Basement Renovation – Removing the Old Bar and Installing New Carpet

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Basement Renovation

As part of our basement renovation, we ripped out an old paneled bar. (We actually did that before we had the paintable wallpaper installed, that’s why the room looks a little different than the previous post in this series!) And, we had new carpet installed after the wallpaper. This post covers those two things!

Removing the Old Wood Paneled Bar

As I explained in the intro post for the basement renovation, we thought that this bar was a really fun feature when we moved into the house. However, it was in an awkward spot, and the space behind the bar just ended up kind of wasted.

Basement bar - before the renovation Basement bar - before the renovation

So, we decided to rip out the bar and install Ikea kitchen cabinetry in a more efficient layout. (More on that installation in the next post in the series)

First, we cleared out all the booze, soda, and other things we had stored in the bar:

Cleaning out the bar for demolition

Then, thanks to a crowbar, the claw end of a hammer, and a reciprocating saw, we were able to disassemble the bar within about 30 minutes! (Remember, we used the bar as a test spot for our paintable wallpaper installation, and to test paint swatches for the rest of the basement!)

Removing bar from basement Removing bar from the basement

Once we got the bar detached from the wall, we were able to move it … Revealing this green slimy sludge under the bar. YUCK!

Mystery green sludge

Then we just dragged the bar to our back patio, broke it down into smaller pieces, folded down any nails that were sticking out, and took it out to the curb on trash day.

Removing old bar from basement

The removal actually went much easier and faster than we expected. We thought it was a lot more “attached” to the floor and the wall than it actually was.

New Carpet Installation

Okay, sorry to jump around a bit, but after the paintable wallpaper installation (which I covered in the previous post in this series), we had new carpet installed in the basement. The old carpet was berber, and we were pretty sure that the previous owners installed the cheapest carpet possible to cover the hideous linoleum floor after their house sat on the market for more than a year. (You can see the old linoleum revealed when we ripped out the bar).

Old linoleum under the carpet

The berber carpet was constantly pilling, and if you vacuumed over a loose strand in the carpet, you basically ended up ripping up several threads of carpet. Oh, and the worst part was walking on it in bare feet. If the bottoms of my feet were even slightly dry, the berber carpet threads would like “stick” the bottoms of my feet like velcro. Awful.

So, we definitely wanted to nice, plush carpet for the basement. We even opted for thicker padding!

Here are some photos from the new carpet installation! For those local to the Northern Virginia area, message us if you’d like the flooring installers info! We’ve used them for three different flooring jobs in our house now, and we highly recommend them!

Carpet installation in basement Carpet installation in basement Carpet installation in basement Carpet installation in basement Carpet installation in basement Carpet installation in basement

It’s so much nicer than our old stuff! And we thought it went really nicely with the rest of the room’s freshly painted walls! Oh, and no more “velcro feet!” I can walk on the carpet with no socks just fine!

New carpet in the basement New carpet in the basement New carpet in the basement

The basement was already looking nice and finished at that point, but we still had one more phase … installing new Ikea kitchen cabinetry for storage and with a countertop as a “workbench.”

We’re about to become real estate investors!

As part of our efforts to achieve financial independence and retire early, Ken and I have been talking for several years now about purchasing some rental properties. Within the past year or so, we’ve started to do a lot more formal research on the topic, and over the holidays, we even scheduled a few property viewings with a realtor.  

Over Christmas, we found a duplex that we liked and we’re planning to put in an offer. We’d be long distance property owners (but I’m familiar with the area as it’s the neighborhood that I grew up in and that my dad still lives in), so we’d have to use a property management company.  The neighborhood is not the greatest, but the rental market is strong.

Real estate appreciation in that area is negligible, and doesn’t really outpace inflation.  So this purchase would definitely be about acquiring an “income stream” as opposed to buying and holding a house and hoping for some decent appreciation. Because that would be very unlikely.  This area was even pretty immune to the housing bubble of the 2004-2007 era.

The duplex we’re looking at already has tenants, so we’re currently doing some due diligence communications with the seller’s realtor, asking for copies of leases, payment histories, and permits for previous house renovations, as the current owner put in extensive renovations since purchasing it about 5 years ago.

We’re anxious to put in an offer, but we are resisting that urge before we have all the information we need!

This will very much be a learn-by-doing process.  However, it’s not totally uninformed.  Ken and I have both read a few books on the topic (which I realize doesn’t make us experts by any stretch. But, we found that books were a lot more helpful than the voluminous, yet disjointed information all over the internet.)

We met with a lawyer to discuss, for instance, whether he’d recommend setting up an LLC, or whether an umbrella insurance policy would be sufficient.  And, although we had read in several places that getting a mortgage is usually the best bet for a return-on-investment for rental properties, I wanted to hear the lawyer’s thoughts on whether he recommended paying up front, or whether we should get a mortgage (“Mortgage as much as you can!” was his response). For what it’s worth, the houses we’re looking at are VERY inexpensive, that’s why we could consider paying for it in its entirety!

My sister and her family currently rent out their old home that they own, and she uses a property manager as well.  Their house isn’t far from the house that Ken and I are considering putting in an offer on, so we’ll likely use the same property management company.

So, we’ll be documenting our first foray into rental property investing.  This will also be the first home I buy (Ken bought the house we live in now before we got married).  We’ve decided that I would just be on the mortgage for this house, with the idea being that we’ll acquire more rental properties over the years, and we’ll likely want to “split” the mortgage amounts on our credit reports in an effort to get approved for more.

I’ll also be interested to see that, as a frequent credit card churner, if any additional explanations will be required about why I always have so many credit inquiries on my credit report, and why I have so many open accounts! I don’t carry any credit card balances, so it doesn’t affect my debt-to-income ratio or anything, but I have read anecdotes online that the multiple credit inquiries sometimes attract additional questions.

So much going through my mind!

Do any of you have rental properties?  Any last minute tips before we put in an offer?

DIY Recessed Lighting Installation (Part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series DIY Recessed Lighting Installation

So, after removing the old, ugly light fixtures that we didn’t want anymore, it was time to start fresh with our new fancy recessed lighting!

Keep in mind that we are NOT electricians! This is just the process we followed for installing the lights.

We bought our recessed lighting mounts from USA Light. We started out by buying the “housing,” aka the fixture, and a few different kinds of recessed “trims”, including recessed light trims that only point down, ones that you can point in different directions, and “wall wash” trims.

We ultimately decided on the ones that just point straight down. We didn’t really have any need for the directional ones.

Here’s what one of the fixtures looked like as it sat on our table: Seriously, if somebody had asked me what this was before I actually knew, I don’t think I would’ve ever guessed. I had no idea this is what recessed lights looked like. For what it’s worth, these types of fixtures are called “new construction” recessed lighting fixtures (as opposed to “remodel” fixtures, which are used in pre-constructed drywall ceilings).

Recessed light fixture for drop ceiling Recessed light fixture for drop ceiling

There was a small box on the one side of the fixture that we needed to work on before the light could ever go in the ceiling (It wasn’t totally necessary to work on it before putting it in the ceiling, but it was easier to work on it on the table instead of over our head!).

Box on the side of the recessed lighting fixture

The box had some cables in it, which Ken pulled out to make it easier to work with.

Wires inside the recessed lighting

Then, he turned the fixture to the side and removed one of the little round tabs.

Preparing recessed lighting fixtures for installation Preparing recessed lighting fixtures for installation Preparing recessed lighting fixtures for installation

(Note the wires coming out of the fixture. Those came pre-installed with the fixture. This is important because we refer to it later in this post. Those things on the ends of the wires are called “push-in connectors.”)

Then he flipped the fixture to the other side and removed the top round tab.  Keep in mind that it doesn’t really matter which of the tabs we removed. We just removed the ones we thought would be easiest to work with when we were wiring. Basically we needed two of them removed so that we could put wires going “in” to the fixture, as well as wires going “out” from the fixture to the neighboring fixture.  If this was the last fixture we were installing, we’d just punch out one of the tabs for the wires coming “in.”

Preparing recessed lighting fixtures for installation

Those round tabs he removed had to be replaced with these things called clamp connectors, which we made sure matched the size of the tab holes on our fixture. These were important to have because the hole where we removed the tabs were quite sharp on the edges. It also wouldn’t do much to secure the wires (from moving around) if you don’t have the clamp connectors.  Wires and sharp edges don’t sound very safe, so we definitely wanted to use the clamp connectors.

Installing clamp connectors on recessed lighting fixture

They’re actually two parts, and he unscrewed them because each part would have to go on opposite sides of the hole.

Installing clamp connectors on recessed lighting fixture Installing clamp connectors on recessed lighting fixture

Voila.

Now it was time to position the fixture in our ceiling and do some initial wiring.

Putting recessed lighting fixture in drop ceiling

The fixtures have these little slots in them that allow them to sit perfectly on the drop ceiling grid.

Putting recessed lighting fixture in drop ceiling Putting recessed lighting fixture in drop ceiling

Next, we took some wire called Romex 14/2 wire. Ken had figured it all out the type of Romex wire we needed. We wanted 14 gauge, and 2 (14/2) for the number of wires not counting the ground inside the wire.  Since, for this part, we weren’t wiring the fixture directly to a switch (just light fixture to light fixture, the wiring to the switch had already been done by the electricians), we didn’t need one of the “3” Romex wires.

Romex wire

(Sorry, I didn’t get a picture of the wire in the bag, so this crumpled up photo of the bag is all you get:)

Romex wire

Ken and I fished up the Romex wire into the ceiling, just roughly where it needed to go.

Installing romex wire during recessed lighting installation process

Then he took some wire strippers to cut off the outer sheath of the Romex wire.

Installing romex wire during recessed lighting installation process Installing romex wire during recessed lighting installation process Installing romex wire during recessed lighting installation process

The inside of that wire consisted of three thinner wires: one white, and one black, and one “bare” (copper) wire. Ken pulled those three wires (still attached to the white sheath), through the hole where he had removed those tabs from and had subsequently affixed the clamp connector to.

Wiring recessed lighting fixture Wiring recessed lighting fixture

Then he attached tightened the clamp connector, ensuring that the wires are secure and don’t move. (There were screws on the clamp connector to do this).

Now it was time to connect those new wires (from the stripped sheathing) to the existing wires that came with the recessed lighting fixture.  (The wires that we pointed out to remember in the earlier picture 🙂 )

He cut off the sheathing from the black and white wires (the insulation of the wires). Then, he matched “like with like” by inserting the freshly unsheathed wires into the “push in connector” of the wires that came with the fixture. So, he put the wire that had the black sheath in the push in connector that had the black wire on the fixture, the one with the white sheath to the white push-in connector, and the bare wire to the “green” wire push-in-connector.

Wiring recessed lighting fixture

Whew! Okay, I think that’s enough for Part 2, what do you think?  We’ll talk more about the next steps in our process in Part 3!

DIY Recessed Lighting Installation

My Disappointing Experience (x3) Trying to Use VRBO.

Ken and I are planning a trip to San Francisco in the summer. One of Ken’s friends is getting married in the Bay Area, and we decided to make a vacation out of it. The original plan was to do four nights in San Francisco, as well as four nights in the Monterey Bay or Big Sur area.

Hotel options in the Monterey and Big Sur area seem fall into three categories: 1) Lower end chain hotels far from the beach and other scenery, 2) Uber budget motels that would have been fine for my taste 8+ years ago, but no longer, and 3) Ultra high-end expensive beach front hotels for $300+/night. Many $600+ per night. Yikes.

So, I decided to look for vacation rentals on VRBO.  After a bit more itinerary finagling, we decided on two nights in Santa Cruz and two nights in Big Sur.  We limited our search to properties that allowed a minimum of two night stays (since many properties have minimums of 4+ nights). We found a few properties that looked fantastic, weighed the pros and cons, made our choice, and reserved it.  Done and done.  

Except, not.

First message we got was from our reservation in Big Sur.

VRBO rental 1

Then why don’t you change your minimum stay requirements?  I saw plenty of properties on VRBO that specified different minimum stays for different times of the year.  Instead, we had fallen in love with the idea of this vacation property only for our reservation to be rejected.  🙁

Second, we got a message (err, a lack of a message) for our reservation in Santa Cruz.

VRBO rental 2

 

The property owner never responded within 24 hours, so our reservation was automatically cancelled.  I sent the owner a separate follow-up message, and he just responded vaguely saying that the property wasn’t available those days.  I continue to re-check, and it’s still available according to the calendar for that property on VRBO!  
So, we decided to readjust our strategy. I booked two nights at a chain hotel, the Highlands Inn Carmel, which is a Hyatt property. So I was able to use Hyatt Gold Passport points for a hotel near Big Sur.  Score!  Saving money, saving money! We just had to find another Santa Cruz property. We decided to submit another VRBO reservation for another lovely looking home close to the beach in Santa Cruz.  This one also had two night minimum stays.  

And another one, now our third, rejected. She responded saying she has strict three-night minimum stay requirements during the summer.  Again, nowhere on the property page was that indicated.  Just the two night minimum stays.  

VRBO rental 3

 

We were beyond frustrated. And frankly, it makes me hesitant to try VRBO again in the future.  I spent a decent chunk of time researching and comparing properties before submitting reservations on VRBO. But it was all a total waste of time. So, why would I spend time in the future searching for properties that fit my criteria, only to have them rejected?  I hate to be whiny over such #FirstWorldProblems and all, but seriously, this is a vacation rental business.  I expect to be able to RENT VACATION HOMES! 

I’m not sure who is at fault – the property owners or VRBO? Maybe VRBO makes it difficult to alter minimum stay requirements on their website? Maybe there are additional charges that VRBO imposes if you have longer stay requirments?  Or maybe it’s just flaky owners. Hoping a “better” guest will come around and stay longer at their property?

Have you used VRBO?  What were your thoughts?

We’re Going to Mardi Gras! Here’s What We’re Doing to Prepare

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2016


I mentioned in passing a few times that we were thinking about going to Mardi Gras, and then that we had decided to go to Mardi Gras in 2016.  

How we're preparing to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans!

Surprisingly, it’s been difficult to find a good consolidated list of information about Mardi Gras.  For instance, where the best viewing stands are for the parades, which bars/restaurants have the best balcony options for bead throwing on Bourbon Street, and how crowded non-Mardi Gras events and venues (like the general tourist attractions) are during Mardi Gras.  It’s a bit frustrating for the compulsive planner that I am, but alas, it will be just fine.

In the absence of solid information, here is what I’m doing to prepare:

  • Booking restaurant reservations for just about every single meal during our four days in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  I anticipate large crowds, and I want to make sure that we’re not stuck after one of the parades, starving and hopelessly looking for restaurants without a two hour wait.  (I have no idea if that would actually be the case, but I’m just trying to prepare!)  So, I made reservations for each day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  For most of the restaurants, reservations windows opened 90 days in advance via OpenTable.  So, I was on OpenTable each morning in early November booking the restaurants that we wanted for that day 90 days in the future!  And I’m glad I did, because looking at some of those same restaurants now, many of them are booked!  Only one of the restaurants we booked imposes any sort of cancellation penalty, so if some other restaurant happens to catch our eye and doesn’t have a wait (like for a lot of the hole-in-the-wall type places that don’t take reservations), I can just call the restaurant we reserved and cancel, penalty free.
  • Booking viewing stands for the parades.  Information I found online about the viewing stands has been mixed.  Some people say that the only true way to experience a Mardi Gras parade is on the sidewalks in the throes of the huge crowds.  That sometimes the beads and other trinkets that are thrown from the floats don’t even reach the viewing stands.  But, even with that information, we’ve decided to buy tickets for viewing stands.  Why?  

1) Well, first and foremost, we love taking photographs.  So, I wanted to make sure we had a decent vantage point for taking pictures of all the parades!  

2) I don’t like the idea of having to arrive at a parade route 4+ hours in advance to save a good spot.  I’d rather use that time to see other sites in New Orleans!  Having tickets for a dedicated spot will allow us to arrive pretty much whenever before a parade starts and have a good viewing location!  

3) I like the idea of having a place to sit if our legs get tired as the parade route passes.  (I’ve found that some viewing stands are bleacher-like seats, while others are just platforms with no seating.  I’ve been making sure to book the ones with bleacher seats!  Even if people stand on the bleachers as the parade starts, we can still grab a seat.)  

4) Although the grandstands will be filled with people, I figure it will be LESS crowded than the streets and sidewalks, and that we won’t constantly be getting bumped into or anything.  That’s just not my cuppa tea.

I figure, if the parades really are THAT much more awesome in the midst of the crowds on the sidewalk, we can just cut our losses on the price we paid for the viewing stands and head down to the sidewalk.  

  • Figuring out the best Bourbon Street options.  No float parades transit Bourbon Street.  But, Bourbon Street is a hotbed of activity during Mardi Gras.  Although it doesn’t sound like anything I want to hang out in EVERY night during Mardi Gras, I figured we can’t experience New Orleans during Mardi Gras without heading to Bourbon Street at least one evening.  I’ve found a few options for balcony party packages on Bourbon Street.  They’re not cheap ($150-$200 per person), but considering our hotel and flights are free thanks to points and miles, we figure it’s worth the splurge. They all include food and drinks too.  I’m still weighing our options for the balcony party.  Large balcony?  Smaller balcony?  A place with a courtyard to escape the crowds and indoor heat?  You get the idea.  I’ve contacted a few places and am still waiting to hear back from some of them before I make a final decision.  But on the short list is Bourbon Vieux and the Swamp.    
  • Not renting a car.  The last time we were in New Orleans together, it was part of a big road trip, so we had our own car.  This time, we’ll just get around using public transportation and Uber or taxis. Although using Uber or taxis will cost us some money, we’ll save on hotel parking, other city parking, and of course we won’t have to deal with figuring out all the closed roads during Mardi Gras.  
  • Exploring other alternatives for parade viewing.  I’ve checked Airbnb for folks that might be renting out space on their balcony for Mardi Gras, such as in homes along St. Charles Avenue for a lot of the parade routes, but haven’t had any luck.  But, I thought I’d throw it out there to give people other ideas for what to try.  I’ve also tried to find restaurants that have balcony seating along St. Charles Avenue that perhaps you can eat as the parade goes by, but I haven’t been able to find any information on options like these.  Kinda frustrating!  
  • Learning more about nighttime parade photography.  I’ve never quite been able to get the hang of photographing moving objects at night without blur or excessive grain.  Since at least two of the Mardi Gras parades we’ll be seeing will take place at night, I want to make sure I’m fully up to speed on what some of the better camera settings are to capture the nighttime parades!  Obviously a tripod probably won’t be an option, even having the extra space in the viewing stands, but perhaps a monopod could help. Better than trying to figure it out on the fly.