Ask the Guidebook

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, August 6, 2006

I always thought it would be nice to have a pocket-size book of my grandmother's advice. Whenever I was perplexed about something, I could just flip through the book and see what Big Mama would say.

My grandmother's advice was short and simple, although not always too sweet. But there were gaps in her knowledge: She couldn't advise me on investing.

Big Mama refused to do anything with her money except put it in a savings account. The woman wouldn't even buy a certificate of deposit at the bank or a U.S. savings bond. In fact, the only bond she ever bought was the bond adhesive for her dentures.

In my early twenties, I fumbled along some financial roads, often following bad advice from folks who, it turned out, didn't know what they were talking about.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a simple, trusted guidebook for the many financial dilemmas we often face? I'm not talking about an A-to-Z tome on all things financial and legal -- just something that would offer basic tips to get you started.

Well, I've found just such a book. It's "Your Little Legal Companion: Helpful Advice for Life's Big Events," written by editors at Nolo. This is my choice for the Color of Money Book Club selection for August.

"Your Little Legal Companion" is 200 pages, but it's small enough to slip into a handbag. And the advice is affordable at $9.95.

This book is a departure from Nolo's typical comprehensively written titles such as "The Executor's Guide: Settling a Loved One's Estate or Trust," "Divorce & Money: How to Make the Best Financial Decisions During Divorce" or "How to Write a Business Plan."

Instead, "Your Little Legal Companion" reads more like David Letterman's top 10 list.

"We wanted to publish a book with little bits of wisdom," said Tamara Traeder, acquisitions editor at Nolo.

The editors, all of whom are attorneys, cover 50 life situations, including starting a new job, buying a car, quitting a job, buying a dog, starting a business, investing, knowing your legal rights when moving in with your lover, and surviving bankruptcy. Their counsel is humorously written with lots of fun facts.

You'll find just enough information to set you in the right financial direction. Want to start a band? Then one of your first steps toward financial success might be asking people, "Was that two large and a medium?" the editors write.

No, they aren't suggesting you get a day job. It seems the major source of income for most touring bands is T-shirt sales. "Yes, music matters, but when it comes to band business, merchandise rocks the cash register," the editors write.

I wish I had read this book before I rented out my condominium long ago (I've since sold it). Here are a few tips from Nolo:

· Always check applicants' credit history, references and background, even if you have a good feeling about them. My first tenant was a family friend, so I skipped the credit check. He bounced so many of his rent checks I nicknamed him "Rubber."

· Inspect and photograph the property at move-in and move-out. Man, wish I had done this too. But I was young and dumb. My tenant -- you know, the bum -- left an iron burn mark on my rug.

· If you hire a property manager who illegally discriminates against tenants, fails to comply with landlord-tenant laws or is simply incompetent, you're the one who could be held financially responsible.

· Give at least 24 hours' notice (or the minimum required by your state law) before entering a rental unit, and make sure it's for a good reason, such as making repairs.

Obviously, if you are thinking about buying investment property and becoming a landlord, you should do more research and perhaps get Nolo's "Every Landlord's Legal Guide."

Nolo published "Your Little Legal Companion" to celebrate its 35-year history of providing legal self-help books to consumers.

"Almost everything we do has a legal aspect to it," Traeder said.

Now that's the truth. In the case of this book, knowing a little bit can go a long way.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me online at http://www.washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Aug. 31, at noon. Traeder will be my guest and will take your questions.

Every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book of the month, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Your Little Legal Companion," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com . Please include your name and address so we can send you a book if you win.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary appears on Washington Post Radio (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) at 6:20 a.m. Thursdays. She also discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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