The N.D.A. In Silicon Valley Real Estate

As an information technology (I.T.) worker in Silicon Valley, I’ve signed many Non-Disclosure Agreements (N.D.A.s) over the years to keep secret anything that I learn during the course of my employment. Due to the nature of my work in I.T. support, I seldom have access to privilege information that an outsider might find valuable. I’m not surprise to read in The New York Times that the N.D.A. culture has come to real estate in Silicon Valley, as newly minted millionaires—or billionaire, in the case of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—renovate their McMansions.

These powerful documents, demanding the utmost secrecy, are being required of anyone associated with the homes of a small but growing number of tech executives, according to real estate agents, architects and contractors. Sometimes the houses themselves are bought through trusts or corporate entities so that the owners’ names are not on public deeds.

Requiring construction workers to sign N.D.A.s raise more questions about who the owner is than it does to protect the owner’s privacy. Most N.D.A.s has a time limit. After several years goes by, nothing prevents a construction worker from revealing that the bathroom fixtures were solid gold, the kitchen counters were from handpicked marble slabs from Italy, and the multi-level garage has a car elevator. If wealthy owners want to maintain their privacy, they should dial down their public display of conspicuous consumption.

A 92-year-old Vermont man passed away recently, surprising family and friends when he left an $8 million stock portfolio to the local library and non-profit hospital. He drove around in a 2007 Toyota Yaris, collected tree branches for firewood, and held his winter coat together with a safety-pin. Because he lived a modest lifestyle that didn’t draw unwanted attention, no one knew he was wealthy.

My father built the planter walls for the million-dollar homes in the Silver Creek Valley area. The conspicuous consumption offended his Great Depression sensibilities with so much money wasted on so few people. That the city of San Jose spent $200 million to extend water and sewer into the arid foothills offended my own sensibilities. If you throw enough campaign contributions at city hall, you too can get taxpayer money to run water uphill. We both gloated over the news that the homeowner association nearly filed for bankruptcy after the Great Recession, as the million-dollar homes stood empty and the remaining residents balked at paying higher fees to maintain the common areas.

My brother’s in-laws bought a million-dollar home in the foothills of Gilroy, which I thought was obscene. The kitchen was larger than my studio apartment, and the wet bar was bigger than my kitchen. The in-laws bought the five-bedroom house to store family heirloom furniture that they couldn’t depart with but weren’t using anyway. Since they didn’t want to spend their retirement years cleaning a big house, they sold the house in a short sale and moved their furniture collection to a farmstead outside of Boston. The only cool thing I liked about that house was the 30-foot-tall wired fence that kept a prowling mountain cat away from the BBQ pit.

New Mail Carrier Didn’t Get The Memo

If you lived in an apartment complex for a long time, say, nearly ten years, you get used to how certain things get done. The mail carriers, for example, never deliver the packages to the door. Most people aren’t home during the day and packages left at the door tend to walk. Unlike the apartment complex I previously lived at for a brief period of time (six months), the leasing office doesn’t sign for packages. The mail carriers puts the package inside the lock box or return to the post office, leaving behind a lock box key or pick up slip in the mailbox. This month a new mail carrier who didn’t get the memo.

I’m in the process of rebuilding my FreeNAS file server by replacing parts round robin style. I started off with a NZXT Source 210 case that can hold eight hard drives, moving everything out of the old Dell Inspiron 570 that I inherited from my late father in 2012. This case had a single 120mm fan and mountings for six more 120mm fans. I subsequently ordered a pair of DeepCool 120mm fans for the front mountings to blow air over the existing four hard drives. Despite being in a roomier case with larger fans, the file server was unstable unless I laid the case on its side and took off the side panel for the heat to escape.

Earlier this month I ordered a CompTIA Security+ certification book and a bar of orange hand soap from Amazon. I got a text notification that the package got delivered but it didn’t say which carrier delivered it. After coming home from work that day, I found no lock box key or pickup notice in the mailbox. No package at my apartment door, which was more likely with Amazon and meant that the package had walked. I waited a few days to see if the tracking information was incorrect. Still no package. I notified Amazon early Saturday morning and the replacement package from Las Vegas arrived 12 hours later.

I ordered another pair of 120mm fans from NewEgg. Like the Amazon package the week before, I got a text notification that the package got delivered. Not exactly. The package got sent from the east coast via UPS and transferred to the post office for local delivery. (NewEgg normally ships my orders from their west coast location.) The website tracking showed no movement from the post office. For the next several days, I waited for a lock box key or a pickup notice inside my mailbox. Still no package.

I contacted UPS, who told me that the package was no longer their responsibility after handing off to the post office, and NewEgg, who told me to wait a few more days for the post office to get its act together. A week after UPS handed off the package to the post office, I filed a claimed with NewEgg and requested a refund for the “lost” package. On the day I got the refund from NewEgg, I got a text notification that the post office delivered my package.

Still no lock box key or pick up notice in my mailbox. No package at my door. I noticed a NewEgg box sitting at the door down the hallway. This door typically gets Amazon boxes. I checked the address label on the box—and it was my package. Correct apartment number on the package, but left at the wrong apartment door. Now I had to go through the trouble of returning the refund to NewEgg, as I was keeping the package now that I got it.

Stepping inside my apartment, I noticed a pickup notice stuck to the backside bottom of my door. When I first moved into my apartment, the door had a half-inch gap at the bottom for envelopes and insects to come through. The electric company had an energy efficiency campaign a year later that got the leasing office to install weather-stripping on all the apartment doors. Somehow the mail carrier shoved the pickup notice through the weather-stripping. I came to the conclusion that the mail carrier was new to the job, and filed a complaint with the postmaster general.

As for the file server, I put the new fans into the top mounts to blow hot air out. Five fans didn’t improve things by much. The hard drive at the very bottom of the case was consistently overheating to make the file server unresponsive. This hard drive was also seven-years-old and overdue for replacement, which was the last thing on my to-do list. I moved the fan from the second top mounting to the bottom mounting to blow in cooler air. The hard drive stopped overheating. The CPU temperature ticked up a few degrees from the new flow of hot air. Another fan from NewEgg for the second top mounting should do the trick.

Not sure if the new mail carrier got the memo on delivering packages.

Trashing The No Trash Sign

Bad enough that my apartment complex became pet-friendly a few years ago, granting the neighbors and their “small” dogs permission to piddle on my front doorstep in the hallway. Now my neighbors are dumping their smelly trash bags in the elevator foyer, expecting someone else to haul their garbage out. Since the sewer-and-garbage bill was no longer part of the rent, and the leasing office re-branded this 1960’s housing project as luxury apartments, maybe the neighbors want maid service. A laser-printed sign went up in the foyer: “TAKE TRASH OUTSIDE – NO TRASH IN HALLWAY!”

Not surprisingly, someone trashed the no trash sign. Colorful words in blue pen filled out the blank areas. Corners of the page got ripped off, as if someone needed paper to write a phone number in a hurry. The sign got ripped up into small pieces and scattered around the foyer like dead mice from a cat. Someone did get the message. The smelly trash bags stopped appearing in the hallway.

A bigger trash problem happened outside at the dumpsters around the complex, as overflowing construction debris—mostly 2×4’s and drywall from a remodeling—appeared during the summer nights. This is the most expensive type of garbage to get rid of in Santa Clara County. The maintenance guys had to break it up and move it by wheelbarrow over to their own dumpster behind a locked chain-link fence. A waste of time and money for everyone involved.

One night I heard a loud boom out in the parking lot. Looking out my balcony door, I saw a construction truck backed up to the dumpsters and someone tossing construction debris into the dumpsters. If I had a camera that could take good pictures at night, I would have gone outside and taken pictures for the leasing office to file a police report. I did talk to the maintenance guy breaking up the debris the next morning. He couldn’t understand why no one living in the apartment building behind the dumpsters reported anything. Their line-of-sight of the person and the license plate on the truck was better than mine across the way.

The leasing office didn’t put up any laser-printed signs to stop the illegal dumping. The maintenance guys built walls and a gate around each set of dumpsters. That stopped the dumping of construction debris. The neighbors, however, continued to ignore the posted sign on what can and cannot go into the garbage and recyclable dumpsters, dumping their smelly trash into the nearest dumpster or on the ground.

Enduring One-Half Of A Weird Brownout

The familiar “POP!” sound from outside of my apartment on a hot summer day meant that the power transformer out on the street gone kablooey, plunging the complex into a brownout that produces enough power to run small appliances and flickering lights, turning on the hallway emergency lights in the hallways (if the batteries weren’t dead), and making the filter in my fish tank gurgle loudly in protest. This time around my apartment suffered a brownout that affected only the kitchen and the bathroom. Poking my head out into the hallway, the overhead lights were still at full power. No flickering lights or dead batteries. It didn’t make sense.

After checking the circuit breakers, my initial assumption was that one-half of the circuit breakers went bad. This happened shortly after I moved into my apartment nearly nine years ago, where the circuit breakers for the kitchen went bad and the maintenance guy replaced them. Fortunately, this assumption was wrong. The power came back on 90 minutes later. A PG&E truck drove around the complex to check out the power meters in the outdoor utility boxes.

Why did the brownout affect one-half of the circuit breakers?

The answer that made sense was that one-half of the circuit breakers were on a separate power circuit. The maintenance crew enlarged the utility boxes around the power meters earlier this year, allowing PG&E to replace the analog power meters with newer digital power meters. If the apartments got wired with two main lines running into each circuit breaker box, one of the main lines got re-wired to a different path to the power grid.

The construction work done within the complex over the last few years had to do with running utility lines through the emergency back entrance. When the complex got built in 1969, the utility lines ran from the street in front and represented a single-point of failure. When I lived in my apartment during the early years, an outage that required a major repair job to the utility lines affected the entire complex. One winter I had to endure five days without running water and took showers at the gym. That doesn’t happen anymore.

The apartment complex now has dual utility lines that make a single-point of failure less inconvenient. Well, almost. I can get used to enduring one-half of a brownout, especially if it impacts the part of the apartment I’m not using at the time. The water pressure in the bathroom is strong, consistent and tastes great, but the water pressure in the kitchen is weak, inconsistent and taste like a rubber hose.

A Very Loud Fourth of July in Silicon Valley

Explosion Day @ Penny ArcadeDuring the nine years that I lived in my Silicon Valley studio apartment, most Fourth of July fireworks celebrations were quiet affairs. With the fireworks celebration at the Children’s Discovery Museum being a few miles away, I normally heard the air cannons thumping the earth and a distant boom in the sky. Not this year. Seemed like everyone got multiple boxes of Satan’s Orgasm and blew the neighborhood to Kingdom Come. Fireworks exploded loud enough to set off car alarms and rattle my windows. One idiot lost both hands from lighting a “mortar-type” firework.

Selling, buying and lighting fireworks are illegal in most parts of Santa Clara County. A wise precaution since California is officially in a severe drought and most lawns are various shades of brown. A wayward firecracker could easily set off a grass fire. My friend and I recently tried to get on to the 280 from Meridian Avenue when a fire truck blocked the ramp. As we drove around the fire truck, we saw that the fire started at the base of the embankment, as if a passenger flicked away cigarette, to blacken the dried grass and send plums of white smoke into the air. Fortunately, this stretch of embankment wasn’t large enough to snarl the rest of the freeway.

If you really wanted to get some fireworks, you drove down to Gilroy to get the “safe and sane” fireworks that are nothing but the pale whimper of the fireworks I lit as a child in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s. If you wanted some serious fireworks, you drove down to Mexico City to buy firecrackers by the bricks, bottle rockets by the grocery bags, and cherry bombs by the fistfuls. Some of my friends did that several times in the 1980’s. I’m not even sure if that can still be done today in post-9/11 America.

While going to college in the 1990’s, I visited my parents for Fourth of July in Sacramento. The ubiquitous firework stands of my childhood are still legal there. We bought a small box of fireworks that contained my favorite fireworks: the Ground Bloom Flowers that looked like spinning roses and shifted colors three times before burning out. Alas, the fireworks stands no longer sell the Ground Bloom Flowers or anything else individually. You must buy an entire box set even if you don’t want the sparklers, snakes and screamers.

As I ran errands over the weekend, I talked with the assistant manager at my bank. She lives in a different part of my neighborhood. Not only did she confirmed that fireworks were unusually loud this year, but people were shooting them off on the street in front of her apartment. Walking through the parking lot for CVS, I spotted the burnt out remains of fireworks. It’s one thing to find an empty dumpster to toss a cherry bomb into for a really loud boom or exploding a few fireworks in the front yard. (Or, God forbid, shooting bottle rockets off the balcony as one idiot did several years ago.) Shooting off fireworks in a public parking lot was something else. It certainly wasn’t quiet.

The Nickel-&-Dime Business For “Other” Utilities

Upside Down Piggy BankWhen I first moved into my apartment almost eight years ago, I didn’t have to pay for the water, sewage and garbage. As the Great Recession lingered on, the new residents had to pay for those services and existing residents were “grandfathered” from paying. That changed last year. I wasn’t happy to pay an extra $60 USD per month, especially with a nickel-and-dime utility billing company (i.e., a $2.50 USD “convenience” fee for paying by credit/debit card).

I mailed a check immediately after receiving the bill in the mail because that was FREE. On the few occasions that my check was “late” (it wasn’t) and my account was hit with a $15 USD late charge, I talked the leasing office into rescinding the late charge. After the paper bill failed to show up in the mail for two months in a row, I sent off letters to start the document chain to file a complaint with the department of consumer affairs. I eventually gave in to paying the damn the convenience fee to avoid the monthly hassles I was going through with the leasing office.

These utility billing companies fall into a legal gray area where they aren’t regulated by the state and local laws, can nickel-and-dime consumers every which way, and use the threat of eviction to encourage prompt payment. The first time I saw the notice that I was behind on the utilities (the paper bill went “missing” in the mail) that threatened eviction taped on the door for everyone to read, I was pissed me off. The leasing manager promised to change the language of the notice since an eviction wouldn’t happen until after the second or third warning for non-payment. The notice was never changed.

I found a new notice on my door that the leasing office was changing utility billing companies. Tenants will no longer have to pay a convenience fee for using their credit/debit card, and can pay the utility bill with their rent at the leasing office. The new billing company wasn’t in the nickel-and-dime business. That was a good change for everyone at the complex. And then I read the next to last paragraph on the notice.

The leasing office reserved the right to apply payment to any unpaid utility bill balance first and the rent balance second. If your check doesn’t cover everything, the utility bill will get paid first, the remainder towards rent and a $150 USD fee for failure to pay the rent in full. This is the same tactic that the banks used to generate overdraft fees by paying the checks first and applying deposits last before Congress put an end to such abusive practices.

Unlike these utility billing companies, the leasing office does fall under state and local laws. I’ll see how this situation plays out before I start writing letters to elected officials and government agencies. This nickel-and-dime business to generate extra income at someone else’s expense has to come to an end.