Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Little Beauty Amidst the Doom - 10 Year Old With Incredible Voice

So, You're Going to be Homeless - Part 3 - Hitting The Road (Continued)

   Once you've scoped out a couple of good places for the night, take advantage of the daylight hours to scope out a few Saturday day-time spots for the rest of today, and for next Saturday. There may be areas and facilities available on a Saturday, that may not be suitable or available on a Sunday. Take the rest of Saturday "off" - if it's a nice day, go check out your local public park, or beach - stretch your legs, do a little walking or jogging, clear your head, relax, and enjoy the day, the free time, the fresh air, and yes, even your newly-nomadic situation.  Think about what you are going to have for dinner tonight.  Will you eat out?  Get take-out?  Drive-through at a fast-food joint?  Get a cold hero for later?  Some snacks for later?  And think about what you're going to do for entertainment this evening - read by candlelight, Coleman-type lantern or battery operated light?  Perhaps rent a DVD and watch it on your portable player - hopefully, having had the foresight to use a car-adapter to charge it and your other small electronic devices while you were driving around earlier, running the engine *anyway*..

   It's Saturday evening, you're off from work tomorrow, and it's going to be your First Night in the van, so treat yourself tonight, indulge a little - it'll lift your spirits and make you more comfortable with your new situation, and bolster your confidence that you can definitely "do this", even for an extended period - *months*, NOT weeks - and that living in your van does not have to be a miserable, unhappy existence. To the contrary, with today's modern electronics and cellular and wi-fi networks, you not only can keep yourself entertained, but engaged and connected with others.  Granted, you're not in the best of situations right now, but it's only temporary (unless you LET it become permanent), but making the best of the situation you're in, will go a long way towards keeping up your morale, your sense of "normalcy' and your ability to function in, and later, transition back to the "normal" world.

  At this point, I want to touch on a cautionary note regarding electronic devices, car-chargers, inverters, and your van's battery. First and foremost, you do NOT want to have to call "Road Service" because you ran the battery down in your vehicle.  It can be expensive, inconvenient, embarrassing and even revealing(<--<< in a negative way) when you need to summon someone to come give you  jump, in the middle of nowhere, because you fscked-up and surfed the `Net too long, losing track of your vehicle's battery capacity in the interim.  The last thing you need, is to have to get someone to give you a jump.  Not only can it be expensive and seriously inconvenient, it also can, depending on where you are when that happens, bring unwanted attention upon you and your van, quite possibly, from the Wrong People.  If you can afford to spend $75 bucks or so, the ultimate protection against your needing anyone to come give you a jump, would be to pick up one of those portable, self-contained jump-thingies they sell at auto-parts stores - just make sure you buy one that can be charged off of your cigarette-lighter socket, and not just via battery-cable or home 110v AC. Having one of these, will allow you to get yourself out of jam, should you accidentally run your vehicle's battery too far down.

   Avoid using inverters (12v DC - to - 110v AC) as they can quickly drain your battery, and tend to put a substantial load on your alternator if you're running your vehicle to power whatever 110v device you happen to be using.  Much better to stick to electronic devices that were designed for low-voltage DC use to begin with.  In other words, don't try and run a small 110v AC TV in your van off an inverter.  Instead, get a TV that was made for battery/12v DC usage to begin with.  The same goes for computers, DVD players, ect.
Whatever you run, keep the volume to a minimum or use headphones - you want your parked van to look like,..well, a parked van, and not a residence. 

   Another caveat: as night approaches, you may feel like having a few beers - after all, it'll help you sleep and relax a bit,.especially since this is your first night as a mobile professional.  Totally understandable, IMHO, especially since you figure you're parked for the night and won't be driving anywhere until the morning.  But I would strongly advise against it for a couple of reasons:   you really DON'T know if you'll have to move on later that night or in the wee hours of the morning.   If a cop rousts you and tells you to move on, and you have enough alcohol in your system to the point where passing a breathalyzer is not a given, you would either have to take the chance and hope the cop doesn't notice you aren't quite sober, (or worse yet, DOES notice and simply waits until you get in the driver's seat and start the engine before making an arrest), *or* you'd have to admit you are probably still a bit too buzzed to drive safely, in which case the cop may decide to ticket you for having open containers of alcohol in your vehicle(if you didn't dispose of all the empties before hitting the sack).  Then, there is the matter of you driving around, late at night, half asleep and not quite sober, hoping to get to your alternate parking spot without getting pulled over by another cop,...and that's assuming you simply drove off after being told to move by the first cop.

   The last thing you need, is a DUI, a ticket for open containers, or worse, getting your vehicle impounded. It may be your new temporary residence, but in most cases, the law is not on your side.  In fact, the laws are stacked against you from the git go - from that little physical address problem, to your living in a non-RV vehicle, to issues of expectations of privacy while in public,...because the law views your van no different than any regular car or truck.  RVs, however, are a different matter.  IIRC, once an RV is "encamped" (parked for the night, evidenced by things such as having it's leveling jacks down, being plugged-in to electric, water hooked-up, ect, ect), it is perfectly legal to get soused and pile up empty beer cans or booze bottles inside, to your heart's content.  Additionally, one can make the argument that the RV *IS* one's HOME (as evidenced by a full-timer's RV insurance policy,(and therefor, subject to the same privacy protections and legal protection against searches without a warrant - at least, while encamped anyway), and probably prevail in court, should it ever come down to that.  The takeaway here is, realize you're vulnerable, and act accordingly - an ounce of prevention and all that.

   Of course, you could add a small travel-trailer to your "rig", and be in a better place, both legal-wise and comfort-wise, but that still won't do much for you as long as you rely on employing the guerrilla-parkings and boon docking method as your daily routine.  At some point, you want to secure yourself a more semi-permanent arrangement with at least some rudimentary electricity, and I'll get into that in a later chapter in this series, but for now, It's just you and your van against the world ;-)

   Now where were we? Oh, yeah, turn-in for the night, and have a bit of beginner's luck - no one bothered you all night, and you actually got a decent night's sleep.  Between that little schwiggy of Nyquil, you took, the steady rythym of the traffic on the highway a half mile or so away and the realization that you don't have to worry about coming up with the rent next month, you were able to finally relax and drift off to sleep.  Not surprising, since the stress of the last couple of days had left you exhausted.  It's Sunday morning, and you head out for breakfast, choosing a place you know has a decent restroom so you can kill several birds with one stone. 

   This might be a good time, to review your intended paking spots for the night(keeping in mind that, come Monday morning, your surroundings could change considerably), and maybe do a dry-run to work, if you're not sure how long it will take you in the morning.  You might also want to pick up any "loose ends"-type stuff that you forgot or didn't realize you needed when you left your apartment that day.  A small mirror, a manual can-openener. any needed shaving supplies, candles, a few batteries, something to read in the evening (if you're so inclined), ect.  You might also wnt to pick up some inexpensive canned goods that you can eat cold, such as baked beans, ravioli, spam, tuna, fruit cocktail, pineapple slices, and small cans of chicken and ham.  For now, you'll want to avoid buying any perishables, or at least, any more perishables than you would consume in one sitting, or would consume before it goes bad.  Try to eat healthy - I know it's not easy, especially in your present circumstances, but try and avoid high-salt, high-fat, high-cholesterol types of food as much as you can.

   As Sunday draws to a close, and darkness starts to fall, decide wether you want to hit the shower at your gym club now, or wait until the morning, and set your alarm (wind-up clock or cellphone-alarm) accordingly. Heck, you might even actually hit the treadmill while you're there - not only does that help make you appear just another "normal" gym-club client, it also helps you keep fit and counterbalance some of the damage living in a cramped van and eating not-so-good take-out and canned food may be doing to your physique.  After you get cleaned up, you head for your Sunday night parking spot, not being able to remember that last time you were SO looking forward, to going to work in the morning.  The routine and normalcy will be good for you, and a welcome change from the previous 2 days.

   Next up:  Keeping Up Appearances

                                                                         Stay tuned,

Sunday, September 12, 2010

So, You're Going to be Homeless - Part 3 - Hitting The Road

   "Moving Day" is upon you, and rather then get into all that unpleasantness and public spectacle that occurs once you have Deputy Sheriffs aiding your egress, you've agreed to move out, and have spent the previous day moving the 90 or so percent of your stuff into your vehicle.  Morning has arrived - your last morning in a place with electricity, a microwave, heating and air conditioning, hot and cold running water, a toilet that flushes, and a shower.  You take advantage of these amenities one last time, grab your remaining belongings, and head out the door for the very last time.  You get in your vehicle, start it up, and after a brief pause, pull away from the curb with a deliberateness of someone heading off to work, as usual.  But it's Saturday.  And you don't work on weekends.  As you drive off, you look in the rear-view mirror, and watch, almost transfixed, as the place you once called "home", recedes in the distance.  By the time you turn the corner, it sinks in, that you really don't have any place to go right now.

   You drive down the familiar streets of a neighborhood that, up until a few minutes ago, you called yours for the past 3 years.  You get to the main road, and turn right, as you always do every weekday morning on your way to work.  It wasn't even subconscious, it was automatic.  As you drive down the main road, on a Saturday - something you rarely ever do as you've always enjoyed just staying home and relaxing on weekends - and for the moment, you're lost.  Like a GPS receiver that has missed a turn, your brain takes
a few moments to reorient itself to it's new position and heading.  You slept poorly last night.  No surprise there, so you pull into the gravel parking lot of an old,  free-standing deli, lock your vehicle, and go inside  In all the years you've lived in this town, you've never set foot in this deli, even though you passed it every day on your way to work - you`re not sure why - perhaps it's because you were always too frugal to pay $1.25 for a cup of coffee you could make at home for $.25 cents.  Once inside, you aren't surprised that no familiar faces are to be found.  Perhaps this is a Good Thing, you think to yourself, because right now, you wouldn't know what to say anyway, if you met anyone you knew.  Any casual conversation right now would be strained and awkward on your part.  You order a large coffee, pick up the newspaper for something to read, and head out back to your vehicle.

   You unlock it and get back in, just now really noticing how loaded up with stuff it is. You vow to further reduce your "Stuff I Really Want to Keep"-stockpile at your earliest opportunity.  As you sit, idly scanning the newspaper with no real intent or effort to actually read any of the news articles, you browse the real estate sections "Rooms" and "Apartments" with some interest, but see nothing, suitable or otherwise, in your price range.  You feel conflicting emotions - on the one hand, you feel relieved to be out of your apartment, and experience this weird sense of total calm,...almost serenity, although it likely more akin to the euphoria one experiences due to oxygen-deprivation, or nitrogen narcosis, rather than from anything good or healthy. In a way, you're glad it's Saturday so you have a couple of days to get yourself situated, and wrap your brain firmly around your new and strange situation, but on the other hand, you WISHED it was Monday morning, so you could just go to work, as usual, and escape, even if only for 8 brief hours, the ugliness of the outside world, or perhaps more accurately, your new place in it.

   As you finish up the last of the now luke-warm coffee, you try and take stock of your situation, but it's a little bit too early in the grieving process.  You've actually done pretty well so far - you skipped past denial and anger, and went right to acceptance.  You pull out of the parking lot, and again make a right turn onto the main road, perhaps subconsciously projecting your desire for some normalcy, by heading closer to your workplace.  Your next destination unknown to you beyond a vague idea of somewhere, anywhere, you can sit and park for an extended period of time without being bothered or bothering anyone by your presence.  You just want a couple of hours of extended, uninterrupted me-time, to formulate a real plan from the vague outline you had been rehearsing in your head for the past several weeks.

   The pity-party that had been setting up the place mats, plastic cutlery and drink cups, preparing for the festivities in your mind, is abruptly postponed, when you see a homeless man pushing a shopping cart.  As bad as your situation is, you realize some other folks are FAR worse off than you,  and you console yourself with the fact that you are far, far luckier than most.  Perhaps "luck" isn't the right word, because although you've fallen into homelessness, you haven't fallen too far, nor too hard.  You knew it was coming, and you prepared for this day the best you could with the resources you had.  You've maintained your driver's license, you car insurance, registration and inspection, your cell-phone, your PO box mailing address, and your appearance.  If you had to look for work, no one would suspect you were homeless, nor would anything unusual turn up were anyone to run background, credit or MVR checks on you - increasingly common in this age of high unemployment. 

   You knew your Honda Accord, while a great, reliable and economical vehicle, and a real asset under normal circumstances, was totally unsuitable as a residential abode-on-wheels.  Yes, you took a bath when you sold it, as the buyer, like a dog sensing fear, sensed your urgency and interpreted that as desperation.  Yes, you again took a bath when you bought your cargo van - a local contractor wanted it as well, but time was not on your side, so you offered more than it would normally have fetched.  But that's water under the bridge at this point - you're damn glad you bought it, and aren't facing a night of trying to sleep in the Accord.

   As you drive past a homeless man pushing a shopping cart, it dawns on you, that at least you have both transportation AND shelter - something the man pushing the shopping cart doesn't have.  For the first time in your formerly middle-class-cum-lower middle-class-cum-lower-class life, you say to yourself: "There, but for the grace of God, go I"  Everything is relative, and relative to the man pushing the shopping cart, you are almost rich, by comparison.  You have one other thing he(and, increasingly, many others) don't have: a JOB. Yes, your job sucks, you are underpaid, probably overworked, and undoubtedly, under appreciated.  It's little more than a subsistance job, but you have direct-deposit, and your pay, as paltry as it is, is reliably deposited into your checking account each week like clockwork.  It doesn't pay enough for you to keep a roof over your head at this time(obviously;), but it WILL keep you in food, gasoline, kerosene (for heat), propane(for cooking) with enough left over to pay your cellular bill and pay down your credit card debt.  In short, you won't freeze, starve, or default on your bills, as long as you continue to work, and continue to live in your vehicle..

   In addition to maintaining your driver's license, et al, you've also maintained your credit - or, at least, haven't trashed it yet.  Every piece of plastic in your wallet still works.  You always were the responsible kind of person that your parents raised, and although things were often tight, you managed to make at least the minimum payment plus a few bucks, every month without fail.  But your sense of responsibility, is also now your downfall - you had a medical issue last month, and wound up going to the ER, were admitted, and spent nearly a week in the hospital.  The bills totalled over $12k.  You didn't have health insurance, and you didn't make a lot of money to begin with.  You paid the radiology and doctor's fee, which was separate, with money you had in your checking account, leaving you with a little over $100 in your account.  Heck, you wouldn't even be getting a paycheck the next week, as your employer doesn't "do" sick days.  The $12k hospital bill, however - for 5 1/2 days of bad food, a cot, and some IV antibiotics - is another story.

  At this point, most "judgement-proof" folks would've walked away and skipped, but not you.  After meeting with the hospital's social services person, and being told your lofty $16k annual salary was too high to get any help from Medicaid, you make an offer-in-compromise of $7k, which the hospital agrees to accept as payment-in-full, provided you pay within 10 days.  It isn't for purely altruistic reasons nor solely a sense of honor that compels you to try and pay the bill - you worked long and hard to build up your credit, and didn't want to see it trashed by defaulting on a medical bill, if you could avoid it.  Settling the bill for less was, for you, simply being pragmatic.  Of course, skipping out entirely on all the bills would have been equally pragmatic in your case, but less honorable, so you chose to pay.

   .   You may be deep in debt, but your FICO still says otherwise.  If you had to rent a vehicle, you could.  If your vehicle broke down, and you had to get it fixed, and had to stay at a motel for a day or two while you waited, you could do that as well.  If you came across a suitable apartment complex that required decent credit, you wouldn't be automatically excluded.  You've also largely avoided scrapes with the Law, and outside of a couple of minor "youthful indiscretions" are pretty "clean", so renting in that conveniently-located and inexpensive mobile home park, not far from where you work, would not be off-limits to you if and when you were ready to re-join the ranks of the housed.  Unfortunately, the APRs on your credit cards went up, leaving you in the unenviable position of having to choose between paying the rent, or paying your credit card bills on time.  You tried doing both, choosing to be late on your rent rather than your credit cards, because your credit cards report to all 3 CRAs, and your landlord doesn't.  By the 2nd month, your balancing act lost it's balance, which is what brought you to the point where you are now.

   You continue down the main road, and, by now losing the battle with an irresistible urge to swing by your workplace. You know it's closed, but just want to get a fix on things, and scope out the surrounding areas.

   But once again, I digress. Sort-of.  The above, was a somewhat-intentional shift in writing-style.  "Somewhat" because I didn't plan it this way, and "intentional" in that once I saw where my proverbial digital quill-tip pen was taking me, I simply followed along for the ride.  The above accurately describes the psychological issues and feelings that a newly-homeless person might feel and experience, and also gives an example of how someone who is employed, had a home, and was "keepin' it together", could easily be pushed over the tipping point by one unfortunate event, one large, unexpected expense.  It happens every day here in the US, especially in these times.  If it isn't a medical bill that sends someone to defaultville, debt, bankruptcy or foreclosure, it's a job-loss.  The above also offers some insight into what is important to hold onto, and why.  It is useful information in novella-format.  I will now, pick up where I left off, but shift back to "how-to"-style

   Once you've had some time to adjust and come to terms with your new circumstances, it's time to scope out and survey the local area.  It's Saturday, now around noontime, and you want to drive round a bit and select a good place for your first night in the van, as well as at least one alternate spot in a different part of town, should your first selection turn out to be not as ideal as you thought.  And when you DO locate these spots, you AREN"T going to park there.  Not YET.  Not during the daytime.  You'll need to locate several other spots for daytime usage, and expect to move on and rotate those spots every 2-3 hours.  In my experience, your daytime and nighttime spots are *not* interchangeable.  The world is often a very different place in any one location, depending on whether it's normal weekday business hours, weekends, or at night. Spots that are suitable at night, may be extremely unsuitable during daylight hours, and vice versa. 

   When I was doing the "van-dweller"-thing, I found myself taking advantage of my intimate local knowledge of the area, and already had some foreknowledge of what places were likely to be deserted enough at night so that nobody would care or pay much notice to my van sitting all night in one spot, yet not SO deserted that my van would stick out like a sore thumb, and be noticeable or suspicious to those in the immediate area, nor to a passing patrol car.  It can be a delicate balance, at times.  Depending on your town/area, "hiding in plain sight" might be an option.  And, again, hiding in plain sight means, ONE(or more) place(s) for daytime usage, and ANOTHER place at NIGHT - you can probably get away with parking in the parking lot of an all-night supermarket, but don't push your luck and continue to stay there into a late Saturday or Sunday morning.  If the supermarket-manager or property-owner saw your van parked for 6 or 8 hours at night, he's probably not going to take much notice, figuring you're probably an overnight stock-person or other employee of the store,  This can work night OR day, but NOT *both*. Pick one or the other.  If your van is parked in that parking lot much more than 8 hours, *someone* is going to get suspicious, and if they don't confront or question you directly, they may call security or the local cops to check you out - in which case, your cover will be blown, permanently, night OR day.  So don't get lazy, complacent and "push it". Know ahead of time, develop a sense/intuition, of when it's time to move on.  Don't wait for someone else to make that decision for you!

   So why all the emphasis on "hiding", you might be asking?  SEVERAL reasons, actually:

   In many parts of the country, whether by State law, County codes or Town/Village ordinances, being homeless is technically illegal, and in some places, de facto criminalized - perhaps not overtly, perhaps not even intentionally (<----<< giving serious "benefit of the doubt"  here on THIS one), but, for the most part, just by BEING homeless, you are ALREADY a violator and probably, a "criminal", too, in many parts of the country.  Heck, even on a Federal level - you're technically-required to provide your true physical address when you apply for a PO Box - and technically-required to update that address within 10 days of it changing. Putting down "Homeless" is not an option, or at least, wasn't an option when I was "of no fixed address".  Ditto for your driver's license - in most(but not all) States, "Homeless" isn't an option.  Them there's that little matter of the "garaging address" you supplied to your auto insurance company, and that other little matter of your living in your vehicle - a usage you didn't sign on for with your auto insurance company, and one they wouldn't allow anyway.

   So you see, you're already technically-guilty of multiple violations and at least one misdemeanor(which is a "crime", and not a "violation"), before you even get in, and turn the ignition key.  The point is, you want to keep your little "address problem" to yourself, as much as and as long as you can, without creating new problems for yourself.  Here, an ounce of prevention (not being noticed in the FIRST place), is worth the proverbial pound of cure. If no questions are raised, none need be answered, which could be not only particularly-important(depending on who is doing the asking), it also avoids the need to get into a Catch-22 situation, where telling a member of any Authority the truth, could cause you almost as much trouble as getting caught lying to them.  Technically, in most parts of the country, you CAN'T win - the best you can do is to not lose.

  You DON'T need or want any scrutiny from anyone - not the locals, not the police, not the public-safety or code enforcement critters, and not social services.  You want to remain invisible - you don't need to get noticed by the local cops, rousted and told to move-on (at 2am, probably - Murphy's Law and all that), and you really don't want to get cited for vagrancy or trespassing, as these not only get you into a database you'd rather not be a part of, it can cost you money for fines, and cause you problems at work, when you have to take time off for a court appearance, and need to come up with some plausible explanation for your need for time off.  And if, for some reason, you're unable to pay the fine or make your appearance, this sort of thing can quickly snowball into a Kafka-esque nightmare from which escape will be difficult and expensive. Avoiding these unpleasantries will be your new Job #1 - right up there in priority with maintaining your paying job, which brings us to next potential cunundrum:

   Your job -  should you tell them, or let them find out, perhaps breaking the news to them slowly?  Or should you keep it a secret?  I'm afraid I can't answer that question for you - there's too many variables and too many unknowns for me to suggest you do one or the other.  Ultimately, only you can answer that question.  I would say it depends on several factors, with the pragmatist in me asking: "How likely are they to find out, ANYWAY?  And how SOON?"  While you can certainly keep up appearances for a VERY long time, and can probably explain-away your sudden acquisition of a cargo van and the sudden, permanent absence of your Honda Accord, there may be other factors in your town, workplace or general situation that will tend to reveal your Nomad-status to your employer and/or co-workers, eventually.  Or perhaps not.

   I would think that, in an industry where lower pay is more common, and where most of your co-workers, and perhaps even some middle-management, are routinely living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling with the economy, you'd be more likely to find a sympathetic and understanding environment, than you would be in a more upscale industry, where even the lower-paid employees get paid pretty well, all else being equal. I suppose it also depends on your relationship with your employer, how long you've been there, whether you do a good job, have been reliable, ect, ect.  A sympathetic employer might even let you keep your van parked at work after hours - perhaps even offer you an extension-cord and or use of the bathroom, but I wouldn't push it, nor would I take advantage of any such offers for very long, but that's just me. YMMV.

   Note: Part 3 - Hitting The Road, continues in the next installment


Monday, September 6, 2010

A Little Levity Amidst the Doom - Dog Dances the Merengue! ;-)

So, You're Going to be Homeless - Part 2 - Your Stuff

   While you're still "of a fixed address", now is a good time to go through all your possessions, sort out what you *NEED* to keep, followed by what you Really Want to Keep, followed by everything else.  Too often, I've seen people allow their possessions to own *them*, rather than the other way around.  To give you an example, I know a woman, who was on the verge of getting evicted - she was seriously short on cash, and, I suppose, "between jobs".  Rather than pay her rent for her little apartment, she chose to pay the rent on her storage unit, which was costing her a pretty penny every month.  I asked her if perhaps she could get rid of some of her excess stuff, and downgrade to a smaller and cheaper storage unit?   She said she couldn't. Curious as to why, I ask her "What do you have in there, that you need so much room?"  She said: "My good FURNITURE!"


   Furniture that, as it turned out, would simply not fit in her little studio apartment.  Her work situation had actually started to deteriorate a year or so earlier, when she lost her decent-paying, decent-benefits job at the local hospital, and after finding a not-so-decent-paying, no-benefits job nearby, found she could no longer afford to stay in the 1 bedroom apartment that once held all her Good Furniture, and moved into a little studio, took what furniture would fit, and put the rest in storage. And while she could, in theory anyway, afford the rent on her studio apt, she couldn't really afford to pay the additional rent at the public-storage place, as well.  She was barely squeaking-by as it was, was unable to save any money for emergencies or other unexpected expenses, so inevitably, all it took was a small "bump" here and a minor "ding" there, to put her in the red, and start backsliding into debt.  When your weekly income *barely* covers your weekly expenses, it doesn't take much to start the debt-snowball rolling down the hill.

   Her attachment to her furniture was was her mother's, it was old-world quality, and had been in the family since she was born, her mother long deceased.  It obviously had a lot of sentimental value for this woman - perhaps reminding her of better times and the happier days of her childhood.  But there comes a time, IMHO, where such an attachment to an inanimate object becomes unhealthy.  Had this woman come to terms with her inability to keep this furniture in storage for such a long period, and made peace with the fact that it simply had to go, she would not now be looking at possibly having to sneak into the storage center at night, and join her beloved furniture, just to have some shelter.

   This is a case of where one's possessions have come to own them.  When you are treading water, financially-speaking, you don't need possessions that serve only as concrete life-preservers, pulling you down into the sea of red ink, and causing you to drown.   There comes a time when you simply have to let go, when you have to make some tough decisions, and prioritize the disposition of your possessions.  You are about to be homeless, you are probably broke or close to it, and have limited space in your vehicle.  Now, I don't know what eventually happened to that woman, but failing some rapid improvement in her financial situation, my guess is, her furniture was eventually sold at auction, to some unknown bidder, bidding on a lot of items he can't sift through, while hoping to turn a profit from his haul.  That's a rather ignominious end for some very special and beloved furniture.  In retrospect, she would have been better off on more than one level, by gifting this furniture to a good friend - and in doing so, would`ve saved herself from eviction.

   You, dear reader, will likely have to make some hard choices as well, as you transition towards vehicular living. 

   First things first - your important papers, documents, plastic, et al.  If you're already employed, I suggest you keep your driver's license, registration, credit and debit cards in your wallet, and put the rest aside for now.  If you are in job-hunting mode, take your SS card, and either your passport or your birth certificate, or your naturalization certificate, or green card, and keep them in a safe but accessible place - you'll probably need these items to prove your citizenship or provide proof that you are legally allowed to work in the US. It ain't like it used to be - blonde hair, blue eyes and a heavy Brooklyn accent is no longer sufficient to erase any doubts about your eligibility to work in the US.

   All the REST of your important papers and documents, you really should put into a safe-deposit box at your local bank.  I don't know how much that costs these days, but leaving this stuff, particularly those "irreplaceable" documents in your vehicle is tempting fate. If you don't want to go the safe-deposit box route, at least put those documents in one of those small, inexpensive, fire-resistant boxes that open from the top, and consider *leaving* it UNLOCKED. This way if someone breaks into your vehicle while you're away, they'll grab the steel box, thinking this must be your stash of valuables, only to have the cover open right up as they grab it, revealing only useless(to THEM) papers.  Chances are they'll simply leave a mess of papers on your floor, but the important thing is they LEAVE them.  If the box was locked, your papers would've been GONE - next week's trash in someone else's dumpster.  So leave it unlocked - you still get the benefit of the fire-resistance, as long as the box sits level with it's lid down.  Keep your plastic ON YOU at all times, and hide your valuables.  In fact, now is a good time for you to take any gold jewelry you aren't ferociously attached-to, and turn it into much needed cash.  Gold prices are at an all time high, and you obviously could really use the cash.  That much less to lose or have stolen, too - another benefit of selling your jewelry - you're less of  target.

   Next, it's time to sort out the stuff that you Really Want to Keep.  In a serious pinch, ALL of these items should be seen as expendable and optional.  You may have to get rid of a couple of things due to lack of space, but hopefully, you won't have to make too many compromises and sacrifices.  Take stock of these items.  Determine what you do or really don't have room for.  All else being equal, if you have to leave some stuff out, jettison the largest and bulkiest stuff FIRST. If you find you HAVE to leave an item of sentimental value, don't beat yourself up over it.  You simply can't help it, and at the end of the day, whatever it is, it's an inanimate object - it doesn't have feelings.

   Once you've sorted out what you're going to take with you, take stock of what's left.  are there any items someone else may find valuable or desirable?  If so, put it up on your local Craigslist with a photo if at all possible, ask a reasonable price, "nnegotiable", of course.  And using the time you have left at your soon-to-be ex-residence, and turn it into some cash.  Give away what you can't sell.  Donate to the thrift shop. Put a "curb alert" on Craigslist and then put the excess stuff outside free for the taking.  Anything is preferable to taking up space in a landfill, which does NO one any good.

   Keep your bedding, comforter, pillow, et al, a reasonable amount of extra clothes, and don't forget to take any of your non-perishable food items with you when you leave, as well as a manual can-opener.  If you have some cookware, take that as well, even if you can't use it right away.  Take your favorite electronics, too, even if you can`t use them right away.   If you have room, and the vehicle doesn't already have a microwave or little fridge, and you happen to own the micro and dorm-sized fridge in your room or apt, take them along as well. You can simply use them for extra storage until you can hook up with some electricity.  Got a fan?  Or a small AC?  If you have the extra room, take it with you.  You may not be able to use it now, but when you finally get some juice, it's gonna be a Great Day!  And you won't have to go out and re-buy what you already own.  ust don't cram the vehicle with so much stuff that you can`t even turn around inside, without bumping into something.  You need room for YOU, as well!  Also, don't forget to take your razor, shaving cream, liquid soap, shampoo, deodorant, and the like.  You'll soon be needing them and it would be a shame to have to go out and re-buy this stuff when doing so was avoidable.

   Flashlight, candles, matches, ashtray(if you smoke), plastic drinking cups, paper plates, plastic cutlery, napkins, paper towels, salt, pepper, spices, ect, ect will all be stuff you'll need, and will be glad to have on-hand when you DO need them.  Also, don't forget BOTH the 110v AND car-chargers for all your electronics!  Any Tupperware stuff is good, too.  Don't leave it behind. As (aHEM), "Moving Day" approaches, have all the stuff you don't use daily, already packed away into either suitcases, knapsacks, hefty-bags, or cardboard boxes, so you won't forget anything.  Keep the stuff you use everyday, out in one place, until it's time to go.

                  Stay tuned for Part 3 - Hitting The Road ;-)  Thanks for reading.


So, You're Going to be Homeless - A How-To Guide - Part 1: Vehicular-Living

   I felt this an appropriate time for a most appropriate subject, given the current sorry state of the economy.  As one who has "been there, done that", I feel I can offer some tips and advice so as to minimize the impact for anyone on the verge of being "between addresses".  I'm going to assume you're single, or at the most, maybe have a partner who is about to share your fate.  Once kids are involved, it gets too complicated, and much of my advice would NOT be suitable for any situation where minor children are involved.  (Sorry, single moms, you are on your own)  This isn't to say that a single mother couldn't take away some good, useful advice she could apply and/or adapt to her own situation, but basically, this article is written for the single, unencumbered person.

   I also have to assume you, dear reader, "saw it coming", as no one gets evicted instantly for failing to pay the rent on time, and furthermore, you already HAD to know you were in financial trouble at least a couple of weeks, if not a month, before actually getting evicted, *probably* didn't talk to your landlord ahead of time to let him know you had a problem, or had already previously been late on your rent, making your landlord that much more unwilling to work with you.  While I'm personally very big on Personal Responsibility, I also realize that in these times, Bad Things often happen to Good People.  I'm not here to point fingers or blame anyone for the situation they now find themselves in.  I make the above assumptions because having some foreknowledge and preparing for eviction are important parts of my strategy.

    I don't care how you got into your situation - I only want to help those facing eviction, minimize the impact, and cushion the fall so as to avoid a hard landing.  This article will be of the most help, to those for whom homelessness is still a fairly distant blip on their radar-screen - getting inexorably closer with each passing week, and all but certain to arrive, but still a month or two from impact.  I am also writing this from the perspective of someone who is fiercely-independent, too proud(or perhaps, "stupid") to accept charity or seek any one's help.  So if you're looking for tips on getting food stamps, section 8 housing, any kind of public assistance, or advice on making the most of soup kitchens and food pantries, read no further - this is not the article you've been looking for - I have no experience with "The System", and have always avoided it like the plague.  This article, and my philosophy, leans strongly towards self-reliance and self-help.

   With that out of the way, let's get started.  Again, I'm going to make a couple of assumptions about you: You are more or less "normal", you don't have any severe substance abuse issues, and that you still have a driver's license and a car.  Or, if you don't currently own a car, hopefully have enough available credit or the ability to borrow enough money to buy a reasonably-suitable used vehicle - preferably a van, or failing that, at least a station-wagon where you can comfortably sleep without the need to scruntch-up your legs or put your back and body into a stress position.

   I suppose I should mention at this point, how important it is to maintain your driver's license!  Even if it's just a regular license, even if a bit "dirty" - as long s it's valid, it can save your life.  Sometimes, *literally*. It should also go without saying, that having a car is insanely-useful, as well.  Perhaps even more so for the newly-minted {:::aHEM:::}, "Mobile Professional" ;-p  (Keeping your sense of humor is vital as well;)  Being "between addresses" is NOT The End of the World - it is but a temporary change-in-status for most.  Heck, look at me....I've been on a "camping trip" that is now into it's 7th year!  And THESE days?'re in good company, as so many Americans are facing homelessness for the first time.

   Sometime, when I get a chance and manage to revive my old high-end digital camera, I'll take a picture of my current digs and post it on the "About Me" page.  You won't believe that ANYONE is actually living in this dilapidated, drafty and leaky-roofed old sh!thole of a camper, let ALONE still living in it after 7 years.  And with no running water, no sanitation, no cable, no land line phone or Internet connection, and no hookups other than a single long, thin extension-cord into which I've plugged some 15-20 or so various devices and appliances into. Fire hazard?  You bet!  Health hazard?  Uh-huh.  But I'm reasonably happy, and have long ago made peace with my situation, long ago lowered my expectations(thus minimizing my disappointments;) and am kept buoyant and hopeful by my (temporarily-interrupted) plan to relocate to my little EFS in the Carolinas - a goal that is still within reach. 

   As I said, it's not the end of the world.  You can avoid much of the shock and panic that many experience upon finding themselves homeless, or about to be homeless, for the very first time in their lives, if you can prepare and take some steps to avoid a hard landing.  In MY case, I knew it was coming over a month prior, and rather than try to fight the inevitable, I embraced my fate, and took steps to make my transition a "controlled descent", rather than a hard landing.  My OWN story, I've been told, is rather interesting and at times, quite harrowing - some day I'll post a link to it from my "About Me" page.  My experience has been that, once you get over the initial shock and the realization sets in that you no longer have a fixed address, you no longer have a "commute" (if you're still employed), or, if not, that you no longer have any particular place to go or place you need to be - once this realization sets in, gels and solidifies, and once your brain has adjusted to this new and unfamiliar set of circumstances, you might find, like I did within only a couple of hours of hitting the road, a sense of relief that that whole landlord-rent-hassle is now over with, and you won't have to worry about coming up with net month's rent ;-)  In some ways, Janis Joplin was right.

   I actually found it liberating, albeit tempered with a bit of anxiety over the unknowns ahead.  Of course, I had taken some steps ahead of time to ensure a relatively soft landing, and it seriously helped that I had no wife or kids or pets to worry about.  Had that been the case, it would've been a whole `nother ball game. While I KNEW this was my "wake-up call", and knew I HAD to start getting my sh!t together, and *soon*,I took the first couple of days on the road to relax, to NOT think about anything Bad or stressful, and to clear my head so as to start formulating a plan, and creating a rough outline in my mind, for my own recovery plan.  I spent the first couple of days scoping out potential night-time parking spots, and daytime hangout spots, where I could park for several hours at a clip without raising any one's suspicions or attracting the wrong kind of attention.  I had quickly developed a "route" of sorts, being at pretty much the same places at the same time each day, and spending approximately the same amount of time at each place daily. I also kept it local, keeping the miles and gas consumption to a minimum.  Developing a routine can be a Good Thing, as it keeps your "body clock" from getting out of whack, and may even aid in your ability to be perceived by the general public (not to mention, the local cops;) as being just another commuter, or just another worker on lunch-break.  But we're getting too much into MY story here, so let's get back on track.

   As soon as it becomes apparent to you that your impending homelessness is unavoidable, here's what you should do:

   VEHICLE - You NEED one - it will perform triple-duty.  Not only is it going to be your new temporary home, it's also going to be your transportation to work(or, to LOOK for work), and it's also going to serve as your storage for your vital stuff.  A regular car(sedan, coupe) is really not suitable to sleep in.  Not only will you likely have to scrunch-up your legs and try and sleep in very uncomfortable positions that will not only affect the quality of your sleep, but eventually screw up your back as well, it's also far more obvious that
you're living in it, to passers-by, property-owners and the local police.  This is not good, as you want to try and remain as low-profile as possible.  A station-wagon is far more suitable for sleeping comfortably, but you still have the same problem of being too noticeable while in it.  Add a few personal belongings, some spare clothes, ect, and it quickly becomes apparent the vehicle is being used as a residence - even when you're not in it. 

   Your best bet here, is a VAN.  Either one of those "conversion vans" with the high-top roof, electric folding bed in the back, and window blinds and curtains, OR a "cargo-van", preferably a "stretch"(long body) model, preferably with few or any windows, save perhaps the small, tinted "parkway windows" on the sides near the rear of the van, that allow you to drive it on the parkways legally.  Another "upgrade" or "plus", would be a cargo van with a bulkhead or solid partition between the driver's area, and the cargo area. You may have to get commercial plates, you may have to pay somewhat more for the insurance, but you'll have your privacy - something precious and in short supply when living al Fresco. Having your own little refuge from the outside world, even if only the 50 or so square feet afforded by the cargo area in the back of your van, is priceless.  You won't be the proverbial "goldfish-in-a-bowl" while hanging out somewhere during the day, you'll be able to sleep anyway you want on warm summer nights, and won't be an instant beacon the moment you turn on the inside light(as you would be, even in a conversion-van. 

   While I do not personally advocate anyone make a career out of it, or adopt the vehicular-living lifestyle (at least, not the technically-illegal, non-kosher version of it that is the subject at hand), if you think or expect you'll be needing to live this way for an extended period, and don't care about legal technicalities, and are willing to forgo most "normal" parking opportunities in exchange for quite a bit more room, I suppose you can always "upgrade" to a "step-van".  If you get a high-cube, stretch model (think bread trucks or potato-chip route trucks), you could remove the shelving, insulate and panel the inside walls, insulate and put down some plywood flooring(and maybe cover that with carpeting), and have ample room to build yourself a stealth studio-apartment-on-wheels, complete with bed, dresser, porta-potty, wash basin, propane camping stove, table and chair, pantry for storing groceries, and standing closet to hang your clothes.  And much of this can be had for free or very cheaply via Craigslist or Freecycle.

   Some bonuses: Most of these trucks already have a bulkhead, with a sliding door, allowing you slip in and out from the driver's compartment to your living area, without getting out of the van, and you can walk around inside, standing up without hitting your head. Most also already have one or two skylights - if it's the "fixed" type, replace it with one that opens - in the winter you'll be able to run a small, very economical kerosene heater without getting the place too heated up inside, and can regulate(to a point, anyway), the inside temperature by adjusting the skylight opening.  Most of the later (non-ancient) models are automatic, the ones that are diesel, get pretty good MPG - just keep in mind that in cold climates in winter, diesels can be hard to start without having a block-heater plugged-in, and in extremely-cold weather, diesel fuel tends to turn to jello until heated.

   You can probably get away with parking it at night, in commercial or industrial areas, where it will better blend in with the surroundings.  You might also find a suitable overnighting spot near, next to or behind a supermarket.  But you'll have to *think* before you park, as this obviously commercial vehicle will not blend in in any residential area, will look "out of place" at certain times in other areas, and will stick out like a sore thumb at any camping facility designed for, and frequented by, RVs.  Additionally, these bread/potato-chip delivery trucks are HUGE, and while you don't (AFAIK) need any special license to drive one, the extra 2 feet of width, the extreme length, and the general overall bulk of the vehicle will take some getting used to, before you become comfortable driving it. 

   If all you have, is a decent-sized car(eg, not a Mini-Cooper, Yaris, Accent, et al), and selling it or trading it for a van is not an option) and you don't have a lot of cash, there is another solution.  Assuming you have a decent-sized vehicle and can equip it with a trailer-hitch (almost any U-Haul or RV dealer/repair shop can do this for you) - just make sure and tell them you want it for a small travel-trailer, so that they put the correct-sized "ball" on it for you.  IIRC, balls come in 3 different sizes, and again, IIRC, one size is standard for travel-trailers.  Hopefully, since you've known for some time you are going to be homeless, you've scoured the "Free", "Barter" and other relevant categories on Craigslist, posted "wanted" ads, scoured your local Pennysaver, Yankee Trader and other such publications, as well as Freecycle, and hopefully will have or be able to, obtain a serviceable camping trailer for free or cheap (make sure it comes with the title or registration, as you will need to register it with your dept of motor vehicles(or whatever they call it where you are).  Also, before you accept or buy the trailer/camper, look at the ceiling for signs of leakage, as these are notorious for leaky roofs once they get old.  If your trailer is large/heavy enough that it has it's own brakes(whether surge or electric), make sure they are functional as well.  Get it checked out at the RV place if you are unsure.  The RV place will also install a wiring harness and plug(if they haven't already done so) so that you can plug in the trailer so that it's lights and turn-signals work in unison with your car's.  Double check that everything is working as it should.

   The main benefits of going the travel trailer route, are that you can un-hook it and store or park it somewhere (hopefully, *safe*) during the day, and not have to drag it around with you to work ("Gee, that's odd...I didn't know you were going on vacation?  When are you leaving?") Show up several days in a row, towing your new domicile, and your employer and co-workers will soon know what's up - whether that's a Bad Thing for YOU, I don't know, but it's something you have to consider.  The other benefit is, at least you can eat and sleep, and cook, and read, ect, in relative comfort, as opposed to being stuck in your car.  And finally, you can probably blend in with "normal" RVers at RV campgrounds, and may even be able to treat yourself to a few nights of electricity, perhaps cable TV, maybe try out your shower, and empty your grey-water and waste storage tanks now and then, as some campgrounds have hookups and dump-stations. Most campgrounds limit the length of time you can stay at a clip, or how often you can stay there, so don't get TOO comfortable and *NEVER* allow yourself to get complacent about your situation - as long as you are living this way, it can end at any time, even if the property-owner doesn't want it to end.  Zoning and ordinances trump private property rights  MY ideal situation ended after 6 years, ended VERY abruptly (I had about 5 days to relocate), and ended DESPITE the property-manager and owners WANTING me there.  All it takes in many towns, is ust one person with an axe to grind - it doesn't even have to be YOU they have a problem with.  It can be your neighbor.  Once the code-enforcement gendarmes come a crawling all over the place, you might find yourself an unintended casualty of someone else's dispute.  That's exactly what happened to me, a year and a half ago.

    You MIGHT have better luck with a privately-owned campground, *especially* during the off-season.  It doesn't hurt to try talking to the owner(s) about a longer-term stint and explaining your situation honestly, but I think this might work better of you've already rented there a few times, and the owners already "know" you to some degree, as opposed to being a totally unknown stranger.  Of course, you'll either be paying rent again, or perhaps working at the camp to earn your keep, but that's actually a Good Thing.  It's nice to know that you have a place to come "home to", even if it's just a rented parking spot, and just having electricity ALONE, will make your life instantly 10X better, even if you still have to haul-in water, haul out garbage, and use an outhouse.  But keep in mind my cautionary tale above.

   The last option for vehicular living, is of course, the RV, and by this, I mean motor homes and slide-in truck campers (as we've already, covered, or at least, touched on travel-trailers above).  Now, you're probably wondering why this wasn't my first choice - after all, it seems like the perfect, heck, *obvious* solution, as in "Du-UH?"- obvious.  But it isn't.  Sure, it SEEMS like the perfect solution - until you know more, and then think things through.  First, let's talk motor homes -we'll get to the truck-campers later.  A motor home, whether Class A(medium-to-large, rectangular box-bus-shaped vehicle), Class C (medium to large vehicle with over-the-cab sleeping area, or Class B (generally smaller than a Class C, and without the over-the-cab overhang-thing), are all RVs with an engine and steering wheel that you drive (as opposed to a trailer that you pull).  Hence, they require insurance, but not just any old insurance, they require a special type of insurance known as RV insurance. So? Why is this a problem?

   The first problem with motor homes, is that RV insurance only comes in 3 flavors: Part-time: you leave the plates on 12 months a year but only USE the RV a certain number of months per year.  Since you're going to be living in it FT, you'll need Full-time RV insurance.  So far, not a problem.  Even F/T RV insurance is surprisingly cheap - especially when you consider how large and heavy the vehicle is, and how much damage it could do were you to get into an accident with it.  But RV insurance is also fairly restrictive - while the insurance company doesn't seem to give a whit HOW much you drive it, they DO care WHERE you drive it. You are not allowed to use your RV to go to work. Period.  The only way around that, is to buy Commercial RV insurance, which would allow you to drive it to work.  This costs approximately double what normal F/T RV insurance costs, but STILL *relatively* cheap.  The problem comes in, in that we've run out of flavors. You cannot get F/T commercial RV insurance, so while you could now drive it to work, you are now not allowed to live in it - at least not F/T. If this kafka-esque insurance conundrum doesn't make you reconsider, perhaps, the next paragraph will. (And I KNOW what you're probably thinking, but sorry, no.  I do NOT advocate anyone commit insurance fraud, and this is exactly what that would be.  Don't even go there.  It's SO not worth it - Scoob)

   There is ANOTHER problem with motor home insurance as well, whether PT or FT:  Your motor home cannot be your ONLY vehicle.  You MUST have at least one other "regular vehicle" registered and insured in your name, and be able to prove it, or the insurance company will not issue you a policy for the motor home.  The good news, is than even a Class B moped qualifies as a vehicle, can be bought, registered and insured cheaply, can simply be hung on the bumper of your motor home, provides cheap local transportation, and doesn't require a motorcycle license(or at least, it didn't, here in NY, when I got one 7 years ago)  The bad news(again), is what are you going to be using as your garaging address for the RV?  And, no, you can't use the storage yard`s address as your garaging address, either.  Been there, done that. Just some more things to consider, before jumpimg into RV-owner/dwellership, thinking it's The Answer.  It's NOT the "obvious" "no brainer" answer-to-all-your-problems you mayTHINK it is.

   The insurance problem aside, what else would cause me to advise against getting a motor home?  Well, fuel consumption, for one. Between hauling around 8, 9, 12,000 lbs of mass everywhere you go, and the pretty un-aerodynamic shape of most motor home, these suckers *EAT*.  Sure, you could get a bike or cheap moped and hang it on the bumper, and use that to get around, but where would you park the motor home while you're gone?  You`re homeless, remember?  And chances are, you are in no position to feed the RV`s ravenous appetite for fuel, anyway.  The other problem with motor homes, is when they break down.  When that happens ("When", rather than "If" - if you drive it long enough) you will have all your eggs in one, big, broken-down basket.  Not only will you probably have to pay extra for a heavier-duty tow-truck, you may also have to have it towed farther, as not all repair shops work on RVs.  *Some* won't even TRY.  Then, you'll need to get some of your stuff out, and arrange for transportation to a motel, and be prepared to spend an extra day (and "extra" money you don't have), if your RV should need a part not carried by the local auto-parts store.

   And yes, your van could break down as well, but you won't need a larger-than-normal tow truck(with a larger-than-normal towing bill), just about ANY auto-repair shop will do, and the auto parts store is more likely to have what your van needs, in stock.

   Now, on to the last part of this installment: truck-campers (aka "slide-in campers").  If you ALREADY have a 3/4 ton or better pickup truck, then this would be a no-brainer for the soon-to-be homeless.  If you can sell your car and buy a decent PU/camper combo, or trade your car for such a package, I'd highly recommend you do so.  Slide-in campers are a bit cramped, but more than sufficient for one person to live F/T in one.  It's much better than a mere van, and while compact, is functional for all your basic needs. There are also a couple of benefits - first, while you CAN get cheap RV insurance to ensure the rig, you don't have to.  Just get regular insurance, and be free to drive it anywhere, including work, or job-hunting. If you take it to work everyday, no one is gonna raise an eyebrow about the slide-in camper.  Just tell them you go fishing, or like to camp at the beach, or hunting, or skiing (depending on your locale and the season) as often as you can, go practically every weekend, and find it too much of a bother to keep removing and re-installing the camper every week, so you just leave it on.  Obviously, if you don't want your employer or co-workers to know about your situation, don't get lazy and just sleep in the parking lot of where you work - leave at a normal time, and return at a normal time - as if you actually lived somewhere.  And finally, as with the travel-trailer, you could occasionally treat yourself to a campsite w/electricity, and perhaps enjoy some A/C, your microwave, your TV, your PlayStation, and maybe a cold drink from your fridge. 

                               Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment....

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Homeownership - Liability or Lifesaver? A Primer on Economic Fallout Shelters (Part 2)

   Last week, I talked about the concept of the "Economic Fallout Shelter" or "Fallback Property", which are essentially the same thing: a cheap-to-buy, cheap-to-keep dwelling that, when the chips are down, is a place for you and yours to live, ride out the "Great Decession", and if necessary, a lost decade or two.  Last week, I covered the "What".  This week, let's move on to the "Where".

    First and foremost, on my list of considerations is COST.  The two main components of which, are the purchase-price, and the property taxes.  We want BOTH to be low, of course, but to my mind, a somewhat higher purchase price is more tolerable(assuming one has the money to purchase outright) because it may get you a better dwelling, perhaps in a more convenient location, or perhaps with an extra bedroom(think: rental income), or one in better condition, or one with a bigger lot (think: gardening/growing your own veggies), and the added cost is basically a one-time investment.  Property taxes, however, are recurring - you pay them every year, and are an integral part of your monthly cost of ownership.  They are also forever, so I tend to let the property-tax-factor carry a LOT of weight in any decision to purchase an EFS (Economic Fallout Shelter)

   Ok, so we want LOW property taxes.  My own personal rule-of-thumb is: one week's take-home pay, MAX, should cover a year's worth of property taxes.  Property taxes are like rent - ongoing and perpetual, so you want to keep it to a minimum.  For the record, my current EFS costs me 2 days take-home pay per year - and I only work P/T.  Were I to switch to F/T, I could knock off a year's "rent" in one day.  And my EFS came with 2 extra bedrooms.  Here's a pic of Scoob's secret hideout in the balmy Carolinas:

   Purchased for about $6,200 (including all closing costs, title insurance, ect) in June of `08, this 12x68' 3 bdrm single wide came with a detached garage, screened-in porch, and large family-room addition(not shown here) on it's own 80x155' lot with lots of tall, mature shade trees.  It has city water and sewer, is in a rural-ish/suburban setting on the edge of a privately-owned forest, yet minutes from an international airport,  Amtrack station and fairly major city.  Yearly property taxes (land and MH, combined) run about $110.
Not in a flood-zone, not in hurricane alley, not prone to earthquakes.  Best school district in the County, moderate 4-season climate, not too hot, not too cold.  Occasional snow, but melts quickly. VERY close to the Post Office(ebay business was run out of the place by previous owner), and very close to internationally famous large corporations that have chosen the area for either their headquarters or manufacturing branch location.  Small town of around 2,000 with good demographics.  Average home price in 2008, was $175k.

   This property has the characteristics that we are looking for.  Other than a 25% higher chance of tornados than the national average, it fits the bill rather well.  There probably is no "perfect" EFS - at the price range we`re taking about, you're probably going to have to live with a wart ot two - the important thing here being that any wart(s) ARE one(s) you can live with - perhaps for quite some time.  Remember, you aren't shopping for a vacation home, here, and it is highly likely you won't be buying in your "ideal" location - not only for reasons of cost, but other reasons as well - reasons you have not yet considered or thought-through, because your mind is still in vacation-home-shopping mode. 

   For example, that rustic cabin in northern New England you've been renting every September for the past 5 years during foliage-watching season.  It may SEEM ideal - it's certainly idyllic - so much so you're thinking of buying there.  But have you thought things through?  Though the taxes may not kill you, the winters just might.  Not only is it remote, in winter you'll be needing a gas-guzzling 4WD truck w/plow just to get to it.  Many businesses up there are seasonal, meaning you'll have to drive further to get supplies(and help, in the event of a medical problem).  And what seemed like a nice outing in September, could be a treacherous, nail-biting slog by October.  And what would you do for an income there?  If you need a job to survive, who would you work for?  And how far would you need to commute?  What about heating costs?  Does your property come with a few acres of standing timber?  If so, are you able to harvest it, split it, stack it and let it season - and have enough to last you over the long, cold New England winter? Or will you have to buy firewood or other fuels to keep warm?  How's your health?  Are you physically fit enough to shovel snow and be your own lumberjack?  What if your 4WD breaks down?  Can you fix it?  If you need a part, can you get it delivered?  How reliable are the communications networks there?  These are all the sorts of questions you should ask yourself when considering a particular location. 

   The above example was a bit extreme and to me, rather obvious choice of example, but hopefully, I've opened your eyes and mind a bit towards seeing things in a different light and from a different perspective.  Regardless of where you choose to buy your EFS, it's always best to run through a worst-case scenario and let someone else who is more neutral and impartial, help you by also doing the same thing.  He or she might bring up an issue or three you hadn't even thought of.  Also, as I said in the previous installment on the subject, we're focusing on an EFS, NOT a Doomstead, which is an entirely different animal.  Doomsteads are, briefly, properties ideally suited to self-sufficiency, defensibility, are generally large and much more expensive than a EFS, generally has at least one of it's own uninterruptable potable water supplies, and is suitable for going off the grid and generating it's own power.  It will also be well-suited for growing all or nearly all of it's own food, firewood, and raising at least some animals for protein. They tend to be large on several acres of property, and tend to be off the beaten path, even remote.  The idea behind them is to survive in the event of a severe crisis - govt collapse, currency/banking-system collapse, interruptions in food supplies and shipments, civil unrest, rioting and looting.  In short, for surviving beyond the end of civil society. Doomsteads are another subject entirely and deserve their own separate thread.  Something we'll leave for another post at another time.

   Ok, so let's get back on track.  You want low property taxes, and ideally, a low purchase price as well. Where would you find such properties?  Well, I think we can safely eliminate most of the northeastern US as well as most of the West Coast.  There are exceptions here and there, of course, but by and large, anything you find in these areas with cheap property taxes and a low purchase-price, is gonna be in the southern California desert(which is ALREADY an economic desert at this time - no sand needed), or in the case of the Northeast, will likely be pretty far north into the Snowbelt, and be fairly remote - income opportunities will likely be few and far between, and keeping warm in the winter will either eat up a goodly chunk of your limited income, or you will have to expend quite a bit of time and effort to gather enough firewood to see you through the long winter.  Not a good quality for an EFS.

  For low property taxes, look to the South, the southeast, and the midwest.  There other areas with low property taxes and often, low purchase prices also - one area has extremely low unemployment as well, but I hesitate to mention them because they fall outside what is for me, an important parameter: CLIMATE.  I think it's important to keep your HVAC costs as low as possible.  In these uncertain economic times, along with the troubles in the oil-producing regions, particularly the Middle East, a major spike in energy costs could happen due to war or other conflict, and even absent such troubles, the possibility of the USD losing it's reserve status, or serious inflation caused by debasing our currency, could send energy costs skyrocketing.  It is for this reason, I strongly suggest you choose a location with a moderate climate - one in which you can comfortably get through the winters with the fewest "degree-days"(as fuel-oil companies call them - they use this figure to calculate when automatic deliveries are needed), yet at the same time, not be heavily-reliant on air-conditioning during the summer.  For this reason, I would eliminate Florida, the Gulf States, most of Texas, the upper Midwest, New England and the "refrigerator States" like Minnesota, Idaho and Montana - the last 3 States being great for Doomsteads, but NOT so great a location for your EFS.

   Personal tastes as to what constitutes a comfortable climate vary, of course, but for a good combination of a moderate climate, low taxes and access to jobs and income opportunities, the southeast is a good choice.  Or at least, a good place to start your search.  The Carolinas are a personal favorite, as they are about halfway between NY and FL, have a balmy, 4 season climate, are developed enough so as to have a mature
economy, a manufacturing base, and every service you could want, yet rural enough that there's little traffic on the highways.  They also offer a variety of settings, from mountains, to woods, all the way to ocean beaches and everything in between.  The area is also convenient to major transportation hubs. I also like Arkansas, with it's super-low taxes, easy-going zoning, few restrictions, no lawn-mowing requirements, and
it's freedoms, strong private property rights and pro-business atmosphere.  Missouri is another good choice, albeit in the more rural areas (of which Arkansas and Missouri both have in abundance), I'd suggest doing some serious recon work before you buy a place in the middle of nowhere, far from most employment.

   But in general, a "belt" about as far north as the NC/VA border, and south to the SC/GA border, going west to around the western edge of Arkansas, is where you'll find the majority of your EFS candidates.  SOME parts of the,...let's call it the "EFS-belt", are prone to flooding and/or prone to tornados, so you have to do your research and weight the risks vs the benefits for yourself.  You also want to buy in a decent neighborhood.  After all, you may be there for quite some time, and don't want to bother with high-crime areas.  This too, will require research on your part, and since you're not about to drive hundreds or even thousands of miles to check out a town, neighborhood or area, you'll want to research that online.

   In the next installment, I'll show you how to research an area or particular town online, and reveal a couple of my favorite free online resources for doing just that.  I'll also show you how to get in contact with "the locals" and ask questions about a prospective town, neighborhood or area (How are the schools? Electric rates?  Areas/ neighborhoods to avoid, nearby shops, restaurants, services.  Which are good?  Which are not so good?, ect, ect).  You can get a lot of information, free, just for the asking.  And you can also develop preliminary local contacts and recommendations for the services you will need.  For better or for worse, people like to talk about their towns and neighborhoods almost as much as talking about themselves.  Why not take advantage of this,and save yourself a ton of time, hassles, traveling? Nowadays, you can do much of your due diligence in your underwear, saving the travel for the "last mile" of your search, when you actually go to inspect the property just prior to making an offer or signing a purchase agreement.

                                                                              Stay tuned ;-)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Must-See Micro-RV!

   As someone who, for the past 7 years, has been living in an RV (That in itself, is a long and for many, rather interesting story of how that came to be - perhaps another time;), I was intrigued by the possibilities of this camper-on-a-scooter (scooter-camper? scamper?:).  Having become an RV-dweller by necessity, rather than a love of the Great Outdoors and Travel, I tend to view this little vehicle, almost automatically, in an entirely different way than most folks.  The average Joe - one who has never experienced homelessness nor the looming prospect thereof, might look at this "scamper", and come away with a bemused, even baffled look on his face, a shrug, some head scratching, perhaps a "WTF?", followed by a sneer and dismissal.  The average Jane, on the other hand, might think it's "cute", while greenies and ecocampers might go gaga over it.  A homeless person, however, pushing a shopping cart in the rain with his worldly belongings, would likely quickly recognize the immediate benefits of such a vehicle:

1) It would provide shelter (and get him out of the rain)

2) It could hold his belongings (he could ditch the shopping cart)

3) It's a vehicle, with a tiny engine. That you drive. (he wouldn't need to walk everywhere, anymore)

  There's more, of course, (at least, in THEORY <---<<  more on that, later-on), but my point is, sometimes the view from the bottom, the perspective you get lying flat on your back, the insight you gain when sitting on the balls of your ass, is often the clearest.  Having personally spent some time in those positions, I feel I have gained a new, and quite possibly *permanent* perspective on things, which I hope to add to what otherwise would be just another blogger adding to the buzz about this little camper.  This post is about the camper, and while I didn't set out to wax philosophical here, from an economic survival standpoint, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my views and insights on it.  That being said, here it is:

  Introducing the Bufalino compact camper (based on the Piaggio APE 50 3-wheeled light transporter)

  Note the person sleeping in it, the storage cabinets, the place for hanging clothes, and the laptop nook;-)

                                          Bed folds up for driver's seat and seat back

                                               Catching rays on the roof :-)

                    Hmmm,...this thing could double as a vending cart or flea market vehicle

                            The built-in "clothes dryer" (or T-shirt vendor display rack;-)

   Note the laptop station - great for indigent bloggers, freelance writers, web-designers or independent journalists.  It's even got a windshield wiper and proper headlights. Not sure where, how, if it'd be street-legal?  Moped-rules, maybe?  Not sure.

   It has a one-burner stove, a small fridge, and a sink  You might need a gym membership for what's missing.

   Pretty neat! But there's some cons:  the biggest being, this is only a CONCEPT vehicle at this time.  It's not in production.  But that could change, as this thing has been getting quite a bit of buzz on the `Net - maybe that will help influence whether this thing ever sees the light of day or not.  The other thing is cost - how much is this puppy gonna run?  I could be wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if the sticker price is somewhere in the $7k range or higher.  I don't think this camper would ever be a big seller, but rather, a niche vehicle for a small market of greenies, yuppies and eco-tourism type places.  With a small production numbers, you don't have the economy of scale that mass-production can bring, thus, look for this to be a rather pricey toy if and when it ever comes out.  And while there are millions of homeless that could certainly benefit from this camper, how many could afford one?  How many could afford or by relied upon to make payments, were special "homeless financing" to be offered by the manufacturer?  And then, there's the issue of licencing and registration - I'd be VERY surprised if no licence was required to operate it - which raised the question of how many homeless have, or would be able to obtain driver's licences?  And in what States?  And would ALL States allow such a vehicle to be registered, or only some?  Insurance requirements? Inspection? Registration and title fees?

   So you can see, even if this camper were available tomorrow - and let's be optimistic and say, for $5k, with special "homeless financing" - full insurance coverage would be a requirement for financing, and the vehicles would be equipped with  GPS transceivers that could disable the vehicle remotely, as well as transmit it's location - (some used car dealers already do this to help insure their high-risk customers, whos' vehicles the dealer themselves finance, make timely payments;), there are still many other costs and barriers for most homeless folks to have to overcome, to acquire one.  I mention this mainly because some folks on the interwebs first reaction to seeing pics of the camper, was that it would be great for homeless folks.  It WOULD be, but due to the issues I mentioned above, I don't really see that as a viable option.  Lastly, it doesn't have a porta-potty or shower, but I suppose you could get by with public restrooms, and/or getting one of those inexpensive monthly gym memberships at a 24-hour gym, if you want to take a proper shower.

   So, who might benefit from purchasing this camper?  By that I mean, *other* than yuppies, greenies, and others with money to spare.  My answer would be different if you could pick up one of these, used, for say, $2k(which, BTW, is what I paid for my 19' Class C motor home back in 2003, and it sleeps 6, has a bathroom w/shower, fridge, furnace for heat, hot water heater, oven and 3 burner stove, a couch, a dinette, a closet, and tons of storage - it even has a wine cellar.  68k original miles.  Runs great, but guzzles gas like there's no tomorrow), but assuming it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $7k?  Not that many, I'm afraid. 

   First off, if you HAVE $7k or can finance $7k, you can buy a home outright in many parts of the country, so if you`re buying this thing *solely* to keep your butt off the streets and out of the shelters, you may want to reconsider.  An old, full-size $500 station wagon would provide much the same service, and like the camper, would double as transportation(and much faster transportation at that), albeit not as economical.  Spring for $1500 or so, upgrade to a full-size van, and you'll have quite a bit more room and a more livable situation. Spend $5k-7k, and you can get a full-size motor home with all the amenities.  It CAN, of course, serve as transportation as well, but keep in mind these suckers EAT - and keep in mind that RV insurance, while cheap, is restrictive - you cannot use your RV to go to work unless you purchase commercial RV insurance, but you cannot stay FT in your RV without FT insurance, and there is no such thing as FT commercial RV insurance. (I know, I TRIED! LORD I tried!).  I was also informed by a (regular)car insurance company rep, that it is illegal to live in your (non-RV) vehicle, as far as they are concerned.  Good luck enforcing this, I suppose, but I want to make my readers aware of it.   But once again, I'm digressing.

   Again, the (probable) purchase price, and what you get in return vs the same amount of money spent on:

1) a fixer-upper home in a low tax area of the country - even if just an older mobile home on it;s own land.

2) a $500 station wagon or a $1500 van, both of which could serve the same purpose as the scamper, get you around a lot faster(although less economically), but save you a LOT of cash, not only initially, but also by lack of depreciation

3) a used motor home for the same amount as the scamper - bad on gas, possible insurance conflicts, but a veritable PALACE by comparison

4) take that $500 station wagon, add a suitable trailer-hitch(if it doesn't already have one) and a used $1000 camping trailer, and you can get by in relative comfort, retain your mobility options, AND get around that pesky, kafka-esque insurance conundrum, as you don't need to insure the trailer - just register it and get a safety inspection(if required).  Your regular car insurance should already cover anything you tow without needing to modify your policy.  Just double-check that it does.

all serve to reinforce the notion that this scamper - as cute, neat and functional as it is, is, for most folks, not a bargain, nor a very attractive alternative to similarly or even much lower-priced alternatives. The very people for whom this would be a "step up", and who could most benefit from having this little scamper, cannot afford it.  After all, if our example soggy wet shopping cart pusher can't even get $500 together over time to buy himself an old station wagon, then obviously, a $5k micro-camper is out of the question - it may as well be $50k.  Furthermore, if a person doesn't have or can't get a driver's license, even the $500 station wagon is no longer an option.

   This micro-scamper is, IMHO, not going to save anyone from a life on the streets.  Short of mass production, coupled with heavy gov't subsidies to make it more affordable to the homeless, you're not going to be seeing your local bums using it to haul deposit bottles and cans back to the store for refunds, anytime soon.  For this to be a viable initiative, the State govts would probably also have to issue a boatload of "hardship"-type driver's licenses, specific to this vehicle, to the many that don't have one, and possibly either exempt the vehicle from an insurance requirement(Bad Idea, IMO) or subsidize that as well.

   For a few certain individuals, this scamper may make some sense, but in almost no cases at all, financial sense, and again, in almost no cases at all, for fulfilling a *need*.  It's a nice (and probably pricey) toy for those that can afford it and just want to have one for whatever reason, but I see little if anything this vehicle could do or provide, that a larger and cheaper alternative couldn't provide even better.  It;s a hands down winner in fuel economy, cheap insurance and registration fees, to be sure, but for most individuals, too large an investment in too small an asset.  It's a very clever design, and I DO like it,personally, but anyone buying this is NOT "on the balls of their ass", or if they ARE, have another problem: they're crazy, as well.  I mean, if you're down to your last $7k on earth, losing your home, and don't want to just go and rent a room because you lost your nearby job, and will have to look out of town or even out of State for another one, would you buy this micro-RV for $7k, or buy a decent van for $2k, and not only have real transportation, but a place to keep your tools and clothes, still have room for a comfortable bed,  AND the option to add a travel trailer later?  To me, it's a no-brainer.

  Now, for *certain* individuals, I could see investing in this little scamper.  Some examples come to mind:

1) You regularly sell stuff like say, T-shirts, at nearby flea markets.  Not only is this an economical vehicle to go back and forth to the market, it's also a unique, eye-catching and attention-grabbing vehicle.  Add some wild custom graphics to the outside, maybe make a few modifications to the inside, and VIOLA!  The perfect flea market vehicle!

2) In a twist on the above, you might be able to modify the inside to where you could get it certified and licensed by the Dept of Health, and sell hotdogs and knishes, ect out of it at events

3) You do computer work (Think Geek Squad), and have built up a local clientele.  Add custom graphics to the outside of the scamper that advertise and promote your business, and use it as both a billboard and economical transportation to go around servicing your clients.

   THAT sort of thing.  This micro-scamper would be a good fit for certain businesses as well.  For example:

1) You own a pizzeria, sandwich shop, Chinese take-out place, et al, and you want to offer your customers home delivery.  The scamper should be cheap to insure, very good on gas, and could be spiffed up with custom graphics that advertise your business and phone number.  You'd have no problem finding good people to do your deliveries, and because they are using your vehicle and your gas, you could, in good conscience, pay them a little less, because you don't have to subsidize the gas, wear and tear and added insurance costs on their personal vehicles.

2) You own a B&B, gas station, motel, a general store, or any of a host of other businesses for that matter, near a National Park, large campground area or near a bunch of vineyards and wineries. Ideally, you'd also be fairly close to a popular airport, train or bus terminal.  You rent out the scampers.  Advertise on the `Net, hook up with a hotel to offer packages. Pick your clients up at the airport or bus/train station.  Cross-promote with your partner businesses.  Hook up with a winery - they get your scamper-rental customers` business, and allow them to camp overnight on their property. You both win. You get the idea.

  So, in closing, there ARE some potential good uses and potentially good customers for the scamper, but in niche markets.  As-is, it is too specialized for general use, but if a blank-template, "design-your-own" option were available from the manufacturer to change and customize the interior layout and features, it might have wider appeal.   And at 50cc, while economical, it will be too slow and limited to local, secondary roads, or the shoulders of higher speed limit roads, so in this regard, the SMART car is in no danger of being displaced by the scamper, IMHO.  Perhaps if there was an option for a larger engine - even 100cc would be an improvement, while a 250cc power plant would ensure the scamper could keep up with traffic on most highways(and probably pull a wheelie on command;)


Note: all pics in this post not mine - I glommed them from another blog, who in turn, glommed them from another blog, ect, ect. (Hey, at least I'm honest about stealing them, and am classy enough not to hot-link;)
The view looking forward from the back