Thursday, July 26, 2012

Death and Destruction: First Time Home Buyers, Part 2

We had a fun holiday up at the ranch (Tyson's family property - very remote area on the Utah-Idaho border). Tyson's dad owns an old farmhouse up there that Tyson renovated out of absolute decrepit deterioration three years ago. We got to show it off to my side of the family, and also had some fun riding four-wheelers. Now back to my FIRST house hunt...

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I can be extremely long-winded. It's endearing, right? Right!?! Well, imma try to wrap this up quick. When we left off, we had just made an offer on an '80s house and then decided not to counter their counteroffer.

We liked another house a lot, this one right in town. But the day we were going to make an offer on it, a canal that ran behind the property broke a short distance from the house. The ensuing flood and mudslide killed a couple of neighbors two houses down. We got scared off and moved on.

That's the short version, but here are a few details about the house.

It was a sort of strange 1960's house whose garage had been converted into living space (most of it a tiny, questionably-legal 1-bedroom apartment). We loved the yard the best, and liked the mid-century house, too. It had tons of light in the living room. Instead of a backyard (it was right up against an extremely steep hill, and that's where the canal was), it had a HUGE, private rock patio to one side (the main entry side) and a big lawn with fruit trees on the other side (the kitchen/laundry entry side). It  had some very odd features, like a Mamie Eisenhower pink kitchen with handmade resin hardware. Each knob had something different encased in it. I totally expected to see fossilized mosquitos, but instead it was different varieties of dried legumes. Sooooooo glad I found a picture to represent. Just imagine vintage cabinets instead, and just a few specimens in each knob. Crazy. Crazy.

Photo from, by Jenny. Fun blog, but cover your ears if you don't like "language" :)
The canal break definitely put a damper on things, and seemed kind of "sign from God"-ish, so we moved on. Very sad situation for the family who lost loved ones. The canal has been closed since then, I believe, and is still being reinforced/re-routed. We also pass this house from time to time, and reminisce about how much we loved that yard, and how we could totally see ourselves having parties on that patio. Last time I drove past there was a Little Tikes playset in the grassy part of the yard. I hope the house is loved!

Very interesting garage situation, eh? The door you see entered the apartment. The door to the main house was up a set of stairs to the right.

In this aerial view you can see the grassy yard to the left of the house (fenced, with fruit trees). The amazing private patio was to the right of the house. You can also see part of the canal in the upper right.

I've marked the house with a red star. Now look down the street to the west and you see the mudslide area where the canal broke.


In the next installment we put in yet another offer. Will it be our final one? I'm sure you'll be waiting with bated breath!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Holiday Today

It's Pioneer Day here in Utah (our state holiday), so I'm taking the day off. See you soon!

Monday, July 23, 2012

More House Hunting plus Something Of My Very Own (What This Blog Means To Me)

My house is deliciously quiet right now.

The baby is sleeping. Poor baby, she has been sick this week.

The boys and their Daddy are on an errand to Grandpa's house. Poor boys, they have been sick too, and we had to miss church today because they are all contagious. Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, if you must know. It's been going around in the family and neighborhood this summer. It's not as horrifying as it sounds, but it's no fun either. Only the baby has the rash (the worst is on her feet, only a few spots on her perfect chubby feet), but they have all had fevers, etc.

I have a quiet house, and a house that smells good, thanks to my Natural Lemon-Vanilla-Thyme Air Freshener. Side note: One important instruction I left out of that tutorial is to use a cheap old pan you got for $1 at the thrift store. You know, just in case you are the forgetful type who might accidentally let the water run dry and scorch the pan and leave the house smelling burnt and stinky instead of heavenly. Not that *I* would ever do that! [Did that last week.]

Quiet houses make me feel reflective, and I find myself thinking about this little old blog (and my other one, too). I started these blogs as learning experiences, yes. But I also started them so I could have something of my own. My "bit of earth" so to speak. Something to tend and water and nurture that is just mine.

We have moved oh-so-many times since we got married. I think maybe thirteen times in not quite seven years? Always a new house that never seems moved into, organized, and decorated. Always starting over in a new church congregation, new neighborhood, new town, trying to make new friends. I have supported these moves, but they have all been for my husband's education or career. (To be fair, there was one time we stayed put because of my career.) Ever since I left my copywriting career when our first child was born almost five years ago, I have felt sort of like a balloon on a string - and the string is in my husband's hand.

I didn't identify the feeling that clearly at first, of course. I just felt uneasy, uprooted. I felt like I couldn't get a job or even a freelance career because I never knew when I would need to up and leave. (There were also, of course, child-related reasons for not restarting a career.) I thought about starting a blog for a long time, but I didn't do it because my husband didn't like the idea. Maybe I had given him the wrong idea, or only a vague idea, of what  I meant to write about. Maybe he envisioned me laying bare all or most of our personal details like Dooce. In any case, I put it off.

Until I realized a blog was one thing I could truly take with me. I could keep at it wherever I went. My investment wouldn't be lost due to a change in location. Maybe I would make some friends who would never be *gone* because they were never *there* (physically). So I started.

So, this blog means a lot to me. It's my "thing" right now, and I'm glad I have it. Turns out we might be moving again soon. Tyson has had a job interview in Salt Lake City (about 80 miles from where we live now) that seems promising. He wasn't really looking, and is actually due to start a different job with his current company in a couple of weeks...but we shall see. I decided it shouldn't make me stop house hunting here, because I don't want to miss the right property if it ends up coming up and we do indeed stay here...


...So we looked at three new listings yesterday, all within a few blocks of each other, all close in size, all near the bottom of our targeted price range. If we purchase a home in this price range it will increase our monthly payment by somewhere from $35 to $100, depending on down payment, interest rate, and purchase price. That's a pretty small change in the monthly budget to gain 1000+ more square feet and a real yard. Of course, it also means a lot more work and maintenance, stuff that is currently included in our HOA.

There are things we give up to be in this price range, though. None of these houses had attached garages (two of them had detached one car garages that I would more refer to as "garages" - quotes meaning they don't really measure up to what a garage should be). None had central air conditioning. Only one had a master bathroom, and it just had a shower rather than the nice separate tub and shower we have right now. They all had large yards (just under a half acre). They all had five bedrooms. They each had their unique, fun little things.

The first house was a cute little Craftsman listed at $159,850. It had some nice built-ins and updates upsstairs, but other parts needed a lot of work and it definitely wasn't the house for us.

The kitchen cabinets were painted a dark blue (looks weird in this pic) that I liked surprisingly well).

We moved on quickly from that one. The next was a raised rambler from 1981, listed at $164,000. It had a great backyard with a garden spot, raspberries, strawberries, fruit trees, a cute fire pit, and two sheds with electricity. The interior was nice and updated. It had some of the typical drawbacks of ramblers from this era: the front door that enters right into the living room, the small dining area, and the small master suite. But at least it HAD a master suite! It needed work on the roof, and it had the parking and A/C situations I already mentioned.

Nice little place, huh? I mean, it's no 1970s mansion dream home, but it's a great place!

The third place was an updated farmhouse-ish house, with a big addition on it. That was fun for me because it kind of was the perfect mix: the character of the old (window casings, wood floors, wraparound porch) with the convenience of the new (open living space, large kitchen). This one had a great front porch, a big great room in the addition plus a formal living room and another small family room downstairs, a cute treehouse, and a big master bedroom with plenty of other bedrooms. Again, it had the downsides I already mentioned: the lack of garage, A/C, and master bath. And as cute as that split rail fence is, we would need to have a real fence. This was the biggest and most expensive of the houses we looked at, at 2868 sq. ft. and $179,900. Still way within our budget.

 So, what do you think?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Seven Sneaky Ways To Get Kids To Eat Their Food

I hope I'm not the only one whose kids get picky or ornery about eating their food. To help with those mealtime battles I've developed seven sneaky strategies that help eating happen with less fuss. These methods are geared mostly towards toddlers and preschoolers, though some of them should also work with older children.

Sneaky Strategy #1: Divide & Conquer
Though school lunch trays may have negative cafeteria associations for you, to young children they're just big, fun plates that keep all the foods from touching. These trays (or toddler-size divided plates) work well for typical meat-starch-fruit-vegetable dinners, but they work even better for deconstructed versions of all-in-one meals that kids often reject (soups, pastas with lots of ingredients mixed in, casseroles, etc.). Say you're having Hawaiian haystacks. Your kid may not want to eat a sloppy mix of rice, cream soup, chicken, pineapple, crispy chow mein noodles, and whatever else. (Who would!?) But divide all the components up among the sections of this tray, and suddenly they're eating it. Photo from here.

Sneaky Strategy #2: Toddler Buffet in an Ice Cube Tray
Wow, that rhymed. At first glance this strategy may look a lot like the one above, but look closer and you'll see that the idea here is to provide a full buffet of finger foods for toddlers, all served in an ice cube tray. A colorful array of easy-to-manage foods is irresistible to little kids. Shown here are shelled edamame, strawberries, cucumbers, pretzels, corn niblets, raspberries, goldfish crackers, animal crackers, raisins, cheese cubes, blueberries, peas, cheese puffs, and wheat bread. Small chunks of chicken or meatballs would also work well. The fun part of this strategy is seeing which foods they go for first, and which ones they *still* leave in the tray. Photo from here.

Sneaky Strategy #3: Cute Enough to Eat
Taking the time to make the food cute can get more of it eaten. There's no denying that it's more fun to bite the legs off a frog-shaped sandwich than it is to eat two bites of a regular sandwich. Sadistic? Maybe. Effective? Definitely! I chose this picture because it represents one of the easiest and most familiar "cute foods", Ants on a Log (celery with peanut butter and raisins), plus a sandwich cut-out that doesn't waste half the sandwich. This photo came from Another Lunch, which has tons more bento box-style lunches full of cute food inspiration. Along the same lines, though more of an art book than a cookbook, is Play With Your Food by Joost Ellfers. See if your library has it. My kids loved it!

Sneaky Strategy #4: Sip from a Silly Straw
Not a food strategy per se, unless your child is on a liquid diet, but silly straws certainly up the likelihood your kids will drink their milk or water. I've even seen it work at my mom's house with healthy, vegetable-filled GREEN smoothies. The silly straws pictured are from here, but I'd recommend checking your local party stores or Amazon for a great variety of shapes. From loops to eyeglasses to fish and butterflies, there's something out there your child will love. It's no trouble getting kids to drink juice, but silly straws can get kids drinking more healthy milk and water. I'll drink to that!

Sneaky Strategy #5: Make Like the Sample Lady and "Pick" It Up
One day I was making my way through Costco with my two-year-old, partaking of all the lovely samples offered to us on toothpicks and in little paper cups. Soon I noticed my little guy was eating all kinds of things he might usually reject at home. Ravioli. Meatballs. Chicken. Taquitos. He was moving way outside his usually realm of noodles and fruit. The next time he balked at eating the small pieces of chicken breast on his plate, I stuck a toothpick in each one and next thing I knew he had eaten them all. I have probably used this trick once a week since then -- on vegetables, meats, convenience foods, even pieces of grilled cheese sandwich. Of course, you'll need to keep an eye on your little ones when sharp sticks are involved, but you might be amazed at what they'll eat. Photo here.

Sneaky Strategy #6: Tell a Truly Elaborate Story
I can't take credit for this one. My sister-in-law and my babysitter had to show me the way. We've all tried the old "airplane" routine, right? "Here comes the it it up the hangar!" In my life it's usually played out against a kid with a mouth clamped shut like a steel trap. Then at a family dinner I saw my sister-in-law convince my four-year-old to eat his food by telling him he was a huge space monster who needed to eat all the planets and slurp up all the moon lakes, etc., etc. He totally fell for it! And then I thought back and remembered my babysitter convincing my then-three-year-old that he was a mighty T-Rex who needed to take dinosaur bites of all his foods. I had played it out further by turning him into and herbivore and getting him to eat trees (broccoli) and tree-stars (leafy greens, a la The Land Before Time). Get creative and move out of the airplane rut! Photo here.

Sneaky Strategy #7: Dip It! Dip It Real Good!
This is an old standby most parents have used, but it deserves a shout-out. Letting your kids dip their food in something can get a lot more of it down their gullets. The prime candidates are ketchup and ranch dressing. You might have to avert your eyes and hold your nose to keep from losing your lunch over some things your kids will dip in ketchup (pineapple? sandwiches? granola bars? -- yes, I've seen all that and more). This strategy can be especially effective when used in combination with the toothpicks in strategy #5. I know, I know...ketchup and ranch dressing are often processed and salty. I've found that plain Greek yogurt also does the trick. Photo here.


There you have my Seven Sneaky Strategies for Getting Kids to Eat Their Food. Do you have any great methods of you own? I'm always looking for new ideas to add to my bag of tricks.


I also wanted to share this blog and Twitter I came across today. It's written from the perspective of a toddler, and it's hilarious and scarily accurate: and Twitter @HonestToddler. I highly recommend this post and this one Such good stuff!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lessons Learned As A First-Time Home Buyer (My Experience)

Since we're house-hunting right now (sort of), I find myself thinking back on our first homebuying experience and trying to decide what I've learned. I also want to post a few of the more in-depth DIY projects we did during our remodel here, so I thought it might be good to introduce how we ended up purchasing good old 1521. Here's what happened. I'm curious to know whether others' home buying processes were as drawn-out and circuitous, or whether that was just us.

We Asked Ourselves, "Should We Buy?"

Back in the summer of 2009 we waffled and waffled about whether the time was right for us to purchase our first home. Tyson had his first "real" job, with a more decent salary than we had anticipated. The $8000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers had been created. We were expecting our second child and living in a two-bedroom basement apartment - another bedroom would be nice. Interest rates were low (well, they seemed low at the they're loooooooooooowww!). Likewise, prices had fallen, putting more properties within our price range.

But still, we weren't sure buying was the right thing for us at the time. Though only a two-bedroom, our daylight basement apartment was almost 1500 square feet. It was in a house that was only about five years old, and it had a walkout entrance to a huge fenced backyard. We were renting from a friend, and our rent was low. So low, in fact, that the rent vs. buy calculators pretty much told us it was financial sixes between renting and buying. Because of that, it ended up being the $8000 tax credit that swayed us. We figured the $8000 would be our "profit" from the house, since we thought if we bought a house we would only stay in it for three years before selling. We knew it was likely that home prices would continue to drop in that time (and look, they did!). Besides the tax credit, the only real driving force behind deciding to buy a home was wanting three bedrooms -- hopefully a master bathroom, a garage, and some enclosed yard space (but those things were negotiable).

Looking back, I wish I hadn't let myself be so influenced by outside factors and incentives like the $8000 tax credit. For those of you who don't know the end of the story, I'll clue you in. We bought a home and took the credit, but we ended up moving out of the home after less than a year to take a promotion in another state. Because the credit required the home owners to occupy the home for the next three consecutive years, we had to pay back the entirety of the $8000 credit. Ironically, we moved back into the home 17 months later, so at the end of the three years we are here again, but that doesn't mean we get the money (or even half of it for spending half of three years here).

As I was thinking about this I realized that I am letting the current market conditions (low prices and low interest rates) heavily influence my decision to sell our home and buy another right now. The numbers make trading up attractive (mixed with the fact that we really are outgrowing our place), but I shouldn't let myself feel rushed because of those factors. In truth we could wait another year (or more), save up more money, and see where things shake out with our income and desire to stay in this area. If prices change, so be it. They won't change THAT dramatically. If interest rates go up, so be it. Our current loan is at 5%, which seemed really low at the time we got it. The same interest rate (if rates go up that much) wouldn't be the end of the world.

We Took Time To Educate Ourselves About the Market and the Process

I attended a first-time home buyer workshop offered by our local college. That's where I first found our agent, who was also a member of our family (or had been). I spent hours on the MLS getting a feel for the market and figuring out what properties were a good value. I peppered my agent with questions.

We Made a List of Must Haves and Would-Be-Nices.

As I mentioned, one of our only "must haves" was a third bedroom. Another was a good location. We also wanted something that would put is in a good equity position. Maybe a house with an unfinished basement we could complete ourselves to raise the property value? Maybe a fixer-upper? Maybe something with an accessory apartment we could rent out? Maybe something priced below market by a motivated seller?

On our list of "would-be-nices" were things like a master bathroom, covered parking/garage, air conditioning, and a fenced yard or patio.

We Found Out What We Could Qualify For, Then We Set Our Budget Realistically Below That Amount.

With only a few "must haves" on our list, we found it very difficult to narrow down potential properties. The first step, which helped a lot, was to talk to a loan officer and find out how much loan we could qualify for. Then, knowing the bank will give you more than will really be financially comfortable to pay back monthly, we set our budget significantly under that amount. Now we knew we should look at properties up to $160,000. Perhaps slightly above that, in case we could put in a lower offer on a higher-listed property to bring it within our range.

We Looked at Properties. LOTS of properties.

Because our list of must-haves was so small, and because it was our first time looking at properties with a view to buying, we started out looking at one or two each of various types of properties: a couple big old single-family fixers (needed way more work than we could handle/afford), a couple duplexes (the locations were bad), a few reasonably priced small older homes in the heart of town (some places were nice and a couple places were awful, but Tyson decided he didn't want the maintenance issues and headaches of an old house, plus, the locations weren't that great), a newer bank-owned property (it was trashed and it didn't seem like a very good deal for the work it needed), a brand new townhouse in the town where Tyson worked (we liked it a lot but worried that the announced amenities would never be built and that the developer would later lower the prices on the new units, leaving us upside-down {which ended up happening to the people who bought there - good call, us}), and a single-family home in that same town (on which we decided to make an offer, see next section).

We Made Some Offers. We Made Some Mistakes.

At the time, Tyson was working in a town called Hyrum, a sleeply little rural community about ten miles outside of our main city of Logan. We thought living there would be nice because of the non-existent commute. We could also get more house for our money out there.

A four-lane highway connects Hyrum to Logan. We looked at a corner house that faced into a nice neighborhood but had a side facing the highway, right where the speed limit slows as the road comes into town. It was a three bedroom, two-bath rambler on a nice-sized .30 acre lot. Built in the late '80s, it had the same color of brick and siding as the house I grew up in. Maybe that seemed comforting to me? It was single-level and had been updated and well taken care of.

A few of the upsides were the nice cul-de-sac neighborhood, the convenient location, the single-level living, the two-car garage, the large fenced yard with sliding doors from the master and dining rooms, and, most of all, the master suite. The master bedroom was very spacious and had a walk-in closet and a huge bathroom with a jetted tub and separate shower. I fell for the idea of that master bedroom.

You see, by that time in our marriage we had lived in five apartments and had never had the luxury of a big tub, let alone the luxury of a master bathroom. Heck, one of our apartments didn't even have a tub (just the tiniest shower ever), and our trailer had a tub that was only 10 inches deep!

"A" marks the house. The busy highway is beyond the stop sign.

The downsides of the house were the price (at the top of our range), the location (side facing the busy highway), and the fact that it had no air conditioning (not even a swamp cooler). We decided to put in an offer anyway. We offered $4000 less than the asking price, which had already been reduced. We were met with a counter-offer. They countered with the same asking price. Deterred by their unwillingness to negotiate and the downsides of the house, we decided not to counter back. We moved on.

Someone else bought the home a couple months later. I've always wondered what the final selling price was. We pass the house at least once a week, since it is on the way to my in-laws' house. I still kind of picture our life there. What it might have been. Would we still have decided to take the promotion and move to Pennsylvania? Would we be kicking ourselves for not having air conditioning? Would we have a swing set and a garden? Would we be thinking of adding on a family room? The new owners haven't taken very good care of the house. The fence is broken, the grass in overgrown, weeds are everywhere, and they often park a couple of motorcycles right on the front lawn. I feel sad for that little house, the first house I wanted enough to ask it to be mine.

To Be Continued...(In which a canal breaks above a home on the day we were going to put in an offer on it.)


I think that's probably enough words for one day. I'm curious, what year did you buy your first home? Did you offer on any homes besides the one you ended up in? Do you ever wonder what might have been?