Scouting for a Custom Tiny Home in Idaho

I go to Idaho in search of a tiny home solution to winter travel needs.

Tiny houses are big these days. People seem unusually attracted to the idea of living in a very small, very simple space. Tiny home communities are popping up all over the west — such as the one in Portland. There are tiny home books and websites and forums. I’ve been told that there’s even a tiny home television show, although since never bothered to get connected with cable or satellite television, I’ve never seen it. (A quick search on Google for a link shows me at least three of them: Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Nation, and Tiny House Hunters. Seriously?)

While I agree that tiny houses are cute, they’re really not much different from living in an RV — which I did for two years and more summers than I care to remember. It’s nice having less space to heat, cool, clean, and furnish. But it’s not nice to live in cramped quarters with barely enough space to store the things you need to live and work. So while I have no problem with short-term life in a small space, I think people — especially families of two or more people — who turn to tiny homes for their primary living space are, well, nuts.

That said, I’m currently considering a tiny house as a replacement for my mobile mansion, which is now for sale.

The Misunderstandings

When I mentioned this on Facebook, I got a few sarcastic comments from friends of friends who (1) didn’t understand that I was considering this for part-time living and (2) apparently know nothing about tiny houses.

One person said, “I don’t like the idea of my toilet being in the same room as my kitchen sink.” Well, neither do I. And I have to say that I’ve never seen a tiny house design with the toilet in the kitchen. So I don’t know what the hell this clown is talking about.

Another person said, “Why would you want to live in a closet?” I wouldn’t. I don’t know anyone who would. But unless you have a 200+ square foot closet, most tiny houses are considerably bigger that your closets. They even have rooms and windows. Can you imagine?

Seriously: what’s with people on the Internet? Why do they find it necessary to shoot out their opinions in such a nasty, narrow-minded way, especially when they obviously don’t know what the hell they’re talking about?

‘Nuff said.

Tiny House RV

My idea is to have a custom tiny house built as a fully-functional off-the-grid RV. What gave me that idea? The Tiny Portable Cedar Cabins website. Dave, who designs and builds these cabins, constructs them on trailer frames using dimensions that keep them road-worthy without special permits. That means they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″.

Just like any RV on the road.

Because they’re built like this, they can be licensed as an RV and they follow all the rules governing how RVs are used and transported. That means I can hook it up to the back of my pickup and take it anywhere I can take an RV.

Of course, Dave doesn’t outfit them as RVs. He outfits them as homes, assuming the owner is going to park the unit and plug it into permanent power, water, and sewer line sources. He does offer off-the grid options like a composting toilet and propane appliances. But he doesn’t normally include the features a true off-the-grid RV needs, such as fresh water storage tanks and holding tanks for gray and black water. To me, that’s what distinguishes his “tiny portable cabins” from a true recreational camping vehicle.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t make one with the things I need in a real RV.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Tiny Home in Marlin, WA

Dave works with Janet, who apparently manages his website and blog and helps him sell the his houses. Janet has one of his tiny house models, a custom “Caretaker” unit. She’s parked it on her property in Marlin, WA where it’s currently sitting, waiting for a tenant to arrive.

I drove out there about two weeks ago. Anyone who says that I live in a remote area really needs to go to Marlin (AKA, Krupp) to put things into perspective. The town has about 300 people and sits at the bottom of valley with the tiny Crab Creek running through it. The closest grocery store is 18 miles away; the closest supermarket is 34 miles away. It took me nearly two hours to drive there and once I was there, there was nothing much there. But there was Janet’s tiny house, sitting inside a fenced in area with a lush green lawn.

Tiny House
How fitting that I drove my tiny car to Janet’s tiny house.

We chatted for a while and then went in to take a look. The house was set up with a generously sized kitchen, tiny — and I do mean tiny — bedroom, and decent sized bathroom that even had a washer and dryer. It had a lot of nice touches, including pocket doors and a stained glass window. It also had two storage lofts that weren’t very tall. The exterior siding was cedar; the interior finish was a natural wood that I really like.

She showed me the composting toilet. Because the house was set in a spot without access to a sewer, she’d chosen this option. As she explained, the “liquids” go through some small holes on the front of the bowl where they collect underneath. If you plan to deposit some “solids,” you prep the bowl by laying in what looks like a giant coffee filter. When you’re finished, you “flush,” which opens the bottom of the bowl and drops the filter and its contents into another container. Somewhere along the line, you sprinkle something on the waste which gets the compost action going. Janet claims that it never stinks, but I find that very hard to believe. And, of course, you eventually have to empty the waste into a compost bin. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live in a closet than have to deal with a toilet like that on a daily basis.

I asked her about RV-related options and she really didn’t have the information I needed. For that, I’d need to talk to Dave. And since I’m better talking in person to someone than on the phone, it meant making a road trip to Idaho.

Idaho Road Trip

Spirit Lake, where Dave builds his tiny homes, is about 40 minutes north of Coeur d’Alene, where a pilot friend of mine, Jim, lives with his wife Teresa. I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone by visiting them and Dave on the same trip.

I set off last Wednesday morning with Penny in my distance car: my 2003 Honda S2000. Bought new in 2003, it had just under 60,000 miles on it — indeed, it would roll over to 60,000 on my way home. I’d prepped it earlier in the week with an oil change and a check of tire pressures and fluids. (I’d also had the leather armrest repaired; the leather had been shrinking for years and made the car’s interior look shabby. Fixed!) I put the top down, secured a scarf over my head to prevent my hair from flying around and getting all tangled up, and took off.

We took Badger Mountain Road up toward Waterville. It was the first time I’d taken that road in that direction at that time of day and it was the highlight of the drive — the Wenatchee Valley looks amazing from a viewpoint along the way in early morning light.

From Badger Mountain
Wenatchee from Badger Mountain.

I eventually hooked up with Route 2 near Douglas. From there, it was mostly straight roads over the Waterville Plateau, past rolling hills of harvested wheat fields and through small farm towns with tall silos. The road dipped down to cross Moses Coulee, then climbed again for more wheat fields and towns on the other side. I crossed the lower end of Banks Lake on the earthen dam in Coulee City and continued east on Route 2, through even more farm towns. I stopped in a small town along the way — Hartline? Almira? Wilbur? Creston? Davenport? Readan? — for bathroom break, buying an egg sandwich to go and then getting right back in the car.

Although I was enjoying the drive — I really do like a good road trip — I wasn’t disappointed when I arrived on the outskirts of Spokane. Route 2 dumped me on I-90 — which I could have taken from George if I wanted a faster route — and that took me through Spokane and info Idaho. Then Google Maps’ navigation feature directed me to exit onto Route 41. I took that north, passing a homemade billboard that said “Pray the Rosary, Vote for Trump,” and after a few miles and a few turns ended up at Dave’s construction lot outside the town of Spirit Lake.

Dave’s Tiny House Construction Yard

Janet had told me that Dave was working on about 20 houses and she wasn’t kidding. There were tiny houses in various stages of construction all over the yard. All different models, from a 22-foot Caretakers Cabin to much larger and longer models. Dave wasn’t doing any of the actual construction work himself — at least not when I drove up. Instead, he had at least a dozen guys working for him, each busy with a specific task on a specific building. Looks like he’s built himself a nice little business that employs quite a few people.

I told him what I was looking for and he led me over to one of the Caretakers cabins. It had exactly the bathroom and kitchen layout I’d envisioned. We discussed weight and tanks and all the other things I needed. I think he was surprised that I was so well-versed in not only construction but the kinds of features I needed and how they might be implemented in his buildings. For example, we discussed the placement of fresh water tanks up in the loft area and how they could be filled using a standard water connection with a value that switched the water flow to the tanks. I asked if having the tanks high would provide enough water pressure for sink and shower usage and he said it would, but not enough pressure for the instant hot water systems he used; a DC pump like the ones found in most RVs would be required.

We also talked about ways to make the building lighter. In the size unit I wanted — 24 feet max including a 4-foot porch — he estimated the total weight to be around 12,000 pounds. While my one-ton diesel pickup could easily pull that — after all, it pulls my 15,000 pound mobile mansion like its nothing — I was really hoping to replace the truck with a smaller, newer, gasoline model. That wouldn’t be advisable if I had to tow around a 12,000 pound RV. I asked if he could do 2×4 construction rather than 2×6 construction. He said that would allow for less insulation, which I was okay with. We also talked about using metal on the exterior, with the idea of it matching my building at home. That could drop the weight by another 500 or so pounds.

Tiny Home Example
I absolutely love the upper floor windows in this little house.

After checking out how the stairs were constructed in one of the other units, we stopped to look at an unusual model that was taller and wider than the others with a “shed style” roof. It was a custom unit for a family of three in Sacramento that would become their primary residents. (Remember what I said about that idea earlier in this blog post?) It had an upstairs bedroom and a very small downstairs bedroom, a decent sized bathroom and a great room with a kitchen. The main features I liked were the huge windows; the home would be very bright indeed. I wondered whether I could design a unit with the same style roof and still get the sleeping loft I needed in a space only 8-1/2 feet wide.

And that’s where we left it. I told Dave I liked that style and would rework my design with that in mind. I said I’d send him my floorplan with a list of required features. He could then work up a price and try to estimate weight.

I was supposed to do that last weekend, but didn’t. I’d better work on it soon, though. If I decide to go forward, I’m looking at an 18-week wait.

As for pricing — well, one of the reasons I was attracted to Dave’s work is that the prices are within reason. I’d seen 400 square foot tiny homes like the one pictured here selling online for over $80,000. That was absurd. Dave’s prices were much more down to earth and easier to swallow.

Still, there was no doubt that this custom tiny home RV would cost about twice as much as a 20-foot RV — which I’d also been considering.

A Visit with Jim & Teresa

From Dave’s lot, I drove down to Coeur d’Alene. I texted back and forth with Jim and discovered that he was working on a project at his new homesite. I stopped for lunch in town, then drove out to meet him.

Jim and Teresa are building a big, beautiful home on a small lot on the Spokane River just east of the Lake Coeur d’Alene. Their property includes a two slip dock that they share with their next door neighbor. The place is walking distance from one of those Main Street style malls — you know, the ones with shops and restaurants and apartments over the businesses. Odd that we abandon our downtown areas, yet build replicas of those towns to live in.

Teresa and their dog Zeus showed up as Jim was giving me the tour. I saw the whole place and complemented them on the innovative design and unusual features — including L-shaped windows and angular walls. Afterwards, we drove over to the shopping center and had margaritas and nachos while catching up. I hadn’t seen them in two years. Jim, who had been a cherry drying pilot in the Wenatchee area for about 15 years, had sold his helicopter and given up flying.

We walked back to the house from there, letting the dogs run and play off-leash along the way. The we walked along the boardwalk between the homes and the river. The sun had set and nighttime came on. We got back to Jim’s truck, which we’d left at the house, and rode in it back to the restaurant parking lot to fetch Teresa’s truck and my car. Then we rode back, convoy style, to the house they were still living in.

I got the guest room in the basement, which had been their son’s bedroom. It was nice and dark and quiet down there. I slept well.

In the morning, we had breakfast at a restaurant not far from town. I think it was the same business they’d taken my wasband and I years ago, when we’d passed through with my old RV on a sort of road trip vacation. Now it was in a new building. Great breakfast, more great conversation. Teresa recommended that I stop at Blue Dog RV in Post Falls to see what they had in the way of RVs. Since I wasn’t in any hurry to get home, I figured I may as well take a look. After all, there aren’t any RV dealers near where I live.

We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. It was about 10 AM.

RV Shopping

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s RV shopping. I’d gone through this too many times to like it.

When I bought the mobile mansion back in 2010, I honestly thought it was the last RV I’d ever need. I bought it to fit a specific need: a seasonal home for two grown people and a mid-sized dog. I figured my now wasband and I would live in it every summer for 4 to 6 months, then go home to Arizona for the rest of the year. That’s why it’s so damn big. I wanted it to be comfortable for two people for months at a time. And I fully expected to use it for many years to come, as semi-retired snowbirds.

Unfortunately, plans change. My wasband is now nothing more to me than a sad, bitter memory. I live in my own home in Washington state where I make most of my living in the summer months as a cherry drying pilot. I keep busy enough in the spring and fall to stay home. But I want to travel in the winter and spend some time in California in the early spring, where my helicopter is parked on frost control duty. I figure that I’ll only be on the road 2 to 4 months out of the year and, during that time, I won’t be parked in one place. Since it’s just me and Penny the Tiny Dog, I don’t need a lot of space. And I definitely don’t want a big rig. I want something easy to tow and easy to park. While towing the mobile mansion isn’t difficult with my big truck, parking it is a pain in the ass. And because of it’s size, I’m automatically closed out of more than a few park campgrounds.

So here I am, looking for a new solution to meet a new need.

One thing I learned the last time around is that it’s all about floor plans and features. I want the length under 20 feet, but I want the bigger refrigerator and I want the stove with the oven. That cuts out about 3/4 of the shorter models. I don’t want slides (or pop-outs) — they add weight and maintenance concerns. I want plenty of windows, a power-controlled awning, stereo sound system with DVD player, and television.

Big Window RV
I am a sucker for big windows in an RV. This Hideout was a bit longer than I wanted but the big window in the back made it nearly irresistible.

So that’s what I proposed to the very patient salesperson, Lydia, at Blue Dog in Post Falls, ID. After reviewing a few models online, she loaded me into her golf cart and drove me out onto the huge lot. We looked at about a half dozen models. We even drove back to their other lot in Coeur d’Alene to look at models there. Just when I started to glaze over, she focused me back on what we’d seen. She priced up a new and a used Keystone Hideout, each in a different style. The prices were workable, but the deal wasn’t good enough for me buy that day. I wanted to sell the mobile mansion — which was worth far more than these smaller rigs, making a trade-in impractical — before I bought a replacement.

And I was still thinking about the tiny house idea.

Spokane’s Falls

It was nearly 2 pm when Penny and I drove away. By this time, I was very hungry. But I also felt that I needed to see more of the area before I went home. I’d heard of Spokane Falls and decided to check that out. Google guided me.

I knew nothing about the area, but when I drove over a bridge and saw an aerial tram, I decided I needed to get on it. I navigated back to a shopping mall called River Park Square and got a parking space across the street in the shade. I cracked the car’s windows, leaving Penny inside, fed the meter with my credit card, and went inside.

Conveyor Belt Sushi
Conveyor belt sushi, Spokane style.

Back in the 1980s, I worked in New York City for New York City. My partner, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, occasionally took me for lunch at a restaurant near the Empire State Building that served up dim sum and sushi on a conveyor belt that wound past all the seats. Since then, I’d seen conveyor belt sushi only one other time — in San Francisco. Believe it or not, they have it in Spokane at the mall I found myself in that afternoon.

Needless to say, that’s where I ate.

And maybe it won’t surprise you when I tell you it wasn’t that good.

Sky Ride
On the Spokane Falls Sky Ride.

Afterwards, I made my way out to the ticket booth for the Spokane Falls Sky Ride. It was pretty much deserted on that Thursday afternoon, so I didn’t have to wait. I paid $6.50 (with a AAA discount) and was loaded aboard my own car.

I’ve seen reviews of this ride and some of them pretty much bash it. But I thought it was kind of fun. I even did a live broadcast on Periscope which had quite a few viewers. And the view of the falls is great!

The Trip Home

By that time, my two hours of meter time was nearly up. I went back to the car, leashed Penny, and took her for a walk around the block. We got back into the car and headed toward the freeway. I’d already decided to pass on the long ride through the wheat fields. I got on I-90 and headed west.

The drive was long and dull, made only marginally more interesting by the string of podcasts I listened to along the way. I exited at George and followed familiar roads all the way home. It was probably around 8 when I pulled into my driveway.

Was my trip a success? I think so. I got a chance to see Dave’s tiny homes first hand and learn that what I wanted was definitely possible. I also got to see some friends I’d missed — and get an invitation to return in the spring with my boat when their house is done. And although it had taken longer than I wanted to price up a few RVs, it was good to see what was available.

Now I’ve got work to do: sketch out a floor plan for a tiny home and see if Dave can make it happen. I’d love to hit the road with something different next winter.

Know What You’re Eating

Read the ingredients.

Chobani Yogurt
This is my favorite yogurt these days. Just wish it wasn’t so damn expensive since I eat so much of it.

I was looking for yogurt in the supermarket the other day. I’ve been drinking a lot of smoothies lately and I wanted an inexpensive alternative to the Chobani greek yogurt I usually buy. Although I usually make my yogurt, I’ve been so busy with work around my home and cherry season chores that I figured I’d make things easy on myself and just buy a quart or two. I figured that if I could find an inexpensive brand, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble of making it myself anymore. At $5+/quart, the Chobani gets costly quickly when you go through a few quarts a week.

So I was in the dairy section of the supermarket, checking out brands I’d never really looked at before. I didn’t need Greek yogurt for my smoothies, but I did need it to be plain, fat-free yogurt — and nothing else.

Yogurt, in case you’re wondering, is milk with active yogurt cultures added. It involves heating the milk, cooling the milk partway, adding the cultures, and holding the temperature until curds form. One more step — draining off a good portion of the liquid whey — is what turns regular yogurt into thick Greek yogurt.

I looked at labels and was absolutely shocked by the additives I found in some. While it’s common for Greek yogurt makers to fake Greek yogurt by adding thickeners, I didn’t expect yogurt makers to add unnecessary ingredients to regular yogurt. Yet there they were in the ingredients list. Pectin was especially popular — nearly every yogurt contained it.

Organic Yogurt Ingredients
Good thing that locust bean gum is organic.

The ingredient list in one organic yogurt was so offensive that I took a picture of it.

Remember, yogurt = milk + active yogurt cultures. It doesn’t need pectin, corn starch, locust bean gum, or added vitamins.

You have to understand that many of my friends are organic food snobs. In their minds, if it’s not organic, it’s not healthy. These are the people who buy organic produce, sometimes paying three to ten times the price of non-organic produce. They think organic means no chemicals. (Certain chemicals are allowed in organic food production.) They think organic means healthier. (No scientifically conducted test has shown a difference in nutritional value between organic and non-organic food.) They think that the industrial farming methods that make it possible to feed millions of people cost effectively are unsafe or even evil. When faced with a choice between an organic yogurt and the Chobani I usually buy, they’d pick the organic, likely without even reading the label beyond the word “organic.” That word, which the manufacturer has paid a premium to the FDA to use, is shorthand, in their minds, for “healthy.”

Chobani Yogurt Label
It might not be certified “organic,” but at least it’s yogurt — and only yogurt.

I looked at every label for every non-fat and low-fat plain yogurt in the supermarket. In the end, I bought the Chobani. It was the only one that didn’t include additives that aren’t a part of real yogurt. I also bought a half gallon of skim milk and will be making two quarts of yogurt today, using the Chobani as a starter, for next week.

Those of you who are blindly buying products because the label proclaims they’re organic might be putting all kinds of weird ingredients into your bodies. You can keep them. I’ll stick with a product that contains exactly what it should — and only that.

Organic vs. Non-Organic Yogurt

Why I Buy So Much on Amazon

It’s all about quick and easy shopping.

I buy a lot of the things I need for my home and garden on Amazon.com. It’s gotten to the point that the UPS truck is at my place several times a week to drop off packages.

For a while, I felt kind of guilty about that. After all, the Wenatchee area where I live, has plenty of shopping opportunities. I should be supporting the economy by shopping locally.

Trouble is, the things I need aren’t always easy to find. Or they might take several stops to track down. Or — worse yet — I may simply forget to look for something I need while I’m out and remember a day or two later when I actually need it.

Hose Fitting
I went nuts looking for this $3.25 item in stores around town. Found it in five minutes on Amazon.

Here’s an example. I needed an irrigation fitting that would enable me to connect my automatic chicken waterer to my garden irrigation system. The idea is that when the timer starts up the irrigation system twice a day (for 10 minutes each time), it would pressurize the waterer’s water feed and top off the chicken’s water trough, which is shared by my barn cats. The irrigation hose already runs right past the waterer. Why run another hose across the garden entrance? One fitting and 10 minutes of effort and I don’t have to worry about water for my chickens or cats for the rest of the summer.

One fitting. You think I’d be able to track it down on one of my many visits to Home Depot or Lowes, right?

Wrong. Try as I might, I couldn’t find what I needed. In any of the four stores I tried.

Then I sat down at my computer and, in less than five minutes had found and ordered exactly what I needed. It would be at my doorstep in two days without any more driving or searching or frustration.

Do you know how many stores I visited, looking for a microwave that would fit on my kitchen’s microwave shelf without looking like it belonged in a dorm room? Home Depot, Lowes, Sears, Save-Mart (the local appliance store), and even Walmart. Basically, every store that sold microwaves. But again, a few minutes on Amazon and I’d narrowed down the search to the ones that fit and matched my other appliances. Then it was just a matter of picking the one I like best. A few days later, it was on my doorstep.

I bought the wrong vacuum cleaner bags for my old ShopVac three times (and returned them three times) before I did an Amazon search, found what I needed, and ordered them. I didn’t even bother trying to find the vacuum cleaner bags for my household vacuum; I just ordered them on Amazon.

I needed ghee — a clarified butter used in Indian cooking. Local supermarkets didn’t have it. Amazon did.

New battery for my Roomba? Where could I possibly find that locally? Found it on Amazon in minutes.

Want to help support this site?

Use this link when you shop at Amazon.com. A tiny percentage of your purchase will be sent to me as a referral fee. It won’t cost you anything extra and you’ll still get the great product selection and service you expect from Amazon.

And I think this is the reason online shopping poses such a threat to brick and mortar stores. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s affordable, and it often comes with free shipping — including return shipping if you decide you don’t like it.

It’s Friday and the UPS guy has been at my home four times (so far) this week. I’m expecting him today with that irrigation fitting. Yesterday, I apologized to him for so many trips down the two miles of gravel road to get to my home. He said he didn’t mind. When I jokingly suggested that it was people like me keeping him employed, he laughed along with me and agreed.

And I’m just happy to be able to save time shopping so I can get more important things done.

Online Store Launched

I’m now selling a few hand-made odds and ends online.

Just a quick note to let folks know that I’ve decided to start selling a few of my hand-made items online using Square.

Ornament
Here’s one of my recent ornaments. Sorry, but this one isn’t available for sale — I included it with a Christmas gift to an extremely supportive family member.

If you go to http://mkt.com/AnEclecticMind, you’ll find whatever items I’ve had time to photograph and put online. So far, that’s most likely to be a handful of fused glass ornaments that I’ve been making with my kiln out of recycled wine and sake bottles. Because each piece is hand-made and, thus, different, I need to photograph each one so they’ll be listed as quickly as I can photograph them. I’m just hoping Square doesn’t display items that are out of stock.

I’m still sitting on the fence about listing my honey, mostly because shipping it will be a bit of a chore and I really don’t have that much to sell this year.

Anyway, this is mostly for the folks who have been complementing me on my glass work. They’re telling me they want to buy these things so here’s where they can do it.

The Appliance Order

I order appliances for my new home to take advantage of Black Friday deals.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I went to Home Depot yesterday to order appliances for my new home. Although I’m not ready to take delivery of those appliances yet, I wanted to get my order in so I could take advantage of Home Depot’s Black Friday deals. I’d been told months ago by a Home Depot employee, during another appliance sale at Home Depot, that Black Friday was their best deal time and that if I didn’t need the appliances back then, I should wait for Black Friday. I waited.

Home Depot Appliance Sale
From Home Depot’s website; there were lots of good deals.

Refrigerator
Dishwasher
Range
Washer
Dryer
My appliances (not to scale).

The deals were — actually are — the sale doesn’t end until tomorrow — great. Not only were most appliances 25% or more off their retail prices — and yes, I know only idiots pay retail — but there were also additional savings when buying multiple items. For example, since I was buying 5 appliances — refrigerator, washer, dryer, range, and dishwasher — I could save an additional $300. And if I put the purchase on my Home Depot credit card, I could save another 5%.

I’d stopped in last week to take a look at what was available and get an idea of what it would cost me. I wound up going with Samsung products all the way: French door refrigerator, dishwasher with “Storm Wash technology,” and slide-in range with self-cleaning dual convection oven, and front loading washer and drier that could be stacked. I chose a stainless steel finish on kitchen appliances and white finish on laundry appliances. The only thing I didn’t buy was a microwave because I still have the one my parents bought me as a housewarming gift for my first home years ago and I really like it.

In every case, the appliance I bought was a huge upgrade from the Jenn-Air crap I had back in Arizona. Yes, I know that Jenn-Air is supposed to be good stuff, but I think it’s seriously overrated. The dishwasher was loud and didn’t do a very good job washing dishes. The oven had a loud fan that kicked in at temperatures over 325°F. The refrigerator was loud, too — I could hear it run, I could hear the ice maker refilling. And the idiotic electric grill on the range was better for filling the house with smoke than cooking anything other than grilled vegetables. (I made the mistake of grilling salmon on it just once.) Of course, I didn’t pick my old house’s original appliances. I lived in what had been a spec house and the builder had included what was considered “high end” appliances. I’m sure the next owner will be suitably impressed — until she has to live with it.

Samsung products are generally highly rated. The only thing I worry a little about is the dishwasher. Although Consumer Reports gave the one I chose a pretty good rating, reliability seems to be an issue with Samsung dishwashers in general. But I liked the styling, the feature set, and the spacious interior, which fit my rather large dinner plates and bowls without any problems. Since I plan to do a lot of entertaining when my home (and its deck) are complete, having a large capacity dishwasher was vital. This one fits the bill. Let’s hope I don’t have to test the warranty.

Yesterday, I went in to finalize the order and give them my credit card. With all the discounts applied, my appliance purchase, with free delivery and installation, was remarkably affordable. I’d originally budgeted about $8,000 for appliances, but wound up spending far less. Timing is everything, I guess.

And speaking of timing, I have about 3 months to get the place ready to receive all those appliances. This winter might be busier than I expected at the Flying M Aerie.

Get What You Pay For

Why bargain hunting isn’t such a bad thing.

There’s an old saying everyone seems to know: “You get what you pay for.” It’s normally applied to situations where you buy something at a low cost and it breaks. “You get what you pay for” is supposed to explain why it broke — you apparently didn’t pay enough money for it.

Lots of people use this logic when they shop. If something is cheap, it must be crap because “you get what you pay for.” If someone else is selling the same thing or something similar for more money, it must be better, right?

Not always.

My Hair

Yes, I’m going to use my hair as an example.

I dye my hair. It’s no secret. I’ve been doing it since I was in my 20s when those first few grays started making their appearance. I did it myself for at least 20 years, using a reddish shade of brown that got even redder when exposed to Arizona sunlight. The color looked at least somewhat natural — at least no one ever commented on it looking fake. I’ve since switched to a browner color that’s more in line with what I remember my hair looking like. It’s been so long, I’m not sure. And those few strands of gray now account for about 75% of my hair.

Last year, I began living in an RV full time after leaving my Arizona home and waiting for my new home in Washington to be built. If you know anything about hair dye, you know that good water pressure is a must-have for rinsing that crap off your hair. So is a good supply of hot water. My RV is weak on both counts, so I began getting my hair dyed “professionally.”

I put “professionally” in quotes, because I started going to the local Beauty Academy. These are highly supervised girls (mostly) who are training to become beauticians. They do everything, from hair trims to dye jobs to perms. They don’t mix a color without consulting with a supervisor. The “classic color” service I needed cost $28.

I went every 6 weeks for quite a while. There was a different girl doing my hair each time. Based on observations, conversations, and chatter among the dozen or so girls working there, most of them were under 25 and apparently had at least one kid but no husband. Young women learning a good trade to support themselves and their families. We had nothing in common so conversation was minimal. Each girl took a long time to get the color in — a typical dye job would take over 3 hours. But it came out good each time and the color lasted. I was satisfied.

Then I succumbed to peer pressure. (Can you believe it?) When I complained to one of my girlfriends that it took so long to get my hair dyed, she ridiculed me for getting my hair done there. She recommended her woman at JC Penney’s salon. So I figured, why not?

I went to Sally (not her real name) and she did my hair. Although she was closer to my age than the Beauty Academy kids, she didn’t seem interested in striking up a conversation with me. While the dye “processed” in my hair, she disappeared into a back room. I learned to read a book or play a game on my phone.

The first time I went, she insisted on cutting my hair and waxing my eyebrows. I was trying to grow my hair long, but when I came every six weeks, she’d cut off 5 weeks of growth. And I don’t usually mess with my eyebrows. I let them do their own thing. But after waxing, they needed maintenance, so I had to have them waxed every time. The bill? $90. When I cut out the hair cuts and waxing, it went down to $70.

And I didn’t feel as if I were getting any better service than those young girls practicing on my hair.

So yesterday I went back to the Beauty Academy. The girl who did my hair was young but she had a professional attitude and would be graduating in just two weeks. She already had a job lined up. She did a great job on my hair, matching my existing color so she only had to do the roots. Because it was Customer Appreciation Day, the dye job only cost $18.

That’s more than $50 saved. And I got a pumpkin muffin to snack on.

I don’t think Sally will be seeing me again.

As for my peer pressure friend — well, I don’t talk to her these days anyway.

Harbor Freight

I was out with some friends last night, all sitting around a big table in a restaurant. I got into a conversation with a friend who was telling me about a crane he’d bought at Harbor Freight and had attached to his cargo trailer. He’s been collecting and selling scrap metal lately and needed something to lift engine blocks.

Harbor Freight, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a company that sells “quality tools at ridiculously low prices.” That’s what it says on their website. I can confirm the low prices, but I can’t agree about the quality. Most of what they sell is pretty crappy stuff.

But not all of it. My friend and I chatted about this. The “you get what you pay for” phrase was thrown around a bit. We both agreed that you had to think about how you planned to use what you were buying when making that purchase decision. If it was something you’d use occasionally and rather lightly, Harbor Freight was probably a good source. But if it was something that you needed to use hard and frequently — something you wanted to last a good, long time — Harbor Freight probably wasn’t the place to go.

Walmart

Most of my friends hate Walmart. It’s a policy thing — low pay and questionable promotional practices for employees, an abundance of cheap, low quality merchandise, and an atmosphere that appeals to the kind of shopper that most of us simply don’t want to get too close to.

I hate Walmart, too. But I have to admit here that I do occasionally shop there. Why? Because it sells two things I use every day at a price too low to pass up:

  • Eight O'ClockThe first is coffee. I like Eight O’Clock coffee. It’s a medium or perhaps light roast Arabica bean. I grind it myself and brew it strong, by the cup. I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years, if not longer. I’ve tried other coffees over the years but always come back to this one. And if there’s one thing that’s important for me to get right, it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning. Trouble is, Eight O’Clock coffee isn’t easy to find. And when I do find it, it’s expensive. Walmart has it for $4.99/package. That’s $2/package less than I can buy it directly from Eight O’Clock’s website.
  • Penny eats Cesar dog food. Yes, it’s the foo-foo dog food that comes in tiny plastic containers. She eats one every morning. They come in many flavors and are easy to store and serve. And travel with. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, Safeway and Fred Meyer sell it for $1.29/container. Cesar Dog FoodSometimes, if it’s on sale, I can get it for 10 for $10 ($1/container). But Walmart sells it for 70¢/container. So let’s do the math here. Suppose I’d always buy it on sale at Fred Meyer for $1/container. Walmart saves me 30¢/container. 365 days in a year is $109 saved. And since I’m going to Walmart for my coffee anyway…

Yes, there is a point here. By buying these two things in Walmart, I’m getting exactly what I want for less money than it would cost elsewhere. Quality isn’t an issue — it’s the same exact thing I could get somewhere else. In this case, I’m getting what I pay for but I’m paying a lot less.

Is my monthly shopping expeditions to Walmart to buy two things is supporting Walmart policies? Maybe. But hell, I need my coffee!

More Examples?

I can probably spend weeks blogging about other examples, but I think you get the idea. You can probably even come up with a few of your own examples.

I think the point I’m trying to make is this: when shopping for what’s best for you, it’s important to not only consider price, but to also consider the quality of what you’re getting. Don’t assume that low price means low quality — often, it doesn’t. Often, you can get the same quality for a lower price.

But not always. A smart shopper — especially someone who wants (or needs) to save money — has to look at the big picture with every purchase decision.

A Trip to a Beekeeper’s “Candy Store”

I visit the California location of Mann Lake, Ltd.

If you’re a beekeeper in the U.S., you’ve undoubtably heard of Mann Lake, Ltd. They’re a major mail order supplier of beekeeping equipment for hobbyists and professionals. They have quality merchandise, fair prices, satisfactory delivery times, and free shipping for orders over $100 — which is pretty easy to reach, especially when you’re first starting out.

Mann Lake’s website is an odd combination of printed catalog pages reproduced page-by-page coupled with a back end database that makes searching possible. It’s not my favorite shopping interface, but it does work. It works best, though, if you have a copy of the printed catalog and can just enter item numbers to order. The printed catalog is a great reference guide, too, with lots of information about each product and plenty of pictures. (You can get one for free by filling in this form.)

Mann Lake is based in Hackensack, MN — a place I’m not likely to ever see. (Actually, Minnesota is the only state in the U.S. that I’ve never been to; don’t see that changing any time soon.)

Somehow, not long after I began shopping for beekeeping supplies last May, I discovered that Mann Lake had a Woodland, CA location. This really bummed me out — I’d spent a bit of time near Woodland just a few months before and, had I known I’d be a beekeeper soon, I would have stopped in to see what they had. Although I didn’t realize it then, I’d soon be back in the Woodland area on another contract.

And that’s where I am now.

So yesterday, my first full day based in this area, I drove over to the Mann Lake California location at 500 Santa Anita Drive. (Yes, it’s true. I went from being a computer nerd to a beekeeping nerd in only a few short years.)

Mann Lake's CA Location
Mann Lake’s CA location is in an industrial park; it’s mostly warehouse.

From the outside, the place didn’t look very exciting. The parking area out front was completely empty. But when I walked inside, I think my jaw must have dropped. Every single item in their extensive catalog was fully assembled and on display in neatly organized aisles.

Inside Mann Lake
Frames and foundations

Inside Mann Lake
Covers and bottoms.

Inside Mann Lake
Hive bodies.

Kid in a candy store, is the phrase that came to mind. I felt like a crazy tourist taking pictures, but I have some beekeeping friends who would really appreciate seeing what I’d seen.

I walked up and down the aisles, seeing firsthand all the equipment I’d seen in their catalog. While some of it wasn’t a big deal — after all, if you’ve seen one standard Langstroth hive body, you’ve seen them all — other items were great to see and touch: propolis collectors, queen cages, honey extractors.

When a sales guy — who turned out to be the sales manager — asked if I needed any help, I asked him to show me the pollen collectors. I wanted an easy solution but apparently there isn’t any. Still, I got to see how the commonly used pollen traps work. The catalog doesn’t really make it obvious.

I wound up buying a frame puller — which I’ve been wanting for a while — and a few other odds and ends that wouldn’t add up to the $100 amount I’d need for free shipping anyway. The sales manager checked out my purchase and looked me up in the computer system and offered to apply my “bee bucks” to the purchase, saving me $25. Sweet!

It was a good experience and I’m sure I’ll be back before I head home. After all, I was crazy enough to bring my beehives with me on this trip and I’m sure I’ll need one or two more things as they enjoy the early spring and start strengthening their hives. Who knows? I might even be ready to extract some honey before I leave.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Mann Lake chose this location for their California warehouse/store, I can guess. Woodland is near the heart of California’s almond country. My 5,000 or so bees, just recovering from a northwest winter, are only a handful of the 31 billion bees from all over the country that are here right now.