Monday, April 30, 2012

How to Make Your House Look Clean in 15 Minutes or Less

I have a confession to make.  On any given day I would rather cook than clean.  This is the opposite case for my mother who de-stresses by cleaning bathrooms at all hours of the night.  Me-I bake cookies & cupcakes,  rice pasta with fresh pesto sauce, soothing homemade soups,... I'm not sure whether it's the mouthwatering aroma, the bliss of eating it all, or the fact that I am hacking a root vegetable into a million pieces with a large sharp knife that makes my worries of the day just melt away into a puff of nothingness.   So it is without saying that my mom's and my house cleaning standards (and cooking methods) are slightly different.

With the house on the market I am finding that my usual practice of keeping things clean but lived in won't do if we have any chance of getting a contract.  I am finding instead that I must always be ready for a showing at any moment which means I seriously have to up my anti from a  weekly vacuuming/steam mopping & biweekly dusting to all of the above every few days.

But the other day I was seriously taken off guard. We hadn't had any showings scheduled for two weeks.  The kids were up super late the night before for different reasons (one had a late afternoon nap and the other was breaking in a new tooth). I was exhausted, they were overtired and because of this combo the living room was in absolute shambles. While I prepared breakfast Naomi had happily cleared the bottom two shelves of the bookcase and Jenna was gleefully trying to "swim" through them as she laid on her belly and flailed her arms about, "Look mommy I'm Nim from the movie." I groaned as I placed Jenna's sunflower butter toast on her play table and glared at the TV playing the 36th showing of Nim's Island (her latest DVD favorite).

Just as Naomi attempted to chew the lamp cord for the 10th time in 15 minutes and Jenna was trying to dress our dog Mindy like her baby doll, I grew sick of it all, strapped the kids into the stroller and headed out the door for a belated morning walk.  About a half mile from our house my cell phone rang.

"Hey Jamie this is (I Can't Believe Someone Wants to Look at Your House) Real Estate Agent." "I've got a client interested in viewing your house." "Apparently the agent interested in showing it thought your residence was unoccupied and already made the appointment." "Would 10:30 still be alright with you?"  At first I was simply elated that someone wanted to see our house.  "Sure!" I said enthusiastically.

"Great!" She said, " See you in 30 minutes!" WHAT?!!! I glanced at my phone clock and panicked remembering the toys and books strewn about the house and the piles of dishes in the sink. Tightening my grip on the double stroller I booked it as fast as my two outta shape mama legs could carry me in the direction of our home. "WWWHHHHEEEEE! Faster Mommy, FASTER!!!" Jenna was in her glory!

I tore through the front door, stuck Naomi in her crib and then began to bark orders, tossing toys into their bins in a mad flurry as Naomi wailed from the other room. "Mama! I don't wanna clean I want ice cream!" Jenna protested.  If it were possible to shoot fire from your eye sockets this would have definitely been my moment, "Clean up your toys NOWWWW!" I insisted as I dashed to the kitchen and started to load breakfast dishes into the dishwasher only to realize that the dishwasher was clean. Was there time to unload and reload?  I glanced at the microwave: 10:20 a.m. NO! I'd have to hide them. But where? Ah Ha! The microwave...It's a counter top version-not included in the house-they won't have to look at it.  Where else can I hide stuff?

Before I knew it the dirty dishes were stacked and concealed in the microwave, the bill pile that I was preparing to sort through was whisked from the dining room table and shoved in the top of Jenna's desk.  I crammed the rest of the toys into the toy box, and threw the clean clothes I was folding on the couch back into the dryer.  Spray, spritz, splash the bathroom mirrors and counters were wiped clean with the hand towel and a new one was replaced. I rolled the top sheets of the beds into a ball, shoved it under the pillows along with the girls pajamas and pulled the comforters over the heap, forming a crease in all the right places. A super speed dust mopping of the house, I threw the mop into the shed, popped the dog into the crate, the kids in their car seats, and pulled out of the driveway just as the real estate agent pulled in.  It was close but we made it.

As far as I know things wen't well. Not sooo well that we got an offer on the house but hopefully it sparked their interest. But I've gotta tell you the experience was a little too close for comfort. I'd hate to have a repeat of that day and a last minute scramble to make our home look picture perfect so I've really upped the anti and make sure that the beds and dishes are all ready before we leave the house and that the vacuuming and bathrooms are done the night before. Now Mike is delighted to come home every day with things in absolute perfect shape, floors polished, toys in their just so place.  Must say that selling our home has it's benefits. Never has my house looked so clean.  Mike is in his glory and my mom is super proud that her prediction that I would "Grow up and keep the house like a pigsty" seems to be fading into the past.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The House Hunt

First I must say that I am very unhappy with this blogger website.  With all the changes going on in my life right now the last thing I wanted was for another "new and improved update" to come along and change my blog settings and format.  Now what took me forever to figure out is all messed up again! In the words of my dog Mindy, "Grrr!"

With that said I have decided to focus on some other stuff in my life that is more upbeat and not so dreary as my last entry.  Yes we are going to have to move but I'm trying my darnedest to look at the bright side of things and relish in the fact that home repairs will be a thing of the past in the very near future.  To aid me in my road to happy thoughts I've been doing extensive internet based research to find our "perfect" someplace.  Mike and I ticked off a list of house awesomeness and absolutely not's to narrow down that search.
Here's what we came up with:

House Awesomeness (AKA Would really like to have in our rental)
1) Minimum 2 bedrooms 1 bath  * Awesomeness= 3 bedrooms 2 baths
2) At least 1000 square feet (Our current house is 1140 square feet so awesomeness would be 1140+)
3) Allows a dog
4) Carpet limited to bedrooms alone * Awesomeness=No carpet at all (because of for-mentioned dog)
5)  Fenced in backyard
6) Close to Mike's work *Awesomeness=close to a park too :)
7) Fits into our price range (Probably the hardest item on the list)

Absolutely Not: Items That Would Prevent us From Renting A House
1) Not on a pond, canal, or other body of water (Alligator-filled Florida Waters and small kids/dog= bad combo!) 
2) Not on a super busy street.
3) Neighbors must seem relatively clean in the visible portions of their house and free from violent criminal record.

Personally I feel our list is modest & sensible. This past weekend Mike and I used $32 worth of gas driving all over our town to look at 12 rentals in the area.   It was an informative journey.  I've discovered that somethings look much better in person than online and others....well...let's just say I'd love to borrow the camera they used because it has the ability to transform the dilapidated and scary into something magical.

Overall Mike and I were quick to rule out houses that fit our Absolutely Not list, like the duplex with a junk car repair shop in the front yard, or the modular home with walls that shook every time the train ran the tracks 10 feet away from the backyard. (*Note to self: Add train tracks within 20 feet of house to list of Absolutely Not)

Apparently I am less discriminating when it comes to house age than Mike is because he was not too impressed with the 1950s cottage that I called a "vintage fixer upper" and he called "run down" and "ancient."  I simply pointed out that it was 1/5 of a mile from his work and that it had a fenced in yard.  Mike took me in the back, waving at the 4 foot gap and I made the correction: "OK, 3/4 of a fenced in yard." to which Mike responded, "If you want to call the number on the sign, knock you're socks off, but this place isn't fit for the raccoon that probably chewed that hole in the garage roof!"

It's amazing how many people don't return a phone call. The lady who owned "Raccoon house" (as it was later named by Mike) was no exception. I've been carrying my cell phone with me, even in our house, for five days just in case. I think Mike is secretly grateful because neither of us really felt we had found "the one." Still, we've still got time while we wait for our house to sell and I know things will happen when God wills it in his perfect timing. So I'm keeping an open mind, continuing my search, and dreaming of the day we find our perfect somewhere, hopefully completely fenced in and raccoon free.

Monday, April 16, 2012

When God Closes a Door...

(Disclaimer: Company titles and representative names have been changed in the following story.  Any similarities are purely coincidental. )

My family and I have been in mitigation with Evil Mortgage Company since August. I've spent over 20 hours on the phone being transferred to various Evil Mortgage Company representatives, 40+ hours re-configuring our monthly expenses/deficits and typing hardship letters on the computer. Somewhere in the rain forests of Brazil there is a 1/4 acre of trees missing so I could submit 62 pages of refinancing application pages through the mail. In March, after 8 months of work and three trips through the entire process, the work paid off...sort of.  We qualified for the Homes Affordable Modification Program but they only took into consideration Mike's gross pay and not his actual take home pay to configure their 31% payment reduction.  In Short their offer was only $113 lower than our current payment.

I sought the direction of Maria, our case Representative at Evil Mortgage Company.  She noted on our account that the payments were still too high and to my surprise her supervisor, Joyce, called me the next day, "I just wanted to make you are aware that this is the best deal that Evil Mortgage Company has to offer." "There is no chance of a lower payment being offered to you under any program." "If you are unable to meet these new payments then I can only recommend that you and your family apply to short sale your home."

Mike and I sat down and crunched the numbers.  $1,750 quote to  re-tile the girls' bathroom (which has the same problem our other shower had-tile glued on drywall), $1,800 to repair the ceilings, $10,000 to fix the siding , kitchen cabinets (crumbling), new garage door...and so on and so on.  As mentioned in a previous blog entry ( our home is in need of multiple repairs. Our house value is less than half of what we owe on the mortgage and the house still needs $40,000+ of work.

We prayed a whole bunch, sought the advice of my credit counseling agent, a real estate lawyer, a Realtor, a friend in real estate with multiple properties of her own, and our accountant.  All said that the only option we had was to sell.   It was hard to swallow but it just didn't make sense to stay in our home. If I was to write that I simply nodded my head and said, "OK, God- this is clearly the direction you wish us to go!" It would be a long shot from the truth. In all honesty, I had a whirl wind of emotions.

First I was in disbelief, "This just can't be happening to US!" "There must be something we haven't pursued!"

Then I was a last hope Crusader, "I'll just get a night job at Walmart, try again to published some writing, sell some more of our stuff, and maybe I can tutor at again!"

Mike was like, "You mean that website where you were waking up at 4:45 every morning to tutor for an hour for $5." "Did you forget you only made $168 in 5 months?" "Even if you were teaching we couldn't afford the house repairs."

Then I was  Xena-The Warrior Princess- furious.  "You know these companies are just out to rip off the American public!" "Government bailouts-my flippin' feet!!!" "Help to keep people in their homes-what a joke!" "More like help a bank executive buy an extra jet for his "work" "retreat" to Hawaii with his thong-bikini-packin' secretary." "I'd like to lower their interest rate straight to...."  (You get the picture)

The day the Realtor put the for sale sign on our front lawn I felt defeated. I had a difficult time going outside for most of the day.  There it was, staring at me, mocking me, not a For Sale sign but a sign of failure.
"All the work we put into this house." "All the shower repairs, new tile, new septic, new AC, new appliances, what was it all for?"

Mike tried to reassure me, "Honey it's not your fault." "You didn't know you paid 3x the price you should  for a piece of garbage!" "Besides who knew the economy would tank right after you bought it?"

At this not so helpful comment I loaded the baby into the car seat and called over my shoulder, "I'm going for a drive."

As I drove along the river, Naomi joyfully chewed the hair on Jenna's cloth Tinkerbell doll and I mulled the situation over in my head. "Lots of people are loosing their homes right now." "I'm not judging them for it." "They aren't failures in my mind." "Why am I so disgusted with myself?" Was this the house that I planned to spend the rest of my days in and share cheery Christmas mornings with the Grandchildren playing games in the backyard? No.

But it was the first step in my adult independence.  The place my husband and I fell from friendship into love, the first home that both our girls ever knew. Our first place as a family. Then the last most terrifying thought that had been hiding beneath all others I asked out loud,  "Are we loosing our house because I stayed home with the kids instead of going back to work?"Like a child falling from a tree, the wind was knocked from my chest, my heart aching. I pulled the car over.

"Were they right, all those that said it couldn't be done?" "That I was crazy for wanting to be home with my girls and actually attempting it?" "That I would fail?" "I guess they're right-This is most definitely a failure!"
And for the first time I allowed myself to cry. Not just one wimpy tear streaming down my cheek but full on shoulder shaking, nose blowing sobs.  I'm not sure how long I sat there like this but at least three pairs of joggers were wondering if they should speed dial a mental health facility or run faster.

When I was too exhausted to cry any longer, the fog of self pity began to seep out the car windows and I noticed Naomi's joy filled coos singing out from behind my seat.  There she was, laughing adorably, grinning happily as she repeatedly  thumped Tinker Bell against the baby view mirror. I opened the car door and smiled at Naomi while her legs did the Happy Happy Joy Joy dance they always do when she sees me. I lifted her into my arms and kissed her soft hair.

Had staying home been worth it if it means we loose the house? Naomi's little hand clasped my shirt collar, "Ma ma ma ma ma," then she flashed me her 8 tooth grin and nuzzled her nose into my chest. Even if I did go back to teaching we still couldn't afford all the repairs.  Even if I was teaching, money would still be tight.  With daycare and rising gas and food prices, there still wouldn't be any money left over. I thought Mike's words over in my head, "Who knew the economy would tank?" Yeah, and who knew house values would plummet and gas would skyrocket? Who knew my original mortgage company would sell our mortgage and the new payments would be unrealistic! "Who knew you'd have food allergies and that groceries would be so expensive," I said to Naomi as I tickled her belly. If I was teaching we'd still be struggling and we'd still be loosing the house.

On the drive home I freed myself from the guilt that I had been carrying for weeks and resolved to the fact that we would soon be moving.  We gave it our best shot but with all things considered I had made the best decision I could when I bought the house 5 years ago. I've learned allot about home ownership, we both have, and we'll be sure that we don't make the same mistakes twice. For now we'll find a place to rent for a while. No matter where my family ends up we'll be home as long as we're together.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Shooting" Sweet Potatoes

Looking for a nearly effortless, sustainable, fresh food source? One that takes care of itself and requires the tiniest amount of watering about every 10 days? No matter how black your green thumb may be, you’ll be enjoying a delicious harvest in just four weeks. 

Before I became a stay at home mom (for a year) I was a 5th grade teacher who adored science and did multiple experiments with my 10 & 11 year old students.  What science fair would be complete without the sprouting sweet potatoes in soil vs. water experiment?  It’s easy and aside from watering, requires very little maintenance.  

So I did some research and to my surprise I found out that sweet potato greens are actually edible and are a common vegetable in Asian, African and Pacific Island cuisine. The leaves have a spinach like flavor to them and the shoots (harvested red, purple, or light green before they turn dark green & woody) remind me of tender asparagus when sauteed. The bonus? Sweet potato leaves are super healthy for you too & packed full of vitamin A, vitamin K, antioxidants, dietary fiber, essential fatty acids and folic acid (according to the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences at Tuskegee University, Alabama). They also improve immune function, and help to fight against cancer cell growth & heart disease. Wow! Who knew, right!?  

I have always been a fan of the sweet potato tuber in pies, mashed, casseroles-you name it! But since our discovery of the edible greens I have a whole new appreciation for this diverse plant. Mike and I love to make sweet potato greens with a little minced garlic, olive oil, chopped mushrooms and salt and pepper.  They are great as a side vegetable the whole family gobbles up and the best part is they grow back in just a couple weeks. 


1) To grow your own sweet potato greens simply take a sweet potato and jab three toothpicks into the top third of the potato. 

2) Place in a mason jar so that the picks are holding the potato off the bottom of the jar.  

3) Fill the jar with water until just the bottom third of the potato is under water.  

4) Lastly, place in a windowsill and wait.  

Four of our Window Garden Sweet Potatoes.
Note : Pretty much any jar will do.
Here I have a mason jar, peanut butter jar and a beer mug.  

Various stages of growth.
Three weeks, Two week and One week. 

Roots taking over the bottom of the jar!
I like to use clear glass jars because you can see how the roots are progressing,
when it's time to water again, and if the water is getting a little funky and needs replacing.
Trust me...if the water is funky you will smell it before you see it ;O.
Just empty and refill. 

New shoots :)

Yummy sweet potato leaves ready for harvest.

Harvested leaves.  Because they are grown inside you don't have to wash them!
Another time saver!

Below: Finished product! Enjoy!

I’ve had shoots start to sprout within one week and some that don’t sprout until up to three weeks later.  It just seems to depend on the potato.  But once it starts sprouting it won’t be long before you find tiny reddish/purple vines shooting all over the place and thin white hair-like roots shooting from the bottom of the potato to soak up the water in the jar.

I’ve got my entire kitchen nook windowsill lined with them. They look beautiful as they grow, with the vines hanging down and, with the right container, look like some high priced Better Homes and Gardens display.  My family of four makes a side dish of the greens from 8 sprouting sweet potatoes every few weeks. We buy our sweet potato tubers for $0.79 a pound ( so you really can't beat the fresh food investment. The best part is they keep on giving. My three original experiment potatoes have been sending out new vines for the past 6 months. They are now pretty shriveled and pathetic looking but the greens are still coming. Mike jokes that they should be taken out and shot but I have plans to "shoot" them one more time just for the pure food fun of it. So give it a try, you've got nothing to loose. :)

Research Sources:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Free Harvest

My dad jokes that I’m a thief.  I’m not one... at least not on purpose.  There was that one time that our snowbird neighbor was two month’s later than usual returning to her house across the street and I helped myself to the oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit littering the ground.  OK! Some from the trees too! But I really don’t consider that true stealing being she wasn’t here to enjoy them herself. Our other neighbor east of us said our citrus owning neighbor was planning to sell the house. I didn’t have her Massachusetts number to call to ask permission and the thought of all that delicious citrus being devoured by squirrels and worms drove me crazy. I just couldn’t see them go to waste!  Maybe that makes me a thief but we offered to pay her for the fruit when, to our surprise, she returned at the end of the citrus season.  She said not to worry about it. So I don’t plan to fret about it either.  

It’s amazing how many people aren’t interested in the fruit and nuts on their property.  Because of this Mike and I have several spots in our neighborhood where we harvest the free food from their trees, Yes Dad WITH Permission! About a mile from our home there is a rental house loaded with papaya trees.  A husband and a wife two streets over never use their loquats and are quite happy when we take buckets of them away, protecting their driveway from the mess rotting fruit makes.  Another neighbor happily lets me do the same with her mulberries.

But empty lots are the best.  As a kid I used to harvest and relish the juicy blackberries that grew wild in our neighborhood.  The tradition continues now with my own family.  This summer I’d like to try my hand at homemade blackberry brandy.  By my dad’s shop there are two wild mangos that grow near the railroad tracks (stringy eaten fresh but great in smoothies) and at certain times of the year you can even glean some guava too (though the close resemblance of stinky feet odor isn’t my personal favorite).  

I’m always on the look out for free food sources as I travel the neighborhood.  Just the other day the girls and I scored an empty lot loaded with lemons.  We asked the neighbors next door if they knew who owned the tree so we could ask for permission. He said that he’d lived there 15 years and had no idea.  He helped himself but couldn’t reach the lemons at the top and told us we were welcome to them if I wanted.  My eyes lit up like a kid finding a box of free candy.  

I ran through the wooded lot and tossed the beach blanket I keep in the car over the poison ivy and thorn bushes, trudged through the brush, and had Mike give me a boost on top of some electrical meter box thing. Standing on my tip-toes I hugged a branch till it fell toward the ground and started picking. All the while Jenna and Naomi were in the van strapped in their car seats.  Through the open doors Jenna was demanding at louder and louder decimals, “Mama! Just what do you think you are doing?” “Answer me right now!!! One, TWO, THREE!!!!!” Too caught up in my moment of free, free, and more free food bliss to respond to my 3 year old going on thirty, I quickly picked a basket full of lemony goodness.  Oh the glories of free findings!!!

When I got home I scoped out my free harvest for the week, 12 lemons, 4 papaya, and a large mixing bowl full of loquats.  Food doesn’t get any fresher than this.  And what better way to stretch a budget than by not having to spend a penny. Now if only I could find some coconut or date palms without any interested owners!  :)