Sunday, April 6, 2014

NY Can't Even Handle Me

We had just stepped off the bus in New York.  Carrying our bags and not quite prepared for just how cold it was, I knew what block we were on, but not what direction we were facing.  We headed to the end of the block so we could see past the scaffolding far enough to gain our bearings as attempted to weave past the groups slowly walking three abreast while doing our best not let our luggage create the same road block.  It was past nine and the lights and the traffic and the attractions were all blaring and glaring.  And while our hotel didn’t look all that far away on the map, we had a good mile to go.  Walking a mile isn’t too big of a deal to me, but a mile covers a lot more of the map in DC.  Not so in New York.

Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park

“I’m not sure if I could handle living in New York City,” I said.

“I think the opposite is true,” Jason replied.

Silence as I think the following: The opposite? What is the opposite? New York can't handle me? I'm not really that crazy or a big deal, but...  New York can't even handle me! Whaaat!

Jason clarified, “I meant, I think you could handle this once you got used to it, but you couldn't handle living in the country.”  Bubble popped.  I think he is right.  And that explains the post title.

It all started when we were watching TV sometime after Christmas.  I can’t actually remember which show it was, but it was set in New York and after one of the scenic city shots, Jason said something like, “What a cool city.” To which I said, “We should go.” 

We’ve been to New York before and have done a lot of the standard tourist things: Broadway, the Empire State Building, frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity3.  But it’s such a big city that there are still neighborhoods to explore, foods to eat, and stores to be shopped.  New York City is like Chipotle to me.  I start to crave it if I haven’t been there in a while.  So we used Jason’s upcoming absence and the three day weekend we had for MLK day this January as an excuse to go.  The goal was just to have fun, relax, and find some good eats. (Surprise on us.. he wasn't gone very long.  But we didn't know it at the time, and I'm just getting around to writing about our trip three months later.)

I’ve been wanting to explore Brooklyn, but decided to stay in Manhattan at the Ink48.  It was basically because the only NYC Kimpton hotels are in Manhattan, and we love their hotels that much.

Upgraded to a corner suite: this explains our brand loyalty.

We took the bus from DC to NY after work Friday so we didn't get in until after 9. The rate I booked at the hotel was a special deal that if you take a train or bus into the city, you get a $50 dining credit. The late hour made it an easy choice to use it for dinner that night at the hotel restaurant, Print. Dinner was tasty although we had an unusually long wait for the food to come out.

The next day our goal was to explore Brooklyn and take some pictures. After a leisurely morning drinking coffee and a quick workout, we headed off in search of that defining experience of any city: brunch.

(Side note: has anyone else experienced the "brunch craze", wherein people are obsessed with finding "the. best. brunch. eveeeer."? This usually involves places that unless you get there when the restaurant opens, hour plus waits are normal. Is it because it is a socially acceptable way to drink before noon? Because it's the only time you can take your children to trendy restaurants without fear of a past-bedtime meltdown? And why is it a combination of the words "breakfast" and "lunch" when most places only start serving "brunch" at lunchtime or later? Because you can add an egg to your pizza? Should we base these names on the time they are served or the type of food? I think the "b" really stands for "booze" not "breakfast." But here I am, kettle calling the pot black. I love that getting brunch means your weekend is relaxed enough to start off the days with a meal out.  Plus, I'm on a self-appointed mission to find the best biscuits and gravy possible.)

Before this trip, I hadn't had time for my normal amount of restaurant "reseach," but preliminary analysis suggested that Littleneck in Brooklyn was supposed to be good for brunch, so we went way across town to get there, only to find that the door was locked.  I'm really not sure what was going on because people were inside, and we felt rather silly as we attempted to open the locked door while the people inside laughed at our confusion.  A few blocks from our hotel I discovered my camera battery was dead, so since it wasn't even noon and we had already failed at our two goals for the day (brunch and pictures), we just started walking towards downtown Brooklyn.  

We conducted our own food tour that day, as we walked.  We stopped for some cheap and greasy pizza at My Little Pizzeria. I'm not sure what makes a slice "NY style", but for $2 a slice, it was perfect! We got the lunch special at Ki Sushi. I thought the place was great for lunch: good value, fast, and nice atmosphere. We popped into shops to browse and walked whatever way looked fun.  I told Jason I was "following my heart"as to which direction to go.  I'm not really sure where we should have gone, but we had fun browsing furniture and antique shops along Atlantic Avenue and hipster clothing and coffee shops on Smith Street.  We seem to have opposite taste on most things, so it's like a game to us to in home furnishing stores to point to a piece of furniture and ask, "What do you think about that?" and see if our opinions match. The answer is either a vehement "I think it's so ugly" or a tentative "I kind of like it." We usually end up laughing because either we're so surprised that we agree or of course we don't agree.   We will probably never buy furniture and just have empty rooms.

Ever since visiting Portland last year, I've been craving chicken wings from a place called Pok Pok. Of course, when I saw mention of a location in Brooklyn, my mind was made. I tried to play it casual with Jason, like if we didn't go it was no big deal. I even gave him other options and agreed with his vote to get Italian. This man is some kind of mind reader though, because somehow he (or was it me?) came up with the idea of getting chicken wings at Pok Pok as an appetizer and Italian pasta elsewhere.  I guess we were just continuing our "food tour" from lunch. (Ooh - I also just had a light bulb moment regarding a new career - food tour conductor.) He was skeptical that something as ordinary as chicken wings could really be that good, but I assured him they were. (Obviously our furniture shopping experience taught me nothing about how rarely we have the same opinion.)  In effort to "go with the flow" (which for me means not planning activities around food and eating in places that aren't research or planned), we had walked a mile and a half through Brooklyn Bridge Park (gorgeous especially during sunset) even though it was in the opposite direction of Pok Pok. I assumed Jason knew this and we would eat elsewhere.  So when we got to the end of our walk and Jason asked, "Where's the restaurant?" we both were in for a surprise:  I was didn't know he still wanted to eat there and he didn't realize that it was so far away.  By this time the sun had set, the temperature was below freezing, and we figured we'd just walk the 30 minutes since finding a new place would take as long. 

Funny story though. After speed-walking the entire way, we arrived to find out that I got the opening time mixed up meaning we arrived twenty minutes before the place even opened. So that meant more time waiting in the cold.  It worked out nicely though since the line forming at the door was already over a dozen people long and if it really had opened when I thought, I'm not sure we could have gotten a table right away. After spending 50 minutes in the cold, my appreciation for Jason, as well as his expectations for these chicken wings were getting pretty high.  As we waited I peered into the small restaurant, comparing the number of tables to the number of people in front of us. I started to get nervous that we'd have to wait even longer for a table and that Jason wouldn't even like the food after graciously waiting so long. The good news was that we did get a table soon after they opened, and- even better - Jason agreed the wings were worth it!

Totally worth the wait! Pardon the grainy iPhone photo.

Next on the "food tour" was Italian, specifically gnocchi. (Yeah, I also forgot we did anything but eat at Pok Pok since I just wrote a whole story about chicken wings, and it wasn't even that climatic!) After being in the cold so long we decided to find somewhere closer to our hotel. According to yelp, (warning sign #1), the best gnocchi to be found was by Time's Square (glaring warning #2) at Scarlatto.  We waited a few minutes in the drafty entry way despite having reservations, and were eventually seated with the next table so close they started chatting with us. We ordered our single dish of gnocchi, which clearly annoyed the waiter. Rather than tasting like "pillows from heaven," the gnocchi tasted like spaghettiOs. The waiter even swiped my card for another table's $200-plus bill. He was able to cancel the charge, but it certainly solidified my negative opinion.  I was tempted to tip less than normal, but the highlight of the place were the courteous and attentive busboys, who would likely have suffered more than our rude waiter from a small tip. Needless to say, I learned my lesson about taking advice from Yelp.

We were back at the hotel before 9 pm.  I felt a little lame for turning in so early in the city that never sleeps.  Maybe if we had been there longer or planned better, we would have tried to do something else, like a play or live music, but the goal for the weekend was just to do whatever we wanted without having to rush around, so turning in early to take advantage of the nice room and some Netflix was perfect.

We finished off the weekend with a lazy morning brunching and walking through the shops in the Flatiron District the next day.  We ate at Maysville. The food was Southern. The decor that ubiquitous, industrial, reclaimed wood and staff clad in plaid. But we thought it was good, and it was really easy to get in without a wait or reservation, which isn't always easy.

Before getting on the bus home, we picked up snacks at the Doughnut Factory and some sandwiches for the ride. As a Top Chef fan, I couldn't resist getting mine from 'wich craft, Tom Coliccio's local chain.  Jason got a BahnMi from Num Pang, which was both more tasty and messy.

So overall, the weekend was a great chance to enjoy the time together.   My one regret was that we never made it up to the rooftop bar at our hotel, which is supposed to have amazing views of the skyline, but we had a pretty great view from our room anyways, so it never felt like we were missing all that much.  There's always next time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Best Kind of Prize

"The best kind of prize is a sur-prise." That is a line from the newer Willy Wonka movie with Johnny Depp. It's slightly creepy, but the original is too in ways I never noticed as a kid. But I digress. Back to surprises... boy, did we get a one a few weeks ago. Two days after saying our final goodbyes for nine months, Jason's job was changed, and he came back home.

Bam! So that was way different than what we expected all year. Seriously, one day I'm saying a tearful goodbye, and the next week I'm picking him up from the airport.

We're glad, of course, that we doesn't have to go through the challenges that come with being apart all year. It's a big relief, and I'm so grateful for everyone who has shared in that joy with us. At the same time, it's a little disappointing for Jason not to get the job he was excited to do. He's been preparing for so long and thought the experience may have helped in the future. And clearly the planner in me is going crazy. We've been preparing all year for this! We moved! Oh good, now he will get to watch the World Cup with me. But we moved! Where will we live now? What about my plans?

"My plans." We had scenarios A, B, and C totally worked out and, wouldn't you know, this was the one thing we did not plan for. God is slowly teaching us the truth of Psalm 16:9, "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps."

We aren't totally sure what the next year looks like right now. There are a lot of "wait and see" type things happening, so I still can't plan more than a couple months. It sometimes drives me crazy, but it's also exciting that the world is our oyster, if you will.

We were attempting to talk about where we might live in a few years, which was proving impossible with all the unknowns. Jason just laughed that we weren't seeing the obvious lesson, "Maybe God is just teaching us that we can't plan everything right now."

So we are doing our best to plan wisely and hold those plans loosely. And at least one thing is sure about the summer: we will be watching more soccer Jason even knows.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Chicken Nugget House and Other Stories

If you don't count the times my mom tells me to clean the bathroom, living at my parents' has had a lot of perks. It's been really fun living closer to family the past couple months, especially my niece and nephew. They are two and almost-one, and noticeably grow every time I see them.

In effort to make sure I remember the funny toddler things that they do, and to provide some cheer after the umpteenth snowstorm (it's like Narnia about now - always winter and never Christmas), here are some funny stories about my niece, Claire:

The first is from a few months ago when she only had a few words in her vocabulary: "boat," "wada boddo" (water bottle), etc." The funny thing was, when she was mad, she'd just say any words she could think of, including her favorite artists, Toby Mac. (Ok, he's one of my favorites too. This is what happens when you grow up listening to DC Talk. Yes, Mary and I are still ten at heart and dragged our kind hubbys to his concert last year. And since Claire really only hears the music that her parents choose to play, she was doomed.) So since "Toby Mac" was one if the few words in her repertoire, it became like her version of a curse word. For example, my dad had to pick her up once when she was running away, and she flailed her arms screaming, "No! No! Toby Mac! Toby Mac!"

Once she got more mobile, she started getting into things that she shouldn't, to which her mom would just say, "no no" and she'd obey. It didn't take long though, for her to realize that it's like a fun game when she does not do what she's told. The funny thing about Claire, is that she will defiantly do exactly what she shouldn't (touch outlets, play with scissors, scratch her brother), but she'll correct herself while doing it. She says, "Nooo nooo," while touching electronics, or tells her dad, "I'm disobeying." Let's hope she either starts obeying or stops tattling on herself. Clearly only one of those is a good option.

Have I mentioned how much Claire loves salt? We sometimes have to hide it at dinner or she will continually ask for it, dump some on the table, then eat it. I'm not totally sure how she made the connection, but with so many snow storms, she's been snacking on the salt that's spread on the porch to prevent ice.

The other day she said to me, "Sarah sad. Jasee long trip." Then she tells me to pretend cry because she thinks it's funny.

She calls McDonald's "chicken nugget house."

Another thing we laugh about is her penchant for nicknames. She normally says "Mommy" when referring to her mother, but sometimes has silly moods where it turns into "Mommy-a-ma," or "Mamu." "Pop pop," my dad's name, is sometimes pronounced "Popth" with the same ending noise and saliva spray as when you stick your tongue out and blow. I find it hilarious that these names aren't spontaneous either. She plans her silly names and once told my mom before my dad came home, "I'm gonna say 'Popsy poo.'" My mom decided she wanted to go by the Filipino word for grandma, Lola. "L" words seem especially hard for kids, so for a long time Claire said something closer to "Ra-rai" (said: ruh rye, like rye bread). But when my mom, who can sometimes have a hard time pronouncing words, tries to repeat Claire's name for her it sounds like "Wa-wai." But then my dad repeats what my mom says and it turns into "Wawee." Did you get that? There are three iterations of nickname that result in Claire saying to my mom, "Wawee, I call you wawee." I told you she plans out her goofy names. I didn't think the ESL in our house could get any better. Turns out that when you add a kid learning to talk it does! The best part is that with all her nicknames, she doesn't as many for her dad. Instead, her favorite name for him is calling him by his first name! "Jiiiiiim," she'll say through a clenched smile.

My last story involves her bed time story routine. You know how kid's books have all these rhymy nonsense words? (No wonder they come up with goofy words on their own! We encourage it!) One of Claire's favorite books is full of animals singing nonsense-word songs, Dooby Dooby Moo - I think from a Chick-fil-a kid's meal.  Even nonsense though, needs to be read properly. One night when her dad was reading it, she told him, "Mommy read it. Too hard for Daddy."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Renting our House in DC

As I mentioned briefly, we went through the process of finding renters for our condo in DC.

It wasn't really too bad of a process, but I definitely had lots of questions for my friends and family members who have had landlord experiences, especially in DC and especially when it came to finding renters on Craigslist.  (Cue scary music.)  So, maybe I can be that friend to you (and save your real friends from answering all your questions many times), and share our experience with you and what we did along the way. For most people, since it is not that interesting, here is one of my favorite funny you tube videos about the Canadian Border Patrol.

If anyone is still with me, here is what we had to do to rent our our place:

My dear husband keeps me honest, so we first had to take care of a few steps with DC in order to legally rent our condo (ie: pay more fees and taxes). We were doing all this in the middle of a pretty busy time. Plus, it was October, and we were still dealing with tax issues from the District - six months after that April deadline. So with that bad-administrative-headache taste in our mouths, and in the interest of time, we paid a company called Rent Jiffy to take care of the bureaucracy for us. We filled out a few forms with them, paid the bill and were email our processed license about eight weeks later. Next time, I might save a little money and do it myself, but it was nice to have the peace of mind that the paperwork was correct. Plus, I had someone to email who answered my questions when the DC office got back-logged while processing paperwork. (Following up with the DC office might have been just as easy, but I am skeptical.)

The things you need to fill out are:
-Revoacation of Homestead Deduction (if you've been living there)
-Rental Property License - in DC this is the Basic Business License (BBL EZ form)
-Tax Registration (Office of Tax and Revenue FR-500 form)
-Rent Control Registration (RAD form - this is only if you own multiple units I think)

They are all nicely explained on this site: from Yarmouth Property Management

You'll also have to file a DC30 tax form with your taxes from my understanding, but that one has been hard to figure out.

The final step for approval is a home inspection. Once you get the small business license, it comes with instructions for the inspection that say the office will call you within 10 days, but you should call them if they don't. The good people at Rent Jiffy told me to skip the waiting period and just call right away, since they had never heard of any instances of the inspection office calling out like they say they will.

For the most part, if you're living there, the place passed inspection at some point unless it's new construction or a basement that has never been rented as a separate living space. Most of the items on the checklist are common sense (eg: method of egress, minimum ceiling height), but here is the checklist. I had read about stories of the inspectors being sticklers, so wasn't sure what to expect. My inspector was very professional and pleasant. He called the morning of to let me know his ETA and after a quick walk through, signed the inspection certificate. He asked about smoke alarms (required) and fire extinguishers (recommended but not required), but that was it - done and done.

Then came the part of actually finding renters. First step was to take pictures to advertise with. Honestly, cleaning the house to take pictures during daylight hours was not something I wanted to take the time to do since it would have meant waiting until I was home during the day, which is rare. So we kind of cheated and scanned the (very nice) handout that from the realtor during our original house tour. The house looked different (furniture/paint color), but at least you got a sense of the layout. And it was easy.

Second, we had to decide on our asking price. This means figure out your total expenses and market rental rates. Ideally, you can hit a spot below market rates but above your average costs. Besides mortgage and condo fees we were used to paying, there are a few extra costs associated with renting. For us this was:

-licensing fees (paid to the county, or in our case, Rent Jiffy)
-increased taxes due to loss of homestead tax credit
-umbrella insurance policy membership

To cover the higher taxes that come with rental properties, liscencing fees, etc., we were going to have to charge at least $100 more per month than the mortgage to cover our expenses. Then, we looked at Craigslist and visited a few apartment buildings in the area to figure out what price would keep us competitive. Obviously, you're less likely to find someone willing to rent from you if you are charging more than a comprable or nicer place, so you can't go too high. On the other hand, the lower you go, the more you eat into your profits. We had looked into this before even buying since even at that time, we knew it was pretty likely we'd be renting it out. Thankfully, it seemed we bought our house at a low enough price we'd be able to at least cover the expenses.

(Side note: We did talk about the scenario where our expenses were more than what we could charge for rent. the two options would have been to just sell the house or take a monthly loss. We haven't had the house too long so wanted to avoid immediately losing the chance for appreciation by selling. As long as the losses weren't too much, it was worth it to us to keep it, even if we had to pay a little extra because our goal was to keep it as an investment property, so paying $1000 a year, even if we had to do that over the 30 year life of the loan (which with rent increases isn't likely) we'll end up with a paid-off asset worth way more than $30,000.)

There are other things to consider when setting the price too: lower rent may make the tenants less likely to move, saving you the headache of finding new tenants and minimizing the time your property sits empty.

In the end, we decided since we were advertising way before we really had to have renters (3 months), we'd start out asking for the higher end of the spectrum and lower our price every month.

Next: get those ads out there.  We started out advertising to friends and people we "knew." This meant through Facebook, in our church classifieds and in friends' church's classifieds. Most of these connections are people who don't live in DC, so there wasn't any interest on those fronts.

Then we started advertising on Craigslist. We tried to make sure we answered the basic questions (security deposit, pet policy, lease length, move- in date, parking situation) plus highlight the amenities (distance to metro, shops, recent upgrades to the house).

When people responded with interest, that's when we give them the full address (we just put the block on Craigslist because I am paranoid like that) them know about the application process (application form, $15 for credit check, 2 most recent paystubs, copy of government issued ID).

Show the house.  We usually picked a couple weeknights and tried to schedule everyone half hour apart. Some landlords like having an open house style, but trying to talk to more than one person at one sounded too chaotic. Plus, if someone was coming, we wanted to know exactly when so we weren't sitting around for three hours unsure.

We'd try to repost at least once a week on Craigslist, though more frequent posts would have helped. Then we'd spend a couple nights showing the place. We must have been priced too high initially since no one responded with any interest. After a few weeks we dropped the price, and let the people who had already come through know. That was all it took to get committed interest. From there we exchanged the aforementioned paperwork: application, paystubs, credit check, and ID check. Adding a criminal background check might have been a good idea too. I've had friends who have had experiences with renters who never paid and it doesn't sound fun.  There's no way to totally avoid it, but hopefully doing your homework on these things helps.

When running the credit check, obviously any late payments should be a red flag. Through Experian, your prospective tenant can order their credit score and have it sent to you.  Using this site or something similar was great because we didn't have to mess around with collecting a fee since the applicant paid, but we still knew it was legitimate as the email we got with the credit score was straight from Experian.  This helpful post from Prince of Petworth, my source for all things DC, recommended looking for a credit score above 700.  As far as references, the main recommendations I got were to call to verify employment and check with their previous landlord for any red flags. (Doing a basic google search to confirm the phone numbers are legit helps too.) Then we signed the lease and got the security deposit (1 month's rent).  We also created a separate savings account for the security deposit.  You are supposed to return it with interest (assuming you don't keep any portion of it), and I didn't want to have to calculate that out later, so creating a separate account seemed easiest.

For the lease (and the application) I used You can access basic forms for free and get more customizable ones for a membership fee. I've heard DC rental laws are complicated, so paying for the state- specific lease was worth it to me and still cheaper than a lawyer.

Once that was settled, we moved out, cleaned the place, made extra keys and handed them over. I know of some landlords who, especially for houses with all-male tenants, include maid service in the cost of the rent. Others take care of really basic maintenance (ie: changing light bulbs and air filters) since some of it is easy to forget and mostly as a way to keep tabs on the house. So that just depends on your ability and preferences.

It's in my list of costs, but an important thing to consider is insurance. First, you want to switch from home owner's insurance to what is sometimes called a "fire protection" policy. Designed for landlords, it covers the cost of rebuilding the structure (in case if fire) but doesn't cover belongings in the house, since the tenants themselves should have a rental policy for that.

The other insurance you may want to consider is an umbrella policy. Say someone breaks a leg on your property and since we are in law suit city decides to sue you for a million dollars. Standard policies like the fire protection policy I mentioned above would cover liability up to a given amount ($300k for standard policies). If you have assets worth more than the liability in your policy (real estate, retirement accounts, savings) then you'd have to cover the remaining amount, $700k in my example.  An umbrella policy is a relatively inexpensive way to protect the rest of your assets.  In some situations, you may not need it, but I liked the extra peace of mind it gives us, even though we didn't have too much that wasn't covered by the policies in place.

The very last thing we had to do was set up a forwarding address with the post office.

We've had wonderful experiences being landlords so far, but with all the forms and everything it's definitely been a learning process.  Plus it makes your taxes all sorts of complicated.  There are probably still things we aren't doing right, but hopefully it'll continue to be a good experience. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Guess I Should Change the Tagline

How was 2013 for you? I hope it was good, but I know for some people it wasn't. It was good for us. We did a lot of fun trips (I know, I've been that person this year who keeps subjecting you to vacation pictures over and over), tried to enjoy the amenities of living in DC, and stayed really busy. It's awesome because we've been busy with all good things, but I think I can count on one hand the number of weekends we didn't have plans that involved leaving DC for work, trips, family or moving.

Oh yeah, moving. We moved. The weekend before Christmas, so Christmas was a little less magical and a little more stressful. We got a small pre-decorated tree, but didn't do any other decorating, and even sent presents off to family early in the month, so it didn't feel very Christmasy. Plus, we moved all our stuff, but with all the friends and family coming into town, didn't lived out of boxes for two weeks before we unpacked.

The story is, Jason will be gone most of this year for work, so we thought it made the most sense to move in with my parents, who live in the suburbs of DC, where I grew up. Um, yeah, let me be the first to admit I'm almost 30 and living at home and dragged my husband into it too.  God sure has a sense of humor because I always vowed not to live with my parents while married, despite my mom's constant offers of their basement apartment. Now, we've moved in and we aren't even in the basement - we're in my old room. (I think the only sure thing in life is that I will inevitably do the exact things I swear not to.) We never planned on staying in DC long term, but don't know what the future holds.  So we went through the process of finding renters for our condo, moving and are now getting used to suburban life. (We say some variation of "Ah, so much traffic!" or "Driving everywhere stinks" most days.)

It's not all tough. I'm really thrilled to be closer to family, a good friend, and their adorable kids.  The doubled/tripled commute time will allow for more reading. (Can you tell I'm grasping for some positives?) I've also got some projects and girls' trips planned while Jason is gone, and being able to save up this year is a crucial step in our financial plans. (Still an economist, so of course finances are a consideration.)  We joke about the situation, but we're actually pretty grateful that my parents are willing to make it work and that we have the kind of relationship that we can even envision living with them for a while.

So that's our year. The elephant in our room is that I'll miss Jason like crazy. I'm sure it will be hard. But I'm also sure that God is faithful to keep his promise to work for our good. Not our comfort. Not our ease. But certainly for our good.