Monday, January 26, 2009

How to sell your home when the real estate market is dead in the water

In the small village of Sequim, Washington, 237 homes were for sale in the month of August, 1997. And how many sales were made that month? Just one. The real estate agents were no longer looking for listings. The only solution was to sell the home myself.

First, I decided to make the sale of this home my full time job. The locals were not buying so I had to snare someone from out of the area, perhaps even out of the state. The challenge was to pull travelers off Highway 101 (at that time, Sequim’s main street) and bring them six blocks north, one block west, another three blocks north, and then west on Williamson Lane. I stocked up on real estate signs and frames, poster board, arrows, stick-on letters, and bought two dozen helium-filled balloons every day.

We parked our Lexus on 101, facing west, and the Buick on the far side of the main stop light, facing west. Both cards had signs and balloons and messages that were changed daily. One day they would say “Cozy home priced below the market.” Another day “Owner will finance” and the day after that, “Custom Home with Shop!” When the traveler turned north, he could see our Mazda up ahead, with more balloons and a sign that said “Left at the next corner for the biggest little home in Sequim!” More signs, more balloons, more arrows, until the traveler rolled up to the pickup parked out in front.

Twenty-seven days later we sold our home to a couple from Wisconsin who had just been passing through. They had not planned to buy a home in this area until the following year but—mesmerized by the signs and balloons—they followed the arrows. After payment details were discussed, they purchased our home on Williamson Lane for list price.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How to cut your rent to $100 a month by living off the grid

I grew up during the 1930s in an uninsulated 20- x 20-foot tarpaper shack along the Minnesota-Ontario border. My job was to carry the water from a neighborhood well, split and carry in wood, and carry out garbage and waste water. Illumination came from kerosene lanterns. There was a path instead of a bath, and we used the Chic Sale even when the temperature dropped to 48 degrees below zero.

So then, are electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating and hot and cold water absolute necessities? Of course not, as any serious camper will confirm. On the other hand, I am not advocating a permanent return to the simple life, although in OFF THE GRID: Living and traveling in a van, truck, or converted cargo trailer, I do talk about one couple who did just that.

If you are in the process of losing your home, rent some shack or outbuilding from a farmer for as little as $100 a month. Rent one of those portable toilets that you see at construction sites, and haul your own water in 5-gallon jugs. You can buy cheap camping equipment at a thrift store or find it advertised on Craigslist. Millions of Americans lived like this during the Great Depression and many of us didn’t even feel deprived. Go ahead and try it during the coming summer months. Tell the kids it will be a grand adventure!

Monday, January 12, 2009

How to hide both your true name and your sex when you run an Internet business

Susie—a long-time student of How to Be Invisible— runs a Web site that has to do with buying, selling and repairing old outboard motors. She uses a man’s name (I’ll call him John) because she believes—rightly or wrongly—that anyone interested in old outboards might pay her less attention if they knew she was a woman.

She lists only a mailing address (a “ghost” address) and an e-mail address on her site. From time to time, she receives a request via e-mail for a phone number so that the sender can speak with John personally. If you were in this position, how would you respond to such a request?

In Susie’s case, she e-mails back that she [“John”] does business only by snail mail and e-mail. That reply normally suffices. However if the request involves what appears to be an emergency, she e-mails the man for his telephone number and then calls him from a cell phone with ID blocking.

“John is not here today,” she says, “but I can solve your problem,” and of course she can, because she owns the business. Remember, she has not revealed her own telephone number so there will be no possibility of the man ever calling her back.

But what if a caller insists upon a phone number so he can call John another day? Should that ever happen, Susie—who is determined to maintain her privacy—is prepared with an answer:

“Unfortunately, sir, John is completely deaf, which is why he uses only e-mail or snail mail. But he sure knows a lot about old outboard motors, doesn’t he!”

Monday, January 5, 2009

How to buy an untraceable laptop

You can buy a new laptop on the Internet, at Costco, at Best Buy, or at any office supply store. Suppose you order online from a company like Dell. If you pay by credit card, is that card in your name? If so you can be traced. The same goes for a check—if that check can be traced back to you, you can be identified.

Costco: You must use a Costco card. If that card belongs to you, you can be traced.

Best Buy, Office Depot, or Office Max (preferably a branch where you have never shopped before). Pay cash and do not give them any information. No name, no address, no telephone number.

What about returning it? I recently returned a Sony Vaio to Best Buy and they refused to refund in cash. “I paid you guys in cash,” I said, “and I expect to get cash in return. Call the manager.” The manager showed up. He pointed out in the extremely fine print on my receipt that all purchases over $250 must be sent by check from the company headquarters. If this had been your problem, would you have given them your true name so that the check could be deposited or cashed?

As it happens, I had a backup plan—a non-interest bearing checking account in the name of a young woman who later moved back to her village in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. She left me with a notarized power of attorney, a stack of checks signed in blank, and the keys to her post office box. The refund check arrived two weeks later. I rubber-stamped the back and mailed it to her bank.

However, there is another way to get an untraceable laptop. Watch for an almost new one on Craigslist. If you find one, buy it with cash. (Warning—even though the seller says he has cleaned the files, have an expert search the hard drive again. You don’t want to have any child pornography on there, ever.)