Monday, May 28, 2007

Model train, IKEA coffee table and the best woman of them all

The best woman of them all suggested a while ago to build a small model train inside a coffee table in the living room, once we do have a living room that is big enough to do that. I am continously surprised by the ideas she comes up with.

I started considering how to do this. Magiker seems to be a good choice. Not too expensive, glass top, sufficient space between glass and shelf to do something interesting. 65x125cm useable space is too small for HO, even for a simple loop. But it's big enough for a small N scale layout. The sides need to be closed off, painted to match the rest of the table, to keep out hands of curious children. The best woman of them all requested I also properly landscape the inside of the table (well, duh of course). So far, so good.

Today, we talked about it again, and the best woman of them all was yearning for a desert setup instead. Sand, small stones, and cacti under glass. Similar to what we've seen a few years ago in a hotel lobby in Los Cabos. "How about doing both?", I blurted out. She looked at me. Smiled. And said, "... that's a great idea. Let's do that!"

I'm just happy to be married to the best woman of them all.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

HO Layout in a small room

In our new house we have a small storage room that I'm planning to convert to my train room (and also run the server computers there). The room is 167x283cm. Enough space to set up a new layout of our Maerklin HO trains, but it's all very, very tight. I discovered a free track layout tool XTrkCad from that works on Linux (and Windows, too). It's definitely dated by today's standards and compared to currnent tools available for Windows, but gets basic planning job done.

The theme I'd like to build is a small station at a double-track mainline with some side-tracks and engine maintenance facilities and a single track spur line that goes steep into the mountains. At the end of that line is a small rural station with a little freight and passenger traffic. I also definitely want a hidden storage area for trains. To make things a bit more interesting I figured I set the station at a 15% angle diagonally accross the available space.

The problems start with the fact that a 180 degree curve double-track is 105cm wide, so that leaves at most 55 cm on the side of the layout for the operator that does need to fit into the room as well.
In order to avoid too steep grades, I don't want to go above 1:40 on the main line (i.e.4 cm elevation gain on 1 m of track). That means my grades need to be at least 250cm long to get 10-11cm clearance. That is almost the full length of the room. Taken together it became clear very quickly that I need to pay very close attention to grades and clearances along the track, as well as use every centimeter of track I can get for elevation gain. This is going to be one heck of a mountainous layout.

The railroad builders of the railroads accross the Alps or the Sierra Nevada must have felt similarly...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Homeowners Association and Architectural Review

Oh the joy of Homeowners Associations (also know as "HOA"). They keep the appearance of the neighborhood uniform, no-one can endlessy repair cars on the sidewalk, deal with neighborhood complaints, enforce the rules and can do a good job of maintaining property values. They also maintain common facilities or landscaping. I really enjoy the pool, mature trees and landscaped grounds around our townhouse.
HOA's also can be a pain to work with if you are doing something a bit out of the ordinary. And you have to follow the architectural review process if you are making any changes to the outside appearance of the house that are visible either from the street, or from any of your neighbor's lots.

The association we are moving into seems to be particularly anal about enforcing their rules. On the other hand the neighborhood looks really good.

I will need to deal with the architectural review committee very soon, as we want to have the roof on the new house replaced before we move in, as well as install solar power as soon as is practical.

How much do you like YOUR realtor?

Talking to friends (and experiencing it ourselves), people are seldomly 100% happy with their agent. There is just too much at stake and you are obsessing over details that are important to you. Your agent might have slightly different priorities than you. In a perfect world, your agent is picking up on the vibe and delivers what you want.

Most full-time agents are probably sufficiently experienced and well-versed in the legal details involved with buying a house. Still, personal chemistry is really important, but how do you find the agent that is perfect for you?

Invite several agents and have them present their plan on how they would market your house, why you should choose them, and what they think are comparable homes to yours. The main objective here is not what they say, but how you feel about them as a person. Do they come across as slick or slimy? Honest or personable? Genuinely concerned about your priorities? You will work with those folks very closely for a few months, so listen to your gut. Listen closely. Clarify things that don't make sense to you.

There is a vast difference between an agent that says "I can sell your home!" and one that says "What is important to you?" Some agents are very aggressive how they market your home, some take a more laid-back approach. Some do an open house for you every weekend, others see them as a waste of time.

Bottom-line: Make sure you are compatible. If you are having a really good conversation over the proposal and the numbers end up in just about the right ball-park, you're in the right place.

What about commissions?

Clearly understand how the seller/buyer agent commissions work. Look at both the overall commission, but also the split between buying and selling agent. Apparently, it's customary to pay 3% to each agent, but I haven't met an agent here that actually proposed the full 6% of the sales price. The highest commission I ran accross while putting my house on the market was 5% (2% for selling agent, 3% for buying agent). This can vary dramatically from location to location. In some areas a 2.5% split is common. Sometimes selling agents take a very small commission for themselves, and pay 2.5-3% to a buying agent, resulting in a lower overall commission for you.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Jump Sky High!

Terrible picture quality, but this was fun!

Jump Sky High! is basically a warehouse filled with trampolines.

We also played Extreme Dodgeball on trampolines. My team lost. Lessons learned: Don't try to catch the ball unless you are sure you are going to hold it. It's not sufficient to dodge balls. You also need to hit players on the other team.

We are in contract!

Paying a little bit more than I expected, but we are in contract. Whee!
The transaction ended up with an agent doing dual-agency. A bit strange. I felt that, while the agent tried to be as impartial as possible, he did seem to favor the seller a bit. The warnings are true. Either way, I feel we paid a fair price for the house, even though, of course, I would have preferred to pay less.

I got bids from various roofing companies. Composite asphalt shingles are not as expensive as I feared (and we have a very simple roof, too). All bids came in clearly under $9000. But boy, so many new words to learn (gables, eves, ridge, valleys, ...), venting approaches to consider (eve venting, ridge venting, eye brow vents, and how that all compares to the pre-existing gable vents), material options to look at (do I care what color my roof is going to be? I never really thought about that. Grey, I guess...).

We'll get the new roof installed after close of escrow, probably in June.

The financing is making its way past the underwriters, I need to start looking for home insurance.

Meanwhile we are getting our house ready to go on the market. Richard is giving us good guidance and advice. New carpet will be installed next week downstairs. We're hoping we have everything ready, so we can go on the market by the end of next week. Hordes of unwashed buyers will run down the place, we will have multiple offers in the first 24 hours, ... oh wait, the boom times are over. Average time on the market these days is about 45 days. Houses either sell in the first 3-4 weeks, or it takes 3 months. There seem to be very few inbetween. I'm hoping we are in the first group. If everything looks good, the house is priced right, we should be. However, we'll know it only once we are on the market. Oh, the joy.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

SpamAssassin not doing remote checks

I rebuilt chef a while ago, including a new version of SpamAssassin. The amount of spam I got immediately shot up to a level where less than 20% of spam was filtered. ok, I didn't train SA, and I'd like to implement per user training rules.

However, I did notice that spamd is not doing any remote checks. At all. zilch. The Wiki has the answer close to the bottom.

apt-get install libnet-dns-perl

For filtering by country see the country relay plugin.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

fiber-cement tiles yield big surprise

We're moving ahead with our home buying adventure. Yesterday we had the house inspection in the new place. Three guys came out to look for termites, and do the property and roof inspections. Termite guy found minor infestation, no big deal. property inspector had some issues with how some of the electrical installation was done (the breaker box looked pretty chaotic to me), "this needs a complete relabeling job". Some circuit breakers where off, or only connected to one (!) wire. Very odd. Throughout the house he found little odd-jobs with the wiring, missing junction boxes in various places, cables that were just tied together with insulation tape, ...

However, the roofer dropped the bomb. "The roof is made of a material which is known to be defective. your tiles are warping, and I won't even give you an expected remaining life for the roof in my report." Ouch! Big surprise for all of us.

The roof is made from fiber-cement tile panels, which 15 years ago was advertised as a very high-quality roof. The shingles are made from a mixture of cement and cellulose fiber (i.e. paper), and are then coated to make them waterproof. Turns out this is a really bad idea, as the sun will burn off the coating over time. This became a huge issue ~10 years ago, lots of companies that made this material went out of business or even went bankrupt over this. Class Action lawsuits, settlements, you name it. There is one company left that apparently still pays out settlement money, ~25 cent on the dollar. Brand name is "Cemwood".

We're getting estimates for how much a new roof is going to cost. Those guys will be able to tell us which brand-name material was used and whether there is any hope to get settlement money. Of course we will use this in our price negotiations... We were contemplating whether a new roof is needed, before we install the solar power system. That question is now resolved.

And we are getting an inspection of the chimneys. The house has one gas- and one wood-burning fireplace, so I want to be sure there are no surprises in the chimneys, too.

We got a pony!

After many moons we did indeed get a pony!