How NOT to rent a house

It’s now week 4 of our water damage disaster and repairs are nowhere near complete. Despite not planning to move this year, we’ve begun exploring potential rental houses — since all our stuff is in boxes, moving doesn’t seem like as much of an effort.

But we had no idea it was such a competitive time in the rental market! Any house that meets our specs is rented within days, for high prices. It’s a total seller’s market. This contrasts with our last hunt two years ago when multiple landlords, including the one we chose, were willing to negotiate lower rent and friendlier lease terms.

I’ve spent a lot of time on Craigslist and Padmapper. We’ve toured eight houses and applied to three, but no success yet. In retrospect, here are some of the mistakes we’ve made.

Fall for a great house in the wrong location


This house (yes, the one I already mentioned) had an absolutely incredible backyard. Private decks and terraces led down into a leafy canyon that channeled an light breeze. The interior was nicely updated although we didn’t like its layout with lots of tiny rooms arranged in a weird puzzle. The price was right. But the home was just too far from commercial areas — we really don’t want to give up our walkable lifestyle. I don’t know if we’ll see a rental house with such amazing outdoor space ever again… it was very hard to let it go.

Ask for improvements


This house’s location was perfect. It was on a quiet cul-de-sac between two of our favorite business districts, a two-minute walk to an excellent grocery store. The yard was small but private, with fig and banana trees. The interior was charming and spacious, though not in the best shape. But the kitchen was not good. There was a very vintage (1940s?) stove, no dishwasher, and the fridge was set in an adjacent room. Although it was expensive, the pluses of this house outweighed the minuses, so we made a conditional offer that included a request for a dishwasher (which the landlord had said was possible). But he declined our offer.

Underbid on an expensive house


With a secluded, leafy location 12 minutes from a great commercial district, this house had a wonderful “country in the city” feel. The spacious interior had some luxury features, including a double oven and a double bathroom vanity, but was painted a fleshy peach tone and carpeted in beige berber. Huge sliding doors opened the entire living space onto the yard. But the yard was uninspiring and didn’t have a view of the canyon behind the big fence. The master bedroom didn’t have a door — just a huge opening closed with an accordion screen. Given the downsides, we were not willing to exceed our budget, but we still could see ourselves living there. So we applied and offered slightly lower rent, giving our good financial record as evidence we’d be great tenants. He said we would have gotten the house if we were willing to pay the full amount.

Say you still need to give notice


My very favorite house so far was located just a few blocks from Balboa Park and a 12-minute walk to great restaurants. It had gorgeous wood floors and built-ins, a couple bonus rooms for office space, and a basement for storage (rare in San Diego). The private backyard had lemon, lime, and avocado trees, vegetable garden beds, and shaded arbors. And it was in our price range. Honestly, I saw no major downside. Dan was excited and I was totally smitten, so we applied. But the landlord wanted to call rental references the very next day (a Sunday!) and we explained that we haven’t given notice at our current place, and would like to avoid doing so unless we were his top pick. Unfortunately, I think that was what ruined our chances. He told us we were well-qualified but gave the place to someone else. I cried.

Stop looking

This is a mistake we haven’t made yet. Although I’m tired of all the uncertainty and upheaval, Dan reminds me that since we’re on a month-to-month lease, we have the luxury of time. We can wait until we find the ideal place — there’s no rush. We can use these hard-earned lessons to become better candidates. And we might encounter less competition or lower prices once the summer moving season ends. So keep your fingers crossed for the hunt…


…and in the meantime, for the repairs, too.


Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve

It had been way too long since we went hiking. So this Saturday, four of us headed out around 9am.



The forecast called for 93-degree heat so we knew we should bring extra water. Dan recently bought a hydration system and I picked up a pack to carry it. We’re real hikers now!


Volcan Mountain is just a few miles outside of Julian, a mountain town known for its seasonal weather (all four seasons, and sometimes snow!) and apple pie. So just over an hour after leaving San Diego, we were at the trailhead.


It’s about a five-mile round trip, starting up the summit trail and taking a nice alternate route called Five Oaks Trail on the way down. The ascent was steep and unrelenting. It wasn’t technically challenging in the rock-climbing kind of way, but I was not in good enough shape to power straight through — despite the trident.


That was okay though, because I enjoyed the amazing view each time I stopped to catch my breath. There were oak groves and apple orchards and mountains reaching as far as the eye could see.


Great bushes of white sage lined the path — the air was scented with it!


At the summit, we had views all the way to the desert and the ocean (though it was clear inland, the marine layer kept us from seeing the water).


There were lots of shaded parts too, though I didn’t get any good photos of them. Overall we wished it was 10 degrees cooler, but it was one of the more beautifully vegetated hikes in San Diego County.

On the way back, we ate at the Bailey Wood Pit Barbeque. Other than the enormous stuffed cow’s head mounted on the wall atop a giant circular saw blade (wish I’d gotten a photo), it wasn’t remarkable.

Can’t wait for our next hike!

What changed me

A recent post on Oh Joy asked, “What are the events or moments that changed you?”

My life has been pretty blessed, actually. I’ve had a happy childhood, a loving family, good friends, academic success, early career stability, and no major tragedies. So there’s been no single event that made me wake up and smell the coffee.

Still, I can think of a few important things that set my course.


Music. In sixth grade, I learned to play the flute. Woodwinds practiced separately from the brass and percussion. I vividly remember the chills I got when we played in ensemble for the first time. We weren’t good, but it didn’t matter. The chills. Soon I moved on to saxophone, and it turned out I was good at it. Band defined my high school experience. Though I started out painfully shy, I grew bolder and became a section leader. I found good friends and a few boyfriends too. We performed at football games, national competitions, and even Disneyworld. Band taught me more than music. It taught me how to step forward and solo.

St. Peter's Square, May 2007

Italy. My family took a whirlwind Europe tour when I was 18. The whole experience was eye-opening in the best ways, and I especially fell in love with bella Italia. I made my way back two years later for a summer program. It was incredibly intimidating and rewarding to navigate foreign social situations, travel by train and bus, and become a gelateria regular (the clerk knew my name). Then in 2007, right after college graduation, I returned alone for two weeks with a backpack and no plan. I stayed in hostels and overcame my fear of befriending strangers. I carried on hourlong conversations in another language. I lived spontaneously. It made me feel like I can conquer anything.

Mine was the first on the right

Cubicles. When college spit me out into a full-time corporate job, I struggled. I had a hard time sitting still for nine hours straight. There weren’t multiple classes to walk between and to engage different interests. There weren’t even semester course changes — this was forever. I could see the sameness stretching forty years ahead, and it suffocated me. As a result, I’m now on my fourth job and working on the fifth. Cubicles showed me that I want a different path.

So, what changed you?

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Our apartment flood disaster is nowhere near over. But they did remove the fans and dehumidifiers on Thursday, so we were able to start using a few rooms again. The kitchen was one of them!

To celebrate, I volunteered to bake a birthday cake for one of our friends. The partygoers devoured most of it before I thought to take photos. So this morning-after snapshot will have to do. Can you see the dense, rich texture? Can you taste the cream-cheesy goodness?


Dan and I shared the final piece for breakfast Sunday morning. Let me tell you, it’s just as awesome with coffee and eggs as it is with vanilla ice cream.


My family always saved this cake for special occasions because grating the carrots was such an arduous task. The last time I made it was for Dan’s birthday in November. But now that I have a food processor, it only took a few minutes!

It’s a very simple carrot cake — no nuts, pineapple, coconut, or multiple spices. It gets all of its lush flavor from the freshly grated carrots, cinnamon, and tangy-sweet frosting. Like magic, it tastes even better the second and third day as the flavors mingle. But if you can let it sit that long, you have a stronger will than I.

Carrot Cake Recipe


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2-3 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 3/4 cup applesauce (preferably unsweetened)
  • 3 cups grated carrots (about 4 very large carrots)
  • 4 eggs

Preheat oven to 350F. Prep a 9×13″ pan (see notes for other size options) with grease & flour or baking spray. In mixing bowl, add all ingredients together except eggs. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pour batter into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Ice when cool.


  • 1 lb. powdered sugar
  • 1 8-oz. package of cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 stick (4 Tbsp) butter or margarine, softened
  • 2 tsp vanilla

Combine ingredients & beat until of spreading consistency.

Recipe Notes

  • The applesauce is my substitution to make it a bit healthier — the original recipe calls for a whopping 1.5 cups oil.
  • For a layer cake, use three 8″ round cake pans and bake approx. 35 minutes.
  • For cupcakes, bake 20-25 minutes.
  • The frosting recipe makes enough to ice a layer cake, so it’s too much for a 9×13 pan (even for a frosting fanatic like me). My family likes to spread the leftover frosting on graham crackers and eat right away or freeze for a later treat.

On kindness

This apartment flood disaster has really thrown me off.


The gale-force fans and deafening dehumidifiers have messed with sleep for five days now.


The furniture clutter is fraying my nerves. Tonight our place will finally be dry enough to put some of it back, but we won’t do much because the carpet and baseboards won’t be repaired for days yet.


The blocked-off kitchen (complete with dehumidifier hose down the drain) is keeping me from cooking and eating well.


But there have been bright spots.

Our building manager skipped his Sunday breakfast to dive into disaster control. Several friends offered to help move stuff. Two of them are even cooking us dinner tonight. We hadn’t seen them in awhile, but they noticed our flood photos on Facebook and offered their home as a refuge for an evening.

Kindness matters. It’s memorable. In the end, it’s more important and lasting than so many of the things we strive for.

I just came across a commencement speech on kindness. Here’s the gist:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

In general, I think, I’m nice to people. But am I actively kind? Defending and helping people is so different than just being generally nice — it’s much harder, and also much more rewarding for everyone.

So today I’m grateful to all the kindness people have shown us. And I resolve to show more kindness in return.

Bad omens

Remember how three days ago, falling water destroyed my herb garden?

Well, that was NOTHING compared to today.

We woke up to this sight.


Would you like to see a little closer?


That’s right. Turns out our next door neighbors turned on their washing machine and left for breakfast. The pipe busted and overflowed all over their apartment, flooded ours, and even seeped down three more floors.

Here’s the current state of things:


Our building management has been super responsive and sent a crew right away. But they say it’s going to take three or four days to clean up, and they might even have to replace the wall.

The good news is that nothing valuable — electronics, paperwork, best furniture — has been damaged. Except maybe the keyboard. You saw how it was flooded above. I’m going to let it dry out before trying to plug it in.

Seriously, that’s the final straw. I am really over apartment/condo living.


I came home yesterday to a destroyed herb garden. It looks like a lot of water fell from above with enough force to displace much of the soil from my potted herbs and splatter mud all over my balcony.


I’m not sure I should eat the herbs, even if they’re salvageable, because who knows what cleaning chemicals were in the falling water. There are several stories of apartments above mine so I can’t pinpoint which neighbor is at fault.

I’ve been daydreaming about moving for a while now. It’s not that I actually want to move. Our place is awesome and moving sucks. It’s just that after four years of downtown living, I’m growing tired of the constant noise, day and night. I’m tired of living so publicly — public parking, public elevators, public windows.

Though I would miss the view.


So sometimes I browse rental listings. Maybe by the time we actually want to move, I’ll have a great idea of what and where it should be. Since it’s only imaginary, my requirements can be as specific as I like.

I want a quiet neighborhood, one with trees. Not downtown, but still urban and walkable. Close to a little coffee shop and a library and a park. Good sidewalks for long walks. I want it to be a freestanding house to avoid all kinds of neighbor annoyances. Private outdoor space that allows grilling. A little more room to spread out. But no more money than we pay now. Dedicated parking for us and easy parking for friends. Wood floors. Gas stove, dishwasher, private laundry. Tons of windows and daylight. Separate office space. A beautiful view.

Wishful thinking, right?

Well, today I found that place.


As far as the listing shows, it meets Every. Single. Requirement.

The time isn’t right to move. But it’s painful to let it pass by, wondering if something this ideal will ever pop up again.