February, 2010


A few years ago, when banks would happily lend money to anyone who could breathe, a number of real estate developers got permits from the Berkeley city council to build large apartment houses in west Berkeley, the poorest section of town. Now these buildings are nearing completion, and the owners need to find tenants. Construction costs were high, the economy has changed, and permanent mortgage money is now much harder to get than when these projects began.

One of these apartment houses is located near University and San Pablo Avenues. According to their rental rate sheet, studio apartments here are $1,850 a month. 2 bedrooms $3,200, 3 bedrooms $4,350, and 4 bedrooms $6,400. These rents seem unrealistically high to me, especially considering the subprime location. I have a feeling that the owners of this building are basing their rents on their construction costs rather than a market rate study, which is the normal method used by landlords, including me.

Another pricey apartment complex is scheduled to open in April on University Avenue right next to the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. These tracks are heavily used, day and night. This is the main line for East Bay freight trains as well as Amtrak and Capital Corridor commuter trains. The horns on these trains are very loud. I live 2 miles away from the tracks, and I can clearly hear the train horns. I wonder what its going to sound like inside these apartments when trains pass by, and only a few feet away.

I grew up in a house that was fairly close to the tracks of the Western Maryland Railway. When a train passed by and blew its horn, the noise drowned out all other sounds. If somebody standing just a few feet away from you yelled at the top of his lungs, you couldn't hear a thing he said. It was even worse at my Aunt Bessie's house across the street, which was even closer to the tracks. I watched a lot of TV at Aunt's Bessie's house when I was a kid, and it seemed like those trains blew their horns during important shows, like Ed Sullivan, just to annoy me.

I think that all these new west Berkeley apartment houses will turn out to be white elephants. (A white elephant is a valuable asset that the owner can't sell and that is expensive to maintain.) I think that the city council was foolish to have granted permits to build these projects, and banks were foolish to finance their construction. Perhaps that is why so many banks are now bankrupt. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both believed that in the absence of government regulation, banks and other financial institutions would regulate themselves. They were wrong. This mess is not yet over. In November, construction on a nearly complete luxury condominium project in west Berkeley came to a stop after default notices were filed against it. Construction has not resumed.


I'm pretty sure that I'm the only landlord in Berkeley with a free chocolate store for his tenants, but there is a big apartment house in downtown Berkeley near the main library where they give free candy to their tenants as well. One bedroom apartments there are $1,999 a month. (I guess they figure that sounds a lot cheaper than $2,000 a month.) Parking is extra. If you pay your rent at the office, you can get a free mint in a bag that says "We (heart) Our Residents." I have shown these mints to a number of my tenants, none of whom seemed impressed or felt that this was real competition for my chocolate room.


Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, which contains no cocoa butter, and is therefore very low in fat. Hot chocolate, also known as 'drinking chocolate', is made from chocolate, which does contain cocoa butter. Which tastes better? It depends on the brand. Some hot cocoa mixes taste better than some hot chocolate mixes.


The #1 selling brand of cocoa mix in the U.S. is Nestle's Rich Chocolate Flavor Cocoa Mix. You may wonder: "What is this product made out of, cocoa or chocolate?" It's cocoa. When the word 'chocolate' is followed by the word 'flavor', that means that there is no chocolate in the product. I'm a volunteer schoolteacher with Junior Achievement, and it always comes as a big surprise to my students when I tell them that Hershey's chocolate syrup contains no chocolate! It's true! If you look at the label, you will see that it doesn't say Hershey's Chocolate Syrup; it says Hershey's Genuine Chocolate Flavor Syrup. The word 'genuine' is meaningless here because the word 'flavor' cancels it out. If you look for the word 'flavor' on candy bars, chocolate milk, cake mix, frosting, ice cream, etc; you will find that a lot of the top-selling chocolate products in the U.S. contain no chocolate!


I will be giving a chocolate truffle making class on Saturday, February 20 at 2:00PM. If you would like to attend, send me an e-mail at Space is limited. Learn how to make delicious traditional French style chocolate truffles. You will learn how to make truffles with a real chocolate shell without having to temper chocolate. Every student will receive a truffle making kit that I've put together. The kit contains a professional stainless steel truffle scoop, 2 pounds of dark ganache chocolate, 1 pound of dark couverture chocolate, a tub of cocoa powder, 100 candy cups, a roll of kitchen parchment, and instructions. Tuition for the class, including the truffle making kit is $5.00. (I am not expecting to make a profit on this class.)


Last month, I made a reservation on-line to stay at the Trump hotel in Las Vegas. A few minutes later, I received a confirmation e-mail informing me that the quoted room rate 'does not include a mandatory resort fee of $15.00 a night, which must be paid in advance at check-in' and 'the resort fee does not include a wi-fi access fee of $11.99 a night' and 'there may be additional fees.' I canceled my reservation. I will be staying at Bally's hotel instead.

A growing number of hotels in Las Vegas and other vacation destinations, like Orlando, Florida; are now charging mandatory resort fees. What do you get for these fees? Very little. The Trump hotel's web site says that their $15 a day resort fee gets guests free access to the fitness center, use of the hotel pool, a daily newspaper, and in-room coffee. Well, all those things are free at most other hotels. At another Las Vegas hotel, the resort fee gets you "unlimited free wi-fi internet access, up to 10 minutes a day." 10 minutes a day? What is that worth?

Last month, Harrah's Entertainment took a swipe at their competitors by announcing that they will not charge resort fees at any of their Las Vegas hotels. Harrah's said that many hotels offer "competitive promotional rates; however, the additional resort fee may add in excess of 40 percent to the base room rate."

Below is a list of hotels in Las Vegas that have mandatory resort fees, as well as a list of hotels that don't have resort fees. Remember, if a hotel has a resort fee, it is more likely to have other unwelcome fees as well.

Las Vegas hotels with resort fees. Excalibur, Hard Rock, Hooters, Loews, Luxor, Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York New York, Planet Hollywood, Sahara, Ritz Carlton, Tropicana, Treasure Island, Trump, Vdarra, and Venetian. At some hotels, the resort fee may include things of value to you; like wi-fi, bottled water in your room, cocktail coupons, or valet parking.

Las Vegas hotels without resort fees. Hotels owned by Harrah's include Bally's, Caesar's Palace, Flamingo, Harrah's, Imperial Palace, Paris, and Rio. Others: Bellagio, Encore, Four Seasons, Hyatt Place, Las Vegas Hilton, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, Riviera, and Wynn.

Free Wi-Fi. Few hotels in Las Vegas have free wi-fi. They have free wi-fi at the MGM Grand, Marriott, Monte Carlo, Rio, Renaissance, Residence Inn, The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, Tropicana, and Wynn. Plus, a lot of hotels that charge for wi-fi have coffee shops or restaurants on the premises where wi-fi is free. There is also free wi-fi at the airport and in most of the city's convention centers. Hotel fees are constantly changing, so don't bank on the lists above being accurate without verifying the information with the hotel when you make your reservation.


"There will be about 7 or 8 of us." I live in a duplex. I rent the apartment above me to a group of U.C. Berkeley grad students. When they applied for this apartment, another group of people applied for the place at the same time. I interviewed the second group first. I asked them: "How many people are in your group?" A man in the group said: "There will be about 7 or 8 of us." I looked at the applications in my hand and said: "I have 3 applications here. Who are the other people in your group?" He said: "We don't know yet. We'll let you know when they move in." I thanked them for their applications and sent them on their way. I rented the apartment to the grad students instead, and they are still there. I will be sorry when they leave.

This sort of thing happens quite often. Some people don't understand this, but no rational landlord is going to rent an apartment to unknown, unnamed people. Sometimes I get applications from college students who don't know the full names of the other people in their group. That happens fairly often. Then there are people who just don't want to tell me their names. Some people answer the question 'Name of Applicant' with incomplete names, like: 'Mr. Melvin', or 'B. Clifford;' or they write down their names in a way that is intentionally illegible. Some people think that I am invading their privacy by asking them their names. I have been told: "My name is none of your business." Well, excusez-moi, but if you are trying to rent an apartment from me, I think that knowing your name is my business!


Hoodies. Gray Berkeley Nut Co. hoodies are back in stock in size XL and for the first time, XXL.
Children's T Shirts. Berkeley Nut Co. T shirts are now available in kid's sizes: small 6/8, medium 8/10, and large 12/14.
Baking Cocoa. This naturally processed cocoa powder is made for use by bakers and pastry chefs. It is 10% to 12% cocoa butter. Cocoa powder that is made for drinking is typically 20 to 24% cocoa butter. Baking cocoa doesn't make a very good cup of hot cocoa, but it has more flavor than drinking cocoa.
Asqew Grill Gift Certificates. I have a limited number of $22 gift certificates good at Asqew Grill on Bay Street in Emeryville. $22 is more than enough for 2 entrees, like baby back ribs or barbecued chicken. (These will probably go quickly.)

Mark Tarses

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