Bidding on Houses at County Tax Auctions

I tried to buy two houses at auction today. I would have settled for either one, but unfortunately ended up with neither.

I had prepared for weeks; researching lien holders, visiting houses and taking pictures, examining books of county plat maps, checking property assessment records, narrowing down the list of a hundred houses available through the San Joaquin County Tax Auction down to two.

Only those two met my criteria; fixer-uppers in a decent area and in good condition, without environmental hazards, a starting price far less than they were worth, and still available after the redemption period had expired.

Photo © Richard D. LeCour

I woke up at 6:00 a.m., got in the car about 6:15, and drove the 90 minutes to get to Stockton. The auction didn’t start until 9:00 a.m. at the local civic auditorium, so I had plenty of time to locate the important stuff; the auditorium, the local Wells Fargo, a drinking fountain, an accessible bathroom.

I often use satellite images to verify existence of buildings and land usage, but there is no substitute for physically driving to the property to view current conditions.

Satellite images won’t tell you if the disgruntled previous owners burned the house down a week ago, or that all the windows have been broken and the copper plumbing has been removed by thieves and vandals…

A Dash for Cash

Unfortunately, when I began the registration process at around 8:00 a.m., they denied me access, saying that I needed at least $10,000 in cash or other negotiable funds in order to prove I could pay for any properties I might win, notwithstanding the fact that the instructional preparatory paperwork allowed payment in full after the entire auction ended — and nowhere did it mention needing to have $10,000 in your pocket.

Oh, sure! I carry $10,000 in my wallet all the time. Hello? I’m not exactly Bill Gates, and that’s not exactly pocket change. Instantly coming up with copious amounts of cash was just about the only thing I hadn’t planned for.

By now it was almost 8:30 a.m., the auction was slated to start at 9:00 a.m., and the bank didn’t open until 9:00 a.m.. Since I couldn’t be in two places at once, I figured I had to try something. Fortunately, I’d had that extra time to reconnoiter key building earlier. I walked a block away to the local bank branch, and hung around. About a quarter to nine, employees started arriving to work and I stopped two of the girls and asked to speak to the branch manager. They obliged, and I told the branch manager through the side door that I was in a jam and that I needed to have $10,000 to take to the county government offices in about ten minutes.

Smiling sweetly, I asked, “Would you mind opening the bank early for me?” If I’d had dimples, I would’ve used them, too.

She relented. Yet another blow, the checks I had brought with me weren’t good anymore — they were older line of credit checks that had apparently expired automatically. After three failed attempts at other methods of getting cash, I ended up putting the $10,000 on an empty credit card with a $50,000 limit. Despite the setbacks, timing was still in my favor; if I’d waited until the bank normally opened and gone through the same rigmarole, I would have missed the auction.

At 8:57 a.m., with money in hand (there was a heavy police presence all around so it was safe), I dashed back to the auditorium where I cut in a line of about 40 to 50 people, showed my money, and received my placard: bidder number 1 (I had already signed everything when I was previously first in line.)

The Auction Begins

About 250 people were in the room, more than half observers, learning the process, trying to figure out what to do. Most of the veterans, like myself, are pretty closed-mouthed — we’re not really that interested in educating others who will eventually be bidding competitors. Late-night TV infomercials sell education packages on buying properties through tax auctions, but they don’t tell you that the methods they propose don’t work here since California is not a tax-lien state. A lot of people have lost their life savings by following instructions given by these infomercials. Don’t be one of them.

Anyway, with only sixteen of the original hundred properties left on the block at the start of the auction, I was interested in two; the first I didn’t want to pay more than $55,000 for, the second worth no more than $50,000 as is. The auctioneer began, obviously a novice as she could barely keep track of the bids let alone the bidding numbers. She was equally confused and confusing. She should quit her day job.

There are four types of bidders: the veterans, the casual bidders, the casual investors, and the ardent wannabe homeowner. It’s easy to spot the long-time veterans at this; the suits, the briefcases, the reams of paper. A few others I recognize despite the Hawaiian shirts, the slicked-back coifs. Me, they think an easy target. I dress casually — Levis and denim shirt, tousled hair, unshaven — asking seemingly naive questions, putting them off the game, pretending I’m a different kind of player. My only potential giveaway is the clipboard I carry. When I bid, I don’t want them to know I’m a veteran, a pseudo-suit, a Hawaiian shirt, just like them. It’s this fourth group, the wannabes, that I emulate. The fourth group that the suits don’t bid against. Call it knowing that they don’t have a chance so they might as well let it go at a reasonable price. It is a game, and I’m a player.

As usual, it worked. I outlasted the suits and shirts. I just didn’t outlast the casual investors this time.

An hour later, I left, disappointed, heading back to Wells Fargo to return the no-longer-needed money. The auctions were hotly contested, but the first house eventually went for $57,000 (just over my limit) and the second sold for $66,000. Neither too rich for my blood, just past the comfort level of money I wanted to spend for either property considering the amount of work needed to get them back into shape for resale on the open market. I’m in it for the money; once that financial threshold is met, my interest is gone; I won’t put potential profit margins at risk.

I arrived with the idea of potentially buying both properties, and left with a slightly frustrated sigh and an accrued interest charge for “borrowing” the $10,000 for just an hour and fifteen minutes. No wonder I call them Wells Chargo.

I was at work by 11:30 a.m.

Oh, well. Maybe next year. Maybe I’ll wear shorts next time.

Manifest Parse Error

The Problem

I decided to give Microsoft one more chance to have one of its (non)operating systems on my primary home computer. After reformatting my drive and beginning installing Windows XP from a freshly opened WinXP CD that I received direct from Dell, the following message appeared: “Manifest Parse error: Invalid at top level of document”. The installation failed and stopped because it could not correctly parse the CONTROLS.MAN file.

There are many theories as to what causes the error. Many folks prefer to keep their original disks in close-to-pristine condition and install from CD copies, yet rumors abound that as many as 60-70% of copies experience this error during installation. On the other hand, hundreds of people have gotten the error while installing from fresh-out-of-the-shrink-wrap, boxed versions of Windows XP. I’ve heard everything from “it’s a copy protection scheme” to “it locks you out after three installations”. None of the theories seem to be accurate.

I must be a glutton for punishment, because rather than scrapping the OS completely, I decided to push all the theories aside and figure out how to get around the problem. Old habits — like most computers running Microsoft operating systems — die hard.

The Solution

The /i386/asms/6000/msft/windows/common/controls/ file on the CD is corrupt. Microsoft’s installation program doesn’t allow you to select an alternate source location for the file. It doesn’t even allow you full command prompt access. And the Recovery Program is useless, as it doesn’t even allow you to copy directories or copy using wildcards!

Copy your entire CD to your harddrive, use my version of the CONTROLS.MAN file (don’t forget to change the file extension), and burn another CD. In theory, you could copy the entire i386 directory to your harddrive, replace the damaged file, and then run \i386\winnt.exe to install, but if you really want a reliable and stable system, it is not wise to install the XP operating system over an existing, older OS. Burning a CD is the best viable option for a fresh, clean install.

Whether the new OS works well enough to dissuade me from breaking down and purchasing an iMac remains to be seen.

Funny Thoughts to Live By

Some random thoughts on life you’ve heard before, and maybe some you haven’t:

  • There are only three kinds of people; people who can count and people who can’t.
  • There are only 10 kinds of people; people who grok binary and people who don’t.
  • No problem is so big and complicated that it can’t be run away from.
  • The early bird gets the worm, but the early worm gets eaten.
  • You know it must be Spring when you’re breathing in short pants.

Photo © / Simon Ushakov

And pants don’t get much shorter than these!

  • The trouble with the rat-race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.
  • Never test the depth of the water with both feet.
  • If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.
  • Sex is like air. It’s not important unless you aren’t getting any.
  • For every action, there is an equal and opposite government program.
  • Bills travel through the mail at twice the speed of checks.
  • Always yield to temptation; it may not pass your way again.
  • Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.
  • Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.
  • Those who try to do something and fail are better off than those who try to do nothing and succeed.
  • There are two rules for success in life: Rule 1: Don’t tell people everything you know.
  • If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.
  • Never argue with an idiot. They drag you down to their level then beat you with experience.
  • Having a smoking section in a restaurant is a little like having a peeing section in a pool.
  • Always remember that you’re unique — just like everyone else.
  • Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a mechanic.
  • If you must choose between two evils, pick the one you’ve never tried before.
  • Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.
  • The things that come to those that wait may be the things left by those who got there first.
  • Everyday I beat my own previous record for number of consecutive days I’ve stayed alive.