Shelter from the Mortgage Storm? Try Your Credit Union

Close Encounters of the Cheap Kind has a new home at www.CheapEncounters.com!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you are probably very aware by now of the issues around mortgage lending. If not, go take a look at your brokerage account and try to come up with another explanation the balance number is so much lower than it was before. As painful as it is for those of us who are investors, it is probably even worse for those who are trying to get a mortgage in this hostile environment.

So what’s a buyer to do to take shelter from this mortgage storm? Apparently, the answer is to head down to the credit union. According to this Marketwatch article, borrowers are turning to credit unions to get mortgage loans after encountering difficulties borrowing from banks and other lenders. Why? Because most credit unions hold their mortgage loans in their own portfolios rather than trying to sell them in the secondary market. That means they don’t really have to care if they can resell the loan or if it meets investment grade standards.

Although it may vary, credit unions often provide better loan rates and deposit products with fewer fees since they are non-profit organizations. There are disadvantages, but for savvy consumers credit unions are typically great places to do business. And membership restrictions have loosened at many credit unions in the last several years, meaning it is easier than ever to qualify for membership. Check out the Credit Union locator for a credit union in your area.


August 28, 2007 Posted by | Debt, Home Ownership | Leave a comment

UPDATE: I WAS ROBBED! plus some property recovery tips

Close Encounters of the Cheap Kind has a new home at www.CheapEncounters.com!

I posted last week about some rat bastard(s) breaking into my home and stealing some of my stuff. A few developments since my previous post:

  • We figured out that the burglar(s) also took a framed family picture that was in our entertainment center along with the electronics. The only thing we can figure is that they wanted the frame.
  • My brother-in-law and I successfully installed a new door and frame. Total cost of the repair is going to end up being about $200.
  • I called the incident into our neighborhood’s security patrol line. Not that there is really an active security patrol, but you can leave voicemail messages which are reviewed by an officer specifically assigned to the neighborhood for follow-up.

My other brother-in-law also did a Craig’s List posting offering a reward for the recovery of his stolen guitar, which got an interesting and informative response from a former HPD officer. The former officer provided some tips on trying to recover property stolen in a burglarly. The information is specific to the city of Houston, but would likely be similar in other areas.

  • Make sure that a copy of the police report with the information on the stolen items makes it to the pawn shop detail. This group is specifically assigned to enter and review pawn tickets submitted by local pawn shops for stolen goods. These tickets must be completed whenever a pawn shop accepts an item for pawn and turned into the police. There are very few officers that work this detail, so persistence is key.
  • Items pawned in Houston must be held for 30 days. In theory, items pawned are collateral for loans made by the pawnbroker and if and when the person who brought the item in does not pay back the loan the item can be sold by the pawnbroker to recover what he is owed. The transaction is not an outright sale of the property to the pawn shop.
  • If the items were pawned, they are most likely to show up in a shop across town after the 30 day waiting period is over.
  • Expect to do a lot of legwork to find your items in a pawn shop.
  • If you do find an item that is your in a pawn shop, DO NOT declare that it is yours! Act interested in the item and ask the shop to hold it for you, leave, and call police. Make sure to have a copy of your police report detailing the item(s) to provide to the responding officer. As our friend noted “The pawnshop is interested in making money, NOT in helping you get your property returned. They have already paid money out.” As we are reminded here, the pawn shop has no incentive to return your property, as they have already paid money for it and lose completely if you reclaim the item as stolen goods.

Perhaps these tips will help someone else out there. We certainly never realized that we shouldn’t confront the pawn shop ourselves if we find our property or that it would take 30 days to show up on the shelves.

July 9, 2007 Posted by | Crime, Home Ownership | 3 Comments

I WAS ROBBED! (literally)

Close Encounters of the Cheap Kind has a new home at www.CheapEncounters.com!

Another wrinkle in my home saga – some bastard broke into my friggin’ house! Broad daylight just before noon on July 4th somebody apparently pulled a vehicle up the driveway, kicked in the backdoor, and grabbed whatever they could. They took all the electronics from my entertainment center except the old Super Nintendo and the detachable speakers for the LCD TV (which means that whoever has my TV can’t hear the programming), as well as my brother-in-law’s custom made guitar that was a souvenir from a two-year church mission in The Philippines. The alarm seems to have scared them off before they stole too much.

Kudos to Houston PD for a response time of just under 45 minutes (no, that’s not a typo) from the time my alarm company called in the alarm. To give you an idea, I had time to call my brother-in-law (not the one who lost a guitar, another one) who lives about 20 minutes away, have him drive to my house to meet the police, have him go around the house to see the back door had been kicked in, have him call me with a report and then call Houston PD dispatch to inquire about the location of the responding officer, and then wait another 20 minutes outside for the police to finally show up. Glad they thought it was worth showing up after we called in and confirmed that, yes Virginia, there had indeed been a break-in! If my brother-in-law hadn’t called back and confirmed the break in they probably would have had time to go out and rent a U-Haul to come get all the furniture they left the first time. Our tax dollars at work, folks!

Now the question is what next? Upgrade the security system? Get a dog? Buy a gun? All of the above? Do we bother replacing the stuff that was stolen?

I guess a lesson you can take from this is don’t get too wrapped up in material things. Not only could they detract from other aspects of your life or prevent you from saving for some worthy goal, but you may eventually be left with nothing of them except their detachable speakers.

July 5, 2007 Posted by | Crime, Home Ownership | 1 Comment

My Manifesto to the Homeowners’ Association

Close Encounters of the Cheap Kind has a new home at www.CheapEncounters.com!

Below is my manifesto, delivered to my homeowners’ association Monday night. The text is pretty much self-explanatory, but you can find more background on yesterday’s posting here.


Fellow neighbors,

I come to you this evening to discuss concerns that I have regarding two recent deed restriction violations that have been declared on my property, as well as the current process for identifying and handling deed restriction violations.

With regards to the deed restriction violations alleged on my property at <insert address here>, we have acted in good faith to address these concerns. We were cited as needing to refinish our front doors, which was completed in a timely manner. Additionally, we fixed a rut on the edge of our driveway that was cited by APM, created by soft soil after recent rains and my going off the driveway in my SUV one morning rushing out to work.

We were also cited for two other violations. The first is for a broken drain pipe and stained brick on the side of our home. Please note that there is no true drain on the side of the home, only a small hose to release excess condensation from the air conditioning unit in our attic. Secondly, this entire condition has existed since before we purchased the home in January 2005, but for whatever reason is now considered to be a nuisance by APM and the board. The staining that is being referred to is permanent and despite numerous attempts using various methods to remove these stains, we have been unsuccessful. I have contacted APM multiple times regarding the issue trying to get it resolved, finally being told the last time that I needed to produce pictures of the home from before I purchased it showing the condition and if I did not have that I would need to take it up with the board. Of course I don’t make a habit of taking pictures of homes I don’t own from odd angles, so I stand before you to plead my case on this item. It is also worth noting again that the stain referred to is barely visible from the edge of the property as it is on the side of the home and mostly hidden by vegetation and the small distance between that wall and the neighbor’s home.

It was also alleged that my mailbox was in need of repair and was a nuisance to the community. I disagreed with this assessment and contacted APM to dispute such, and although the brick stain issue was noted in the next follow-up notice sent the mailbox issue was not, leading me to believe that APM had cleared that particular issue. Imagine my surprise when I receive a third notice from APM still noting the stain issue as well as the mailbox issue, and assessing me a $25 fine for the violation. Unfortunately my mailbox was apparently struck with a baseball bat this past week and should now in my estimation be replaced, but it is still my position that this was a non-issue and should have never been cited. I would note that despite my disagreement with both of the forementioned citations, in an effort to appease APM and the board I began work to install a gutter on the side of the house this past weekend and have purchased a new mailbox to replace the current one, although this work has been delayed due to the recent rainfall.

I am disappointed that these issues could not be resolved prior to now, however I am further disappointed that it appears that either APM, the Board, or both have taken a selective approach to enforcing deed restrictions. During my independent inspection of properties in our neighborhood, I found 51 violations using the apparently tough grading standards APM has used on my property. My review was only a quick drive-by of properties, so it is likely a closer inspection would produce more instances. While I realize some of these instances may have already been addressed by APM and the Board, the sheer number of violations leads me to the conclusion that not all properties in our neighborhood are being assessed equally. As a quick overview of the issues I found:

6 properties were found to have signs in violation of the deed restrictions. The restrictions clearly state “no signs of any kind shall be displayed in public view on any lot except one sign of not more than 5 square feet advertising the property for sale or rent.” The violations I noted ranged from political campaign signs to school pride to signs declaring that their home could “talk”. One of my favorites, though, is the “Support our Troops” sign, proudly displayed in front of the home of our esteemed president. I haven’t seen one of these since the first gulf war, probably because they haven’t made them since the first gulf war. Based on the condition of the sign it’s probably been there since then. While I agree with the sentiment, this is a violation and if you wish to display this sign you should formally amend the deed restrictions to allow such. But my absolute favorite is this sign designating Droddy St. as “Elvis Presley Blvd”. I’m sure if the king were with us today, he would be very proud. Of course this 6 doesn’t include the numerous security system yard signs throughout the neighborhood, which would also technically be in violation. I would formally propose that the deed restrictions be revised to allow security system signs, as it seems consistent with the prevailing view of the board and would be agreeable to most if not all residents.

Have either of these last two violations resulted in any enforcement action or the assessment of fines by APM and the board? Well, I just happened to have a conversation with an employee of APM calling himself Lee who was conducting this month’s deed restriction violation inspections that answers that question. I was a bit alarmed that he admitted that neither of these two violations had been reported. When I mentioned to him the violation involving our board president’s home, I was told that APM as a matter of policy would not report any violation involving the display of an American flag or patriotic message, as they had done so previously at another community they managed and received unfavorable press coverage for it. While I can understand their concern, in my opinion it is not APM’s place to choose not to enforce our community’s deed restrictions, no matter how politically unpopular the enforcement action may be. This proves that the restrictions are not being equally enforced, and creates further questions as to what other restrictions APM might be choosing not to enforce. For the second violation honoring the King of Rock and Roll, he checked his listing and admitted he hadn’t even noticed that issue previously, which calls into question the quality of these monthly inspections.

I also noted one instance where an obviously disabled vehicle was parked in a driveway with flat dry-rotted tires, and another with an RV parked in the driveway with the awning extended no less. Looks like they are making themselves at home outside the home!

But the violations that I was most interested in and most relevant to our discussion this evening are the ones similar to the alleged violations on my property, namely mailboxes in disrepair and stained exterior walls. I noted 22 mailboxes in some state of disrepair, including 6 that are leaning or otherwise not standing completely upright, 12 that are in need of repainting or replacement, and my favorites are the 4 jungle mailboxes that are in the middle of so much vegetation you can hardly even see the mailboxes. As my mailbox is such a nuisance, I hope the board has pursued action against these 22 other nuisances.

I also noted a total of 20 properties that were stained on the exterior walls. 8 of these had some degree of staining on the side walls, much like my property albeit much more visible from the road. But the most noticeable were the 12 that had some degree of staining on the front, street-facing side of the structure. Seeing that my staining on the side of the property barely noticeable from the road has caught the attention of APM and the board, surely the board has pursued action against these other more obvious violations.

As a service to the community, I have taken photographs of these violations and labeled each with the appropriate property address to allow APM and the board to see to it that proper enforcement action is taken.

Now, my purpose here is not to cause trouble or for the wrath of APM and the board to come down upon my neighbors the way it has come down upon me. I simply seek to resolve these alleged violations, have this ridiculous $25 fine that has been assessed removed from my account, and ensure that all property owners are treated fairly and equally. I feel that my property has been held to an unreasonably high standard, however if this is the standard that will be used I want to make sure that all properties are held to this same standard. To this end, I propose the following:

  1. Details of all deed restriction enforcement actions should be published in the monthly newsletter. This would provide greater transparency to the deed restriction violation process and provide comfort and assurance to all residents that all deed restriction violations are being addressed. It would also give the residents the means to determine if there are any violations that are not being addressed and bring those to the attention of APM and the board. It may also “shame” property owners into addressing these violations. However, the most important benefit to the neighborhood and the board would be that this sends the message to the residents that deed restriction violations are taken seriously and that no resident is immune from enforcement action, resulting in greater compliance to the terms of the deed restrictions.
  2. The process used by APM and the board for handling deed restriction violations should be publicized and distributed to all residents. This would allow everyone to understand how violations are handled and what the consequences of violations are, and when those consequences would come to pass. I certainly would have appreciated being informed that I would be assessed a $25 fine for my non-existent violations instead of being sent a bill along with a nasty note from APM.
  3. A formal deed restriction violation dispute process should be developed and distributed. This would allow an avenue for misunderstandings such as mine to be resolved while minimizing the run-around from APM. As APM seems unwilling to give residents a straight answer on how to go about disputing alleged violations, a direct communication from the association to the residents is appropriate.

As a concerned resident of this community, I would be more than happy to assist the board in the implementation of the steps I have set forth. I believe these steps would provide greater transparency and integrity to this process. If you ever want the neighborhood as a whole to support the efforts of the association, you must prove that the association isn’t a mechanism used to harass homeowners as many residents perceive it to be but a partner with whom we can improve our community and our quality of life. Until this happens, we will continue to see a neighborhood where the majority of residents view the association with a high level of contempt and want nothing more from the association than to take their yearly dues assessment and leave them alone.

I would ask that the board adopt these proposed actions, as well as to officially clear the alleged violations on my property at <insert address here> and reverse the $25 fine that has been assessed. I look forward to resolving this issue and working with the board for the betterment of our community. Thank you!

June 27, 2007 Posted by | Home Ownership, Homeowners Associations, Real Estate | Leave a comment

Homeowners’ Associations: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them!

Close Encounters of the Cheap Kind has a new home at www.CheapEncounters.com!

Well, looks like I will have a lot more material for my blog now. Last night, I went to the monthly meeting of my homeowners’ association to express concerns about the enforcement of deed restrictions. For those of you who don’t have this headache in your life, deed restrictions are often used in residential neighborhoods to limit what you can do on your property and to attempt to keep properties to a minimum standard. Some examples would be rules against parking cars in your front yard, letting your grass grow to two feet tall, and painting your mailbox pepto-bismol pink. Unfortunately, in a lot of instances the deed restrictions are used to harass select homeowners about trivial matters.

Anyway, my property was cited for several violations for relatively insignificant things, such as stained brick on the side of our house (the stain had been there since we moved in and just about permanent) and a mailbox that needed painting and that was leaning. Obviously the type of things that will lead to the end of civilization as we know it. I would call the property management company to dispute the alleged violations and be led to believe that the violations would be removed, only to get another threatening letter. My sense was that as there were many other obvious violations in our neighborhood that had been there as long as we could remember our property was being singled-out for unequal enforcement and others were allowed to get by unharassed. One of these violations was on the board president’s house, no less. The entire situation raised questions in my mind as to the integrity and fairness of the process, and concerns about the lack of transparency in the process of how violations were dealt with and how residents could appeal cited violations handed down by the property management company.

My purpose in going to the meeting was to try and clear my violations and raise these concerns regarding the process. I had three pages of prepared remarks (I’ll post those tomorrow). To my surprise most of them were excited to see anyone come to the meeting and provide comments, although the guy who was in charge of the deed restriction enforcement was rather abrupt and defensive. Based on what they told me, they had had all of about six non-board residents show up to the meetings in the last five years. They also had an opening on their board for a treasurer, and offered me the position on the spot.

I actually did accept the position. My thought is that it is poor form to go and complain but then not be willing to help. The time commitment seems minimal, and it will also allow me to provide direct input into the management of the association and serve as a watchdog.

I guess the moral of the story here is that if there is something you don’t like about the way your neighborhood association is being run, go down to the meeting and say so. You may be surprised at the response you receive.

June 26, 2007 Posted by | Home Ownership, Homeowners Associations, Real Estate | 2 Comments