Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Real estate: Buying doesn't always make sense

Greetings from Seattle. Another city, another free rental car upgrade -- National had no compacts in stock, so I ended up driving off with the same mid-size I had just declined to pay an upgrade charge for.

Someday I hope to acquire the skill of regular blogging. For now, I'll have to be sporadic -- sorry! But be assured that even if I go silent for a stretch, I'm not abandoning the ship.

I finished one of the house-buying books I mentioned earlier, June Fletcher's House Poor: Pumped-Up Prices, Rising Rates, and Mortgages on Steroids. My verdict: It's a clip job, but a pretty decent one. In the acknowledgments, Fletcher makes a comment about the project coming together very quickly. She's been covering real estate for two decades, lately for the Wall Street Journal, and my guess would be that a publisher approached her about striking while the market is hot and scraping together information from her articles for a quickie book.

Which means there's some definite filler in the already-fairly-slender (224 pages) book, like the "Going Global" section with snapshots of, say, buying conditions in Panama. I would guess that almost no one picking up this book is actually looking to buy in Panama, and people who are will need a lot more data (and more current data) than this offers.

For those at the earlier stages of considering real-estate purchases, though (like me!), House Poor has value. The main point I took away from the book -- and I think it's a pretty useful one -- is "don't fall for the line that everyone needs to buy, quick quick quick!" Fletcher has covered several complete real-estate boom-and-buy cycles, and she doesn't endorse the notion that buying an apartment/house is always a smart investment -- even for your primary residence. On a purely financial level, renting can be smarter in a number of circumstances.

For instance, one of her anecdotes concerns a couple that bought at the height of the last boom in D.C. -- and found, three years or so later, that they couldn't resell the house for enough to cover its mortgage. Over the last few years, with prices skyrocketing double-digit percentages each year, it's tempting to see real estate as the investment that just keeps giving. But booms always inspire that sense of frenzy -- and booms don't last indefinitely, no matter how much industry observers cry "but *this* time the fundamentals are different!"

Friends of mine in the D.C. area just had to sink five figures into a complete overhaul of the piping in a house they bought only a year or two ago. If your house is intended as your long-term primary residence, you sigh and grumble about those sorts of unexpected costs, but can take some comfort in recognizing that they'll be amortized over the lengthy time you spend in the dwelling. If this is a house you intend to unload in five years? If prices don't jump a *lot*, you may not recoup what you've paid for those unexpected fixes.

There are, of course, non-financial advantages to owning. I want to decorate and have the freedom to treat the place I live as *mine.* I'm willing to spend extra money for that psychological comfort. In NYC now and for the foreseeable future, buying costs a fair bit more than renting a comparable apartment. Even if I crunched numbers and discovered that the equity of owning a place didn't offset the costs -- that renting and investing would be a more financially advantageous option -- I would still buy, for the psychological reasons.

However, I likely wouldn't if I knew I'd be reselling in less than, say, a decade. Imagine a couple with part-time kid custody. They know that when the kids leave for college, they'll move to a smaller place in a better location. They're deciding whether to rent in the interim or buy a larger place that they will eventually sell and "trade in" for the smaller one. It isn't a given that this couple should buy. Depending on the relative costs of each option, and the likely appreciation in housing prices in their market, it may be wiser to rent, sock away difference each month between what they pay for rent and what they would have spent to buy, and use that cash pile -- rather than equity/appreciation from the house they would have bought -- to fund their eventual trade-up.

Fletcher kicks around such scenarios to make the point that buying real estate is a complicated calculation. That alone makes House Poor helpful and interesting. It's also a good basic reference for information on how things like interest-only loans, reverse amortization, PMI, and other logistical considerations work.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

'The check cleared' doesn't mean what you think it does

Like many people these days, I deal with actual paper checks rarely. I write one a month for my rent, cash one perhaps every few months, and deal with all the rest of my financial matters (paycheck deposits, bill paying, etc) electronically.

Those electronic transactions come with elaborate consumer safeguards. As many times as I've had my accounts used fraudulently, I've never been personally libel for any of the losses. Not so with checks. If a check you deposit bounces, you eat the loss. Here's the not-so-well-known catch: A check can bounce long after the bank has cleared it and released the funds.

That's the foundation for a nasty scam that seems to be picking up steam. The Washington Post wrote about it recently in "Banks Honor Bogus Checks and Scam Victims Pay," and a friend got targeted this week through a resume he has posted on Monster.

Here's the basics of how it works. The scammer makes contact and arranges to send you checks, with the understanding that you'll cash a large check and then wire a percentage of it -- minus a generous fee/commission for you, of course -- back to him or another party. Online job boards seem to be a breeding ground for this. From the WashPost piece:

In February, about a year after Gaston had posted her résumé on a job-search Web site, she received an e-mail about a part-time opportunity: to work as a courier for money for an international charity that builds homes for people in disaster areas. Her assignment was to deposit local donations into her own bank account, wait for the checks to clear and then wire the money to another address. She was told she would be paid 7 percent of every donation check, with a guarantee of $500 the first week on the job.

The phishing email my friend received proposed a job as "transfer manager."

The task of the Transfer Manager is to process payments between our clients and our company via checks, bank wire transfers,Money Orders. ... It’s a commission based position. You will get about 8% of each processed payment.

The trick is that banks are required by law to clear checks within a day or two of deposit. That's too short a timeframe for them to actually pull funds from the check-writer's account and guarantee the transaction's authenticity. So, banks will clear funds and make them available in your account -- but if the check later proves fraudulent, the bank will return crying fraud and yank the money right back out of your account.

In the scam, it's too late at the point. The victim has already sent much of the 'cleared' cash back to the scammer, leaving them holding the bag for the loss.

Even certified checks are subject to this authenticity-verification delay. The only safe practise seems to be refusing checks from those you don't have a trusted relationship with. If you absolutely must take a check from an unknown party, don't release the funds for several weeks, until there's been plenty of time for the transfer to be proven genuine.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Materialism vs Experiences

When I was ten and first started paying attention to my allowance money, I resolved to only spend it on tangible things. A sandwich would disappear once it was eaten, so what was the point? I reasoned. I would keep my money for lasting objects.

Eighteen years later, my philosophy has basically done a complete turnaround.

I still spend plenty of money on things. I cheerfully describe both myself and my spouse David as materialists, because we are clutterrats who accumulate lots of things -- books lead the list, but we also round up souvenirs quite a bit when we travel, and have an assortment of collections. David must have three or four dozen baseball caps lurking in our single closet. Living in a tiny NYC apartment does curb the clutter instinct.

But a much larger percentage of our income now goes to 'experiences,' particularly travel. I bounce around a lot for work, but David and I also spend a pretty hefty sum visiting friends and new places. (Forty states down, ten to go ...) I also routinely drop more money that younger-me would ever have imagined sane to dine out. I like to cook, and do so at least a few times a week, but I also really like eating my way through NYC's abundance of excellent restaurants.

Every so often I mentally wrestle with this mindset. Is it really smart to spend so much of my income on ephemeral experiences? On the other hand, there isn't a lot (beyond books) in the way of material goods that I really covet -- and the experiences I've had shape who I am.

This idle musing was underlined when David presented me with my birthday present last night (6/6 -- I'm a devil baby!): A bottle of Grange, Australia's famed Very Best Wine. I nearly keeled over. On our last trip to David's homeland, we took the Penfolds tour, and for years I'd heard stories from David and other Aussies about the wonders of Grange. Our wine budget is set considerably below the Grange threshold, though, so I never really expected to try it anytime soon.

I drink $20 wines fairly routinely, and I've had occasion to try a few in the low-three-figures range, though almost never when I'm paying. (Ah, the perks of business dinners ...) But I've never before confronted a bottle of wine that costs in the range of what I used to get paid for a week's work when I started my career.

Part of me knows there's absolutely no way to financially justify spending that sort of money on a fleeting extravagance. And part of me says it's an experience I'll always remember.

Financial decisions are funny things. How we choose spend our money really does say a lot about who we are.

Monday, June 05, 2006

My annual wrangle with Time Inc.

A few habits from my childhood have proven impossible to shake off, and reading Time is one of them. My browser homepage is, which keeps me somewhat attuned to the daily news cycle, but I've never subscribed to a daily newspaper myself (though my parents had a WashPost subscription for as long as I can remember) -- I lack the time and discipline for that kind of reading. I rely on a weekly newsmagazine to make sure I don't miss anything huge. Time brand loyalty runs deep. Although it's gone through periods of being frustratingly fluffy, I've always stuck with the magazine. The idea of switching to Newsweek or U.S. News and World Report feels wrong on some sort of cellular level; my family is a Time family, and that's that.

Not that Time Inc. hasn't done its best to drive me away. My subscription has been running for close to ten years now, and I'm sufficiently addicted to the magazine that I don't want to have a gap between renewals. The sensible thing would be annual auto-renewal, right? Cheaper for them then trying to win my business afresh each year, and easier for me.

But why would a magazine publisher do the sensible thing when it can instead inflict pain and suffering on loyal subscribers?

Try the trick of eBaying your magazine subscriptions and you'll see that a year's worth of Time runs about $10. If I were frugal above all, I'd let the subscription die each year and eBay up a fresh one. But I'm sufficiently opposed to gapping my subscription that I'm willing to pay a bit more for a proper renewal.

I am not, however, willing to let Time Inc. blatantly hose me.

Go to and click on subscribe, and you'll see a year's subscription priced at $29.95. That's been the subscription price for at least two or three years.

If I click on the Renew button and log in, what rate does it want to charge me? $49.84.

So, Time wants me to reward my customer loyalty by charging me $20 more than a new subscriber would pay. This, of course, makes my inner consumer advocate go RAAAAAR. The one year Time managed to sneak through one of those automatic renewals it routinely gets legally smacked for, I recall the rate being even higher, around the $60/year mark. (I called, screamed a lot, and got the charge reversed and the automatic renewal cancelled.)

Because the renewal disparity offends me so much, I started writing in to Time's customer service to complain about it. And discovered that if you complain about it, they go "oops, sorry!" ... and agree to bill you the lower rate.

So Time Inc. and I now have this annual Kabuki dance each June, as my subscription comes up for renewal. They invoice me for the higher cost, I write in a scathing email pointing out that their renewal rate is $20 higher than the new-subscriber rate, and two days later, they email back the form letter offering me the lower rate. From this year's installment:

Please understand that testing different rates is a common marketing practice. The offer you mention is targeting new subscribers. The offer enables potential customers to review the magazines at that low rate to decide if they would like to continue with a subscription. Because we value your business, we will be happy to extend your current subscription with that offer, if you like.

You may visit our website and renew your subscription from there. Or, if you prefer, you may return this e-mail with your full name, complete mailing address (including city, state, and zip code), and account number. Please include your order and billing instructions.

We apologize for any confusion and look forward to hearing from you!

Exceptional customer service is our number one priority.

The whole wrangle is annoying enough that I regard magazine renewals the way most people do the annual trip to the dentist. It's June? Oh, hell, time to go fight with Time again.

Please, Time Inc., can we have a cease fire? I will give you the thing every marketer dreams of, my credit card number and a standing annual-renewal order, if you will please just promise to do one simple thing: give me your lowest subscription rate. It's been ten years, and I think we're ready for that kind of commitment. It's time for us to break this cycle of dysfunction.

If not ... well, I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but ... that Newsweek does keep filling my mailbox with some alluring come-ons.