Sprive – a mortgage over-payment app

A screenshot of the Sprive app on iOS

If you’re lucky enough to own your own home, and are paying off a mortgage on it, then you may want to consider signing up to Sprive.

Sprive is an app for iOS and Android, that lets you easily make over-payments on your mortgage. Once you’ve registered, it’ll ask to link to your bank account using Open Banking, and you can then set a minimum and maximum amount to over-pay each month.

The minimum payment can go out on a date that you set, and then Sprive will monitor your current account balance and suggest further payments if you have sufficient money left. Sprive normally gives you a notification a few days before it talks a payment and they’re easy to cancel.

I’m using the absolute minimum amounts – £25 per month, and a maximum of £75 per month. However, even such small additional contributions should mean that we pay off our mortgage earlier. The Sprive app visualises this, and reckons we’re on track to be mortgage-free about 18 months earlier than we would be without over-payments. That translates to around £2000 less interest that we would have to pay otherwise. It’ll also show you what loan-to-value rate you are eligible for, and how much of your house you own. Having bought our house not quite 9 years ago, we now own 55% of it, although this is more due to the house increasing in value rather than our repayments.

Sprive Rewards

As well as siphoning off money from your bank account, there’s Sprive Rewards. This allows you to buy gift cards for many retailers (including all the major supermarkets) where a percentage is then used as a mortgage over-payment. For example, you could buy a £50 Tesco gift card, and have 3% (£1.50) used as an over-payment. You can, of course, use these gift cards for your own shopping, so whilst the savings may not seem like much, they can add up. You can even save 1% with Amazon; when I spent £75 there recently, that 75p has the potential to save me as much as £16 down the line in mortgage interest. I’m not a fan of gift cards, but this is where they can be used to save money.

MoneySavingExpert has a useful mortgage overpayment guide, including what you need to bear in mind. Most mortgage providers do let you overpay up to 10% of your mortgage each year, but it’s worth checking your paperwork. If you over-pay too much, you may pay a penalty for doing so.

If you like what you’ve read, and want to sign up to Sprive, you can use my referral code which is HTWH65PM. This will give you an additional £5 head start – so it’s basically free money, albeit not much and only redeemable as an over-payment on your mortgage.

East Riddlesden Hall

A photo of East Riddlesden Hall, a National Trust property near Keighley

On Good Friday, we went to East Riddlesden Hall, a National Trust property not too far away from us near Keighley. It wasn’t quite our original plan – we went to Cliffe Castle in the morning, but the museum was closed, and East Riddlesden Hall isn’t far away. Plus, we’re National Trust members and so we get in free.

The hall itself was mostly built in the 17th Century, although bits date from the 14th Century and there’s evidence of a dwelling from the 7th Century. I’ve been a few times as a child, and we also visited in June 2021 whilst there were still some lockdown restrictions. Now, everything’s open again, and with it being the Easter weekend, there were plenty of additional activities taking place. This included the usual National Trust Easter Egg hunt, but with plenty of extra things for kids.

When I visited in my childhood, a lot was made of how haunted the hall was. Indeed, there seemed to be a ghost in just about every room, and in the small pond outside. This seems to have been de-emphasised in recent years.

As with many National Trust properties in recent years, there’s been a renewed focus on making them more accessible to families and children. So there are now two playgrounds – one behind the shop, and another beyond the formal gardens. Indeed, compared to my childhood visits, much more of the outdoor spaces have been opened up.

The hall itself is interesting because it has changed significantly over the years. One wing of the hall was demolished in the early 20th century, with just a facade remaining. The hall is now grade-I listed, and is one of only two buildings in Keighley that have this status. As it happens, the other is West Riddlesden Hall, which is very close by but isn’t open to the public.

Accessibility

There’s limited car parking on site, and the hall is around 25 minutes walk from Keighley railway station. It’s served by the 662 bus service between Bradford, Shipley and Keighley which runs approximately every 15 minutes throughout the day (every 20 minutes on Sundays).

The outdoor areas are all wheelchair accessible and blue badge parking spaces are provided. The hall has some steps to enter, and there is no lift inside, so the upper floor is only accessible to those who can manage stairs.

The advantages of a smart home

An AI generated image of a house, with a giant light bulb floating above it that has a depiction of Albert Einstein

Okay, so it’s fair to say that I write a lot about Home Assistant and the smart home – I have a whole category of blog posts about it. Whilst it’s probably a sign of a mid-life crisis project, I thought I would set out the advantages of having smart devices at home, as a justification of why I spend so much time setting and configuring devices.

Delayed start

Many devices, like washing machines, dishwashers and the like, offer a delayed start facility. If you need to wash clothes, but are out at work all day, you probably want your washing machine to finish just before you get home. Otherwise, you’ll have wet clothes sat there for several hours. Similarly, we have a bread maker that we set to finish at around 4am, so that the bread is still fresh but not too hot when we need it.

I also use a delayed start on our dishwasher, so that, in winter, it runs during the middle of the day when there’s more sunlight. That allows us to make the best use of the cheap energy from our solar panels. This may also be useful for people whose electricity tariffs vary at different times, such as the Octopus Agile tariff.

Not all devices offer a delayed start feature as standard, so smart plugs can fill this role. I also use a smart plug to turn off a device that lacks a timer.

Remote control

The first smart device that we got in our house was a Nest thermostat, and this allows us to control our heating whilst outside the home. That means that we can ensure the heating is off when we’re away, saving money, but also ensure that it comes back on before we get back home.

Even when we’re at home, we have a couple of standing lamps in hard-to-reach places – smart plugs allow us to use voice control to turn these on and off.

Dashboard overview

As Home Assistant supports more devices than most other platforms, I can have a very powerful dashboard that brings in data from every smart device in the home (and some outside data too). That way, I can see at a glance whether the TV, dishwasher, washing machine and tumble dryer are on, as well as control several lights and the various Google Home speakers around the house. This is also possible in other apps like the Google Home app, but with a more limited range of devices.

Notifications

Through Home Assistant’s automations, I can create notifications for things happening in my home. For example, although our washing machine beeps loudly when done, it’s in the cellar. Combined with my hearing loss, I might not hear it when in another part of the house. So having a message pop on my phone to say that the washing is done is very helpful.

Logging

Home Assistant in particular has a useful logging feature, so it can automatically log when devices are turned on/off or change state. So if you can’t remember when a device was last used, Home Assistant can tell you.

Quick access to information

We have Google Home smart speakers in almost every room (not the bathrooms). They’re great for asking quick questions about things like the weather, without needing to look it up on a phone or computer. We also use them extensively for setting timers and alarms, and for playing music. And having them across the house means that we can use broadcast messages – again, better than shouting for someone like me who sometimes struggles to hear.

There are other advantages that I don’t have personal experience of; a colleague has a smart doorbell and smart lock, so that if someone tries to deliver a package and no-one’s home, it’s possible to remotely open a door into the porch to allow the delivery driver to leave it securely. We don’t have a smart doorbell or smart lock – or a porch for that matter. We also don’t have a garage, but having a smart garage door opener would be good if we did have one.

On the Snooks Trail in York

One of the Snooks outside Cliffords Tower in York

If you go to York (my home town) between now and the 25th April, you may encounter several large painted fibreglass monsters reading books dotted around. They’re the Snooks, and they’re part of the The Snooks Trail around the city.

There are 21 snooks in total, mostly in the city centre but a couple located further out. We spent part of our Easter Sunday hunting the snooks, and managed to see 12 of them. Our eight-year-old thought that ‘Frankie the Fostering Snook‘ was the best one – it’s outside York Central Library and sponsored by the York Fostering Service. Whilst the full list is on the web site, we also saw a few two-dimensional Snooks in the windows of buildings that we passed that presumably aren’t part of the official trail.

Each of the snooks has a letter attached, and if you put the letters in order, you can find a secret web address. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit all of the snooks and didn’t get the full code.

Placing painted fibreglass sculptures around cities is hardly a new idea; CowParade was the original, but many cities have copied the idea. In the UK, Manchester was the first in 2004 with their version of CowParade, and Liverpool did its own thing when it was European Capital of Culture in 2008 with Go Superlambananas (I took a handful of photos in 2010). More recently I’ve seen Larkin with Toads in 2010, Reindeer in Leeds (2014), and Snowdogs in Huddersfield (2022).

After the trail finishes on the 25th April, there’ll be an auction where you can win one of the snooks. The funds raised from the auction will go to St Leonard’s Hospice in York.

How do you solve a problem like the Central Line?

A photo of a prototype train for the Central Line, now on display at the London Transport Museum Depot in Acton

The Central Line of the London Underground is not having a good time at the moment. We experienced this first hand on our recent trip to London. As the Young V&A is close to Bethnal Green tube station, when we visited we tried to use the Central Line to head back into central London.

We gave up after two trains stopped where it was literally impossible to fit on. Every carriage was crush-loaded, and this was mid-afternoon on a Saturday – not exactly rush hour.

The issue is with the trains that run on the Central Line. These are 1992 Stock, which, as the name suggests, date from 1992 and were built by the newly-privatised BREL. Specifically, it’s the traction motors on these trains, which are failing at a faster than expected rate. Without a working motor, the trains can’t move, and so they have to be taken out of service. Consequently, there are fewer trains available for service, and so passengers are being crammed into less frequent services.

Transport for London have short, medium and long-term solutions to this issue:

Short term

In the short term, there are fewer trains in the timetable. With around a third of the fleet out of service, the timetable has been cut to reduce short-term cancellations. It’s something we’ve seen elsewhere in the country – Transpennine Express cut several trains to improve reliability.

Medium term

In the medium term, there is the Central Line Improvement Programme (CLIP). This is a major refurbishment of the trains, which includes replacing the troublesome motors as well as installing CCTV and accessibility improvements. For example, trains will now have wheelchair accessible spaces, and there are new screens with visual announcements of the next stop – standard on other lines, but new to the Central Line.

As an aside, I can’t help but feel that CLIP is a boring name when Central Line Improvement to Train Operation and Reliability Investment Scheme was right there. Even if the acronym does spell CLITORIS.

The CLIP started before the reliability issues came to ahead, and the first refurbished train was in service in December. But it’ll be a while before work on the full fleet of 77 trains is completed.

Long term

Ultimately, these are 30 year old trains, and eventually they will need replacing. They’re not the oldest on the network – that ‘honour’ goes to the Bakerloo Line, with trains that are over 50 years old. Slightly newer, but only just, are those on the Piccadilly Line, which are being replaced with 2024 stock to support an increase in service. Right now, there’s only funding available for new trains for the Piccadilly Line, but TfL’s long term aim is that the same trains will run on the Central, Bakerloo and Waterloo & City Lines too. Whilst the first units are being assembled in Germany and Austria, most will be built by Siemens in a brand new factory in Goole, East Yorkshire.

Where I live in the north of England, a big deal was made out of the replacement of 1980s era Pacer trains which were no longer fit for purpose. And whilst there’s a feeling in the north that London gets more than its fair share of UK public transport spending, the oldest tube trains are 10 years older than the oldest Northern Rail trains. Ordering a completely new fleet for all the London Underground lines that need it will result ensure skilled manufacturing jobs remain in Yorkshire for at least the next decade.

Meross energy monitoring smart plugs

I’ve recently bought a pair of Meross energy monitoring smart plugs (sponsored link), and by integrating these with Home Assistant, I now get notifications when the washing machine and tumble dryer have finished.

Previously, I’ve used Tuya smart plugs. Which are fine, but these ones don’t do energy monitoring, don’t work with Apple HomeKit and I have some privacy concerns. The Meross plugs, on the other hand, do offer energy monitoring, can be used with 13 Amp devices, and also work with Matter. They’re also smaller, and feel more solidly built than the older Tuya plugs.

Matter support

These smart plugs also support Matter, the open smart home standard. This should mean that you can use them with any smart home ecosystem, whether that’s Amazon, Google, Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings or Home Assistant. I was able to get them to pair with Home Assistant, but not with HomeKit. It turns out I need a device that can act as a HomeKit hub, which can be a permanently plugged-in iPad, Apple TV or Apple HomePod. It won’t just use any other Matter server on my home network. This is ironic as the Home Assistant app uses the same Matter provisioning process on iOS devices.

It’s also worth noting that Matter support is limited to turning the smart plugs on and off. I’m guessing the Matter specification doesn’t include energy monitoring as yet. Also, these smart plugs connect over 2.4 Ghz Wifi, which is worth noting if you’ve configured your Wifi network to only use 5 GHz. They don’t use Thread.

Screenshot of the hassio_appliance-status-monitor Blueprint being configured as an automation in Home Assistant

Making use of energy monitoring

If you want to take advantage of the energy monitoring capabilities of the smart plugs, you’ll either need the official Meross app (for iOS and Android), or use Home Assistant. Whilst I have installed the Meross app, I’ve set up the automations in Home Assistant. There isn’t an official Home Assistant integration for Meross, so you’ll need to install the Meross LAN custom integration which is available through HACS.

Once you’ve set it up and added your devices, you’ll need to set up the energy monitoring automation. By far the easiest way is to use this BlueprintBlueprints are essentially templates for automations that you can download and configure. Make sure you follow the instructions, as you’ll need to create four Helpers for each smart plug, and give them specific names.

You can then define actions to take when the energy monitoring detects the appliance has started and ended. In my case, I’ve told it to send a notification to my phone when the device has finished. In the case of my tumble dryer, this includes a 15 minute delay as it uses less power towards the end (and otherwise results in notification spam). You may need to tweak the power thresholds as well. If all goes well, then you’ll get a notification like the one in the screenshot below.

A screenshot of a notification from Home Assistant stating that the washing machine has finished, triggered by the energy monitoring smart plugs

Doing this means that you can get one of the key features of a smart device, without paying a significant premium. I paid £25 for the two plugs from Amazon, whereas it would have cost at least another £100 to buy a smart tumble dryer. Our washing machine is 9 years old and I’m not even sure that smart washing machines were on the market at the time.