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Archive for March, 2007

Fun with real estate

Every time we are in the real estate market I am always amused by what agents and sellers will say to market their properties. I know hyperbole is part of the game, and the goal of real estate listings is to get people into the houses, but still once in a while there’s a real doozy that makes you shake your head and say, “What the heck were they THINKING?”

Case in point: “House has been well maintained and shows well.” Reality: mismatched carpets, brown swimming pool, blue tape on the floor to cover cracking tiles, peeling ceiling containing asbestos, needs roof work, and most appliances are 15 years old. The funny thing is, we actually made an offer on this house but got outbid. (It was a nice neighborhood.)

Another example yesterday: “This house will sell itself. $2000 painting allowance.” Right off the bat you know things are not going to look good when you see an allowance by the seller for repainting. As a bonus, the dog left us fun presents on the carpeting to step around like little land mines. An allowance for carpeting would have been more appropriate.

Then there’s the real estate code. I’m sure if you’ve bought a house you’re familiar with this arcane language. Guarantee: all phrases below are from actual listings.

“Charming” = Small, with stencils on the walls.
“Cozy” = Sized for Hobbits.
“Move-in ready” = Kind of like on eBay when they say “Trailer is ready to camp!” NOT
“Potential” = Needs lots of work.
“Opportunity knocks!” = Prior owner never pulled permits.
“Handyman special” = Bring a bulldozer.
“Rare opportunity” = Priced above market.
“Priced below appraisal” = Nobody wants it.
“Priced below market” = Previous buyer backed out.
“Bring all offers” = We know it’s overpriced.
“View of riparian area” = House is next to a gully.
“A classic” = hasn’t been updated in 30 years.
“Historic” = hasn’t been updated in 50 years.
“Would make a good dog run” = Side yard is bare dirt.

Now, despite poking fun at the listings, I should say that we are extremely happy with the realtor who is representing us. He’s tolerant of our quirks, endlessly patient, and incredibly responsive. There are a lot of “good guys” in the business and we’re happy we found one. With his guidance … and a few small miracles … we’ll find a home base eventually. In the meantime, the MLS will keep us amused. Isn’t that what it is there for?

Dinner in Green Valley

Our pals the Fabers invited us over for dinner tonight. They’re the folks who went with us to Mexico … was it only a week ago? It has seemed like two weeks, which I attribute to the crazy schedule we’ve had since we got back.

Tucson El cooking.jpg

Eleanor whipped up an elaborate salad … containing mixed spring greens, radiccio, endive, bartlett pear, maple-ginger glazed pecans, red bell pepper, mushrooms, balsamic marinated onions, apricots, shredded carrot, and proscuitto. She topped it with a homemade dressing: a balsamic reduction with ginger, apricots, and apple juice.

It was a meal in itself, but of course it was only a complement to Petey’s delicious dinner of marinated pork loin, steamed asparagus, and sweet potato with butter & brown sugar. And then homemade lemon bars for dessert. So, we didn’t suffer.

Green Valley Fabers.jpg
After dinner

We discussed some future trips that we might take … and the Fabers’ plan to be on the 2009 Capetown to Cairo trip. They are already signed up. That’s going to be an amazing trip if it comes off. I’m tempted to go myself but who would run the magazine while we were out of touch for four months? It’s hard enough to get a week off. My boss is strict about vacation time …

Sky drama

The seasons are changing here in Tucson. We’re getting blustery, wild weather. Yesterday high winds kicked up dust all over town and today thunderstorms kept rolling through.

In other parts of the country these weather events might not seem so dramatic, but here the sky is usually blue and clear. The dust turned it to brown pudding, the storms beat the sky until it was black and blue. It’s a break from the ordinary, and fun to watch because it’s wild but not as forbidding as other parts of the country. Tucson doesn’t get hurricanes, tornadoes are a rarity, floods fill the washes as they are supposed to, and everything usually clears up pretty quickly.

Tucson sky drama.jpg

That’s not to say that the weather can’t be dangerous. The dust storms can completely obscure your vision, and driving down I-10 can be risky if one blows across. This evening we had a pretty good lightning show, too. But the rain that fell amounted to a paltry desert portion, enough to wet the ground a bit and then evaporate almost as quickly.

The saguaros and other desert plants will suck up what they can, expand a bit in their pleats like a person after a big meal, and be set for another long spell until the next few precious drops come by. We’ll be looking for desert blooms. We’re expecting a few more days of this weather and then I suppose the heat will return and Tucson’s warm spring will have sprung.

One peculiar effect of the rain here is that it actually can make cars (and shiny Airstreams) dirtier. The rain carries dust from the air down and leaves streaks on everything. I left my bicycle out in the rain a few weeks ago and had to wipe it down with a clean towel to get all the dust streaks off afterward. Dust is a part of the desert life, a symbol of dryness, but paradoxically it turns out also to be the reminder of rains gone by.

New Urbanism and Airstreams

I thought I was a fan of the principles of “New Urbanism”, but perhaps I am a fraud. Or maybe New Urbanism is — I can’t decide.

New Urbanism is a theory of community design that calls for closely-spaced residential developments with planned centers of retail shops and other community features (schools, parks, etc.) The general idea is to develop communities that fight sprawl by giving people most of what they need right in their own little village.

New Urbanism is one of those great ideas that doesn’t always get executed well. During our Airstream travels we’ve visited several New Urbanist communities, including Celebration FL, Seaside FL, Denver’s Stapleton, and Civano here in Tucson. All of these places have their distinctive features and advantages, but of them all my favorite is Stapleton. It has real diversity and the community seems well planned.

Seaside is marvelous too — you might have seen it in the movie “The Truman Show” — and it even has a couple of Airstreams in town, converted to retail shops. One, I believe, sells sushi. But if you don’t have big bucks don’t even bother asking about living there. This sort of belies a principle of New Urbanism, that it should incorporate a mix of affordable housing. Once upon a time there was affordable housing in Seaside, but not any more.

This sort of thing is on my mind because we are so busy looking at real estate. Today we checked out Tucson’s new Armory Park Del Sol which is an urban infill community that draws on New Urbanist ideals. Armory Park Del Sol’s big claim is energy efficiency — every house is well insulated (a rarity in this climate) and they all have solar panels on the roof.

But this development fell into the trap of so many others before it. Originally housing was supposed to be available at the affordable rate of $80,000 but by the time it got through the development process that vanished. We found one resale on the market, and at $265,000, it is one of the cheaper units available.

We also spent 40 minutes driving slowly through Civano, and noting all the properties for sale. I hate to admit it, but despite my intellectual interest in New Urbanism, I just can’t get psyched about Civano or most of the other New Urbanist communities. On one hand, I’m always disappointed when I visit the communities and find that the core principles are eroding or were never there: affordable housing, a mix of housing styles, energy efficiency, traffic calming, parks, walkability, discernable centers, etc. The pressure of local real estate seems to overwhelm the ideals of the developers.

On the other hand, I find that being a boy from a rural state, the crowded nature of New Urbanist communities gives me claustrophobia. So even if I found the ideal community, I might not buy into it. Again, Stapleton is the exception because of its broad open central park. Does this make me a poseur, just another guy who talks the talk but can’t walk the walk?

But perhaps it’s not just me. Have you noticed two contradictory trends? RV travel and ownership has risen dramatically since 2001, and yet most new communities (of any type, not just New Urbanist) don’t have any provision for allowing homeowners to keep their RVs nearby. To make matters worse, they usually ban RV parking entirely. (This is because RV’s are considered an eyesore, in the same category as rusty old cars on blocks. Sadly, many RV owners agree with this — except where their own rig is concerned. Then it’s the most beautiful thing they’ve ever owned.)

This means that an increasing number of people are effectively exorcised from buying into certain communities. Buying a home where we can’t have our Airstream nearby and ready to go would be like buying into a “55+ community” and just seeing Emma on weekends. The Airstream is a member of the family!

So while I still want to believe in the concept of New Urbanism, it flies in the face of my reality, at least as it is executed in most places. Can’t we live in a nice community where RV parking is allowed at least in a dedicated lot nearby? Can we dwell in a planned village, walk to “town”, have bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets, and still own a travel trailer? I’d like to believe we can, but so far we are not finding anything that meets the challenge, at least not here.

Compromise is the nature of real estate shopping, and I fear that in our case the compromise will mean our Airstream taking an back seat. Poor trailer. By the end of this summer it will have been our home for two years, and it will be hard to put it away, even temporarily. Perhaps in the next few weeks we’ll find the ideal home where it can stay with us, gleaming in the side yard and reminding us of adventures yet to come.

Life in the tide pool

In between other big projects, like organizing articles for the Fall magazine issue and reviewing layouts for the upcoming Summer issue, I’ve got a little time to work on the book project again. It’s going well, and I think I’ve finally found the right voice for it. I’ll know for sure in a month or two.

We’re also trying to make time to look at houses, which could be a full-time job if we let it. On Monday we reviewed about two dozen online, went into one, and drove by about a dozen more. Still looking…

So with all this work going on we haven’t had a chance to have any adventures the past few days. I’ll flash back to last week in Puerto Penasco. Down by the beach, the low tide reveals tide pools in the volcanic basalt, and these are filled with interesting sea creatures. Petey proposed that Emma collect some sea water, sand, and a few hermit crabs for study. (They’d be released when we leave.)

PP tidepool.jpg

A resealable plastic container was all we needed to make a miniature temporary aquarium for a sampling of tidepool sea life. Emma collected a layer of sand, some rocks, a little seaweed and four tiny hermit crabs, and with those simple elements we had a miniature salt water ecosystem right in our Airstream trailer. Petey, the grandmotherly instigator of this idea, added a few shells for decoration.

Life in the tidepool is more dramatic than you might think. Several of the hermit crabs began to do battle with each other, and before the evening was out we realized the “empty” shells turned out to have more hermit crabs, prompting Emma to suggest thinning the ranks before we had a fatality.

The next morning Emma was delighted to find that the water contained much more than just crabs. Tiny brine shrimp could be seen flitting around in the shallows, and in the corner a tiny white creature that looked like a miniature sea anemone was actively exploring one corner of its world, ingesting and regurgitating samples of sea water and brine shrimp. Suddenly our little plastic dish was an entire world.

PP hermit crabs.jpg

The hermit crabs were transformed from a home natural science project to temporary members of the family during our three days in Mexico. Emma named them all, and it was with great regret that she returned them to the tidepool on Friday.

Emma learned a little about life in the tide pool from this. We could all see the crabs foraging for food, establishing their position in the crab hierarchy, and co-existing with the other living things in the water. Each day the water needed refreshing, which was a good reminder of the needs of pets, too. I plan to point that out when the request comes for a puppy.

If there is an ideal pet for a few days in the Airstream, I will have to vote for hermit crabs again. They are silent, easy to care for, cute, free, hypoallergenic, they require no special equipment, and they have a built-in time limitation (once you leave the beach, they have to go).

A home base?

We’re back in Tucson for a while, back to work and once again looking at houses. While we were on vacation last week I had a chance to think about what we are doing and where we are headed. Here are a few thoughts I compiled while parked in Mexico:

Full-timing is not very much like camping most of the time. Most people who buy camping trailers look forward anxiously to the weekends and holidays when they can break away to a favorite quiet spot in the greenery of a forest, or in the blazing sunshine near a beach or in the desert. For them, the trailer represents the dream, and they can often get a thrill just to see it waiting in the driveway ““ a symbol of their freedom to come.

For us, living in the Airstream, every day is a day in the trailer, and although I still like to look at it, we have to make a special effort to separate the working days from the vacation days. In the past year I’ve been working a lot, six or seven days a week, and limiting my time off to a few hours each day in between sessions at the computer. My friend Dr. C pointed out that I have learned to be a supreme juggler, keeping work, parenting, wife, trailer maintenance, travel, blog, and various other projects all going at once, but the good doctor also pointed out that this may not be a healthy long-term strategy.

So part of the idea behind taking a full week to completely disconnect in Mexico was to regain perspective on the life we’ve been leading and to really enjoy some “camping” instead of just “living.” For us, camping means no obligations, no schedule, no email or cell phone. We just get up in the morning and do whatever feels right. Some days, that’s a walk on the beach, and other days like today, it’s writing down the reminisces or even defrosting the freezer.

That’s what Eleanor was inspired to do this morning, and I won’t ask why because an unspoken rule of our vacation time is to not question the why but simply go with the impulse. She doesn’t ask why some days I head straight to my computer to write down fresh ideas, and other days I go for a walk. Having to explain yourself is work, and we’re avoiding work, whereas if you really feel like defrosting the freezer in Mexico it may be your idea of fun at that particular moment.

Having had a few days to reflect without the barrage of emails that I normally respond to each day, I’m starting to see that some minor lifestyle changes are needed. That’s no problem, since our program and itinerary has been undergoing constant change since we started traveling full-time. Eleanor and I have been discussing the nature of our future life together for several months now, recognizing that we want to give Emma the option of “regular” school for a while at a fixed home base.

But it’s not easy to make the decisions. Emma may do better homeschooling than in public school. And back in December, Eleanor felt she was done with full-timing and would be happy to get into a house again. When we started looking at houses in earnest, the realities of house ownership struck hard (expense, obligation, worries, possible boredom). Suddenly these factors made another year in the Airstream look better and better.

I was wondering if this phenomenon was unique to us, so I talked to a few other full-timing couples who were getting “off the road” or had recently done so. They all reported the same thing: the prospect of sitting still was unappealing and one couple had even left their new house and gone back on the road for three months. In short, full-timing can ruin you. Home ownership no longer has the appeal that it once had, and can even feel like an unnecessary burden.

Still, a home base would be nice for practical reasons. Our compromise will probably be a very lightweight piece of real estate, either a condominium, small low-maintenance house, or even an “RV port” which is a sort of garage apartment that would store the Airstream and add extra living space.

One decision is certain: After we have the home base established we will continue to travel extensively. My job requires it, but also we love it. The Airstream gives us a second home, one with a huge advantage over the vacation timeshares and condos we’ve seen. The Airstream has wheels, and that means we have a second home anywhere we care to pull it. So most likely we’ll spend summers in the northeast, enjoying the fine weather there and avoiding the scorching heat of the southwest.

Speaking of scorching heat, blog reader Rita asked a question about how our fridge and other electronics fared in the hot weather we occasionally encountered in the past week. The short answer is that things like computers, cameras, etc., were fine. The refrigerator warmed up a bit, but running the new dual cooling fans we had installed at Roger Williams Airstream last January seemed to help. With the fans running and ambient air temperature around 100 degrees, the refrigerator stayed around 44 degrees, which is fine. As the weather warms up here in southern Arizona, we should have a few other chances to test the fans again.

Back in Organ Pipe

It was a wise move to abandon Spring Break Land for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We got a good night’s sleep for a change. I didn’t want to come back from vacation feeling run-down. And the advice I got about not staying in Puerto Peñasco turned out to be very wise. Even as we were hitching up in the middle of the day, the campground was emptying out of people over 30, and their rigs were being replaced by elderly trailers dragged in by tractor. The campground rents those old beaters to the college students, and our trailer was quickly being surrounded by them. It didn’t bode well for sleep.

Beside the Sea of Cortez the temperatures are much more moderate than in the Sonoran Desert heading north (which includes Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument). We left Puerto Peñasco in the low 80s with a slightly damp sea breeze, and 30 miles north when we stopped for lunch it was 108 and utterly dry. Fortunately, we found shade from a tamarisk tree in a roadside pull-out by a small ranch.

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Lunch stop in 108 degree heat

At this point on Mex Hwy 8 there is a sister park to Organ Pipe, called El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, but everyone just calls it Pinacate (PEEN-a-kot-tay) for short. We stopped into to the visitor center at Km 51, but the gate was closed and nobody was in the visitor center. The door was open so I picked up some info and read the signs as best I could (they’re all in Spanish). Bert Gildart will be writing an article for the magazine about the Sonora Desert and I plan to contribute a sidebar about Pinacate. It’s an interesting place with a huge volcanic landscape, numerous cinder cones and lava tubes, a large bat population and much more.

Google Earth location of our lunch stop. Note to the west of our stopping point you can see the volcanic shield of Pinacate.

US Customs turned out to be no big deal. We waited in line for about 20 minutes, then had a one-minute interview with an amiable agent and we were on our way without even an inspection of the Airstream. The agent claimed to have seen Airstream Life magazine but I think he was pulling my leg.

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Gambrel’s Quail in the campground

When I said in an earlier blog we’d be back to Organ Pipe I wasn’t thinking quite so soon, but we were all glad to be back, even with temperatures running about 100 in the afternoon and no air conditioning. It was just too obnoxious down in Puerto Peñasco, and this place is an antidote of peace and quiet. The only sound last night (other than the amusing ranger program, which was a sing-along of cowboy songs) has been the yipping of coyotes in the distance.

We pulled out some of our tricks for handling extreme heat. These include soaking our shirts in water, running all three Fantastic Vents, drinking lots of cold water, eating ice pops, soaking our feet in a pan of water, and napping. By sundown at 6:30 p.m., the temperature was a bearable 90 and after the ranger program it was 80 outside and dropping. With plenty of water, you can stay comfortably cool in almost any heat.

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