How to Avoid Roommate Regret (NYT)

This really isn't just for recent college graduates in New York City -- it applies equally well to young people who come to Vermont for college and decide to stay after graduation. Many of them become ski bums, ski patrollers, and general outdoor enthusiasts. But, no matter where you live, if having a roommate makes it possible for you to afford a nicer, larger, and more expensive place, this article offers good advice. FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES | GETTING STARTED

By SUSAN STELLIN Published: May 19, 2011

How to Avoid Roommate Regret

IF you are a recent college graduate, you may think your roommate days are behind you. But in New York, where real estate is expensive and in short supply, there’s a very good chance you will be sharing an apartment well into your professional years.

As many sharers can attest, living with someone can lead to stony standoffs over air-conditioner settings, music volume and dirty dishes, ultimately ending in a messy split. So before you rent a U-Haul and start packing up boxes, here are some things you should know about your rights and responsibilities in a roommate situation.

Whether you will be living with your best friend, a stranger you met through Craigslist or the person you hope to marry, it is wise to consider taking a formal approach to a relationship that you might be tempted to treat casually.

Most apartments come with a lease, and the person with his or her name on it is the primary tenant. Whether the roommate’s name should also be on the lease is an interesting question. “From the tenant’s point of view,” said David Ratner, a real estate lawyer with Hartman, Ule, Rose & Ratner in Manhattan, “you want to keep as little in writing as you possibly can, in case it doesn’t work out. Once you put somebody on the lease, they’re not a roommate anymore, they’re a co-tenant.”

But if you are the roommate and want the stability of knowing you can stay in the apartment if the other person leaves, you should ask to be added to the lease, though you may have to wait until it comes up for renewal.

If the primary tenant balks at that request, or the landlord does not want to add a tenant, you should at least sign a roommate agreement that outlines the terms of your arrangement with the primary tenant, Mr. Ratner said.

Even if you are not going to be added to the lease, you should ask for a copy. That way you will know what the total rent is, when the lease expires and what the rules are regarding things like painting or pets.

Janet Portman, an author of “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide” (Nolo, 2009), says a roommate agreement should cover how much rent each person will pay, who’s responsible for the security deposit and for paying the landlord, how utilities will be handled and whether the arrangement is for a specific period of time or month to month. Ms. Portman, a managing editor of Nolo, said it was also a good idea to address — in a conversation if not in writing — topics like overnight guests, household chores, food sharing, noise and how much notice must be given if one roommate decides to move out. (Nolo has a sample roommate agreement on its Web site.)

“These agreements about things like housekeeping are not legally enforceable,” Ms. Portman said. But the terms pertaining to rent are. “You could take that signed, written agreement to small claims court and say, ‘Look, this is our contract.’ ”

It is possible that as a roommate you will never meet or talk to your landlord. In New York State a tenant is allowed to have a roommate without the landlord’s consent. The lessee is required to notify the landlord of a new occupant within 30 days of that person’s arrival, but the landlord doesn’t get to veto a roommate for reasons of joblessness, lousy credit or other criteria that might be considered when vetting a tenant.

Still, there are rules governing how many people are allowed to occupy an apartment, primarily based on the size of the space, and some places advertised for rent may not be legal for residential use.

“A lot of cheap housing, especially in the outer boroughs, is in buildings that are not zoned for residential use or don’t have a proper certificate of occupancy,” Mr. Ratner said. “At the very least, it’s a good idea to check and see if the prime tenant has a residential lease. But if they don’t, if it’s a commercial lease, that’s certainly a red flag.”

In most places the market dictates what rent you will pay, but that is not always the case in New York. In what is known as a market-rate apartment, you are free to split the rent however you would like — at the risk of engendering bad blood if you are not upfront and the higher-paying roommate finds out about the imbalance. But in New York about 900,000 apartments fall under rent regulation and can be described as either “rent stabilized” or “rent controlled,” meaning the rent by law can rise by only a small percentage each year.

In a rent-regulated apartment, a roommate can be charged only a “proportionate share” of the total rent, which means an even split between the leaseholder and the roommate. “Both parties have to be paying half of the rent,” said Andrew McLaughlin, the executive director of the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. “Otherwise, they could be subject to eviction if the owner found out that wasn’t the case.”

Once your name is on the lease, the landlord can hold you responsible for paying the entire rent, regardless of the agreement you have with a roommate or a co-tenant.

“If the roommate doesn’t chip in and you’re going to be late with the rent,” Ms. Portman said, “you’re going to have to cover for your roommate.”

Should the relationship deteriorate, it is more difficult to get rid of a co-tenant whose name is on the lease than someone who has signed only a roommate agreement. But even that process can be messy.

“After the person has been there 30 days, you have to go to court to evict them,” Mr. Ratner said. “Breaking off the relationship is going to be a very difficult and painful thing to do.”

[A version of this article appeared in print on May 22, 2011, on page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Avoid Roommate Regret.]

MERS? It May Have Swallowed Your Loan (NYT)

By MICHAEL POWELL and GRETCHEN MORGENSONPublished: March 5, 2011

An obscure company claims to hold title to roughly half of the home mortgages in the nation – 60 million loans.

Never heard of MERS? That's fine with the mortgage banking industry–as MERS is starting to overheat and sputter. If its many detractors are correct, this private corporation, with a full-time staff of fewer than 50 employees, could turn out to be a very public problem for the mortgage industry.

Judges, lawmakers, lawyers and housing experts are raising piercing questions about MERS, which stands for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, whose private mortgage registry has all but replaced the nation's public land ownership records.

FOR more than a decade, the American real estate market resembled an overstuffed novel, which is to say, it was an engrossing piece of fiction.

Mortgage brokers hip deep in profits handed out no-doc mortgages to people with fictional incomes. Wall Street shopped bundles of those loans to investors, no matter how unappetizing the details. And federal regulators gave sleepy nods.

That world largely collapsed under the weight of its improbabilities in 2008.

But a piece of that world survives on Library Street in Reston, Va., where an obscure business, the MERS Corporation, claims to hold title to roughly half of all the home mortgages in the nation – an astonishing 60 million loans.

Never heard of MERS? That's fine with the mortgage banking industry–as MERS is starting to overheat and sputter. If its many detractors are correct, this private corporation, with a full-time staff of fewer than 50 employees, could turn out to be a very public problem for the mortgage industry.

Judges, lawmakers, lawyers and housing experts are raising piercing questions about MERS, which stands for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, whose private mortgage registry has all but replaced the nation's public land ownership records. Most questions boil down to this:

How can MERS claim title to those mortgages, and foreclose on homeowners, when it has not invested a dollar in a single loan?

And, more fundamentally: Given the evidence that many banks have cut corners and made colossal foreclosure mistakes, does anyone know who owns what or owes what to whom anymore?

The answers have implications for all American homeowners, but particularly the millions struggling to save their homes from foreclosure. How the MERS story plays out could deal another blow to an ailing real estate market, even as the spring buying season gets under way.

MERS has distanced itself from the dubious behavior of some of its members, and the company itself has not been accused of wrongdoing. But the legal challenges to MERS, its practices and its records are mounting.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled last year that MERS could no longer file foreclosure proceedings there, because it does not actually make or service any loans. Last month in Utah, a local judge made the no-less-striking decision to let a homeowner rip up his mortgage and walk away debt-free. MERS had claimed ownership of the mortgage, but the judge did not recognize its legal standing.

–The state court is attracted like a moth to the flame to the legal owner, and that isn–t MERS,– says Walter T. Keane, the Salt Lake City lawyer who represented the homeowner in that case.

And, on Long Island, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled in February that MERS could no longer act as an –agent– for the owners of mortgage notes. He acknowledged that his decision could erode the foundation of the mortgage business.

But this, Judge Robert E Grossman said, was not his fault.

–This court does not accept the argument that because MERS may be involved with 50 percent of all residential mortgages in the country,– he wrote, –that is reason enough for this court to turn a blind eye to the fact that this process does not comply with the law.–

With MERS under scrutiny, its chief executive, R. K. Arnold, who had been with the company since its founding in 1995, resigned earlier this year.

A BIRTH certificate, a marriage license, a death certificate: these public documents note many life milestones.

For generations of Americans, public mortgage documents, often logged in longhand down at the county records office, provided a clear indication of homeownership.

But by the 1990s, the centuries-old system of land records was showing its age. Many county clerk's offices looked like something out of Dickens, with mortgage papers stacked high. Some clerks had fallen two years behind in recording mortgages.

For a mortgage banking industry in a hurry, this represented money lost. Most banks no longer hold onto mortgages until loans are paid off. Instead, they sell the loans to Wall Street, which bundles them into investments through a process known as securitization.

MERS, industry executives hoped, would pull record-keeping into the Internet age, even as it privatized it. Streamlining record-keeping, the banks argued, would make mortgages more affordable.

But for the mortgage industry, MERS was mostly about speed – and profits. MERS, founded 16 years ago by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and big banks like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, cut out the county clerks and became the owner of record, no matter how many times loans were transferred. MERS appears to sell loans to MERS ad infinitum.

This high-speed system made securitization easier and cheaper. But critics say the MERS system made it far more difficult for homeowners to contest foreclosures, as ownership was harder to ascertain.

MERS was flawed at conception, those critics say. The bankers who midwifed its birth hired Covington & Burling, a prominent Washington law firm, to research their proposal. Covington produced a memo that offered assurances that MERS could operate legally nationwide. No one, however, conducted a state-by-state study of real estate laws.

–They didn–t do the deep homework,– said an official involved in those discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because he has clients involved with MERS. –So as far as anyone can tell their real theory was: –If we can get everyone on board, no judge will want to upend something that is reasonable and sensible and would screw up 70 percent of loans.– –

County officials appealed to Congress, arguing that MERS was of dubious legality. But this was the 1990s, an era of deregulation, and the mortgage industry won.

–We lost our revenue stream, and Americans lost the ability to immediately know who owned a piece of property,– said Mark Monacelli, the St. Louis County recorder in Duluth, Minn.

And so MERS took off. Its board gave its senior vice president, William Hultman, the rather extraordinary power to deputize an unlimited number of –vice presidents– and –assistant secretaries– drawn from the ranks of the mortgage industry.

The –nomination– process was near instantaneous. A bank entered a name into MERS's Web site, and, in a blink, MERS produced a –certifying resolution,– signed by Mr. Hultman. The corporate seal was available to those deputies for $25.

As personnel policies go, this was a touch loose. Precisely how loose became clear when a lawyer questioned Mr. Hultman in April 2010 in a lawsuit related to its foreclosure against an Atlantic City cab driver.

How many vice presidents and assistant secretaries have you appointed? the lawyer asked.

–I don–t know that number,– Mr. Hultman replied.

Approximately?

–I wouldn–t even be able to tell you, right now.–

In the thousands?

–Yes.–

Each of those deputies could file loan transfers and foreclosures in MERS's name. The goal, as with almost everything about the mortgage business at that time, was speed. Speed meant money.

ALAN GRAYSON has seen MERS's record-keeping up close. From 2009 until this year, he served as the United States representative for Florida's Eighth Congressional District – in the Orlando area, which was ravaged by foreclosures. Thousands of constituents poured through his office, hoping to fend off foreclosures. Almost all had papers bearing the MERS name.

–In many foreclosures, the MERS paperwork was squirrelly,– Mr. Grayson said. With no real legal authority, he says, Fannie and the banks eliminated the old system and replaced it with a privatized one that was unreliable.

A spokeswoman for MERS declined interview requests. In an e-mail, she noted that several state courts have ruled in MERS's favor of late. She expressed confidence that MERS's policies complied with state laws, even if MERS's members occasionally strayed.

–At times, some MERS members have failed to follow those procedures and/or established state foreclosure rules,– the spokeswoman, Karmela Lejarde, wrote, –or to properly explain MERS and document MERS relationships in legal pleadings.–

Such cases, she said, –are outliers, reflecting case-specific problems in process, and did not repudiate the MERS business model.–

MERS's legal troubles, however, aren–t going away. In August, the Ohio secretary of state referred to federal prosecutors in Cleveland accusations that notaries deputized by MERS were signing hundreds of documents without any personal knowledge of them. The attorney general of Massachusetts is examining a complaint by a county registrar that MERS owes the state tens of millions of dollars in unpaid fees.

As far back as 2001, Ed Romaine, the clerk for Suffolk County, on eastern Long Island, refused to register mortgages in MERS's name, partly because of complaints that the company's records didn–t square with public ones. The state Court of Appeals later ruled that he had overstepped his powers.

But Judith S. Kaye, the state's chief judge at the time, filed a partial dissent. She worried that MERS, by speeding up property transfers, was pouring oil on the subprime fires. The MERS system, she wrote, ill serves –innocent purchasers.–

–I was trying to say something didn–t smell right, feel right or look right,– Ms. Kaye said in a recent interview.

Little about MERS was transparent. Asked as part of a lawsuit against MERS in September 2009 to produce minutes about the formation of the corporation, Mr. Arnold, the former C.E.O., testified that –writing was not one of the characteristics of our meetings.–

MERS officials say they conduct audits, but in testimony could not say how often or what these measured. In 2006, Mr. Arnold stated that original mortgage notes were held in a secure –custodial facility– with 'stainless steel vaults.– MERS, he testified, could quickly produce every one of those files.

As for homeowners, Mr. Arnold said they could log on to the MERS system to identify their loan servicer, who, in turn, could identify the true owner of their mortgage note. –The servicer is really the best source for all that information,– Mr. Arnold said.

The reality turns out to be a lot messier. Federal bankruptcy courts and state courts have found that MERS and its member banks often confused and misrepresented who owned mortgage notes. In thousands of cases, they apparently lost or mistakenly destroyed loan documents.

The problems, at MERS and elsewhere, became so severe last fall that many banks temporarily suspended foreclosures.

Some experts in corporate governance say the legal furor over MERS is overstated. Others describe it as a useful corporation nearly drowning in a flood tide of mortgage foreclosures. But not even the mortgage giant Fannie Mae, an investor in MERS, depends on it these days.

–We would never rely on it to find ownership,– says Janis Smith, a Fannie Mae spokeswoman, noting it has its own records.

Apparently with good reason. Alan M. White, a law professor at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana, last year matched MERS's ownership records against those in the public domain.

The results were not encouraging. –Fewer than 30 percent of the mortgages had an accurate record in MERS,– Mr. White says. –I kind of assumed that MERS at least kept an accurate list of current ownership. They don–t. MERS is going to make solving the foreclosure problem vastly more expensive.–

THE Sarmientos are one of thousands of American families who have tried to pierce the MERS veil.

Several years back, they bought a two-family home in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn for $723,000. They financed the purchase with two mortgages from Lend America, a subprime lender that is now defunct.

But when the recession blew in, Jose Sarmiento, a chef, saw his work hours get cut in half. He fell behind on his mortgages, and MERS later assigned the loans to U.S. Bank as a prelude to filing a foreclosure motion.

Then, with the help of a lawyer from South Brooklyn Legal Services, Mr. Sarmiento began turning over some stones. He found that MERS might have violated tax laws by waiting too long before transferring his mortgage. He also found that MERS could not prove that it had transferred both note and mortgage, as required by law.

One might argue that these are just legal nits. But Mr. Sarmiento, 59, shakes his head. He is trying to work out a payment plan through the federal government, but the roadblocks are many. –I–m tired; I–ve been fighting for two years already to save my house,– he says. –I feel like I never know who really owns this home.–

Officials at MERS appear to recognize that they are swimming in dangerous waters. Several federal agencies are investigating MERS, and, in response, the company recently sent a note laying out a raft of reforms. It advised members not to foreclose in MERS's name. It also told them to record mortgage transfers in county records, even if state law does not require it.

MERS will no longer accept unverified new officers. If members ignore these rules, MERS says, it will revoke memberships.

That hasn–t stopped judges from asking questions of MERS. And few are doing so with more puckish vigor than Arthur M. Schack, a State Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn.

Judge Schack has twice rejected a foreclosure case brought by Countrywide Home Loans, now part of Bank of America. He had particular sport with Keri Selman, who in Countrywide's court filings claimed to hold three jobs: as a foreclosure specialist for Countrywide Home Loans, as a servicing agent for Bank of New York and as an assistant vice president of MERS. Ms. Selman, the judge said, is a –milliner's delight by virtue of the number of hats that she wears.–

At heart, Judge Schack is scratching at the notion that MERS is a legal fiction. If MERS owned nothing, how could it bounce mortgages around for more than a decade? And how could it file millions of foreclosure motions?

These cases, Judge Schack wrote in February 2009, –force the court to determine if MERS, as nominee, acted with the utmost good faith and loyalty in the performance of its duties.–

The answer, he strongly suggested, was no.

36 Hours in Stowe (NYT)

Ski Guide 2010

by Lionel Beehner, New York Times, December 13, 2009

WHEN people envision the idyllic Vermont ski town – soaring church steeple, covered bridges, no chain stores in sight - they envision Stowe. It is the grande dame of Green Mountain ski resorts, with a Main Street that is as folksy as a yellowed New England postcard, which makes it all the more shocking that the ski resort is owned by AIG, the insurance behemoth bailed out by the government."  Read the rest of the story here.

(Don't go looking for the Brew Trail (in the article, see: Saturday, 4 pm, #8 A Secret Trail,) though, you won't find it. It is the Bruce Trail – while it's accessible from the top of the Quad, just off the beginning of the Toll Road, it is beyond the Resort's boundaries; it's not patrolled. If you go, have a cell phone with you.)

Foliage Viewing in New Hampshire and Vermont (NYT)

In Transit, A Guide to Intelligent Travel

by David G. Allan, New York Times, September 15, 2009
Q. I am looking at taking a driving trip through the Northeast this October to see some of the beautiful fall foliage. I will be driving through New Hampshire and Vermont on my way to Waterbury, Vt. I wonder if there are any places you can recommend to see the foliage or any Web sites you could direct me to.

Chris Manshio, Chicago

A. You've definitely picked two of the best states in the region for seeing the leaves turn. In a previous Q&A, "Tips on Seeing New England's Fall Foliage" (July 17, 2008), I recommended a few Web sites that feature interactive foliage reports. Yankee Magazine's www.yankeefoliage.com covers the length of your entire drive with a map of current foliage conditions, peak calendars, scenic driving routes, a blog, forums and even a "tree cam."

New Hampshire's official site, VisitNH.gov, has a 2009 interactive map to view by dates of travel, plus itineraries and driving tours. Vermont's official tourism site has a forecaster as well, at www.vermontvacation.com/seasons/forecaster.asp, plus drives, tips and weekly reports from last year.

Both the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont are among the best forests for fall visits. Waterbury is just 20 miles away from the edge of Green Mountain parkland and about 10 miles from Stowe, which hosts an annual Foliage Arts Festival (www.craftproducers.com/festival-details.php?id=31), with food and entertainment, during Columbus Day weekend.

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Here's an iPhone Photo of the Maple tree in my front yard:

Reader's Photos: Call Fowarding

Many thanks to The New York Times Lens Blog for including this iPhone photo of mine in its new Reader's Photos: Call Forwarding project (page 3, 2nd-to-last row, last photo on right) published today:
This little guy in orange was the only skier
at the top of the Quad on Mt. Mansfield
at 10:58 a.m. on March 18, 2009

NYT Lens Blog: Reader's Photos: Call Forwarding

Sign Says IHOP, but Syrup Says Vermont (NYT)

By Katie Zezima, New York Times, April 21, 2009 SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. – For years, diners at the International House of Pancakes nationwide have slathered their pancakes, waffles and French toast in a variety of flavored syrups, like fluorescent strawberry and "old-fashioned," the chain's artificially-flavored take on maple syrup.

The label "old-fashioned" was bound to raise red flags for many Vermonters, who will tell you it is neither old-fashioned nor maple syrup (corn syrup does not come from trees).

So when the land of piping-hot pancakes and fresh maple syrup became the 50th state to welcome an IHOP last month, the franchise owners sought permission to depart from the chain's standard fare. The IHOP here is the only one of about 1,400 in the United States, Canada and Mexico to serve real maple syrup.

"You can't open up a Vermont pancake shop without Vermont maple syrup," said Sam Handy Jr., who is the restaurant's general manager and whose family owns the franchise. Read the complete article here. ---------------------- When you're ready for the "real thing," I can help you make the lifestyle change you may have only dreamed about. Whether for permanent relocation, or for your vacation or second home, when the time is right, I'll help you find the ideal Vermont home.

Stowe Realty, one of the top local-area vacation-rental agencies, is a one-stop shop for Stowe, Vermont residential, vacation, or commercial real estate and rental information. If I can help, write or call me at 802.730.4343

Diverting Idle Hands (and Feet) (NYT)

YOUR SECOND HOME | THE LONG DRIVEBy Steve Bailey, New York Times, March 26, 2009

March 26 (New York Times) -- IT'S the weekend routine. Almost every Friday everyone piles into the car for the trip to the weekend house. You and your spouse or partner alternate between private thoughts, casual conversation and listening to a favorite song that has popped up on the radio. ... The drive is never going to be the best part of second-home ownership, but it doesn't have to be two lost hours going and two lost hours returning. And, for the back-seat crowd, it doesn't have to be endlessly boring. Read the complete article here.

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My wife and I used to make the trek from Boston to our cabin in northern Lamoille County for more than 10 years before we moved here. We usually left the South Shore late afternoon; or, worse, after work, on Fridays. After a year of that routine, arriving up here, many times after dark, to what became inevitable surprises (like no water, any season; or, a frozen chimney damper in the winter,) we changed our departure time to Saturday morning! We live here now, so those little things are no longer a problem for us. Whether or not you're thinking of renting your vacation home, we can suggest a number of options to make sure you won't have to deal with these kinds of problems when you're not here or when you arrive.

Stowe Realty, one of the top local-area vacation-rental agencies, is a one-stop shop for Stowe, Vermont residential, vacation, or commercial real estate and rental information. Whether you own a second or vacation home, or are planning to buy or rent one, we'll deliver focused first-class service and support. If I can help, write or call me at 802.730.4343

Everybody Into the Rental Pool (NYT)

By Susan Stellin, New York Times, March 19, 2009 March 19 (New York Times) -- PEOPLE who buy second homes often harbor the same fallback plan in case their purchase proves to be too much of a stretch: "Well, we can always rent it out if we get in trouble."

So with belts tightening and the real estate market in turmoil, how is the vacation-rental business holding up?

Although there are few statistics on the national vacation-home rental market, property managers and online listings companies say that more second-home owners are trying to rent out their properties at least part-time, a trend no doubt propelled by the Internet as well as the gloomy economy.

At the same time, prospective renters, feeling the financial pinch themselves, are more likely to haggle over prices, book shorter stays (often at the last minute) and opt for destinations within driving distance. And with more properties to choose from, they can afford to be picky about amenities and discounts. ... "The fly markets like Colorado and Utah are doing poorly, ... whereas in other markets such as Vermont we–re seeing demand up 15 to 20 percent." Read the complete article here.

Stowe Realty, one of the top local-area vacation-rental agencies, is a one-stop shop for Stowe, Vermont residential, vacation, or commercial real estate and rental information. Whether you own a second or vacation home, or are planning to buy or rent one, we'll deliver focused first-class service and support. If I can help, write or call me at 802.730.4343

Avoiding the Dreaded Knee 'Pop' (NYT)

KneeBinding You're skiing slowly on an intermediate trail and you suddenly slip. You're not out of control – you weren't going that fast – but you are off balance. One arm flails behind your head as you teeter and twist backward until your hips awkwardly sit down on the tails of your skis. Then you hear a loud pop in your knee. (NYT)

Read the complete article here.

  • The KneeBinding was developed in Vermont and is based in Stowe.
  • Dr. Bryan Huber, quoted in the article, is a member of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol and a principal of Mansfield Orthopaedics.

Dazzling Fare Heats up Backwoods Vermont (NYT)

Restaurants in the north-central part of the state are defining themselves by using as many local ingredients as they can, even in winter.

Take a look at this New York Times article, by Mark Bittman, in today's paper. By all accounts, Hen of the Wood is absolutely one of the best restaurants in the area. And, if you're driving to Stowe, it's just a few minutes off the I-89 exit 10 ramps in Waterbury. I'm embarrassed that my wife and I haven't yet been!