Monday, March 12, 2007

A few flowers. And a bird.

Here's a few flowers that are blooming at the moment (descriptions have been researched and I think they're correct but I reserve the right to be spectacularly wrong):

This is a redbud, of which there are plenty about. They are a beautiful bright pink, very reminiscent of cherry blossom in the UK which would be starting in about April time and is always a herald of Spring.

There's a house along 43rd street with this yellow trumper-shaped flower draped all over the fence. Although there is a 'yellow trumpet flower', that one has spiky-edged leaves, and I think this is a Yellow Jessamine as it has smooth leaves:

These blue flowers have been opening over the last week or two, on small trees found locally. They smell fantastic, very sweet and aromatic as you walk past. I believe it is a Mountain Laurel.

Finally, I spotted this bird hanging around in a tree. I think it is an American Robin. It's about 6-8" long, bigger than a UK robin but with similar colouring. This isn't a great picture but you get the idea.

I'm sure there will be more of this to follow... it's getting into Wildflower season :-)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Spring is Sprung

Spring is here at last. Blossom is on the trees and we actually saw some daffodils in the park the other day. I wasn't even sure if they have daffodils over here or not; I love daffs, they bring bright colour into the world after a long dark, dank winter (in the UK, anyway) so it is cool to see them here:

Meanwhile, I put some pictures into the local camera shop, who invite submissions from their customers to have pictures in the window. This a very excellent camera shop, with far too many juicy things inside for the safety of our bank account :-) Anyway, here is the latest addition to the beautification (and aeroplane-ification) of Austin ;-)

House buying, lesson 2:

Sit and wait for various people to talk to each other. These include the title company, the bank, and the homeowners insurance provider, amongst others. One obviously needs a mortgage in order to pay for the thing, and one needs insurance before the mortgage will be granted. The title company seems to pull all the various strands together, and they are the people who ensure you will have clear title to the property and that no oputstanding loans or claims exist on it. They also send out the homeowners association (HOA) stuff to the buyer.

The HOA is not something that exists in the UK but most places in the US seem to have one - generally it will be local to the subdivision or estate that the house is on. The HOA is the body that both looks after common spaces within the community and also enforces general rules over the area which are designed to maintain the look of the area and thus also maintain the house prices and quality of living.

These rules will vary according to where you live. There's an area southwest of Austin called Circle C Ranch which has strict rules including having to have grass out front of your house; i.e. you're not allowed to have natural gardens or gravel or anything else, and they police the length of your grass and chide you if it gets too long! The chiding probably comes as a warning first but if you let it grow unhindered they can fine you. Needless to say, we didn't want to live in Circle C where everything looks the same and you can't have your garden the way you want it. I think most of the rules are generally reasonable though; no parking boats in your driveway, no parking cars out front that don't work or are mid-repair; that kind of thing. There's not much getting away from the HOA anyway and most of the time membership is compulsory, with fees such as $120/quarter being payable.

Sometimes you get amenities in return though, there might be a tennis court or swimming pool if you're lucky which is maintained by the HOA and available for anyone in the community to use. It all depends on where you live.

Big thunderstorms tonight. It's been lovely weather this past week or so but we have a day or two of heavy rain, which we do need, for sure. Lots of flashy lightning tonight; always good to watch.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The house buying process

We've been looking at houses recently. Although we are staying in the apartment just now, it's always ever been a temporary measure until we found an area that we liked, and then a house within that area to buy.

So it's off we go down the uncharted road that is the American house buying process. Of course, it is completely different to the English way of doing things. And I say English way as the Scottish system is different again.

First of all, you need a Realtor. I think if you know what you're doing you can get away without one but for us, we need a guide. A Realtor is someone who will find you houses to look at, who will arrange appointments with owners/agents for you to go and see the houses, and who will prepare all the paperwork for you.

If you know exactly what you want, you can be taken on by a Realtor as a customer, in which case they can't advise you or do anything other than what you want them to do. We chose to go as a client (which most people do) so Jamie, our Realtor, can advise us, show us more homes etc. There's more to it than that, but that's the gist of it.

So all this is about as close as it gets to being an equivalent of the British estate agent, who has a list of houses for sale and will do all the paperwork etc. It seems that Realtors, while tied to one listing house, have access to all the houses listed anywhere, so in the end maybe it's a bit more flexible.

So once you find a house that you like, the next step is to make an offer. Here is where it gets quite different. The Realtor will prepare a contract which you have to sign. This details how much you are offering, what you will put in as down payment ('deposit' has a slightly different meaning here), how much earnest money you will pay, what time periods things will be done in, what the closing date is to be, title policy, tax district, property condition, floodplain/environmental factors, termination options and broker fees, amongst many other things.

What it boils down to is that you have to sign the contract and write two cheques.

The first cheque is a $200 option fee. This means that if your offer is accepted, that $200 buys you the right to get out of the contract within a set time period (usually 10 days) for any reason. You'll forfeit the $200 but that is all.

The second cheque is for something called 'earnest money' which as far as I can figure just means that it's a serious offer being made in earnest. (They're very literal in the States!) This should be around 1% of the purchase price, although it helps if you bump it up by a couple of hundred bucks to show that yes, you really are serious. It's kind of a second, smaller deposit ahead of the main down payment.

So you leave these monies with the realtor, who then goes off to the seller and puts in the offer. If the offer is rejected, you get all the money back. If the offer is accepted, the money goes towards the purchase price of the house.

Compare this with the English method in which you see the house you want and tell the estate agent, "OK, I'll offer £X00,000" and that's it!

Here endeth the first lesson. I am sure there will be more to come :-)

Meanwhile as I said up front, we have been looking at houses. We've seen some really nice ones but they all have their little quirks and wierdnesses. I guess this applies to houses in any country!

A common feature here is to call a house two-storey and then you'll have a huge living room in which the ceiling is the full height of the house. These things are cavernous, almost to the point of being quite oppressive - to me, anyway. You might have one or two rooms upstairs but in general, it's an awful waste of space.

Another one is to have a huge entraceway, often with a curved staircase. It's meant to look impressive and I suppose it does but again, all that space which could be used for better things! I guess this is a European viewpoint; we're all used to such smaller houses than the ones we have been seeing. They don't have the same issues here in Texas where land is plentiful.

One house was really lovely with great views over the Hill Country, but the plot was very long and thin, and went down the hill and back up quite steeply, obviously it was a water channel down the valley. Where's all the water going when it rains? Straight across your only entrance into your property.

Another one was very pretty, again with great views, but arranged a bit topsy-turvy inside and was a bit small. And a bit too far out of town, with a gravel road about a mile long to reach the place... my Jeep would have been OK but Alan's VW wouldn't have been so happy.

There was a great one in the area we're most keen on, which had been built out of special insulating concrete and had a complete rainwater collection system. Very enviromentally sound but it was the wrong shape inside for our needs.

Here's one we looked at. Oh no, wait! It's the Intel building on Wednesday, three days after demolition. Looks like they have a bit of clearing up to do.

You'll notice the ends of the building did not collapse. This was intentional; the demolition started in the middle and pulled everything in towards it (it _was_ meant to be an implosion, not explosion, right?) so that debris did not leave the site. The end walls did not have charges installed, so they fell inwards to contain the rest of the rubble. They're talking about bringing in wrecking balls now!

The News 8 Austin video of the demolition is worth watching.

In other building news, here's the latest view of the car park by us:

A man spent half the week spraying it with something on the outside. It didn't change the colour of it, I guess it might be a weather sealant or something. Today they're pouring concrete inside to make the ramps for cars to drive on, according to the drivers of the concrete trucks whom I asked about it.

Next to the parking garage is the rest of the construction, which I have largely ignored so far. They're putting in all the retail units around the edge of area. This starts with them laying a huge square of concrete for the floor. They then bring in reinforced concrete pillars and make a forest of them. A large truck or three will turn up after this, bringing scaffolding, which each pillar is enveloped by. A structure is then built between the tops of the pillars to form the ceiling area. The pillar tops are built out with bits of wood (looks a bit dodgy, this part!) and then mysterious work goes on for a few weeks over the ceiling area while they put the metalwork in place. It seems that concrete is poured in at some point, because some of the scaffolding has been removed on one part and you can now see what the process has been driving towards.

Here's a part where the scaffolding is still in place. You might just make out the top of the pillars and the surrounding structures.

This section has been cleared, and now it is apparent that the pillar tops have been filled with concrete to make a good support for the ceiling. (I'd love to have shares in a concrete company or two having seen the colossal use they make of it here). I assume the metalwork stays in place and reinforces the concrete around it.

Meanwhile, Flipnotics coffee shop around the corner is coming along, there are men digging holes and doing all kinds of things in there so perhaps they'll be open in a couple of months.