Category Archives: House & Home

How We Spend

It’s tax filing time, which in our home means it’s time for the annual “How the hell did we spend so much on THAT?” ritual. Maybe that’s why I found this snapshot of how the average American household spends its money so interesting:



Apparently, the average household has 1.3 earners, 0.6 children and 0.4 seniors, which explains why there is Social Security included in income. What I found most surprising is the health insurance number at $3,414 per year. That works out to $285.50 per month which, quite frankly, I find almost unbelievable. Here’s why:

My wife and I have been married for 27 years and for almost all of those years we’ve both worked for small companies or been self-employed. As a result, we’ve not had access to large group health insurance or, better yet, the health insurance available to government employees. If I were to make a conservative estimate, without having the numbers in front of me, I’d say that we have averaged $8,400 per year ($700/month) in health care premiums alone. Throw in co-pays and deductibles and we were almost always in the $10,000/year range.

Now, we have three kids so that obviously put us beyond the average, but health insurance isn’t necessarily linear so you can’t draw a direct corollary between the number of kids (people) and premiums. If you’d asked me to guess what the average household spent before I’d seen this data I would have said something like $5,000-$6,000 a year. That just shows how my own experience has skewed my perception of what health insurance costs, and perhaps why I felt more strongly than many of my peers that the ACA (Obamacare), as imperfect as it was, was at least an effort towards reining in the exploding costs of health insurance and health care.

As for the other numbers? Well, let’s just say this time of year also features the annual “We eat out too much” ritual self-flagellation.

Video Power

My better half and I are trying to sell the house we lived in for our first 12 years in North Carolina, and let’s just say the process is different than our past house sales have been in the past. Probably the biggest change has been that there are far more things we, as owners, can do to help market the house. Among them is cultivating our house’s Zillow listing.

Our realtor set up the listing, but once it was set up we ended up writing a lot of the copy and adding some of the unique selling points for the house and neighborhood. When we bought the house the online tool all the realtors were using was Listingbook, which was pretty cool for that time, but we were completely dependent on the realtor to make any changes we felt were needed. With Zillow we’re able to do it ourselves, which is great because we’re the party with the greatest interest in getting everything right.

Unfortunately, there haven’t been any takers on the house, but this last weekend we learned exactly how powerful video can be. Zillow allows you to post a video on your listing and we had a video we’d shot a while back, but you have to use Zillow’s app to actually record the video so we didn’t have a video on our listing for quite a while. This past Saturday we were at the house and I took a few minutes to walk around the house shooting the two minutes of video that Zillow’s app allows, and then uploaded it while we were still there. The result? Views and saves of our house listing spiked big time.

The result? Views and saves of our house listing spiked big time.  Here’s a graphic showing the daily numbers going back a month:

170425 Zillowstats30Day

The traffic on our listing is represented by the green bars, the average traffic for houses like ours is represented by the blue line chart behind the green bars. The second highest day is the fourth bar from the right, which was last Saturday when I uploaded the video in the afternoon. The highest day was the next day, Sunday, which is also one of the very few days our listing exceeded the average.

We’ve had some small traffic increases in the past when we logged in to edit some text, but as a rule we were getting between 6-12 views a day with one or two saves a week – a save is when someone saves the listing in the Zillow app so they can come back later or get alerts when a listing changes – and nothing really moved the needle much until we posted the video. As you can see from this graph showing the last week the video made a massive difference, and keep in mind that the video was shot using my phone in about 15 minutes with no editing.

170425 ZillowStats

Now, if only we could convert that traffic into buyers!

Have a Wobbly Toilet? Have I Got a Tip for You

We’ve made our home for the last 11+ years in a house that can best be described as a *&^#ing Money Pit, so it should surprise anyone that our master bathroom toilet has had the wobbles. A few years back we replaced the fixtures in the bathroom, including the toilet, and when I installed the new one I used the existing flange to attach it to the floor. That was a mistake because, as with most things in our house, the previous owners hadn’t really installed it right.

Last week my wife noticed that there was a little water around the base of the toilet so I figured maybe the wax seal needed replacing. Yesterday we were running errands and we stopped into the hardware store to buy a wax seal kit with the assumption that if it wasn’t the seal then I’d probably neeDancoFlanged to try to replace the flange myself or get a plumber out to do it. Wax seal in hand, we were heading down the aisle towards the checkout when we spied the Danco HydroSeat Toilet Flange Repair Kit. I’d never heard of it, but after reading the product description on the box I figured I might as well grab it in case the wax seal wasn’t the culprit.

When we got home I removed the toilet (I know this is bass ackwards, but I’m a ready-shoot-aim kinda guy) and found a perfectly good wax seal. So I took out the kit, followed the instructions, reassembled the toilet and it worked like a charm. Basically, the way it works is it gives you a way to keep the existing flange and put a new flange on top with a wax seal in between. The new flange is secured to the floor with four screws and provides great stability. According to the box you can use this if you’ve installed new flooring and need to seat the toilet without pulling out the old flange as long as the new flooring isn’t more than 3/8 of an inch.

Don’t Cry for College Textbook Publishers

Anyone who’s attended college or has kids attending college will not likely shed a tear for the struggling textbook publishers out there. You’re not going to have warm, fuzzy feelings for any industry that causes you to spend the equivalent of a month’s rent, or more, on books that you know you’ll only use for four months and then not be able to re-sell because a new version is already in the works. And you have to do it twice a year for the four years you’re in college!

That’s why reading this story in the Wall Street Journal on the struggles of the textbook publishers brought on a wave of schadenfreude like none I’ve felt in years:

Some opt instead to download textbooks illegally. A report last month by the Book Industry Study Group, an industry trade group, found that 25% of students photocopied or scanned textbooks from other students, up from 17% in 2012. The number of students who acquired textbooks from a pirate website climbed to 19% from 11%.

Those trends come at a time of steadily rising textbook prices. The price of new printed textbooks has jumped an average of 6% a year over the past decade, triple the rate of overall inflation, government figures show, making textbooks among the fastest-growing consumer expenses in the U.S.

Rising prices and changing buying habits have taken a toll.

Sales of new printed textbooks made up 38% of McGraw-Hill Education’s higher-ed revenue in 2013, down from 71% in 2010, said Chief Executive and President David Levin.

This hits close to home because in our house we have three college students right now. Thankfully we’ve been able to control costs by renting books through the school bookstore or through Amazon, or buying used books when possible through Amazon. Every once in a while the book will only be available from the school, and generally those are the most expensive, but still we’re talking $100-150 per book versus the $250-350 list price for many of the books for which we found rental/used alternatives.

The cost is patently ridiculous when you consider what is freely available online. In fact we should find a way to give professors incentives to utilize the information in the public domain whenever possible. It’s surely more work for them, but imagine the savings it would provide their students and how much less debt most of those students will have when they graduate.

Odd Couple Circa 2013

So these two good friends and neighbors get divorced from their wives and end up building two houses on one lot, making them something like semi-roommates. From the story in the Wall Street Journal:

Now both divorced, the two friends still hang out with each other and their current girlfriends. But they are even closer neighbors: They live in nearly identical, 1,500-square-foot, three-story wood-and-glass contemporary houses, which they built on the same lot.

The tall, rectangular-shaped twin houses, each with three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms, are separated by about 30 feet—close enough that the occupants can see into each other's windows. It's like a modern version of "The Odd Couple", says Corey Martin, who designed the project with architect Ben Kaiser of Portland-based PATH Architecture. "On some level, it's every guy's dream. They get their freedom but they're not doing it alone. There's built-in camaraderie."

The friends say their arrangement is working well. They have dinner a couple of nights a week. They share an Internet account. They still go skiing, camping, biking and hiking together. "I know when Ted is home, who is going in and out of his house, which lights are on, what he is up to," says Mr. Zehetbauer. "It's companionship. Other people come and go. The only constant is Roland," adds Mr. Wardlaw. They share the outdoor space and are currently planning a vegetable garden together.

Not All Yurts Are Created Equal

Last summer our family spent a long weekend staying in a yurt near Charlottesville, VA.  Our yurt was luxurious and featured a nice kitchen, a nice bathroom, air conditioning, and HD television.  Although it looked very much like the yurt occupied by the family featured in this NY Times story the similarities ended there.  These folks have no running water and thus no indoor plumbing, their heat is provided by a wood burning stove and they fashioned a root cellar out of an old refrigerator. They're not totally roughing it though: they have broadband.

Apparently Something Nasty Went Through Our Neighborhood

My wife just called me to tell me that something like a small tornado just went by our house.  Tops of trees down the street have been twisted off, the siding of one of our neighbors' house has been torn off and a couple of trees are down in the street.  Don't know if it was a tornado or a sever wind burst or what, but it did some damage.  She's taking some pics and I'll post them later.

Related: Last Thursday we had 11 trees removed from the woods by our house.  I'm thinking we were just in time.

Why I’m Mud Man

This is what it looks like when you put in a new septic drain field.  I really had nothing to do with it other than contributing to the, uh, effluence that led to the old field getting saturated.  BTW, I highly recommend Frank Transou if you need to have septic repair, installation or replacement done.


Call Me Mud Man

A couple of weeks ago we had a new septic field put in our front yard.  Why the front and not the back yard like 99% of the world?  You'll have to ask the original homeowner why they situated our lot the way they did, but my guess is that they wanted to place the house farther back on the lot away from the road.  Whatever, the result of having the work done is that a little more than half of the front yard is dirt which means for the first time in my life I'm trying to grow a lawn from scratch.  

Celeste and I talked about getting a landscaper to put in sod, but after plunking down a chunk of change on the septic system we decided it would be financially prudent to try and seed and grow the grass ourselves. Easier said than done.

First we needed to get the ground prepared and let's just say it was more than one man and his three unhappy teenagers to do with a few rakes, at least if you wanted it done in less time than it took to build the Great Wall.  So we called Zeke Mock and asked him to come over with his tractor and get the ground nicely even and raked for us.  He had to wait for the ground to dry after last weeks rains so that the tractor wouldn't damage our brand new septic lines so he showed up last last week and did his thing.

F74e1dc7c84da9d4faef0032894dfde5 Of course we needed grass seed.  The weekend before last Celeste picked up a couple of bags of Scott's Turf Builder Heat Tolerant Blue Mix at Lowe's and a seed spreader to go with them so that meant that Saturday morning I was up and rarin' to go in my role as Jon-ny Lawnseed.  Spreading the seed took about 20 minutes, which was great, but upon reading the instructions I realized that once the seed was down I was going to have to water the dirt twice a day.  What a pain in the butt!

To understand how much I dislike yard tending you need only know this: I actually like the fact that we have lots of weeds in our yard because if I set my mower at its lowest setting  you can't really distinguish the weeds from the grass unless you're standing on it and the lawn stays green pretty much year round and during the most sever droughts.  Bonus!  So the idea that I have to actually water my dirt just seems, well, sucky.

Oh well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.  Celeste had also purchased a sprinkler, the kind that sends about ten streams of water in a nice gentle arc (the kind that kids jump through on hot summer days), but after I hooked it up and it did its thing for about five minutes it decided that it wouldn't rotate and would just spray in one direction.  Damnit!  So I put a sprayer on the hose and started spraying our massive dirt patch by hand.  Unfortunately I didn't plan well and got the hose all kinked up and I kind of sprayed myself into a corner which means I had to walk through mud to get everything straightened out.  By the time I was done my shoes weighed approximately 52 pounds each, and I could swear there were sprouts coming out of the toes.

It gets better.  Yesterday I woke up early so I could water the dirt before church.  Seems kind of Biblical, no?  After fighting the hose again I went inside to take a shower and when I got out I noticed that it was raining quite nicely.  Most people would have checked the weather before going out to water their lawn, or maybe even looked up while outside, but not me.  In my defense I hadn't had coffee yet so I really was semi-comatose. But still.

And of course this morning I was out there once again at 6:30, bed-head and all.  Neighbors politely honked as they departed for work or taking their kids to school, but I was inclined to reply with a one finger salute because watering dirt at 6:30 is not my cup of tea. I refrained and just gave 'em the "neighbor nod" but I was sorely tempted to take out my dirt rage on them.

Thankfully this isn't supposed to last forever.  The seed bag instructed me to water twice a day for a week or until I see my first sprouts, and then I can scale back to once a day.  I'm hoping that our septic field will contribute lots of nutrients so that the process is expedited, but I'm not banking on it.  In the mean time if you're driving through Lewisville and you see a tall, disheveled, mud splattered man you'll know you've found me.