Our Summer Home Buying Experience, Part 4: Wait, There’s More!

After over a year of getting our house ready to put on the market, and a summer of Real Estate process, we had two signed deals. We had a new house to look forward to moving into, and our old house was sold. All that was left was to move, clean, and turn over the keys to the old place.

The lessons weren’t over yet though.
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Our Summer Home Buying Experience, Part 3: What I Learned

After a summer of Real estate searches and dealings, I learned a lot. We had bought a new house, and had just gotten a deal signed to sell our old one.

Here’s what I would do over again, and what I would do differently:

First, I would use the same agent again. He’s still a friend, and though things got really stressful at times, he never violated my trust.

That said, I did see behind the curtain a little, and would change how I handle things based on the experience I went through.

The first change I would make is that I would pay a few hundred dollars for an appraiser to go through the house before the sale. The whole system of “comps” is really terrible, and shouldn’t be taken seriously as anything more than a very rough starting point. They tell what the square footage is of homes sold, and the price sold for. You divide the second by the first to get the cost per square foot, which you can use to decide where to set your starting price. This doesn’t tell you other things that are valuable though, such as the amount of renovations a house has had, or the amount of disrepair it’s in. Inspections will tell you if there are serious problems you’ve overlooked, and an appraisal will tell you what a bank would be willing to lend a buyer for the house.

That’s a really valuable piece of information. Our house had to go through appraisal before our buyers’ bank would approve their mortgage, but they don’t provide any information to the sellers except “sufficient value.” In other words, we didn’t arrive at a sale price that was too high, but we’ll never know if it was too low. While you’ll never know what would have happened if the house remained on the market a few more days, knowing what a bank would lend on it would give a much better idea if you’re in the right ballpark.

Another thing I learned was regarding home improvements. In the end, it seemed that we never got out of our house what we put into it. The improvements were nice, and they probably helped sell the house FASTER than if I hadn’t done them, but they didn’t get us a HIGHER PRICE. I will weigh all future home improvements against that lesson. Fortunately, most of what I did was necessary for getting a decent sale though. The biggest thing I did was remodel a basement bathroom, which I really had no choice about. The tile was falling off the walls in the shower, and no buyer would have overlooked it. I also replaced the carpet in the living area with bamboo flooring. The carpets were just worn out and in rough shape. I could have left them, but they would have been a big weapon against us for negotiations.

The biggest area in home improvements that hurt us was the windows. I had replaced almost all of the windows in the house. When I started, I didn’t plan to sell the house, so I got nice windows that I liked and wanted for my house. In the end, I would have been better off with cheaper windows that ended up in someone else’s house.

Lesson learned in home improvements: don’t do them to fetch a higher selling price. Do them to either sell faster, or to enjoy the house more while you still live in it.

Another lesson I walked away with, in addition to getting an appraisal and being more mindful of proper home improvement projects is to have a tighter game plan ahead of negotiations. We never told our agent what our top price was when we bought, nor our bottom price when we sold, and I wouldn’t change that. However, have a top when buying and a bottom when selling and stick to it. Don’t let the other side intimidate you into giving up on them. We never regretted coming up on our buy price; his house just wasn’t worth what he wanted for it; and we got a better house in the end. However, we gave up our strong position on the sell side because the buyers threatened to walk if we either took too long to reach an agreement or didn’t come down enough. Think about it, they lost out on another buy because they low-balled a seller and the seller got a better deal. If they wanted our house bad enough, they would have learned not to low-ball sellers and lose out on deals in a sellers’ market. My mother-in-law was disappointed that we took the first offer, and told us she would have rather waited to get her share of the sale price of the house (the remaining balance of the mortgage, including the last few payments) and had us get a price we were happy with.

The next post will be the last, and will be “wait, there’s more.”

Our Summer Home Buying Experience, Part 2: Selling Our Old House

We spent our summer deep in Real estate; selling one house and buying another. It had been the culmination of more than a year’s worth of work, preparing our house for the market. In the first post, I described the back-story and the process leading up to the purchase of our new house. Now I’ll talk a little about my experience selling the old house.

As I mentioned, it was my first time buying, and my first time selling. I had spent my entire time in the house we were in (that I married into) improving things here and there. Many improvements were small, but there were a few bigger projects too. The architect in me always wanted to make the house better, and the do-it-yourselfer in me always wanted to increase the value through sweat equity.

I was working right up to the very end. In fact, we had signed a purchase agreement to buy a new house before I was ready to put the old one on the market. I knew I was close though, so having a closing date for the new house would be motivation to get the job done.

It was the selling side of things that taught me the most about the process. Being a buyer before the house hit the market, I knew what the mindset was, and what buyers would be looking at when they considered my house. I knew that Realtors point clients to “comps” or comparable homes in the area to determine fair market price. I also knew that, though buyers would want to negotiate, the lower the starting price, the closer you’ll be in the end to asking price.
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Our Summer Home Buying Experience, Part 1: Buying a New House

Over the course of last summer, we went through the process of selling our house and buying a new one. Our family is growing, and the house we had was closing in on us. We also had a healthy amount of equity built up, and thought our need for more space was an opportunity to look for something a bit nicer too.

This was to be my first time both buying and selling. I married into the house we were moving out of, and didn’t get to experience the process of buying the house when my wife acquired it. It was quite a process, and I have wanted to share my experience ever since. There are things that went really well, and other parts of the process I will do differently next time (if we ever have a next time.)

We did things a little backward, beginning with the buy rather than the sell. We are very blessed in that my in-laws are our “bank,” holding both the mortgage of the house we sold and the new house. This gave us freedom, and in some cases power, we couldn’t squander.

Another aspect of this experience was using a Realtor that we knew and trusted. He is an elder at our church, and a friend. We had an understanding going back a year or two that won him our business. I’m now a licensed architect, and had hoped to buy a lot and build a house. Our Realtor moved over from home construction to Realty a few years ago when the economy forced him out of work. He had about two decades experience building houses. He was going to act as my mentor in the process of building, and I would use him as my Realtor when it was time to sell our house. We couldn’t find a reasonably priced lot anywhere, and eventually abandoned our hopes of building. Since we had an established relationship, and a pre-existing agreement, we thought it only natural to use him anyway.

Having a Realtor is really helpful, and though some people get burned by Realtors and swear them off, there is real value to a good Realtor. Good ones do a lot of work behind the scenes that you never see, and it’s a (partially, at least) thankless job.

When we got serious about looking at houses, he set us up with an MLS search that would alert us to new listings. We would scour the listings matching our search criteria, find homes we thought we might like, and he would arrange for showings.
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Why I Plan to Vote for Jill Stein (Green Party) on Tuesday

A couple weeks ago, I wrote why I’m not voting for Donald Trump. The big question that evokes is: who AM I voting for then?

I’ve decided to vote for Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for President. Here’s why:

As I explained in that previous post, Hillary Clinton will win Minnesota. It doesn’t matter who I vote for, she will win Minnesota. In the past, I’ve cast protest votes for Constitution Party candidates. Since they best represent me, they were the natural choice. However, I’ve been convinced that another strategy might be better for Minnesota.

You see, here in Minnesota, if a minor party’s candidate receives 5% of the vote, they are given major party status for subsequent elections. I don’t recall for how long, but it seems to be about ten years. In the past, this has hurt the Republicans a lot. Jesse Ventura won the Governor’s race in 1998 running as the Independence Party candidate. This gave the Independence Party major party status for years after that. They got a slot in debates, they got state matching funds, and all of the other privileges that come with major party status. Since the Independence Party tends to be fiscally more Conservative (more-so than the Democrats at least), they have done a lot to siphon off support of Republicans in subsequent races, and help the Democrats enjoy an easier path to victory.

So, being a much more Leftist party, I’d like to return the favor by doing my part to help the Green Party achieve major party status in Minnesota. My hope is that she’ll get to 5% in Minnesota next week, and the Green Party can then help siphon votes away from the Democrats in the next governor’s race in two years.

It’s really a vote to add chaos to the Democrat campaign in the next statewide election.

The Electoral College and Why I’m Not Voting for Donald Trump (But Maybe You Should)

It’s that time again: Presidential election season. Every four years, I’ve endured an onslaught of lectures about why I need to vote for the GOP candidate. Aside from a single lapse in judgment, I’ve never done it though.

It sure sounds compelling; if you don’t vote directly for the GOP candidate, You’re voting indirectly for the Democrat. Never mind that the same logic could be used to demonstrate that a third party vote is an indirect vote for the Republican, logic is hard.

Every election I’ve paid attention to brings with it a slew of political junkies rehashing the same old tired arguments, usually accompanied by rhetoric suggesting that if you don’t vote exactly as the junky tells you to, you’re a horrible person.

Usually, they have an answer for every argument that can be made to the contrary, no matter how compelling or logical.

Except one.

This year I’ve been making a new argument, and no one, anywhere, seems to have a counter argument for it. Most won’t even acknowledge that they understand it. Thus the reason for this post.

My argument stems from the situation here in my home state of Minnesota. You see, Minnesota has consistently been won by the Democrat candidate in every election since 1976. When every other state in the union went to Ronald Reagan in 1984, Minnesota was joined only by the District of Columbia in handing electoral college votes to Walter Mondale. It was a blood bath, and though Minnesota will never collectively admit it, it was embarrased in 1984.

So what’s my point? Let’s take a step back and just acknowledge the elephant in the room from that (and every other) election; that we don’t have one national election for President. We have 50 state and one district election that each sends delegates to the Electoral College, and it’s the Electoral College that votes for the President. 538 people, selected by the voters of their state, do the actual voting for President.

Here’s a short video by Prager University that explains it.

So what difference does that make in how I vote, or how you vote? That’s the really ironic part. Ironic, because the Prager in Prager University is Dennis Prager, Conservative radio talk show host. Ironic because Dennis Prager lives in Southern California. Ironic because Dennis Prager is one of those junkies I mentioned earlier who suggests that if you don’t vote for the GOP candidate, you’re a horrible person. Ironic because no matter how Dennis Prager votes, his state (California) will award it’s 55 Electors to Hillary Clinton. It’s not expected to even be close. At the time of this writing, Real Clear Politics, which tracks the averages of several reputable polls, has Clinton ahead by nearly 20% in California.

So let’s go back to Minnesota, my own home state. Like I said, Minnesota last sent Republican electors to the Electoral College in 1972. Richard Nixon was the last Republican candidate for President to win the North Star State.

So what does that have to do with how I vote? Well, it has a lot to do with how I vote, actually. You see, I mentioned earlier that, with one exception, I have never voted for the Republican candidate for President. It wouldn’t have mattered if I did, either. Had I, and every other person who voted for a Conservative third party candidate voted, instead, for the Republican; the Democrat still would have won Minnesota. And If every Conservative in California votes for Donald Trump in two weeks, Hillary Clinton will still win that state’s 55 Electors.

Instead of voting for the Republican, I have always voted for the candidate that I actually like best. Why not? Many people will say that’s a wasted vote; but what does it mean to waste your vote? If you ask me, voting for someone you don’t like, just because he’s running for one of the two major parties and is less repugnant than the other major party candidate, even if that candidate can’t win your state’s Electoral votes is the very definition of a wasted vote.

The important thing to understand here, the very point of this blog article, is that the Electoral College matters. It’s not just a civics exercise; just academics, it actually matters. As a Minnesota Conservative who doesn’t like Donald Trump, voting for Donald Trump would be a wasted vote.

Let’s look at another state though. Minnesota and California are solidly Democratic states (at least in their preference for Presidential candidates.) But what about Ohio, or Florida? Those two states (and others) have been “swing states” for quite some time. In swing states, voting for the “lesser evil” candidate can make a real difference in how the Electors from those states are awarded. By not voting for the Republican candidate, you might give the Democrat Candidate the opportunity to win the state with one fewer vote than he (or she in the case of this particular election cycle) would otherwise need. With all of the efforts that Democrats typically put into “Get out the vote” drives, this can be a big help to their cause.

If I lived in Ohio, I would probably hold my nose and vote for Donald Trump. When people question me, I would probably give a logical and conscientious reason why voting for the “lesser evil” is what my conscience instructs me to do.

What about solidly Conservative states? States like Texas and Arizona have been consistent wins for the Republican candidate as long as I’ve been old enough to vote. What would I do there? Again, I would strongly consider casting a “lesser of two evils” vote. States move from Conservative states to swing states without warning, and from swing states to Liberal states with equal warning. Don’t take your neighbors for granted and assume that they will cover for you, vote as though you were in a swing state because you just might be and not know it yet. If your conscience still says that you cannot vote for a man with poor character, then vote for the candidate who has the character necessary to earn your vote.

So you’re probably wondering just who I will vote for in two weeks. To be honest, I haven’t decided. Perhaps I’ll do another post sometime explaining my thinking this time around. We shall see.

Thwarting Telemarketers

I’ve posted before about Asterisk, the computerized phone system I’ve been using in my home for about a decade now. One thing I love about it is kicking calls over to special functions based on Caller ID. Known telemarketers get a tone and a message saying the number has been disconnected.

I just wish that was available on my cell phone!

I have a spare phone that sits on the counter, permanently plugged in to the wall to keep the battery charged. Our plan was actually cheaper to have this unused phone than to not have it, so we have it. It has been getting calls every few days, probably people calling the person that used to have the number. I ask telemarketers to add us to their ‘Do Not Call’ list, but they then ask what number to add. I don’t know, it’s a spare phone I never use.

So I took the audio from Asterisk and made it the voicemail greeting on this spare phone. Here it is, in case people have a use for it.

Favorite Podcasts

I love podcasts! I’ve been listening to them for about 10 years, and am always finding new ones that I like. I started podcasting in 2008 myself because I liked listening to them so much. I’ve pondered getting satellite radio a few times over the last decade, but always quickly remind myself that podcasts are better. They’re on-demand, and can be downloaded locally so they don’t need an internet connection or clear view of the sky to listen.

My list changes from time to time, but I wanted to share the ones I enjoy. I’m breaking it down into two lists; one is Christian, and the other is not. The “not” list includes tech podcasts, politics, general interest, or whatever doesn’t fit the category “Christian”.

I also want to note that I don’t get to listen to podcasts nearly as much as I would like. Some of the entries below I listen only very occasionally, but I still count them among my favorites.

Christian
General Interest

I just wish I had more time to listen. I’ve been trying to break myself of one habit for years that would help a little in that regard. I mentally treat podcasts differently than radio. If I have a podcast on in one room and need to leave the room, answer the phone, or take my attention away for any other reason, I pause it first. It’s a habit I just can’t break, I live in a DVR world where we don’t have to miss anything because of an interruption. I could get through more if I made a playlist in the morning and didn’t touch it for the rest of the day, it would be more like tuning to my favorite radio station and leaving it on all day.

Note: the links to the right under “Favorite podcasts” like the other links over there, get updated about as often as the makeup of the US Congress, if not less often. Don’t be surprised that they don’t match up perfectly.

Bitten by the Home Automation Bug

Not quite two years ago, I wrote about a little timer I made using an Arduino microcontroller and a simple relay. The purpose was to turn a couple lamps on in my living room automatically at sunset, and off around 11:00pm. An old-fashioned timer doesn’t work so well because sunset changes every day, and the timer needed to be reprogrammed every couple of weeks.

That little project was fun, and the timer was quite useful for awhile. However, a few weeks ago, the relay burned out or something went wonky and the project died. I needed a replacement, and didn’t want to take time to rebuild my original timer.

Then I discovered the Belkin Wemo line. There are a few products in the Wemo line, but the one I was most interested in was a simple switched outlet. The advantage is that they are web connected, and can be turned on and off with an app from anywhere you have an internet connection. Among the simple programs is switching relative to sunrise and sunset. It would work nicely. However, I discovered something in the process that would work even better.

Smartthings!
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Securing Asterisk with IPTables

I’ve been running my phone system through Asterisk on Debian (Linux) for a number of years. I’d consider myself a novice to intermediate user of Linux, even though I’ve been tinkering with it for over a decade. I also don’t play with Asterisk very often, but like to get things set up comfortably from time to time so I can leave it alone for awhile.

I recently upgraded from Asterisk 1.6 to 11. In the move, I also spent some time taking a close look at the CLI, which caused me to notice a lot of attempts to either call extensions on my system that didn’t exist, or log in to extensions that didn’t exist. It was apparent that there were attempts being made to hack my system. It was time to dig deeper into security before someone succeeded.

In the past, by happenstance, I tended to avoid some practices that make it easier to hack an Asterisk system. The primary one being I didn’t put any extensions in the default context. Hackers seem to like to focus on that one, and with nothing there, there really is nothing to hack.

That wasn’t enough though. I really wanted to lock things down and prevent the attempts themselves. The best way, I found, was to bone up on IPTables, the most common firewall on Linux.

I took inventory of what I was doing with my system, and realized that there is only one outside account/system that I use that should need to connect to my system. I have a few phone numbers at IPKall.com, and need their server to be able to reach me if anyone should call one of my numbers. Everything else is internal to my home network.

Below is a set of rules that I put into my IPTables to allow in traffic from IPKall, but block anything else that is attempting to connect to this particular machine.

I should note that SIP is the only service that is open to the internet on this machine. Should I ever need to log in to it via SSH, I would do so by way of another machine on the internal network, either directly or by proxy.

The following is in a shell script. I know very little about IPTables, and learned quickly that the best way to ensure the rules behave as expected is to always start from scratch. If I need to change my rules, I’d do so in this script, and run it again once I’ve made my changes.

!/bin/bash

# First, I flush out the existing rules
iptables -F

# Next, allow all traffic on the localhost loopback interface
iptables -A INPUT -i lo -j ACCEPT

# Allow already established connections
iptables -A INPUT -m state --state ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT

# Allow tcp and udp traffic from IPKall and all traffic from the local network
iptables -A INPUT -p tcp -s 66.54.140.46 -j ACCEPT
iptables -A INPUT -p udp -s 66.54.140.46 -j ACCEPT
iptables -A INPUT -p all -s 192.168.1.0/24 -j ACCEPT

# Allow voice streaming for SIP from IPKall - Note I use a much more limited port range than the default
iptables -A INPUT -p all --destination-port 21000:21030 -s 66.54.140.46 -j ACCEPT

# Set default policies for everyone else (not IPKall or local)
# Disallow any connections on port 5060 (SIP), but allow all outgoing traffic
# Note that 5060 is the only port that forwards to this machine from outside the network,
# so any traffic on any other port would be blocked at the NAT router itself,
# never bothering this machine in the first place
iptables -A INPUT -p tcp --destination-port 5060 -j DROP
iptables -A INPUT -p udp --destination-port 5060 -j DROP
iptables -P OUTPUT ACCEPT

So there you go. This post is really for the benefit of people doing searches for Asterisk and IPTables, and I hope someone finds this useful.