Expense Report – Winter Update

Out with the old.


In with the new.


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%.


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.


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.


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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.

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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

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Woo Hoo Health Care

Wow. Two pieces of good health care news in two days. Imagine that.

Today, I called Washington Health Benefit Exchange, also known as Washington Healthplan Finder, also known as wahbexchange.org. In less than five minutes I learned that I didn’t have to do anything about signing up for coverage in 2019. It took me more time to get through the voice mail menus than it did to talk to a real person who expertly found the quickest way to access my account, even though I’d forgotten my password. Shocked, shocked I was (really, she confirmed that she could hear it in my voice) that I didn’t have to do anything. Another bit of good news was that their ridiculously overly-secure password system has been replaced with something simpler and more permanent. All I have to do is get home, find the old password, and change to a newer, easier one. All of this happened from a quick call to their office from my office on a Saturday. It was in the middle of a break in my real estate shift that I noticed their help desk was actually open on a Saturday – for only twenty more minutes. I called, and was off the phone in enough time for her to repeat her performance before the end of her day. Impressive; especially, considering previous years’ experiences.

The day before was also a bit of good health care news. I visited my doctor, Molly Fox, ND, a naturopath. OK, so it isn’t like I’m suddenly phenomenally healthy; but coming up on 60 years old it is nice to hear that things aren’t as bad as I expected. Hey, everything’s relative. My diabetes has abated. There’s a long list of things for me to do; but most of it is in my control. Diet, exercise, and meditation are powerful tools. She’d appreciate it if I used a few more; but we agreed that I’d take the cheap route for a while. Maybe after a few more deals close I can step up the effort. Until then, stress relief and more exercise as feasible considering my work schedule. (Real estate takes a lot more time than most folks ever witness.)

That good news wasn’t the end of the good news. I’m also benefiting from her, really their, new service. She and her office partner, Dr. Kovscek, have instituted a Direct Primary Care practice. For $70 per month (for me in my situation), I get something so radical and innovative that it resonates with the style of care I recall from fifty years ago. (From their web site🙂

  • “a direct relationship between patient and doctor”
  • “Longer appointments, 30-60 minutes with each patient”
  • discounted supplements and services
  • convenient consultations, even if that’s over the phone
  • No extra cost for in-clinic procedures
  • and a list that goes on for two pages.

Getting rid of the folks in the middle dramatically drops the cost, increases the available time to talk, and greatly reduces the anxieties I feel around more traditional healthcare facilities. (Want a glimpse of those? They inspired my walk across Scotland, which inspired my book, Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland.)Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland

It can sound weird, but health care can be friendly, calm, and casual. The ability to have regular monthly appointments means progress can be measured more often and with smaller expectations. Rather than waiting a year for a ten minute conversation to check on weight gain or loss, strength increases or decreases, or general mood changes, every month is an opportunity to spend up to an hour talking about successes and hurdles, as well as how they interact. People are individuals, not statistics, and our messy bodies appreciate individualized attention particularly when it comes to putting them back into balance.

Pardon me as I take a break to pour myself a cup of green tea.

Ah. I’m back.

You may have noticed an apparent contradiction. I’m happy (or at least relieved) that I have insurance while also celebrating a subscription to a service that exists because it doesn’t follow the modern model that relies on insurance. It feels like the transition between using energy from fossil fuels while installing solar panels. The new way seems to be the way to go, but at least for a while, it makes sense to have a bit of both. If I was in a car crash and whisked to the emergency room while unconscious my first coherent conversation with the staff shouldn’t be having to describe an innovative and positively disruptive health care philosophy. I’d give them the name of my insurance company and the name of my naturopath. Debates about corporate influence on basic necessities would wait a day.

The service is new enough that; “*Enrollment fee waived for current patients if enrolled by November 30, 2018.” Molly has been my doctor for over a year, so I got to sign up early. This notice may be a short one, but considering typical health care costs, the enrollment fee is relatively small. Adding my conventional insurance payment to the subsidy I receive from Washington Health Benefit Exchange adds up to a monthly cost that exceeds my yearly costs from Direct Primary Care. I’m glad for Washington Health Benefit Exchange. I couldn’t afford insurance otherwise. Thanksgiving was two days ago and I give thanks that I’m finally financially able to have a bit of both, and the extra chance at a healthy life that they provide.

Now, to make sure I get home early enough to make something from the leftovers, get in some exercise, and rest and relax in front of a movie. But first I’ll check my real estate calls and emails. Something has to pay the bills, besides, it can be fun finding people houses. Stay tuned.


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Sigh And Bye Asterias

Rats. It happened again. A corporation agreed with me. A company with great potential and an undervalued stock can be a great investment. In the case of Asterias, that meant BioTime is buying the entire company. Yet again, one of my tiny stocks gets absorbed before it succeeds. At least it means I had a good idea, but I’m not as likely to benefit from it. So goes one of the risks of owning stock in small companies. This time, however, I may yet benefit.

I’d like to take credit for discovering Asterias (AST), but it was delivered to me as a spin-off from another small company with great potential, Geron. I can’t even claim credit for my GERN holdings because it is one of the few times I followed a tip from a friend. And yet, I’ve held GERN shares for almost twenty years, was glad to buy more shares of AST recently, and was looking forward to buying more. Geron’s technologies, whether within Geron or those sold off to other companies, were the attraction. Geron has been developing treatments specifically targeting the extension of life. All curative medicine could be said to target the extension of life, but most do so implicitly by treating illness. Geron does so, too; but Geron also has technologies with the potential to regrow damaged organs. Their stem cell treatments were spun off to Asterias, which has successfully helped accident victims regain muscle control after nerves were damaged in accidents. That’s not just life extension. That’s life enhancing.

Asterias is only in Phase Two of their clinical trials. Unless there’s a compassionate acceptance by the FDA, there’s a typical progression to expect of Phase Three and the conventional approval process. Asterias could be years from approval in such a case, which can also be years of opportunity for speculative investing. The potential is great considering the large population of accident victims as well as the possibility of improving nerves damaged by disease. That potential is probably why BioTime bought back the part of Asterias they didn’t already own.

While the buyout is a good sign for the technology, it can be limiting for investors. As I replied on InvestorVillage.com;

“At a very cursory level, it means a $60M company is being absorbed into a $260M company, so the net impact of a positive event is roughly proportionally reduced.
Imagine a $60M company announcing $60M in profits.
Imagine a $320M company ($60M+$260M) announcing $60M in profits.
This is why I usually sell small companies when they are bought by larger ones. In this case, however, the ‘large’ company is relatively small and the potential profits could be larger than the $60M (based on opinion and historical biotech trends, not an analysis of Asterias).”

At least with Asterias, I’ll receive 0.71 shares of BioTime for every share of AST I own. The tidy part of me will probably respond by buying enough shares to even out that remaining 0.29 shares. It’s silly, but I like tidy portfolios.

This isn’t the first time such a buyout changed my portfolio. The hardware store, Eagle, was absorbed just as housing renovation boomed into the behemoths of Lowe’s and Home Depot. Something similar happened with the grocery store chain, QFC. Lands End was bought by Sears. More famously, Pixar was bought by Disney. More recently, GigOptix/GigPeak was bought by Integrated Device Technology just as Gig turned a profit. (Gig Goes Buy Buy) In each of those cases, I would’ve preferred to retain stock in a small company that would grow a lot, rather than watching a small company with great potential be absorbed into something so large that their contribution will barely be noticed. Starbucks, Microsoft, and f5 Networks are great examples of small companies disrupting their industries without losing their sovereignty. My classic case was buying America Online, holding it through great turmoil, and selling when it collided with Time Warner. (Want more details? Check out, read, and maybe even buy my book that inspired this blog – Dream. Invest. Live.)

Wealth concentration isn’t just a trend within the uber-rich. It’s also a trend within the corporate world. Companies buy companies to better invest their funds, but they also do it to buy out competition or acquire technologies or employees rather than developing them internally. If you’re about to lose your business to an upstart that’s a hundred times smaller than you, then it can be trivial to buy them now instead of investing the money in research that won’t be harvestable for years.

And it isn’t really companies buying companies. Companies are made of people (though there’s now a legal avenue that may allow an Artificial Intelligence to take over.) (Legal AI Personhood) People who represent a majority of shares in one company negotiate with people who represent a majority of shares in another company. It isn’t the majority of shareholders, just the majority of shares. When Disney absorbed Pixar, they only had to convince a few people. Steve Jobs owned almost half. Add in a few other key people and 51% is easy to reach. Rather than bid of the price of the stock as much as I thought it was worth, Disney offered shares of Disney plus great job titles to those few people. The great successes of subsequent Pixar movies just became part of the Disney empires revenues. Enjoyable, but not nearly as profitable to the shareholders.

It is important to evaluate a company and a stock based on the goods and services they provide. That helps in estimating the company’s potential. It is also important to evaluate the management team and their compensation packages. How likely are they to act selfishly? In America, all they have to do is represent the majority of the shares instead of the majority of shareholders. Are they building a company or a buyout package?

Buyouts are a caution I have about any small company. AMSC benefited from one, until they didn’t. Now, AMSC’s disruptive technology doesn’t seem to be disrupting anything. Maybe they won’t be bought out. Asterias just took the plunge. Geron has been a seller, not a buyer; and their most recent news hasn’t lived up to expectations. MicroVision’s potential continues about as high as ever, though dilution has diminished MVIS’ potential. MicroVision’s management, however, hasn’t instilled confidence that they have a long term strategy for the company. For the technology, yes. For the stock, no – at least from my perspective. Even the shareholders regularly discuss buyout prices, proving that everything has its price. In MVIS’s case, that price may be below my break-even price. NeoPhotonics is what I bought after Gig was bought out. I bought. It dropped. Now, it’s raising again. Maybe it will sustain and attain positively.

Not everything gets bought out. Look around at recent successes like Facebook, Amazon, Tesla. Charismatic leaders can sustain visions and attain great successes for themselves and their shareholders. Maybe BioTime’s leadership will lead on. If they do, I’ll be glad for the patients and myself; but I know my portfolio will reflect a much smaller portion of that success than it would have otherwise.

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Tom Trimbath Real Estate Broker – Year One

“Has it really been that long?” I heard that from several people today. November 9, 2018, my one year anniversary as a real estate broker on Whidbey Island. Welcome to yet another new view of the world we live in – a world that is changing, an interesting time to be involved in real estate, housing, and affordability.

It’s November, which means it’s no surprise that it’s raining as I sit in my office (Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview) waiting for someone who may come to the island to shop for a home for their healing space. Special needs need special places, and one way to make that happen is to start with ground and build a custom space. At least the ferries are on schedule, unless they have to slow to let orcas pass by. So goes life on the island.

How I got to real estate from aerospace engineering was something I described in last year’s post when I passed my test. Years of playing with data, years of writing and researching real estate, the industry and architecture, and years of living on the island added to a shift from designing airplanes and rockets to helping people design their lives. As I said before, learning that one of my core passions is helping people and their ideas is something that’s been common throughout. From the outside, it may look like a radical shift. From the inside, the change isn’t as dramatic – at least conceptually.

Change happens. No more shorts. Rats. No more commuting by bicycle. Alas. Maybe I’ll  be able to replace my truck with something that can actually turn around at the end of some of Whidbey’s dead-end drives. Eventually, no more flip phone as MicroVision-enabled projector smartphones are now available – for a price I’ll pay after another transaction or two. Say good bye to regular paychecks, but say hello to potentially being able to stay on the island. I retired here, but it was a semi-retirement that became an unretirement (details in My Triple Whammy), that may become a re-retirement with some luck and effort. Also, say hello for a great opportunity to talk to lots of people, hear about great needs and dreams, and helping people move on to the next stage in their lives. Now, if only I could do that without all of this pesky paperwork.

We’re seeing the planet, the country, and the world in general changing. Even an island in Puget Sound is affected by off-island forces like the Gig Economy, shifts in the military, trade disputes, and technological advances. Seattle’s growth pressures may be delayed but not negated by the moat that is the island’s surrounding waters.

Real estate is driven by people selling and buying houses. The market is shaped by economics: local, regional, national, and global. Whether a particular house will be sold or bought is determined by individuals, and individuals can’t be predicted. Few people buy or sell to outguess market forces. Most people buy or sell because they want to or have to. Being a broker means respecting privacy, so I won’t tell those stories here (unless a client doesn’t mind.) The data, however, help describe the environment, and is easier to talk and write about. Tune into my Facebook page, or Twitter or LinkedIn pages to track the trends I’m noticing. These aren’t dull times.


The trends are fascinating enough that I’ll be giving a talk about them at Langley Library on December 6th at 6:30pm. Decades ago, Seattle had a tough time getting people to move here. It was an issue HR described when I hired into Boeing in 1980. Whidbey Island was much quieter than, but so was the entire Puget Sound region. Since then, Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Amazon, et al have changed the area from an overlooked corner of the country into the center of a spotlight. What’s next? Stop by the for the talk and …


Pardon the interruption. A client called. Stay tuned.

Hey! That was fun, walking vacant land, checking out the view, considering the possibilities, and being visited by a flock of sheep.

And, getting an intriguing phone call from another broker who is interested in helping distribute the graphs I produce and share on social media.

And, before I set to typing again, another idea for creating a job opportunity. Got to make sure I talk to J and A about that. (Hey, life’s hectic and sometimes the best place to write a note is in the middle of something completely different.)

Welcome to the disjointed, always on, happy to help nature of real estate. Boredom rarely happens. Insights and perspectives from people who need whatever house they can find and afford to people who can add a vacation house so they get a chance to recuperate from a hectic lifestyle elsewhere. And, keep it all inside to respect privacy.

Real estate also represents a departure from my participation in the Gig Economy. I continue to consult with creatives to help complete their projects; and I continue to write, and take photographs for sale (Twelve Months at Maxwelton Beach is next); but most of my time is working with buyers, sellers, land, houses, and introducing them to each other.

This has not been an easy or obvious journey. Thanks to sharing in a half dozen deals, I’m still living on the island. Thanks to the costs of doing business, I have paid my bills, but not my taxes, yet. A few things have been fixed. Some new shirts have been added to my wardrobe. (Thanks, Lands End.) But, new (used) car money, major home repairs, and taking good care of my self are things to look forward to, not to spend money on – yet.

‘Yet’ is a frequently used word, but yet is closer now. Instead of relying on lottery tickets, I can look forward to being compensated for helping people. At last count, I’m working with over a dozen sets of clients, who represent a wide variety of interests, needs, and resources; and whose situations can change every day. This isn’t like engineering where a job assignment leads to a check. It’s more like a diversified portfolio of individual stocks, lots of potential which benefits from diligence and patience.

Few people except brokers want to talk about real estate every day, which is why I only mention it here, occasionally. Few people want to read about Whidbey Island every day, which is why I started a blog specifically for Whidbey, AboutWhidbey.com, Island living from a islander’s perspective. If you want to hear about both, drop by Langley Library for the talk I mentioned above. If you can’t attend, give me a call and tell me your story. Speaking of which, there’s a voice mail message I should respond to before the end of the work day (which can go until 9PM when things get busy.)

Here’s to the start of year number 2, and maybe even some stories that I can share.

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Ten Years Of Dream Invest Live

It started the day after the election. Barack Obama had been elected. A dramatic change was taking place from the Bush/Cheney era. The world sighed in relief. America wasn’t as crazy as it looked. The ‘it’ in this case is this blog, the blog based on my book, Dream. Invest. Live., which I should’ve subtitled – “personal finance for frugal folk.” It is hard to imagine such dramatic changes could take place, and a reminder that ten years from now we may look back and be similarly surprised.

Dream Invest Live cover

My book was published as the market crashed. Even before Obama became President, the economy was already inexorably falling into the Great Recession. My investing philosophy of long term buy and hold (LTBH) of stock in positively disruptive companies helped me retire at 38, and looked like it would weather the market’s upset. That history and my evidently reasonable way to describe finance inspired friends to inspire me to write the book. Rather than draw a crowd as people sought solutions, the book languished (as most books do regardless of topic) partly because people avoided the suddenly painful topic.

About four years later, two or three stars in my diversified portfolio were beginning to shine. That’s when My Triple Whammy hit. Regardless of the economy:

  • AMSC had its renewable energy intellectual property stolen and its market gutted by a Chinese customer turned competitor,
  • Dendreon achieved FDA approval for a cancer vaccine which was than assaulted by apparently felonious actors who bankrupted the company and impacted the lives of patients,
  • MicroVision had a key supplier back out just before a significant product launch as the supplier decided to work on smartphone glass instead of green lasers.

My portfolio dropped 80%, and then dropped more as I tried to keep my house and pay my bills. The housing market meant no buyers for my house. The job market meant no jobs for me. Evidently, I didn’t win the lottery jackpot. My Backup Plans weren’t backing me up. I dove into the gig economy to swim through, somehow. Last year, I was finally convinced to become a real estate broker because I couldn’t be considered to be over-qualified, and the hurdles of age, gender, and address (really) wouldn’t be an issue. Now, those years of effort are switching from potential to reality – possibly.

This blog has chronicled that path and is acting as notes for a possible sequel; From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By – A rollercoaster ride through America’s wealth classes. Stay tuned. I’m not sure how it ends.

Along the way, readers implicitly voted for their favorite topics. Writers take note. We may think one set of topics should be most important; but readers decide for themselves.

Here are the top ten posts from the last eight years. (Apple dropped support for the first few years, so the only data available are for the years that WordPress has hosted the blog.)

  1. One Confused ObamaCare Applicant
  2. A Bow To Drewslist
  3. Micro Vision
  4. Apple Pixar Dendreon
  5. Will Zillow Make Me Move
  6. Weed Changes Whidbey
  7. My Spreadsheet For Tracking My Stocks
  8. PicoAir Meets ShowWX
  9. MicroVision Begins 2018
  10. MicroVision And CES2017

I thought I was writing about personal finance for frugal folk, and what readers wanted to read was about: how to sign up for healthcare, a community-based version of craigslist, the little company that may someday succeed called MicroVision, Dendreon, marijuana, and a spreadsheet. I also wrote about writing, Whidbey Island, housing, consulting, and a wide array of future scenarios – but they didn’t rank, yet. Old posts can gain new readers.

Just as this blog inspired the possibility of a sequel, it has also inspired two more focused blogs:

Some may notice that, instead of posting twice per week to this blog, I’m posting once here and posting others over there as appropriate.

A lot has happened in the last decade. A lot will happen in the next decade. Someone today is guessing right, but we won’t know who that is for ten years.

That first post included this;

“The universe tends to disorder, chaos. So goes entropy. Order, construction, takes far more energy than destruction.”

So, here’s to the next ten years, a ride through ever-shifting scenarios and schemes, a journey that can benefit from some simple ideas that won’t change:

Spend less than you make.

Invest the rest.

Live according to your values.

Oh yes, and VOTE! It does make a difference.

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Goodbye Netflix

Go to Netflix.com. Wait for the computer to load the page. Watch the page grab so much of the computer’s power that even opening a text file means having enough time to pour a cup of tea. So, why am I canceling my Netflix subscription after over a decade of use? Like many companies, they’ve improved it so much that it’s now useless – at least to me. But, there are simple success stories.

Ah, the site has loaded. Let’s see how long it takes to cancel the subscription.

Cancel Membership
Cancellation will be effective at the end of your current billing period on Nov 13, 2018.
Restart your membership anytime. Your viewing preferences and account details will be saved for 10 months.
Finish Cancellation
OtherMany years ago I signed up for Netflix for movies. Now, the emphasis seems to be Netflix content, fancier site dynamics that overwhelm my computer, annoying instant play, overly large graphics, and generally fewer of the movies I want to see. It looks like it’s working well for you. Congratulations. But not for me.

Well, that was painless. That part of the site is a great example of how it could operate simply and efficiently.

Diworsification is such a common corporate development that there’s even a word for it, at least in the investment community. Take something that succeeds. Celebrate that. Then grow and change as power accumulates. Add more, and more, and more. There’s a problem with more. Just go watch Key Largo, an old black and white Bogart/Bacall movie. Edward G. Robinson’s character, the gangster Johnny Rocco, wants more;

“Frank McCloud: He knows what he wants. Don’t you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Sure.
James Temple: What’s that?
Frank McCloud: Tell him, Rocco.
Johnny Rocco: Well, I want uh …
Frank McCloud: He wants more, don’t you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!
James Temple: Will you ever get enough?
Frank McCloud: Will you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won’t.”

– IMDB Key Largo

He’s never realized that more is never enough.

Companies fall into the same trap. Growth is more important than sustainability. New is mistaken for improved. Any company that is continuing to try to grow regardless of supply and demand is ultimately doomed. Doom can take a while to arrive, but it does arrive. Sure, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix are highly successful companies; but I’m finding myself drawn to simpler solutions like Google, Chromebooks, and longing for the days of ad-free, ready-when-I-am, DVDs. Similar things are happening with WordPress, that continually changes its interface (which is making maintaining this blog more difficult). Even though I liked Apple products for years, they’ve turned me off with file architecture changes, a monopolistic approach to the user experience, and a sales attitude that is more elitist than egalitarian. Google has even retracted “Do no evil”, a simple philosophy that seemingly got in the way of growth. Facebook has improved itself into something far less useful. I only use it now when I have a faster computer and internet connection, even though all I want to be able to do is post text, maybe a link, maybe a photo (#SeePoliticsPostArt), and maybe Like someone’s posts. Now, Facebook has so enough options to fill a laptop screen, and takes so long to load that I can watch each element make the computer pause before displaying it. I’m using Twitter and LinkedIn more, even though fewer friends are over there.

It doesn’t have to be that way. New features aren’t required for growth. A wise steady strategy can prevail. Look outside the corporate world. Craigslist and Wikipedia are great examples of simple ideas, concisely provided, that are just as essential, and more reliable.

One way to keep costs down in a business is to use standardized processes, and only change when a benefit has been identified. Every imposed change costs people and businesses money as we have to take time away from work to figure out how to get the work done, possibly reworking web sites and applications, and cleaning up any mistakes that happened in the process. I haven’t had that issue with Craigslist or Wikipedia, but corporations seem to be chasing the phantom that is more.

Such a tendency is one reason I like to sell small companies when they become large. Sure, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix are doing fine; but go back thirty years and look at the apparent solidity of Sears, Buick, and even GE.

At least for movies, I’m on a hunt. I’m trying Hulu, but only because they have Stargate SG-1 and Firefly. Their movie list looks slightly better, but not so appealing that I’m sucked in. The mute button is necessary for the anxiety-driven medical ads, and the fact that there are ads even though I’m paying for the service.

I wonder if this is all just another example of the bifurcation happening within our society. Those with the means can update hardware and software frequently, keeping up with the new features, and sending perfectly good equipment to the landfill. Someday I’ll get a smartphone. It almost happened this month until a business delay delayed my income. Don’t spend it if you don’t have it.

As technology incrementally leaves me behind, at least temporarily, I’m finding myself spending more time reading, writing, and walking. Two scenarios come to mind: 1) What would I be doing if I was a multi-millionaire again? and 2) What would I be doing if I was a mountain man in a cabin a hundred years ago? There’s a lot of overlap. Frugality by choice instead of necessity is appealing and liberating. Chasing my passions is better than chasing after someone else’s imposed improvements. Netflix and other companies, you’d be better able to keep my business if you provided the option of stability. If I like MS Word 2008, great; instead of dropping its support, provide it as a paid feature. If I like the old version of OS X, let me keep using it instead of forcing its obsolescence. If all I need is a list of movies, don’t force me to scroll past your animated ads for your TV shows of which you are so proud.

Enough is enough. More isn’t always better. Living simply is something society won’t encourage. Its best source is within. No company can improve on a person’s awareness of their values.

Now, let’s see how long it takes to drill down to my favorite WordPress editor.

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A Rakkasan Twitter Mystery

The mysterious box is opened. The kettle is warming up, heading to “A full rolling boil”. A friendly tea provider has been consulted. A typo has been found. Just another episode in my not-so-boring life. Thanks, Twitter, I guess. And thanks, Rakkasan Tea Company for a pleasant and probably aromatic surprise.

Ah, I hear the water boiling.

Put my nose in the rising mist as I pour the hot water onto the leaves and into a tea pot for steeping. So, there’s the aroma. It wasn’t as pronounced when I opened the tin.

Tea poured, most of which goes into a thermos for tomorrow because it is too late in the day to drink too much tea – if I want to sleep.

And, before I take a sip, notice an email from a client in Japan. (Real estate, it’s not constrained by time, time zones, or continents. So glad to be able to work electronically; but I digress.)

At least this means the tea isn’t scalding when I finally take a sip. Ah. Nice. Definitely a good mid-morning to mid-afternoon tea.

How did this all happen? I don’t know, but I can guess.

When I got home from work I was surprised to find a cardboard cube of a box in the mailbox. It barely fit, just right. I hadn’t ordered anything, but my neighbors do. Just last week, one of their packages ended up in my box. No problem. Check the label and hand the package to them. But, just like the surprise gift from Lands End, there was my name, correctly spelled to the correct address on the label. A very nice departure from bills and election rhetoric. Check the return address. Rakkasan Tea Company. Never heard of them. While most folks would Google it, (there’s that noun becoming a verb) I have better sources. Five, yes, at least five of my friends have owned tea shops or sell high-end tea. Maybe one of them know about the company and can tell me what’s happening.

Brian and Kachi are dear friends who own and run Dandelion Botanical Company “a Natural Apothecary since 1996“. Go check out their site, or even better, visit the store that has now become a bit of a tourist attraction for its selection, ambiance, expertise, and personalities. OK, folks. Ever heard of Rakkasan Tea Company? Nope. And yet, it’s just the sort of tea that Dandelion would sell. Rakkasan is a young company (2017) that will “import solely from carefully selected estates in post-conflict countries as a way to promote peace and economic growth“. Sounds good. I might have to share a bit with Brian and Kachi, as well as some of my more local tea aficionados. (Though, it may be cheaper to ship them some. The gas mileage of my pickup is not exactly eco-friendly.)

The gift, which I’m assuming is a gift because there was no receipt or note, is nicely packaged: a good tight tin that holds about two ounces of tea and could probably hold more. Black Jasmine, which as they point out “is traditionally made with green tea” is therefore distinctive.

The greater distinction is the company, the possible reason I received the tea, and the fascinating collision of coincidences this day has produced.

Skip past organic. This tea is: harvested by a single family, from 300-400 year old wild trees, is ethically and sustainably produced, and sold by U.S. Army veterans who want to promote peace in post-conflict countries. That’s a lot to keep track of.

By the way, this tea is so drinkable that I’m halfway through the cup that I said I wouldn’t finish this late in the day I guess I’ll be up late watching a movie or something.

Here’s how the business world works now. U.S. Army vets, selling Vietnamese tea, under a Japanese name, with a Japanese Torii gate for an icon (and trust me I noticed the Japanese theme today, particularly getting to work with my real estate clients), all from a company that’s based in Texas. Blended teas are common, but this is a cultural blend, too.

Here’s how the electronic world works now. I use social media. I’ve been using Facebook for almost a decade. (I’d check but Facebook is so slow now that I only visit occasionally, or from a faster computer.) I spend more time on Twitter (@tetrimbath), with some time on LinkedIn (Thomas Trimbath), and Tumblr. (Bye bye, Google+.) In the midst of my posts about personal finance, real estate, community, and news that has me “Pretending Not To Panic”, I also post the same sort of innocuous comments that more real people do.

Just for fun, I started posting about the teas I was drinking. A tough morning? Something stout to power through, like one of the breakfast teas that mix Assam and Keemun. A tough afternoon? Probably something herbal, maybe with chamomile if I’ve been wound up too long. Green fits nicely into an afternoon, though I wouldn’t want a thermos of it. And then there are those herbal infusions (but we call them teas, anyways) that were inspired by Brian and Kachi’s blends. My typical blend is nettles (provided a friend whose property has more than enough), lemon balm (from my front yard), lavender (from my yard), mint (from my yard and some from Dandelion Botanical), and honeybush (from Dandelion). Thanks to too much time working in the steel mill to get through college I don’t have the refined taste buds of other friends who operate tea businesses, like Dori Hallberg; but I enjoy a variety. So, I share little notes about my cups of tea often enough that someone suggested a hashtag, #TomTea.

I don’t know, but I realize it is possible, that Rakkasan stumbled across my tea posts, and decided to subtly introduce themselves to me through tea. That’s my story, for now.

The world no longer works from conventional business models or communication channels. Klout.com, which just went out of business, tried disrupting Google the way Google disrupted Yahoo the way Yahoo disrupted newspaper ads. Ads are pushed and broadcast and spread across populations, hoping to find enough sales. Yahoo collected the market niches into categories that made it easier to target. Google found a way to target people who searched for a term rather than joined a group. Klout tried what’s called the Reputation Economy, where it’s cheaper to contact certain individuals hoping to encourage them to spread the word. Rakkasan sent me a tin of tea. Tea = $17.99. Shipping probably < $10. Labor cost for noticing the tweet and deciding to send me something = I don’t know. But, I do know that $100 doesn’t buy much of an ad in the paper; and that only runs once. Advertising is always a risk, and depending on how many and which people they contact, the reward could be far greater.

Look back a few weeks to the package I received from Lands End. Since then, I blogged about it, tweeted about it, told dozens of my friends the story, and equally importantly I’ve returned to their site to line up my next purchase. (For every successful real estate transaction I tend to buy one or two more pieces for my aging and fading wardrobe. A necessary and welcome treat.) I’ll tell this story, too. And I won’t be surprised to find that I got it wrong, which will prolong our conversation. Maybe that’s why they didn’t send me a note: suspense.

Rather than caffeinate myself into insomnia, I’m nibbling on another appropriate synchronicity. These zucchini slices may not be cucumber slices, a traditional tea accompaniment, but they’ll suffice to make me grin with the way so many things came together, today.

Thanks to Rakkasan Tea Company, I’ll try to tag them on Twitter and Linkedin. (They’re welcome to tag me or Trimbath Creative Enterprises.) Thanks for the story. Now, I just have to figure out the best way to point out a typo on their tin. See, that’s what happens when a writer gets involved.

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Economics Recessions Elections And Prognostications

So, what do you think will happen next? There’s only one word in that question with more than one syllable. Such simple words are signs of ancient origins. We’ve probably always asked that question. The world is weirder and changing faster than ever. Just because it is difficult to find an answer doesn’t mean we quit asking the question. The political debates come down to one person and one ballot on one day multiplied by the number of people who care enough to vote. (And, if you don’t vote, don’t complain.) The money side of things is much more personal, affects us every day, and affects our personal finance plans. What you think will happen next isn’t as important as what you’ll do next. Welcome to my exploration.

Science is measured by whether it can make predictions. By that measure, economics is a terrible science, or at least an immature one. Now that data are more available and the consequences of actions can be seen on a global and systemic scale, old assumptions in the new science of economics are being challenged. Read, watch, or listen to some of the stories in Freakonomics and watch stereotypes fly apart. Drug dealers may only make minimum wage, but it’s sometimes their best choice. Violence and crime correlate with a decrease of lead in the environment and an increase in the availability of abortions. There may be a Nobel Prize in Economics, but young students witnessing the world are revolting against conventional wisdom, and even the doctrine taught to them in college.

Economics lag. Causes and effects are frequently separated by years or generations. A current economic boom is probably produced by policies instituted years earlier, and acted upon by people’s spending and savings habits that are influenced by previous booms and busts.

Economics are chaotic. The chaos isn’t random, but it is the mathematical definition of chaos where chaos means the system is so complex that it may be impossible to accurately predict what will happen next. Based on that success rate, economics wouldn’t be in demand; but people need plans so people will study and listen to economics news for any help they can get.

Economics may be unpredictable, but personal actions can be more certain. Spend less than you make. Invest the rest. Repeat. It isn’t a panacea. Income and expenses are not always in our control. Income can be ruled by a boss or a clientele, or a hurricane blowing through your house. Expenses can be ruled by accidents and medical bills. Income can also be ruled by the lottery and expenses can be forgiven (both with similar odds.)

Recession to recovery to recession to recovery to repetition. Recessions and recoveries are bounces around a norm that the US economy rarely settles down to. We’ve become accustomed to booms and busts, some shallow, some extreme, some regional, some national. The norm is to never sit on the norm. We’re experiencing one of the longest recoveries in US history. Guess what will happen next. Its inevitability isn’t in question, just the specific timing and magnitude. Some system studies conclude that the system is unstable, not under some overt or covert control, and will continue to experience wider swings. Higher highs and lower lows are the norm. As wild as the US economy has been, it is relatively stable compared to Venezuela’s million percent inflation, currency devaluations in Turkey, and sixty percent interest rates in Argentina.

Each recession gets pinned to a scapegoat. The housing bubble, the Internet stock bubble, the silver bubble, … Assets chase assets. People who are saving more are sensitive to where putting their money may mean saving less. So, if commodities were a bubble that burst, put the money in stocks – until they burst then put the money in housing – until it burst then put the money in commodities – and then oil drops and threatens nations so put the money in private equity or Bitcoin or some computer managed combination of the lot.

But, for people with a long enough view and enough patience and resources to let the money sit, there can be impressive gains thanks to time. Apple stock was great, then it sank, now it’s phenomenal – as long as you waited twenty or thirty years. (And I, in youthful rebellion, sold when they kicked out Steve Jobs, and never bought back in. Sigh.) Simple houses in Seattle, or where I live (and now am a real estate broker) on Whidbey Island never seemed like much until the region is ‘discovered’ and prices soar. They’ve soared to levels that are still cheap compared to the rest of the major cities on the Pacific Rim.

Recessions are temporary. So are recoveries. Lives last longer. Set a simple course to make it through each, and repeat.

Politics. Sigh. I so long for the simpler times of Watergate. Elections mattered then, too; but now they’re existential. They’re also more about wining the game than about managing the nation. And yet, whoever wins will take credit and shift blame for whatever happens the day after the election. Someone won and the market went up? They may take the credit, but the previous politician had more influence. The market went down? Blaming the previous people happens even faster.

Elections do matter. They always have. Because of elections, enough people were elected to institute policies that helped me renegotiate rather than lose my mortgage and my house. Tying today’s politics to today’s economy, however, gives too much credit to the economy’s agility. It’s isn’t that smart, maneuverable, or controllable.

And yet, the economy is due for a shift, which will probably result in a recession, which will affect the next election.

And yet, and yet, I was glad to see that my Voter’s Pamphlet arrived today. I like being able to vote (and then complain.) I almost was in this one, but work and inconvenience helped me miss a deadline. Maybe next time. Just as in economics, a big messy situation can be reduced to simple personal actions. Spend less than you make. Invest the rest. And vote.

I can feel comfortable prognosticating because I am told very few readers have the attention span to read this many words. Congratulations if you got this far.

Our economy, politics, environment, and society are all mathematically chaotic systems. Technology is changing concurrently and is faster than the rest. Making A prognostication is a silly game. Whatever happens will not happen to everyone. The news will hit the highlights and make them sound universal, but the recent news coverage of the Florida hurricane proved my point. The camera swept past piles of rubble twenty feet high. The properly ruffled newscaster described the terrible scene, and was right. But, right behind the rubble was an apartment complex that didn’t seem damaged. Houses were swept away, which is why we should respond because they are proxies for the people involved. But other houses weren’t. They’re less likely to be mentioned, except by prudent reporters and planners. But the stories of the houses and lives that weren’t damaged aren’t dramatic, so they can’t fit into a three minute news segment.

There will be chaos under heaven, and for some, the situation will be – at least acceptable, and not worth noticing, but worth living. Frugal, prudent, and prepared may be boring, but they’re also more likely to avoid the dramas that disrupt lives.

My prognostication: Live simply. It isn’t a panacea, either, but it is one of the best plans a person can personally act upon.

As for my forty year mortgage. Really? I don’t even know if we’ll have the same country in a year. Sure. I’ll take that lower rate, thank you very much.

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