Friday, September 30

Mystery Shopping the Gulf Coast

I love the last week of the month.  That's when the bonuses pop up and make traveling for mystery shops worthwhile.  I'm spending four nights this week along the Florida panhandle.  Today I am doing shops in Niceville, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Panama City Beach.  I'll be finished by lunchtime, will have earned $146, and will have the rest of the day for leisure.  These are the types of shops I enjoy.  Who can complain about spending a few hours taking photos of gas stations when you conclude the day by changing into swim trunks and heading to the beach?

Two of the four nights are in hotels I am mystery shopping.  These are "DE-ID" shops - the easiest there are.  When a hotel loses its franchise, this shop is dispatched to ensure the hotel has removed its old brand logos, ranging from signage to the Do Not Disturb placard.  I take up to 8 photos and comment about any compliance issues.  Service, cleanliness, etc. are not observed.  The actual work takes no more than 15 minutes, and my stay is reimbursed and I am paid $40 for my trouble.

Why can't all mystery shops be this fun?

Tuesday, September 27

Dow Great Stuff Not so Great

As a nearly full-time landlord, I usually stock up on products I use often, ranging from shower heads to caulk to...Great Stuff.  Well, I won't be buying that last one anymore.  Not until they do the right thing.  Bet you didn't know the product features an expiration date, did you?  Neither did I.

Some time last year I purchased several 16 oz. cans of Great Stuff.  One of the last items on my list for rehabbing House #9 was to plug a couple gaps around one of the outside doors.  I had brought two cans with me (all part of my rehab kit), both of which were defective.  It sounds like there is product in the can, but nothing comes out.  Then the threaded top broke off when I was pushing down on the nozzle.

I called Dow to find out if there was a way I could still use the product, but when the lady at 866-583-BLUE said there was not, I asked her how I could go about getting it replaced.  These were two brand new, sealed cans.  She asked me to read the date on the bottom of the can.  That's when I realized this Stuff has an expiration date.  Who knew?

Long story short, DOW refused to replace their product.  The product which I didn't get to use.  You know, milk has an expiration date, too.  But that date is featured prominently on the jug, not hidden away on the bottom.  And, common sense tells you milk will expire.  I think it is unreasonable to expect the average consumer to know that this product becomes completely unusable after the date that is hidden from view.

That's too bad.  I've used a lot of DOW products in my properties.  But I refuse to buy products from unethical companies.  Until they make things right, they won't see another dime from me.

Tuesday, September 20

Atlanta-Bound

I'm taking a two day break from working at the new rental property.  I enjoy the exercise and want to finish up but a break in the monotony will help motivate me.  We are leaving later this morning for a mystery shopping trip to Atlanta.

These trips are the best part of mystery shopping.  It allows me to enjoy myself despite my normal frugal bent.  Along the way to Atlanta we are shopping four gas stations.  The free gas along with the fees I am paid will pay for our drive both ways.  We have reservations at a fine dining restaurant for a late lunch (free, of course).  Then we check into a hotel not far from the airport.  In addition to the hotel fee, all my expenses are reimbursed including room service, bar tab and valet.

I don't think I will return to the grueling shopping schedule I kept last year.  The money was decent but the hours were terrible.  I've been a lot pickier this year and enjoy it more.

Monday, September 19

Hard at Work on House #9

House #9 (the blue one with the fireplace)
On Monday afternoon I closed on my 9th property.  Since then I've been there every morning getting it ready to rent.  The house is 2 bedrooms, 1 1/2 bathrooms.  I know I can rent it for $650/mo. but I am going to try for $700.

Fortunately this property isn't as ugly as some I've seen.  It still needs a lot of worth though.  About half the time this week was spent pulling up old peel-and-stick tiles in the kitchen and laundry room.  I hate those things and removing them from a concrete foundation is tough.  There is also a little rot around the back door that I need to do something about.  Besides new floors and repairing the walls there are a number of smaller improvements I am doing, from new toilets to fresh paint where needed. My goal is to have it ready to rent by the end of this month and to place a tenant within a week of listing it.

I probably won't be buying more houses any time soon.  I bought this house using 0% cash advance checks from two credit cards.  Until I pay off those debts I won't be adding to the portfolio.

Monday, September 12

Kudos to Enterprise Rent-A-Car

Never again will I drive a Chrysler Sebring.

But on a more positive note, it's not too often that I feel a company sincerely cares about its customers above everything else. However, based on my experience with Enterprise last week while vacationing in Las Vegas, I can say I am impressed.



When we arrived at the rental counter August 29th I was given the keys to a Chrysler Sebring convertible. I specifically rented a convertible, even though it isn't the most frugal option, because I wanted to treat myself. I was expecting a Ford Mustang - a fun car - but since this is what was offered to me and I had never driven a Sebring, I was up for the opportunity to try something different. That was a mistake.

Who Needs a Window, Anyway?

The first problem with the car arose when we arrived at our hotel. The rear quarter panel window would not go up. We managed to get it up with one of us pulling on the window while the other pressed the button inside the car. This happened every time we left the top down and then put it back up. Glad I wasn't alone!

GPS? So Overrated...

Second, the cigarette lighter adapter on the console was defective. As we were driving to Phoenix during this trip, I would have to rely on my GPS several times. There was a second adapter in the little cubby box in the console, but the cord to my GPS frayed over time from being clamped down by the lid to the console.

Rock and Roll

A third incident, one which frightened the crap out of me, happened while we were driving through the desert near Phoenix. The car started vibrating and the check engine light came on. At first I thought one of the tires was flat. We pulled over, checked the tires, and waited a few minutes before restarting the engine. Magically the problem went away.

You Have the Right to Remain Nervous

The last and final straw came after I was pulled over by a Nevada State Trooper. I learned a long time ago to be extra careful about following the rules of the road when out of town, so I didn't have the slightest clue why I was being pulled over. Turns out, the vehicle's registration expired. Four months ago. After a stern warning in which I was advised that I should be more observant in the future and a recommendation that I swap the car out, I decided it was time to speak up.

Redemption

The drive from the Suncoast Hotel in Summerlin to the Las Vegas airport isn't short, so I had plenty of time to collect my thoughts and decide NOT to be angry. I pulled into the car rental return area, got out and politely asked to speak with a manager. The gentleman who had greeted me as I got out of the car said he was a manager so I explained all the problems I had experienced. There wasn't much the manager could disagree with since I was able to point to the outdated sticker on the tag as well as the defective window. Interestingly, he asked me how he could make me happy... something along the lines of "what percentage of your rental was affected by this?"

I suggested the car was only worth half what I paid and the manager didn't argue, instead offering to deduct $150 from the rental fee. He directed me to the rental booth and said someone inside would be waiting for me to swap cars. This is where my expectations were exceeded. If all Enterprise had done was deduct $150 from my bill, I would have been satisfied. But, I wouldn't be praising them. When I reached the rental booth a second manager was waiting. He apologized again and asked me what I'd like to drive. He suggested two choices: a Mustang convertible or a Chevy Camaro. Since I'd never driven a Camaro (only salivated at the one in Transformers!), that's what I chose. And, to top it off, he told me not to worry about refueling the car before I returned. This could have been a very valuable offer, but since we planned to stay put in the same area the last two days we used very little gas. Still, it was an unexpected gesture that I really appreciated.

All in all Enterprise made a great recovery. It would have been very easy for me to swear them all for all future rentals and talk bad about them every chance I get. Instead, they took care of me. Good job, Enterprise.

Friday, September 9

Frugal Las Vegas - Actual Spending v. Budget

I set a fairly tight budget for our 9 day vacation to Las Vegas and Phoenix. The goal was to spend under $2,000 for the two of us.

Here is how I did:

  • Round Trip airfare : $266.40 actual v. $266.40 budget
  • Parking at Airport : $30 actual (gave our friend gas money) v. $0 budget (over by $30)
  • Baggage fees : $0 actual v. $0 budget
  • Rental Car for 9 days : $214 actual v. $364 budget (under by $150)
  • Gasoline : $122 actual v. $100 budget (over by $22)
  • 3.5 star Hotel off the Strip : 4 nights FREE
  • 5 star Resort in Phoenix : 2 nights for $185
  • 2.5 star Boutique Hotel in Vegas : 3 nights for $82 (over by $29 - pesky resort fee)
  • Food : $153 actual v. $180 budget (under by $27)
  • Souvenirs : $0 actual v. $20 budget (didn't bring home any clutter)
  • Other Uncategorized : $28 v. $332 (under by $304)
  • Gambling expenses: $270 v. $500 (under by $230)

Budget : $2,000
Actual: $1,350

Results: Under Budget by $650

Notes:

  • Even though I had selected a Ford Mustang Convertible, we were given a dreadful Chrysler Sebring. After 7 days of problems we traded it in for a sexy Chevrolet Camaro.
  • I did not budget for the resort fee for our 2.5 star hotel. Guess it slipped my mind. I hate resort fees (especially when they cost 50% of the room charge) but at least it included wireless Internet.
  • Uncategorized: $7 admission to Red Rock Canyon, $2 tip for valet (used once), $19 for three movies (once at first run theater and twice at dollar movies)
  • Personally, I am most impressed by our food budget. We averaged $8.50 each per day. No, we didn't eat fast food for every meal. Our meals included smoked salmon, lobster roll, freshly prepared sushi, gourmet burgers, and more. I completed one mystery shop in Phoenix (all but $15 of the $75 tab was covered). I also received several free meals and only spent a few dollars each time for the tip. We only ate twice a day most days since we (over)ate at several buffets. Lastly, I bought two Groupons in Vegas and saved half off those meals.

Wednesday, September 7

Heading Home

All good things come to an end. I'm at the airport now, about to head home. In the next couple of days I will post my spending and compare how I did to my $2,000 budget. I'm pretty sure I spent less than I had budgeted for just about every category.

This next week is going to be crazy busy. I'm closing on House #9 on Monday. Monday is also the day a close friend of mine is visiting from Pennsylvania, so that will keep me occupied. I'm also attempting to refinance my house at a lower rate. I doubt my request will be approved since I am self-employed. Yesterday a loan officer called and based on that call I'm not too optimistic.

Monday, September 5

My Frugal Miser - August Expenses: $5,116


In July my total spending was very close to what it was in June. But, I was a lot more frugal in July. Included in the amount this month is a $500 earnest money check I wrote for the townhouse I am trying to buy. If I end up buying it I will re-categorize the expense. If not, I will post it as income in when it is returned to me. I spent over $400 on new tires which will probably last me the life of the car and includes balance, rotation and road hazard warranty for life. The only other unusual expense was $185 for a prepaid hotel room for our vacation at the end of this month.

August Expenses

$496 Auto ($33 for oil change and air filter, $178 for 6 months insurance, $285 for fuel)
$0 Bank Fees
$2 Clothing
$211 Food
$65 Entertainment (movies, gambling, alcohol)
$0 Gifts Given
$36 Household
$100 Health Insurance
$0 Medical
$912 Interest on Debt (not including Mortgage Interest)
$1000 Miscellaneous (earnest money on townhouse)
$405 Mortgage Interest (primary residence)
$780 Mortgage Interest (rental properties)
$17 Personal Care
$0 Subscriptions
$96 Taxes
$188 Utilities
$809 Vacation

Total August Expenses : $5,116

Notes

  • In July I posted $500 to Miscellaneous for the earnest money deposit for House #9, but that has been reversed. I was required to post $1,000, which is reflected in this month's budget.
  • My food budget was for two people. I averaged under $7 per day for two people in August.
  • Fuel expense of $285 is directly related to the mystery shopping trips I took. I'm okay with expenses that generate income.
  • Only $69 of the $809 I spent in the Vacation category is from the Vegas trip I am on right now. I spent $445 on a 5 day Carnival cruise ($445 for 2!) we are taking at the end of November. Amazing deal! I also paid $295 to register for the AAII Investors Conference being held in Las Vegas in November.
  • Interest on debt usually runs a little more than $100 per month. I took out some 0% rate cash advances on credit cards to buy House #9. I did have to pay an advance fee of 3% on one and 5% on the other so this is a one time spike.

Friday, September 2

My Frugal Miser - August Income: $5,855

In August I made more than I spent, but only because of all the mystery shopping I did. I did three marathon mystery shopping trips which accounted for the majority of the income. As always, any expenses I incurred such as gas or hotel was deducted from income before I report it.



August Income
$1,706 Mystery Shopping
$4,895 Rental Income
$(746) Other Sources (negative)
$5,855 Total Income for August


Notes:

  • I had negative income from other sources because I helped out a couple of friends with short term loans. In September I should be paid back for these loans.
  • As of August 31, all my properties are rented AND all my tenants are current with their rent. Refreshing.