What to do when you have too much house

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This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there's actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?
This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there’s actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?

I recently shared my experience of reducing my possessions, a journey I started in 2008. I’m working toward living an ultra-lite life. I’m not there yet, but I’ve made a lot of progress. Over 2 years ago, after I’d made significant progress on getting my possessions down to just what I used, it became painfully obvious that I had too much house. I was living in a three floor condo. At that time it had two bedrooms, two full baths and laundry closet (top floor); living room, kitchen, dining (middle floor) with French doors to the deck; and a basement with an unfinished storage room, half bath and finished living room with fireplace which led out to concrete patio in back (below the deck) .

I’d already emptied and shut off one upstairs bedroom and bath and was no longer heating/cooling them. The basement storage was almost completely empty (except for paint cans and Christmas decorations). As a single woman, I didn’t really need the second living room downstairs, so I closed off the basement too. I separately closed off the fireplace once I realized all the heat it leaked in the winter. The utility savings was substantial.

Could I do more?

I’d reduced what I owned and I’d stopped wasting money on rooms I wasn’t using. That’s all fine. But the real issue was that I didn’t need this much house. It was time to downsize.

In a strong economy I would have sold the condo. But the economic downturn, starting in the fall of 2008, changed everything. Real estate simply wasn’t selling. My condo association, like every place in the US, had its share of foreclosures, so property values dropped substantially. Even though I’d put down 20% when I purchased the home and paid my mortgage faithfully and better-than-agreed, I was under water. The value of my home had dropped to about a third of what I paid for it. If I’d needed to move out of the area (and if I lived in a non-recourse state) I would have walked away and claimed a strategic default. Despite concerns of stability, I still had a job, so I still needed a place to live in the ATL.

I’d have to wait it out.

Could my house pay for itself?

I had an empty bedroom and bath. I had an underutilized basement. If I wasn’t using the space, could I get someone else to pay me for it?

The most obvious answer is getting a roommate. This is a particularly good idea if you can room with trusted family members or friends you’ve known all your life. I am an import to Atlanta and have no family here. I’d tried a roommate before but with the increased utility costs, I didn’t make much money and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after another person. Still, I advertised and asked around. After vetting several people—each more unsuitable (read that: scary!) than the last—I gave up on the roommate idea. I considered taking in other people’s items to store, for a price. This is a great way to make cash off a garage, for instance, since people with fancy cars need a place to keep them. But I didn’t find the right opportunity.

I went with a radical plan

First, I refinanced my mortgage at a lower rate and shorter term. It was a terrible hassle and took over 4 months, despite excellent credit, but it paid off. For minor closing costs, the new mortgage took 8 years, 2% points off the interest, and $50 a month off my payments! And the new, lower interest meant that with each payment I took a more substantial bite out of the principle.

Next, I transformed my three floor condo into two separate living spaces. With the help of a trusted neighbor (who was out of work due to layoffs), I converted the walk out basement with a half bath into a studio apartment with kitchenette, Murphy bed and shower. I could have put a college student in the studio and earned a few hundred a month, but the real payback was to move into the basement myself and rent out the top two floors.

Renter pays mortgage

It took a few months to find the right renter, so I had my doubts about this investment initially. But it did pay off. Even after paying a realtor to manage the rental (he got the first month’s rent and a portion of each monthly rent) someone else now pays my mortgage!

Financials

With my new rental income, I initially made two payments a month on my mortgage to get ahead—giving myself some financial breathing room in the event I lost my job (which didn’t happen). With the economic recovery moving so slowly, I felt I needed more of a safety net, since I wasn’t sure of the stability of my job. After that, I added the rental income to the regular mortgage payment to pay down the principle even more. (In addition, the income from a side business I ran for three years also went toward the house payment.) With the new, lower bank mortgage, the extra really pay down the principle quickly.

My taxes were pretty impressive, though messier than ever. This living situation is a duplex and 2/3 of all fees associated with the house can be written off federal and state income taxes (Monthly HOA fees, building maintenance, property taxes, homeowner’s assessments and interest on the mortgage loan). I take a deduction for the value of the property plus the cost to convert it to separate spaces. And I deduct 100% of costs associated with the rental itself (my realtor’s fees, for instance). (That H&R Block tax course I took a few years ago really paid for itself!)

I could have made out better financially if I had been able to do the construction/conversion work myself. I could have chosen to find and handle the renter directly instead of hiring a real estate agent. But I know my skills. I’m simply not a handywoman and I’m a terrible landlord. Though a meticulous bookkeeper, I hired someone else to do my taxes, too, which helps me sleep better at night. Never mess with the IRS!

And now, my efforts are paying off! Though I can’t be sure until I sell the property—houses are only worth what someone will pay for them—I  believe I am no longer under water with my mortgage.

Was it worth it?

I realize all this may seem like a sacrifice, but it was worth it to me. Reducing my possessions, living in a small studio were changes I was willing to make to get myself out of mortgage debt. Was it easy? No. And this renter has been….difficult. But I had a goal (more on that in the future), a brain and was willing to make an effort. It’s the American way to try to improve your situation. This didn’t happen overnight. I’ve worked since 2008 toward this goal. But now the real estate market is coming back, the economy is (slowly) improving, and I’m in a better place financially.

Next Steps

The renter’s lease is up at the end of July and I’ve notified her that it won’t be renewed. I hope she’s not trashed the place and I have extensive repairs to do.

Can I sell? That’s my hope. It will be a good place for the right person. I’ve kept up the house, mortgage rates are still low, home prices are rising (roughly 16% in the last year), and the downstairs additions should make the condo more appealing than ever. If not, I’ve petitioned the condo association to let me rent out the entire house, but that’s a long shot.

Keep those fingers crossed!

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Mixing cocktails at Sprig

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Marc fresh basil and blueberries to a drink called The Experience.
Marc Caballero adds fresh basil and blueberries to a drink called The Experience.

“I’m a sucker for pop culture when it comes to naming my drinks,” says mixologist, Marc Caballero of Sprig. And the names of his concoctions are as imaginative as the ingredients. Saturday he introduced a small class to summer cocktails he created himself just for Sprig.

Sprig, 1Sprig is an Oak Grove neighborhood restaurant and bar that focuses on fresh ingredients from as close by as possible. Sometimes produce comes from a farmer or school just down the road or their own garden. For locally sourced eateries, the bill of fare is constantly changing. Menus reflect the latest summer crop of vegetables and fruit. Since fresh produce changes quickly, often the best food of the day will be found on the chalkboard.

Even cocktails menus are changing, with additions of fresh herbs and fruit. The class this weekend was an opportunity to show off four new creations.

Sue stirs a Belle of the Ball, a bourbon based drink with a round ice cube containing rose, peach and mint.
Sue stirs a Belle of the Ball, a bourbon based drink with a round ice cube containing rose, peach and mint.

 

  • Pretty in PinkBenedictine, Ethereal gin, bitters, fresh raspberries, simple syrup, bitters and a White IPA beer.
  • Bridge over Troubled Watermelon—Cathead Vodka, Suze, Agave nectar, lemon juice, freshly juiced watermelon.
  • The Experience—fresh blueberries, rhubarb bitters, fresh basil leaves, simple syrup, Luxardo Maraschino , Hendrix gin.
  • Belle of the Ball—Belle Meade Bourbon, Amaro, simple syrup, bitters.

Sprig, 7Marc is very particular about ingredients and I may have missed the exact brand he’s selected for each drink. Trust me. Not just any gin will do for his special creations! And he adds an unexpected layer of flavor with a variety of bitters. I’m a novice, so Angostura Bitters, made from gentian, was the only kind I’d ever seen. Marc introduced me to several and talked about making some of his own.

The drinks were all good, but what impresses me most is the amount of time it takes to individually prepare each drink. Large fruits are juiced. Small herbs and berries are muddled by hand. Each Belle of the Ball has a large, specially prepared, round ice cube with rose, mint and peach inside, which slowly melts to add even more flavor to the drink. Drinks this complicated–while still serving customers quickly–means committing to a level of bar service and staffing that’s above average.

Pimento cheese--the best I've found in the south.
Pimento cheese–the best I’ve found in the south.

In addition cocktails, we were treated to appetizers that show off the menu.

  • Fried Green tomatoes, sliced thick with a crispy cornmeal crust and served with organic baby greens and strawberry-rhubarb vinaigrette
  • Calamari with house-made grape tomato and corn salad
  • Pimento Cheese on crostini, garnished with bacon

When I asked on Twitter (@Foodgodtess) what I should taste at Sprig, the overwhelming response: pimento cheese! I’ve never been a fan of this southern staple, but Sprig’s could change my mind. They use both white and sharp yellow cheddar, a light hand with the mayonnaise, and smoke their pimentos. Tasty!

Fried green tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes

Sprig’s menu changes quarterly with the seasons, so these cocktail classes happen about four times a year. Marc is also working on a list of cocktails for a soon-to-open Lilburn restaurant, 1910 Public House.

Located in the Vista Grove Shopping center, Sprig has been open since fall of 2010. Their tag line is “Eat Fresh. Eat Local.”

 

Sprig has its own garden.
Sprig has its own garden.

 

All the drinks were tasty, but The Experience was the most photogenic.
All the drinks were tasty, but The Experience was the most photogenic.
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Twilight tours: the murder of Mary Phagan

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This is part of my continuing series, discovering the history of Atlanta using the “residents” of Historic Oakland Cemetery, located in Grant Park, near downtown Atlanta. 421179_161357924036332_1247656934_n

If you’ve never been on a tour of Atlanta’s most historic cemetery, Oakland, go to one of the Guided Overview Tours at 10a, 2p and 4p on Saturdays or Sundays. Or take a Self Guided tour.

8353c403ce78a5f8b934b142e043cd67But if you’re looking for a more in depth experience, attend one of the Special Topic Twilight Tours. No reservations required, just show up at the Visitors Center any  Saturday or Sunday from, March 16 through October 13, Tours start at 6:30 and last roughly an hour. Or longer if you keep asking questions.

A Special Topic Tour coming up June 23 is Fear and Accusation: The Leo Frank Story – In 1913 Atlanta was a city in transition socially, culturally, and politically. The Old South had crumbled less than fifty years before and the memory of the Civil War still hung heavy in the air. In fact, the Leo Frank story began that year on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26. Thirteen year old Mary Phagan planned to enjoy the festivities but her life came to a sudden, violent end that day at the National Pencil Factory. Thus began a series of events that rank with the most tragic and indelible in the history of the city. Although much of the evidence collected was questionable at best, factory superintendent, Leo Frank, was soon accused, tried, and convicted of the heinous crime. Numerous Oakland residents played key roles in the event. Lives of both the rich and the poor were forever changed. Learn the stories behind the story in this thoughtful and thought provoking tour.

The lynching of Leo Frank occurred right outside of Marietta, GA. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The lynching of Leo Frank occurred right outside of Marietta, GA. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Details behind the murder and trial

Here’s more background on that murder and the trial of Leo Frank, which I researched at the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Midtown Atlanta.

My favorite part of this museum is in the permanent collection showing Jewish life in Atlanta from 1845 to the present. Of special interest to me is the video about the murder of Leo Frank. It’s impossible to talk about the Jewish experience in the south without discussing this case, which caused half the Jews in Georgia to flee the state. Frank was convicted in 1913 of the death of Mary Phagan, a young worker at the National Pencil Factory, where Frank was an engineer and superintendent. The trial and evidence was flawed and the jury prejudiced against him since he was both a Jew and a northerner. The prosecution portrayed him as a rich Yankee Jew lording it over vulnerable working women. Governor John M. Slaton eventually commuted the sentence to life imprisonment as he was leaving office, since it was effectively political suicide. A few weeks later, a group of armed men took Frank from the Milledgeville Penitentiary, carried him to the Marietta area and lynched him. No one was ever charged with Frank’s murder, though the ringleaders were prominent men of the community. Several photographs were taken of the lynching, which were sold as postcards, along with pieces of the rope and Frank’s nightshirt.

Leo Frank
Leo Frank

It is now widely believed by historians that Jim Conley, the factory’s janitor and the main witness for the prosecution, is the real murderer of Mary Phagan. In 1986, the state of Georgia pardoned Leo Frank. It is a sad chapter in Georgia’s history. This video is not the one at the museum, but it is very informative and includes several photos taken at the time.

Currently at the Breman, Project Mah Jongg.

Another tour that should be particularly interesting is the Jewish Grounds of Oakland – Dates: Sundays: 6/30, 7/28, 8/18.

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Don’t leave your toys unattended

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Sprig, 23I travel with a camera. As a blogger, that probably comes as no surprise to anyone. You never know when you’ll run across a story.

Sprig, 21Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting at a bar with a group of people I’d never met before. No, I don’t spend my life sitting at bars. OK, I don’t spend every day at a bar. But this was a cocktail class, at Sprig Restaurant, Oak Grove. We were there to learn and I spent the two hours tasting drinks, munching appetizers and absorbed by the words of the mixologist/bartender, Marc Caballero. A great way to spend an afternoon. And it was a fun group of students. A very fun group, as I found this morning when I downloaded the photos from my camera’s memory card.

 

Sprig, 22This is what happened when you leave your camera unsupervised. Thankfully, I had my cell phone in my pocket or I dread the results. Thanks for these to my new friends: Sue (who was taking the photos), Donna and Michael. I hope I run into you again.

And I hope you leave your cell phone on the table when you go to the bathroom. 🙂

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Going ultra-lite, because less is more

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My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite
My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite. It holds just 30 pounds.

I’ve been a backpacker for years, but my gear had been languishing on a shelf. I’ve recently closed a part time business and am using the open space in my calendar to do some shake-down hikes. I’m figuring out how to carry less weight on my back. My last lengthy hike was almost a decade ago when I was younger, stronger and …ahem….had a smaller waistline. Reducing your backpack to a very low weight–25 pounds for a week’s hike–is called Ultra-Lite backpacking. That’s what I’m striving for. To carry on my back only what I need to be safe, fed, warm and healthy. Anything else just weighs you down and subtracts from your enjoyment of the experience. Less is more.

But my real goal is to Ultra-lite my LIFE.

Since the economy took it’s downturn in 2008, my whole life has changed. I live in the same house and work at the same job (though that was a bit sketchy for awhile there). But my attitude toward “things” and what I value is very different. Outwardly, I have fewer possessions. I own perhaps a fifth of what I did just 5 years ago. Having less stuff allows me to focus on experiences and on the things that I really care about. Like backpacking. Or world travel. Don’t get me wrong: I have everything I need. I just have a lot less of what I don’t need.

How’d I do it? One space at a time!

Getting rid of possessions may sound daunting, but I didn’t do it all at once. Most of us would feel too deprived if we got rid of everything at once. My journey started with frustration. I had so much stuff but couldn’t find anything. I was tired of cleaning around things, ruffling through over stuffed closets and moving unmarked boxes with unknown contents. It started by going through all my storage areas, which were mostly overhead or in the basement and tough to access. Most of what was there were things I didn’t use, couldn’t find and mostly didn’t even remember buying. I had 4 large boxes that I’d moved through 3 states and 6 homes without once opening! There was not one thing inside those boxes that I kept. Except for Christmas decorations, most of the items in storage were scrapped or given away. If you pay for a storage unit, this can be a real cost savings. (If you’re using your parent’s basement and garage to store things, this can make the holidays much more pleasant.)

That’s when it got fun

Next I set a goal to make room in my overcrowded closets. If I’d used the item in the last 6 months it went back in the closet. If I hadn’t used it in a year, but I thought I would, it went in a special section of the closet WITH A DATE ON IT. If I didn’t use it in another 6 months, it had to go. Everything else went into one of three boxes.

  • Things to donate or share
  • Things to throw out
  • Things to repair (and it’s surprising how large this category is!)

After I’d cleared the boxes, I went through every drawer and did the same thing. I moved on to every flat surface in the house. I added a new category of items to keep:

  • Things I find inspiring, useful or beautiful

This isn’t about doing without or being in want. If you love an item, if it makes you smile just to glance at it, keep it. But make sure it is out somewhere that you can enjoy it and not cluttered behind items of less value.

I have no children, so I gave family heirlooms to my nieces. Goodwill got clothing, knickknacks and decorative items. Who needs reference books in the age of Google? I donated books I’d never read again to the library, to friends or swapped them online for used books I would read. I threw away bag after bag of useless paper and broken items. I scanned my photos and letters and reduced shelves of scrapbooks to a handful of thumb drives and back up CDs. I mailed the photos to friends and family and donated almost everything from my High School years to my school’s scrapbook project.

Suddenly I had more room than I needed

I hardly ever missed an item I’d gotten rid of. But here’s the real surprise: the place looked better than before without all the clutter and useless decorative things. It was easier and faster to clean. I could find the things I needed. I was calmer. I even saved money. I’d completely emptied a spare bedroom and bath. I’d greatly reduced the items in my dining area and basement. I closed those rooms off and didn’t heat/cool them anymore. And I stopped buying things I didn’t need or already had.

And most importantly: I had more time, energy and money to spend on what I wanted

And isn’t that really the point? You don’t have unlimited resources. You have to FOCUS on what’s important. By getting rid of distracting things, I’ve come a long way toward doing that. I literally and figuratively opened up space in my life for something more….something better. I have what I need to be safe, fed, warm and healthy. I am comfortable. Anything else just weighs you down and subtracts from your enjoyment of the experience.

Less. Is. More.

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