Friday, February 28, 2014

The ups and downs of buying a clearance riding lawn mower

The local Lowes had a clearance mower out front listed for $300 off sticker ($1600) a month ago. I had been eyeing the thing for a while because it looked "sun ravaged", but I guessed that the mechanicals would all be perfectly fine.

Husqvarna YTH21K46
I got it home, and found that it wouldn't start (not too surprising given how long it was sitting out). So, I got to work. I bought a new battery, a 12v battery charger (good investment to have for cars), a couple spark plugs, and a new air filter. I worked for a few hours throughout the last 3 weeks, trying to get the thing to crank. I finally got it to a point where it was stable, but still not starting. It would turn over, and run for 5-10 seconds, and then die.

This was either a carburetor or a fuel supply issue. The carb is factory sealed, so I was not going to void the warranty to fix it myself. I had the mower picked up for a warranty fix.

I just got a call today that it wasn't a carb issue, but a fuel supply issue. There was a bunch of crud in the fuel lines, and the filter was 100% clogged. I hadn't thought to check that,  because the thing had hardly been run, and why the heck would there be gunk in the fuel tank, even if it had been sitting for 2 years? Anyway, after getting a great deal on the mower ($900 for a $1600 mower), putting $75-100 into getting it running is a small price to pay!

Overall, still a good investment!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Planting and Building

It's the time of year when people start thinking about warmer months and the taste of fresh tomatoes on the vine.

Here in Texas, that's especially true! Last weekend it was sunny an 70 degrees, and led to a hankering for a garden to plant.

As I alluded to in the last photo post, I was working on an outside project last weekend (among other things). I knew that some of my fruit and vegetable plants were on their way, so I needed to prep for them!

Using this guide as inspiration, I prototyped a raised bed built solely out of cedar pickets. Why cedar pickets? Because I'm cheap! I had done some calculations to see how much it would cost to build 8 raised beds for my vegetable garden, and was astonished. Here were the approximate results:

1. 2x6 cedar or pressure treated wood - ~$450 for 8 beds

Spending nearly $500 on wooden boxes to hold dirt was waaaaay out of the question. That's just ridiculous!

2. 2x4 cedar or pressure treated wood - ~$200 for 8 beds

Now we were getting down to ballpark reasonable prices, but I had some concerns about the look of building everything out of 2x4s and it was still a bit expensive.

3. 6' cedar fence pickets - ~$100 for 8 beds

There was my winner! I had to compromise by going with a 3'x6' raised bed design, but it's well worth it to cut the price to less than half, and still get a good look out of it.

Cedar is somewhat important down here, as it's a natural bug repellant, and we have all sorts of creepy crawlies who are more than willing to steal the fruits of ones labor (pun intended). Besides that, it really looks great, and holds up well to the weather!

After prototyping the build, and being satisfied with the results, I have earmarked next weekend to finish the build of 3 more beds, and I will document the process for later on!

Beyond that, I have 4 trees in the ground right now, an almond, a peach, a pear, and a nectarine. I just got more trees in the mail yesterday, including two plums, two apples, another peach, and more! The orchard is officially started!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Paint and More

Last weekend, Lauren was busy with painting the living room. We had started a while back, but the color was wrong, and the wall wasn't quite smooth enough.

She started by finishing and redoing the spackle job on the walls.

While she was doing that, I was busy cutting and installing drywall (don't worry about that small hole, the drywall on the left is coming down to be replaced).

Then, she tarped off the walls that she wanted to paint.

We were very extra careful to make sure that our furniture was not exposed to any dust, even if it got through the tarp. It turns out this was a GREAT idea, because we weren't perfect, and there was some dust that got through.

Then Lauren spent a good part of a day with the new orbit sander, getting the wall as smooth as possible.

This is absolutely the hardest part. It has to be completely smooth, and these old walls were not willing to play nice. She spent hours trying to get it just right.

Then comes the paint! We went with a darker color than we were originally planning, as the lighter grey had too much of a blue hue and was entirely too light, and didn't look good on such a big wall.

You can see the difference in the color we were originally going to go with (on the left, in the entryway) and the color we settled on. I think it looks tons better with this shade!

This weekend, we're doing some outdoors projects. The first was to cut up the last limb in the front yard, finishing most of a project that was put on hold when I bent the chain on my chainsaw.  Here's a sneak peek at the other project:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Quick Update - Our 2014 Goals

At the beginning of the year, I laid out our goals for this year, and after a month and a half, it's time to see how we're coming along so far.

1) Finish up the entryway opening ASAP!!!! -  DONE! The entryway opening is sealed up, and awaiting paint.

2) Scrape the popcorn ceilings in the living room. - Unofficially started. When taking down some of the tarp from when we painted the living room, I "accidentally" took some of the popcorn with it. 

3) Remodel the kitchen (summer). - May or may not happen on schedule. We're looking to see whether we want to save for the kitchen, or use the money for something else.

4) New flooring (before Christmas). - Will happen after the kitchen.

5) Raised beds for the vegetable garden (February). - Have the materials! I'm just waiting on a weekend when I have enough time to build the beds.

6) Drip irrigation for the garden (February/March). - Waiting on the raised beds.

7) Plant an orchard (February). - Trees will be here in a week or so!

8) Fix the broken sprinkler system (spring). - I have the sprinkler head to fix this, but I'm thinking about completely replacing the system with a drip irrigation system. This would remove us from having timing restrictions for when we can water.

9) Replace the mantle - Looking for a good piece to use as the mantle.

10) Curtains - Waiting to get curtain rods.

11) Host Christmas 2014 -  Still on track.

12) Move out of the apartment and into the house!! - The out of the apartment part is DONE! The into the house part is still in progress. We're hoping to use the next few weekends to continue unpacking and moving in.


13) Hang both bikes in the garage - I already have one hanging, and it's an easy task, but it needs to be moved to a better place once the garage gets cleaned up. The other bike should go up nice and easy.

14) Put up a dog run - After a few escape attempts, I have propped up some logs at every conceivable exit point. However, it will be nice to get a dog run built so that we don't have to babysit the dogs every time they're in the yard.

15) Put a cat door in the shed - The cats currently get into their home via a log propping the front door of the shed open. If the wind gets bad enough, it pushes the log away and swings the shed door wide open, scaring the cats and exposing them to the elements. I have the cat door, but I just need to get the jigsaw and cut the opening.

16) Get the lawn mower up and running - It is soooo close, but not quite there yet. Now I just need to get it over the hump or take it in to the dealer to fix.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Those nagging recurring monthly fees

I wrote an article the other day about home automation where I mentioned how much I absolutely HATE recurring monthly charges/fees.

The biggest detriments to a healthy budget and frugal living are hidden or automatic costs. While it's super convenient to have your electric bill just auto-debit from your account each month, you tend to disassociate the actual cost from the number that you see coming out of your account.

Ever wonder why there's always a bunch of hubbub about "reforming the tax code", but nothing is done? Income taxes are one of those hidden and automatic costs, being deducted from your paycheck before you even get it. Therefore, you don't feel the cost unless you pay attention to your 1040 form during tax season.

In the name of financial health and freeing up money for the house, I've been on a crusade. I've been looking for any costs to cut, and any turnips to bleed. What I found was appalling!

  1. Memberships that are hardly being used - Between all the gym and other memberships, we are spending $34 a month. This isn't that bad, and we actually pay some of them because we got such good deals that the few times we use them pays off. Lauren gets exponentially more use out of both of her 2 gym memberships than I get out of mine, but for $10 a month, I have access to a dedicated gym with a racquetball court for when I have the hankering to move around. This could be eliminated if we really needed it, but $35 a month for all of the memberships is hard to complain too much about.
  2. Electric bill - It's amazing how quickly the electric bill can get out of hand. Here in TX we have multiple electric providers that we can choose from, and it's a yearly battle to find the best deal. I love using to compare rates.This has the potential to reach $100 a month in unnecessary spending if you are not on top it. Companies tend to give consumers a sweet promotional rate, hoping that they stay on after the contract is up and their prices start climbing. I once saved almost $150 month over month for the same amount of electricity simply by switching companies.
  3. Internet, Cable, and other Utilities - Where we are, the city takes care of the water, sewer, and trash, so there is no savings to be had besides conservation. Thankfully, the prices are reasonable enough that we're not sweating it. Internet and Cable, on the other hand, are a mess. They get you on the internet, so that the cable doesn't feel all that bad. I'm not at all opposed to completely cutting the cable, but at this point it would only save $30 give or take, and Lauren loves her Olympics. I do, however, like the FiOS service that we get, We only pay another $20 a month above what we used to pay for DSL, and the better service is completely worth that! I think that we may have to seriously think about cutting the cable once the Olympics are over. $120 is just way too much.
  4. Cell Phones - This is the worst of the recurring payments, and I have developed a love/hate relationship with my cell phone. Lauren and I are on separate plans, both locked in for a while longer. However, at $150 a month, and with Lauren's phone acting up, we're looking at alternatives. I'm a huge fan of the pay-as-you-go model that is espoused by Boost Mobile, Net10, StraightTalk, and other "secondary" providers. We could potentially cut our costs by $50-65 a month, depending on which carrier we went with. This is definitely priority #1 for reforming our "recurring budget" woes.
In the end, some of these expenses will be cut, but I just found it amazing how much money was flowing out of the account without us internalizing what was happening. We had a spot on the budget with each of those numbers, but when confronted with over $475 per month in automatic expenses, it made me seriously rethink each and every one of them. Are there any hidden or automatic expenses that you take for granted each month?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Look to the future: Home automation

One of the coolest things about owning a home is that you can do whatever you want with it (assuming that you don't live under a HOA, that is).

We decided fairly early on that we wanted to do something special with our house. We wanted to automate the thing as much as possible!

Now, there are a few considerations to take into account when automating one's home:

  • Cost - Home automation is expensive! A simple door lock can cost $200 if network enabled.
  • Recurring Fees - These are the bane of any frugal homeowner's existence. Even if it's just $20/month, these fees add up!
  • Coverage - Do you want everything in the house automated, or do you just want a few of the "most used" devices to be accessible?
  • Purpose - Why do you want your home to be automated? Do you want security? Ease of use? Remote access? Convenience?
I mentioned recurring fees, but have I mentioned how much I abhor recurring fees? They are the worst! You can't just make a recurring fee go away, you have to keep paying it until the end of the contract term. 

Because of my aversion to recurring fees, I won't be signing up for any of the home automation systems that are offered by the telecom companies. They get you with the low installation costs, but charge you an arm and a leg to "provide you service", which consists of them doing absolutely nothing.

After eliminating 99% of the home automation options, what is left? 
  1. Build my own solution - This would involve designing a circuit board, writing software for the processor on the board, and writing a web page and app for access to the automated devices. This is within the scope of what I'm capable of doing, but it would be a lot of work, and wouldn't even be reasonable to start until after I graduate law school (2017).
  2. Use a prebuilt system - My favorite is the Vera system. This system has solutions from $250 to $1000 depending on which controller you want, and what accessories that you buy in the package. You can also add to the system by buying any Z-wave enabled device.
I think that the prebuilt system is going to win out. Vera already has a well built product, and apps that are clean and useful.

I would have to work a long time to get an app to look like that
When the time comes, we will hash out exactly what is going to be a part of our home automation system, but generically, we'll have some security aspects, some convenience aspects (lights and thermostat), and maybe a few efficiency aspects as well.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Slowly making progress!

This is just a quick hit, and the pictures will come later on. We took some time this weekend to finally resolve the bare walls in the living room. Lauren did all the work, prepping the walls with a coat of spackle (my previous attempt needed a second coat in some spots, and a first coat in others), sanding the walls smooth, and putting a coat of new paint on the wall.

We went with a darker and less blue color (charcoal gray), and it looks amazing! Lauren was able to get the entirety of the "big wall" in the living room done, and just has a small portion around the entryway to take care of as well. Then, the living room will be done (for now)!

Next weekend, Lauren will finish the living room paint, and start focusing on the side of the entryway that I just got framed and drywalled. The "dining room" is due to have a bunch of the drywall ripped out, as I hunt after termite damage. Then we'll put up new drywall and paint that room as well.

Finally, I've been playing with my new riding lawn mower, trying to get it to start. I've replaced the battery, gotten a new key, and am now working on keeping it running. It'll start for 15 seconds and then stall.