Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Don't Get Me Wrong - Austin Still Exists If You Pay Attention

I've been doggin' on the new Austin, Indeed, it's not the same. But last Sunday, Tammy, Elizabeth and I headed over to Zavala Elementary School with our lawn chairs, scouted out a spot on Second Street next to a couple of lazy dogs behind a fence, and watched a parade!

Not just any kind of a parade, but an awesome, disorganized, and what would seem weird to the Governor of Indiana kind of parade. It was the HonkTX parade. A lazy, ambling, colorful, mixed up and underachieving marching band parade.

I love this because literally all walks of life were there. A nice older couple stood by me. Nothing weird about them at all. There were parents and children who arrived in luxury cars. There were Mexicans still carrying their palms from the neighborhood Catholic Church's Palm Sunday Service. There were gay men and some motorcycle cops who looked too fat to ride bikes. There were girls with dogs, and babies in strollers, and little kids running right down the middle of the parade. And there were crazy colorful bands and dancers and jugglers and roller derby girls handing out kazoos.

And there were floats!!  I especially loved this float, made on top of a flatbed trailer. It was very small town of them. The only difference is a group of people pushed it along rather than a pick-up pulling it along. If you look closely, you'll see a dad, carrying a tiny baby, pushing the float.

It was Austin being Austin. I'm sorry more of you newcomers didn't make it out for the parade. Ironically, a girl from Minneapolis told me about it. She gets immediate Austin cred for that. 

Tammy and I are band nerds. We both excelled in our high school bands. I played the clarinet and oboe, and she played the trumpet. This was our kind of Sunday; even if the bands didn't march in time, or really care that their uniforms weren't pressed and neat. In fact, let's ditch that uniform word and just give these crazy street musicians props for some awesome costumes.  Also, there's no age discrimination in these bands. Old and young mix it up in East Austin!

Check it.

If it weren't for Sundays like this and crazy festivals like HonkTX, I would ditch Austin altogether and just move to the country permanently. It's these little slices of communal fun that make this city special. All walks of life show up to celebrate, and as the bands march away, the crowd steps in behind them and follows the joy. 

You should check out HonkTX next year. It's not quite as weird as Eeyore's Birthday Party or QueerBomb, so nobody's going to get offended, and if you do, you need to go away right now. Everyone else, follow the band...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Yes - Size Matters

In 2010, I thought that I could move back to Austin and forget about the country. I told myself that I never wanted to mow another over-sized lawn or cut up another fallen tree. I moved right into the heart of the city and eventually bought a nice little condo with a small courtyard. Any wilderness around here is sliced wide open with a steady stream of traffic.

Even with the sudden crush of people and cars, I was happy to pay ridiculously high HOA fees to have someone else do the mowing. Tammy had a big house with a big yard. But it was suburbia. Given the choice between the burbs and the city, I would still take the city. Tammy handles suburbs better than me, but you see that picture up there with the stream of traffic? It's coming from the burbs. So, Tammy needs no convincing that the perfect balance is to keep the tiny courtyard, but also buy the wilderness back. I've had 4 years to realize I'm too tired during the week to care about my yard, but I am all about a weekend with a chainsaw.

That's a leap! How much land is too much land?

It depends on the person looking for land, but I would say, "More than 5, less than 30." I realize that's a stretch, but here are the things to consider as you start getting serious about a land purchase.

  1. How anti-social are you?  Personally, I can be pretty reclusive and introverted. I'm going for as much land as I can get so that I can keep people as far away from me as I can.
  2. Do you like to laze on the weekends?  You're a 5 acre owner. You don't want much to manage because you know that land is WORK. A nice little weekend getaway is all you really need.
  3. You know that money thing I had you do?  We did a little net worth exercise a few blog entries ago. I think most people who are really serious about getting away from it all are going to fall into the 10 - 15 acre set. You WANT 30 acres, but like me, you can't really afford 30 acres within driving distance of the city. Start looking for small acreage that isn't just an oversized lot.

Day trips are nice, but spend the night, then start with the internet

I'm all about taking a day trip to some slightly remote place about an hour away from Austin. And I would seriously warn against buying a big ol' piece of property in some place you've only driven through. Take a few over nighters and make sure you can really handle the culture of that little town or area. Rural cultures vary greatly.

Once you find an area you like, use real estate website that specializes in land. Here are a couple of sites you can use:

I'm sure there's a "lands of" for many states, but I'm in Texas, so I use that site. Use the Advanced Land Search feature to drill your search down by price, price per acre, acreage (size), property type, listing type, and additional options.  You can also search by location or region or county.

If you did your financial homework, it's the place to start. Plug in your price range and property type, and you'll see very quickly what's available for your budget. In our case, we searched for only acreage. We had a pretty good idea of what land cost an acre, so we could hone our search down pretty fast. Just take your time. Look around. Then take another drive if you find something you fall in love with. Do a drive-by before you call the listed agent.

Tip: Small acreage costs more per acre than large acreage. For example, 5 acres may be $15,000 per acre, but 15 acres may be $8,000 per acre.

O.K., then! You know a little about financing, and now you have a basic idea about how to search for land.  So my final tip is this: Do NOT drive a Prius when huting for land. It's shameful, and you'll get the thing stuck.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Trouble with the Toilet...

We need to talk about something before I guide you too far into this search for land and bucolic days lounging on a porch swing.  The bathroom. We need to talk about the bathroom.  When Tammy and I bought our land, I thought it was understood that raw land meant no bathroom. Somehow, Tammy failed to grasp this.

This set up a dilemma. More for her than me, but the secondary fallout of my partner freaking out, is that I have to figure out how to make roughing it comfortable, safe from creepy crawlies, and sanitary.

The trouble with the toilet is that we don't have one on our land.

We can dig a hole

Our ancestors settled in the very area that we now call our country get-a-way. I'm pretty sure that there was no toilet on the land in 1890. I have always known that the first days of owning 12 acres would mean primitive camping only. 

1. We can buy a toilet seat and attach it to a five gallon paint bucket, and call it The Ladies Room. This property is so wooded that it would be easy to hide a makeshift pot in some bushes. However, even I don't like that idea. I have no desire to cart my own waste back to Austin and gently poor it into my flushing toilet.  Nix this idea now.

2. Dig a hole and build an old fashion outhouse around it. Personally, I think this is a perfectly good idea. It would have been cutting edge technology in the late 1800s. If my great-great-great-great grandmother could do it, then so can I. I mean, she wore this long, heavy white dress. The logistics of going at all, in that dress, are hard enough. Tammy, on the other hand, must have come from evolved space aliens who had a modern European toilet on the mother ship. She nixed this idea.

Clear some land, drink some beer, clear some land, buy some gas

I really hate this idea, but it may be the one that wins it. Once the lack of toileting facilities came to the forefront of our land development planning, Tammy reduced our weekend trips to one day. This does not mean I can keep a roll of toilet paper in the pickup for squats behind a yaupon. It means frequent trips to Round Top. It means we will make a stop every two hours or so to go grab a beer and some pizza. Then we might need to run to the gas station for some more chainsaw gas...

In other words, we won't get much done.  I like to get shit done. But this idea holds heavy sway over the other half.


My mom lives about 30 minutes from our new property. I threw this out as possibility should we want to spend an entire weekend working on the land. Tammy asked a very good question.

"How often does your mother want to see us?"
"Not that often."

This one's off the table.

Buy a camper

1. We can't afford a camper. Tents will have to do.

2. We need electricity to power the pump that pumps the running water, we don't have, from the tank to the toilet in the camper. 

A no go.

Anybody want to rough it with me?

I'll buy the beer!

Has reality set in?

I'm talking about just one thing. A toilet. If you like your fine modern comforts, please consider that you will have to figure out potty time if you buy land.

It's a big deal, y'all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Land Hunt - Let's Start with Financing, Part 2

By now, you've read enough blog entries to figure out that I think your financial health is very important if you're going to buy property. Whether it's your first house or a second home or land, money matters. You don't have to be rich, you just have to be responsible. Part of being responsible is about being honest with yourself. What does your financial situation look like today? What will it look like after you sign those closing papers?

Super simple. If your finances look like crap right now, they're going to get flushed if you buy property. So, maybe it's not time. But maybe you're not sure... Do this exercise:

My Net Worth

Why do this? Because the bank will make you do it anyway. If you default on your mortgage or land loan, they want to know you have something of value. Why? Because they'll slap a lien on it if they have to! Basically, we're talking about collateral. Or net worth. The good news? You don't have to have a bunch of cash in the bank to buy land. The reality? You DO have to have something you could sell to make some cash available. This is a ridiculously simplified explanation, but you get the drift. And to be clear, I'm writing for the novice. Young folks looking to establish themselves. You old farts can go listen to Dave Ramsey or something.

Make a grid or chart, and start listing what you owe, and what you're worth (what you're worth will include equity in existing property, cash in the bank, life insurance, savings, retirement, etc.). Your worksheet could look something like this:

Although you can't cash out Life Insurance if it's a Term Policy, and you wouldn't want to touch retirement, list them anyway. I hope it never happens, but should you die, those policies and accounts can pay off your loan.

Oh my God, Christy, you're morbid!

I'm a realist!  It's never too early to make a will. If you start buying property; including a home, get yourself a will! Make sure you spell out exactly who gets your stuff!  If you have a spouse or kids or partner, make sure they inherit your property!  If they are the beneficiaries of your life insurance and retirement money, then they'll use it to pay off the property. I do not want to die and leave Tammy strapped with all of the bills - including mortgages and land payments.  Do get over your immortal self and make sure your worksheet includes money that only pays out if you die.

So... do this little exercise. If you have a positive number in the bottom right cell, and it's bigger than a land payment, you're lookin' good!  Stay tuned for tips on how to find the perfect property!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Land Hunt - Let's Start with Financing, Part 1

Monday, I gave you several things to consider before you start your hunt for a country property. I was surprised at the number of people who actually took it to heart. I was trying to be funny and only slightly serious, but I guess more of you would like to do this property thing than I thought! So if you haven't read my bits of country wisdom and considerations, go ahead and do it. That's really Step 1.

Now Let's Talk About Money

Money is the biggest hurdle most of you will encounter. Just like buying a house, you need to have your financing secured before you can close the deal. If you're not sure how much you can afford, go ahead and pre-qualify. You're not committed to anything. You're just getting the "yes" or "no" out of the way before you get your heart set on a little piece of paradise. If you know you'll qualify for a loan, then waiting is fine. Tammy and I waited until we found the property we wanted to buy. 

Whether you pre-qualify or wait, you need to know that not every bank is right for land loans. Small town banks get it. They do it all the time. Wells Fargo and Chase may not be your best bet. If you can finance in the same county you're going to buy in, even better. The local bankers know exactly how much that land is worth, and if it's worth a loan. Otherwise, check out Capital Farm Credit, and larger banks that specialize in agricultural and land loans. Tammy and I are using Round Top State Bank because our land is about 5 miles from that little, but powerful, and really local bank. 

What's up with this bubba banking?

1. Land rarely loses value. That's because God ain't makin' no more of it. Bubba bankers know that your land is golden; even if your credit score isn't.
2. Just like a house loan, the bank will run comps on the property. How in the hell will a banker in Austin know what a comparable piece of land looks like 60 miles away? 
3. What's a comp? Comparable value. In other words, if you're buying a $100,000 piece of land that compares to a bunch of $50,000 pieces of land, the bank will say, "no, forget it."
4. Them good ol' boy bankers also know you'll probably build a house on that land one day, and they know you'll come straight back to their friendly offices to finance that house, too. No questions asked.
5. And this is for me and Tammy. Bubba bankers say, "yes, ma'am." They're just nice people.

Land Loans Look Different

Yes. They do. I called around before we decided on a bank to finance our land. I already knew that land was not going to deliver the same interest rate as a house. The rate would be higher. It was just a matter of who would have the best deal for financing the land and then refinancing when we wanted a house. We went with Round Top State Bank. They offer land loans with 5 year Adjustable Rate Mortgages, better known as ARMs. We don't have a balloon note (NEVER DO A BALLOON NOTE!!!!! e.v.e.r.). We did this rather than a higher fixed 20 year rate because we know we'll build in the next 5 years. We are starting with the lowest rate we could find, and that's great as we develop our land.

Land loans also look kind of like a personal loan. So the paperwork is not as lengthy. Of course, we didn't borrow near as much as we would to buy a house. We're not talking high rollin', here. Here's what we needed, and you'll need, too.

1. 3 years of tax returns.
2. A few recent paycheck stubs
3. List of debts (mortgage, cars, credit cards, etc.)
4. The usual personal info, like social security and driver's license. 

Very quickly, a small town bank gave us a positive signal.

In my next post, I'll give you an example of the "Assets and Liabilities" worksheet we had to do to seal the deal. I think you should go ahead and do this before seeking loan qualification or even pre-qualification. It's a great way to get a solid picture of your own worth.

So until next time, start checking out the local, small town banks and farm credit unions near the area you want to buy land.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Are You Meant for the Country?

I talk to so many urban dwellers who dream of owning a country property, but I'm learning that most have no idea where to start.  I think the very first question you have to ask yourself is, "Am I meant for the country?"  You may be thinking, "Of course! Why else would I want a getaway?"

It's not that simple, y'all. Let's consider a few things. My goal is to leave you confused. Unsure of your desire to own a little piece of rural heaven.

Let's get started!

You say "yellow" I say "yeller"

This is more of a statement than a point of consideration:  You CANNOT go to the country and act like a city dweller. You must learn to blend in. Ask yourself this very important question - Do you know how to shape your cowboy hat?

Right way to shape a hat

Bet you don't.
Better learn. It will give you away, no matter how many times you say "yeller."

Wrong way to shape a hat

Do you own Old Gringo boots rather than Justin or Tony Lama?
Don't wear those things to Walmart. Yes. I said Walmart. There is no Target, Central Market, Whole Foods, or Lowe's in the country. You make due with the cheap stuff.  Can you manage going into evil Walmart? Not one of your neighbors will have a single problem with it. In fact, it's possible one of them works there.

Do you hold the door open for people?
You don't belong in the country if you don't. You will never be respected.

Have you ever mowed your own lawn?
If not, do not pass "go," do not sign that contract.
Your mower will be a tractor. You may have to use a chainsaw. Your hands will get beaten all to hell. You'll get  a tick in your armpit. And your neighbor will laugh at you when you back your trailer into a ditch. 

Are you humble and respectful of others?  Do you say "yes, ma'am?"
Ok. This is the heart of the matter. You are a gracious guest, and that's all you'll ever be. Country folks tend to be a little closed and suspicious. They like to gossip and may see a half empty glass where you're concerned. Be prepared to take it. If you think you can bring your refined ways to the country, you may be very unhappy. Some rural settings are tolerant of city ways. Others are not. 

So, there are some cultural considerations.  Let's move on to a few practicalities.

Twenty percent down

Buying your first acreage is not like buying your first house.  Land is always a conventional loan. No question, you will put down 20%. If you have the cash to buy outright, then awesome, but I suspect most of my readers will finance. Get that money put aside before you start looking.

How often are you planning to visit this country paradise?  If it's more than 4 times a year, don't look further than 90 miles away. You are dead on Friday. You're only good for about an hour and half of driving.

How hard are you willing to work on Saturday? And how early are you willing to get up to do it?
I ask those questions together because you will work very hard. And it will get very hot very soon, so you'll get up like a farmer. If you like to laze around on the weekends, you can stop reading now. 

If you are wealthy, and you can buy a turnkey property with a house, manicured ponds, perfect pastures and woodlands, then you don't need my advice. If you're like me, you're buying a raw piece of land.

What do you mean by "raw," Christy?

No electricity on the property.
No running water on the property.
No driveway or road.
No toilets.
No house.
No nothing.

Do you have a plan and/or the resources to turn "no" into "yes?"

I could go on and on, but this would be a novel; not a super long blog post. Keep following my posts, and I'll drill down into the "how to" of purchasing land. Today, I just want you to think about who you are, how you'll adapt to rural culture, and whether you have what it takes to work like a pioneer.

Stay tuned... or start looking for a timeshare.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

9 Reasons Why Tammy and Christy Are Still Country Girls

Although we didn’t know each other in the early 1990’s, that’s the time we both moved to Austin. Tammy was a young dental hygienist who picked up her Yoakum, Texas roots and came to Austin for work and… I don’t know… up living maybe? I was fresh out of graduate School at Texas A&M, and regardless of my fancy advanced degree, Texas A&M was still pretty countrified at the time. It wasn’t far from my hometown of Giddings, either. I came to Austin to become a famous writer, and I was convinced that Austin was where it would happen. We were two seriously good examples of “country comes to town.”

A few decades and a whole lotta reality checks later, we are still in Austin, and Austin has grown up to become a REAL city.  It’s the maturing of this city that amplified the fact that Tammy and Christy are still country girls. We want to go home. Go live in a little tiny patch of ruraldom and just be who we are.

How on earth could two gay women want go live in rural Texas? I think most people would say that’s suicide. See the headlines – “Liberal lesbians found dead in a stock pond.”

It’s not like that, y’all. It’s not San Mateo County living, but it’s not that dangerous. For twelve of the past 20+ years, I lived in the country. I got lonely and came back to Austin. And that’s about the only reason I returned. By casual observation, you might think I’m pretty refined. I like the theater, I like the ballet, I can spot a fraudulent wine list in a so called elite restaurant in one half second, I’m in management in techy Austin, and I bought a condo just east of downtown in the latest hip and up-and-coming part of the city. Tammy, on the other hand, exudes rural southern charm. She still listens to Sirius XM “Prime Country” and “Y2K Country.” She tries really hard to listen to my “First Wave,” but she just can’t go there for long. However, when I met Tammy, she drove a BMW Z3 Roadster. That is not a countrified car. She has good taste in home d├ęcor and clothing. She makes a good living in Austin. I’m not even sure rural dentists even hire hygienists. Therefore, at first glance, you’re not going to think we just rolled in from some Podunk place far beyond the Austin city limits.

Here are our giveaways

1.      Tammy likes Miller Lite
We are within walking distance of the WhipIn and a cornucopia of craft beer, yet Tammy prefers cheap, watery beer in a longneck. Sometimes I call her a cheap date.

2.      Christy still drives a Ford F150
I traded in my old F150 for a new one. I sit in traffic over and hour a day. I get 15.3 miles to the gallon. I don’t care. I may need to haul something.

3.      Christy and Tammy move the furniture in the living room to make their own dancehall dancefloor
Actually, we recommend more couples do this. It’s cheaper than the Broken Spoke, the crowd is more authentic, and nobody makes fun of you for drinking Miller Lite.

4.      We have a dog named Ellie Mae
Ellie Mae is old and fat and stinky. I found her in a ditch on a country back road. She really looks her best when she’s napping on a front porch in the country. She IS an Ellie Mae.

5.      We get stressed thinking that we won’t find enough dewberries in Austin vacant lots to make a cobbler
I sometimes take a lunch hike on the hill behind my fancy office. I’ve seen the vines, so if I time it right, I’ll pick every dewberry back there, and I. will. not. tell. anybody where I found them. I will not share.

6.      We are extremely competitive while shooting a can with a BB gun
We’re both good shots. Please. Don’t get all wussy whiney about our BB gun marksmanship. We’re from the country. It’s a fact.

7.      We scoff at Oysters on the Half Shell that cost $4 each
That’s just dumb. You can get a dozen Gulf Coast Oysters on the Half Shell for $13. They set up very nicely on a saltine.

8.      We fight over who gets to use the power tools
In the country, there is no such thing as calling a repair man who will arrive in less than 24 hours. You fix your own stuff.

9.      Between us, we own 10 pairs of cowboy boots
Country girls would just as soon wear a pair of boots as wear a pair of house shoes. Surprisingly, the only pair we fight over are these:

Let me wrap up by telling y’all that I spend my computer time shopping for a new chainsaw. I have happy dreams about spending my weekend cutting up fallen trees on our country property. Tammy dreams about scratching the neighbor horses on the nose. And sometimes we have discussions about how to maintain a septic system. But if you saw us having lunch as Enoteca, I guarantee you would not be able to pick us out. …mostly because Enoteca doesn’t serve Miller Lite.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's So Nice to Meet You

“There should be a movie about dentistry. I don’t want to do it anymore."

Tammy  said this to me.

It’s such a universal feeling. Fill in the blank, and you might be saying the same thing about your life.
“There should be a movie about ‘blank.’ I don’t want to do it anymore.”

 This is a blog about two girls trying to give that movie a happy ending.

We live in Austin, Texas. You think that’s cool. You think it’s a laid back, hip place to live, and you probably think we have absolutely no reason to want out.  …but we do.  It’s not that kind of Austin anymore. At least, it’s not that kind of Austin for two country girls who moved here when this place was just a big, happy town. If you ask me, Austin has become San Francisco junior. Ever been there?  I think the Bay City has a very cool vibe veneer. However, I know that if I’m there long enough, I start to feel the disillusion, the frustration, the cramped territorialism, and the stress. The incredible stress.

People from San Francisco, LA, New York, Philadelphia, and  just about everywhere else in the nation flooded into Austin. They came for job opportunities, a better cost of  living and  the friendly, laid back vibe. The problem is this: they forgot to leave their stress and aggression at home. They forgot to pop their tiny isolation bubbles and open up and be warm and kind and Austin-like. We think Austin has disappeared. We think it’s time to go home to the country; if not permanently, then at least on the weekends.

This is a blog about our lives. Our movement towards peace, happiness, joy, and something that feels real.

We’re two girls. We’re Christy and Tammy.  You’ll get to know us as I write, but for now, know that we are a lesbian couple looking for that perfect balance between the city and the country. We’ll tell you our stories as we go along. Check out our personal pages to get to know us better. We’ll let you journey with us as we make a solid life for ourselves in a state that refuses to recognize us.  

You’ll get to visit us in our 1300 square foot condo in downtown Austin. You’ll get to ride along in our pickup as we head for Carmine, Texas to turn our heavily wooded, raw piece of land into a country home.  We hope we pass along some good ideas, and we hope that we  inspire you to create your own paradise from wherever you are.