Category Archives: Pretirement How To

How (not) to sell a fourplex — Part II: Angry Bird Boogaloo

How to sell a fourplex — the lessons learned

Angry BirdsWelcome to Part II of my saga on how to sell a fourplex.

In the last episode we learned how I went from mid-level, average pay employee to suddenly relatively wealthy in a very short time period. Having grown up as a dirt-poor farm boy, I was desperate to not blow my opportunity. I put some of my windfall into two fourplexes, one of which I sold some time ago. When we last left our story, it was spring and I had just received an offer on my fourplex. 

After years of trying, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: A legitimate offer from a well-funded buyer who was already pre-approved and ready to go. The offer wasn’t for full price, reflecting the current buyers’ market. But I’d raised my price by $20,000 over the previous year’s selling price so I was still in great shape. I assumed there would be some requested repairs but my starting place was so much better than the prior year.

I was also much smarter about the preparation on the front-end this time. My realtor and I met my property manager at the building and did a walk-through to try and catch any obvious surprises that might scare away a potential buyer. I hadn’t actually been to the site in years and was hoping to never see it in-person again, but there I was, once again smelling that distinct aroma that for some reason only rentals give off.

Why would I sell?

My reason for selling was half emotional and half practical. I could make a convincing argument for holding it or for selling it just depending on how I looked at things.

The practical side:

  • I had been theoretically living off this income since I left my last corporate hellscape. Unfortunately the maintenance costs had been running very high (mostly due to various improvements aimed at selling it).
  • I was at the point where the kitchens and bathrooms needed a major overhaul if I was going to keep it. At at least $5,000 for each, that’s $40,000 more I’d need to invest in the building. And that’s if I did the work. And I couldn’t really even do that myself right now while I take care of Pretired Baby so I’d really need to pay someone to do it for me, dragging the price even higher. It’d take awhile to make that back. If I was honest, it really should be completely replumbed and rewired as well. Essentially the building was reaching the end of its useful life. Nothing really “wrong,” just basically wearing out.
  • Now that I was in a place where it was becoming possible to sell it, I began looking around at other investment opportunities. When I did the math on what I could earn by reinvesting my money elsewhere, I could clearly do better or at least as well in another avenue. Additionally I was watching some great single family homes go for dirt cheap. (I missed out on the best deals already because I couldn’t get my funds out of this property.) I did my best to look at the situation dispassionately: If I were a ruthless corporate holding company, would I continue to invest in and hold an under-performing business unit? Or would I eventually cut my losses and reallocate the funds in a better performing place?
  • The clincher: aluminum wiring. The building was built in the 1970s, which was the source of nearly all its headaches. Now I advise people to avoid buying anything built in the ’70s, but before I was such a brilliant person I blundered into buying something built during this cursed decade. There are many problems directly related to the cheap construction of this era, but the worst one was the aluminum wiring. Now electricians will tell you that aluminum wiring isn’t necessarily “unsafe”, especially if it’s maintained correctly. Its two main problems are that aluminum expands and contracts at a higher rate than copper, causing connections to loosen over the years, and, more importantly, it doesn’t mix well with copper, which is what you’ll find in every electrical device  you can buy. The mixed connections will heat up and can even cause a fire. So while it wasn’t an imminent danger and I always took very good care of the electrical system, it was always a worry.

The emotional side:

  • Like I said the building needed significant modernization if it was to remain a viable rental. They were pretty nice units as rentals in this sector of the market go, but beyond just being a little rough around the edges, they really needed to be brought up to modern standards. And I was just sick of dealing with them.
  • Tenant hassles. Although I fortunately didn’t have to deal with tenants directly, I was still dealing indirectly with all the stupid nonsense that takes place. And even when it wasn’t extra costs due to a renter throwing their trash outside instead of actually putting it into a garbage can, it was someone not paying their rent or bringing in a prohibited pet cat and stinking up the place.
  • Even beyond the aforementioned aluminum wiring, every year (especially around christmas) there were occasional news reports of a tenant burning down an apartment building. The most common cause seemed to be overloaded electrical outlets (multiple extension cords and plug expanders on one outlet) followed by smoking or candles. I never had any problems, but I was always worried about a tenant doing something stupid.
  • Although the cashflow was normally good, it never failed that a big repair would coincide with a vacancy. So while the building did OK on a yearly basis, it wasn’t exactly a reliable stream of income.
  • Feeling trapped. While I’m still a big believer in real estate investing and find it actually pretty hard to lose money with real estate, it’s obviously not very liquid. When the market took a big downturn, I was salivating at the cheap stocks and houses for sale but I didn’t have the free cash to pounce. Frustrating!

So after putting my doubts to rest, I decided at minimum I was in the win-win situation. Either I’d sell and reallocate my money to some place more lucrative, or I’d hold it and pocket another year’s rent. Which is why I now found myself walking through my units after all these years, trying to see them through the eyes of a potential buyer.

Actually, the place was in great shape. The best shape it’d been in since it was built, probably. There wasn’t much to request. I asked for some dirt to be evened out in the backyard, a new light fixture cover, a few other minor repairs, but generally there wasn’t much to complain about. The roof was brand new, fixed the prior year after some potential buyers complained it was feeling soft (it was due anyway). I replaced the gutters and brought in fresh bark to spiff up the street view. There were still some signs that birds had been accessing some areas in the attic space and I asked the property manager to have someone come out and seal that up a little better.

After my walk-through, I had to think about it a bit. Did I really want to sell? After all, it looked like something I’d consider buying today, even knowing what I know. Maybe I should hold another year and pocket a little more rent? After all the market could run up another year or even have a nice jump. But in the end, I knew my reasoning was sound and even if I could squeeze a little more money out of it by waiting another year, I knew I was done.

An offer — immediately

We polished up the listing paperwork, threw it out on the internet.  My realtor was very nervous about my strategy of raising the price so substantially (we’d be the highest-priced fourplex in the area and hardly anything had been selling). But I wanted to present a show of strength — I wasn’t a short-sale. I didn’t need to sell at all. Buy a great building at a fair price, people!

Well, imagine our surprise when an offer came through right away. A little below my asking price, but still higher than I’d tried to sell it for the year before. And it was clean. The buyer’s realtor boasted of his clients “business sophistication” and how well-funded he was. We accepted the offer and braced ourselves for the inspection phase.

It was some time around this point when I was informed that one of the tenants wasn’t paying and couldn’t be reached. So it was time to launch an eviction process on top of everything else.

Anything that involves gaining access to the interior of a rented unit takes a lot longer than you think it would. You either have to work around tenant schedules or you have to post legal notice and wait a couple days to get access. Plus I now had a wildcard. Would the tenant simply be gone or would there be a stubborn refusal to cooperate? Would the unit be destroyed in the middle of this transaction? Would the buyer walk away?

So it was nearly a week later that we got the inspection response back from the buyer. And the response was they wanted further inspection. The roof apparently still seemed soft in a few places (even though it was brand-new). They wanted to cut holes in the upper units to gain access to the attic space — WTF?

Would I ever close?

There were no attic access panels in my building at all — something I’d never noticed or thought about before. In retrospect, it was a little surprising that the inspector didn’t notice that when I bought it. I greatly dreaded letting someone cut into my ceiling. For one, who knows what they’d find? Did a $50,000 problem lurk up there unbeknownst to me? The unit where the cutting-in would need to be done would be in a unit where a new tenant had just moved in. How annoyed would this tenant be with the noise and drywall dust? Plus, I felt terrible that I’d have to disrupt this poor person’s life again.

In the end, however, I decided it was reasonable that a buyer want to look up there. After all, if I said no, they’d assume I was hiding something, so I acquiesced.

Now in the 1970s, developers here in the Seattle area tried to replicate a lucrative strategy from California. It was pretty simple: Build a lot of cheap housing and flip the buildings off to hungry investors. Unfortunately they also tried replicating the construction techniques, the silliest of which was a flat roof design. One thing you might have heard about the Seattle area is that we have this thing called “rain” here. Sometimes a lot of it. In the area where my property was located you get a ton of it.

Once the inspector peeked up into my attic, we learned that my building had once been a flat-roof construction and the sloped part was added later as sort of a superstructure sitting on the top. Worse, the inspector felt it was flimsy and had even been built with scrap materials. Naturally the buyers acted as if this was an extreme hazard (even though the building had already lived through 40 years of rain, snow and wind without any problems). They demanded it be rebuilt to modern code. This was a big problem because not only would it cause big delays and be expensive, but the tenant impacts could be significant.

Additionally they reported there were STILL BIRDS living in the attic.

So we managed to talk them into a credit for the roof so that we could close sooner (ouch!). We sent the contractor back out AGAIN to deal with the birds. He did some additional sealing and assured us that this time it was definitely all sealed up.

Feeling like we were finally in good shape, the buyers did another reinspection and quite indignantly told us several items hadn’t been completed. Aaaarggh! Worse, they said the building still had birds penetrating the structure and what were we trying to pull?

Our contractor went back out once again and did find one spot where there still some birds. They were babies and in a corner where he couldn’t reach. He could seal them up inside, but we none of us wanted to do that. He agreed to leave a gap so the cheeping babies could escape when they were old enough and told the buyers we weren’t baby bird killers so that would have to be good enough.

A wackjob realtor

Early on in the process I began to get the sense that buyer’s agent wasn’t playing with a full deck. The tone of his emails were disproportionately indignant and there was always a lot of complaining that his buyer was “taking all the risk”. Worse, he became increasingly dishonest, abusive and rude. On top of that we experienced occasional passive-aggressive behavior where he wouldn’t respond to emails and calls from my agent and wouldn’t rationally discuss how to work through the various issues to reach a closing. Somehow we had blundered into a deal with a nightmare opposing realtor.

As the months rolled by, I began to regret not listening to my instincts. I should have canceled out of this deal as soon as I realized I was dealing with an unprofessional nutjob.

I am a very good negotiating partner. Having taken negotiation training, I go into all my deals knowing my walk-away point and work cooperatively with my opposing partner to reach agreement. If we can’t reach agreement, it’s based on our interests not being aligned and both sides typically walk away feeling OK about the interaction. So I was willing to accept nearly any reasonable request. After months of dealing with this psycho, however, I told my realtor I was done. If they asked for even $100 more the answer was no and I would flush the deal. I had completely had it.

Fortunately(?) my realtor was able to talk me down and held things together and we finally reached the point where all sides were satisfied and we were on to the closing.

Just one hurdle left: the birds. Would they be satisfied with our plan? To make everything extra legit, I had a pest control company go out and tell us what should be done. They suggested some additional screening be added on top of what the contractor had done. So once again, we had him go out and seal up the building, leaving a gap so the baby birds could escape when they were old enough. Everyone finally seemed satisfied.

I’m brushing over a lot of detail and back-and-forth that took place. It was endless. I lost track of how many close-date extensions I signed, but it was several. But finally, we just had to wait for the closing paperwork from the lender to come through and we’d be there. Just a few more days.

I got the invite to sign papers. My wife and I went out to an expensive dinner to celebrate and I started to relax.


As you might expect, the dinner was premature. The next day, I got a call from my realtor. “I hope you didn’t crack open that bottle of wine yet,” he said. There was a hold-up on the lender side. Turns out my brilliant, well-qualified, “business-savvy” buyer thought it’d be a really good idea to buy another house right in the middle of our close. Um, what?

The lenders had to re-analyze the situation. We signed another extension. And waited. I started thinking about next steps in the event we didn’t close. I’d need to fill the vacant unit asap. Since summer was now nearly over, I could keep it listed, but it’d be unlikely to get another offer before winter kicked in so I began thinking about rehabbing the units.

Finally the call came in: the lender was still going to make the loan, but they would have to redraw the paperwork. Because it would put us past the 15th of the month, I’d need to make another mortgage payment (which should be refunded back to me later). Annoying!

In the meantime, the contractor swung by, noticed the baby birds had flown away, and sealed up the final gap in the building.

Finally the day came. It sounded like the paperwork would be processed by noon and we should be closed by 3 p.m. Amazing! I kept my phone handy all day, frequently checking my phone to make sure I was still signed in to Google Voice (see my lower cell phone bill project for background!) Then the call: No, I wasn’t closing. The lending paperwork wasn’t in yet and could be another week. At this point, I pretty much gave up. If it closes, fine, if it doesn’t, whatever. I. Was. So. Done.

But the next week, the call I was waiting for came in from escrow: the deal was closed. The paperwork arrived via email later that day.

That night I slept the long, deep sleep of the relieved and awoke to a shiny summer morning. A cool breeze was blowing in the window and everything felt clean and carefree.

The next day I called my property manager to let him know we no longer owned the building. He sounded relieved after months of hassle. “That’s good timing,” he said. “I just got off the phone with a tenant. Her shower isn’t working. I’ll let the new owner know.”

Postscript: lessons learned

Looking back, I can now see I made many errors throughout the ordeal, many of which were caused by my emotional desire to move on with my life. Fortunately I was in the win-win position where I was OK if we sold and OK if we didn’t sell. Here are a few of the lessons I learned, just in case it helps anyone else down the road:

  • Don’t be bullied. I’ve always found the best way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them (they’re nearly always so stunned someone is saying no that they collapse immediately). But in this case my posture was too accommodating. I wanted to be helpful, transparent and honest. They took advantage of my attitude and I should have put a stop to their craziness long before I finally did.
  • Say no to stupid requests. One of my dumber blunders was agreeing to do the sewer inspection for them. I just agreed to it without thinking, since it seemed like a small thing. Later I was like, “Why the hell am I doing their inspections for them?” I knew better and fumbled right into that one. I’m sure the buyer got a good laugh out of that one. Fortunately for me, my realtor agreed it was a blunder and he picked up the tab for that.
  • Make sure tenants are stable before you list. We were very close to having an empty unit filled when we decided to list. The vacant unit made for a nice convenience since the prospective buyer could view the empty unit and make sure they were fine with the basic set-up before making an offer and requesting access to the other units. However in the midst of the sale process, another tenant stopped paying, triggering an eviction. That meant the buyer would be buying a half-empty unit, sending up all kinds of red flags. In my case they buyer wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the potential impacts, but it could have been a major problem. Most worrying for me, was that the lender could actually hold up the deal until all units were full. In the end, it was just an additional stress point, but it didn’t have any real impact. The buyer asked us to fill the unit where the eviction had taken place and we in turn asked if they had a lease they wanted us to use or if they wanted to review the potential renters first. They never responded to our questions on that so the building actually closed with just three units full.
  • Place time limits. Earlier on I should have realized they were just toying with me, signed a final two-week extension and let them suck it. But I kept playing along until the very end.
  • Refuse additional inspection. Now for something reasonable, I think it’s only fair to allow further inspection. But my building had been operating just fine for 40 years without issue. To allow someone to cut into a tenant’s unit to look for trouble was a bad idea. I should have refused. They may have backed out of the deal, but I would have been left then with a sane buyer or another year of rent.
  • Pre-inspect your own building. It wouldn’t have saved me from a ton of hassle in my case, but I could have avoided a few glitches by hiring my own inspector first. I think it’s definitely a good idea.
  • Hire a local realtor who knows the area and who knows multifamily. I love my realtor and I especially like that he knows how to hold deals together, but his distance from the property did create some hassle and if he’d been local he would have known the buyer’s agent was a loon and we could have avoided a mess early-on. He also didn’t have a ton of multifamily experience. That was OK but it could have been helpful if he had a little more savvy in that area.
  • Don’t deal with crazy. In the latter years of my working career, I pretty much just stopped dealing with crazy people (which is harder than it sounds given that at least 30% of the workforce is basically nuts). I should have backed away once I saw I was dealing with a crazy person. Instead I tried to fight through it, causing myself all kinds of stress.

Maybe one of these days I’ll write up some advice on owning rentals in general. But hopefully if anyone out there is looking to sell a fourplex, some of this advice will be helpful.

Let me know what you think! How badly did I botch this deal? What else could I have done differently? 

How (not) to sell a fourplex – Part I

Need to sell a fourplex? Do the opposite of what I did

A fourplex kitchen -- look at all the things that can break!

A fourplex kitchen — look at all the things that can break!

This story really begins back in 2001. I awoke to the DJ on the clock radio saying “I don’t usually tell people to stop listening to the radio and turn on their TV, but you need to turn on the TV right now.” I sat straight up in bed and just then the phone began ringing.

“OK, OK,” I responded to the panicked voice on the other end. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I got dressed, grabbed a mini television and ran to my car. I saw the second tower fall in real time from my office.

I was working in a startup travel company at the time and all of us working there knew that while this was mostly a horrific attack on America, we also knew the travel industry as a whole would be in deep shit.

There was a team meeting a few days later. There was one topic on everyone’s mind: layoffs. People were canceling hotel reservations left and right and no one (and I mean no one) wanted to fly. And remember this wasn’t long after the dotcom crash. The stock market was in a shambles. How devastated would the overall economy be when it was all over? Our vice president reassured us that no one was talking layoffs. He used the analogy of another disaster and calmly walked us through how he expected the travel industry to gradually come back. The anxiety among the team members quickly eased up and we went back to doing our jobs and hoping there wouldn’t be any further terrorism.

That’s when an interesting turn of fate changed my life forever. In a move of strategic brilliance, my company moved quickly to buy up the unused hotel inventory and to lock in favorable long-term contracts with hotels. As things recovered, there my company stood, the entire travel industry’s balls in its tight grip. Our stock soared over the coming years and even mid-level workers like myself were suddenly awash in unexpected money. In a truly twisted mindfuck, we found ourselves benefiting indirectly from the attack. I don’t like to think about that too much.

Anyway, flash forward a couple years. While I was certainly wasting my share of money on stupid crap like everyone else, overall I was more careful than most of my friends. And I was committed to not losing this small fortune. I decided to place my bet on real estate. After losing out on a couple nice properties due to a slow-moving realtor, I fired her and found a new realtor, a super sharp guy who knew the area very well.

Nothing happened for quite a while until I got a sudden call. “Nick, one owner is selling a dozen fourplexes right now. We need to meet, most of them are already sold!” We met and looked over the properties that hadn’t been picked up yet. Two fourplexes were left. Both were selling for the exact same price. Rents were about the same. Both had other pros and cons. Which one should we buy? We went back and forth on it for awhile trying to decide.

Finally, I paused, flipping the papers back onto his desk. “Tell you what,” I said. “Instead of 20 percent down on one, let’s buy both of them with 10 percent down.”

He did a little “double-commission” happy-dance and begin writing up the paperwork. That was 2003.

I researched property management firms, hired one, and began doing all the needed work myself (there was a lot). Every single weekend was spent fixing buildings, hauling appliances, fixing electrical outlets, repairing drywall, etc.

Meanwhile my property manager felt it was their personal role to be sure and empty out my buildings. I went from eight units full to maybe two or three occupied. Every time I brought it up with them, they shrugged and seemed unconcerned. My stock money was spent covering mortgage payments. Disaster!

I fired the property manager and hired another one who filled the units immediately. Cash began flowing and I started to relax. But I was still doing most of the work myself. That changed when I took a week of vacation to paint a unit that was looking a little grungy. I bought some materials at Home Depot and was preparing to get started. Somehow I decided to get a price from some Russian dude I found somewhere. When I saw how low the number was, I knew my days of working on these buildings was over. From then on I hired out all my work.

I sold one of the buildings before the real estate crash and re-financed the other one down so my payment would be lower, essentially just forcing the cashflow. I wish I’d sold both of them at that point.

But I didn’t. And as the years went by, I collected decent cashflow, but I never spent the money needed to bring up the rents. Instead I collected varying amounts of money over the years as tenants moved in and out as the needs of their lives changed.

The earth continued spinning around the sun and I focused on other areas of my life. Marriage, other real estate projects, travel, career changes, a new house and a new baby. Life was good.

But that little building was always there in the background, threatening to disrupt everything. What would be the next big surprise? A fire? A lawsuit? A new expensive repair? I’d cringe whenever the local news began a story with “an incident at a local apartment building left two dead this morning…”. Crossing my fingers, I’d chant “don’tbemybuilding-don’tbemybuilding-don’tbemybuilding” until the details came out.

Then the real estate crash happened and I was stuck. When the market came back a little bit, I tried to sell it. Year after year. No. Offers.

Things finally came to life last year when I finally got a few offers, but the buyers weren’t that serious and walked. Mostly it was bottom feeders and people looking for brand new inventory at rock bottom prices. A few of the offers got to the inspection phase and there was always something scaring people away. A roof that seemed soft, a mildewy windowframe, older electrical panels. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Since the building made money and I didn’t need to sell it, I just held it.

So this year, seeing a much better market and in particular a much better credit market, I tried again. And guess what? I got an offer almost immediately! That was in mid-May. Ten years after I first bought it.

And that’s when the story really begins.

My next post will continue the story of how I finally sold my fourplex and all my lessons learned!

Tame your housing costs to ensure a safe pretirement

How do you bring housing costs under control?

tame-housing-costsI realize looking back on my more than 5o posts so far that many of them are about or related to real estate. That shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, since housing costs will be what drags you back into the working world if you’re not careful.

Whether you rent or own your place, housing is likely eating up a good chunk of your monthly budget. The traditional rule of thumb for a mortgage, for example, is around a third of your income. They used to say 25% for renters, but I doubt that’s very realistic these days.

Even worse, as you head into a lower-income, but much happier, pretirement lifestyle, a surprise increase in your housing costs could crush your newly-found freedom.

I talked about this issue a bit in the old classic “Pop your own housing bubble“, but that was mainly about bringing your housing costs down in general, not as much about ensuring you keep control over expensive surprises.

There are a few common ways your housing costs could explode on you:

  • Rent increase
  • Interest rate increase if you have an adjustable rate mortgage
  • Property tax increase
  • Assessment or increase in HOA fees if you’re in a condo
  • Sudden need to upgrade
  • Remodeling or repairs
  • Spike in utility costs

Obviously your housing costs are going to rise over the years if for no other reason than inflation and maintenance. The trick is to bring them under control so they’re not a worry. And that can mean some tough decisions as you prepare to leave the working world. (Or in my case, after.)

Let’s run through a few approaches to keeping your housing costs under control. If you have some additional thoughts to share, be sure to add them in the comments.

Buy a home

There are a lot of advantages to renting. Particularly if you’re young and working in an expensive area of the country, buying can be a big waste of money. However, if you’re beginning to look toward pretirement and are still renting, it can be worth considering a purchase.

For young people working in expensive cities, one idea is to buy a home where you think you eventually want to settle down. Keep that place rented while you’re working. When you’re ready to leave the corporate world, boot your renters and move into a hopefully paid-off house! It’s a great alternative to buying in an overpriced city. If you think you’d like to pretire to a vacation-oriented community, that’s an even better reason to buy-in early if you can.

In general, however, and especially for older folks, deciding to buy and reaching mortgage-freedom as soon as possible will lower your monthly costs, dramatically bringing pretirement that much closer. And more importantly you’ll remove the risks of rent increases and evictions so you don’t need to worry about suddenly finding more income.

One other advantage to buying is that an owned home can be rented if needed. That could take the form of renting a spare room or simply living in an apartment or with family while someone else pays you to live in your house. You may not ever want to make that move, but it’s nice to know it’s there if you need it. In our case, we have considered living overseas for awhile at some point. The rent from our home here would easily cover our rent nearly anywhere else in the world and in some areas would cover our entire living expenses.

Control rent increases

If you’ve decided to remain a renter, there are still some ways to keep rent increases somewhat at bay. Now the first thing flashing through everyone’s mind is to sign a long-term lease. That can protect you to some extent, but it has some obvious downsides (although I burned two landlords back in my renting days so being locked into a lease isn’t as scary as you might think — it’s mostly there to protect the renter).

But there are some other options available to you. If possible, it can be worth finding a city with some rent controls in place. That will at least put you in a situation of gradual rent increases, vs. steep, sudden increases.

Additionally, I’d recommend looking for a landlord that isn’t part of a big rental management firm. These firms are incented to increase rents year after year and to keep up with the market. If someone moves out due to a rental increase, they actually are fine with it as they can go in and fix all the stuff you’ve been complaining about and then rent it for more money. In contrast, individuals who are renting out a spare home independently are often terrified of losing a good, reliable renter. It’s not unusual to find people who have been renting from the same people for decades with no rent increases. In addition, an independent landlord is very unlikely to pursue legal remedies if you walk away from your lease.

But all of that said, generally speaking I find renting a greater risk for a safe pretirement than buying.

Pay off your mortgage

Now obviously if you have a passive income source that covers your mortgage payment, you could say your housing costs are already under control. For example, if you’re one of those investing ninjas who keeps your home leveraged at a low interest rate so you can make a little extra margin in the market, you could argue you’re under control already. Unless, of course, your income source takes a hit. Say you’re a growth investor who has been averaging 6% in the market and have your house on a 30-year mortgage at 3%. Good for you! But, say we hit a big market downturn. Say it happens after your working career has ended. In effect your housing costs just shot upward. This is why I advocate paying off a mortgage, especially for anyone over 40. Getting rid of your mortgage just takes that risk off the table. Should you wish to remain leveraged to keep your pretirement fund growing as quickly as possible, I still recommend paying your mortgage down to a controlled amount, say $100,000 or so. This will help limit disaster if we hit an economic rough patch.

For some thoughts on how to pay off your mortgage quickly, see my old post on How to get rid of your mortgage.

Condo owners – watch out

I’ve never owned a condo so I don’t consider myself an expert in this area. That said, I have heard many (many!) horror stories over the years. Enough to where I think I have to add a few thoughts about condos here.

A quick note, first, however. Despite these unique risks of condos, they in some ways pale compared to the risks of owning a single family home — particularly in repairs and improvements. For every sudden $30,000 assessment there are 10 stories of surprise roof replacements. In return the smaller size and limited things to remodel have a natural built-in cost control component.

So as we all know, the two biggest surprises (if there are any others, let me know) to come along related to condos are increases in monthly dues and surprise assessments. I don’t know of any magical ways to avoid these once they occur, but by doing your homework before you buy, you can avoid some of these. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to buy into one condo over another because the HOA fees are a bit lower. Low fees could mean the condo isn’t keeping up with maintenance which could in turn trigger an assessment. Look for reasonable, mid-range fees and a very well-maintained building. Most condo buyers only have their own unit inspected, but I’d see if I could get my home inspector to walk around the property a bit and look for potential big problems. Failing siding, decks or windows or just a general look of disrepair.

Remember that with real estate, what seems cheap can be very expensive! Buy quality, do your homework and you’ll be fine. Oh, and you may want to maintain a slightly larger emergency fund just in case.

Property taxes – ugh

Here in Washington state, we have an odd taxing structure. It’s a super screwed-up approach to taxation that keeps placing us on top of lists of most regressively taxed states, despite our being one of the most liberal states. This is because we stupidly have no income tax. Since our blissful liberal population wants to take care of its people and infrastructure, it forces governments to lean heavily on the only tax mechanisms available to them: sales taxes and property taxes (and fees such as car licensing and tolls, but that’s a minor issue). Anyway, the point of this is that not only are our property taxes super high, they are also continually going up. My half of our monthly property taxes is $220 — that is by far my largest monthly expense!

As long as I stay living here, my options for controlling this expense are fairly limited — thank goodness I don’t have a mortgage payment to make every month on top of that! I could challenge my assessed property value but that would have a tiny impact even if I won. No, unfortunately my best bet is to move. To a cheaper property and potentially to a place without such a high property tax. If we decide not to move, then I need to do some rough math on how much this expense is likely to grow (apply historical percentage increases forward, for example) and make sure my pretirement plan accounts for that.

Buy the right house for your needs

In Pop your own housing bubble, I wrote about how important it is to think about what you NEED vs. what you can afford. But beyond simply lowering your housing costs, it’s important to think about what life changes you might experience so you buy something that fits those needs. There are a few things that can happen in life that could drive a surprise expense. The most obvious, of course, is children. If you’re a pretirement over-achiever and put off having kids until you were financially independent, my hat is off to you. But you could end up rushing back to the warm embrace of a corporate job if you forgot to buy a home that was kid-ready. Even though your career was “ended” you might find yourself in need of a house that costs $100,000 more than what you’ve got today. Another, not as happy, example is thinking about aging. My inadvertent house flip had a major flaw: 20+ steps to the front door from where you park. Living pretired in a house like that could leave you in major trouble should age or an accident leave you unable to get to your own front door without help. Or the issue could simply be one of distance from work or the grocery store. Think about these issues early so you don’t get caught.

Remodeling, repairs and other risks

Fixing up houses is an addiction. It’s an addiction I have struggled with most of my adult life. I wish I could say I’m a recovering remodeler, but unfortunately my basement tells a different story. So I know very well that houses are often nothing more than rickety boxes you fill with your life savings. So what can you do?

First of all, try to buy something that doesn’t need a lot of work — especially if you’re 40 or older. Save the big mistakes for the young people!

Next, do fix things that need fixing — and fix them early and do it right. The clearest example I can think of is your roof. Before you quit your job for good, maybe you go ahead and spend the money on the roof replacement you’ve been putting off. Spring for a little higher quality and you might not ever need to touch it again.

Similarly with “nice-to-haves” — an updated kitchen, say — take care of these projects before you move into pretirement. You’ll want to live for a long time without an expensive project, so get it done early and do it right so you don’t have to come back to it later.

Bottom line: make a list of these potential timebombs early and attack them one-by-one before you pretire so you’re not caught scrambling later on.

Spend money to get utility costs under control early

I hate telling you to spend money, but utility costs are another area that can bite you if you’re not careful. If you lived through the 1970s like I did, you know what an energy shock feels like. We North Americans tend to get pretty complacent about energy when it’s cheap, like it is today. But regardless of when you think the next big surprise will happen, I think we can all agree on one thing: it will happen rapidly.

The thing about energy is that it’s such a commodity that when a ripple goes through the system, the speculators inevitably rush in to snag their share of the profit. So you see sudden, shocking spikes in cost. Should we have a sudden water crisis, the impact could be even more devastating. Those of you living areas of the country that are susceptible to drought or communities that live near where they’re poisoning the water sources by fracking really need to watch out for this.

If you’re still working, this is an issue, but not necessarily a life-altering one. If you’re pretired and need to keep expenses under tight control, this could be devastating. Your approach to controlling your utility costs will vary a lot by area of the country and type of house. But here are a few ideas to think about:

  • Drop your electricity use to the bare minimum. Swap out all light bulbs for LEDs, use a clothesline instead of a dryer, be very careful about leaving anything turned on unnecessarily. You can use a Kill-a-Watt device to measure the electrical usage of individual appliances and pinpoint where you can save. You might even find that upgrading your refrigerator or other appliance could make financial sense.
  • Consider home power generation. I’m dying to do this, but since we may not be staying here long-term, I’m holding off for now. The price of solar panels has been dropping rapidly and it makes a lot of sense to install your own panels now. If you wait a couple years longer, it may be idiotic to not do this (assuming your house gets some sun). Small wind is another great way to generate power at home. The two approaches together work quite well as wind tends to kick up when the sun isn’t shining.
  • Manage your heating and cooling costs tightly. We upgraded our furnace to natural gas (over the original 50-year old oil furnace) a couple years ago. I estimated it’d take around three years to break even, but more importantly to me was that the ongoing cost was lower and the added efficiency would help us avoid sudden expenses. We also have portable electric heaters that can be placed in bedrooms for an added boost or as a substitute should natural gas skyrocket.
  • Manage your water smartly. Very similar to electricity, managing your water usage tightly so you can get by on the bare minimum could be essential if water rates skyrocket. Showers and toilets are probably the first places to look.
    I also like the idea of storing water on-site. You condo people are kinda screwed, but you should at least have some emergency storage containers available. For those of you living in single family homes, though, installing some cisterns on-site can be pretty smart. I’ll only do this if I decide we’re definitely staying here, but it can make some smart sense, especially if you garden. I really like the idea of having enough water to get us through the summer, say 300 gallons or so. It’d be perfect for watering your garden or for emergencies. But in times of water rate spikes, you could even use this water for flushing toilets and cleaning if needed.

Well, that’s a pretty long list of things to think about already. I’m sure there are many other ways to control housing  costs that I didn’t mention here. Just remember, housing is typically the largest expense in your life — bring it under control to ensure that once you’ve pretired you can stay pretired.

Let me know what you think are the most important ways to bring your housing costs under control in the comments!

Dryer heats up but won’t spin? Here’s how to fix it for $5

As I mentioned awhile back, one of the things that changed once we had a kid was the massive amounts of laundry that we now contend with. One of the great mysteries of the world is how such a little guy can produce so many dirty clothes. Bibs, pants, diaper wraps, shirts, sheets, you name it. It builds up into giant piles that must continually be processed in the basement.

All that production came to a halt recently when Pretired Mama trudged upstairs to inform me that her clothes were warm but still wet. I went down to take a look and sure enough it was broken. “Well, the dryer heats up but won’t spin,” I told her. “It’s probably a broken belt.” I jumped on the interwebs to check my diagnosis and sure enough, we had a consensus.

I knew a broken belt on a dryer was usually a pretty easy fix so I was fairly sure I wouldn’t need a repairman to come out.  Fortunately I found a very clear video on that showed how to repair the drive belt. But just in case anyone ever runs into this, I thought I’d give the quick overview of how to replace the belt.


  • First, unplug your dryer. I probably shouldn’t have to say that, but we’re talking about enough power to kill you here, so just unplug it.
  • IMG_0613Open the top of your dryer (some models may open differently, but basically you need to access the outside of the drum). Mine opened by using a putty knife in the front by the corners. On mine there were also a couple screws by the lint trap.
  • IMG_0612Disconnect the wires that go to the dryer door. This is for the switch that turns off the dryer when you open the door.
  • Confirm the belt is indeed broken. You’ll be amazed how flimsy these little belts are.
  • Remove the front of the dryer. Mine had just two screws near the top and then it lifts up and out.
  • Pull the drum out. It just sits in there loose so it’s quite easy to just pull it out of the way. You’ll be amazed how little there is to a clothes dryer when you see the insides. It’s especially obnoxious when you think about what new ones cost.IMG_0606
  • IMG_0608Get your new belt handy. We ordered the Whirlpool 341241 Dryer Drum Belt
    on Amazon for $5.70. If you need it sooner, you can probably find it at a local parts outlet, but you’ll end up paying much more. Since we already had our clothes air-drying, we could afford to wait a few days for the part to be mailed to us. In my case, the tension wheel looked different (looked broken) than the diagram so I ordered one as well, just in case, for another $6. In the end, I didn’t really need it, but I used it anyway because I think it was a better design. While you have the drum out of the way, you might want to vacuum up the inside of the dryer.
  • IMG_0611Now for the tricky part: put the drum back in place. Hold it there while you slip the belt over the top, making sure it’s not twisted. You’ll need to keep the drum in place while you make the final belt installation. Having someone help you will be a good idea or you can stuff something under the drum so it stays put. The belt goes on top of the tension wheel, and through the wheel assembly before going over the motor. Getting that on correctly was by far the hardest part of the whole project.
  • Once the belt is in place, you can remove whatever you had holding the drum in place and try spinning it with your hand to make sure everything works correctly. The belt should be very tight and the motor should turn when you spin the drum.
  • That’s it: replace all the pieces you took apart when you started, making sure to remember to reconnect the switch for the dryer door. When it’s all back together, give it a try. Now instead of heating and not spinning, you should be back to a dryer that heats up AND spins!
  • IMG_0617Make sure to reconnect the air vent on the back of the dryer and you’re done! While you’re messing with the dryer, it’d be a good time to clean out or replace the vent hose. I once saved around 20 percent on my entire electric bill by switching the plastic collapsible style dryer hose with the smooth metal vent pipe you see here. Highly recommended!

That’s it! Next time you have a dryer that heats up but won’t spin, you’ll know just what to do and can save yourself an expensive repair bill!

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