Monday, April 27, 2015

This Is Not a Bill

All's right with the world: on Saturday we received a sternly-worded letter from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. We get one every year even though we calculate our taxes correctly and pay whatever we owe in full and on time.

I've written about this here every year since it started happening to us in around 2009. Every year, it's the same problem, but the Mass. DOR has started handling it a little differently from year to year to prevent monotony and keep me on my toes. 

The issue is always the personal use (or sales) tax that Massachusetts residents are required to pay on out-of-state purchases, especially from online sellers. We calculate the correct "safe harbor" amount, based on our income, and pay it. Some years we owe money to Massachusetts but we receive a surprise refund check. Some years we're owed a refund and get a bigger one. In both cases. the sum in question is suspiciously similar to the amount of "personal use" tax that we paid. If we receive it in a refund check and cash it, a month or two later we will receive a sternly-worded letter that says we owe the DOR that same amount — plus a penalty of around $2. 

This year,  we owed money but I told my husband to expect a refund check, and to give it to me so I could call the DOR and tear it up as I spoke to an agent. Instead, they sent us a sternly-worded letter plus a Form M-8379. It stated that we had overpaid our income taxes by $144 but that the State was legally entitled to apply that overpayment to any tax that we owed. And we happened to owe personal-use tax, which just happened to come to that exact amount... plus a penalty of $1.49.

I was instructed to write a letter to a certain address if I had questions. So I called them up. I explained the whole story to the agent and he saw my point. He told me he had an idea on how to fix it, and asked me to hold. Then he disconnected me. When you are disconnected from the DOR, you are immediately connected to a recorded customer-satisfaction survey. Since I hadn't had my issue settled, I vented a lot of dissatisfaction.

Then I redialed. I explained to a different agent that I had been disconnected after explaining a detailed problem, so would he like my phone number, in case it happened again? He said he wasn't allowed to make outside calls. "Wow, that must feel like being incarcerated," I said cheerfully. Then I told my story again.

The agent said we have been victims of a computer glitch that he would have to bring up in a meeting, although he hadn't seen it before. Every year, I hear that. And then I ask the agent why — if millions of Mass. residents use TurboTax — we seem to be the only couple having this problem every year. 

This agent was the first one in all these years to confirm what I have long suspected — that hardly anyone pays the personal use tax except us! But he said they were about to start cracking down on tax evaders and it would be retroactive. So if you've been skipping your safe-harbor payment over the last few years, be prepared. You'll have to pony up big-time, with fines. (And then the DOR will probably refund you and then bill you, and charge you a fine. But you won't be surprised because I've warned you.)  

I predict that the DOR will get their ducks in a row to start nabbing you tax-evading crooks by about 2026. But by then, all of us who have any brains will have moved out of state because of the 2024 Olympics.

The agent cleared our $1.49 penalty when I pointed out that we had paid the tax on time. At this point during my annual ritual phone call, I traditionally and thoughtfully suggest that maybe the glitch is a DOR scam to collect a couple of extra bucks from gullible tax payers, which would bring in extra millions. Usually the agent shuts that idea down fast. This year I decided not to go there, to prevent monotony. 

I said that owing tax penalties keeps me up at night. The agent apologized. I said that my dad always told me to pay my taxes because that's how the Feds got Al Capone. (Please note that my dad never told me to avoid any of Al Capone's other criminal activities. My orders are simply to pay taxes.) The agent told me that his parents had told him the same thing, which is why he works for the Mass. DOR. 

I thanked him and said I looked forward to having a similar discussion with him next year. He laughed as he hung up.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Magnolia Time on Commonwealth Avenue

Over the past week the pink canopy has unfurled on the sunny side of Commonwealth. (On the shady side, not so much. They will need at least another week.) 

The trees are as glorious as ever although, this year, they seem more remarkable — simply because our winter was so hard and so long that some of us wondered if we'd ever see them. The cool temperatures we're still having should make the flowers last a little longer. 


Friday, April 24, 2015

Recent Adorableness

Harris spent yesterday sneezing. He had the sneezles.

Today, he is better.

I remembered calling our vet a few years ago when Possum had been sneezing a lot. She laughed at me and told me to vacuum. I did, and Possum was cured.

I planned to vacuum today, and Harris stopped sneezing before I even got started, which suggests that imaginary, or wishful, vacuuming works on cats' noses, too. Great news.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Don't Try This at Home: Pledging Allegiance

As I was searching the real-estate listings today I saw this, er, rabidly patriotic living room in a posh building in the North End. Who lives here?  As usual, I have a few theories. One might imagine this place belonging to someone in our military — maybe someone who doesn't get to spend much time on home soil and savors every minute of freedom and liberty during leaves. But I doubt it; last year, we looked at a condo belonging to a retired multi-star general and there wasn't a hint of Old Glory anywhere. He did have a cat.

More likely, this person works in a gift shop at one of the historic sites along the Freedom Trail and gets a discount on unsaleable tourist merchandise. (In which case, why isn't that mantel decorated with a set of presidential Pez dispensers? They are adorable. I secretly long for a John Adams Pez dispenser.)

If I found myself in this living room, I'd feel it was my civic duty to search for caches of concealed weapons.  This is New England, after all: we are not that flag-oriented. Anyone who is this into it makes me nervous. (Check out the tiny flag throw pillows on the wing chairs.)

My last theory is that this is Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney's secret love nest. And now I'm done: I don't want to think about this any more. Get me out of here.

But before I go, I need to point out that using bunting as a window treatment may be a creative idea, but I'm still against it. Even when it matches your sailboat.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Harris Did WHAT?

To protect the innocent (you) I wasn't going to write about what happened last night, but I can't resist. (At least I had the good sense not to take photographs.) If you're not a cat person, maybe you'd better skip this. If you've ever had cats, you can handle it.

Harris jumped up on our Mission-style bookcases after supper. He likes to curl up there in the evening, as in this photo, taken some weeks ago. He's at eye level with me there, and I like to rub one of his big white feet with my nose, which he likes, too.

But there were no foot rubs last night. As I watched in horror, Harris threw up his supper — a surprising amount, so he must have stolen someone else's supper, too. It went right down the front of the bookcase, hitting the floor with a splat.

I was momentarily stunned. Oh, man, it was such a mess! A dozen panes of glass in wooden frames, with many little crevices. Some had spilled under the bookcase, some was on the back of the sofa.... It was the worst thing I'd been handed by a cat for some time. I remembered that, a couple of years ago, someone threw up behind one of our big steam radiators, which are tight up against our walls. Decades ago, in a previous life, I had a baby grand piano, and someone threw up across the strings and onto the soundboard. I hope I've seen it all now.

Harris and I looked at each other and I asked if he was okay. He has a natural little frown, or pout, so he often looks needy, put-upon, or peeved. He didn't look right, I thought as I went into the kitchen for the paper towels, cleaner, and a wastebasket. Coming back, I saw that he'd walked to the other end of the bookcase, where he likes to jump down. But then he threw up down the front of that one.

I started laughing. I helped him down so he couldn't do it again. I began cleaning as fast as I could to save the finish on the bookcases.

Harris was fine, I decided; he'd probably just eaten too fast. He must have been starving because I'd gotten home more than an hour past the cats' usual suppertime.

Much later last night, he woke me by curling up around head, purring and nibbling my hair. This was a rare nighttime visit, and he seemed to be in a great mood, so I stroked him and scrunched into a ball as he slowly pushed my head off my pillow. I couldn't help wondering if he might erupt again, but I was too tired to remove him. All's well that ends well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Possum Did WHAT?

I'm pleased to get off the topic of house-hunting for a bit to report on other local news.

A week ago Saturday, I sleeping while my husband fed the cats breakfast. He woke me up with an alarming announcement. Possum had pooped in the kitchen while everyone was waiting to be fed. My husband had noticed that Possum was not beside him in his usual supervisory position: he always stands on his hind legs, reaching up toward the counter where the dishes are being filled. He likes to bat at our legs and holler at us to make it snappy. That morning, Possum was sitting by the water dish looking antsy. Afterward, he ate with enthusiasm and settled on the sofa for a wash and a nap. 

My husband said nothing to him about his bizarre act, nor did I. Possum is so dignified. Even when he's lying with his belly on display, he has a regal attitude. If he was stressed or ill, we didn't want increase his discomfort with an awkward conversation.

Possum looking mysterious. Is he ill, stressed from his multi-cat household, 
protesting something unacceptable, or just being weird?

But, privately, we were beside ourselves. Our cats never do such things. We thought about the only time anything similar had happened. About ten years ago, our tiny Persian Snictoria (1995–2012) hated our new sofa. She left "protest poops" on it when we weren't around. We got a web cam, which identified her as the culprit. We watched her trying to jump from the sofa's soft back cushions to the bookcase, and falling hard on the floor. So we showed her how the other cats jumped up there, and her protest ended. 

Occasionally our cats leave us a "gift with purchase," a euphemism that reminds us of nicer things, like Clinique Bonus Time. Our cats all have fluffy "pants," and things sometimes go wrong if they leave the litter box prematurely. It's purely accidental. A "gift" is usually little, dry, hard, and not terrifically smelly (a benefit of high-quality, high-protein food). A gift sits on the floor until we spot it, or more likely, step on it because Persian rugs offer excellent camouflage. Our bare feet seem to have an instinct for finding gifts with purchase... but I digress.

Was Possum sick? Was he stressed or annoyed? Was he developing a horrible behavior problem that would ruin our lives and our apartment? He wasn't talking, so I consulted my cat care books: The New Natural Cat by Anitra Frazier and Your Cat by Elizabeth Hodgkins. Nothing in their medical sections suggested that Possum was ill, unless it was something so serious that he'd have many other nasty symptoms. 

Our wretched, stressed-out cat..

So Possum had to be either stressed or annoyed. We racked our brains for a cause. Nothing came to mind. No one picks on him and he only picks on Wendy sometimes. But he's always done this: she has some crazy Republican ideas and he thinks biting her will change that.

I kept reading Your Cat and found this: "A small apartment cannot accommodate more than two or three cats comfortably. " Dr. Hodgkins went on to describe how terrible things can be for cats who live with many other cats, even in big houses. According to her, we were seriously over-catted in our little apartment.

I snapped the book shut before any of the cats read it over my shoulder. Holy crap. Possum is feeling overcrowded and is acting out. Here we thought he loved supervising his posse as Top Cat but it's become a burden and he's having a breakdown. We have at least two too many cats, even if they all get along, wash each others' heads, and sleep together on the bed. 

What fools we had been to ignore expert advice. We have five cats. How crazy is that? Very crazy. Ask anyone. What had we been thinking? What could we do now to solve this problem? Should we have a lottery, or have the cats draw straws, and send the two losers away to a Swiss boarding school? 

How he looks when I ask him if he'd like to use the bathroom.

Whenever I work myself into a state, sooner or later I call our vet. Naturally, Possum picked a weekend to have his nervous breakdown. Our vet wouldn't be around until Tuesday. I left a message. Then I watched all of the cats for signs that they were overcrowded and miserable. Lion likes to chase and wrestle with Toffee, but Toffee never seems particularly annoyed by this. Possum and Toffee also have a few sharp differences of opinion but then they go back to head-licking and napping together. 

That was all I saw. Cats spend at about 2/3 of their lives sleeping, or pretending to, so having five cats feels a lot like having zero cats much of the time. (I am not suggesting that we could handle more cats. We could not afford the cat food. End of discussion.)

Our vet finally called, questioned me calmly about the episode, and offered an explanation so reasonable that it never occurred to us. "He probably had to go really badly but he was afraid of missing his breakfast. So he had an accident. Little kids do it all the time. They get so wrapped up in something they're doing that, even when they're toilet-trained, they have accidents."

Oh. Of course. 

I've begun quietly asking Possum if he needs to use the litter box before we begin serving his meals. He looks right through me as if he has no idea what I'm talking about.

Monday, April 20, 2015

House-Hunting: The Learning Experience, Part 2

More clarity gained from exploring the purchase of the Newton House:

Much as we crave a patio, garden and/or some outdoor space, we do not want a big yard.

We had this idea that, if the right house came with a large plot of land, it would be okay. We know better now. The Newton house had a big corner lot — plenty to mow and shovel, but no privacy unless we had it fenced. It was useless land: we have no kids or dogs to frolic on a lawn. I'd be the one doing most of the work. I was not enthusiastic. (My husband is an overworked academic; I'm the underemployed housekeeper.) When I'd worry aloud about the yard, people often said we could pay someone to do the work. But it makes no sense to pay for maintenance on top of a bigger mortgage and higher taxes for land we didn't want.

I'm more suited to container gardening, and maybe a small bed or two of flowers, tomatoes and herbs. Possibly a few rosebushes or shrubs. I'd be delighted with a small garden, not a field.

* * *
I'm more focused on thinking small about indoor space, too. This house was about 3,100 square feet on three stories. Plus a creepy basement that creeped us out. Creepily. With its decrepitude.

The third floor, a very basic au-pair suite, could be minimally heated, closed off, and used as an attic. That would leave about 2,600 square feet for two people.

Such a big increase in our living space (currently < 800 square feet) seemed exciting at first. Room to roam! We've seen many good-sized houses and big apartments that can't hold my husband's scholarly library or our larger pieces of furniture. Often, there are so many windows, doors, stairs, and built-ins that there aren't enough bare, wide walls for bookshelves. In the Newton house, the third floor would have held a lot of bookshelves, with many more scattered around the house — almost anywhere one would fit.

Urban townhouse condos often work better for books because the windows are only across the front and the back, so there can be long walls and high ceilings in between. City condos that we can afford tend to be smaller and more efficient than houses. This week I realized that I vastly prefer compact kitchens to big, fancy ones. I can reach anything in my tiny kitchen in three steps or less. This pleases me inordinately for reasons I don't understand... except that I've always been something of a "domestic engineer," and I love saving time and energy when I'm doing a chore like cooking. (In the Newton house, the fridge was two rooms away from the stove and sink, and it would have killed me. I would have needed roller skates to cook.)

* * *
It's looking like perhaps we should continue to be city people. We both love the beauty and fabulous "walkability" of our neighborhood, and my husband loves his easy commute. The trade-offs are less privacy and more noise, secondhand smoke, and craziness from neighbors. And we'll probably never get a decent little patio or deck. Plus our cats will be an issue for many condo associations, limiting our options. (Not that I will ever regret having these cats.) It's a tough choice.

In the city, we might be barely able to afford about 200 square feet more than we have. Yet many big, pretty, and relatively affordable houses are for sale in the suburbs. We're finding that a big house is probably not sensible for us at any price. At the home inspection, we finally saw some numbers for heat and other expenses. The inspector helped us understand how much it costs to run a house. We've never paid a heating bill in our lives. We just pay the condo fee and crank up the thermostat as much as we want.

We like to be very warm in winter: our condo is somewhere in the mid 70s day and night. And we still dress in layers and huddle under throws because we're cold. The owners of the Newton house kept it at 60 during the day and 50 at night. (We'd be hypothermic.) Even so, their bills were daunting.

We always wondered what it would cost to keep a house at our preferred temperature. Now we hope we never find out.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

House-Hunting: The Learning Experience, Part 1

We decided against buying the house in Newton, which probably comes as no surprise to those of you who have figured out how to read between the lines here. I hope it was a wise decision, not a cowardly one. I do know we feel relieved since we made our choice.

Thank you to everyone who left comments with advice and wisdom, and emailed or talked to me. You helped! I have a lot of kind, wise friends, including some who comment here, whose names I don't know.

Some friends tell me that backing out of an accepted offer is a traditional step along the way to buying the right place. If so, we've gotten our feet wet and learned a few things, not only about old houses but about ourselves.

I think we were just so exhausted from searching that we were on auto-pilot when we saw that house. I didn't notice that there was no refrigerator in the kitchen (or a single closet on the whole first floor) until after our offer was accepted. We never dreamed anyone would actually accept an offer from us. House-hunting had become surreal, a neverending bad dream, because we've had nothing but failure for five years as we've watched home prices rise and rise. We are so desperate to have it be over.

* * *
You ought to be madly in love with an old house before you buy it. You'll begin with an idea that maybe it's a good place from the listing, but then you'll know if it is Your House as soon as you walk in the door — sometimes when you're still on the porch. It's a purely emotional or instinctive decision, not a reasoned one. It's not a rational or business-like approach, but sometimes our instincts can serve and protect us better than our brains, doing complex emotional and psychological calculations along with picking up the key practical considerations. Our brain can't handle all that very quickly if it can manage it at all.

No thinking is required. You just know. Friends have recently told me that this is always how it happens for them. I remembered that we'd felt the same way when we discovered our first apartment and then this condo. We knew they were right for us and that was that.

Love is an irrational state, and you need to be sort of crazy to agree to spend a small fortune to buy a strange and complicated new place in spite of its issues. But the house you love will seem ideal to you because love makes its problems tolerable. Fixing them will become your labor of love. Love makes a new house filled with unknowns into a home.

The Newton house was merely an infatuation. Our rose-colored glasses fell off with shocking speed after our offer was accepted. We weren't in love, although we had felt attraction. And we were very tired of showings, open houses, and constantly checking for new listings.

We realized that we have fallen in love four or five times during our search, but it never worked out. The house or condo was already under agreement by the time we saw it, or we were outbid, etc. Every time it was painful. In this tough market one needs to act fast and make an offer without time to sleep on it or even think very much. It had been a long time since anything even vaguely suitable had appeared, so we jumped. But it was just a fling.

* * *
When I'm thinking clearly, I know I don't want to acquire a lot of furniture and other possessions at this point in my life. I want to live with less, not more. I also know I don't want to clean or care for much more house than we already have. But we don't always think clearly, do we?

There's another reason why we made that offer last Sunday: fantasy. I've dreamed all my life of owning a lovely old house with lots of big, elegant rooms with 19th-century detail. But this week's discovery is that I have not dreamed all my life of cleaning it — dusting and polishing all that detail, vacuuming all those old Persian carpets, and mopping all those floors. (And forget mowing, shoveling, and raking.) Since I'm a slow and lazy housekeeper, I'd be spending too much of my life doing all that. Resentfully. Or I'd be living in a dirty house with an unkempt yard and feeling intense guilt. Who needs it? 

Get an affordable lovely-big-old house and you could hire a cleaning service, you say. This was not that house. And I've never wanted a service; I may be lazy but I'm also cheap and I don't want strangers cleaning up my mess.

Until this week, I never dreamed that my imaginary house would be stressful to own. But after the home inspection and a talk about financing with our banker, we had a better picture of what home ownership truly costs and all the work it entails. I may have finally stopped longing so intensely for every beautiful old house I see in Newport, Swampscott, and Northeast Harbor. From now on, I might feel a bit sorry for whoever has to vacuum, weed, and pay the taxes. My Big Old House Dream began to seem more like a nightmare this week. 

We are glad we are finally awake. And more informed. Back to the Redfin listings.... and Part 2.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Still Maybe

We had the home inspection for the house in Newton yesterday. Whoa. While friends who own old houses have told us that they always have a long list of repairs and improvements, we had no idea of what that actually meant. This house happens to belong to a home inspector; even so, the list of problems that we received yesterday includes many items that need to be done soon, and some that will be very expensive. If we add up the crucial ones, and then add in the improvements and changes we hoped to make, it's mind-boggling.

Yesterday's session with the home inspector also helped us to realize how much time, energy and money it will take to simply care for the house and yard. And then there's the heating cost. We like to be very warm in the winter, and our gas heat is included in our condo fee, so we never think about it. This Newton house is large and expensive to heat even to 60 degrees in the winter (and 50 at night). I've seen the monthly bills for that piddly amount of warmth and they are high. So do we learn to freeze, or figure out how to handle a huge heating bill on top of our new mortgages and taxes and other expenses? We realize that we bundle up and huddle under throws in our apartment now, even with the thermostat set to 76 (at the behest of a neighbor who wants to feel even warmer than we do). How we'd manage in this house is an interesting question.

We also learned that installing central air conditioning would be out of the question for us, given the expense and amount of work. (I had this idea, from the Intertubes, that it wouldn't be so difficult. Ha.) The house is on a busy street, so it's best to keep the front and side windows closed to traffic noise and dirt. But window air conditioners just keep getting noisier, and New England summers seem to keep getting hotter and more unbearable without air conditioning. But I can't sleep with one in the bedroom, so we need to figure that out.

I'm trying to keep in mind that it's just another old house with the usual set of old-house issues. It all seems reasonable, in theory. But if we want a well-kept, clean, sound, and comfortable big old house, it's going to be much more work and expense than we realized.

Then there's the issue of the neighborhood. I'm not sure how easily I'd be able to get to know people there since we aren't churchgoers and have neither kids nor dogs, which are what bring most people together in the suburbs. We've been out there walking around, and it's a far cry from the city neighborhoods I know and love. There's a Whole Foods, a pharmacy, a bakery, and a few other shops snd restaurant within a half mile or so, but we're admittedly spoiled with a multitude of options here in the heart of Boston. (There's also a lake and a park, to stand in for the Charles River Esplanade and Public Garden.)

On the other hand, we'd have privacy and independence, and a measure of peace and quiet that is rare to find in a condominium. And we'd have a secluded patio of our own, something we've dreamed of for a very long time.

We need to decide soon, so we're weighing the costs and list of repairs, examining the floor plans and trying to decide whether we truly want to try suburban living. My lifelong dream of owning an old house and having a garden may finally come to pass, or I may decide that I'm a little told old for this sort of adventure. (The people who own this house are about our age, and they are downsizing.)

The cats are all very wisely keeping their opinions about all this private, although I'm sure they are desperate to speak up since we accidentally mentioned that there are mice in the attic.

I will keep you posted.