Archive for the ‘In the Life of the Author’ Category

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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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.

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.

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My Reality Show Idea

It seems I’m the only guy in America that doesn’t have a reality show. So I came up with an idea to get one.

A little background is necessary. My reality show would be food-based. I’m not the pickiest eater in the world, but I’m in the top 1% for sure. A while back there was a show on one of the cable stations called “Freaky Eaters” that made me look more-or-less normal, but I’m far from it. My pickiness goes back my entire life. As most kids go through a picky phase but eventually grow out of it, I never did.

My pickiness developed into a sort of phobia. I sometimes have people who think they’re going to convince me to change, but they miss one key element of my pickiness. The most recent example was in February, while on a group trip to Israel. One guy (who meant well), thought he could talk me into trying local foods. He was making comments at nearly every meal for the first few days. Eventually I had to explain it in a way that he could really understand who I am in regard to food. I explained it like this: some people are afraid of the dark, others are terrified of heights, I really don’t like trying new foods.

There’s a caveat to it though. People can live long, relatively normal, and healthy lives avoiding heights and overly-dark places. However, eating only a few different foods, of marginal nutritional value, eventually catches up with a person.

So my reality show idea is to pair people like me up with world-class chefs that can make trying new foods far less scary or intimidating. Of course, it would mean the chefs would have to have a certain level of ability to not take things personally. As a person trained in Architectural design myself, I know that creative people need a fairly thick skin to be successful.

Off the top of my head, I’d love to be paired up with a guy like Gordon Ramsey (who has several reality shows going at any given time), or Graham Elliot (one of the judges on “Master Chef”).

To add a level of interest, it would be fun to not only be introduced to good foods by people who really know food well, but to be taught how to make things that I would end up liking. Ironically, as picky as I am, I do like to cook. I really like to learn to make the things I like, as well as a restaurant would make them.

This show doesn’t have to revolve around me, or around me and the chef. It could feature different chefs, along with different picky eaters. I think it would be interesting to have a few chefs paired up with a few picky eaters, and show segments of each pair every episode, and all the pairs are on for an entire season.

I just have no idea who to pitch this show idea to. If anyone in a TV production company happens to trip over this post, and this sounds interesting, shoot me an email. You can do so by emailing my first name (Andy) at this website address.

HTPC: Revisited

Almost two years ago, I posted of my transition away from cable/satellite TV to using only internet & over-the-air and a Home Theater PC. Since it has been almost two years, I thought it a good time to update how things are going.

We’re still every bit the “cord cutters” we were back then. We haven’t missed satellite tv, and haven’t looked back. There have been some minor changes to our setup, as I’ve learned more and found different things to enhance the experience.
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My Twitter Philosophy

I’ve been on twitter for a while, two years as a regular user, almost six since I first created my account.

I think I tend to be a typical user as far as who I follow and what I tweet. Some are very topical, they may be tech celebs, so they only tweet tech-related stuff, just as an example.

I have two main subjects I tweet on: faith and politics. When it comes to politics, I have found no better way to keep up with state and local stuff than twitter. I just don’t have the time with three kids to follow the blogs or local media to keep up. Outside of faith and politics, I’m not afraid to tweet on whatever subject is on my mind, but other topics are less commonly found in my stream.

As for who I follow, as with most people, I follow those whom I find interesting. I also do follow-backs, but not automatically. Twitter can be a cesspool of attention-seeking glory-hounds and wanna-be self-made millionaires that will follow people by the thousands just to get follow-backs. That defeats the purpose of twitter as I see it; a community of people who have similar interests. Thus, if you follow me, and show me that you actually read my tweets (like a simple reply that is relevant to what I’ve tweeted), I’ll most likely follow you back.

However, my feed sometimes gets a little out of control, and it gets hard for me to keep up, so I sometimes feel the need to trim the list of people I follow. Usually first on the list is those who I don’t know that don’t follow me back. It’s usually an indication that someone met the criteria I illustrated above to get a follow-back, and then unfollowed me.

HTPC: The Build

I’m currently in the latter stages of transitioning my family away from cable/satellite for our TV service toward just using over-the-air, along with the internet. I’ve been a DirecTV customer since the summer of 2001, and the service, along with the bill, has been a part of life for over a decade for me. Our family income has remained steady through the economic downturn, and we are fairing well. However, we don’t take that for granted, and still take a look at our expenses from time to time and look for ways of cutting unnecessary expenses. It has come time that we are not only comfortable with losing our satellite service, we look forward to it. Our service costs about $100/month, which gets us: the “Choice Xtra” package, HD service, an HD-DVR, equipment protection, and a second receiver (a first-generation Tivo I bought shortly after getting DirecTV service back in 2001). That $100/month does NOT get us any movie channels, sports packages, or receivers beyond the two mentioned. We have two HDTVs, and I hooked them both up to the same receiver about two years ago. The one where the receiver is located is hooked up via HDMI, and the one upstairs in the family room is hooked up via Component cables that I ran through the ceiling and walls (five coax cables with RCA connections on each end). We control it through RF remote controls.

No more, we’re moving away from that and towards an extra $100 in our pockets every month.

This first post on our setup is dedicated to sharing the hardware that I used to build our system. We currently have a brand-new HTPC that I build in recent weeks hooked up in our entertainment room to the same TV that has the DirecTV receiver. We also have an older laptop hooked up to the other HDTV. The laptop is a Dual-Core Pentium machine running Windows 7 Pro – 32-bit. This machine acts only as a viewer, the new HTPC is doing the work of recording. We also have an X-Box 360 that can work as an extender, but it is hooked up to the same TV as the laptop, so it doesn’t get used much for watching TV (for reasons I may get into later).

Here is the hardware that makes up my HTPC:

The case

Some time ago, when the idea of an HTPC was first born, I found the nMEDIAPC Red Wood case at Newegg. It is simply a beautiful case. It looks like an old radio, and looks great on the shelf nest to the TV. I could have gone with a simple black box meant to go in an entertainment center with the audio receiver, DVD/Blu-Ray player, and other equipment, but the price on this one was similar to those simpler cases and was too cool to pass up. It’s slightly more complicated than your average case, since it’s made mostly from wood, but nothing too complicated.

I also sprang for the LCD display, a $40 add-on. The cool-factor is really there, though I can’t say it’s perfect. The driver on it often locks up, causing it to display a blue bar across the top row of the display, and the blue color of the display makes it difficult to read from more than 4-5 feet away. I have 20/20 vision and have a hard time reading it from the couch, about 8-10 feet away. That said, it is cool enough that I would spring for it again if I were to start over knowing what I know now.

The case was $90, and the LCD panel added an additional $40 for a total of $130.
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