Adding to…

It’s been three years since I made my mark on the sales contract taking ownership of Fortress Jeff. The first two years in residence has largely been about taking away – taking away overgrown shrubbery, cutting down encroaching trees, eliminating the basement waterfall, and dismantling the massively over engineered wheelchair ramp in the garage. It was and continues to be a litany of projects left behind by the previous owner who had really “aged out” of an active interest in home maintenance and improvement.

I like to think now that I’m starting the 3rd year, I’m finally reaching the point of adding too the place rather than just taking away. We’ve already tackled the living room, water heater, and furnace. The air conditioning will be next most likely based on age. Most prominently, there’s the long awaited and sought after master bathroom renovation that I’ve wanted from Day 1. Then new carpet for the bedrooms. Kitchen appliances, countertops, washer and dryer all make the list too. By the time that list runs out, the 30-year shingles will probably be reaching the end of their service life.

The think that no one ever tells you about home ownership is that there’s always something lurking in the background waiting to suck giant wads of cash out of your wallet. Still, if you’re doing it right, the place is a home in addition to being “just a roof over your head.” Hard earned experience tells me that’s one of those intangibles that can’t necessarily be measured directly in dollars and cents.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The speed at which you can go from hero to zero and back again. They say no one remembers all the good stuff you did past that one time you do something bad. That’s probably true enough. Good and bad, in my experience, are simply matters of perception though… and the whiplash between one person declaring you a shithead and the other proclaiming your glory is probably something I will never get use to. It’s a good thing we don’t have objective and standard measures of performance against which all things can be judged.

2. People always notice the big things. Tell people they have to work a double shift and that eight hours is as noticeable as a sore thumb. Let that same eight hours slip away in increments of 15 minutes here and 45 minutes there and no one seems to notice much. I notice, of course. I notice because I value my time more highly than just about any other commodity. If I were to start randomly showing up between 15 and 45 minutes late with no notice or explanation, it’s a fair bet suddenly that incremental time would start being important to more people than just me… and I’m feeling just passive aggressive enough to see about putting my pet theory to the test.

3. Home maintenance. I bitch a lot about home ownership. With that said, I should note that I really do love the house I’m in. What’s grating on my nerves at the moment, though is the “systems maintenance” do loop I seem to be suck in at the moment. Water heaters, gutters, HVAC, sundry other appliances all need their fair share of attention – some more than others. As with every aspect of home ownership it always boils down to a simple matter of time and/or money. As both are in somewhat short supply at the moment, I hope I can be forgiven my slightly jaundiced view on the joy of home ownership at the moment.

Hot water…

Usually when I post about hot water it’s because I have found myself boiling in it… almost always through no fault of my own, of course. Today, of course, my post is a little more focused on actual, literal hot water… or more specifically the lack of it.

All the appliances here on the homestead are originals and put in place back in 2000. I know I can’t reasonably expect the average appliance to last much longer than that, though I’m eternally hopeful that they’ll actually last forever and spare me the expense and aggravation of replacing them. That hope, today, proved to be in vain. I’d seen the warning signs a few weeks ago in unexplained damp around the base of the water heater and again last week when it had gone from damp to wet in a few spots. I’d hoped I’d be able to nurse it along for at least a few more months – deferring the expense of the fix or repair as long as possible.

The steady stream flowing from the heater towards the sump pit this morning told me that my optimistic plan of deferred maintenance wasn’t going to be a thing we actually got to do. Now as a man who knows his own limitations, my next call was to the service outfit I use pretty exclusively for all the moving parts and plumbing around the house. There’s a premium to be paid, but they’ve never failed to show up as scheduled and fix the problem. It’s the kind of service I’m willing to pay the premium to get.

So now we’re part way there. By this time tomorrow all should be resolved even if my wallet will be significantly lighter for my troubles. The joy of home ownership is probably a real thing… but maybe more a real thing felt by those unburdened with the mechanics of paying the bills and keeping all the bits and pieces up and running.

Water rights…

Most days I watch the local morning news out of Baltimore. During the week, mostly I’m keeping an ear open for the traffic reports and weather forecast. On the weekends, I imagine it’s just force of habit more than anything else. In any case, I should probably change that habit, because as often as not, Baltimore news just agitates the hell out of me.

Take this morning, for instance – when one report was covering the continuing deterioration of the city’s water system and proposal that rates be increased 9% a year over each of the next 3 years. Municipal water systems are almost the working definition of the kind of services one might expect a city to provide, but of course much of the utility network undergirding Baltimore has been buried for more than a century. That’s long past the time even the most ambitious of engineers would have imagined their work staying in service. If you defer maintenance on such a system long enough all manner of bad things will tend to happen to it. That’s the situation Baltimore is facing.

Maintenance, of course, takes money and that’s one of those things that Baltimore never seems to have. It’s one of those pesky consequences of making policy decisions that chase your tax base out of the city and into the county. But this morning, the story focused on a “local activist” who opposed this “vicious rate increase” even while admitting that he knew the system needed upgrades almost city-wide.

I suppose my real question is, if the those who use the water – the people and businesses served by the municipal water system – aren’t responsible for paying to keep the system running, who is he proposing foot the bill? For some reason I’m catching the scent of another Baltimore City boondoggle the cost of which the city is going to try to pass along to the more than 5 million Marylanders who don’t use the city’s water. I’m also more than a little curious as to how I can tap into that alternate payment source if they day ever comes when I need to replace my well.

I mean if water is a right and should be provided for “free,” someone else should pay for it… or maybe that’s only true as long as the cash flows one way: from everywhere else in the state towards the Inner Harbor.

Improving the margins…

With the budgets set and deposits for the major (planned) home improvement projects for 2016, I’m having to satisfy myself currently with making small improvements around the margins.

The big ticket items are easy enough to find – gutting the master bath back to the studs and putting it back the “right way,” pulling up the laminate countertops in the kitchen and replacing them with something more formidable, new carpet in four rooms, reworking the front yard a bit to improve grade, add deer-resistant plantings, and correct a few spots prone to erosion. All of those find their place somewhere along the grand 10-year plan. That’s not accounting for other general maintenance items – like the inevitable new furnace, air conditioner, or new roof. The joy of home ownership, right?

So yeah, knowing were I want things to go over the next 3,500 days, I’m trying to find and enjoy the quick hits where I can. Last week I added a few fire extinguishers – not sexy, but nice to have if you happen to need them. This week I added a battery backup to my a few of my key critical electronic components. That was a spur of the moment add after several round of the power not quite going out, but going out just enough to turn off all the computer gear. In the coming weeks I hope to see a few hanging tool racks and maybe a new work bench in the garage. Then there’s time allocated to make the basement more than a slightly leak prone but otherwise empty hole in the ground.

I’m pretty pleased with the improvements I’ve been able to make here less than a year after taking possession – even though they’re largely invisible unless you know what you’re looking at in the first place. All the little things – the nitnoid $50 improvements – go a surprisingly long way towards improving what you could call the quality of life. Given the length of the to do list I’m pondering, I figure I’ll have the last of it crossed off just about the time I’m ready to retire and let this place be someone else’s problem.

Striking it rich…

There’s an unfortunate assumption that if you have rental property you must, by some unwritten rule, be rolling in cash. It’s been my experience that there are really only two ways to strike it rich through rental property; either you have 100 of them to smooth out the cash flow from month to month or you operate more as a slum lord than a landlord. Those two possibilities, of course, are not mutually exclusive as it is entirely possible to do both at once.

Where you’re never going to strike it rich is in owning just one. The good years are the ones where you break even after expenses. The great years are the ones where you get enough of a tax deduction to maybe show a tiny slice of profit. For the most part, what comes in goes right back out in maintenance expenses, management fees, taxes, mortgage, insurance, and home owner’s association dues.

Owing a rental is like owning a bulldog in a way – both are things I wouldn’t recommend anyone try for themselves. Avoiding them both will save you a whole lot of heartache… and I’m not just saying that because my property manager called tonight to tell me the heating system is shot and needs to be replaced the same week I’m planning on financing knee surgery for a dog and two weeks after paying off a contractor to make sure a river doesn’t flow through the garage and cause my basement to become an indoor swimming pool.

Enough all ready. Fate, chance, or whatever gods control such things are really starting to get on my last nerve. Sigh. I’m never going to get my new bathroom at this rate. Sadly, I’m not a slum lord. Heat is important. And winter is coming.

Gutter (or Why $15 an hour is a bad idea)…

“Hi, my name is Jeff. I’d like to scheduled someone to come out and clean my gutters.” That’s how it started. Simple enough. Like thousands of other calls for service across the country every day of the year. The rest of the conversation, though, went something like this…

Gutters-R-Us: Sure, we’d be happy to come out and give you a free estimate.

Jeff: Uh, no, that’s ok, I really just want to schedule the service.

Gutters-R-Us: We need to do a free estimate.

Jeff: So I can’t just tell you the linear feet, number of downspouts, and pitch of the roof?

Gutters-R-Us: We need to do a free estimate. It’s free.

Jeff: Yeeeeaaaaahhhhh. OK. When can you do that?

Gutters-R-Us: Next Wednesday.

Jeff: *Sighs deeply* What time next Wednesday?

Gutters-R-Us: Is one o’clock ok?

Jeff: Yes. That’s fine.

Gutters-R-Us: *90 second pause*

Jeff: *Clears throat*

Gutters-R-Us: Sir, are you still there? Is one o’clock ok?

Jeff. Yep. One is still ok with me.

Gutters-R-Us: Oh. I thought you were checking your calendar.

Jeff *Bangs head repeatedly on desk*

Gutters-R-Us: OK…We’ll see you on Wednesday. I’ll send an email to confirm.

Jeff: Thanks. *weeps softly for the future of the republic*

So I know “how much is it going to cost” is the first question most people ask. The fact is, I really don’t care. I know the ballpark they’re going to be in. Their service came recommended by two independent sources. I just want someone to show up and clean the damned gutters so I don’t have to schlep around for an entire afternoon doing it myself.

This should have been a simple thing. It’s not moving an armored division across a continent. It’s not flying around the world in a solar powered plane. It’s coming to my house with some ladders, a hose, and a couple of brushes and getting the gunk out of the gutter. I really would just like someone to show up and do that and then send me the bill. Easy peasy.

Instead, now I’m going to have to take at least part of two days off… one of which will be dedicated to someone coming to my house to tell me things I already know (that I would have been happy to tell them over the phone or document with photographic evidence in order to save them the trip and save me the time).

If anyone wants to know why I oppose a $15 an hour minimum wage, I’ll enter this as Exhibit A.

Inspection…

I spent most of the afternoon following the home inspector around, peppering him with questions, and generally making sure he wrote as many issues as I could come up with into his notes. It’s not that I’m trying to prove it to be a bad house, but anything I can get fixed now is less money that’ll have to come out of pocket later. After the beating I took selling Memphis, I’m afraid I don’t have much sympathy for a seller.

That’s one more major hurdle in the home buying process is complete. There were a few things that will likely end up on my “must fix” list, but for purposes of not playing my hand here on the publicly viewable internet, I’ll just say that most things were in working order and it wouldn’t take all that much to correct the deficiencies we found. The negotiation will come down to how much of that they want to do and if I’m willing to accept it if it’s not done. Hopefully we’ll all be able to keep going along with the knowledge that none of this is personal and at this stage it really is just business.

Subject to negotiating acceptable repairs, we’re basically down to final approval of the financing package. But for now, I’m just ready for bed. I’ve forgotten – or blocked out – just how exhausting this entire process is.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Irons in the fire. If there was ever a recurring them up in this place, it would have to be that time is fleeting. There’s never enough of it and there’s always too much to cram into the hours available. I hit that wall once every five or six months – when it gets to the point when you’ve got to start making uncomfortable decisions about what stays and what goes; what you’re willing to invest time into and what you’re going to toss over the transom. It’s why I don’t golf any more – I loved it, but carving out four or five uninterrupted hours at a time eventually fell into the too hard to do column. It’s getting to be one of those times again and it’s just a matter of racking and stacking the things that are eating up my day and deciding what makes the cut and what doesn’t. I’m absolutely convinced that I can do it all, but I equally sure I can’t do it all at once.

2. Failure to lead. Once upon a time, the United States was the voice of reason on the international stage. Winning two world wars and forging an international economic order, we managed to keep the cold war from turning hot and kept enough of a lid on a dozen other regional conflicts to keep them from boiling over and dragging the rest of the world down with them. Now, with our oldest alliances fraying and our “great power” influence on world events waning, we seem more or less content to let others lead while we fall back. We’re in retreat from the world around us and our responsibilities in it; worse, we’re letting other countries call the tune to which we’re going to have to dance. I see the growing notion at home and abroad that the United States is “just another country.” Philosophically, I’m horrified by the very notion and know full well that the road we’re on doesn’t end well either for us, or for the generations who have looked for us to lead the way.

3. Modern convenience. I have a light on my truck’s dash that is supposed to tell me when one of my tires is low on air. It’s been on for six months because what it’s really telling me is that I have a bad air pressure sensor. When I was informed by Toyota that the pressure sensor was a $300 fix, let’s just say that after laughing at them my next question was whether I could get behind the dash and just take the bulb out of the idiot light. I’m sure some people consider knowing their tire pressure from the pilot’s seat an incredible convenience. I’m not one of them. Back in the dark ages when I got my driver’s license, we had to manually check our tire pressure from time to time with a $.99 handheld analog gage. If it means not spending $299.01, I’m happy going right back to doing that once a week just like I did from 1994-2008. I’m pretty sure this is a case of modern convenience being more trouble than it’s worth.

Thoughts on being a slum lord…

Sometimes I think the slum lords get it right. They buy the buildings cheap, pack in the tenants, collect as much rent as possible, and let the building fall apart until its time to abandon it and move on. Landlording is easy if you don’t bother to reinvest in the property. Sink not draining? Tough. Water heater acting “funny”? Who cares. Driveway collapsing? So what. By the time someone gets around to making them fix it, the building will be too far gone to save anyway and they’ll be on to the next deal. Yeah, sometimes I think the ones who just let the place fall in on itself have the right idea. Buying the property is the easy part. It’s the maintenance that’s going to kill you in the long run.

Some day, almost anyone who’s ever owned a home ponders the thought of being a landlord. Someone else is paying you to live in your place. Sounds like a license to make money, right? Well, let me disabuse anyone out there thinking about doing it of that notion. A rental property is pretty much a black hole into which you’re going to throw a never-ending stream of money. It’s like having a boat without the perk of, you know, actually having a boat. It’s going to start with an easy sounding $500 repair to the driveway, which will morph into needing to remove half of the driveway, which then becomes digging up the a trench across driveway and replacing a section of sewer pipe, and ultimately becomes a project remove the entire driveway, trenching deep enough to meet code (since the original builder didn’t bother with that), replace the entire sewer line from the house to the street, and then lay down an entirely new driveway over the freshly fixed and sparkling new swear line. By the time it’s done, your $500 “it’ll only take a few days” repair job will turn into a month long $7000 fiasco involving two city inspections, several pieces of heavy equipment, and a squad of bonded and insured union tradesmen. And you’ll get the joy of watching it all happen from 1000 miles away and hoping that someone down there actually has half an effing clue what’s going on.

So yeah, when you’re seized by the idea of being a landlord, save yourself the time and trouble and just go to the bank, take out a couple of thousand dollars, and set it on fire right there in the parking lot. You’ll have just as much to show for your troubles.