Posts

Getting to Know Casa Rana


Concerto in Hotel Saint Angel. Four hours earlier we were winding our way over the mountains to PV. Mexico has always been a land of contrasts for us.

Taking the fast lane to the a new life. We drove to Puerto Vallarta on August 9, 2010 to move Karen and Lilly into Casa Rana.  It was the second of our moving trips and the Iron Duke, our 1996 136,000 mile Jeep, was stuffed to the gills this time as well.  We covered 1500 miles and were in PV by 4:00PM on day three.  We threw our stuff in Casa Rana as fast as we could and two hours later we were at a mini-concert in PV’s most exclusive hotel, three blocks down the street.   Later we had dinner at my favorite restaurant, Barcelona, four blocks in the other direction from our house.  We swayed our way back to Casa Rana that night, feeling that we were in the middle of  everything.  The next morning we found out  that “everything” included a far away rooster, a way-too-close barking dog, and a neighborhood that liked to get up early on Sunday mornings.  After an all day shopping trip the next day to the Walmart, CostCo, and the Sariana market, I was on the plane back to Los Angeles and my girls were starting their lives in Puerto Vallarta.  If the first couple of days were any view to the future, something told me that KR’s life in PV would be anything but leisurely.

The following pictures are the “before” pictures, showing Casa Rana as it was when we bought it and immediately upon moving in.  It’s going to change pretty rapidly.

Five easy blocks to the beach, its five tough blocks going up to Casa Rana

My motto: "Happy wife, happy life." KR in front of Casa Rana. This view is of Calle Corona, toward the beach.

Looking north on Calle Miramar. Casa Rana is on the left. This street is one of only two ways to get to the house.

KR and Lilly go for their first walk together around the neighborhood.  This is looking south on Calle Miramar.

KR and Lilly go for their first walk around the neighborhood

Looking at the dining room and kitchen from the living room

Living room

The living room, with a view onto Calle Corona

KR marks her territory with two horses in the window

The kitchen. Previous owner was into minimalist design

FW's office

The Propellant Group's Mexican branch office

In the center of the house is an open courtyard. When it rains, one needs an umbrella to get to the spare bedroom and office

Looking up the stairs towards FW's office. Above the office is a sun deck

Master bedroom.  Guest bedroom is similar, except it opens into the courtyard

Master bedroom. Guest bedroom is similar, but opens onto the courtyard.

Lilly after her first walk to the neighborhood Starbucks

Figuring Out How to Make Work Conform to My Life(style) and Not the Other Way Around

One of the most important challenges in trying to reorder the priorities of one’s life is figuring out how to reconfigure how you make a living.  The question is not so much changing what you do, but changing how you deliver it and to whom.  For many people, I suppose, this isn’t an option.  An electrician needs to go where the electricity needs to be.  A secretary needs an office.  A bus driver needs a bus.  But for many, reconfiguring delivery is doable.  Herein lies a case history.

Getting Back in the Saddle: Your Basic 7-7 Job

Demoing Snap during its introduction in New York. I'm the guy on the right:)

My trek from the normal really began in early 2005 when I reentered the “normal” world, becoming the COO of Snap.com, a next generation search engine and advertising platform owned by Idealab.    Snap was my first “job” in quite some time.  For the ten years prior, I had been an entrepreneur in one fashion or another.

For the next 2 1/2 years I went into Snap’s office for 12 hours a day and usually part of the weekends.   The work was great fun and challenging as we were building something difficult and potentially important.   After a while, though, I began asking myself, why am I doing this? It wasn’t the long hours of hard work that bothered me as I’ve always been a workaholic, nor was it the nature of the work.  Rather, it was the lack of flexibility in doing the work.  My daily agenda was set by my boss or the umpteen meetings that I took every day.  I found it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue the things that I really cared about.  I just didn’t have the time or energy to do what I wanted after I came home in the evenings.

I started to think about taking back control.  Could I make a living in a more flexible manner?  What I was good at and who would be interested in it?.  My answer boiled down to the same thing: I’m good at building things:  teams, groups, companies, products.  I like the process of creating and getting people working together.

Couldn’t I do this in a way that gave me more control and freedom?  I didn’t know, but I was willing to find out.

Taking Back Control

In the Spring of 2007 I resigned from Snap and in September of that year co-founded The Propellant Group with two other C-level entrepreneurs.  Our mission was simple: help early stage companies grow and succeed.   From the very beginning, we built TPG to be flexible, low-cost and high-impact:

  • Simplification to the extreme:  TPG has three elements:  Clients, Partners and our Work.  That’s it. Everything else either gets in the way or takes money away from profits.   We didn’t really need much accounting or legal support either.  From revenue, we subtracted a few costs, set aside a little money for future expenses, and divided the rest by three and made out three checks.
  • No offices: We decided early on that TPG would operate out of our individual houses.  No formal offices which means… no personal lease commitment, no extra overhead, no furniture, no maintenance, no…. ANYTHING!  We thought this would be a big problem for clients.  It wasn’t, our clients seemed to embrace the idea that quality doesn’t necessarily only come from big and structured.  Especially for our clients.
  • No infrastructure:  We had a bank account and that was it.  No stationery, no copy machine, and no administrative assistants.   No hard lines and no faxes.  We each had a cell phone, access to the Internet, and business cards.

This took a little getting use to, even for three guys who had  built companies from scratch.  We had to jettison our belief that self-worth and potential impact were tied to nice offices and a recognized name.  We had to go down the stairs, or across the hall, or sit at the dining room table and do the work even if we were in our jammies.  We needed to feel confident in meeting prospective clients at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and not let it bother us.  This isn’t for everyone. Over the past three years, TPG has gone through a number of partners partly because the unstructured nature of the business was uncomfortable.

My work regimen changed over night.  The first thing one notices is that the 2 hours each day lost in commuting is re-found.  So, immediately my 12 hour day is down to 10.  Next is time lost in frivolous meetings and around-the-office meandering and stuff:  probably another four hours.  Now we’re down to six hours without a noticeable impact on productivity.  And that folks is the payoff:  work 1/2 the time, accomplish the same output, and gain a life-changing amount of control in your life.

For Adults Only

There are significant downsides to my configuration, as one might expect.  Downside #1:  there are no viable excuses for not getting something done.  The dog ate the homework doesn’t cut it.  Sometimes you just have to put your head down and get it done, no matter what else is going on.  Downside #2:  There are always lots of other things going on:)  Distractions can be well…. distracting.  Downside #3:  You have to get use to working anywhere, and I mean anywhere.  Boat, plane, motorcycle, Starbucks, on the side of the road, at the kitchen table, at the client’s office, at a restaurant, or wherever.   This is where most people get confused:  this isn’t a vacation, its a different way of organizing one’s life.  And work is and will be the engine that drives it.

The Cost and Value of Flexibility

Here’s the bottom line audit of this move:  my income has gone down about 45%, the amount of time I devote to work has gone down about about 50%, and the amount of flexibility in my life is up 1000%.   As a result, the last three years have been some of the happiest of my life.  I wouldn’t (and won’t) change a thing.

How Far Can “It” Be Pushed?

My quest is to be able to make a living while  “on the road” for long periods of time.   So, here’s what I’m going to try:  (1) Continue to live in Los Angeles (in Steve and Rita’s basement just as long as they will put up with me) as a my homebase;  (2) Work while we take a motorcycle trip through South America; and (3) Work from Los Angeles and our Mexican headquarters in Puerto Vallarta upon return.  Repeat sequence as often as possible.

Will this work?  I have no idea.  I’ll keep you posted.

Transition to a Working Nomad…

Last of the Mohigans? Office at the Idealab, an incubator of tech company startups. Snap was housed in this office.

First world headquarters of The Propellant Group -- our house in Hollywood.

Being able to concentrate has its challenges. This is Little Big Sur.

Who says an office needs walls? This is my office at Little Big Sur.

TPG has thousands of branch offices worldwide. My vote for best company on earth is Starbucks. Now with free Wi-Fi. It doesn't get any better than this.

Having clients that worry about the product, not the package is a good thing. Here's my "office" in a conference room at United States Artists

Working at the kitchen table in a house in Fiambala, Argentina. The kitchen also served as dining room, living room and den:)

Basement Beauty. Current offce in the basement of Steve and Rita's. I've spent a lot of good times on the keyboards right here.

In Which We Try to Take Advantage of a Real Estate Tsunami

When we began going to PV in 2006, it was in the midst of a building boom hard to describe.   For years PV had been a relatively small tourist town best known for fishing, good beaches and lively nightlife.  Nestled against the mountains, it was never going to be as big or commercial as Cancun or Acapulco. Then us Baby Boomers must have found it and the go-go days began, with new hotels, condos and shopping centers springing up all along the Banderas Bay.   Every trip down brought new arrivals:  Walmart, CostCo, Home Depot, Office Max, a high end shopping center, more super mercados and FIVE Starbucks.     Finding a new finished condo was nearly impossible, so people began putting down pre-construction deposits on planned paradises.

We flew to PV on our anniversary in 2006 on a whim and a prayer of finding some place on the beach we could eventually call home. That thought was quickly killed as prices for anything with “beach” in it were $500K and up – and I mean up!  Spending a couple of million was not unusual. There were lots of villas in the high seven and low eights.   We were shocked and depressed until we stumbled on Little Big Sur (or what would eventually become LBS) in the jungle south of PV.  We had found our beach place at something we could afford.  Granted, it wasn’t exactly a house since it had no walls, but that’s another story.  None the less, we made PV our home away from home.

None of us knew it, but PV (and Mexico) was about to be hit by a Perfect Storm of economic disaster.  First up was the tsunami from the US housing market earthquake.  Pre-construction deposits stopped, construction was slowed on most of the developments, and “Se Vende” signs sprung up everywhere.   Then the H1N1 virus scare pretty much stopped all tourist traffic (and was probably the nail in the Mexicana Airlines’ coffin).  Finally, Americans and Mexicans read daily newspaper stories on the escalating Narco Wars.  Add all this up and you get restaurants that are half empty, condos that are half built, streets that you can cross without fear of being run-over, and shops closing for the off-season never to return.

The mood amongst Vallartans was never grim, however, as Puerto Vallarta is and always will be a party town. But the exuberance that once flowed through everything was gone.  Vallartan’s were quietly holding their breadths, hoping that it would all blow over – and soon!

Into this Perfect Economic Storm, Karen and I came looking to buy a place.  I admit that I was pretty exuberant having been on the other end of the stick  just weeks prior.  This was our opportunity to find our perfect place at a price we could afford and I was pretty obnoxious in expressing this goal.

As usual, KR and I approached buying real estate from different perspectives.  I was open for a bigger house in a borderline neighborhood, so I could store all our vehicles.  I wanted to build a Man Cave.   I was also in no hurry and definitely in the Manana frame of mind about buying a place.  I felt that the market was going south, not north, any time soon.

Karen wasn’t into fixing a place up, didn’t really care about a garage, wanted to be in central PV so we could be close to the action, and definitely wanted to find a place yesterday so she could start making a new nest.   Our negotiated Want List included a pool, view, at least two bedrooms, a garage and a price less than $350K.

Karen flew down to PV in mid-May to begin looking.  First thing she did was one of our best moves — we hired Harriet Murray as our Real Estate Agent and How-to-Live-in-Puerto Vallarta Expert.  Harriet not only knows real estate but she’s worked with enough Gringos-in-a-Strange-Land to be a walking encyclopedia of how to make The Move.

Looking at real estate is different in PV. First off, there is no one source of all things for sale – an equivalent to the MLS—but rather several privately aggregated lists and the listings from the various real estate agents.  The best way of finding out about new places is to always be looking, talking with other agents/owners, going to events, and monitoring web sites.  New places were being discovered every day.  Between the three of us – Harriet, Karen and me – we looked at dozens and dozens of places either virtually or figuratively.   At the end of each day KR and I would have a Skype call comparing places and talking about  pros and cons.  My favorite metric for any house was “Days on the Market”.  It wasn’t unusual for this number to be way over 300 days – easily into the 700 day range.  Can you see the smile?

Once KR had a “short” list of possibilities, I flew down to PV to close the deal.

Moving to a new city is full of surprises, even if you think you know the place pretty well.  We thought we knew the town pretty well, beyond just being tourists, as we had spent a lot of time scouring the back streets looking for stoves, cement, beds, furniture, tools and the like.  We’d gotten around via buses, land and water taxis, and rental cars.  One of the reasons we had selected PV was we were comfortable there

Yet, we were to find out there is a big difference between visiting a place (even often) and living there.  In a little more than three days, Harriet drove us through more of PV than I’d seen in all the years coming down.  I got to know all the little neighborhoods, appreciate their quirks and nuances, and came to see even more of the non-tourist part of PV.   Verseilles, Conchas Chinas, El Centro, Amapas, Romantic Zone, Marina, the Hotel Zone, Las Gaviotas, the Marina, Gringo Gulch, and many more.

Some of these neighborhoods were mostly Gringos or other foreigners, some were mainly Mexican, and many were a combo.  Conchas Chinas, for example, is informally known as the Beverly Hills of PV.  Located in the hills immediately south of Old Town and along the coast, Conchas Chinas was quiet, secluded, and features condos and villas with breathtaking views of the Bay and the City.  Because of the downturn, we could afford to look in Conchas Chinas and it was very, very seductive.   One of the finalists in our search, “Casa Romantica #5” (all homes have names in PV), with stunning views, a gorgeous pool, a garage, outdoor grill, a beautiful kitchen and well…just about everything.

But like its namesake, CC was insulated from the rest of PV.   Reachable only by car because of the steep hills, the CC lifestyle meant days and evenings hang’n at home rather than an easy walk down the street.   Could we live the vacation lifestyle 24/7?

We learned that when someone describes a neighborhood as Mexican, it’s a code word for loud.   As in people, kids, chickens, cars, and music all at high volumes, at all times of the day and night.   It usually also  means dirt streets and unfinished houses (this sounds a lot worse than it is, these are often charming places, but just rough around the edges) and far from the beach.

We weren’t ready for “Full Mexican,” but were up for a mixed neighborhood of Gringos and Mexicans like El Centro.  As its name implies, El Centro is the center of PV and is one of the oldest parts of town.  We liked the El Cerro section quite a bit – in the hills above the main town.  It had cobble stone streets, a mix of Mexicans and foreigners, a few restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops, and was close to everything.

KR (and I admit me too) fell in love with a converted 100 year-old adobe house named Casa Rana in  El Cerro.  It had been totally redone to make it a charming mini-hacienda with all the modern conveniences on the inside, yet it looked like a small, old adobe house on the outside.   At 2100 square feet, it was huge for all standards, with two bedrooms and an office.

Of course, there were significant downsides to Casa Rana.  No air conditioning, no pool, no view, no garage and it was was going to be loud.  It was on one of the main north/south routes through PV which meant there was traffic at all hours of the day.  This problem was made all the worse as this “main thoroughfare” was less than a car width wide, meaning it was impossible to keep tiles on the roof as trucks keep knocking them down.

Before we got on the plane back to LA, we’d made an offer on Casa Rana, had back and forth counters, and made an offer on Casa Romantica in between.   We finally made a deal on Casa Rana a few days after getting back.

Wow, I guess we’re really doing this…

Plan B Takes Shape

What do we do now?  House remodeled, √.  House sold, √.  Moved out, √.  Storage facilities found, √.  Marriage still intact, √.  Now what?

The world’s wisest piece of advice, “happy wife, happy life,” kicks in and I jettison my “lets roam the earth aimlessly” plan in favor of getting the X-Boss of Hollyridge a new kingdom to reign over.  But, where do we want to live?  Our thinking went this way.

California is out.  Aside from the been-there-done-that specter, it’s way too expensive to sustain.

Colorado or New Orleans are cool, but not this time:  Colorado and New Orleans were among the contenders, but we were determined to find a cheap place in Mexico or South America first.

Buenos Aires was my pick, but not practical. One of the all time most beautiful cities we’ve ever been to, I wanted to consider BA but finally accepted that living at the tip of South American was a bit too far away from “home,” even for me.

Merida, Mexico was a finalist.  Karen has had an infatuation with the Yucatan colonial capital for a couple of years now.  She kept showing me all these $90K colonial houses that we could renovate for just $50K.  Right.  I kept pointing out to her that Merida was on the far side of Mexico and we’d never be able to use Little Big Sur, our palapa in the Jungle south of Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico was our answer.   PV was the obvious choice all along as we’ve been going there for the last four years as we built and eventually played in Little Big Sur.  We like the town, we’re beginning to make friends there, and we would  have a weekend getaway in the form of LBS.

So, the first component of our Plan B was to buy a little place in PV.  We didn’t know where or how exactly, but we now had a destination.

More discussions ensue and a general plan evolves…. we’ll buy a place in PV, KR will move there and settle in during the summer and fall, I’ll find a small place in Los Angeles so I can continue working, and we’ll start traveling after the first of the year.

Works for me.  Now all we have to do is execute…


No Get Out of Jail Free Card

Starting a new life is exciting, damn exciting.  The thrill of “what’s next?” is why you do it in the first place.  There’s just one little, tiny problem:  you have to extract yourself from the here and now.  And that is one of the toughest things we’ve ever done on every level; logistically, financially, and emotionally.  In our case, extraction meant remodeling our house, sorting through sixteen years of stuff to determine what makes the cut, selling our house, and moving out.  Sounds simple, but it took us every bit of eighteen months.  The following is our tale of how you leave it all behind.

Letting Go is Hard to Do

No one can live in one place for 16 years and not have tons of stuff, memories, and connections to sort through.  Since we didn’t know where we were headed, we were forced to take an even harder look at what we needed, what we wanted, and what we could jettison.   This process caused a ripple through every aspect of our life, forcing us to ask,  “should we keep it?” for everything (including each other:).  Nothing was bought without that in the back of our mind.  No closets were opened without silently thinking, “Damn, another batch of stuff to go through.”

For me, it was a business process. I had a career of 30+ years to review.  Did I really need that Procter & Gamble brand presentation from ‘83?  Sure it was good, but was it that good?  Karen assured me it wasn’t:).  I went through dozens and dozens of file boxes reliving my career.   I’d catch myself reading memos from businesses past and remembering all the good times and work I’d done.  Before I could say, “stop that, you’re wasting time!” I’d been sitting in the basement for two hours just reading stuff.  Somehow I got the files down to less than a dozen in number, put them in new plastic boxes, and went on to the next thing.

I applied the same  20% emotional/80% logical approach to all the stuff in my purview.  Garage tools, done.   My clothes, done.  Motorcycle stuff, done.  Car stuff, done.   Electronics, done.

Karen was operating in a different world, of course. She, not surprisingly, applied the reverse approach: 80% emotional/20% logical.  She wasn’t reviewing old business files, but memories, mementos, and everyday items that had a use.  She couldn’t open a drawer or look into a closet without traveling down memory lane and trying to separate great memories from great practicality.   Moreover, she was charged with the responsibility of setting up our new house, wherever that might be, as quickly and efficiently as practical.  In Karen’s world, everything has a value to be weighed.

We developed a number of techniques to get us through the sifting and packing process.   We spent enough money on plastic storage containers (Preferably with clear sides so you could see what’s inside.  We’re probably the only couple who can speak with authority on plastic container brands:) to raise DuPont’s quarterly earnings.   To counter this expenditure, Karen tried selling things in every which way she could think of:  Amazon, eBay, Craig’s List, and local flea markets.   We spent long periods of time in different parts of the house so as not to get in each other’s way.   Friends stepped in whenever there was an impending disaster.  What we didn’t sell, we tried to give away:  friends, neighbors, charities, shelters and our horde of Mexican workers.  While all of this was going on, of course,  we were either remodeling the house or trying to sell it.   We lived in a constant state of chaos and tension between the old and new.  Somehow we lived through it.

Selling Through a Recession

Most people thought we were nuts to put our house on the market during the worst recession in our lifetime, particularly one that was led by a housing meltdown.  My view was different.  While our house had certainly suffered some depreciation (whose hasn’t?), I was convinced the market for houses like ours wasn’t going to get better in just a matter of months, or years for that matter.   It wasn’t just the sloooooowwwwllllyyyy improving economy,  too many Baby Boomers on five-year adjustable mortgages were going to reboot in the next few years,  adding a ton of inventory waiting to go on the market.   Finally, the temporary tax incentives for first time buyers were scheduled to end soon.

On the positive side, we had a great house that wasn’t going to be easily duplicated.  Comps in our neighborhood were notoriously hard to rationalize.   For the right buyer – two adults, no kids — our house was a gem.

Most importantly, we didn’t want to wait another five years to get on with The Next Great Thing.  We decided to push the Sell Button, knowing that we wouldn’t be selling at the top of the market, but pretty damn sure we weren’t selling at the bottom either.

It’s difficult to pick what the worst experience was: remodeling, selling or moving each presents its own particular form of  torture.  Like everyone else, our home was our biggest financial asset, so pricing was serious business.   On top of the financial stress, having open houses, brokers opens and private showings every couple of days would test Martha Stewart’s penchant for cleanliness.  Being ready to “show” the house at a moment’s notice essentially stopped us from “living” in our home for the final four months.  We took to sleeping outside so we didn’t have to make up the bed before each showing.

We started the selling process all bright and bushy-tailed.  For each Open, we’d happily clean the house for two days and then hide down the street and watch people come in.   We even camped across the canyon with binoculars so we could watch each prospective buyer as they toured the house.  We kept tallies, tried to remember faces and counted the number of times people would come back (many, many people came more than 3X and never made an offer).

After 30 days, the first lingering doubts crept in.  After 60 days I was worried and started to get angry at our brokers.  We took all low-ball offers personally.  After 90 days we had a Come-To-Jesus meeting with our brokers who assured us we would move the merchandise if we’d do a price reduction.    We tried every sales idea we could think of from putting an ad in the entertainment trade rag to holding mid-week cocktail parties for brokers.

And then one evening our broker said a perspective buyer wanted to meet us.   The Buyer, an adult couple with no children, wanted a personal tour of the house, wanted to know its history, and wanted to convince us they were the right buyers for our home.   What?  They wanted to convince us?  Two weeks later and we had accepted their offer.

Of course, any one who has sold/bought a house in California knows The Offer is just the beginning of an agonizing process called Escrow.   First out of the box are the countless inspections that the Buyer will require, everything from pests to earthquake experts to electricians to sewer men.  Each of these inspectors will find something that is significantly wrong with the property and supply a hugely inflated estimate of costs to repair.  Buyer and Seller then negotiate the particulars, each not wanting to screw the deal, but not wanting to be screwed either.   These inspections take place over weeks and weeks and involve tens of thousands of dollars in potential repairs.  Along the way, the Buyer is supposedly meeting his/her various hurdles like getting financing.  I learned the hard way through our 60 days of hell (Escrow) that it’s never over until the checks in the bank and its cleared.

How’d it work out? Here are the facts:  (1) We listed the house on November 2 and accepted an offer on March 3.  We had multiple offers;  (2) We got 92% of our original asking price and 99% of the price we quietly wanted;  (3) We held Open Houses every weekend except on Christmas/New Years for four plus months;  (4) We moved our final things out of our home of sixteen years on April 29 2010.

All’s well that ends well, I guess.  Here’s what I’ve learned about selling a house during the worst recession in our lifetime:

  • Do your homework. You need to look at every potential house for sale in a two mile radius to get a good, realistic, yet full-valued price on your home.   Use these competitive scanning trips to informally interview potential real estate brokers.   Are they articulating the pluses of the property in a way that isn’t annoying?  Are they knowledgeable about the neighborhood?  How are their sales materials?  Did they have a realistic perspective on pricing? When we were done with this process, we had a pretty good idea of what we thought the house was worth and we’d identified four or five potential brokers
  • The most important thing is to pick the right broker:  We interviewed five potential candidates, each coming through the house and giving us their pitch.   For me, the keys are personal/passionate attachment to the house, the quality of the sales materials, the horsepower to market the property far and wide, and their desire/ability to do whatever it takes to make the right deal happen.  I ignored whether they knew the neighborhood (that’s what MLS are for) and instead concentrated on whether they knew the right kind of buyer for our house.
  • Stage, stage and stage! Our brokers made critical suggestions in how to better arrange the furniture and Karen was a genius in making the place look and smell wonderful.  We’d spend $100 on flowers for each open or showing, Karen would cook apples and cinnamon and then secrete them everywhere. Candles and lighting were equally important, to be adjusted to the time of the showing (for sunsets we brought out the flame torches and set them alight in the yard and on the decks).
  • Don’t take it personally. If I had one thing to change, I wish we’d taken the emotion out of the process.   It would have been a whole lot less stressful. It’s just business, in which the buyer is looking to buy your house at the lowest price possible and you’re trying to get the best deal possible.   Low ball offers?  Ignore them and move on.  Outrageous demands from an inspection report?  Offer to do the repair yourself.

Innovations in Moving Techniques

The days of backing up the Mayflower van to the driveway and moving  are over.  OK, that was never an option for us anyway as we had no address for the Mayflower to go to!   We couldn’t possibly rent a moving truck and move stuff into a storage facility either as we needed every day of our 60 day escrow to organize/toss/pack our 16 years of stuff.  No, we needed a new solution — another Plan B!

Always available always eager workforce for $10/hr.

Then my friend Sam suggested that I look into something called PODS (Personal On Demand Storage http://www.pods.com/ ), in which they bring a moveable storage container to your doorstep for as long as you need it, come and pick it up when its full, and put it away in storage when you’re done.  When you want to get some your stuff, you make an appointment and go to one of their warehouses. They’ll even move it cross country for you. This system works wonders.

Our next moving innovation was taking advantage of the vast immigrant work force hanging out at Home Depots across Los Angeles.  Whenever I needed to pack, store, trash, organize, clean or whatever, I’d drive down to our local Home Depot and pack the Jeep full of $10/hr guys.  I was such a good employer that guys would start running toward the car as soon as I entered the parking lot.  If I needed a lot of stuff moved, I hired the young and strong.  If we were going to pack the POD with more stuff, I hired the guys who were good packers and knot tiers.  KR and I got to know a bunch of guys by name during our 60 day Escrow period.  Most everyone of these guys were hard working, incredibly appreciative of the work, and would didn’t stop working until I drove them back down the hill to HD at the end of the day.

Our move was a mash up between high technology, a ready and inexpensive work force, and a fluid organizing/sifting/packing and storing process.   I expect to hear from Harvard Business School for a case study request any day now.



Remodeling the Mexican Way

For months I’d been ignoring almost daily calls from local contractors offering a free quote on my every remodeling need.  Each offered  SALE PRICING! and said  a Professional Contractor would give us a quote before the sun went down.  How could I say no to a Professional Contractor and Sale Pricing?   Easily, as it turned out.

Job #1 was to put a new floor on the main outside deck, replace a couple of railings, and maybe build a roof/trellis on it.  It was a big deck, so I knew this was going to cost  some bucks so I’m thinking maybe $4k.  Professional Contractor #1 shows up carrying a clipboard, a pen and a tape measure.  After I explained what I needed, he took a few measurements and 30 minutes later I had my quote:  $35K!  And that was without the roof.  PC #2 took even less time (he didn’t bring a tape measure) but arrived at a similar figure:  $38K and I could have it done in six weeks.   At this rate I was going to spend half million dollars on everything that needed fixing around the house.

We needed a Plan B.

Plan B came in the form of Mario the Magnificent, Simone the Sorrowful, and Martin the Man (pronounced Marteen).  Simone was Mario and Martin’s uncle and all three were from South of the Border.  Together, I came to believe they could build an entire city, one that wasn’t perfectly straight and aligned perhaps, but certainly one that would last beyond the next earthquake.  They’d do it quicker, cheaper and better than any Professional Contractor could imagine.

Mario the Magnificent was the trailblazer.  Mario single handedly built two cement plateaus on our hillside that required a month’s worth of dirt to fill in, a stone stairway that even today is sturdy as a rock, and did Version 2.0 of the front yard with pond #1, sprinklers, etc.  Mario worked the neighborhood for more than two years and even today we speak of him in awe.  I’m told that Mario now is a construction supervisor for a housing development in San Diego and I bet he ends up running a construction company some day.

Simone the Sorrowful was not up to his cousin’s level of work, but nonetheless far superior to any PC around.  Simone’s specialty was masonry and structural work.  In many ways as inventive as Mario, Simone never saw a straight line he admired and wanted to follow.  While I could live with this slight weakness, Simone also had a weakness for driving without a license, usually with too much Tequila in his gut, and went missing for months at a time as bail money was beyond his reach.  Yet, even with these handicaps, Simone rebuilt the driveway, the driveway wall, all the deck flooring, and was 90% done with the deck roof when he got pulled over just before Thanksgiving for driving without a license.

Enter Martin the Man. Since Simone could be in jail for a day or a couple of months, I was pretty desperate for a replacement.  My neighbor suggested trying Simone’s cousin, Martin, as a temporary replacement until The Sorrowful served his time.  I knew Martin and I’d get along great when he showed up at 6:30AM on his first day wearing a tool belt like a gunslinger.   Martin was here to work, and work he did.  For the next 12 months Martin showed up before the sun and left  just before it went down.   There’s an ongoing debate amongst the Men of Hollyridge whether Mario the Magnificent or Martin the Man was better.  Personally, I think Martin takes it by a hair, but I’d follow either one of them into battle any time, anywhere.

Plan B’s team would not be complete without mentioning Otto the Outstanding, even though he was not related to the rest of the guys.  I met Otto as he was walking to his car in the neighborhood.  Always an astute observer of my fellow man, I figured Otto was a painter given that he was covered from head to toe with paint.   I was in need of a Plan B painter as another PC had just given me a $12K estimate to paint the outside of our house.  Granted, it was a bitch to paint because it was a couple of stories tall and hanging off the hillside, but I couldn’t afford the $12K I needed to paint the inside as well.  So, I asked Otto if he needed some work and I offered to give him a try.  Cutting to the chase, Otto was a master with a paintbrush and ladder.  He painted the entire outside of our house and every room inside for – you might want to sit down – slightly more than $3K.  And he did it by himself with no help!   Otto, unfortunately, managed his personal life about as well as Simone as he was constantly broke, in a fight with his girl friend, and usually slept in his car.  But boy could he paint!

I would pit my team of South of the Border Professionals against any group of Professional Contractors 5X their size on any project. Together, this motley crew and their helper (me) literally rebuilt Hollyridge:

  • Two new backyards with assorted stairs, etc.
  • Completely rebuilt all decks and added new flooring
  • Put a roof on the biggest deck
  • Repainted the outside of the house once and the inside twice
  • Redid all the floors
  • Put in new bathroom fixtures
  • Added various walls
  • Built a garden for Karen
  • Put in new appliances
  • Replaced most of the lights
  • Landscaped the place (twice)
  • Replaced the hot water heater
  • Carved out a wine cellar from underneath the house
  • Repaired and/or replaced all fencing
  • Retiled the kitchen and bathroom floors
  • And way too many other things to list here

As a result of my Mexican Remodel experience, I find all the fuss about our immigration “problem” misguided.  I have never met a group of harder working people in my life, men who appreciated an opportunity and applied themselves diligently.   And they weren’t just “labor,” but creative problem solvers who could figure out how to do something faster and cheaper than 99% of other men.   Two of them, Mario and Martin, supported families in the US and perhaps in Mexico as well. And while it’s true that they under-paid taxes, I for one am very happy to pay more than my share to keep them around.

My perspective is colored I’m sure by money, the money I didn’t spend on work done by Professional Contractors.  Here’s a real world comparison of the money my Mexican Crew saved us:

Viva Mexico!



Life was good, real good. Why'd we mess with it?

Two years ago this September we took the first steps toward “rewiring” our lives.   We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, as is so often the case, but we knew we were ready for something different – really different.  It had been five years since we last tried to change direction and we were yearning for The Next Great Thing.  We’d been gliding along pretty easily and that worried me.  We both had a sense that time-is-running-out-and-we better-get-on-with-the-things-we-want-to-do-just-as-fast-as-we-can make-them-happen.  We had no kids to put through school, we weren’t going to win the lottery, and I wasn’t waiting to get my pension from The Propellant Group.  Why were we waiting? We didn’t have a good answer so we began to actually do the things we’d been thinking about for so long.   Our decisions would end up touching every part of our lives, even those things we didn’t want changed, and have flung us in a new direction.

Most people think that our first decision, to ride a motorcycle around the world, was pretty radical, yet it didn’t feel radical at the time.  As with most things in life, it was an incremental change.  We’d done a lot of travel, a lot of travel on motorcycles, and we’ve been to our share of far away places.  No, the actual riding of a motorcycle to places far and wide wasn’t that big of a deal – we became convinced that we could do it.   What we didn’t realize then was the preparation required for this trip – and the decisions it presented — would affect every aspect of our life and have consequences two years later that we’re still dealing with.

How many times can you re-do a front yard? Our answer: half a dozen

The next step was a no-brainer:  we needed to lease our house in Hollywood if we were going to travel for an extended period of time.   This meant we had to do a major remodel if we were going to get the $5k/month that we got last time.  Neither of us could have imagined what that meant as over the next 18 months we touched every surface remodeling “Hollyridge.”  And, of course, we tried to do it  The Mexican Way, that is to say the inexpensive way, thus dealing with the idiosyncrasies of our workers, their penchant for getting arrested, and our lack of Spanish language skills beyond “mas Margaritas pro favor!”

We were nine months into our preparation for the trip when we made the decision with the greatest impact:  rather than leasing our house in Hollywood, we decided to sell it.  I had been an advocate of selling for months, even years, as I wanted to be free of “things” to roam as we pleased.  KR was cool with the roaming part, but she wanted a home base.  She agreed to sell Hollryidge if we bought another base camp before our travels.

At first there didn’t seem to be much difference between putting our house up for a long-term lease and selling it:  we’d still be away for a very long time; we’d have to move our stuff no matter what; we’d have to find places for our vehicles; and we’d have to figure out how to operate on-the-road.

Yet, within a couple of days, I realized we had crossed our own Rubicon, never to go back.   Selling our house meant we were changing our lives for good.  Or bad.  But now change was inevitable and it was permanent.  Questions that seemed optional extra before took on a new urgency.  Where were we going to live?  How?  Where were we going to go?  When?  What were we going to do with all of our stuff?  Our dog?  Our bills?  How was I going to make a living?

I’m finding out that “changing your life” (see the box on the left  on what this means to us) is like teaching yourself how to walk again, as nothing comes naturally.   There are no rest days as each day has another administrative detail to attend to or logistical challenge to meet.  Try moving three times in three months for starters.  Or packing away your life’s belongings in a way that you can get retrieve them once you start peeling back the onion.  Beyond a credit card, how do you pay for things in a foreign country without incurring the 3% “international transaction charge”?  How do you get a visa? And on and on.

There’s no guarantee that this story has a happy ending. We’re two years in and we’ve had more tough times than good.  Eighteen months of remodeling and moving three times will take its toll.  If nothing is a given, isn’t everything up for debate?  Yet, I feel that we’ve hit the tipping point, life today (and tomorrow) is less about extracting ourselves from the past and more about inventing the future.   I’m not willing to declare victory just yet, as experience has taught me that what’s around the corner might not be what we expect.  Or want.  But that’s the whole point of doing something like this…