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Vote Yes!If you’re living in the United States, you’ve no doubt noticed all of the political lawn signs littering nearly every other house’s lawn.

Though I live in a traditionally “blue” state, so it’s not much of a surprise, it’s difficult not to notice that Obama signs outnumber McCain signs 10 to 1.

Though, given Connecticut’s presidential voting record over the past 10 elections, well, that’s not really unexpected.

But the more interesting signs are the more local “Vote Yes!” or “Vote No!” signs.

In some towns, it’s a referendum on whether a Walmart or Home Depot should be built in town. For others, it regards a new town swimming pool, or the formation of a dog park, or reduced City Hall hours.

At the state level, it’s usually about something boring like labeling organic food differently or something controversial like gay marriage.

It’s these signs, the Yes/No ones, that I’ve noticed the most this election year.

In my town, without going into the specific issue — it doesn’t really matter, “No” signs outnumber “Yes” signs at least 20 to 1. At least.

In a neighboring town, with a different issue on the ballot, their “Yes” signs outnumber the “No” signs in a landslide.

In both towns, it doesn’t seem to matter if you’ve got the Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin sign out front.

The local issues are seldom something decided down party lines.

But how are they decided?

See, in both instances, the more popular sign is the one that’s short-sighted and, well, wrong. Progress inhibiting, for sure.

That puts me at a total loss… Or does it?

My theory is that most of these folks don’t really know any of the details of the side they’ve decided to support and, then, showcase proudly on their lawn.

Just plain ignorance, really.

Using the Walmart example, the biggest opposition when it comes to a new Walmart always seems to be the added traffic each store brings.

In the 90’s, the town I grew up in voted on a “Walmart” type of issue. Simply, “Yes” to Walmart or “No” to Walmart.

At the time, the “No” signs heavily outweighed the “Yes” signs. Traffic, as it often is, was the issue.

A little back history first…

In the 1980’s, my home town had two regional department stores — Bradlee’s and Caldor. Just up the road, there was an Ames.

If you needed something, every one of those store would most definitely have it.

But, as everyone now knows, Walmart emerged from seemingly out of no where and went national putting pretty much every competing department store out of business in the process. Bradlee’s, Caldor, and Ames included.

CaldorSo, here in town, we had three vacant “big box” stores. All at the same time — for years — and then Walmart came knocking.

Not to build a new store, but to take over one of the vacant buildings and restore an eyesore of a plaza back to it’s former glory.

Sounds like a good thing, right?

Well, the people in town, obviously swayed by the sea of “No” lawn signs voted it down. Citing traffic or some such silly reason.

Walmart was not coming to town.

It didn’t take long before people started to realize — hey, if I need a 90-minute Memorex cassette or something, we don’t have any stores that sell that sort of thing anymore.

Where do you buy something like an alarm clock? Coffee maker? Cheap jewelry? Socks? Head phones? Shower curtain? School supplies?

I know!

You could buy all of that stuff 25 miles away where they put a Walmart into an old shuttered Bradlee’s!

Voting “No” was stupid.

It was wrong.

It was shortsighted.

Now, 15 years later, of course, a Walmart occupies that former Caldor building. Bradlee’s was torn down to make way for an expanding grocery store and a new movie theatre. Ame’s former location is now a Tractor Supply Co.

But for 3 or 4 years, all three buildings sat vacant. And people in town had to travel to neighboring towns to buy, well, all of their dry goods. All of them. We had grocery stores and car dealerships. That’s it.

Now that’s how to drive a local economy…into the ground.

Remember, the most vocal are usually the least informed.

So, come November 4th, when you’re filling in the circles on your ballot, be sure to select the option you saw the least of during your drive to the polling station.

Chances are, that will be the wiser decision.

2 2352

A Really Bored Gorilla at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Last Friday, while in Florida, I visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom. You know, the fourth big attraction on the Disney property after the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and MGM Studios.

The admission for me and my wife was $159.76. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of money.

And for that kind of money, I expect some top notch entertainment.

I didn’t find it.

In fact, the “adventure” was soured even before we entered the park…

See, the person we purchased the admission from was very pushy with the up-sell.

“Well, a ‘Park Hopper’ pass will allow you to go to a different park within the Disney resort.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. I just want two adult tickets for Animal Kingdom, thanks.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a multi-day pass? They’re valid indefinitely and,” blah, blah, blah…

I said, “No. Just one day, one park, thanks.”

She went on and on and on — holding on to my credit card and passes so I couldn’t just walk away from the pitch.

“Where y’all from,” she said.

Odd that she worded it that way — her name tag said she was from Syosset, New York. I’ve never in my life heard a Long Islander use the term “y’all”.

“Connecticut,” I responded impatiently…

Then, as if Connecticut was local (a mere 1200 miles away), she suggested a year-long pass…

Sigh… “Two adults. One day. One park. Thanks.”

I’ve always found it funny that their tickets are valid for so long, but they’re still just a flimsy piece of cardboard. I actually have 1 day remaining on one of those “passes” from 1997, but the cardboard has all but disintegrated in my wallet since then…

Even up here, a season pass for Six Flags comes on a laminated plastic credit card type of thing — they even put your picture on it. At Disney, it’s cardboard. Go figure.

Anyway, the experience of purchasing tickets was invasive and uncomfortable. She was just prying for an opening to toss another sales pitch my way. What, am I buying a car here? Certainly not very Disney-esque…

Then, as I’m sure many of you know, you get your finger scanned as you enter the park — otherwise the turnstile won’t turn. What is up with that?

Every time I go to Disney, about once every 5 years, I conveniently forget about that, as I’m sure most other visitors do too.

But I’m sorry, they’ve got my credit card number, my address, my signature, and my finger print.

That’s the exact same amount of information I provided to get my green card.

Think about that.

It’s a freakin’ theme park?! Disney has more of my information than the Department of Homeland Security.

What does Disney need all that for? Imagine what they use it for?

Considering how many people claim to be worried about identity theft or big brother watching over you, well, I’m surprised so many people continue to visit the Disney parks.

The TSA doesn’t even take a finger print at the airport?!

Anyway, once inside the park, it screams Disney. Other than the overpriced knick-knacks, that’s a good thing.

Great landscaping, it’s nice and clean, and it looks and feels like you’re guaranteed to have a wonderfully memorable day.

Then you notice that there aren’t any animals. Anywhere.

This is “Animal Kingdom”, right?

I see a big concrete tree. Oh, and a fake concrete mountain off in the distance too…

Oh! There’s the ever elusive Mallard duck. Finally, some wildlife!

But we have those in Connecticut. You don’t even have to pay to see them.

So we immediately head over to the safari ride. Rafiki’s Rover or some such silly name.

They have this thing now where you can get a “Fast Pass” by swiping your ticket in a machine. It’ll spit out a time later in the day when you can come back. The idea is that you won’t have to spend the day standing in line.

So I walk up to a vacant machine and stick my ticket in. It spits it back out.


I tried my wife’s ticket. The machine spits it out too.

Seeing that I’m having trouble, and I’m not alone, a Disney employee tries again for me — like maybe I’m a moron and I’m putting the ticket in upside down or something.

Same problem for her. This is what she says:

“Yeah, did you have this in your wallet? Sometimes that can mess up the mag-strip so the machines can’t read them…”

Are you kidding me?

Where was I supposed to put my cardboard tickets that are apparently valid until the end of time? The woman I purchased it from made it out as if it was one of the most valuable things on earth — I put it in my wallet for safekeeping.

What if I had run through the mist machines a few times on the way here? Or gone on the water ride? I’m pretty certain the ticket wouldn’t have survived anywhere but in my wallet. I couldn’t believe it.

And by the looks of those around me, most people were keeping their tickets in their purse or wallet. Um, Disney? You might want to make a design change…

After three or four tries on each ticket/card, it eventually worked. We were to come back in about 3 hours. Fair enough.

We walked around some more and eventually stumbled across a few tigers (sleeping, of course) and the obviously bored gorilla pictured above.

Okay, those are two pretty impressive animals to have in the collection, but you can see those at nearly every metropolitan zoo in the country — usually for admission of around $20 (or FREE in Chicago!).

For more than three times that amount, I want to see something, well, let’s just say that if I’d gotten to see a polar bear fight a gorilla, I’d say that I got my money’s worth.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

They didn’t even have a polar bear.

Somehow three hours pass — mostly just walking around nicely landscaped swamplands looking at birds just like the birds that lined the highway on the way there. Seriously, those stork looking things look pretty much the same when you speed by them at 70 mph.

We head back to the Safari ride and, well, stand in line.

So much for a “fast” pass.

Seems everyone uses the fast pass so the line at 3 o’clock is the exact same line that would have been there at noon. I’m not sure the whole idea is working as planned.

So we drive out into the “wilderness” (I use the term loosely) with an over enthusiastic Disney employee having a pretend conversation with a recording blabbing about poachers in the area or something.

I’m not knocking it, I mean, I realize they’re trying to add a little excitement to a rather boring truck ride, but sometimes I wish they’d tone down the Disney-ness of things.

The concrete ostrich eggs left out in the open didn’t need to be displayed…

Or the showcasing of the “upside down” tree that apparently took 2000 years to grow — again, obviously made of concrete and fiberglass.

And how about those phony termite hills?

On the ride, we saw some alligators (also available on the side of the highway in much of Florida), some giant horned gazelle things, a giraffe, a couple of different kinds of rhinos, and some elephants.

No doubt, some pretty decent stuff. But we waited three hours for that?

At a traditional zoo, again, with an admission 3-times less, we could have seen all of those things in the first hour?!

In the end, I felt ripped off.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando can’t compare to any of the zoo’s I’ve been to in the past few years.

The Bronx Zoo has more gorillas. The Brookfield Zoo has more tigers. The Toronto Zoo has orangutans and gorillas. The Lincoln Park Zoo has FREE admission (and more animals). The Pittsburgh Zoo has more stuff for kids to do.

The only thing Animal Kingdom had was more employees and a HUGE fake tree. Oh, and a pushy sales pitch.

So *NOT* worth a $75 admission fee.

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NCAA Hockey in ConnecticutI’m pretty sure that I’ve mentioned that my wife and I often go to professional sporting events.

It’s not that we’re the type that gets all dressed up and excited for our team. We hardly even follow sports.

We certainly don’t want sports on television much, if at all.

I mean, we’ll watch the Super Bowl in it’s entirety every year, but I’m not sure we’ve seen another complete game on tv, well, at least since we’ve been married.

We’re also not the type that have our bumpers littered with team logo stickers. In fact, if you looked at us (or our vehicles), you’d hardly guess that we’re the type to attend well over 50 events per year.

Now, why on earth would a non-sports fan attend so many events? Isn’t that an awfully expensive thing to do if you don’t really really enjoy it?

Well, it was part of a job. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it didn’t cost us a thing. In fact, we made a lot of money doing it!

That’s not really true — it was actually a bit of a perk, we made the money doing other things — but we still had to be there.

Yeah, that doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way it was.

Anyway, with all of our professional sports projects in the past now, we found that our nights and weekends will be free all winter long.

Too free.

So late last week I ordered season tickets for a local university hockey team. Men’s and women’s.

Though it’s two teams instead of one, it’s not nearly as rigorous as the pro schedule we’re accustomed to (and tired of).

On the downside, though, we won’t be making money while we sit in the stands — a negative cash flow, all the way…

But it will give us something to do on weekly basis all the way through March 2009.

And that sure beats the, “Wanna do anything tonight?” routine we’ve found ourselves in all summer long…

Total cost was $527.

Now, that sounds like a lot, but it’s only a quarter of the cost that our usual comp’ed seats would run us. Not that we ever paid a dime for them…

This is a definite change for us.

Here’s to hoping it’s an enjoyable season… and a decent value…

First game is Friday night…

10 4483

Barack Obama House

I took this picture over the weekend in my home town here in Connecticut.

It’s been one of my favorite houses since I was in high school — though, back then it didn’t have its latest decoration.

I try not to get too political on here — I think politics have come up maybe once or twice over the past year — but there’s no sense in hiding who I’m going to vote for.

No one. That’s right, I won’t be voting this November.

I can’t vote in the election because I’m not an American citizen.

But that isn’t to say that I can’t support one candidate or the other.

Obama’s my guy.

And it appears that he’s the guy for most people my age — which likely has to do with his stance on war, the environment, gun control, abortion, stem cell research, immigration, health care, the economy, taxes, etc…

That is why I’d vote for Obama if I could.

It’s also why I’ll encourage those who can vote to vote for Obama.

Watching both conventions on C-Span (without any pundits or random talking heads swaying my thoughts), the one thing that was blatantly apparent was the difference in each parties approach and delivery.

The Democrats talked about all the great American things that had happened in the past and that could happen again in future.

The Republicans, on the other hand, spent most of their time talking about all of the things we should be afraid of if we don’t vote McCain.

It’s just a different strategy. And I understand that.

But like my Biggest Loser post — I prefer to be inspired rather than threatened. That’s what motivates me and makes me feel good.

That, and combined with Biden (who seems like a regular Joe to me), the Democrat ticket is just a lot more relatable… More like, well, typical Americans… like I pretend to be, even though I’m not.

John McCain is definitely qualified to be President. I’m not sure anyone out there has ever said otherwise — he’s been around forever, it seems.

I have always found it odd, though, how he’s been supported by the religious right (which I can’t understand — just cause Huckabee drops out, they support the next guy?). I mean, Senator McCain has demonstrated quite well, in the past, that he lacks morals.

I love how people were so quick to pile on John Edwards for infidelity when John McCain did the exact same thing (worse actually). I mean, you’d think the bigger story would be on the guy who’s actually a nominee…

Blame it on being a POW — sorry, I’m not buying it.

I’ve also seen quotes where they say that end of his first marriage was because he was turing 40 but acting like a 25 year old. I dunno, I’d like to think that a potential President of the United States would’ve grown up long before turning 40, but maybe that’s just me.

And seriously, how’d he bury the whole Keating Five thing? I mean, in the grand scheme of national politics, that was a pretty big blunder.

Have people forgotten that too?

McCain can take a great deal of credit for the recession of the early 1990’s. In today’s financial climate, I dunno, I think that’s kind of relevant.

And you’d think a scandal that big would disqualify you from running for President. Apparently not.

Wrapping Cindy McCain into the picture, and again, it’s tough to relate to John McCain. No one in my family is a gold digger and no one has a trophy wife (with a serious painkiller addiction) either.

How about your family?

And I’m still not sure why his poor health isn’t a bigger issue. I mean, remember all the hoops the media leaped through with Dick Cheney and his bad heart?

McCain has had pieces of his face removed this calendar year and there’s barely been a mention… Last time I checked, skin cancer on a 72 year old was a pretty serious issue.

The part of McCain’s platform that makes me laugh out loud every time is when he says the US economy is strong. He justifies it by saying that the US worker is the hardest worker in the world and that’s why we have nothing to worry about.

I’m sorry, but has John McCain ever been to Walmart? Who is he kidding? Unfortunately, these days, it seems that the average US worker is more interested in taking cigarette breaks and talking on their cell phones than actually working.

As for Sarah Palin, well, maybe it’s just me, but Alaska is pretty, well, meaningless. I mean, who are they kidding? That’s like saying that if it weren’t for South Dakota, the country would fall apart. It’s just not true. She “changed” Alaska. Honestly, does a changed Alaska mean much to the lower 48?

Sure, in the Senate, all 50 states are equal. That’s why there is also a House of Representatives, and there, Alaska is irrelevant with just one seat. One. I have nothing against Alaska, or any other small state (Connecticut included), but to claim that any of them greatly effect the US as a whole is just ridiculous.

As for her family life, well, again, I can’t relate.

I’m sorry, the campaign can claim that her family is the “typical American family” but is it really to the point where it’s typical for Mom to have kids within a few months of their daughter?

“Hey, meet your uncle Trigg… Sure he’s only 3 months older than you, but that’s how it is in the typical American family of the 21st century.”

Um, not where I come from…

Oh yeah, I’m not American.

We don’t fire semi-automatic weapons on the weekends either…

Remember when Bill Clinton was deservedly raked over the coals by the RNC for lacking “Family Values”? Conservatives were all over him.

In comparison, can you believe the Republican ticket in 2008? It’s unreal.

That said, I’ll still say that Sarah Palin was a much better pick than Joe Lieberman would have been and he’s supposed to be the guy representing me in the Senate. Grrrrrrr…

My parents are Republicans — at least my Dad is, for sure.

I attribute this to the fact that he shook Bob Dole’s hand back in 1996. Bob Dole’s left hand, I assume. But had it been Dick Gephardt or, gasp, even Bill Clinton, I think he may have been swayed the other way. On second thought, maybe not, he listened to Rush Limbaugh an awful lot too…

I listen to Rush too, though… Who knows?

But this election is different, I think.

In 1996, the first election that I would have been old enough to vote in, I’d have voted for Bill Clinton. No doubt in my mind. Bob Dole was a disabled old dude, and Jack Kemp was a crappy quarterback. Hey, I never said I had a good reason for not wanting to vote Republican…

In 2000, I’d have reluctantly voted for Al Gore. He just seemed a lot more likeable to me than George W. Bush. Though, had he won, I have to wonder how far he would have gone with his whole “going green” mission.

In 2004? Probably George W. Bush — though now I’m embarrassed to admit that.

Most presidents are terrible in their second term.

In fact, in my life time, all of the second terms have been less than stellar, but GWB has taken it to a new level.

Really, what I’m saying is that I can’t claim to support one party over the other.

The Governor of my state is Republican. And terrible. Just terrible.

The Mayor of my city is a Democrat and he’s bumbled things up far worse than his Republican predecessor…

I’d vote to oust both of them if I could…

But I have noticed something about this year’s presidential election — if you’re over 45 years old, you tend to lean towards McCain. Under 45, you lean toward Obama. Party affiliation doesn’t seem to matter so much.

Sure, there are exceptions, but just comparing “groups” on things like Facebook (where the demographic is primarily under the age of 45), Obamaholics outnumber McCainiacs by huge numbers. As of today, 1.8 million to 537k. It’s not even close.

Problem is, will those young people vote? Probably not…

In the end, I can see a repeat of 2000.

John McCain will win the election but Barack Obama will easily have the popular vote. Americans will again fail to understand the dynamics of their own government and through a few supreme court nominees, McCain will set the US up to be left in the dust of other countries (as if we haven’t been left in the dust already…)

Okay, I think I’m done now…

I’d originally just wanted to put the picture up (cause I thought it looked neat) and move on but now I’ve rambled on with a poorly worded, enormously unconnected, disjointed, and somewhat politically motivated, rant-a-thon-a-saurus…

I didn’t even spell check. That’s dumb.

Clicking ‘publish’….. now!

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Liberty Bank SleepoverYeah, me too… And it’s for real — not just some teaser rate. Zero points paid.

No joke. This is not a scam.

Is that even possible in this financial climate?

The answer is, “Yes!”

Of course, there are a few strings attached — like having to sleep overnight outside the bank alongside the drive-up ATM.

But before you get too excited, I should probably also mention that we all missed our shot at it — the rate was only available last weekend.

Here’s the article by Kenneth Gosselin from the September 14 Hartford Courant:

Home Buyers Camp Out For Shot At 3.5% Loan

Maybe you thought you’d heard it all when it comes to people camping out overnight to get a shot at being the first to own perhaps the hot toy or the latest computer game.

But how about a home mortgage?

Twenty-five home buyers with signed purchase agreements — some of them having waited as long as 24 hours — were in line early Saturday outside the new Liberty Bank branch in Wethersfield for a chance at applying for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage at an incredibly low rate of 3.5 percent.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” said Mike Lemos, who was fifth in line Saturday at the Silas Deane Highway branch.

Lemos and his wife, Julie, a real estate agent, were among the 13 who were lucky enough to get a shot at a slice of the $3.5 million program. The remaining dozen were put on a waiting list in case others before them in line don’t get final approval.

The Lemoses hope that the low rate will allow them to afford payments on a $360,000 ranch that’s nearly double the size of their current 1,800-square-foot colonial — and save $100,000 over the term of the mortgage.

“We wouldn’t have had a thought of doing this without this rate,” said Lemos, a securities compliance director at MetLife.

The promotion — intended to call attention to the opening of Liberty’s first branch in Wethersfield — allowed purchases of one- to four-family homes in Wethersfield. Borrowers had to come armed with a signed purchase contract. No points were charged, but closing costs and other fees still applied.

At a time when most lenders are scrutinizing credit and income histories amid the downturn in the housing market and fallout from the subprime lending crisis, the promotion gave borrowers a low rate to help counterbalance lending industry insistence on higher down payments after years of loose underwriting.

A little math reveals the savings for borrowers. On a single-family house in Wethersfield purchased at July’s median sale price of $252,000 with a 20 percent down payment, a borrower would finance $201,600. The monthly principal and interest payment at 5.93 percent — the national average last week for 30-year, fixed-rate home loans — would be $1,200. At 3.5 percent, the payment drops to $905 — a difference of $294 a month, or $105,973 over 30 years.

If the borrowers — many of them pre-qualified, based on credit scores and income — receive final loan approval, they also have to open a checking account with direct payroll deposit and automatic debit for the monthly mortgage payment.

The prospect of sizable savings grabbed the attention of Nancy and Douglas Robertson of New Britain, who were 11th in line. The couple had been house-hunting in the Hartford area, but quickly settled on Wethersfield when they heard about the promotion from their real estate agent two weeks ago. They signed a contract on a $365,000 four-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath split-level near the Rocky Hill line on Labor Day. The Robertsons estimate that they will save between $500 and $600 a month on their monthly payments with the low rate.

Nancy Robertson, a lawyer, said she enjoyed the camaraderie in line, although she could have done without such a long wait.

“But it’s a small price to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime rate on a mortgage,” she said.

Even when 30-year rates were at their lowest, on average, nationally, in June 2003 — at 5.23 percent with 0.6 point — it was well above what Liberty was offering in the program.

The bank took the opportunity to woo those waiting in line. It handed out umbrellas during a downpour Friday night, and later served pizza. Unlike similar campouts at retailers, Liberty brought in a portable toilet, complete with flashlight.

Banks typically trot out promotions when they open new branches in a market as they dig in to build market share. But the promotions are usually aimed at savings, such as high-rate certificates of deposit. But Liberty wanted to do something with loans. The bank chose $3.5 million and 3.5 percent because the branch is Liberty’s 35th.

Robert A. Steele, the bank’s director of consumer credit risk, said the bank expects to “break even” on the loans. But the greater benefit is exposure to the community — and showing the market that the bank has money to lend, even in a tighter market for credit.

Anthony Centurelli, who secured the first place in line, wants out of his condo and saw the rate as the way.

He has a hard time parking his pickup truck in his complex. The $280,000 house he and his wife hope to buy on Folly Brook Road has two garages.

“This came up, and we said, ‘What the heck?'” said Centurelli, a civil engineer.

Well, one thing is for sure — a few lucky families in Wethersfield, Connecticut probably won’t be refinancing over the next 30 years…

5 3968

Ben KenobiYep, this PMI cancellation thing just isn’t going to happen.

Apparently the Homeowners Protection Act never existed.

The idea of PMI automatically cancelling on it’s own is complete fiction.

I made my call this afternoon to Lisa — who, if you recall, asked that I call back to check on the status of my request. She had given me her direct line.

I called the number. Six minutes on hold and then the call dropped.

Hmmm… This isn’t looking good already, I thought.

I tried again. This time I was on hold for three minutes and woman named “Willa” answered. Hmmmmm… Willa didn’t sound one bit like Lisa.

She asked if she could help, so I anxiously told her that Lisa has requested I call back to check in on the status of my PMI cancellation. Willa put me on hold.

A minute or so passed and she came back on the line, “Mr. Smurf, our records indicate that a letter with further instructions to cancel mortgage insurance was mailed to you on August 27 and you should be receiving it within 7-10 days.”

“Really? Well, I’ve already received that letter three times,” I responded. “I know what it says and that’s not what I’m calling about. See, Lisa said that she had emailed the MI Deletion department and that she’d likely have a response for me today.”

“I’m not sure why she would have emailed them, I’ll transfer you — please hold.”

I began to pace. I tried to rock out to the hold music but it wasn’t working. Nine whole minutes passed. Four extra seconds too. Yes, my phone at work is freakin sweet.

Finally a woman’s voice spoke to me from the other end.

I had to confirm my name and account number and SSN again. She spoke softly and had traces of an Asian accent. Had I not been on hold for so long, I would have hung up and tried again. I hate soft-talkers. Always have, always will.

I didn’t catch her name, unfortunately, and she apparently didn’t catch mine either as she addressed me as “Mr. Smorf” three times in the first 30 seconds and for the duration of the call.

I explained my whole situation again and guess how she responded?

Yep, more nonsense about submitting a request to the MI Deletion department (isn’t that who I was just transferred to?) at which point a letter will be mailed to me detailing the blah, blah, blah…

I calmly explained that I’d gone through this process multiple times already.

I just wanted to know why my PMI hadn’t been cancelled.

I explained that there is apparently a provision in my original mortgage agreement that states that once I reach 22 percent equity or a 78 percent loan-to-value percentage, PMI is supposed to be terminated automatically. That hasn’t happened. Why?

She stammered a bit, I couldn’t understand (or hear?) her, and then she put me on hold.

I fully expected to be disconnected.

But then she came back.

“Mr. Smorf, your current loan to value is 77 percent, however, a COV certificate is required in order to…”

I cut her off and said, “The law is pretty clear — the loan to value is supposed to be based on the original property value at the inception of the contract. You just said that my loan to value percentage was at 77 percent. That number would be based on my original property value which, by law, means that I shouldn’t be paying for PMI anymore.”

She stammered again and repeated what was obviously on the computer monitor in front of her — “However, um, market conditions are such that, however, LandSafe will have to conduct an appraisal but you, however, shouldn’t send the payment along with your regular mortgage payment.”

What? “Yeah, that’s not what I’m calling about.”

I told her that I’d heard all of that before.

She then began to tell me that “the appraisal is only $130 and with that, PMI could be cancelled.”

“Could be? Or would be?”, I asked.

She stammered a bit and then responded with, “A real appraisal is usually over $300.”

Yeah, see, I don’t care.

I bought my house before prices skyrocketed. It hasn’t dropped in value. My tax records show that — and Countrywide pays my taxes for me.

Even the neighbor from hell has their house on the market for $192k. My lot is bigger, my house is bigger, my house is, well, it’s just nicer. Even using that dump’s price, which is much lower than mine is worth, my $109k balance clears the bar by a good 30%.

Market conditions? You want to talk about market conditions? Well, apparently, for customers like me who actually pay their mortgages each month, the current market conditions only benefit Countrywide. I have to pay additional fees when the market tanks? I don’t remember signing up for that when I bought my house.

Sure, your business is in the crapper, but you know what? That’s not my fault. That’s not my problem.

And hold on, the law and my mortgage both reference the original purchase price — NOT the current market value!!! Why are we discussing this?

I didn’t say any of that, but continued to vent and argue my case.

I even laid out a scenario as an example — my current balance on the mortgage is $109k. If next week, I submitted a payment of $108k, would Countrywide still not cancel PMI.

“That is correct, Mr. Smorf.”

“So, I could, infact have a balance of under one thousand dollars and I’d still have to pay PMI each month?”

“Due to market conditions, however, a COV, um, investors are, however, at 78 percent, um…”

That was the response. Can you believe that?


“So, PMI will never be cancelled automatically, is that what you’re saying?”

A long pause… “That is correct, Mr. Smorf.”

I went pretty crazy at this point.

I even started talking to the point that I needed to take a breath but I didn’t stop to take one. My palms were clammy. I even had to wipe my brow. That never happens.

I asked if she was kidding — I mean, I had to.

When I finally allowed her to get a word in, she suggested that I refinance.

I told her that refinancing costs even more money than an appraisal. I don’t need to refinance. I’m perfectly happy with my rate. I don’t need to cash out and I don’t need to lower my payments.

I just want my PMI cancelled which, according to the law, is supposed to be automatic and FREE!

She then went back to her script saying, rather, she went back to reading that a COV certificate was mandatory due to market conditions.

Every third word or so, she’d use the word “however”.

If I had to write a transcript, it would real like Caitlin Upton’s “uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as” response in last year’s Miss Teen USA pagaent. Seriously.

I responded that I, quite frankly, didn’t care about the current market conditions. That’s Countrywide’s problem and not mine. My mortgage agreement was for a 30-yeard fixed rate mortgage with PMI to be dropped at the 78% mark.

I then bounced another scenario off of her…

What if I had made this request, and this phone call, two years ago, you know, before Countrywide essentially screwed themselves over to create the current “market condition”.


She didn’t have an answer.

It was an awkward moment. And it lasted, oh, maybe 10-15 seconds.

Wow, I was actually acting like a certified arsehole. This was a new feeling for me.

As the silence continued I thought she’d hung up on me…


“Yes, Mr. Smorf, however due to current market conditions…”

Wait a minute — I basically just got out of you that this actually has nothing to do with “market conditions”… This is apparently standard policy for Countrywide Home Loans. And how is it that they can just ignore the law like that?


I was at the point where I realized that I wasn’t getting any further today so I tried to wrap it up as politely as I could.

I thanked her for her help — though my tone was less than sincere — and told her that I’d research my options, though she provided me none, and call back at a later date.

She went back to her “script” and sheepishly asked, “Are there any other concerns I can help you with Mr. Smurf?”


Then, in apparent closing, she said that “Countrywide appreciates your business and…” well, that set me off again…

“Wait a minute. No, you don’t appreciate my business. I pay my mortgage payment every damn month. I’m not the reason for the current market conditions you speak of. I’m not calling about some hardship I’m facing or to re-negotiate the terms of my original loan or crying ‘woe is me, please don’t take my house.’ I’ve been asking Countrywide to hold up their end of the original deal for nearly two months now and I’ve gotten nothing but a bunch of bunk. I’m the ideal customer, and you know what? Yeah, I am a little bit upset about the situation Countrywide has put me in — not that you hadn’t noticed.”

“I understand Mr. Smorf, however…”

“No, however nothing. You’re screwing over your best customers by ripping them off. I am being ripped off. To the tune of $85 per month, I am being ripped off. How dare you ask me about refinancing with Countrywide. Really, why on earth would I give a company that rips me off any more business that I need to? And you know what? I am going to be a thorn in Countrywide’s side until this matter is resolved.”

She apologized for the fact that I felt that and I ended the call. In case you’re wondering — no I didn’t hang up on her.

Of course, I was just blowing off some steam.

I’ll be honest. Hefty Smurf, I am not.

Richard BlumenthalI’ll probably just end up paying the $130 for an appraisal but before that happens, you can bet that I’ll send a boatload of nasty messages their way, file a complaint with the FTC, and pass along the details of my ordeal to Richard Blumenthal, the Attorney General for the State of Connecticut.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Richard Blumenthal?

Well, make a mental note, someday you will see his name.

When it comes to Attorney Generals in this country, he’s the biggest badass around making national headlines on a regular basis. I’ve heard he uses Jedi mind tricks as well. Not sure if that’s true, I’m just sayin’…

And not that he’ll pursue this, but he’s already sued Countrywide once and he’s the type that likes to pile on.

Even if a letter written by a junior staffer full of fluff threats arrives at Countrywide’s door with Dickie B’s return address on it, well, it’ll get some attention. Of that, I’m sure.

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Property Taxes - Good Grief!Well, it’s that time of year again. Yep — tax time.

That is, if you live in one of the states that has a personal property tax.

Here in Connecticut, we have to pay local property taxes on our automobiles. We used to be pretty unique in that respect but now roughly half of the country has a similar tax.

Each year, the personal property tax is due on July 1st. The city mailed the bills out on July 3rd.

So, by the time we received the bill, after the Independence Day holiday, we were already 5 days late. Hmph!

Maybe it’s just me, but I just can’t understand how municipalities can get away with stuff like that… Granted, they don’t start charging interest until you’re a month overdue, but still…

Even worse, looking at the bill — they don’t have a due date printed anywhere. Seriously. Just a threatening paragraph about not being able to register your vehicle in the future if your paid taxes aren’t current. No return envelope either. And you can’t pay online.

Not very convenient.

I can’t remember the last time I actually addressed a blank envelope.

Probably about this time last July.

Anyway, this year the tax due on my two vehicles totals $427.54.

I’m pretty happy about that. Much less than I’d expected and far less than just last year.

I was prepared, actually, for an increase back in April when I’d read that, “Most homeowners will see a property tax hike of at least $150 this year if the proposed budget eyed by the city’s Board of Finance is approved.”

That proposed budget was approved, but upon re-reading the article, it (the budget) didn’t go into effect until this month so the tax hike will actually hit us on next year’s bill.

For fun, I went back and dug up all of my previous personal property tax bills. Okay, not all of them, but as far back as I still had the stubs on file — back to 2001 — and I was surprised by what I found:

Past Personal Property Tax Bills

Turns out, I had much reason to be pleasantly surprised by this year’s bill. It’s the least I’ve ever had to pay. A full $200+ less than last year! Fantastic!

Don’t get me wrong though… Not for one second am I saying that getting a $400+ bill in the dead of summer is anything to be jumping for joy about.

It’s not.

But July just so happens to be one of those mystical 3 paycheck months for me, so paring an additional $400 from the budget isn’t anything to worry about.

And how on earth was I able to pay a $701 tax bill back in 2002? Yikes!

5 5482

Garmin Nuvi 260 Vacation StatisticsWhile I can’t really compare it to other GPS devices since I’ve never had a different one, I do have a few things to say about the Garmin Nuvi 260.

On our recent vacation, we traversed over 2600 miles with the unit “plugged in” and it got us everywhere we wanted to go.

We didn’t even need to look at our old Rand McNally atlas that we brought along, you know, just in case…

That isn’t to say that the Garmin Nuvi 260 is flawless…

The first problem I found with it was in downtown Chicago. While we were on the city streets, it worked just fine. But on the interstates that are 12 lanes wide with jersey barriers dividing it up every 4 lanes or so and city streets running parallel on each side of the highway, well, the Garmin was obviously unsure of which road we were actually on.

Understandable I suppose, it only appears to be accurate to within a few hundred feet and when there are 3 or more road ways all on top of one another within that accuracy zone, well, of course it was going to have some difficulty.

The good news is that even though we missed the turn it asked us to take (which would have been impossible due to the previously mentioned jersey barrier), the Garmin 260 was still able to guide us to our destination after “recalculating” a few times.

The next small issue I had with the unit came in Toronto — a city I’m semi-familiar with driving in. Like most modern cities, the whole downtown area is set-up in a grid style. My destination was north of the city on Yonge Street (a N-S route). At the time, I was on Dundas Street (an E-W route) about 5 blocks east of Yonge Street.

The simple way to get there would have been to to drive west on Dundas until I hit Yonge, turn right (towards the north) and then hit my destination.

But the Garmin instructed us to turn right, turn left, turn right, turn left, turn right, turn left — basically directing us towards the destination diagonally.

Garmin Route Selection

I immediately understood what it was doing, connecting our current position and our destination in a straight line and choosing the closest route.

Have you ever tried turning left in the city? On a main road? Where trolleys still run on rails? With tons of pedestrian traffic? And in a country where you need to give pedestrians the right of way?

It’s something that’s best to avoid.

I didn’t obey the Garmin in this case, mostly because I knew where I was going, but had this been in another city, one I’m unfamiliar with, it would have been quite the stressful drive when it didn’t really need to be.

The last little glitch with the Garmin occurred as we were heading home. We crossed the border in Buffalo, New York where the QEW becomes I-90 or the New York State Thruway. I-90 then eventually turns into the Mass Pike which leads right to Boston — which points us towards Connecticut.

We made a quick side trip to Eden, New York — maybe 10 minutes southwest of Buffalo and I-90 — to visit a kazoo factory. The Garmin 260 worked perfectly. Unfortunately the factory was closed. Boo…

Afterwards, we punched in our home address as our next destination and the Garmin took us through mile after mile of desolate farmland on slow two lane roads.

It was slow going and we were a little low on gas — not an ideal situation. I’d say it added nearly an additional 2 hours to our drive when, technically, the Garmin should have just told us to go back the way we’d come and join up with I-90 for some travel at 70+ mph.

On the bright side, taking the scenic route put us up close and personal to one of the wind farms that have started dotting the upstate New York landscape over the past decade. They’re a pretty neat sight.

Upstate New York Wind Farm

In the end, I’d give the Garmin Nuvi 260 a big thumbs up. Its limitations, while annoying, are totally within reason. Best of all, it never failed to get us where we were headed.

Can You Dig It?


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