Sunday, November 11, 2007

Scary Housing Experiences

I know I know, Halloween was last month, but in light of yesterday's blog, I didn't think it would be fair not to recount some of the hilarious and sometimes terrifying situations Brad and I found ourselves in when looking at houses. I wish I had my video camera during some of these visits, it would have been pure internet gold.

One thing I should mention before I get into any of these stories is that Brad, being the professional real estate agent that he is always drove to the properties that we looked at. Brad never seemed to have a flash light on him when we most needed it (and the one time we did have one, I wish that we didn't). I find this little fact to be the cherry on top of a most delicious cup cake of terror.

So Lets Begin!

5. The Electrocutioner's Song (Collingswood, NJ)

This little property looked completely normal on the outside. It had a nice white picket fence, well groomed yard, in a very nice little neighborhood. Once you walked into the side door however, things took a drastic turn, the house was painted in Prince Purple, the kitchen was missing a refrigerator (which we later found in the dining room), and the killer part about this property was as we started to walk down the basement, I noticed some electrical wiring that had fallen to the floor. As I got a bit further down the stairs, I noticed that almost 90% of the basement was flooded with water from the wash and drier...yup, Brad and I almost got flash fried.

4. Colonial Nightmare (Main St., Medford, NJ)

This is a house we almost bought. It was selling for a good price, it was in a really cool neighborhood (close to trendy little shops), oh, and it happened to have a haunted basement. The first time we went in there it was night and Brad was of course missing a flashlight, so we missed some of the details (like the back room). The house was over 100 years old and the basement showed it. It had been dug out to make it a little bit easier to navigate (but you still had to crouch). Besides the fact that the foundation was literally falling apart around us, there was a dug out room that Brad and I were convinced we would find a body in the walls. The room had been use for coal back in the old days, but I got a very creepy feeling down there. The neighbors also looked like they were bit players in Amityville Horror (with axes).

3. Santa's Exile (Off of Broadway, Pitman, NJ)

We actually saw this house right before the one we bought. Brad and I did a day trip (thankfully) to a few properties in Pitman, NJ. The minute we pulled up I knew something was wrong. The house was way too big for the price. From the second we walked in there was an air of “someone got sliced into bacon in here”. The walls were stripped down to studs in some spots (to remove the stained blood perhaps), and there was a LOCKED room right off the dining room that Brad and I managed to get into, but wished we didn't (it looked like a secret molestation room). The house also featured a detached garage full of old rusty instruments of death (like sickles and other bladed items of destruction). The topper in this house was in the walk up attic which happened to have a life sized fucking Santa Claus sitting in a chair as soon as you walked up scaring the shit out of us as we immediately turned and ran away like little girls.

2. The Old Swedes' Death March (Swedesboro, NJ)

I never thought I was going to die more in a house than this place. This house was an antique home that was in the process of being remodeled (I use the house and remodeled lightly). The home originally was a horse stall and pub for the hotel that was across the street. It was a large property that was eventually converted into a home. A man inherited this and was attempting to modernize it. I know all of this because the scary son of a bitch was waiting at the house for us.

We knocked on the door and we hear dogs barking, good sign, but it ended as soon as the door was opened. The house was completely gutted, there were no walls, doors, kitchen, anything. We saw the house in the winter and the man and his buddy were sitting in the main room that had a fireplace, plastic was on the walls for insulation, and they were sitting on boxes. As this dude showed us around the house me and Brad kept looking for exits. There was one point where the guy asked us if we wanted to see the basement, we immediately said “NO!”. The show stopper (besides everything) was a room that was used to butcher meat at one point that still retained its smell (even in the cold). As Brad and I ran from the home, the guy actually followed us out to the car to continue talk and terrorizing. I won't soon forget that house and that crazy bastard, and Brad will never forgive me for dragging him out there.

1. Duplex of Terror (White Horse Pike, Berlin NJ)

Things started off on a bad note as soon as we pulled into this place, there was a creepy guy sitting in one part of the duplex and we were told we could not see that part of the property. Looking through his window, the room completely dark except for the blue light of the television and the shadows dancing in the room. The man in his wife beater and his six pack evoked cliché after cliché and thoughts of eviction notices popped into my mind.

Getting past him, we made it to the front door of the unoccupied property. The house was a disaster area: The carpets were probably 1960's originals, the walls were damaged, the kitchen had carpeting in there and no stove, the house smelled... you get the idea. There was a spot to get down the basement and even with a mag light, the basement just absorbed the light, so we opted against further exploration. As we got back upstairs and I had just uttered the phrase “I feel like I might die in this place” I swung the flashlight towards the window to see a face staring back at me. An angry face no less. Apparently it was the other neighbor and Brad had parked in his driveway. The man wasn't happy and looked like he was in Deliverance so needless to say we got the fuck out of there.

Later, Brad told one of his buddies about the place and this guy wanted to see it. They couldn't even get in because the guy who lived in the duplex was playing watch dog and was tracking all realtors who got near the property and he even follow Brad out to his car and into the street when the two fled.

Closing Thoughts

As I said, I wish I had a video camera to film these places so you know exactly what I am talking about. Through the years, Brad has been a hilarious realtor that has accompanied me on many adventures. I am sad to see those adventures come to and end, but at least we have the memories.

I still hate you too Brad :-)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Finding and Buying a House

Recently, I started documenting some of the major changes going on in my life (such as the wedding). At the end of this month, a long term goal has finally come to fruition; Allison and I are making settlement on a house. I wanted to write something to document our experiences and to offer some advice to those who may be looking. Like a snowflake, this is my unique experience and everyone’s stories will be different, but there I am sure you can pick up some good points.

Section One: The Housing Market

I started looking at houses in 2004. The housing market was experiencing tremendous growth and I started to get a little concerned that I would be priced out and not able to afford a house if I waited (like all the other buyers out there). I was raised on the principle that renting was throwing money away, so that wasn't an option. By the middle of 2004, housing prices had almost doubled from just 2002. During this time I owned a computer repair shop and kept a full time job doing IT work for an insurance company. The driving between my house, my store, and my day job was starting to take its toll and I wanted a place closer to the jobs.

I was part of a business referral group and the president of the group happened to be a realtor. I figured it would be good to do business with him because it might give "Computer Joey" (my shop) a boost too. The gentlemen showed me a few houses, but as a whole, he was very difficult to get in contact with. I would give him a price range and he would come back with houses 30-60k higher saying there was nothing in the area, but sadly for this realtor, I had something called the internet and could look up almost the same information he had access to. This is where I started to come under the impression that real-estate agents are shady people. LET ME REPEAT: NEVER TRUST A REALTOR (Brad is exempt from this comment). Only you can look out for your best interests, don't expect to get unbiased advice as a general rule.

I shifted through a few realtors, focusing on Berlin, NJ which was where my store was located. As each month passed, the prices of the homes kept increasing as did my anxiety. As I walked into each home, I would say to myself “this house isn’t worth anywhere near the asking price, not by a long shot”. The next day it would be gone, sold for the asking price, and I was left scratching my head.

In 2005, two major changes happened, I started getting serious with Allison and my buddy Brad from work became my realtor. Brad is a hilarious, great guy, but if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t mix friends and business like that. Brad showed me homes for the next 30 months: I kept changing my mind about locations, housing styles, price ranges and I know he got sick and tired of dealing with me and I was frustrated because I wanted my friend to make some money.

In the (almost) three years that I looked for houses, I focused on Berlin, Marlton, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Haddon Township , Sewell, Pitman, Swedesboro, Mullica Hill, and Mantua township (this is all South Jersey). My price range has gone from 150,000 to 350,000 and back down. I looked a single homes, duplexes (and triplexes), condos and townhomes. To say it was like a full time job, would be an understatement.

Getting back to the market... As houses became more overpriced, I started hearing more about people doing creative financing, and I am not going to sugarcoat it, Brad mentioned it a few times, but something felt wrong about it. To make this long story short, regardless of the neighborhood, I was having a hard time rationalizing paying 250,000 for a 1300 square foot house with one bathroom, a kitchen that needed to be ripped out, the basement not being livable space and people telling me it was a good deal. But now I started to understand why these houses were going, it was easy for people to borrow money, and they were under the assumption the loan was cheap.

Section Two: Advice

There are a few simple things I learned in my housing travels:

1. If the house is empty and looks nice inside, it is probably a flip. This means the people are going to want the highest price (especially in this market because they bought it high) and the work is going to be done on the cheap
2. On the reverse, empty houses that look a bit older and a great find because it probably means it is an estate sale and the family doesn’t want the nightmare of haggling with people (that is the situation we found with our house)
3. Never be afraid to throw a low ball offer out there. Let me repeat: DON’T BE AFRAID TO LOWBALL. Brad always had a tough time with my low bids and hesitated and tried to talk me out of it. Fuck that. If they don’t want to give it to you, just walk away.
4. Don’t get stuck. There are times I found myself bidding on houses, starting with a low bid and having a price in my head where I would walk, but the bidding gets into your blood and you want to win, so you end up going higher than you wanted to. Don’t do this.
5. Right now, if you are buying (and if you don’t have a house to sell) you are in the drivers’ seat. There are no buyers right now, take advantage of it and put the screws to these sellers.
6. I find Yahoo Real Estate engine to be the best, it gives the information in a nice format, the pictures are better, and you can set up reports that will automatically alert you when something hits the market in your range. Yahoo also gives the address of the property...
7. Which leads me to Google Earth. Zoom in on the property you are looking at. See how close train tracks are, dumps, swamps, etc.

Section Three: Why are there no buyers?

If you have been living under a rock the last year and didn’t read about the mortgage and lending crisis this country is currently experiencing, let me break it down for you:

1. In 2003, mortgage companies (and some banks) started finding creative ways to get people who could not afford to buy homes a way to get into the "home of their dreams". ARMs, interest only loans, no money down incentives got people out of apartments and created a booming seller market.
2. The interest rate dropped below 6%
3. These creative loan programs offered reduced payments the first few years of the loan and then the house payment would balloon up or you would be in a loan where you never pay against the principle of the house and you hope the value of your home goes up (which is the only way to build equity).
4. The lending companies were getting huge loans from the banks, cutting them up, selling them in chucks, and then another company would do the same thing (and so on). This practice made the loan requirements disappear. It didn’t matter what your lot in life was, you could find somebody to sell you a mortgage.
5. People who could not afford a home, now had funding and went crazy. Multiple people bidding on the same home, driving the price of the home up or in a lot of cases people just going in and offering MORE than asking just to avoid the bidding war.
6. Home owners not moving suddenly found themselves sitting on tiny gold mines as their house doubled and tripled in value. Depressed areas were even seeing upswing as people who unable to buy in the better areas brought money into the lower ones. Home owners started to view their houses as bank accounts and pulled money out to buy stuff or pay off dept.
7. Prospectors took the cheap loans and started snapping up houses and flipping them (making it even harder to find a good deal)
8. Eventually, when the ARM loans matured to full price, the home prices became so high that people of means couldn’t afford modest homes – the market started to slow down, the bubble burst.
9. Mortgaging companies are going out of business. Standards and limits are finally coming back, knocking unqualified buyers out of the running.
10. People can’t afford their houses. As houses depreciate in value, and monthly payments go up for the owners, getting out of the house with a profit becomes much harder. Factor in fact 9 and there is nobody around to buy that house even at a loss.

Commentary: I have absolutely no sympathy for people losing their homes at the moment. I know that might sound mean, but it was because of them and their foolish purchasing habits that got EVERYONE into this mess. People who own homes pulled money out to remodel their houses or worse, to buy crap. Our fellow buyers got the house but soon realized they didn’t even have money for furniture. Now foreclosure rates are skyrocketing and people are getting tossed out on their asses.

I read an article on MSNBC about a woman who lost everything. She bought a condo in Vegas for 400,000. She was taking home $2,000 cash per month. Who the hell gave this woman the loan and how did she think she was going to afford. This isn't hard math... know what your limit is, and then go under it (Your mortgage should not be more than 28% of your gross income).

Section 4: Carpe Diem

Right now is an excellent time to buy a house if you are a first time home buyer. All of those creative mortgages are biting people in the ass and they can’t afford to live in their homes. Make their mistake your advantage. Remember, people are going to want to get the highest price (as always) because that is going to be less debt they are in, screw that… every month they pay, is money they loose.

Another thing to factor in is what is what the rest of the neighborhood selling for. This numbers might be off if the houses sold last year as opposed to the last 6 months. In our situation (we bought a townhome), there were 6 houses for sale that were almost exactly the same, we pitted all of the sellers against each other. In the end it worked out great for us: the perfect storm of buying opportunities converged and got us into a great house and at an excellent price.
You can do it too, don’t be afraid, and remember that you are always in the divers seat regardless of the market.
Good luck!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Wedding Blog: Part One

In February of 2007 I officially called an end to my single life: Allison and I got engaged. This came as a surprise to no-one. It also came as no surprise that we almost immediately started to plan the wedding. Truth be told, we were doing research before we even got engaged. I have been itching to do a blog about the wedding planning and experiences with the wedding for a while, but I thought it best to wait and let the story ferment a bit and let some patterns develop. Now that the year is almost up, I figure now is a good a time as any to do a “Part One”.

Section One: The Wedding Ceremony

Allison and I are both moral people, but we do not follow the path of organized churches. This was something we brought up very early in the relationship and made sure we were on the same page, because religious friction is something that no relationship needs on top of the other stuff that goes on in life. Thankfully for me, Allison shared the same views on life, organized religion, and the general path to happiness. While Allison may have shared my values, our parents followed a more traditional Italian-American path.

This is a moment where a person needs to separate themselves from intellectual agnostic with a cause (and a chip on their shoulder about the whole scene) to someone who can listen to other's views, accept them, but still hold true to your beliefs. The bottom line is that when you do not follow someone's belief patterns, things can get awkward, but if you behave like an adult and try not to offend, the results can be peaceful and respectful (they aren't going to be perfect). We had a frank conversation with the parents and basically got it to the point where we said, “if this conversation continues, it is going to offend someone – we can respect your faith, but we don't follow it.” The funny part is that I started writing this blog a few days ago and last night the religion situation came up again with Allison's parents. My comments still hold true, but it ultimatly comes down to belief and preference; one thing I will concretely comment on is that I very low tolerance for people when they tell me I will find my way "to the church" again. I will say it now, and I will say it 30 years from now, the Catholic church is a spineless, child-molesting, anti-female, rotten organization and I have no desire to ever become "part of the flock" again. If you believe in what they are selling, more power to you - I hope it brings you peace and happiness, just don't expect me to agree with you in any way.

The idea of a church wedding seems very off to me, and I know Allison feels the same way. If there is picture book cliché about a wedding, assume that we are going to be running in the opposite direction. It isn't that we think it is wrong, it is just be done too many times before, and no thought is being put into the actions. The ceremony is just a robotic event people just wait to get through to be rewarded with food and drink. We didn't want that which is why we are basically writing an entirely new ceremony from the ground up.

Going off the path with wedding ceremonies can be a little dicey. First, you need to find a place that isn't a church to perform the ceremony. We decided to go with the reception hall. This cuts down on travel and there is a bit of a cost reduction because it eliminates the need to book limos (keeping it green baby!). Now that we have a place, we needed to find someone to make this whole situation legal... well this part is still a work in progress. If you aren't going to use a priest or a reverend to perform the ceremony, that leaves you with a judge or a wedding officiant. A wedding officiant is someone who gets certified to perform weddings by an alternate, non denominational church – which means to me they aren't judgmental and set in their ways. We are having a bit of an issue with the officiant option because Bucks County, Pa (which is where we are getting married) might ban anyone who isn't a judge, priest, or “normal” reverend from doing ceremonies – basically they are cutting out the little guy. We actually met with an officiant and she is a really nice lady, but once we started telling her our ideas and modifying her ceremony, I think I scared her, and hurt her feelings. But we shall see how that goes.

Section Two: The Reception Hall

As I mentioned in section one, we are having our wedding ceremony at the reception hall. The funny things is that I pretty much knew where I was having my wedding reception if I indeed had a wedding in the tri-state area. Celebrations in Bensalem, Pa is a Lombardi family tradition. My cousins Clara, Joey, Paulette, my Uncle Flip, and my own sister had their weddings at Celebrations, which of course lends itself to better customer service and better deals since we have a very good relationship with the management. With that being said, I kind of view having my wedding there as a sellout move, because this was entirely a financially motivated decision, but hey, weddings are a total rip off, and there is no way to avoid it.

Originally, Allison and I had the intention of having a destination wedding. While some members of both families were very into the idea, many expressed their opinions and concerns on not being able to go due to travel restrictions and cost. The idea was ultimately scrapped when it was confirmed that Allison's grandparents would not be able to make the trip. While I would preferred a destination wedding over the traditional, there are not as many benefits as you would expect:

1. You have to be at the location for a certain amount of days before you can get married. Jamaica is like 48 hours, but Mexico is three full days (which adds to your cost).

2. Traditional wedding receptions cost more, but they also add a financial buffer as guests are likely to give gifts (the rule of thumb with destination weddings is that gifts are not expected or encouraged since your guests have a large travel budget)

3. The tropics (Jamaica, Turks & Caicos, Mexico, Aruba) are not as cheap as you would think. I called almost all of the resorts, and assuming we had 35 guests coming (and you try to have something private after the ceremony), it was going to easily cost S13,000.00 out of pocket. Now while this beats the US wedding average of $26,000.00 – you are alienating friends and family and reducing your cost-offsetting gift intake.

Also, lets face it – the beach wedding is becoming a monster cliché in itself, so there is no winning from a financial or artistic perspective.

Section Three: Photographers

I am going to be honest here.. I think wedding photography is an enormous rip off. You are going to spend 2,000 – 6,000 for a person to move around and take pictures of your drunk ass family on your wedding. I know Allison and I aren't going to be going back and revisiting the day in picture form any time soon, but I can't speak for 50 year old Joey, so I doing him a solid and getting it taken care of. We called over a dozen photographers in the area, weeded 9 out on cost and over the phone personality, and met with three. We loved the first guy – he had vision and a sense of humor. The other two companies were amateurish at best: their shots were weak, they were lacking vision, and didn't come off as professional. So we went back to the first guy who also had the best prices.

Bottom line is that unless you get your aunt who took a digital photography class last month and fancies herself a photographer, you are going to be in the hole for at least 2,000 (remember, there is tax).

Section Four: The Wedding Party

I had a hell of a time picking my wedding party and I haven't completely resolved some of my issues. In 2004, I was the best man in three weddings and you would think that would make everyone a lock for my crew, but I decided to base my decision to include certain people based on their interactions with Allison. One of my buddies who I talk to, but we don't see much, and has had very little interaction with Allison, I couldn't see including in the party. But my friend Bill who spent a ton of time with Allison (even without me) has been asked to be a best man (yes I am having two) even though it would have been easier on paper to return the honor to one of my other friends. I have to say all of my guys have been incredibly cool about the best man (everyone assumed my friend Rob would get the solo spot), but I am close with everyone in my party and I want to spread around the responsibilities to suit everyone's strong points.

My party has eight guys right now (and I haven't asked the last guy yet because we thought one of the girls might back out), and I honestly wish I could have done more, but it has to end at some point, but the joy of writing your own wedding ceremony means you can give people jobs to do. So be on the look out.

Upcoming Fun

In the upcoming months, Allison and I have to finalize the menu and get both sets of parents to agree on the costs, pick a DJ (a profession I cannot stand), get the invitations going (and “save the date” notices), pick the officiant, determine where the honeymoon will be (I will share the awesome decision matrix Allison worked up when we get to that), and a million other things... watch as we manage to get it all done without becoming that “stressed out couple getting married”. or at least I hope.