Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's Gonna Be A Long Walk Home

Nothing about real estate this time, but this is so cool, I just had to share..

Back in 1985, my friend Jim and I were 16 and on a YMCA summer camp trip that traveled up the coast of Southern California, from Orange County, where we lived, to San Fransisco and back again. On the way north, we stopped at the town of Solvang. As we did when we got to any new town, the first place we went was the local record store. It was there that Jim handed me a cassette copy of Born In The U.S.A. and said "Here. Buy this, you'll like it." I did and I've been a huge Springsteen fan since that day.

Twenty two years later, Jim now owns his own record label, Teenacide Records. He specializes in power pop and Rocket, one of his bands, can currently be seen on Fox's The Next Great American Band. Somehow, a couple of his bands caught the ear of Little Steven and now his bands regularly get picked as the Coolest Song In The World on Little Steven's Underground Garage radio show on Sirius. Little Steven has also asked his bands to play at concerts he puts on.

So my friend has a contact with one of the members of the E Street Band. And they are on tour and playing in Los Angeles. Do you see where this is going?

Monday night, we found ourselves with passes around our necks heading down to a pre-show hospitality party at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Jim, whose music industry contacts have grown beyond my ability to keep track of, introduced me to many other famous people there: Clem Burke, the drummer for Blondie, and Kim Fowley, producer extraordinaire and Jack Skellington look-alike. (Warning: When Kim Fowley is around, hide your daughters!) As we hung out waiting for Little Steven to show up, we heard some great stories from Clem. For instance, back in 1979, Blondie and Springsteen were both recording albums in the same studio in New York, Blondie working on Eat To The Beat, and Bruce on The River. During a session, Frank Infante's guitar broke. He borrowed Bruce's and so the guitar that is being played on Atomic is actually Springsteen's guitar. You heard it here first. We also heard about a rock star who shall remain nameless whose leg fell asleep and fell down while boarding an airplane. When the stewardesses pulled off his boot, white powder flew everywhere. Turns out the plastic bags of cocaine he stuffed down there broke and his skin started soaking up the drug. Luckily, the stewardesses had a supply of baggies and helped clean up the mess. I guess they really were flying the friendly skies that day!

Little Steven showed up, looking as piratey as ever, and spent some time in a meet and greet with some contest winners from his radio show. After that was done, Jim and I stopped by and said hello and got our picture taken with him. He then invited us to a post-concert dinner that was for "just a few friends" at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. Sweet! He asked for the latest Rocket CD and Jim said he had one in his car and would give it to him at the dinner.

The concert started shortly after that and it was incredible. I've been to dozens of Springsteen shows and this was definitely one of the best. I think only 2 slow songs were played and the whole show was a guitarfest whose energy level kept escalating. Bruce was obviously having a great time and I can only hope that when I am 58, I have one-tenth the energy he does.

We got out of the venue incredibly easily. It took us about 3 minutes to walk to our car and we were out of the parking lot in less than 1 minute after that. As a result, we were one of the first ones to show up at the restaurant. Nicole, Little Steven's assistant, was already there and greeted us. She asked how we liked the show and said that some people in other cities complained about the setlist. It was heavy on new material (he played 8 songs from the new album that night), so those fans who just want to hear old stuff were disappointed. She said New Jersey fans, believe it or not, are actually the roughest crowd. Of course, those are mostly fans who want to hear the old stuff. Personally, I like the new stuff and I don't want Bruce shows to become some nostalgia-fest.

We sat down at a table and waited, eating some bread and drinking wine. After a short time, other people started showing up. Kim Fowley was there, so we talked with him a bit more. Gary W. Tallent, the E Street Band bassist, showed up. And the last person to show up was Little Steven. We ordered dinner (I had lasagna and Jim had linguine with meatballs) and just relaxed. There was a group of TV people from the Sopranos - writers mainly, no actors. There was a writer who was reviewing the concert and, of course, Kim Fowley, Jim and myself. Only about 25 people in all. Towards the end of the evening, a fan stuck his head in the room and spotted Little Steven. The fan was drunk and said something I didn't hear to Little Steven. Kim Fowley saw what was going on and motioned to his driver, who also was a bodyguard for Jack Nicholson at one time, to be alert. I heard Little Steven tell the fan in a rather nice voice "Of course I fucking care. I said "Thank you," didn't I?" After that, the fan left and tension eased.

We asked both Gary and Nicole about the possibility of more shows in the U.S. after the European tour. They said that was the plan, but nothing was finalized yet. I told Gary they needed to stop in Arizona the next time around :-)

At around 1 AM, the night was wrapping up. The waiter was asking if anyone wanted coffee or espresso. Little Steven said "Bring one of everything for everybody!" People started leaving shortly after that and Little Steven started posing for more pictures. Kim Fowley started unbuttoning his shirt and said to Jim and me, "I've got a surprise to show Steve. Watch this." Now when a guy like Kim Fowley starts unbuttoning his shirt, you should be scared. Luckily though, we weren't treated to the sight of an old man's scrawny chest, but to a Little Steven's Underground Garage t-shirt that Fowley had on. Phew. Close call.

As we walked out, Jim gave Little Steven the Rocket CD and I shook his hand and told him it was a great show and thanked him for dinner. He said it was his pleasure.

It was a fantastic night and pretty much a dream come true. Everyone was very friendly and down to earth. There were no rock star attitudes. And the funniest moment of the evening? Seeing Little Steven put on a pair of reading glasses to sign the credit card slip.

Jim - thanks for the opportunity, my friend. We learned more from a three minute record...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

October, Please End

This has not been the best month for me. It started off nice. I bought a new bed that cost a couple thousand dollars. My wife needed it for her bad back, so we had to bite the bullet and buy it, even though I would have preferred to wait a bit. Shortly after that, the wheel bearings on my car needed to be replaced. $800. Then I got the oil changed and was told my power steering hose was leaking. Took it to the dealer and it turns out the news is worse than that. Not only is a hose leaking, but the steering gear is leaking and the intermediate shaft is wearing. Total repair cost: $1,500.

Then my wife's identity was stolen. We received two more bounced check notices yesterday. This time, the notice included copies of the checks and it's pretty obvious the checks were scrubbed.

My uncle and grandfather had to evacuate their homes in the San Diego area due to the wildfires. My uncle watched his neighbor's house, which is right behind his, burn down on TV. No word on his home yet.

Today, I got some bad news about a co-worker who hadn't shown up for work the past two days. He wasn't responding to calls or email, so we called the police and they went to his apartment. When they knocked on the door, they heard gunshots. SWAT was called and when they entered, they found him dead.

Is it November yet?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Identity Theft! (Updated)

It appears my wife has been a victim of identity theft. We got a letter last week from a check approval company saying a check had been bounced. The account number was not ours and it was written at a store we never shop at. Further, my wife never writes checks. I mean, like never! I pay all the bills with our joint checking account and she has her own checking account that she only uses a debt card with. So when we got this letter, we figured it was some sort of database glitch that matched her name and address up with someone else's account.

Then Saturday, we got another letter, this time from the Kroger grocery company. This one said she had bounced two checks. We called them up and found out some more info. Kroger had already written the checks off as uncollectable. The checks were written at a Fry's grocery store in Peoria. They had my wife's driver's license number on them and were drawn on a Wells Fargo bank account. My wife has never had a checking account at Wells Fargo. We requested copies of the checks.

The next step was contacting the police department and filing a report. We had a bit of a problem determining which police department to contact. We first tried our local police, but they said to call the Peoria police because that was where the checks were written. Peoria said no, we need to call our local police and they would open the case, gather some evidence, and if there was enough to investigate further, they would pass it on to the Peoria police. So we finally managed to get our local police to take a report. The copies of the checks, when they arrive, will also be turned over to the police for evidence.

We also contacted all three national credit agencies and put a 90 day fraud alert on my wife's credit file. This can be done via an automated process over the phone. Once we have a copy of the police report, we can submit a written request and the fraud alert can be extended to a year. Thankfully, I have been reviewing our credit reports every four months, so I know exactly what should be on my wife's report and should be able to easily spot anything new. I believe activating the 90 day fraud alert also triggers the sending to us of a copy of her report. The checks were written the last week of September, so there's a three week window where the thieves could have been using her info without our knowledge.

We also contacted the Federal Trade Commission and filed an identity theft report with them. We don't know how much information the thieves have. We know they have a name, address, and driver's license, but we don't know if they have a social security number or anything else. You need a social security number to open a checking account these days, but they could have used a fake one. (We're hoping they did.)

Today, we're going to visit a Wells Fargo branch and try to shut down the phony checking account. We'll speak to a manager and find out what we can do. If he won't shut the account down for some reason, I figure since it's in my wife's name and address, we can just go to a different location and tell them to close the account.

I figure the theft must have been the result of a database hack at some company or an insider job somewhere. I have a shredder and shred anything that has personal information on it. We also had our names taken off the pre-approval lists for credit card offers a couple years ago and that status has been verified each time I check our credit report.

About two weeks ago, we had another anomaly that I now wonder might somehow related to this. My wife started getting phone calls from people asking about a car she had for sale. The only problem was, she didn't have a car for sale! We did some research and it turns out someone placed an ad at autotrader.com for a used car for sale. The ad listed my wife's cell phone number. I emailed the person who placed the ad and got back a typical scam email message. The seller was supposedly located in Scottland on business, but the car was in Arizona and if I would send them my name, address, etc., they would send me information on selling the car via an escrow company. Typical email scam. We filed a fraud report with Autotrader and the ad has been taken down. They told us the ad was placed over the phone at an Arizona Autotrader office.

So far, we've had no direct financial impact. The bounced checks have all been from accounts that aren't ours. There is no unusual activity in my wife's bank account or on her credit cards. It looks like someone is using her identity to open new accounts rather than take money from her existing accounts.

Update: Wells Fargo has no record of any accounts using my wife's social security number, so that's a good sign. They also have no accounts under her name at our address. They suspect what happened was someone got some checks from a valid account and "scrubbed" them - chemically took the legitimate name and address off and printed hers on. Wells Fargo can't do anything until we get the copies of the checks, which will have an account number on them.

Since they do have her driver's license number, we're going to contact the motor vehicle division and have a new license issued with a new number.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Damaged Doors At Rental #1

I received my September statement from my property management company today and was unpleasantly surprised to see a bill for $150 for some door repairs to my property. The bill states one bathroom door was repaired and two other doors were shaved to fit properly.

My lease states:
Lessee will, at lessee’s sole expense, keep and maintain the leased premises and appurtenances in good and sanitary conditions and repair during the term of this lease…Major maintenance and repair of the leased premises (reserving and excepting costs of ordinary repairs) not due to lessee’s misuse, waste, or neglect… shall be the responsibility of the lessor.
It seems quite clear to me that any damage is either due to the tenant's abuse of the property, or required as part of ordinary maintenance. In either case, it is the tenant's responsibility to pay for the repairs.

I have faxed my property manager and asked her to call me and explain what exactly was repaired and how shoe came to the conclusion that the tenant was not responsible for the cost of the repairs. I have not heard back yet.

I am quite glad these tenants will be moving out at the end of the month. I get the feeling that they thought they were living in a hotel instead of a house and that whenever they wanted anything, they just called the property manager, who was more than happy to do whatever they asked and pass the cost on to me.

Friday, October 12, 2007

General Update

My tenants in Rental #1 have opted to not renew their lease. On Monday, my property was not yet listed on my property manager's website, so I emailed her to ask if they put it up as soon as the tenants give notice, or if they wait until they have moved out and they have cleaned the place. I never got a response, but my property is now listed on their website. And the PM must have felt rents could be increased, because it is listed for $775 a month, a $25 per month increase. There are no pictures on the website, and the link to a map of where the property is located doesn't work, so there is still some work to be done.

The Louisiana project I am a mortgage investor in has gone to foreclosure. According to those dealing with him, "Joe" is pissed and is threatening lawsuits left and right. Why is he pissed? Because the rent checks ($15,000 a month on one building alone) are no longer going to him! As per the terms of our mortgage, we can step in and collect the rents directly sholud Joe default. The existing property manager has been named the "keeper" of the property, which means he is responsible for the upkeep, holding all the foreclosure documents, collecting rent, etc. Since Joe never paid this guy and we did, I think he's happy to perform this duty :-)

It's still possible that Joe will file bankruptcy and delay this further. We shall see how it goes..

Monday, October 8, 2007

Rental #1 Tenants Have Given Notice

My management company told me today that the tenants in Rental #1 have chosen not to renew their lease, which expires on November 1. This stopped me from making a decision I wasn't really looking forward to making - should I continue to rent to them or not?

The reasons for not renting to them were fairly clear - they paid their rent late several times. Given that the management company keeps the late fees, there is really no benefit to me to accept late rents. I also just didn't get a good feeling from the tenants. First, when I bought the property, the people paying the rent were not on the lease. I corrected that. There were a couple of times when I needed to have people contact them, and the phone number I had sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. To me, that means they are having trouble paying their phone bill.

The reasons for continuing to rent to them were also clear. The holiday season is coming up and it may be hard to find a tenant. And, of course, the evil you know is better than the evil you don't. Who knows what kind of tenant the next person might be.

There was a middle course I could have taken. I could have offered to continue to rent to them on a month to month basis. This would get me through the holidays (assuming they agreed to this and continued to pay their rent) and still let me get rid of them easily if I needed to.

In the end, the tenants made the decision for me by opting not to renew. It's funny, but my first thought was to be offended. I felt like their decision was a reflection on me personally. That somehow, I didn't have a nice enough house for them to live in. Of course, this is not true at all. I remember from my days of living in rentals that the decision to move rarely has anything to do with the house, but more with financial and / or employment issues. And renting property is purely a business for me, so I need to keep all personal feelings out of it. Still, it's funny how that was my first thought.

So the bad news now is that I could be left trying to fill the property during the holiday season. The good news is I might be able to raise the rent for a new tenant. I've asked the management company to raise the rent if they feel the neighborhood and property warrant it. One thing in my favor, through a little quirk of scheduling, is that I might not even have to face a mortgage payment without rental income! Due to my refinancing, I gained a month without a mortgage payment. (Actually, I didn't. The payment was just made in escrow instead.) What this means is my rental income goes towards paying my next month's mortgage. In other words, the October rent I receive pays my November mortgage bill. So if the place rents quickly, I won't even see a blip in my cashflow. Of course, that's a big if...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Foreclosure Papers Filed For Louisiana Property

When I last wrote about the Louisiana commercial property I'm invested in, the buyout of "Joe's" interest in the property had fallen through and he was once again late on his payments. We (the other mortgage investors and myself) had decided to start the foreclosure process as soon as possible.

I received word yesterday that the process has begun. On September 15, Joe was officially late for the September payment and late fees started accruing. A 10 day courtesy letter was sent to Joe in September via certified mail telling him he was late and had 10 days to become current.

Later in September, a 10 day demand letter was sent, letting him know we will foreclose unless he makes his payments. That ten day period just ran out and yesterday our attorney filed the foreclosure paperwork. We can now legally pay the building management company, whom Joe has also not paid, and include that in the amount Joe owes us. Same thing goes for the utility companies, who have also not been paid and are threatening to shut off the power.

Our mortgage specifies a 45 day foreclosure period, so if all goes smoothly, we will own the property in a month and a half. It will not go smoothly. Joe will try to fight this with more delaying tactics, possibly including filing for bankruptcy. Whatever he does, financial control of the property is no longer his, so we can take steps to get everyone paid up and happy again.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Real Estate Slowdown Hurts My Cashflow

For the past four years, I've had some investments in four LLCs that flip properties in the San Francisco area. As you might have guessed, 2004 and 2005 were pretty good years for these investments and every couple of months, I was receiving checks for hundreds of dollars - and sometimes over a thousand. Now, however, the resale market has slowed down dramatically. Instead of the checks for $1,000 or more I was getting, the last check I received was for just under $20. And yesterday, for the first time since I've been invested in them, one of the LLCs did not distributed any money at all this period. The LLCs have not been able to sell some of their properties and so they have instead rented them out, so at least they are generating some positive return. But the particular one I got info on yesterday sold a property for a loss, so even the small rental income was offset by the loss.

I'm glad I decided to stop my investment at four LLCs. At this point, I think I can get a better return purchasing property and renting it on my own. (And, in fact, I bought Rental #1 instead of investing in another of these LLCs.) Now I just have to wait until the term of the LLCs is up (between one month and one year) so I can get my principle back for use in other investments.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Got The Bug

I'm feeling the urge to buy another rental property and the blame lies squarely at the feet of Trisha for recently posting about two properties available in Tulsa. The problem is I am looking at a lot of upcoming expenses in the near future - we need a new bed, we're traveling for Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping time is quickly approaching, and next year, we're going on a cruise. The cruise is a birthday present for my 40th birthday, which will also be next year, but we will be paying for the shore excursions, and those add up quickly. Not to mention the costs of buying souvenirs at all the places we visit!

But I want another rental! Santa, are you reading this?
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