Thursday, November 19, 2009

Repos & Rebirth

Stained carpets, missing light fixtures, trashed rooms and the telltale signs of broken families. That’s what you see when you spend your days showing bank repos to potential buyers.

As you enter the front walk, sometimes neighbors wander over to tell you the sad story they witnessed from their kitchen window or over the back fence. “She left him after he lost his job,” or a recent standout, “He left her and she was here in the house for a few months with the kids and then they all just disappeared.

That Noblesville home was pretty on the outside and looked like a steal. But on the inside it felt like a crime scene. The neighbor went on, ” . . . then the husband came back to try to clean up the house and saw what happened while he was gone. A huge freshwater tank full of fish left to die and rot in the summer heat, kids drew all over the walls with Crayons, dog crapped all over the rug, yard unmowed for weeks. You name it, it’s broken.”

When people are about to lose their house they get mad at their circumstances and mad at the world. They often take it out on the house.

With Indiana at or near the top in foreclosures nationally for the better part of a decade, our foreclosure scene is nothing new.

Noblesville’s Deer Path neighborhood is a good case study. It had 46 foreclosures in its first 4 years of existence, a record accumulated 2 years before the economy collapsed last year.

But no need to beat up on new construction, there’s plenty of misery across the repo landscape. Last week on a picturesque street in Old Town I showed a house that made my skin crawl. Carpets were packed with filth (was that oil or mud?), an old mahogany buffet, clawed by some long-gone dog sat askew in a rank kitchen, and animal feces scattered a back room. Standing in the moldering cellar, scanning the crawl space with a flashlight, the beam found a gaping hole in the foundation and a house cat that stared back impassively.

And you only have to look at a few repos before you realize there must be a secondary market for a home’s mechanical systems.

Two years ago I showed a rural Westfield repo to a young Noblesville couple. It was clean and well scrubbed but missing its furnace, central air unit, toilets, sinks, ceiling fans, kitchen appliances and cabinets.

Like a car on blocks in a bad neighborhood, the house had been stripped. But one person’s misfortune becomes an opportunity for someone else. My buyers took the house and put it back together, making a nice first home for themselves.

And if you’re tempted to believe that bologna about the market collapse being caused by the government forcing lenders to loan money to poor people, you haven’t seen the high-end of the foreclosure crisis. In reality, just 1 in 5 of the bad loans going into foreclosure were made to low-income buyers.

Earlier this month in Carmel, I showed several foreclosures & pre-foreclosures priced over half a million dollars.

And last week I showed a home priced over $1.7 million. It’s in the midst of a now famous mortgage fraud case. There were $9 million worth of loans taken out on the house: a case study in a decade of weak regulation of lenders and AWOL government oversight.

The pool is filled with algae, outdoor hand railings are rotted, vandals have smashed hand-cut stonework, and an outdoor cooking area has been trashed. Inside, every refrigerator, wine cooler, dishwasher, oven, cook-top and a fireplace mantel were gone. In one of the two garages, old signage from The Levee restaurant is scattered about. In the basement theater room, wires hang uselessly from wall ports where the speakers and components were ripped from the walls.

Like much of the rest of the country, foreclosures have raced across our county like a wildfire. But wildfires have a way of setting the stage for rebirth

The homes that have been a drag on my Old Town neighborhood for years have fallen into foreclosure and been bought for a song by investors and young folks with a dream. Drive up and down the streets and alleys now and you’ll see scaffolding, ladders, dumpsters and stacks of lumber and siding – signs of rebirth amid the debris.

It keeps reminding me of those documentaries about Yellowstone a few years after the big fire where you see these strong, young shoots of growth springing out of the ash.

Another Noblesville Blogger You Must Read:
There’s a Noblesville writer whose blog is getting noticed on a nationally well-known web site called Timothy McSweeney. The writer is Charlie Hopper and he lives in a picturesque Colonial Revival home on Maple Avenue with his wife and 3 kids.

Charlie is one the brightest and funniest people I know. He won a competition for a regular blog spot on the McSweeney site by writing about his true-life attempts to write and sell a hit country song in Nashville. His “beleaguered, but hopeful” journey will put a smile on your faced.

Anyone who has ever chased a long-shot dream while trying to hold down the fort and walk the straight and narrow will connect with Charlie’s stories.

Give him a read at:

Friday, November 13, 2009

3 Local Mysteries

1) Mysterious Subscriptions Numbers
In the August 19th issue of Hamilton County’s The Times, the paper’s publisher, Tim Timmons wrote in his weekly column:

“When we purchased The Times back just about a year ago (boy, time flies!), we had a paid circulation of less than 4,500. Today, I'm more than a little pleased to share that our paid circulation is up to more than 8,100.”

Timmons went on to say: “During today's economic ups and downs, it's more gratifying than I can possibly express that we have grown 80 percent in less than a year.”
Link to actual column:

Numbers like that encouraged my local real estate office to switch our weekly showcase of homes advertising from the Star to the Times. I checked with our Tucker corporate office and they were pitched this 8,100 figure.

But those circulation numbers are mysterious for 2 reasons.

-In October, less than 2 months later, as required by the United State Postal Service, The Times published its official circulation numbers in a grainy, hard to read legal ad.* It showed the paper’s owner signed his name to a document that pegged its average daily circulation for the previous 12 months at 4,308, a number less than it was when the current owners took over, almost half the number cited by Mr. Timmons just 2 months earlier.

-Earlier this week I spoke with a representative of the Times and ask about the number discrepancy. He said that both numbers were wrong and that it’s really more like 6,000, but that he publicly uses the 8,100 figure.

2) Mysterious Messages Embedded in Asphalt
Noblesville is home to an increasing number of “Toynbee Tiles;” mysterious messages embedded in the asphalt of a city street. The Contrarian first wrote about these in 2007 when the first one appear at Logan and 9th Streets.

Such messages have been found in major cities around the U.S. and in several South American cities. Who’s placing the messages, why, and how they manage to do it without being seen remains a mystery.

Several can be found around the courthouse square. The first to appear locally can be found in North 9th Street just feet from its intersection with Logan Street, touching the northern-most crosswalk. It reads:

“Toynbee idea
in movie 2001
resurrect dead

planet Jupiter”

If you want to understand what it means, Goggle it. It’s way too weird and complicated for me to explain.

In the past year others have appeared at the corner of 9th and Conner and one appears to have disintegrated at Logan and 10th, leaving it random letters embedded, but scattered around the intersection.

They are apparently made by cutting out the design, mosaic-style from colored pieces of linoleum and then sandwiching the resulting panel between two pieces of sticky roofing felt. The sandwiched message is dropped on a smooth road on a hot summer day and car tires compress it into the asphalt, initially looking like a rectangular patch in the road. After weeks or months the top layer of roofing felt wears away and reveals the linoleum mosaic message, now fully embedded into the street surface.

3) Mysteriously Inept Writer: He can write (sorta), but can he dress himself?
I was invited by local writer Dan Logan to help judge a writing competition that was part of his writer’s workshop last Saturday at Forest Park Lodge.

I dressed myself all by myself, because I’m a big boy now, and I went off to the writer’s workshop and while there was treated like a reasonably intelligent person who knows a thing or two. I was honored to sit for a few hours with Noblesville’s well-known and successful novelist Susie Crandall and judge short stories written by the workshop attendees.

During a down hour before naming the winners, I left the workshop and went out about the community and ran some errands, then came back to Forest Park to see the awards handed out.

Everybody shook hands and complemented the winners and went home.

When I got home I sat on the edge of bed and unlaced my shoes, only to discover, to my horror, that I had spent the entire day walking around with two different shoes on.

Perhaps I need to do what my kids had to do when they were in elementary school: present themselves before my wife for inspection each day before leaving to make sure nothing was inside out, backwards, or on the wrong feet.

*To see an original, readable copy of the postal form The Times filled out to better understand what the numbers mean, email the Contrarian and I’ll send you a clean pdf.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Environmentalist, or Just Cheap?

You could call me an environmentalist, and that’s fine, but my obsession with becoming more energy efficient and resourceful has as much to do with the prospect of saving money as it does with environmentalism.

It started over ten years ago when I began converting our light bulbs to compact fluorescents. And when the furnace died last year, we had new high efficiency furnace and central air units installed. But like the compact fluorescents, those are automatic no-brainers.

Last spring when it became clear that our old gas powered lawn mower was on its last leg, I went a little further. I bought an electric mower with a built-in battery.

It’s no heavier than a regular mower, has a bag, and a nifty single-touch height-control lever. I plugged it into an outlet in the garage right where I once kept its gas powered predecessor, charged it overnight, and in the morning had enough stored power to mow an acre.

No more hauling gas cans to the station and storing them in the garage. No annual tune-ups. No more stubborn pull cords. Just lift a lever and it runs.

Granted, the electricity has to come from somewhere and often that’s a coal-powered plant. But not always. The power plant north of Noblesville in Riverwood has been converted to natural gas, scrubbers can be put on coal-fired plants and wind generation is on the rise. And I’m reducing ground level ozone - that stuff that leads to summer no-zone alert days when you’re asked not to mow lawns.

This fall I used that electric mower to turn my yard leaves into fertilizer and mulch for the vegetable garden. I mow the leaves instead of raking, gathering them in the bagger. I dump some of the chopped leaves in the garden and turn them into the soil to recharge it for next year. The bulk of the chopped leaves are piled behind the garage to decompose over the winter. Once I’ve got the garden going in the spring, I use this leaf-mulch to mulch around plants. This returns yet more nutrients to the soil and holds in more moisture, requiring less watering.

That makes fewer leaves for city pick up, less money spent on chemicals and fertilizers during the growing season, and less water used to grow the plants. And the pulverized leaves left behind among the blades of grass on the lawn will be fertilizing it next spring and summer (I also cancelled my lawn service last spring).

Last spring I bought two rain barrels from Hamilton County’s Soil and Water Management offices. They came with hardware that connects the enclosed barrels to downspouts to gather water. I found a 3rd, identical barrel for free and built a platform from scrap lumber behind the garage for all three to sit on. I plumbed the barrels together so that the water from one flowed to the others. I hooked them up to the garage downspouts and dropped a little pump that had been gathering dust in the garage into one of the tanks. A hose from the pump ran to the yard-side of the garage. After the first heavy rain I was able to water the lawn and garden with rainwater. Those 3 tanks together hold 165 gallons of water, which could be gathered from one long day of rain.

I did the rough math, and it will take about 3 years for this rain barrel investment to break even and start saving me money, which I’m willing to wait for, but I’ve also got water for the plants during the next drought, which has value in itself.

And that garden did pretty well this past summer. There was romaine lettuce, spinach, and broccoli in the spring, and tomatoes, peppers, basil, and carrots in the summer. Mid-summer I planted more lettuce, spinach and broccoli for fall. The lettuce is done, the 2nd go-round of spinach failed (not sure why) and the broccoli is coming on. I also put in an asparagus bed this summer, which is another long-term investment. I can’t harvest any until the spring of 2011, but again, I’m willing to wait. The little wispy, fern-like starts are promise enough.

Environmentalists will say I’m helping the environment because I’m growing my own food at home and buying less stuff shipped across the country. That’s great. But I like doing it, regardless.

Last month our water heater died. So I made the leap. I had a tankless water heater installed5. Out with the old 50-gallon behemoth that wastefully maintained hot water all night while we slept and all day while we were at work. The new model only heats the water we need, and better yet, it never runs out. Should take about 3 years to break even on the extra expense, but it comes with a 25 year warranty, so for 22 years I’ll be saving money every month.

I also get $150 rebate from the gas company and a $780 federal tax credit for installing it.

Some of this stuff – the high efficiency furnace, the tankless water heater, even the compact fluorescent bulbs cost more initially than their less efficient counterparts. But I’m a firm believer in the old saying, “Penny pinchers pay twice.” The larger investment today means less expense in the long run.

And if it makes the environment cleaner, well that’s pretty cool, too.