Protect the Ones You Love

It’s Spring. New Year’s resolutions are a fading memory for some of us, but the budding trees bring out the instinct to start spring cleaning and putting things in order. It’s the time of year when we focus on the things we put off because they are difficult or unpleasant. Thinking about what would happen if you can’t take of yourself is one of those things.

Many of my clients have told me that they know they need a living trust to stay out of probate when they die. What most people don’t know is that there can be probate when you are alive, too. If you become incapacitated due to age, illness, or accident, planning would be the difference between your loved ones taking care of you informally, or having to go to probate court. For example, I’ve seen people who have been unable to refinance their homes without court approval because a spouse can’t sign loan papers.

Health laws protect our privacy, but they also make it more difficult for your loved ones to talk to your doctor. Medical personnel can insist that you go to probate court before any information is released. Parents of college students have found out that while they are legally responsible for the bills, they have no right to information or to make decisions.

This means that every person over the age of 18 should have a durable Power of Attorney for financial matters and an Advance Health Care Directive. Planning for incapacity may be something you want to put off, but doing it protects you and your loved ones. So, as you are doing your spring cleaning, make a resolution to make things easier for someone to care for you if you can’t take care of yourself.

The March King: John Philip Sousa

Rarely in the annals of American history does one encounter a man so well known, so admired, so respected and so loved by millions as John Philip Sousa, “The March King.” It is said that he was more thought of and more famous than even some presidents of the United States.

Early Years
Sousa was born November 6, 1854 in Washington, D.C. the third of ten children. His parents: John Antonio Sousa was born in Sevilla, Spain of Portuguese parents and his mother was Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus from Bavaria. His father was a trombone player in the United States Marine Band known as “The President’s Own.” Sousa’s aptitude and talent was recognized at an early age. His father enlisted him in the Marine Band as a boy apprentice musician when he was thirteen years old – after he tried to run away to join a circus band. Sousa went to public schools but privately studied violin, piano, other wind instruments, harmony and composition. Sousa married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis on December 30, 1879. They had three children: John Philip, Jr., Jane Priscilla and Helen Sousa.

Military Service
Sousa established himself as a first rate musician playing violin in local theater orchestras and was soon conducting them. In 1880, at the age of 26, Sousa was appointed conductor of the Marine Band, a post he held until 1892 when he resigned to form his own band. He led the Marine Band under five presidents. During World War I he was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S Naval Reserve and led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. Instead of accepting pay he donated his Naval Salary to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund. After returning to his own band at the end of the war, he continued to wear his naval uniform for most of his concerts and other public appearances.

Sousa’s Band

He attracted the country’s best musicians and with Sousa’s leadership the band became one of the finest musical organizations in America and the world. They appeared at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and after making four European tours they were booked for a world tour in 1910-11. Sousa hired Herbert L. Clarke, cornet, Arthur Pryor, trombone, and Simone Mantia, euphonium, and others who were some of the most celebrated solo artists of the time. Sousa did not like recorded music. It was Sousa who coined the phrase “canned music” in 1906. This was due to lack of personal contact with the audience. When the band did make a recording Sousa usually would not conduct. He finally consented to conduct the band for a radio broadcast in 1929. They were an immediate hit.


Probably the most famous march in the world, The Stars and Stripes Forever is a patriotic American march widely considered to be the magnum opus of composer John Philip Sousa. By an act of Congress it is the National March of the United States of America. Other great and popular Sousa marches are Washington Post, El Capitan, Semper Fidelis, The Thunderer plus many more. Do not be deceived by the moniker “March King.” True, he composed 136 marches, many well-known and played throughout the world to this day. But that was just a small portion of his compositional output. Basically a humble, religious man, his musical compositions reflect that he was truly inspired and he stated that his melodies came from a “Higher Power.”

Besides marches he also composed: 15 operettas; 15 suites; two descriptive pieces; 70 songs; seven other vocal works; 11 waltzes; 12 dance form pieces; 14 humoresques; 27 band fantasies; three orchestra fantasies; 6 incidental pieces; 4 overtures and over 300 arrangements and transcriptions.

Sousa was also an author. He penned seven books as well as his autobiography “Marching Along” and over 130 articles for various periodicals and newspapers.

He was a man of many talents and interests including an expert horseman of championship caliber. Surprisingly he was also an outstanding trap shooter and founded the first national trap shooting organization.

Touring with his band continued until his death. Sousa was quoted as saying, ”When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead!” He died in Reading, Pennsylvania March 6, 1932. He was 77 years old and is buried with his family in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

When Sousa died the world lost a giant in the field of musical composition and band directing. There may never be one like him again. He was truly one of a kind.

Please submit your questions and comments to
Visit our website at for up-to-date information about the Danville
Community Band.

Handsome Bill: Adventures in the Desert

Beneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s recent Oscars event lies the central point of it all—it is a recognition of creative excellence. And the point should never be missed that most, if not every award given has roots in some written work. I don’t know the statistics but I would venture that few “Best Picture” Oscars exist where a “Best Screenplay” did not precede it.

So then, is it true that all of the best creative work in the land was recognized and celebrated at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011? If you’re not sure, I have definitive proof that it is not so. I offer a local, little book as my evidence—Handsome Bill: Adventures in the Desert.

Written by Edith Nettleton and illustrated by Carole Peterson Dwinell, Handsome Bill: Adventures in the Desert is officially listed under the Juvenile Fiction category, although parents will enjoy reading it just as much as their kids. It’s a warm and friendly tale about a little house mouse named Handsome Bill who goes on a wondrous adventure into the desert with his mouse-friend, Cactus Joe.

Staying in his own tiny mouse hole in a big house, Handsome Bill is cared for by Ben and Sally, two children who leave bits of food for Handsome Bill each day. They’ve even provided him with some cozy rags to sleep in. Handsome Bill lives a pretty comfortable life, at least as far as mice go, but it’s soon time for Handsome Bill to learn a bit about how other mice live.

Handsome Bill is paid a visit by his out-of-doors mouse-friend, Cactus Joe, who convinces Handsome Bill to join him on a trip to his home out in the desert. Cactus Joe lives in an all together different mouse-house—one located, not in a house, but in a saguaro cactus.

On their way to Cactus Joe’s, handsome Bill encounters a world he didn’t know existed. He learns that he can wet his whistle by nibbling on a prickly pear cactus and that he and other animals can find water in the desert in little “wells” dug by coyotes. While Handsome Bill encounters some amazing things and beautiful sights in the desert, he really has a lot to learn too, because amongst those amazing things are all kinds of creatures that have mice on their diet lists! Handsome Bill (and readers) learn all about desert life. There are rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and owls; gilded flickers, tarantulas, turkey vulture, grasshopper mice and more.

Author Edith Neddleton, a long time docent at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California, has masterfully woven a treasure trove of educational material into an imagination-sparking, fun and lively story for children of all ages. Neddleton’s artful prose is perfectly framed by the superb illustrations rendered by Carole Peterson Dwinell. The book is a perfect blend on images and imagery that leaves one hungry for a, “Part two: The Further Adventures of…”
Handsome Bill: Adventures in the Desert is a parent’s (and educator’s) dream of a book because it educates in the most effective way possible—it is just plain fun to read!

It is sure to become a favorite of children everywhere.

March Means Green…and Lots of It

March delivers just enough springtime to whet our appetites. Along with chilly evenings and the occasional rainy day, we are also treated to flashes of sunshine, emerald-colored hills, and colorful, sprightly flowers. At the farmers’ market tender spring vegetables like asparagus, artichokes, and peas come on strong, pushing aside winter’s broccoli and Brussels sprouts. I like to celebrate the change of season by giving these fresh young debutantes the starring role at dinner.

To my way of thinking there is no better vehicle for this than risotto—the original fast food, made slowly.Small portions make a memorable first course, but when accompanied by a crisp salad and crusty artisan bread, you’ve got yourself a perfectly satisfying meatless dinner. I love risotto’s romantic quality, especially the relaxed pace of preparation—leisurely stirringthe pot in a cozy kitchen, transforming a few simple ingredients into a four-star meal in a matter of minutes. No wonder this classic rice dish is so popular: it’s economical, filling, and utterly delicious.

Look around the farmers’ market and you’ll notice that vegetables that come into season at the same time generally taste good together. (Mother Nature is one clever gal.) So play around with the mix here to suit your fancy. Shelled, blanched and peeled fava beans; green onions; sautéed leeks; or tiny artichokes— trimmed, halved, and steamed until tender—make other winning additions. With or without them, however, this risotto contains enough green to make it a viable alternative to corned beef & cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. (I’m Irish, so I can say that.)

When you set up your mise en place in advance, this dish comes together effortlessly…which I view as a good opportunity to sip wine as I cook.Go ahead and double the recipe if needed. The cooking time will remain about the same if you just use a larger pot—like a Dutch oven or a wide, heavy-bottomed sauté pan.

Risotto with Spring Vegetables

  1. 1 pound farm-fresh asparagus
  2. 1 tablespoon California olive oil
  3. 1 garlic clove, minced
  4. 1 cup shelled peas (from 1 pound unshelled peas)
  5. Salt and freshly ground pepper
  6. 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  7. 1 small onion, finely chopped
  8. 1 cup Arborio rice*
  9. 2/3 cup dry white wine
  10. 4 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth (preferably homemade)
  11. 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
  12. 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives or mint (optional)
  1. Trim off and discard the tough ends from the asparagus. Cut spears diagonally into 1-inch pieces, leaving the tips intact.
  2. In a 4-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and cook until just fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the asparagus and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until bright green, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook, stirring, 1 minute longer. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  3. In the same pot, melt two-thirds of the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until translucent and coated with the butter, about 2 minutes.
  4. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring often, until the wine is absorbed and the alcohol evaporates, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Pour in 1 cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring often, until absorbed. Continue adding broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring often, until the broth is absorbed and the rice mixture is very soft andcreamy and each grain is tender but still slightly firm in the center, about 15 minutes total.
  5. Stir in the reserved vegetables and cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat and stir inthe cheese and theremaining butteruntil melted and smooth. Taste, adding salt and freshly ground pepper as needed. Serve at once in warmed shallow bowls or plates, topping each serving with a sprinkling of chives. Pass extra Parmesan at the table. Serves 3 to 4.

* I prefer to use Italian Arborio or Carnaroli rice, which gives this dish its character and requisite creamy texture. In a pinch, however, any short-grain white rice will do.

Note: If you have any leftover risotto (something unheard of in my house) simply refrigerate it overnight. When firm, form it into small patties and sauté in olive oil to serve as a side-dish at any meal.

When buying asparagus, select firm, bright green stalks with little or no white and tight, dry tips. Asparagus breaks down quickly after harvest, losing sugar and moisture, so check the ends; if they are shriveled and dry, the stalks are old.

  • To ensure even cooking time, choose asparagus spears that are all about the same thickness.
  • Thick or thin? Like people, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Asparagus plants live 8 to 10 years. Young plants produce thin asparagus; mature plants produce thicker spears.
  • To store, wrap asparagus in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 4 days. If the spears begin to go limp after 2 or 3 days, rehydrate by cutting a bit off the ends and standing them upright in a container filled with about an inch of water; cover loosely with a plastic bag and refrigerate for an hour or two.
  • To remove tough ends from asparagus before cooking: Hold a spear near the middle with one hand and near the bottom-end with the other hand. Gently bend the asparagus; it will snap apart at the spot where it begins to get tough. (If you’re a neat-nik, go ahead and trim the ends with a knife.) Discard the tough ends….or freeze them for stock, or toss them in the compost pile.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM or visit their web site at

2011 Acura MDX – Luxury and Performance in an SUV!

When one typically thinks of a sports vehicle the mind takes you to a low riding car with a powerful V8 under the hood and limited room for a few passengers. That packaging works out great if you are either traveling without kids or have become an empty nester. But what about the rest of us who still require room for the car-seat, multiple family members, and the collection of travel items that come with a family? Well, Acura has our backs by blending the DNA of a sport sedan with the best must-have elements of an SUV with its 2011 MDX.

Honda was the first of the Japanese automotive manufacturers to create a luxury brand in the form of Acura. Over the years Acura has continued to create well appointed vehicles but somewhere lost its direction and slipped into the gray area between luxury and near-luxury. Their current offerings are hedging back up the luxury ladder, while focusing on delivering technologically advanced, upscale vehicles at reasonable prices. Evidence of this trend can be confirmed by examining and driving the 2011 Acura MDX.

The 2011 Acura MDX is a luxury SUV combining advanced technology, luxury touches throughout, dynamic styling with superior handling and a high performance power train. For 2011, the MDX is available in five trim levels: MDX ($42,580), MDX with Technology Package ($46,225), MDX with Technology and Entertainment Packages ($48,155), MDX with Advance Package ($52,205), and MDX with Advance and Entertainment Packages ($54,105).

What first catches your eye and is the most identifying exterior feature of the MDX – Acura’s signature front grille design, along with a bold front fascia and eye-popping headlamps. This second generation MDX was redesigned in 2007 and had significant changes for the 2010 model year. For 2011 it remains unchanged. The 2011 MDX features an edgy exterior with integrated polished stainless-steel exhaust tail pipes in the rear fascia as it sits tall on its 18-inch 5-spoke aluminum wheels. The Advance Package upgrades the wheels to 19-inch with 7-spokes and includes an Active Damper System that further improves the handling, comfort, and ride quality.

Acura’s engineers targeted the driving feel of luxury European SUV competitors when designing the chassis. The 2011 MDX rides on 4-wheel fully independent suspension and All-wheel drive. Not to get overly technical, the front suspension uses unique hydro-compliance bushings that provide an incredible ride isolation and chassis vibration control. The Active Damper System of the MDX uses algorithms providing two-driver selectable settings: Comfort and Sport – converting the ride from comfortable to a sport feel.

The 2011 MDX interior is detailed with luxury accoutrements including a generous use of Milano premium leather included on the Technology Package. Other MDX features include sport contoured 10-way power front driver seat (8-way power front passenger seat), second row outboard seats, under the rear cargo floor storage and a power operated rear tailgate. A third row seat increases the seating capacity to seven, but can also be folded flat along with the second row to produce a maximum useable cargo volume of 83.5 cubic feet.

A partial list of standard equipment items include: power moon roof, power windows, leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel with racing-inspired paddle shifters, an integrated rear view camera, Bluetooth® HandsFreeLink® wireless telephone interface, a Multi-Information Display, LED backlit instrumentation and an 8-speaker, 253-watt Acura Premium Sound System featuring an AM/FM tuner, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, WMA player, MP3 capability, XM® Radio and an auxiliary jack for connectivity of personal audio devices.
The Technology Package highlights the Acura Navigation System with a Voice Recognition™ system that uses an 8-inch full VGA high-resolution color display positioned at the top of the center instrument panel. The display also works with a unique rearview camera system that offers three different rear view angles; normal rear view, wide angle rear view and a tow-friendly top view. The navigation system includes AcuraLink Real-Time Traffic with a new Traffic Re-routing™.

Available with only one engine type, Acura’s smooth 3.7-liter V6 delivers the power of a V8 with the fuel economy of a V6 earning an EPA-rating of 16/21 miles per gallon City/Highway. The 3.7-liter generates 300 horsepower and is coupled with a Sequential SportShift 6-speed automatic transmission that works with a special multi-clutch torque converter. The all-wheel drive system is what Acura titles SH-AWD® and delivers an advanced full-time AWD system that works in conjunction with the standard Vehicle Stability Assist™ with traction control on the MDX. The SH-AWD® provides enhanced power delivery and driver control whether it is on-road or off-road, on dry pavement, or in the rain, snow or ice.

Room for improvement:

  • The third row seat is a little tight

Cool Features:

  • Real-Time Traffic Re-routing
  • Rear-view camera option
  • Adaptive Cruise Control

The 2011 Acura MDX has numerous standard “active safety” features that help the driver reduce the risk of collision including Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) along with an anti-lock braking system (ABS), Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), and Brake Assist. The Advance Package also includes the Collision Mitigating Braking System™, which assists the driver in reducing the likelihood of a collision by alerting the driver to potential collision situations and activating the brakes if the system determines a collision is likely unavoidable. Additional standard safety features includes: the latest generation of dual-stage, multiple-threshold airbags for the driver and front passenger, knee bolsters, front seatbelts with an automatic tensioning system with integrated load limiters, side airbags for the driver and front passenger along with side curtain airbags (with a rollover sensor), and active front head restraints.

In Summary: The 2011 Acura MDX is distinctive, powerful, luxurious, packed with technology, and has plenty of room for your family and their accessories. The AWD system on the MDX improves the safety and handling in all types of road conditions making it a perfect choice for the winter ski trips. If you are in the market for a sophisticated, upscale SUV that is extremely capable, then place the 2011 MDX at the top of your shopping list!

For more information and a complete list of features and specifications go to

2011 Acura MDX Advance Entertainment

Base price: $54,105 as driven: $54,965 (including destination)
Engine: 3.7-Liter 6-cylinder
Horsepower: 300 @ 6300
Torque: 270 foot pounds @ 4500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission with Sportshift
Drive: All Wheel-Drive
Seating: 7-passenger
Turning circle: 37.6 feet
Cargo space: 83.5 cubic feet
Curb weight: 4627 pounds
Fuel capacity: 21 gallons
EPA mileage: 21 highway, 16 city
Wheel Base: 108.3 inches
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles
Also consider: BMW X5, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lexus RX 350, Lincoln MKT, and Mercedes-Benz ML-Class

ALIVE Book Review: The Grimm Legacy

The Grimm Legacy starts when a quiet, studious, teenage girl named Elizabeth Rew gets a recommendation from her social studies teacher to work as a page at the New York Circulating Materials Repository. It is a library that lends objects instead of books. Elizabeth may not fit in very well at school or at home with her new stepmom and stepsisters, but at the library she finds a glorious and welcoming world. The description of the regular objects are fascinating enough, like Marie Antoinette’s wig, but there is a secret collection of magical objects like dancing slippers and mermaid combs from Grimm’s fairy tales that only special patrons can check out.

This is where things get really interesting. The descriptions and use of the magical objects combined with the relationships between the four teenage pages make for a great story. When magical items start disappearing and everyone is suspect, it makes the story move along swiftly.

Author, Polly Shulman is incredibly inventive and creative throughout the book and makes the reader race through to see what happens next. She does a great job of weaving fantasy with the lives of modern day teenagers. The characters seem real enough that many teenagers could identify with them. Also, the lead character, Elizabeth, is a good role model with her strong moral courage and integrity throughout the book.

This book is also different because it is really written for a middle school audience but teenagers would certainly enjoy it and adults as well. There aren’t many books out there for this age group and it is rare to find a really good one. I would recommend it for sixth grade and up because there is a little romance thrown in there with the teenage characters.

The Grimm Legacy is a wonderful book full of magic and whimsy that will entertain kids and their parents alike.

Dave: ALIVE at the Movies

Eighteen years ago a movie hit the big screen that should be resurrected. This is me, Carolyn Hastings, exhuming Dave.

Dave was released in 1993. I loved it then and I loved it even more the second time around. With all the “stuff” hitting the proverbial fan right now, Dave Kovic would be a refreshing change.

Bill Mitchell is the philandering and out of touch President of the United States. Dave Kovic is a sweet-natured and caring Temp Agency owner, who, by a staggering coincidence, looks exactly like the President. As such, when Mitchell wants to escape an official luncheon, the Secret Service hires Dave to stand in for him. Unfortunately, Mitchell suffers a severe stroke while having sex with a staffer and Dave finds himself stuck in the role indefinitely. Corrupt and manipulative Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) has Oval Office aspirations and conspires to sit in the big seat. He even creates lies about the Vice President (Ben Kingsley) to discredit him and leave the path clear. The First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) who had been barely tolerating her husband, the President starts to see little differences in her husband. As Dave starts to get a feel for what being President should be, he starts having a few ideas of his own.

After Dave spends a day with the First Lady at a homeless shelter, Bob Alexander forges the President’s signature on a bill to cut the funding for the homeless shelter. The First Lady lashes out at Dave thinking that her husband had wielded the pen that slashed the much-needed program and Dave insists that the Chief of Staff makes it right. Alexander flippantly tells him that if he can figure out how to cut 650 million dollars out of the budget he can keep his “lousy shelter,” so Dave goes to work. He calls his accountant buddy, Murray Blum (Charles Grodin) to the White House to give him some advice. Murray says, “Who does these books? If I ran my business like this, I’d be out of business.” At the next Cabinet meeting, with some “simple changes in our cash management,” Dave gets it done and gets the shelters back. The First Lady starts to see something in Dave that she hasn’t seen in her husband, the President, in a very long time and the relationship starts to build.

Dave is light and sweet and terribly thought provoking. Is Dave Oscar material? No, but I’ve seen a lot worse take home the gold statue. Dave makes you think about what the government’s role is in our lives. Government is a tight rope…if it’s too big or too little, it fails. This little movie has a great cast and an incredible heart! I invite your comments at

The Dirt Gardener – Planting Tomatoes

Q. After a two-year layoff because of the gophers, I’ve decided to plant tomatoes again. My planting area is a thirty-inch wide strip between the house and the driveway facing east. This time, I plan to plant them in pulp containers buried in the ground, leaving two inches above the soil surface. The tomatoes will be planted in planting mix with gravel inside and under the containers. My containers are twelve inches wide across at the top. Will this be large enough or should I try to find a larger container?

A. I have several concerns with your plan. The eastern exposure is not the best for tomatoes. Tomatoes, like most of the summer vegetable,s require six hours or more of direct sunlight per day. They also like the heat from the afternoon sun to ripen the tomatoes. In your case, this may be a mute point as you have grown them here before. An eastern exposure is not the recommended location for tomatoes. A twelve-inch by twelve-inch container isn’t big enough for tomato plants as there isn’t enough room for the roots. However, in your scenario, the size of the container doesn’t matter. You’re planting in biodegradable pulp pots so the sides will decompose quickly from the soil moisture. Within eight to ten weeks, all you’ll be left with is the two-inch rim that is above the soil line. This leaves plenty of room for the roots and unfortunately for the gophers to be a problem again. A twenty-four inch by twenty to twenty four inch containers is the ideal size for tomatoes.

You should be able to find pulp pots or those with rigid sides with these dimensions. Before burying the pulps pots, the inside should be lined with chicken or poultry wire, so the majority of the roots are protected from the gophers when the sides decompose. The container size depends on whether you’re planting determinate or indeterminate tomato varieties. This information should be printed somewhere on the variety label. Determinate varieties are often referred to as “bush or patio” tomatoes, because they grow to a fixed mature size, usually four feet and all the tomatoes ripen in a short period, usually about two weeks. Once this first flush of fruit has ripened, the plant set little to no new fruit and the over all plant declines. Many paste or roma tomatoes are determinate varieties. Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes are called “vining” tomatoes. I like to refer to them as the Energizer Bunny tomatoes as they grow and grow and keep growing until the first frost, often reaching ten feet. They will bloom, set new fruit and ripen fruit all at the same time throughout the growing season. Examples of indeterminate varieties are Big Boy, Beef Master, most “cherry” types, Early Girl, and most of the heirloom tomatoes. Personally, I’d used a reusable rigid sided or plastic container rather than a pulp pot and grow them above the ground. Better yet, would be to locate and secure a site in a community garden.

Are Muni Bonds Safe?

The fiscal problems here in California and other states have been making headlines the last few months causing uncharacteristically high levels of volatility in the municipal bond market. This volatility has sent muni prices down and has led to sizable outflows from muni bond funds and ETFs. Many investors are wondering if they should be concerned about all the negative press and turmoil in the muni markets. In my opinion, the current muni headlines may mask opportunities for long term investors.

Muni bonds remain a relatively safe way to invest and earn tax-free income. The recent sell-off has led to some very attractive yields going forward. Yes, state and local budgets shortfalls are not going to be solved overnight. However, investors should note that fiscal conditions appear to be getting better. Tax revenues for state and local governments showed steady improvement in 2010. In fact, state and local governments have been running a surplus for the past 4 quarters, primarily due to increased tax receipts.1 States are also being forced to make meaningful budget cuts. These cuts in services may not be pleasant to us as residents, yet they should provide comfort as muni bond investors as it provides evidence that state and local governments are going to do what it takes to stay solvent and meet their debt obligations.

Municipal issuers also have the power to raise taxes and fees to balance budgets and that is exactly what is happening. The state of Illinois, often lumped in with California as one of the states in the direst shape, recently took a major step to solving their budget problems. They raised income taxes from 3% to 5% and increasing corporate rates from 4.8% to 7%.2

Claims of record municipal defaults for 2011 seem farfetched when viewed from a historical perspective. According to Moody’s Investors Service the average default rate for investment-grade muni bonds is 0.03%. This is much, much lower than for similarly rated corporate bonds. The one-year record for municipal defaults was $8.5 billion in 2008 and has declined to $7.3 billion in 2009 and $2.8 billion in 2010. These may seem like large numbers but represent a very small level of the $2.9 trillion muni market.2

Headline risk will continue to be a factor in the muni market. Ongoing budget problems will continue to dominate the news and be a concern to investors. However, muni bonds are at historically cheap levels versus corporate bonds.2 The municipal bond market is essential to state and local governments to fund a variety of projects like schools, bridges, roads and hospitals. These entities can simply not afford to alienate muni bond investors and bite the hand that feeds them. Currently the muni market is being dominated by fear, but fear can lead to opportunity. Warren Buffett put it best when he said, “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”

1. J.P. Morgan, Market Insights, Weekly Market Recap, 1-24-2011
2. Invesco, Investment Insights, Comments on Recent Municipal Market Volatility, 1-2011

Damien helps individuals invest and manage risk. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and a principal of Walnut Creek Wealth Management. These are the views of Damien Couture, CFP® and should not be construed as investment advice. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Your comments are welcome. Damien can be reached at 925-280-1800 x101 or

Pre-Qualified or Pre-Approved?

Q. Tom, we may be in the market to purchase a home in the next 3-4 months and we want to ensure that we are in the best position possible to obtain a loan; please explain the difference between being ‘pre-qualified’ versus being ‘pre-approved’ by a lender?

This is a very insightful question because not everyone is loan-worthy in today’s strict lending environment. Being pre-qualified means you may be eligible to obtain a loan based on what you have told your lender, being pre-approved means that the lender has verified your verbal information as accurate thereby insuring you will get a loan. The verification process includes confirming your credit score, bank deposits, assets & liabilities, employment and a documented history of your compensation. And it is in the documentation process where everything has changed in recent years in the lending business. Prior to the late 2007 real estate market correction, a loan applicant could actually write on a loan application any salary amount he or she wished and the figure was not verified. A person making $50,000 annually could actually write in $250,000 and no one would check it out. It was called a no-documentation loan. In today’s environment, it is hard to believe business was even done that way. As a result, yesterday’s lending guidelines are today’s lending restrictions, based on very exact underwriting debt to income ratios. And everything must be documented. So, the bottom line best advantage for you as a potential buyer and borrower in today’s marketplace is to be pre-approved by an experienced mortgage provider – that is the leverage from which you will benefit tremendously once you make an offer on any home. And, by the way, once your lender pre-approves you, don’t change anything—don’t change jobs, buy a car, pay off any debts, take out a furniture loan, accept any monetary gifts from family members and don’t move any money around from account to account, as it will inevitably affect your loan approval status to your detriment. The upside to all of this: mortgage payments that borrowers can actually afford and a lower loan default rate that in the long run will ultimately benefit everyone.

Q. Home warranties seem to be a prevalent part of most real estate transactions here in the Diablo Valley; how do they work and why would I want to pay for one?

You are right, home warranties are very popular especially here in our area. A home warranty is a one-year insurance protection plan that provides for repair or replacement of the major mechanical, electrical and plumbing components in a home should a component require repair or outright fail to function properly. There is a one-time service deductible fee (typically $55) for each service call; after that the home warranty company has the option of repairing the item or replacing it. The contracts do have exclusions and there are limits to ultimate replacement costs but generally both buyers and sellers see the advantage of having a home warranty in place. The cost of a typical home warranty starts at about $350 annually and will increase based on coverage options (washer, dryer, refrigerator) and square footage; most of the time the seller will pay the one-year fee as an expected cost of selling a home. Professionally speaking, I recommend home warranties to 100% of my clients and personally speaking, I annually renew the warranty on my own home as it provides peace of mind should an unexpected and potentially costly repair arise.

Tom Hart

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is a practicing Real Estate Broker and a partner at Empire Realty Associates in Danville. He is a Certified Master Negotiator by the University of San Francisco and a Certified Master Strategist by HSM Harvard Program on Negotiation. He is past president of the Contra Costa Association of Realtors (2005) and past president of the Realtors’ Marketing Association of the San Ramon Valley. Tom is in high demand as a speaker & trainer inside & outside the real estate industry.