Posted in Los Angeles

New house: interesting mail

As I may have mentioned once or twice we’ve recently bought a house and moved in.

One thing that was immediately noticeable was the volume of mail we received.  Aside from the regular supply of junk mail (e.g. from nearby supermarkets) the mail we’ve been sent falls into several categories:

1. Promotions addressed to us (name spelled correctly)

2. Promotions addressed to us (spelling mistake in name)

3. “Interesting” letters, some asking for money, some of which, if you were naive, you could imagine were from the bank. Some had the spelling mistake, some didn’t.

4. Mail from ADT (as well as an in-person visit from someone claiming to be from ADT)

5. Some large parcels with good stuff in them (from random companies), addressed to us.

6. Real mail from Los Angeles County.

The companies with the correct spelling probably got our information from the public record, which includes our names, our address, our lender’s name, the loan amount and term, and the date of recording.  The ones with the incorrect spelling we think came from the Title insurance people.  Let’s start with #3.  All photos are in a gallery at the end.

“Interesting” mail

The first piece of mail waiting for us on the day we moved in was a notice about package waiting to be picked up.  It had ‘FINAL ATTEMPT’ stamped on it.  Again, obviously not from the post office but if you were stressed and rushed (you know, because you’re moving house) you might be tempted to call the number.  We didn’t.

One consistent ‘mail solicitation’ was from some companies offering ‘mortgage protection’ (i.e. insurance) — these were the ones that had our lenders name prominently displayed above our names on the address line (and then it says somewhere something like: “reference to lenders name is made strictly for loan ID purposes”).  These envelopes often came with a large warning on the front.  Some came with ‘FINAL NOTICE’ on the front, and instructions to ‘please complete and return’.

Another couple of letters we got were offering to help us get a copy of our deed.  This is similar to one the County of LA warned about [].  One asked for $89, the other for $83.  We’d already been sent at least two copies for free from various places such as the LA county records office. Some of this mail came on the extra-long paper you get when completing Escrow.

Another interesting mail was from the “nationwide biweekly administration” offering to set up bi-weekly payments on our mortgage.  They wanted our loan number and terms (interest rate etc).

One mail that I’m still not sure about was from the Title Recording Service offering a Declaration of Homestead.  A declaration of homestead is apparently a real thing, you can get the form from the County of LA [] but it doesn’t appear to cost money.  This group wanted $48, but seemed to include a “homeowners real estate package” which is probably what actually costs the money.


What is a Homestead?

• A homestead helps to protect you from losing your house to people you owe money to. Homestead law protects a certain amount of the value of your home from being taken to pay a judgment.


Seriously, they really want us.  We get at least one letter a week now.  You’ll note the phone number on each letter is different.

The Good Stuff

We actually got a lot of quite good stuff and if you (a) knew it was coming and (b) knew what any of these places were and (c) hadn’t just spent all your money on a house, you could make good use of it. Among other things we got (and they’re still coming in):

  • special offers to sign up for Dish TV, the LA Times, and Direct TV.
  • special offers from tiling places, places selling shutters and blinds, people selling wardrobes (closets), home security systems, and beds.
  • vouchers from West Elm and Home Depot and P&G (see below), and one for a free gift at Plummers.
  • cards from electricians, lawn people, locksmiths, and termite people.
  • brochures from Room&Board, Home Decorators Collection, Pottery Barn, and a vast package of brochures from Restoration Hardware (e.g. 18″ towel rack: $75, coffee table from $795.  We can dream.  Or just go to Target).
  • various letters with multiple special offers inside. They all seemed to include the LA times and Direct TV and other such goodies as a free haircut at Supercuts, and three free 99c store items (no purchase necessary).

We also got a sample package of samples and a big book of vouchers from P&G.

“Real” Mail

We got an interesting letter from the LA County Registrar enclosing a copy of our deed, and keeping us “informed of important changes regarding your property and [to] protect your home from real estate fraud”.  At first I thought this was in the “interesting” mail category but after some investigation I conclude it’s offical. My feeling is that if they didn’t put everyone’s information in the public record then people wouldn’t have to ring up the Consumer Affairs department so often.  I mean, seriously.


Question: when you buy a house in other countries, is your information publicly available?

Question: did you get any interesting mail when you bought a house?


Click on the photos to see more detail:

Posted in Los Angeles

Views of Pasadena

Slow news week here (no news is good news) – so here are some photos instead!  How many different reminders of Australia and the UK can there be in one place?

Posted in Los Angeles

Buying a house in Pasadena

I never imagined that buying a house would be easy, but our lack of previous experience, combined with trying to do it in a new country, a new city, and in a hurry has made the process slightly challenging.  The bottom line is we’ve had an offer accepted on a place – and here I describe (in nauseating detail) how we got there.


We wanted to buy somewhere in the US because, frankly, we are sick of renting. Buying in Boston was impossible because of the type of visa we were on. On moving West though, with different visas in hand, we set a goal to move into our new place within two months of arriving. As of today, just over a month has passed…

So in California – or at least in Pasadena – we’ve found the process to be as follows:-

Getting an agent

First you have to engage an agent. You can do nothing without one – you are strongly discouraged from attending open houses if you don’t have an agent; and the agent does all the paperwork, writing of offers and such for you. You don’t pay this agent – they are paid by the seller of the house you eventually buy.

How do you get a good agent, you ask? You get a recommendation. Ours was recommended to us by a Caltech professor. And she (the agent, and I imagine, irrelevantly, the Caltech professor) is good – one gets the feeling she’s more used to dealing with people who have seven figures in the bank. But still, she always gives us 100% effort and she never seems to take a day off.


Secondly, you have to get pre-approval for a loan from somewhere. Agents won’t work with you (us) in this market, without it. Pre-approval, of course, involves the dreaded Credit Check. For us it took a year of paying off a credit card on time for us to have a good enough credit rating to get pre-approval.

Get emails from MLS

Thirdly, you need to know what you want in your property. Your agent needs to know everything – location, type of property (‘single family’, townhouse, unit etc), price, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, garage spaces, whether it has a laundry… everything. Our agent put all our requirements into the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) search engine and set it up to email us properties as they came on the market. Only agents can set up this facility. Then on a Thursday afternoon we would send her the list of places we wanted to see (open house or not – doesn’t matter) and she would set up the appointments.

MLS – and no, anything starting with a “6” was rejected immediately.  We just wanted to see what was out there.

Look at places

Bright an early on Saturday or Sunday morning, we would drive into Pasadena and meet our agent at her office. She would then take us around, in her luxury car with elevator music playing, to up to 10 places in 3 hours. The seller or selling agent was never there but the real estate people have a brilliant system of ‘lock boxes’ to get into vacant properties – each agent has a thing like a TV remote which unlocks a strong box hanging from the front door, which then spits out the keys.


Between our house-hunting trip before we officially arrived in California, and the past four weekends, we must’ve looked at a good 30 places.


These ranged from one that we couldn’t face going into because of the smell, a beautiful one that was ridiculously close to the freeway (see video below), ones that were too expensive, in a bad location, in need of too much renovation, had a view of something revolting, were too small, were likely to fall down in the next earthquake, had sloping floors and cracks in the walls, or had a bullet hole in the front window.

Not a good sign....
Not a good sign….
Yes, that is the garage door.  They 'converted it' into a room, but left the handle???
Yes, that is the garage door. They ‘converted it’ into a room, but left the door handle???
Can you imagine asking the movers to bring your fridge up on those rails?
Can you imagine asking the movers to bring your fridge up on those rails?

Write an offer (or several)

When we saw somewhere we liked we had to write an offer and submit it ASAP. We used our agent’s advice to determine the price (the listing price was only a rough guide – the offer could be higher or lower). We even had to write a ‘begging letter’ (as my dad called it) – a letter of introduction – to better our chances at some of the places nearer Caltech. Each offer took some time for our agent to put together, and we had to sign them electronically – which is something none of us wanted to be doing at 11pm on a Sunday night (as we inevitably were).   Our agent would then email the offer to the seller’s agent with a deadline of a few days or a few hours.

Over these four weeks we made eight (EIGHT!) offers, got counter offers back on six of them, made counter-counter offers on two, withdrew one counter-counter offer, and were accepted on a final counter-counter offer.

Here’s what we were looking at:

(1)    Mohawk – 2-bed townhouse reasonably near Caltech – agent played games then didn’t get back to us.

(2)    N Michigan – a 2-bed house, north of the 210 freeway. It was a complicated situation plus the house needed a lot of renovation. We didn’t counter their counter.

(3)    San Pasqual – 2-bed single-floor unit so close to Caltech it was virtually on it. Highly desirable ‘historic’ complex and so the seller received 8 offers, 4 cash. We didn’t counter their counter.

(4)    E California – beautiful 2-bed ground floor unit close to Caltech with loads of private patio space. We got so close – we got a counter offer, and countered back. We were down to the last two but the winning bid allowed the seller to stay in the property for 20 days rent-free AFTER the sale had closed. Madness!

(5)    Oak Knoll – 2-bed townhouse close to Caltech. They countered us but once our agent had looked at the property she priced it about $40k lower than what we first offered, which was $20k lower than the asking price. Lucky escape. It’s still on the market.

(6)    Oswego – 2-bed single-floor unit close-ish to Caltech. They were close to accepting our offer on the second round of negotiations but then we found out the current owner was having a massive dispute with complex Association about his installation of a laundry. So we withdrew our offer.

(7)    [address withheld!] – lucky number 7 (so far). It’s a 3-bed house north of the 210 freeway but still less than a mile’s walk to Pasadena town hall.

(8)    S Sierra Madre – 3-bed townhouse quite close to Caltech. Our agent knew it was under-priced but in the end we were outbid by someone who offered > $10k over asking.

Get offer accepted

So, now that lucky 7 has accepted our offer we’ve moved onto the next stage – putting money in escrow, getting inspections done, finalizing the loan, doing reams of paperwork etc. At any point this could all go south, so stay tuned for part two!

— Following post: Buying a house in Pasadena – Part 2

Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Griffith Observatory

Climbing a giant hill in 90F heat: sounds like a brilliant idea…

We had a day’s reprieve from house-hunting last Saturday so we decided to go to the Griffith Observatory.


We actually tried to go there a few weeks ago but were confounded by the lack of parking.

Griffith Park is only a few miles from our hotel in Burbank so we saw it as an easy target for our first excursions as tourists. We decided to skip the carpark and leave the car at the bottom of the hill. We were assured (by apparently much fitter friends) that it was a mere stroll to the Observatory from there.

Unfortunately the weather last weekend was Hot. By 10am it was 90F (32C). But no matter; we were going to do this.

We drove to the appropriate spot near The Trails café (apparently a good place for star-spotting) and parked on the road.

Once out of the car we found there was a surprising lack of signage, and several trails to choose from. After some time walking up and down and consulting Google maps we eventually decided on a path.

I had erroneously assumed the path would be shady, since the hill is covered with trees. But no – I was quite open to the blazing sun, and pretty steep. After about 15 minutes we were breathing hard.

Luckily at our first shade/rest break we turned around and saw this!


As we got closer to the top we started getting better views of the city below and the Observatory above.



By the time we staggered onto the plaza where everyone else was just getting out of their air-conditioned cars, probably 30 minutes later, we were quite hot.

We immediately found some shade and after a couple of minutes climbed the stairs to “The telescope”. The Telescope turned out to be The Zeiss 12’ Refractor which is apparently used on public observing nights.


The Observatory is free to visit so we headed into the relative cool of the exhibit space.


In the first hall there were, among other things, Galileo’s first telescope (the original? It wasn’t clear), a good display showing refracting and reflecting telescopes, and a steerable model of a (the?) telescope and dome.



We then headed down a long corridor decorated with ‘astronomical jewellery’ showing the timeline of the universe. It only mentioned the bits relevant to human existence though, so there were 5 billion years of blank wall space. This seemed strange, or good, depending on what you were trying to communicate I suppose.


We investigated the Gunther Depths of Space exhibit (big models of planets!) then retired to the surprisingly empty café to recharge. Then we faced the long hike back down the hill to the baking hot car.

Does anyone else see the colours in the clouds on the left?
Does anyone else see the colours in the clouds on the left?
Posted in Los Angeles

Driving in LA

My husband vowed that no matter what, he would never drive in LA.

So, here we are.

"LA is a great big freeway..."
“LA is a great big freeway…”

Despite watching Speed, I never appreciated the brilliance that is the LA freeway. Don’t get me wrong, they are terrifying, and terrible when blocked, but they do an amazing job. The freeway cannot be compared to a motorway in the UK. The freeway (when it works) is like a conveyor belt or a train line, rather than a cross-country road: you get on it where you are, and you get off where you want to be. Freeways are everywhere and there are entrances and exits every mile or so in the denser areas. If the option were available, you would almost never go a distance of more than two miles on ‘surface streets’ (i.e. not on a freeway).

The main problem with freeways occurs when one or all lanes are blocked because of a collision or some other incident. Just the other day, the 210 Eastbound at Pasadena was completely blocked because of an epic crash – a truck blew a tire and sideswiped another truck into the light-rail line that runs along the center of the freeway. The accident happened at about 1pm, and the whole south side of Pasadena, including miles and miles of freeway were gridlocked until well past rush hour.

Friends of ours told us to always make sure to go the bathroom before starting a journey involving a freeway and to keep snacks and water in the car. We were also told to check which has up to date colour-coded traffic speed information.

Our route to work at the moment is I-5 south, 134-east, 2-north, 210-east. Check out the video below to get an idea of what it’s like:

When it came to driving on the freeway there were two things that we needed to get used to immediately.

First is the volume of ginormous trucks on the road. This is mostly a problem on the I-5 and the 210. Trucks are only allowed on the right two lanes but they more often than not stay in the second lane to keep out of the way of cars merging onto the freeway. What this means though, is that if one truck is going the truck speed limit (55mph) and another truck wants to go faster, it will overtake on the inside. If you want to overtake a truck and go at the speed limit, you also probably have to do it on the inside. You may also need to change your trousers afterwards. (Technically you must past a truck on the left)


The second thing we’ve had to get used to the amount of lane-switching that happens.

Freeway exits and entrances can be on the left or the right. Our exit from the I-5 onto the 134 occurs on the left – so we suddenly go from exit-lane to fast-lane. People already on the 134 see that two extra fast lanes have appeared and immediately want to be in them – so they start switching left. Those just joining the 134 might want to get to an exit in half a mile, so they start switching right. Trucks joining the 134 have to switch right because they aren’t allowed in the outer lanes. Regular people who want to go (at best) at the speed limit and don’t need to exit for a few miles, get tail-gated out of the outer lanes. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

In general, when you switch lanes you have to be careful that someone two lanes across doesn’t also see the same gap and try to get in it as well. You have to be careful of someone coming at 90 mph in the middle lane. You have to be careful of motorbikes doing whatever they want (lane-splitting is legal here). You have to be careful of someone joining the freeway from the right then attempting to cross four lanes into the fast lane in one smooth movement. You have to be careful of Glendale drivers weaving in and out (yesterday we saw someone in a Merc nearly lose control of his car because he switched so hard).

So in summary, it’s terrifying. I actually prefer it when the traffic is heavy because everyone is going slowly. I’ve found that music helps, and I have the radio on Jack-FM because it has excellent driving songs.

Getting our CA licenses

Because we’d taken the precaution of getting our Massachusetts licenses [read all about it here], we only had to take the theory test to get our California ones. This did involve memorizing 100 pages of road rules [Handbook (pdf)] including the following:

Things you must not do - the full list is here:
Things you must not do.

There are practice tests on the DMV website.

The California DMV allows you to make an appointment. This doesn’t stop you having to wait in a line to start with, and some time a lot of time in a room with too many people and not enough chairs, but once we’d queued for about 10 minutes we only had to wait another 10 minutes for our number to come up. In the end it took us an hour and a half to get our car registered and pass our theory tests.

Buying our car

We bought a 2002 Honda Accord from a mathematics postdoc at Caltech, so we are now ready to fully embrace the LA car culture.