Friday, March 22, 2013

Our AMAZING kitchen makeover (for less)....

I know that this post is way overdue, given the fact that we sold this house nine months ago (sad face), but I wanted to talk about it anyway. Maybe this is just a way to journal the event and keep it forever, but honestly, I think I have some ideas that are worth sharing and may help you with your own projects.

When we bought our house in High Point, NC in 2005, we knew that we had a bunch of cosmetic work to do, but we also knew that it was a solid house with tons of character. A brick home built in the 40s, it was a beauty. It has been our favorite house to date, and while we loved it, we knew that even if we were to move back to that area in the future, we wouldn't be needing 6 bedrooms!

We slowly remodeled the house over the 7 years that we were in it; my husband did much of the work himself. We purposely put off the kitchen until last because it was the biggest job, and also because we had to save up the money to do it. But when it came time to sell, we knew it had to be done. The previous owners had last remodeled the kitchen in the 60s, and while I was quite content in my little kitchen, we knew it wouldn't cut it in today's market:

The first thing we did was take down the wall between the kitchen and the "breakfast nook" and put in a beam instead. We had a couple of estimates done, and this ended up being the most expensive aspect of the whole makeover. As you know, THE most expensive part of a remodel is labor, so Mike and the boys grabbed the sledgehammers and took down that wall, cleaning up all the mess, so that the contractor wouldn't have to charge us for that. The more you do yourself, the more dollars you are saving to add to those things you really want:

What a mess! (And yes, we lived in the house while this was going on...and yes, the dust was everywhere...)

(Here's the new beam we had put in...contractor did a GREAT job!)

I had envisioned what I wanted in this kitchen for years, but in the end, it's not what we ended up with, and that was good because it was better! I have a wonderful, frugal, like-minded friend (she shall remain nameless unless she comments herself) who does this type of thing for a living. She graciously came by and told us what would sell the kitchen...and then she did the work...well, most of it anyway. (THANK YOU...I know you will read this!!) So my best tip--make friends with generous, talented people!!! (hint: be that type of friend to others). Here was the end result:


Amazing isn't it? Here are some of the ways we saved a boatload of money:

1. We didn't buy expensive countertops, just plain old laminate, but in a popluar color that looked like stone.

2. While we did buy all new stainless steel appliances, we didn't get high end name brands, and we used a 10% off coupon at Lowes. The dishwasher we bought was in the "scratch and ding" section for $120 less (it had a tiny scratch on it).  Apparently though, another salesman sold it to someone else before they got it off the floor, so we got a new one for the same price! How cool is that?? We also sold the old appliances on Craigslist- stove, frig and dishwasher-and made some money to put toward the remodel. The old stuff went within hours of being listed; I could have gotten more than I did.

3. I found a new, in-the-box stainless steel microwave on ebay that had a dent on the top for $60 shipped. Apparently the box it was in had been crunched at some point. Rather than buy an expensive built in microwave, my friend custom designed a shelf in the built in pantry to put the microwave it, which, of course, hid the dent (in the top pic, the microwave is on the counter, but it ended up in that hole you can see to the right of the frig)

4. Our cabinets came from Habitat for Humanity, and again, my friend found them for me. $1000 and we had 5 or 6 left over! These were fairly high end cabinets, with pull outs and lots of little additions that we never would have added had we bought new. This saved several thousand dollars.

5. The cabinet hardware also came from Habitat. Thirty or so simple,stainless steel knobs for a dollar each, and we priced them at Home Depot for $5.95 each...same knob! $150 savings right there.

6. It goes without saying that we did all the wallpaper scraping and painting ourselves, with our friend's help, of course. Have you priced painters/wallpaper hangers lately??

7. The "in stock" bamboo shades were 12 bucks a piece at Lowes. I think they added so much to the room. Custom window treatments are highly overrated AND over priced.

8. We opted not to buy a table or put in an island.  Sometimes, less is more. It was hard for me to not put something there, but in the end, the buyer liked the openness of the room. We also took the doors off both ends of the room and again, this added to the open feel.

9. I ordered a custom cut 22"X 24" cherry cutting board (you can see it on the counter) on ebay to cover the counter seam.  I think I paid around $50.00 for it, including shipping. This was about $50 less than any I could find locally that were even half the size. Shop around.

10. We bought a stock sink that had the faucet and all the attachments. Look at all your options. Have you priced faucets lately? Our combo pack was less than many faucets alone. If you're remodeling to sell, go classic and simple.

Total money out was less than 8 thousand, and I know that this was what sold our home.

We could not have done this project without the help of our wonderful friend. She put in many hours and did it all in about 6 weeks, start to finish.  (Thanks again...understatement of the year)

Have any of you remodeled a kitchen lately?? I'd love to hear how you saved money on your project.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Our Beijing Tour: Planes, Trains and Rickshaws

(The Great Wall of China at Mitianyu)
Several of you have been asking about our mega trip over Christmas break, and since this was a long trip (for us, at least--21 days), it is much too long for one post, so I will begin with the end-Beijing. This was my favorite city, I suppose because of the history. Before we left, I researched quite a bit and also asked many people who had been there to share their experiences. Even though I was told it was better NOT to go with a tour company and NOT to take a hard sleeper train, I am quite pleased to report that we did indeed do both, and would do so again in a heartbeat! We were in Beijing for 3 days and 2 nights; the tour company we used was and they were very helpful. We had a private driver (with a large, comfortable, heated van) and a private English speaking guide who were both with us for the entire tour, picking us up at the airport and dropping us off at the train station, and taking us everywhere in between. The price included all this AND entrance into:

The Great Wall at Mutianyu (took the cable cars up and the sleds down)

Visit to a jade factory
(yep, the whole thing is made of jade)
A visit to a traditional Chinese Doctor, who "diagnosed" us for free (no pics allowed!)
The Summer Palace
(icy in winter)
The Temple of Heaven
Tian'anmen Square/Mao's Tomb
(the noticable difference between this and the Washinton DC Mall--no demonstrations)
The Forbidden City
The Olympic Bird's Nest and Watercube
An Acrobatic Show (no pics here either)
"The Legend of Kung-Fu" (this was outstanding, a combination opera/play/Kung-Fu Show)
A traditional Peking Duck Dinner
A rickshaw ride through a Hutong
Lunch in a local Hutong home (one of our favorite parts of the trip)
2 other meals in local restaurants (all meals, except breakfast, were included)

We had a say in the itinerary, since it was private. I looked at what the website suggested and only made a few changes, the biggest change being a trip to "The Wall" at Mutianyu rather than the 30-minute closer Badaling. I had heard there were less people and we wanted to sled down. (In retrospect, since it was about 40 below zero, I didn't really have to worry about tourists, but I was pleased with my choice, nonetheless, and the ride through the countryside was a plus.)

They also bought our train tickets home as soon as they were available and had them ready for us; this ensured that we were all in one room and was included in the price, and I didn't have to worry about buying tix the moment they went on sale. I've heard it can be tricky to get everyone in one room if you don't get them quickly, and it was nice not to have to worry about it.  Our hotel was free (I'll explain later). The total for 6 of us for all this was $1400 USD, and the train tix were about $500 of that, so take out $500 and it breaks down to about $50 per person, per day. Looking at the list of what we did, and considering the meals, I think this was certainly a fair price. The shows alone were absolutely marvelous, as was the food. Could I have arranged everything on my own for less? Probably. Would I have done so? I doubt it. I loved that we had this great itinerary all ready, an English speaking tour guide and a private van for just our family. It made my life very easy and I didn't have to stress about finding places, getting lost and buying tickets. Did they want us to purchase jade trinkets at the jade factory and herbs at the Chinese doctor? Sure. But we just said "No," and moved on. There wasn't any pressure. Our guide was a sweet 20-something named Yo-Yo.
(I look like a dork was soooooo cold...YoYo was adorable!)
She filled our heads with so many facts that we would never have known. We also never had to wait in line anywhere as Yo Yo would have the tix and wave us through to the front. In my opinion, it was worth every penny. The only other money I spent was for breakfast. The hotel provided free coffee and tea, and I walked about a  block to the supermarket and bought bottled juice, fruit and rolls; much cheaper than the hotel breakfast.

I booked our hotel online using American AAdvantage sign-on bonus points. The Radegast Lakeview Hotel is rated 5-stars, but surprisingly, it only used approxomately 9,000 points per night, so I was able to book two rooms for two nights, all for free! (Very few hotels let a family of 6 all stay in one room...)
(photo from trip advisor)
It was more on the outskirts of the city, and I had read that taxi drivers had a hard time finding it, but our tour guide and driver knew exactly where it was. The lobby was beautiful:
Radegast Hotel CBD Beijing - Lobby
(photo from agoda)

Our guide helped us check in, otherwise, the language could have been a barrier as the English was broken at best, though I'm sure we would have figured it out. I wanted to be sure that I wasn't charged, and it was nice to get that assurance! The rooms were spacious and clean and the bedding very comfy.

There was free wifi, a pool, free parking, several restaurants and a fitness center, though we only used the wifi. We had a nice view of the lake, and our last morning there, we crossed the street and stolled around the water's edge. We could see the Temple of Heaven at the other end of the lake. I'm sure it is beautiful in the spring with what appeared to be many cherry trees...though the snow and ice seemed to be a good fit for this gray city.
(the view out our window-the lake is right across the street)
The bathroom was very impressive, with a shower and separate tub. The toiletries included the usual soap, shampoo,conditioner and lotion, but there was also bottled water, a comb, a shaving kit and a toothbrush kit included.
The ride home in a "hard-sleeper" train was an experience unto itself! Many folks had warned us not to do this, since hard sleepers are 6 people to a (tiny) doorless room--three bunks to a side-- but since we are a family of 6, we knew we could have the car to ourselves, and privacy on this 22 hour ride from Beijing to Hong Kong wasn't a priority. It was everything we imagined it would be!! We were surrounded on both sides with people who apparently knew each other, as they were in the 24" hall talking, playing cards and eating outside--and sometimes inside-- our (doorless) room.
(kids on the top 4 bunks)

You have heard that mainland Chinese are not known for their manners? You heard correctly. Let's just say that we nick-named one "the gas man," and leave it at that! I suppose there are those who would not apprecaite this type of situation, but we were quite entertained.
(neighbors playing cards outside our door)
However, at 10 pm when the lights in the hall were shut off, everyone went in their rooms and settled down. We all slept very well. There was a restaurant car, and there we shared a meal with some great folks from South Africa who were back-packing through China. They ended up coming to our home in Hong Kong for a meal and a shower and I'm quite sure we will meet again. I doubt this would have happened on a plane.
All in all, we had a wonderful time in Beijing. Honestly, who doesn't want to say they've walked on The Great Wall of China??

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The annual February BUDGET--Hong Kong style!

(photo from the hive)
We made it sucessfully through the month of February, and I just have to say, I've always liked February: it's short-exactly 4 weeks long, spring is in sight, it contains Valentine's Day, and most of all, it's the month when I keep track of our family financial situation, and by that I mean that I write down every single penny we spend for the month. I don't do this every year, but whenever there is a significant change in our financial life (move, job change, housing change, etc), it makes sense to sit down and figure out a plan, because we all know that if we fail to plan, we are planning to fail! AND, I'm a number geek.

I was pretty excited to keep track of everything now that we are here in Hong Kong. I had this rough idea of where our money was going, but even to someone like me who is fairly thrifty, there are always a few surprises. Adapting to a new culture adds a whole new dimension to budgeting. Where do I find the best food deals? How much is the electric bill going to be? What about transportation? So...without further ado, here's the Cliff family spending for February:

groceries: $4726 HKD ($630 USD/$157 week)
eating out: $1937 HKD ($258 USD/$65 week)
medical: $1280 HKD ($171 USD)
gifts/misc: $616 HKD ($82 USD)
transport: $550 HKD ($73 USD)
boys chores: $1200 HKD--$400 each ($160 USD)
tithe/charity: 12% gross income
phone/internet: $720 HKD ($96 USD)
elec/H2O/dryer: $710 HKD ($94 USD)
Ikea (lampshade): $115 ($15 USD)
QB House (haircut):$50 HKD ($6.50 USD)

There it is! The Cliff family budget. Now I'll break it down by category:

Groceries include paper products like TP /paper towels and toiletries such as toothpaste and shampoo.
This months breakdown went like this:
Park N Shop (grocery store): $2881 HKD ($384 USD)
Meat (ordered at school and a meat shop): $707 HKD ($94 USD)
Cheese (ordered at school): $340 ($45 USD)
milk powder: $300 HKD ($40 USD)---this will last about 2-3 months
wet market: $79 HKD ($11 USD)
Prize Mart (smaller grocer): $369 HKD ($49 USD)

My goal is to get this number down to $4000 HKD I'm excited to have found a cheaper source for flour, so I plan to do a little more home baking.

Eating Out: This month included a $725 ($96 USD) meal for the family celebrating Will's induction into National Honor Society. A "normal" meal out for the fam would cost $100-$150 (13-20 US) at McD's or the noodle shop. Still, it's a number that's too high for me. And I will cut it down.

If you add up the total for groceries and eating out, divide that number by 5 (people in our family) and then divide by 4 weeks, then by 21 meals per week, you get $15.86 HKD ($2.11 USD) per meal, per person. All in all, I suppose this isn't that astronomical...but it's on the high side for this mama, and I know I can do better.

Medical: This included a trip to a general practioner, an orthopedic specialist and an X-ray for my oldest son, who has been having pain in his foot for months...and he's a runner. Dx: tendonitis. This was paid OOP, but most of it will be reimbursed through our school insurance plan. I don't even want to think about what this scenario would have cost stateside.

Gifts: This included Valentine's Day gifts, a night at the movies and baby shower gifts.

Transportation: This was what Mike and I put on our octopus (metro) cards this month. Some of that will slide over into the next month, but it all evens out. The card is used on the trains, buses and ferries. Quite a bit less than a car payment and gas to fill it, no?

Boys Chores: This was higher than we normally give our kids here, but it was Chinese New Year, and we were celebrating! This money must cover their own transportation costs, food that they want to buy elsewhere and anything else they want. They are also expected to tithe from this money. In exchange they do household chores (wash dishes, clean bathrooms and their own rooms and help with laundry). This is an evolving number as we figure out what works here. In the states, our boys earned money in other ways, and that has been a difficult loss for them to deal with.

Tithe/Charity: self-explanatory, and while it never dips below 10%, some months, it is higher than it was this month.

Phone/Internet: We have one cell phone with a plan, and Mike has a phone similar to a tracfone. The boys do not have cell phones.  We have basic internet; we do not have cable TV.

Electric/Water: This number is based on the total we have paid so far divided by the months we have paid so far. We only pay quarterly.

The rest is self-explanatory. I'm sure I've forgotten to put a few things in here, but you get the general idea. So that, my friends, is what we pay to live in Hong Kong. Not bad, could be better:) All ideas for spending less are gratefully accepted....thanks!