Learning to love the not-so-big house

I had lunch with my friend Cameron a few weeks ago. Over plates of Kung Pao Chicken and Mongolian Beef, the conversation drifted toward personal finance. We began to talk about the repairs and upgrades we've been making to our homes.

Kris and I bought our current house three years ago; Cameron and his wife bought their home two years ago. Both were big upgrades from what we had previously owned. And though neither couple spent more than they could afford, we're now realizing that bigger isn't always better.

Our first house was a 1365 square foot ranch-style home on a 7500 square foot lot. It was an unremarkable house, except that it was located in my home town. We could walk to the grocery store, to the barber, to our favorite restaurants. I could bike to work. If we still lived there, we would be paying off the mortgage next spring.

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Accelerated mortgage payments (and the GRS amortization calculator)

What if you've reviewed the compromises required to pay your mortgage early and the idea still appeals to you? You might pay a bank to set up a bi-weekly payment plan or a money merge account. But you can do just as well by taking mortgage acceleration into your own hands. Here are three options I've considered:

  • Rather than pay my mortgage, I could deposit my money into a high-yield savings account earning roughly 5% interest. Though this earns the lowest possible rate of return on my money, it gives me the greatest flexibility. I could withdraw the money to pay down the mortgage at any time. Or I could save for other goals.
  • On the other hand, I might make extra payments on my mortgage each month. This would effectively earn me a guaranteed rate of return equal to my mortgage interest rate (6.25%). This would also help me spend less on interest. Doing this, however, ties up my money, making it difficult to access if I decide I want it for something else.
  • My third choice is to invest the money in low-cost index funds. This would, in theory, provide the highest possible rate of return for my money, but as with any stock market investment, there's an element of risk. If my goal is to pay off my mortgage, a bear market is going to make me sweat.

Kris and I will decide what we intend to do by early next year. Initially, I thought we'd make payments directly on the loan, but after previous discussions here at Get Rich Slowly, I'm leaning toward placing the money in a high-yield savings account until we know better what our long-term financial goals are.

HELOC Payment Calculator for Excel

Meanwhile, I was curious: How long would it take to pay off my mortgage using the HELOC I already have? Would using the HELOC actually save time over applying the payment directly to the mortgage itself? To play with the numbers, I developed a mortgage amortization spreadsheet. (This spreadsheet doesn't account for inflation — that's beyond my Excel acumen.) Continue reading...

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Is a money merge account a good way to pay off your mortgage?

Over the past few weeks, I've received several questions about money merge accounts (sometimes called "Australian mortgages"). I haven't paid much attention to these because I'm unfamiliar the products. But when Abbie wrote last week, I decided to do some research. Here's what she said:

My financial guy handed me a DVD for United First Financial the last time I spoke with him. Apparently they are a company that uses "sophisticated algorithms" to compute how to best pay down a mortgage using a HELOC and a Money Merge Account, with the end result being that the mortgage is paid off in fewer than 30 years. (Their preferred statistic seems to be 11 years.)

I'm new to the whole homeowner thing, and know there are differing opinions regarding paying off a mortgage early, but was wondering if you're familiar with this system. I'd appreciate any information or opinion you have regarding money merge accounts or UFF; a bit of web research comes up with inflammatory chats and the company's own claims, but nothing from a reliable third party.

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Frugality in Practice: Do-it-Yourself Home Maintenance

I hate plumbing. Whenever a faucet begins to leak or a drain clogs, my stomach sinks. I know it means hours of frustrating work. It's not that plumbing is difficult — it's just that I'm not well-versed in the ways of home-improvement. Somehow I missed that part of Manhood Training.

Despite my apprehension, over thirteen years of homeownership, I've made it a point to do as much repair work as I'm able. It has saved me a lot of money. And while I'm a ball of nerves going into a project, I get tremendous satisfaction when I finish something and know that I did the work with my own hands.

Yesterday we woke to find water on the floor of the upstairs bathroom. When we couldn't immediately locate the source of the leak, we debated calling a plumber. Because it was the weekend, and because we're trying to save money, Kris and I decided to tackle the problem as a team. While she buried herself in the Readers Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, I took the toilet apart. Ultimately we diagnosed the likely culprit: corroded fasteners connecting the tank of the toilet to the bowl. We drove to the hardware store, picked up replacement parts, and then put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Continue reading...

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Renting vs. buying: The realities of home-ownership

"If you rent, you're throwing away your money."
"Owning your own home is a forced savings plan."
"Home ownership is an excellent path to build wealth."

You've probably heard statements like these plenty of times. On television, radio, the internet, and in casual conversation. Such sentiments are common in any discussion that involves home-buying and personal finances. It's common knowledge that buying a home is a better financial move than renting. After all, you're building equity instead of throwing away your money, right? Well, maybe not quite... Rather than assuming the "common knowledge" on this subject is accurate, let's take a look for ourselves at some of the financial differences between renting and home-buying.

A Real-World Example

For the purpose of comparing renting to owning in this article, I'll be using real-world data gathered from my area (northeast of Seattle). Although most first-time buyers tend to move from renting an apartment to buying a larger, stand-alone house, as much as I can I will compare apples to apples.

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What if you’re frugal but your roommates aren’t?

Eleanor wrote with a question that could test even the mightiest personal finance expert. "What," she asks, "can you do when you want to save money and your roommates don't care?"

I share a house with four roommates. This saves me at least $200 a month from what I would be paying if I lived in an apartment. But roommates raise expenses in other, unexpected ways. I have been trying to cut down on monthly bills and am finding it incredibly difficult.

For example, I live with roommates that want digital cable and high-speed internet bundle. I can live without the cable (I don't watch TV) and don't mind having a lower-speed connection. But because three of my five roommates want the more expensive package, that's what we get, and instead of splitting a $60/month bill five ways we're splitting a $100/month bill. I end up paying more money overall. While I can simply not watch cable and argue with them that I won't pay for that fractional cost of the bill, there's no way I can somehow use a lower speed internet connection without some serious technological finagling.

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Fact or fiction: Can a rain barrel save you money?

Reader robblat asked about rain barrels: Are they useful? How much do they cost? Where do you get one? My wife just installed a rain barrel last year, so I asked her to explain how they work.

For my birthday last year, I asked my parents for a rain barrel. After doing some research online, I went to our local nursery and paid $100 for a complete barrel set up. While it will mean a small savings on our future water bills, the upfront cost is really too high to justify it from a purely financial standpoint. Instead, I wanted to collect rainwater for several other reasons.

Collecting a Renewable Resource For Our Own Use

Rainwater belongs to everyone, right? But for the most part, we are dependent on a vast infrastructure to collect, purify and deliver this most basic of life's requirements to our doors (er, faucets). I like the idea of harnessing a bit of that rain before it makes it through the whole human system. My plants don't need chlorinated water, anyway! Plus, anecdotal evidence on gardening websites suggests that plants do better with lukewarm rainwater than cold tap water.

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How to Find a Contractor: It’s Not Just About Price

On Monday I mentioned that it pays to shop around for the lowest price. This skill is specially important when making large money decisions. You should always shop around when purchasing a car, obtaining a mortage, or hiring a contractor. We've discussed getting the best deal on a car before. We've touched on mortgages, and are sure to discuss them more in the future. Today I want to share my approach to finding a contractor.

The New Roof

We bought our first house in the spring of 1993. The roof was in bad shape and needed to be replaced before we could close the deal. Fortunately, we had a good working relationship with the seller: he offered to grant us a $2,000 credit if we would take care of finding a roofer.

I had never done anything like this before, nor had any of my friends. I looked in the phone book and found a local roofer. When I called, he could sense that I was confused, so he talked me through the process, asking about the size of the house, the slope of the roof, the material we wanted to use, the condition of the existing shingles. He gave me a quote of $2300.

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Gardening 101: Plan Today for Summer Success

This was an actual weekend harvest from our garden last August.

At Get Rich Slowly, we get many requests for information about starting a vegetable garden. This is huge topic, and really enough fodder for an entire website. If you're a novice gardener you will benefit by asking yourself six questions before mail-ordering seeds or heading to your local nursery. Now is the time to do your research so that you'll be ready for planting season.

Do you actually like to eat vegetables?

If not, focus on fruits and herbs, edible and ornamental flowers, and a favorite veggie or two. A well-tended garden will produce a lot of vegetables. If you are lukewarm about zucchini then pass up that beautiful seedling. (Or go introduce yourself to your five nearest neighbors so that you can share come July).

What is your gardening space like?

This is probably the most important question for the novice gardener. If you are starting from bare dirt or, more likely, a patch of lawn, you have some work to do. The plot needs to be evaluated for sun and wind exposure, moisture/drainage, soil pH and elemental content, pests, and other factors.

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Cheap Ways to Stay Warm this Winter

Winter weather has arrived in Oregon — it's rainy and cold. This time of year, Kris and I search for ways to keep warm. A lot of guides to saving money on heating contain impractical advice: "consider heating with solar energy!". They offer good suggestions for the long-term, but they aren't useful if you want to save money now. Here are some frugal ways we stay warm in our drafty old house.

  • Let in some light. Open blinds on south-facing windows during the day to let in the sun. Close them in the evening to add a bit more insulation. This provides just enough mid-day warmth that we don't need the heater.
  • Use rugs on bare floors. We have hardwood floors above a poorly-insulated basement. These floors are cold in the morning and the late afternoon. An area rug does a fine job of keeping my feet warmer.
  • Block drafts. This is best done with weather-stripping or other forms of insulation, but even a blanket in front of a door helps. Because our house is so old, nothing is level. This makes it difficult to install weather stripping. The bottom of our mudroom door, for example, has a one-inch gap on one end but is flush with the floor near the hinge. By laying a blanket in front of the door, we can mitigate some of the heat loss.
  • Use space heaters. According to Michael Bluejay's energy guide, this is the single best way to save money on electricity. As I learned from my tests with the Kill-a-Watt, a portable radiator-type oil heater uses a lot of power, but not nearly as much as a furnace. We have a couple of these heaters. They take a while to get warm, but once they're going, the can heat a small space cheaply.
  • Bundle up. I love cold-weather clothes: long underwear, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves. Some days we simply bundle up and turn down the heat. It's cozy. And don't forget: house slippers go a long way to keeping you warm!
  • Install a programmable thermostat. My sister-in-law just received her first big heating bill at her new home. "It was $100!" she said. (She had been leaving her thermostat at 68-degrees around the clock.) Her heating bill was more than she had budgeted, and made it easy to justify the cost of a new programmable thermostat. They're easy to install and an excellent way to cut your heating costs. We set ours for 54 at night and when we're gone during the day. (Reader Adam G. reviewed his programmable thermostat last August.)
  • Use an electric blanket. There's no need to heat the entire house when you're asleep. There's no need to even heat the bedroom. An electric blanket is cheaper and cozier. (A blanket with dual-controls is best.)
  • Change the furnace filter. A dirty filter forces the furnace to work harder, decreasing its efficiency, increasing heating costs. We change the furnace filter at the start of the season, and once every month or two thereafter.
  • Close unused rooms. Do not heat them. This winter, we closed off our guest room and shut the heater vent. That room is now separate from the rest of the house. It stays cold, but there's no reason to keep it warm.

These steps can reduce your heating costs immediately. In the long term, your best bet is to make sure your home is properly insulated. You should also check that your heat source is efficient, and that you're not losing heat in unintended locations.

For example, I went down to the cellar last night to pull out some Christmas lights. I was startled to find that the basement was actually warm. It shouldn't be. It's uninsulated, below-ground, and exposed to the cold. The furnace was pumping away, doing its thing, heating the house. But it was apparently heating the cellar, too. It took only a moment to find the problem — our ductwork is not insulated. As the hot air blows through the pipes, the metal is heating, and the warmth is dissipating into the basement. We need to fix that.

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