11/02/2020

They Are Still Deplorable and Worse

 In September of 2016, at a New York fundraiser, Hillary Clinton said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?

"The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. 

"But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."

 Fox and the other voter-programming media sources turned that into "She called you deplorables." And their viewers' rarely-used brains went "click" and the programming was complete. Now, whenever someone brings up some awful thing Trump or some other Russian/Republican says, the Marching Morons chant, "But 'deplorables!." 


Yesterday, October 31, 2020, Texas Republicans demonstrated just how deplorable they are. A gang of the Trump cult surrounded the Biden/Harris bus on the way to a rally and blocked the bus, preventing the rally while some other Trump brownshirts blocked traffic in New Jersy and New York. Of course TweetyPres's response was
“In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong. Instead, the FBI & Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA, who run around burning down our Democrat run cities and hurting our people!” Can we try to remember that ANTIFA is a fabricated wingnut dog whistle for "anti-fascists?" It is not an acronym for anything, numbnuts. 


So, these degenerate deadbeats have not just lost faith in democracy and are demanding that we end elections and move straight to the fascist state they appear to imagine will deliver them the prosperity they believe they deserve. That worked out well for their hero Hitler and his gangsters, didn't it? The tattered remains of the United States of America are being ridiculed around the world and we're barrelling toward a half-million dead Americans, carelessly murdered by Covid-19 and an incompetent federal government misled by a President who could not care less who dies as long as he can escape responsibility for the disasters he has created; including criminal charges and likely prison.

These fascist fanboys and groupies are the intellectual and cultural equivalent of those idiot teenagers who screamed their empty brains out at the sight or thought of the Beatles. This is not a political movement with goals, ideals, and an intellectual foundation. This is a cult of stupid that appears to be infecting almost half of the country and most of the degenerating Boomer geezers. Ms. Clinton was right. These people are deplorable and un-American at the highest level. Any Republican who doesn't denounce these farm animals as the "horrible people" they are is in the boat with Trump and his culters. 

Trump, of course, is not going to bring back American industry. That ship sailed with Reagan and his "tax reforms" that allowed the hyper-rich to get rich from "unearned income" and inheritance instead of investments in manufacturing equipment and facilities. Trump is just one of the many decadent outcomes of the Reagan Revolution that moved the US from being a manufacturing nation to a banking and service economy. You don't create world class products by gold plating a toilet and calling it a "throne." A doofus who managed to go bankrupt mismanaging a casino has no hope in the world of "bringing back good jobs" for an uneducated, unskilled labor force. That ship sailed in the 80s and we'll be playing catch-up from the middle of the pack from here out. 

A day before the 2020 election, some Grand Rapids, MI Trumpers demonstrated a new low in deplorable behavior by defiling headstones in a Jewish cemetery. "The [Michigan Democratic Jewish] caucus said the vandalism occurred at Ahavas Israel Cemetery, and photos show the words 'TRUMP' and 'MAGA' painted onto the graves. These statements were painted on the night before the election, the same day President Donald Trump is holding a rally in Grand Rapids."

I guess this is another demonstration of who these people really are. If your idea of a good job would be wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon to terrorize your neighbors into submission, Trump is probably your man. If you dream of wearing a swastika on your shoulder and hunting down "brown people" to feed into der Führer's gas chambers and mass graves, Donny can probably manage that. Don't fool yourself, though. Even if you manage to end life on this earth, for a while, it won't elevate you to anything beyond deplorable.

10/27/2020

House Buying and Selling Tips from Experience (Good and Bad)

What Is A Homeowner?

I'm a faux-expert on home buying because I've done pretty much everything wrong during my history of buying houses in several states from Nebraska to Colorado to Minnesota. In total, I've attempted to own a dozen homes, actually lived in 6 of those, and I've "owned" two. When the media jabbers about "homeowners," they are (as usual) abusing the English language both intentionally and ignorantly. The bullshit reads something like this "The homeownership rate of 67.9 percent was 3.8 percentage points higher than the rate in the second quarter 2019 (64.1 percent) and 2.6 percentage points higher than the rate in the first quarter 2020 (65.3 percent)." That is pure crap. Less than half of that 67.9% actually "owned" anything. On the other hand, this is information, "About 37% of U.S. households are “free and clear,” meaning they no longer have a home mortgage to pay, according to a Zillow data analysis. This number ticked upward after the Great Recession and over the past 10 years the share of homeowners paying off their mortgages has risen 5.5 percentage points." Americans learned something about debt? Who'd have thought? As a great American screenwriter once wrote, "Inconceivable!" ("You keep using that word, I don't think you know what it means.") One thing I've learned about the goobers who are posing as "conservatives" in the last 40 years (post-Reagan) is that the only threat they are fearless (and clueless) in the face of is debt. But 37% of us have, apparently, become actual conservatives.

In the United States, the closest you can come to owning a home is to not have a mortgage on your house. [You'll never really own it because property taxes and your local government can take away your home at any time.] When you move into your first landlord-free rental home, it feels like ownership because you can paint the walls any idiot color that pleases you and if you want to dig up the backyard and make an underground whiskey-drinking clubhouse where there used to be grass and flowers, you probably can do that. (Unless the neighborhood C&Cs outlaw that kind of behavior.) However, until that mortgage is paid off, you are just renting from a bank instead of a landlord (who is also probably renting from a bank). So, first get the language straight. Don't bullshit yourself. You don't own it, until you own it free-and-clear of debt.

How to Take the Emotions Out of Decisions

Along with not bullshitting yourself about "homeownership," try to avoid making an emotional decision about a house purchase. Most of our decisions are made, at least in large part, emotionally and that is where the subsequent "buyer's remorse" comes into play. When my wife and I decided our 2.3 acre, 2700 square foot, 120 year-old farm house was more of a maintenance load than we wanted in retirement, I started doing my area search based on some of the items that will come later in this essay: environment, taxes, recreation, scenery, etc. After I'd narrowed the search to 3-4 'burbs in the Cities and a couple of small towns, we started looking at houses. After viewing about a half-dozen houses, I realized we might never agree on what we both liked. My wife is an impulse buyer and hates to shop. I am overly analytical and hate to get ripped off. She was willing to "settle" for any damn thing to get out of the whole house hunting process. I wanted something that could almost guarantee my money back if we decided we didn't like the house or the area. We were never going to agree on anything if we kept up those tactics. 

One evening, I started to list the things I expected a home to have if I were going to be happy in it. After I finished my list, I showed it to her and she added a few things to the list. That was a little helpful, but not really a decision-making process. So, I put some numbers (points) on the list we'd made. We discussed/argued those items and points for a good while until we had a decision list with which to score a house. After that, we'd visit a house and immediately afterwards argue out how we thought the house scored on our spreadsheet. If a house didn't break 75%, it went into a trash file and we didn't discuss it again. Over 75% and we would start the process of deciding how much we would be wiling to pay for it. Unfortunately, for me, that original spreadsheet lived on a Samsung tablet that I managed to lose in the Chicago train station 5 years ago. So, I "reinvented" the spreadsheet (right and above) just to give you and idea what might have been on our decision list. Many of the items on this list were on the list that we used to find our home, but the points and descriptions are my best estimates. As you can see, the mythical house I was scoring on this example came up short with 66 points (66% positive) and it wouldn't have been given any more consideration. 

In the 70s, I bought a house under pressure (wife and kids) and without any rational criteria and was so miserable with the experience that I didn't consider going through that risk for another 15 years. I bought a house when I was living on my own in Colorado and had absolutely no pressure to make the move and nobody to argue with about what the house should be like. The efficiency and value I got from that house buying experience taught me as much as any other economics lesson I've learned. I was only sorry when I felt that I needed to sell that house, unlike most of the houses I've sold before and after. Emotions contribute nothing useful to a business transaction and house buying is nothing but a business transaction. It isn't a "home" until you make it one and lots of things will factor into a house becoming "home."

On to the messier stuff of home buying and owning.

Property Taxes and Local Government Research

Property taxes are one of the the first items to look in an area when you are house shopping. Wisconsin, for example, makes a big deal out of it's "moderate" income taxes (especially on the rich and corporations), but Wisconsin property taxes are almost double Minnesota's notoriously high taxes. City governments that are out of control are also very typically opaque. So, my first suggestion for any prospective home buyer is "Find the city website and look at the city budget. Look for every department head's salary and the pay scale for every city and county job. If that information isn't available, pass." Seriously, if you can't look at the details of how your local taxes are being spent, you should know those taxes are being flushed down a local toilet and the locals are either so lazy and/or corrupt that it will only get much worse before it has any sort of chance at getting better. This is not a negotiable item. Few things in life are black-and-white, but any government that is not transparent is corrupt and you can, and should, take that information to the bank.

[A notorious example of that kind of city is Atlantic City, NJ which is still infamous for being the poster child for the end result of mindless wild spending by a city government that hid behind a "municipal employees privacy" cloak. It didn't help that AC was a prime example of where Trump demonstrated his "business skills" by leveraging himself and his Trump Hotels and Casinos scam, so that when his house of cards fell a collection of banksters and Atlantic City fell with them. By the last decade, Atlantic city had what was politely called "a bloated municipal payroll." After massive cuts to city employment, Atlantic City taxes are almost reasonable today; approximately $3,000 on a $120,000 home, but in 2015 & 2016 that same house had a bill of more than $6,000 in property taxes and many people were forced out of homes "they owned" during that period.]

Unfortunately, this is a lesson I learned the hard way, a couple of times. When I started looking for a place to retire, Red Wing, MN was high on my list of favorite places that would be near my kids and grandkids. It turns out, Red Wing looks as nice as it does because of the Xcel Energy Prairie Island nuclear power plant, which has generated somewhere between 20% and 40% of the city and county's property tax revenue since the 1970s (nobody in local government appears to be willing to talk about what that percentage is, or they are too lazy to know). When the Xcel plant closes, the city and county property tax revenue will take a huge hit and big decisions will have to be made about local government expenses. If past history is an indicator of how those decisions will be made, it's pretty obvious that the bureaucrats in control of local government will try to pile property tax increases on local residents, driving property values down, closing local businesses, and creating a downward economic spiral in the area that could take years or decades to correct. As much as I like the area, if I had researched this issue properly, Red Wing would have never been on my retirement area search list. 

About thirty-five years ago, I was living in California where my cost of living and responsibilities made it impossible for me to consider taking on the debt necessary to buy a house. Home loan interest rates were in the mid-teens, the country had been in a variety of recessions since the early 70's, and my single income barely covered expenses for my family. I could, however, buy a house and property outright in the small town (Scribner, Nebraska) where we'd lived. I found a house that needed a lot of work for (wait for it) $5,000 cash and over the next few years I took my vacations in Nebraska doing remodeling work on the house until it was extremely livable. My plan was that, when I graduated from college in California, I was going to move back to Nebraska, take my QSC Audio manufacturing and engineering experience, buy the large garage/shop next door to my Nebraska house, and start an audio equipment manufacturing facility in a town that would have had spectacularly low startup costs, lots of semi-educated and trainable labor, and decent transportation. 

About a year before I would have left for Nebraska, my business plans leaked out in that small town from a friend who was helping me repair the house and who was hoping for a job in my new company, and the city powers-that-be started their opposition to my business. Small towns do not like "new anything," especially new people and ideas. Small town mayors and bureaucrats would rather see their villages dry up and die rather than have to adjust their lifestyle, power structure, and (most importantly) employee wage expectations. First, the mayor started dumping trash from his business (a grain elevator) in my unoccupied-at-the-time property's backyard. Then, he tried designating the property as unsafe because of the trash that he'd dumped on the property. I fought that off, but discovered that the city had obtained the property next door, where the shop was, and blocked any plans I had for a manufacturing facility next to my property. I sold the house, in 2005, for about $14,000 (cash, again). Overall, it wasn't a money-loser and I can't say I'm sorry I didn't end up in small-town Nebraska for the last 30 years, but it was an object lesson in inbred Midwest politics that I had to learn again 25 years later.

Fifty years ago, a Texas cowboy "old guy" I worked with (He was probably 60 at the time.) gave me a piece of advice I've attempted to figure out since, "Decide where you want to live and live there. Decide what you want to do and do it." The things we use to decide where we want to live are things like culture, economics (jobs and cost of living), recreational options, scenery and environment, and should include taxation and government transparency. Red Wing got clobbered by the Great Recession but because the city was so shut off from local citizens and self-insulated from economic reality, it took an extra 2-3 years for the city government to figure out it was clobbered and make minor and insufficient adjustments to city employment which added an extra 5-6 years to the recovery. Xcel is going to decommission

Prairie Island which will transfer the county and city's obligations primarily to the local homeowners. I've written about this before, in Facing Red Wing’s Reality, if you want to know more about it. The end result of this piece of advice is "do your homework" on local politics and government before deciding to put your money down in an area. It could matter far more than you imagine. 

Taos, New Mexico is a good example of what you should be looking for in city government transparency. Simply by Google searching "Taos New Mexico City Budget" you'll land on a page that will link you to a PDF that details the city's income and expenses and Taos County is just as transparent. Anything short of that is unacceptable and high risk. It is always safe to assume that when government is hiding something, it is something government should not be doing. 

Do You Need An Agent or a Broker?

Real Estate agents and brokers are too often nothing more than obstacles to home ownership. Unless you are totally clueless about buying and/or selling a home, the less money you spend on a real estate agent (as a buyer or seller) the better off you are. A realtor is more of a "part-time facilitator" than an actual sales person and they are rarely a useful legal advisor. One thing they are not is your "friend." Like used car salesmen, a realtor is someone who gets paid to pretend to be your friend for a LOT of money for minimal work. A typical house sale, $200,000 for example, will return a realtor $12,000 on a 6% commission. In a slow market, the seller's realtor might invest 50 hours and $500 in expenses. That works out to about $230 per hour for minimal skills and moderate effort. And that is in a slow market. In many of today's "hot markets," that hourly investment is likely to be a small fraction of 50 hours. PLUS you could also be paying a similar commission to the buyer's realtor. Most likely, the buyer's realtor will put in a lot more effort and time than will your realtor, but still . . . $230/hour? That is nuts.

My wife and I sold our last house through a fixed rate agent, HomeAvenue. In 2014, we sold a $240,000 home and paid our realtor less than $1,000, but our real estate lawyer was worth every penny of her $2,000. Thanks to contract requirements added to our selling agreement by our lawyer, the buyers had to add $15,000 to their offer to cover the cost of their realtor and other unnecessary purchase cost luxuries. We had recommended that those buyers find a good real estate lawyer instead of an agent, since they had found our house on their own. But they went the mindless traditional way and it was expensive for them and counter-productive. The only action we saw from their agent during the entire house buying transaction was him hitting on our attractive, but married agent during closing. 

Since we were our own sales department, we did have to keep after the house and hold our own open house events. We polished everything in the house every week until it was sold. Because we'd moved into our new home first, we emptied the house we were selling to make it look larger and to minimize the imagination necessary for buyers to visualize themselves and their stuff in our space. That emptying process occurred over a few months and we noted that the less stuff there was in the house, the more positive the showings went. In the end, all we had in the house was an air mattress we folded up and stored in a closet each day and a table that held our advertising materials, a log book for visiting realtors when we weren't there, and cookies and coffee during our open houses. We mixed up the cookies at our new home, but baked them in the house we were selling to add that aroma to the house showing. 

Unless you are desperate to buy or sell, it's worth trying to minimize the surprises you might encounter from a real estate contract. Agents will tell you "this is standard, everyone does it," but that is not true because I don't. For example, when I'm the buyer I make the seller pay for as much as possible, up front, and reimburse the seller for some of those expenses at the closing. The seller will pay for the home inspection, the title company expenses, title insurance, and closing costs until we actually close on the deal.. Of course, the seller will pay their selling realtor's charges, instead of folding that expense into my closing costs My way the seller has more skin in the game than me and if they decide to back out it won't be cheap. I have done that three times, as a buyer, and every time we've closed on the house. Every time since 1992, the seller’s agent has been surprised when he/she discovered what their clients had signed.

I did not learn these lessons the smart way. The first house I tried to buy in 1992, in Colorado, was during the early stages of a housing rush. Colorado real estate was crushed during the Reagan recession years and housing prices fell 50% or more between 1984 and 1992. Neal Bush's Silverado S&L fiasco and the Reagan S&L deregulation was a big part of that economic disaster. However, when I was trying to buy a house, prices were just starting to recover. I offered the asking price on a house that I really liked in an area that I really loved.

NOTE: That "really liked" statement was me admitting to being gullible and a willing victim. Remember that Texas cowboy's advice from earlier? After getting tangled up in the concept of auctions and how that institution can screw up rational thinking, he told me, "Never 'want' anything until you own it." The idea is that "wanting something" will convince you to overpay for it, but if you can hold off desire until after you buy a thing you'll have a better shot at avoiding buyer's remorse.

My first Colorado broker was a lazy doofus who was the poster child for "worthless real estate goober" and he didn't provide a penny's worth of advice and couldn’t manage a timely response if you put a gun to his head. The seller's contract he presented to me allowed the seller to continue to accept offers after accepting mine and all of the inspection, title, and other purchase costs were my responsibility. I was about $3,000 into buying process when the seller got a better offer and took it. Fortunately, about $1500 of that expense could be shifted to another house if I found one, but I learned several things from that lost $1500. Of course, I dumped that broker and started shopping for houses on my own. It didn't take long for me to discover that not being attached to a realtor freed me up to look at houses that were exactly in my price range, had my requirements, and were in areas where I wanted to live.

The first Colorado house offer I made on my own had a few "unusual contingency" exemptions: the seller paid for the inspection (to be reimbursed at closing), the seller would accept the appraisal value if it were lower than my offer (Years ago, appraisals were done by people who weren't idiots who barely looked at the house being appraised" at the asking price.), title inspection costs would be covered by the seller (to be reimbursed at closing), and any improvements indicated as "necessary" by the inspection would be appraised (by my inspector) and those costs would be deducted from the offer and accepted by the buyer or repaired by the seller and inspected before closing. Those stipulations saved me a lot of money on that house purchase because the appraisal was $3,000 under my offer and there were $1800 in initial repair costs for problems the seller hoped I wouldn't notice and an inspection wouldn't uncover. 

I hope it isn't necessary to mention that I want none of those requirements on a real estate sales contract when I am the seller. In fact, after my last selling experience, I'm pretty much selling my next house as-is, regardless of what effect an agent might think that has on the selling price.

When you are selling a house, it is important to realize that a realtor has little-to-no motivation to sell your house for the best (highest) price. Look up that whole story and the data in "Freakonomics: Real Estate Agents, Revisited." Some of their findings were summarized in a Stanford University  study that states, "We find no evidence that the use of a broker leads to higher average selling prices, or that it significantly alters average initial asking prices. However, those who use brokers sell their houses more quickly." Well, duh. If you price the house below market value, the odds are good that it will sell more quickly. So, if selling fast is your goal, use a realtor or broker. If $20,000 to several hundred thousand dollars means nothing to you, realtors are your best friends. You can buy equally valuable friends at your local bar by shouting "the drinks are on me" for a lot less money. 

Realtors are more often than not, incredibly lazy. I'd lived in my Little Canada house for 18 years and we'd done a massive amount of work to the place during those years. Every year, the county would try to arbitrarily raise the property valuation (and taxes) on the house and every year I would contest their guess-timates. Every year, we would compromise on a reasonable valuation. In late 2013, when I listed the house it was valued at $140,000 by the county. The first half-dozen realtors I talked to wanted to list it for that price. Our lawyer thought it should sell for $300,000 based on comps and her obvious bias toward our home. (She is a friend, after all.) The last full price realtor I talked to was willing to “try selling it at $180,000,” her company also wanted an 8% commission with most of the selling expenses charged to me upon closing (pictures, open house prep, even the cookies she claimed she’d bring to each open house). What I took away from that last meeting was that everything any realtor had offered to do for me, I could do better and cheaper. Keep in mind that I was retired and had plenty of time to do those things.

Our Little Canada house was a quirky 100+ year old farm house with lots of artwork and odd spaces and at least 70 years of remodeling and expansion from several previous owners and ourselves. Several realtors couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in that house. A few were in love with the place and many of the people who came to our open houses were interested at a time (Winter 2014-15) when our realtor told us her traditional realtor friends weren’t getting any interest in their open houses. Three months after listing the house with HomeAvenue it sold for $242,000, $60,000 more than the highest estimate any selling realtor told us we could get and $100,000 more than the county tax assessor’s appraisal value.

Do You Need A Real Estate Lawyer?

Usually, I don't bother with buyer's agents at all. I know how the internet works and I can find houses to look at anywhere in the country without any assistance from an agent of any sort. I know a really good real estate lawyer and I know how to find one in other areas. Generally, agents are wasted money and real estate lawyers are the only way to go.

I totally lucked into the idea of contacting a real estate lawyer on my way to almost losing a whole lot of money on a house purchase. The Little Canada house was partially financed by the employer who had moved me to Minnesota in 1996. Part of my employment offer included company paid expenses for both the sale of my Colorado home and the loan points, closing costs, and other expenses on a Minnesota home. My realtor was a rookie and her mentor was mostly absent. The realtor had found the house, but was otherwise clueless. When the first closing date came and went without either the seller or his agents showing up, I went on to the appropriate newsgroups (pre-WWW users groups) and started asking questions about sellers’ responsibilities. I was advised to find a real estate lawyer. I asked “How do I pick a real estate lawyer?” I got really lucky and a real estate lawyer from South Carolina gave me a list of questions (with answers) to ask prospective real estate lawyers. I took his list in hand and started calling Twin Cities lawyers who listed themselves as real estate lawyers. Lawyer after lawyer failed to answer a single question competently or they threw a pout and wouldn’t even bother answering my questions. Then I landed on Val Parranto-Davis. Val answered every question brilliantly and willingly, gave me a fee estimate, and pretty much took over the whole processes of bringing the seller and his realtors to heel.

After that experience, I wouldn’t consider buying or selling a house without a real estate involved on my side. Too many things can go wrong and realtors are mostly useless when there are any legal conflicts or complications.

How Much House Do You Need and How Much Money Do You Want to Spend?

"Net selling price" is a thing to keep in mind, always, when you are the seller. Real estate agents have almost no motivation to get top price for you or to find the right house for you. That 6% (high) commission on a $200,000 sale is $12,000 and a $250,000 price earns the agent $15,000. $3,000 isn't much if it takes an extra month to earn it, but $35,000 is a lot more for the home owner. Odds are good that the agent will be urging you to accept the first offer you get, even when there is a house bidding war going on in the area. At the least, set a minimum "take home" amount you are willing to accept for the house, before you list it, and stick to that no matter what kind of pressure you get from your agent. (She/he's not really "your agent," anyway.) Likewise, in my experience agents are always trying to "jack up" the top price you're willing to pay for a house. I've told agents "$100,000 is the absolute most I'm willing to spent" and they show me nothing but $150,000-and-above places because they know I can get the credit. I don't bother those agents after one outing like that.  

Every house I have ever owned was a "fixer-upper." I really believe that I never want to own the most expensive house in the neighborhood. My step-brother experimented with that rule before he died. He "invested" almost $3M in a neighborhood of $300k homes and his widow sold the place for $500k. I freak out over losing $1500 in 1991 and change how I do business for life. I can't even fathom what it would feel like to lose $2.5M. I'm sure there will come a time when doing my own repairs and upgrades isn't possible, but it hasn't happened yet. You can generally assume that you'll be paying close to $100/hour for most repairs and that it will take you 3-4x as long to do the job as it would a professional. However, you will almost always do a better job and use better materials. 

Using that buying tactic, I have at least recovered my investment on every house I've owned except one, which I had to sell during the 70s recession for a painful loss. Even that house could have been a lot worse because friends who stayed in that town ended up losing 50-70% of their home values during the next decade of constant recessions. We lost about 25% of our initial costs when that small town went from 3 houses on the market in 1976 to more than 300 in 1978 after losing three manufacturers and more than 2,000 jobs in a few months.

Staging A House for Sale

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a real estate professional came as we were closing on our current home. I had mentioned some of the odd folks we'd had looking at our for-sale house and she said, "It has to look perfect. It must look as if there is, literally, nothing that would need to be done before moving in and being comfortable in the home." At the time, we'd been talking about the fact that our kitchen stove was old and looked dated and some buyers had insisted that the house should have all new appliances. 

I said, "What about the 2 acres of yard and half-dozen gardens that need almost constant maintenance?" 

She replied, "That's 'the dream.' Most young buyers won't consider at that at all. They just don't want to have to fix anything." 

She also suggested that buyers needed to be able to visualize themselves living on the space, which meant that a lot of my wife's murals and all of our furniture needed to go. Friends who had visited and even loved that house objected to us painting over mountain and sky scenes and removing almost all signs of color and creativity in the house. We also emptied the house to the point that when we stayed over during a weekend open house, we slept on an air mattress that we could hide in an an upstairs kneewall, along with our bedding. The only furniture left in the house when we got our first two offers was a kitchen table where our contracts, contact information, and a portfolio of the yard and garden pictures resided. It looked huge inside.

The stove we'd been discussing was a 1980's stainless Jenn Air in excellent condition and I doubled-down on disassembly and polishing the visible parts of the stove. It went past gleaming into glowing. We also cleaned and waxed and oiled every surface of the house to the point that we didn't want to use the sink or bathtub because we felt that we'd need to buff them up afterwards. You could see your reflection in every mirrored, tiled, and shiny surface in the house. Every wooden surface had been sanded, stained, finished and oiled and looked better than new. We got our offer fairly quickly, in the dead of winter, when real estate was generally moving slowly. Lucky for us, we closed on the house, in March, before any serious yard work was necessary. 

A year later, one of our old neighbors was visiting friends in Red Wing and told us that the new, young owners had not figured out any aspect of lawn care and the yard got so deep one of our other ex-neighbors mowed it for them. They'd never asked how to start the riding lawnmower I left with the house. One of the ads they ran to attract renters even had their parents and a kid plowing through the backyard, knee-deep in overgrown lawn. I suspect 'the dream' turned out to be a lot more work than they expected. We were happy to have missed the spring clean-up. 

On your end, forget "the dream" or any "dreams" for that matter. Buying a house is a financial transaction. Don't listen to any of the sales hype about "investment" or status or neighborhood (How would a realtor know what the neighbors are like?) or any other dreamy sales crap. Look coldly and clearly at the property, as if you were planning on flipping it for a profit. The house isn't going to make you hipper, smarter, or even happier. It is just a place to store your stuff and to sleep. For most of my life, my house wasn't even a place to sleep, since I was on the road or at work more often than not. Once you own the place for a while and discover that you like the neighbors, no obnoxious unnoticed irritants emerge, and that the previous owners didn't leave you with a million dollars in stuff to fix, you can call it home and, maybe, even love it a bit.

Monopoly Money

Something I learned with my latest (last?) house purchase was, if you can stand the gamble, make the largest good faith deposit you can stand. In my situation, I was buying a bank-owned foreclosure and the bank had been trying to sell the house for almost a year. Our realtor said, "You need to make your offer within at least 5% of what the bank is asking for them to take the offer seriously." I'd already made a few offers on the many foreclosed houses available in Red Wing that summer and watched my offers get outbid, based on realtor advice. (Two of those offers ended up bouncing down to me when the "winning" bid-makers couldn't come up with money or financing. That is not the first time that has happened to me, either.) I made a bid that was 20% below the bank's (Wells Fargo) asking price, but I also sweetened it with a $10,000 deposit and a no-contingency offer. They didn't know it, but we would be paying cash for the house at that price. I suspect the bank thought my $10k might end up being free money if my loan didn't pan out. They rejected two or three asking price offers in favor of mine. Then, for the next month Wells Fargo tried various tactics to get me to increase my offer and my lawyer reminded them of the illegality of those tactics. (Yep, I paid her another $1,000 to negotiate with Wells Fargo for me. Never ask a real estate agent to do a lawyer's job.) Their last tactic was to pretend that they "couldn't find the title," thinking if they drug out the closing I might change my mind. Local real estate was beginning to move a little faster and I suspect they hoped for a better offer if they could weasel out of mine. A call from our lawyer and a law suit threat and complaint to the state real estate board and we closed the next day. 

If you are going to try the big deposit tactic, be sure to read the contract to make sure there are no nasty loopholes that might cost you the deposit. I trusted my lawyer to do that job, but I read the contract a few times myself before making minor alterations and signing it. I'm still pissed about losing $1500 thirty years ago, but I'd be really pissed about losing $10,000. 

As for the loan source, I've borrowed from big and little banks and, mostly, the experience was pretty mediocre (small local bank) to miserable-and-untrustworthy (Norwest Bank loan absorbed by Wells Fargo and sold to Countrywide which was assumed by Bank of America). During the Great Recession when mortgage rates were falling through the floor, I decided to renegotiate my home loan with my lender of the moment (Bank of America). No surprise, the bank did not want to bother with swapping out a 6.75% loan for a 3% loan. My real estate lawyer friend suggested I look at a savings and loan. I found a local S&L, Affinity Plus, and applied for a home loan with them. My credit is excellent and even during the Great Recession we owed a lot less on the house than it was worth and Affinity Plus bent over backwards to make the loan easy for me. The rate was 2.3%, which was a lot better than the best BoA could have offered. Turned out, Wells Fargo via Norwest Bank, Countrywide, and BoA via Countrywide had not released the lien on the property, even though the loan balance for each of those fine institutions was $0.00. We missed the loan closing date, because of that hang-up, but the S&L assumed responsibility for clearing up the title and liens and charged me zero (0) points for the loan as a self-assessed penalty for having to delay the loan switch. Interest rates had slithered back up a point or two in the meantime, but Affinity Plus stuck with our original deal and made a customer for life. 

If you know about my alter-ego, Geezer with a Grudge, I hold grudges for . . . ever. I have done anything I can to dissuade anyone who asks from doing business with Wells Fargo or Bank of America, since. Sometimes I make 'em listen to the whole gory story.

10/26/2020

Know Thyself?

According to Wikipedia and the Greek writer Pausanias, "The Ancient Greek aphorism 'know thyself,' is one of the Delphic maxims and was the first of three maxims inscribed in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi." It is probably first because most of us will never get to #2 if we spend any serious effort at figuring out how to know ourselves. It’s a disgusting job, but someone has to do it.

Take me, for example. Back in the 80s, I took a required career development course that included the infamous Myers-Briggs “personality inventory” test. The end result was a printout of my personality characteristics that, honestly, stunned me. Back then, a very primitive mini-computer determined that I was an INTP (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving). I had NEVER thought of myself as introverted and that hyper-important aspect to my personality was worse than neglected, ignored, and abused for 60-some years.In fact, until I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking last December, a book that was practically forced on my by two very perceptive friends, I had no idea what being introverted means. However, that 1980’s computer printout almost made me breakdown and cry in the middle of a very large class because it was, I felt, the first time in my life anyone actually knew me. And that was scary because I worked very hard for a lot of years not to be “known” by anyone.

More recently, I’ve tested (on the 16Personalities.com website) as an INTJ-T ( Introverted - 95%, Intuitive - 63%, Thinking - 91%, Judging - 75%) with a new quality (Turbulent - 76%). Supposedly, this INTJ personality can be summed up as "the Architect." This last character swap is interesting. A summary of the differences claimed, “The key difference between the INTJ and INTP in this respect is INTJs do accept leadership roles on occasion whereas INTPs do not." Honestly, that tracks. For most of my life, I took on management/leadership roles because I thought “that’s what a man does.” Sort of a version of “if I want this job done right, I have to be the one to do it.” Eventually, that attitude crushed the life almost completely out of me. When I left my electrical and manufacturing engineering career in 1991, I also made the unconscious decision to avoid any management assignments in dysfunctional organizations. For the last 15 years of my career, I began to take that decision more seriously at every turn of my working life: to the point that at one particularly difficult moment in my teaching career I stated that principle out loud in refusing a “promotion.” From then on, it was a conscious decision and a guideline I would not cross.

So, I guess it’s possible that my basic personality was altered by that realization? Something swapped me from Perceiving to Judging and did it in a not subtle way. Back in the 80s, that first Meyers-Briggs test found that I was hard-line on everyone of my four personality values. Many people are borderline on everyone of their personality traits, but not me. If you look at the trait percentages at the beginning of the paragraph above, you might notice that the Intuitive (N) trait, at 63%, is the closest I come to a borderline quality. In the 80s, I was in the 80-90% territory for 3 of my 4 INTP traits. Perception (P) was the exception, being somewhere closer to the line. So, something shifted in me at some point in my life. Honestly, I think it was for the good even if it cost me money, some authority, and promotional opportunities. None of those things mean much to me.

At 72, I am still exploring and learning about the first of my 4 or 5 "personality traits.” The first chapter of Quiet details the outright distain, distrust, dislike, and disgust that introverts produced from the Powers that Were in the 20th Century and I grew up in that atmosphere. It was not good enough to be a competent athlete, student, or worker. You needed to be excited, vocal, and authoritative in your convictions. To be successful, you needed to be a “leader” and to be noisy about it. I wasn’t excited about much of anything but mathematics and music when I was in high school and either I chose that moment or the moment chose me to escape into music. As a long-haired, hippy, musician outcast, the expectations of me were instantly lowered and I could be me to myself and the rest of the world made assumptions based on outward appearances and mostly left me alone. Later, I learned that to survive in the world of work and to provide for my family I would have to disguise myself as someone else and I did that for 40 years. Now, I’m having to study and spend a lot of time alone to remember who I am.

9/27/2020

The Ones I Knew (Part 1)

There are two groups of people in the news a lot these days, making fools and hazards of themselves and showing the world what a train wreck the Dis-United States has become: cops and Trump-culters. Watching the disaster from the moderate distance of a small town in Minnesota, I can’t help but be reminded of two examples of those two groups I have met and known lately. I think both of those people illustrate what the country is dealing with in every aspect of their natures.

Twenty years ago, I had a part time job working for a public access television station. A lot of the work for the station’s programs was performed by volunteers, of which I was one when I started working there. Some of those volunteers were nerdy high school kids working on pumping up their pre-college resumes with extra credit activities not involving sports or academics. Some of those volunteers had been doing that for at least a decade while their lived in their parents’ basement waiting for their ship to come in. Ted was in the first group. He was a tall, geeky looking, arrogant but awkward kid who had aspirations of going to the UofM in electrical engineering, but was a little too lazy for the demands of higher education. He often took the producer’s chair in some of the high school productions and his main talent seemed to be pretending to be a frustrated perfectionist who would bully the boys and hit on the girls and generally keep the com airways full of mindless noise and pointless criticism.

He was particular fond of the older, obsolete gear in the mobile truck and, occasionally, was helpful to me in figuring out how to jury-rig that gear into surviving a production. So, I got to know him a little. Mostly, I was the truck tech when he was a high school program producer, but later we both worked as truck techs when he was in college. He didn’t quite make it through a full year of engineering classes when he switched to “Law Enforcement’ at a community college. No surprises there. Immediately, he started telling me stories of his ride-alongs with the Ramsey and Hennepin County Sheriffs deputies. Mostly, stories about stopping various minorities and disassembling their vehicles on the freeway looking for “drugs and contraband.” It was obvious that his nerdy bully was really getting let off of its leash with his toy badge and that if he was ever allowed to play with a gun some innocent people were going to suffer.

When Philando Castile was murdered in Falcon Heights, I fully expected Ted to have been involved. The panicky, unskilled, irrational reaction Jeronimo Yanez had to Castile’s explaining that he was carrying a weapon was exactly the kind of scared-chicken reaction I’d expect from Teddy. It would be nice to learn that no police department was desperate or stupid enough to hand Ted a gun and a badge, but I suspect he’s armed and dangerous and out there waiting for his chance to create a disaster.

When we first moved into our retirement home, the place had been furnished with a collection of new, but lowest possible price, appliances by Wells Fargo Bank. The dishwasher didn’t last long, but I hadn’t bought the Maytag extended warranty when it was offered, but when the dishwasher failed a month after the warranty expired, I thought I’d test Maytag’s customer service with an email. I got a call back from Maytag and the customer service person promised a tech would show up and repair the machine under warranty. [Caution: Maytag customer service people make promises they can’t keep.] Wilbur, a local repair contractor showed up in a beat-up van with a scrawled “sign” on the side. It didn’t take him long to point out the fact that the washing machine was out of warranty and to determine the pump was defective (I knew that when I called Maytag.) and to write me a $60 invoice for his time.


After the screwing, Wilbur decided to start proselytizing about the as yet unelected Republican candidate, Donny Trump. His frame of reference was, of course, our last record-setting criminal executive administration; Ronald Reagan. Turned out he was something he called a “mechanical contractor” in southern California during the late-70s and early 80s. He described Reagan’s invasion of Washington, D.C. in terms that were clearly and weirdly religious. He listed a collection of Reagan’s accomplishments that not once touched on reality. It was one of the most insane moments I’ve experienced in Minnesota. Literally, almost everything Wilbur credited to Reagan either occurred under Carter, George H.W. Bush, or Clinton. I was baffled as to how such uninformed passion was created. So, I did some research. Turns out, one of the many promises made by Reagan in exchange for money and support was to construction unions who desperately wanted to avoid having to learn the metric system, since their grip on the US’s SAE mess was already pretty miserable. Reagan dismantled the U.S. Metric Board in 1982: a board created by President Gerald Ford and a national movement that was necessary for the United States to remain competitive in the world of science and industry. For once, Reagan kept his promise to a union, but the cost was enormous to both the US economy and to labor unions.

One of the dumber and self-destructive arguments against metrification was made by labor unions who imagined that switching would make it easier to off-shore manufacturing jobs. Instead, the lack of skilled labor capable of coping with the world’s dominant measurement system forced many companies to off-short their manufacturing facilities. Didn’t think that one out, did you goobers?

So, Wilbur’s dedication to Reagan and, on the rebound, to Trump is and was based on a complete misreading of his own sad economic history. I still don’t know what a “mechanical contractor” is, but in California we used to say “A contractor is an unemployed guy living in a pickup that he keeps moving to avoid the repo man.” I suspect that was Wilbur’s situation in California. The fact is, if you were a white guy who couldn’t make it in the 1980’s southern California federal welfare military-industrial boom, you were either severely injured or totally incompetent. When Wilbur visited our home, he mentioned he’d come “back home to take care of mother,” which is the classic homeless Boomer story when he or she have failed at life and have to move in with a parent to try and glom on to as much inheritance as possible to keep from having to live in a cardboard box.

So, two of my experiences with two of the groups causing so many problems in the Dis-United States are pretty classic: a dysfunctional spoiled white kid with bullying tendencies who wanted to be a cop and an old Trumper who thinks the world owes him a living because he is white. I wish there weren’t so many of those people out there.

Lowballing the Averages

I should have taken a picture, but I suck at that. On a recent visit to Rochester, MN for my wife’s check-up at the Mayo Clinic there, I saw a Trump supporter sign with “this is our 1776” statement somewhere in the general Trumpanzee gibberish. All the way home, I thought about that sign and the goober who paid for it. The 1776 conservatives were also known as “Tories, Royalists, Loyalists, or King's Men”: aka supporters of King George. Next up were the 1863 conservatives who revolted against the US government and national law and started the Civil War with an attack on Fort Sumpter and seceding from the Union. Realistically, those “conservatives” were clearly traitors. The late-1930’s US conservatives were generally positively inclined toward Adolph Hitler and even the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of London didn’t convince them otherwise. One of the classic 20th Century Republican conservatives, Senator Joe McCarthy, spent his first term in the Senate freeing convicted Nazi war criminals. In the 70s, conservatives lined up, first, behind Goldwater who wanted to start WWIII to see who had the most atomic weapons and, second, behind the record-setting criminal-producing Nixon administration. Reagan, the conservatives’ patron saint jabbered about economic responsibly while he created the US’s international debt flushing billions down his Star Wars toilet and generally spending money like it was falling from trees.

I have to admit I was surprised to see so many Trump signs in Rochester. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been. Rochester is where Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan is from and she’s the humorless nutjob who said, “We are jumping through the roof with excitement to welcome our great and fearless leader, President Donald J. Trump, back to Minnesota next week.” How someone from Minnesota would miss the connection between that statement and the Russian spies, Boris and Natasha, from Rocky and Bullwinkle blows me away.

What I have decided, based on long and careful observation and a growing cynicism—that the last 4 years have fed and over-fed—is that as smart as people are in a given area there has to be an equally stupid pool to keep the average . . . well, average. Rochester, MN residents possess an exceptional number of college degrees and Masters and higher degrees compared to the state, but Rochester has slightly more high school dropouts than the state average, too. The city has some of the nation’s most brilliant doctors, scientists, engineers, and managers and some of the freakin’ dumbest faux-conservatives on the planet to offset the city’s brilliance.

You could make an argument for avoiding ultra-educated cities because you’ll also be surrounded by hyper-idiots who leech off of the productive members of their society and whose purpose appears to be only to drive the average IQ to the national mean. That won’t work, though. The half-wits who call themselves “conservatives” are everywhere. You, literally, can’t find a place in this country that isn’t infested with the conspiracy sheep, racists, entitled and uneducated underachievers, and general purpose fools. We’ve been breeding them for centuries.

9/24/2020

Conservatives, You Have Convinced Me

You have convinced me. There have been so few Republicans since Teddy Roosevelt who have advanced the cause of democracy that I could count them on the fingers of one hand. So, when you say “better Russian than democrat,” the lower case “d” is not a typo. You have convinced me that this is exactly who you are: people who do not believe in the democratic form of government or in justice, fairness, equality, or basic decency. You have convinced me that you do not believe that individuals are as important as hyper-rich people or corporations. You have convinced me that you will do anything to turn the United States into an authoritarian state; a nightmare for most and a fascist’s wet dream. I believe you when you quote James Madison’s claim that democracy is “the tyranny of the majority”; a statement meant to justify the defense of slavery that was built in to the US Constitution. You have convinced me that you believe your false flag: that preventing a single illegal vote is worth obstructing thousands, even millions, of your fellow citizens from exercising their most precious and important civic responsibility: the right to vote.

You have convinced me that you believe “blue (and white) lives matter” more than any other life. Nothing is more important, to you than a police officer’s life and lifestyle, regardless of how many citizens have to suffer to protect that officer’s comfort and security. “Protect and serve” was never meant for all. The police department is who you expect to “protect” your entitlement as a white person, as a real American. When a cop, or even a random white person “standing their ground,” shoots an unarmed person of color, it is always justified. You’ve convinced me that is what you believe.

You’ve convinced me that you believe your right to play with guns is much more precious than the lives of children, let alone the rest of society. That attitude has spread into a portion of the public who now believe their right to possess or do something always overrides anyone else’s health, safety, or peace of mind. The prior adage/understanding was that your liberties ended at another person’s nose. However, now your pursuit of happiness is grossly more important than anyone else’s.

With your indefensible commitment to Donald Trump, you have convinced me that you imagine your religion to be the “one true religion” and anyone not believing exactly the same vision as you is a heretic. The idea of “freedom of (or from) religion” is, in your mind, un-American. You would love for the Dark Ages to return so that you can torture anyone who disagrees with you as a witch, an infidel, or a terrorist. The fact that a man who has happily admitted to committing every one of the seven deadly sins is now your “holy warrior” has cemented what your religion represents: the constant pursuit of money over all other values.

You have convinced me that you believe any news source not telling the story you’ve decided is true, regardless of evidence, is “fake news” and no evidence will ever convince you otherwise. In fact, I am convinced that you do not believe any evidence that conflicts with your beliefs. Truth is a casualty of your beliefs. Facts are an archaic construct that is incompatible with your belief system.

You’ve convinced me that you believe “education” should only tell the stories you’ve decided are true, the stories that make you comfortable with your country’s history and your race and your family history’s part in it. I am convinced that you imagine the world can go back to where some people were called “master” and that you deserve to be one of them.

You obviously believe a man who calls himself “the greatest President in history” is actually that, as if bragging makes it true. You have convinced me that your definition of “great” is in no way similar to mine. You’ve convinced me that every movie I’ve ever watched that had “bad guys” also had people in that same audience cheering for the people I thought were wearing the “black hats.”

You have convinced me that you believe all those things. You have convinced me that the United States of America you desire is a different place than the one I once hoped we were trying to build. You have even convinced me that there isn’t much point in hoping that you might understand the idea “my country, let me right the wrongs.” Patriotism and jingoism are not the same thing. There is little to no self-sacrifice or service involved in your version of patriotism.

You have convinced me that you are willing to go to war with your neighbors and anyone in the country who doesn’t believe these things. I do not believe that you understand the consequences of your actions and beliefs. I am beginning to believe that there is no way back to “normal” in the remains of this country because the distance between your “values” and mine are so vast that we might as well be two different species, let alone citizens of the same country. You have even convinced me that humans are incapable of surviving good times together, let alone the harsh and difficult times that we will experience because of the climate we are altering with our selfish and careless use of fossil fuels. You have convinced me that we have degenerated below the kind of Americans who worked and fought together to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and who worked even harder to recreate a post-Great Depression  economy and federal government that had the hope of allowing “the pursuit of happiness” for all Americans. The best we have ever imagined, and never realized, was that bare hope and you have convinced me the light of that hope has been extinguished.

I cannot say I appreciate the education you have provided in these last four years. My friends often remind me that I am no optimist and I always counter that with “a ‘pessimist’ is what optimists call a realist.” I think the last 40 years in this country have proved that being a pessimist is the most accurate path to take in the declining years of the United States of America.