View from the Suburbs: Bottle Brush Trees–Unexpected Dazzle

Today marks exactly five months since I began living in my house, though I had actually closed on it about two weeks prior.  I’m finally feeling that I’m at home; the strange feeling of being in the wrong place (no matter how happy I was to have bought the house) no longer is there.  Though there are still some remaining pictures and other decoration to be put up, I have the rooms set up as I will probably keep them for some time, and with all that, I have a warm, comfortable place in which to live.  I feel at home.

Last week, I had my first house guests, as a matter of two in one week.  A friend from Japan came and stayed overnight, and then my sister came and spent most of the weekend.  Having people in the house was fun.  I didn’t feel “squeezed” as when people had stayed with me in my apartment.  The fresh guest bedroom and bath worked well, and all the better for not having to share mine.  I’m looking forward now to having others come stay in the future.

Despite the five months’ time, there are still surprises, like the small drawers right in front of the kitchen sink to hold sponges and stoppers that I discovered for the first time last week.

Closer view of the "brushes"

A bigger surprise is the brilliance of the bottlebrush trees at the front corners of my house.  The glistening red-orange “brushes” began opening about ten days ago.  They are both loaded with buds, and I’m told, will last all through the summer into the fall.  I had only seen small bottlebrush bushes before, and none had the dazzling show that these trees are making.  Knowing nothing about them, I looked them up, finding out that they are a type of evergreen that comes from Australia.  (My guess is that’s the first time I mentioned Australia here without starting with something about Olympian diver Mathew Mitcham.)

My somewhat primitive garden is also doing well so far despite the bad, sandy soil.  I now have onions, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and even sunflowers.  So far, they are doing better than I had ever expected.  I’m hoping that this beautiful spring weather that we’ve been having–bright, mild days and cool night–will continue longer.

View from the Suburbs: Bug Love (not the VW kind) and Taxing Taxes

Just by chance--a very appropriate containerThis Monday has been a long one (and by the time I finish this, it’s sure to be Tuesday), but at this point, I know I’ve made some accomplishments.

Tonight I finished my income taxes.  They are not in the envelope yet, but the “written-in-black-ink” forms are all done, and I just need to make copies before sending them on their way.  Yeah, I know–I’m a procrastinator, but his year was all new to me.  I’m not a 1040 EZ kinda guy anymore.

I had felt it was going to be a bit of a daunting task, but I also knew that by asking a couple of questions and reading all the instructions I could do it.  And, yes, the 1040 along with Schedules A and E and–dum-ta-da-dum–Form 5405, the first-time homebuyer tax credit form AND accompanying supporting documents, are all checked and re-checked, laying  on my kitchen counter.  And I just want to say, if you’re chucking out bucks for someone else to do your taxes, unless you have a wide variety of financial goings-on in your life, you can do your own taxes.

I heard some tax preparation companies advertising on the radio that they would do 1040 EZs for $29.  Hey, that’s why they call it EZ.  Unless you flunked 2nd grade math, you can do the EZ forms and keep the $29 in your own pocket.

I know now that even with the additional forms that I needed with the 1040, next year I won’t procrastinate.

Speaking of ads on the radio, now with the commute to and from work, I’m listening  a lot more than I have for a long time.  I’ve mentioned before that Houston radio is pretty awful.  I just have 5 stations tabbed (Is that what it’s called? It’s late, and I’ve just done taxes.): 104 KRBE, NPR, Mix 96.5, Pacifica, and Mega 101–kinda eclectic, I guess.  I’m one of those guys that can’t leave the channel button alone on the TV remote, and I’m almost the same with the radio stations.  And I love it that the button is right there under my thumb on the steering wheel.

What usually gets me home most evenings are the mixes from DJs Manny Lopez and Sunny D on Mega101.  I’ve never gotten over dance music, and these guys definitely help make my drive home a bit more manageable.  It doesn’t matter if you like music in Spanish or not; if you like club-type music, you’re going to like driving home with the music these guys put out.

This evening, though, I had a different sort of entertainment as part of my drive home.  Over the weekend, I bought more bedding plants, and as I was checking out, the cashier said, “Hey, you got a lady bug!”  Sure enough, there was a big, fat one right on one of the leaves.  I paid and went on my way, took the plants home, but left them in the car for a few hours until evening when I could set them into the ground without the sun beating down.  By that time, I had forgotten about the lady bug.

Then tonight when I got in my car and was driving onto I-10, I noticed this small, busy orange bit, right at the point where the windshield meets the dashboard.  With me hurrying on my way a few miles over the speed limit, this little guy (some lady bugs gotta be guys, right?) kept trying to climb up the windshield.  He’d get about 3 inches or so up and then fall  onto his back and then rock himself to get back onto his feet. He kept this up, to no avail.  I kept worrying that he was going to fall into the vent, but he didn’t.

The question is: Will he take up residence?

I wanted to try to rescue him, but me, (yeah, I know “me” is and object pronoun, not a subject pronoun), the guy that complains about distracted drivers on cell phones, was not going to do anything while cruising along among those thousands of other cars out there on the freeway.  Finally, though, about two-thirds of the way home, I guess he got worn out from all his attempts at climbing higher and just stayed put right there in the corner between the glass and the dash.

When I exit the Beltway, there’s always a big line of traffic because there’s a stoplight about a quarter mile down on the feeder.  When the vehicles stopped, I reached down for an envelope that was on the floor on the passenger side, stuck it gently under Mr. Lady Bug, and surprisingly, he climbed aboard.  In the console was a little tin box that has been there forever, that still held one solitary, heart-shaped mint.  I opened it with my other hand (no hands on the wheel, that’s not usually me) and slid my little friend off the envelope and inside.

Finally, when we got home, I took the lady bug, still inside the candy box shelter, out to yard and ceremoniously shook him out onto one of my tomato plants.

Sometimes, something as small as a lady bug helps put other things, like doing taxes, into a completely different perspective.

Lessons on Buying a House: The Big Day–It’s Mine!

Front FenceThe funny thing is last night I slept better than I have in a long time.  I’m not sure why exactly; I guess I expected that it would all work out OK.  Yesterday, I had the final walk-through with my agent, and I thought that I would have the closing papers in my hand, or at least in an email attachment, and also the actual amount that I would have to take to closing.  That was what I had been told by the title company.

However, the flurries of activity by my agent, their agent, the lender, the people from HUD approving all my paperwork, and the title company all seemed to continue–or maybe not.  I don’t really know.  I felt like I was in the dark.  I waited patiently–I’ve been a patient waiter in all of this, having done what I could do myself, letting all those other people, do their jobs.  Then about two hours before the supposed closing time, with still no word from any of them, I made one call to my agent, and within about 20 minutes I had a call from the lender with the amount of the check I had to take for my closing costs.  But just to show how loose ends everything was at that point, during our phone call the amount changed.

I hurried from work, went and got my cashier’s check, and headed to the title company.  The seller’s agent was there, as was my agent.  The sellers weren’t, because they now live overseas, which just led to more complications because another agent was there who had Power of Attorney for the sellers, or shall we say, got Power of Attorney via long distance to the title company officer.

There were several other loose ends to be tied up, a lot of signing to be done mostly by me, but also by the sellers’ agent and the agent with Power of Attorney.

Then the signed papers had to be faxed or emailed (I didn’t see that) back to my lender’s office for approval, and, of course, some of the paperwork had to be redone.

It was almost a 3-hour session, but I totally enjoyed the experience, the culmination of all the driving to look at neighborhoods, all the worry about whether I would get the loan, all the weirdness of looking at houses filled with the stuff of people I didn’t know.

Though I’m back in my snug apartment tonight, with a cold rain blowing from the north outside, I’m happy with myself for having pushed myself to get my own house.  It’s going to be a big change, but I like the house a lot and I know that I’ve moved myself into another stage of my life, not something that I had to do, but something that I needed to do.

Lessons on Buying a House: The Final Countdown to Closing

Paint Strip“Scurrying” and “a tiff” might be how I’d describe some of the goings-on today related to the final steps before closing.

The corrections asked for by the VA-approved appraiser appeared to have been made. My agent had talked to the appraiser and then made arrangements for the contractor (small-time, not big-time) to get everything remedied. All of the items which had appeared in the appraiser’s report that needed attention had been taken care of. I went out myself and checked it all, and everything looked OK. Even the removal of the spacers between the patio and foundation had been pulled out. (This has to be one of the weirdest rules I’ve heard of. Even though this long board was between the concrete of the foundation and the concrete of the patio, because this piece of wood was touching the foundation, which is part of the house, it was considered “conducive for termites”. Now there is an inch-and-a-half gap between the house and the patio that I will have to fill, probably with a spacer board; somebody has recommended redwood.)

Anyway, it seemed as if the house should pass on all the corrections, but when the VA-approved appraiser went back yesterday, did it? Oh, no. There were still a couple of corrections that had to be made, ones he said were obvious in his photos on his report. Obvious to whom, I don’t know.

It almost looks as if there might have been some sabotage involved. Between the time the contractor made the first asked-for repairs, some holes had been made in the siding on the garage very near the repairs. I know that Saturday when I looked at the completed repairs I didn’t notice any holes. Could this have been done by the appraiser when he came back to re-inspect? At $75 a pop for each re-visit to the property for just a couple minutes of inspection, maybe that’s what happened. I’ve heard that in these days of a slower real estate market, appraisers and inspectors aren’t getting so much work.

Therefore, a good deal of scurrying took place. My real estate agent went out to confer with the contractor. The contractor did some corrective repairs. My agent informed the finance company that the repairs had been made. Apparently, the finance company got the appraiser back out for the re-re-inspection (yep, that’s my new word).  All of this happened with in the expanse of a few hours.

I guess everything passed the re-re-inspection because within minutes of my asking the finance officer if the closing was still on for Friday and her telling me “yes”, my agent called me and asked if I could do the closing on Thursday afternoon instead of Friday.

There was scurrying and “a tiff” between the finance officer and my agent, both maybe anxious to get everything finished. It’s a little bit funny because when you get to this point in the buying process, most everything has been set in motion, and, unless for some reason you just decide that you don’t want to buy the house, there is not really much that the buyer has to do. You might have to provide a bit more information here and there, like your very last pay statement or an address that you didn’t know when you were filling out forms. Otherwise, all these other people are “scurrying” to get all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed.

The finance people, your agent, the seller’s agent, the title company people, the contractor–all of them are hurrying to get the whole purchase process completed.

In these last few days, I’ve felt a bit like I was watching a strange tennis match played among all these people, because now I know that in addition to the few phone calls and emails that I was party to, there were many others between these other “players” in this sale.

Why? Because when this whole deal is finished, they are all going to get a piece of the pie. And if for some reason, it all doesn’t go down, that pie is not going to get cut!

And what have I been doing? Actually, I’ve been doing a lot. Making arrangements to transfer utilities, finding someone to change the locks, checking out lawnmowers.

And to accomplish one of the first tasks that I want to complete in my new house–checking out paint strips.

Lessons on Buying a House: The Inspections and the Appraisal

cartoon houseIt’s only one week until I close on the house.  Finally, I’m feeling that this is really going to happen and I’m getting anxious–the good kind of anxious.  The nervous kind of anxious I’ve been havin’  for so long that I can’t wait until I can sleep a whole night without waking up thinking about it all.

I’ve definitely told myself that I’m moving because today I made the arrangements to stop the utilities here and start them in the new place.

Today I also went out to the house to check on what the contractor has completed.  Because I don’t have a key yet, I could only check out the outside.

This brings me back to the inspections and appraisal.

I’m getting a VA-guaranteed loan, so I hope what I’ve experienced may help anyone in a similar situation, because no matter how much you read and how many questions you ask your agent, there seems like there are always surprises.  Here are some of the details about the inspections and appraisal that I had done ( none of which can really be done until you’ve made an offer and have a signed contract with the seller with a stated price):

The Home Inspection: This is done so you can know what problems there might be both inside and outside of the house.  Most likely, as a prospective buyer, you will have looked the house over pretty thoroughly and discovered some of the obvious problems, but a good home inspector should know a lot more and have specific equipment to get into places (such as ladders and moisture-identifying meters) that a normal buyer doesn’t have no matter if he has looked at the house several times.

On inspection day, it’s good to hang with the inspector, ask questions, and just learn about all that house contains, both good and bad, after all, you are paying the guy!  My inspector was cordial and informative, and I felt comfortable asking him anything.  His inspection took about three hours, and then he followed it up with a 38-page detailed report, which included lots of photos.  He charged $275, which I thought wasn’t bad.  The price is determined by the size and age of the house, and all of the extra features it might have to be inspected (such as a swimming pool or lawn sprinkler system).

If problems are found, this inspection allows the buyer to re-negotiate with the seller for a lower price or to ask the seller to repair things.  What I learned is to ask the seller to fix everything that needs fixed.  Although the sellers I’m dealing with initially said they wouldn’t pay for any repairs, when my agent sent them an amendment to the contract, they agreed to do everything we requested.  There were still a few things I hadn’t asked for, and now wish I had.

Although a copy of this inspection went to my finance company, surprising as it may seem, the VA doesn’t require that this inspection be done.

The Termite Inspection: Some home inspectors will also do a termite inspection, but mine didn’t but recommended another guy for this job.  I didn’t go to the house for the termite inspection, but my agent went to let the guy into the house.  It couldn’t have taken much time because the termite inspector called me to tell me he was finished about 5 minutes after their agreed-upon meeting time.  He didn’t find any evidence of termites, but he did find several problems, which he cited as being conducive to termites: some foliage too close to wood siding, a bit of rotting wood at the bottom of door frames on the garage, and wooden spacing boards that were put in when a new patio was laid.  The cost of this inspection was $80 and was required by the finance company and seemed to be required by the VA.  However, the information that I read about VA loans says that this is one of the items that “the veteran cannot pay for.”  We’ll see how that falls out at the closing, because, sure as the world, I did pay for it.

The Appraisal: After the home inspection is done and the buyer (veteran) decides that he really wants this house, that’s when all the real paperwork must be signed for the finance company.  (The buyer definitely has been approved for the loan prior to this and has already supplied the finance company a load of documents–at some point I’ll add a post about all the documents I presented to the finance company to get approved, but not now.)  Among all these papers is one document that gets the appraisal process started, and the buyer (veteran) has to pay for it; you can pay up front or even put it on a credit card.  It cost me $400; this may vary a bit state to state.

The finance company arranges for an appraiser from a VA-approved pool of appraisers.  I kept waiting for someone to contact me to say the appraiser was going out to the house to do the appraisal, but then, to my surprise and elation, my finance officer emailed me that the appraisal had been done and, basically, without any unexpected problems, I would be getting the loan and the house!

The appraisal actually has two aspects to it.  One is to determine the value of the property.  This is done to see if the house values more than the amount of the loan the buyer (veteran) is asking for.  If it doesn’t, the buyer will have to try to get the seller to come down or be willing to put in more money up front to cover the difference.

The second part of the appraisal is really another inspection.  The VA says that the house must be livable and that this inspection is for safety purposes not cosmetic problems.

My appraisal came out mostly positive.  The house appraised for more than the amount I agreed to pay for it, and as far as the inspection part, the VA appraiser noted basically the same problems that the termite inspector had.  Therefore, these have to be remedied, and then both the termite inspector and the VA appraiser have to go back out to house to give their OK.

That’s why I went out to the house today because the contractor has been working to repair what I had asked the sellers to do and also the areas that the inspectors required.  Some things look complete, but it looks like he has a bit more to do.  I’m hoping that it gets done tomorrow, as the termite guy and the appraiser are set to go back out on Monday.

Sunday Morning Musings: “Traipsing” with the Laundry and “Gosh All Fishhooks”

washer dryerI gathered up my laundry and traipsed it over to the laundromat, with my head full of all the changes that are coming with the move.  Yep, it’s almost most a done deal, with the closing less than two weeks away now.

For many, I suppose, there’d be no question about the choice between living in a large apartment complex and owning a home of one’s own.  For me, someone who has lived in apartments most of my adult life, there are things about apartment-living that I will miss.  I like being around people, and even though, in most large apartment complexes like this one, you don’t get to know most of your neighbors so well, there’s a comfort in seeing different people, saying “hello”, and at times, having a chat.  Another plus is that there’s not much responsibility; if something needs fixed in your place, you can call the management, and if the management company is a decent one, you get the repair done in a timely manner, no cost to you.  There can be negatives, of course, like problem neighbors and management that is either too lax or too “into everyone’s business”, but recently, I haven’t had many problems where I live.

Therefore, why make the move, especially a move that will entail 20 miles rather than 5 of driving commute to work?  Although it may seem like a minor reason for some, trudging my laundry back and forth to the other side of the complex gets to be more of chore every week.  Having my own washer and dryer within steps of my bedroom will be pure luxury.  Likewise, having a garage to keep my car out of the elements and away from a parking mate’s dinging car door is something I’ve wanted for a long time.  What’s more I’ll have a kitchen, a kitchen with a multitude of drawers, drawers which actually open without having to open up an appliance in order to pull them out; a kitchen with an expanse of counter space on which I can roll out dough and spread out pans for kolaches to rise.  (That’s going to be the first big baking that I do.)  Then there’s the yard, which, though not overly large, has incredible nooks around the house and garage to hang and set all the plants I have that have needed space to spread out, and which will be the perfect place for a little dog to romp and smell whatever there is too smell.

Indeed, I do have mixed feelings about moving, but the pull to do it has been inside me for a long time.

So that was on my my mind as I “traipsed” over to do my laundry this morning.  So was my mom.  “Traipsed” was a word Mom used.  She had a very colorful language, and I’m sure I picked up a lot of it.  However, being away for so long from the rural area where I grew up, many of these colloquial words and phrases have been pushed back into the recesses of my brain; though, sometimes, my colleagues will raise an eyebrow at some expression that has come out of my mouth and question the usage.

I’ve been thinking about some of these different expressions in these last few days because my sister has been in town to visit and attend the Houston International Quilt Festival.  On the ride back into town, after we had picked her up at the airport, she began to relate an incident that’d happened on the airplane, and she said, “. . . and these people from up front had to ‘high-tail it’ back to the bathroom.”  And “whoosh”, with those words, I was taken back many years ago; it had been so long since I had heard the expression “high-tail it”.

This morning, while I was folding my clothes (at the laundromat), I was thinking about my sister using “high-tail it” and remembered how “put out” she had been about these people needing to go to the restroom just when the plane was about to take off.  “Put out,” I thought; “does anyone use that expression anymore?”  These days, I think people mostly use “put out” with a completely different meaning, a usage neither my mom nor my sister would ever use.  I started laughing to myself, remembering something else my mom used to say.  Mom was a hard cookie, and could, in fact, say some pretty mean things, but it was a rarity for my mom or my dad to really cuss.  One expression that my mom used, though, when she’d lose something or something didn’t turn out right, was “Gosh all fishhooks.”  Thinking about that took me back a long time; in fact, it made me think of The Little Rascals.  “Gosh all fishhooks” sounds like something that Spanky or another of the characters from that old time show would have said.

I looked up “Gosh all fish hooks” but didn’t find any history of the expression, but I did find an interesting article from a small town in Minnesota (which I’d never heard of), which you might like, if you’ve gotten this far in my ramblings.

Lessons on Buying a House: Another Big Day–Signing the Papers for the Finance Company

The HouseIt looks like this is moving along.

Today was a big day in many ways.  First, during a break at work, I walked the three blocks down to the county tax assessor’s office to renew my car registration.  It’s gotten hot and muggy again in Houston, more like August than October.  We’re supposed to get some relief with a cold front this weekend, and most everyone is anxious for that, but today, my short jaunt was a hot one.

Another deed I got taken care of was my flu shot, not the swine flu one yet, but just the normal one.  It’s something I’ve been doing for the past several years and I think it works.  The nurse who gave me the shot commented that the flu shot is one of the best medical inventions since penicillin.  I don’t know if I’d go that far, but, like I said I think it works.

My agent sent me several emails.  One was that the sellers’ agent had remedied a couple of the electrical problems we had on inspection.  Then he said I needed to arrange for a termite inspection, so I did.  It’s set for tomorrow, and my agent is going out open up the house for the inspector.  I’m still feeling pretty positive about my agent.  He’s been on top of most things for me, even though I’m pretty sure that normally he’s involved with higher-dollar properties than my little purchase.

Then I got a whole slew of documents from the finance company.  Among the many pages was the Good Faith Estimate.  I was really pleased because the money that I will need to take to closing is less than half what I had expected.  Of course, the earnest money that has gone to the title company will help count against the closing costs, and that is my money too.  I was even more surprised because I have to pay for a survey and also a year’s homeowner’s insurance, but the finance officer said that was already included.  The big thing is that as part of the offer contract I asked the sellers to contribute to my closing costs and that does reduce the amount I will have to bring to closing.

Having the sellers pay something toward the buyer’s closing costs, in my view, is a bit of a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it does help reduce the closing costs for the buyer, but, in reality, the seller may have kept the negotiated price of the house higher, and because the price is higher, what is really happening is that the buyer is just financing the amount of money that the seller is contributing toward the seller’s closing costs.  But it can help the seller too, becaue he doesn’t have to come up with as large of chunk of money to bring to the closing.

What I finally did today was go over to the finance company and sign all the papers, rather than sign them and either scan them or fax them back.  With that many documents to be signed, it was a lot easier and quicker, not too mention, the finance officer was able to explain some of the points that I was unclear about.

The next and most like the last big step will come with the appraisal.  It seems like the big question mark because with so many foreclosures, the county tax valuations have fallen quite a bit from 2008 to 2009.  Also because my appraiser has to be VA approved, I don’t know how that will play out.  Some people have said these appraisers are more strict than others.  Because I only did all the paperwork for the finance company today, I’m not expecting that the appraisal will be done until next week–just another thing to wait for.

Yeah, that photo at the top is a teaser–it’s of the front of the house.  Keep your fingers crossed.  I am.