Category Archives: Useful Stuff

Rent vs. Buy

Somewhere along the way people lost their common sense when it came to real estate. Houses that used to sell for $250k started looking attractive at $1m because everything else was selling for $1.1m. But while the prices of comparable houses in a submarket gives you some indication of the market value of a house, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy that house. The cheapest overpriced house is still an overpriced house.

One thing I like to look at is a simple comparison of rents and mortgage payments. Calculate the mortgage payment for a property you are looking at, then compare it to the rent of a comparable place. This can sometimes be difficult when trying to evaluate a large single family detached house, since there may not be too many comparable rentals in the area, but for a smaller house or a condo, you shouldn’t have a problem.

In my neighborhood, I’ve seen plenty of condos that are being offered as rentals for $2000-3000 a month. Assuming an interest rate of 5.25%, this payment would translate to a mortgage of $362,000-$543,000. Assuming a 20% down payment, this results in a house price of $453,000-$679,0000. Comparable condos actually sell for $550,000-750,000.

Looking a little wider, 2 bedroom single family detached houses are renting for $3000-4000 a month, translating to a house price of $750,000-$900,000. The asking price of these houses are still $1m and up.

This simple calculation doesn’t even take into account the additional recurring costs of homeownership: property taxes, insurance, and maintenance. Nor does it take into account the time or transaction costs involved when you happen to find a great new job and have to extend your commute or sell your house. Nor does it put a price on the risk of falling housing prices.

But never mind all that. Just keep it simple and look at the rent vs. mortgage payment as a starting point. Purchasing a house is a big emotional as well as financial investment, and emotions run pretty high when you’re talking about owning a piece of property with your name on it, providing a shelter for your family, and possibly regretting the biggest financial mistake of your life. By starting simple, you might be able to run a sanity check: Is the pride of homeownership worth a $100,000 premium on that small 2-bedroom condo? If you saved the $1000 difference every month in an ING Direct account at 1%, what could you do with the $61,500 you would save over 5 years?

Five email addresses

With all the online transactions you’re making and all the spam, phishing, and malware that’s out there, using multiple email addresses to separate your email into different buckets can help keep things secure, or at least easier to manage.

Work

Use your work email address only for work. First of all, it’s company property, which means you have no privacy whatsoever. Your messages may be used if the company gets involved in some kind of legal matter or is looking for reasons to fire you with cause. Plus, you can only access your messages while you remain employed by the company. If you do leave your job, you’ll run into a big hassle when you try to make account changes on a lot of websites (which often confirm the changes by emailing your primary email address).

Money

Use a separate email address for important things like your bank, credit cards, cell phone plans, and utilities. These are the kinds of things where someone with access could take money from you, run up some fraudulent charges, or affect your credit score. Separation protects you from yourself because it’s much less likely that a separate email address will get phishing emails claiming to be from your bank, which means you won’t install malware or enter your credentials on a phishing site. If this address somehow does end up on a spam list, it’s relatively easy to set up another account and update your account details on a limited number of sites, as opposed to every single site you’ve ever signed up for.

Purchases

I would separate purchases from the banks and utilities since this address will be more widely distributed and the level of security on commerce sites is uneven. Amazon is secure, Pa’s Widget Shop is only probably secure. Worse yet, some of the sketchier commerce sites might rent or sell their email lists, especially if they get into financial trouble. Some of the poker and gaming sites definitely fall into this category: most casino sites, defunct Party affiliates, and third-tier poker sites that have no hope of being as successful as Party, Stars, or Full Tilt.

Personal

This is the email address you use for all your correspondence with real people. When you get an indication that you have new mail for this address, your brain should get a double shot of neuro-chemicals and become very excited. Separation here protects you from yourself and your friends. Unfortunately, your family and friends will give your email address to a spammer unwittingly at some point in their lives. Fortunately, you’re not expecting non-personal emails at this address and can quickly identify what is spam and flag it.

Other

Use a fifth email address for everything else. As time goes by, you might see a category of websites that merit a separate email address (e.g., poker sites), but for now, all the non-critical stuff can go here. This is the account that you use to sign up for anything and everything, so it’s definitely going to get slammed with crap. But that’s ok.

For those of you who are uber-paranoid, OCD, or otherwise troubled, you can take all this a magnitude higher by registering your own domain and setting up a separate email address for every website you interact with.

Access all your IM accounts via the web with meebo

I’ve been using meebo as my IM client for a few months now. Like Trillian, Pidgin, and Digsby, meebo allows you to access all of your IM accounts through a single interface. They’re integrated with AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, Facebook, and MySpace.

It’s pretty amazing what they’ve managed to do in a web app. You can move, resize, and minimize your chat windows as fluidly as with a desktop app. Hitting the esc key even closes your active chat window, which is a really nice touch. The only thing it can’t really do is tab between active chat windows using the keyboard. Use the tab key to switch between active chat windows and your contact list.

The primary reason I use meebo, however, is that I never lose a message. Since you’re signing on to your different accounts using a web app, your IM accounts don’t log you out if you access it from another interface. That means you can stay logged on at work and at home and receive all your incoming messages. If you use the meebo notifier, you don’t even have to be signed in via a browser. The notifier also gives you one-click access to meebo, notifies you of events, and tells you when you’ve got new mail.

99 Cent iPhone games

A co-worker turned me onto the site TouchArcade, which is dedicated to games for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I’ve realized only recently that there’re a lot of great games available for the iPhone OS, and with prices ranging from $1 to $5, some of them have given me more fun per dollar spent than console games like Mario Strikers Charged. Who needs a DS when you’ve got an iPhone (especially now that New Super Mario Bros. is coming to the Wii)?

If you spend any time reading TouchArcade, you’ll quickly realize that a lot of games that normally go for $3 or more will have short duration sales in an effort to boost their download rankings. Higher rankings = higher sales, even when the game reverts to the higher price point. If you’re a cheap bastard like me, you can save money by subscribing to TouchArcade’s 99 cent category feed (I have it on iGoogle) and swooping in on the games you want to buy. Have fun!

In and out of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX

I frequently find myself dropping off or picking up passengers at the International terminal at LAX. Picking people up can be kind of a crap shoot due to the serial immigration + baggage claim + customs lines. I typically park in the lot closest to the terminal so that I don’t have to play the game of avoiding LAX police and security while endlessly circling and hovering in the white zone, which they tell me is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. So here are a couple tips for making parking at this lot the most pleasant experience possible:


LAX maps at lawa.org.

Take the Departures ramp into the airport.

It seems counter-intuitive since you’re there to pick someone up, but trust me, it’s better. Departures is full of people who are going to a terminal, pulling up to a curb, dropping off a passenger, and then getting the hell out of LAX. Arrivals is full of people who are going to a terminal, slowing down to 5 mph while scanning for their passenger, pulling over, getting moved on, circling the airport, re-entering the pickup area, making phone calls to see if the passenger is outside yet, etc. Not to mention the fact that three of the lanes on the arrivals level become left-turn only lanes where the cars almost invariably merge right because they have no intention of going left.

The departures level is also the superior way of entering the parking structure. Since the parking structure is used more often by people picking up arriving passengers, they tend to queue up on the arrivals level, usually causing a backup into the flow of traffic. The entrance on the departures level is also slightly closer, which means that you’re already on your way in while some schmo on the arrivals level is trying to merge right to avoid being forced into another circuit of LAX.

Note (July 2017): With Uber and Lyft dropping off and picking up passengers on the Departures level, the Departures level is now worse than Arrivals. There’s a fleet of pink moustaches endlessly circling up there. Just go in via Arrivals and duck into parking structure 3 as quickly as possible.

Park on Level 2.

Level 2 is always less crowded than Level 1 (arrivals) and 3 (departures) because you’ll have to go up or down one floor in order to cross to the terminal. It’s usually not too hard to find a good parking spot close to the elevators. Even if you were to find a parking space on Level 3 on your way to the down-ramp, you’re probably better off continuing on to Level 2. Keep in mind that when you’re reunited with your party, dozens of other reunions are happening at the same time. Most of the throng that joins you in crossing the street will likely get caught in the exit queue on Level 1 (which ingeniously merges with the Level 1 entrance queue for one aisle length), but sometimes traffic backs up from Level 3 on down. Fortunately, the down-ramp from Level 2 spills immediately into 3-4 exit booths, which minimizes the amount of time you need to spend idling in line. Don’t forget to have your $3 handy.

Bring something to amuse yourself.

No matter how good you may feel about having gotten into the parking structure quickly and parking in a great space, the euphoria wears off quickly and you’ll find yourself bored while waiting for the poor bastards that have had to deal with the Department of Homeland Security. Bring a magazine, a DS, or compose an email to yourself on your iPhone that will eventually become a new blog post about how to park at LAX and why your methodology is superior.