The check is in the mail

Name bar The single silver lining for me in this downward spiral of a real estate market is that my property taxes have sunk. Low. Way low. They are something like a third of what they were when I bought my home.

My mortgage company forces me to escrow my taxes and insurance, so while the payments toward interest and principal haven't budged a cent in nearly seven years, the declining property taxes have meant lower monthly payments. (Perhaps "force" is a strong word. But my interest rate would increase if I didn't fork over the taxes and insurance in monthly installments and paid them on my own instead.)

The payments drop based on the schedule of my mortgage company. When they decide to review my escrow holdings, they send me a check and notify me of my new payment amount. But since it's my money anyway, why should I rely on their schedule?

This week, after three attempts (the automated phone system kept disconnecting me), I reached a person who could discuss my escrow amount. She gave me an estimate for what I'd be due when the amount they collect each month is reviewed: $465! I asked for a review on the spot. She said they were going to look at it anyway next month. I said I could use any sum of money now, especially when it's mine to begin with. She punched some buttons on her computer and voila, there's a check in the mail to me for $432, the official amount I'm due.

I highly recommend doing the same if you are a property owner or if you already have, I'd love to hear the kind of paybacks you're anticipating.

Happy holidays, indeed.

Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (0)

My road to refi, Chapter 1

Name bar For months now, I've been meaning to pursue refinancing of my mortgage. What's stopped me: I don't think it will happen. The value of my home is visible only with a microscope, and things are getting worse, not better.

I bought in 2004, along with thousands of other South Florida suckers. I had a truly horrible real estate agent who pressured me into signing a contract the same day I first looked at the house I ended up with. She ended our relationship by hanging up on me a few times. (Really, I'm not bitter.)

But at the end of the day, I wanted to buy. I was tired of living a rental lifestyle where there was hardly parking for me, much less a few friends if I wanted to have a get together. I wanted a garden and a washer and dryer that didn't jangle to life via endless supply of quarters.

So I did it. It was scary, but exhilarating. I got a solid loan, nothing that involved private mortgage insurance or a balloon payment or wouldn't build equity. I made modest improvements to the house but I still have no dishwasher and 50s-era cabinets and no home equity loan to pay down. I had parties and grew vegetables and did laundry at midnight without sifting through my change first. Undewater

Two years later, a (different) real estate agent convinced me not to sell, that property tax reform was going to kick in and I'd be better off waiting until 2007. You know how that story ends.

Despite taking a massive pay cut for a year, and now getting paid only a little more than I did when I bought the place because of additional cuts to my pay, I've never missed a mortgage payment -- or have ever been close to doing so. I don't want my mortgage company to finally pay attention to me for the wrong reasons, though I wish they would stop including those inserts in my statements that tell me about all the wonderful options there are out there for people who wish to refinance.

I'm not looking for a break on my principal. I bought the house at the price I bought it for. But I'd love a slightly lower interest rate and a break on closing costs would be a nice touch.

Last time I attempted a refinancing was two years ago. It took roughly 20 phone calls to get a human being on the phone to set a rate and start the paperwork, only for them to appraise my home for far less than they had in 2004 and using all kinds of language and criteria no one mentioned before. The person I was dealing with over the phone intially told me to call her back, bypass the phone web. I did. A dozen times. She never called me back but eventually changed her voicemail message to indicate no one should leave a request for her to respond.

A friend of mine starting on the same path as me has written letters to his mortgage company. He's been declined. He called the designated person assigned to his mortgage. Not one return phone call. He visited a branch office this week hoping for better luck. The bank employee proceeded to call the same customer service line he had and stay on hold for 45 minutes until finally giving up.

So things don't look good. But since persistence is my business, I'll keep trying, and I'd be curious if you have any words of advice or stories of success to share.


Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (0)

When Patiences Pays Off

Amanda Bar

Deer I like weird and unusual pieces of art (or so I've been told) but so often the problem with this aesthetic is that often quirky home decorations can be quite expensive.  A Z Gallerie opened up near my city within the past year, and I love checking out all of the unusual items they offer, and I've long been eyeing a white laquer deer head that's been hanging on their wall since opening day.  Don't ask me why, but I love it!  However, I'm not so in love with the $199 price tag.

Instead of impulsively whipping out my checkbook (like I am prone to do) I held off and had my patience rewarded.  A few months ago I noticed that they offered a different deer head, smaller and made of resin, but more or less in the same exact style as the one I had been eyeing - and even better, it was only $49!  It's almost half the size of the original piece, but it fits perfectly on my wall and I love being able to save money while still keeping the initial aesthetic that I was going for.

Whether you agree with my taste in decor or not, you have to admit that I made a STAGgering decision by holding off on my rapid-fire spending habits.  (Feel free to groan at the pun - I know I did.)

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (0)

Succumbing to Impulse Shopping

Amanda Bar

The impulse fairy has struck again; that unstoppable, wallet-draining phenomenon that I have carefully been avoiding for months now.  As I’ve comfortably been settling into my new home, and as I have completed most of my major home reconstruction projects, I’ve been left to consider the smaller details around the house that I would like improved.  One of these little considerations led me to the $349 purchase that I very recently stumbled into.

I have a large amount of jewelry - not real jewelry, mind you, but fake (as long as it sparkles who cares if it’s real, am I right?).  I’ve been storing most of it in a dresser drawer, but it’s been spilling out into the rest of my room for awhile now.  I’ve long been keeping my eye out for a jewelry armoire to take care of this problem, and unfortunately I happen to have found the perfect match with a not so perfect price.

I’m sure I could have found a better deal elsewhere, which makes the money spent sting all the more, but I was there in Pier 1, they had one more left in stock, and I was overcome with that I HAVE TO HAVE IT sensation that I thought myself cured of!  Alas, it appears as though being a spendthrift is an incurable condition.  On the plus-side, I like to think that all of my careful spending has “earned” me an indulgence such as this…and I can’t deny that (beyond the price) I’m pleased with the results of my purchase.

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (2)

Saving Furniture While Sparing Your Pet

Amanda Bar

I’ve been the owner of a cat for the past five years, and having grown up with a sister who worked at a veterinary clinic I am well aware of the general opinion that most vets have of declawing.  For those who don’t know, declawing isn’t a matter of simply removing the nails – you’re actually surgically amputating the last bone from your cat’s toes (and yeesh, just typing that out makes me uncomfortable).  I’ve never considered declawing my cat, but as a homeowner and, more to the point, a furniture owner the thought has recently crossed my mind.

My cat has recently gone to town on the arm of my suede sofa (purchased brand-new from my brother-in-law), and though I don’t think I’d ever be able to bring myself to the point where I value the condition of my furniture over the condition of my pet, I still want to preserve what remains of my sofa.  I headed over to PetSmart this weekend and dropped $40 on a scratching pad and a “Stick Paws” pack – more than I cared to spend, but worth it to save a $300 sofa investment.

Tootles (my cat) immediately took to the scratch pad which I positioned directly in front of the sofa, but frankly I’m more interested in catching her with the Sticky Paws scratch guards.  The scratch guards appear to be nothing more than double-sided strips of sticky tape that you adhere to the problem areas on your furniture.  When you cat goes to scratch the idea is that their paws will adhere (mildly!) to the tape, resulting in a generally unpleasant experience for the clawing kitty.  I don’t know if this particular solution will prove worth the cost (you also have to replace the strips regularly), but I’m willing to give anything a try over declawing.

Does any other pet owner have similar problems, and possibly helpful suggestions?  I've heard there are a variety of other methods I could try including sprays that discourage cats from scratching, but I'm hesitant to dench my furniture in unknown liquids.

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (2)

Don't Always Take the Easy Way Out

Ali Bar

Now that I'm in New York, all settled into my new apartment (quite spacious I might add), I'm looking for adventures for the monetarily disadvantaged (Oh, and also working very diligently at school).  It's coming along.  But, back to the apartment, one of, hopefully, many good notes this semester. It’s in Spanish Harlem and about a half hour commute by subway from my studio on the East Side, but it's about half the price I would be paying in university-provided dorms.  Grin.  While I could have made things quite easy for myself and just moved into the dorms, I went in search of an apartment. I share it with three other people – including one who is temporarily renting the living-room couch, but as I said the apartment is large by New York standards and even has a dining room.  Even though dorms do have communal spaces such as kitchens, I often find it difficult to cook. Think disappearing food and waiting to use the stove while on a tight schedule. So, for me it makes sense to go the apartment route. I save money, have my own kitchen and don’t have to rely on an expensive meal plan, which generally only makes sense for big eaters. True, it's nice having everything provided for in a dorm setting, but looking for your own space and cooking go a long way for me. Also, I’m in search of good low-cost recipes, as well as ideas for portable food that I can make at home and take to studio for lunch. Any suggestions are welcome.

Posted by Account Deleted on | | Comments (0)

Property Tax Proposals Bring Welcome Relief

Amanda Bar

Well, it's official - I received a notice for my proposed property taxes for next year, and my previous rate of $3,632 has shrunk down to the tentative amount of $1,955.  Unless some unforeseen event occurs to alter this decrease, I am jumping for joy at the thought that I might not have to live as budget-conscious as I have been for the past year.

A big factor in my decreased taxes is my homestead exemption - something that I did not have the foresight to take care of last year when I had the chance.  Also, my assessed property value went from $172,950 to $126,600, which is much closer to the amount for which I bought my home.  So adding on my homestead reduction, as well as the reduced market value of my house, my listed taxable property value is $76,600 (down from last year's $172,950).  I don't need to be a math major to know that this will equal a huge difference in my monthly mortgage payments, and for once I can't wait for the bills to roll in!

 I hope you all had similar good news, but if not make sure to review your options for contesting your property taxes!

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (2)

Sudden and Welcome Tax Surprises

Amanda Bar

I’ve received some really nice feedback in regards to a recent Miami Herald article featuring me regarding the many woes of home ownership that I’ve stumbled across.  One of these messages suggested that I can check the status of my homestead exemption by checking out the Broward County Property Appraiser's website, and while doing so I uncovered that my estimated property value for 2010 has gone down!

The assessed value on my home unexpectedly spiked between 2008 and 2009 from $88,000 to $172,950, an increase which sent my mortgage payments from $750 to $1200 per month.  News that my property has been valued lowered is terrific, especially since it means that I no longer have to worry about contesting the previous assessment with the county appraiser’s office.

I have no idea what my monthly payments will be once this change takes effect, but I can expect it to be lower than what I've been paying thus far - always a good thing!

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (0)

A slick price

Name barAside from invading every minute of our lives, penetrating into our subconscious and clouding once idyllic images of the Gulf of Mexico, the oil leak could forever change our everyday spending habits.

And it doesn't matter if you don't eat seafood or vacation in the South or go to the beach or never drive a car, ride a bus or fly.

That's the message of this piece created by They mention that the price of seafood will rise -- and already, some types of shellfish, including oysters, are becoming scarce. As if Florida needed it, property values could take another deep-well plunge. Barrel-of-oil-and-dollar-sign

Never mind the environmental price tag, which I can only assume will be an unfulfillable debt, and breaks the heart of this admitted nature lover and vegetarian who has had the opportunity to see an endangered species of turtle lay eggs on the beach and kayak in the Everglades.

But the other side effects of the slick: Taxes could rise, gas prices could increase (though at the moment things seem cheaper than they have been) and everyday stuff could cost more because so much cargo is handled by ports in the Gulf.

Granted, the disaster is creating some jobs, but at what price?

Posted by Nirvi Shah on | | Comments (0)

When Household Hardware Goes Bad

Amanda Bar

When I purchased my house last year I made sure to change the front door locks before I moved in.  Not caring about any particular brand I settled on a Kwikset "SmartKey" lock & bolt combo.  The main selling point on this type of door lock is a feature that allows you to re-key the lock...even if it's unintentional.

My roommate learned this the hard way when the deadbolt suddenly stopped working, essentially locking poor Bridget out of the house (I was out of state at the time for a wedding).  Upon a locksmith arriving to our house he declared that this was a common problem amongst SmartKey locks - the internal pins will randomly reset themselves, making it impossible to open the door without drilling into the deadbolt.  After a little under one year of use my $50 door lock is trash!

The locksmith charged $80 for destroying my lock, and I now have to buy a new lock set to replace the mangled monstrosity that is my current deadbolt (which I'm going to estimate at costing another $50).  I suppose this disaster could have been avoided if I put some thought into researching my door locks before I bought them, but who knew such problems existed in such mundane items?  I'll definitely shop smarter next time, just not SmartKey.

Posted by Amanda Conwell on | | Comments (1)

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About The Miami Herald | Advertise