of thing, many rules, lots of rules, an over-abundance of rules.

OK, how to look for vacant land.  First, research, Research, RESEARCH!  Yes, it’s back to that.  Research is always the first step of any major purchase – it seems that people will do more research on a vacuum cleaner than property!

Naïveté has no place in this business.

What does it take to build a house on vacant land?  You’ll find loads of information via the city’s website.  Info on the process, the applications and the fees are frequently online.  Some of the dinkiest towns have the most informative websites!

Go to the City or County and ask a Planner about the applications and the fees associated with building a house, in general.

You might be astonished how complicated it is.  And how expensive.  Just because you own land doesn’t guarantee you have any rights to build on it.  Sometimes the property comes with the guarantee, but very often it does not!

Let’s pretend, first, that the property has no guarantees – in the County of Santa Clara, a property with a house ALREADY ON IT might have no guarantees that you can do very much to the house – more on that later.

Now then, you are looking at a property listed for sale.  What do you need to know?

1.  Does the property listing say anything about approval to build?  Something like BSA or Site Approval?  Call the County/City to verify info and find out what it would take to build for this particular property.  They’ll need the address, if there is one, or the Appraiser’s Parcel Number (APN).

2.  Ask the County/City if there are any project files associated with the property.  Any information is public record so you can look at the file and see what current/previous owners have attempted to do and what you might have to do.

3.   Is the property in a Design Review area?  This means that any house design has to meet certain rules – such as color of paint, amount of windows, height of building, landscaping, roof material and also the location of the house on  the site.  Will the house be visible from the valley floor?

4.  Is a well required?  Sometimes the listing will say so, other times not.  If the house is in the City, it likely has City water, if it’s in the County, perhaps not.  If the property has access to a shared well, that information will be in the Legal Description of the property (part of the Title Report).  If you have to dig your own well, then be prepared to pay thousands of dollars – first to find the water, then to dig the well, then to test the water quality and the water quantity.  The well must provide a required minimum amount of water in order to sustain a home.  In our local Chesbro lake area, someone drilled 4 times before finding water.

Drilling a well in West Virginia

5.  Is a septic system required?  Again, if the property is in the City, then you might be able to hook up to the sewer system.  Find out what those fees are.  If that’s not possible, then you’ll need to have a soil percolation test done to see if the soil can handle a septic system (how quickly does water percolate through the soil).  Septic systems have a tank to hold the ‘solids’ (you can guess what those are) and lines out to a leach field, where the fluid leaches into the soil.  Leach line design is laid out by a specialist in the field.  Some areas will allow a tank without the leach lines as long as a contract of sorts is signed that the property owner will have the tank pumped out regularly.  Also some areas allow alternative types of toilets, such as compost or incinerator potties, rendering leach fields unnecessary (and reducing the overall cost of building on that land, yay!).

Curious?  Here’s a link to Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe on How Stuff Works

Envirolet Composting Toilet

6.  Is electricity on the property?  If not, how far away is electricity?  What will it take to bring power to the property?  Can you survive on solar/wind power alone?  Is that allowed in this area?  Contact PG&E and solar/wind power companies for more info.

 7.   Is internet service available?  Is telephone service available?  Find out and, if not, what will it take to get it?  Contact the local service providers for this one.

8.   Is natural gas available (another PG&E question)?  If not, you are likely going to be using propane gas – having a propane tank on the property.  Find out from a propane gas supplier how that works and how much it costs.  Some jurisdictions allow for all-electric appliances, but some don’t, so you’ll have to have propane on the property.

9.  How much land on the property is flat enough for a house?  Do you want a backyard?  Does the property have enough room for that?  How level is the property overall?

10.   Is there evidence of a slide?  Geologic disturbance?  If the property is in a slide or earthquake area you’ll be required to have additional experts provide reports on the stability of the soil and the building site.  You might not be able to build within 50’ of an earthquake fault, how does that impact your proposed building site?  I’ve seen properties for sale that I know are in a high slide area and the cost to build a house there will be very high, and that’s if the City Geologist even allows a house to be built!  The property is still for sale, though, and its ‘let the buyer beware’!

11. Get a copy of any Record of Survey for the property – there might be one for the property all by itself or along with the neighborhood or maybe there isn’t one but the one for the adjoining property has some interesting info that pertains to this property.  For instance, the driveway is on the neighbor’s property – well, that info will be on that Record of Survey and is important for you to know.

12. Speaking of driveways – is there a driveway for the property?  I don’t mean some gravel/dirt thing, but a full-fledged asphalt or concrete driveway?  Does it meet the requirements for Site Approval?  If not, is there a design for that and how much will it cost to build it?

Now, back to property with a house already on it.  Let’s say that the house was built in 1964 and is 1,700sf with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, has an attached 2 car garage and a big barn and sits on 4 acres, 1 acre of which is level.

This property was built before Site Approval was required and the property owners have done no improvements to the property since it was built – other than cosmetic improvements.

You want to buy the property and add 1,000sf to it.  Sad to say, but you will need to go through all the same stuff outlined above for an empty lot.  In our county, there is an Excel spreadsheet you have to use to figure out if your project will be considered a rebuild or a remodel.  Yeah, you read it right, an Excel spreadsheet!

Here’s another option:  You add 400sf to the house, convert the garage to living space and add a new garage.  You might not have to get Site Approval if your improvements don’t trigger the rules for a rebuild.

Oh, but guess what?  It turns out the house has some big foundation issues!  It was built on ‘fill’.  That means that some dirt was brought on to the property in order to create a level building pad.  Part of the house is on that fill area and is slowly sinking.  You buy this house and you’ll need to do some foundation work – jacking that corner of the house up and maybe adding new footings.  How much is that?  Yikes!

Foundation settlement crack A very interesting and instructive site on how to spot/fix problems with your house.

Ask Planning what criteria triggers the requirement for Site Approval or Design Review – any of those things that can cause expense and delay.  Can you add a bedroom?  Two bedrooms?  Remodel the kitchen?  Add a barn?  Install a pool?  What is the threshold?  Make sure you don’t cross it!

If the property has a steep driveway, then it might have to be redesigned to current Fire Safety regulations.  I’ve seen private roads (some shared by 9 properties) that are in such bad shape, NO ONE has been able to build on their property or update their house significantly because of the cost of redoing the road or driveway.  I’m serious.

This road needs some work…

It’s not simply a matter of filling in holes and smoothing new asphalt on.  The road is too narrow, too steep and doesn’t have ‘turn-outs’ allowing for cars to move to the side and let a fire truck pass.  The County is saying they don’t think that the drive could ever be improved to their standards?  What?!?  So all those people who live up there?  Yeah, they’re screwed.  Sorry, this is such a sore spot for me; I tend to get very indignant about it.

So do you still want to buy vacant land?  I don’t mean to turn you off completely from the idea.  Just make the effort to find out what developing the land involves – maybe bring in a consultant to help you with the assessment – and you won’t be wringing your hands later 😉

The 3 Rs: Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic

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I have a friend who was telling me the other day that 22 years ago they put an offer on a house thinking they were in one school district, but when they went to sign the escrow papers, they discovered they were in a different school district.

The district boundary didn’t run along the street (like any normal person would define a boundary) but between houses in the neighborhood!  Why would anyone draw a school boundary that way?  That makes no sense to me.

Look right above Minnesota - the boundary goes down the middle of a court!

Whatever the reason for that crazy school district boundary, nowadays there are many online tools to enable a homebuyer make educated choices.

Some cities have online information about properties and the permits that have been issued, whether the building on it is considered historic, what the zoning code is, if it’s in a flood zone and so forth and so on.

The City of San Jose has a lot of information available – probably the most I’ve seen – you can even pull up copies of the permits and inspection cards!

Here are a few tools for parents and parents-to-be that will help you find out more info related to schools and their scores.   This one works for the entire US.  You click on your state, then ‘schools’ on the upper tabs, then city or county, then school and it will show you the district boundary for each school!

I like this tool, too:  You can search by ZIP Code or City, search by school name or even search by region and County.  The map that’ll pop up has graphics that are color coded by API score.  You can see where the closest school is and what its API score is.  This one is California-specific.

The California Department of Education has a website that provides API Reports by state, county, district and school level.   Click on the ‘testing and accountability’ tab and then ‘Academic Performance Index’.

I hope you don’t think API scores are all that matter.  They don’t guarantee that your children will have good grades or that have they’ll no bad experiences at school.

My twins had vastly different ways of learning.  Andrew needed lots of structure to keep him on track and Austin was very self-motivated and didn’t need a lot of rules, just guidelines.  We didn’t care so much that the school had high scores; we wanted the ability for each of them to learn in his own way.

Their elementary school also had a nationally recognized program in which different grades were blended together in learning-centers-based education.  My kids loved it and so did I (well, except for Andrew’s ‘Play-Doh-as-poop’ episode.  But, honestly, for an 8 year old boy potty-humor is pretty standard).

With all the online tools at our disposable, it’s easier than ever to find our dream property and learn everything we can about it before signing on the dotted line.

However, don’t forget the power of a phone call.  Call the school district to verify that the property is indeed within the boundaries – and that there is room at the school for your child.

As much effort as you put into choosing the best school for your kids, the schools may evolve for good or ill.  There is no guarantee that the school with the highest test scores will stay that way and schools with lower test scores work very hard to improve.

My parents placed me in private school when I was in 7th grade because the local school was a drug haven.  Now, that school is ranked as a 10 with a score of 938!  Who woulda thunk it?  😉

An Interview with a Backyard DIYer

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Last year some friends of ours redid their backyard.  I asked them about the process.  Here’s the Q&A:

What prompted you to redo your backyard?

Our whole backyard was a swimming pool that was about 30 years old.  Our kids are older and no one is really using the pool.


The pool took up almost the entire backyard.  We figured the cost to repair and maintain the pool vs the cost for a new backyard was probably about the same and we’d get more use out of a real backyard.  So we decided to fill it in, re-landscape and have a usable space. 

When our daughters saw the pool gone for the first time they said that we’d filled in their childhood!







How long did you think about redoing it before taking the first step?

We had talked about it for a couple of years before taking the plunge. (ha!  I added that)

What did you do first?  I started messing around with some designs of my own, we noticed peoples’ yards more, talked about what we would want it to be like and we educated ourselves doing internet research on what it takes to fill in a pool, how it needs to be done, what permits were necessary, etc.  We got advice from friends about the process and considered what our future use of the property might be – such as putting on an addition.  (Note: the possibility of an addition in that area would have meant compacting the soil for structural stability – but City ordinances regarding rear setbacks reduced the likelihood of an addition there)

How did you choose a design professional?  We got only one recommendation, from you, and based on that invited Lois Miller to meet with us. At our initial meeting we liked the pictures she showed us, the way she listened to our desires and budget. We hired her right then.  We wanted someone with a proven track record, not just out of the phone book.  (Lois Miller’s Garden Design website = )

Did you have a budget?  We had a rough idea of what we wanted to spend, not a strict budget. We really didn’t know what to expect. As you can guess our initial thoughts turned out to be too low.

It cost about $15,000 to do the backyard, not including filling the pool – which was about $5,000.  The cost of the irrigation wasn’t bad but the lights!  Whoa!  In reading about the cost, though, all advice said to spend the money; the extra cost for the more expensive lights was worth it.

 What was it like working with a design proLois was great. This is the first time we’ve worked with a designer on any project so I really can’t compare her to anyone else.

 We were pleased with her easy-going nature and the fact that at our initial meeting she asked questions.  She really listened and incorporated what we wanted into the plan.  That really meant a lot.  She even brought books to show us what the plants looked like.

She also had good suggestions – adding elements to the plan that were beyond our current scope.  She said she wanted us to see what it could look like and that those items were completely optional.

The fireplace and BBQ she put in the plans were expensive, so we bought portable ones, instead.  Although we did not incorporate any of the “extras” at this point, it was designed so that we could add them later if desired.

How much of the work did you do yourselves?  We hired out the hardscape (pavers and rock) and filling in the pool.  Those jobs were way too big for us. But we did the rest – soil prep, irrigation, lighting and planting.  The design was easy to follow.

Click here to see the actual plan            

Rototilling the backyard turned out to be a bigger job than we’d counted on.  When the pool was filled in they broke up the concrete and tossed it into the hole.  Then, the 5 or 6 dump trucks of ‘clean’ fill they brought in turned out to be full of branches and rocks the size of watermelons.  We dug out 4 pickup truck loads of rock!  (Definition of ‘clean fill’ can be found here àt  Based on this, they did NOT get it!  When my family moved into a new house in Fort Lauderdale, you could lift up the sod and find all sorts of construction ‘treasures’!  Staples, nails, brackets…many things to warrant a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot!)

Did you deviate from the design?  As I already mentioned we chose not to do some of the optional ideas. We also made minor adjustments to some of the original plant choices. Some plants weren’t available at that time, so we substituted for something else.  Other than that we stuck pretty close. 

How did you go about choosing the suppliers for the products in the design?  Lois gave us lists of contractors and suppliers. We chose our paver contractor from her list and used some of the suppliers she recommended.

We were very fortunate to have a friend who works at a commercial nursery.  He got us all our plants – a savings of probably $1100!  We obtained 2 plants from a retail nursery and they were $80! 

Other than that I used suppliers that I already familiar with – everything from Home Depot to landscape supply yards.

 All those suppliers recommended by Lois were very helpful.  Although it might have been possible to find less expensive ones, it was worth it to get people who were good and proven. 

 In fact, the guys at Lane Irrigation inCampbellwere super-helpful.  They spent about an hour with me helping work out the irrigation plan and showing me how to lay out the electrical for the lighting, recommending tweaks.  Not cheap but worth it. (Lane Irrigation = )

And Victor Mendariz, of Interlocking Paver Specialists, and his guys provided those little extras that mean a lot.  They showed up on time, were pleasant and cleaned up the job every day.  Lois recommended him and he was fabulous.  He even came back to fix something that we’d caused!  We were consistently advised that quality was worth paying for.  We didn’t skimp on the materials.  We’re glad we didn’t.  (Interlocking Paver Specialists = )














What do you think is the best decision that you made?  The best decision was to hire a designer. Though I’m sure we could have come up with something on our own, Lois’ design flows so beautifully and ties the whole yard together. Her knowledge of plants also gives a better chance of things surviving long term.   

The second best was to use quality materials. Once the dollars started adding up it was easy to think about cheaper choices for lighting and irrigation or maybe to use seed rather than sod. Now that it’s done I’m very glad we went with the better materials. They were much easier to work with and made the finished product look great now and, hopefully, long-lasting.







Anything else you’d like to add?  In hindsight, we might have gone through the process to gain access to our backyard via an easement with the Santa Clara County Water District that runs along our property.  That would have alleviated the need to take down the fence and move a storage unit out of the way.  We saved time but you can still see the impact in the lawn of all those trips back and forth hauling supplies from the front to the back.  The lawn is a little lower along that path.

Choosing all the different colors was more involved that we thought it’d be –the pavers vs the stone vs the rock vs the bench caps – all those different tints.  We had to take samples from each yard to the other yards to try and get a match.

The pair of ducks that had been wintering at our pool for the last 3-4 years came by and walked around like “where’s our pond?”   Otherwise, the backyard project came out better than we had hoped. It is beautiful, relaxing and spacious. We’ve already had one large gathering and everyone loved it!  Especially the flamingos you gave us.  (OK, I added that last part 😉 )

One nice thing Lois did was create a pretty view out of each window.  She paid attention to window placement and everywhere we look there is a nice focal point. 

Now we need to figure out what to do with the front yard.  We have a huge palm tree there and out of the front window all you can see is the leg of an elephant.

Thanks to the Paul and Karen Brown for letting me interview them and post pictures of their project.  Keep in mind, dear Reader, that it takes plants 3-5 years for plants to fill out, so things will look sparse for awhile yet.

There are a few things I’m hoping you’ll take away from this:  Lesson 1 is the value of good design.  Some people have said ‘I designed this myself’, too ignorant to know that the design speaks for itself (it sucks) and we are nodding our heads and murmuring ‘ahh, mmmhmmm’ hoping no further comments are solicited from us.  Inside we are cringing.  What’s that saying? Oh yes, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client”.  The same goes for design.  Expect a professional to help you get the most out of your land.  A good designer will listen to you. 

Which reminds me, you need to listen to your designer, too.  They bring an outside-the-box level of thinking to your project. 

Lesson 2 = Buy good materials!  Our cheap landscape lights failed quite early on so we ended up having to replace them.  Shoulda gone with the good stuff from the get-go!

I probably sound like a broken record, but, honestly, cheap choices made today are paid for tomorrow 😉

Fantastic variety vs not-so-environmentally-sound


Keurig K-Cup Brewing System

I was at a friend’s house (Hi, Cindy!) and she has a Keurig K-Cup Brewing System.  I’d never seen one in action and fell in love. 

You can get all sorts of wonderful flavors and brands:  Toffee, Vanilla, Mocha, Hazelnut, apple cider, Newman’s Own, Tully’s, Emeril’s.  PLUS, you can get various teas, too – Twinings, Celestial Seasonings, even Swiss Miss hot chocolate!  Over 200 varieties!  That’s an astonishing number of choices.  This coffeemaker is THE coolest thing EVER!

Now, I want one for my birthday – although we’d also use it for the office.

Which makes complete sense, because we’ll often have a couple clients who want coffee in the middle of the afternoon, which means I make a small pot of coffee, ½ of which goes down the sink later. 

Personally, I don’t want coffee in the afternoons, I want tea, which means I have to run upstairs every time I want another cuppa and wait for the water to boil (or run water through the coffeemaker, hoping that no clients will want coffee that day).  Meaning I’m not at my desk and the phone will invariably ring and I pick it up and have to go back downstairs to find the answer to their question. 

Actually, shhh, I sometimes want tea in the mornings

But, I’ve since discovered that the K-Cups are not easily recyclable, so now I’m having second thoughts.  I can’t in good conscience use those cups unless I can figure out a way to make them more ‘green’ (no offense, Cindy).

The plastic cups, themselves, are a ‘5’, meaning that some recycling places will take them but I can’t put them in my recycling bin for the city pick-up service.  I’d have to drive for 20-30 minutes to the closest recycling center…that’s adding a recycling point but taking away a carbon-footprint point on my ‘green’ scale.  And the little cap isn’t recyclable so it goes in the trash.  On the plus side, taking the cups apart means you can compost the coffee or tea, so there’s another point in my favor, except that I don’t yet compost, so its actually still a negative point on the scale.

In doing a little research, I’ve discovered that an entire niche business has sprung up which provides new caps for the used cups (3 brands popped up during an internet search) and reusable filters instead of the K-cups – tiny versions of the ones you can get for your regular coffeemaker. 

The new caps are put on the used cups after you’ve thoroughly washed (taking up precious water-points) and dried, then you fill the cups with coffee and pop on a cap.

Supposedly, you can get up to 10 uses before you need to toss the cup and use a new one.

It’s not like Keurig is ignoring the problem.  They have a page about this on their website.  They are working to find a way to make the K-Cups more easily recyclable but that isn’t, umm, easy.  The problem lies in keeping the coffee fresh and dry and the cup strong enough to handle the process that the coffee machine puts it through. 

Keurig even has a link to a site that will tell you where the closest recycling center is that will take the ‘5’ cups, which is a thoughtful thing to do. 

Keurig’s next single cup coffeemaker, Vue, will have coffee pods that are less trouble, they say.  The Vue is a slightly different product (although they’d probably use a stronger word that ‘slightly’) and the coffee pods are not interchangeable with the K-Cup Brewing System pods.  You can make stronger, hotter beverages and even add frothe.  I like that its an easier name to type;  Vue  vs K-Cup Brewing System.

Keurig's soon-to-be-released 'Vue'

I tried to find info about the Nestle’ espresso maker Nespresso, but their website wasn’t as informative.  There are similar re-capping solutions for their coffee capsules, too.  Someone mentioned that they have a program for companies where they take back the used coffee pods and recycle what can be.  I couldn’t find that info on their website, though.

There are other single cup coffee makers and here is an article at Popular Mechanics which rates a few of them: 

One of them was scary – it uses a nitrous-oxide (N2O) cartridge! 

Mypressi Twist has a N2O cartridge in the handle

What am I going to do?  I love the versatility of the Keurig machine but, I dunno yet if I can justify it.

What do you think about this?  Help me decide 😉

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