A review of Election Night

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(warning, lots of words and not enough pics)

I’m sitting at our Airbnb with my laptop, Rick is watching the Sharks game on his tablet and we have election results news with the sound off on the tv.  It’s a little disconcerting to be hearing the Sharks game and I look up, but its some talking head, not the Sharks announcers.  My little pea brain tries to make sense of that, poor little brain.  There’s no teal on the screen – lots of red, white and blue.

I really should be getting some work done but I’m distracted by the TV…Tell you what, instead, I’ll be Max Headroom and give you a running commentary on what’s onscreen (sans glitches).


One woman is wearing a Kelly green dress with a shiny multi-strand gold necklace, another woman is wearing the brightest red with a thin black belt and the 3rd woman has a dark purple suit.  They’ll pan to a different lady in a another area of the studio and she’s also wearing an audacious red.  The two gentlemen are wearing staid blue suits and red/blue striped ties.



What they sorely need to wear are pizazzy suits like ‘Chunk’ wears on the TV show “Bull”, or that wealthy nerd, Harold Finch wore on “Person of Interest”.  Those election analysts need to step up their fashion game.  The woman in the purple suit gets my vote for ‘best dressed’.  Gorgeous color.



I know, what these shows could use is a fashion director who can put all those heads in colors that work as a whole.  So the lineup of commentators would look complimentary to each other instead of like a primary color graphic from preschool.



I’m pretty entertained (and pretty entertaining, right?!?)  keeping the sound off and criticizing the makeup, hair and clothes.  Looking at the head shots of the politicians getting voted in, and out, there is a preponderance of faces you’d have a hard time describing to a police artist.  Perfectly forgettable.  most of them could have used a makeover, a little swipe of makeup, some spit and polish.

That’s another weird old saying – spit and polish – but this one is easy to explain since most of us have done this at one time or another… to our kids or a smudge on eyeglasses or something.  Spit on a cloth and wipe off the smudge.  Ugh, though, spit.  That’s enough about that.

When a politician’s photo pops up, it looks especially bland compared with the stage makeup the broadcasters wear.

Hey, just saw perfect and understated makeup on someone. She was wearing eye-punching fuchsia, though.  Which clashes with the red and blue banners surrounding her on all sides of the screen.  Her face is all business and the fuchsia is glowing in the dark.


I’m looking at a handsome man running for Governor somewhere giving a speech and I’m afraid to turn the sound on for fear he speaks with a cringy voice and is spouting cr*p.  He looks so earnest and intelligent.  Leaving the sound off protects me from being disillusioned.

Well, darn, according to the banner on the screen, he’s conceding the race, bummer.  Based on a projection, right now the votes stand at 50% to 49%.  Seems early to concede, don’t you think?  Well, he’s young, maybe he’ll run next time.

The races seem so close, some of them are only a few thousand votes apart.  When one person receives 51% and another person gets 49% of the vote shouldn’t they run again?  Or win by a greater percentage?  Or stop behaving like they won by a landslide, at the very least.  How about they job share?

job share.jpg

One of the people on the stage is waving a placard and it looks very awkward to hold.  No stick to hang onto.  Aren’t they getting a cramp?  How long can they hold the sign at that angle?   There are a couple kids on the stage and they look entirely bored out of their minds.  As bored as I would be if I was listening to the broadcast and not just watching it.

yawning kid.jpg

Hey, a talking head wearing a bantam yellow necktie with what looks like balloon animal doggies on it.  And onscreen now there’s a lovely dark green suit and plaid tie…that’s a win for fashion!   TWO wins!  No, THREE wins if you count the purple suit from earlier.

The purple tie with meh white diagonal stripes, disappointing effort, get off the stage.

crook 2.jpg

Rick just looked at the TV screen and said ‘what’s with all the fake blondes in Texas?”

If I was a guy broadcaster I would want to wear killer suits.  I’d start off trying to have a new one for every news show, but I wouldn’t be able to keep that going for long, I admit.  Easier to have a different tie – just go to the Men’s Wearhouse and you’ll see I could have a new tie for every day of the year!


Why don’t these guys wear spiffy suits?  Maybe the ones they’ve got on are expensive, I dunno, but they have no spark.

Older women need to remember their eyebrows, they spend so much time on the cheekbones and forget to fill in the eyebrows.  Under the lights the eyebrows practically disappear.





I wish my brows were a teensy bit higher.  More space between the eye and the brow, I also wish I could raise 1 eyebrow.  So much skepticism relayed in 1 raised eyebrow!  And my eyebrows have always been thin towards the ends, so I fill them in a little with a pencil – EYEbrow pencil, silly!


I think 25% of the Rock’s career is based on that eyebrow.

New guy on the screen is trying to have Justin Bieber hair, he’s not pulling it off very well.


The yellow tie – I think it’s a deer wearing a red sweater hugging some other animal wearing a blue sweater!  That’s a cute tie for an evening of red vs blue.  Or maybe the deer is choking the other…?  His jacket is unbuttoned, not very flattering.  More comfortable, points for that, I suppose, since its probably gonna be a long night for him.  His eyebrows need buffing, too.

Red vs blue.PNG

A screaming funny (but profane) show.

Ooh, this older (actually ancient, I think) political winner has a practically PERFECT make-up job, and her eyebrows are fantastic!  AND they moved up AND down, so no botox!   I simply MUST ask her who did her face!

Oops, back to a talking head with a makeup job that is seriously caked on, fake eyelashes, rouge, lip liner).  And, just so no attribute is left behind, a low-cut almost off the shoulder dress plus the requisite tiny gold cross.

Ack!  The Kelly green dress just put on big bright teal blue glasses!  That was a bold fashion move.  Maybe she likes the San Jose Sharks hockey team.  But with the long chunky gold necklace, well, that’s a teensy bit over the top.  I vote for a necklace that could have brought dress and eyeglasses together.  I’m pretty sure I have just the necklace for the job, too.  But no one asked me.

Turns out broadcasters have saved the spiffy suits for later in the evening!  These new guys that just showed up have a superb fashion-sense, these suits quietly outshine the bright reds and bold greens and boring blues.  Literally, they have a sheen to them – they are stylin’.

I love this photo from Franco Masoma’s website, look at those colors!  I’d have suits made by THIS guy any day!



I don’t know how Joan & Melissa Rivers had the strength to keep up their fashion commentary at those award shows. I’m exhausted, its only been a couple hours and I didn’t have to wear fancy shoes or hold a microphone!


Wearing this is an Olympic sport


Btw, if any candidates for future elections are reading this and considering plastic surgery to be more photogenic?  Get dimples, I’ll vote for dimples every time.



Bad guy?  Just get dimples…

This is MyBetterHouse, coming to you practically live on Election Night from a couch in an Airbnb.  Ha 😉

Afterthought!  Let’s have a MST3000-style show on election night!  Remember that for next time, k?  Have your people call my people…



The value of making lists

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I don’t like making lists…they defeat me.  The list is endless, just the idea of making a list makes my tummy hurt.  Except, I CAN add something to a grocery list once in awhile.  Even though I despise going to the market, the list isn’t tied to the store in my brain.


I have a lot to do and instead of doing any of them, I’m trying to write my daily entry in the NaNoWriMo.  To be fair, I DID accomplish some chores today…and a nap…

I went to the grocery yesterday so I don’t have that on my list.  But dammit, it will pop up again next week!  Aargh.


No matter what, the grocery is always on the list…I can’t walk away from it.

My list:

…do I number the items?  That will make it worse, won’t it?  To see the actual number of them to be done?

…maybe a dash, instead?  OK, just a dash…(which turned into a dot when I posted this)

  • Repot the tiny kumquat tree Lowe’s gave to us for $5 cuz it looked so pathetic.

I remember eating kumquats at a friend’s house when I was a kid…but it had a big seed in it and these don’t so, what was it if not a kumquat?

  • (re)start to learn to play the guitar (there is a back-story, but we’ll just leave it right here)
  • Clear off the pool table – I actually worked on this today, but its not cleared yet. It’s a perfect landing point for, um, lots of stuff.
  • Hang pictures, now that we downsized our house we have twice the pictures as before PLUS there were many in storage. So, also decide which to give away.
  • Learn to speak another language – Italian? Spanish?  Which?  Both?
  • Dust
  • Vacuum
  • Clean the bathrooms
  • Change the sheets on our bed. Oh, wait, I did THIS yesterday, too!  Yay for me!
  • Clear off the island – its another perfect landing point for, um, lots of stuff.
  • Fix the waistband on my navy skirt that I’ve had so long the elastic no longer is.
  • Organize the hall closet – have I mentioned that we downsized? I have?  Well, that means DOUBLE the number of sheets, towels, and so forth and so on.
  • Where are the board games going? How did we accumulate 15 decks of cards?
  • Where are all my shoes going? I had a HUGE closet and now, not so much.

OK, I don’t have THIS many.

  • And purses? I’m a bit of a hoarder, is that it?
  • Read a magazine OR admit I will never catch up and toss (some) of them – which is what Rick would rather I did.
  • Do SOMETHING really fanTAStic with the front porch. Too many random plants, random furniture, random plant stands, random = ugh
  • Oh, and while I’m at it, de-web the front porch as part of that porch fantastic-ness
  • Sigh, the middle bedroom, which we call the Bird Room, cuz of all the bird-related things in it. The middle bedroom is packed with what needs sorting, organizing, gifting, storing, surreptitiously put in the kids’ car trunks when they leave at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and suchlike.

Batik of a toucan (plus another one awaiting repair) is in the Bird Room

  • Shorten a couple slips
  • Mending
  • Will I ever make that Christmas wreath out of the hoop and fake (I mean faux) evergreen? There is hope for this item as I DID make a wreath for my mom LAST year!   I have a glue gun and I know how to use it!


  • Catch up on all the TV shows I’ve recorded and not watched – doing this means I need to get on my exercycle and kill 2 birds with 1 stone, which leads me to this next item…
  • Buy wireless sport headphones since mine have died
  • Get moving on Able Grable, a duo my friend, Pam, and I are working on (Pam, I’m calling you out!)
  • Do that colon testing thing for Kaiser (TMI?)
  • Finish organizing at our new office, we’re so CLOSE to being done.
  • Go to the Post Office
  • Pack the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox
  • Learn something about the sound board at church (print out the manual). One of the problems here is that I’m helping with sound pickin’ early on a Sunday morning – meaning my brain is NOT ready for prime time.

Our sound guy, Tom, is so patient with me, bless his heart!

  • De-tangle the spaghetti of necklaces that got that way when we moved
  • Call Nestle Refresh (Arrowhead Water changed their name…to Nestle Refresh, which is a stupid name) and have them come get all the empty water jugs. I think we have 5 of them and they take up a LOT of space.

That’s enough for now, don’t you think?  I have more items but, jeepers, I’m calling it quits 😉


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 GilligansTikiHuts.com

pic courtesy of GilligansTikiHuts.com

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!  http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/02/how-to-make-goat-cheese-recipe.html

Aren’t these baby goats adorable! http://www.BabyGoatFarm.com

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 http://www.wikipedia.com

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  http://videos.howstuffworks.com/discovery/36227-dirty-jobs-content-burning-toilet-video.htm

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 http://www.insectapedia.com 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

1 Comment

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.

http://www.hometownlocator.com/   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:  http://school-ratings.com  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.   http://www.cde.ca.gov   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?  😉

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