Monday, July 18, 2016

Welcome to my house

Most of those who read this blog will be invited to see its interior at some point. But the best time to see a house is right after its occupants have moved in and everything is willy-nilly, right? I wouldn't want you to miss out on that experience, so let's waste no time in going on a virtual tour.

Starting with the light-filled, maple-floored living room. 
The living room is the heart of any home, so we put extra effort into making it a warm and welcoming space. To create a harmonious atmosphere, we outfitted the (free! Thanks, Craigslist!) couches with mismatched slipcovers. The brown one is an especially nice touch, contrasting beautifully with the plethora of white and tan dog fur that has already made its home there. In the background, you can observe a traditional Chinese watercolor, partially obscured by an upside-down wardrobe. This piece of modern art symbolizes the struggle that faces so many individuals today—having too many clothes and not enough closet space.

As you look closer, you'll see we have adorned our furniture with a variety of useful items, ranging from a blender (always a good thing to have in a living room) to a box of home fixtures and fixatives, which will surely be put to use sometime within this century. 

One of the most useful things a home can have is a handyman, and you can see ours really showing off his skills on the couch. Notice the positioning of his feet. He has carefully arranged himself so as to avoid the second-most useful things a home can have: a dog. This dog (look closely, he's camouflaged by partially burying himself in the cushions) might look peaceful and asleep, but under that calm exterior, he is hard at work, busy shedding as much fur as possible over the beautifully contrasting slipcover we already mentioned.
Now on to the bedroom. Unonpened boxes dominate the decor here, but a keen eye may be able to spot the bed, which still lacks a frame.

Next to the bedroom is the closet/dressing/activities room, which has been designated as the place where everything other than sleeping shall occur. Contrasted with the spartan bedroom, it may look cluttered and chaotic, but believe me, it has a place for everything, and everything's in its place. Except for that second wardrobe in the living room. Where ever are we going to cram that?

On to the bathroom. This one features the spray bottle of ammonia that I was using to clean the reusable furnace filter. Sadly, years of cooking grease seemed to have coated that as well, so eventually I gave it up for lost, its only legacy being the clods of gunk that ended up adhering to the walls of the bathtub.
Next we visit the guest room, which is the tidyest and most Zen-like room in the house. Naturally, it goes unused as we can't have guests while the rest of the house is in such chaos, but sometimes we like to come in here just to enjoy a space that isn't cluttered with detritus and dogs.
The kitchen is one of the features of the house that always impresses visitors, as it was recently remodeled with a real tile floor, warm honey cabinets, and a cute backsplash over the sink. You can see that it has black granite countertops, which are what house-flippers put into a house when they want it to look posh. When I was house-shopping, I learned to associate black countertops with a property that was all show and no substance. Consequently, every time I look at my countertops, I have flashbacks to all the times I wanted to buy a house but it had been superficially altered to fetch an excessive price...oh, wait, that was this house too. These countertops are a constant reminder of how I bought in to the cosmetic housing sham. How could I have sold out my principles for a tiled kitchen and a polished wood floor!? Why, oh, why, didn't I place more value on the age of the appliances? Whyyy —Oh, wait, we're on a tour. So, yes, looking at this cute-as-a-button kitchen, you might notice the dishwasher whose front panel is removed, because I can't for the life of me figure out how to hook it up. I went out and spent my hard-earned cash to replace the travesty that was the original dishwasher, and still can't get the new one to function! Why, oh, wh—oh, right. Tour.

Let's look at the basement, shall we? As I mentioned in my last post, it has the distinction of being finished. But not in the sense of actually being finished, since it has become the dumping ground for all the furniture we don't know what to do with. 

See that open door? That leads into the room we have designated the storage room, where still more chaos reigns. 
At least we got a bookshelf in there to help the room get organized—No thanks to the unusually low ceilings, which forced us to return the first free bookshelf we got back to the curb.

The basement also has this blurry room, which will eventually be less blurry and will replace the guest room we have upstairs.
An unremarkable second bathroom, except to the spiders and cave crickets, which seem to think it's the best room in the whole house! Thank goodness there aren't any of them in this picture, or I'd be squirming in disgust rather than writing this pleasant description.

The basement also lures you in with a second kitchen. Don't be fooled by the shiny black oven—this kitchen is actually unusable as a kitchen because the oven's console is burned out, and we will eventually be hauling it to the trash without replacing it. But in the meantime, it makes a handy shelf for storing laundry products...
Because the laundry room is configured so that you can't fit any shelving into it, and your only storage is a couple of milk crates hung from the walls. It also has no lighting, which is why there is a table lamp on top of the dryer.

I've heard from certain musicals that the very beginning is a very good place to start, but I have turned that rule on its head by making the first thing you see in real life into the last thing that you see on this tour. (It's cause I wanted to save the best for last...don't quit now!)  
On the home's exterior, you can observe such marvelous features as the white add-on mud room, the bay window, the porch swing that came free with the house, and, what's that shadowy shape off to the left in the foreground? Let's take a closer look!
It's... a peach tree! Or maybe an apricot tree...or, in any case, some kind of fruit tree. Settling into this house has been a series of unpleasant surprises, but this arboreal beauty is probably the nicest thing home ownership has thrown at me. A free supply of future fruit? Don't mind if I do!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Home Making

I purchased my house on June 10, and a month and some change later, I am still sleeping on the floor, and my basement looks like a war zone. I didn't really think it would take this long to get settled in, but I guess I've really only been actually living here for a total of 15 days. 

Instead of actually getting down to business and tackling one of the 22 items on my ever-growing House To-Do list, I thought I'd take this time to share some insights and stories!

Let's begin with the biggest irony of my whole house-buying saga. One of my dreams has always been to eventually live on my own (or with my significant other) without the need for roommates or renters. In all my 10 years of being an adult, this has never happened (except for very brief periods during which I was searching for roommates or renters), but I always imagined that buying a house would enable me to achieve that dream. Originally I picked this house (and overpaid on it) because it had a finished basement with a separate kitchen. I planned to rent out the basement until I had saved enough money to live completely alone. But with everything being broken and way more expensive than I ever imagined, now I'm forced to live in it alone until I have spent enough money to fix all the things that are preventing me from renting it out.

People ask me when I'm going to have a housewarming party, and my answer is: Haha, good one! Maybe when I stop feeling this crushing sense of futility whenever I walk through the door! That should be sometime within the next 10 years!

There is a lot to be done. A lot. It's overwhelming. It's disheartening. It provokes me to wonder if buying a house was the worst decision I ever made. But there are a few things about it that feel good—like unsubscribing from all my housing searches. I had housing searches saved just about everywhere you can imagine: 21 altogether, on 6 different websites. I have been getting a big kick out of deleting all of them, one by one. Take that, Zillow! I don't need you any more!

I also really enjoyed placing my first online order to be shipped to my new address! Haha! Using only one address line and no apartment number!? My life hasn't been this easy since September of 2015! 

Speaking of easy, let's talk about the things that make even the worst tasks a piece of cake!

Remember when I proclaimed my love for degreaser a few years ago? Well, when I moved into my new house, I found most of the kitchen surfaces absolutely caked with grease from what was apparently decades of constant frying (my theory is supported by the two – two! – discarded woks I found while cleaning various areas of the property). My beloved citrus degreaser didn't do anything to lift the mess. But then a coworker tipped me in to using ammonia. I already have ammonia (I use it for laundry odors when the fabric can't be bleached), so I gave it a shot. Wow, the grease just vanished without a trace! With ammonia by my side, I nearly suffocated learned that my bronze cabinet handles were actually pewter. Amazing! I don't think I'll ever need to purchase degreaser again!

While the best degreasing product was the least of many things I was wrong about regarding homes and homebuying (and I'm sure I'll be happy to tell you all about them in agonizing detail in future posts), one thing that I was right about, I predicted around this time last year: that I would either live on a street that I used to live on, or live in a house that looked just like a house I used to live in. As a matter of fact, I accomplished both. The house that I bought has the same floorplan as the house that I lived in on 53rd Ave (more or less—that was only for 6 months in 2007, so the details are a little hazy), and it's also on 53rd Ave! It's good to know that I can be right about the things that really matter.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ode to a toaster oven

My pride and joy, respectively
If there was ever an underrated kitchen appliance, the toaster oven is it.

People have toasters, and people have ovens, but not many people (at least by my perception) have toaster ovens.

I calculate this by the health of the toaster oven resale market. My toaster ovens are always breaking, and I routinely get like-new replacements from Freecycle or the thrift store at prices ranging from zero to eight dollars. Apparently lots of people have toaster ovens they never use, and the secondhand ovens are not in very high demand.

I, however, adore a good toaster oven. So much more versatile than a regular toaster (try cooking your mozzarella sticks in one of those pop-up contraptions!) and so much easier to use than a regular oven (say goodbye to the 10-minute pre-heat!), the toaster oven is like a godsend for someone who consumes lots of leftovers and hates it when they're soggy. Since I've been head of my own household (about 2010), I've gone through around three of them. I even donated one to my office because the microwave just wasn't meeting my standards. Now that I've moved into a home with rentable space, I acquired another one to keep downstairs for guests (in some alternate future where the basement is clean and livable).

I might be the world's foremost toaster oven evangelist! If you are one of the unenlightened who have not yet experienced the joys of owning their own multi-purpose toasting device, come join me in my always-crispy bliss! I can probably even get you a free unit on Craigslist.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Less is More: On having short hair

In December, I lopped off my long, luscious locks in favor of a layered bob.
How I looked before my last major cut
How I looked shortly after it.
Now this is certainly not the first time I've gone for a dramatic chop—it's actually the fifth, which means I've been following an extended grow-cut cycle for pretty much my entire life, and I've got it down to a science. But strangers don't know that, which might explain why everyone in the salon watched in shock and awe as my lengthy tendrils hit the floor, and the stylist asked me if I was sure what I was doing. And this was actually the shortest my hair has ever been before a major cut! I remember the last time I did this, I also got major backlash from those who preferred my hair long.

People seem to take great stock in long hair, as though its loss is an affront not just to its owner but to the entire world. As though you're a traitor to womanhood if you don't have a waterfall of keratin cascading down your shoulders at all times.

There seems to be a downright stigma against short hair. Sure, there is something to be said about the labor of love that is long hair. A person who spends hours a week caring for her tresses is a person who cares about her appearance. A person whose hairstyle is by nature low-maintenance could be interpreted to be a person who's just lazy.

But the ironic thing is that I think I look prettier with short hair. It has natural body and bounce, which it lacks when I wear it long. With my short hair, I wash it (don't even bother to use conditioner), towel it dry, brush it, and then ignore it while it air dries. Periodically I might fluff it with my fingers if I think about it. I spend all of five minutes a day on my short hair, but it generates compliments like it was created by an entire team of stylists for a Vogue photo shoot! I never heard a peep about my hair back when I was blow-drying it for 30 minutes a day. No one ever had anything nice to say about the elaborate updos that are the one thing I miss about having long hair. There was a time in my life when ridiculously long hair was a source of immense personal pride. But those days are long past, and short hair apparently suits me.
How my hair basically looks now.
Once the dust settles from my big move and I'm ready to focus on my style again, I plan to try out an even shorter hairdo. And then after that ... ? Will I ever grow my hair out again? Do I have anything to gain by dangling a foot or more of easily-tangled tresses from my cranium? Would I be better off sticking with the style that not only requires almost no work to maintain, but also seems to meet with the most critical acclaim?

My last dramatic chop was my fifth, but could it be my last? [Insert stirring music here.] Only time will tell.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Crimes against language—what you can do to help

We live in a violent society—people are murdering the English language on a daily basis. Sometimes the pressure of witnessing it all gets too much to bear. But there are things you can do to help. Things that you can do to turn this trend around. Even one person can make a difference, and today, I'm going to show you three little ways you can try!

Use some discretion

This is mostly a spelling issue, but an issue in which a different spelling denotes an entirely different meaning! If you do not know the difference between discreet and discrete, I urge you to just use the words "subtle" and "separate" instead.

Don't use the third wheel

"Third wheel," is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot without anyone considering what it really means. I myself am guilty of using this phrase, to refer to the odd one out in a group of three people. From the way the term is used colloquially, one would assume a third wheel on any sort of vehicle is not only unnecessary but downright detrimental—which is, of course, a fallacious assumption! A bicycle, the quintessential two-wheeled vehicle, certainly functions quite adequately on two wheels, but the addition of a third wheel would certainly add stability. And a car with only two wheels would be in sorry shape indeed, but with three wheels it might even be able to get around. So why is a third wheel approached so negatively?

Misplaced decimal points

This problematic usage of syntax transcends languages and sticks its dirty toes into the pool of mathematics. 

I have lately been overwhelmed by the number of shopping stories I read on the Internet describing prices as something like ".50 cents." While there is a chance that someone purchased a dress for 50/100ths of a cent, it seems a lot more likely that the price was actually "50 cents" or ".50$" (Lest you wonder why I have committed a syntactical sin in this very rant, please see more on my unconventional placement of the dollar sign). Let's make it perfectly clear. A decimal point indicates a fraction and should be pronounced if it is written. So unless you actually bought something for "point fifty cents" you should leave the dot out of the equation. 

By the way, one of the most useful tricks I ever learned in writing was the Windows shortcut for the cent character: Hold down ALT while typing the numbers 0162 on your numeric keypad. Tada! Magic cent! I also use these shortcuts for the em dash (— ALT+0151) and en dash (– ALT+0150) – which litter my writing – on the regular.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

While I was waiting

As you might recall (from way back in November, ugh!), when my original plan to buy a house last July backfired the following month, I signed a 3-month lease at an apartment. Obviously my three-month estimate was way too optimistic, because – even though I'm a homeowner as of June 10 – that's the same apartment I'm living in now. In the 9 months that I've (begrudgingly) called this place home, I've renewed my lease twice, but every time, I always thought I wouldn't be here much longer. And that's resulted in some interesting living situations.

I refused to update my address. Though many of the companies that send me mail got my forwarding order and proactively changed it themselves, many others still think I live on 49th Ave. This proved to be quite confusing when it actually came time to fill out my loan, since I had different addresses on different documents and no one was actually sure where I lived.

My apartment came with a standard-issue manual thermostat. But you can't save on your heating bill when your furnace is constantly running even when no one's home! So I purchased a programmable one, intending to take with me when I moved out...which was going to be sometime soon. However, the original thermostat was basically painted onto the wall, and I didn't want to risk damaging the paint job for just a month or two of programmable climate control. So I just let the old thermostat stay there, while the new one dangled from its wiring for 9 months.

In a similar vein, I didn't want to get billed for repairing a bunch of holes in the wall if I was only going to be a short-term tenant. So when it came to hanging things, I relied on lots of Command adhesive and a couple of existing nails. Resulting in interesting decor such as this one-nail bulletin board.

In the epitome of bad timing, only a couple weeks before my original landlord gave me notice, I had bought a lawn mower. Any other lawn mower, I probably would have just sold and tried to replace whenever I moved into a real house again. But this was brand-spanking new and 400 dollars! So I did what any obnoxious person would do: I enlisted a friend with a house of his own to store my lawn mower for the (undoubtedly brief) time I would be living without a yard. And since he was already storing my mower, why not have him store all the other contents of my shed? I put it all in the box the mower had come in and entrusted it to his care. For a couple months that turned into 9. Surely, I owe this friend a home-cooked meal for his trouble, but since he never reads this blog, he's not going to know about that!

While I was living in an apartment, I turned into a box-hoarding packing-rat, because someday soon, I was going to be moving out. Whenever I got a shipment of multiple shoes (oftener than I should have), I would save the big outer box and stash it away, empty, somewhere in my apartment, to use as a moving box. When our office flooded a few months ago, a mold restoration company came to clean up and had us pack everything in big cardboard boxes. When the restoration company left, I kept the boxes, storing a few choice things inside so no one would be tempted to throw them away. Everywhere you look, I have boxes within boxes within boxes. Boy, it will feel good to be getting rid of them!

Except now I'm moving. I won't be getting rid of my boxes, I'll just be storing them in a different location! I see ahead of me, several more weeks of living with my boxes. But they will finally be full of the stuff they were intended for!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

And you may ask yourself, "How did I get here?"

One year and 3 months ago, I began shopping for houses, and I am infinitely relieved to say I finally bought one. Yes, the predominant emotion that I feel as I prepare to move into my new home is relief. I can't say I'm excited – there's still too much work ahead of me for that – but I am so happy I no longer have to live in suspense any more!

I started out last February of last year, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing I had all the time in the world to find the perfect home at the perfect price. I spent a year and some change progressively lowering my standards while increasing my price limit, and in the end, I was so exhausted by the whole process that I ended up buying pretty much the most expensive house in the whole neighborhood, even though it had many issues ranging from mold, failing appliances, antiquated electricity, and deteriorating plumbing, just because I was tired for looking for something better.

I regularly question my decision to make this purchase. I am, after all, Mrs. Thrifty (no one calls me that, but they should!), and here I just blew my life savings on an arguably overpriced home. I have talked to people who, unreasuringly, give me looks of shock when I tell them how much I paid (I will tell you a little bit later, in an entire post dedicated to the financial side of this escapade). I justify the expense with my insider knowledge of just how competitive the market in my target neighborhood is. Let's have a look at my seven purchase attempts (of course, I toured many more houses, but rejected them outright for a number of reasons).

The first 4 offers I made were detailed in a past blog post, but I'll briefly summarize them again:

  • July 2015 - The house in Hyattsville - my first offer, remains probably the best value on this list, in the best condition for the most reasonable price (and the only one with a completely separate and ready-to-live-in basement apartment), but I felt like I was getting cheated, and I had a strong incentive (in the form of a 15,000$ forgivable loan) to buy in College Park.
  • August-October 2015 - The short sale - In retrospect, this was one of the best-priced houses out there, and I should have snapped it up when I could have bought it for 220,000. But I was being greedy (and perhaps still a little ignorant of the highly competitive market) and tried a bit too hard to negotiate the price down, losing my chance to purchase it when the sellers decided to start paying their mortgage again (I console myself by saying that that would have happened even if I had accepted their counter-offer).
  • October 2015 - The fakeout - When talking with my boyfriend, I call this one "The One with the Collapsing Basement." Having a dangerously flawed foundation is kind of a dealbreaker, but even knowing that, I spent many months thinking fondly of how perfect that house was in all other respects.
  • November 2015 - The Last Resort - The last house I blogged about, I think of it now as "The One with the Orange Kitchen." Let's face it; even though I claimed to be so desperate I'd take it even though it wasn't quite what I wanted, when I learned I couldn't get any heat to come into the basement bedroom (my anticipated rental cash cow), I had to let it go.

After this point, I vowed to not blog any more about my dismal housing search, because the public admissions of failure were really starting to get me down. I kept silent when I heard the disappointing results of my next two offers:
  • February 2016 - The One Next to REI - This house was so cute! It was nicely landscaped, it had a basement with a couple of (not-legal) bedrooms and a mini kitchen. It had two bay windows (not a trifling matter to someone who loves both sun and houseplants). Alas, I still hadn't learned my lesson about the competitive market, and I made a too-low offer. Someone outbid me by offering the asking price (which I totally would have paid if I had been given the opportunity to increase my offer!) This one was a heartbreaker.
  • April 2016 - The One with the Blue Room - It didn't have a basement, it didn't have an upstairs. The only thing it had was a nice secluded bedroom with a bath, and a refrigerator in the laundry room, so I thought I might rent that part of the house out. I wasn't really crazy about this house, but I was desperate. My offer (equal to the asking price after you take into account my request for closing cost assistance) was rejected, and I was disappointed, but I think I would have been more disappointed if I'd actually ended up owning the place.

And that brings us to May of 2016. By this time, I had saved 19 houses on Zillow and seriously considered buying all of them. I was a house-shopping expert. But I was losing hope. I had previously promised myself that if I hadn't found a place by the beginning of May, I'd apply for one of the cheaper apartment buildings in the area. Still, I was procrastinating. More houses were finally being listed. Maybe I really would find something. I would make my rental application at the end of the month.

And it's a good thing I waited, because on May 1, I put in the offer on the house that I would end up owning. This time, I decided to pull out all the stops. I offered the asking price AND threw in an escalation clause that would increase my offer by 10,000 dollars if there were other offers. And there were. Six others. But somehow mine was the one that made the final cut.

The next few weeks were a poorly timed whirlwind. I actually received the phone call telling me my offer was countered while I was in New Orleans—a trip which, as you know, was followed almost immediately by trips to Richmond and Hawaii. The majority of the negotiations happened while I was on vacation. Can you imagine trying to make sound business decisions while shouting into your cell phone over the sound of hundreds of revelers dancing through the streets? Or trying to shop around for the best possible deals using crappy hotel wi-fi? I am sure that if I had had more time to myself between making my offer and my astonishingly early closing date, I would have been able to save a buck here and there. But because I didn't get enough opportunity to do a lot of extensive research, I basically just had to accept whatever was offered to me as far as my mortgage, my pest inspection, my title company, my title insurance, and essentially all things you are technically allowed to choose for yourself as a home buyer.

I also almost missed my opportunity to apply for that 15,000$ forgivable loan I mentioned, because I was so busy surfing and attending weddings that I neglected to read the deadline information. There were a lot of money matters that didn't go exactly as my usual stingy self would have liked. In fact, to this day, I don't know what monetary value the other offers were, and I wonder if the sellers were able to just milk me for all I had because they knew I would be willing to pay it...Well, I can go around with myself forever about whether I got the best deal possible, but in the end, I paid an amount that I could afford, and after 9 months of struggling, I guess that's all I could hope for.

Besides, there's something to be said for just not caring. Because I wasn't able to take control over the little details of my purchase, I was able to cultivate an almost Zen-like attitude (at least as Zen-like as the constraints of my admittedly high-strung personality would allow) about the whole deal. Matters were mostly out of my hands; I just had to let go and let God, as they say. Because of this, the weeks preceding my closing were actually surprisingly low-stress—you'd never guess it from the way I talked, but complaining is my middle name. I was actually getting plenty of sleep, finding plenty of time for fun, and basically going on with life, as opposed to frantically scrambling to make this the best real estate transaction that had ever occurred.

Now that the dust has settled (and more is probably being kicked up as I write this; I had mold remediators come in yesterday to begin treatment of the basement and attic), I am able to sit down and write a nice long epic about the last year-and-a-third in my housing life. It's not the most chipper way to begin my next chapter, but it is something I need to get off my chest. In the future, I'm sure you can look forward to many more posts about my home.
Here's a sneak peek:
Somehow I got suckered into dog sitting the inimitable Bubalou on the day of my closing!