December 2009


I’m reaching for bathroom “after”-ness- getting…closer… aaaahhhh! Not quite folks, which is why I’m going to show you the two not-that-exciting improvements I’ve made, in an attempt to feel like I’ve accomplished something. The bathroom has been 90% done for a while now, I’m just holding out on the big reveal because I have not yet decorated it. This is the fun part but why do I have to be so bad at it?? I will say this: I picked an accent color

and we hung up the vanity fixture

which the medicine cabinet barely clears, but hey- it clears (even if there was some bending and fudging). And now, when I go in there, I can see every last eyebrow that I need to pluck and if I had a mustache, I would be able to see all those hairs too. If I had a mustache. Oh, you do? Sad.

The rest of the blogosphere is doing these posts, so I want in.

I’m not much of a money-spending gift giver. Anyone who knows me could probably tell you that. My family is pretty much the same way. Let me illustrate this with a conversation I had with my brother last year, who bought me a present even though we agreed that we wouldn’t do that that year. He gave me a CD, wrapped and everything.

Me: Maaaaatt! I thought we weren’t doing presents! Great, I didn’t get you anything.

Matt: It was $2 and I got it for 50% off. Plus I already uploaded it to my computer. So chill out.

But sometimes I have been known to give a gift or two. Usually they are either very cheap or free, or homemade, or food. So here are my top ideas:

If you’re crafty, The Sewing Republic has lots of really cool ideas and Recycled Lovelies has quite a few too. Last year, I got some free tote-bags from my work, and I just covered up the GE logo with a sewed-on decal of something I thought my friends would like. (Sadly, I never finished Wendy’s or Candice’s- sorry guys).

If you like to cook and you’re a little adventurous, you could make homemade caramels and wrap them in wax paper and put them in a cute tin. A batch goes a long way- you could probably get enough for 4 or 5 people from one batch. Here’s my recipe:

2cups sugar

1.5 cups dark Karo

1 cup cream

1.5 squares butter

Mix the above in a saucepan, bring to a boil. Boil hard for 5 minutes. Then add 1 more cup cream, 1 T at a time, slowly to maintain boil. Cook to firm ball stage (244°F). Take from stove and add 2 t vanilla and nuts if desired. Pour into a buttered 9×9 pan and let cool. Cut into squares and place each square on a square of wax paper, and wrap it Jolly-Rancher style.

Tip: to test firm ball stage, drop a little goop of the mixture into a cup of ice water. It should form a firm but pliable ball.

These aren't mine but they look similar

Regular ol’ cookies and treats are always good too, and you can usually find cute tins and boxes for a dollar or two.

Gift cards are awesome- I don’t buy that they’re impersonal- I know a few Starbucksaholics who would appreciate even the smallest gift card. If someone is doing a lot of home improvement, a Lowe’s or HD gift card (NOT hinting haha) seems like a pretty personal gift to me.

This one’s a little more expensive, but oh so cool. If you’re a humanitarian, http://www.kiva.org/ does gift certificates. It’s such a cool idea- it’s like giving a charitable donation in someone’s name, except it’s not a charity! They’re micro-loans, and they have about a 98% repayment rate so your giftee actually gets the money back. Check it out!

My final idea: ask them what they want! If they play the whole “Oh, you don’t have to get me anything.” just say “I’m going to get you something, so it can either be something you want, or something you don’t want.” That worked on me one time.

I always want to give gifts that I really think people will use and enjoy, not that they will have to cart off in the DI (Goodwill) box a few months from now. Or, a gift that they can eat, because that’s pretty clutter-free.

Aren’t my post titles clever?

Do you ever put something off because you think it’s going to be hard, or just a pain… so you buy some blinds and they sit in their packages all rolled up in the corner of you room… and you stare at them every time you walk by… threatening them that one of these days you’re going to get the better of them and actually hang them up… and there’s nothing they can do to stop you… after you watch one more episode of 30 Rock? Does anyone else do that?

And then, you finally get all geared up to do it, and it turns out that that task you’ve been dreading is really easy. Like, really easy.

Turns out, all you gotta do is drill two holes with a 1/16 bit, and then screw the little hooks in, and hang your blinds like you’re hanging a picture!

Done! Why did I wait so long??

I quite like them. I do think I need some more dark colors so they don’t look so out of place, but I like them. My SIL says that they’re not very private… I’ll have to go outside and tell Stan to pretend he’s changing his clothes so I can see for myself the voyeur-factor. But they let in just enough morning light to get me out of bed, and that may be worth a few sneak peeks every now and again. Just kidding.

I finished these unfinished Ikea RAST dressers a while ago, but I just haven’t gotten around to showing you yet.

Ta-da!

I decided to just do them white. I thought I would stain them dark, but that was boring (and white’s… not?). I tried to do a cool stripe design but it looked like it belonged in an 8 year-old’s room in the 80’s. So I just bailed on that idea and did them white, which worked out nicely because I had some paint leftover from the bathroom. I may end up adding a cute stencil or stripes or something later, who knows.

I had to do a couple coats, and I probably should have sanded them better first, because they were pretty rough:

I should also probably do a clear coat on the top to protect them from all my snotty tissues and magazines (eww magazines!).

Trying to be thrifty, I bought a 10-pack of knobs. I needed 12 knobs total, so I picked out two more that looked the same from the little bins. Well, once I unwrapped them they weren’t exactly the same (uh… not even really close)

but after fretting for a while (and Matt giving me “the look” when I asked him if I should take them back) I decided it didn’t matter. I liked the shiny ones better but unfortunately those were not the ones in the ten-pack so I just put them on a bottom drawer.

The nightstands/dressers give me enough space for all my skivvies, pajamas, and workout clothes so yay!

I think they go well in there, even though Wendy says they look like they belong in a little girl’s room (THANKS). I do want to bring more dark colors into the room though, because it’s feeling a little Eastery. Hmm.

The purpose of this post is to explain how and why I chose to buy a house- despite my salary, marital status (single, if you can’t tell), and fear of commitment. And to hopefully give anyone else out there who’s thinking about buying a house some tips and encouragement. I’m lucky, because home-buying/renovating/landlording is in my blood, so I have a lot of great resources very close to me to point me in the right direction. But if you don’t have that, have no fear! You can find resources in a lot of places if you just know where to look. It may seem counter intuitive, but finding help and advice from those smarter than yourself is an important part of being independent.

My pros for buying vs. renting:

1. I was considering getting an apartment by myself and I realized that for what I wanted and was willing to spend, I could possibly make a house payment instead.

2. I’m kind of handy- (kind of). More importantly, I’m (usually) willing to learn.

3. My family is knowledgeable about real estate so it was a little less scary.

4. I don’t make enough money at my day job to “get ahead” and I wanted to make a solid investment that I could get some use out of in the meantime.

5. Home prices fell dramatically after the “bubble” and suddenly it was actually a reality for me to buy.

6. One word: Stimulus. One number: $8000.

7. I can. Legally, I don’t need to buy a house with someone, or be married. Apparently this was not always the case so taking advantage of this freedom is a bonus.

8. It felt right.

Some cons:

1. I’m not that handy. My family is a huge help, but they all live out of town so it really is my own deal. Sometimes it may take me hours to figure something out that my brother could do in ten minutes.

2. I’m a commitment-phobe.

3. I could only afford the demo houses in the good neighborhoods, or else I would have to look in the bad neighborhoods. (Funny, I actually ended up with probably one of the worst houses- in a “bad” neighborhood. Still don’t regret it.)

4. I am scatterbrained and it was hard for me to even get the paperwork in to get pre-approved (I’m getting better though!).

5. I have other stuff I want to do, like grad school.

Obviously the pros outweighed the cons for me and I have no regrets.

Here are some tips for when you decide to take the plunge:

1. Buy below what you can afford. I was pre-approved for a $190,000 house. Great! Technically, I could “afford” it. But that kind of mortgage payment would have literally taken up my entire paycheck. No exaggeration. I’m still a little confused about why I was approved for so much, but whatever. I saw plenty of adorable houses in the $130k-$150k range, but that was still too high- I would like to have a life outside my mortgage payment, thankyouverymuch. I decided that, although it wouldn’t be easy to find, I needed to buy within the $100k-$120k range.

2. You’re shopping for your starter home, not your dream home. Don’t get carried away. Home ownership is a beautiful investment. If the market increases at all, then it’s a pretty sure bet that you will make money on your home, which you can then use toward the house of your dreams.

3. Look outside your bubble. The west side of Salt Lake City traditionally has a bad wrap. And it’s true, it is not as nice as the east side. When I first started looking, I absolutely did not consider the west side. I quickly changed my mind when I realized that anything in my price range on the east side pretty much needed to be demolished. So I reluctantly crossed the tracks (quite literally) and was surprised to see tree-lined streets, parks, and well-kept yards. And it’s still close to downtown.

4. Research the area. I’m no economist, nor can I predict the future. But I got a pretty good feel for Salt Lake during all my house-hunting. I learned that they are building a TRAX (lightrail) line from downtown to the airport, which goes just a few blocks from my house. That may do great things for the area. I also realized that more people are moving downtown, and they are doing a lot of improvements there. I think that real estate close to downtown will get more valuable, regardless if it’s on the west side. My boss explained it to me this way: Cutesy, “artist” neighborhoods start out as the bad part of town because artists are typically poor. So they tend to congregate in the less-expensive, um, “lively” areas. Then that area becomes hip because artists are cool, and people start moving there, fixing up the old houses with character, and put a few sculptures in their yards. (I’m looking at you, 9th&9th.) Suddenly, the new generation of artists can’t afford that area anymore, so they find the next poor area and the cycle continues. Now I can’t say if Fairpark is the next 9th&9th, but his explanation made me feel better about buying in a “lesser” neighborhood.

5. Get a great deal, not an okay deal. I realize that if everyone did this, then sellers would never get a great deal, but if you’re serious about saving money then follow this tip. I couldn’t afford to buy a house for an okay price, I had to buy a house for a killer price. Be patient, don’t succumb to pressure, and hold out for that overlooked gem.

6. Work out the numbers. This was great advice from my brothers: Don’t buy a house whose payment would be more than you could rent it for. Here’s an example. A cute little 2-bedroom with no basement on the east side costs $150k. At 5.5% interest on a 30-year loan, the payment would be $851.68 plus taxes and insurance, so let’s say about $1000. Now, let’s research what cute little 2-bedroom houses rent for in that neighborhood. I would venture to say not more than $800 a month. That would leave you $200 short each month, and no safety net. (If it had a usable basement, it may be a different story since you may be able to finish it and get more rent money).

7. Watch out for “remodeled”. I saw so many houses that excitedly said “newly remodeled!” on the listing, and then you get there and it’s some craptastic tile-job slapped on fugly cabinets and they want to charge you top dollar. You can’t put perfume on a pig. Know what to look for. I personally probably wouldn’t have noticed that kind of thing had I not been shopping, but when you look at something with the thought “Will this be mine?” it really gives you new eyes.

8. Don’t be afraid of a fixer-upper, as long as it’s the right things that need fixing-upping. Things like carpet, paint, and even windows and cabinets- cosmetic things- can be pretty cheap. But inspect things like the sewer line, the plumbing, the furnace, the roof, etc. and make sure it’s in your budget to make those repairs. (In my case, I had to replace the roof and the furnace on top of everything else, and it still ended up being a great deal.)

9. Give yourself a safety net or two. For me, my safety nets are: I have an extra bedroom upstairs that I could rent out if I were ever in a pinch;  my house payment is low enough that if I had to, I could make the payment on minimum wage. (It would not be pretty.) I also have three months’ expenses in savings at all times, and I wouldn’t mind increasing that to 5 months.

10. Cash is important. Liquid assets are invaluable. They are the only thing that can bail you out if you get into financial trouble. I’ve told my brother many times how nice it would be to put the $8000 tax credit I received toward my house, as it would save me LOADS of interest and years on my loan (indeed it would). But he stresses that that would not be a wise move, since I don’t have very much cash. If I lost my job or something, having that cash in my hand would be more important than owing less on my loan. Also, at this point, it probably makes more sense to put that money into improving my house than paying it off earlier. (I do hope to make supplemental payments eventually.)

11. Don’t be afraid to go it alone. Sure, it would be easier to buy a house if I knew that I would always have someone there to help me pay for stuff. But it didn’t make sense financially or personally to wait for that. I can do it on my own, so why not?

12. Take advantage of development programs. My house was a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) home, which was part of the reason it was so cheap (that, and it smelled like dog pee SOMETHING FIERCE). HUD likes to see individuals buy homes and fix them up, which was maybe partly why they accepted my bid over other investors’, who wanted to buy it and rent it out. If you’re a firefighter/EMT, a police officer, or a teacher, you can buy a HUD home for 50% OFF if it’s in the neighborhood where you work. I so wish I had one of those professions! Go here for more info. Bottom line: see what’s out there for you, and take advantage of it! (Just don’t abuse it.)

Some common worries:

1. Buying a house is too big a commitment. If you do it right, it doesn’t have to be. True, since mine was a HUD home I am bound to live here for at least a year. Same thing with the $8000 tax credit- I must stay in the house at least a year. But most of us would sign a year-long lease anyway. If I got an awesome job offer somewhere else after a year, I could theoretically rent my house for enough to cover the payment (more if I finish the basement). See Tip #6 above. I may not be cash-flowing on it, but at least it’s an investment that will work to my advantage.

2. I don’t know how to fix something if it breaks. This is a very valid concern. If you call a plumber to unclog your drain, they have to charge you at least 50-70 bucks just to make it worth their time. But if you know how to unscrew a P-trap (or if you know someone who does) it’s free. However there is hope. In my experience, people love giving advice (what am I doing right now?) as much as they love to talk about themselves. Ask anyone- an old guy at work, your neighbor across the street, your parents, a friend, heck there’s even a free phone number you can call to ask anything you need! Seriously, it’s their job. It’s like a more reliable ChaCha. (Check to see if your state has an Extension Service.) Also, I went to the library and saw soooo many books with titles like “Who Needs a Man? The Sassy Girl’s Guide to Home Improvement” (that might not be an actual book, but you get the picture). If you really want to do it, and you want to devote the time to it, you can figure out home improvement. It is really fun and empowering. Just be aware that it does involve a fair amount of work and it’s not always fun.

3. I don’t have enough money. Again, this is a valid concern. But if buying a house is a priority for you, then you will find a way to save the money. And many loans for first-time homebuyers only require a 3.5% down payment. Side note: I thought about trying to make a larger down payment to lower my monthly payment. But it only starts getting lower after about a 20% down payment, which wasn’t an option for me.

So there you have it; my long-winded advice column. If you made it to the end, congratulations! That’s some stamina! I may add to it in the future if I decide that my brain has more stuff in it that the world absolutely can’t live without. And please email me or comment if you have any questions!

I’ve added a new page! It’s here! On the top right of my blog you’ll see a page called “Tour”. It is a simple walk-through of my house with pictures from Day 1 and Day 95 of each room. I’ll update the tour regularly (maybe monthly?) so be sure to check back. I certainly cannot promise dramatic updates every month, so maybe I’ll do every 2-3 months instead. I hope you enjoy your visit.

We’ve all had a room in our house look like this at one time or another, right? Right??

Oh fine, probably not. But my guest bedroom doesn’t look like that anymore! It looks like this!

Still cluttered!

But at least a guest could actually sleep in there. I’d been looking at futons for a while, and my realtor had one like this and I liked it. It’s smaller than most futons but two people could still sleep on it (cozily). I found one for really cheap on extreme clearance at Shopko. Yes, extreme clearance (I made that up). But really, it was so cheap that two store employees didn’t believe me and went back to check on the price. Duh. I don’t know what to do with those lamps. My grandma gave them to me and claims they’re antiques (if you’re reading this grandma I believe you!) but they’re just kinda… ya know… fifties or eighties, I can’t tell which. Those pink flowers are the worst part, so maybe if I just turn them around they could be cool.

Here’s the other side. I can’t find the hardware to put the legs on my piano for the life of me. But that’s where it’ll go if when I find it.

And here’s the view from the futon. Yikes, I need to do something about those wires. There is only one outlet in the room on the opposite wall, so right now I have a rather unsightly extension cord just running across the floor. I do plan on getting some electrical help to remedy that. But I’m happy to report that the following items were free: the TV (left behind by my brother’s tenant), the spider plant (Stan’s mom), the nightstand thingy (Aunt Soozie) and the plant stand thingies (Aunt Soozie). I found a DVD player on sale at Costco, but then I discovered that it’s too wide to put on the nightstand. Tear. But I don’t watch that many movies so I’ll probably just wait to hook it up until I find another TV stand. I’ll have to just do my Denise Austin workouts on my laptop until then. “Grrreat.”

I need some help though. Once I get the piano set up, is the room too small to keep the desk in there? I’m thinking of another place in the house where it could go, so it may not have to stay in here. Oh, and obviously- OBVIOUSLY- I need some serious decorating help. And I take really bad pictures and most of them are at night because I leave when it’s dark and come home when it’s dark (poor me). I told Stan that I wanted a fancy camera so I could make my house look prettier on my blog and he cautiously said something like “What about, um, photography technique?” So I asked him to show me how to take better pictures with the camera I have, which he will do between researching rocks and water and inversion theory (math, not weather). So yeah, you can get excited for slightly better pictures in the future.

Oh, and don’t forget what it looked like before.

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