Archive for Thrifty Rebuild

Thrifting Update

Thrifting Update, how’s that for a mundane title? Well, it’s been a while since my post Thrifting for a Day, and it seems like time for an update on how the shopping for stuff is going, so that’s what I’ve got for a title.

I/we have had quite a few unproductive and low productive days lately. Thrift stores are the most conditionally responsive places of business on the planet. If the donations are low, or the prices that people will pay rises, they adjust with lightening alacrity. So, shopping conditions change just as quickly. One of the thrift chains advertises that it’s a new store every day because of the thousands of items they put out daily. Thrifts are also new every day because they are constantly testing price increases to see what today’s market will bear. The only signal we as shoppers have is to leave things on the shelf. That’s pretty easy on those occasions when we recognize prices that are equal to or higher than normal retail, but smaller increases aren’t always so clear and they want to know what we will pay today.

The prices I’m willing to pay are also pretty varied, depending on my purpose. I’ll pay more for the right gift, much more, because I was going to spend a certain amount anyway. I’ll also pay more for things that I was going to purchase regardless, and things I’m in a hurry to replace. But there are other things that have no particular time pressure. I’ll wait for things to show up at the bottom of their price range if I can wait. I’ve been doing some waiting lately. The number of times I’ve paid more than I really wanted, or left a store without even a “gas money” purchase has been higher.

Last weekend we had a good board game weekend though. Board games are good for crafting supplies, but often the pieces are missing. If it’s Scrabble, a missing piece or two is no big deal and I don’t count, I just check condition. If it’s Monopoly, you want most or all of those pewter pieces to be there. Thrift stores tend to tape up the boxes to prevent people from loosing or stealing pieces, but usually if you ask up by the register, they don’t mind if you open the box to check. I have been refused once (by a new employee that I didn’t see on subsequent visits). I bought more board games last week than I have in the last 6 months, most of them at weekend yard sales. When we get into the house and I start back into my Etsy world, I’ll be in good shape on board games, not as many as I had before the fire, but an impressive collection all the same.

Jewelry is also a hit or miss category. I had a good couple of weeks, followed by increased anticipation visiting the jewelry counters without significant results for 2 months and now I’m often just glancing for something that stands out as I zoom by. After my few good finds, I got a gem tester, some sensitive scales and some lighted loupes so that I could list accurate information, like which gem a color stone is and weights for metals. I had two weighty sterling bracelets before the fire that I never listed because I wanted to be able to quote an accurate weight. So, I felt some residual urgency and when I bought the equipment, I was hoping it would pay for itself quickly, but I don’t think what I’ve purchased since will do the trick.

Probably much of what I bought in the months preceding my equipment purchase will do the trick, but I won’t know until I get the stuff listed and see if it sells well. Some of my more valuable finds, the ones that will pay for the equipment, are not the ones I needed the equipment to list well. Simichrome, used to test for Bakelite may be more important.

I’m really looking forward to unpacking all the things I’ve collected over the past six months. I’m sure there will be things I’ve forgotten purchasing. It could even be somewhat like Christmas…and I’ll bet while forgetting things I’ve packed away in my hope chest for tomorrow; there will be things I’ve purchased twice, things that may go right back where they came from. As always, it will be an adventure!

Diligence Due

Well, we’ve made it past due diligence and into the last stages of purchase on a house, but it sure was a coin toss for such an important and long awaited decision. I really appreciate fine workmanship. I respect time and old world craftsmanship, absent in the new standards construction and most other features of the house we’ve chosen. The positives are: a nice layout that’s good for short or long-term purposes, a good neighborhood, the right amount of space in mostly useful places and the right schools. It even has a beautiful (possibly solid mahogany) kitchen bar, but the house is covered in hard coat stucco that has cracks, messy old repairs and mismatched colors that show clearly, even in a low light photo.

There are decorator upgrades of personal taste, but widespread overdue maintenance indicating a total fail in the wise allocation of funds. With heavy pet allergens all the carpet will need to come out, and it won’t be fun for us as heavily committed DIYs. The house has potentially Money Pit qualities and it blew me away when due diligence exposed over 36K in unexpected expenses and repairs (those I didn’t allow for in the price), but the seller wouldn’t consider any price adjustment. I’ve had to consider the money I’d flush on 2 or more years renting to make myself move forward on this purchase.

And then there’s comparison to the home I lost. I like brick. It’s low maintenance (if it’s on all 4 sides) like mine was. That brick was straight and square and solid without any settling cracks. The old house had some irritating contractor short cuts. The original plumber had dropped the kitchen ceiling a foot and put the master bath vanity on a wall adjacent to the architect’s plan. I knew it didn’t belong there, and confirmed it when I stripped the wallpaper and saw the builder notes written on the wall underneath. The original plumber saved maybe $40 in copper pipe with these ugly modifications. I spent $5000.00 just getting a certified master plumber to restore the plumbing so I could then return the ceiling and vanity to the original plan. I despise these self centered short sighted short cuts, but the 1979 short cuts in that house were still less offensive than the newer short cuts that I’ll be fixing in this house.

As much as I want to be in a home that fits as many needs and wants as this new purchase, and to get on with normalizing life for my family, a feather could have changed my mind when the seller didn’t make any allowances for the problems exposed on inspection. None. Nada. Whether the seller already knew, or simply didn’t care, I remembered well why didn’t last in real estate.

I was offended, depressed and wrung out when I let the due diligence run out without the price adjustments that condition warranted. It may be the best decision I could make, given what I have to work with, but I rarely pay the wrong price for something and when I do I feel like I’ve been had. But, I was, I am, weary of the suspension of normal life and over ready to be getting on with things.

Friday night between midnight (when the due diligence ran out) and 3am or so when I finally made it to sleep, I was upset enough that I didn’t even want to sit across a closing table from the seller and I didn’t want to move our maple tree to the new yard. There’s a beautiful Tamukeyama weeping red maple that Russ planted in the old yard when we were dating. We’ve talked about moving it. He said it might take an entire weekend, given our equipment and making sure that it would live. It seems a lot of work to move a tree that’s been in the ground for 12 years, but I wanted the tree to move with us because Russ is the person who made me want to grow things again.

The part of this move that I’m struggling to get over is not that it unexpectedly became a seller’s market in my area just before I unexpectedly needed to buy. Life is a crap shoot and you take it as it comes. It’s not that I’m buying a fixer either. I wanted to restore something (if I can actually afford to restore this). I prefer to restore something old, solid and filled with grace. Not something that’s pretty new and only needs restoration because it’s been abused.

What’s bothering me is precisely that I’m tired of people getting away with having others clean up their mess. This seller bought a foreclosure at a fraction of market value, lived in it for over a decade (the decade that included the largest real estate meltdown in history), maintained it poorly and wanted sell for over 2.5 times the original purchase price. Neat trick if you can accomplish it right? Why shouldn’t anyone be happy about the same result?

But, consider this. If I am unable to make the purchase and repairs within the limits of a current market price, then the house isn’t worth what it costs me. If I pay more, I’m giving up future appreciation (that may or may not accrue). I’m giving my future to the seller, a seller who wants the big pay off regardless of having made decisions that don’t lead to that result, and regardless of who’s pocket it comes from. People who want others to pay their tab have always existed, but I think it is a disease, an epidemic drag on the economy and on our spirits that is reaching scarier heights with each passing day.

It’s the disease that killed my marriage. More importantly, it’s a disease that’s killing our country and I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic here. From building contractors to big banking, taxes to TV, environmental waste to drinking water, NIMBY’s to Pork Barrel Politics, people are maximizing small amounts of personal gain at a heavy and sometimes extreme cost to others, the exact opposite of Spock’s Law, rather than “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”, the accepted value sometimes seems to be “The wants of the one justify what ever you can get away with”.

It really seems like big business, big politics, big government and their marketing/campaign/”media”/”news” departments have been honing in on and amplifying the lowest common denominator in humanity for long enough to contribute significantly to debasing our society. The evolutionary brain’s survival technique of attempting to minimize effort while maximizing gain was pretty important when the challenge was to get enough calories to last the winter. Granted, it’s still pretty important now that we are living much higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy, but it needs to be channeled and enlightened. It is hard to overcome our baser selves when there are so many signals aimed at getting us to buy on impulse and maximize the rush, borrowing from tomorrow. When tomorrow comes the dopamine is depleted and it’s harder to get satisfaction.

Business, politicians and other entities constantly appeal to self-interest, they’re tapped in to the brain’s reward system and they use competition, salaciousness and tribalism to inflate the response of baser instincts. That makes us short sighted and easy to manipulate when we need take a long view and act with independent, conscientious thought. We need to be evolving in a changed world on crowded globe. Most of us, especially in the United States aren’t trying simply to survive anymore. We can afford ethics and balance, but too many of us have been worrying about how to get the next fix, anything from the newest cell phone, shoes, 3D TV, junk food, Facebook likes, extreme vacation or actual chemical drugs.

I’ve had a week to let my feelings about my new house and this national shedding of responsibility settle. The bigger, chronic problem is more troubling to me than my own personal run in with the latest reminder of the sickness, or even the one before that. I’ve been busy, so it’s been mulling around in the background, thankfully. Thinking about my own personal response to it all.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work on how I feel about the closing. I’m going to commit to this house. I’m going to make it the best I can with the resources I have and while it’s mine it will be maintained properly. I’m going to ask Russ to take that whole weekend and move that tree, out of the back from my old yard and into the front of my new yard. I’m going to combat the disease in my own way, in my own little space. And, if the time comes when I sell this house, I’m going to do my best to make sure it is a value.

Our 80% Bernina Bookcase

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I headed off in pursuit of a Bernina (sewing machine) advertised on Craigslist in an attempt to replace my long lost love. It was just one more small step in the whole distressing sewing machine saga, expletives expunged. The navigator on my phone has been not so great lately, and the quest took longer than I expected (though I would have gone further for my precious). The advertisement said McDonough, but the first road off the interstate kept on and on east before I reached my first turn. It was further than the hour’s drive I anticipated. The landscape was inviting and it reminded me that if my life could be down here, I could have twice the home and land with a vegetable garden for much less money.

I got to the caverns of the Misty Mountains. It was actually a beautiful house and the machine was not my precious. I was newish to my search and didn’t know the Bernina models well. To complicate things Bernina repeats model numbers. I knew before I went that this was not the exact machine I was looking for, but I didn’t know if it was close enough to do for a while. The seller and I both wanted the sale to make and we were both disappointed that it didn’t.

As I left through her garage, there was the pile of garage sale left overs. You know, the pile, the one that’s about to be donated to the closest cause. I asked about the wooden bookcase in the middle of it. It had been painted poorly. The entire bottom of one shelf was bare wood, but the other bottoms were painted. It needed re-painting, but it was solid pine construction and in sound structural condition. She asked more than I wanted to pay (the all time biggest cause of garage sale left overs). But, occasionally I will buy something that only has the potential to earn back gas money, because, hey, overhead costs, whether you cover it or not. I think we were both disappointed on the bookcase as well, but we did make that deal.

The bookcase didn’t fit in the car, but somehow I managed to get it in anyway and avoided being licked to death by her dog at the same time. When I bought it, I had a few ideas and knew that it would be a great for displaying items in our booth at Queen .

I rose above my navigator and stopped at every thrift store I could find on the way home, another attempt to get the most from my gas money and potentially find new places to hunt for treasures. Still, at the end of a long day, what I had to show for my time was one bookcase that I almost didn’t buy.

The bookcase wintered in storage because we don’t have a good place to paint in the apartment or the temperatures that the paint requires to set properly, but with this recent little burst of spring Russ has given it new life. He painted it and put some of his unique art on it. He has made a beautiful save. Russ does what we call doodling, for lack of a better word. And his fresh paint and doodling has made all the difference.

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There is this thing called the 80/20 rule that applies to our bookshelf. There are a lot of 80/20 rules actually. Most derive in some way from the Pareto Principle, 80% of the effects come from 20% of causes. Productivity coaches often use some version of the principle to teach clients to focus on the most productive activities so they can boost business to the place where the mundane 80% time sink can be hired out. In our case the 80% is in the treasure hunt and it could never be hired out. And yes, that’s a great big limiting factor for the business. What I do is often as much a buying service as anything else, one that requires a cleaning service as well.

This bookcase is a great example good teamwork though and I hope a harbinger of things to come. I sometimes call what Russ did with his 20% rebirth on this bookshelf as his Rusty magic, but I doubt that name is good for public consumption. We need a better name for his art style and we’ll give a set of his handmade notecards to the first person who sends us the name we choose.

Maaavelous Magnajector

I first saw a Magnajector as a child. It is a branded opaque projector, a black plastic device with an angled mirror to reflect an image and a lens to amplify it. It is a kindred spirit. Early ones were made of bakelite and the earliest opaque projectors, those before electricity were illuminated by lime light. My mother used hers to project small printed things like photographs or print type onto a surface like a wall for some of her art projects. This was before people had such excellent access to countless fonts and print types or digital manipulation of megapixels in nanoseconds. It was my first lesson in lenses and mirrors and I got a kick out of having to put the image in upside down in order to get an image projected right side up.

Mom’s came in a box that looked like this:

ebayjector

Years ago, when my first child was a baby, I saw one by mail order. The box hadn’t changed much. I think I found it in the back of Southern Living, but I’m not certain. I got a lot of years of sporadic, but appreciative use from the thing and my daughter had been the last one to use it. That’s three generations of Magnajector users if you didn’t notice.

When you loose your stuff, the Magnajector is the kind of a thing that feels like a splinter. Loosing it delivers the maximum amount of annoyance that something can without truly being serious. I didn’t use it often, in fact rarely, but when I wanted to take a pattern from a costuming book and blow it up on the wall to trace it full size on paper, this simple, inexpensive, old technology is so much faster than the instructions in the book for increasing the size and it allows you to adjust experimentally on the wall, rather than repeatedly on paper or fabric. It’s so much less expensive than taking it to a print shop with a plotter. Sometimes having the right tool, even if it is simple and dated, makes all the difference in how a project turns out, how long it takes and even whether or not the project is tackled in the first place.

So, today in the thrift store I found it, sitting on its side in a pile of other things, no box, no markings, unrecognized and unappreciated by anyone else, another Magnajector in shining, like new condition. It appeared to be unused, and for the bargain price of a measly $5 it was mine. If I ever find one in Bakelite, that would be really cool, but for now I’m totally happy and the difference between the price I paid and the $30-60 I would have paid to get it elsewhere does three things. It makes me feel good about replacing something I seldom use, it helps make up for all of the gas and time I spend while hunting treasure and it recycles well functioning tools. All I had to do to get it was to keep having the faith that if I showed up and searched, good things would happen.

Charlie Brown’s Field Goal

I’m feeling really down today. It’s been a tough week. A real estate agent called and asked me to re-make an offer that I made back when her listing was new. I had an appointment to view the property to see if the condition had changed. I was all set to write the offer, close quickly, have the home search behind me and dig into the hefty renovations ahead. The agent called as I was heading out the door and told me that the seller had cancelled the appointment and raised her expectations. This was the second time I had let myself become invested in that particular home, only to have my hopes dashed, this time it was at the last minute. I felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy yanks the football away and he falls flat on his back.

I threw myself into looking anew and even made an appointment to see another home in the afternoon. I’ve stayed up till the wee hours trying to figure out what to do. Because I need a certain size, a certain location and have a fixed budget, I’m looking at a lot of homes that need work. That’s fine. I’d rather work on a bargain and make it my own castle with that little increase in equity that everyone wants as a reward for the hard work. The problem is that there aren’t any bargains. Sellers are hanging on and flippers are snapping up the foreclosures and doing shameful rehabs. You know, it just doesn’t take much time or money to take a few screws and secure the floor before you lay that $10/square yard contractor grade carpet and call it golden. I see so many disrespectful “rehab” choices that had to have been made with contempt that it makes me want to scream. Bad work doesn’t increase value, but it does increase the price.

So I’m going to talk about last weekend instead.

Last weekend was great. We went for a drive to pick up a dresser being given away by someone on Craigslist. When I saw the photo, I thought we might keep it, but when we got there… Well, it was a good solid dresser, but photos can be very deceiving. I think this dresser will end up in the booth because the feet that didn’t show up in the photo totally changed the look and period. It’s a good dresser, but not my style (Russ was a little disappointed to hear this) and there were no matching pieces either. I’d like my bedroom to match. Before it had two full and separate sets with extra pieces. I think some downsizing may be in order here.

We loaded the dresser and took off, ready to yard sale home. The first sale had a couple of antique sewing machines. I didn’t intend to buy these. I had been given quite a few sewing machines before the fire because I teach. No treadles though. I’ve wanted a working treadle machine for a while. There’s just a touch of old fashioned comfort and maybe a little bit of prepper independence in knowing you don’t actually need electricity, but the cabinet on this one wasn’t the pretty Victorian style that most people think of. It was also delaminating and the home of a dirt dauber nest. It wasn’t time to buy something like that either. My stuff level is becoming unmanageable for my situation. I really only asked the price in curiosity, but the preservationist in me came out and made the purchase when a neighbor told her to scrap the machines.

These machines did have some accessories that many thrift stores separate and sell off in parts. Once these things get separated, it is practically impossible to ever get a full compliment. That adds a lot to the value for anyone with even slightly functional interests. When people buy old machines, some are buying a tool or a part, some are buying a lamp base and some are buying craft parts for a steampunk project. For me it always has to go to the highest and best use, preserving functionality if there is any or supplying a part to restore usability to another machine comes first. Craft and art projects come last. As I was leaving the seller asked me if I had been to the estate sale nearby and gave me directions.

The estate sale was our jackpot for the weekend. There had been a seamstress in that house as well. I picked up a box and saw some magnetic pincushions and scissors. Magnetic pincusions are da bomb. No spilled pins, ever, and if you ever drop one, just wave the pin cushion over it and the pin jumps for the powerful attraction. When it’s time to dust the serger fuzz from your work space you just hold the whole thing under a faucet and the dust goes while the pins stay. I asked what she wanted for the box and she said $5. I saw enough things I wanted for that price that I didn’t look at it too carefully, I just said yes. There were another three boxes on the garage floor. She wanted another five for those combined. Russ said I couldn’t buy anything else. I laughed. He said “No, literally, it won’t fit”. The boxes were small, but we hadn’t started our day with an empty truck. He was both serious and correct.

Sometimes I’ll negotiate, but I clearly saw the value in the boxes, and when I started going through them at home, I’d have been embarrassed if I had asked for a lower price. There was an assortment of tools and supplies. The kind of thing that every seamstress has on hand, but they cost a lot to accumulate. I tossed out some things, but kept others. There was a tin of presser feet, those accessories that get separated, never again to be reunited with the mother ship. Who ever bought the sewing machine that was no longer at the estate sale would have loved to have them, and the kindred spirit in me would just hand them over if the opportunity had been possible.

There were more scissors than I have ever owned. Good sharp dressmaker shears, cheep paper scissors, quality pinking shears and some that were too dull for fabric. I can use them for paper. I’ve never had a pair of pinks that I would use on paper because it dulls the blades. This is the kind of assortment that is most useful to someone in my situation. Normally a person only needs one or two pairs of scissors because they already have some, but I can use the whole assortment. I bought sewing machine oil to use liberally in all the spots it might be needed, from scissor hinges to machine parts. It took me several hours to separate the treasure, clean, sort and dispose. All the small parts take time and I clean it all thoroughly. I’m still not quite finished and a new weekend is here already.

You know what I love? Old fashioned pipe cleaners for crafts. The kind they don’t make any more, fuzzy and thick, the ones that hold their shape with a heavier gauge wire than modern pipe cleaners have. You have no idea how excited I can get over a dozen good pipe cleaners. Having them in a drawer waiting to be used represents the kind of opportunity that filled my house before the fire and will fill my home once again in time.

For the furniture, we had to invent new ways to stack and store, and we’ll need to be in a house before we can actually restore the machines and find out if they can be made to work. I bought another large piece of furniture on Monday, a beautiful teak Danish piece advertised as a “china cabinet”, but I’m planning on having it in the study (assuming that we have a study in our next home). It’s more of a credenza with bookcase than china cabinet. It has to be refinished and those wonderful guys who loaded it left it with some damage that wasn’t there when I made the decision to buy. Three days of purchases completely consumed all of the space we freed when we got creative stacking stuff.

And so now I’m full circle, finished with all the positive stuff and thinking again how much I’m ready for a home ’cause it doesn’t do much good to accumulate opportunities if you can’t restore, reach or even find them. The problem with this rebuilding plan of mine is that rebuilding a life in thrift stores and estate sales is so hard to plan. You have to buy things when you get the chance and find a way to keep them without loosing your sanity until you have a place to put them.

Crying In the Tax Office

It’s strange how some things that shouldn’t hit hard do, and others that should don’t appear to. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations or how much reserve strength you have. Sometimes you just can’t really figure out why you react in a particular way. I didn’t cry when the house burned. On the drive home I got a little lump in my throat that wound up in a tingle at my jaws and the impulse started. The tears welled up a little, but they didn’t actually form.

My experience in the Cobb County tax office wasn’t like that. When it was over I was stunned, and I wasn’t wondering at all why. I waited two months to write this article because I didn’t want to say what I would have said if I had written it when it was fresh, and I’ve waited even longer to edit and publish it.

The house burned just over two weeks before my property taxes were due. I couldn’t remember if it was billed in advance or arrears and didn’t know the effect of a total loss on the evaluation, so I dropped by promptly to get a new, accurate bill and pay it.

The first trip wasn’t too disturbing. They directed me to the assessor’s office and a tall slim man with a kind demeanor came out to talk to me at a low counter. He was really proud that someone had noticed the front-page article about my house and the file had already been updated to show my loss. He was very sympathetic about it. I told him I appreciated that, but needed to stay in functional mode. He caught my meaning and then he stuck only to facts. The value I would pay taxes on was not prorated in any way for the loss. It was based on the valuation of my property on the previous January 1st. I was checking because I hoped for something more reflective of the situation, but expected exactly the answer I got, so I moved on to the next thing.

I asked “How do I pay?” He continued to politely repeat an explaination on WHY I had to pay a full year’s tax rather than to answer what I had asked. I said “I need a bill.” He looked at me quizzically. “My bill burned. It was in the house”

He said “Oh, I’m not sure…just a minute”, went away for a few minutes and came back with a bill. I asked if that area I had passed around the corner was the right place to go. Then he said something I knew I shouldn’t have listened to. He told me I didn’t need to worry about paying it then, I could just stick it in the mail by the 15th. He was trying to be nice, but I regret taking his advice.

I had the check in an envelope days ahead of the due date, but couldn’t remember where I had put the new stamps. The hotel room was disorganized. Then I wasn’t near a post office when I was thinking about it. The whole thing had been demoted on my mental checklist because I had partially taken care of what needed to be done and also because other things came to the forefront. On the due date I was exhausted from having to think about so many different things that were no longer static in my life. I had reached the point of being overwhelmed and realized that I wasn’t driving well. I had, in fact, just driven in circles thinking about different things at different intersections when I remembered the bill and realized the post office had closed. It was a half hour drive to the after hours post office where I could get the golden postmark, but I needed to get out from behind the wheel or there might be more insurance claims for me to deal with, or worse. I mistakenly thought there must be some small period of grace and opted for the safer choice. That turned out to be a painful overestimation of reasonableness.

The penalty bill was sent so fast that I wondered how it was even possible. I couldn’t figure out why it looked like I had under paid the bill, but I didn’t spend too much time studying it and I wasn’t in a huge hurry to stop by again to request that they forgive the penalty. I expected they would. The payment had been mailed a mere 8 hours after the required postmark and the mitigating factors were understandable.

Had I figured out that they paid the penalty with funds I directed toward a tax payment and shorted my actual tax payment by the amount of the penalty, I would have also realized the implications of a policy like that and I might have at least have had some inkling of what I was about to experience.

I went back to the tax office and explained my abbreviated story to the clerk in the payment window and asked if the penalty could be forgiven. She started quietly repeating every trite absolution from responsibility that exists. She started with “Just doing my job” went through “The computer system won’t allow it.” and kept right on going, but part of what disturbed me was the thinly veiled power rush that lit her eyes. She told me some people had paid several times as much in penalties. Then totally confused me when she said “Just pay the 20 dollars.” That was much less than the penalty and not evenly divisible into it either.

“What?” I asked.

“Well you’re asking for hardship aren’t you? Make payments.” (something I can only see as an opportunity to pay an interest rate that resembles usury accompanied by multiple additional opportunities to repeat missing a postmark by a whisper and earn additional unreasonable penalties).

“No, I’m not asking for payments. I can pay my bills. I’m asking not to be charged $150 for being eight hours late to the post office.” I was asking for humanity.

I had my checkbook out and had started to write several times, but stopped because she kept on. She seemed to be taunting me. It was the set of her jaw, the line of her brow and the fire in her eyes. I kept stopping to look at her. She said “It’s not like I get to keep the money.” Why would she keep going while I was actually writing out the payment? Why would she spontaneously deny a bizarre misconception?

I asked to speak to her manager.

“Oh, you want to take it there? We can take it there.” Nodding a challenge at me. How was it that she felt challenged by someone who had both hands busy writing a check?

“Yes. I’d like to speak to your manager”

“All right, we’ll take it there.”

I was shown to a small room with a partial glass wall. The clerk spent more time prepping the manager to see me than I had spent speaking with her in the first place. The manager came in. I told her briefly why I had asked to speak to her, she said to me “Well I’m sorry you FELT it that way.” She talked about how “unlike her” it was to do anything inappropriate and asked me if I would like for the clerk to apologize to me. I declined.

The manager explained to me that the penalty could not be forgiven because “I had already paid it”. The tax commissioner’s policy is to pay the penalty with funds that I had actually directed to pay my tax bill. What I actually still owed, she said, was taxes in arrears.

I wasn’t sure that was even legal. The full implication of what it meant affected my breathing. Unpaid taxes make me subject to streamlined, non-judicial foreclosure. The distinction was a matter of choices and technicalities that were very deliberately policy (and still reversible, as all policy is in a democracy).

The likelihood that mail delivery might be sketchy when the house behind the mailbox had become a charred shell of molding remains increases the odds of delivery issues, mail tampering or any number of other ways I might fail to receive a bill that I never expected. There was no compassion or even reasonable care to the situation that the Cobb Assesors office had put me in. I was a mere missed letter away from being blindsided by a non-judicial foreclosure on everything I had left.

When I told her that I had made responsible effort to acquire and pay the bill under difficult conditions she asked me why I hadn’t paid the bill when I received it. I told her it was not my habit to pay bills months in advance and I couldn’t know that my house would burn down. She made it seem like everyone should know that their house could burn down and they should, in fact, pay months early. It never occurred to me to even mention the employee who had encouraged me to put off the payment at a much later point, much less blame him. I was now crying in public. I felt helpless, at risk from a government that was supposed to protect the public good and at that moment I wanted out of Cobb County. Badly and Forever.

I don’t mind paying for the public schools that brought me to the home I chose by school district, the infrastructure that brings new business or any number of things I have no choice about. And I paid my taxes. But knowing that they deliberately set things up in a way that would foreclose on what remains of my property for an eight-hour delay was the most defeating thing that I have felt in some time.

Consider this. Maybe I was too emotional to remember or report my visit to the tax office accurately. I was stressed. It’s possible. Maybe that manager wasn’t using a particularly vile form of condescension combined with bullying when she suggested that I should have paid my bill months before it was due. Maybe I “felt” the behavior of that clerk who seemed to get perverse pleasure in the pretense of power that went with her bottom rung position as something other than what it actually was. I did after all actually break down in tears in the office, wait months before attempting to write about it, and actually cry again when I did write.

The thing I’m definitely not wrong about is that when my payment was postmarked on the 16th instead of the 15th, they immediately charged a penalty that they deducted from my tax payment and told me that I had unpaid taxes. Not even a loss of most of the value I was paying taxes on, or duress, made any difference.

I’m glad my insurance adjuster told me not to put in a change of address until some other important mail had come. She said it sometimes causes things to get lost or delayed. I’m glad the USPS continued to deliver to mailbox that clearly had no residents. I’m glad that no one took my mail in my absence and I’m glad that I didn’t wait any longer than I did to go ask for what I thought was somewhere between common courtesy and human decency, because if any of those things hadn’t happened, the tax office would have advertised in a paper I had no reason to monitor about a debt I wouldn’t have known I owed to take property I didn’t know was at risk over a tax bill that was paid in full after an eight hour delay.

Of course, there is a redemption period. IF I had found out during the time period when remedy is allowed, I could get my property back, by paying more fees, penalties, special assessments, their advertising costs and a percentage interest. I wonder just how many more tax office employees I would encounter, what the eventual penalties and fees could add up to and how long it all might take… if I even found out that it had happened within the time period under which I am allowed remedy.

And, the reason all of this would have happened would be because I had a really rotten couple of weeks, listened to a government employee, became exhausted and didn’t judge myself safe to drive on one particular night and overestimated my government.

Policies are changeable though. I hope that this one comes to be seen for the excessive harshness that it represents and gets amended.

Replicate, Replace or Rebuild ?

After the twin towers came down, they didn’t try to replicate what had been before. It wasn’t appropriate, practical, fitting or even possible to put things back exactly as they had been. Yet when one takes out an insurance policy, that is the focus, to replace everything, to put things back precisely without change or loss. Marketing departments sell the idea that you could and should replicate what you had before because it’s comforting to believe it possible.

The idea doesn’t account for recognition that a life is built on a stack of decisions, and that starting anew doesn’t mean ending up in the same place that you were before. That is part of the reason that I chose not to rebuild on the same lot where my home had been. I hate the way people try to take advantage of insurance companies as well the people who have claims. Figuring things out to the letter and needing to rebuild my home, as the adjuster said, exactly “cookie cutter” the same as it was before was not something that seemed like a winning strategy. (Of course, I’m not sure the strategy I picked will turn out to be a winner either.)

Because the damaged brick walls of my house could collapse without warning, it was dangerous to enter the ruins after the fire. I won’t likely ever know if there were more salvageable things than the few we have. I value my life. At the same time, I wasn’t really so sure that everyone else saw things the same way and was never completely sure that other people didn’t go in.

IMAG0044With this in mind, I was in the thrift store nearest my house maybe two months after the fire and I was literally stunned by something I saw there. Before the fire, I had a poster from a castle in Japan. I bought it for the equivalent of three dollars, then hand carried it on both of the planes that brought me home. Uncharacteristically, I spent 100 dollars (even with a half price coupon) putting it in the perfect matte black frame with just the right raised gold design running through the middle. The frame really made it pop, so it was displayed in the family room and I enjoyed it immensely.

There in the thrift store was my poster. I noticed right away that the tone was a little darker and my immediate thought was smoke damage. I grabbed the poster and dropped my jaw. I stared into it and tried to imagine what smoke might have done and whether or not this could actually, in fact, be my poster. I was staring so deeply into the tones of the poster that it took me several seconds, maybe even a full minute, to realize that I could read the poster. The words on the poster were Romanji (English letters to be specific) not Kanji characters. This poster had been from a traveling exhibit that was in The National Gallery of Art in D. C. several years earlier than when mine had been printed and it was in a cheap plastic frame with a plastic protective sheet instead of the glass with sunscreen that was on my own, something else I should have noticed sooner. And this poster had the writing on a separate black space rather than on top of the artwork. There were really a lot of differences I should have seen instantly, but the surprise of seeing such an unexpected and unusual one of the items I had collected over the years had its effect. I shared my experience with a stranger there. I couldn’t tell if she was interested.

After settling down, I needed to decide whether or not to buy it as an addition to the piles of things I’m accumulating for the home I seek. I called Russ and asked him to recall the poster and if he liked it. Did he want to see its equivalent around again. It was $8. He said “Well, we like Japanese things. I’m sure we’re going to have them again. I’d say it’s your call.” It was a nice and generous response, but not effective in moving a decision forward.

I cloistered it in my cart and mulled while continued to shop. I knew that I would want to re-frame this poster because the frame added so much appeal to the other one. Eventually I photographed it and put it back. It would be half price the next day and I’d be driving by. As silly as it sounds to wait for half price when the frame would be so much pricier than its subject, that’s what I decided. It put an element of fate into things. As I was checking out, the lady with whom I had shared my story couldn’t believe I had not decided to buy it and I almost walked back to get it. The next day I forgot to check until late in the day. It was gone and I wasn’t disappointed. I guess it was the right decision.
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Last night I found a beautiful carved wood mask in a thrift store. I thought it was Japanese. It was similar to so many that I had seen while I was in Japan. I had shopped through several tourist spots intending to buy one, but they were fairly expensive and I never settled on the right one. Or, more exactly, once I knew which one was the right one for me, I wasn’t at that temple any more and I wasn’t able to go back. This mask was above the range of what I normally spend for something like it as a thrift store purchase, but it was still significantly less than I would have paid in Japan. It was also much less than I would have paid to frame the poster that I didn’t choose to replace.

I’ve accumulated a few masks since the fire and some of them are impressive. As it turns out my new mask is a Korean Hahoe mask. I hope that my new home has a good place for an eclectic collection of wall masks from places I’ve been and from places I’d like to go. I have a bit of a vision of what it might look like. I think I will like it.

A House, A House, My Kingdom for a House

That’s not exactly how the Bard wrote about King Richard III’s battleground predicament, but I’m feeling a bit of the same dilemma. Trying to find a home has certainly marked a winter of discontent (and rare winter storms). One of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood plays about one of the most controversial English regents seems a good thing to parody while I’m trying hard not to take myself or my situation too seriously.

Normally the decision to move comes at a natural break, a change in life or career that makes moving away or changing your home the natural thing to do. Mine came quietly in the wee hours of the morning with the sound of fire fighters who scarcely woke the neighbors while keeping the fire from spreading to their homes. My guiding change was only abrupt need.

A rush of decisions hit. First there’s triage, then there are bigger decisions. The decision about temporary housing had to be made before the long-term decisions. Conveniently staying near a major junction in interstates had advantages, but wasn’t convenient to the place I eventually decided was most important to find a home and, what turned out to be my primary goal and focus wasn’t anything I had even thought about before the fire. I knew that it would be hard to make decisions about small stuff before I made decisions about the big stuff, yet life moves on and the small decisions happen whether or not the big ones do.

I’m not so far from that time when many people downsize, and let’s face it. When you have just lost the house full of things you spent a lifetime collecting and inheriting, that does seem like a time to downsize. But I haven’t quite made the time when I can do that. My home needs to accommodate all the needs it currently fills. So, the house that fits this year, may not be the house I still want to keep in 3-5 years. I thought I really wanted a short sale or a foreclosure. The savings would help me to make up for the likelihood that I would be in the house for a short time and cancel out some of the extra expenses of a short-term ownership.

It’s a game for the big boys though. I’m looking for a home in Fulton County where those foreclosure auctions on the courthouse steps include the high value homes of Atlanta and its surrounds. Here, even a home that goes for pennies on the dollar can have way too many decimal places for me and even on the homes that do apply to me, the ruthless people who know what they are doing are competing for a decreasing commodity and they could swat me away with their little fingers.

My sweet spot would be getting a house that someone else got on the courthouse steps, but hadn’t remodeled yet. Something that still had room in the price for me to improve it and have a little reward for my work. I went to a meeting for investors who wholesale properties. I thought I might find someone who had a property for me. I wasn’t really comfortable there. There is a kind of respect that people are due and I couldn’t see it at this meeting.

It is true that people have to look out for themselves and their families. How one chooses to do that comes in every color, shape and size. I know a sales person who said “I looked at every sale that another man made as taking food from the mouths of my family.” He was successful, but in spite of how that sounds, he was also compassionate. People find their own ways to keep up the march and it is a struggle.

Some people have appetites that are never sated though. They lack appropriate respect for the resources they use. Some would take anything they can get and try to force a situation to squeeze out even more from people who are desperate and powerless. Do they need the win, the extreme TV or the power vacation? It’s about how ever they define superiority and superiority is not the hole I’m looking to fill.

The truth is that foreclosures are not distressed properties. They are the properties of distressed people and the choice to focus on the inanimate is just a means to help distance humanity. I want the good deal that helps to make up for some of my losses, both in the fire and in the future, but I want it to come from one of those careless people who doesn’t try and brought their trouble on themselves. I want it to come from the person who will never have anything because they go through life irresponsibly. I don’t want it to come from someone who lost their job through no fault of their own, or worse, lost their health. But I won’t get to choose and I may not know until their neighbors become mine. As much as I would like to take care of my own family in the best way possible, to find the best deal, to continue my march and fill our needs, I do understand that what I have been looking for could be heart wrenching if it actually comes my way and the search for any home at market or below continues as I weigh the prices and potential of what is available.

The housing market has changed since I was last paying attention. I’m seeing that trusted resources like Clark Howard recommend renting in the current market if you will be in a house for fewer than 10 years. I don’t like throwing money away on rent, but I’m not happy with my current options and I’m not expecting appreciation to make much headway over the short-term. If money is to be lost, loosing it without the additional risk of short-term market swings could be the lesser evil. Many of the houses that I can purchase have serious condition issues and the prices don’t seem to reflect that. I’ve drifted toward looking at homes that are far outside my budget to be ready if they become short sales, and kicked myself for missing it when a couple of them did. But, there’s no good way to know and my missing it was not through lack of effort.

This has been a winter of discontent, searching and storms, yet, I have still spent much of it grateful for the better than good bits and I continue to trudge through those other bits with faith that something will turn up.

Thrifting for a Day

One never knows what the day will bring when setting out in search of treasure. Many people look at fishing as a similar venture. My father was an extraordinary fisherman. People who went at it with less seriousness saw him as lucky, but I knew better. He had put in the time and effort to take luck out of the equation. When he was young he kept meticulous notebooks recording places time, weather, water quality, bait/lures and other things, and for the rest of his life he did mental editing. He knew when, where, with which tools and under what conditions the fish would bite. Like the younger brother who was described in “A River Runs Through It” my father on the other end of a fishing rod was an artist. He got there with practice, attention and perseverance.

In thrifting it’s the careful attention and plodding perseverance that are most useful. I’d like to think my good results can somehow be attributed to skill, and it is important to know your stuff, but a lot of it is just putting in the time. Some stores will have habits and knowing them is useful. But, they don’t always stick to their own habits, and they are dependent on sometimes unpredictable things, so going back again and again is the only way. It also works in their interest to make sure you have to set foot in the door, to be in impulse purchase mode, to find out if they have the thing you really want. We who love to thrift are particularly susceptible to impulse purchases. That’s how some of us become hoarders, and how others of us end up donating our purchases back to the place where we bought them to be resold again.

Wednesday, I made a big loop. It was about 15 stores, a tank of gas, a whole day and two meals out. So, maybe $300.00, nine hours and 100 or so miles were what it took to bring in my treasures of the day.

Here are some highlights.

Handmade Oak Craftsman floor lamp, needed a harp and a finial. Retails at $435 The harp and final requires a trip to a lamp store for a sturdy harp and a finial worthy of its lamp. That was an extra 2 hours and $20.00 cost added to acquisition. I gave the lamp to Russ for his Valentine’s present.

9 shortbread molds, sometimes I’ll go months without finding any of these at a price I’m willing to pay. These had sold prices on Ebay from $9-200. The more expensive ones had papers, and I’ve been throwing out my papers because I plan to use these in a bakery offering on Etsy. The larger one is still in the dishwasher. $120

A stainless steel double boiler style steamer for personal use. $15

A large heavy duty restaurant sifter well made $10

A Paula Deen ceramic tube pan retails for $40.

A handmade lazy Susan that the maker still sells for $70 needed a bit of steel wool and some new oil, or $5 more dollars and 30 min.

An assortment of vintage goodies that I will sell in my Etsy store or one of my booths. $150.00

So, I had a very good day. I built my household, my Etsy business and my local business, The gain was around $500, but there’s always a but. Only around $150 is in salable merchandise and there will be percentages as well as overhead (like booth rent) taken from that. Most of today’s finds will go toward the “How much of our household can we replace through thrifting” part of the equation. We got a really nice floor lamp that retails for about 4 times what we would have paid if we were buying a new household item and it was the showcase item of the day. I’m very happy with it and Russ is too. However, it is important to note that a large part of my gain comes from attributing retail value to that lamp, rather than valuing it at what I could ask for it if I were to sell it second hand. Much of my gain for the day is in having something nicer in my home than I could otherwise afford to buy.

Another big part of my success lies in the fact that I had several goals. That allows me to find more things that fit. If you’re looking for 20 different kinds of things it is more likely that you’ll find one of them when you go out.

Photos of some things will follow, but it’s time to publish, my technology is not playing nice today and I have appointments to keep.

Gone Man, Solid Gone

There’s this frozen instant in time when almost everything in the house is gone, sucked away. What exists afterward depends on what we were doing where it was happening, and inches apparently matter.

The cast iron pans that Russ was restoring in a lye bath outside were safe and orchids from the back deck survived, but the smoker beside them didn’t because it was too heavy and risky to move before it bent when the house fell. Two sterling silver Revere bowls in an upstairs closet were charred and misshapen. There was no apparent trace of whole categories of possessions, perhaps they were unrecognizable in the rubble. A miniature stained glass church I bought in an after Christmas clearance sale survived, perfectly preserved by a form fitting Styrofoam box that showed no signs of heat damage. It was stored near the part of the house that was apparently the hottest and it was among the least sentimental of those things it was stored with. The fire investigator told me there would be some things that would survive, but they wouldn’t be the things I wanted. He knew.

I have a firm grip on the importance of people and the comparative lack of importance of stuff, so getting through this with grace is at least in my ballpark. But still, I loved my stuff and I feel an affinity with Bernadette Peters in “The Jerk” when she finds out she has suddenly gone from unimaginably wealthy to bankrupt. She whines with a pouty face “It’s not the money, it’s the Stuuuuf”. I had good stuff. I’ve been collecting it for a long time, waiting for a good price, getting the stuff that is well made, the stuff that is built to last… under normal conditions that is.

Just before the fire, one of those great truisms showed up on my Facebook feed. It said “You can’t control what happens to you, just how you respond to it.” I hope to take that to heart.

One of the things about our thrifting experiment, sometimes in the second hand places you can find that solid stuff built well and made sturdy, that stuff I admire and respect. Our little experiment will be very time intensive, but given that money and time are both limited resources, it seems that splitting them up and using balanced amounts of each is the most likely way to rebuild well on a budget.

We have decided on rules for our thrifty rebuild. We want to get as much as we can from thrift and estate sales, but there are some things that we want to purchase new.

We have a list of things that we will buy new. We may buy other things new as well. For instance, the mixer I had nor the mixer I wanted was on the second hand prohibited list, but we didn’t find one in the time frame we wanted. Here is our list of things that we will buy new, not second hand.

Mattresses

Upholstered Furniture (unless we think re-upholstering is practical)

Any other difficult-to-clean thing that could have animal dander, mites or bedbugs

Plastic Food Storage Containers (Chemicals can bond and we don’t know how they might have been used)

Plastic or Wood Food Utensils (same)

Undergarments

Shoes

The list is based on cleanliness and the ability to transfer anything harmful. There’s also a bit of the personal ick factor. Undergarments could be cleaned, I just don’t want any second hand. Fungicide can be applied to shoes, I just don’t want to use or trust it. The list may grow or have exceptions, but they will remain based on known ability to transfer harm or what ever we personally find unappealing.