When a Homeowners Association quits caring

Maplewood South/North homeHubby & I and the new dog started taking long walks in the neighborhood again (early in the morning, we’re not crazy), and I just had to STOP in horror at this house.

When our former dog was new and not in pain from arthritis (about 5 years ago), we used to walk down our street toward Hillcroft and notice this house – it was pretty, then. WHAT HAPPENED? I sent an e-mail to the Deed Restriction Committee Chairman listed on the subdivision’s Website. I’d always heard good things about Maplewood South/North, so I thought I’d get a quick response to my question: “Is someone dead in this house? Has it been abandoned?”

When I got no response, I sent an e-mail to the President … and never heard a word. What’s the story?

On one of those morning walks, I saw a neighbor outside and asked if the house had been abandoned. He said the owner, a woman, still lives nearby in one of her rent houses. Her son lives in the house and her 2 daughters live nearby, so she visits the area often. The door’s been in rough shape for a couple of years, the bushes have been dying over time.

“Why hasn’t the homeowners association done anything?” I asked. The neighbor said the association just doesn’t do much. And the woman – who used to be a good friend – now drives by and won’t even turn her head to look at him.

Maplewood South/North home - driveway

Note the tall weeds by the garage door

Is there another side to this story? Maybe … but if I don’t get a response, I won’t know what it is.

OK, other than just having to walk by and see this mess (actually, we’ve quit walking that way, it upsets me so much), what real difference does it make? We’re in a drought, so what if all the grass is dead? Foot-high weeds in the driveway, big deal.

Yeah, it is a big deal. It actually affects two things: property values AND neighborhood security. Yes, a November 2010 study by Relocation.com found 75 percent of Americans determine the safety in a neighborhood by the condition of the front yards. No, that doesn’t mean that beautiful yards = no crime (even tony River Oaks is seeing a surge of burglaries these days). But it DOES mean that potential homebuyers are put off more by crappy yards than by elevated crime stats. So Maplewood South/North – think about it, your yearly fee for the Constable Patrol is being sabotaged by this homeowner.

I know it’s not easy for a subdivision to keep after its scofflaw residents. And I guess I could have said something to this neighbor about HIM being part of the association … does HE do anything to affect this situation? I don’t even live in Maplewood and I sent e-mails, maybe his would do more good. In Houston, where zoning doesn’t exist and deed restrictions are often the only barriers to the wolves, if the homeowners association quits caring, all its residents are in jeopardy.

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Today’s topic is being hijacked

I’ve had a blogpost topic on my mind for quite awhile but today, it’s being hijacked. Instead, today on “Thank a Mentor Day,” I’m giving my sincere appreciation to two women who have been my bosses and my mentors.

There was an amazing article in this week’s Houston Business Journal about good bosses that sounded so much like both of these women. Unfortunately, it’s a premium article, which means if you aren’t an HBJ subscriber, a link will only cover a bit of the story. So I’ve typed up the article and quoted it extensively below.

I’m pretty passionate about this topic. I’ve had some great bosses who were also mentors to me and made my worklife a wonderful life. One, Renee Catacalos, now lives in Washington, D.C. She worked beside me at the Houston Association of REALTORS several years ago. But then she was promoted … upon which time she became an awesome mentor and an excellent boss. The other former boss is still a great friend, Ginny Abiassi. She was my boss for nearly eight years at Stewart Title and was absolutely amazing.

Here is some of what the bestselling author, Harvey Mackay, had to say in that HBJ article:

The late great basketball coach John Wooden shared his coaching philosophy, which works jus as well in business when it comes to mentoring employees: “A coach’s primary function should not be to make better players but to make better people. Lift others even with your critical analysis. This is still the best method to get the best out of someone because pride is a better motivator than fear. I never wanted to teach through fear, punishment or intimidation.”

Bosses have tremendous power over those they supervise.  Whether the owner of the company or a middle manager, employees understand the person they report to can be their biggest cheerleader or their worst nightmare. I prefer to think the people I have hired put me in the first category. Having made a significant investment of time in hiring them in the first place, I must have recognized the sort of talent, personality and energy that would improve our company.

I want the folks I hire to love their jobs enough to come back raring to go after a lousy day, because everybody has a lousy day once in a while. I want them to look to me for inspiration. I want them to respect my work ethic. I want them to want to get better at what they do. I want them to know that I will help them get better. I want them to learn from my example, even when I am not directly mentoring them. Of course, none of that happens unless I know how to come back revved up after a miserable day, demonstrate a stellar work ethic and keep improving myself. What goes around comes around.

Study after study has concluded that the most important factor in job satisfaction is a positive work environment. Praise is vital, and salary is important, but nothing ranks as high as loving what you do. Location matters, but people are willing to go great distances for a job that makes them happy. Titles aren’t even near the top of the list.

The determining factor is often closely related to the boss. A truly great boss will engender loyalty before any of those other factors will. A committed boss works hardest at positive leadership and a professional environment. A perceptive boss remembers her own early challenges and draws on those experiences. A responsible boss understands that mentoring his staff and helping them develop skills reflects positively on him.

I’ve had one horrible, nightmare boss, and others who were very good. I intend to have many more years of workplace interaction as an independent contractor and maybe even again as an employee. However, I could not pass by “Thank a Mentor Day” without saying “thank you” to these two women. I have been so fortunate that my work life intersected with theirs.

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Our babies need protection! Yes … our plants during the upcoming freeze

Weather. The one thing we talk about but truly cannot do anything about. But in Southwest Houston, the weather is an issue we MUST contend with. Like for next week.

Okay, so Houston is not a city with a true winter. (Like Buffalo, NY, for example.) At the same time, it’s not like South Florida where there’s seldom a freeze. The temperature is supposed to drop to 28° on Tuesday night – so Houston, we definitely have a problem!

Snow on 12/4/2010 in Southwest Houston

Snow in my backyard on Dec 4, 2010

Went through this last winter even worse. I knew there would be a bad freeze because we always seem to have a harsh winter when we have a harsh summer. For instance, one of the worst winters ever was in 1983 after Hurricane Alicia hit earlier in the year. Summer of 2009 was BRUTAL for heat, and in winter 2009 we had snow on Dec. 4 and for 10 days in January had below-freezing temps. (Snow in Houston is so rare, the Dec. 4 event spawned its own Facebook page.)

This past summer was really hot, so here comes the really cold.

Okay, so we just cover plants or figure they will handle it? Not exactly. The problem is we have this mentality that Houston has a truly tropical climate. And that works most of the time. It works long enough (years) for us to forget about cold snaps. We plant palms that actually do all right once they’re a little older; but we also plant gingers and other tropical plants that really have no business being anywhere but Southernmost Florida or Hawaii.

We met some folks last spring who had moved to the Texas Hill Country from the Clear Lake/NASA area. They had visited friends back home after the January 2010 freeze and said the devastation to plants was worse than what Hurricane Ike had done in 2008. Scary.

Yes, I covered my split-leaf philodendron and saved the big stalks. But we hauled off like 12 huge bags of frozen, brown mushy leaves. And the ginger – forget it, back to the ground. Houston looked really bleak after that 10 days of freeze.

Backyard philodendron now recovered

Backyard philodendron now recovered

So it’s been a year. The philo has recovered completely (better than ever!) and the ginger is coming back … and I’ve recently seen what even one night of 31° can do. So I’ll be covering everything up for sure. Of course, with the philo being about 20 feet wide and 8 feet tall, that’s not an easy task, but we’ve bought a HUGE tarp and that worked really well last winter.

(If you want some great information about how to protect your plants during a freeze in Texas and you’re on Facebook, click on this Neil Sperry Note. He’s a Texas gardening legend.)

Pipes freezing … oh well, that’s a topic for another post.

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On quality, follow-up, and a company closing

Heard from my interior “redesigner” that my remodeling contractor had closed his doors. I was a little surprised when I replied rather passionately that:

“He just didn’t leverage his customers the way he should have; he never did anything I don’t think to publicize the job he did for us because it was so ‘small.’ But it was such a little jewel. He (also) had hired a young lady who was supposed to coordinate everything (his receptionist & in-house project coordinator) – but she really didn’t know the business and I had to stay on top of things more than I think I should have. For instance, the final city inspections didn’t get done until I nagged & nagged to do it. Maybe the inspector just runs by the house, but you don’t want to have that hanging if you ever have to sell your house someday. Tom was hurt that I was not happy with him. Well, that’s part of HIS job!”

Now to be fair to Tom, the reason he hired that young lady is because his wife had that position – and she was ill with cancer and later died. But it’s a bad sign when you don’t hire the right person as a coordinator. I’m sure she drove his field guys and sales guys crazy, too.

And Joetta said she’s never known anyone who really had a pleasant time remodeling. (Never forget that!) But what I didn’t tell her is how the electrician Tom recommended told us our 220V plug (clothes dryer) was fine. It wasn’t. I finally found someone who could fix it for much less than the $500 he finally said it would take to do a new ground wire.

So I’m still blissfully happy with the RESULTS of the remodeling but realizing the FOLLOW-UP is what these companies seem to miss.

Right now, we are working with Olshan, which did our foundation work about 3 years ago, to take care of the “small” thing they didn’t do … fill the tunnel and hole they made under our house when they replaced all the plumbing underneath it. Amazing!

We had seen the hole under the hall bath but it took our plumber’s brother to look and tell us it wasn’t right. It was just Providence we had the most excellent Gary Bloch from Plumbco whose brother used to work for a foundation company, to do some work in our hall bath.

Now we have a lifetime warranty from Olshan, so I guess if our house fell in, it would be up to them to fix it. But I wouldn’t want to have to find out! And I just found a follow-up report saying there might be another problem ….

So back to my remodeling contractor. Here I quote an article from Houston Business Journal by James W. Mirabella:

“In the past, quality provided a competitive advantage. Today, it’s a minimum requirement just to compete.  Service quality … cannot typically be evaluated until the customer receives the service and possibly complains of shifts to a new provider. There is a universal, less expensive approach for maintaining quality …: prevention.  In service, (prevention) means preventing complaints, maintaining customer relationships, obtaining customer feedback regularly, knowing when a customer leaves, and doing what is necessary to get the lost customer back.

“This sounds difficult, but it is much less expensive than the marketing costs required to generate new customers.”

The article goes on about loyalty and how a company handles customer problems. But I just shake my head. Because my kitchen/living/dining remodeling project was too “small” for my contractor, he didn’t get the mileage out of the work he did for us. And he certainly wouldn’t have wanted my bathroom remodeling …

So now he’s gone. So yes, with some follow-up on our own, we will work these things out. But where’s the quality you should get without demanding it?

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A Gentile in the Promised Land

Our neighborhood is so much fun this time of year! 

When my friends in our Methodist Sunday School class start talking about Christmas decorations, I’m talking inflatable Menorahs and dreidels. And I’m totally bummed to miss the Hanukkah parade this Wednesday night (info on Dec. 1 Menorah Mobile Parade). Sorry, I’ve got choir practice: getting ready for Christmas. 

Our subdivision is just west of Meyerland, a 1,200-acre development of single-family homes that’s known as the center of Houston’s Jewish community. We are right behind the Jewish Community Center and near Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Beth Yeshurun and the Meyerland Minyan. 

Ever since Meyerland’s grand opening in 1955, this area has been a magnet for professionals – especially physicians and others who work in the Texas Medical Center. My husband and his first wife bought this house back in the ‘70s because of its 20-minute commute to TMC as well as its price point for 3 bedrooms and 2 baths … much lower than prices in West U. 

Talk about great neighbors: I’ve got 3 rabbis in this block and the next. Retired pediatrician on one side, child psychologist on the other, renowned neonatologist two doors down and CPA/attorney across the street. 

And with a proximity to synagogues, private schools such as the Emery/Weiner School and the Shlenker School as well as HISD’s Kolter Elementary, our subdivision is quite the magnet for young Jewish families. Many of the parents grew up in the area. They’ve returned to join the numerous more-senior Jewish families who bought here years ago, and who often move into Seven Acres across the bayou when they can’t live independently any more.

Now what do I mean about fun? How about a parade to celebrate a new Torah? Yup, it headed down our street just a few years ago (see the picture in “Torah with a Texas Twang”). How about the New York Bagel Shop and Deli? How about Three Brothers Bakery? There are Kosher food sections in all the nearby grocery stores, with fresh Challah bread for your French toast as well as a wonderful selection of smoked salmon.

So while my church is adopting families for the Christmas holiday, I relish my neighborhood’s tradition of helping with programs such as Meals on Wheels coordinated through the Jewish Community Center. And while we’re putting up a Christmas tree and hanging a wreath on our front door, we remember the neighbor’s invitation to participate in the Festival of Booths. And their children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

So, Happy Hanukkah! Light the menorah and spin the dreidel! It’s good to be a Gentile in the Promised Land.

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Remodeling pride … remodeling envy

Yes, I love my new kitchen. But I’m going crazy about the master bath!

Let me explain. My husband and I went through a long but extremely rewarding remodeling project back in 2008 … that really had started in 1995. Whaaaat?

Well, we started dating in 1994 and as soon as it got really, really serious, I realized we were going to live together in HIS house … and it needed MAJOR remodeling. So 13 years later (after the 54 piers were put in, but that’s another story) I got the work done on the kitchen and the living/dining room. It’s fabulous! Here are before and after pictures from the kitchen:

Old kitchen

New kitchen

(The reason for the professional “after” picture is that we chose Joetta Moulden, a local design and remodeling whiz, as our consultant on the project. She has a monthly column in Houston House & Home magazine and our home was featured: http://www.shelterstyle.com/PDFs/diyMay09.pdf )

Thanksgiving 2009, while cooking for the husband’s clan, I was standing in my “new” kitchen and positively giggling with glee. I LOOOOVVVEEE my kitchen!

But Joetta warned us that remodeling one room starts a chain of dominoes, where it makes the next room look like it needs it too. So here I am, making changes on the hall bathroom – I tell my husband it’s a MINOR remodel. Why? Because we’re still paying off the $$$big bucks home equity loan we took out for the foundation work and the major remodeling, that’s why.

And the minor remodeling actually looks great! Hubby has repainted the cabinets (he’s so careful and talented), we’ve gotten the bathtub plumbing fixed and will fix the sheetrock cracks. We’ve installed a new mirror, light fixture and sleek glass shelf. The décor has been updated to something more sophisticated and actually complimentary of the 1960-era peach tile.

So what’s the problem? The MASTER bath.

You see, our neighbor is in real estate. He has been buying “good bones” houses in the nearby Westbury subdivision, doing major major remodeling and then selling them. I made the mistake of seeing one of his re-dos and now I’m in full-blown green ENVY. Here’s why:

Benning bath -- shower

Benning bath -- vanity

Somehow, Jason took a master bath I swear is even SMALLER than ours (is that possible?) and turned it into a little jewel. I had always figured we would just leave that bathroom to whoever bought our home someday to redo. But noooooooo. Now I want that for ME … well, us.

So now I’m haunting HGTV videos online, watching couples taking sledgehammers and crowbars to old ceramic tile and doing “$40,000 bathroom projects for $2,000.” So they say. My neighbor actually redid HIS master bath last week. I heard jackhammers and saw lots of workmen, so I think it’s done. I asked his wife, “$10,000?” and she said, “less.”

We’ll see. I’m looking at mirrors right now. Will it be another minor remodel? Or a major one? Where will the money come from? Will hubby go along?

Stay tuned.

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A simple question: Where is Southwest Houston?

You would think it would be simple, but nooooo. 

Night after night, the TV news blares that this or that happened in Southwest Houston. And more often than not, it’s not even close! 

I think they just take I-10 going west and Hwy 288 going south and say everything within that quadrant is Southwest Houston. That’s lazy … and crazy. 

When you’re headed west out the Katy Freeway, what’s on your left is West Houston, including Memorial and the Villages. East of Almeda Road is really Southeast Houston. And inside the Loop is ALWAYS inside the Loop, especially when it’s in that quadrant. 

I say to my husband, “Just tell people we’re near Meyerland.” That’s about as close to being in the Loop as you can get … but the housing price-point is several notches lower. Good for us! 

I’ve lived in this area ever since I graduated from college – everywhere from near the Galleria, to out in Alief; then after a stint in Sugar Land (Southwest Houston NOT!), inside the Loop near Montrose and for the last 14½ years in the Meyerland area. 

What’s in Southwest Houston is what makes Houston such an interesting place. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was home for the hordes of singles and young families moving to Houston for thousands of jobs. In fact, hit the nostalgia trail. Read about real estate tycoon Michael Pollack and see the 1984 commercial for his infamous Colonial House apartments, “Beautiful Southwest Houston: The Golden Age of Apartment Living,” on Swamplot. Even former President George W. Bush lived in a Southwest Houston apartment complex in the ‘70s.

Today, Southwest Houston is the most racially, culturally and economically diverse area in Houston – and probably in the country, although I don’t have the numbers to prove that. From Katrina refugees to upscale white residents of Bellaire and West University Place, from Hispanics (legal and illegal) to Asian-Americans, from the Texas Medical Center to Sharpstown (one of the first master-planned communities in the nation) – Southwest Houston has it all. It’s a lot to talk about. 

This is gonna be fun.

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