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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Real Estate Blues

I was on zillow.com earlier browsing to see the value of our home and property. Since we bought our house in 2004, it has proven to be a consistently good investment. In just two years, the value of our home increased progressively reaching a peak of $150 K in late 2006. That was really exciting! However, in early 2007, the increase in value started declining at a steady pace. By the 3rd quarter of 2007, our home's value showed an increase of only $70 K from the 2004 purchase price. By the 4th quarter, it was down to a meager $50 K increase. And by the end of the year we were bordering on a low $15-20 K "profit". When I checked yesterday, I was dismayed to find that not only did we not have any "profit", we are actually down about $13 K. Meaning our home's value in 2004 was $13 K higher than what it is worth today. That totally sucks!

I guess I shouldn't really complain. We aren't really looking at selling right now so we have the luxury of waiting till the volatile and shaky real estate market settles down and hopefully starts moving up again. It's much worse for many others out there who are losing their homes because of plummeting home values and soaring mortgage payments. That's another thing I have to be thankful for. When we first invested in our home, my dad insisted on a fixed-30 year payment plan (rather than a variable 3, 5 or 7 year plan). I, being the naive and frugal (a.k.a. "barat") investor than I am, wanted to sign on with a variable rate since it was so much lower rate (which meant a much smaller monthly mortgage payment). Of course that was short term thinking. Good thing my dad and hubby talked me into a higher rate fixed rate but one that guarantees a stable 30-year payment plan. At least now we are locked into that rate (which could go lower if we refinance) and are not in danger of ballooning mortgage payments. I am so glad that my dad was astute enough to foresee these kinds of events and that we listened to his advice.

It's so sad to hear of stories of people lose their homes. The real estate market and industry is just a series of dismal news these days. I was listening to NPR a few mornings ago and heard about this Nicaraguan immigrant who brought his entire family to the States 20 years ago. As part of the American dream, they purchased their first home in early 2002. The home was then worth $510 K and their monthly mortgage payment was $2,800. Today their monthly payments have risen to $4,800 (which they can not afford to pay) and the home's value has decreased by $100 K. They are now forced to move out of their home and move their family of 6 into a tiny two-bedroom apartment. I felt so bad for them losing their home and everything they had worked so hard to get. I really hope, hope, hope that things start taking a turn for the better.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In-Laws

My parents-in-law arrived from Manila this week. As is Filipino tradition, parents usually stay with their daughters, which in this case means my in-laws would be staying with my sisters-in-law (two live in Carson while the other lives in Cerritos). But this week, because of other commitments, my in-laws will be staying with us. My friends have been teasing me about having my in-laws living with us. They've been sharing their own mother vs. daughter-in-law horror stories. But I really don't have any worries or concerns. I have a great relationship with my MIL and FIL. They are both very easy going and low maintenance folks. I've never heard them say anything negative towards anyone in the family, are easy to be around, and are ready to roll up their sleeves and pitch in with housework. It's a bonus that my MIL likes doing housework and that my FIL is a great cook.

I guess I'm lucky that way. While Jojo and I certainly had our differences when we got married. One thing we shared is we both came from large and very close-knit families. Seeing Jojo's family interact with one another was actually one of the main reasons why I knew he and I would get along so well (and I was right!). He and his family have a very open relationship and they genuinely like hanging out with each other. It's very rare to find a family that enjoys each others' company (when I was growing up mine was certainly the exception). But Jojo's family may even be more "extreme" than mine. They are together ALL the time (take vacations together, watch each others' kids, hang out in each others' homes, go to the mall/watch movies/eat out, play volleyball/tennis/basketball together). And the one thing that amazes me is they celebrate just about everything with a family gathering - not just the big holidays like Thanksgiving, Xmas, New Year's and birthdays. We celebrate events like 4th of July, Halloween, Valentines Day, Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day - even Labor and Memorial Day. We celebrate weddings and anniversaries, getting new jobs and promotions, getting our work visas and green cards, housewarmings, buying new cars, despedidas, graduations, good grades, first communions and confirmations, and every other major and minor event you can think of. Between Jojo, his parents, three sisters and three brothers (plus their spouses and kids), that's a LOT of get-togethers!

I am grateful I married into such a large and warm family. Being away from home (and away from my own family) has definitely been made much easier with them around. I've really come to count on my siblings-in-law as people I can rely on. It helps that my sisters-in-law (all 5 of them) are around my age and so it's easy to become not only in-laws but girlfriends as well. Also, even if Jojo and I don't have any kids of our own yet, having 6 nieces, 5 nephews (and another baby on the way) has really honed our parenting skills. And of course, I know that Jojo and I are who we are today because we came from families like ours. We both believe that family is the top priority, value our marriage, share a love for kids, respect our parents, and are committed to being there for one another.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why I Can Never Be a Contractor

This weekend marked our bathroom makeover adventure. What started as a plan to simply change the double vanity in the Master Bathroom has resulted in a grand makeover. Jojo and I just wanted to replace the wood paneled vanity since the base on the right portion (next to our shower stall) showed signs of rotting wood - the water from the shower area seeped into the wood causing it to decay. Our plan was to replace the vanity and take care of the seeping water. Jojo's family friend, Dante, was going to help us get that done.

Yesterday, Jojo, Dante and his nephew, Dex, purchased a white paneled vanity from Ikea. They had assembled the new 30 by 21 foot vanity in our garage and dismantled our current warped wood vanity with the super heavy marble top. When they got ready to fit the Ikea vanity in the slot, they found out it would not fit. Now we’ve worked with Dante before and he’s really meticulous when it comes to measurements so we were quite annoyed when we found out Ikea’s measurements did not match our order. Dex and Dante had to dismantle the vanity, stuff it back in the box and take it back to Ikea to get the right piece. Once there they find out it’s out of stock. Meanwhile there is a gaping space in our bathroom and the old double sink/vanity is in the middle of the room.

Meanwhile, Dante finds out the gaskets to our sink faucets are all leaking and need to be replaced. He and Jojo head to Home Depot (in Carson) to get new gaskets and to look for white paneled vanities. Home Depot has the white vanities but they are the wrong size. Next stop - Lowes – which has the right size vanities but not in white. Finally they head over to the Contractor’s Warehouse in Gardena and find a white paneled vanity in the right size and color. But when they start putting it together, they find several wood panels have huge cracks on its surface. So they take it apart again and bring it back to the store. Of course, that vanity style is the last of its kind and the only other choice is one that looks really tacky and industrial-like (sort of like cabinets you would find in a garage). Jojo is tempted to buy it but holds off. It’s getting late so they call it a day. The only other task done is re-fitting the gaskets and stopping the leaks.

On Sunday, I accompany Jojo and Dante to Home Depot (Torrance) hoping to find a better vanity – there is one (great style and in white) but it is made of a molded wood material that Dante said would warp in a few months (sort of low quality material). So we head back to the Contractor’s Warehouse where I immediately veto the tacky looking industrial looking vanity. Instead we vote on another style (in the right size) but in a pale spiced honey color. We compared it against a picture of our bathroom and decide that the color would work. We decided to get the next best thing. When we got home, Lee (Jojo’s brother) helped build the new vanity (of course these vanities come in a box that has a million wooden pieces, screws and studs). After that our old vanity had to be dismantled (the marble top had to be removed from the warped wood bottom). As soon as the top came off, we noticed that the marble had gaps which caused the water to leak which caused damage and discoloration. Apparently our bathroom was built quite hastily by the former owners and the work was not well done. The marble top's sides and edges had cracked and chipped. Not only that the faucet spout and fixtures on both sinks were chipped and peeling.

So off Jojo, Dante and I go to Home Depot (Carson) to look for faucet accessories. We were horrified to find out a single faucet spout with two matching knobs can cost as much as $300.00. I will never take these things for granted anymore. We selected the ones we liked only to find out they were out of stock. On our way out Dante shows us a sale on granite vanity tops - there was one last countertop that matched our bathroom. We decided to get it since our old marble top was in no shape to be re-used. Our bathroom budget was going up really fast! We paid for it but could not bring it home since we couldn’t fit a double sink granite counter top in the Rav-4. Our next stop was Home Depot (Torrance) to pick up the faucet fixture we wanted. The plus side is they had them in stock, the down side is it was in silver rather than gold. We got them anyway since we knew it would work out (if we changed the knobs on the drawers and cabinets). We drove home to meet Lee and use his van to get the counter top in Home Depot (Carson). By the time we all get home it is almost 6 PM.

Right now, (as a I type this post), Dante is in the garage with Dex working on attaching the marble top to the vanity while Lee and Jojo are working in the bathroom clearing the debris and sealing the area where the shower stall leaks into the sink area. The noise is deafening and the house is a mess. The guys have been running back and forth. In between their work Dante has had to go home to get more tools, Lee has had to leave to pick up his kids, and Jojo has had to run to the Home Depot (again) to get a plank of wood (to add support to the base). They are about half-way done but will have to keep going tonight and finish as much as they can since Dante is on his own tomorrow (the rest of the guys have to go to work). I get President’s Day off so I’ll be here to help. I am using the word “help” pretty loosely though since I am the world's most mechanically-challenged person. My role has been limited to sweep the gunk, cements pieces, splintered wood, and dust every so often. I’ve also been tasked with folding cardboard boxes and moving them out of the way. But my main function is keeping these guys fed. So far I’ve made two lunches, two afternoon snacks, one breakfast, two dinners and a steady supply of water and iced tea on hand. But honestly, between the trips to these hardware stores, the hard manual labor, the backbreaking lifting and working in a small confined spaced with my two hands, I definitely have the easy job.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Planning a Wedding

Over the weekend, Jojo and I spent some time with my sister's fiancé and his mom looking around for a wedding reception site. We visited a couple of places in and around the Torrance area. I gathered all the wedding packets and brochures each place had to offer while Jojo and Mark snapped pictures of the venues. When we got home, I emailed the quotations, descriptions and pictures to my sister and the rest of my family back in Manila. Planning this wedding has becomes a team effort since we are spread out across three locations - the bride and her parents are based in Manila, the groom and his family live in Redlands (about 2 hours from LA), and the wedding site and the "wedding coordinator" (that would be me) are here in Torrance.

Planning a wedding is always exciting. Even if I was never the "typical" bride who spends years thinking, planning and dreaming of the perfect wedding, I did have fun coordinating Jojo's and my wedding back in 2004. I wasn't one of those bridezillas who obsessed about every little detail and who insited on only the best of everything for that one day. I was a very hands-on but also a very practical bride. I wanted it to be special since it was a one-time event but not so much so that we would go into debt for a one-time celebration. And honestly, it's not my personality to go for anything too elaborate, fancy or formal. I wanted it to be much more subdued, intimate and special.

Part of me is glad that I got married here in the States. Of course the largest trade off was not being able to share it with most of my family and my close friends back in Manila. My biggest disappointment was not having my grandparents (especially my guama on that special day). But in the end, the people that really mattered made it - my whole family and most of Jojo's were here, most of our godparents made it too, some of our cousins, aunts, uncles and and my best friends all flew in too. From our acquaintances here, we chose only those we were very close to and decided against inviting people just for the sake of filling up the church and later the hotel ballroom. We had about 80 people at our wedding (a far cry from the weddings with 300-500 guests back home). But it was a happy one where we got to really enjoy ourselves (we actually got to eat and dance!). We were able to sit with the rest of our guests and listen to my dad's touching wedding toast and watch a video presentation that our sibblings had put together. Best of all, we got to spend a little time with each and every one of our guests.

My mom, sisters, mother-in-law and girlfriends helped out with some details from Manila - like the entourages' dresses, the wedding invitations and the souveniers. And when my mom finally flew over she helped me pick out my wedding gown and make suggestions to our reception menu. But since the wedding was here, Jojo and I handled most of the details ourselves. It was really nice having Jojo with me as we chose the venue, the music, the flowers, the cake. We met with vendors and visited bridal fairs. We worked on the seating arrangements, our wedding website, and mailing invitations together. I really liked how the wedding was a little bit of what I wanted, a little bit of what he wanted and a whole lot of things we both liked. I hardly think it's fair for the bride to call all the shots and then have the groom foot the bill! Or for the bride to do everything (including pay for the event) and just have the groom show up. In our case, since we had worked on most of the wedding details together, everything was pretty much done our way and that made us both more relaxed and happy. Of course, not every thing went absolutely perfect (I don't think they ever do!) but it was all about us and finding a compromise.

Looking back, I don't really think I would do anything different for our wedding. Yes, I could have lost some more weight (probably not!), or I could have found a another hairdresser (one who would not insist on giving me a look with lopsided bangs), or I could have asked around for a better photographer that was less expensive and who would do a better job. But looking back, those things hardly really matter. I married my best friend, had my family and friends present on our special day, shared a wonderful wedding and reception with everyone, had the event go according to our plan and our budget, and got great presents and an awesome honeymoon ... I can't really think of anything worth complaining about. And yes, if I had to marry Jojo all over again, I definitely would, and I wouldn't have our wedding any other way!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Year of the Rat

Happy Lunar New Year! By some strange quirk of fate, as we celebrate the year of the rat, our home has been honored with a visit from a four-legged, furry, little mouse. The first sighting was a couple of days ago when Jojo and my nieces, Maddie and Sydney, were in the kitchen and came face to face with the little guy. They scoured the kitchen with flashlights but could not find him after he darted away. A few days later, I was sitting in the family room watching tv when I saw him scurrying across the kitchen floor. We've started calling our little trespasser "Remy" after the mouse with great culinary talents in the Disney film Ratatouille. After all, we keep finding our "Remy" in the kitchen too.

Now, even if I am in no way a neat freak, I have a very healthy dislike for rodents living in the same house as I do. I keep picturing his furry little body climbing on top of all our things and it gives me the shivers. After Jojo first saw Remy, we headed to Home Depot to get some rat poison. Okay "poison" is too strong a word. We got some rat medicine. To be honest, we didn't really want Remy to die. We just wanted him to get disoriented and to go away. So we mixed up the medicine with peanut butter and left these packets strategically around the house. We had read that mice are extremely fond of peanut butter.

Apparently Remy is not like other mice and does not like peanut butter. We tried jelly. Still nothing. Every day I'd come home and find the peanut butter/jelly untouched. After yet another Remy-sighting, I called my mom to ask her advice and she said try fly paper. Once Remy walks across it, he'll get stuck and we can then bring him outside (or somewhere far, far away). I thought that was perfect. After all, I didn't want to get those mousetraps that snap shut and splatter rat guts all over the floor. Too cruel! So off to Home Depot we go to buy fly paper. We find out that Home Depot does not carry fly paper, so we settle for "mouse paper" mounted on plastic - which in concept is pretty much the same thing. I set the mouse paper traps around the house (in the corners where we have spotted Remy in the past) and entice him to get his furry paws stuck by leaving bits of cookie and fudge in the center of the paper.

After 3 days, still nothing! I purposely put one of the sheets right by the stove (where there is a slight gap between the stove and the drawers). This is where Jojo first saw Remy dart into so we think this may be how we gets in. The next day, the sticky paper was still empty but had been moved about an inch to one side. Jojo and I both swore that we didn't move the sheet which clearly had been tampered with! Remy had somehow pushed the paper aside (probably by the plastic lining). Not only that, but the piece of cookie I had used as bait looks a lot smaller too. We are dealing with an evil rodent genius!

We are not giving up on our peanut-butter-and-jelly-flavored-rat medicine nor our mouse-paper-baited-with-cookie-and-fudge traps, but we're being very careful too. No more food left on the counter, no more dishwasher and cabinet doors left open, and no more garbage bags left unsealed. Despite it being the year of the rat, we just can't wait to get rid of ours!