Wednesday, April 29, 2009

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another

After being out of work for almost 5 months, a couple weeks ago, I was able to get a job on a 4 month contract. I've another company that is interested in me for a full time position as well, but that is taking a bit longer to play out. As you might imagine, when I was not working, expenses had to be cut back and plans put off until later. I was living the classic case of "deferred maintenance" that many real estate investors know about from looking for properties to purchase form owners in similar situations - if it is still working, don't put any money into it.

So once I got a job, I went on a buying spree - both my car and my wife's car needed new tires, routine maintenance and other repairs to the tune of about $1,000 each, our dishwasher and oven got repaired, and some other general stuff was done. I was just thinking I was about caught up when... my computer died. Even worse, it died right after I bought something to fix a different problem it had.

Saturday night, I noticed my computer's event log was showing lots of disk drive-related errors. I knew the drive was going to fail soon, so on Sunday, I went out a bought a new drive. When I got home, I put the drive aside and planned to install it that evening. Two hours later, I went to check my email and the machine locked up hard. I cycled power and, in the middle of booting, everything went dead - the screen went black, the drives stopped spinning, and the only light on the machine was a blinking orange LED in the power button. It would not turn on again. After much investigation, I noticed a couple of blown capacitors on the motherboard. Crap. Dead motherboard. Well, at least I hadn't spent any time replacing the hard drive yet.

Thankfully, I have some income coming in now to pay for a new computer, in addition to the other repairs I had to pay for. And, even more thankfully, I had made a full backup of my computer about 10 hours before it failed.

Anyway, so after being unemployed for months, I was just starting to get back into the swing of things and was thinking about putting together another blog post, and now this happens. It'll be about 1-2 weeks before the new computer arrives.

One the positive side, I received another payment from one of the four flipping LLCs in California. I also received a quarterly payment from the Houston apartment investment, which, as I mentioned last month, should be increasing in the future. The same day I received those checks, I also received my huge federal income tax refund. Unfortunately, it was so huge because I had a huge loss on the sale of Rental #1. Well, the tax refund gave me back about one-third of my loss and, really, it came at an opportune time. I would like to post updated ROI numbers for these investments, but, unfortunately, all the data was on my computer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Escrow Again And Web Faxing

I got the word yesterday that the property I am a mortgage writer on in California has once more gone into escrow. Last time, it fell out of escrow, so maybe this time things will go better. Not that I need the loan to be paid off. I've been getting on-time payments and have no worries about the borrower.

I also started testing out web faxing options, as mentioned last month. I purchased JotNot for the iPhone. That seems to do decent job, although the resulting image can be a little blurry, despite my best efforts to hold the phone as still as possible while taking the picture. For most stuff, it should be ok, but I would not want to use this for real estate contracts or any documents that have a lot of fine print.

Based on reader's comments, I tried using the free service from MyFax.com (www.myfax.com/free) to send a fax. (The free version limits you to sending 2 faxes per 24 hours, but this is keyed off your email address, which has to be valid because you need to click a link they email you to actually send the fax. However, you can get around this limitation by using a disposable email address service such as sneakemail to generate as many email addresses as you want.) Since I still have my landline fax, I tried sending faxes to myself so I could check the quality. In short, I don't think I will use MyFax. The images taken with JotNot (JPEG files) came through so pixelated that they were unreadable. To be fair, I don't think a real fax machine would have done much better, given the blurriness of the source, although being able to set the machine to "fine" mode might produce slightly better results. MyFax also seemed to have trouble scaling. The image sizes I sent were very close to a standard piece of paper (8.33" x 11.11"), yet the resulting fax from MyFax rescaled the image so there was 4 inches of blank space at the bottom and 2.5 inches on the right side.

Click the above picture for full size. These captures were taken at 100% zoom. The top is the source JPEG file from the JotNot program and the bottom is the resulting fax image from MyFax. (The documents I was testing with contain medical information, which I why I am not posting whole page images of the scaling problem.)

Thinking this might just be a problem with the conversion of JPEG images, I used a scanner to create a PDF file as the source for MyFax. Results were a bit better, but there were still unacceptable issues. Text was legible at least but while the scaling problem went away, the last page of the two page fax had the bottom 2 inches cut off. To be sure this wasn't just a fluke, I faxed it twice and obtained the same results.

Click the above picture for full size. These captures were taken at 100% zoom. The top image is the original .PDF file from a scanner and the bottom image is the resulting fax image from MyFax.

MyFax also sends an email confirmation when a fax has been sent or failed to be sent. I found these confirmations to be unreliable. I sent 10 faxes total and received 5 confirmations that the fax was successfully sent, 2 that the fax had failed, and 3 faxes produced no email message at all.

Given that most of the paper I have to fax has small print, I think I will have to buy a scanner to get my paper documents into electronic form. I'll also try some of the other web fax services and see if they produce better results.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

AT&T Discount Plans

Not real estate related, but I had to pass on this huge money-saving tip!

Last week, I purchased iPhones for my wife and I. Previously, we had cell phones on the Sprint network and were billed separately. As part of my cost-cutting hunt that led me to eliminate my landline phones, I switch our cellphones to a family plan from AT&T where we share minutes. That saved us about $30 a month. Then, I found an even better discount.

AT&T has apparently has agreements with large corporations and schools throughout the country to give employees and students discounts. I first read about this on an iPhone hacking site that I can't find again, so sorry for no linkback. But here is the link to AT&T site to check your eligibility. The iPhone site mentioned I could get a 15% discount on my current service. Since my wife works at a university, I figured I try. She was eligible and so I signed up. Within minutes I got a confirmation back that I was signed up for the discount.

Today, I got a new info packet from AT&T that shows my new costs. Instead of a 15% discount, I got a whopping 55% discount!! My cost went from $106 a month to $48! In looking at the details, my Familytalk Nation 700 plan went from $60 to $9.99. I still have the unlimited data plan for the iPhone and all the other service features.

The iPhone data plan ($30 a month) is not eligible for a discount, but even so, this is still a huge savings. If you or your spouse work for a large organization and use AT&T, it's worth the 5 minutes to check to see if you are eligible! I do not know if the amount of the discount varies depending on what company / school you are affiliated with, so your mileage may vary.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

March Updates

It's been a good week!

I received another interest payment for the hard money loan I made on the property in California. I also received another on-time payment from my hard money loan to my (former) co-worker. And last, but not least, I got a great monthly update on the Houston apartment complex.

Total revenue for the month of March was $199K, the highest amount so far. Management also collected some bad debt that they had previously written off as uncollectable, so that was bonus money coming in.

Occupancy was 95% for the month of March and cash flow for the month was just over $32,000. The property is performing better than expected. Management will be revising their forward-looking projections based on the improved performance. The investor distributions for the first quarter will be mailed out this week. But the best news of all of is that management will be increasing investor distributions in future months based on the better-than-expected performance of the property!
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