5 steps to healthier trees and shrubs

New home builders have done a great job with drainage over the last couple decades, building subdivisions with such efficient drainage that the yards and streets are cleared of water within minutes after a heavy monsoon downpour. The downside to this awesome drainage is that your trees probably aren't getting enough water to develop a deep and healthy root system.

Now that the we're nearing the end of summer (I promise - it won't be too much longer!), this is a good time to see if you can get your trees some relief from the last 3 months' brutal heat.

Here are 5 simple ideas to help your plants do better next year:

1.) Check your drip system.

Turn on your drip system and take a walk around the yard, stopping to inspect each plant's emitters. You'll probably find a couple that are clogged and not dripping much water, and a couple that are broken and spraying gallons of water more than they should be.

Next turn the drip system back off and replace the broken emitters.

2.) Move your drip flags away from the base of the tree.

Just as your tree grows taller and wider, its root system is trying to grow deeper and wider. Moving your drip emitters away from the base of the tree will allow the roots to grow wider, ultimately making the tree stronger and healthier.

As a rule of thumb, the roots underground should reach out about as far as the leaves do above ground.

3.) Dig a well.

If your property is graded so that standing water runs off very quickly, and you have a tree that needs more water than some of the other trees, you can dig a well around the tree to allow water to pool and soak deeper into the ground.

Dig up some dirt from the high-ground side of the tree, and place the dirt onto the low-ground side of the tree. This should give you a circle of level ground around the tree.

Next use some of the extra dirt to build a dam (or a wall, berm, or well) around the tree.
Now you can fill the well with water, without having the water run down the yard and into the street, and your tree will get deep watered.

Most of us don't have yards quite this steep, but this picture shows the idea of using earth from the higher side of the tree to fill in the lower side of the tree. (image credit here.)

Once you have the ground somewhat level, you can build up a well to allow water to pool and soak into the ground, rather than running down the rest of your yard. (image credit here.)

4.) Get a bucket.

If you have a tree or bush in an area that your drip system doesn't cover, drill a small hole in one of those 5-gallon buckets from the hardware store. Fill the bucket with water and let it slowly drain out near your tree.

I have a pygmy palm tree in a corner of gravel in between the driveway and the front entryway. I'm not yet up for digging under the driveway to run a drip line, so I've been using the bucket method once a week, and the palms are doing really well.

5.) Prune, shape, and cultivate.

You can keep your trees and bushes healthy and looking good by trimming away dead and unwanted branches. Let the tree focus its energy into new growth in the areas where you want it to grow, rather than growing out new branches that you're just going to cut off once they get larger anyway.

Healthier trees with deeper roots make for better homes. The trees are less likely to blow over in the next windstorm, and they're roots are less likely to pull up your driveway in search of shallow water. They look better, too, which helps raise your property's value!

- Chris Butterworth


Non Toxic Ant Bait

It's summertime, that's for sure. I can tell because of the oppressive heat, humidity, bathtub temperature pool water, and long hours of daylight. I can also tell because the ants are out in full force!

image credit: wildlensinc.org

We have our house serviced by regular pest control, but every week when I mow the yard I come across another new anthill or two. I've spot-treated anthills over the years using liquid pesticide sprays and/or granular ant baits, but I've never been totally comfortable with the idea of leaving toxins around the yard in areas where the kids and dog roam.

Recently my brother-in-law offered a more natural solution - an ant bait consisting of baking soda and powdered sugar. The powdered sugar attracts the ants, and the baking soda kills them.


  • Mix equal parts Baking Soda and Powdered Sugar into a container. I made a bigger batch than I needed, which I stored in a sealed container as ready made bait for the next time I need it.
  • Spread it liberally around the ant-infected area. You don't have to put it right on the mound; they'll find the sweet taste of sugar and bring it back to the colony.
  • Over the next day or two the colony will feast on this bountiful harvest, and the baking soda will kill the ants, including the queen.
  • No Substitutes - powdered sugar and baking soda have a very similar texture; once they're mixed together you can't really tell which is which. I don't think this trick would work as well with granulated sugar, as the ants could pull the sugar granules and leave behind the baking soda.


  • From my own personal experiences, this mixture has worked great on two different ant hills over two different weekends.
  • Next time I come across a colony of mad ants (which shouldn't take too long), I'll take some before and after pictures and update this post.

In the meantime, give this a try at your house and let me know how it goes!

- Chris Butterworth


Cleaning Pool Tiles

How frustrating is that white, hard water calcium line around the your otherwise clean and refreshing swimming pool?

I've scrubbed at my pool tiles with different types of cleaners over the years, and I've paid hundreds of dollars to have the tiles professionally cleaned, but that white hard-water line always comes back. My brother-in-law offered a suggestion of replacing all the blue tiles with white tiles, but that's not the solution I was after.

Instead I decided this year to talk with the folks at the local pool supply store, who recommended either a chemical bath product to soak in the pool (which I'm not thrilled about trying) or a synthetic pool stone to scrub with (creatively called Pool Stone.)

I decided to give the Pool Stone a try.

The stone itself is light - like a piece of styrofoam, but after it soaks in the pool for 20 minutes it becomes much heavier and harder - more like a pumice stone.

Unlike a pumice stone, though, this synthetic stone works wonders. Sometimes I pressed hard and scrubbed with attitude to aggressively clean a tile in about a minute. Other times (when I got tired) I would rub the stone without much pressure at all and it still managed to clean a tile, although it would take two or three times as long per tile.

I didn't take a "before" picture of my pool, honestly because I didn't expect this stone to work any better than anything else I tried, and I didn't expect this project to go so quickly and smoothly. But here is a picture of one section of the pool tile after I had scrubbed a handful of tiles:

Here is another section of the pool where the tiles are mostly done:

And finally, here is a side of the pool where all the tiles look blue again:

This is one of those DIY projects that isn't difficult at all, and which can save you a ton of money compared with having a professional do it for you. A few extra thoughts and tips regarding the process:

  • Slow and Steady - my pool has 186 tiles around the perimeter (if I counted correctly), so this wasn't something I could knock down in a day. I spent 20-30 minutes at a time over the course of a few weeks, cleaning 8-10 tiles in a session, before the whole pool was calcium line free.
  • Clean Completely - the big thick white line usually comes off in just a few seconds, but if you look closely you'll see a smaller, fainter line as well. Many of the tiles also had a faint line under the water line. Whenever I didn't clean the tile completely, these faint lines showed up the next day and stood out from the "clean" tiles. I learned quickly to clean the tile completely if I wanted to have shiny clean tiles.
  • Pool Stones wear away - I think I used up 5 Pool Stones during this project. At $10 each that's a chunk of change, but it's a fraction of the cost of a professional cleaning service.
  • Soak the Stone - the stone will wear out very fast if you use it before it's soaked full of water.
  • Maintenance - I'm going to buy a couple extra Pool Stones to have on hand; maybe I'll be proactive enough to scrub the tiles before they get really bad so I don't have to do this major clean up again in 2018.
  • Wear Gloves - I scrubbed the first two days with bare hands, and on the third day my thumb was worn just about raw. I wore work gloves for the rest of the project and didn't have any other problems.

And that's all there is to it.

I'd love to hear if you have a different / better way of keeping your pool tiles clean, of if you give this a try and it works for you too.

- Chris Butterworth


What to expect from the market in 2015

The trouble with trouble is that you can't always see it coming; things will be going along just fine, until they aren't. And then it's too late. And then you're in trouble.

I'll start this post off by admitting I really don't know for sure what to expect from the market this year. (it seems like I say that every year lately). But I do have some concerns about headwinds (I've been saying that for a couple-few years too).

Let's take a look at some current local and global economic trends to see if we can discern what we might have in store...

Market Momentum

Local real estate prices are up about 10% - 15% over the last couple of years, or about 5% - 7% per year. That's a little too fast to be sustainable, but rising prices are generally considered a good thing. Buyers are more confident in their purchase, and even a little bit motivated to make an offer before prices go up again. Sellers gain confidence from knowing what they'll be able to net based on recent sales, as opposed to a falling market where sellers either panic or stay put.

(click on any chart or image to embiggen)

Maricopa County SFR Sale Price year over year

ARMLS sales data
sales data provided by ARMLS and is deemed accurate but not guaranteed.

However, market momentum only goes so far. Momentum can be fickle, and when it changes it can change on a dime.

Interest Rates

Interest rates are low. Very low. All time, record setting, once in a lifetime low. I'm not going to predict rising rates this year - heck, rates might stay where they are for a long time. They might even drop lower.

30 Year mortgage rates

current 30 year mortgage rates
charts provided by the Federal Reserve Economic Data website

But, taking an objective approach, how much lower could they really go? Could we see a 30-year mortgage at 3.0%? 2.5%? Maybe. Rates have been close to zero in Japan for a generation, so there is a precedent. Unfortunately Japan has other problems which are offsetting, or forcing, those low interest rates, and none of those problems are conducive to a healthy real estate market.

On the flip side, it doesn't take much creativity to imagine a 30-year mortgage at 5% or 6%. And the difference?

A $300,000 house with a 20% down payment and an 80% loan ($240,000) will have a monthly mortgage payment of $1,111 at today's 3.75%. That same $1,111 payment could buy a $329,538 house if rates fall to 3.0%, but it can only purchase a $258,810 house if rates rise to 5.0%. (or $231,731 at 6.0%!) - see charts below.

payment on $300,000 house at various interest rates

monthly payment comparison at various interest rates

Interest rates can have a massive impact on our market, and they have more room to rise than fall from where they are today.

Rising Dollar

I'm not smart enough to outline exactly why the Dollar is rising against foreign currencies - something to do with the coming economic problems in Europe and Japan being nearer to the forefront than the problems in the US, so globally people would prefer to hold Dollars rather than Euros or Yen, thinking the former is more likely to hold its value. And of course the price of a good or service (Dollars in this case) will increase with the rise in demand.

charts clipped from google finance

What does this mean for us? Here are is an over simplified example:

Let's say Apple is a US company and sells iPhones for $500. And let's say Samsung is a South Korean company who sells Galaxy phones for 500,000 Korean Won, which was about $500 last summer when $1 was worth 1,000 KRW. Competitive products with competitive pricing.

However, since the US Dollar is now up about 10% compared with the Korean Won ($1 is now worth 1,100 KRW), the competitive landscape has changed. In order for Apple to earn $500 on an iPhone in South Korea, they need to charge 550,000 Won, which makes their product more expensive than the South Korean local product, which is likely to negatively impact Apple's sales. OR, Apple can continue to charge 500,000 Won for an iPhone, but that only equates to $455, which negatively affects their profits. Either way, Apple loses in Korea.

On the other hand, Samsung can now sell its Galaxy phones for $455 in the US and earn the same 500,000 Won, or they can keep the price at $500 in the US and earn 550,000 Won for each phone. They'll either sell more phones at a lower price or earn more profit on each phone sold. Either way, Samsung wins in the US.

Apple is now earning less money on their phones sold overseas, and they're facing increased competition from overseas manufacturers here at home. This is likely to have a negative impact on Apple's financials, at least in the short term. This makes Apple less likely to add new jobs, build new factories, open new stores, etc. And that's for one of the strongest companies in the world. Weaker companies may be forced to lay-off employees and close stores.

This will be true for every company in every industry who either sells products overseas, or who competes in an industry with foreign companies. (Namely, just about every company in America!) General Motors, General Electric, Intel, Proctor & Gamble, Microsoft, Apple, Ford, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Caterpillar, Johnson & Johnson, etc. etc. etc., just to name a few.

I don't see upward pressure on wages in a market where every American company is facing increased pricing pressure from foreign competitors. And I don't see upward pressure on housing prices without upward pressure on wages...

Oil Prices

Gas prices have been awesome lately, and I loved filling up my tank for less than $20 a couple weeks ago. I think lower gas prices would help the real estate economy if these new prices were here to stay, and we could all count on spending less at the pump each month. Folks would have more discretionary income to spend, which they might funnel back into a mortgage payment, or they would feel better about buying out in the suburbs and commuting a little further.

photo taken 1/26/15

Unfortunately, history isn't on our side. Here is a 10-year look at gas prices, and we're currently near the very bottom of the chart. The other side of the coin, with gas prices near $4 per gallon, seems just as likely as today's sub-$2 gas, and that would have a dampening effect on our home prices.

historical gas prices
source: gasbuddy.com

"Typical Family Moves"

I've been saying this for years now, but the one thing missing from our real estate market is the one thing that was a staple of our market for decades: people moving locally from one house to another - either to a larger home, or a better neighborhood, or a different school district. For decades this was a staple of the Phoenix area market, and it has all but disappeared. Forget what I'm seeing in "the market", think about your own personal life - how many people do you know who have moved in the last year just because they wanted to, and not because of some other external factor (divorce, job change, family crises, etc.) I bet you can't name more than a couple..

Someday people will move again more freely, but right now that isn't a significant part of our market, and I don't see that changing this year.

In the End

I'm not here to say prices are too high, or too low, or to make any other bold predictions. Right now people are selling houses and others are buying them, so whatever price they agreed to must be fair. Unfortunately I'm seeing a market which still hasn't fully recovered from the collapse in 2008, along with a macro-economic environment which has more potentials for bad news than good. If I had to pick a direction, I might lean towards a slower market later this year.

Buyers - now is a great time to lock in a historically low interest rate. Your monthly payment could still be lower than it would be if prices drop but interest rates increase.

Sellers - now may be a great time to take advantage of a market where there are plenty of buyers using low interest rate loans and an upward trend in pricing.

But in either case, you'll want to do what makes sense for you and your family. Buying probably isn't a great idea if you're unsure about your job security, or if you'll need to move again in a couple years. Selling won't work if you don't have another place to live that meets your needs.

Bottom line is we really don't know what is going to happen this year. Your best bet is to think about an optimistic and a pessimistic scenario, and weigh your decisions accordingly.

- Chris Butterworth


FHA Mortgage Insurance Rate Reduction - what does it really mean?

Earlier this month President Obama visited Phoenix, giving a speech from Central High School in which he outlined an upcoming 0.5% reduction of the FHA Mortgage Insurance rates. But what exactly does this mean?

President Obama lands in Phoenix, AZ
image credit: azcentral.com

First of all, let's talk for a minute about FHA loans. FHA loans:

  • require a very small down payment of 3.5% of the purchase price.
  • allow ALL other money to come from a gift &/or seller concession, which means if a buyer can save up for a 3.5% down payment and can qualify for the monthly payments, he/she can buy a house.
  • allow for slightly easier credit scoring criteria than conventional loans.

Now, if you make the argument that owning a home is beneficial (and I would, especially over the long term), and FHA helps people buy a home who otherwise wouldn't be able to buy a home, then it stands to reason that FHA loans are a good thing. However, FHA loans are rather expensive when compared to the conventional FNMA counterparts - since low down payments and lower credit scores are more risky loans, they cost a little more, and this cost comes in the form of mortgage insurance.

FHA loans charge 2 different types of mortgage insurance:

Up Front Mortgage Insurance Premiums (MIP) - the lender will calculate a percentage of your loan balance and add it back into the FHA loan, giving a new, higher balance, upon which the payments are calculated. This premium is usually, but not always, non-refundable.

Monthly Mortgage Insurance (MMI) - each year the lender will calculate a percentage of the current outstanding loan balance, and spread this premium out over the next 12 monthly payments. This premium will decrease over time as the loan balance is reduced.

For comparison, conventional FNMA loans only charge the monthly type of mortgage insurance, called Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI), and the rate used to calculate the premium is usually lower than the FHA's rate.

Going back to President Obama and the new lower rates, let's take a look at the FHA's recent mortgage insurance rates (click chart for full size):

FHA Mortgage Insurance Rate Changes, assuming 3.5% down payment and 30 year term

Historical FHA Mortgage Insurance Rate Chart

I look at that chart and see two things that jump off the page at me:

  1. Rates are still way up compared to historical measures - yes, they're giving a 0.5% reduction this month, but they're still almost double what they were for many decades prior to 2008.
  2. MMI never goes away - yes, the annual premium (and corresponding monthly payments) will decline over time as the loan balance declines, but they never go away. You're stuck paying mortgage insurance for as long as you have that mortgage - 10 years, 20 years, 29 years.. That's absurd.

So what does all this mean?

Well, FHA rates will be lower this year than they were last year. And if an FHA loan is the only way you can buy a house, then it's an option probably worth considering. You'll have to pay mortgage insurance for long after it should be required, but that just might be the cost of home ownership (which includes pride/stability, equity, fixed payments, and eventually no housing payment.) However, if you can find a way to squeeze into a conventional FNMA loan, that would be a much better option.

You might also want to keep one eye on interest rates, so you can refinance to a conventional loan once that's an option. I wrote about the benefits of doing so on my Rags To Recovery website just last week.

You're probably going to be hearing more about the FHA insurance premium reduction in the coming weeks; hopefully this helps put it into perspective..

- Chris Butterworth



Look at all that storage space upstairs

If you live in a single level, newer style home (built since the 1980's), you probably have a whole bunch of storage space you didn't even know about. It's upstairs, in the attic.

My first experience with this was in a newly constructed house I bought in 1998. I climbed through the attic opening in the master closet, and decided to crawl around the rafters, monkey bar style. I was blown away by how much empty space was up there.

I ended up cutting a different opening in the garage in that first home, and eventually was able to store more than 50 boxes of kids' clothing and Christmas decorations.

This is a view of one side of my current home's attic. My shelves are built on the other side, which looked almost identical prior to installing shelving.

When we moved into our current house a couple years ago, I was excited because the previous owners had installed a pull-down ladder leading up into the attic. Unfortunately, when I climbed upstairs I only found a couple of shelves built out, and still a bunch of wide open space.

I had to build my own catwalks and shelves, but it really isn't that difficult, and now I have more storage space than I've ever had.

I've built 3 different types of storage, depending on how much space is available and how the support beams are connected: Shelves, Platforms, and Hooks.

Shelves and Platforms are built in the upward, V-sections of the rafters, where the beams come together in a V (or a VI-type shape) and there is plenty of vertical space above. Hooks are great for wherever there is plenty of space below.

Type 1 - Shelves. When there is an extended section of rafters of similar pattern, I connected 2 x 4s to the existing beams, and then laid plywood over the top.

Either nails or screws will work fine. The trick is to get the 2 x 4s level, but they'll work just fine even if they're not exactly perfect.

My main shelf is about 12 feet long, with room to build another 10 feet-ish deep. Each 2-foot section can hold 6 tupperware-type storage containers.

To build the shelves, I attached crossbeams (2 x 4s) to the existing trusses, and laid plywood across the top.

This view from below shows there's not much involved.

Type 2 - Platforms. When there is a V in the existing beam with vertical space but not much horizontal space, I'll build a platform by driving a screw into the vertical post, and simply resting a piece of plywood across the beams. The plywood rests on the screws on one side and the angled V-beam on the other.

Type 3 - Hooks. It's also easy to drill or nail into any beam where there's space below it but where building a full shelf isn't feasable. This is perfect for hanging things that fit in bags. (or anything with handles, etc.) You can see one bag hanging from a hook in the last picture below.

Practical Application. Here is a pile of Christmas decorations, all packed up and sitting in the garage:

And here is that same pile of decorations, packed away nicely on a 4 x 8 plywood shelf, a small platform, and a few hooks:

Obviously not everything works well for attic storage. Anything that might melt, or that might get ruined in extreme heat, should be kept down below. Anything that you need frequent access to isn't a great candidate either, since getting up and down can be a pain in the butt.

I store things I expect we'll need once a year or less. Holiday decorations - Christmas, Easter, Fall (Halloween and Thanksgiving) - beachy things like boogie boards and sand toys, snow sleds, hand-me-down clothes from in-between the boys' sizes, extra chairs for those wild parties we throw every couple-few years... You know, that kind of stuff.

The most important thing to remember about walking and building in the attic is to watch your step. Only step on the 2x4 support beams, or the shelves-walks built on top of the 2x4 beams. DO NOT STEP IN BETWEEN THE SUPPORT BEAMS, as you're likely to end up falling through the attic into the house below!

Thanks for reading,

- Chris Butterworth