I’m back in LA and, as if we were still living in China, I get a case of severe culture shock when we get back. Oh yes, you might not think so but LA has a very distinct culture. And it’s hands-down more noticeable when you get back than when you’re in the moment.
It got me thinking, how do you define LA. Here are five things that make LA … LA.
1. The Faces
Oh My God, the faces. These dermatologists and plastic surgeons are having the last laugh–aging men and women are lining up, chucking all their cash at them and they’re laughing all the way to the Bank. Just for a minute I wonder if they truly looked at themselves in the mirror could they face the fact that they look like clowns. Unattractive clowns with mouths that look like Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, plump lips that are disproportional with their face and foreheads–shiny smooth foreheads–that cover half their face. Big cheeks plumped up with so much filler it’s not helping–in fact it’s making things all the worse.
The day after I arrived, I was walking into a shop minding my own business when I looked up and came eye to eye with a 60-plus year old lady, not a wrinkle in sight, forehead from here to eternity and big, big eyes that were so wrong on so many levels. I actually physically jumped with fright. No, in LA botox is simply not enough. Give me aging gracefully anyday.
2. Gym gear
Sure I see people in Australia in gym gear, I may have spotted the odd person in London, I can’t say I saw anyone in Paris but back in LA every second person is in their gym (or yoga?–said with a Valley-girl accent) gear. And, like me if I decide to fit in with the LA look, they haven’t been to the gym. Their fully made up looking perfect and the gym gear could actually be a way for them to tell the world their favourite meal is kale salad. They take the active wear phenomenon to a whole new level. Lululemon has a lot to answer for.
It’s not hard peoples, buy some nice shoes, a skirt, a dress, even a pair of pants or shorts with a nice top–these outfits aren’t reserved for going out. You can actually wear them out during the day and feel good about yourselves.
3. It’s all about me
You may think with the number of celebrities in LA I’m talking about them. Oh no. LA seems to have bred itself a culture of self-absorbed, very important, all-about-me people. And that’s hard to take when you like a bit of the spotlight and glory yourself.
You need to go somewhere/anywhere, you need to get in your car and drive. And if you don’t have your car you hop in an Uber or Lyft. That might even be a short trip down the road: walking is not the thing to do. Let’s face it with Valet parking top notch here you don’t even walk to/from your car. Nope, LA is not the place to be carless.
And that means there are millions of cars on the road. And, with the said entitlement culture, there are a lot of people on the road who are in a hurry to get somewhere and you need to get out of their way, or read their mind when they cut you off or turn without indicating. LA drivers are anything but polite or patient.
Even as I was writing this I had an incident in the Westfield carpark at Century City. They have a smart parking system which reads and detects your numberplate on entry. Then if you download the app and register your numberplate/registration, as you exit it charges the parking to your credit card–at a discounted fee. Who wouldn’t be all about that?
So, I went in not bothering about being close to the ticket machine. The system glitched (misread my numberplate–doh) and I had to essentially get out of my car to get my ticket. Just before I could do this a young very unlady-like chick pulled up and immediately started beeping at me. Obviously in a hurry you can bet she judged me for being so far from the booth. I gave her lip and got my ticket. She beeped again before I could even shut my door. And proceeded to beep until I drove through the boomgates.
Now seriously, do you think I enjoy spending my time getting a ticket out of the machine at a carpark entrance? Hell I don’t even like paying for parking. So now I’m pissed off and I am giving her lip and–of course–taking my sweet time. Because chick, who thinks she’s more important than anyone else in a hurry at Westfield Century City, here’s a tip, just because you’re tooting me does not mean I’m going to be all like “oh-my-god-I-better-hurry”; in fact you can bet I’m going to take my sweet time and piss you off even more. And I hope you were late to whatever important thing you had to do.
5. The Sushi is so so good
The first place we go to eat when we get back–and the last place we go before we leave–is one of our favourite sushi joints. LA has bloody good sushi. Not only is it fresh but it’s innovative and different. You can get any number of different roll combinations and the spicy tuna is to die for. Did someone say crispy rice? YES PLEASE. Yes, if it’s one thing LA does well, hands down it’s sushi.
Don’t get me wrong, I love LA for more than just the sushi. Five years on I’m happy to have good friends and call LA home. But sometimes LA can be hard to bear–once you’re in it’s fine but when you drop back in it takes a little while to get your LA groove back on. When I lived in China we used to need “get out of China breaks”. For the record is a bit the same.
But LA is a bit like being on drugs or having a really good “one-night stand”: you know you should wean yourself off but at the time it’s so good you just want to go back. One more time.
It’s a great question: do you sell everything in Australia and rebuy it in LA or ship it over? You’ve decided to take the plunge and live the dream. Or maybe, like us, you get an opportunity offered to you on a silver platter. “You’re moving to Hollywood.” Who wouldn’t want to be moved to Hollywood when others are busting their chops to crash on someone’s couch just to live out their dream?
This is one of the topics being debated on a really handy resource and Facebook Group Australians in LA so I thought I’d pool the responses together, give you my two cent’s worth and put it up on the pedestal that is It Started in LA for all to see. I don’t think the answer is as straight forward as it seems: like everything you have to do what feels right for your circumstances.
Selling everything in Australia
I remember when eBay first started I would collect my baby’s clothes that didn’t fit them anymore, bundle them together and get a pretty good price for them. We’re not talking baby’s clothes now (Apple Watch 1.0 and old Beats) but I struggle to selling anything on eBay anymore that’s worth my time listing it and taking it to the Post Office to ship. I still have an eBay pile but just don’t quite get around to listing them.
It’s not to say you can’t sell it and it’s not to say you won’t get at least something for your stuff.
Then there’s Tradingpost.com.au. I found I had slightly better luck with that site for a time. Same with gumtree.com.au But that was around five years ago. Things change.
I lilsted our Dining Table & chairs and no one, I mean no one wanted it. I tried every avenue. I think the problem with Ikea and similar places is that people can get something that looks good brand new so they don’t want second-hand stuff. I ended up bringing them to an Auction House and getting pittance for it there.
Our cars were even harder to sell. The convertible went to an Auction house and my treasured and most loved Audi Q7 was handed to a friend who sold it for me. The new owner ended up getting a one-way flight from Melbourne to Sydney and driving the car back again. Seems they’re more expensive on the second hand market in Melbourne. Go figure!
The thought of buying a car again at Australian prices when we go home makes me sick to my stomach.
Rebuying in LA
It’s true things in LA (and the US in general) are cheaper than Australia. But you still have to buy everything full price. Unless you’re prepared to buy everything second hand.
As one active user on the Facebook group, Paulina, said, “I think it depends on your personal situation–we moved the whole family including kids. When you sell stuff you get peanuts for it and to buy everything–even though it’s cheaper it’s still a lot. Don’t forget you’ll be buying all electricals, kitchen equipment, all electrical. Most rentals come with fridges and washing machines.”
But then, as another person in the group said, “Always loads of stuff going cheap on Aussies in LA.”
And another confirmed, “just get everything new here and throw/sell/donate everything non-essential in Sydney–unless it has major major sentimental value it won’t be worth it, it’ll cost you a lot in transport and/or storage costs. LA is a transient city people are always selling their stuff cheap online you’ll be fine, seriously.”
It seems this group love the Rose Bowl flea market, the first Sunday of every month in Pasadena. After a couple of false starts I still haven’t gone.
“Also check out the Rosebowl flea markets for great furniture. We bought an awesome table and a console there. Often they’ll deliver for a small fee,” according to Liv.
Katrina also chimed in, “Sell it and start a new. Go to the Rose Bowl market and get inspired!”
For more on vintage stuff and the flea markets check my blog here.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing
Then there’s the benefit of hindsight from Sara, “There is always the chance you will move back. Sell the big stuff and see if you can store the smaller stuff with a relative. Then buy stuff here.
“We moved back and forth and really regretted selling all our stuff. It sucked having to rebuy everything. In hindsight, I wish we had hired a storage unit.”
Hindsight is great Sara, the problem is you never know how your experience is going to end up
We put stuff in storage like our fridge, washing machine and dryer and other electrical appliances we weren’t going to be able to use. We did this mainly because we thought we’d be 2-3 years tops and we couldn’t get much money for selling them but to rebuy is hugely expensive. Four and a half years later I dread that storage invoice!
If only we all had a Magic 8 Ball that actually worked!
Budgeting to rebuy everything new in LA
Don’t forget the wattage is different here in the US (110v) as it is in Australia (240v). One person on the Facebook page said the converters don’t really work that well but I bought a really good one (bulky but good) and my Thermomix works a treat.
You should also check the power supply as some items are now compatible with both voltages so it pays to check.
Here’s a breakdown of some “necessities” you’ll need/we bought when we arrived. Yep, it all adds up! Don’t forget to add tax. That’s 10% (OK 9% but you get it) here in LA so don’t forget about that!
I chose a Conair® Infiniti Pro Hair Dryer – Orange for $24.99.
Total spent on these items is $756.93 plus tax ($68.12) equals $825.05 and not including shipping. Many places ship for free when you spend over a certain amount so that’s not a big deal.
Also, if you are Australian you might want to buy a coffee machine, here’s a Nespresso machine for $199 plus tax with free shipping.
Most rentals come with a fridge, washing machine & dryer. Some even come with a microwave, but not that many.
That’s the electrics taken care of. There are lots of furniture shops around and there is the biggest Ikea in nearby Burbank–every Expat family’s favourite must-do store!
Ship it over
This is the category we belong to. Mr H’s company paid for our move and, after having our things in storage while we were in Shanghai, we jumped at the chance to have our own stuff with us.
That’s not the case for others though. One person, Clare, on the Facebook group said, “I didn’t bring anything over, and I was glad, houses here are different styles and none of my furniture would have suited the house we moved into.
“Even though we had a Company paying for our items to be shipped, we went back to them and negotiated an allowance of the same amount as they were willing to pay to ship to buy all new.”
Great tip according to another Facebook group user, Liv, who said, “One other tip is to use Jetta which is excess baggage–we packed up all our artwork in doonas and bedding and it worked a charm. Jetta are very reasonable, pick up your boxes, weigh them and then everything arrived a few days after our flight.”
[Ed: I’ve never heard of Jetta so will definitely look it up. Could be a sponsor for this page ;).]
How much does it cost to ship it over?
According to Alan, “We moved over in March last year (2017) from Sydney to LA. We used Santa Fe, they were great, cost around $15,000 for 3/4 of a 40 foot container.
Lori said, “If you shop around and do some investigating, we got a 20ft for about 5k AUD plus a little extra for removalists to help load and then unload when it arrived in LA.” That doesn’t sound too bad.
Paulina said, “My friend moved with Chez and it cost $7000.”
Kym “paid $9500 for a sole use half container (21 cubic m) inc packing and insurance thru Santa Fe. But I understand If you share a container it’s cheaper.”
What’s your experience selling things in Australia? Have you sold up shop in Australia and rebought where you are? Or did you, like us, get all your things shipped over? Let us know and help others in the process!
xx It Started in LA xx
PS: None of the links or businesses mentioned sponsor me, these are just my preferences. I am, however, looking for sponsors for this post/site. Are you a moving company who can offer great value to our readers? Are you an Auction House that welcomes clients bringing in lots of stuff to sell? Ikea, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Best Buys! If you want to jump in or offer a discount to my readers please do! If you know anyone Contact me. Cheers!
You secured your lease, life is going along swimmingly but you think it’s time to lay down some roots. Here’s a guide to buying a house in LA as an expat.
LA rent is not cheap. Essentially, unlike in Australia, LA rent is the same as the owner’s mortgage payments plus property tax. In other words, you’re not getting a bargain and all you’re doing is helping them pay off their mortgage.
We loved the house we first signed up to but after a while it got too small for us. So I started looking around, even extending our search outside the 90210 postcode, and was shocked to find there was nothing around. Even increasing our budget by $2,000 didn’t get us what we were looking for in upgrading our humble abode.
Buying a house in LA
I started scouring websites looking for houses. My dream was a mid-century modern in the hills already done (or minor jobs to be done) with a pool and view.
The next thing I needed to do was see who would lend me the money.
I worked on a budget of our current rent figuring we had a decent buy price to get a house with everything we wanted. Cheaper than rent plus it’s ours!
Armed with this I went to our bank, Citibank, to see what they could offer me.
With a 20% deposit and a very good credit rating we could get the money we need. Excellent.
Credit rating in this country is a whole ‘nother beast of a topic. But, in short, ours wasn’t very good or excellent; it was just good.
In a nutshell, from what I could gather it’s because of the way we manage our credit cards. You see our limit is a limit we use each month that I’ve budgeted to pay off each month. I don’t want a higher limit because we’ll use it, we’ll spend it and eat into our savings bucket. I’m happy and comfortable with what we have. But that means we actually use the credit limit we’re given. That’s what it’s there for right? Wrong.
The powers that be in Credit rating land think we’re a red flag because we use the credit made available to us via our credit card. They don’t look at the fact that I pay it off each month (every fortnight actually). I made a $10k purchase on my credit card (think of all the points!) and then paid it off once I was done so I could carry on charging my stuff to it. But you could see in that month our credit rating drop down. I mean seriously, don’t they look at the next transaction, the one where we paid it off (and I’m talking that day people that day). Stupid.
You really think I’d learn my lesson. Please learn for me.
No loan from CitiBank #fail
So, even though we showed that we paid our rent on time every month for two plus years, we had the deposit and money to spare in the bank, based solely on our credit rating CitiBank was a no go.
I threatened to move my accounts but haven’t bothered because it’s too convenient having a branch down the road. But they don’t know that!
I speak of them with disdain instead of admiration now though.
Finding my dream LA house
After months of searching for my perfect Mid-century modern home it became clear that most of them are fixi-ups. Now, to be clear, this is our “rent replacement house” not our “forever house”. Being a rent replacement house I didn’t want a fix-up job, one where we’d have to take six months renovating it. Defeats the purpose.
Securing a Realtor
You can scour the websites and research houses yourself but if you engage a Realtor early on in the piece they can start looking for places for you.
You see they have broker open houses and access to a clumsy but very good tool known as the MLS. Just by entering the parameters you want in a search engine you can get houses sent to you weekly. And, if they see a house while they’re looking, they can arrange for you to see it. It can take a lot of time out of the hunting process.
Buying a house as an Expat
It can be done, buying a house in LA as an Expat. But, you just need to be aware of a couple of things.
The visa. Each Bank deals with different visas in different ways. Then depending on that there may or may not be different conditions. As an E3 visa holder we were able to borrow money like a “normal” American.
Deposit. Some of the lenders I spoke to insisted on 30% because of our expat/visa status. We did find a bank willing to give us a loan based on 20% though so do shop around.
One of the people you need to secure, as well as a Realtor, is a Mortgage Broker. There are mortgage brokers who represent several banks (as they are in Australia) but beware many Mortgage Brokers I spoke to represent only the one bank. From what I gather these guys are sole operators but work with a bank. You don’t have to pay them they must get a commission from the Bank. So it’s a bit different and a bit strange because they’re not actually shopping the market looking for the best deal for you, they’re just offering you a Mortgage.
You can also go into your local branch and ask to apply for a loan as we do in Australia. And, there are online guys which I would say be wary of. I started filling forms in for Quicken Loans but then when I got to the last screen cancelled out yet I got calls from all these lenders/brokers and still get the occasional email from them (got one today in fact). Not happy Jan.
Putting in an offer
I know you’re dying to know if I found my dream mid-century modern home with very little to do, a pool and a view. In short: no. Out of left field we found a house in “the flats” which was brand new, had a beautiful floorplan and a pool.
We fell in love. We did a quick change in search looked at a number of new constructions in the area but decided this was the house for us. It was New Year’s eve when we put an offer in and our Realtor was in Europe on holiday.
“Oh no, you absolutely must put the offer in now because there’s less chance of other active bidders at this time,” she said.
So we did.
In the US offers must be writing and you need to think carefully about contingencies at this time. That’s where your Realtor becomes like gold. If they’re good at what they do, with experience they come up with all the ideas and you just say yay or nay.
Not to bore you but the offer process is very boring. If you’re looking for a bargain (which we were) then there will be counter offers and counter offers before you either bow out or settle on a price–don’t forget contingencies. For example, in one of the seller’s contingencies was reducing the settlement time. We were all for it too (we wanted to move into our house and stop paying rent) but we weren’t sure how long the mortgage would take to get through. But that became a “thing”.
And then, some sellers will use your offer to go back to interested parties to say look, we’ve got an offer do you want to put one in too. That’s where a quasi auction happens. (They don’t have auctions here; too complex a system I suppose to be able to deal with it but you’d think auctions otherwise would be quite successful).
Even if a house is under offer or under escrow anything can happen. It’s not until all contingencies are dropped that they’re comfortable it’s all going to be OK. So for them it’s a trust issue. Our agent had to put the seller at ease and let them know that we want to buy the house just as badly as he wants to sell the house and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure it happens.
Much like when you’re leasing a house, as I mention in that Blog, you need an agent who you’ve developed a good working relationship with that can go into bat for you and ensure the seller the purchase is secure. And, as soon as you’re able to drop contingencies (like inspections and securing the money) then you’re up and running.
But, expats make Americans nervous so hook up with a Realtor that understands you and the situation. We were happy with our agent because she deals with Expats all the time and understands how the system works. A big part of it is knowing what to say.
So here there is an Escrow agency that’s used to sort through the paperwork. They co-ordinate with the Bank, their agent and your agent to settle. Not conveyancers or lawyers like in Australia.
On the day of settlement, you don’t actually sign the mortgage at your bank, you sign it all at the Escrow’s office.
Then once the documents are all signed at Escrow the house is yours! The agent will arrange with you to meet at your house with the keys and you’re in your very own new home.
It’s a complex system here. As I always say everything in America is an industry designed for people to be able to make a living from. You don’t pay your agent to buy your house (the commission is split 50/50 and paid for by the seller) so use one. It might well be the only free thing you get in the US!
You don’t get a say in who you use for Escrow but they’re arbitrary anyway so it doesn’t really matter. Actually seems strange but it’s true.
The way I figure it even if the property doesn’t increase in value my “rent equivalent” is paying off principal AND interest. And that money is going to me, not someone else. Interest payments are tax deductible here although there is a cap on the mortgage amount so check first. Check with your tax accountant and please don’t take my advice as financial in any way, shape or form–you’d not only be a Wally too because I’m not qualified but seriously you need to work out if it works for you.
The property tax is a bitch but the year after we bought our tax bill was much less so we figured it balanced itself out.
You see, for now at least, interest from your principal home is tax deductible. Barry bonus but those nutbags Trump calls his party are trying to limit the amount of tax that can be claimed so watch this space. Sounds like a socialist thing to do in my humble opinion (and you know since moving here I’ve realised I am a socialist so it’s not a dig, just fact).
Apart from all of that we’re so happy to be in our own house. If we hadn’t have bought and ended up paying more for rent it would down-right depressing.
So if you’re sick of paying rent just know it can be done. What have you got to lose?!
I last left you (on this topic) when we were first understanding what the bloody hell we’d got ourselves into with our son wanting to go to College here. We’re not up to the bit where we’re applying for college v applying for uni.
We’re doing both.
That’s mainly because of the exorbitant cost to go to College in this country. Yes that is a tone of great disdain.
You may recall I was on a little bit of a high horse (and I quote) “And I’m thinking if my son wants to go to Stanford he should bloody well be able to consider Stanford. A College education should not just be for people who can afford it. Right?”
Wrong. Sort of. Actually I was a little wrong about the cost to go to Stanford. After having toured there last summer apparently “no one actually pays full tuition for Stanford”. There are so many merit scholarships and so on that so many people who get into Stanford are eligible for that it eases the burden for the parents–and the loans for the kids.
But it’s rarely all $70k worth so when it comes down to the crunch how the bloody hell do you spare the $280k (four years at around $70k–more by next year) to send your kids (two of them so make that $560k) to get a College degree. One that will set them up perfectly only to do a Post-graduate degree for a squillion more bucks (and no we’re definitely NOT paying for that).
I digress … today I’m sitting down to chat to you about the difference between applying for College here in the US v applying for Uni back in Australia.
Applying for College
Wowsers. It’s time consuming applying for College. We’ve had the advice that it’s a good idea to apply to somewhere between 5-8/10 Colleges–to be sure you get somewhere. In that mix you’re going to want to choose a couple you’re confident you’ll get into, a couple that you may have a shot at and a couple that are a “reach”.
At around $80-$100 per application let’s start the [ca-ching] bank account depletion at $500. (She take a sip of wine). And while we’re tallying my costs let’s not forget the $10 per school you’re applying to for the College Board to send your SAT score each College you’re applying to. Oh, and let’s add the (thankfully already forgotten) cost of tutors and the fee to actually sit the SAT.
Only a few years ago most of the Colleges had their own application. These applications tend to be pages long with short answer questions and an essay to answer. These days many Colleges have tried to simplify the process by participating in the Common Application.
What each College will do then (although not all) is come up with their own supplementary questions unique to them and stuff they want to learn about you.
The common app features one essay your child has to write. They have a choice of seven topics although technically the last “question” is to write about anything you like so it’s infinite.
For those of you playing along at home here are the essay prompts. Here are my favourites:
“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”
“Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”
You’ve got 650 words. Go.
Then places like Stanford and the “UC’s” (Universities of California) have their own questions. Stanford has these three questions. Minimum should be 100 words and a maximum of 250 words.
The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why?
Berkeley (A UC–The UC) has eight extra questions and you need to answer four. Each answer should be about 350 words. Here are a couple of them:
“Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?”
It notes: “From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.”
And more questions
There are also a few short, sharp questions where the answer should be no more than 50 words. These are actually harder as you have to precise, knowledgeable and you can’t beat around the bush. Here they are–just for fun!
“What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
“How did you spend your last two summers?
“What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
“What five words best describe you?
“When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch?
“Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford.
“Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time?”
Application due date
Then there’s when these applications are due. There are early decisions (EDs), restrictive early decisions, non-binding early decisions, normal application, Spring applications etc. This decision alone is a huge one. Early decisions are due around November 1 and you can find out as early as December whether you’re in somewhere. That’s right–you still have a whole semester left of school but you might know you’re already in somewhere.
Remember, they would have, should have or are still doing their ACT or SAT exams. It’s actually these scores that most Colleges look at. That and your transcript and application. But there’s no standardised testing so it’s hard to know if your transcript means you’re good or you suck.
So, that’s the American system. Here’s a bit about the Australian system.
Applying for Uni
Work out the top five courses at which uni you want to go to. Eg: Business at Sydney Uni.
You get a week to change your preferences based on your marks and whether you think you’ll get in.
Find out what offers you get a few weeks later.
Accept & pay.
OK, it’s not always as straight forward as that. Some courses require a portfolio or interview but essentially that’s it.
Pros and cons
So the US system was designed (hmmm … over engineered?) to make it easier for kids to get into a College; so it’s not so stressful to get a good mark on your ACT or SAT and basically make it fairer for everyone. You see, kids get tutored for the ACT or SAT and those that can’t afford it don’t. And families start so early here it’s no wonder lots of kids are stressed, over-stretched and missing out on their childhood.
The US would probably argue (and many others no doubt) that there’s too much pressure on Australian kids to get the score they need to get into the course they want to study.
Who knows which one is right. Maybe neither? But, there’s a lot of work and a lot of extra money that goes into kids applications here in the US. We’re not having a bar of it (well technically we are because we’re still applying) but so many people are.
I bet many of you reading this are just happy you’re not the ones having to go through this process–that you’re at the other end of it. True.
Meanwhile, “we” continue to do question after question each weekend in the hopes of systematically and stresslessly going through the process.
You’ve found the area you want to live in and even managed to narrow your search to a couple of house. But now you have to secure a lease. Here are five important tips for securing a lease in LA.
As expats you may know–and understand–each country has its idiosyncrasies when it comes to credit and finance. The US can be a tough market if you don’t know what you’re doing and if you don’t have established credit.
1. Secure a good agent–preferably one that understands expats
There are lots of agents in LA; not all of them good, not all of them bad. Securing an agent is a whole topic in itself but you need to find an agent that understands you, your family and your needs. That’s why I recommend asking someone for recommendations then secure one with whom you have a good relationship.
There are so many houses in LA and not all of them good. You could spend a lot of time looking at places that remind you of your uni days (like we did) so choose wisely.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because your situation is going to be a little out of left-field (even for LA) so you need to make sure your agent is not only good, but is on your side. Find someone that’s persuasive and affable. At the end of the day they need to go into bat for you–to convince your future landlord that you’re going to be a fantastic person/family to rent to.
My agent, Caroline Fleck from Caroline Fleck Real Estate, tells the story of how one agent got aggressive with her because her client didn’t accept a tenancy for her clients. “The last thing you want is an agent who is going to argue with her fellow agent. She should have sold her clients to me to take back to my client–that’s what I’d do.”
Subscriber Adam Halen who thanked me very much for my site as it helped him with decisions to move his family to LA says the same thing.
“Kate Sutton, our agent, ultimately had to “vouch” for us as solid, trustworthy and a credit-worthy family. Having someone go in to bat for you, as an agent, has credibility and professionalism to it.”
2. Be ready with the cash–and lots of it!
There’s no escaping this one. At least there’s rarely any escaping this.
You’ll need three months’ deposit upfront. Rent is not always cheap in LA so that can be a lot of cash upfront.
Remember, Americans rely on that stupid credit rating to help them work out if you’re a worthy tenant of not. If you don’t have a credit history in the US show them what you’re like in your home country. Show them you have the means to pay the rent so they’re not stuck with a mortgage without the rent coming in from you to pay it.
3. Have lots of supporting documents available
On top of the huge deposit you may also have to show an American bank account with plenty of money in it (enough to carry you through for a number of months). Sometimes landlords accept this in lieu of the deposit. Even in our case with an amazing landlord they wanted the cash upfront.
You may also be able to show that you have decent funds that you can call on from your home country if you need to.
Another thing that can help your case is a letter from your employer showing that you’re coming to LA with a secured job and they’ll vouch for you. This can’t hurt so ask your employer if they’ll vouch for you IN WRITING and if you can get it, provide it–even before they ask.
The bottom line is you won’t have much credit so you need to show as much financial info as possible–just give it all to them: pay stubs, tax returns, financial statements, references, a letter from your business manager, whatever it takes.
Remember, in the US everything revolves around that stupid credit rating so if you don’t have one yet you’ve got to show that you’re worth taking a chance on.
Caroline Fleck says, “Be open, honest & upfront. The more you show the more likely they are to have faith in you.”
4. Write a letter
Personalise your application by writing a letter to your potential landlord. Add a photo of your family.
Ask to meet the landlord in person. Even if they’re not up for it it shows that you’re all in.
When we applied I wrote to the Landlord saying we loved the house and could picture ourselves at home in it. I said that we rented out our houses at home in Australia so we know what it’s like to entrust your home to strangers.
If you are from overseas you won’t have a credit history. Tell them why and what your credit is like back home. You want them to trust that you are good for the rent and you won’t leave them with a mortgage to pay and no rent coming in to pay it.
When we met our landlord he said he was so grateful for that letter and was very happy to receive it and approve our application on the back of it.
It can work!
5. Clean up your social media
Adam Halen also recommends cleaning up your social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn etc). Sometimes you forget that you put your life out for everyone so make sure it says you and your family are amazing and will be great tenants. Yes, that might mean taking down the photos of your wild going away party back at your house!
A couple of extra things
Consider furnished versus unfurnished. Furnished houses cost more but some people like to furnish houses with their excess furniture. It could also help you if you don’t want to ship all your furniture over here. And you may need furniture while your stuff makes its way over.
If you’re furnishing the house yourself there are plenty of rental companies to get you through the three months until your furniture to arrive.
During the hunt
Look up properties not selling and ask them if they’re interested in renting for 6-12 months.
With a lease you really need to work 2-3 weeks out, sometimes a month. Much longer than that might not work. Do sus out market before hand but it’s highly likely that house you’ve fallen in love with won’t be available in three month’s time. So either don’t fall in love or be prepared to secure it earlier than you first though.
We ended up doing just that–with not much on the market we were happy to find a house that we’d be happy to live in for a while.
Remember! You almost always end up staying longer than you think. We ended up staying two years rather than one.
Either way good luck. It’s a real nightmare when you first come. It will get easier I promise you!
xx It Started in LA xx
PS: Need help narrowing down an area to live in LA? Check out this post.
Renewing my expired CA Driver’s Licence? (California but you know that!) Doesn’t it seem like only a few months ago I (finally) got my Californian driver’s license?
Well. At home you can renew your license for 5 years or 10 years (5 years now if you’re over a certain age. Ugh). Here (where, let’s face it, bureaucracy isn’t their strong point) they only give you a licence valid for the length of your Visa. Somehow though, even though my Visa is valid until next March my license was only valid until November.
I got a form in the mail telling me to fill in the blanks, provide a copy of my passport and my i94 and visa page in my passport.
Alas I never heard back and so you know what that meant?
Yup, it meant I had to go in and apply to renew my license.
Again you know what that meant don’t you? Yep, forms and queue. Horrendous.
We were going on our road trip so it was important for me to get my license renewed. Mr H was at home so could take over my carpool and I’d get up and join the DMV queue at 7AM (ish).
Trying to pack and get organized I needed to wash my hair. My first instinct was to put a beanie on, suck it up and head over. But with a bit of packing still to do, appointments banked up and precision timing required I decided the safest thing to do was to actually do my hair, pop on some eyeliner and finish the rest of my make up when I came home.
I head on down (still early enough) to join the queue. There is always the longest queue at those DMVs it’s a nightmare.
So to share my pain with my fellow expats living in LA here you go. Three steps to renew your Californian license.
Renewing my expired Driver’s Licence
This applies to renewing “in-between” times because it’s coinciding with your Visa date not the length of time they would have given you a license.
1. Get in the queue early. Best to be there around 7/7:15 to get the shortest wait time. Seriously. If you don’t want to wait in the queue make an appointment, it saves so much time. (https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/portal/foa/welcome). Having said that sometimes you don’t have a chance as appointments can take weeks to wait for.
2. Complete the form. It is the same form as when you applied. It’s called the DL44 and it must be the original form.
Some things you’ll need to know or bring to get your temporary licence:
You’ll also need to know your Social Security number for the form (I know Americans know it by heart but I don’t).
3. Wait your turn and they’ll process your form.
That may well be good information but here’s the number one tip I will leave you with:
DO YOUR HAIR AND MAKE-UP
Because they’re issuing you with a new license. That means a new photo.
Oddly enough there was no fee to get you a new license. (And on the positive how much cheaper are licenses are to get here?)
One more thing. And this happened to my son who passed his test and hasn’t had his proper license yet (three months later). And it happened to Mr H whose temporary license kept expiring and he had to continually follow up. If you don’t get your license back you might need to call this number:
Legal Presence: (916) 657 7445
I believe it might just jolt the system back into place and move your license along a bit. That’s because our licences have to go through an extra step. I was recommended to call the two weeks before the temporary one expires.
Updated January 30, 2018 with more info on Public schools
So you’ve just found out you’re moving to LA. LA can be such a daunting beast—it’s big, there’s lots of traffic and one end of town is completely different to the other. So, what do you have to do if you know you’re making the move and how do you navigate the process.
Five things to do if you’re moving to LA
1. Pick your Location
It’s a toss up whether you pick your location first or pick your schools first. If you have kids then it may be a bit of both.
If you don’t have kids then it’s easy: location, location, location. I’d start with areas in and around work. Think neighbouring communities, the actual community or communities that are easily accessed via one of the major freeways.
We wanted something close to Mr H’s work so it wasn’t a huge commute and then we wanted something that would be close to school.
So we looked at every area in between. We found two houses, within 15 minutes of each other—one closer to the school we hoped to get into and the other closer to Mr H’s work—and we let fate decide which one we’d end up living in. As it turns out we ended up in the house closest to school. We were really lucky as it also turned out a number of the kids friends (whose parents became my friends) also lived in the area.
For you choosing location might have everything to do with choosing schools: especially if you’ve chosen to send your kids to public school (see below).
Like I say, it’s best for all concerned if you’re as close to work and school as you can possibly be if you want to avoid spending all your time in your car. Having said that some people make a lifestyle decision to commute. Go figure but they do. Test the traffic patterns, especially in peak hours. The bummer about LA is it’s a sprawling acropolis and it’s hard to get around at the best of times, let alone peak times. During peak hours it took me just under half an hour to get home from school drop off; outside that it’s less than 10 minutes.
Once you’ve chosen your location then you need to find somewhere to live. I’ll be linking this to a post coming up on house-hunting and tips to secure a lease without a credit rating so stay tuned.
2. Choose your Schools
If you have kids then you know this is vital.
Your first choice is whether you’re going to private or public school. There are also in-between schools like religious ones or Charter schools.
Despite popular movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off not everyone goes to public school. In fact, the LA Unified School District lacks money and as a result the quality of schools can be hit and miss.
Some areas offer great houses and great schools (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach and Pasadena South for example) but the high rents could still lock you out.
When we did the sums on Santa Monica for example we decided it was cheaper to pay for private school than pay the higher rent required to live in the zone. (Schools are funded by property taxes and most landlords pass on the property tax expenses in your rent—they’re not paying for your kids to go to school in a good area, they’re just going to make the money off it!).
If you’ve decided to go to public school then you’ve most likely chosen your area based on its reputation for having good schools. You can always check a school’s rating on the Great Schools website. And most house listings show the schools nearby with their rating—it’s that important over here.
Here is a list of the School Districts in LA. This is so important as–per above–where you choose to live will almost surely be locked into the schools.
If you’re braving the world of public schools and you’re in the LAUSD you’ll need to look at things called Magnets or Magnet Schools. This is where they put on special programs and allow kids from around the district to apply. But be warned, it’s equally competitive and there are actually such things as magnet points which to a stranger to the system can be so so confusing! So getting in can be, ahem, a bitch so be prepared to put in the deep, deep research. Here’s an article I found to help understand the chances of actually getting in!
If you’re going to go the public school route you may need to consider paying a consultant to help you through. It’s still cheaper than private school!
Private school is not so easy, they’re often oversubscribed and can be hard to get into. I was surprised that they can be even harder to get into than they can at home. Many of the private schools are College Preparatory schools which in a nutshell means high in academics and may not be the place for your poor gorgeous spunky kid with learning issues.
There is probably one major difference between admission at school here and Australia.
You can only apply the year before the school year you want to enter. So, as soon as the new school year starts admissions teams start holding open days to showcase their schools. Applications are then due by end of the year (please don’t take my word for it—check this—and each school can be different).
At a nominated date in March you are told whether your child has been accepted or waitlisted. You then have around two weeks to accept or reject your offer. All the schools have the same date so you have to choose.
The problem for an expat family lies in the fact that we never know when we’re going to be moving. Imagine we only found out in early May so as my story goes I had to wake up at 4am every day for a week ringing Admissions Directors pitching our family to see if they could let us in outside their traditional admissions cycle. Each time I think back I think how lucky we were.
The other step you’ll have to take is to take an entrance exam. For most LA private schools it’s a test called the ISEE. The Catholic schools have a different test and I believe this is mainly for High School.
So here’s the thing: Americans get tutors for this test and put their kids through the ringer to exceed in it. It’s a competition and he who has the most resources to throw at their kids can generally win (unless their kids aren’t test takers or smart and then they better hope they have heaps of money to bribe the schools in donations). It’s a cynical but true story folks; be very afraid. But, having said that my kids had a day’s notice they had to sit it (story in the linked blog) and they did it. Thank God we were going in under extreme circumstances and didn’t have to compete with the masses!
It might sound simple but it’s not altogether that straight forward. You will first need a US address and perhaps if you’re an Expat a letter from your employer.
We started with a Citibank account in Australia which made it so much easier to open up accounts in the US. Once Mr H’s pay was deposited into his account we were able to get credit cards with a decent credit limit. Also we’re able to transfer money between our Citibank accounts in Australia and here in the US without fees. Be careful though as I’ve recently heard others say they don’t have this feature on their accounts despite being Gold customers.
You can also open up accounts with your local US banks with a greater ATM network and perhaps even more branches. We haven’t been inconvenienced by our Citibank account at all. Well only the once in getting a mortgage but that’s another story.
Oh my God. This is the BIG one. Credit is the biggest nightmare for young people and for established families like mine moving to the US. Everything hinges on it: your lease, a mortgage, credit cards, even opening up a bank account. I know, go figure! The system is so fundamentally flawed but you have no choice but to play the game.
It will be virtually impossible to get a credit card as you have no credit history. See my blog post (coming) on tips to getting your credit history up and running quick smart. Get yourself a prepaid credit card or Amex, you’re using your own cash but it helps to establish your credit history. Also try getting a couple of store cards. If you do this buy a couple of small things on it and pay them off straight away. This will build more credit.
Opening up electricity, gas and Cable/Internet accounts may also prove tricky. Well not tricky so much as two things will happen—they’ll charge you a higher price (to them you’re a greater credit risk—yep seriously if you’re poor or struggling you pay more how is that even fair?) and they’ll most likely get you to put down a cash deposit.
5. Get a car
With no credit it’s pretty hard to get a car without paying cash. We managed to get a lease for the duration of our visa through BMW Finance. They were able to say that we were previous owners of BMW and with Mr H’s letter of offer use that to secure the lease. He arrived a couple of months before me and once I arrived it was much easier for me to get the second lease.
Another loyal reader of this Blog said his wife was able to get one car lease under her visa deal. To get around it her and her husband applied for two leases simultaneously through two different manufacturers. That way, when they were running the reports there was no record of the other lease. Quite brilliant. It worked for them so it could work for you too.
Long-term rentals are also possible. But, beware, they are obviously considerably more expensive than a regular lease or possibly even buying the car.
My two cents worth
Take all the extra expenses into account when negotiating your move with your employer. Or, if you’re doing the sums take into account bringing money into the US, the extra deposits you’ll have to pay and virtually living on cash as you establish yourself in the US’s highly flawed (yes I know I’ve said that before) credit system.
It will take you a good six to 12 months. But once you get the hang of it it will get easier. Hopefully for your sake it will be easier then when we made the move.
How much does it cost to go to College here in America?
Many of my sentences start with “Never in my Wildest Dreams…” Well in this case my sentence starts like this:
“Never in my wildest nightmares … did I expect to be looking at the American College system.” Not because I didn’t think it could be done but because I didn’t think it was necessary to look to America when we have a great University system in Australia.
Differences between College in America and going to Uni in Australia
My son is now a Junior and the talk is seemingly nothing but “Does he know where he wants to go to College?”
We were with some great (American) friends we met in Shanghai. We are so lucky in a world with Facebook and Messenger etc that we’re able to keep in touch. Naturally, as their son is the same age as my son that question came up.
My 16 year-old’s top choice is Stanford, to which my daughter always chimes in, “but he won’t get it.” (Tsk tsk to her and it’s besides the point).
“Stanford’s out of our league so we’re not even considering it,” was their response.
When they say out of their league, they mean money-wise. I was more than shocked because:
a) we didn’t even think about the money (not, I hasten to add because we can necessarily afford it but because its your final score–grade–that you consider in Australia);
b) he has a great job and earns good money; and
c) the 90210 world in which we live, people don’t think like that. You know my world can often be surreal?
How can that be fair?
It reminds me of one of the first people I met when we arrived in LA. Over a very civilised glass of bubbles one Friday afternoon she was telling me about her housekeeper. The conversation went pretty much word-for-word like this:
Her: “My housekeeper’s daughter just got into Brown.
“Can you believe she got offered a full scholarship? (Better known colloquially as a ‘free ride’).
“What’s the world coming to when I won’t be able to get my kids into Brown and I can afford to pay their full tuition and she gets to walk in without paying a cent.”
Without taking a breath or looking for a response. I kid you not.
Me: Gobsmacked & speechless I skulled what was left in my glass and immediately topped it up. I may or may not have skulled that next glass too.
We can’t afford to consider xyz Uni
Seriously? Seriously? This is how the majority of people in the US think. This is how the majority of people in the US have to think.
I surveyed a Facebook page I belong to of Australians living in America and it’s how most of them think too.
So, these gorgeous friends of mine, who are not poor, but are not uber wealthy, must first look at their income when compiling their list of Colleges for their son. Their income. Not his scores or smarts but how much they earn. No bloody wonder Bernie Sanders got as far as he did. How can that be the slightest bit fair?
What sort of system is in place that is so downright skewed to the uber rich? Not the middle class but the wealthy.
I can hear you asking, “Well, how much does Stanford cost?” Let me tell you. And you better be sitting down. Actually, go get yourself a scotch. Neat. On the rocks. Maybe only a couple—it’s going to need to be stiff.
Stanford costs how much?
At the time of publishing Stanford costs $70k per year (OK it’s just over $67k). Yale costs $65k. Harvard $61k and Brown $62k.
So I started asking around. “Is that really the case that if you can’t afford the $70k to send your child to the top institution in the country you cannot consider it?”
The bottom line answer is, sadly, an overwhelming yes.
Holy mother of $#%&ing God that is disgraceful. Seriously disgraceful.
I know I sound like a socialist now but seriously I’m gobsmacked. Please tell me how this country in which I live can be the “best in the world” when my gorgeous friends who earn good coin and pay taxes (unlike–allegedly–one of the Presidential nominees) and contribute to society in such a positive way but must rule out schools whose fees are above a certain (very high) amount. How is that possibly fair?
Pretty Little Liars
I’m binge-watching PLL at the moment and one of the sub-plots is the girls trying to navigate the College application process. And yes, the subject of affordability comes into play there too. It must be true. And, by the way, if any of you are fans: how’s poor old Hannah (Ashley Benson’s character) whose Dad is paying for her step sister to go to Dartmouth and won’t pay for his real daughter to go to a “good school” because he promised the fake one first. Shame on you TV Dad.
There’s always financial aid. Like my Friday drinking acquaintance pointed out: there is no discrimination against low-income earners. Thank god—there is a God.
And I’m thinking if my son wants to go to Stanford he should bloody well be able to consider Stanford. A College education should not just be for people who can afford it. Right? Right. Are you with me? I started looking into financial aid. It’s complex to say the least but the Website does seem to indicate that it’s possible to get a portion of the tuition through the program.
If your parents earn less than $65k it’s a no-brainer, you’re not expected to pay anything when it comes to “educational costs” but students are still expected to contribute towards their own expenses (according to the website from summer jobs or part-time work during the school year and their own savings. They can say that right but that’s why Uni kids live at home in Australia—because they can’t afford those expenses as they usually don’t earn enough to fend for themselves and you want to build up your savings, not spend it. Whatever. They have to learn sometime.
Next category is the parents with an income below $125k. Again according to the website the expected parent contribution will be low enough to ensure all the tuition charges are covered through grants and aid.
The next level from there is families with higher income—typically up to $225k who may also qualify for assistance “if more than one family member is enrolled in College”.
I’m not exactly sure of the tax rate—and CA has the highest so we’re the biggest losers—but let’s quickly do the sums. I’m assuming someone on $225k is in the highest tax bracket.
If Stanford costs $70k, you need to earn around $140k just to break even on the transaction. Throw in a mortgage of $4k per month, some clothes, running a car and a weekly grocery shop; let’s say that’s around $50k (so $100k before tax).
Let’s say it’s not quite 50% tax so we’ve over-estimated; so say we’re at $200k. All of a sudden that “higher level income” isn’t so high level anymore. Effectively that family has $25k gross left for incidentals. That’s living beneath the poverty line.
And that’s the answer to why my beautiful friends—a family on “good coin” can’t—don’t—consider Stanford.
Where is the opportunity? Where is the educational freedom? What happens to the middle classes of the land of the free; the land of opportunity?
I had no idea. No idea. (Did I mention I was gobsmacked? Are you?).
What about Australia?
It’s pretty hard to work out exactly how much Uni costs these days in Australia. Once upon a time it was free but we were breeding a society of over-educated free-loaders that the Government (controversially) decided we students had to contribute to our undergraduate educations.
So the Government introduced a type of Government-granted loan system known as HECs (Higher Education Contribution Scheme). Basically the Government pays a portion of your Uni fees and you pay the rest via the Scheme. It is an interest-free loan that you only pay back once you start earning enough money to pay it back. (I say interest free but the amount is indexed yearly according to CPI). And you only pay it back according to how much money you earn. And you pay it back through the tax system. Effectively you barely notice that you’re paying any money back. It is genius right?
How much does Uni cost in Australia?
OK, to be fair, that bit is hard to work out. It’s hard to work out because the Government kicks in for part of your fees. I could try to spend some time working it out but the point is actually that we don’t really need to look at the costs when choosing a Uni. We just need to get the marks to get into the Course we require. To get into the prestigious unis in Australia requires higher marks, not a bigger wallet or even a higher propensity to get into debt.
Well I’m going to be a stubborn socialist princess and am not going to tell my son he can only look at Colleges we can afford (more fool me). My first thought was to pay what we’re currently paying in private school fees (there goes my exotic holidays for a few more years) and he can get a loan for the rest. Well that’s not going to work. You don’t even want to hear what a debacle the student loans can be here. It’s a whole ‘nother industry. If I have enough energy I might blog about that one day.
And, if you’ve landed on this page because you’re trying to navigate the College application process I’m sorry this post hasn’t made it any clearer for you. Rest assured though, as I go through the process I’ll share it with you step by step, blow by blow, bottle of wine after bottle of wine. Nah—neat scotch after neat scotch.
And yes, if he doesn’t get into the right College for him, or get a “free ride” we are looking to send him back to Australia. Why the hell not?!
xx It Started in LA xx
PS: I should also point out that there are plenty of good Colleges that don’t cost that much. The State colleges, such as UCLA are much cheaper and offer an amazing education. My point is just that I thought America was supposed to be the land of opportunity, not the land of how much money you have gets you “further in life”.
PPS: If you’re Stanford Admissions reading this post it’s not a dig at you, arguably the finest institution in the land, it’s a dig at the system. So please don’t hold this against my son. If my son gets accepted we’ll find a way to make it work—and hopefully you can help ;-).
Ever wondered what those funny terms are they use on TV or on the movies? You know the ones I’m talking about right? It’s the same for College: Freshmen, Juniors, Seniors and Sophomores. I thought it was time to take you through understanding American Grade levels.
The differences between Americans and Australians: grade level names
You may not have sat down to try to work it out but what do these terms actually mean? And, in fairness you may not even care. But do they actually use them? Why do they use them? (OK, I’m not answering that one as I plain & simple don’t know).
Understanding American Grade Levels (for dummies–like me)
9th Grade/Year 9 Freshmen
10th Grade/Year 10 Sophomores
11th Grade/Year 11 Juniors
12th Grade/Year 12 Seniors
Basically life only starts at High School (we all know the number of movies made about Middle School (formerly known as Junior High) and just how “awful” it is. There is in fact one coming out very soon called Middle School Movie–quite the imaginative title don’t you think?) Again, I don’t know why this is.
When you finish being a “Senior” at High School you start all over again to be a Freshmen at College. And yes, the American College system is a four-year program. That’s so they can make more money.
Meanwhile in Australia …
Well it’s not too difficult to work out. In a nutshell we just keep counting.
We were talking to friends in Australia about years 11 & 12–the critical years that affect what score you get which determines what Uni and course you can get into. As you’d expect years 7 to 10 get harder by the year but the marks you get in this time don’t get used to calculate your score, nor do they get shared with the Uni or College you’re applying to.
In America there is a lot of talk about how your grade counts the minute you start Year 9. Kids rush to take Honours classes (which helps get your GPA up if you get good marks) and there is an incessant amount of study and (some might say unnecessary for their age) late nights.
You see, here in good old US of A Colleges get sent your High School transcript. I’m not really sure if the panic to exceed and succeed so you lose all sense of fun and your childhood is worth it but that’s how it rolls here.
Along with the late nights comes a rush to pick Community Service projects to outdo everyone else’s and find extra curricular activities that might make them attractive to College Admissions team. Burn out much?
Anyways, more about all that in my series on Colleges–the beast it is here but at least know you know (as I know you’ve always wanted to) about those Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors.
Have a good weekend–and be thankful you’re no longer at school.
Two years on: the first six months are the hardest
We’re in the thick of the first semester and it’s getting harder to work out what’s for dinner each night and we’re struggling to get up in the morning. Isn’t that a sure sign the novelty’s worn off and you’re in normality?
It’s a lot easier this time around than two years ago–our first six months in LA–though.
It’s nearing the end of October and it’s still so warm. Despite this everyone here seems to be very excited about “Fall”. I’m not exactly sure why. It could be the cooler weather (well that’s not happening), the smells of Fall like cinnamon and fires (that’s not happening either) or the prospect of a little rain (nope, still not happening).
I’ve started noticing people on the East Coast dressing up and the Coats starting to come on and the magazines are filled with darker colours. But here in LA the only thing that’s not playing the game is the weather.
I don’t get the Fall love. It feels more like Spring to me (apart from the leaves falling from the trees). It’s still warm and probably has more to do with the fact that I’m intrinsically trained to think that September and October are the Spring months. I don’t know, maybe it’s a wavelength thing.
When we first arrived we didn’t want the weather to cool down as we’d just come out of an Australian winter (yes it’s mild but still winter) and the prospect of back-to-back winters was not something I was looking forward to—no matter how mild they were.
The first six months
It’s time to continue with my series on looking back at our first couple of years here. I left you having found a place to live and the kids accepted at a private school here in LA. All was going well until reality set in.
It’s so true of moving anywhere that the first six months are the hardest. But you’d think a girl from Sydney moving to LA—California—with a few moves under her belt would not have such a tough time. Right? Wrong.
Let me tell you the first six months are the pits. The honest-to-goodness pits. Then they can be exhilaratingly good: everything is new, life is an adventure and things as simple as grocery shopping can be a challenge. I was used to that in China but not America—land of the ultra big supermarket. But when I had to buy bullet chilies for example, I had to go to an Asian grocer because they don’t sell them at the normal supermarket. That’s right, all the chilies are Mexican.
So then the challenges become nightmares. The glass half full starts to look more empty.
Even things like paying bills I have to think twice. No more BPay or Direct Debit. I’ve caught myself a couple of times saying, “how do I pay you?” to which the response is generally always, “Well I take a check,” yes not a cheque. That means I’ll have to go to the Post Office and buy stamps. Such a foreign concept for me.
Anyway, It’s true the most important thing to do is to find a school and somewhere to live. But once you’ve moved in, done a bit of sightseeing and getting around … then what?
So I started going to visit different areas checking them out, taking photos and posting lots of “cool” stuff on Instagram. But there’s only so much of that you can do. On your own. We all go through it. And we all get over it.
I remember hearing about some women in Shanghai living far out in the “suburbs” feeling lonely and depressed. If I felt lonely and depressed and I live in the middle of Beverly Hills—with a car to drive myself around and a working internet connection—it’s a wonder they survived their long weekdays.
That’s why you can’t write this post at the time. No, you need the benefit of “I live to tell the tale” behind you and a bit of perspective.
LA Private School
I remember the first time I went to school to the Orientation, the Welcome BBQ and even to pick up the kids in carpool I was feeling very intimidated. I imagined everyone being rich and groovy and famous. If not then they’d look like something out of Housewives of Beverly Hills. I thought I’d be the beached whale—helpless out of water and a little larger than my LA counterparts.
Last weekend–two years on–I volunteered to help at the school’s Open House and if I wasn’t comfortable with my place at school by then, I am now. Granted they’re not in yet but there were some interesting looking people. Why do we always doubt ourselves in a new environment? Why can’t we—I—back myself and be confident I would fit in?
Scattered amongst some rather good-looking people were fat people, skinny people, daggy people and just plain weird people. I actually started to think that I fit into LA life better than some of these people. How’s that for a turnaround? And, I wonder if the family that came in matching-coloured tops—five of them—and daggy footwear will get in?
It’s true as a family moving into 90210 and finding ourselves at a school with well-known identities we’ve done our fair share of Googling. What did we do without it?
I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before my daughter is friends with the son of arguably one of the most famous people in the world, certainly one of the most successful. She’s recently told us that her friend is obsessed with Mr H’s company and thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world. And, in an interesting turn of events he was telling her how he’s been Googling Mr H. Wow, Mr H being Googled by said famous offspring. How funny. It’s all about perspective.
What else do you need to know when moving to LA?
Back to those first few months. The most frustrating thing would have to be …
Credit rating, credit rating, credit rating
… it affects everything. Literally everything.
When Mr H tried to connect up to our Direct TV “cable” service there were specials on at the time. Ready to go ahead he found out that our price would be higher than the advertised special price. Because we had no credit rating.
Same thing when we went to open our Electricity account. We needed a giant deposit because we had no credit rating. Aren’t they supposed to help people with no credit? Isn’t that discrimination?
Everywhere we turned it came down to credit.
Luckily, with a Citibank account in Australia we were able to open up an account in the US. And, once Mr H said he’d get his salary paid into the account we could open a credit card.
To this date I don’t really have any accounts in my name—something I should seriously try to do.
We were also lucky we could get a car—actually two. That was thanks to BMW recognising that Executives tend to move around so if they’ve previously owned a BMW in another country they’ll take a look at you. Thank you BMW!
Two years later on the whole credit thing
Two years later and I’m still tossing up whether or not to buy a house here. The good news is we can get a mortgage, the bad news is we need a sizeable deposit. And they still look at your bloody credit rating. The rate they give you actually depends on your credit rating–the better your credit the sweeter the deal. The lower your credit rating, the higher the interest rate. Wow, way to go America, nothing like being supportive and helping those trying to get ahead in life. Keep the poor downtroden and the rich richer. OMG. Granted ours is better now but the fact that we’ve only had a credit rating for two years tends to go against you. Go figure.
I’m off to keep Googling. Who knows? Maybe my daughter’s friend will start Googling me and subscribing to this Blog. That’d be cool—so long as he tells Chuck Lorre he loves it.
I started this little trip down memory lane a few months ago, reminiscing about all the things we needed to do to see if living in LA would work out for us.
When I last left you we were on a plane bound for LA with appointments at two schools and time set aside with a relocation agent to try to find somewhere to live in LA.
One the plane ready to interview with LA schools & find somewhere to live. Wish us luck | It Started in LA
Our first step was getting through our interviews at the two schools we chose. Once we had a better idea whether or not we’d get in then we could start narrowing our search for somewhere to live.
Ten private schools to consider in LA
I realise I didn’t name the schools in my last post. And, if you’re coming to LA and looking for private schools you’re going to need a few names to start with. Here were some of the names on our list to help give you a start.
This is by no way definitive—do your research and check the area they’re in first. Unless you’re a good commuter you don’t want to work on one side of LA, living on the other and having your kids at school in the opposite direction to both.
Eight areas to consider when finding somewhere to live in LA
You’re getting the message there are lots of different areas to live in LA and, not unlike anywhere else in the world, it dictates the type of lifestyle you’ll have when you move. If you’re relocating for work then you know where your office is. We knew MR H’s office was going to be in Hollywood. I knew I wanted to be close to the action and I didn’t want him to have a long commute—we wanted to replicate our Sydney experience as closely as we could because that works for us.
I opened Google Maps and started to look at different areas that could work for us. Here are some of our choices and/or suggestions.
1. Santa Monica
We heard Santa Monica was a bit tricky to get into and out of but being relatively self-contained, and by the beach, it would be a great lifestyle choice for us. The bonus was that the public schools were good so the extra rent could be saved in free public schooling.
Pros: Beachside, up to 20 degrees (F) cooler than in town and with everything at your fingertips you rarely need to leave.
Cons: Much smaller houses and high rent gives you less bang for buck. The traffic getting into and out of Santa Monica could also be a downer if you’re not used to it.
2. Hollywood Hills
When you think of Hollywood Hills you think mansion after mansion of sprawling celebrity estates. But there are some nice neighbourhoods that don’t have to break your budget and I like the feel of the area, plus it’s convenient for all of us.
Pros: Great areas, good choice of houses, retro style.
Cons: nothing really—just have to find the house.
3. Pacific Palisades
It’s a lovely area but you can’t get much further away from Hollywood. For some reason our Relocation agent kept pushing us towards the Palisades. We’ve since found out there’s a great Charter School there and many people try to get their kids in here as an alternative to Private School but we weren’t told that at the time. Anyway, for us the commute is the deal breaker.
Pros: Great neighbourhood and community
Cons: A long commute to Hollywood for Mr H and I felt like I’d be isolated away from the shopping and restaurant districts of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
4. The Valley
Movies have been made on the area–remember Valley Girls? We were advised to consider the valley because of its more affordable houses, and if you go out further enough you get good schools and McMansions—bigger houses and better bang for buck.
After two and a half years of living in Beverly Hills we bought a house in the Valley (Sherman Oaks). It’s nice and close to school, it’s not far from our old house, it’s close to the freeways to get around town and we can walk to shops and restaurants. We feel like it has given us a new lease on life in LA. It’s great for us and it’s great for the kids.
Pros: Bigger houses, lots of pools.
Cons: 50,000,000 degrees hotter in summer.
5. Beverly Hills &/or West Hollywood
I didn’t really think we were going to consider Beverly Hills because it’s well … Beverly Hills. But like the Hollywood Hills Beverly Hills isn’t all mansions, there are some more affordable areas.
South of Santa Monica is still Beverly Hills and it borders West Hollywood. This is definitely the area I would have loved to live in.
Pros: Proximity to shopping and restaurants.
Cons: There is absolutely nothing wrong with Beverly Hills as long as you can find the house. West Hollywood too for that matter.
Pasadena comes highly recommended by a great many people for its culture, great schools and lifestyle. We didn’t consider it though as it was a commute for all of us.
Pros: Lots of people love it and a good school district.
Cons: The commute–unless you’re working in the area.
7. Brentwood or Westwood
Brentwood was nice and close to Santa Monica making it convenient to the beach yet still convenient enough for Mr H and work.
Pros: Great location with close proximity to beaches and still easy access to West Hollywood and Beverly Hills restaurants.
Cons: Not much good stock in our price range.
8. South Bay
Many people come to SoCal (Southern California) for the lifestyle. So it’s no surprise that people are attracted to the South Bay area encompassing Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach.
Pros: Good schools, beautiful shops and township, community feeling
Cons: Quite the commute!
9. Hancock Park
Bordering Melrose and West Hollywood Hancock Park is a beautiful leafy suburb in the middle of concrete-paradise LA. It has great schools nearby and lots of the private schools have buses to and from each day.
Pros: Convenient to Hollywood and Downtown, great community neighbourhood.
Cons: It’s pretty hard to find good houses available for rent–but do put it on your list if it’s convenient for you.
Plus two other neighbourhoods I’d add to my list:
10. Silver Lake & Los Feliz
Silver Lake is on the other side of the 101 off Sunset. It’s hip & happening, funky, groovy and an eclectic group of people. I’m not sure there are many private schools in the area but if I were a young family this is where I’d want to be.
11. Culver City
Culver City has come a long way even from when we moved here: new restaurants and shops and it’s close to the Studios, especially Sony Pictures.
Plus, many other studios and entertainment businesses are setting up shop there.
LA Stereotypes according to LAist
Our journey two years ago finding somewhere to live in LA
We spent a lot of time covering different areas of LA looking for something semi-decent in our price range. We wanted a spare room and a pool and didn’t think it was a huge ask. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. In a horrible wake-up call it felt like we were struggling Uni students on a measly budget. Every house we went into was depressing—wardrobe doors that wouldn’t open or close let alone you wouldn’t want to put your clothes in, small and dirty kitchens, rundown houses with filthy carpet and—if there was a pool—grimy and couldn’t be less inviting if they tried. I felt like I was visiting Neil, Vivienne, Mike & Neil from The Young Ones.
Not one house we visited in the first couple of days would be one we’d be happy to visit let alone call home. It was back to the drawing board—we’d need to up our budget and/or forgo the guest room.
It was easier to find a house to suit our needs in Shanghai—a city where the majority of people couldn’t speak English—than it was in Los Angeles, one of America’s largest and most prestigious cities.
To say our relocation agent was useless was an understatement. She seemed surprised that we didn’t like any of the houses she showed us so we took things into our own hands. We started trawling the rental websites looking for places, increasing our budget and seeing where the sweet spot would be for us to find something vaguely decent. I thought getting into a school would be the problem, not finding a house.
We found a few places in West Hollywood and I decided this would be a perfect area for us—close the action like we were in Australia, not far from Mr H’s work and it wouldn’t be too bad getting the kids to a nearby bus stop for school commuting.
Everytime we sent our relocation agent a place we wanted to check out in West Hollywood she’d ignore it. I’d ask her when I saw her next how she’s going securing us an appointment she’d defensively say, “it takes time to get an appointment, please bear with me.”
Then Mr H said, about one particular place that looked really quite promising, “that was one of the first places we sent you,” she finally started saying something about West Hollywood being a questionable place to live.
She was alluding to the fact that—shock horror—there were a lot of gay people that lived in the area. We reminded her that we lived in inner city Sydney and we’ve always had lovely gay neighbours and we were very comfortable with this. Despite writing her a brief on our family and our tastes, she couldn’t relate to us because her picture of us had us in a family-oriented neighbourhood with conservative values.
After brushing us off to a Real-Estate agent to continue house hunting we hit the ground running with a full schedule of houses to visit. The Agent would give us a list of houses, we’d check the maps and drive past the house, then provide a short list of the ones we liked that we wanted to see inside.
That’s when we thought we were going to end up living in either the Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills—great proximity to Hollywood and not bad for the kids for school.
After a week of solid searching and being totally despondent we settled on two houses—one in Beverly Hills off Mulholland Drive and the other in the Hollywood Hills. I was overruled and we put an application in for the house in the Hollywood Hills. It had a pool that was swimable and whatever made them happy I was happy enough to go with.
In our application we explained that we don’t have a credit history in America but we have a good one at home in Australia and that we’re being moved to LA by Mr H’s new company. For whatever it was worth they would back us if necessary. We also said we were pretty keen to stay longer than 12 months as it wouldn’t make sense for us to get settled only to have to move again.
Our application was rejected—apparently someone else had put an application in at the same time and were offering more money.
To me this didn’t make sense for two reasons—one we weren’t told anyone else was interested in the house let alone let looking let alone miraculously putting in an application at precisely the same time as us. Secondly, if there are two people putting an application on a property wouldn’t you go back and create an auction situation and try to get the best possible deal for the house? Exactly. So clearly our lack of credit history meant that we lost out on this house.
That meant it was Plan B and the Beverly Hills house I was keen on. It didn’t have a pool but it was the sort of style we were used to in Australia and a house we wouldn’t be ashamed to have the rich and famous over to visit.
When we were visiting the house we actually got a call from one of the schools saying we were accepted. What a relief, now we just have to find the house and our job here in LA was done for now.
We put an application in for the Beverly Hills house and it was accepted. The owner—a movie producer and composer came to LA from Austria a number of years ago only to find himself in the same position so he was sympathetic to us. We’ll never know whether we’d struggle to find another house but we were so thankful the search was over.
Plus, we later realised that the school was an incredible ten-minute commute away so we couldn’t be luckier.
It was the most stressful week and enough to put us off making the move to LA quite frankly. I actually don’t know why we persevered. Yeah, I actually do, it was the allure of Hollywood and the wonder of what life would have in store for this ordinary but happy Australian family about to move to Hollywood.
Now, two years on, I wish we’d chosen a bigger house and held off to get the pool we so desperately wanted. It’s one thing to get a house close to your needs in Australia but it would have been smarter to get a house different to what you’re used to so you get a different experience. And, as a growing family we could have grown into that “big American house.”
If only we were a bit more realistic and weren’t looking at the opportunity through rose-coloured glasses.
Did you make your move in a hurry? Did you find finding a house easy? Hard? Did you know where you wanted to live? Did you have anyone to help you? Would love it if you’d share your stories.
I hope you haven’t been holding your breath waiting for “Getting my Californian Driving Licence—part 2 (behind-the-wheel)”.
Yes, they call it “behind-the-wheel” here and it’s the practical part of the licence process—the part that has “fail me” written all over it and the part I was putting off the most mainly because of the horror stories I’d heard. You know? Anything that can go wrong will go wrong?
About six months ago I embarked on the getting-my-licence journey thinking it would give my sitcom (actually Blog) a comedy boost. Sadly there is little to no comedic value in this post. It’s not original and it’s just one of those stupid things in life there’s just no getting around.
One Sunday night a few weeks ago—while it was still school holidays—my husband got out his iPad and announced it was time to get my licence. Where did that come from?
The overwhelming advice was don’t sit your licence in Hollywood, they’ll fail you. OK. It was suggested I go into the “Valley” to Winnetka. The only available appointment in the foreseeable future was the very next day.
“I can’t do it tomorrow,” I said rather adamantly.
“Because,” knowing full well that’s a ridiculous response. “I need to drive around and get to know the area first. And we’ve got dentist appointments in the morning, how am I going to do two things in one day?” Useless … not getting any more convincing.
So, after checking around at alternative appointments and realising I’ve got no excuse, we made the appointment. I can do this.
I rounded up all my paperwork ready for the test. Because I was driving on a Learner’s Permit Mr H had to come with me.
(Only a year ago you could show your Australian licence and they’d give you a temporary licence provided you past the written test. Now you’re given a Learner’s Permit valid for one year).
Because you’re on a Learner’s Permit it technically requires a licenced driver to accompany you. Given part of their checklist is you must be accompanied by a Licenced Driver, we weren’t about to test the DMV and have me front up alone only to be rejected.
Preparation for behind-the-wheel test
Next we collected up the rest of the paperwork I needed:
My Learner’s Permit
My Registration Papers (that are supposed to be kept in the car anyway)
Proof of insurance (that’s also supposed to be kept in the car)
(Side-bar: While I needed my i94 and Passport they didn’t ask for my son’s when he got his licence at 16. It may have something to do with the fact that it’s a brand new licence but not sure at this stage. He passed his test and is now driving so all must be OK).
We rocked up to the Winnetka DMV. You’re asked to park in the carpark, check in and then drive up to the testing area when “instructed to do so”.
Like every other DMV in LA it’s packed. I don’t know why this is. There’s always a queue out the front and there are always hordes of people inside. And it’s always always always chaotic. This DMV is not unlike the Hollywood DMV I described in Part one of this story.
I had to go inside past the outside queue (and funny looks) and then past another inside queue that was marked for appointments and head over to the far side (not dissimilar to the far queue) where there was a separate queue for driver’s licence appointments.
I’m glad Mr H asked as it wasn’t obvious when we arrived and there are so many people around, you feel like you need to start queuing outside before you make your way in. Without deliberately offending my host country it feels like I’m walking into a government department in the Philippines.
We were early but unfortunately they were checking us in in appointment time order so that wasn’t much use to us. And, they were running late.
We checked the paperwork list on the desk matched the paperwork we’d brought in with us. All good. Oh, except the insurance papers. They were expired. We’d been automatically renewed but we mustn’t have printed out the renewal and now we’re standing there looking at expired insurance.
Ok, we can log in and show that our insurance was actually current. But now we’re at the mercy of DMV—and whether the people behind the counters are sticklers for the rules or reasonable. You never want to be at the mercy of the DMV so who knows how this will play out.
We started playing out the different scenarios.
“Oh, is it expired? I didn’t realise. I can look it up online to prove it’s not.” Possible.
“Would you be able to print our proof of insurance out for us?” Doubtful.
“We’ve just realised the paperwork is out of date but here it is online to prove it’s current.” Yep, always go with the truth.
There was a nice girl at the desk so we’ll take our chances.
Oh wait, the nice girl goes on break. The one that takes over seems a bit grumpy. Great.
We wait some more. I’ve got Mr H there, slightly dodgy paperwork and a car to sit the test in so I’m just at the mercy of the chick behind the counter as to whether she accepts the insurance certificate and then that of the driving tester.
They call our timeslot and as if it’s meant to be the nice girl comes back. “No problems.” she says as she takes my learner’s permit and registration and hands me back my proof of insurance and asks me to sit down and wait for my name to be called.
I’ll spare you the muzak on hold music and the obligatory … 30 minutes later to give the idea of the length of time this is taking …
(Ok I didn’t but I could have).
I’m up! My name is called and Mr H and I go to my car. I’m driving, he’s in the passenger seat. I was asked to put my paperwork on the right dashboard so I did.
It’s taking a bloody long time to drive to what is essentially a drive-through minus the bottleshop or Maccas ordering window. There’s a hold up in front of us. Two lots of people get out of their cars. Oops. As we’re creeping forward a clearly nervous 16-year-old hits the people in front of her, who are just in front of us. They exchange paperwork we chuckle at the irony and wonder if she’s automatically failed or given a lifeline. There’s a security guard there facilitating the exchange but none of the testers so maybe she’s good to go.
(She was good to go but came back some five minutes later failing anyway).
Time to run through my hand signals one more time.
Taking the behind-the-wheel test: we’re on
I’m up. The tester takes my paperwork and Mr H is free to get out of the car. Then she starts asking me questions.
Where’s your foot brake? Put your foot on it (and she checks my brake lights)
Right indicator (oops I’ve done the windscreen wipers, try again, got it).
Checks my tyres
Asks me to do my handsignals and say what they are.
Next she hops in the car and asks some more things saying point don’t touch.
Emergency or foot brake (parking brake)
Defroster (rear & front demist)
We’re off. I had nightmares for two years about exiting the driveway and turning too close and running over the gutter but all good. I turned right into a street, stopped at a traffic light and turned right again. She asked me to pull over then reverse. Then she asked me to pull out again. The silence in the car is killing me. I hate awkward silence. I turned left into a street and left into another one. I was near the DMV I could feel it in my bones I was home and hosed.
Keep going straight. What??? Aren’t I done? Left. Right. Left. Left. We were getting further away. Was she willing me to make more mistakes? This is becoming a competition now. I wasn’t going to fail after all this. I passed mini test after mini test she was giving me. I had to turn left into a street but the cars were banked up past the turning lane left so I dutifully waited behind the cars. (You know when you’ve got your licence you just cross the wrong side of the road so you can join the turning lane so you catch the lights?) Two cars overtook me and I laughed awkwardly. She was impressed I could tell. I could sense we were heading back.
“Left,” she said. There was a pedestrian crossing yet I was free to go. I had heard that the pedestrian had to fully cross the road before you could go. What do I do? Do I go? Wait? I’m going to fail on my way back to the DMV. I went but turned wide when the pedestrian was crossing on the other side of the traffic. I’ve failed. Keep calm she would’ve asked you to pull over by now.
I pulled into the DMV. As far as I could see I was perfect: I stopped ahead of the lanes, I used my mirrors all the time (as in checked them remembering when I was 18 and sat my test in Melbourne and passed on the first go) and I didn’t speed. That damn pedestrian.
“You can have 15 errors,” she started. Great. No way, I couldn’t have failed.
“You made 11 errors.” I passed. Yay me. Wait, what 11 errors?
“You must take care not to turn too wide,” she said. Oh yeah, I’m lucky I made the right call there I’ll take that one. “Awkward giggle, oh yes I know where I did that,” I said out loud.
“You must always look both ways.” But I did, I did. I looked in my mirrors I looked everywhere.
I nodded as if to agree. Who cares? I passed.
“Go inside, give them this and you can collect your licence.” No congratulations? No well done?
I went to the desk and said to the girl (a different girl at a different desk). “I passed. Just.”
“Oh,” she said looking at my paperwork. Then, looking at the girl next to her she said, “She got you-know-who guess how many errors she made. She passed.”
“14,” says the girl next to her.
“11,” she laughs back at her.
“Oh you’re good girl,” said the girl looking up at me then and the girl next to her and continues serving the person at her desk.
“She’s tough that one. Let’s put it like this. I’ll get in the car with you any time.”
Only then did I breathe a sigh of relief.
I’m a licenced Californian driver. I had to sit a written test then (endure) a behind-the-wheel test and I live to tell the tale. Not only that I passed. With the toughest tester in Winnetka.
Could you pass a behind-the-wheel test if you had to resit it today? How did you go? I’m just glad this little obstacle is done and dusted.
This time two years ago was quite a significant milestone moment for us as it was a rude awakening that this LA “thing” might actually happen.
Cut back two years and six weeks ago Mr H got a call from an old boss with four questions:
How’s the family?
Do you still hate your job?
Would you consider moving to LA?
How quickly can you get here?
Then I got the call from Mr H:
“I’m about to rock your world,” he said. “F called,” he started. We were down at our beach house on the South Coast of NSW getting ready for a long weekend with friends. We’d prepared the menu, bought the grog and I was out in the car with a friend heading to the Bottlo to get a couple of extra bottles of champagne—just in case as we hate to run out.
“Oh my god,” I interrupted. “Is he in town? Coming to town? It’s OK, he can have the spare room…” as I proceeded to play musical beds and musical rooms so we could fit in an extra person…
“…And I’ve got seafood which he loves so it’ll be all good.”
“He wants to know if you would move to LA,” he said once I’d done with my ranting.
“What? Sorry? Huh? LA? I hate LA. Remember? Been there done that never coming back?”
“I knew you’d say that.”
It’s true Mr H and I went to LA with my best friend and her boyfriend when we were all of 19 or 20. LA didn’t really do it for us and I had absolutely no desire to go back. So why would I want to live there?
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
By this time my girlfriend, sitting in the car next to me is wondering what on earth is going on. I looked at her and shook my head.
Digesting the concept
It was a crazy weekend of utter shock that some 36 hours ago we just got that call to move to Hollywood and Mr H had gone back up to Sydney to attend a video call to get briefed on the job. The job was to run the post-production division of a multinational company. He would be based in Hollywood and he’d have to work with all the studios and production houses. To say the weekend was a daze with endless workshopping, dreaming, reality checking and more workshopping was an understatement. And let’s just say there was a LOT of champagne (and wine) drunk as we all tried to come to terms with the prospect of moving to LA. Those extra bottles came in handy—we didn’t run out.
We too’d and fro’d with the pros and the cons but first practically had to come into play.
Schools in LA
We thought we’d be very systematic about the possible move: pinpoint work (Hollywood), find a decent school not too far away then find somewhere to live. Sounds easy enough.
Contrary to how it looks on Beverly Hills 90210 and the OC the LA public school system is in shambles—especially as you get to Middle and High School. There are a few good school districts in South Pasadena, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and the Bay areas but they either require a long commute to Hollywood for Mr H or require me to sell my body to pay the rent in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills. Then you have to be in the right zone for the “better” school in that area. (Read: it’s not as straight forward as let’s rent a house in Santa Monica and we can go to Lincoln Middle School. Thankfully we didn’t find that out the hard way.) The public school system in LA is not easy to navigate—and when you have finding a house in the zone is like playing the lotto.
So as I was coming to terms with the fact that US high schools aren’t like they are on TV and my kids weren’t going to have a Breakfast Club/Sixteen Candles/Ferris Bueller/90210 high school experience moving to LA started to look a little bleak. Both kids are thriving at great schools in Sydney and education is so important to my family (my dad drilled that into me from a young age) that we’re not going to a below-standard school just because Hollywood is knocking on our door.
(Now I wonder if they’ll get the chance to have a College experience like Pitch Perfect?)
I emailed a few people and the resounding response was private school. There go my dreams to be rid of private school fees and enjoy my life. Plus, America being America, private schools aren’t subsidised so we got a rude shock to see not only weren’t we saving any money but it would cost us more money than it does in Sydney.
I knew the prospect of a Hollywood lifestyle was too good to be true.
But I ploughed ahead and started researching websites to see what schools we liked and what we didn’t. We rated them and I started the arduous task of ringing admissions directors. It was now May 2013 and applications closed in late December 2012 and offers were made earlier in the year. There’s a shortage of places at LA private schools—because the public ones are in such a state—so all of a sudden our dream of moving to Hollywood was shattered. No school=no move.
Because of the time difference I would set the alarm for 4:00am Sydney time (which was 11am the day before in LA) and start making calls. It’s pretty hard to pitch your family and your kids to an Admissions Director with a full enrolment at that time in the morning.
Some were helpful, others felt for me, others didn’t care.
I got traction at two schools. A great start. The next hurdle was sitting the ISEE test. What on god’s earth is that? Well it’s a standardised test (Independent School Entrance Exam) that most of the private schools use to test would-be students.
Can’t we just skip that bit? How do we do it in Sydney? My kids are doing well in school, here are copies of standardised tests they’ve completed here…
Well as matter of fact there is a location that administers the test in Sydney. It was a pain in the backside booking two appointments at the same time because the system would only allow one student at a time (I guess what are the chances of two kids wanted to sit an entrance exam for private school in the US in Sydney?). There was no one to talk to either at the location or at the head office (another alarm set for 2am this time to try to reach someone in the New York office). Nothing about this stage was even remotely easy.
So Mr H took the day off work, we all went in hoping they’d say that both kids could sit the test together—no luck—so I sat with one while Mr H took the other home then came back again to swap kids while I waited the entire day given it was a ruling that the parent or guardian had to stay with the child the whole time. And the ID rules were so stringent it was as stressful as anything formal here in the US. One thing wrong and you have to reschedule—and pay for it all over again as there’s a cancellation fee involved don’t you know? A day I’ll never get back. An experience I’d rather not have to relive. But I was so proud of my kids, they did it.
It wasn’t until we got to LA that we heard that kids are tutored for this exam and some take it a few times until they get the score they want to give them a better chance to get into their school of choice.
This was my first glimpse into the privatised world that America is—there is a company making money for a service (which comes at a fee) for everything.
Playing the waiting game
With two schools secured (with no promises even now there’s room for one or both of them) and another interview secured at a school for my daughter it was time to look into public schools.
Public schools have open days where you can come and check them out. I was still in Australia for these so via our relocation agent we put calls into Santa Monica and Beverly Hills both of whom said they were so overworked they didn’t have time for private tours. Tell me that didn’t put me right off. And they’re supposed to be the good ones.
Such an emotional rollercoaster that whole “will we move; won’t we move”, “can we move; can’t we move” thing. At least when there’s little or no choice like “normal” expat assignments you know the city is geared up for you. Shanghai, for example, has plenty of expat housing (not all good by the way), a number of international schools and the company you’re moving with has some degree of leverage because they’re responsible for not just your school fees but a number of others.
What I remember most about this time was how applying for schools was anything but straight forward. Simply having a place was not a guarantee of entry. You had to pass the test but you just don’t know what that (or those) tests are.
It’s a bit like a Seinfeld episode:
“Great, so you’ve got room for both my kids?”
“We have the flexibility to admit your kids but first you have to apply.”
“So is it worth my applying if there’s no room?”
“We have room but you have to apply.”
“Oh so there’s room for both my kids so if I apply, based on what you’ve seen and what I’ve told you then there’s a good chance we’re in.”
“Go ahead and complete the application and proceed with the tests, we’ll have a better idea of what our enrolments will look like once you’ve done those and we’ve interviewed you.”
Wowsers … I hope passing school isn’t as hard as getting in.
Nonetheless we hopped on a plane bound for LA not sure what to expect when we got there.
Californian law states that you must get a new driver’s licence within 10 days of getting here. Oops.
Mr H got his straight away but I chose the path of maximum procrastination. There was a time where I thought I wouldn’t even get one.
But it’s time: Getting my Californian Licence–part one (the written test).
You can sign up for an appointment online but when I finally went to do this I came across this question: “are you new or transferring your licence from another State?” Well, no, I’m from overseas. Is Australia another state of America?
So I procrastinated and didn’t continue my search for an appointment. Then I heard all sorts of stories about how bad it can be to get your actual licence—Australians must sit the “behind-the-wheel” test as well as the written one—so that meant more procrastinating.
Then I thought I’d do it with a friend and that would encourage me to get it. We procrastinated together. Still no licence.
Then there was the time Bruno Mars ran into me in his white Bentley convertible just down the road from my place (ok it wasn’t really Bruno Mars but he reminded me of him and he was the loveliest guy so) and I panicked. Thankfully we resolved the situation on the spot but now I was becoming unhinged. If I don’t have a Californian licence I can be “cited” and have my ve-he-cle impounded and we don’t want that. Maybe I should think about getting my licence.
My next kick-in-the-butt was getting my licence before my nearly 15-yeear-old could get his permit. Time is running out. I’ve finally run out of excuses and we’re finally doing this.
Step 1: Getting an appointment
Mr H (sick of my procrastination) filled in the online appointment request, got me a time and I started studying. How hard can it be? There are apps and online tests you can take to prepare you for the test. I used the app and it put me off because of questions like:
“A traffic light is red, but a peace officer is signaling you to continue driven. What should you do?”
Well first of all you can tell me if you’ve got a speech impediment and then you can tell me what the fluck a peace officer is.
(No, it wasn’t a typo, apparently a peace officer is a gentle term for police officer—the fuzz—cops. Why don’t you just say that?)
It’s a red arrow. Isn’t it? No. Is it just me or is it questionable how they phrase these questions?
I think I need an American lesson before I take this test. Thank god for those practice tests.
The app looks like this and is available on the App store–I highly recommend it!
Here’s what the app looks like that I found so helpful–minus the typos and stuff of course!
Step 2: Going to the DMV
Like all public services (I use the term service loosely) there’s a queue a mile long to get in. These places make me feel like I’m in a third-world country. There are people going everywhere, no one is exactly sure where to go and what to do and it’s very, very low-tech. There are the usual side conversations—people who have struck up conversations with each other in the queue. Normal America is far from the picture Hollywood gives you. In fact, I want my money back.
In a Hollywood backstreet with a view of the Hollywood sign the DMV brings together people of all walks of life. There, as if to provide entertainment, are two homeless drunks swigging on their wine (at 9:30AM–well they are homeless drunks and it is 5:00 somewhere in the world), poking fun at each other and surprisingly keeping to themselves. Whatever it was they were doing kept themselves amused for the longest time.
After spending 15 minutes in the long queue that snaked out the door and around the corner I texted Mr H to tell him his iPad ran out of battery so no more practising while I wait. Thank god I did because apparently there’s a separate queue inside for appointments. Nobody told me that. I even sent the girl behind me in the queue to check if there are separate lines. All they said was move back, move back, we need the room in the doorway, please move back.
After the false start I found one of the last remaining English forms and filled it in while I waited and was served.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” said the lady pushing in behind me. “I have a question.”
“I’m sorry maam you’ll have to wait at the end of the line.”
“I just have a question.”
“I’m sorry maam,” said my lady while the question-asking lady got abused by the lady next to my lady serving the (gigantic) queue without appointments.
“She’s so stressed,” my lady says to me.
“It’s busy in here,” I said (I wanted to say it’s a shitfight in here but not sure that would’ve gone down too well). “Is it always like this?”
“Always,” she sighed.
“Oh my god you poor darlings,” I blurted out.
She smiled, sensed my sympathy and immediately felt better. I meant it. I was bracing myself to make sure she found my appointment slot, I had the right ID, filled in the form properly and could move to the next step because the last thing I wanted to do was come back any sooner than I needed to. No wonder discussion groups say stay clear of the DMV—it’s a nightmare.
The thing that continues to astound me is the patience of the Americans. They push to ask questions and find out what’s going on but they wait in line and do as they’re told. The scene at that DMV was one you can imagine on a news bulletin—people going everywhere and one lone madman gets filled with rage, can’t handle it anymore, gets out his gun and starts shooting. (There’s a metal detector & bag check at the Social Security & Tax offices but not one here). But they all do what they told don’t answer back and sit and wait. That’s why Americans are in shock when a madman does come out shooting. I know that much now at least. Still you never know, so I sit down and stare at that screen waiting for my number to be called to tell me where to go.
Because I’m getting older now I survey the windows, check out where people are being called to and sus out where I might be directed. I need to get this right.
Step 3: It’s my turn
That wait wasn’t so bad—especially after you’ve spoken to the people next to you. So very American. The lady was really very nice (they’re not usually known for being nice or helpful). She entered my details into the computer, got someone to cross-check them, took my work permit (which was apparently a better from of ID than my Australian passport or driver’s licence).
Update: you now need to show proof of residency so you should bring in two letters/bills/bank statements with your name and address on them. For kids doing their permits who don’t have anything in their name, so long as you can prove you are their parent then something with your name on it will suffice. This isn’t always easy for expats like me as most bills are in my husband’s name. It’s just another reason you have to try to get stuff in your name.
They only took cash or debit card so for once in my life I had cash—thank god says this credit card queen. Anyway, at $33 it’s not the $100-and-something in Australia. Oh, and they took my right thumb print too.
“Would you like your test in English?”
“Yes please, unless you have one in Australian.”
No … oops, sorry. Nice but still no sense of humour.
Step 4: Photo time
“Head over to counter 22 Miss and good luck.”
Great, but I didn’t realise I was getting my photo taken. Cool, I get ID for my next trip out of Burbank where they reject my Australian driver’s licence as a form of ID.
Place your right thumb on the scanner then stand and get your picture taken.
Done. I like that step.
Step 5: Test time
You get three chances (I didn’t know that until a friend told me on my way in) so it’s pretty hard to fail. Damn Mr H scaring me into thinking I’d fail. Still I was glad because some of those questions are so dodgy and the likelihood of me coming back if I failed was pretty slim so we had to do this.
I must one of the first to do the test on a touch-screen computer because most people I know still had to circle paper-based forms. How novel. Once I went through the questions I went back to the desk to tell them if I passed or failed. Do you trust me? How do you know if I didn’t pass? Well I wasn’t about to test that, I passed!
They printed an extra bit of paper gave everything back and told me to schedule my “behind-the-wheel” test.
“Do I get my photo?” I asked. “No that’s it.”
Bugger, I thought I got a nice card with my photo on it saying learner’s permit. Nope I have to wait for my actual licence for that.
Yes my friends, I have my permit. I have until this time next year to sit my “behind-the-wheel” test. Don’t’ think Mr H will let me wait that long somehow. Yep, time to face my fears and have a Nike moment.