Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dear electrician

I know that my house has been ill-favored by the code compliance gods, and all previous work was done by monkeys who had been blinded by a combination of hubris and feces. But it’s my house, and I want to like it. So please be temperate in your immediate verbal assessment. The evolving color in your face (previously a healthy pink, now white headed towards green) is sufficiently expressive. And trust me, there has been positive progress. The panel is no longer quite the circuit breaker ceviche that it once was. A lot of leaky old wiring has been removed or replaced. And we started a wiring chart of the house, so you can see which circuits are truly overloaded instead of having to guess based on the scorch marks.

We’ve tried to come up with a priority list and a wish list. Perhaps some items on the wish list are more achievable than we’ve feared, and perhaps your weekly rate is more affordable than your daily or hourly rate. We won’t know unless you tell us.

We know you’ll find some unexpected problems. Tradespeople find unexpected problems whenever they work on our house. Hell, they find unexpected problems whenever they drive down a street near our house. Just keep us informed, and remember that while we’re the present owners, we neither designed nor built the house.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Guest room amenities

What are important amenities in a guest room? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what is important, what is helpful, and what is more of a detraction than a help.

A comfortable bed is obviously central to the mission of a guest room, though everyone has different tastes in mattresses. (We’re changing our guest bed from a king to a queen, which seems to be large enough for many people when they’re traveling even if they’re used to a king at home.) A variety of nice bedding and pillows allows you to adjust the bed to your personal preferences.

A guest bathroom is a lovely amenity, but not one we can add here.

A light that you can adjust and turn off from the bed was a huge upgrade in our own bedroom, so I’d like to provide that. I don’t find fan remotes all that important, since I’m not usually trying to change the fan speed in the middle of the night. But having a fan and windows you can open is important.

Guest towels. Somewhere to stash your luggage and hang some clothes. Convenient power outlets so guests can charge their cell phones, laptops, and cameras. Power outlets near the bed for CPAP machines, laptops, alarm clocks, etc. Window shades and/or curtains so the light level from outside can be adjusted. Some books to read. Can there be too many books in a guest room? A television? The purpose of a television can be handled by providing a computer, and an internet connection seems far more vital when traveling. A landline telephone might be an annoyance if you don’t turn off the ringer, since guests probably don’t want to answer the phone and certainly don’t want to be woken by it.

Little shampoos and soaps? Candles? Fresh flowers? Pen and paper? A mini-fridge and microwave? How far should a guest room go towards imitating a hotel room, rather than learning from it?

I don’t mind lots of bookshelves, as long as they’re mostly filled with something interesting. My parents turned the bookshelves in my old room into file storage, and that makes it much less pleasant to stay there. What guest room mistakes have you seen?

Sales tax holiday

This weekend is a sales tax holiday for Massachusetts. Some year I’ll actually be organized enough to order something significant like replacement windows during the sales tax holiday, but it hasn’t happened yet. The only things I was ready to buy this year were a few Costco and Best Buy items and a laptop.

Costco charged sales tax online, and required me to call in to have the rep fill out a form to email to a different department at Costco to refund the sales tax.

Apple charged sales tax online, and said that they’ll refund the sales tax to my credit card. Not clear if that’s automatic or because I called.

Best Buy charged sales tax online, and had to redo the order on the phone, and then lower the item price by the amount of the sales tax so that the new total with sales tax would be slightly less than what the order should have been without collecting sales tax.

These are all retailers with significant presences in Massachusetts. I’m a bit baffled that none of them could handle this correctly, but it makes me feel better about the fact that my own web site has the same problem.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chihuly in motion

Photo by Lisa

Monday, August 8, 2011

Who owns your house?

I think of ownership of an object as a question of who gets to make decisions that involve the object. If I own a chair, I can paint it, smash it, sell it, give it away, or move it to the attic. I don’t own my house in quite the same way.

1. You own your house. That was easy.

2. As long as you have a mortgage, the bank that holds the mortgage owns your house with you. The bank probably gave far more money to the previous owners of your house than you did. You have much more control over your house than the bank does, but the bank is essentially a (mostly silent) partner in your house ownership. If you owned your house outright, you could tear your house down or reduce its value in a more limited way, and you could sell it for whatever amount you wanted. The mortgage means you can’t do some of that without the bank’s permission. If you don’t keep paying your mortgage, the bank can kick you out and do what it wants with your house, because it’s their house too. I’m not thrilled about sharing ownership with the bank, even though I don’t want to do anything that the bank wouldn’t agree with, so I sought a shorter loan term the last time I refinanced (i.e., found a new bank to share ownership with me).

3. Your local government owns your house with you. They exercise this ownership through zoning restrictions, building codes, and building permits—these affect what you are allowed to do in the house and how you are allowed to change the house. And since failing to pay your property taxes can allow your local government to take your house, they have a similar ability to foreclose on you that the bank has, even though the local government didn’t actually pay the previous owners to turn the house from their house into your house. Or is that starting to feel less completely like it’s “your” house?

4. The state government owns your house with you, since building codes are primarily decided at the state level. But this is enforced at the local level, so it’s functionally the local government that owns your house with you.

5. The federal government does not own your house with you, according to the 3rd Amendment, at least as long its peacetime. Whew.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

When you owe the bank a trillion dollars

“The federal government shouldn’t borrow money because the federal government should use the same financial approach as households and businesses, who never borrow money.”

Households don’t borrow money? What exactly is a mortgage, then? What is a car loan or a student loan? Where does credit card debt come from? The particular borrowing decision may be a good idea or a bad idea, but mortgages have a rather long track record as the primary method by which apartmentholds become households. It’s prudent to keep our personal debt loads from growing to absurd proportions. It’s insane to think that we should eliminate all household borrowing.

Businesses don’t borrow money? On a day-to-day basis, they actually buy almost everything on credit extended directly by the vendors they buy from, and pay the money later (net 30, net 60, net 90—these are the number of days until the money is supposed to be paid). Business start-up, business expansion, and large-scale business operation is typically financed and refinanced by banks and private investment groups and the stock market. You may have heard of the stock market.

So when I hear pundits say that the federal government shouldn’t borrow money because the federal government should use the same financial approach as households and businesses, who never borrow money, I wonder what isolated third-world village those pundits live in. And then I remember that those isolated third-world villages borrow money too, from Kiva and the World Bank.

The old saw is that when you owe the bank a million dollars, you have a problem; when you owe the bank a billion dollars, the bank has a problem. When you owe the bank a trillion dollars? Turns out then nobody has a problem, until brain-dead politicians decide to turn it into everyone’s problem.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Taxing the job creators

The latest rhetoric about taxing the job creators could not be more backwards. We don’t tax people when they create jobs. We never have, and we never will.

If you earn a million dollars, and you put that million dollars into paying people for their work, then we don’t tax that million dollars. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a person or a corporation: you don’t pay taxes on the money you pay for salaries and benefits, for training, for overhead, for providing people with a place to work and tools to work with. Every dollar you put into creating jobs is not taxed.

Raising taxes on the superwealthy only affects them if they DON’T create jobs. If the superwealthy are supposed to be job creators, let’s treat them better when they create jobs and let’s treat them worse when they don’t create jobs. The higher the tax rate, the more incentive they have to create jobs. Instead, we’ve lowered their tax rate, which means we’ve reduced their incentive to create jobs.

So the next time someone cries about raising taxes on the job creators, remember that those job creators are continuing to fail us, are continuing to NOT CREATE JOBS, and therefore deserve all the taxes we could possibly imagine. The moment the superwealthy want to stop paying taxes, they can do it very simply by creating jobs.

Attic daydreams

The staircase to the attic could have 14 steps at a 10" run and 8" rise instead of the current 14 steps with a 7.1" run and 8" rise. Since we can’t move the bottom of the staircase, a longer run would take us into the Land of Inadequate Headroom (LIH). But we can solve that by adding a landing 2 steps down, creating a Landing of Adequate Headroom (LAH). So you wind up on the landing, turn around, and go up the last 2 steps into the main space. The main attic space can then go the entire width of the house, interrupted only by a railing around the stairwell and a chimney.

View towards the LIH from hovering over the staircase

View towards the LIH and the existing finished room from the chimney

View towards the chimney from the existing finished room

View towards the LIH from the existing finished room

View towards the existing finished room and the LIH from the turret at the front corner of our house

If you go up the stairs, you reach the LIH over the 2nd floor bathroom. The LIH has an 8-foot peak and the roof slopes down at a 45° angle, so there’s 4 feet of width where the ceiling is at least 6 feet high. And 8 feet of width before you reach 4-foot kneewalls, if we put in kneewalls. I’m tempted to put in extremely short kneewalls, maybe 2 feet high, creating 12 feet of width. The LIH is most useful as a natural light source for a window at the back of the house, with perhaps a small reading nook at that back wall. I’ve always wanted a staircase landing with a window and a reading nook, and we can’t create that on the 2nd floor without removing our only bathroom.

View towards the LIH from the existing finished room

The structural question is how to support the LAH and staircase. The LAH is over our 2nd floor hallway where there’s a lowered ceiling, so it’s the right place to lower the attic floor. But apparently floors don’t support themselves.

While the ultimate dream would be to add a small bathroom up there, there’s no good way to get the plumbing into place.

There’s also questions of wiring and HVAC. We may have to put in a secondary electrical panel in the attic. A/C could be a mini-split and a couple of ceiling fans, and I’m hoping we could divert a heating duct up through a second floor closet, but it’s a sizeable space to try to keep comfortable.

The insulation, drywall, flooring, paint, and windows seem reasonably straightforward. And then we could have a 450 sq ft room in our house (plus LIH, minus stairwell and LAH and chimney), whereas no single room in our house right now is much over 160 sq ft.

View facing towards the back of the house; existing finished room is on the left

View from the LIH, with the staircase down behind the avatar

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thank you, Shel

I love the smell of cellulose in the morning

Up in our attic, we have one finished room, though it’s becoming less finished as time goes on. The ceiling in that room is thin sheets of something that isn’t sheetrock, and in 1999 a contractor added cellulose insulation above the ceiling.

Now the ceiling is falling in, because the cellulose is too heavy, and the cellulose is falling all over everything. The contractor won’t do anything because it’s been too long, even though they’ve learned since then to do things differently. So I need to find someone who can add enough strapping to hold the ceiling up or sheetrock the ceiling to cover everything. We’d love to tear it all out, spray foam the roof, and finish the entire attic, but that’s not likely to happen in the next 2 months. And I’m not actually convinced the ceiling has 2 months left.

This same room had a squirrel break-in which damaged the windowsill and the floor, and a Delonghi space heater that tried to set fire to the room. I never saw this room until after I moved into the house, even though it’s the largest room in the house. I’m wondering if I should go back to pretending it just isn’t there.