Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Landscaping 101: The Garden of Satan

When my husband and I began the process of earnestly looking for a house, I was not deeply concerned with the condition of the yard. Circular floor plan and open kitchen?  Heck yes. Yard, not so much.

Of course, we did find a few landscape deal breakers, including a backyard that the owners had inexplicably turned into what amounted to a giant sandbox with a couple of palm trees.  I'm not sure that this concept would have worked in Miami, let alone in cool, rainy Seattle where we live. But I digress . . .

Anyway, with grass or other non-tropical vegetation being the only real requirement for a yard, we were pleasantly surprised when the "dream house" turned out to have gorgeous landscaping, including a lovely little pond/fountain combo in the front yard which we would later learn is called a "water feature" from the guy who wanted to charge us $1,000 to clean it.

For the record, we were not completely naive going in.  We recognized that this was more yard (bushes, trees, vines) than we could reasonably handle by ourselves given our full-time work schedule and total lack of yard work experience. So we did what any reasonable yuppies would do, and asked the sellers how much they had paid the gardener they used to keep up the landscaping.

When the quote came back, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that the sellers had only been paying about $120 a month for upkeep.  That amount seemed manageable, and we didn't even have to go through the bother of sourcing our own yard guy.  Of course, what we were not smart enough to ask was exactly what the $120/month covered.

The first month, things went well.  We made arrangements with the guy, and arrived home one day to freshly tidied yard and a bill for $120 neatly tucked in the door.  The second month, we started to realize that we might have a somewhat more unwieldy animal on our hands.  Again, one evening we can home to a tidied yard, and to our temporary joy, and perfectly swept driveway cleared of the myriad leaves that had fallen from the giant tree at the edge of the property.  Unfortunately, when we opened the bill, we were in for a shock. The $120 monthly charged was now $230, a $110 price jump that was apparently due to the leaf sweeping, for which we had not asked.  After a few deep breaths, we agreed that we'd just pay the bill and tell the landscape guy that we'd do our own leaf sweeping from now on.

Over the next few months, however, the bills continued to be nearly double the $120 we were expecting. Each time, it was accounted for on the itemized bill, but never discussed with us in advance.  There was lawn mowing, ice removal, and various services which we had assumed were reflected in the $120/month quote.  Finally, in late winter, we pulled the plug on the yard service altogether, thinking we'd save some money while we waited for blooming and growth to begin in earnest.

When Spring rolled around (it comes late in Seattle), things did not improve.  The landscape architect who had designed our burdensome yard recommended that he and his team come out to do a big "Spring cleaning." We gulped and agreed to the $800 he quoted us, only to receive a bill for $1300 ("oops, took longer than we thought.")  We decided he was never coming back.

By mid-Summer, desperation was again setting in, so we called our old yard guy.  A quick live conversation revealed that the $120/month was for WEEDING only -- no trimming, mowing or dead-heading (the removal of dead flowers from bushes) included.  At that point, we cut him loose too.

Since then, we have embarked on the unenviable task of trying to manage The Garden of Satan by ourselves -- something for which we continue to be woefully unprepared. A single day will get you through either the front yard or the back yard, assuming you are willing to overlook the fact that the trees are out of control.  Then there's the matter of the spiders, a topic I'll revisit another day.  For now, suffice it to say that I live in mortal peril of these octo-pedal devil spawn, while they seem to believe that they have an ownership interest in my house.

So if you haven't figured this out already, let me break it down for you. While you need not settle for a sandlot, carefully consider how much time and money you are willing to put into maintaining a yard.  If "beautiful landscaping" is listed as one of the key attributes of the house, you'd be wise to back away quickly.



Monday, January 21, 2013

The American Dream

During the summer of 2011, my then fiance (now husband) and I began the process of looking for our first home. For first time home buyers, we were in an exceptionally good financial position. Both gainfully employed, we had little debt, and my husband's inheritance from his late mother gave us plenty with which to make a down payment. Were it not the early loss of a parent that enabled our house hunt, one could have said we were quite lucky. Indeed, we were in the enviable position of dismissing any house that had the air of "fixer-upper."  How naive we were.

What no one tells you when you first buy a house -- whether its out of a misguided sense of not wanting to quash a dream, or simply because people look at these things with rose-colored glasses after a while -- is that there is no such thing as a non-fixer upper. ALL houses come with plenty of maintenance problems.  The only difference between the "diamond in the rough" house and the "polished gem" house is that in the former, the problems are obvious. In the latter, you're walking in blind.

If you own a home, you almost certainly know what I'm talking about. You've experienced the jaw-dropping moment when you realize that plumbers charge $200 an hour. You've stood beneath a light fixture whose inner workings are so complex that you really, truly need a manual to change the bulb, wondering what the  heck the former owners were thinking when they installed this illuminated rubix cube, praying to whoever will listen that you don't electrocute yourself.

If you have not yet ventured into home ownership, but are considering diving in headlong as we did 18 months ago, let me be the person who strips away the sugar-coating and speaks truth to The American Dream. This is not to discourage you from buying a home, but to encourage you to dip your toes carefully in the water and test the temperature first, lest you should jump in un-warned and experience the cold, painful shock of a gardening bill that is 2/3 the size of your monthly mortgage.

No, I'm not kidding.