Archive | 2014

2015 Real Estate Resolutions

29 Dec

I hope everybody is having a wonderful holiday season. Santa was generous this year and left a Black & Decker Trimmer/Edger with Mower Deck under the tree – I’ll be sure to let you know how it works on the duplex lawns!

A table-sized tree, not a Godzilla-sized cat 🙂

Due to other financial priorities, we do not have plans to purchase a property this year. Fear not, we are 100% committed to the real estate empire, but that just means our 2015 goals will focus on the existing portfolio instead:

  • $10,000 Extra to Mortgage #2 – we anticipate a good bit of discretionary cash flow that can be applied to our pre-payment efforts. Averaged across the year, that $833/mo. will save an additional $16,668 in interest and shave just over 4 years off the mortgage!

  • Setup Umbrella Policy – with the addition of property #3, we know an umbrella insurance policy is in order. I’ve been putting this off because I really hate dealing with insurance agents, but it needs to be done.
  • Streamline Insurance Quotes – Did I mention I hate insurance agents? Like cable companies, customer loyalty is often penalized so regular price-shopping is a must. Resigned to my annual fate, I have a project in mind that should help expedite this process. I also want to consolidate my separate landlord policies under a single agent.
  • Tackle Some Deferred Maintenance – Some repairs need to be addressed immediately, and some need to be addressed… eventually. This year we’ll suck it up and prioritize (1) a new exterior paint job on duplex #1 and (2) some minor roof repairs recommended by the inspector when we purchased duplex #3.

Roof Tab Repair

  • Plant a Cedar Elm – Our apartment balcony has slowly turned into a rental-friendly tree farm. We’re currently growing a Texas Ash and a Cedar Elm from saplings, and the latter is now ready to be planted if the right opportunity (vacancy) presents itself.
  • Take a Vacation! – We’d like to prioritize some time, money, and reward points towards a vacation (or two?) next year. All things considered, it’s hardest for us to prioritize the time.

All of these goals are important-but-not-urgent – i.e. things that should get done but could easily get put off without a plan to stay on-track. I’m dreading some of them, but all the more reason to apply blog accountability. 😉

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2014 Goal Results & Highlights

22 Dec

Earlier this year I created goals for 2014 to keep me on-track. The results:

✔  Pay Down Mortgage Debt$3,522 applied to mortgage #2
✔  Expand Property Management – done!
✔  Mean Tenants – replaced with pleasant people at market rate
✔  Try Discounted Gift Cards – success!
✔  Another Property – technically, but we weren’t expecting a rental
✔  25 Blog Posts – squeaked in at 27 posts this year, yay!

Having goals was quite motivating – a way to ensure “someday projects” get prioritized. When reflecting on the past year, a few key initiatives stand out:

Buying Duplex #3
Our third purchase last May made three properties in as many years – not too shabby! It was also the second time we saved a down payment for a primary residence and ended up buying a rental property instead.

What can I say, we have a problem. 🙂

rental property living room 3

We stumbled on some legitimately good deals, but also wanted to maximize our advantage as DINKs (dual income no kids) while we could. It’s not hard to see a future where adult responsibilities stall our current momentum.

This acquisition was unique because the cash flow and appraised value were low for the purchase price, but our research suggested it still had potential. After a $200/unit rent increase (both tenants stayed!) and a new sales comp – we were back on track a mere 2 months later.

Series: How We Saved $1,454 on Our Property Taxes
Corey’s victorious quest to protest the tax valuations on two properties, broken into a 4-part series:

  1. Receiving a Notice of Appraised Value
  2. Filing a Notice to Appeal & Requesting Supporting Documentation
  3. Compiling the Evidence
  4. Appraisal District Meeting & Outcome

A good example of a financial skill that should be taught in public education, but usually isn’t. I group it in with preparing your taxes, the effects of compounding interest, and calculating student loan payments before a student chooses a college or major.

Aspirations / Running the Numbers
It’s fun to daydream about the future of our real estate empire. I noodled through hypotheticals like how many properties we’d need to retire and whether it would be faster to finance or buy outright.

day dreaming clouds

(photo by Kevin Dooley)

Turns out we could probably buy 13 leveraged properties faster than 5 paid off ones – all things being equal – while generating the same net income. Realistically, we’ll probably do a combination of both, and now that we’ve topped off our rental savings we’re cooking with pre-payment fire again!

Make Ready Kit + New Additions
I continue to adore our make ready kit, and got the opportunity to try it out in the field during a vacancy in November.

Make Ready Vacancy Kit Additions

Through trial and error, I’ve added to the inventory a bit:

Now the real question is whether to expand to a second bin….

Discounted Gift Cards
For those tempted to give discounted gift cards a try, I’d recommend waiting until just after Christmas. An influx of holiday gifts will likely upset the supply/demand model in your favor. More inventory = better discounts.

Also, a big thank you to those using our Raise and Cardpool links – any referral credits are going straight to our mortgage pre-payment efforts!

Cardpool Referral Credit

Previous Recaps:

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third, by experience, which is the bitterest.”  -Confucius

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Setting Expectations: Tenant Guidelines for HOA Success

17 Dec

Because HOA rules can be rather subjective, I recently met with an HOA manager to discuss lawn requirements for our rental property. It was a productive conversation, and I left with 5 key takeaways to share with our tenants and property management company. A few of these weren’t on my radar, so I’m glad we could prevent some misunderstanding and frustration.

I also created “Guidelines for HOA Success” that we’ll include with our tenant on-boarding paperwork moving forward. This should be more effective than referring to vague rules buried within pages of legalese. I’ll share the outline below in case this strategy is helpful to others balancing tenants and HOAs.

Finally, I plan to incorporate some light weeding during vacancies to help reign in other plant species that grow faster than the rest of the lawn. Most of the prior violations seem to be related to tall weeds more than tall grass.

Guidelines for HOA Success

These rules have been created to help our residents avoid HOA violation fines. The HOA has final say on violations, but these 5 rules should help you avoid the vast majority of complaints and fines. Please do not assume that you will receive a warning before getting fined; fines are allocated at the sole discretion of the HOA Manager.

If you have questions about compliance or a violation, please reach out to [property management company].

#1 – Keep Lawn Height Under 4.5 Inches

HOA Lawn Height Maximum

#2 – Only Outdoor Furniture is Allowed on Front Porch

HOA Outdoor Furniture Policy

Examples of Allowed Items:

  • Outdoor Furniture
  • Lawn Chairs
  • Grills
  • Exterior Decorations

Examples of Not Allowed Items:

  • Couches
  • Dining Room Chairs
  • Coolers
  • Trash
  • Cans & Bottles

 #3 – Lawn Should Not Cover Cement / Sidewalks

Crab grass in particular is a weed that likes to grow horizontally. Crab grass can be physically removed by the roots or cut back to ensure that it does not extend beyond the lawn.

Lawn Violation Edging Explaination

Edging is recommended, but not specifically required. Regularly removing the crab grass by the roots, edging, or trimming will usually resolve the problem to the HOA’s satisfaction.

#4 – Mow Thoroughly Under Shrubs

Please take extra care to mow under all shrubs/bushes so that the mower can reach any tall grass and weeds in the flower beds.

HOA Violation Weeds

(we removed the stones for easier access)

#5 – Trash & Recycling Should Not be Visible from Front Yard (except on trash day).

Please return all bins to the backyard by the evening of trash day.

Hidden Trash Can

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Removing Scuffs & Scratches from Stained Concrete Floors

11 Dec

The ironic thing about concrete floors in rental properties is that tenants might actually be more reckless on them because they assume the surface is indestructible… and they would be wrong.  🙂

Cement Floor Scuffs

During our last vacancy, I needed to address some marks in the floor – probably caused by dragged furniture. They were within the clear top coat, not physically scratched into the concrete itself. Almost like trapped air bubbles.

Being a concrete floor newb, I found a lot of conflicting information online – people suggesting polishes, waxes, or even a complete refinishing of the floor. I eventually stitched together an action plan with the help of my concrete flooring guy and the process ended up being WAY EASIER than I expected it to be.

First Things First – Type of Sealer Matters
Sealants come in several varieties based on the type of sealer (penetrating, acrylic, polyurethane, or epoxy) and distribution method (water-based or solvent-based). The floor in question had an acrylic, solvent-based sealant.

From what I’ve read online, you should NOT use this method on water-based sealers because xylene will compromise a water-based seal.

When in doubt, please test this method in a hidden area first. I’m new to concrete flooring, and I’d hate to inadvertently cause somebody’s floor to melt!

The Plan – Reset the Sealant with Xylene
Our flooring guy originally suggested using a paint roller and long pole to distribute a thin layer of xylene across the entire floor. For a smaller area, I could try a lint-free rag or a microfiber pad (be sure to wear gloves!). He was very confident, and said it would look as good as a newly-sealed floor.

The Euclid Chemical Company offers a handy “Concrete Cure & Seal Troubleshooting Guide” that provided some insight into how xylene works. From page 4, Instructions for Performing a Solvent Wash:

“Use steady, even strokes to apply the solvent. After a few minutes, the solvent will re-wet the sealer, turning it back to its original liquid form.”

Reminds me how manicurists can fixed a smudged nail by using a swipe of polish remover to “reset” the finish.

Supplies – Available at Home Improvement Stores

Xylene and Other Cement Floor Scatch Removal Supplies

This process has a pretty reasonable and affordable supply list:

  • Xylene (aka Xylol)
  • Microfiber Applicator Pads – I recommend one with grips
  • Disposable Nitrile Gloves
  • Solvent-Resistant Paint Tray
  • Safety Glasses

I already owned a pair of safety glasses, so everything else cost $15-$20.

 Note: solvents are a little more heavy duty than your average water-based paint. Everything on my shopping list was “for solvents” or “solvent-approved” per the packaging. If I were applying xylene to the entire floor, I’d be using a solvent-friendly roller too.

Xylene Application
Thoroughly sweep and mop the floor before you begin. I cheated – we have a cleaning crew come during every make ready, so I intentionally saved this project until after they were finished.

I’d recommend going outside to pour the xylene into the tray. The spout isn’t very forgiving, and I spilled this stuff everywhere on my first try.

I used the microfiber pad to wipe xylene on the floor and the scratches started to disappear before my eyes (we’re talking seconds, not minutes). This stuff is the magic eraser of concrete flooring!

Cement Floor Scuffs Before After

Pretty confident, I left the floor to dry and came back the next day.

Turns out it almost worked too well. If you look closely at the circled area you can make out the wipe marks where I applied the xylene. This was an unintended consequence of re-setting the sealant; the scuffs were gone AND the floor dried to the original high gloss shine – which was now much much shinier than the surrounding floor.

Cement Floor Restore Sealant Shine

Our property management company’s maintenance coordinator helped de-shine the floor with a blue scouring pad (the kind you wash dishes with) buffing in a circular motion. Alternatively, normal wear would eventually dull the shine to match.

Next time I’ll spot treat with the expectation that I’d need to buff 24 hours later, or apply xylene to the entire floor to get the high-gloss shine all over. I might alternate methods depending on how scratched the floor is and how long it’s been since the entire floor has been reset.

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Mortgage Pre-Payment Plan Update – December 2014

2 Dec

Our mortgage pre-payment effort has had a few setbacks this year, mostly due to the purchase of our 3rd duplex in May. This created the double-whammy of (1) tapping our reserves to pay for down payment/closing costs and (2) raising our rental emergency fund minimum (we aim for $5,000/duplex).

Curvy Roads

(edited photo by allison.hare)

As such, we’ve been replenishing our savings ever since, which hasn’t left much in the way of discretionary rental income for mortgage pre-payments:

  • Nov 2013 – $94
  • Dec 2013 – $1,146
  • Jan 2014 – $800
  • Feb 2014 – $881
  • Mar 2014 – $863
  • April 2014 – $0
  • May 2014 – $0
  • Jun 2014 – $0
  • July 2014 – $0
  • Aug 2014 – $121
  • Sept 2014 – $0
  • Oct 2014 – $0
  • Nov 2014 – $0

Wanting to see faster progress, I decided to track and periodically apply small “windfalls” to duplex #2’s mortgage. Particularly things I could easily justify not doing in the first place – like clipping a coupon, waiting to order something until a discounted gift card arrives, or completing an incentivized survey.

Below is my log of about 2 1/2 months of “found” money:

  • $118 – Discounted gift cards
  • $1 – Amazon ‘No Rush Shipping‘ book credit
  • $3 – Remnant rewards from a closed credit card
  • $10 – Social media promotion by my apartment complex
  • $150 – Health screening from my health insurance
  • $424 – Leftover auto insurance premium savings
  • $22 – Returning to DSW to apply a forgotten coupon
  • $129 – Blog revenue

That $857 applied to the mortgage saves an additional $1,724 in interest!

Counting this latest payment, we’ve paid a total of $4,762 in extra principle which translates to ~$10,666 in unpaid interest over the life of the loan. That’s already almost half of the interest savings projected from my conservative pre-payment calculations of ~$94/month.

Mortgage PrePayment Update Dec 2014

Mathematically, we’d probably be better off applying cash flow towards another property, so it’s fair to question whether we should be paying extra at all. We’re both happier with the idea of (eventually) having paid off properties, so I expect we’ll do a little of both. We’re almost done building that larger emergency fund, so progress should accelerate in early 2015.

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How We Saved $1,454 on Our Property Taxes, Part 4

24 Nov

The final chapter of our appraisal protest series. Previous posts include: Receiving Our Notice of Appraised Value, Filing a Notice to Appeal and Requesting Supporting Documentation, and Compiling the Evidence.

Corey received a letter assigning him a specific day and time for two back-to-back hearings at the county appraisal district.

Appraisal District Office

In the interest of time, many appraisal districts begin with an informal meeting that attempts to resolve the issue (like a plea bargain before trial). Corey was escorted to the cubicle of an associate appraiser who heard his case.

Appraisal Disctrict Appointment

Duplex #1’s Outcome
For reasons lost to the sands of time, each unit of this property was taxed independently (an owner-occupant probably wanted to claim the homestead exemption on their half). However, there seemed to be some discrepancies related to what had and hadn’t been split between both units. For example, the improvements (building/garage/patio) were split 50%, but the land value was applied in full and effectively counted twice.

The appraiser consulted with her superior, and came back with a proposal to use the average of the 3 sales comps (which were all complete duplexes) to provide a better apples-to-apples valuation. She also began the process to merge those two units under 1 property ID moving forward.

Duplex #2’s Outcome
This objection related to the selection of comparables. The property is on a street with 20 or so identical duplexes, plus 2 “luxury” duplexes that were built on the end several years later – and at a significantly higher cost.

One of these things is not like the other.

Two of these things are not like the others…

Using photos and year built information, it was pretty easy to convince the appraiser to throw out the outlier and use the average of the rest instead.

Next Steps
If Corey had not come to an agreement with the appraiser, he would have proceeded to a formal hearing with the Appraisal Review Board, a committee of 3 citizens. The results of that hearing could be appealed to district court.

Instead, Corey simply signed a 1-page “Final Agreement and Waiver of Protest” for each property that noted the corrected values.

Appraised Value – Before & After

Property 2013
(B vs A)
Duplex #1 $173,740 $216,948 $179,362 -$37,586
Duplex #2 $131,569 $169,105 $149,488 -$19,617

2014 Estimated Taxes – Before & After

Property Est. Taxes (Before) Est. Taxes (After) Change ($)
Change (%)
Duplex #1 $5,187 $4,288 $899 -17%
Duplex #2 $4,784 $4,229 $555 -12%

Would He Do It Again?
Corey says most definitely. If nothing else, the system simply can’t give too much attention to every little challenge, so they’ll probably cut you a deal to make the issue go away. Perhaps we wouldn’t bother if the appraised value/housing market was fairly stagnant year-over-year.

Since the appraisal process is automated, I think there’s a good chance we’ll see those higher-priced duplexes incorporated into duplex #2’s comps again – that error alone would have cost us a little over $500. We also have duplex #3 to contend with next year.

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Rental Property HOA Violations & Subjective Rules

22 Oct

Recently we had our first run in with a rental property’s homeowners association; it started with a couple warning letters letting us know that our duplex had a lawn care violation.

HOA Violation Notice

I wasn’t too concerned because (1) I assumed the lawn was in violation and (2) per our lease the tenant ultimately pays any HOA fines. It wasn’t until the fine was imposed that our letter also included low-resolution photos of the lawns in question, and I started to realize just how subjective lawn rules could be.

Lawn 1

Lawn 2

I’m not saying that’s a perfectly manicured lawn, but for a row of duplexes in rural Texas I was expecting something a LOT worse. It was also quite the coincidence that both tenants simultaneously stopped complying for the first time – more likely the HOA was now enforcing a higher standard of lawn care, but had not communicated those new expectations.

The violation letters themselves didn’t elaborate beyond “Cutting Grass and/or Weed Eating”. Our property manager reached out for clarification, but was told by the HOA manager that she didn’t have to tell them what the violation was – only refer them to the HOA’s covenants, conditions, and restrictions:

“Each owner will keep shrubs, trees, grass, and plantings
of every kind on the owner’s Lot cultivated, pruned, and mowed,
and will keep yards free of trash and other unsightly material.”

Why is nothing easy?  🙂

There were more questions than answers… was there a maximum length of grass allowed? Was edging required? Did they just want the shrubs pruned back? To help sort things out, I scheduled a meeting with the HOA Manager.

The goal wasn’t to get out of the fine – just obtain clear guidelines that I could communicate back to our tenants so they could reliably avoid the HOA’s wrath in the future. If the lawn standards weren’t clear to me then they certainly weren’t clear to the tenants.

Coming soon: the HOA meeting and aftermath

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Landlord Efficiencies: Grab-and-Go Make Ready Kit

13 Oct

These days our property management company handles the day-to-day repairs for our tenants, while we still do most of the make ready work. I enjoy tinkering around the properties and fixing things up, particularly when we can work at our own pace while the units are vacant.

What I don’t like is searching our apartment and cluttered storage closet, trying to find (and remember) everything I might possibly need over the next few days. More than once I’ve purchased something I already own because it’s cheaper than making the trip back to our place.

Storage Closet

The hot mess that is our apartment’s storage closet

To that end I decided to create a “Make Ready Kit” – permanently consolidating the most used tools and supplies in one place. I started with this Rubbermaid Clever Store Organizing Tray and 71-quart storage tote.

Rubbermaid Clever Store

Then I pulled together anything regularly used when preparing a unit for tenants – including yard work, touch-up paint, carpet cleaning, fence maintenance, light bulbs, and security deposit accounting. Even that process took the better part of a week because I kept adding forgotten items.

Make Ready Kit Contents

(Click to view full size image)

There are some bulky elements that won’t fit in the bin (broom, step stool, etc.) but I have another idea to address those (coming soon).

Make Ready Kit Contents:

  • fire ant bait
  • small hose extension
  • fertilizer spikes
  • carpet cleaner (spot treatments)
  • carpet cleaner (machine)
  • drip pans
  • paper towels
  • hand towel
  • drill bits
  • exterior screws
  • spackling
  • putty knife
  • paint brush
  • paint stir sticks
  • light bulbs
  • gloves – his and hers


Make Ready Kit Compiled

Everything fits nicely – with room to spare.

The next vacancy isn’t until November, but this has already been an easier solution for grabbing the random tool for an around-the-house project. It would also make a great gift basket for a new landlord or real estate investor.

*If you have a suggestion to improve the kit, please share it in the comments.*

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How We Saved $1,454 on Our Property Taxes, Part 3

8 Oct

Note: these appraisal protest experiences are Texas-specific (and possibly county-specific) so please be careful applying them to your own district.

Once Corey received our appraised value and filed our notice to protest, it was time to compile any value-supporting data. Below are some places to start, and a notation about whether they corroborate an excessive or unequal protest.


(photo by striatic)

Appraisal District’s Supporting Documentation
We previously sent a letter requesting all documentation the appraisal district intends to introduce at the hearing. Our district provides different reports depending on the reason(s) for protest – so again, check both when you file!

Comparable Sales Report (Excessive)

126 Street 118 Street 200 Street 100 Street
Year Built 2006 2006 2006 2011
TotValue $169,105 $169,105 $169,105 $162,618
Value/Sq Ft $48.87 $48.87 $48.87 $48.87
Sale Date 1/22/13 1/8/13 7/31/13
Sale Price $150,000 $143,000 $182,000
Adjusted Price $153,060 $145,917 $191,252
Indicated Value $153,060

The comparable sales report included 3 other properties sold recently, then made square footage, year built, and sale date adjustments to estimate the market value of our property. Notice that property #2’s indicated value is significantly less than the $161,105 appraisal, and that comp #3 is a considerable outlier in sales price relative to the other properties.

Equity Comparable Report (Unequal)

126 Street 112 Street 112 Street 112 Street
Sq Ft 2006 2007 2007 2006
Year Built 3,460 3,460 3,460 3,184
Appr Value $169,105 $170,607 $170,607 $169,105

Each equity comparable report gave us the appraised value of 10 similar properties relative to our own property’s appraised value.

3rd Party Sales Comps (Excessive)
Request comparables from a real estate agent or property management company, or search online listings ( filters by past sales). Our realtor provided a “Market Analysis Summary” with ~10 similar sales for each property:

Address Unit Mix
Sold Price
Sold Date
212 Street Dr 3/2 3,460 $129,000 3/5/12
112 Street Dr 3/2 3,460 $138,000 6/8/12
220 Street Dr 3/2 3,460 $136,000 7/13/12
200 Street Dr 3/2 3,460 $143,000 1/11/13
118 Street Dr 3/2 3,460 $150,000 1/31/13

The ultimate goal of the appraisal process is to determine the value of the property on Jan 1st of the current year. Properties sold within 24 months of that date can be considered (36 months is allowed if there are limited comparables). This means we’re interested in sales from 2012 and 2013, but the most recent comps have more weight when determining the Jan 1st value.

Appraisal District Website (Unequal)
There is a wealth of information on the appraisal district’s website, included the appraised value of every property in your neighborhood. If you find similar properties with significantly lower appraisals (perhaps they are homesteads – which means the rate of increase is capped at 10% per year), they could support an argument that your property has not been equally appraised.

Appraisal District Property Results

While you’re there, verify the information the appraisal district has about your property. Pay extra attention to the square footage and number of bedrooms and bathrooms – it’s possible the appraisal district used inaccurate information to calculate the appraised value.

Recent Settlement Statements (Excessive)
We didn’t know this at the time, but we could have also used our HUD-1 Settlement Statement to support a lower market value since property #2 was purchased in the previous year.

If you have used any other data sources when protesting an appraised value, please share them for others in the comments below.

Next post – Corey’s meeting with the appraisal district

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Save $ at Home Improvement Stores w/ Discount Gift Cards

29 Sep

We’ve been experimenting with discounted gift cards as a way to trim expenses, particularly during make ready cleaning, repair, and maintenance work.

Saving Discounted Gift Cards

(photo by Judit Klein)

What are discounted gift cards?
Perhaps you received a gift card for a store you don’t frequent. Instead of going to waste, online exchanges will buy your gift card and sell it to somebody else for less than face value. The seller liquidates the value of the card for cash, and the buyer gets a discount.

Where do I buy discounted gift cards?
We personally use Cardpool and Raise, and like them equally. There are some subtle differences in how they operate:

  • Cardpool uses the same discount % per store at any given time, while Raise allows the seller to set their own price.
  • Cardpool has more gift cards in standard denominations ($25 and $50) and I see more remnant amounts ($29.15 and $69.77) with Raise.
  • Cardpool separates physical vs. electronic gift cards using separate tabs, but Raise will list them all together with different icons indicating card type.
Save $5 when you use the above referral links on your first purchase.
(You don’t have to use our links, but we’re very grateful when you do!)

Selecting a Discounted Gift Card
My current strategy is to buy a home improvement store gift card before each vacancy – roughly $200 per vacancy or $350 for a “first time” vacancy. Check both sites before you buy because changes in supply and demand could show different prices on different days.

For our recent purchase, Raise had the better discount. I chose a physical gift card since we needed the flexibility to make in-store and online purchases.

Raise Home Depot Card Options

(Click to view full size)

A bought a $181.63 Home Depot gift card that cost me $161.80 (no tax, free shipping). That $19.83 might not seem like much, but applying it to our mortgage pre-payment saves another $40.77 in interest. Imagine the potential of applying this technique to an appliance purchase!

When I received the card (egifts can arrive in hours, physical cards in days or weeks), it was actually store credit instead of a traditional gift card, but the functionality is the same.

discounted home depot card

Additional Considerations
Using discounted gift cards, we could consistently save 10-11% on our home improvement store purchases – as long as we have advance notice. It’s also easy to buy too much or too little, but at least most cards won’t expire.

This process can easily be applied to your personal expenses too. As long as I plan ahead, I regularly save 10-20% on my Starbucks habit. 🙂

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