Reaching Goals

Whether you have a lofty goal of paying off a mortgage or a short term goal of not struggling to pay rent each month, it helps to establish a plan. The first step should be learning your relationship with money instead of mindless spending paycheck to paycheck. Last month, I mentioned budgeting and how it can lead to overspending instead of spending wisely. I also mentioned the envelope system and not liking it.

The envelope system is where you establish your spending categories and put cash in the envelope each month. When the money is gone from the envelope, that’s it. Don’t borrow from another envelope. If there’s money left over in an envelope, it can be added to next month’s envelope to increase your spending, or you can use that money to treat yourself to something. In few articles that I read did I see that the extra money should be put towards your goal.

THE GOAL

The first step is to write your goal down. What is it? How long do you think it will take to reach it? I’ve learned that establishing interim goals helps reach the bigger goal that may seem too lofty.

The second step is to track your expenses. Look at what you’re spending your money on. Start categorizing your spending. Can you see that you’re spending more than you thought on something other than essentials? Is hitting up the drive through several times a week costing you more per month than you realized? Have you purchased decorations for your home that aren’t on display, but you’re scraping together rent or mortgage for the beginning of each month? Are you paying up-charges and delivery fees for a meal delivery service instead of going to pick it up yourself (or cooking your own meal)?

MONEY RELATIONSHIP

I have experience living paycheck to paycheck. It’s not like we’ve always been in a position where we’re not worried about how to pay our bills. I thought if I shared two defining stories from our finances, it may trigger an idea for you.

College

I lived on campus for the first two years of college. My parents were paying my tuition, and they said that either I needed to take out a loan to pay the following year’s room and board, or I had to be a Resident Assistance to get free boarding. I didn’t want the responsibility and having to be in my dorm so much to be an RA (I never researched it; I was just 20 and knew everything.). I decided the best approach was to live off campus because I’d be able to pay my living costs monthly instead of in two large chunks at the beginning of each semester. If I broke down the monthly cost of the ‘room and board,’ it was $1533 per month (and only for 9 months of the year). I figured I could live for less than that, while paying month-to-month as I earned income, if I moved to an apartment. My rent off campus that first year was $650/month. My utilities were about $150/month in the winter. I don’t know how much I spent on food, but I know it was the bare minimum. It wasn’t that I was purposely trying to be debt-free and a hero; I just simply didn’t know how to get a loan, so that wasn’t an option to me.

I had a job at JCPenney. I was making 5.15/hour (minimum wage in 2006), and I worked outside of my school schedule as much as I could. I was able to pay my rent every month because that was my priority. I dipped into my savings from my summer jobs, but I mostly changed my lifestyle. I packed my meals with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for when I was working. I ate pasta for dinner. I didn’t go to restaurants often. I wasn’t in a phase of life where I wanted to go to bars, so my social life was hanging at my boyfriend’s house, where he lived with 3 other guys, drinking cheap beer and watching tv. I made sacrifices in my spending so that I could pay rent every month. I didn’t want to pay a late fee every month. If I could just barely afford $650, I certainly didn’t want to owe an extra $65 because I couldn’t pay rent by the first of the month.

There is one caveat in my story that first year. Since I was making just what it took to have a roof over my head and food in my stomach, I chose to forego heat. Do you know where Albany, NY is? It’s into freezing temperatures in October. It was fine – I had sweatshirts, sweatpants, socks, slippers, blankets. I lived on the first floor of a two story home, so that helps keep the temperature reasonable into October, but I knew I couldn’t last through the days of teen temperatures without eventually turning the heat on. My parents found out that I didn’t have my heat on, and they sent me $100/month to cover that. So I did get assistance. They sent me that for 6 months to cover my utilities, and that was the last assistance I received.

My parents paid my tuition, which was $2,175 per semester in 2004. Yes, less than $5,000/year for my college education.

Buying a House

Mr. ODA and I wanted to buy a house and settle down. We had each been part of a training program at work that would end with our placement anywhere in the country, so we weren’t in a good position to purchase a house in Albany, NY. Mr. ODA got placed in Pennsylvania, while I was still employed in their NY office. It wasn’t handled well, so we started looking for other options. I accepted a job in Washington DC, and Mr. ODA went to Sterling, VA; we moved to an apartment in Fairfax, VA to live in between those two places. We chose an apartment because we didn’t know anything about Virginia and needed a place to live while we scoped it out.

This wasn’t a scenario where we couldn’t afford to live, like my college example. This was a situation where we set a goal, and to achieve that goal, we needed to spend less.

Mr. ODA was saving and preparing for a house in the $150-200k range, not the $350-500k range as a first time home buyer. So we needed a plan to come up with over $70k worth of the downpayment and closing costs.

We set a goal of spending no more than $5/day/person on food. We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta sides, chicken nuggets, canned vegetables, etc. That threshold meant we weren’t paying to go out to lunch at work. We were eating the bare minimum at dinner. We were eating any leftovers that were in the refrigerator. We didn’t have a desire or lifestyle where we would want to go out for a drink or buy a lot of things, so it wasn’t hard to scale back in that area. After a month or so of doing this, we decided that happiness should be part of the equation too, and we started going out to a restaurant no more than once per week.

This isn’t a magical story where we went from $10k in savings to $75k in 6 months, but we were able to increase our savings a decent amount. We each took a residential loan from our retirement accounts, and we borrowed $5,000 from Mr. ODA’s parents. We didn’t expect to find all the funds needed, but we were able to decrease the amount of money we had to borrow from our retirement accounted by changing our spending pattern.

Our rent at the apartment, including utilities, was over $1800/month. When we purchased our house, our mortgage was $1576 and our utilities averaged $150/month.

REACH THE GOAL

If you don’t know where your money is going, you don’t know how to get your money to work for you. If you don’t take the time to evaluate whether or not you’re spending wisely, then you don’t know if there’s wiggle room in your budget to put you in a position that you’ll be more comfortable. Create a relationship with money. Know where each dollar is going. Determine if you should make changes to your spending to reach the goal, or if you should find a way to create additional income.

There’s usually a way to create more room in your budget with your spending. Some examples are to eliminate alcohol purchases, reduce your restaurant spending (whether it’s not going to restaurants as often or it’s changing how you order – do you need the steak; do you need a soda, or could you get by with water and drink a soda at home), reduce your home decor type purchasing, put your heat down a degree or two.

Instead of complaining that there are bills to pay, change your mentality to take control of your money instead of it controlling you.

Expense Tracking

In January, I mentioned how I have a very detailed spreadsheet to track my expenses. I started this spreadsheet concept in 2012 when my husband and I started combining living expenses. We also moved from NY to PA to a VA apartment to a VA house in a matter of 22 months. I needed to have a way to make sure I didn’t miss any bills. I didn’t want to rely on receiving the bill itself in the mail or in my email before paying it. I chose to develop the spreadsheet based on our pay check dates, which were every 2 weeks.

Here’s my sheet, in essence. Pay no attention to the actual numbers in this screenshot, as I didn’t take the time to make sure they were made up but still proportioned to each other. The format is exactly as I use it though. I set it up at the beginning of each year.

For the entire year, I record the pay check receipt across the top of the sheet. The dates are based on the day the money hits our account. This has changed over the years, as we used to get paid on Tuesdays, but now Mr. ODA’s pay check shows up in our account on a Saturday.

The first section, which is all gray, is the rental income. I then record all the rental income near the 1st of the month. If a pay check isn’t near the first of the month, I record it for any pay check date that shows up in the first 10 days of the month. Realistically, I receive the majority of our rent on the 5th of each month, so it doesn’t make sense to record it as a projection any earlier than the 1st, and as near the 5th as I can. The ‘Net PM’ is because I don’t collect rent on our KY houses; the property manager collects rent, removes their expenses, and then we receive the net by the 10th of the following month.

The next section is the light green, which captures routine expenses on the rental properties. I record the HOA due date every 3 months, each month’s mortgage payment, the payout to our partner (I take in all the rent each month and then pay him out his half plus our half of the mortgage payment), and then the VA property manager’s expenses.

The white section covers all our personal expenses.
– The bottom two gray lines are simply an indication to me that those affect Mr. ODA’s account and not our main checking account.
– I pay our personal mortgage near the 1st of the month (some time between the 1st and the 10th, but I typically prioritize this getting paid as close to the 1st as possible).
– Our personal residence’s HOA is only due one per year, which is why there’s nothing on that line for this particular snapshot.
– Then I have all our credit card payments. For the year, I project based on the previous year’s average bill. As I get closer to the statement end period, I update the projection. If I project that a credit card bill is going to be $1000, but as we spend through the month, we had more expenses than I thought, I update the projection on the spreadsheet to reflect that. So where it said $1000, I may put $1700 to cover my savings projection.
– I project our my utilities too. I know that I have an electric and water bill each month, and I have a cell phone bill that I pay in 3-month increments to my sister-in-law for a family plan. When setting up the sheet for the year, I simply keep the same numbers from last year for the utility lines. While I can log into my account and see the details, it’s easier if I already have it laid out like this. Then I can see, “last year, for this month, my bill was only $40; why is it $70 now?” One caveat here is that I usually keep the lines on this sheet to those items that are going in or coming out of our checking accounts. The water bill can now be paid by credit card (since we moved to KY last year). Technically, I should remove that from the sheet because I track bill due dates separately from this part of the sheet, but since I’m used to tracking the water bill’s due date like this, and I like seeing how the bill changes from last year’s amount due, I’ve kept it on the list.
– I have our IRA contributions listed as well, since that’s a big chunk that comes out each month. The maximum contribution into a Roth IRA is $6,000. We have automatic contributions twice per month, so that’s actually $500 out of each ‘pay check’ grouping.
– The “other” line is for expenses that happen every year, but they aren’t worth having individual lines because there’s only one or two payments per year. As I type that, perhaps my own HOA payment could be added to the other line since it’s only paid once per year. In Virginia, we had personal property tax that would be due each year. We also have our taxes that we owe (because we purposely plan our taxes so that we don’t get a refund because that means you’ve given Uncle Sam an interest free loan). We have vehicle registration fees due. All these ‘one off’ payments are recorded on the “other” line and then I describe the expense two lines below with the asterisk.

As for the savings projection, this is probably mislabeled. It has always said ‘savings,’ but it’s really just the net of that two-week period’s income and expenses. To know if I’m in good shape (if perhaps I’m in a position where my account balance is being kept really low), I net the two ‘savings’ next to each other (so I would add the $60 and the -$19 to know that my income from that first two-week period will cover my expenses for the second two-week period also).

In practice, as I receive the income or I pay a bill, I change the text from black to gray. This tells me that it’s paid and accounted for. I also update to actuals as I go. So if I projected a credit card payment to be $150, but the actual payment was $147.34, that’s what gets put in the sheet when I make the payment. This helps me track actual amounts through the year, as well as sets myself up to create projections for the next year.

I have a separate tab in my workbook that tracks additional income for the year. For example, when I was working part time, I recorded that income on that other spreadsheet. Each time we get money from our credit card rewards, it gets recorded on my income spreadsheet. By keeping track of our additional, unplanned, income, I have the ability to identify our actual savings net for the year. I take the ‘savings’ bottom line from this spreadsheet and add all the additional income we’ve brought in from the other sheet.

While I’m not budgeting the details of our expense categories (e.g., $300 per month for groceries), I’m tracking my income and overall expenses based on bill payments. Last year, I had tracked my expenses by category to see if overspend in one area in particular. I didn’t keep up with it though because the billing cycles didn’t line up with when I’d be running my financial update, but I hope to get in a better grove this year. This set up makes me feel comfortable that I’m not missing a bill. If I get to the end of a 2-week period, and I haven’t grayed out an amount, then I know it’s time to investigate why I didn’t receive mail or an email prompting me to pay a bill. Usually what happens is I’m tracking Mr. ODA’s credit card payment and wondering how much longer he’s going to wait to pay it until the due date. 😛

I hope that was easy to follow. I don’t want to put all our exact numbers in there, but I wanted to share how I “budget.” If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!

House7 Escrow Analysis

We received a notice that our escrow needed to be increased by $185 on this account. That seemed to be a huge jump, considering this was a new account for this year (we refinances January 2021). Our taxes went up about $35 per month, so the $185 increase stood out.

Mr. ODA’s brain works best in these scenarios, and he quickly noted that the analysis double counted our tax payment (they claimed it to be paid in December 2021 and January 2022). My brain can figure it out, but I need to write down every step of the math to understand it. 🙂 Since I took the time to analyze the escrow changes, I thought I’d share it in case anyone was interested in knowing how their analysis works.

They double counted our tax payment, so the increase truly should only be $58*. As someone who needs to see the details and can’t think in the abstract when it comes to math, I ran my own escrow analysis.

First, you need to know your taxes and insurance total for the year. Take that total, and divide it by 12 to get your monthly expense. This is because your escrow additions occur monthly. For this property, our monthly cost of our taxes and insurance comes to $199.25 (green). The old escrow amount of our monthly mortgage payment was $156.92 (orange).

The ‘Escrow Needed’ column is increased each month by $199.25. The ‘Required Balance’ is double the monthly expense for our account (199.25*2). Then the difference between the ‘Escrow Needed’ and the ‘Required Balance’ is the column in blue. The escrow shortfall is determined by the greatest negative. Therefore, I took the difference for that month (May 2022) and divided it by 12, getting $16.60*.

The escrow analysis then results in an escrow increase of $199.25 (the amount needed to cover projected expenses), minus the old escrow contribution amount of $156.92, plus the shortfall amount of $16.60*, bringing the increase to $58.93 per month and making the new monthly escrow payment $215.85.

EDIT: *These numbers are not right. For a detailed edit, see this post: https://onedollarallowance.com/2022/02/14/escrow-analysis-update/.

Budgets and Overspending

I’ve rewritten this several times over the last two months, constantly afraid of who I’d offend. Instead, I’m just going to share my raw observations and hope it makes sense to the people who need it. Plus, what’s a better time to discuss budgets than the first post of the year? I actually have quite a few posts related to budget planned. So we’ll start with why I believe budgeting leads to overspending.

I don’t like budgets in the sense of the word’s common understanding. A literal definition of the word is, “an estimate of income and expenditure for a set period of time.” In this context, I’m all for a budget. I have a detailed (over-the-top, probably unnecessary) spreadsheet that I use to manage our money. In any given two-week period, since 2012, I can tell you my projection of money-in and money-out. I make sure my expenses are covered.

ENVELOPE SYSTEM

The extreme version of budgeting (in my opinion) is the ever-popular “envelope” concept. It’s simple: you decide on your monthly spending categories, and then you put your cash* in the respective envelope to pay your bills. (*Please don’t pay for everything in cash!) When you run out of money in a given envelope, that’s it for the month. There must be a way that this works for enough people that it keeps getting touted as a great idea, but I’ve seen it fail. You’re creating a dependency on these envelopes instead of an understanding of your finances.

What happens with any leftover money in the envelope? The articles I’ve read about this system literally tell you to celebrate if you come in under budget. No. How does taking your extra money and spending it frivolously get you to your goals faster? Or it tells you to add it to next month’s envelope (e.g., if you have $50 left over in this month’s envelope for groceries, put it in next month’s envelope and now you have $350 instead of $300 to spend on groceries). How are you creating discipline and an understanding of budgeting if you can splurge next month? Now you’ve spent an extra $50 in month 2, but you need to scale back to $300 for month 3. That’s not creating a routine.

I want you to create a relationship with money.

RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY

We don’t budget in the colloquial sense. We have a relationship with money. I make sure that my mandatory expenses are taken care of (e.g., mortgage payments, utility bills). Everything that can, goes on a credit card. When it comes to paying off the credit card every month, it goes back several steps.

My thought process is cemented in whether or not the value of an item is worth it to me. When I’m about to buy something, I take the time to think:
1) Is this item worth the price I’d pay for it?
2) Will this item serve a need (not a want)?
3) If it’s a want, will this item bring me enough happiness that I’m willing to spend this amount of money on it?

Want to know something I recently struggled with? For years, I’ve wanted a desktop tape dispenser. Years. I don’t even think about it until I’m wrapping Christmas gifts. So once a year, I have tape, but I wish I had a desktop tape dispenser. I never bought it. I thought, I can struggle through needing two hands for my tape dispensing needs for a couple of days out of the year. I thought, if I buy a desktop tape dispenser, then I need to buy a different kid of tape than I already have on hand. Every year, I just dealt with it because it wasn’t worth the cost to me to invest in something that would make things marginally easier for me for a few days of the year. This year, after wrapping more than half the gifts, I decided enough was enough. I purchased 6 rolls of tape for 9.99 and a dispenser for 4.22. I’ve been wrapping gifts outside of my parents’ house (where there were tape dispensers) for more than 15 years. I’ve struggled with the decision to purchase a dispenser every single year, and it finally got to the tipping point this year. All that thought process, over all those years, to spend less than $15.

That’s my thought process for every non-routine purchase. Instead of putting cash in an envelope marked “something for me” each month, I’ve trained myself to manage our money from the purchase point instead of an envelope full of cash that I mindlessly spend down. I can make an informed decision on whether or not I need or want something. I’m taking the time to decide whether this is going to bring me long-term happiness, short-term happiness, and whether the cost of the item is worth it. Had that tape dispenser been $15, plus new rolls of tape for $10, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Because at that point, I’d be happier with a new shirt or new pants for $25. So I would have decided that my $25 is more valuable to me than to spend it on tape. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I go out and buy a shirt arbitrarily; it just means that I’ve decided that the value of that money is worth more to more towards something else than this item I’m currently contemplating.

OVERSPENDING

I see it over and over: people who budget seem to be the ones buying things they don’t really need. Instead of changing your mentality to be whether a purchase is necessary or is worth the price, the decision becomes “I have $300 left over, what can I do with it?” I see people have their sights on a product that they want. They build it up in their mind that it becomes unattainable, so when the extra money is there, they splurge on it. But did they ever step back and ask if it was really necessary or if their money could be put to better use in their overall wellbeing?

There’s a time and place for splurges. I understand that buying something you want makes you happy, in that moment. What if you thought: does my happiness in buying this gaming console outweigh the anxiety and frustration that I can’t pay my bills in a couple of weeks?

If you struggle to pay your rent month-to-month, then a large influx of money should be earmarked for future bills, not to splurge over and over again. An envelope system creates a reward-driven desire to your spending. The goal should be a more comfortable lifestyle where you’ve set yourself up for success instead of a groundhog-day-struggle to make ends meet.

There have been several instances that I’ve seen in the last couple of months, but the one that really has been weighing on me happened in October when I was working.

I was working at the racetrack. It’s temporary work – working during the race meets and possibly during their horse sales. The Fall meet was 17 days. Depending on where you’re working, you can make some really good money. I happened to be placed in one of those locations, and next to me was a young girl. She complained of having to work two jobs and not getting a day off all month because she was working two jobs. She also shared that she struggles to “make a decent living,” and that she borrowed money from a friend to be able to pay rent on October 1.

The first day, we made over $400 in tips. The second day, she asked how we celebrated making that amount. I bought the Hatch sound machine. I’m going to assume that most of our readers have no idea what that is, but it’s a sound machine and a light that can be programmed for different needs (for instance, I wanted it to give our toddler the signal that it was OK to get out of bed). It’s $60. I had already looked into several options, and I had already determined that I was in a place in life where it was worth it to me to spend the money on the original than to attempt to buy a knock-off that doesn’t work great for $40. Personally, I was going to buy this thing regardless of what I made while working, but I used that as my example on what I splurged on with our unexpected earnings. She shared that she took her boyfriend out for a steak dinner. One celebration isn’t going to break the bank, but it became a routine. It wasn’t until the middle of the month that she said she had paid her friend back for helping her pay rent. That $150 you spent on one meal could have been prioritized to keeping a roof over your head, or being a good friend and paying your debt.

So often, I see someone else blamed for one person’s mistakes. It’s the greedy landlord’s fault that you need to pay rent. It’s the government’s fault for not increasing minimum wage. What if you stepped back and looked at your decision making? Did you buy the new gaming console and then struggle to pay rent on the first of the next month? Did you go to Costa Rica and then struggle to pay rent on the first of the next month? Did you buy that new gaming console, and not add to your savings for future planning? The televisions in our house aren’t huge, but they work. I don’t have a need to replace a working television simply so that I can have the newest technology and the biggest screen.

If you don’t create a relationship with money and an understanding of how to make informed decisions, you may end up with unnecessary expenses with money that could have been more productive. It’s time that you step back and look at your entire spending picture to know whether you’re truly budgeting and learning, or you’re mindlessly spending money because you’ve accepted that’s the cost.

Cash out refi

There’s a company in Virginia that advertises no-closing-cost-refinances. If it’s your personal residence, then this holds true. For investment properties, there are some closing costs, but it’s cheaper than the usual refinance. We used them for two other loans – one at the beginning of the pandemic when we signed the paperwork in a tent in the parking lot, and another where we signed the paperwork at our kitchen table in Kentucky with a traveling notary (that’s a thing!).

There was a threshold requirement in order to qualify for this refinance, and that was the new loan had to be at least $100,000. Only 2 of our houses had a loan originated for over $100k originally, so that limited our abilities.

Mr. ODA came to me and said he wanted to do a cash-out-refinance. This company had changed their policy, and they’d allow a cash-out-refinance to get us to the 100k threshold. The first two Virginia houses we purchased (2016) had balances of about 70k and 60k. We had enough equity in these houses that we could take a substantial amount out in the refinance, but Mr. ODA chose $50k each.

Here’s a run through of the thought process on how to do this and why it’s a benefit. I personally like seeing the details behind other’s decisions, so hopefully this will help someone or help make the concept click and open up an opportunity. This process was only just initiated, so I’ll do an update after we execute the plan to see how it changed.

The original goal was to use that money to pay off another loan. We’ve made our decision on which loan to pay off based on the highest interest rate. Right now, our highest interest rate is a loan with our partner at 5.1%, but this is also the loan that we’re actively paying off (leaving a balance right now of 26k, which we’re responsible for half). Since we need to time our principal payments to be matched with our partner, we can’t just dump money into this loan without really complicating things. So our second-highest interest rate is 4.625%. This loan originally was $89k in 2017 and has a balance of $62k. If we paid this off, that would leave about $35k in cash (based on the other two loan refinances that we’d take $50k out of each) that we could use to pay towards another loan or earmark for another purchase. As this discussion happened, Mr. ODA pivoted.

This company is only available to refinance loans in Virginia. Instead of paying off that $62k loan for a Virginia property, what if we also refinanced that loan and paid off one of two loans remaining on our Kentucky houses? I’m a visual person and needed to see how this would actually play out.

The terms were that if we picked a 15 year loan, that brings the interest rate down to 2.5%. With a 30 year loan, it’s 3.125%. I compared the current amortization schedule to the proposed amortization schedule, and here they are. Note that the interest isn’t a one-to-one comparison because we’ve already paid 4-5 years of interest on these loans.


HOUSE 2

The original loan terms were a 20 year at 3.875%.

The new terms would create a new 15 year loan, reduce the rate to 2.5%, and increase the loan to about $123k (pay off old loan, fees for closing, and $50k cashed out). This decreases our monthly cash flow, on this property, by $294.38.


HOUSE 3

The original loan terms were a 15 year at 3.25%.

The new terms would create a new 15 year loan, reduce the rate to 2.5%, and increase the loan to about $113k (pay off old loan, fees for closing, and $50k cashed out). This decreases our monthly cash flow, on this property, by $155.89.


HOUSE 8

The original loan terms were a 30 year at 4.625%.

The new terms would create a new 30 year loan, reduce the rate to 3.125%, and increase the loan to about $ (pay off old loan, fees for closing, and $35k cashed out). This is slightly off because the new loan isn’t showing at exactly $100k, but for all these the final numbers will be slightly different. This decreases our monthly cash flow, on this property, by $84.87.


In these projections, we’ll receive $135,000 cash in hand. With that, we’ll pay off the higher loan in Kentucky, which has a balance of about $81k. That mortgage has a monthly payment of $615.34. These three loans have increased their monthly mortgage payments by $535.14 in total. Since we’ve eliminated a monthly mortgage with the cash from these new loans, our total monthly cash flow actually has a net increase of $80.20. In addition to this net positive cash flow, we also have over $53k in cash in our account.

Now, if you know us, cash in our account isn’t a preference by any means. In my last monthly update, you can see that we have almost 20k in cash and that’s abnormal. Add $53 to that, and that’s just too much money sitting in a checking account. At this point, the goal is to buy another house. With the way the market is, we’re probably not going to hit the 1% Rule we strive for (the expected monthly rent will be at least 1% of the purchase price – $1000 rent for $100,000 purchase), and we’re not going to see the margins that we’re used to. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get our psychology right for this next purchase. We’ll have to hold strong in knowing that our other houses have great margins, and at least it won’t be negative cash flow.

At this point, we’ve started the refinance process by signing our initial disclosures and providing all the many, many documents needed to originate a loan.

Escrow Payments

A theme I stick to in this blog is that you need to watch your money. I’ve talked about ways that I’ve fought to get money back where it wasn’t billed correctly (e.g., medical bills), and today’s warning is about escrows.

An escrow account, in the sense that I want to talk about it, is tied to your mortgage. Your monthly payment includes an amount that goes into a separate account held by your mortgage company, and they manage paying out your taxes and insurance on your behalf.

The benefit of an escrow is that you don’t have to manage your insurance and tax payments. You don’t have to pay out a large sum of money once (or twice) a year because you’re paying towards this account every month that will manage that billing for you. The downside is that this escrow account requires you to maintain a balance, so it’s holding your money where your money isn’t working for you. Another downside is that your money movement is less transparent, and you just expect that the payments will be made accurately. The bank basically takes on the administrative burden of paying these bills on your behalf, in exchange for continually holding this money without paying you interest.

Each month your mortgage payment includes principal, interest, and escrow. For example, I have a mortgage payment that is $615.34. The P&I total will remain the same amount each month, but the principal portion of each payment will slowly increase while the interest slowly decreases. In my example, the total P&I is always $428.11, but the breakdown of what’s principal and what’s interest changes (e.g., October’s payment due included principal of $119.58 and interest of $308.53; November’s was $120.03 of principal and $308.08 of interest). The escrow amount each month for this mortgage is now $187.23; this number stays the same until there’s an escrow re-analysis.

An escrow analysis is conducted once per year to verify that the escrow account will have sufficient funds to pay out the bills received (typically taxes and insurance), while maintaining the required minimum balance. Sometimes the increase is known ahead of time because you can see that the estimates for the initial escrow contributions were off (or in our case, new construction uses estimates based on last year’s tax payment, which only included land value and not the final sale of the home, so we know there will be an escrow shortfall in our future). A shortfall may also occur when there’s been a drastic change in your property value assessment, causing taxes to increase more than an expected amount (like in 2021!), or when insurance costs change more than projected.

Below is an escrow analysis of one of our accounts. The highlighted row shows that when our taxes are paid, the balance will fall below the required minimum. The document says that the minimum “is determined by the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), your mortgage contract, or state law. Your minimum balance may include up to 2 months cushion of escrow payments to cover increases in your taxes and insurance.” If you are projected to dip below the required minimum, they’ll offer you the opportunity to make a one-time contribution to the escrow account or your monthly payment will increase to cover that projected shortfall.

The increase is calculated in the image below. My payment to escrow at the time of this analysis was $126.18. They take my insurance and taxes owed, divide by 12, and come up with my monthly base escrow payment ($149.81). At the lowest point in my escrow balance (highlighted in yellow above), the account will be -149.43. The difference between this balance and the required balance of $299.62 is $449.05. Divide this number by 12 to get the $37.42 in the image below indicating the monthly shortage for the account.

The new escrow payment is added to my P&I payment (which stays the same), and this is my new monthly mortgage payment.

An escrow analysis showing that we’ll fall below the balance required inevitably means that my monthly cash flow will decrease (because we always opt for the change in monthly payment instead of a one-time contribution). As taxes and insurance increase, so does your requirement to fund your escrow account. While the reason for the escrow increase is to cover the taxes and insurance, which I would have to pay anyway, the escrow increase is higher because of the required minimums. One of our houses started with $766.96 as the monthly payment, and it is now $802.96 due to the escrow analysis. Another one started at $477.77, and it’s now at $537.60.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Honestly, the only way I’ve checked my escrow balances in the past is at the end of the year when I’m verifying the insurance and tax payments “make sense.” I’m not even verifying the details behind the numbers, just that it was similar to last year’s amount as I update my spreadsheet. Well this time, I logged in to update my spreadsheets with the new mortgage balances for the October Financial Update, and I saw my escrow account was negative by over $1000! That makes no sense because these accounts are reviewed annually through an escrow re-analysis to ensure you’re not projected to dip below their required minimum balance, and if it were to be negative, it would only be by a much smaller amount.

We had recently changed our insurance. Usually when we change insurance providers, we pay the current year on our credit card (to get those points!), and then all future billing goes to our escrow account. I don’t know why we didn’t do it this way for the most recent change, but I’m inclined to blame the fact that the process took months to get new insurance because this company hasn’t been responsive, so we just wanted it done and weren’t thinking. Since we didn’t get the new policy issued before our old policy was billed, both insurances were paid out by our escrow. Sure, that should have affected our escrow balances, but still not by $1000.

One house had a policy that cost $573.31 and the other had a policy that cost $750.06. The new policy includes both houses under one policy (this becomes annoying and it makes me uncomfortable for reasons I can’t seem to articulate to the agent) and costs $1,180.87. Each mortgage escrow paid out the original policy amounts since we didn’t execute the new policies timely. After these were paid out, the mortgage company received a bill for $1,180.87. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the company paid $1042 from each of our escrow accounts, and then one escrow account paid $138.87 (which is the balance of 1180.87-1042). The $138.87 covers the policy fees; so someone realized that there was a separate line item for policy fees, but didn’t realize that the $1042 should have been split between two houses (even though they knew there were two houses because they took from both escrows).

I questioned the process with the new insurance company, but he didn’t take responsibility for it. He claimed that the mortgagee had to know to split it and they don’t manage any of that. I explained that I’ve had multiple houses insured by one company and have never been given one policy number for it. He acted surprised. My gut says this is wrong and isn’t going to work, both for future billing and the possibility of a need for a claim. We did receive a check in the mail for $903.13 (the difference of $1042-138.87), but we still have paid the $138.87 and want it reimbursed. I sent an email this morning explaining again that I’ve confirmed with my mortgage company that this insurance company was paid $1042+$1042+$138.87. He again responded that the $138.87 is the fees portion of the bill, and I again said that I know, but it’s been paid twice, and I’d like it back. So now I’ll stay on top of that $138.87 to make sure we get it back.

You need to fight for yourself. You need to know what companies are owed and know what you’ve paid. Then don’t back down to keep asking for an update. I recently discussed how I had to fight for medical bills (multiple times) for a year at a time to get the money reimbursed that I was owed. I even recently had to call on another medical bill that I paid before realizing it hadn’t been submitted to insurance (I would love to understand why this keeps being an issue that my medical bills aren’t submitted to my insurance before billing me). Then they submitted it to insurance and sat on my reimbursement until I called twice asking for the reimbursement (that both times they agreed I was owed and it was “in process.”). Manage your money. Especially because that $138 that I’m waiting for now could mean a big difference to a family in need or living paycheck to paycheck.

Should You Use a Property Manager?

The key to financial freedom is passive income or cash flow so that you don’t have to work, right? Well, managing rental real estate isn’t truly passive, so a hiring a property manager to do that work on your behalf is enticing. But are the benefits worth the cost?

We have 12 rental properties, and 5 of those are self-managed. While I’ve mentioned the benefits of a property manager, I wanted to run through the reasons we don’t have a property manager on all of our properties. It comes down to time management and cash flow.

THE DETAILS ON SELF-MANAGED HOUSES

The very first property we bought was in Kentucky, while we lived in Virginia, so we needed a manager on that one. But then we bought two houses in Virginia. They were right next door to each other, and I worked about 10 minutes away. Without kids, I had the time and flexibilities to manage them. Plus, both houses had active leases on them when we took possession. Without having the immediate need and learning curve of finding a new tenant, it was easy to manage the rent collection and any minor issues that came up on the houses. A property manager would have cost us $105 each month on each of these houses. Even now that we don’t live near them, the houses are newer and we know they don’t have any major issues, and the tenants keep renewing their lease, so it’s [relatively] easy to manage from afar. There are some maintenance hiccups – like the flooring debacle – but mostly I just collect the rent electronically. One house is routinely late on the rent, so I have to manage that property more than the norm, but it’s all via electronic communication and doesn’t require me to be on site.

Our third purchase in Virginia was of a vacant 2 bedroom house. Still, no kids meant that I could manage listing and showing the property to prospective tenants. This was the first time that we had to figure out the tenant search process, but we were able to show it to a couple and have it rented the first weekend it was listed. Again, the house requires very little attention, and I just collect rent. Even when the house had to be turned over, the tenant leaving put us in contact with a friend of their family’s, and that’s been who’s living there for several years.

Our last two that are self-managed are the two that we have with a partner. I handle the rent collection and paperwork. When we have an issue, we’re more likely to call a handyman than do the work ourselves anymore, but again, phone calls and emails aren’t that difficult. We just had a handyman go out to look at two broken doors and to replace a missing fence panel. While I was there over the summer, I had secured the railing that was loose, but I didn’t want to do any of the other work. It also helps that we have a partner, so the cost of any work to be done is only half for us.

For the past year, we took over management of a property that had been with our property manager in Virginia. We knew the tenants from a previous house of ours, and we felt that our management of that house from afar would be easy as compared to the $120/mo we were saving by self-managing. We didn’t have any issues we couldn’t manage during the year. However, they’re now purchasing a home. We’re obviously not there to manage showings, so we gave this property back to our property manager. She listed the house and showed it for us. It’ll cost us $300 for the listing and 10% of the monthly rent for her management ($135). For the last 11 months, it has been rented at $1200. That means that we’ve had an extra $1620 worth of income for the year than we would have ($120 for 11 months, and the $300 listing fee).

PROPERTY MANAGEMENT

For our Kentucky houses, we are very hands off. We don’t weigh in on costs less than $200, and we don’t get any updates regarding rent payments or tenant searches. Sometimes it’s too hands-off for me. For instance, I don’t even get a copy of the executed leases until I ask for it, and I don’t get a copy of any receipts (I just get a summary of charges taken out of our proceeds). It has been hard on me psychologically, but I’ve learned to let it go over the past few years.

For our Virginia houses, we’re more hands on, and sometimes it’s too much. We still discuss all the details when an issue arises, so it’s just saving me the time of calling and coordinating contractors, which is rarely necessary. Then there are times that I even handle ordering and contractors; for instance, I just handled replacing the hot water heater and refrigerator at one of our houses. All of our tenants pay rent electronically, so that’s not even on our property manager’s radar (she used to collect rent and then deposit it in a joint account we gave her access to). Since she’s not responsible for rent collection, it’s then on me to let her know if someone hasn’t paid, and she handles the follow-up communication.

However, our Virginia property manager has been worth her weight in gold because she has handled multiple lease defaults for us (with one actually leading to an eviction), which involves going to the court house to file the motion and then showing up for the hearing(s). We had one tenant who had to be served multiple notices, but she eventually left on terms mutually agreed upon. We had another tenant vacate a house because his kids were attending a school out of the address’s district (and blamed us for that.. I don’t know!), but we took him to court to require payment of past due rent from before he vacated. Then we had a true eviction, where the tenant stopped paying rent and had to be taken to court multiple times. The judge ruled in our favor and told her to vacate the premises, which involved police officers escorting them out of the house. We have been very lucky that the houses we manage haven’t ventured into the realm of taking them to court (although one in close), and that our property manager has been able to handle everything on our behalf for these instances.

SUMMARY

We can get caught up in the “we’re paying for nothing to happen” mentality with our property managers. Each month, we pay out $720 for property management. In Virginia, our property manager doesn’t even collect rent, so most months there’s no action from her for the houses. In Kentucky, the property manager collects rent, holds it, and pays out our share the next month. It can be hard to see that total number that we’re paying, but for those months that involve a lot of coordination in receiving quotes, going to court, or meeting contractors, it’s nice that we don’t have to deal with it.

Sometimes it’s worth paying for peace of mind and relaxation, knowing someone else is handling your problems for you, but you need to choose where that balance is for you. Do you want to manage it yourself to know your money is being spent fully at your own discretion; do you want to have a manager while maintaining a lot of the decision making; or do you want to be fully hands off with a management company who you can trust to handle your property with your best interests at the forefront? It’s all a balance of how much you think that’s worth compared to your time spent and knowledge on managing rentals.

Risk Mitigation – LLC or CLUP

Not that I expect you to know these letters right away, but bear with me.

There’s a common question that comes up with rental properties: have you formed an LLC? An LLC is a limited liability company. This is a business mechanism in which you create an official business for your properties, thereby separating them from your personal finances.

That’s the positive to an LLC – an LLC separates the rental properties from your personal finances. This protects your personal finances in the event of a tenant suing you through one of your properties. However, for this protection to really work for you if you have multiple properties, each property would need to be within its own LLC. For example, if you put 12 properties in an LLC, then yes, they’re separated from your personal finances, but they’re not separated from each other. Meaning, if someone sues you, they can go after your entire portfolio.

Mr. ODA and I have discussed grouping a few houses in different LLCs, but we don’t see the benefit of the costs that go along with it. There are fees to form the LLC, put properties into the LLC, and then an annual fee ($50 in Virginia). We have an LLC for the two properties we have with a partner, but we went a different way for the properties that we own ourselves. We pay $250 annually for a Commercial Liability Umbrella Policy (CLUP).

CLUP

A Commercial Liability Umbrella Policy (CLUP) extends the limits of your primary liability insurance policies. Our CLUP is through State Farm, but our individual policies are not necessarily through State Farm. There are many nuances to how it works; for instance, you cannot have a CLUP on top of commercial liability insurance. We have individual personal insurance policies on all our houses, required to cover $500k, so we can have the CLUP extend those coverages. Each property is listed in the CLUP, even the ones we have with a partner because our ownership had to be at least 50% for it to be covered (which it is).

While the cost will vary based on each scenario and coverage, we pay $250 annually for a $2 million policy. Every 3 years, we’re expected to weigh in on our policy, which includes sending individual homeowners insurance policy documents, each policy’s 3 year loss report, and current pictures of the front and back of each house to our agent. We’ve only had one claim on a property, and that was a car accident that took out our air conditioner in House 1.

CREATING A PARTNERSHIP

We do have an LLC that has two houses in it, but that’s because we own them with a partner.

There’s a cap of 10 mortgages that an individual (or a couple, in our case) can have. When we reached that threshold, we asked our friend and Realtor about other houses we were interested in. Our Realtor purchased two houses as an individual, and then we put them in an LLC to give us ownership. After the first house purchase, we had our real estate attorney set up an LLC. Then after the second house closed, we just had to add that house to the same LLC.

When our partner went under contract on the first house, we created an agreement with him. We owed him half of the down payment and closing costs to be 50% partners on the property. At the time, we didn’t have the cash liquid, and he agreed to allow us to pay him monthly, with interest. So he paid the funds-to-close, and we structured an amortization schedule at the market rate to pay him back. It only took us two months to pay him the balance based on our cash flow, which equated to about $44 in interest for him.

I now manage most of the maintenance, collect all of the rent, pay all of the bills except the mortgage payments that our partner has on automatic billing, and pay him out his 50% share each month.

SETTING UP AN LLC

To establish the LLC, we paid our real estate attorney $393 (split 50/50 with our partner). We answered a few questions, and then we met in their office to sign the paperwork during a half hour meeting. The attorney handled filing all the paperwork with the state and were set up as the “Registered Agent.” A Registered Agent is an individual or business entity that accepts tax and legal documents on behalf of your business.

A year after the LLC was established, I received a bill from the attorney’s office. The bill was for $100 – comprised of $50 for the LLC fee from the state and $50 for the attorney processing the payment. If you’ve read more than one of the posts in this blog, you’ll know that wasn’t going to fly; we don’t pay extra for things that we can do ourselves. I started researching the purpose of a Registered Agent and who could serve as such a person, and I found out it’s not required to be an attorney.

I outlined my proposal to our business partner, and he agreed that we didn’t need to have the Registered Agent as the attorney. He would prefer his other LLCs be managed through them so nothing gets missed, but since I keep a pretty well organized business, I have mechanisms in place that will trigger a reminder of payment if I don’t receive the bill in the mail. We paid the $50 processing fee that year, and then I filed a change with the State Corporation Commission to eliminate the middle man.

LLC AFFECTS

One of the concerns with putting a new mortgage into an LLC was that the bank could “call” the mortgage through the “due on sale” clause. A due-on-sale clause is a provision in a loan that enables lenders to demand that the remaining balance of a mortgage be paid in full if the property is sold or transferred. Transferring a mortgage to the LLC risks triggering the “due on sale” clause, although there were historically very few times a lender would call the mortgage due to an LLC transfer.

Another weird nuance to owning a property in an LLC is that homeowners insurance companies charge more for the same house, with the same human clients, simply because its ownership is placed in an LLC compared to in personal names. For example, after we transferred one of our properties to LLC ownership, the same company increased our annual rate from $484 to $874. We have not been able to figure this one out. Presumably, the biggest source of risk to an insurer is the fact that the people living in the house are not the owners, although when we don’t have a house in an LLC, the insurance company still knows that it’s used as a rental. If there’s anyone out there that can help us understand this behind the scenes insurance nuance, please drop the info in the comments. We were able to find an insurance company with a reasonable price, but it’s still an odd nuance.


For our risk tolerance, we’ve decided that a CLUP is enough coverage in the event of a catastrophe ($500k in regular insurance plus $2M in umbrella). We haven’t established any other LLCs because the cost of establishing individual LLCs is more than we want to take on. However, we did use an LLC where we needed to establish a joint property ownership and be able to legitimately claim expenses for tax purposes. We have two houses, both of which are with the same partner, in one LLC.

Hear more from Mrs. ODA

Back in May, I was a guest on Maggie Germano’s Podcast, “The Money Circle.” I shared some of our background and how we started investing in real estate. We brushed on topics like establishing an LLC, tax advantages, and how you don’t need to start big to just get started. It was a brand new experience for me, but I’m passionate about our real estate experiences, and I loved being able to share. I hope you’ll check it out!

Home Inspection Clause

I’ve mentioned that you shouldn’t be afraid to [legally] walk away from a contract on a house that isn’t going to work. I thought it would be fun to run through the duds (houses) that we walked away from and why, but first, what is the home inspection clause and how does it work?

The home inspection contingency is a clause within the real estate contract that allows the prospective buyer to enter the home and inspect it before closing. The clause usually has an expiration date on it, meaning the inspection and any negotiations need to be done within X days of the contract ratification (ratification is once all parties have signed). I would recommend using a professional to look at the house, versus you thinking you can find the signs of a major a problem. It will cost you 1-2 hours of time and about $300-$600.

It’s important to note that even if a house is sold “as is,” you can still inspect it, ask for corrections, and/or walk away from the contract. “As-is” just means that the buyer should not enter the contract with the intent of the seller doing anything for them. But really, anything in life is negotiable, right?

Additionally, putting a home inspection clause in the contract doesn’t mean you have to perform a home inspection. So put the clause in there as a means to ‘escape’ if you need it.

THE LEGAL LANGUAGE

I was going to share a screenshot of one of our contracts, but the home inspection section is over a page long, so I’ll paraphrase. The contract was subject to a home inspection, and the Purchaser had to “provide the seller with all inspection reports, cost of repairs and Purchaser’s written repair request no later than 10 days after the Date of Ratification.” It continues to state that the inspection is paid for by the Purchaser, and the Purchaser cannot require the Seller to perform any inspection or pay for it. Then there is an outline for how long each party has to review the request and return it to the other party (e.g., negotiation period). Finally, there’s the clause that allows the Purchaser to walk away.

In one of our Kentucky contracts, it also states that all inspections must be ordered and paid for by the Buyer, and that the Seller must provide reasonable access to the property to perform inspections. Interestingly, the Kentucky contract focuses heavily on removing any responsibility from the Realtor(s) during the inspection process. I hadn’t noticed that nuance before, and now I’m curious how much has gone wrong in Kentucky that there are several sentences along the lines of “The parties hereto release the above Realtors and real estate companies from, and waive, any and all claims arising out of or connected with any services or products provided by any vendor.”

The Kentucky contract’s home inspection contingency is as follows. “The BUYER hereby agrees that he/she has inspected the property and hereby accepts the property and its improvements in its present “AS-IS” condition; with no warranties, expressed or implied, by SELLER and/or Realtors. BUYER may have the property inspected and may declare the contract null and void, with earnest money returned to the BUYER, by notifying SELLER or SELLER’s agent in writing within 15 days from contract acceptance. Failure to have inspection and notify SELLER or SELLER’s agent in writing within said time shall constitute a waiver of this inspection clause and an acceptance of the property in its “as-is” condition. The time frame established in this paragraph is an absolute deadline.”

I’ll say it again: I applaud Virginia’s plain language use in their contract templates. While the home inspection clause is lengthy in Virginia’s template, it’s written in an easy way to read and understand, unlike this Kentucky paragraph. I’ve also read New York’s template, and it’s even more painful to read and is written in legal jargon.

Quick aside. Virginia is a “buyer beware” state. This means that the seller does not have to disclose anything about the condition of the property to you. Whereas Kentucky requires the seller to fill out a form that identifies all known issues. Know the requirements where you’re purchasing/selling.

THE INSPECTION

Remember that you need to have the inspection completed and the inspector’s report written up with enough time for you to review it with your Realtor and decide how to proceed (e.g., ask the seller for repairs), all within the timeframe established in the contract (e.g., 10 days from ratification). If you want the house inspected, you should look to hire that individual within the first day of ratifying the contract.

When you hire a home inspector, they’re going to look through the house and identify any deficiencies. They’re looking at all the major mechanics of the house, identifying any safety issues, recommending repair/replacement, and making note of items that aren’t currently a concern but may develop into one. You should have a good understanding of the house’s foundation, roof, plumbing, HVAC, electricity, and appliances through the inspection.

While it’s not required for you to be there during the whole inspection, I’ve found it to be more helpful if you are. We’ve done it where we were present through the entire thing, but there’s a lot of down time for that, and we’ve been there just for the end to get a walk through of the findings. If you’re not there to see it in person, the pictures and explanations may not be completely clear.

The inspector will provide you with a detailed report within a couple of days of the inspection, which has pictures of the deficiencies and possibly an estimated cost of repair. The issue could be as small as paint imperfections, or as big as a structural issue. Here are some examples we’ve had on homes we did purchase.

BUYER’S NEXT STEPS

  • You can accept the deficiencies identified and take no further action. Sometimes there’s a contract addendum that’s required where you state you completed the home inspection and are requesting nothing from it.
  • You can request repairs from the seller, or you can negotiate the contract price to compensate for the deficiencies. The seller is unlikely to address superficial notes (e.g., painting), but may take notice for any major issues (e.g., gutters, roofing, HVAC). You can request the seller to repair any item from the list, but understand that you’ll catch more bees with honey. If you submit every item to them, they’re more likely to say no to many items on the list, and you no longer hold the control of what’s getting fixed. If you provide a short list that appears important, they’re probably going to accept the repair list. The list should be formally submitted (i.e., signatures) to the seller, and the seller should have to sign the list, agreeing to the repairs, within a certain period of time. As good practice, the buyer should be walking the property within a day or two of closing; you want to verify that the house is still in working order and the same condition as when you signed the contract to purchase. We did have an issue where the seller was not performing the tasks agreed to on the home inspection request form, and we had to make a few trips to the house to ensure it got done.
  • In extreme cases, you can invoke the termination clause and walk away from the contract. We did this on a house that several maintenance issues that were deferred and a structural issue; on another house that had several issues that were fixed poorly and one tenant showed us a huge mold issue in a closet; and on another house that had fire damage that was never fixed. Sometimes the seller will request the home inspection report. It’s a service you paid for, so you’re not required to provide it (but check your contract language to verify you’re not required to turn it over).

HOME INSPECTION MINDSET

If fatal flaws are uncovered through the inspection, you may feel like you’re committed once you’ve spent $500 on a home inspection; think of it in terms of how much you’ll save in headaches and costs down the road fixing all the things that you were made aware of through that process. Real estate investing is a business, and sometimes there are just costs of doing business that may not feel good, but are worth you moving forward in a positive direction in the long run. Just know that the home inspection contingency is a tool in your tool belt as a buyer.