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Home Browsing in the Bay Area

July 12, 2014

In short, it is frustrating.   I think home shopping ANYWHERE has potential to be frustrating, but here is what I’ve seen in our casual browsing of the local real estate market.

Links to virtual tours that are really just a slideshow of the photos already found on the site.  WHY?  I don’t care that there isn’t a virtual tour, but why pretend?

Earthquake / soil / fault information is not available until you get the disclosures.  And even then, I’m not sure what you get (we didn’t get that far yet).  I am generally not freaked out about dying in an earthquake.  You are actually statistically quite likely to survive.  I am, however, freaked out about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a home, and having it get destroyed in an earthquake.

Every time I find an interesting home I have to check if it is in the fault zone (EVERYTHING is going to be near a fault, but I don’t want something that has a risk of surface rupture).  Or in a liquefaction zone (google this, it is freaky).  Or in a landslide zone.   SO MANY hazards!

I wish redfin and the like would just summarize for me:  how many feet from fault zone, soil type (bedrock = good, fill = liquefaction risk), and any known landslide risks.  Also, can’t they just TELL me when the floors are slanted?  You are going to make me go to the house to find out about that?

Listing price is arbitrary.  It could go for slightly more.  It could go for WAY more.  In rare cases, it may go for less.  But don’t put much weight on the list price.  This is so annoying and seems like some serious psychological manipulation to get people to pay the most possible for a house.

$1M+ for an average, nothing special home.  What?!  Why?

Links and Randomness

June 28, 2014

I have exciting plans to dig through my finances this weekend and see how we are doing so far this year.  I may have some topics next week.  In the meantime, here is some interesting randomness!

Women in STEM

Love this video!   I’m so glad my parents were so encouraging of everything we girls did.  Sometimes I feel sad that I’m not working in STEM anymore, but I may go back someday.  And even if I don’t, I will always be an engineer.  That stuff doesn’t wear off.

The Brain

This short podcast on applying electrical current to the brain in order to stimulate learning blows my mind.   Especially since someone could buy something that does this,  it is completely uncontrolled.  Seems a bit scary.

I’m listening to this book on audiobook while running, and it is crazy interesting.

Dr. Gazzaniga [...] created an experiment in which the (mute) right brain could “talk” by using Scrabble letters. He began by asking the patient’s left brain what he would do after graduation. The patient replied that he wanted to become a draftsman. But things got interesting when the (mute) right brain was asked the same question. The right brain spelled out the words: “automobile racer.” Unknown to the dominant left brain, the right brain secretly had a completely different agenda for the future. The right brain literally had a mind of its own. Rita Carter writes, ‘The possible implications of this are mind-boggling. It suggests that we might all be carrying around in our skulls a mute prisoner with a personality, ambition, and self-awareness quite different from the day-to-day entity we believe ourselves to be.

I’ve been thinking about my mute prisoner ever since!

Expensive things I want buy will not buy (yet?):

Maybe if I learned how to make affiliate links and convinced you all to buy them too, I would feel OK purchasing?


Partially inspired by this article, I have finally got around to developing our earthquake disaster kit.

Over the past few months, I’ve acquired:

We have first aid and other random supplies for backpacking, but they aren’t organized in an “emergency” fashion.  I think we have the most major items from lists I’ve seen online.  What do you think?  Now we just need to figure out what we should keep in our car and offices, if anything.

I also learned about liquefaction (which I intentionally like to call liquefaction, because it sounds scarier), importance of the type of soil a home is built on, and earthquake retrofitting of homes.  Also, more scared than EVER to buy a home in this area!

Mountains / California

Netflix has a new documentary available on streaming:  Mile, Mile and a Half.  The title immediately made me smile.  It is about a group of photographers / artists who hike the 220 mile John Muir Trail.  Highly recommended for outdoor lovers.

We’ve done a few sections of this (particularly in the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Yosemite areas) and it renewed my desire for another backpacking trip.  We are planning a 5 day one late this summer, and I am SO excited!

A few weekends ago, I was up in the mountains and lucky enough to fall asleep to 6 waterfalls, no one but me, T, and our friend in sight.  That is 2 personal waterfalls per a person, if waterfalls were the type of thing you divided among friends.



On that note, I’m off to enjoy the rest of my day!

Changing careers: Good and bad

May 31, 2014

I’m about 5 months into my new job, and I have to admit, it has been a bit of a roller coaster.  There have been a lot of really great things, and a lot of lows that I wasn’t really expecting.

My job is project based, and my first project is a longer term  (10 – 11 months) not-very-interesting project.  There are a bunch of plusses with this project:

  • it is great to be consistently assigned a project
  • I don’t have to travel
  • I work in the city
  • The hours are good.

I like my company, and everyone has been really friendly.  I’m working in new industries doing new things, and I didn’t have to take a pay cut to make a change.  All in all, things worked out as planned.

That said, I’ve had some challenges.  For this project in particular, the work is not very interesting nor very challenging.   It isn’t where I want to go with my career in the long run, although it is an OK place to be for now.  Coming from what I was doing before, the work is not inspiring, and that makes me sad.

I’ve also had to start over, at least much more than I would like to have.  I get it – it makes sense – but I don’t have to like it.  Perhaps I was naive, but I wasn’t really expecting it, at least not to this extent.  While I know my experience translates well, I have been less great at figuring out how to sell it, market it, and make other people see that value.  I’ve got some ideas on how to do better at this, but it is kind of exhausting to have to prove myself all over again.  It’s a hard change, but the only way to get somewhere better is to figure out how to thrive in the place I’m at.

I have been comparing my new job to my old job, and it really isn’t holding up.  That said, it is an unfair comparison.  I invested years into my old job.  I put hours of effort, lots of emotional effort, and it was even what I went to school for (undergrad and grad).  The reasons that I didn’t pursue a job more similar to my old job are still there.   Nothing has changed.  I still don’t want to make the commute required for a similar job, I still don’t think that I was getting as many marketable, transferable skills, and I still question the long term health of the industry.  None of these things are insurmountable, and if I end up deciding it is the best option, I can go back in that direction.  But the reasons I wanted to try something new still outweigh the fact that my old job was more awesome than my new job.  I’ll continue to search for a job that provides autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  I hope this job develops into something like that after I invest some time.

(Similarly, I am always comparing my new neighborhood to my old neighborhood.  My old neighborhood, in my opinion, was pretty much the best place in the entire world to live.  So, maybe comparing to that is unfair.  At minimum, it is unhelpful.)

I don’t know what my long term plans are.  I could stay at this job for years, or maybe not.  It could open some different doors for me, or I could go back to engineering.  I could even go back to school and do… something.  I do like to have a plan, but I’m really more concerned with having a direction or a strategy.  I will make choices that will put me in the best possible position for the future, given the information I have now.  I’ll seek out new information, and push myself to grow. Because that is the best any of us can really do.


We’re not buying a house

May 30, 2014

At least not any time soon!   We went to a few open houses, and have been seriously talking about it, but I just don’t think it is the right time.

Reasons to buy a house:

  • We live in the general area we will most likely live for a very long time
  • Irrational or “soft” reasons, such as:  “I don’t know, I just want to!”
  • Interest rates are very low.
  • We have the cash ready.  Basically.
  • I don’t intend to rent for life, I plan to stay in this area, so why wait?

Reasons not to buy a home:

  • Prices are really high.  Even if we can afford something suitable, that doesn’t mean we should.
  • I should be more firm in my long term plans  for my job.  I have no plans of leaving, but it is typical for people to leave after ~2 years.  I’m not saying I will, but I am just not sure what the future holds.  If I do end up looking for a new job, where we live would drive my geographic radius for job searching.
  • Houses are expensive and higher maintenance.
  • We are still pretty new to the area and are figuring out neighborhoods and what we want.
  • Moving is stressful.  I can’t imagine how stressful buying a home, THEN moving would be.
  • No, but seriously.  $750k? And we are still pressed for available houses?  What is this???

I’m trying to limit my time looking at houses on RedFin, because I’ve always been horrible at window shopping.  I shop with a purpose, not just to see!

Did you (or will you ) decide to buy a home based on life conditions (you were ready / “needed” a house”), market conditions, or both?  I think I should wait for both, but I hate being patient!

2014 thus far

May 27, 2014

The first quarter of the year wasn’t great for finances (or for a lot of other areas).  Between taxes and residual “moving expenses” (i.e. furniture) we barely broke even.  We saved less than $500 a month average in cash, far less than more modest budgets show we could.  Our retirement savings was stronger than ever, but that comes out before we get our net income, and it feels emotionally less like an accomplishment.  

The second quarter got off to a rough start.  We paid over $5000 in taxes between federal and state, much of this due to some late 2013 income that didn’t have any taxes withheld.  Our April savings was negative (hard to overcome $5k in taxes), but somehow May is looking really really good.  June will be a touch worse since I’m expecting to buy a plane ticket to the midwest to visit.  I’m super spoiled this year, getting to visit in December, April, and August, plus visits from my parents (march) and maybe my sister (fall).  

Cash flow has also improved.  I track our spending in a sort of revenue / expense manner, ignoring things we’ll be reimbursed for other than noting that we need to wait and monitor that the cash shows up.  We both got several reimbursements lately, and looking at my banking doesn’t make me nervous.  

Whether it was smart or not, I cashed out my stock in my former company.  I questioned myself “if I had this money today in cash, would I use it to BUY this stock?”  No.  I wouldn’t.  It didn’t really make sense to hold it, even though I have no reason to think it won’t do well.

I still haven’t done anything with our pile of cash (future downpayment).  I tried to open an Ally CD, but ran into address / identiy verification issues since we recently moved.  We don’t have utilities (included in rent) and my USPS address confirmation change is long gone.  Those were the two verifications they suggested.  I’m sure there is a way to figure this out, but the hurdle was enough to stall progress.  This is stupid.  Opportunity costs!

We have basically decided against buying a house anytime soon, but are occasionally visiting open houses to get a flavor or the market.  Basically, even when we make compromises, I’m not happy with the prices.  And it might be a bubble.  Who really knows?  We can afford a house we’d like, but I don’t want to spend that much on a place to live.  I just don’t.  So, let’s hope it is a bubble?

I’ll be booking our bigger vacation of the year, a December/January vacation.  I’m still figuring out the details, but I think it is Patagonia centric, with flights through Santiago and Buenos Aires and some time in each city.  I had some rough estimates, but plane tickets alone were looking like $1700 each.  I super wanted to see the Bolivia salt flats, but it wasn’t compelling enough to sway me from Patagonia, and it is far away from most everything else.  South America is huge and amazing, and I could spend at least 6 months wandering it…  

I’ve dropped my obsession with another trip to France (France/Spain border area).  Someday.  

I may have a separate post about  my career transitions.  Things are improving almost every day, but I still miss my old job sometimes.  It’s hard. While in a big-picture sense the career shift might be a good move, in the short term benefits are pretty limited.  I left my old career/job not because I was looking for something else, but because it was what I had to do to for my personal life.  In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m starting over, and boy is that HARD.

I hope to blog a little more regularly this summer, but no promises!  

Victory! (Delta Airlines Customer Service)

May 9, 2014

I had some last-minute travel in April, and I ended up being able to take advantage of Delta’s medical airfare program to get a modest discount on a flight leaving 3 days after I booked the ticket.  Unfortunately, the trip didn’t turn out quite as planned.

Exhibit A:  My plane

Exhibit B:  My bed that night

Trying to get on that plane to go home was a comedy of errors.  The weather influenced the situation, but the final reason we didn’t get to leave that night as planned was due to a mechanical issue.  We were boarded, on the runway, and the machines were de-icing the plane when they announced us we’d be going back to the gate.  Once back at the gate, we were initially promised a hotel room and an early flight out.  All the hotels were full due to earlier cancellations, and our new plane wasn’t scheduled until 3 p.m..  The customer service agent also made an announcement that we were all getting $50.  And a mat to sleep on (it was about 2 a.m. by this point).

By the time I got home the next day, I’d missed nearly 24 hours of the time I was supposed to be spending with my family.   I sent in a complaint through the online system, and was awarded a small number of “we’re sorry” frequent flier miles.

A few days later, it dawned on me that I had never got a voucher or heard anything more about the $50 I was promised, and I was charged a $25 fee for booking  my ticket over the phone.  There is no alternate way to book a medical ticket and Delta’s customer service page says medical tickets are exempt from the phone booking fee.  I sent off a quick note through the online system ask about these issues, figuring it would be an easy fix.

The online customer service informed me that they saw I was issued a $25 voucher that expired in a year, and “respectfully, it cannot be extended.” They also said they couldn’t refund my phone booking fee, and encouraged me to book online to avoid it.   What?!?!  I don’t think they read my question at all. There was no way to book online.  I wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable, I was just asking for them to follow their own policies!

I tried again.  This time they said they were mistaken, and I was issued a $50 voucher that expired in a year and again “respectfully, it cannot be extended.”  I wasn’t asking for them to extend anything!!!!!  How do I get the voucher?

I tried one last time, figuring I would  call them if this failed again.  Finally, an e-mail showed up containing a $50 voucher to use towards a flight.  My request for a refund for $25 was bumped to another department for evaluation.  A week later, I received another e-mail notifying me that they were going to refund the $25.

I ultimately got what I wanted (thank you Delta!), but whoever was handling my case was not very helpful at all.  Other than that final interaction, I was fairly happy with how well Delta did, despite the circumstances.  They also are committed to minimizing cancelations and keeping customer complaints down.

Lessons learned:  Be persistent when you are due compensation.  Know the airlines policies and make sure they follow them.  Don’t leave the airport counter without a voucher if they said you were supposed to get one.  And maybe use the phone complaint system first?

Optimizing my cash (again)

April 26, 2014

We are pretty cash-heavy right now, with the idea that we will eventually be looking for a home.  I did an analysis in January to compare some options to make it work just a little harder for us.  Since that analysis, the rates at PenFed dropped a bit, and it looks like Ally Bank is the winner.

Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 11.15.21 AM

Comparing between the options, it looks like we should go with a 5 year CD if we think we’ll keep the money tucked away for at least a year.  If we are going to keep it in there much less than a year, we may as well just leave it in our savings account at .75%.

Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 11.25.42 AM

I think we have about $100k that we’d be willing to “lock away”, but I’m wondering if I should do it in two batches, with hope that rates will improve over time.  Or is this just unnecessary?

Are there any other cash options I’m missing?

Also, I kind of can’t believe it is taking me so long to do something like this with my cash.  I’m forfeiting extra money each month!


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