Monthly Archives: April 2009

Mulberry tree not to be

I have to start with a disclaimer: I never have been a big fan of mulberry trees and profoundly agree with those who put this species into the “junk tree” category.

We have a 30 year old mulberry tree in our little front yard, a little too close to the foundation walls and reaching as tall as the house, as wide as the property, and all the way into the street.

It rests on two electrical lines, one in the parkway and the other over the street curb – not good! I also discovered a split in a fork of two major branches, one of them leaning over the sidewalk, into the electrical lines and the street – not good at all.


Do you see where this is going? The decision to remove the mulberry was not a very difficult one. The process of removal on the other hand was a real challenge. Cathy and I had to very carefully cut the branches out of the electrical lines to avoid any damage. Furthermore, a lot of branches and trunks were right in fall line of our nice, decorative fence, or our neighbor’s fence.


In short, we had to carefully take the tree down, bit by bit, branch by branch, roping a lot of the material carefully to the ground. But we did well. We got the job done with no damage to us, our neighbor’s property or our fence. And, while on the job, we had the attention of our neighbors and got to know them better, and even received some enthusiastic help during the clean up from the kids next door (a very welcome but unexpected side benefit)!

And now … now we need to think about a replacement. We don’t just want to leave a big open gap behind, but would like to replace it with a nice, quality, native tree. We probably will plant it in the parkway to fill the space better. The longevity of a parkway tree is always a big question because of potential upcoming utility work. With that in mind we would prefer a moderately fast-growing tree. I had Quercus bicolor (Swamp White Oak) on my mind, but think I will solicit a few more suggestions before I make up my mind.


Metal lath and plaster

Deconstruction is fun! I love peeling back the various layers, knocking the plaster off the walls, prying off the old wooden lath all the way down to the original brick walls and limestone footing walls.

Now it’s time for the ceiling. Thank God I am tall (6’-7”). I always liked being tall, but it was a real blessing when I got to the ceiling. My height made the overhead work a lot easier.

That said, something else completely spoiled the fun. I discovered that the entire ceiling had metal lath in the plaster. A couple of months back I was showing the building to my friend Ted Krasnesky  (Manager of Sustainable Construction at Pepper Construction; I worked with him on a couple of sustainable projects and very much respect his green building expertise). I distinctly remember his reaction when he spotted the metal lath but I didn’t know how to read it at the time, nor did I follow up with questions.

Well, I now know what must have been on his mind. If you’ve ever removed plaster with metal lath, you probably know what pain in the behind it is. It took me about 2 hours to remove around 10 square feet. There must be a better way of doing this! Cathy did a quick online search for me and mainly found references that talked about how to put drywall over plaster with metal lath – again – that sweeping under the carpet thing…


I finally figured how to find the seams of the metal lath and chiseled my way along those seams, which allowed me to take out whole sections (almost like drywall sheets). I had a very slow start, but got much faster and more effective as time went by. I only hope this was the only room in the basement that had metal lath in the ceiling plaster!


Sweeping it under the carpet…

We need to strip the interior of our house down to the studs, joists and masonry walls to take an inventory of what is where in terms of electricity, plumbing and heating. This assessment is critical for the design of the super-efficient building envelope and other sustainable and energy-efficient technologies.

I started in the back of the basement, and could not get this saying out of my mind: Sweeping it under the carpet…

The deconstruction process resembles experimental archeology. I began working my way through several layers of drywall, wall board, plaster and lath. Every layer carried evidence of a problem, usually rot, moisture and mold related. The farther I worked through the layers, the worse it got, to the point where the original studs (old growth) are completely rotted out at the bottom.

What I don’t get is how one could make the decision that covering up a problem with a new, fresh layer of wall plaster or drywall would resolve it. And yet, that is exactly what has happened here, and as far as I understand still happens in many of our homes – even these days. We just keep sweeping problems under the carpet…

May be it is ignorance. Not everybody is able to identify a mold or moisture problem. The wall just looks old and dirty – so maybe another layer of dry wall will resolve that problem, at least to the eye. Or may be denial of the problem is the more convenient (short term) solution.

We experienced something similar before, at our previous pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. Here, we focused on the issue of stormwater runoff and its impact on the environment. It took quite some effort to get people to understand that, for instance, a storm sewer or detention basin is not the solution to a stormwater runoff problem, but just relocates it little further downstream – onto our neighbors.

Our building at 3141 W. 15th Street was clearly built to last for generations. We are happy to step in, roll back the carpet to see what has accumulated over the decades. We look forward to fixing problems at their source, which is an investment in our equity (the house). This way we treat and reuse this resource effectively and ensure that it will offer shelter, comfort and a healthy and pleasant living environment for us … and a few more generations.


Securing the House

Like we have not secured the house before… (see also 04/08, 04/10 and 04/14/2009 posts). But this time it’s a little different, as the house is now ours for real. We removed the Realtor’s lock box and replaced the dead bolt lock on the front screen door and front door. The screen door is a nice, very sturdy, decorative wrought iron piece, which we like a lot.  I ordered a dumpster and we are now ready to start the big clean-up in the basement.

After a couple of days, I find the screen door and front door unlocked upon my arrival! I questioned my sanity for a minute: Did I really forget to look both doors last time? I could not figure out how someone could have gotten in, until I noticed that the narrow bay window facing the front porch was forced open, but then carefully closed again.

Nothing else in the house was missing, damaged or altered. My guess is that whoever went in must have been looking for tools, which I always take back with me at the end of the day. There is really nothing in the house right now that is worth taking away. Even the remaining copper piping in the walls is not worth much since the prices for scrap metals collapsed late last year.

I barricaded and boarded up the narrow bay window, which, in hindsight, was clearly the easiest entry point into the house. I wonder what other easy entry points there are? Because there is nothing in the house to steal, another forced entry could be a plus – it will point us to the next best easy entry point and allow us to improve security.

Of course we’ll need to figure out something different once we have building materials stored inside. We’ve started a little security to-do list:

  • Install solid back doors on every floor with proper dead bolt locks
  • Get temporary electricity set up
  • Install sensor-triggered security lighting on all four corners of the house.

Will that be deterrent enough? We don’t know but we surely will find out.


Buying a foreclosure – Part 8

The closing, which we could not finalize (see also 04/14/2009 post), was on Thursday. We were hopeful to complete the deal on Friday. All we needed was the adjusted and signed HUD-1 from the seller (the bank that has ownership over the property). The closing agent called at 5:00 pm to let us know that she had contacted the seller by phone, fax, and e-mail, but they had not yet signed and sent the HUD-1. There was no escape. We had to go into the weekend not knowing if—and when—we would own our little two-flat.

Why is this such a big deal for us? Well, we have been researching, planning and house-hunting for over a year. We have been after this particular two-flat since August 2008 (for 7 months now!). We just want to be done with it, own it and start the cool part—the green rehab.

The weekend passed quickly. We both kept very busy, which distracted us from waiting for Monday. Cathy called the closing agent midday Monday to inquire about any news. The agent answered the phone quietly; she said she’d seen on her Blackberry that an e-mail from the seller had arrived with an attachment! She had not yet been able to look at it because she was in the middle of another closing.

Cathy got a call back a couple of hours later: “The seller signed and returned the wrong (the old) HUD-1!” Yep, this was sort of expected. Why should they have gotten it right this time ‘round? The closing agent was very helpful and got right back on the phone. Believe it or not, the correct and signed HUD-1 form arrived only one hour later!

The closing lasted 98 hours! But finally— this is it. We are owners.

We cracked open a nice bottle of champagne (that Cathy had kept hidden in the fridge since last Wednesday) and celebrated. That said, it still has not quite sunk in. I am still thinking and waiting for the next shoe to drop, for the next road block to be tackled.


Buying a foreclosure – Part 7

We have read a lot and had numerous discussions with friends who have bought houses. Everybody has a story how something goes astray last minute. We are no exception – and just in case you are interested – here is our account of how our resolve got tested:

3 days to closing

We really need to get the mortgage commitment letter from ShoreBank so that we can formally schedule the closing that has been set for this Thursday (see also 04/13/2009 post). I started to poke around and finally found out that nothing is moving or happening because ShoreBank had no proof of insurance and no loan approval.


Didn’t I just send our proof of insurance (see also 04/13/2009 post)? It turns out that the preparation of closing documents is passed from Phil (our banker) to a different person (Pat) in a different ShoreBank branch office. Resolving the proof of insurance issue is easy: I just e-mailed Pat the documents.

2 days to closing

I receive an e-mail from Joe Ziccardi (our attorney) that the proof of insurance has to be re-issued. ShoreBank needs us to change the mortgagee information on the document and also a copy of the receipt as proof of payment. I scrambled to get the insurance broker to re-issue our proof of insurance and e-mailed it with receipt of payment to ShoreBank.

29 hours to closing

The loan approval is still missing! I am back on the phone to find out that it got somewhere stuck in the transfer from Phil to Pat. The seller told us in no uncertain terms that closing would not be delayed again and we are still fussing around with a critical document lost in transit. Phil was very apologetic and went personally after the documents to make sure they arrived at Pat’s desk. Finally, the mortgage commitment letter went out.

25 hours to closing

We receive good news from Joe . We have our closing scheduled, with confirmed location and time. We will still close on Thursday – hurray, no further delays!

20 hours to closing

We stop by the two-flat to have a last look before we purchase it. Everything seems normal until I notice that the front basement door is not closed. The locks are busted! Thanks God I have the tool bucket in the car. Cathy and I are able to barricade the door and have the property secured again. Not how we wanted to spend the evening.


16 hours to closing

Back home, we had the HUD-1 settlement statement and other paperwork in our inbox for us to review. We e-mailed a couple of questions to Joe.

What is a HUD-1?  (HUD – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

“The HUD-1 Settlement Statement is a standard form which is used to itemize services and fees charged to the borrower by the lender or broker. The borrower has the right to inspect the HUD-1 one day prior or day of settlement. The form is filled out by the settlement agent who will conduct the settlement. Borrowers may compare their Good Faith Estimate to the HUD-1 Settlement Statement and ask their lender or broker about any changes.”

Source: Wikipedia
Other resources: HUD1 Settlement Statement form

14 hours to closing

I had a few beers to calm me down, and am pleased to report that this proceeded without any delay or glitches – which was very refreshing indeed.

7 hours to closing

We got a prompt, first thing in the morning and straight forward response from Joe on our HUD-1 questions. This is what we love about Joe: very responsive, extremely reliable, and really good at explaining things.

2 hours to closing

Michael (our Realtor) called: The seller’s Realtor does not have the earnest money! Well, we are confident that they received the earnest money, but probably misplaced it – which would fall right into the pattern they displayed in the past (see also 04/08/2009 post).

OK, let’s assume that, for whatever reason, they did not receive the earnest money. Why on earth are they noticing 2 hours prior to the closing? I can’t believe they are still in business, operating like this…

We resolved the issue by agreeing to bring another cashier’s check to the closing table to cover the missing earnest money.

1 hour and 30 minutes to closing

Cathy is back from the bank with the earnest money cashier’s check. She also made sure to stop payment on the original earnest money check.

1 hour prior to closing

Departure to the title company office for the closing.

At closing

I have to say that I had imaged the pile of paper we needed to sign to be much more intimidating and big. It was not that bad at all. There was not one document that we did not expect or did not know about.

In addition to that, Joe did an excellent job walking us through every document, explaining it, and making sure we understood the legal jargon and knew what we were signing. We also took our time in reading through some of the less familiar documents.

1 hour and 30 minutes into the closing

S. O.  L.! Because of the missing earnest money check and having to replace it with a cashier’s check, our HUD-1 has changed: the line item for the earnest money needed to be removed to reflect the fact that we were now bringing it to the closing table. To finish the closing process, everybody has to sign the new HUD-1, including the bank that owns the property – that bank that has been so unbelievably elusive. “May be we’ll hear back from them today, if not hopefully tomorrow…”

We have to leave the closing table without completing the deal, without any keys. Actually, there were no keys anyway. The seller’s Realtor, who misplaced or lost our earnest money check, did not show at the closing. So we will have to go to the property and retrieve the key from the lock box – once we have the signed HUD-1 back from the seller… Can it get any more anticlimactic that this?


Buying a foreclosure – Part 6

Will our loan application be approved? (see also 04/12/2009 post) Next Thursday’s loan board meeting by ShoreBank was still a few days out. I decided to use the time effectively and get the mandatory homeowners insurance.

I’d met with our existing insurance agent at the two-flat for an inspection and to get the home owners insurance process started. Our agent was very polite and diplomatic. He did not laugh at us when he saw the property, but informed us that it is very unlikely that we would get conventional homeowners insurance, considering the conditions this property was in.

He referred us to another broker that specializes in policies for vacant dwellings, a policy that is often used by builders and developers for their properties that are under construction. We got quotes and shared the details with ShoreBank to make sure the policy would meet their requirements.

We can buy vacant-dwelling insurance for three-month terms. This kind of policy is a little more expensive than your typical home owners insurance. Our hope is that we renew once. We would like to be far enough along in the green rehabbing process after six months to switch to a regular homeowners insurance policy.

I prepared the policy application, took it to the broker’s office to get the last details ironed out, paid for the policy and left with the magic ‘proof of insurance’ in my hand. I forwarded the document immediately to Joe Ziccardi (our attorney) and ShoreBank.

The magic Thursday, the day of our loan application review, came along and we received a phone call from Phil (our banker) that our application was approved. So we passed another milestone and are one step closer to closing.

To schedule the closing, the seller requires a written mortgage commitment from ShoreBank (our lender).

Mortgage Commitment: “Written confirmation from a buyer’s bank to a seller of a property that the bank will advance the specified sums (usually as a mortgage loan) enabling the buyer to complete the purchase.”


We need to get that commitment, and we need to get it fast, because closing is next Thursday – in 6 days already!


Buying a foreclosure – Part 5

Time is ticking away and we are trying to get a handle on what has to be put together, and when. Not an easy process if you are a first-time buyer. We finally (sort of) got a schedule from ShoreBank:

  1. Determine project budget
  2. Commission appraisal of property
  3. Take loan application to ShoreBank’s loan board for approval

Project budget

I scramble to put a budget for our green rehab together. We need to determine how much money is going into the green rehab to set the total loan amount (purchase price + rehab budget).

Fortunately we have our project rationales and principles in place to guide us through this process. We shared this information with developers, green building experts and friends that had rehabbing experience and could help us with our project budget development. We also contacted various specialists (such as energy experts), vendors (such as solar hot water), and contractors for pricing information.


Once we have the budget number, there is no guarantee that ShoreBank will lend us that much. The upper limit of the loan amount is determined by two factors. The first one – how much we feel we can take on – is controlled by us. The second is determined by an appraisal commissioned by ShoreBank. This appraisal takes into account all of our planned improvements to the house – it is a post-improvement appraisal.

Our worry is that the dollar amount of the post-improvement appraisal will be lower than our project budget. That would through a big old wrench into the process. We would need to conduct more pricing research to figure out how to cut our budget with the closing date fast approaching.

To get to the appraisal commissioned, ShoreBank was pressing for our project budget and I was able to deliver half a day early. That did not help us. It turned out that the appraisal would take longer than usual due to the sustainable scope of our rehab plans and the associated extra research.

Loan approval

ShoreBank’s loan board in Chicago currently meets once a week (every Thursday) to review and approve loan applications. Phil (our banker) worked hard on getting our application in front of the board as soon as possible. He needed the appraisal on Wednesday for the Thursday’s meeting. But unfortunately the appraisal arrived on Thursday and we missed this week’s opportunity to have our application reviewed.

The bad news is that this set us back a whole week to next Thursday. That is the same Thursday on which our closing should have taken place! The good news is that the appraisal was actually higher than our requested loan amount.

We now have to worry about pushing the closing date back again. We were not sure if the seller would just cancel the deal or go along with another extension. This is where we could rely as usual on Joe Ziccardi (our attorney). He managed once again to have the seller agree to the new closing date and to have any penalties for the delay waived. Thank you Joe!

We coordinated with ShoreBank to make sure that the new closing date was realistic: The seller had insisted that this was the last and final extension granted.


Buying a foreclosure – Part 4

With a ratified and executed agreement in hand, we immediately contacted ShoreBank. The first question Phil (our banker) asked: “When is your closing date?” Our answer: “In one week.”

I think I heard our banker Phil fall out of his chair. He informed us with great urgency that this is an unrealistic time frame. He would need about 30 days to get the loan application approved and all other paperwork in place.

Of course that’s not what we wanted to hear. On the other hand, we know that this is an unusual project that may require more than the usual time. Life would be easier if we could finance the purchase with our own cash (a practice not that uncommon as we heard on This American Life). But how would we pay for the rehab? You know, waiting for paperwork to get done suddenly doesn’t sound that bad.

Except – what is our convoluted seller with his erratic response times saying to this? We had the vision of the deal floating away from us again. This is where Super Joe (our attorney Joe Ziccardi) came to the rescue. He managed again to get the sellers attorney on the phone and re-negotiated the closing date. Not only was he able to get the date pushed by three weeks, we were also spared any penalties for the delay. Thank you Joe!

Three weeks was less than the 30 days ShoreBank asked for. But having gotten to know the seller, we were in no mood to push this any harder.

If you live in the Chicago area and need an excellent Real Estate attorney, we recommend you contact Joe:

  • Joe Ziccardi (
  • E-mail:
  • Phone: (312) 372-3477

Buying a foreclosure – Part 3

We are happy about the recent price drop for what we started calling “our two-flat” and submitted a new offer for the $60,000 asking price. This time around, things happened at the speed of light. Not only did we get the usual verbal confirmation of the offer acceptance, we actually got the sellers counter offer and addendum within days!

Seller’s counter offer and addendum

What is a seller’s counter offer and addendum? We initially submitted with the help of Michael (our Realtor) a standard Chicago Real Estate contract with a preapproval letter from a lender and a copy of our earnest money check. That package is basically our offer. If the seller accepts our offer, they issue their own contract, comprised of a counter offer and an addendum. Most people think of a counter offer as being related to the price of the property, but this negotiation has nothing to do with the price, which is set.  The counter offer has to do with the seller’s contract, which absolutely supersedes our original contract, except for those terms that are not inconsistent with the sellers counter offer and addendum. Got it? To figure out what supersedes what, some careful reading is required.

Response to counter offer and addendum

That is exactly what we did and identified a number of items that were inconsistent, did not make sense, or that we disagreed with. Our attorney, Joe Ziccardi, summarized those items in a response to the seller, basically requesting changes to the counter offer and addendum.

Ratified and executed agreement

Only a couple of days later (yes – things suddenly started to move fast!) we got the fully ratified and executed agreement. This basically means that our response or request for changes to the counter offer and addendum were accepted and all parties are in agreement on the terms. It was almost too good to be true… except that it the “fully ratified and executed agreement” had no reference to our response and request for a few changes to the counter offer, and did not even acknowledge  receipt of our request.

The reference finally arrived a few days later from the seller’s attorney, with six out of our seven request for changes declined. Initially, we were not sure what to make of it, but began to realize that these items could be resolved through negotiation or a request of clarification. The problem is that like with the seller’s agent, the seller’s attorney was not very responsive. Thanks to the persistence of our attorney, he finally reached a warm body picking up the phone and worked his way to the person who dealt with our case. Not only that, but Joe was able to get clarification on all the questions and disagreements we had. A few more days of nail biting and we were finally in possession of a truly ratified and executed agreement – hooray!

We now were also finally able to secure the building by boarding up the back porch windows. You have no idea how much weight this took of our shoulders!  (Especially after we got down off the ladder after holding ¾” sheets of plywood up there in the rain while we secured them.)