Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Holiday Travels

Jenny and I returned from a week's travel in Florida and Texas, looking at our investment properties in both states, visiting friends, and enjoying some vacation time along the way. We spent hours hanging out with high school friends Mary Napoli (in FL) and Michelle Templin (in TX) and their families, catching up on old times and sharing our more recent adventures. And we did a fair amount of driving in our cheap rent-a-cars. As is typical for our mode of tourism, we awaited our return flight more tired than when we left. It was a fun week, but it was hardly relaxing.

A highlight was our overnight visit to Miami's South Beach, surveying the district's iconic art deco and "Miami Moderne" architecture between leisurely afternoons on the beach. I so enjoy renting an umbrella and a couple of cushioned beach chairs and staring at the waves, watching the birds search for meals, marveling at the acres of beautiful people (some wearing much less than others), and sharing a relaxed conversation with Jenny, (when she's not napping).

Otherwise, our visit centered on research into the local real estate market. While Jenny searched for prices and collected information about agents and amenities, I was entranced by some of the deco houses and apartments on Pennsylvania Avenue. A large number of these properties have been nicely preserved, maintaining their streamlined banding, their window shade "eyebrows," and their nautically themed portholes. I never get tired of South Beach.

The Miami-leg was hardly without a wrinkle, though. We stayed at the Royal South Beach Hotel, snagging a decent rate and digging the retro plastic furniture that had me flashing on 2001: A Space Odyssey. But we discovered too late that our room was positioned over a club whose idea of music seemed to consist only of pounding bass beats -- until 4 a.m. As would be our luck, the night manager could find no other rooms and offered us either a pittance of a partial-rebate or a clean cancellation of our room, as long as we cleared out right then. I suggested that he could keep his partial rebate (giving back a third of our rate for a room in which we could not sleep) and charge us the full amount; we'd be happy to translate every dollar into efforts to publicize our bad experiences with this place. That's how I left it, and that's how I approached the day manager the next morning.

Yet almost before I could speak, she offered me a full rebate and apologized profusely for our lousy night's sleep. While some of the all-night partiers who frequent her property might have no problem with the noise, we clearly were given the wrong room. Believe me, getting the money back was nice, but I was more taken by her genuine desire to make things right for us. At that point the overall experience of the Royal Hotel came into sharp relief: good proximity to the beach, a clean and safe room, and desk staff who offered helpful responses to our tourist questions. When we return to Miami (soon, I hope), we'll give the Royal another try.

We then traveled to Texas, visiting Houston and Beaumont. It was somewhat surreal, peering out onto the yard of our new house in Texas. Jenny and I bought this property as an investment, hoping that the bargain price and built-in equity will justify the necessary repairs we must undertake. I'll admit it: even the foundation of this place needs work, which sounds pretty expensive to me. But Jenny's gamed out the dollars on a spreadsheet and hired an experienced property manager to guide us through the next couple of months. If all goes well, we'll be renting to our second set of tenants by this February. As someone who could never see myself as an absentee landlord, I find this whole process disconcerting. But living in California remains insanely expensive, and we have big (and expensive) plans for our retirement. So, we take on some risk now, while we can afford it.

Along the way, we saw two of nearby Beaumont's attractions -- a unique "muffler man" whose face resembles that of Alfred P. Neuman and a bigger-than-life Dalmatian-colored fire hydrant. Locals claim that hydrant to be the world's largest, but folks who measure these sorts of things rank it as second or third.

We also searched for Texas barbecue, stopping at Luling City Market in Houston (pretty good), Willy Rays in Beaumont (pretty bad, except for excellent sides and sweet tea) and ending up at Goode Co. Texas Bar-B-Q back in Houston (nearly excellent). Of course, Jenny insisted that we find some Bluebell Ice Cream, so we split a pint before dropping off our rental car.

Writing this, we're waiting to catch our flight, Christmas music raining upon us even on New Year's Day. It's bright and sunny and, for a busy flying day, not too crowded. Soon we'll return to our daughter and kitties, ready to start 2008 at home.

(Photos by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

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