Monday, August 27, 2007


Down on Microsoft

When I purchased my first computer in the spring of 1996, it came with MS Money '95. I started using it a year later and found it to be fairly straightforward to use. This turned out to be pretty important: I got married that year, and one of our early "marital issues" turned out to be financial accountability. I took a few years for us to work this out, but the detailed and accessible records that Money made possible helped us to know what we needed to work on.

I purchased my second computer in the fall of 2000. It came with MS Money 2000. No more simplicity. No more crisp interface. The program had a bunch of stuff I would never use, and the stuff I did want to use was now buried in menus or required access to the Microsoft website. So I decided to stick with Money '95.

I purchased my third computer last month. But seeing as how we just moved, I couldn't find my installation disk for Money 95! So I pulled out Money '00 . . . and was reminded why I didn't like it. But what put me over into let's-bitch-on-the-blog territory was the file size. What had previously been a 1.7MB Money file had ballooned into a 22MB file! 13x larger!

Okay, so the speed, memory, and storage of my D620 are all much greater than 13x those of my original Gateway. But they are NOT 13x larger than my more recent HP. Doing something as simple as changing accounts in Money 95 was still plenty crisp on the HP. Changing accounts in Money 00, even on the D620 was . . . a wait! Not a long wait, but jeez, aren't these things supposed to be getting better and faster instead of slower and more complicated?

Down on Home Depot

I was in Home Depot to purchase the lambswool applicator necessary to finish putting polyurethane on our hardwood floors; we still have one hallway left to do. A Home Depot employee ("Thom", let's call him) said, "hey, you know, you can reuse your lambswool. All you have to do is seal it up and store it your refrigerator."

"In my refrigerator," I repeated, with barely controlled rage. "And these hazzardous chemicals go in the same refrigerator where I . . . keep my food?

"Um, yeah" he said, not liking where this was going. "But you have to seal it up real good . . ."

"Let me tell you what 'seal it up real good' meant to my wife, when you gave her this advice about a month ago: it meant putting the applicator in a plastic Home Depot shopping bag and tying the handles together. Let me tell you how much scrubbing it takes to purge a refrigerator of the smell of polyurethane: NO AMOUNT OF SCRUBBING WILL DO IT! Let me tell you what polyurethane tastes like when it permeates all the food you put in your refrigerator, even a month after the scrubbing: it tastes REALLY BAD!"

"So . . . I guess it wasn't a good idea."

Well said.

I now shop at Lowes

Down on Tower FCU

Once upon a time, I had an account at Tower Federal Credit Union. Actually, up until this morning, I thought I still had an account there, containing about $25 as of four years ago. But then I moved, and telling them my new address never made the to-do list, so . . . .

Now I've moved again, and thought that I might as well close the account. But guess what? It turns out that if Tower figures out that a mailing address is bad, they start charging "inactive member" fees, which of course drained my last $25 in short order. This is all buried in the fee schedule, which may or may not have been in effect when I opened the account, but it doesn't matter: the notification provision doesn't require them to actually, you know, "notify" me in the way that, say, the bank expected me to "notify" them of my address change.

Update: Yea! My wonderful wife found my MS Money 95 disk . . . oh, crap, it needs a product key to install the software, and of course we can't find those. I don't suppose any of my readers know a way, um . . . around this particular problem? Please comment.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Town & Country Foods: Highway Robbers

Last November, my wife signed us up for a food delivery service called Town & Country Foods. Well, okay, she consulted me, and ultimately it was my name on the dotted line. But a friend had recommended the service, and a salesman had convinced her that the service would save money "in the long run." I was feeling indulgent, so . . .

Here is the deal: For $986.40, you select a "menu" of meat that will last approximately six months. The meat is delivered to your house in a single shipment, but the $986.40 is payable in six monthly installments. However, to participate in the service, you must pay about $3000. T&CF will finance this $3000 through at 19% interest. And you get a commercial grade freezer bearing the Supreme brand name. These freezers are not sold new online, but looking at the advertisements for used models, they appear to sell new at around $1300.

So what did we get?

The first thing we realized: the "all natural" meat wasn't that great. I didn't really have a problem with it, but my wife decided that she liked ordinary supermarket meat more.

The second thing we realized: you can't withdraw from the program. There is no obligation to purchase any more six-month supplies of food, but the $3000 dollar freezer is not returnable. This put a new light on T&CF's claim that no one ever withdraws from the program: there is no point.

The third thing we realized: the program does not save money in the long run. As I was contemplating the purchase of our second $986 installment of food, I decided to nail down exactly what we were paying per pound for what we were getting. T&CF won't give you this information, so to calculate it, I asked the nice customer service lady, "Let's suppose I want my six month's supply of food in only one kind of meat. How much meat would I get?"

"Sorry, but my system doesn't allow that. You must purchase at least two different foods."

"Okay," I said, "let's assume I want 1 pound of ground beef, and the rest of my menu in something else. How many servings of the 'something else' would I get?"

Here are the results, and the price per pound that I calculated. Note that each of these include one pound of ground beef, except for the ground beef, which includes one pound of chicken.



# servings


Chicken Breasts




Ground Beef




Pork Loin Roast




Pork Tenderloin








New York Strip




Beef Brisket




Chicken Drumsticks




Tuna Steaks




Hot Italian Sausage




Porterhouse Steaks




German Bratwurst




Hickory Bacon




As I realized that not only had I paid $3000 for a freezer worth only $1300, I had also overpaid for a freezer full of meat by a factor of 2 or 3, it occurred to me that all this information could have been obtained before hand. Bottom line: don't buy Town & Country Foods. When you price it out, it's a colossal rip-off.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Closing Woes

I had neglected, prior to writing a contract offer on a house, to get a pre-approval for a mortgage. Pre-approvals don’t seem to be worth a whole lot for a buyer. The reality is that no mortgage company will approve a mortgage without a signed contract. All a pre-approval does is say to a seller that, yes, the buyer’s credit report has passed somebody’s initial screening. Not a particularly high bar.

But that said, I needed one for my contract and I needed it fast. So I called my big financial services company (let’s call it USA) of whom I have been a customer for my entire working life. They promptly faxed me a pre-approval – but I also noted that theirs was an extremely expensive mortgage: $4K in lenders fees alone, and a $350 deposit to lock in the rate.

I went looking for something else on the internet, and found one: a company advertising an extraordinarily low rate and fees. Let’s call it Internet Lending Corporation (ILC). “Stay away from those internet lenders,” my realtor warned. “There’s no telling what you’ll actually get at closing.” But it seemed worth a call. I got a voicemail, and left a message.

It was, I think, two days later, in the middle of our formal house inspection, when I received a call back. A very nice young lady (“Christina,” let’s call her) from ILC began trying to sell me a VHA loan, which is for people who don’t have a 20% down payment. I had the down payment and said that I was interested in a conventional loan at a fixed rate. “But VHA loans are cheaper,” she told me. What? “Ma’am,” I said, “I hate to tell you your business, but this is my third house, and I have always found other-than-conventional loans to be more expensive in rate and fees than conventional ones.” I don’t remember exactly how we finished up the conversation, but I was not impressed with what I had seen so far.

Flash forward several days. We’re on our trip back home when I received a call from someone identifying himself as the president of ILC (“Tim,” let’s call him). Tim told me that, yes, a conventional loan would be better if I had the cash. Send me a GFE, I told him, still skeptical.

I received the good faith estimate that evening and held it side-by-side with the one from USA. I called Tim and asked him, basically, how can you make money this way. He said, well, we’re building a business, and we hope that if you are happy with our services, you’ll generate some word-of- mouth. That sounded plausible, so I said, okay, let’s lock the rate until the closing date. Interest rates had risen every day that week, but his rate was still better than the competition. Mindful of the risk, I decided to keep USA’s loan on hold until closing in the event something fell through.

And so the fun began.

Three weeks to closing

I received a panicky call from my realtor, a panicky old biddy: “The appraisal hasn’t been done!” she said. “Um, so?” I asked, innocently. “We were supposed to have final loan approval in three weeks from the contract! It’s been four and a half!” Okay, I said, the lender has my completed application, proof of income, leases, financial statements, etc. They’ve told me that I’m good for the money. Unless you think the house is overpriced, then the appraisal is just a formality. But I’ll call the lender and find out what’s going on. So I called Christina. And I received something of a long story about arrangements that had fallen through, and about the difficulty of finding someone. An appraisal! She had finally found an appraiser that could work on what was now short notice, but she was in another city and would have to drive. I personally called the appraiser, then called the seller’s realtor to set up the appointment to visit the house. These are, in fact, multiple phone calls, since NOBODY answers their phone the first time in this part of the country except my realtor (God bless her). But we had the appraisal within a week. And “final loan approval,” whatever than means.

Ten days to closing

Let me back up. My realtor had at some point told me that we were going to use title company X (her agency’s in-house title company) for the closing, and I had duly sent this information to Tim when I made my application. If there were to be any surprises associated with this loan, I wanted to know them as soon as possible, so I called X to get what’s called a HUD, in this context the listing of all closing costs paid by both the buyer and seller. X had no idea who I was. This is bad, I thought. I called Christina, who didn’t answer, then called Tim, who went back to the loan processor (not Christina). He came back and told me that the underwriter would not normally send out the closing documents until three days before closing, and that in any case they were using title company Y, not company X. Now to me, title companies are commodities. I can’t see why I should care one way or another which company I use except for the fees, and those appeared comparable. So I emailed the new information to my realtor. She promptly called to let me know she was NOT happy about this change. She also let me know that the lender-picked appraiser was incompetent. The appraiser had had no idea how to operate the MLS system (for finding comps) in her city, and that SHE, the realtor, had had to do most of the work in this regard.

Three days to closing

I finally receive the HUD from the title company. I quickly see that the 1% discount point (about $1800) has been moved to the line that says “origination fee” and that there is an unanticipated $1600 on a line labeled “price change.” I call the title company. Price change? Information provided by the lender. I call Christina. That’s for lowering the interest rate to 5 7/8 from 6 1/8, she said. “Um, no,” I replied. “The consideration for the interest rate buy-down is the $1800, which should be on the line labeled ‘discount points’.” “The $1800 is compensation to us, your mortgage broker, for brokering the loan.”

“Christina, I went over this with Tim when I signed up with you guys. Tim very generously said that ILC’s compensation was limited to the $300 administrative fee, which appears on line X of the GFE and line Y on the HUD. There wasn’t an origination fee or a “price increase.”

“Well, what do you think is fair?”


“Christina, “fair” is what we agreed to in the GFE, which was attached to the loan application and which I signed and sent back to you!”

Then I was told The Story. It seems that Christina’s relationship with ILC is something less than that of employee to employer. Christina is an independent contractor who receives referrals from the ILC website, but whose only compensation is from fees derived from the closing costs. In my case, there had been some initial confusion over at ILC as to who would actually serve as the mortgage broker. Tim was the one who had initially locked the rate, but had then passed the handling of the loan to Christina without telling her that there was no money in it! (Tim claimed the $300 administrative fee.)

I never did nail down when exactly Christina discovered that the terms of the loan that Tim had negotiated on her behalf did not include any income for her. These terms, after all, were in my loan file, and were among the application documents that Christina had handled, if not read. (There is an irony coming up here.) But I could see Christina’s point about fairness, and I also knew that I needed Christina’s cooperation to close the loan. So we eventually negotiated a fee of $687 (down from $1600) for her brokerage services.

Day of Closing

2:00 a.m. I can’t sleep. A fairly regular problem over the last few weeks. I took my laptop (my OLD laptop, a Thinkpad 380Z with a dead battery) to the lobby of our hotel (we had moved out of our house by this time) and went over the closing statement. I noticed a line on the HUD: “Consideration (i.e. money) paid by seller to buyer for unpaid property taxes - $2k.” This appeared to be the year’s prorated taxes, but I was interested in when and how these taxes would eventually be collected. I sent an email to my realtor asking this question, and went back to sleep around 5:00a.m.

7:30 a.m. I am awakened by the unpleasant sound of my cell phone. (My wife, who had slept well, had already left to supervise the carpet cleaners.)

“This is your title company.” (Terry, let’s call her.) “The seller’s want an additional $2k.”

“Why?” I asked, through the fog of my interrupted sleep.

“Property taxes for the first half of the year.”

Note to reader: there was beginning to be a cumulative effect to the aggravations. Because we were closing by mail, and because of delays between the lender and broker, plus the surprises in the HUD that needed to be adjusted, there was not time to mail a certified bank check to the title company covering the down payment and closing costs. I had made a wire transfer, which carries a $20 fee. I had also had to “overnight” the notarized closing documents via UPS to guarantee that they would be at the title company on time, which cost about $30.

“Let me get make sure I understand: does this concern the item in the HUD for the prorated taxes?”


“Have the seller’s paid these taxes?”


“Who is going to pay them?”

You are.

I thought to myself, how would my father handle this?

“In hell,” I said rather forcefully. “If the sellers are looking to break this deal, then they just broke it. I have put up with more aggravation over this clown act than I would have thought possible. This is the last straw. I’m not buying the house.”

“Okay,” said Terry, “let me see if I can get more details about what’s going on and give you a call back when you aren’t so upset.”

I received several calls from both Terry and the realtor that morning that I refused to take. Since their messages didn’t sound like good news, I was sufficiently pissed to let the whole thing fall apart. Like I said, this was my third house, and I was quite certain that a last minute demand that the buyer pay property taxes for time that he didn’t live in the house was unprecedented.

But the realtor eventually called my wife and pointed to a clause in the contract that, when read very closely, did leave these property taxes to me. But she also said that, to save me from having to come up with $2k, the agency would put up the $2k until I got to town, so the closing could proceed as planned.

So that’s the story of my closing woes.

Friday, August 03, 2007

I'm Back!

. . . temporarily at least. The fact is, my blogging days may be numbered. Real life – or at least its grad-school facsimile – intrudes: school starts in less than two weeks, and I believe I will find it impossible to juggle school, family, and home-ownership and still find time to write non-thesis oriented material.

I’ve been on no-kidding vacation for almost a week; unfortunately, my in-laws, who have a log cabin in the woods with a 40m x 25m pond for a front yard—an idyllic place for a summer vacation, actually, and I needed an opportunity to catch up on my swimming – they do NOT have high-speed internet. It’s been difficult at best to find the opportunity to tie up their one phone line (dialup: so very 20th century) with my new laptop (a Dell D620 core duo, $750 on ebay), and that’s not even taking into account that I just needed REST after a month of home-maintenance packing, moving, unpacking, and more home maintenance.

But the rest of the family is off at VBS, and I have so many stories to tell about moving from Out West (low taxes, low regulation, dry, thin air) to the Great Lakes (confiscatory taxes, overbearing regulation, humidity, surly clerks, cheap insurance and HSI). But let’s start with:

Refinishing floors:

There are, basically, three types of floor sanders: vibrating plate sanders (where the sandpaper is Velcro-ed to a vibrating plate), orbital sanders (where the sandpaper is Velcro-ed to one or more spinning disks), and belt sanders (where the sandpaper is a loop through the machine and only sands in one direction. The first two are fairly easy to use and also fairly gentle on the floors. The last is very difficult to use competently, but is much faster at taking up huge amounts of wood – which can be good or bad depending on your perspective.

I attacked the floor with an orbital sander, and in a few hours sanded down almost our entire ground floor (our “new” house, built in 1927, has the original wood floors throughout, with the exception of the kitchen and bathrooms, which have ceramic tile). I had hoped to not use that word “almost”, seeing as how I rented the sander from Home Depot by the hour, but I finally came to the last room. As I started sanding, I first realized that the old finish wasn't coming up with anything close to the ease of the other rooms. I then noticed that the sander was spitting globs of something as it spun ineffectually over the floor. I looked at the bottom of the sander and saw that the sandpaper (24 grain) was CLOGGED with hardened packs of that same something.

So I took the paper and sander back to Home Depot: your sander DOESN’T WORK! Well, no, our sander works fine, you just have a lot of some kind of finish that’s tougher to get up. Try chemicals.

So I returned to the floor with a bottle of finish remover. “Apply to floor with a sponge, let sit, and then wipe the finish off with paper towels,” the bottle said. Pardon me, but . . . BULLSHIT! I poured on the finish, let sit, and then SCRAPED up the finish with a floor scraper. Great glops of floor finish! I quickly exhausted the bottle and went back for more.

Eventually, I said, I’m tired of chemicals, but surely now the sander will work. I got a vibrating plate sander this time. And the sandpaper still clogged! Plus, I didn’t seem to be making much headway against the black stains in the floor itself.

More chemicals. Back to Home Depot for the daughter of all floor sanders: a hand-held belt sander. The advantage of the hand-held is that it can get right up against the wall, whereas the giant belt sander cannot.

I went to work with the hand-held. And STILL THE SANDPAPER CLOGGED! Plus, the belt sander sands very unevenly in inexperienced hands. But I did make some headway against the black stains, enough that I finally said, well, my floor looks like crap – but it is good enough for a room that few people will see. So I vacuumed it up, and opened the door to my wife, who put down two coats of oil-based, semi-gloss polyurethane. I was several hundred dollars into the project in tool rental and chemicals by now, but I do have the satisfaction of having saved $2k by doing it myself.