A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for February, 2008

Finding Ways to Save When Prices Rise

I was looking at the individual prices of items on my grocery bill, and I was bemoaning the fact that certain items have seen dramatic price increases. I guess that I should also bemoan the fact that the money coming into my home has not increased much. I am an avid price comparison shopper. I know where to find the best deals on any number of items in my part of the town, but it appears that this is not enough. Last year, I read an article that posited the idea that if you buy in bulk that you will save money on the price and by gong to the store less often, so I wanted to take a look at this thought.

I like Costco. Every time I read reports about their CEO and the firm, I am impressed with how they conduct themselves (for the most part). I purchased their stock because of these articles, so I decided to pay for membership at that store. The price was reasonable, but I include it in my calculations to see if I am actually saving money. It turns out that if I am a regular shopper at the store, I do save a good deal of money on basic items, like milk, eggs, bread, and such. However, I have a problem. My storage spaces for meats or other refrigerated items is small, and I do not want to be a freezer just for these goods. I also discovered that on meats, I am not always getting a better price than at some grocery stores. I end up having to buy more of it for the same cost as if I stopped in at a store on the way home. I have found that warehouse stores like this one do not always offer the best price, even though we are lead to believe that you will always save money by shopping at their locations. The problem of storage also bothers me, because I find that I use some items faster than I would normally, just so I can create space.

Using goods faster seems to be an issue with buying in bulk. My wife and son have developed the habit of opening jars and cans when they find them in the pantry, without realizing that the other has already opened a jar or can of the same good. People are habitual; they look for their want in the location that they are used to finding it, and they forget to check to see if it might be available already. I have not had much success in stopping this development. I think having more of some product is just like having more money on your paycheck. You see that it is there, so you use it, instead of conserving it. Maybe this is a psychological issue from periods when food was scarce. You ate what you could, because there was no more available, but now that more is there in the refrigerator or pantry, we can take it at will. I advise you to find ways of preventing the bulk items from disappearing, if you really want it to be a way to save money.

I think that be a thoughtful shopper is the best way to save on your grocery bill. Compare prices at different stores; think how this product will be used in your home; how long will it last; and have some type of plan as to what you need. Writing a shopping list, and sticking with it is a great way to stop unnecessary expenses. We go into a store to find a special, so we have to buy it. I always go in with a basic plan. I do not plan a specific meal though. I make loose plans of how much I am willing to spend on a particular food item. For example, I will say that I want $5 of fruit, so then I look how I can get the most fruit for that amount of money. I find that this works better than putting down apples, oranges, and bananas on my list. It also allows me to bring a variety of fruits into the home.

As I was thinking about what I would include in this post, another post that I wrote this morning for another blog struck me as fitting into this idea of saving money. You can read the post here: http://activerain.com/blogsview/397558/Do-you-Graze-in . The basic idea is that by including vegetables and fruits all over your garden, instead of in one vegetable bed, you could have a good variety of vegetables that you are growing yourself, which should save you money. I saw Jerusalem Artichokes for around three dollars a pound in a store this weekend. This plant grows like a weed in Texas along the streets and empty lots. I could pick it for free there. I grow it in my garden, and since it is a native, I do not have to water it heavily. I know that I will be saving money with those plants.

Bulk shopping can be a great way to save, but do not couple it with increased consumption. I think that there are many vegetable varieties that make good accent plants in our garden beds.

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It is time to rock in the garden

I have been finishing up getting my garden beds ready for the coming year. It is warm enough in Houston that I have many of my summer vegetables planted. In the garden centers, I saw that tomatoes are already in stock. My pepper plants survived this year, and they have fruit on them now. My eggplants are flowering, so I will soon be cooking them up too. These plants generally do not survive our winters, but we have had a mild one this year. I have not been protecting them with row covers. I find spots that block the winds, and the plants do fine. I have already been pulling up my spring onions for some dishes.

I wanted to show my kids that vegetables from the Farmer’s Market are still alive. I have already mentioned some projects along these lines, but I want them to see a variety, so they will be willing to eat more types. My kids are pretty good about all of the different vegetables, so most of my efforts are directed at my nieces and nephews. I found small beets and turnips with the greens still attached. These bunches are cheap right now, and the beets add a little color into the garden. Since the feeder roots have not developed, the leaves do wilt pretty quick, but it all comes back. The kids like watching to see if I am telling the truth.

My main task this past week has been the parts of the garden where I use rocks as a mulch. The children like these areas. Rocks make a great mulch, since they do not was away when it rains, but they do hold the moisture in the ground. They do not add organic matter into the ground like other mulches though. One thing about these mulches is that you may feel that you have to clean them up to be pristine. I rake the leaves gently from the top, but I do not attempt to go after every leaf. I pull out unwanted plants from these rock areas, which is always a hassle, but at least the ground is soft, so it is easier. I am cleaning out my more formal herb garden which has black and white stones as mulch. I am placing newspaper underneath the rocks here to prevent weed growth. This garden is a sitting area by my front entrance, so stopping weed development is nice to do, but it is a task. You may see some formal gardens that have rocks cemented into place, but I would advise against this practice. It stops water from being absorbed into the soil below. My other main area for rocks as mulch is in a predominantly shady area, where plants have been having a hard time establishing. I used light colored river stones there, and it gives a nice bright feeling in that corner now.

As long as you are not too fussy about keeping things pristine, rock mulches can be worth the investment, so rock out in your garden.

A Tour of African American History and Culture in Houston

In honor of the month, I thought it would be nice to write a post that was similar to the one on the New Chinatown. Like that post, I cannot give you a complete picture of everything to see, but I think that this may be a nice one day tour to do. I thought that I could improve my description of the tour by giving you links this time around, so I hope that you will try it out.

Houston has always been a culturally diverse city, and many of us forget that there were non-slave African Americans in our community from those early days. One community that developed was Freedmen’s Town. Driving through this part of town you will get to see some of the older homes in Houston. Houston has had a mixed bag when it comes to preserving its past, but there is an organization working on keeping the history of this area alive: http://www.houstonprogressive.org/FTAbrief.txt.

After driving around to see these homes, you could drive over to the TSU campus. I had the privilege of knowing professors there at one point, so I used to tour the campus with them. Around the neighborhood, you will find some murals by local artists. However, if you really would like to see some art, head over to Project Row Houses: http://www.projectrowhouses.org .You will be able to walk through restored homes which have been converted into an art gallery. The project has several programs to help the children in the community, and it will give you a view on contemporary African American art.

By this time, you may be getting hungry, so why not try some Soul food. Coming from a German family, I have always enjoyed oxtails, which I know not everyone will care for, but it is a delicious meal. Bunky’s Soul Food Cafe at 7265 Scott St is a good place to take your lunch. Be forewarned, Soul Food is not for those of you on a diet, but you should go ahead and break your diet to try out some of the meals here.

Houston is fortunate to have some wonderful museums, but we do not always take the time to visit them. You should visit this one of a kind display of history, the Buffalo Soldiers Museum. After the Civil War, the Union Army used African American soldiers to patrol the plains of West Texas. The Native Americans called them Buffalo Soldiers because of their hair. This is an interesting look on Texas’ past. Http://www.buffalosoldiermuseum.com

I am going to detour from this area to give you a taste of my favorite African cuisine. Would you like to see a bit of the contemporary African immigrants into our city? For dinner, I would suggest you head over to the west side of town on Richmond (between Fondren and Gessner) to try out an Ethiopian meal at the Blue Nile. Ask the waitress for her recommendations, but there is one platter that will give you a variety of tastes.

If you have any ideas of where to go, leave your comments down below.

A Time For Projects

I like being out in the garden, but mostly I find a project to work on. This past week, with two dogs playing in the backyard, it was hard to get many things going. You see, dogs want to be helpful, so they will pay attention to what you are doing, and figure out how they can get involved. “Here, you forgot this plant. You put it in the ground over there. Thought you might like it back.” On top of the dogs, a bee decided that the flat that I was thinning belonged to him. As far as I could determine, the bee had found the water absorbing gels in the soilless mix, and it was taking them back to the hive. The hive must have been close, because the same bee was back every few minutes for more. I tried to explain that we could share the flat, but nothing doing. I hope that the hive is not in the wall of a neighbors house, because that could be a real issue.

I decided to start a little project on the kitchen window sill for the kids. I planted some carrot seeds outdoors, but I thought it would be good to show them another way to grow carrots. From the bag of carrots that I bought at the store, I chopped off the tops. I placed them with my daughter in a shallow bowl of water. Each day my son and daughter check to see the growth. Leaves are sprouting out, and roots are growing. Since I used a clear plastic bowl, they get to see everything. Each day we change out the water. It only took a week for most of the tops to show signs of life. It has opened up a discussion on plants at the dinner table.

Remembering a project in Africa, where plants were being grown in a bag to conserve water, I thought that I could take my kid involvement in the garden one further step. I have taken an old garbage can for this task. I have cut holes into it, and filled it with my own soilless mix. I planted herbs into the holes. I placed pvc pipe into the can for watering. I drilled holes into the pipe to let water out at different points in the can. I am going to grow the same plants in a garden bed, so we can see which does better, with less water. I am using an old milk container to measure the water used for each planting. This should be an interesting topic of conversation for a while.

This coming week I will need to work on the rock garden areas some more.

Control and Caution with your finances

Once a week, I like to write something along the lines of financial advice for someone who has just moved into a home. A couple of things happened to me this week that pointed towards writing this post. I would firstly like to say that I am not adversely inclined towards banks, but I do have a bone to pick. I see too many people who do not understand how banks operate, and how there financial history and credit are developed and impact their lives. I think that you should use the full services of a bank, but on the side of credit offerings and service fees, I am disappointed.

I am a stock owner, and I do own stocks in some banks. I want to see profits, so the stock’s value increases. I also want to see that I get dividends. I am a small time investor, who wants good profits, but I do not particularly look for firms that are producing ever increasing profits. Most investors do look for this trend in profits, and they can cause stock prices to swing dramatically when the performance of a firm is not where they desire. Banks try to find ways to generate ever more profits, which led to the subprime lending fiasco. Now that this avenue of revenues has been closed, banks are looking towards other routes. Service fees provide a quick route in creating this revenue. With you having few rights when it comes to your credit lines, banks can change the rules at their whim to ensure that they will get a fee from you when you do not handle your account properly.

Here was a situation faced by one person last month. The holiday bills were in, and money was tight. He had funds in other accounts, and he did have an agreement that if he had overdraw his checking that the money should be taken from another account. He knew that his account would be close to no funds, and he told his wife not to use the debit card. She did though, but only to the tune of causing less than fifty dollars in overdrawing the account. The banks response was to charge them over two hundred dollars in service fees for these charges. Did they notify him by e-mail? No, it was done by mail. Did they take the funds from the other account that was to be used? No, the terms had changed, since he was using a credit account for overdraft protection. Even if he had, the new terms still would charge him a service fee for that protection.

I received a note today from my bank that my terms of service have changed yet again. Do I have any rights in this matter? No. If I cancel my card, I hurt my credit history, so what option do I have? I have to be familiar with the terms of service for my accounts to ensure that I do not do anything that would incur a new charge. Charges can pile up fast, so it is imperative that you take charge of your finances to prevent the banks from hitting you with a service charge. They will be looking to find ways in the coming year to increase their profits, and you are the means for them to make that happen.

A Valentine’s Day Gift for New Homeowners

I was trying to come up with a post today, and I thought it fitting to make it a gift for people who have just moved into their home, but I suppose this will be good for others as well. If you are already net savvy, this sites may not be new to you, but I thought I would list them anyway, since some people reading this post,just may not have stumbled upon them.

These first set of links fit the on-line, cloud computing models. Everything that I am putting down is free, but I imagine that they generate money through ads or trying to sell you a service.

The following two links are on-line office suites, that fit into the idea that Google is offering. You may know about Google’s suite, so I thought I would guide you to these.

http://www.thinkfree.com/common/main.tfo

http://www.zoho.com/

 

Do you need help remembering the various tasks that you need to do? Try this site, which helps you organize your life. Some good features here.

http://www.rememberthemilk.com/

This next site is intriguing. They will download your financial information for you. Help you create a budget, and give you tips to save on purchases. Basically, finances on autopilot.

http://www.mint.com/

This next set of programs can be downloaded to your computer. Most of these sites ask for donations. You do not have to, but a one point be nice and do so.

Oh, yes, my favorite browser, which I can customize for my own needs with the add-ons. I feel that it much securer surfing the web with this browser (I have not heard of an attack on it like we hear about Internet Explorer).

http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/landing/better/?utm_content=0705features&utm_source=google&utm_medium=ppc&utm_campaign=0507lndgpgtest&gclid=CPGi77z8w5ECFQU_PAod8CsGDQ

Coupled with the browser is an e-mail client which performs like Outlook. I actually enjoy this more than Outlook, and again, it is versatile in its setup.

http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/thunderbird/

Need an office suite, but you do not want to do it online, then try this offering from IBM. Personally, I paid the $80 or so dollars for StarOffice. It has been my friend for many a year. There are other open document format office suites out, by I like the fact that IBM has entered this field.

http://symphony.lotus.com/software/lotus/symphony/home.jspa

There are many other open source free programs to explore, and many of them are available at the next link. Just type in the style of program that you want, and it will bring up a list. The GnuCash that I mentioned in one post is to be found here.

http://sourceforge.net/

Isn’t free stuff grand, and yes, I am a cheap Valentine’s Day date.

A Romantic Place to Live in Houston: Maybe you can find it with DotHomes

As in the previous post, how do we define what is romantic? I think that it is tied with our memories. When I was younger, I wanted to live in a development that imitated a European village inside the city. I thought what a great place to live and work. Work/live developments are becoming more common projects for developers, but that concept was out in my youth.

Should I mention places to live near the locations of my romantic trip? Well, downtown has more condos springing up, and not too far away from downtown, communities are going through a rebirth. Townhomes seem to be the big deal in this new growth. I have a tendency to recall Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving. Love is not a spur of the moment emotion; it requires our involvement and effort. In this regard, could not the home we live in become the most romantic spot in our lives, if we want it to be.

I thought that it might be fun to look at some of the more expensive dream homes in my area. I went on to the site, http://www.dothomes.com , to look for the extravagant offerings around my area. I used the “I’m feeling wealthy” button. I guess that I need to have a couple of million to spend for that kind of dream home.

I spoke to one of the DotHomes site founders about two weeks ago. He and his team are working hard to make this site a success in the US. They do have a sense of humor, and they will be incorporating this into future developments on the site. If you are comfortable with Google, you will like DotHomes. It is a good way to search for your dream home.

Well, I need to go work on the garden. I want to add some color in the beds for Valentine’s Day tomorrow. What will you be doing to make your home romantic? Or where would you like to live? Have fun exploring houses on DotHOmes.