Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bi-coastal homeowner can sleep easy owning two houses

A reader, let's call her Anne, has lived in Florida since the early 1960s. Her daughter was born there shortly after Anne moved to the state. In the early 1990s, Anne's daughter moved to California.

Anne retired in 2011. To prepare for retirement, she bought a second house in California, about a half-mile away from her daughter and son-in-law. Anne doesn't keep a car in California, so she wanted to be able to walk back and forth from her house to theirs.

Because Anne has strong ties in Florida, where she plays in a community band and orchestra, the house in California was always intended as a second home. Her music group schedule only frees her up to be on the West Coast over the winter holidays and about three-and-a-half months in the summer.

"It's quite a chore and expensive to keep up two yards," writes Anne, "but my daughter is my only living child and, of course, means the world to me." Last year, Anne's daughter and son-in-law moved about 30 miles south for work, so Anne only sees them about once a week when she's in California.

"I have wonderful neighbors out there," writes Anne. Some have visited her in Florida. Others keep an eye on her Florida house when she's not there. Anne now also plays in three community bands when she's in California. She's established a life there.

The California town where Anne has a house is very short on rental housing, she writes. If she were to rent out her home there, Anne figures her mortgage payments would be covered. But then she wouldn't have access to the house. Also, as a rental property owner in Florida, Anne says she knows "how tenants usually treat houses."

Anne has thought about options such as, whereby she might rent out the California house on days when she's not there, but she knows such short-term rentals are "not popular with the neighbors." Also, using this option fails to address the issue of making more rental housing available where it's in short supply.

"Can I ethically continue to own this second home near my daughter, using it less than half the year but not renting it out to those who need rental housing?" Anne asks. "I hope you won't tell me that I'm selfish to keep this little house 'on ice' so it will be ready for me, in the condition I left it, for my next visit."

Anne is doing nothing wrong by owning two homes. She's paying her property taxes, involving herself as an active community member, and taking good care of both properties.

While renting out the California home might provide relief from mortgage payments and provide some much-needed rental housing, the right thing for Anne to do is to continue to be a responsible homeowner.

If Anne decides she'd like to rent out her house in California because it's too much work to keep up two homes, she wants to defray mortgage costs, or she wants to cease her bicoastal life, that's her choice. But if owning the California house allows her to be closer to her daughter and engage in the life of the community, she should sleep easy, regardless of which home she's sleeping in. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Let's close the book on the re-selling of review textbooks!

One of my grandson's high school graduation requirements is to successfully complete two college-level courses. His school pays the tuition, and if he gets a good enough grade, the course credits might transfer to whatever college he attends.

It's a great deal on many levels. His high school doesn't pay for the textbooks for these classes, however. The business course he took required books that ran more than $300.

The high cost of college textbooks is no surprise. It's an issue I keep in mind when I create course syllabi and decide what readings to require of my own college students. I've even created texts from materials available online or from databases to which students already have access through the school. This helps keep textbook costs down.

Still, for some courses that still require textbooks, students pay staggering amounts.

Before each semester begins, college professors are solicited by book buyers seeking to purchase textbooks. The most recent email I received offered to pay me "in cash" for "new editions, instructor's editions, exam copies, desk copies..." Such books are often sent to professors for them to consider assigning. Sometimes these copies are unsolicited. Sometimes professors request copies.

If the textbooks are unsolicited, then the professor is free to do whatever he/she wishes with the books. If, however, the professor requested a review copy with the sole intention of reselling it, that crosses an ethical line. It's also not right to resell any review copy you've agreed you won't resell. (As a rule, I don't sell examination copies to book buyers visiting campuses, whether I requested them or not. Occasionally, I will give a copy to a student, but rarely for use in a specific course.)

Previous columns I've written about the ethics of reselling review copies of a textbook triggered a strong response from readers. An argument repeated by many is that reselling used books contributes to publishers jacking up textbook prices, since neither they nor the authors receive any income from the resale of review copies.

However, the writer of the latest email soliciting my books told me that any books I sold him would "all go to an affordable marketplace for students, helping them avoid tacking on additional debt to their loans."

Does this book buyer's expressed commitment to reducing student debt by paying me for books I received for nothing, then turning around and making a profit by selling them for more than he paid to students, change my position on selling review copies?

No. The book buyer isn't buying books for altruistic reasons. He's out to make money by reselling books he buys cheaply from someone who didn't pay for them at all.

The right thing to do is for professors not to request books with the sole intention of reselling them. It's also the right thing for them to explore options for class materials that are more affordable for students, as long as the quality of the material is as strong as possible to reach the course objectives. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

After vacation plans fade, reservation costs linger

S.H., a reader in California, had planned a three-day weekend getaway to the coast. She and her husband had booked their cottage a few months in advance. But two-and-a-half weeks before their holiday, it became clear they'd be unable to go due to the sudden health concerns of their adult son.

"My husband called the vacation rental office," writes S.H. He was told that if the three nights they reserved were not rebooked by someone else they'd be charged full price for each night that remained unbooked.

"I personally find this unethical, if not outright robbery," writes S.H.

To be fair, she notes that the cabin's cancellation policy is clearly stated on its website. Summer reservations require one month's cancellation notice to avoid being charged the full-price for the booked rooms.

"We were unable to follow this policy, due to the urgent medical needs of our son," writes S.H.

She writes that she can understand a business needing to protect itself from people who make reservations but never show up, but she feels that "it almost should be illegal to charge full price for unused rooms." Losing a deposit she can understand, "but not (paying) full price."

If their rooms went unbooked, the vacation they'd be unable to take would cost them $750.

"That's a lot of money to me," writes S.H., "plus the emotional upset that we are already experiencing over the health of our son!"

The establishment has a "very alluring" website, writes S.H. "I would want to eventually visit this place, but probably will not if I don't get my money back. We called them two weeks in advance to cancel, not the night before. I can understand forfeiting a deposit, maybe if they cannot re-book, but to have to pay the full price seems steep and unfair." Even if this policy is legal in California, "is it ethical?" she asks.

The website for the cottages is indeed alluring. Great coastal views. Links to strong reviews from publications like National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet.

But there's also a link on the home page to "terms and policies" and, as S.H. points out, the cancellation policy is clearly stated. (I'm not a lawyer, but the establishment doesn't seem guilty of hiding its policy from prospective visitors. It's written clearly and is easy to find on the website.)

Should the owner forgive S.H. and her husband for the cost of any days their cottage goes unrented? It's awful to think that S.H. will be saddled with the cost of rooms she won't use, but the owner is under no obligation to forgive the charges if the cottage goes unbooked for three nights.

The right thing to do is for S.H. or her husband to get in touch with the cottage owner, explain the situation, and see if he's willing to be flexible on the cancellation policy. At the very least, they could ask him, given the time of year, how likely it is he could re-book the cottage they reserved. They could also ask if the owner is willing, without charge, to switch their reservation to a time they might be able to come.

Ideally, the owner will be able to find others to rent the cottage where S.H. hoped to vacation with her husband. If he doesn't, sadly, S.H. is obligated to pay the charges. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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