Water alarms and sump pumps

A few years ago I noticed a sound from under the house, like a pump was running continuously.  I went down there, and found that it was.  In fact, we have four sump pumps under the house, and three of them had failed, some of them badly, resulting in small amounts of accumulated water at their respective sump pits.  

Not long after this, we discovered some water damage because an air conditioner refrigerant line had frozen over, and condensate had accumulated in the back-up location which did not drain well, and ultimately leaked out of the back-up location.

As a result of these events, I purchased some water alarms (cheap, but well reviewed: "The Watchdog" water alarm) and installed them all over the place.

Fast forward to a recent overseas trip.  Our house sitter notified us that water alarms had gone off three times.  Each one was correct, but she couldn't find an available handyman that would go under the house, since things looked fine when they looked through the vents at the pumps (and I'm sure there was no shortage of other work after a week of heavy rain).

Our water alarms detected:

1.  A hole had developed in the middle of a horizontal copper pipe in our hot water recirculation line; this was in the garage and the water alarm was the reason it was noticed before it was a bigger problem.

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A couple of weeks back, I visited Jollibee for the first time; they've been popping up a little more around the bay area, but they've actually been here for some years. Last night, I went again, yum! I had no idea who they were before I went inside, but when I did, my first guess was actually correct -- they are a Filipino fast food chain, selling what Filipinos think Americans eat, who have now set up some stores in America (I had to read the menu items to get the Filipino bit, but it was obvious that they were American inspired South East Asian fast food from the pictures of the food and the decor of the store). It turns out they've been in existence in the Philippines since the 1970s, and have had a store in Daly City since 1998, and in San Jose for at least a few years, but they have been expanding recently, which is why I noticed them. And, one of their deserts contains my favorite fruit, jackfruit, unfortunately only a little of it though (I still prefer it fresh).

I think we need more restaurants with what Asians think Americans eat, it's often pretty tasty. Or even just the Asian menu items -- like the Samurai Pork Burger from Thai McDonalds. And the South East Asian version of Swensen's -- maybe if the US menu had been as good as theirs, it wouldn't have collapsed!

While I'm at it, I'd really like to see Chester's Grill open up over here. I'd even settle for a Nando's. Unfortunately I don't think either is particularly likely -- for now, El Pollo Loco seems like the best in the area of those two, but I think there's room for more spicy grilled chicken in the fast food market here which hopefully will be filled at some point in the future.

Property "appraisals"

When you buy a house in the US, one of the required steps to get a mortgage is the "appraisal".

The "appraiser" is meant to locate a small number of comparable recent sales, apply adjustments for differences in property features and quality (such as more/less bathrooms, kitchen quality, condition, location and square footage), average the results and come up with a value for the property.

This is the value used in computing the loan-to-value ratio; if it comes in below sale price, the sale is likely to fall through (or the sale price may be renegotiated; appraisal is a contingency on the property transfer contract).

When I purchased my house, I was dealing with two potential lenders, so I asked each of them which appraisers would be acceptable to them, and then directly contacted the appraiser and once the appraisal was done, provided the report to both lenders. The report contained all the relevant calculations, and then gave a value which exactly matched the listing price of the property.

When I refinanced my loan, approximately a year after purchase (the interest rates had dropped quite a long way), the appraisal again included very precise calculations and pages of pictures and justification, and came to the conclusion that the value was exactly what I had paid for the property.

Now, I'm in the late stages of purchasing some vacant land. The appraisal was ordered by the bank, and the bank informed the appraiser of the pending purchase price. The value? Exactly the proposed purchase price.

This is not a science of exactly calculating property values. It is an art of manipulating numbers to match a desired outcome.

In the wake of the WaMu failure, there was talk about appraisers who had been giving artificially high values to properties, resulting in borrowers trapped in loans with properties they could not sell, or on better loan terms than they should be (since the loan to value ratio was artificially high; since US banks sell loans to underwriters, it is in their interest to manipulate the situation to make loans look more attractive than they really are). I was under the mistaken impression that the fall-out from this was that appraisers were to produce more accurate property appraisals. However, it seems that they continue to produce manipulated reports. In the case of the property I am in the process of purchasing, the realtor claims that the appraiser mentioned to him several times that the property was "great value" and had "amazing views" given the price.

Back on Facebook

Now that my dad is on Facebook, I've decided that it's time for me to rejoin it.

So, I'm back :) No app requests, please.


Nicole and I are now married. The wedding was amazing, Nicole did a fantastic job with all the planning. We are both so happy that so many of our friends and family could make it. Now we're sitting in the airport lounge waiting for our flight to Cancun.

Phil's Caddy; Helpful people in downtown San José

For those of you who don't know, my brother and family are visiting very soon for the wedding. My brother has bought a black 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Sedan (basically the same as the limousine model, but without the glass divider) to drive while he's over here and then decide what to do with (and to take back to Australia at some point in the future). It seats nine, or six with a *lot* of legroom.

It's actually quite impressive for its age - a 1970 car with climate control (set the temperature and forget), power seats, power windows and passenger controls for air conditioning and lighting, for example. And it's an extremely smooth car to drive, with comfortable seating - it's easy to see it was a "top of the line" car in its day.

If you're not interested in cars, you should probably skip the next section :)

An old car always comes with a few problems...Collapse )

Anyway, now onto the real topic of this post. The helpful and not so helpful people in downtown San Jose.

When the car first cut out, the first "not so helpful" people were the other drivers, who were completely unhappy to go around, even though the street was mostly empty and I had the hazard lights flashing.

The first helpful person was an african american, who saw that I was having car trouble, asked me if there was anything he could do to help, put down what he was carrying, and started asking other passers-by if they would help. All the passers-by in the next few minutes were either white or hispanic. The response of the passers-by was very consistently split across racial lines. The hispanics were all happy to help, and with their help the car ended up in a sensible resting place. All the whites had an excuse. "I have a bad back". "I'm disabled" (what?!). "I wouldn't be any help". You get the idea.

Once we had the car in a semi-reasonable position, the people who had originally helped me all went off to wherever they had been going to, and an older white couple came past - older people often admire this car, and these were no exception; they saw I was pushing it to get it into a proper marked parking spot (with steering difficulty, the best we'd been able to do was put it in a parking spot outside my place, facing the wrong way on a one-way street, rather than in the driveway). They asked if they could help, and I pushed the car into position and then got him to hold it while I went and applied the break, so it was neatly taking up one parking spot.

The next kind person was the parking inspector. I vaguely remember him as most likely the same parking inspector who insisted on writing me a ticket when I had gone into my house for five minutes to give something to Nicole, many months ago, and had left my SLK in the street without putting coins in the meter. But this time he was very understanding; he asked why I had a car the wrong way on the street in a spot with an expired meter, listened to my story, then told me to not bother paying the meter and put a note on the windshield for other parking inspectors to not ticket it, asking only that I get it into my driveway somehow by the end of the day.

Finally, some of my neighbors came past and asked if I wanted help pushing it into the driveway (since this post is partly commenting on how most of the kind and helpful people today were non-white, for completeness, these neighbors are hispanic). By this point I'd talked to Nicole's dad and was reasonably sure I'd be able to fix it quickly, so I declined, but they of course said that if I needed anything I should drop by. And not too much later, just after I'd got it running again, I was off to get something to help clean up, checked I had keys in my pocket, shut the door, and of course they were the wrong keys -- my house keys and the keys to the car were both still in the car. Neighbors to the rescue :-) ... they found a wire coat hanger and, with quite a bit more effort than would be required on most cars, we managed to get a door unlocked (one of those things you want to be a difficult exercise, and it was).

The bottom line: my experience today was quite disheartening if you look at it along racial lines, in that those of my own race were fairly consistently unwilling to help (with the exception of one older couple) with an issue of another, but those of the other races were all very willing to help. Unfortunately, I'm not at all surprised.

Honeymoon update

Now I have my I-94, we have considered our options, and we will be going on our originally planned honeymoon, with a one-day detour to Mérida to visit the US Consulate there (which will require hiring a car and driving along a single freeway for around 190 miles each way).

We have re-booked the same room at the same resort, for around $1000 less than the original price.

I-94 replaced

Received in the mail today (delayed due to Independence Day long weekend, as I receive mail at the office): one form I-797A containing a replacement I-94 bottom half.

Receipt date: June 8, 2009
Notice date: June 29, 2009

That's pretty good for a form where the service center in question's website stated had a 2.5 month processing time.

It looks like USCIS are doing well with the expectation management here -- they tell me to expect 2.5 months, and it takes less than a month, so I'm more likely to be happy than to be thinking "but this piece of paper took [more than] three times as long to replace as my entire passport" (and cost more to replace than the entire passport).


Thanks to our neighbors, we have a new fence! :)

It is tall, solid, level and straight.  Such a big change from the old one on that side of the property.

(For those who know my house: this is the fence on the south side of the house, against the empty 2-story Victorian, and by 'neighbors' I mean the people who own all property from my place to St John St, as well as the tower at 152 N 3rd St.  They also plan to re-ashpalt all the ashpalt areas of their lots within the next week, which should make them look somewhat nicer.)