Recovery – Paying Off The Credit Card

I’ve been looking forward to getting this bill in the mail. Finally, my credit card balance is paid off – almost. I’ll start this blog by finishing a cup of black tea that’s a leftover from today’s work, and switch to a celebratory glass of wine (from a bottle!) by the end. Of the various milestones on my recovery path, this is one I’ve been approaching for years. It’s a path I started following because I am an optimist, which is what got me into trouble – maybe.

The biggest stumble in my financial history is probably My Triple Whammy. I reference it regularly because it was a pivot in almost every aspect of my life. Money isn’t the most important thing in life, but it is the most pervasive in this society. At the time it seemed like a big stumble, but one that would be definitely temporary. Bad times happen in long investing careers, and I was unlucky enough to encounter what some financial professionals have called a perfect storm of bad luck. Until then, I’d almost always paid off my credit cards every month. I was retired and my income was from my stock portfolio, a somewhat diversified portfolio that was suddenly deflated. The companies, however, were making technical progress. Surely they’d return and recover. It would be silly and stupid to sell something that was low just before it would become big, and possibly much bigger than before.

One answer, relax my stringent financial habits. Use the credit card and its credit limit for essentials for a few months. The credit limit was tens of thousands of dollars. My credit rating was in the top tier. Why suffer when I had resources that could ease ills, especially if used temporarily and prudently?

Obviously, that didn’t work. The companies progressed technically, but the investment community either abandoned or gutted them. I watched the bills accumulate, strengthened my frugality skills, energized My Backup Plans, and worked and waited. My mortgage was too expensive, yet I couldn’t sell my house. That housing hurt if chronicled in My Mortgage Modification Chronology. Dive in if you want financial slapstick episodes that are funniest in retrospect, but not at the time. Still, I had hope. I had trust in the SEC, the FTC, and my skills in the job market.

Then, the credit card company learned that I wasn’t paying my mortgage. Even though I was sacrificing the mortgage payment to make the credit card payment, the credit card company effectively halved my credit limit. With no notice, my credit score took yet another hit because my credit balance was now too big of a percentage of my credit limit, not because I’d spent more but because they dropped my limit.

Skip ahead a year or so as my consulting business increased. I paid hundreds of dollars every month to drop that balance, only to see it rise again when I had to pay income taxes. Those taxes were at an effectively higher rate than just a few paragraphs ago when I was living off my portfolio.

And yet, I made progress. Frugality has its benefits, even when income is far below the median wage. It looked like it would take years to retire the debt, and decades before I could re-retire myself.

The biggest help came about a year ago. A friend gave me a financial buffer, a substantial financial buffer. That, plus help with a new career as a real estate broker cleared the hurdle of one year’s taxes, freeing up the payments to cut the balance down by hundreds of dollars per month. Every month was a mini-celebration. Near the end of last year, I had enough to pay it off entirely, but prudence suggested caution because real estate income isn’t guaranteed. (Massive understatements available for free.)

Last month I paid something more precise than an round number of hundreds of dollars. I paid the balance to the penny. There was a small, quiet celebration, but I wanted to see the next bill before raising a glass or two – and telling you.

Today, the bill finally arrived. I knew it wouldn’t be zero. I purposely put my Hulu account on the credit card account, just to keep some money flowing through it. That may seem strange, but modern financial institutions aren’t constrained by common sense. They live in an uncommon world.

I’ve paid off my second largest debt. My largest financial debt continues to be my mortgage, which is also being paid down at a few hundred dollars per month. That will take longer, much longer. My largest personal debt is to those people who have supported me through my recovery.

Along the way, I’ve met too many others who are facing tougher struggles. The old adage goes, “It takes money to make money” which is true; yet for some reason, very few give those without money the money they need to make the money that will aid their recovery. It takes money to make money, so why is it a surprise that those without money remain poor?

It sounds simple; “Pay down your credit” which is really pay down your debts. The reality is more complicated with extra fees, dropped credit limits, penalized credit ratings, and a persistence that worsens without sacrifice. Even now, my bill isn’t simple and hasn’t necessarily recovered. Take another look at it. The balance is $8.67 and the minimum payment is also $8.67. The late fee penalty is $37.00. How about one month with a minimum payment of zero? I expect to pay in full and on time, which is now much more manageable, but the pressure persists – and so does the credit limit.

An experience like this sours the expectation of dealing with the financial industry. An experience like a threatened foreclosure reveals unseemly aspects that aren’t apparent until witnessed. It is amazing that any other industry acting this way would survive, yet they will.

I’m celebrating the relief of no longer carrying around an enormous boulder on my back. It will be easier to walk taller financially and in the real world. But don’t be surprised if you see me hop a bit. It still feels like a pebble from that boulder has fallen into my shoe, which may make me walk a bit more cautiously for a while.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Turning Sixty

I can’t remember when I was born. There’s a birth certificate, which in today’s bureaucratic world proves it happened.

I can’t remember turning ten. There may have been a party, I can only remember one from childhood, but I don’t know if it was that.

Turning twenty happened in college, a time when I was averaging three hours of sleep a night, with no allowances for celebrations.

Turning thirty only had one main urgent message which was that, if I wanted to be a father, now was a good time to find a wife. I was married a few years later.

Forty approached with friends making fun of how they’d prank me. I had enough stress from work and home life that a series of practical jokes weren’t what I wanted. Instead, I took my first ski trip, three days at Silver Star Resort in British Columbia. That set the tone for several years. I was starting to see how the wealthy lived and played because I’d been retired for a little under two years.

Fifty came by after the divorce, and as money was getting tight. Optimism encouraged me to continue my new tradition of a ten-day ski vacation. Surely my stocks would recover. The companies were succeeding technically. But I felt restrained. My one indulgence of the year had become a time for introspection.

Sixty comes after My Triple Whammy, an entry into a new career (I’ve lost count because is a job a career if it doesn’t net a profit?), and my indulgence has been to only answer a few phone calls and several emails for work. (There’s some good news there, but that’ll be part of another post.) Proper introspection and retrospection take time, and time is a luxury.

I’m much more aware of time. One of the great lessons from frugality has been that time is the most precious resource. At least for now, I don’t know how to make more time. I’ve turned sixty, but mentally I feel like 42 while physically I feel like 52.

We sit in an era when it is possible, and debatably probable, that some people will live decades or centuries longer than what has been normal; and that, if they can live that long, then they are effectively immortal. (Though not invulnerable. Accidents do happen.) Despite that possibility, I recognize that such an advance will probably be expensive and limited, at first. Thanks to investing in Dendreon, Asterias, and Geron, I’ve seen such technologies advance without much public attention. Whether the breakthroughs happen when they can benefit me is unknowable.

Lifespan is an issue that is fragmenting into more precise understandings. Life expectancy is a number, but that number is different between rich and poor, changes with regions, and is only now being understood genetically.

There’s an obvious money aspect. Personal finance is quite abstract at twenty, but outliving one’s savings is very real for most of the population who can see the end from here. About a third of the elderly population (that’s not me, is it?) have little or no savings for retirement. I don’t have enough, but I’m rapidly approaching my own version of enough, again. Re-retirement is possible. Let me check those lottery tickets – and answer a few more client phone calls. Re-accumulating wealth is greatly enabled by living a frugal lifestyle. Among the many skills I’ve tried to learn, frugality is one that I’ve practiced well enough that an even more frugal friend decided to give me the title of Mr. Frugal. I bow to those who exceed my skills.

Time is on my mind, however. How do I spend my time? Nothing dramatic is planned to change with the passing of what is really just another day, but I am already able to count the seasons possibly remaining. I bicycled across America in 2000, walked across Scotland in 2010, hope to do something similar in 2020, but how about 2030? 2040? How many more ski seasons, hiking seasons, holiday seasons remain? Recovering from My Triple Whammy meant missing out on dozens of backpacking trips, a loss of physical fitness, and a drop in confidence. Some impressive friends have turned themselves from sedentary to athletic after they turned sixty. I know it’s possible, but I also know it took great effort and sacrifice.

dscn2778

How did I ever take care of a suburban house, and yet go backpacking or cross-country skiing almost every weekend? Will it take the same effort and sacrifice as then, or was that only possible by being thirty?

I wish I had the time to consider that more. But, re-retirement requires its own effort and sacrifice. Taking the time to think and plan takes time that could provide the income that could fund the time to think and plan properly. It is a common conundrum.

At least I’ve learned to trust my intuition, to recognize that one of my skills is persistence, and that a lifetime of questioning values means I know that I am chasing my goals, not those of everyone else’s expectations or some advertiser’s imaginary dream.

Will I make it to seventy, eighty, and beyond? Check back in ten, twenty, and more years.

In the meantime, I’m dining on left-over pizza (gluten-free) and getting ready to go dancing (in shorts, of course) while checking for any urgent emails (no? great!). Looking back and looking ahead is valuable, but enjoying now is all we can ever experience.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

You Are Helping Write A Book

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve been helping me write a book. Helping others isn’t always a conscious act. Readers have help writers. Patrons influence artists. Customers define companies. Citizens vote for politicians. OK, so maybe the analogy has limits. In any case, thanks.

For those who are new to the blog, a reminder of how it started. About twenty years ago I retired at 38. The benefits of a frugal life, spending less than I made, and investing the rest. As I describe on my Amazon Author Page; “I fell into writing by trying to lose weight.” Early retirement made that ‘career’ shift easier. After about ten years and having written four books, friends convinced me to write a book about my style of personal finance. I was hesitant, but evidently I am better than some at describing such concepts simply. By luck, when I moved to Whidbey Island I moved near Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life. When a bestselling author adds her encouragement, it is tough, and somewhat silly, to say no. So, I said yes to everyone. With a bit of a push I was able to write and publishDream Invest Live cover Dream. Invest. Live. about the same time that she published the second edition of YMOYL (which included me as a soon-to-be-but-couldn’t-be-predicted ironic case study.) Books are static. The basics of personal finance are persistent. Life in today’s economy, however, is more dramatic and dynamic; hence, this blog.

Read back through over ten years of posts, if you dare. It will take a while because the blog now has about ten times more words than the book. The blog also has more readers than the book has buyers. I don’t recommend that marathon endeavour because time is precious, and while I like some of my writing there’s a life to live. I, however, may go back through those posts – and here’s where you have already come in handy.

The working title for the sequel is too long; “From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By”, but it conveys the journey that has been my rollercoaster ride through America’s wealth classes. I haven’t hit the extremes, but I could see them at various times, and met the people living there.

The details of the ride are in this blog, and they’ll be in the book. The blog is necessarily chronological. This year, 2019, should include a personal finance milestone that I’ve waited for before writing the sequel. The way people have read the blog helped determine how the sequel will be written.

As I mentioned recently with the ten year anniversary and the annual analysis, several topics and threads have proved to be interested to enough of you that I intend to include them in the book. In no particular order, and not exclusive, but things that change depending on financial perspective:

  • healthcare
  • housing
  • frugality
  • ALAYCPYB
  • Gig Economy
  • jobs
  • investing
  • attitude
  • debt
  • charity
  • community
  • relationships
  • politics

Maybe not that last one – and yet, maybe. Definitely others.

All of those topics were valid things to discuss in 2008. They’re valid now. And yet, the story for each has changed, partly from technology, but mostly from societal shifts that have yet to stabilize, that may never settle into a new normal.

Each of those topics also look different depending on where you stand or sit. A homeless person can look at a millionaire and wonders why they can’t spare the price of a pair of shoes to help someone buy a sleeping bag or tent. A millionaire can see a homeless person, and also see a seemingly never-ending line of equally needy people that they can’t equally accommodate.

One friend who is frugally comfortable and comfortably frugal was in a simple accident that required months of recuperation. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take a vacation from expenses which meant they couldn’t take a vacation from making an income. And yet, a well-meaning friend suggested they’d recover much more quickly if they ‘only took two weeks off to lay on the beach in Hawaii. To some, two weeks in Hawaii is something that can be done on impulse for cash. For others, taking two days off at home means missing bills and losing health and maybe a house.

Another entrepreneurial friend honestly laughed at the idea of taking two days off every week, even unpaid ones; and then laughed louder when I suggested being paid to take two, three, or even four weeks off every year. And then, I watched their laughter fail when I pointed out that their customers took such a situation for granted – customers who might be upset that the store wasn’t open every day from 9 to 9.

Writers, like many people, deal with deadlines. My personal deadline for the sequel is November, so the book is available for the holidays; but I’m not going to specify the year. Within the next few months I’ll complete the photo essay, Twelve Months at Maxwelton Beach (book six in my Whidbey Series), am writing the first book in a sci-fi series (unless a collaborator finished their book in the same universe first), and am writing and producing an anthology that I won’t describe, yet. All of this in and around my primary role as a real estate broker, and as a consultant for creative people.

dsc_8182

Busy? Yes. But, there’s My Rule of 7. Hey, maybe that’s the way I should structure the book, base it on my life management rules that have also been a constant during my rollercoaster ride.

Stay tuned. For now, I have to step away for a client call with friends in Japan. It’s all good, and as writers know, it’s all story (with discretion and liberal use of pronouns, of course.)

 

Personal writers note: Attitude (optimism, pessimism, depression, expectation) Hey, I had to write it down somewhere and the keyboard is right here. Catch those ideas before they fly away!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Popular Posts In 2018

What was popular in 2018? In the rest of the world it was probably something about a celebrity that did a thing that no one will remember, either the thing or the celebrity, a hundred years from now. Humans, we’re such silly people. I can provide one answer, though. Here are the ten most popular posts from this blog in 2018.

  1. MicroVision Begins 2018
  2. Summarizing MVIS At CES From Home
  3. Semi Annual Exercise Mid 2018
  4. My Spreadsheet For Tracking My Stocks
  5. GERN Spikes I Buy AST
  6. Transition For Writers On Whidbey
  7. Fresh Idea – Dockside Tidal Power
  8. Apple Pixar Dendreon
  9. Small Powerful Things
  10. Woo Hoo Health Care

The other way of looking at the list is:

  1. stocks
  2. stocks
  3. stocks
  4. stocks
  5. stocks
  6. writing
  7. inventions
  8. stocks
  9. simplicity
  10. health care

OK, so evidently 2018 was the year for stocks despite my portfolio’s performance. Fine by me.

This is also a lesson the data taught me years ago. Blogging is more persistent than posting to Facebook, Twitter, et al. Check out the dates from the posts.

  1. 2018
  2. 2018
  3. 2018
  4. 2015
  5. 2018
  6. 2016
  7. 2016
  8. 2012
  9. 2015
  10. 2018

Half of the top posts were written years ago. Those posts carry more significance because someone had to look for the earlier posts. It is like readers reaching past the “Just Published” section in a bookstore, heading to the back racks, and maybe ordering something special delivery.

I’m pleased to see that My Spreadsheet For Tracking My Stocks was popular. Maybe my approach is useful to others. Happy to help.

I’m particularly pleased and will continue to ponder the relatively high rank of one of my inventions: Fresh Idea – Dockside Tidal Power. Clean energy that doesn’t interfere with the environment? Yep. Maybe. And, maybe someone wants to work on it – and include me.

To my fellow writers, data is another reason blogging can be powerful. Blogs persist. Data reveals. Instead of relying on anecdotes, compliments or complaints heard in the grocery line, or trying to count Facebook Likes, data tells me where my largest audience sits. That’s rare feedback for a creative endeavour.

To those who read and follow my blog, thanks for dropping by, commenting, and sharing. My passion is for people and ideas. Both are impressive and I truly enjoy playing introducing each to the other. Read well. Happy New Year.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2018

From me (slightly edited from previous posts);

“Decades ago (was it really that long?), I started following Peter Lynch’s example by regularly seeing if I could describe each of my investments simply. The idea was that, if an investor can’t explain why they hold an investment, they should consider investing in something they understand. I set myself a schedule: every six months, write a synopsis of each company and include a simple assessment of their prospects.”

The fact that the quote is slightly edited is a good example of maintaining any exercise: persist, but alter as appropriate. Someone in their sixties shouldn’t exercise as if they were forty, or twenty, or newly born. Change is how writing and investing mature, too.

From six months ago;

“The first half of 2018 has been weird enough that I don’t expect to correctly predict my portfolio’s performance in the second half of 2018. The markets don’t like turmoil, but they might like a more efficient energy infrastructure, treatments for cancers and damaged nerves, dramatically improved electronics, and appreciation for higher internet speeds. I can hope, which isn’t a strategy, but it is what I have to work with.”

If this was a speaking event I’d have fun asking for a show of hands of how many predicted anything about the second half of 2018 from the first half. Even astronomers and climatologists would be surprised. Economists probably didn’t expect Bitcoin to crash while also becoming a popular currency in some countries, oil to retreat to below $50 a barrel, the Dow to almost hit 27,000 and drop below 22,000, and the US government to end the year dealing with a shut down.

One of my stocks doubled, but only after it dropped significantly (AMSC). The rest were a mix of no news or speculation, ephemeral foundations under volatility that continues to quiver without warning.

One stock, AST, followed GigOptix’s example by being bought out after reporting good news. The irony is that both it and the acquiring company (BTX, which already owned a large portion of AST) then fell.

My strategy that served me well for decades hasn’t done so since My Triple Whammy, a perfect storm of bad luck that may have heralded a new era. SEC controls seem less enforced. Short sellers and automated trades seem to control the market. Individuals may be less in control, which may explain at least part of my performance. Or, and an honest introspection requires considering this, I was merely luck for thirty years. You may well imagine why I had confidence and then had it challenged. Dream Invest Live coverThat strategy is described better in my book, Dream. Invest. Live.; but basically it is a combination of Long Term Buy and Hold (LBTH) and buy small, potentially positively disruptive companies when they are laughed at or ignored and sell them when they’re recognized as the next big thing. Some of that potential remains with each of the stocks in my portfolio, but none of them have succeeded commercially in the last six months.

And yet, I continue the exercise. Something I noticed when I wrote my book on personal finance and investing was that it was easy to hear from the authors who continued to have success, even if it may be attributable to luck. It is less common to hear from the ones who didn’t succeed, even it if may be attributable to luck.

The persistent question is whether doing the same thing and expecting a change is a sign of a bad choice, or the sign of the perseverance that is required of entrepreneurs, innovators, and pioneers.

In my case, there isn’t much of a choice. I maintain confidence in my philosophy and strategy even as I have diminished confidence in my invested companies. Until I begin earning discretionary income, the choice is moot. I probably won’t invest much more until I can fulfill the first of my frugal finance rules; “Spend less than you make.” then invest the rest. That potential is near, but not here, yet.

Within the next six months I won’t be surprised to hear good news from:

  • Asterias (under its new ownership of BTX) as their treatment for damaged nerves progresses,
  • Geron as it makes progress through its cancer treatments.
  • MicroVision because CES 2019 is near and management guided towards cash flow positive or profitability sometime this year.

I don’t expect startling news from AMSC or NPTN because their technologies have already been developed and introduced to the market, and both are selling to commercial, not retail, customers that are more likely to grow without press releases or customer testimonials.

The economy has its issues, too. Whatever happens with my holdings happens as the weird worlds of politics and financing mix in unexpected ways. I think my best hope, besides winning the lottery jackpot, is to take advantage of distressed and uncertain markets to buy low and sell high. Stay tuned to see what happens.

Here are the links to the discussion boards I use. Feel free to comment here or there, and to pass along links to others. The bigger the discussion, the better the chance of valuable insights (as long as the trolls and flamers are moderated appropriately.)

Investor Village

AMSC

AST

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

The Motley Fool

AMSC

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

Silicon Investor

AMSC

GERN

MVIS

Reddit

MVIS

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unexpected Favorite Gifts

“What was your favorite gift this year?”

I overheard that at the office, the day after Christmas. Thoughts run faster than words, and my mind sprinted along, but without gaining traction. About the time I was wondering at not having an immediate response, I began to hear the stories of kids and presents, of wrapping paper and emptied boxes. Getting older definitely changes things. Skip the Hallmark moments. My second reflection made me think deeper, and wonder a bit more.

There are plenty of correct answers: love, peace, community, et al. They’re popular because they are valuable, but in some ways they’re also too general. They may be at the core of what I appreciated, but the specifics are what give them meaning. Oh yeah, and there was some good stuff, too.

I’m about to become an official senior citizen, at least by clicking into the sixties. Most of my friends and family are older than me. Decades of accumulating things means most people don’t want more stuff. Experiences are hard to wrap, but food travels nicely.

Last week Whidbey Island was hit by a storm that knocked out power to everyone who relied on the grid. Folks with solar and wind backups were envied. People with generators were envied, but noted for being noisy. Our local power company had to restore power to 320,000 households. It took them days, but they got almost everyone back by Christmas Day. Thanks for the everyday overlooked gift of heat, light, hot water, and a reminder of neighbors helping each other while maintaining a sense of humor.

(By the way, the winds peaked at 117 mph at a local peak, Mount Baker; and hit at high tide, which you can see in this short video I uploaded.)

Walking through the neighborhood on Christmas Day it was nice to see an elderly neighbor. She came out with compliments for some help I provided earlier in the year. I was glad to see that she was okay, and had survived the storm and the outage. We were worried because she didn’t answer the door while the power was out. Some of us feared the worst. It turns out her hearing was probably out, too.

People visit people during the season, but the storm provided an extra reason and excuse to talk, plus ice-breakers for every conversation. How long were you out? Did you lose any food? Depending on the household, some need electricity for heat or well water, while everyone needs it for light. Conversations were about the basics of life, the things we take for granted the rest of the time.

My house is heated by propane, a story that continues, and I had a full tank; but it heats the house with water, water that is pumped around by an electric pump. Plenty of fuel, but one critical element lacking. But, I still had water, and plenty of lanterns and candles, and a well-stocked fireplace.

During the outage, gifts arrived. Food from the east coast, food packed in styrofoam with dry ice or ice packs inside, and big labels warning “refrigerate as soon as possible.” Well, they were already in the best place because I wasn’t about to open the kitchen’s fridge or freezer. The boxes stayed outside. Emergency backup food is usually freeze-dried or canned. Having filet mignon softens that situation, especially with some bottled wine that is ready for any event.

Because I am frugal, I am hard to buy for. I know that. So, every year I shop for myself. There’s one trip to the grocery store to buy cheeses or pretty popcorn that I wouldn’t normally buy. It’s a good time for smoked salmon. As a bonus, they’re all good when the power is out, too. Then, there’s usually a trip to the hardware store for some stuff. This year, lots of batteries because they provide a sense of security. The same with candles and lamp oil. Then I get things like an extra file, a special pot holder, and this year’s special treat – a sharpened lawn mower blade.

Silly? I can imagine that reaction. One advantage of truly understanding personal values and personal finance is finding those places where a little bit of monetary grease makes life much easier. The right tool? That can save hours. A pot holder? The right one at the right time saves food and a bit of skin – and may keep the smoke detector from squealing. A sharp lawn mower blade? Around here, the grass inevitably gets ahead when the spring storms are coming without a break. That first dry day can be a monstrous chore, especially of the blade is a blunt object trying to beat the grass back down. Silly? Of course, and that’s why I wouldn’t ask others for such gifts. But, I can ask and gift myself.

One time, someone with sufficient wealth asked me what I really wanted. They told me they didn’t want to hear about the small stuff. They asked for it. I delivered. I delivered a list of: paying off my mortgage, buying a new car, paying for full medical care, … You can imagine their very natural reaction. They were nice enough, however, to give me a generous cash gift – ostensibly to compensate for some emotional support I provided when it was most needed. Thanks and you’re welcome all in one.

I remember those years when the goal of opening presents included covering the living room floor in wrapping paper, ribbons, bows, and empty boxes – the sort of thing pets consider an overwhelming gift. Some of those gifts were grand, and still in my possession.

This year’s most entertaining gift is probably the combined efforts of a few folks who provided me tea. Thanks to one batch in particular, I now have 27 kinds of teas and infusions (mostly loose leaf) at home, to add to the 7 kinds (all in bags) in my desk at the real estate office. I may not have to buy tea for months. A marvelous mix of flavors. Thanks.

And here’s the Hallmark moment because it is true. My best memories of Christmas 2018 are of people, people being themselves, people sharing the basics, people living in family and community. I didn’t expect to come back around to that answer to the question asked in the office, but that’s something I value, and something I received. It may not fit into casual conversation, but at least I can fit it in here. Thank you, all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Leaky Customer Service Stories

Screen shot 2018-12-17 at 7.12.35 PM

See that intense blog on the radar? Blue is misty. Green is showery. Yellow is rainy. Red is oh deary, dear. My house and its somewhat aged roof is under a bit of that yellow and in the path of far more rain than I am comfortable with. Hence, an apology to friends at a Christmas lunch as I dashed off to run around the Web and local hardware stores. Thanks to some friendly people, I think the leak is sealed, at least for now.

I had work to do, real estate stuff; but sometimes homeownership issues get personal. My roof had a leak, and I hoped I patched it in time.

taken on a much sunnier day

Ten years ago, I balked at getting a new roof for the house. I had the money, but the money manager in me know that spending 3% of my net worth to protect my house could be expensive if it meant selling stocks that would appreciate far more. I was right, for a while. Within a few years, my portfolio doubled, and looked like it was ready to double again. Then, the Triple Whammy hit. My net worth dropped 80% in a few months, then was spent down as I paid bills without finding a regular job. My portfolio shrank, but a particular crack in the torch down fabric of my roof didn’t.

There was evidence that it had been a much bigger leak before. The roof was patched with tar that was getting brittle. The ceiling beneath it had a nice patch, too; so nice that it isn’t obvious to most people. Brittle materials can crunch and blow away. I saw a crack forming. Without knowing how long it had been there, and even whether rain could get through, I decided to act.

Torch down roofs are out of style. As I understand it, lay down some material, seal the seams, and melt it all into place with a large torch. It’s the large torch part that raises warnings about homeowners trying to do professional repairs. It’s too easy to fix the roof but burn down the house because the wood under the material ignited. Being out of style also means professionals would prefer to do complete re-roofing projects using new materials rather than hold onto obsolete equipment and stuff.

That’s why I used tape. It wasn’t my idea. I asked the folks at a local hardware store, found one employee who understood frugality, pragmatism, and the reality of the situation. I left with some pretty tough tape, Gorilla Tape, which seemed to work fine.

It worked so fine that I used several layers; adding a layer as I saw buckling after a storm season. Earlier this year the multiple layers from several seasos were lifted by the wind as a single, heavy sheet that slapped against the roof throughout a night – and pulled up the old brittle tar. Instead of a crack, I could now see into the attic. Maybe tape wasn’t good enough.

Luckily, I have frugal and pragmatic neighbors. One suggested an expanding foam sealant that is As Seen On TV. They watch TV. I don’t. I don’t care. It seemed like it worked. And yet.

A better repair using material, not goo, would make me feel more comfortable. I checked around the web and found a nice blending of the two: rolls of tape impregnated with waterproof sealant. I thought about buying online, but decided to shop local.

Here’s where the four stories start.

Business number 1

“You don’t want to use that.” said in a condescending voice. The place’s emphasis on contractors over homeowners has been reinforced several times, but shopping local encourages repeated attempts. Maybe something will change. Maybe some day I’d win their favors. Maybe I shouldn’t walk in there in sandals. Their advice was tough to take because I didn’t know if it was meant to fix my roof or quickly usher me out the door. I ushered myself out without buying anything.

Business number 2

“Oh man, that’s tough. Are you sure you can’t just re-roof? No? No surprise. Here. Take a tube of this, spread it down the seam, then take this tape and lay it on and across the crack. It will even work wet.” Wow. Sympathetic, understood my situation, and suggested a solution that would work, then, in those situations, without overselling it. Not only didn’t they oversell it, they gave me some extra material for free because fixing a leaky roof in a rainstorm is the worst and best time to do it – except for doing it months or years earlier. I left with everything I needed, but an uncertainty it would work because of the specifics of the damage. (Too many details to get into here.)

Business number 3

“Uh, I don’t think we have anything like that. Let me check. Nope. Sorry.” And they meant it. But sometimes I just don’t explain things well enough, especially to someone younger than the roof. So, I wandered around the store and stumbled across items similar to what was in the other store, possibly with an improvement or two. There are tapes that are meant to be outside, exposed, that seal various roofing elements like windows and chimneys. Maybe that would suffice. Besides, an all-in-one solution is a lot easier to haul up a ladder. Less than $20? Sure, I’ll take that. Two solutions for less than the price of a meal. Double the chance at comfort.

Business number 4

“Well, you know, I didn’t know we had that.” An affable helper steered me to the right shelf, but in a large hardware store it’s hard to know every item. They led me to the roofing section, then I pointed out their products to them, and I led them in a short lesson that I’d received from research and the previous three stores. The fourth didn’t have anything new, but they had a nice attitude. I made sure I bought something, even if it wasn’t for the roof.

Four businesses, four attitudes, two or three sales. Within the few hours after leaving the last store I’ve already told some of the stories, had others similarly echo my experience with theirs. They also confirmed that until I sell a few more houses, er, several more houses, patches will be my defense.

Normally at this point in the story, I’d like to give a shout-out to the best stores, but in today’s litigious world, I won’t. The people that helped me the most were the ones who understood what it’s like to own an old house, and who know how impractical it is to always follow all of the rules. They even showed compassion in providing part of the solution for free. It’s easy to imagine some corporate official hearing the story and making sure no good deed goes unpunished. Even shops that look local can have corporate partnerships. They make saying thank you more difficult. Fortunately, I can say so in person the next time I’m in their shop.

With a bit of good luck, my foamy patch is working fine. I’ll back it up, because engineers like having backup options, with some combination of the tapes and sealants; though I may wait until there’s a dry (ha!) day to give them the best chance of working. One motivation for the simpler approach is simple. The cost of applying a patch: ~ $20. The cost of getting a professional to repair it: ~$1,000, which is a guess because evidently they won’t even quote such jobs, which also makes it moot. The cost of re-roofing the house: ~$10,000. I think I’ll try the patch first.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Expense Report – Winter Update

Out with the old.

DSCN1555

In with the new.

DSCN1553

It has taken more than ten months for me to hopefully improve my heating situation. Early this year, AmeriGas charged me $3.989 per gallon for propane. The competition was charging under $2. Appeals and talking to higher up the management change gave some relief, and even the promise of a $50 credit; but I was assured that the price was legitimate. I decided to find a legitimate alternative.

Those details are chronicled in the previous posts. Expense Report – Heating and Expense Report – Heating Update. Not exactly thrilling reading, but useful for other people who heat their homes with propane, and frugal folks in general.

Reduce your expenses, that’s one mantra of several for folks who watch their money. It sounds simple, but acting on it isn’t. Finding a more affordable supplier of propane is taking over ten months. Actually, finding a more affordable supplier only took a few days, though it did take several phone calls. Acting on it, however, meant judiciously using the expensive fuel already in the tank, then waiting for the right time to call. I guess I could’ve turned the thermostat up to 72F, but that’s sacrificing the atmosphere and my finances just to switch to a better supplier of a critical resource.

So, I waited. My new role as a real estate broker meant spending a lot more time working from an office instead of home. Keep the heat low and never notice the difference. A warm summer also helped.

Finally, following the instructions from the new supplier, Vander Yacht, I gave them a call when the tank got down to about 10% to 20% full. Twenty percent went by as November started and I was busy with some intense transactions. Thanksgiving was approaching and I realized that waiting until after the transactions closed and I got paid, and waiting until after the holiday may be best for me and the folks who would do the work of swapping out large steel tanks.

The beginning of December started with 10% left in the tank. There was also a chill. I called. Over the previous months, Vander Yacht had dutifully sent technicians to estimate and plan the task. My tank is in the back yard, fenced, and surrounded by neighbors who protect their property explicitly with flags or implicitly with very soggy soils. They remembered and would swap the tanks the next week.

The next week arrived. Instead of a the team effort required to manually maneuver the old tank past some of the plumbing and hardware, they sent a tank, a man, a dog, and a crane. Unless that was an awesome dog, they’d have to go back and try again. The tank was at about 8%.

P82A0335

During the next few days, the tank began to empty, 5%, then lower. The last I saw was a needle down below the scale. But, they were scheduled, I trusted them, and dutifully dropped the thermostat to 56F, turned on two electric heaters, and began feeding the fireplace pieces of dead trees. It was a good thing that I’d bought parts of a cord a couple of times, and accepted the windfall, actually a chainsaw fall of an old pine tree close to the office. With everything working together, the temperature in the house could rise 2F every hour. Showers became a risky luxury because I couldn’t know how much fuel was left to heat the water.

P82A0336

Wednesday morning, today, the crew was scheduled to arrive. I stayed home to do the homeowner thing of pointing out things for them to remember, and answering their questions. No show; at least not when I expected. According to their schedule they arrived right on time. A small fleet of trucks dieseled its way up my street and began parking as I was getting ready to leave. Ironically, I was headed over to a client’s home to turn off their propane to save it for any cold snaps that may happen later.

Relieved, I left them to their work, went to my work, and had no idea if they’d succeeded.

As I drove up to the house in the dark I was disappointed not to see the old AmeriGas tank in the driveway. A quick trip inside to unload the day’s stuff, then a quick trip outside to see if a new tank was in place – and it was. The house was warm. The tank was full. That phase was complete. On my way back through my carport I saw the old tank sitting in the grass, waiting for AmeriGas to reclaim their property.

Finding ways to cut expenses is a continual task for frugal folk. As I said above, it sounds simple, but some expenses require significant effort. In addition to calling several suppliers, I also called contractors who installed things like heat pumps. Their estimates of the improvements were in the thousands of dollars, though with paybacks measured in several years. Some savings are only available to those with enough money.

Ironically, AmeriGas does have some satisfied clients. One I know only pays $1.45 per gallon. Evidently, business owners get a special deal. I wonder if people who can’t afford to fit into a special niche basically subsidize others. There’s precedence, considering some of the stranger tax policies passed lately.

Realistically, I don’t know the true savings, yet. That bill hasn’t arrived yet, and I wonder if AmeriGas will somehow try to bill me for – something. Stay tuned for yet another update.

Ideally, I look forward to solutions that I can afford that don’t rely on fossil fuels or dead trees. At least dead trees are romantic, and I do like having a low-tech option available for power outages. But, for a while, I’ll be glad for the easily overlooked luxury of getting hot water from a faucet, enjoying a hot shower, and having hot water radiate its heat up through my floors to warm my feet and house.

Now, even if you won’t excuse me, I’m going to enjoy one evening cranking the heat all the way up to 68F without having to worry about the gauge, or the bugs, smoke, and ash from the firewood. Tomorrow, back down to 65F, which seems quite comfortable after the last few days.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Whidbey Changing

45810-WhidbeyChanging-LNG-POSTERHint: When a talk has a title that asks a question, be ready for either a one word answer, or a long, ambiguous, rambling response. In this case, Is Whidbey Changing? Yes. Change is a constant. In this specific case, the question was posed as the title of a talk and presentation held at the Langley Library. The topics were the island’s real estate, affordability, and trends as interpreted by an ex-engineer, writer, and real estate broker – me. If you missed it, don’t worry. I hope to make similar presentations at other places on the island. The hour and twenty minute live stream was also recorded on YouTube. Not short enough? OK. Here’s a synopsis of the summary of some data reduction and interpretation. Follow along on the slides available:

Is Whidbey Changing – December 2018

  1. Caveats – Folks make fun of statistics because people can play with statistics, and yet, data is real. Anecdotes are handy, but data is recorded history. Just be careful with definitions.
  2. If you think it’s tough nailing down a trend in the market, you’re right. Even getting various methods to agree on something as simple as one simple house generates a wide error band. Here’s the spread for my house. The good news is that, within statistics, the larger the dataset, the better chance that the errors cancel out.
  3. Good news. One chart. Median house prices are up. Talk, done. Well, not quite. Whidbey Island prices have finally recovered and have continued to climb, somewhat. Depending on your optimism or pessimism, it’s possible to draw different conclusions from only looking at the last few years or the last few months. When it comes to buying or selling, the ‘now’ is what’s important, but that’s too recent to show up in data. That will be true of every chart, sadly.
  4. Prices may be up, but the number of houses for sale is down. That’s not saying the number of houses is down, just that the number of them being sold is down. Fewer houses for sale means lower supply. Even if the demand doesn’t change, that’s pressure for the prices to rise – and they have.
  5. Live on Whidbey long enough and notice the population shift with the seasons. It affects the housing market, too. If it seems like there aren’t many houses in the summer, that’s bad enough. In the winter, well, any house that gets listed suddenly has a better chance of being noticed.
  6. The number of houses for sale is down in all price ranges. While the million dollar ones are down by about 40%, that only influences about a dozen homes in the count. The biggest drop is the houses under $300,000, the ‘affordable’ houses. From over 800 for sale in a month to under 300 is a big drop in the most affordable category. The consequence is that, even though there are fewer million dollar houses, they now make up about 20% of the market.
  7. Fewer houses without a discernible change change in demand also means houses sell more quickly.
  8. The rule of thumb is that about six months of inventory is a balance between buyers and sellers (though some say four months is the new balance point). Whidbey Island is heading below that point. Whether it gets down to Seattle’s level of only about a month of inventory is uncertain, but it is heading that way.
  9. One way to take out the variation in the numbers based on house size differences is to look at prices per square foot. The price rise continues.
  10. It’s probably not a surprise to those familiar with the island that South Whidbey is pricier than North Whidbey. The price swings are bigger, too. The military economy stabilizes the North Whidbey economy, and real estate market.
  11. Whidbey may seem less affordable, but relative to the other major islands in the Puget Sound, Whidbey is the most affordable.
  12. Whidbey may seem less affordable, but relative to Seattle and Bellevue, Whidbey is more affordable.
  13. Seattle still swings the markets, even on the islands. That quick uptick at the tail of Seattle’s curve represents more houses entering Seattle’s market than exist in Whidbey’s houses for sale. That potentially creates more supply, possibly moderating prices here and there.
  14. Seattle may seem less affordable than before, and radically less affordable than Whidbey; but Seattle is relatively cheap to the rest of the Pacific Rim. Want to develop a business beside the Pacific Ocean? Seattle is a relatively affordable alternative, hence more demand without an increase in supply.
  15. Links provided for those who want to deep dive into reconciling real estate data reporting methods across countries and continents. Fun work for data geeks like me, but not for free.
  16. Island County Housing Needs Analysis is a great document for diving into the island’s data. No surprise, North Whidbey’s median age is much lower than South Whidbey’s. A sign of change is the rapidly increasing median age for South Whidbey. People aren’t immortal (yet), so there will be turnover in households where the next generation doesn’t want to keep the family house. New people, new culture, a new identity possibly.
  17. It was sad enough that it took >3.7 times median income to afford a median house in 2000. Now the ratio probably exceeds 5 times. Incomes aren’t keeping up with housing costs.
  18. While the supply of homes for the market is low, the vacancy rate is high. Except for North Whidbey, the vacancy rates exceed 20% for the rest of the island. That’s thousands of homes empty, waiting for owners to visit on the weekends or in the summer. They are also a source for short term rentals. Long term rentals are important, too. They deserve their own analysis that would equally as lengthy as this is for buying and selling.
  19. Thousands of empty homes stand in contrast to a growing homeless population measured in hundreds. It’s overly simplistic for vacant homes to be opened to people in need. Idealism and reality conflict. So do pragmatism and compassion. The struggle for a solution continues. The good news is that we only lack proper policies and procedures, not actual buildings.
  20. Whidbey Island has traditionally had limits to growth in septic systems, water supplies, and transportation. Technology may change those limits. Whether policies and regulations allow them may simply be an eventuality considering the local, regional, and global pressures.
  21. Tiny houses, modular homes, and even greater acceptance of manufactured homes are growing, with the primary barriers again being policies, regulations, and procedures.
  22. People don’t want to sell until they can find something to buy,
    but there’s little to buy because so few are willing to sell.
  23. The island is no longer as isolated as it was forty years ago. In another 40…?

Is that enough? Of course not, at least not enough to be comprehensive. No single presentation will cover all of the aspects of housing on Whidbey Island, but each can contribute to the conversation. I hope this helps.

You’re welcome and encouraged to share the video, the presentation, and this blog; and to contact me if you want to talk about such things in more detail. Every month brings new data, change is inevitable, and in real estate unpredictable.

Here’s another link to the video for the fuller story.

Formal Disclosure:
I am a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview.

Informal Disclosure:
I’m happy to help.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dream Invest Live – Ten Years Old

Just ask Amazon. Ten years ago, November 26, 2008, I published Dream. Invest. Live. – Pioneer the Investment Frontier So You Can Live Your Dream, which I’ve come to describe as “Personal Finance for Frugal Folk.” Books are static. Blogs are dynamic, hence the over 800 posts to this blog. The world of finance has passed through the Great Recession (the Second Great Depression, in my opinion), a dramatic recovery, and worries about another crash.

The basics of the book remain; “Spend less than you make. Invest the rest.” The world in which that happens has changed dramatically. Within the next few months I intend to begin writing the sequel that has the working title of From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By – A Rollercoaster Ride Through America’s Wealth Classes. Conventional wisdom could use a review, and my experiences provide an opportunity to demonstrate perspectives on individual investing, income, wealth, inequality, frugality by choice versus necessity, health care, housing, entrepreneurship, community, and a variety of topics familiar to regular readers of this blog.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. It has been bumpy enough to jostle some folks out of the cart. Stay tuned for more. Considering the last ten years, it can be comical to extrapolate the next ten years – but of course, I’ll try.

Dream Invest Live cover

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment