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Taking Stock: Money, stress, and Funny about Money

It’s been a little more than three months since Funny about Money came into being. During that time, several changes for the better have happened in my life, some of them having to do with the very issues of stress and finance that the blog was built to address.

I’d like to look back over the past few months to see how some of the things I’ve been blogging about have changed. While much has improved, it’s not all beer and skittles: some positive changes have involved trade-offs, and some new developments are not pure golden sunlight.

The Poison Poppy of Stress, as you may recall, sprouted five petals:

  • 1. Money
  • 2. Vandalism of my house and ensuing harassment campaign
  • 3. Dogs
  • 4. Workplace stress
  • 5. Financing and renovating the Investment House
  • 6. My own house and its questionable neighborhood

Let’s look at how each of these has evolved.

Money

The immediate cause of the stress attack that landed me in the hospital was the Great Desert University’s switch from bimonthly to biweekly pay. The smaller biweekly checks were projected to result in a net bimonthly pay cut of $220 for me. At the same time, the administration announced it was jacking up the cost of parking exponentially: disabled parking would go from $440 to $770 and then to $880. Just a few months earlier, the state legislature had voted in a 6.1% pay increase for state workers. These two changes would reduce my net income to less than I earned before the pay increase, which was arranged because legislators recognized that we are among the country’s worst-paid state workers.

To compensate, I increased my federal exemptions from zero to four, eliminated the extra $50 federal tax withholding, and canceled my parking pass. The city where GDU resides, as it develops, allows drivers with disabled placards to park in any metered parking for free. It meant a walk of four blocks instead of one and a half, but most of the time that’s tolerable. A lot more tolerable than having eight or nine hundred dollars ripped out of my paycheck!

A month or two before the biweekly announcement came down, the PPO plan I’d subscribed to decided to quit covering the Mayo Clinic, where my doctor practices. In response, the state held a mini-open enrollment, allowing employees to switch plans. I changed to the only other plan that would cover my doctor, an EPO. The result was a cut in monthly premiums from $240 to $23, an enormous and much-needed saving.

Meanwhile, at the same time the university made the change to biweekly pay, our admired administrators decided to change the payroll system to PeopleSoft, with no testing or any kind of intelligent planning. The result was a horrific fiasco. Many people didn’t get paid at all; others were double-paid. During five nightmarish months, no two of my paychecks were the same and, as far as I could tell, not one was correct. PeopleSoft quit crediting my vacation time and tried to argue that I was not entitled to vacations. It failed to make my 403c contributions or failed to make the university’s matching contributions. It screwed up payment of my long-term care premiums so badly I had to cancel the payroll deduction for those payments and arrange to pay the insuror out of my checking account. The mess never seemed to end, and as you can imagine, that didn’t help the stress levels.

After half a year, the situation finally settled down. Once I knew how much my paycheck was supposed to be (apparently), I changed my exemptions again, from four to two, and reinstated the extra federal tax withholding, which was there to cover freelance income so I didn’t have to do quarterlies on top of my salary withholding.

Though my net income has now returned to about what it was before the payroll change, the timing of paychecks no longer can be relied upon to cover my bills. The second paycheck of the month sometimes comes in after all my monthly utility, insurance, and yard maintenance bills are due.

I’ve dealt with this by designing a weekly budget. Budgeting by the week gives me a lot more control over how much is in my checking account at any given time. Also, realizing the university might not pay my salary on time or to get it correct, I went to the credit union and arranged overdraft protection in the amount of one month’s pay.

These two strategies have effectively relieved the worry about whether I can pay my bills without bouncing automatic funds transfers.

Vandalism

Tapr16signhe computerized surveillance camera system that M’hijito installed demonstrated that, contrary to three pool repairmen’s insistence that the pump pot lid could not work itself loose, the thing indeed was doing exactly that. The discovery that no bogeyman was hopping the fence into the backyard was a vast relief.

Since then, the disturbed Son-in-Law has disappeared from the scene. It’s been months since I’ve seen the guy around. In his absence, that situation has dwindled to nothing and is no longer a problem. Other members of the clan are rarely seen, and I’m even thinking of removing some of the thick shrubbery the landscaper planted to screen the view between my front yard and Other Daughter’s house.

Dogs

Walt the Greyhound is still missed, and his demise was a sad thing. But the truth is, one dog makes for a lot less care and expense than two.

After I explained to the vet that I cannot get Anna the Superannuated German Shepherd into the car by myself and that the only person who can help me lives 20 miles away, he agreed to prescribe her thyroid and eye medications without the twice-yearly exams. This saves me $800 a year plus a great deal of hassle.

While Anna’s health and frailty (and amazing stink) are still worrisome, half as much clean-up and feeding plus the savings in medication and food have really cut the stress level in the pet department.

Workplace

I reneged on my resolution to cease keeping the office log demanded by our HR representative. Instead, I finally did what she and my boss advised: rode herd on my personnel problem until the woman finally resigned, effective February 15.

This has changed the landscape at our office and in my life. Apparently My Bartleby was the most serious source of jaw-clenching stress for me.

The entire atmosphere in our office has changed. Staff members, who had taken to arranging their arrival times to avoid this woman’s presence, now show up during the morning. They actually engage in conversations. We no longer have to arrange staff meetings at restaurants so as to deal privately with problems created by Bartleby. I no longer have to waste hours keeping track of her antics, putting out fires she starts, or redoing her work. And I come and go at will, with no further worries about what she might say to my boss about my presence or absence.

Her line was replaced by a fourth editorial assistant, and so we will be able to grow our empire. I expect we will take on another two client journals over the next few months. Our office will look more indispensable, and this will enhance my shot at staying put until I reach full retirement age.

And in my personal life, the day Bartleby exited I felt like a hundred-pound weight lifted from my shoulders. I still feel that way.

The Investment House

apr16menworkingM’hijito and I are now in the process of refinancing, a strategy that will combine our two mortgages into one. The 5.3% interest represents a savings of around $200 a month.

The appraiser estimated the house’s worth at $270,000, twenty thou more than it was allegedly worth 18 months ago and $35,000 more than we paid for it. This eliminated the worry we both felt that our investment might be dropping in value.

The Workman Waltz is over. Most of the renovations are done, except for the landscaping. With the interior livable, we can work on the outside a little at a time.

M’hijito got a raise and a nice bonus, allowing him to pay off the last of his debts (!). He is putting money aside to replace the air conditioner, relieving me of having to figure out how to pay for that.

I have snowflaked the $25,000 Renovation Loan down to about $23,000 and meanwhile, by dint of ambitious savings and taking on a couple of overenrolled classes this semester (and so getting paid to teach four instead of two sections), I’ve managed to set aside $13,000 in the money market as a fund to pay off the loan. I expect that fund to cover the balance on the loan by the end of next year, at which time I will decide whether to pay off the loan or to put the money into mutual funds with higher risk but a better return.

So, although a mortgage payment is always a nagging worry and you never know what will break next, the most immediate sources of stress associated with the Investment House are either resolved or well on the way to it.

My House and the Neighborhood

This is the only Poppy Petal that remains a problem.

The B*** tribe has settled down, Carlos the Knife has quit chasing his wife over to my front door, and Biker Boob seems to have lost the chopper or at least to have given up letting it idle in the driveway for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. However, Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum is again hip-high in dandelions and milkweed. The other day the sheriff came by to serve poor Dave with papers, and so I imagine he’s still quarreling with his ex-wife.

The city slum abatement office got after Dave about the Weed Arboretum and made him park some of his rolling stock elsewhere than in the front yard. Also, one of the wacko neighbors has been issuing death threats against Dave over the mess in front. So, Dave has at least been trying to clean up the premises.

The results are mixed.

Meanwhile, and far more dangerously, the City is about to trash our neighborhood.

The City’s absurd light-rail train will go right up the middle of the main drag to the west of our tract. This road, a conduit of blight, serves as a permeable barrier between the middle-class housing on our side and the tenements and gang-infested slum directly west of us.

Tenements, bear in mind, are businesses. The City of Phoenix historically has favored businesses over residents-in the past our City Parents have changed the routes of freeways to avoid demolishing businesses but thought nothing of ripping out homes by the square mile and trashing the neighborhoods flanking the freeways.

Light rail is no exception: the City plans to tear out the access road that gave the houses along the main drag some nominal distance from the traffic and the bus riders. Not only that, but unknown to most residents, the City’s right of way goes about three or four feet inside every property along that access road. Walls, trees, and landscaping will be ripped out and replaced with asphalt to accommodate an alignment that spares businesses and apartment houses on the west side of the road. Several houses will be torn down and replaced with noisy equipment. And a three-story parking garage will be built on the corner where a train station replaces a tacky strip mall, further enhancing our view to the west.

One of the neighborhood grocery stores has already closed; the other has announced it will close before light rail construction begins. This leaves us with no neighborhood grocery shopping except for a small Sprouts, which doesn’t carry anything like all the goods one needs to run a kitchen and a home. The three doomed houses are locked behind hideous storm fences, and the City is allowing the weeds to rival those in Dave’s Weed Arboretum.

These developments will not help our property values. Construction is expected to take as much as four years, during which trucks and diverted traffic will roar across our neighborhood streets. The result will be a trolley that plods through town at an average speed of 15 miles per hour, hardly a crowd-pleaser for busy commuters.

My property value has already dropped $75,000 off its Bubble high of $375,000. At $300,000, it is about where it should be if no bubble had ever happened. If prices in the neighborhood continue to drop, I will lose money on my house.

And drop they will. Faced with a full understanding of what this project means to the area, homeowners have flocked to real estate agents. Houses are on the market at figures well below $300,000. And four houses that I know of are in foreclosure.

How dire is this?

Well, I think it’s fairly dire. Yes. Pretty dire.

But there’s nothing I can do about it. So, I guess the best course is to resign myself to the fact that you can’t fight City Hall, get used to loud noise and construction dirt and hellish traffic, and hope the long-term increase in the Investment House’s value offsets the loss on my home.

What Worked?

Five out of six of the stress sources (three of which are associated with personal finance) have improved since I started Funny about Money. How did I manage to get the best of so many of my stressors?

Number one: Write down everything that bothers you. This was the key to success overall. Brainstorm all the issues that might remotely be called stressors. For each, write down:

  • 1. Why is it bothersome?
  • 2. Is it really significant, or am I blowing this one out of proportion?
  • 3. What can be done about it?

Next: List the significant issues in order of importance, from most to least urgent.

Then: Work on each issue a little at a time. Some issues will have to be tabled while you deal with matters that seem more crucial.

  • 1. Don’t expect your problems to go away instantly. Realize that something that’s been making you nuts for a while will take a similar while to figure out and solve.
  • 2. Work at identifying your part in the stressfulness of each issue, rather than blaming someone or something else. After all, you’re the person who is in the best position to resolve most of your issues.
  • 3. But don’t blame yourself for situations or conditions you can’t help or you didn’t bring on yourself.

Listen to what people who are in a position to speak intelligently are trying to tell you (but ignore those who talk for the sake of hearing themselves talk). For example, it took me a long time to register what my boss and my HR representative were urging me to do about my personnel problem. If I’d paid attention sooner, I wouldn’t have had to suffer a major stressor as long as I did.

Take positive action to resolve each issue. Identify strategies that may help to relieve stress or eliminate situations that cause stress, and follow through on them.

If an issue has no solution, try either to move away from it or to accommodate it psychologically by resigning yourself to it. Exception: Do not, under any circumstance, remain in an abusive relationship!

Declutter. This is a positive action in its own right. Simplify your daily life, get rid of unnecessary paperwork, and throw out or give away junk you’re not using. It’s amazing how much better this will make you feel.

Turn off the ambient noise. Shut off the television. Turn off the cell phone. Do not listen to local news broadcasts that dwell almost exclusively on stories of the bizarre and the terrifying. Never listen to talk shows while driving. Make your external life quieter and your internal life will quiet down.

Be patient. Don’t feel you have to solve all your problems at once. There’s a limit to how much you can deal with.

  • Identify the issues that feel most important and work on those first.

Engage in an activity that relaxes you and takes you away from your cares. This is huge.

  • One of my friends paints to distract herself from the stresses of her job and her life. I have found that blogging relaxes me and keeps me entertained for hours. Find something you like to do and do it.

The Incredible Lightness of Stress-free Being

The quality of my life has changed over the past few months to an extent that I would call almost weird. Things that used to set me off — aggressive drivers, endless traffic signals, ninnies in the grocery store line who feel compelled to argue with the cashier over every penny — no longer seem to matter much. Time itself seems to have slowed down. Where before my days never seemed to have enough hours to accommodate all the things that needed to be done, now I get things finished and have time to sit down and read a book, go for a bike ride, or just sit and enjoy a lovely afternoon.

I’ve stopped drinking, which a) saves a chunk of dough and b) has caused me to lose six pounds over the past month or so. My blood pressure has dropped into the amazingly healthy range and my blood sugar is down to normal.

And thanks to the biweekly budget and the improved equanimity, I no longer worry whether I can make ends meet from month to month or from year to year.

This is not to say I have achieved the calm of a Buddhist monk. The sound of George W. Bush’s voice still causes me to fly into a rage. A mistake in Quicken can drive me to tear my hair. I’m not at all happy about what the lightrail promises to do to my neighborhood. And the prospect of putting the dog to sleep worries me a lot.

But it’s better. Much better.

Five ways to fight inflation at the grocery store

With real inflation at around 12 percent (more about which later, when I feel like thinking), we’ve all noticed grocery prices have reached orbit somewhere close to the moon. Here are a few ways, beyond the obvious advice to use coupons and shop for sales, to save money on real food (as opposed to packaged stuff containing artificial chemicals, stabilizers, flavors, and various “enhancers” whose names you can’t pronounce).

  • Serve smaller portions of meat. A porterhouse steak, for example, contains three servings: the tenderloin equals one serving, and the sirloin strip side can be cut into two pieces. A ribeye steak similarly can be cut into three smaller servings. Make a full dinner by adding a serving of rice, pasta, or beans; a serving of green, yellow, or orange vegetable; and a serving of salad. All these items taken together are enough to satisfy any appetite.
  • Learn to butcher meat yourself. Some years ago I stumbled upon Merle Ellis’s Cutting Up in the Kitchen, a user-friendly guide to DIY butchering large pieces of meat and fowl. A whole chicken, a whole turkey, or an entire set of beef ribs is invariably cheaper than neat packages of prepared servings. Turns out that it’s pretty easy to reduce a large chunk of meat or fowl to meal-sized portions, given a sharp knife and a few minutes of your time. This saves a surprising amount on your meat bill.
  • Plan one or two vegetarian days into your weekly menu. Most people enjoy beans, which are easy to fix and incredibly cheap. A dish of polenta or pasta topped with tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and parmesan cheese is satisfying and cheap. Got a half a loaf of French bread that’s starting to go a bit stale? Run it under the tap, wet it with cold water, wring it out, cut it into cubes, add some cut-up tomatoes, garlic, little green onions, a few herbs, a bit of olive oil, and a dash of lemon juice or vinegar and voila! Italian soul food.
  • Use your slow cooker to make a stew or roast that will last for several meals. Pot roast, chicken, or beans cook wonderfully in a slow cooker. The key to making meat or chicken taste like stovetop is to brown it before putting it into the cooker.
  • Buy veggies and fruits at ethnic markets or farmer’s markets. In my part of the country, farmer’s markets are no bargain, but bloggers in other regions report they find good buys at these outdoor events. However, even though prices at ethnic markets have shot up, they’re still cheaper than mainstream supermarkets. Check out these stores for good buys on basic vegetables and fruits, and while you’re there, explore the offerings in herbs and spices.

Five budget busters

Oh My Aching Debts has issued a PF Blogger’s challenge to list our five biggest budget breakers. Here are mine:

House

apr13pool1Having trained myself to stay out of Home Depot and Lowe’s except for very targeted purposes, the unending house costs are under control. More or less. But all it takes is one good-sized expense to blow the budget. This month, for example, I had to pay about $250 for the annual HVAC inspection and service contract renewal on the units at my house and the Investment House. It’s not going to break me up in business, but because the first air-conditioning weather will arrive this month, it could put a strain on the budget. Especially since I have a big hit in the next budget-breaking category.

Dog

apr13dogThe aged German shepherd is a constant drain on the budget. Her thyroid meds run $30 a month, one eye med is $60 a pop, the other is about $40 for a tiny vial. Dog food is $30 per bag, plus meat or canned fish to cajole her to eat the stuff. And last week she had such a severe episode of pain I had to put up friends to help lift her into the car and drag her to the vet, who had to interrupt surgery to treat her. The cortisone shot worked. But the vet didn’t even have the heart to tell me how much it cost. I expect to have to dip into the emergency fund to cover that little misadventure.

Hair

Cutting off the low-maintenance mid-back-length hair, donating it to charity, and getting a cute low-maintenance short style was a good thing to do. After a certain age, a woman with long hair starts to look a little strange. You go from getting what-is-she-trying-to-prove stares to fishy poor-white-trash looks. Shop clerks assume (correctly) you can’t afford to get your hair styled and either won’t wait on you or, when forced to do so, look down their noses at you.

I love the snappy hair style and I love the fact that strangers have started treating me politely again. But it’s expensive. You don’t get a no-blow-dry, no-curling-iron style that looks good at just any Supercuts. It takes a killer stylist to do a short style that looks good, stays looking good for some weeks, and doesn’t make you look like you wish you were one of the boys. Such artists don’t come cheap. Day before yesterday I had to get my hair cut. Shane has raised his price again: with tip, I shelled out $75. That’s just for a hair cut: no color, no perm, no nothing else.

Now we’re at $250 for the air conditioner, $75 for the hair, and God only knows what for the vet. At this point we know I’m over budget, but the scary thing is, we don’t know by how much because the vet is scared to tell me. And I’m scared to ask.

Costco

apr13stuffThere’s only one way to survive a Costco run with your budget intact: wear blinders.

As long as I take a list and stick to it, Costco saves me a lot of money. Stocking up on a month’s worth of food and lifetime supplies of staples, personal care, and cleaning goods keeps me out of grocery stores. The result is significant savings in food and household bills.

However, “stick to it” is…well, the sticking point. Costco lines its aisles with things you never imagined you needed so much as you think you need them when you see them. Last time I went to Costco I bought the recent biography of John Adams, five No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, a posthumous collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s amazingly minor writings, a floating swim pool chair with built-in cups to hold one’s gin and tonic, and three pairs of swimming goggles (hey! these are things no one should be without!!!). The time before, I bought a $45 dress that doesn’t fit.

Today, whenever I get up from in front of the computer monitor, I will return the dress. Meanwhile, the ninety bucks or so for the other ephemera will come out of this month’s budget. The budget is $325 – $45 + 90 (= $370) in the hole. Plus an unknown veterinary bill.

Plants

apr13mexicanprimroseMy weakness is flowers and herbs. I can’t pass a box of bulbs without buying a fistful of them. I live for the roses to bloom. I justify the oregano, marjoram, tarragon, parsley, basil, thyme, mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, and heaven only knows what else is growing in the yard on the grounds that I use them in cooking. And those inexpensive, wildly colorful glazed Thai pots at Home Depot…to die for!

Trouble with container gardening is that containers require potting soil ($) and fertilizer ($) and, once the heat reaches about 98 degrees (which it will do today, and where it will stay until the end of September), daily watering ($$$). Trouble with ground gardening is that flowerbeds call out to you to fill them with more flowers. Every season.

Luckily we have only two seasons in Arizona: summer and winter. But what grows in the winter dies instantly on a single fricaseeing day in April. And what grows in the summer turns to black Jell-O when the first light freeze comes in.

apr13camomileThese factors make a Home Depot junket an exercise in Herculean will power. This year I’ve managed to keep the gardening impulse under control: I haven’t purchased one new rose (only because I’ve run out of space to plant roses); not one new plant pot; and only a few herbs, two tomatoes, a handful of bulbs, and a couple of packets of wildflower seeds.

But…the year is young, and so is the budget.

Fellow Busted Budgeters (that I’ve spotted so far):

Mrs. Micah

Bible Money Matters

Mommy Gets Paid

categories: budgeting

3 Comments from iWeb site

Pete @ biblemoneymatters

Thanks for the link!I can definitely relate to the one about the dog.We’ve just got through with several expensive visits to the vet.But hey, we love that little pooch, and she’s worth it!

Monday, April 14, 200807:12 AM

Mrs. Micah

I can see how tempting Costco would be…I’ve been there once, but I wasn’t buying anything which helped. There was a lot of exciting looking stuff.

Tuesday, April 15, 200804:14 PM

Aaron Stroud

I really found myself identifying with this post. My wife and I built a house last year, so we’re constantly discovering new things we “need” at home. Our dog is aging as well, but fortunately she doesn’t have any expensive needs at the moment.

A trip to Costco or a Wal-mart is definitely an expensive proposition. The past few weeks we’ve been stocking up on pots, seeds, plants, fertilizer, etc. It can get expensive very quickly.

DIY: The great de-wallpapering adventure

Kyle at Rather Be Shopping is running a contest for smartest, dumbest, hardest, or frugalest home improvement projects. The prize is a fancy cordless drill with many trimmings, something not to be missed. So, here’s my contribution:

When my son reached grade-school age, we moved out of a very elegant house in a gentrified inner-city neighborhood in search of a functional school district and fewer transients. Though the new-to-us house, a custom-built 1950s rancher, was in a far tonier area than the one we left behind, all that proved was that the rich spend much of their time at Junior League and Men’s Arts Council and little of their time cleaning house or supervising their housekeepers. The place was filthy, smelly, and run-down.

After two weeks of nonstop scrubbing and disinfecting – during which the wife of one of my husband’s law partners showed up at the door and mistook me for the cleaning help – I was ready to take on the tired décor. I planned to paint the walls myself. It took three coats of white to cover the unholy navy blue the previous owners had put in the master bedroom. From there it was on to the kitchen.

Ah, the kitchen.

Strangely, whenever I walked in there I found myself feeling slightly dizzy, as though I’d had one gin and tonic too many.

The vast kitchen consisted of a large cooking and utility area plus a breakfast nook big enough to hold my mother’s dining room set, which I had recently inherited. One wall of the breakfast room was lined with cabinetry and glass-fronted shelving. The two rooms were nominally separated by an ell of the kitchen counter and an upper cabinet, which hung from a soffit. A soffit also ran along the kitchen’s front wall, supporting more upper cabinets.

In the past, some proud homeowner had covered the soffits, the ceilings, three walls, and the wall behind the shelves with busy blue-and-white floral wallpaper. Although it wasn’t obvious at a glance, the pattern had a direction. The wooziness one felt upon entering the rooms arose from this wallpaper. In the breakfast nook, the ceiling pattern ran north and south. In the kitchen, it ran east and west. As if it weren’t bad enough to have ditzy flowers all over the ceiling, the flowers raced back and forth in different directions!

No problem, thought I. We’ll just pull that wallpaper right off there. Hey – I knew how to remove wallpaper. I was good at it.

Yeah.

Except this stuff wasn’t your normal wallpaper. In fact, some question arose about whether it was wallpaper at all. The strips were narrow, about the width of Contact Paper. It didn’t appear to be self-sticking shelf paper, though: the surface was matte, not shiny, and it definitely was paper and not vinyl.

I hauled the ladder, a sponge, and a bucket of water into the kitchen, propped the bucket on the paint tray, climbed up, and started mopping and peeling.

Whatever it was, the paper had no interest in peeling off, thank you. On some sections, it would come off in small strips. In other areas-where more paper hid behind it-it sort of chipped off.

Down the ladder, out to the tool chest; retrieve a putty knife and a squirt bottle of vinegar water. Spray, scrape, and peel: this worked to slightly better effect, but it was slow, slow going.

The soffits had been papered by many previous owners. A layer of blue flowers came off to reveal a layer of harvest gold wheat. The harvest gold wheat came off to reveal a layer of brown with busy yellow and orange flowers. The layer of brown came off to reveal an identical layer of brown with busy yellow and orange flowers! Beneath that lurked another couple of layers in increasingly retro patterns.

The brown stuff put up an even bigger fight than the blue flowers and the gold wheat. It behaved like glued-down cardboard. Not only would it not peel off, it wouldn’t scrape off, either. It came up in quarter-inch chips.

Down from the ladder, into the car, off to the rental place. Rent a wallpaper steamer.

The rental guy pointed out that a steam iron would do the job: just turn it to “blast furnace,” hold it an inch or two away from the wall, and hit the “burst of steam” button. This, he pointed out, would be a lot easier for a 118-pound woman whose idea of exercise is an occasional walk to the refrigerator, for whom a wallpaper steamer represented a heavy, unwieldy, arm-aching chunk of a thing.

This was beginning to look like an iffy idea.

The steam iron strategy worked little better than the spray bottle. As a young mother, however, I was too dumb and too stubborn ever to say “I give up.” Oh, no.

Days passed as I clung to the ladder like a monkey in the jungle canopy and steamed, sprayed, scraped, peeled, steamed, sprayed, scraped, peeled, steamed, sprayed, scraped, peeled…. I paused only long enough to pick up the kid at school and park him in front of the television. Then it was back up the ladder, steaming scraping and peeling to the tunes of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers.

After the better part of a week, I had the stuff off the soffits and the walls behind the bookcases. Well…almost. Behind the shelves I came to a layer of excellent, solidly applied and still intact bright yellow lead paint. It had been applied over more underlaying wallpaper!

Luckily, I owned cookbooks, many cookbooks, all still in the mover’s packing boxes. Command decision: remove the paper from the intact paint, wash off the glue, and cover the more or less smooth goldenrod surface with new paint. Hide the result behind row on row of cookbooks.

Moving on, it was time to tackle the dizzy ceilings.

If Michelangelo could do it, I told myself, so can I.

Except…well, Michelangelo had scaffolding. Michelangelo had swarms of underlings. Michelangelo could lay on his back while he dealt with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did not have to balance on the top step of an aluminum ladder while holding a sizzling steam iron over his head!

And if he did, you can bet one of the underlings would have been sent up the ladder.

More days passed. Neck-twisting, back-wrenching days. The neighbor came by and stared up at me in awe. A woman who had no fear of telling another woman she was nuts, she told me I was nuts. Obsessively, I steamed and sprayed and scraped and peeled.

Clearly, she was right.

After another week of steaming, scraping, and peeling, I finally got the layers of wallpaper off the ceiling.

Now all that remained was to remove an ancient nonfunctional intercom from the wall, patch the resulting 8 x 14-inch hole in the drywall, and paint. So it was that I learned how to do drywall repair. Not well, we might add.

I’d like to say that when the job was finished I was proud, I was pleased as punch.

But no. The result was OK. But it was just OK. Unlike the fine old 1929 hacienda we had left downtown with its shaded atrium, 18-foot lath-and-plaster walls, huge wood beams, and authentic French doors and windows, this house had nothing special to offer. It was just a tract house on steroids. Nothing that you did to it made it special. Far from feeling pleased, all I felt was glad a miserable job was finally done. At least the paint was clean and we no longer felt tipsy while we were making our breakfast coffee.

Smaller is better. Simple is best. Workmen are good. Hire them.

Twelve ways to save money on your dog

DCP_13631. Adopt an adult dog.

A grown-up that has already learned to live with humans will save you on furniture and landscaping repair, carpet cleaning, and training. And someone else has paid for spaying or neutering.

2. Choose a breed that is not on the homeowner insurer’s list of breeds that trigger higher premiums.

Avoid German shepherds, Rottweilers, pit bulls, doberman pinschers, chows, huskies, and other dogs with a reputation for unpredictability.

3. Learn to obedience-train your dog in low-cost community classes. Practice obedience training frequently, so the dog will come when called and stop when ordered.

These skills may save your dog from costly accidents or animal attacks, to say nothing of making your own life a lot more pleasant.

4. Keep your dog secured inside a yard with a sturdy, escape-proof fence (not on a tie-out!). When walking outside the yard with your dog, keep the dog on a leash at all times.

This keeps your dog safe from accidents and fights with other dogs and helps protect you and passers-by from dog bites. And that keeps your wallet safe from veterinarians’ and lawyers’ bites.

5. Exercise your dog regularly.

6. Restrict immunizations to those that are absolutely necessary.

Some shots given once a year are really needed only once every two or three years.

7. Learn to give shots yourself.

Vaccines can be purchased at feed stores and online.

8. If you live in an area where there are no mosquitoes, don’t give your dog heartworm meds. If you can’t avoid the monthly worming treatment, purchase Heartgard at Costco, where it’s much cheaper than at most veterinary offices.

9. Read the labels on dog food.

Do not feed your dog corn or corn products: at best, they’re indigestible; many dogs are allergic to corn. Dogs often manifest allergies as ear infections, a direct route for cash to flow from your wallet to your veterinarian’s pocket.

Note what’s in premium dog food and then look for similar formulas in less expensive varieties. For example, Trader Joe’s lamb and rice dog kibble is similar to much pricier premium brands. Also, feed and tack stores often sell premium kibbles at a significant discount from the prices in pet stores.

10. Learn to groom the dog yourself.

Invest in clippers for dogs that need fancy trim jobs and a Dremel to file down heavy claws.

11. Keep your dog’s teeth clean with dental-cleaning dog chews or by brushing the teeth.

12. Abstain from cosmetic surgery such as docking ears, which is cruel and unnecessary.

Home Inspections: Hire your own craftsmen

Over at Finance Gets Personal, a post about the usually startling costs of homeownership-especially during the first year or two after move-in-is causing some rueful conversation. It reminded me of a strategy I learned by dint of hard experience: in assessing a house you’re about to buy, never rely solely on the judgment of a professional home inspector. Hire craftsman whom you trust to inspect the house, too, and make the purchase contingent on passing all inspections.

A home inspector has a built-in conflict of interest. Much home inspection work comes from referrals by real estate agents. So, it’s not in an inspector’s interest to queer a sale by telling you bluntly how much is wrong with a house and what it will cost to fix it. As a result, a defect may be pointed out to you, but it’s likely to be soft-pedaled or couched in language you don’t fully understand.

This first entered my consciousness when I sold my last house. Of course, I was present when the home inspector went through the place. But while he was there, the termite inspector showed up. Having certified the house termite-free, the bug guy happened to look up at the patio roof overhang. There, behind a poorly installed gutter, he spotted dry rot (which I knew about but wished not to discuss). Enthusiastically he pointed this out and, to demonstrate why it needed to be replaced, punched a screwdriver into it, as through a block of Styrofoam.

The home inspector was standing about 15 feet away. He saw and heard this display.

Silently, I cursed the termite guy-now, I figured, I would have to pay to replace the fascia. If there ever was any question about it, the question was just answered.

Exit termite dude. Home inspector completed his rounds and went out the front door, where he attempted to close the defective latch on the security door, which (I also knew) didn’t work. I suppressed another silent curse: add expensive security door fix to the expensive wood trim fix and repainting.

Couple of days went by and lo! Along comes the home inspector’s report: nary a mention of the dry rot, nary a mention of the nonfunctional security door.

The house I was moving into, as it developed, was the House from Hell, primped to stylish prettiness by a pair of do-it-yourselfers affectionately known as Satan and Proserpine. The home inspector did highlight the out-of-code fireplace mantel and the pet door punched through the fire door that was supposed to protect the dwelling from the hazard-laden garage, wherein a gas water heater sat directly next to the gas tank of any car parked inside. He estimated the roof had another three or four years. He noted the water heater was old but said it could last several more years.

And what went around came around.

I got away with the security door and the dry rot. Satan and Proserpine got away with…

  • a DIY watering system that was out of code and didn’t water the lawn adequately;
  • DIY wiring in the garage that was a) out of code and b) unsafe;
  • a water heater that started to leak a month or two after I moved in;
  • a refrigerator that seeped water out the water dispenser in the door-and whose annoyingly obvious evidence of prior leaking disqualified it from repair by the buyer’s insurance plan;
  • a dishwasher that ran, all right, but didn’t clean anything;
  • out-of-code plumbing in the bathroom;
  • a block wall heaved and cracked by the neighbor’s tree;
  • a rusted-out swamp cooler that doesn’t work;
  • a crumbling roof that had to be replaced within a year of move-in;
  • a pool cleaner whose weird thumping noise resonated throughout the house whenever the pool pump was running;
  • a garage door opener that fell off its fittings onto my car…

I could go on at length.

Fortunately, I had budgeted a substantial amount for upgrades. That notwithstanding, I didn’t have in mind converting my decorating budget to an emergency fund.

Also serendipitously, a couple of weeks after I moved in, the pool was vandalized, destroying the plaster and all the equipment. My homeowner’s insurance ponied up the thousands and thousands of dollars required to deconstruct the pool, rebuild it, and replace all the equipment. That took care of the Pool Cleaner from Hell, anyway.

All of which added up to an expensive lesson: Never trust a home inspector whose business depends on making nice to real estate agents!

When M’hijito and I bought the Investment House, we decided to hire the craftsmen who had worked on the House from Hell to perform as our own inspectors. We made appointments with the roofer, the electrician, the HVAC technician, and the plumber to come and look the shack over.

Even though I offered to pay each man the price of a service call, two of them charged nothing. One charged fifteen bucks. The HVAC company gave us a year’s service contract for the cost of the inspection.

The Investment House was a fixer-upper and we knew it. But this time we had no surprises: we knew what needed to be fixed and exactly what it would cost to fix it.

  • The HVAC guy estimated the age of the air-conditioning/heating unit, made an educated guess at how long it would last, and gave us an estimate for how much it will cost to replace it.
  • The roofer gave us an estimate for reroofing on the spot (much less than he’d charged to reroof The House from Hell, BTW).
  • The electrician explained about the 1951 wiring and what would be entailed in updating it.
  • The plumber determined what parts of the black-iron system had been replaced with copper, discovered the house needed a pressure regulator, and gave us a fair price for installing it.

We didn’t keep it a secret from either the Realtor or the home inspector that we were hiring our own tradesmen to look the place over. As it develops, in Arizona a buyer can make the purchase of a house contingent on inspection by as many people as desired. No objection to the presence of these troops arose. In fact, I suspect knowing that experienced craftsmen would be examining the house may have caused the home inspector to issue a more thorough and accurate report than he might have produced otherwise.

An advantage of involving our own guys in the inspection was that the electrician and the plumber read the inspector’s report and explained some of the technical language. That was enlightening.

After this, every time I buy a house-whether it’s new or a resale, whether it’s my own dwelling or an investment-a team of craftsmen who are in my hire will do the inspections.

categories: real estate

4 Comments from iWeb site

BeThisWay

Excellent, excellent advice.

A month after moving into my home my finger poked a hole in the metal washbasin in one of my bathrooms.The air handler quit a month after that, a leak in a bathroom… you get the idea.

Friday, April 11, 200807:07 AM

Four Pillars

Very interesting post.I never thought of that conflict of interest.

By the way – you can make a purchase conditional on whatever you want – it’s not a legal thing.

Mike

Friday, April 11, 200807:11 AM

Anonymous

Great post, and great advice! More people would do well to pony up more money up front for experienced tradesmen rather than end up paying out the a$$ in repairs later on…

Friday, April 11, 200811:26 AM

Finance Girl

Thanks for mentioning my post.

This is very interesting, and I think your idea about hiring other tradesmen who aren’t home inspectors is great.