Summer Recap

Summer’s almost over!  Thank goodness, too – after three months of uninterrupted sunshine I’m desperate to see some clouds again.  We were determined to have a GOOD. SUMMER. this year and not spend it all on house projects and working overtime.  Here’s what we did!

We flew 3 hours north to Alaska and spent a 4-day weekend hanging out near Denali National Park.


We discovered, binge read, and re-read all of Saga. (Do you like life?  Do you enjoy high quality entertainment? If so, get this graphic novel.)


We drove to Leavenworth, Washington to spend a Saturday roasting in the hot sun (and eating fudge).


We walked around this gorgeous park in downtown Bellevue on a break from work during the week.


I caught the biggest spider I’ve ever seen and set it free in our front yard:


We gazed at mountains from our own neighborhood:


I rode my bike into an upscale neighborhood and enjoyed their view of Puget Sound:


I launched DIYCraftPhotography, a how-to site for crafters selling their handmade goodies online and learned a ton of WordPress, CSS, PHP, and HTML in the process.

DIY Craft Photography tutorial website for crafters

We had an amazing dinner at the BeachHouse Bar & Grill in downtown Kirkland as the sun roasted our faces set beautifully over the waterfront.


We hugged giant salmon at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery and tossed food to growing trouts.


We stopped at Houghton Beach in Kirkland on the way home from work a few times to walk the beach path as the sun set.


All in all, a great summer for the only two people in this world who prefer winter and have no idea how to have fun when it’s not cold and raining. :D

Yardmageddon 2013: Watering New Arborvitaes

I couldn’t find a good guide online for watering newly planted arborvitaes, so I’m writing one!  Since the arborvitaes have survived the dry Seattle summer, I thought I’d talk about my technique for watering new arborvitaes.

New Arborvitaes?!

It’s been four months and our new arborvitaes are still alive!  Even better, they seem to be thriving.  (Last May, we planted three emerald green arborvitaes in our partially-shaded Seattle-area backyard.) They’re bright green and standing perfectly upright.  For two landscaping n00bs, the success of the arborvitaes is perhaps proof that we’re not completely incapable when it comes to landscaping.

Why watering new arborvitaes? Because all the advice I found online was different or not Seattle-specific, leaving me to guess at what was best for my arborvitaes. So here it is – this is what worked for me! I live in the hardiness zone 8a,planted the trees in May and watered regularly through September (when the natural rains finally returned).

Watering New Arborvitaes

I watered twice a week, 10-12 minutes per arborvitae. My watering schedule worked to be Saturday (anytime, usually mid-morning) and Wednesday (evening after work).

I set the hose to a steady small stream and placed the end of it at the arborvitae’s root ball.  I waited 5-6 minutes then moved the hose to the other side of the root ball.  (I sat in a lawn chair and read the Internet while I waited, it’s not a bad arrangement.)


watering new arborvitaes hose trickle

Each arborvitae got a good soaking, and the mulch seemed to do a good job of holding the water close to the plant’s roots.  Watering advice is all over the place on the Internet (use a hose! use a sprinkler! water daily! water weekly!), but a hose pointed right at the root ball is worked for me and required no special tools or hose attachments.

I watered the new arborvitaes deep and then let them dry out for a few days before watering again.

Full Sun for Arborvitaes?

We planted the arborvitaes in May specifically to take advantage of the uninterrupted stretch of sunshine over Seattle from June to September.  We figured we could water them ourselves and have a sort of “best of both worlds” thing going on: sky provides sun, we provide water.


They ended up needing quite a bit of water to get through the long dry spell.  After about the third month without any rain I was starting to give up hope that we’d ever see rain again.  (It has since returned, raining nearly every day of September so far this year.  Woohoo!)

The arborvitaes’ tags say they require “partial to full sun”.  Why would anyone sell a plant that requires “full sun” in the Seattle area? Surely there’s some wiggle room on the full sun requirement.

Besides, I see plenty of healthy arborvitaes around my neighborhood. The arborvitaes get about 4 hours of sunshine on a summer day, so I hope the they soaked up enough sun to carry them through the cloudy winter.

Arborvitae Growth Rate?

If the new arborvitaes have grown at all, I can’t detect it.  They’re exactly as high as the fence right now.  I suspect they don’t do much growing in the winter so it might be several years before these arborvitaes start serving their true purpose, which is blocking the view of the neighbor’s yard (and their mysterious room full of jars).

What’s Next?

I’m going to let the natural rain take over the watering business, and I’ll write an update in the spring on how the arborvitaes are growing.  Yardmageddon 2013 is drawing to a close, but I have a few more updates about our grass growing adventure and the suddenly-blooming rhodys to share in the coming days, so stay tuned! (I can’t believe growing grass counts as an adventure.)

10 Rules for Getting a Good Deal on a House

Wealthy people just call up a realtor, find a nice-looking house, buy it, and move in.  But that’s not us! :D  Getting a good deal on a house was the only way for us to leave our apartment and move into a house in the neighborhood of our choice. We had to work a bit harder to get into home ownership.

getting a good deal on a house

Fortunately, I grew up in a family that loves a good deal on a house.  My parents moved us a couple times as a family and acquired a few investment properties while I was growing up.  They love looking at houses, talking about houses, and buying houses when they’re a great deal.

Here’s everything I know about getting a good deal on a house, boiled down to 10 easy rules.

1. Don’t Hurry

I put this rule first because this is really the one rule to rule them all.

Don’t rush into the largest purchase of your life.  Don’t let anyone rush you.

The market is not going to run out of houses.  Even in the “off season”, even in a “bad market”, people are constantly breaking up, moving cities, and changing jobs.  There are always more houses.

When you start looking, 99% of what’s on the market will be stale houses.  You won’t find deals among the stale houses, but if you buy in a hurry a stale house is probably what you’ll be buying.  Stale houses have sat a while because the deal hunters ruled them out already. No, if you want a deal you want to sit and wait for a fresh house, which brings us to…

2. Be an EXPERT in Your Local Market

Long before you’re ready to buy, start attending open houses in and slightly above/below your price range. (Note: if you’re like us, your price range really has no bottom so you’re just looking at everything in and slightly above your price range).

Look at a good variety of houses. Aim to tour fifty houses before buying.  

“Look at 50 houses” was the advice my dad gave me when I set out looking for my first home and wow, was he was right. If I’d bought the first house (or tenth) I’d looked at, I’d have gotten ripped off.   When I started my search, I had no idea what houses were a deal and which ones were robbery.

getting a good deal on a house master your local market

Every market’s different, but I guarantee you the good deals sell within days to people who are experts in their local housing market. If you want a good deal on a house, you must become a master of your local market.

Want more proof?  Our home was a new listing deal.  We saw it get listed on a Sunday afternoon and knew it was a deal without even stepping foot into it. 2 stories at that price?  We’re there. We toured it Monday morning and put in an offer immediately.  It was ours Wednesday, and at a price that prompted other realtors in our neighborhood to call our realtor and ask why the house went for so little.  (Slightly more awkwardly, all our neighbors seemed to know what a deal we got, too, and all of them brought it up when we met them. Good thing that was three years ago now…)

3. Start Looking Early

Do not wait until your lease is running out to look at houses, you won’t have time to master your local market or really figure out what you like (and don’t like) about houses in your price range.

As soon as you think you might want to buy a house, start going to open houses.  Go even if you have 11 months left on your lease.  Looking’s free, so have a good look around your potential neighborhoods.

Call a few realtors.  Get your savings in order.  Learn what you like (and don’t like) in houses.  All these things take time.

4. Have a Net Worth of At Least 50% of the House’s Closing Price

This is my own personal rule of thumb, and I think it’s good advice to anyone wondering just how much money they need to have before buying a house.

You’re not ready to buy a $200,000 house until your net worth is $100,000.  Houses are expensive and random stuff breaks in them all the time.  It it took every penny in your pockets to scrape together a down payment, then the maintenance will bury you.  Prove you’re capable of sitting on a pile of money without spending it before you enter home ownership, it will save you a lot of grief. 

5. Have 30% of the House’s Closing Price in Liquid Cash at Closing

20% is for the down payment, the other 10% for moving and immediate repairs.

getting a good deal on a house

If you got a deal house, it’s probably because there’s some annoying thing(s) wrong with it.  In our house, one of those things was the furnace (it didn’t work).  Since we were buying in November, a furnace was the first thing to go into the house.

We also had to replace all the carpets and purchase a hardware store’s of tools and paint to get basic repair and painting done before our stuff moved in at Christmas.  We spent thousands of dollars after closing but before we even moved in.

PS: I once had a co-worker who asked the boss for a loan to hire movers so she could actually move into her new house.  Definitely don’t do that.

6. Know Your Hard Limits

Hard limits are things you just can’t deal with and will never grow to love.

Hard limits are not things that can be changed, like “the light fixtures are ugly”.  Hard limits are things that  will never change, like the house being too close to a busy intersection or not having enough bedrooms.

Want some examples?  Some of our hard limits were:

  • No permit-less constructions
  • No HOAs (home owners associations)
  • Nothing under 1600 sq feet
  • Nothing over $325k
  • No highways within a mile

Want more? Read my bigger list of things to compromise on (and not compromise on) when buying a house.

It’s okay to tour houses that violate your hard limits as research, but don’t let a nice kitchen fool you into living on a busy street you can’t back out into.  You’ll go crazy.

7. Don’t Buy More House Than You Can Afford

If the 2008 recession taught us anything, it’s not to buy more house than you can afford to pay for.  Start by knowing your monthly expenses – the more months worth of data you have, the better.  A whole year is ideal, because if you’re like me, your months vary wildly.

For the previous year, look at each month’s income (your salary) and spending (credit card bill) and savings (if you don’t have this, don’t buy a house).  Is a mortgage payment reasonable?   And keep in mind that unless you’re living in some bangin’ apartment, there’s a good chance your mortgage will be higher than your rent.

It’s always better to rent an apartment than it is to stretch your finances too thin for a house.

8. Dump Any Real Estate Agent You Don’t Like

Your agent is your employee, and you are entitled to make them work for you.

Don’t be shy, this is their job.  Even if your agent is the nicest person in the world, they secretly want you to buy something ASAP so they get paid and can move on to new customers.

Remember, you’re the one living in the home you buy.  If your agent pressures you to just buy something already, or is unreliable, or intimidates you, or if you’re just not comfortable with your agent for any reason, dump, dump, dump.

9. Don’t Pin Your Hopes on a Short Sale

Here’s a dirty secret about short sales: that low list price may not be for real.

We put in an offer on a short sale.  Three months later, we heard back: the seller’s realtor wanted $35k more than their list price and our offer. We rejected their counter-offer with some paperwork from our realtor (who was awesome, by the way) to make it extra official and forgot about that house.  That low list price wasn’t even for real.

(The real kicker was when a few weeks later, the same week we closed on our house actually, that same seller came back asking if we’d be interested at our offer price.  I guess that $35k wasn’t so important now, but that ship had sailed and I’m glad it did because the house we got was way better and $50k less than the one we put that offer in on.)

When people go looking for a deal on housing they often look at foreclosures and short sales.

Yes, they have low list prices.

But they can be extremely frustrating and time consuming (several months, if not a year+) to actually purchase.  I’m all for bending over backwards for a deal, but foreclosures and short sales are too much for me.

One more story: We live near a short sale home.  It’s identical to half the houses in this neighborhood (houses that sell quickly).  It’s still on the market nearly 3 years later.

10. Be Critical (and Realistic)

Walk into every house ready to hate it.  Look for problems: bad floor plans, impractical kitchen layouts, too much yard, low water pressure.  Be extremely critical.  Homes are expensive and moving is expensive, so you’ll be putting up with this one’s crap for a long time.  Make sure there isn’t too much crap to put up with.

We looked at houses that would have had lower mortgage payments than the one we ultimately bought, but they came with things I hated.  Bad floor plans were everywhere – who puts a water heater next to a toilet??  Why is the master bedroom half the house’s square footage?  Why is the toilet in a closet?!  Ugh.

We also encountered a lot of “oops, ran out of money!” situations: half-finished kitchen remodels and basement remodels were common.  Good luck matching the tile and finishing the project.

We wanted a deal, but we didn’t want a stupid bathroom layout or the hell of finishing someone’s remodeling project.

In Conclusion…

getting a good deal on a house probably not in san francisco

If you can do all this, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a good deal on your next house.  Or, at least, as good a deal as your local market will allow for (good luck if your city is San Francisco or New York).

Just remember to go slow, stalk the market, and be ready to pounce.

Photo credits:

For sale signs: coffeego via photopin cc
Red houses: Images_of_Money via photopin cc
Aerial neighborhood: San Diego Shooter via photopin cc
San Francisco houses: nicolas.boullosa via photopin cc

Alaska Road Trip: Driving from Denali to Anchorage (Part 4)

Days 4 and 5 – Heading Home

One Last Look for Denali

Saturday = drive back to Anchorage day!  We’re usually pretty excited to head back home, and this trip’s no exception.

But before driving down to Anchorage, we first went north a bit and back to the Denali 15-mile long Park Road one last time in hopes of seeing the Denali itself, as we’ve still yet to see the park’s namesake mountain.  We were in luck! The clouds parted and holy wow that’s a huge mountain! 

Denali from Denali National Park paved road

We drove to the end of the Park Road and climbed this giant heap of rocks for a better view (there’s a path, don’t worry :P).

hiking at the end of the paved Denali National Park road

We were all like:

Happy in Denali Alaska

And Denali was all like:

Driving from Denali to Anchorage one last view of Denali

It was spectacular, but clouds soon rolled in as if to say “there, you saw it, now get going on that five hour drive back to Anchorage!”

Denali Park Tidbits

On our way out of the park we stopped at one of the hiking spots.  Both of us were too chicken to actually go hiking (for numerous reasons, but mostly out of fear of bears) so we walked for ten minutes on one of the easy trails near the parking lot. We found this pile of poop on our walk, which Jim declared bear poop.  I thought it was moose poop, but without access to Google we’re both pretty useless when it comes to this nature stuff.

Denali animal poop

The scenery, however, was still spectacular.


Back at the parking lot, we marveled at the reinforced bear-proof Denali bathrooms.

Denali restrooms

Denali reinforced bathroom door

Before we left, Denali had one more treat for us.  When we returned to the parking lot, parked next to our rental was its younger sibling.  Check out the plates: GQA 556 and GQA 555.  Both are from the same Hertz fleet. What are the odds!?!

Anchorage Hertz fleet Fiesta

The couple driving the blue Fiesta casually left car and walked away to explore the park, not realizing the awesomeness of this coincidence.  Don’t worry, I enjoyed it enough for them.

The 6-Hour Drive to Anchorage

When we arrived on Wednesday, we banged out a 3-hour flight and a 5-hour drive like it weren’t no thang.  So we figured driving from Denali to Anchorage on Saturday wouldn’t be so bad – after all, there was no 3-hour flight beforehand.   We were wrong: the drive back felt like eternity.  We must have been pretty worn out by this point in the trip.

But we saw some cool things along the way, such as:

Driving from Denali to Anchorage moose sighting

Roadside moose

Driving from Denali to Anchorage scenery

Huge mountains, muddy rivers, and thick clouds are my favorite parts of Alaska scenery.

Driving from Denali to Anchorage creepy building

Come inside, children…

Denali State Park bullet sign

Discharge of weapons rule barely readable due to bullet holes

Approaching Anchorage from the north

Almost back to Anchorage

We arrived in Anchorage around 6:30pm blind with hunger and desperate for comfort.

Dinner in Anchorage

We went directly to our favorite place from our last visit to Anchorage, the Glacier Brewhouse, only to find every table was booked for the next three hours.  We were about to leave when a couple in the bar seating waved us over, said we could have their table, and we just about fainted in gratitude.

Thirty minutes later, we feasted on a half roasted chicken and the best prime rib either of us has ever tasted:

Glacier Brewhouse chicken

Glacier Brewhouse Anchorage dinner

Glacier Brewhouse Anchorage dinner

Thank you, anonymous couple, for the incredible dinner and a great end to our Denali-Anchorage drive.  Word to the wise: make reservations if you’re gonna eat at the Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage.

After our meal, we paid it forward by flagging down another disappointed couple on their way out and offering them our table.

Leaving Anchorage

Our flight was early Sunday morning, so we overnighted at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage, which was near the airport but absolutely terrible for the $200 we paid for the night. At least we weren’t there long.

fish pillows

The Millennium Hotel in Anchorage got one thing right: FISH PILLOWS

Instead, we went straight downstairs for breakfast at the attached restaurant, The Flying Machine. We immediately regretted not eating out of a dumpster for breakfast instead.  I think Alaska was telling us to go home.  Fortunately, we were just a couple hours from saying our goodbyes.


One three-hour flight later we were coming in for landing over Seattle.

Landing plane over Seattle

Coming home is the best feeling on earth!

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