Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Dream Home Addendum

Here are a few more links re: the Cruz family's dream home experience.

It appears that the Cruz family got a loan to pay the IRS, which will cost them about $8,000 a month. To the surprise of no one, they intend to get a book deal out of this whole experience.

Here's an older article that addresses the land lease and some zoning issues in Tyler, TX.

You can also read a few entries in the winner's diary from the HGTV website. And if you're really bored, you can check out the message board.

In conclusion: sell the house, take the cannoli.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Extreme Home Takeover

This weekend I read an article in the June 2006 issue of Money, which tells the story of the family who won the 2005 HGTV Dream Home Sweepstakes. The prize was $250,000; an SUV and a 6,000 sq. foot, three story mansion located on one acre of lakefront property outside of Tyler, Texas [yuck]. The family decided to leave their modest home in Batavia, Illinois to live in this monster house. According to the article, the family are the only winners in the contest's 10-year history that have chosen to live in the "dream home." One year later, the family of three has finally realized that was a bad idea.

Don Cruz and his family thought they could live on that $25oK for at least a couple of years. As a matter of fact, the prize money doesn't even come close to covering their federal tax liability from the prize winnings [$672,000 federal income tax bill for 2005]. It's obvious that Cruz didn't even consider the costs associated with owning the home. The annual property tax alone is over $30,000. Add on the costs of utilities, maintenance, and insurance and it's easy to see that $250,000 won't get them very far. Now, they're trying to sell the place for $5.5 million. Local real estate agents say the actual market value is probably $2.5 million. But it will probably be hard to sell a house that expensive out in the middle of the sticks. One expert quoted in the article says they will probably lose their shirts if they can't sell the house for more than $1 million. By the way, they don't even own the land: it's on a 30-year lease.

I've often wondered what happens to folks like the Cruz's and the families on Extreme Home Makeover after "the bus" has moved on and the cameras have stopped rolling. You know--the family with the 12 kids who are allergic to the sun and a single dad living on disability? How in the hell do these folks afford the upkeep on those McMansions?

The Money article also notes that approximately 1 million Americans have overextended their finances to live in McMansions they could only afford through adjustable rate mortgages, and their mortgage payments could double in the next two years.

Fortunately for us, we bought a house we could afford and locked in a very low interest rate on a fixed-rate mortgage. However, I used to wonder if we had enough space for a family. Both of our spare bedrooms are already full: one is the guest bedroom and one is the office/library/music room. After two years, I've realized that having a dedicated office has actually caused me to be less organized [to paraphrase George Carlin: more space equals more shit]. And if/when we have a family, the office will probably become the nursery. That means the computer, the books, the guitars, and the record collection will have to move elsewhere [crap!]. I think we'd be better off with a smaller desk and computer in our living area. I could probably store the guitars in one of the spare closets, and I could give a damn about the books. My biggest problem is the records, which I think should be heard and not seen. So, I've got to find some creative way to store my vinyl. That one challenge aside, I'm looking forward to downsizing [everything but the records] and organizing in the next few months. The recent garage sale was a good start, but we still have much work to do. I think our 1,500 +/- sq. feet should be plenty of room. We just have to resist the urge to accumulate things.

Except records.

Far out, man.

Crazy mushrooms I discovered in my back yard

Monday, May 22, 2006

...and Other Earthly Delights

It's been a while since I've talked about two of my favorite things: beer and music.

Last time on the beer frontier, I 'blogged about our foray into homebrew and anticipation of the Belgian Summer Saison Ale. That brew turned out damn good and didn't last long at my house. It may be the best we've done so far.

After all of the Summer Saison was gone, I started to get a hankerin' for some hoppier, less sweet beer. I was looking for more of a "lawnmower beer" [LMB]. Over the past couple of years, my LMB's of choice were Lagunitas Dogtown Pale Ale and North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner. They're both relatively cheap, light, and refreshing while still offering full flavor. But I got kinda burned out on those, and that led to my lengthy, mostly exclusive love affair with the Belgian styles. After a few failed searches for a worthy replacement LMB , I've settled on a couple of beers from Mendocino Brewing Company--Eye of the Hawk and Blue Heron Pale Ale. Both beers have a nice balanced flavor with good hop character, but not so much that it tastes like DEET [e.g. other overly-hopped West Coast brews]. Both are also easy on the alcohol, so one bottle after an afternoon of yardwork won't send you to the spirit world for the evening.

In homebrew news, we brewed a Weizenbock and a British Pale Ale in the last month or so. The Weizenbock is just now officially ready after four weeks of bottle conditioning. I had one this weekend, and it's very good. But experience has taught me that a week or two of extra conditioning time yields tastier results. We just bottled the pale ale, and it should be ready in about 5 weeks. I was hoping for this beer to turn out similar to the Blue Heron Pale Ale, but it looks like it will be lighter bodied and less hoppy, which is disappointing. I could be wrong. I didn't think our Cream Ale would be worth a damn, but it turned out mighty fine. That's the cool thing about homebrew!

I almost forgot about music. Lately, I've been listening to the hell out of Gnarls Barkley. Maybe I'll have something about that, later. Plus, it may be time to talk about my not-so-new adventures in hi-fi.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Smoke up, Johnny!

Break out the cigars! The 79th Texas Legislature, Third Special Session, adjourned sine die this Monday.

Normally, "sine die" means it's summer time and the livin' is easy. The Lege has finished their work and evacuated the Capitol [and Austin]. And along with them, their staffers generally take extended leave from the premises. In an instant, my workload goes from 100 to near zero [for a little while, anyway]. That's not the case, this time. Ancillary issues related to this latest special session kept me away from work I would normally be doing this time of year. So, now I'm about 1 month behind. Now I'll be busting my ass through the month of June to catch up. Summer dreams ripped at the seams.

At least the Legislature completed its primary mission: local property tax relief. However, the Comptroller of Public Accounts says otherwise [see fiery letter to the Governor]. Right now, I really don't care if their tax plan works. The members are gone, and we are pretty much guaranteed they won't be back until January, 2007. But if the tax plan is as out of balance as the Comptroller and other critics say it is, then we could be in for a rough session, next year.

Still, the lighting of cigars [or cigarettes, rather] is appropriate--now more than ever. About $700 million in annual property tax relief is supported by a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase and a 13.6% tax increase on other tobacco products. If the other new taxes created by the Legislature are projected to fall short of the property tax reductions, then there's only one way out that potential quagmire.

Smoke up, Johnny!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Whatcha gonna do with all that junk?

Kim and I held our first garage sale [ever], this weekend. Having never organized one of these little endeavors, I think we both looked forward the event with a fair amount of dread. However, I'm pleased to say that it went well despite some extenuating circumstances.

We had been talking about having a garage sale since we moved into our current house, 2 years ago, but we always found some reason to put it off. Our normal course of action for shedding dead weight was to just drop our old stuff off at Goodwill. Over the years, we've given some pretty nice stuff away, including gently-used clothing, furniture, and electronics--the kind of stuff that Goodwill sells for top dollar. Kim and I decided it was high time we got a piece of that action.

So Kim took the reigns of the garage sale operation. The original plan was to wait for our neighborhood's annual garage sale, which is held each May. One of our neighbors [not sure which one] organizes this annual event, and each household is usually delivered an informational flyer about a month in advance. With a $2 contribution per participating household, the organizer takes care of all the signs and newspaper ads. Well, we waited about as long as we could stand to receive notice of the neighborhood sale, but we finally gave up on it and decided to fly solo. Kim placed a classified ad in the Austin American-Statesman [$20], and there was no turning back. Two days later, we received the flyer announcing the neighborhood garage sale.

Kim spent the better part of last weekend rummaging through our closets, our garage, and her CD's and records [all of my discs are precious gems] to select and price items for sale. Picking the stuff we wanted to sell was easy. But I found the pricing part tedious. What is the ultimate goal of a garage sale? I believe the goal is to get rid of old stuff. The profits and the convenience of not having to haul crap to Goodwill are secondary benefits. But isn't it American to want to maximize profits? I couldn't help overthinking the garage sale pricing strategy. Books, music, and VHS tapes were easy to price. Generally, we weren't going to price anything below 25 cents. However, pricing of small tools and appliances can be tricky. Garage salers are looking for a deal, and the serious salers will always try to talk you down. So the challenge is determining the maximum price that market will bear and the minimum price at which you're willing to sell. My strategy was to aim somewhere in between those price points. From my own garage sale shopping experience, I know that setting the price at maximum can make the seller appear unreasonable and unwilling to bargain, and many shoppers will just walk away. Then you're left with all your crap and no profits, thus defeating the true purpose of the garage sale.

In the garage sale business, you can strategize and advertise all you want. But you can't control Mother Nature. Major thunderstorm activity erupted on Thursday evening, and was expected to continue throughout the weekend. But Friday morning was sunny and bright, so we remained hopeful that Saturday morning would follow suit. Not a chance. Thunderstorms rolled in during the wee hours of Saturday morning. Luckily, by 7 AM the storm had calmed down to a steady drizzle. We still feared that our shopper turnout would be low, and we contemplated cancelling and waiting for the neighborhood garage sale in two weeks. But I knew people would come by: our $20 newspaper ad ran daily from Thursday through Saturday, and I believed the hard core garage salers would eventually make it to our neighborhood. And right as rain, a few customers started to trickle in shortly after our 8 AM start time. By 9 AM, the flow of shoppers was steady but not heavy. I noticed a lot of cars curiously circling our neighborhood before they stopped by our sale. It turns out that the neighborhood garage sale organzier had already placed large signs at the entrances to our neighborhood advertising the upcoming event two weeks in advance! Of cource most people didn't read the fine print and thought the sale was occuring. We were the only gig in the 'hood.

We ended up selling more than half of our stuff and turned a decent profit. Tools were popular, and were the first items to go; and we sold most of our small electronics and appliances [including a cassette deck]. I'm not sure if we sold any CD's. We managed to sell all but one of our VHS tapes, which were priced to go at 25 cents a pop. Curiously, Swingers--starring Vince Vaughn--was the only tape left, though we were able to sell Blues Bass for the Beginner [?].

Most of the folks that showed up were fairly pleasant. It was the usual suspects, mostly. You can expect a few "talkers" and some people that just don't seem right in the head, but nice folks for the most part. The only disappointment was the discovery that someone had stolen a plastic grocery bag containing a few miscellaneous attachments and dust bags for our old Electrolux vacuum. Nobody even made an offer on the vacuum, which was also for sale, so I thought that was an odd bunch of items to steal.

Overall, the garage sale was a much better experience than we expected. A big wad of cash in your hand and some free space in the house: it's a good thing.

Somebody better tell Vince Vaughn's agent that he's not so popular with the bargain hunter demographic.

Friday, May 05, 2006

. . . nobody rides for free.

I know I threatened to talk about the hysteria surrounding the recent hikes in gasoline prices. Because of the nature of my job, I decided not to post an opinion on any proposed legislation [state or federal] related to a temporary suspension of gas taxes. The Charles Krauthammer article that Eric pointed to in comment to the previous post just about covers that.

Krauthammer. What a name!

I think it's safe to talk about the silly civilian reaction to sudden spikes in gas prices. The expectation or belief that their legislative heroes can just wave a magic wand and make gas prices go down is crazy. As Krauthammer[!] writes, even a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax would cost billions. In other words, it's not free. Somebody must be taxed to pay for it. So why not tax the big oil companies? Well, if giving the big oil companies big tax breaks [reducing costs of operations] didn't result in cheaper gasoline, then I can't see how a "windfall profits" tax [increasing costs of operations] is going to help. But it still sounds like a good idea to most citizens, and they're going to be a bit sore when it doesn't happen.

I was listening to local talk radio, early this week, and I heard one listener [caller] complain that, due to the nearly $3/gallon gas prices, she was having to take time to plan out her errands to reduce car trips in order to conserve gas and save money. If you're a workin' class Joe [or Joann] with budgetary concerns, then shouldn't you be doing that anyway? Even if gas was $1.50/gallon, it would make sense.

There is hope. I've noticed a considerable change in driver behavior on my work commute: the number of motorists driving like assholes has gone way down. I know I've eased off the go pedal a bit [although I drive like a grandma, anyway]. If high gas prices encourage people to drive carefully to conserve gas, then maybe it's not such a bad thing. The potential benefits: reduced traffic accidents, improved traffic flow, reduced emissions--all good things.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Grass, Gas, or Ass . . .

nobody rides for free.

Here's some cool blogs/discussions re: oil and gasoline prices; supply and demand; and "windfall profits." Warning: the discussions contain language of an explicit and economic nature. Get your geek on.



Marginal Revolution--Should we tax oil company profits?

I may opine on this topic later today if I get a chance. The public reaction and political response to this "crisis" has ranged from silly to down right ridiculous.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

It's no fun being an illegal alien.

Yesterday, May Day [and one hot ass Monday, at that], several thousand immigrants and sympathizers took to the streets of Austin as part of a nationwide "economic boycott" to demonstrate the impact of [undocumented?] immigrants on the U.S. economy, dubbed a "National Day Without Immigrants." As you can probably guess, many restaurants and construction sites sat idle on Monday. Judging from the lame local TV news coverage I saw last night, it was more like a "Day Without Breakfast Tacos" as they took time to interview some poor schmoes locked out of their favorite taco joint, looking like a bunch of junkies lurking outside a methadone clinic on a Sunday. Imagine that: Monday morning, 7 A.M., driving a bit out of your way to Taco Shack to pick up a bacon, egg, & cheese on the way to work . . . and the mofo is closed! That's rough. But that is only the first bitter taste of a day without immigrants, my friend. That's the kind of reporting that cuts to the heart of the matter. That's "coverage you can count on."

BTW - Taqueria Arandas #2 by my house was closed. "Day Without Tortas Cubanas." Mmmmm--I love their tortas.

The local news also interviewed a couple of sweaty Anglo protestors, who were also out marching on that unseasonably hot May afternoon in expression of their "solidarity" with the immigrant workers. And I wondered to myself how much "crossover" there is between the various demonstrations that seem to take place weekly at the south steps of the Texas capitol. It seems like some of the same folks are always out there protesting whether it's about gay rights, the death penalty, or the war in Iraq. Who has time for that? College students, I guess.

So, can we figure out the actual impact of this economic boycott? I asked one of our economists at work, and he said the best estimate would still be a wild guess. My best guess is it probably wasn't too big of a hit. It was Monday. How productive is the U.S. workforce on any given Monday, anyway? If the demonstators really wanted to show an impact, they should have boycotted on a Friday when restaurants normally see heavy patronage. But that would only impact a small segment of the economy. And how productive is the U.S. workforce on any given Friday, anyway?