A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for December, 2007

Future Developments Due to the Current Real Estate Situation

I am not sure what to write about today on the topic of real estate or home staging, which are my subjects of choice on Tuesdays. I was just informed that an article written by me has become quite popular over the past week. It dealt with ten things you should know about before buying a home. I was asked to write about ten things that your Realtor does not want you to know, but I think that might be shooting myself in the foot, since a part of my business comes from Realtors. This article has led to a few requests from other sites that I should write on real estate or living in your neighborhood or information for homeowners.

Real Estate is the hot news item for the latter part of this year, but should it be? People are concerned now because they might lose their homes, or their home’s value could be lowered. The percentage of people who may lose their home is small in comparison to the total number of owners. Certain markets had rapid increases in values, which were not justified, so eventually the market will correct itself. Buy and hold owners, wether of stocks or homes, will always win out in the end. My intention is to lead you to the conclusion that your home’s value goes up over time.

An interesting turn of events for me is that as a society we may become less mobile. I entered the real estate profession because the company that I worked for wanted me to move from city to city every two years with no promotion or raise. I felt that this was an imposition on my family life. If employees are having a hard time selling their homes, or if they will loose money on their homes, they may not accept changes of location for a job. Telecommuting will be a better alternative for corporations, and with broad band technologies becoming more prevalent, telecommuting is more feasible.

Telecommuting may put an emphasis on Google’s cloud computing ideas, but certainly it will also spawn improved technologies to be used over the internet for employees to do their job. Businesses may see an added benefit to telecommuting, since they will not have to deal with the physical presence of the individual in their buildings: less space needed; less energy use; and less water use.

Another fact stemming out of our current situation is the quality of good that we will receive. Affordable housing is built to a higher energy efficiency standard than a home for a middle class family. With many in the middle class losing good jobs because of the housing meltdown, home builders will have to consider how to make all of the homes that they make contain more value for the customer. Oddly enough, as we become concerned with global warning, the housing market problems may have put us on our way to reducing greenhouse gases by being more efficient.

I think that recent history has shown us though that firms will continue to find ways to part with our money, while finding ways to give us less. Even though I make the argument for quality coming back into products as a way to induce us to spend, it may take a further shock to the economy for the government to realize that they need to protect the consumer just as much as the firms who donate to their campaigns. I think there is a good chance for recession and inflation troubles to cause this issue to remain in the spotlight throughout 2008, and therefore something the next president will have to deal with.

My guesses may come about for other reasons, but I think that some good in unexpected places may come of our current crisis.

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First Frost

We just had a first frost in Houston. Just a few weeks ago we had temperatures in the high eighties, and now we have the glistening of a light cover of ice on rooftops and grass. Residents never seem prepared for this day. Potted plants will be pulled in today, and other plants will be covered by old heavy blankets. I am sure that I will get a call from my parents to come over and lift the heavier pots into the garage or house. My father guards his collection of cactuses like they were his children. Fortunately for me, I have already been heaving these large pin cushions into their home.

The idea of using blankets intrigues me. We care enough to protect our tropical friends from the biting cold, but we smother them in the process. Light does not streak through these covers, and rain makes them weigh more, so branches will find themselves under more strain. Row covers do not cost much, and they protect from them from Jack Frost without the damage inflicted by blankets. The nice thing is that our garden centers keep these covers close to the register this time of year.

I like to add a little warmth by making my own passive solar heater. They are complicated to make, since my family has to drink a liter bottle of soda, and we do not partake of that beverage often. Just take off the wrapper on the plastic bottle, and fill it with water. Place the heaters by the base of the plant. Of course, I already have a winter coat of mulch on the beds. I only put the row covers on my pepper plants. I try to have plants that are used to our climate, so I do not mind seeing them go through their cycles. Grasses waving in the wind are wonderful to see. My daughter and I were watching their flower heads bounce about yesterday.

Annuals will just be pulled out when the ice has finished it’s assault. I have not checked yet, but I am sure my stand of basil needs to be fully harvested. My other herbs fair better. The only shrub that I will have to deal with this week will be the crepe myrtles. I am going to prune the branches, so these trees will not grow larger next year. I can chip them for some more mulch.

Well, my daughter informs me that it is time to go and explore in the garden once more.

A Mysterious Leak

I was writing on a different subject this week, when I was reminded of an inspection that I performed in the summer. Late one evening a past client of mine turns up with a friend in tow, asking if I would please come look at her house. There was a roof leak that was driving her nuts, but no one could find it. I pulled out my tools, and went over to her house.

She explained that she already had called out an HVAC contractor, a roofing company, a plumber, and a general contractor. They found nothing, but they all agreed with her that it had to be a leak from the roof. She had a closet where the rug was soaked, and in another part of the house a carpet was wet. The contractors had checked the various pipes, pans, and shingles, but they found no leak. To truly find a roof leak is difficult. You may find evidence of a trail of water stains on the framing down to the insulation, and then on to the walls in the interior, but I saw none of this. I did find a problem with the framing, and with a vent pipe that was improperly installed, but no moisture. These issues were not mentioned to her by the other contractors.

After crawling through the attic, I looked at the house, specifically the bathrooms. One of the leaks could have been from a lavatory in one bathroom, but the other moist spot could not have been explained by that means. I told the homeowner that I was going to walk around the house. She looked puzzled. If it is a roof leak, why was I going to look at the exterior walls?

Directly outside of the closet wall, I saw that the grading was high. In fact, it was up to the weephole in the brick. The weephole is there to allow moisture to escape from behind the brick. A palm was directing rain water from its leaves to this spot. The wall here was soaked. I walked to the other side of the house to see a brand new patio with beautiful stone pavers. Instead of taking out the old patio, the contractor cemented these stones onto the old patio slab. The new patio was slanted to bring water back towards the house. The new stones happened to also bring the patio up to the weepholes. For two different reasons, the rain from the roof was getting into the house, but not through the roof, rather through the walls. When I pulled back the carpet where the weepholes were, I found moisture stains emanating from the walls. Score one for the inspectors; other contractors zero.

Sometimes a client becomes so fixed on an idea that the contractor who comes out to look at the problem will go along with it. If you are a homeowner, try not to influence the opinion of the worker who is coming out for the repair. State the simple fact without your conjectures. Let them explore the possibilities. In this case, the first guy out might have discovered the source.

What Should You Invest In

To be clear, I am about to tell you to do as I say, and not as I do. I invest in individual stocks. Because of my business background, I like to read through financial reports, and pick companies that I feel are sound. I have made many mistakes though, and I have come to the conclusion that there is a simpler way to deal with the stock market for the small investor: index stocks.

If you have listened to the news of late, you will know that the stock market is a bit of a roller coaster. It may seem an unwise move to invest, but you may have also heard that traditionally, stocks produce an 8% return over time. This bodes well for the buy and hold investment strategy. Each time you are buying and selling stock, you will be charged, but if you hold onto a stock for five years or more, you have a better chance for a good return (profit) on your money. So my first bit of advice is to leave the money in the investment for some time.

If you look at graphs showing a stock’s price over the course of the year, you will see peaks and dips for most stocks. When will the stock hit its lowest price? When will it be at its highest price? If we knew, we could buy low and sell high, which is a sure fire way to make money. However, you and I do not have that kind of insight. Forget about these fluctuations, because it will make investing to difficult. Buy some stock each month without regards to price. Particularly when you can buy partial shares. By consistently increasing your holdings, you have a better chance to earn more during the times when the market is up. Additionally, you do not have to be so focused on what is happening in the market, since you are investing what you can afford and you are holding the stock.

The Standard and Poor’s index of five hundred stocks which represent the nation’s industries has outperformed all funds when everything is taken into consideration, like fees and the entire time period. The brilliant part of this index is that you can invest in a stock that tracks this collection of stocks. An S&P500 index stock will not have the charges that a mutual fund does, and you will get the best return for the least amount of effort.

Financial advisors want you to have a balance to your investment portfolio, so they recommend a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash. The percentages are 50% stocks, 25% bonds, and 25% cash. For the bonds, there is also an index stock that tracks a bond fund, which sets the standard like the S&P500 does for stocks. It is called the Lehman Aggregate Bond Fund, with the stock symbol AGG. These two investments tracking these indices is all you need. Out of each hundred dollars, invest $50 to the S&P500 index stock and $25 to the AGG, and then place $25 into savings. If you can, make that savings a money market savings account, since they have the better interest rate.

With these two investments, you can take the set it and forget approach, sort of. You really do not need anything else, but at least once a year, you will have to do a readjustment. Remember that the money you are saving is earning interest or it is increasing in value. This means that your 50%/25%/25% split will need to be re-established. Once a year, add up all of your savings. Divide this number by two to find out how much money you should have in the S&P500 index stock. By dividing your answer by another two, you find out how much you should have in your savings account and in the AGG. Adjust your savings amount to bring these in line next month.

One last thing before you go, reinvest your dividends. Certain companies pay out dividends (a share of the profit) to the stock holders. Any interest or dividend that you receive should go back into the stock. This increases your returns over time. This is a simple way to handle your brokerage account, which does not take much effort on your part.

Winter Home Staging for Your Exterior

I raked the leaves from my front yard on Friday, and by Sunday you would not have known that fact, except for the pile of leaf bags by the side of the house. In Houston, we never have a true winter, but we do get a steady stream of leaves falling from late autumn till well into winter. I looked over at my neighbors yards to see how they are faring, and the only house that does not have to deal with these leaves belongs to a couple they will not have trees in their yard because of this fact. I picked my house because of the trees. It was one of the first features that attracted me to it.

As I was raking yet again, I thought about two homes which I pass by on a consistent basis. The homes have been up for sale for some time now, and they are not looking to well cared for. It is mainly the gardens which make this impression. The ornamental grasses are brown, and the slight frost has left its mark on some of the annuals. The trees have dropped much of their leaf canopy. The interiors have been taken care of, but buyers walking through the yard are just reminded of the yard work that will be in store for them, once they move in. Houston’s fickle climate places the vibrant plants against their dull counter parts in most gardens, but for the home that is for sale, the contrast dispels the fantasy of the new home for the buyer.

In climates like Houston where plants cannot seem to make up their mind, and the leaves drop to the ground at their own pace and whim, keeping the garden clean is a priority for the seller. Buyers know that they will have to work in the garden, but reminding them of that work before they move in does not sit well in their minds when deciding which home to purchase.

My Two Helpers

I want my family to enjoy the garden as much as I do, so I try to include them in my efforts. My desires are met with mixed results, but everyone does seem to take a moment in the garden at least once a day.

My biggest two helpers bring me more work than I can bear at times, but I still love them all the same. They both bring back the plants that I just placed into the ground, to remind me that I left this behind. I thank them, and then find ways to replant. They tear down bushes with glee, or they trample over the perennial flowers. They sample the vegetables, and sometimes some of the other plants too. They attempt to climb trees and bushes with determination, which leads to branches coming down, and they have discovered that bark is fun to peel off. Who are these helpers that provide so much: my baby daughter, Katya, and my dog, Fritz. The two have decided to become partners in crime.

I think that many gardeners face this dilemma. I asked my vet if there was anyway in preventing a dog from such behavior without using anything to elaborate. He replied that you should not let them watch you garden. Their curiosity will lead them to investigate what you are doing, and they will find a means to be helpful. Fritz has his set paths through the garden, so now I plan my plantings around this road. Trying to fight a dog on this matter is useless. Fritz just knocks everything down that does not suit his vision of the garden. To counteract his bathroom needs in the yard, I spread some agricultural gypsum. My struggles with him will continue I am sure, but I make my strategies around his habits, and that seems to work.

For my daughter, I avoid plants that I know are toxic like oleander. You just never will know what a toddler will place in their mouths. She is in love with flowers, but I try to show her that walking on them is not helpful. I know that she will eventually learn, because I went through the same thing with my son. I try to make garden spaces that are just for her, that I know will not come to much harm by her explorations. By creating garden beds that are meant for such wanderings, I reduce the damage to other plants. I also try to avoid showing her some of the things that I do in the garden, so she will not imitate my every action, until she has learned better.

Patience in all things is the key, and particularly so in a garden under attack from such help, but planning will do you some wonders.

An Easy Family Meal: Roadside Cabbage, Flax Seed Rice, and a Cucumber and Tomato Salad

Roadside Cabbage with salad and flax rice

I had a little pork roast left over the other day. It was not enough as a main course alone, so I decided to use it as a flavoring agent in another dish: roadside cabbage.

The inspiration for my meal came from a simple dish of rice and cabbage served by the side of the road in China, but my version departs from the original in tis flavorings. I start by frying some onions in my skillet. When they are translucent, I add the pork finely chopped, some minced galanga (a cousin of ginger from my garden), tumeric powder, and some cumin seed. I crush some black pepper into the dish at this time too. Once the aromas are strong, I add the shredded cabbage, about half a head. Everything is quickly stirred together. Once the cabbage has wilted, I add a little wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan. The main course is done.

Before I start my stir fry, I prepare my rice to cook at the same time. To your normal rice cooking method, add the following ingredients to cook with the rice: cloves in a sachet and flax seeds. When the rice is done, I add a little butter for an extra flavor.

For the salad, I dice a little red onion, and I cube some cucumbers and tomatoes. This is tossed with an easy dressing: a dash of toasted sesame seed oil, sherry vinegar, a pinch of sugar, a little olive oil, a little soy sauce, and a little fish sauce. The fish sauce smells bad, but my kids like the taste, so I think anyone should be fine with it.

I serve the rice by putting it into a small bowl to mold it into a mound on the plate, and then I place the salad to one side, and the cabbage on the other. It takes me around a half hour to prepare this meal, and it goes down well.