Sunday, March 27, 2011

New appliances = big smiles

[before and after pics below -- you can skip all the rambling if you'd like]

This is exciting. Back in January, our dishwasher broke. That part's not exciting. That part was actually pretty frustrating. You see, having a dishwasher was the highest item on my priority list when we started house shopping in 2008. It may seem silly to some, but it was a big deal to me. I hate doing the dishes. It's probably my least favorite chore. But I don't mind loading the dishwasher. So needless to say, I was very disappointed when it broke.

Last weekend, Rob and I headed over to Home Depot to take advantage of a 10% off Energy Star appliances sale they were having. We found a GE dishwasher that fit our requirements:

  1. It's black.
  2. It has good reviews.
  3. It's Energy-Star rated (saves us money on operating costs plus we'd save that extra 10%).
  4. It was within our budget.
As an added bonus, it has the buttons on top of the door, which looks a little more sleek (if you ask me). Also this handle is not as flimsy, so I won't be able to break it (like I did the last one).

While at Home Depot, we decided to also purchase something that's been on our wish list for a long time. A new gas stove.

That's the exciting part.

Our old stove sucked. Sorry for my poor articulation, but it's true. If we wanted to make pasta, it took more than an hour to heat the water. It didn't cook things evenly. It didn't match any of our other appliances. And I didn't trust it because I often smelled gas when walking by it. Isn't that scary? We even called the gas company to come check it out. They didn't find a leak, but at least others confirmed they smelled gas too. As a side note, it was a monster to clean. I greatly disliked that stove. I'm happy to be rid of it.

Here's the new stove. It was $599 (but we got it for $429, more on this below), and it's sleek and sexy and makes me want to cook lots of things:

The top is supposedly easier to clean with the surface made entirely of cast iron grill plates.

And it has a "turbo boil" mode or something like that (an extra large burner for more direct heat). Home Depot has a nice service where they offer free delivery of new appliances and also pick-up of the old ones. So we didn't have to worry about getting rid of the broken dishwasher and the failing stove. That's pretty convenient.

With reasonable prices such as these, we could have easily paid for these two appliances outright. But instead we decided to use our Home Depot card. We get interest free financing for 6 months, which means we pay less than $100 a month for 6 months for our new stove instead of paying it all at once. Also pretty convenient.

I probably sound like a Home Depot advertisement by now. But I'm just really excited. Other than the furnace and water heater (which we had no choice in replacing), our newest appliance was our old dishwasher, which was from 1995. The rest are even older. So picking out our first BRAND NEW appliances is pretty darn exciting. Best of all, with a recent referral bonus I received from my job, and a small but welcome tax refund, these things are already paid for.

We headed up home from Home Depot with big grins on our faces. But then we got to thinking... the black matching GE fridge that we liked was also on sale and using our 6-month payment plan, it would only be an additional $75 a month (or less, considering the 10% off sale). So we headed back and added that to our order. You may have already noticed it in the pic above.

Since we were selective but didn't go extravagant, we got all of our kitchen appliances for less the price of one stainless steel refrigerator (around $1300 with tax and after discounts). Not too shabby! We also were able to sell our old fridge on craigslist, which brought the price down even more.

But here's how we scored an even better deal on the stove. When we added the fridge to the order, the Home Depot employee told us it would be no problem to add it to the existing delivery order. We scheduled to have the appliances delivered on a day when I'd be working from home. When that day finally arrived, only a fridge and dishwasher showed up. The delivery drivers had no record of us ordering a stove. I assumed it would be coming later that day on a separate order, so I had them haul away the old appliances. We later called the store, and they confirmed that they had made an error and that we would not be receiving the stove until the following week. We were a little annoyed. They had taken the old stove away, and so we were stoveless for an extra week. For our trouble, they decided to give us $50 off the price of the stove. Rob hopped online to find that the stove was also on sale ($60 cheaper) on the Home Depot website. So he negotiated the price down to that level as well, and then we had the 10% sale discount on top of it.

And now, some before and afters.

Here is the kitchen during our house inspection (with the previous owner's decor and belongings):

After we moved in, we tried to make it look a bit more streamlined (read: less cluttered). We got rid of the cart thing near the center island and moved the microwave to the small area of counter on the far right of the photo. We replaced the half curtain with some sleek white blinds. We added storage baskets to the top of the cabinets (tons more storage!), a magnetic knife bar on the wall, some random places to hang post-it notes and so on.

Here's what our kitchen looked like with no appliances. It was at night, so these photos are not great quality.

And here's the kitchen as it looks now. We stripped the wall paper trim, removed a tile backsplash (not pictured), repaired a bunch of areas where the wall was damaged behind the wall paper, and painted:

I think it's looking pretty good. As a reminder, we intend to add a slate backsplash and also get new counter tops and a new stainless steel sink. Slowly but surely, we're making progress.

One more before and after:

Good stuff. Big smiles. I have to go cook lots of things now.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Training an adult dog - what we've learned (part I)

In early 2009, we adopted an adult dog from a shelter. Like many rescue dogs, he came with some quirks. He'd been kept outdoors, had lived with another dominant dog, and he definitely lacked confidence. One of the first things we did was potty train him, which was pretty easy since we used the crate technique and were super consistent. Then we enrolled in some basic obedience classes (we took our classes from Laura through our local Petsmart). This helped tremendously as it taught Rob and I how to effectively communicate with Murphy, but it also helped him feel more confident. For the non-dog owners out there, training can really do a great deal for a dog's confidence. Murphy likes it when he knows he's understanding us, doing what we want, and of course he loves the rewards.

In obedience class, he learned to sit, lay down, stay, "leave it" (command used to prevent him from grabbing things he shouldn't), and shake. He had a hard time with the lay-down command, but we worked hard at it and now he's a champ. We taught him to play fetch (he did not have the lab retrieving instinct at all). We taught him to sit and wait until we say "OK" when we feed him so that he doesn't knock us over with food-anticipation excitement. We taught him to do a dog high-five where he jumps and touches his nose to our hand when we put it up. He responds well to positive reinforcement and was really pleasant to train, and we were proud of the results.

Except for walking, that is.

Murphy's never been all that good on a leash. He's fantastic off leash. In fact, we have done a lot of this training with him, starting in our front yard (which is unfenced). When we go on longer trips like camping or to the cabin, we don't use a leash at all. If I'm just going to run some errands and want to bring him with, I also don't bring a leash. He always stays within a few feet of us. People are often impressed that he won't leave the yard, even if we're not paying close attention (don't worry - we wouldn't leave him out there unsupervised as we know accidents can happen and we're much too careful for that). But he doesn't run away, even when he's had the chance. He wants to stay near us. He wants to pay attention to us and listen to us. He's a great dog when he's off leash. But as soon as you snap a leash on his collar, it's a whole different story.

He's 115 pounds (probably more since that vet weigh-in was a year ago and he's filled out more) and strong. So when he pulls, he REALLY pulls. And worse, sometimes he's so excited to be out walking that he starts jumping and lunging. And this dog can jump (click here for humorous proof). He just gets out of control. We spent so much time trying to figure out how to effectively train him to walk well, and I think we finally have made some progress. So I'm going to share our journey in case it's helpful to others out there who've adopted an adult dog.

What we tried
Laura gave us a few techniques to teach Murphy how to walk well on a leash. I always suspected that it would have been easier if he had any leash experience when he was younger, but what can you do? The first technique is called "stop and be a tree." Here's how it works. When we're walking Murphy, we stop and freeze in place (mimicking a tree). The idea is that it teaches the dog that he can't pull because it slows him down. If he wants to go in a certain direction, it slows his progress. We tried this over and over and over and over (you get the idea) with Murphy. No luck. Murphy thought it was some type of game, and he LOVED it. When we'd stop, he'd stop too. Then when we started walking again, he would lunge forward with even more force and speed than before. No matter how much we tried this, he just didn't respond to this technique. So we went on to the next one.

(Disclaimer: We understand that consistency is the most important thing when training a dog. I want to reiterate that we spent a considerable amount of time with each technique before giving up. I figured someone might comment on that.)

Another technique Laura told us to try. We call this one "go the opposite direction." Again this uses the theory that the dog is pulling because he's eager to get somewhere. So when he pulls in one direction, you turn around and go the other way. That way you're again leading, and also he doesn't get to go where he wanted to go. This also did not work for us. Murphy loved this game too. Murphy doesn't care so much where he's walking to, he just is excited to be outside and interacting with us. When we'd switch directions on him, he would take off full speed in the new direction, like it was a contest, yanking the leash holder's arm off in the process. No matter how much we tried, he just never got it.

Next we tried the Easy Walk Harness. Our friends Melissa and Nick had great luck with using this on their adult dog. This harness is a little different in that the leash hooks onto the front of the dog's chest. So when he pulls, he ends up turning himself around. At first, I thought this was a miracle product. It actually seemed to work! But soon, Murphy decided that he would deal with this new obstacle by pulling extra hard, like a husky. I have to admit it was kind of comical (though disappointing) to see him arch his back and pull forward with all of his might.

Here's an old photo showing a typical dog walk with the harness. You can see that Murphy was totally disinterested in me and still went as far as he could ahead of me. No loose leash here.

The Easy Walk Harness didn't work for us, and might have even reinforced some bad habits. Back to the old drawing board.

Slowly, over the last couple months, we've finally made real progress with Murphy and walking. What finally worked for us? It was a combination of these three things:

  1. Treats/rewards
  2. Eye contact
  3. Verbal command
It seems like the most simple techniques are the ones that worked the most.

First, when we get the leash out, Murphy gets super excited. So we have to establish right away that he has to listen to us, and that there's incentive for him to do so. We make him sit, lay down, stay, etc. a little bit before we leave the yard or house. We use treats here so that he knows he can be rewarded for good behavior. Our dog is VERY food focused. Next we start walking very slowly... and as soon as he starts to get ahead of us or make the leash tight, we speak a command to get his attention. We decided on the command "no pulling" - not very creative, but it works for us. When we say this, he looks back at us, and we reward him for making eye contact. Then he starts glancing back regularly, to make sure we're still ok with whatever he's doing. This funny little verbal command has worked really well, and it's pretty silly that we didn't focus on it sooner.

He's still not perfect, and he will get excited and pull toward something he really wants to see (like another dog). But all in all, he's made great progress and we anticipate (hope) he is going to only get better. We've also been trying something where we make him sit and look at us while another dog/person passes. If he stays focused on us, he gets a treat. It's not that we want to limit his fun and interaction, but we want him to look to us first for guidance on what he should do.

You can see how Murphy is focusing on Rob, even when Rob has stopped and is waiting for me to take a photo:

He stays in place and watching Rob's face even when Rob drops the leash:

He's not focusing as intently in this shot, but he is standing calmly and patiently until we continue walking. Great progress!

Training an adult dog is an exercise in patience. If you have any other tips or important lessons you've learned, we'd love to hear them.

Part II coming soon - how we've helped Murphy overcome some very strong fears.

Photographer's note: Last several images processed with the "Twitterpated" action from Paint the Moon boutique. One of my favorite effects actions.

The day the ceiling came down

In regards to the post title above, I guess I should mention that we intentionally removed the basement ceiling. But "the day the ceiling came down" sounded a lot more dramatic. Hey, I'm not above sensationalist journalism.

Anyway, let me explain. Ceiling removal was not part of the original basement renovation plan. But back in December when our water heater broke, we discovered some plumbing issues that demanded our concern. I'm sad to admit that we currently have a bucket solution in place (as in, a bucket that catches water from a consistent leak). We have some piping with a certain discoloration, which our plumbing-savvy friend quickly identified as previous leaks. Uh oh. More concerning, we are unable to turn off the main water pipe to our house because the shut-off valve is completely stripped. Bigger uh oh. The obvious issue with this situation -- if we were to have a broken pipe, we wouldn't be able to shut the water off. Our house would flood. Sooooo... the basement renovation project has steered off course.

But you know, we have a few things to be thankful for. For one, our plumbing-savvy friend has agreed to help Rob replace the main pipes in the basement as well as the shut-off valve. This will save us tons of money, assuming we don't run into issues that are outside of their skill set (please cross your fingers for us). And it's nice that we discovered this problem when our basement was already ripped up for renovation (and not after it was all completed). We're well versed in looking at the bright side. We are holding off for nicer weather to embark on this "adventure" as it will require the city to shut the water off at the street level before we can get started. But one thing was for certain - we had to remove the basement ceiling in order to reach the main pipes.

Rob had wanted to take the ceiling down all along. He didn't like the lighting situation, nor did he like the popcorn texture. It was also a lot trickier to correct some electrical problems (and add proper wiring) without being able to drop the lines through the ceiling. Even so, I was opposed to the idea (before I knew it was necessary) because it seemed like a lot of extra work (and mess) and some unplanned expenses.

Luckily, it only took one evening to take down the ceiling. While Rob handled the smashing part, I helped with the clean-up. Here's the resulting garbage, which is stored in the garage. Since we don't have a dumpster, we have to slowly add one or two bags to our regular weekly trash pick-up.

The sad part is that, the basement was looking pretty nice a week ago. Rob hosted a bachelor party for our friend Thor, and we had the basement cleaned up really nicely (two guys even crashed on the couch down there). Here's what the ceiling looks like now:

Kinda nasty and cob-webby, huh?

To recap, here's what we've currently done in the basement:

  • Tore down old framing and wood paneling. Took a room out to open up the layout.
  • Washed the concrete block walls and painted with some sort of paint/primer that is supposed to help block moisture out. Two coats.
  • Filled in some cracks and edges with spray insulation.
  • Added insulation sheets and build new framing.
  • Installed laminate wood floors.
  • Started on the electrical.
  • New furnace and new water heater (unplanned).
Here are the next steps in finally finishing the basement:
  • Replace some plumbing pipes and fix the shut-off valve.
  • Drop electrical lines through the ceiling.
  • Put up new ceiling and walls (drywall, tape, mud)
  • Paint the walls and paint the laundry room floor with an epoxy paint.
  • Hang new light fixtures.
  • Build a work bench and some storage shelves.
That's not so bad, right? Please just agree with me.

Other than that, we've been keeping very busy the past week or so.
  • It was Rob's birthday last Tuesday. I came up with a pretty cool gift idea, but we're still waiting for it to arrive in the mail. I'll share it here after Rob sees it. I probably spent around 15-20 hours on it, but I think it's a good gift.
  • We finally did our taxes. I had been procrastinating doing them because last year was so traumatizing (we had both claimed 1 and expected to break even - not the case!). This year, a few things saved us. We could claim a credit for my grad school costs last year, and we also were able to report our new energy-efficient furnace. On the downside, we had to start repaying our interest-free first time homebuyer loan from 2008. The biggest bummer about this is that we closed on our house in mid December. Had we waited 2 more weeks until 2009, we would have received the other homebuyer loan - the one that doesn't need to be paid back. Of course we didn't know this. No one did at the time. It's still a bummer.
  • I did some freelance web development work on the Somer Studios invitation site, which I originally designed last year. Check it out if you need some elegant custom invitations. I also did the photography on the front page and banner. (Trivia - I also took the photo in this blog's banner. It's our front steps and yard. It was when we first moved in, and I took it with a point-and-shoot camera. I still like the shot.)
  • I am doing some volunteering designing for a local church that is in need of an updated web presence. Now that I don't work full time as a web designer, I find these side projects even more enjoyable. Why is it that a hobby or passion inherently seems to lose some desirability when those same acts are relied on to pay the bills? Now that it's pure hobby and "extra spending cash" type stuff, I have some renewed interest.
  • We've made some good progress in Murphy/dog-training land. This will probably warrant its own future post. I think our dog trainer friend Laura will be proud.
And last but most important - the last few days were some scary ones for my family and especially my sister-in-law and her husband. Jason moved to Japan earlier this year, and so we were all very nervous to hear about the earthquake. Jason is ok, but please keep the people of Japan in your thoughts. Here's a photo I took of Rachel and Jason in early January at their wedding. Thinking of you both! Stay safe!

someone else's words

"Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others." - Buddha

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