Already I have an update on our adventure in homeownership, and it’s only getting worse. The problem: the City of Los Angeles is broke and always has been. They can’t afford to maintain the things they’re responsible for, and now it’s costing me $5500. Sadly, if I’d bought a house across the street, I wouldn’t have this problem.

City Trees = Homeowner Headaches
When we bought our house, we didn’t notice that the tree maintenance on our street was lopsided. The city planted trees on the parkway between the street and the sidewalk. Those trees are owned by the city, not us.  The houses on the side of the street with overhead power lines have one-story trees. The houses on our side of the street have three-story trees. It’s the city’s policy to trim the trees near power lines regularly, and trim the other trees once every 7 years. Except they don’t even have the budget to do that anymore, so who knows when the trees will get trimmed.

This causes several problems:

1. Dropped limbs sometimes result in homeowner lawsuits. We have a lot of apartment dwellers parking on our street. A limb fell from an untrimmed city tree and hit one of their cars. They waited too long to sue the city, so instead they sued the homeowner. The homeowner isn’t responsible, but still had to get a lawyer to defend the lawsuit.

2. Untrimmed trees can damage our homes. I live in fear that a strong wind will break off a huge limb and send it crashing into my house. Sure, I could sue the city at that point, but it will take a while to get paid.

3. The trees drop leaves all fall and clutter the sidewalk with droppings in spring. Whose responsibility is it to clean that up? Ours.

4. The trees destroyed the sidewalk. Unmaintained trees break sidewalks. The city has a program where they’ll pay half the cost to fix the sidewalk if we pay the other half, but why should we pay $1300 to fix one small portion of our street when it’s the city’s fault in the first place?

5. The trees destroy the sewer pipes. And that brings me to our story.

Trees vs. Sewer Pipes = Huge Costs
Trees spread as far underground as they do above ground. So, the roots find their way into the sewer lines. The city has determined that homeowners are responsible for the sewer lines, even if they’re on city property (under the sidewalk and street).

Our story went like this:

We knew we had roots in the pipes so we called a plumber to roto them.

The plumber discovered that the pipe from our house is partially collapsed from the roots. So, that was $1775.

They dug a big hole in the yard and discovered that the house line and the city sewer line had been sealed together with concrete.

They then discovered that the sewer line is split in more places and could collapse beneath the street at any time. The problem? The city tree is planted right next to the sewer line and is crushing it.

We have to line the sewer pipe under the street, at a cost of $3720. The upside is that the liner will prevent crushing and future root intrusions. And it will have a 20-year-warranty, so if there is a problem, someone else has to pay for it.

We considered just taking the tree down, but the city requires us to prove repeated repairs before it will permit us to cut down trees they refuse to maintain. They’re considering making us maintain the trees at our cost, but we still wouldn’t be able to cut them down! I’d rather cut it down and plant a new tree in a better location, but it’s not my land.

The Moral of the Story
If you’re looking for a home, inspect the tree heights of the street where it’s located. If the trees on one side are significantly taller than the rest (on average), you may live in a city that doesn’t adequately maintain the trees. Save yourself a headache by buying on the side where the trees are maintained.

I mostly use Facebook to keep up with friends (I’m a lurker, not an updater.) Then I became a fan of a few of my favorite companies. I quickly discovered that many offer exclusive coupons or announce early sales on Facebook. So far I’ve saved $507 at Cost Plus World Market using Facebook coupons. Here’s how:

Fan Your Favorite Stores
The easiest way to get coupons and sale announcements is to simply become a fan of the store. Most stores don’t bombard you with status updates (unlike certain “Ville” applications.) Just keep an eye out for updates from those stores each time you check Facebook.

Search for Stores and Read Their Updates
Some stores don’t require you to become a fan in order to print a coupon. Simply search for the store in Facebook and then read their recent updates to see if they’ve announced Fan-only coupons or have publicly-available coupons listed.

Search for Coupons, then Become a Facebook Fan
It’s understandable that you might not want to Fan a bunch of stores. But there’s another trick, which is how I knew to become a Cost Plus Facebook fan in the first place: coupon code sites. I used top coupon sites to search for Cost Plus coupons. One of the sites mentioned that they announce coupons on Facebook. I joined and discovered the 25% coupon would be available for that weekend. This weekend I received a $10 off $30 coupon from Cost Plus, and a free tote bag I learned about through their Fan page.

Sign up for Newsletters
Occasionally a store will announce its newsletter specials on Facebook. Take the hint that you should sign up for their email newsletter and get even more coupons.

Check Coupon Blogs
Two of my favorite coupon blogs are Money Saving Mom and Frugal Coupon Living. They’ve both announced coupon specials for becoming a fan of different brands of butter, milk, etc. Simply add these blogs to your RSS feed and then check for Facebook coupons. Once you’ve joined the Facebook fan page and printed your coupon, unfan the page.

Of course, there are other ways to get coupons. I’m now a World Market rewards member, so I will also be notified of sales by email, but I never would have known about that program without Facebook. Use the power of Facebook wisely and you could save a lot of money without a lot of effort.

I noticed a disturbing trend yesterday: a flurry of emails in my inbox encouraging me to buy something in honor of Earth Day. To be fair, I may in fact go buy a ceramic compost pail, but I was already looking for one. I’m not, however, going to buy a discounted sweater or a marked down TV for Earth Day. At what point did Earth Day become a shopping holiday? I’m not sure, but it makes me stabby.

If Any Day Should Be Safe from Sales Pitches…
The whole purpose of Earth Day is to promote conservation of resources and being kind to the environment. Adding a trip to the shopping mall or buying new clothes online that will then need to be shipped are not ways to conserve resources or reduce your impact.

Want to let me know about a new green cleaning product? That’s more reasonable, but most of those items are greenwashed, not actually green. Save your fraudulent claims for some other day.

What Should We Do with Earth Day?
Earth Day used to be a more political movement. It saw marches, rallies, tree-planting events, beach clean-up events, etc. Now it’s just another day to get hit by more advertisements for CFL lightbulbs and recycled sweaters or attend a festival where performers offset their energy use with “carbon credits” and sponsors hawk their various recycled wares.

Let’s go back to the core idea of Earth Day – take a step back from your stuff. Take a break from consumerism. Use this day to drive less, not more. Buy less, not more. Get together with people to plant trees or clean up a park, not enjoy a meal in a restaurant that will donate $1 to an environmental charity for every meal. Instead of buying a reusable water bottle, go pick up all the disposable bottles that are littering your local park. Instead of trying a new green laundry detergent, look at ways to reduce your detergent consumption.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that corporations are trying to be more responsible, but they’re not being responsible because they want to be. They’re being responsible because there is a profit motive to appearing green, and it impresses legislators considering restrictive new requirements.

So, let’s cut the corporations out again. Let’s make Earth Day a day to honor our earth and treat it kindly, not use the Earth Day coupon or snap up an Earth Day t-shirt.

It’s been six weeks since my last homeownership update, and already we’ve got loads going on with our house. When it rains, it pours. Fortunately, rain damage hasn’t been one of our issues, but lots of other things have.

Always Take the Part to the Hardware Store with You
It started with a toilet running continuously. I tried tightening the float arm, but that made it worse. So I drove four miles to Home Depot. I’d looked at the part, so I sort of knew what I needed. I tried to explain it to the guy there and he handed me something that looked similar. I got it home and discovered it was completely wrong. Back I went to Home Depot. It turns out they don’t carry the part! They suggested replacing the whole assembly, for $8-11. Instead I went to Ace Hardware, which is blocks from my house. They had the part for $1.99. It took me three minutes to install it. I would have saved two hours driving back and forth if I’d done two things: 1. take the part with me, and 2. go to Ace for small parts. Home Depot doesn’t carry that stuff.

Our Emergency Fund Gets a True Emergency
We’ve been having some plumbing problems for about a month. We knew there were branches in our sewer line, so we finally called a plumber to come rooter them. Yeah, turns out there are branches there, but only because the pipe is collapsed. Fortunately it’s a small section, so it will only set us back $1775, as opposed to the $8-10,000 it cost my friend. We asked if it was past the property line, making it the city’s responsibility, but it turns out the homeowner is responsible to the middle of the street. That’s right, you might have to dig up the city street, but that’s not their problem. I’m thinking really bad words about the City of LA right now.

In addition to that problem, we need a new pressure regulator and something is wrong with the water heater. The first problem could be causing the second one, so we’ll have to see how our home warranty company handles that.

Mike Diamond is a Rip-off
We had an estimate to install a water line from an independent plumber that was pretty reasonable, but we have a maintenance agreement with Mike Diamond from when we had our kitchen pipes replaced at Thanksgiving so we called them to get an estimate. My husband and I had a miscommunication, so he had them come out even though they charge $65 just to give an estimate, and it doesn’t count toward the cost if you have them do the work! That’s rip-off #1. The second rip-off is their inflated prices. After our 15% discount, their quote was 30% higher than the indie plumber’s quote. We ate the $65 loss and will never use them again. I’m now convinced that we didn’t need all the work they did at Thanksgiving and that we paid 30% more than we needed to. They had us over a barrel on that one, and we’ll never make that mistake again.

The Cheapest Contractor Isn’t Always the Best
In addition to all that, we have to get a cabinet in our kitchen elevated to make room for the new fridge. We got an estimate for that in December, but the guy flaked. The first guy who came out last week spent 10 minutes detailing his ethnicity (not that we cared) and giving us a song and dance about getting his own reality show. He started out saying he might not even want the job. I simply gave short answers and let him talk himself into it. He promised to follow-up with a quote, but then he would only give a ballpark. He refused to give us an actual quote unless he knew he was getting the job.

The second quote was from a cabinet company. Their quote was $400 more, but included items the first two had never mentioned and was much more thorough and professional. Even though it costs more, we went with the second company. The first one was too shady.

Recently, CNN challenged its iReporters to spend $10 and report back their results. Some were less than creative, for example, two $5 footlong subs. Most of us can do better than that, like the couple that bought 8 seed packets and projects they’ll get over $1700 worth of spinach. (I guess they really like spinach. I would have gotten a few different kinds of seeds.)

My Best $10 Purchases
Here are just a few of my favorite $10 and under purchases:

Toilet Paper
One of my best $10 deals was 40 rolls of toilet paper last November. Although, there was tax, so we’ll say I spent $10.97 total (I can’t remember if I had a coupon or not.) Those rolls of toilet paper lasted 24 weeks (we’re down to the last 3 rolls.) They would have lasted longer, but my husband has been home for the better part of three months. Still, six months worth of toilet paper isn’t bad for $10!

Tomatoes
Rather than seeds, I bought heirloom tomato seedlings. They were $4 each, so that brings my total to $8. If each plant produces 20 pounds of fruit, and organic tomatoes are $2 a pound at the local farmer’s market, then that’s $40 worth of tomatoes.

Microwave Cart
When I got my first solo apartment, the microwave my parents handed down to me wouldn’t fit on my 1950s countertops. I went to Goodwill and bought a sturdy, rolling, wooden cart for $10. Fifteen years later, I still have that cart. When I moved in with my husband, it became our bar/Christmas tree stand. It’s usually a bar in our new house, but at Thanksgiving we cleared it off and rolled it into the dining room to serve as a sideboard. I’ve never refinished it, repaired it, or done anything to it.

Art
I like to buy locally-produced art as a souvenir when I travel. I usually choose landscapes or something really emblematic of the area. Several times, I’ve found beautiful pieces for $10 which serve as a constant reminder of my trips.

Computer Game
There was that time I spent one cent on a computer game as a gift for my husband. He still plays it. I’m pretty sure the store had taken inventory and missed it in stock, so the system was updated with the lowest possible price. But that’s how it rang up and the clerk said she had to sell it to me at that price, so I took the deal.

Roasting Pan
Recently I scored a brand new, non-stick roasting pan for $6.46. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

Do you look out for good deals? What are some of your best $10 and under scores?

I’ve mentioned CD ladders as good options for tax refunds and emergency funds. They’re a safe way to earn a bit more in interest than the basic savings account. Currently, you won’t earn significantly more, but in the past I’ve seen CD rates go as high as 7% on a 5-year CD.

What is a CD Ladder?
Basically a CD ladder is five CDs, each with different maturity dates. Traditionally, the maturity dates are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 years. You buy them all at the same time. Then, when the 1-year CD matures, you roll it over into a new 5-year CD. After 5 years, you’ll have 5 CDs with the highest possible rate at the time of purchase, and you’ll always have a CD maturing within the next 12 months in case you need the funds.

Where Can I Create a CD Ladder?
Most banks offer CDs, so choose any bank or credit union. It’s best to get them all from the same bank or credit union to avoid future confusion. Before choosing a bank, read the reviews to make sure they don’t have issues with properly informing you about CD maturity. If you don’t notify them of your intention within the designated time period after maturity, they’ll automatically renew it into a CD with the same term.

Potential CD Ladder Earnings
Here’s an example of the interest you could earn with a CD ladder vs. a traditional savings account. We’ll start with $1,000 CDs. You may need more than this to open a CD at some banks, but it’s a nice round number for calculations. If you have a significant amount of money to invest, you can buy jumbo CDs, which have higher interest rates. These are Everbank rates. Even though I no longer love the bank, they have all the rates on their website, and they’re pretty generous.

1-year CD – $1,000 – 1.39%
2-year CD – $1,000 – 1.85%
3-year CD – $1,000 – 2.27%
4-year CD – $1,000 – 2.78%
5-year CD – $1,000 – 3.30%

After 5 years, you’ll have earned $768.40 in interest vs. $360 from a standard savings account. Of course, this assumes that interest rates won’t rise in the next five years. They will, because they move with the Fed rate, but CD rates will also rise with the Fed rate, so you’re renewed 5-year CD will earn substantially more than a savings account.

Of course, the more you can start with, the more you’ll earn. If you’re just starting, shoot for $10,000 total. Then, as each CD matures, consider adding more funds to each CD until eventually you have $25,000 in a CD ladder. The money is safe, it can be used for emergencies, and it’s earning a decent return.

My husband and I have been debating what to do with our emergency fund. Should we keep it all liquid in an online savings account currently earning about 1.22% interest or put some it in a CD ladder? There are pros and cons of both options, so really it comes down the size of your fund and how liquid you need it to be.

Fully Liquid Emergency Fund
Right now our money is in a savings account earning a piddling amount of money in interest. Because the Fed rate is 0%, savings interest rates are low. For a while, banks were offering high teaser rates, but those don’t last long.

However, we chose to keep the fund fully liquid for the time being so that we would have full access to it while my husband is on disability. We haven’t had to tap it, but it’s there if we need it.

So here are the pros of the liquid emergency fund:
Always available. If your roof caves in during a storm, the money is ready to go. No need to wait for the funds or get financing in the interim.

Easy to access. We just transfer it from our online savings account to our checking account. It takes about three days for the interbank transfer.

No fees for withdrawing. We can take our money out anytime we want and we can add money to it whenever we want.

There are also cons to the liquid emergency fund:
Low interest rate. If you want to make money off your money, then a savings account isn’t a lucrative way to do that.

Temptation to spend it on non-emergencies. If we had less self-control, we might use that money for other purchases because it’s so easy to access.

CD Ladder Emergency Fund
You should always keep some money fully liquid. I’d keep at least one mortgage payment in cash – you never know when the bank will screw up (or when you and your husband will accidentally overpay the mortgage.) However, once the minimum is covered, you could move some of the emergency fund into CD ladders.

Pros of the CD ladder emergency fund:
Higher interest rate. Rather than 1%, CDs typically earn 4% or more. Not a huge amount, but a lot. When you ladder it into 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5-year CDs, interest rates climb with each year.

No temptation to spend it. If you want to break open a CD early, you usually have to pay a penalty. You can get no-penalty CDs, but the interest rate is lower.

Cons of the CD ladder emergency fund:
Difficult to access. If you need the money to fix your caved-in roof or overhaul the engine on your car, you either have to wait until the CD matures, and then wait for them to send you the money after you request it, or you have to break it open early and pay the penalty. In the meantime, you might have to get financing to cover the repairs, and that could cost more than the interest from the CD.

For now, we’ll stick with our liquid emergency fund, but we may start CD laddering as it grows. I’m thinking the right ratio would be 50% cash, 50% CD ladders. Then we would have enough to cover the initial emergency cost, and would be earning more interest on the rest in case a serious emergency (like a massive earthquake) develops.

If you’re getting a refund, you’ve hopefully already filed your tax return. Why let the government keep that money any longer than you need to? If you’re a procrastinator, I hope you’ll make use of online tax software – I have reviews of TaxAct, TurboTax, and H&R Block at Home to help you decide. And to keep you fueled while burning the midnight oil, or to help you celebrate the fact that the nightmare is over, check out these Tax Day freebies!

Don’t Forgot to Enter My Giveaway
If you live near a McCormick & Schmick’s, enter my giveaway to win a $10.40 dining certificate. Simply comment on my earlier post, linked here, to enter. You can also eat in their bar for $10.40 on tax day, and walk away with a $10.40 dining certificate good for your next visit. Tax preparers get free dessert with your entrée on April 16.

Free Food for Tax Day
To keep you fueled up, there a giveaways for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here’s your plan:

Start at Chick-Fil-A, which is giving away free mini biscuits from 6 to 10:30 AM.

Next, head to Dunkin Donuts where they will give you a free donut when you buy a cup of coffee.

At lunch, go to Taco Del Mar to get a free taco with the printable coupon.

Or, go to Boston Market with a friend and this coupon to snag the buy one get one free entrée deal. (Also great for dinner time.)

Need an afternoon pick-me-up? Head to Starbucks with your own travel mug to get free coffee.

Then, on the way home, stop at Maggie Moo’s for a free sample of their ice cream pizza between 3 and 7 PM.

Next, hit up Cinnabon between 6 and 8 PM for 2 free cupcake bites.

Finally, visit Jack in the Box on Friday, April 16, for a sample of their fries to round-out the festival of freebies.

Discovered any other tax day deals? Share the knowledge in the comments.

There have been a few occasions in my life where I’ve had a credit card issuer call me a few hours after making a purchase to confirm that I was the one who’d used my card. This weekend, American Express went one better. I was a little put out, but also pretty impressed with the fast action.

Credit Card Purchase Confirmation
It happened at Cost Plus, when I was buying furniture. I suspect two reasons that my account was flagged. 1. Our card activity has dropped dramatically over the last two months, so this was a sudden increase. 2. I was spending a huge amount of money at Cost Plus World Market. Yes, they do sell furniture, but most people buy small things there. I probably wouldn’t have been flagged if I was at a more traditional furniture store.

I ran my card through the reader, and the charge was denied. The clerk looked up the reason code – limit exceeded. I was dumbfounded. It was just not possible for me to be over limit. So, then I started to worry – had my card been stolen? I told the clerk I couldn’t be over limit, so she suggested I call American Express. At that moment, my cell phone rang. It was American Express. I couldn’t hear well enough to clear the charge with the computer, so I spoke to a person. Once I confirmed that I was, in fact, standing in the store with my card, they approved the charge.

My best friend and I left the store with my stuff. Then I started to wonder how American Express had gotten my cell phone number. When we got home, my husband said they hadn’t called there first. I logged into my account and discovered that I’d supplied them with my cell phone number when I changed my address.

When I went to a different Cost Plus a few hours later to buy the remaining pieces of furniture the first store was out of, the charge went through without issue.

Give Your Credit Card Issuer Your Cell Phone Number
Now I’m going to add my cell phone to all my accounts. If they don’t have a cell phone option, I’ll enter it as my work number. I won’t enter it as my home number, because then they’ll call me there with offers. Issuers don’t generally call work numbers or cell phones except in an emergency.

If I hadn’t given Amex my cell phone, they would have called my home phone, where my husband would have told them I was at Cost Plus. But what if he hadn’t been home? I would have had two options:

1. Use a different card (no miles on that one.)
2. Call Amex and try to navigate my way to a person with the power to approve my charge.

I much prefer what actually happened – they called me immediately and then approved the charge.

It’s almost tax day. Have you filed already? Are you getting a refund or do you owe? If you’re getting a refund, how are you planning to spend it? Also, I have a special giveaway for you, my dear readers.

Giveaway Details
First, let’s start with a special Tax Day giveaway. On April 15, McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant locations nationwide will be featuring several $10.40 dinner specials in the bar – items like the ½-pound “Inflation” Burger and “Taxing” Fish Tacos – and all guests in the bar that day will receive a $10.40 dining certificate.

So, visit them to get one certificate. In addition, one reader of this blog will receive a $10.40 McCormick & Schmick’s dining certificate for commenting on this post. The $10.40 dining certificate is redeemable any day of the week in the dining room after 5:00 p.m. and is valid from April 17 through May 30, 2010. Just tell me how you plan to spend your tax refund (if you’re getting one.) You can enter if you’re not getting a refund. Just say you’re not getting one. All entries must be received by midnight Pacific Time on April 15. I’ll notify the winner on April 16.

How I Spent My Tax Refund
Last year I owed, owed, owed, so I didn’t get a refund. This year, the First Time Home Buyer tax credit got us a sizable refund, even though we tried our best not to. We didn’t withhold any Federal taxes for five months and still got money back!

Of course, we owed California taxes because our state raised the tax rate mid-year, but made it retroactive to January 1. So that’s how I spent part of my Federal tax refund – paying my state tax. Not a huge amount, but I did have better uses for that money!

I also went on a spending spree this month. My husband is heading back to work soon, so we’ve started buying furniture, rather than leaving several key rooms empty. So far, this month I’ve purchased:

Refrigerator
Dining room table
Dining room chairs (6)
Leather arm chairs (2)
Foyer table

Most of it was bought at Cost Plus this weekend where they had a 25% coupon, so I got $1969 worth of stuff for $1476. The fridge was 10% off and had a $50 rebate, so I got it for $962 including delivery. I ordered it out of state, so I didn’t pay tax. I’ll also get another small rebate for having my local utility pick up our old fridge. The dining room table was $581, including tax and delivery.

In addition to all that, we need to buy 3 couches, a coffee table, a TV, a TV stand, and have some cabinet and plumbing work done. I plan to spend less than $1000 for each couch and the TV. The coffee table will probably be around $300 and the TV console I’d like to get for less than $600, but we’ll have to see what we like. So, we’re looking at around $6100 for all that.

Grant total is $9119, assuming I can’t find sales and discounts on most of this stuff. Of course, that’s more than our tax refund, but we have money saved for these purchases. Using our tax refund to buy 2/3s of it will allow us to keep more money in our emergency fund.

Do you have big plans for your refund? Tell me in the comments to enter the giveaway!

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