Homebuying Tools (We’re looking to buy in Atlanta)

As I recently mentioned, my wife and I are moving back to Atlanta. Our “move,” which is a mere shifting of clothes into a temporary living arrangement until we find something permanent, is actually commencing this weekend.

So what’s this about buying a house?

Despite the ongoing housing bust (we haven’t reached bottom yet in my opinion), the time is right for us to take the plunge into homeownership. Something I came to accept over the past few months is that putting your life on hold indefinitely due to exogenous events (such as an imploding economy) is no way to live. Unlike many homebuyers in the boom, I don’t believe in flipping properties. I see a house as the embodiment of a fundamental human need — that of shelter. I don’t want to grossly overpay for a house, which is why I pushed back on all the “You should buy now!” friends and family over the past few years.

It finally makes sense for us to buy, so we are actively looking for a home. I don’t want to get into too many details as to where we are looking and certainly not which houses we are looking at because the internet makes the world a much smaller place. Suffice to say that we are looking for a home preferably close[r] to the city, meaning inside-the-perimeter by a decent margin, that is north of I-20. Is that vague enough?

To date, we’ve got a handful of viable options though we are still in the early stages of our search. Since we have no home to sell and are working around temporary living arrangements in ATL, we can afford to be patient — patience may even pay off big as home prices are likely to fall further. I expect real estate to be a relatively ho-hum asset class for the next decade.

And now a word from our sponsor: I encourage anyone out there to stay abreast of ongoing economic events via any one of my company‘s Implode-O-Meterslenders, home builders, banks, or funds.

Having explained “why,” here are some useful tools for the would-be homebuyer

The following websites frequently used in concert have been particularly helpful in our quest for housing. In no particular order:

  • Zillow.com — zillow is a satellite-interfaced housing search tool that allows you to find properties by doing any sort of locational search. You can search by zip code, city, or street name. The results will turn up on a satellite map and you can zoom in and out of whatever area you are interested in, pan across the map, etc. For example, see the results of a search for 238 Peachtree Cir 30309.

    What makes zillow so useful is that it combines data on both active listings as well as listings for properties recently sold. Typically, this results in the zillow page for a certain property for sale displaying relevant pictures from the official listing if they are available. Whether a property is for sale or not, it has a listing page on zillow.com that typically provides public tax data on the property. This typically means square footage, how many beds/baths, the year the house was built, what the house sold for last and what the most recent taxes on the property were.

    Trulia.com has a similar service to zillow — sometimes if I didn’t find the data I needed I’d check trulia for it. Trulia also lists the last two sale prices per the tax records — perhaps useful for a deep dive on a particular property.

    One zillow.com tip for you mobile users, check out mobile.zillow.com. It allows mobile phone users with data plans to search for property information. Good for checking stuff like square footage while out checking out properties.

  • Google maps and streetview (and to a lesser extent, google maps real estate advanced search) — periodically you come across a listing that has no picture of the exterior of the house (never a good sign, mind you). Google streetview comes to the rescue. What is fantastic about streetview is that it enables me to get a real sense for what the surrounding houses look like. Thanks to streetview, you can pan up and down the street to look at would-be neighbors, get a sense for the width of a street, and even guess at the demographics of traffickers if any cars are parked or happened to be driving by.

    For an example, return to 238 Peachtree (Where we used to live in Atlanta):

    Some streetview tips: streetview utilizes the following hot keys (there may be more, these are just the few I’ve discovered by accident): up/down arrow keys take you up and down the street. Left/right arrow keys allow you to scan around your current view. WASD all work as well, except the W and S function as looking up or down. Finally, the + and – keys allow you to zoom in and out.

    Streetview is one of those things you don’t realize is awesome until you suddenly find that Google missed a street — or worse, an entire area!

    One seemingly obscure function in Google Maps is that you can do an “advanced search” on real estate. Google seems to be crawling the various real estate listings and then mapping them for you. To see this in action, check this link. Here are the results of that search:

    To access Google Maps real estate search, search for a location or area. Then click “show search options.” From the dropdown menu, select “Real estate” and click “Search Maps.” Voila!

    Sometimes Google Maps finds properties that Zillow misses, so it can be useful that way. It also has search parameters you can use to narrow down the search. Finally, the interface on google maps is smoother than zillow, so it has that going for it, as well.

    Final Google maps tip, be sure you have the latest mobile app for Google Maps as it now incorporates streetview (Works well on my Blackberry 8320)!

Zillow and Google Maps serve as my primary artillery. I use both in concert using multiple tabs in Google Chrome.

One site I’ve had mixed luck with is realtytrac.com. I signed up for a free seven-day trial of realtytrac.com and initially thought it was the cat’s pajamas: I could see properties that were entering into foreclosure or bank-owned (REO). However, come to find out, the data in realtytrac.com can be dated, and if you already have a resource to look up MLS listings, they are able to pull REO properties already.

Realtytrac may be useful for taking snapshots of how an area is doing with regard to foreclosures. Similar to zillow, you can employ a “map view” that lets you see REO and foreclosed properties in an area. Therefore, if you see a ton of foreclosures in a certain spot, that helps give an indication of what house prices should be doing there (in that case dropping like a rock). The only thing about realtytrac is that it costs $50/month to maintain your subscription. Thus, it aint cheap for such questionable value (or maybe I just haven’t discovered its great uses!).

So that’s all I’ve got for now. Even when our realtor sends us MLS reports, I still use zillow and Google maps to flesh out missing details on the MLS listings. Score one for technology making homebuying a much more informed process (and maybe eventually eliminating the need for realtors almost entirely).

Ketones and Alzheimer’s

Via Peter at Hyperlipid, an article about how a wife treated her husband’s Alzheimer’s by introducing coconut oil to his diet. Why coconut oil? The wife, who happens to be a physician, had been trying to get her husband involved in a clinical trial that used a drug primarily composed of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs, which make up most of the fat in coconut oil, are sent straight to the liver from the stomach to be digested. This digestion process produces ketone bodies, which are used as energy by the brain (as well as other organs, like the heart).

The results of this experiment? Look at this picture from the article:

Those drawings are three attempts to draw a clock:

After two weeks of taking coconut oil, Steve Newport’s results in an early onset Alzheimer’s test gradually improved says his wife, Dr. Mary Newport. Before treatment, Steve could barely remember how to draw a clock. Two weeks after adding coconut oil to his diet, his drawing improved. After 37 days, Steve’s drawing gained even more clarity. The oil seemed to “lift the fog,” his wife says

Note how the first drawing looks like random numbers on a page. The second clock still gets the numbers wrong. The last clock, though not pretty, nails it.

Think about this: in less than two months, this man went from being unable to draw a clock to drawing one correctly simply by adding coconut oil to his diet!

Remarkable! Any scientists looking for a good experiment? Please look into this!

Final note: I don’t take this as any reason to start downing coconut oil (Though I cook with it all the time), rather I see it as more evidence of the correlation between health and diet. And of course, score one for eating saturated fat since MCTs are nothing but shorter length saturated fats!

Michael Lewis on “The End” [of Wall Street]

Michael Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker, a book I’ve seen referred to so often that it has finally ascended to my wish list (it should have been there a long time ago).

From the best I can tell having not read Liar’s Poker, it was about the rampant corruption experienced first-hand by Lewis in the mid-1980s (American Psycho anyone?). More recently, Lewis has written an update to Liar’s for Portfolio.com. You can find it here.

A snippet:

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. ?Steve?s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,? Daniel says. ?Because he?ll say ?Explain that to me? 30 different times. Or ?Could you explain that more, in English?? Because once you do that, there?s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they?re talking about. And a lot of times, they don?t!?

To sum up the article in just a few words, Lewis describes Wall Street as having turned into factory for imaginary clothes. That the dupe worked for decades is amazing enough. I gather that Lewis believes this crisis to mark the ultimate end of the con, and I hope he is right (Though I’m skeptical).

What brought the article home for me was how often I could relate to it via experiences from my prior job at Ga. Gulf, specifically when I was working with the then-CEO, CFO, Veeps, rating agencies, consultants and investment bankers (We had dual-bankers working the deal for us — Merrill and Lehman!) on the ill-fated billion-and-a-half-dollar deal to buy Royal. In short, the so-called experts used their authority to gloss over details, often being so short on understanding that they could not take the ideas they bantered about and tie them back to rational, coherent, non-jargoned core principles.

Of course, you only caught these “experts” at their legerdemain if you persisted in asking questions and staying skeptical, thereby avoiding the trap of their shaming you into silence with big-words and ostensibly complex ideas.

My most tragic experience of this appeal to authority, banker dodgi-ness occurred back around early June 2006. After having lobbed in an initial offer to buy Royal that was summarily rejected, we requested a day with Royal’s top management to go over their most up-to-date financials. They were hoping we’d become more confident in the deal, and up the ante. After the day-long conference call with Royal’s people, I was sitting in the CFO’s office with all the Veeps gathered around and all our investment bankers on the phone (Amazingly, for such an important meeting the CEO was actually absent — he’d dashed off to Louisiana for some reason and couldn’t even get on the phone!). This internal meeting was to have a final discussion about whether or not to continue pursuing Royal.

A quick step back for some background info: Royal was a building materials company we, a chemical commodities company looking for downstream integration of our PVC, were looking to buy. Everything we saw out of Royal (except for the Bain-prepared powerpoint presentations) was ugly. What we learned on that last-ditch day of diligence was that the multi-month slide was only getting worse. This new information made a clear case that we shouldn’t buy them at the price we had already offered, much less up the ante. Further, maybe we should rethink pursuing this company at any price. It was obvious that their business had managed to falter during the greatest housing boom of all time, yet we were contemplating paying for them going into the post-boom bust! I felt I had pieced together the big picture (as did the late CFO and a couple others who had been effectively shut-up by the CEO), thus in this post-diligence meeting, I took three minutes and laid out my case in full.

It was a treatise that hit on the economy, housing, Royal specifically and even interest rates. I left my thoughts open-ended, pleading to all parties present for discussion, feedback or criticism.

What did I get in response? A joke about bringing everyone down by being so gloomy. Everyone got a good guffaw and the joke was followed-up by one of the i-bankers on the phone immediately changing the subject to strategy on how to counter back and continue the buying process.

And that was that. Ga. Gulf bought Royal for a 40 – 50% premium (depending on which stock price you pick). Ga. Gulf’s stock price has dropped over 95% since that decision, and I believe Royal would have gone bankrupt had we just said, “Forget it; we’re not interested” and walked.

Between Lewis’ condemnation of Wall Street, my own experiences in corporate America (Oh the stories I could tell!) and having read Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, it’s abundantly clear that the great majority of so-called economic and financial “experts” who have been running the show in Wall Street are nothing but con(fidence) artists, whether they realize it or not.

It is a shameful history and a lot of hard-working people are going to be hurt in the fall-out as the con-game, which goes all the way back to the something-for-nothing printing presses of fiat currency, is laid bare.

Let’s hope this really is “the end” of it.

The Last Viridian

Though I know little about the Viridian Movement, I stumbled on an allusion (and quote) to a writing by Bruce Sterling titled “The Last Viridian” over at Patri’s livejournal and took the time to find the full-text. It’s worth the read — mainly because it has some thought-provoking ideas.

A sample:

Anything placed next to your skin for long periods is of high priority. Shoes are notorious sources of pain and stress and subjected to great mechanical wear.

You really need to work on selecting these — yes, on “shopping for shoes.” You should spend more time on shoes than you do on cars, unless you’re in a car during pretty much every waking moment. In which case, God help you.

I have spent a good deal of thought and money the shoes I purchase (Evidenced on this blog — zappos, chacos, and vibram five fingers). I’ve not minded spending more on shoes that are comfortable and function the way I like because I find these items to be ones I spend so much time using. They are important and I use them until they fall apart.

I also carry a nice knife, a useful tool that makes me more useful (This is another idea Sterling alludes to in his manifesto here).

Take a few minutes and read it.

Back to Atlanta

So after just about a year of full-time living in Augusta (and there was a good six months before that when we were here half the time), we are moving back to Atlanta. Chicago was a real possibility at one point, but got ultimately got eliminated for a number of reasons.

We’ll be heading back to Atlanta within the next four weeks and are looking for a place to stay. We’re giving serious consideration to buying a home even as we realize that house prices are still on their downward trajectory.

Our goal is to live within walking distance of hang-outs, the grocery store, restaurants, etc. There are a few places we have in mind to accomplish this, but they’re all a bit on the pricey side, which has made us wonder if we could find a place to renovate.

We’ll see what we can find. And regardless, we are looking forward to heading back to Atlanta!

Eggs

I love eggs. They can stand in as a meal in a pinch, whether it be for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You can boil them, fry ‘em, scramble them, make an omelette or a frittata. If you take certain precautions, you can even microwave them. For my go-to breakfast, I personally switch between overeasy and sunny-side up, mixing it up between butter, coconut oil and fresh bacon grease.

I like eggs so much that I often keep a few recently boiled eggs in the fridge for a tasty, healthy, filling snack. I think eggs make such a great snack that the idea of inventing an Egg Vending Machine has crossed my mind — imagine being able to drop 50 cents into a machine and get a piping hot boiled egg in return? Hmm …

What brings me to discuss eggs is a recent post by Richard Nikoley at Free the Animal. Richard is also a big fan of eggs — yolk and all, just like me. This is an important point you shouldn’t miss! Don’t throw out the yolks! Why? Because that is where all the good stuff is (I.e. protein, vitamins, fat)! What about the cholesterol? If you have to ask … read the quoted material at Richard’s site.

Richard also links to a post that talks about the difference between factory produced eggs (the one’s you get at a grocery store) and the ones produced by chickens that cluck around on a farm (eating whatever they happen to find and not all grain). A picture is worth a thousand words, so be sure to note the difference in the egg at the top of the frying pan and the other four here.

The big dilemma I have is: how do I get my hands on fresh, real eggs like that? Farmer’s market maybe? Get my own chickens? Any bright ideas?

Back to basics: Fasting and Fasted workouts

Having returned from India and a month-long hiatus from eating healthy and working out, I started brewing on a strategy to “get back at it” and continue working to my ultimate goal, which is achieving never-before-seen (on me) lean-ness and vasculature.

My approach for most of the summer had been working out about five days a week (doing CrossFit) with daily fasting (i.e. 16 hour fasts daily). I tracked a lot of my daily workouts via my workout blog.

Unfortunately, I ran into any number setbacks as I had a couple long periods where I couldn’t manage to eat right or workout (A two week stint out west and a three week stint in India).

That brings me back to today. I’m going “back to basics,” which for me, was eating breakfast/lunch and the fasting until dinner the following day, with a weight-lifting oriented workout an hour or two before breaking my fast. This method worked for me the first time, stripping away a great deal of fat and focusing my diet/weight-training efforts. This time around, the only tweak I’m implementing is that I will do two fasts per week, lifting on days I break the fast, working out on days I eat, and resting on any day I begin a fast. Per usual, my diet will be carb-light, which means no breads, rices, cereals or starchy vegetables while still allowing for most fruits (apples and berries being preferred), some cheats (ice cream), and alcohol.

Goal is to try this for three weeks, track my progress daily and see how I come out on the other end. Stay tuned.

Zappos.com – online retail done right

You might recall I recently bought a new, replacement pair of Chacos from Zappos.com. Zappos had a great price on them, and having selected the “fast shipping” option for an extra seven bucks, I received my new Chacos the day after I ordered them. I was impressed.

Well, I returned from India to a much chillier Georgia and a need to break out my old slippers. Finding them woefully inadequate (cheap-o Target slippers from last season), I went to Zappos to look for some replacements.

Without going into details as to what slippers I’ve now ended up with, I ordered a new pair Monday and selected the free shipping option. I received the slippers Tuesday afternoon! I didn’t like them. Late last night I ordered a different pair only to wake up this morning to receive shipping confirmation telling me that the slippers (the new order) had shipped from Kentucky in the wee hours of the morning last night and are “out for delivery” here in Georgia right now.

As to my original purchase that I needed to return, I went ahead and printed up the free shipping return label (very easy process at Zappos.com) and have that box sitting outside waiting to be picked up by UPS when they drop off the replacements.

All of this purchasing was done tax free with free shipping. I’m skeptical Zappos is making money off of me on this sale, but maybe it doesn’t matter: I am officially a Zappos fan-boy. This is as close to online retail perfection as you can get. Painless purchases, ridiculously fast shipping/processing and no-hassle, free returns on items that don’t work out.

Zappos FTW!

On Shaving, Shaving Cream and Razors

Note: The following is written out of personal experience; I cannot attest to the application of any of this knowledge to shaving anything other than your face. Furthermore, this post is written mainly for men and/or manly women.

Henry David Thoreau, from Walden:

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it . . .

On Shaving

To shave or not to shave? For the modern man, shaving is a necessary precursor to social interaction. Though going a day or two without shaving won’t make you a pariah, prolonged failure to trim, crop or clean-up your beard will result in any number of strange looks or even questions regarding your hygiene, employability and/or philosophical disposition.

Therefore, the question of shaving is rarely a question of whether or not to shave at all, but rather a question of how much or what to shave. Even those of us who can’t grow much facial hair (young adolescents and arguably more evolved men) must still shave or face a purgatory of scraggly-unkempted-ness.

For the rest of us, facial hair options abound: from going for the clean-shaven look to growing a full beard, goatee, mustache, or sideburns (Or any number of other options!). Experimenting with different styles is fun, even if it may annoy significant others and uptight bosses. My go-to facial hair style is a neatly trimmed beard (See ablove).

The formed presence of facial hair on a man is distinctive, can add color and character to a man’s face, is fun and a bit daring, reservedly masculine and can even help offset thinning hair and/or receding hairlines (For folks like me anyway).

Though facial hairstyles still require maintenance, trimming a beard once every week or two with clippers is still faster than shaving that same surface area every day. That’s even accounting for still having to shave daily the clean-shaven parts the face. Overall, bearded men spend less time shaving. It’s a perk.

Lest we forget, you can always go back to the babyface if you get tired of the scruff!

On Shaving Cream

Jeffrey Tucker over at Lew Rockwell wrote a life-changing article back in April 2006 titled The Shaving Cream Racket. If you’ve got the time, I suggest you read it for the humor. Here’s the gist:

[S]omeone has to say it: shaving cream is a racket. . . .

Wean yourself from it for a week, and you will find that your shaves will be closer, unbloody, and quick. Imagine a full shave in less than a minute, with no cuts, gashes, or discomfort. It is within your grasp. . . .

The problem is this. Shaving cream . . . somehow weakens the pores and makes the top layer [of skin] mushy and unresponsive. The kid comes to believe that somehow the foam is essential to the experience. Without it, surely the razor would leave a trail of blood.

But [when using shaving cream] strange things start to happen. Red lumps appear. The shaved skin comes to feel sort of strange, oddly sensitive to temperature changes and ever more vulnerable to being sliced and diced.

People think: oh I need a new razor! So they go out and buy ever more fancy brands, with multiple blades, pivoting heads, strange lubricants, and push-out tools to deposit the hair remains in the sink.

They don’t consider that it might be the shaving cream that is the source of the trouble.

Why don’t people imagine this possibility? Because shaving cream seems so frothy and innocent, the glorious barrier that stands as a guard or shield between your skin and the sharp blade. The cream is our valiant protector, so surely that is not the source of the problem!

In fact, it is not our protector. Shaving cream is destroying your skin, turning it into a whining, pathetic, dependent, beaten, insipid layer of pasty pulp.

What is the alternative to shaving cream? Water. Yep, that cheap stuff that comes out of your faucet. After you shower, towel off, hop out, grab your razor, wet it at your sink and start shaving. It is that simple. Your shaving time and experience will both improve drastically.

I’ve not used shaving cream or gel now for over two years. I rarely ever cut myself shaving. As for razor burn, rashy bumps, etc.? They never happen anymore. After you read the next section on razors, my testimony may seem even more amazing.

The majority of time wasted shaving is in the application and management of shaving cream or gel. You’re better off without this pointless junk. Reclaim the time, save money, and save your skin. Afterwards, spread the news: shaving cream is a racket!

On Razors

Everyone has a razor preference. One of the pivotal questions is disposable or electric. Within each of those categories, there are all types of sub-categories still; for example, there are the cheap one-blade razors and the more expensive multi-blade varieties. For this discussion, the razor in question is the Gillette Fusion (Though I used the Mach 3 prior to the Fusion with similar results).

The Fusion has five blades that do the bulk of the shaving. There is a sixth blade reverse to the main five that is intended for trim work which I’ve found somewhat useful. I like the Fusion even as it is absurdly expensive and the Mach 3, which it replaced, was doing a plenty fine job.

Since you’ve now determined to give up shaving cream, I’m going to let you in on another secret that Gillette and other disposable-razor makers don’t want you to know: minerals in your water will degrade the razor blade (make it dull) over time! How does this work? After you rinse your razor blade, the water that is left on the blade will evaporate and leave trace minerals behind on the blade. Over time, these mineral deposits build up and effectively dull the blade.

An easy fix? Simply dry your razor blade on a towel after you rinse it. For me, I make a single with-the-grain swipe of the razor against my bath towel, which is usually around my waist at the time. It takes a full second to do this and it will absolutely prolong the use of your razor blades.

Skeptical? I’ve been using the same Gillette Fusion razor head for a year now. Yes, a year on a single “disposable” razor blade. True, most of that year I’ve had some level of bearded-ness, which has cut the shaving-surface area on my face down a good bit; however, as noted above, I don’t use any creams or gels and the areas I do shave daily tend to be the more sensitive parts of the face — as in, my neck. Even having used the same blade for more than a year, lubricating my face with only water, I still don’t get razor burn, cuts or bumps. Lo and behold, there have been studies that show drying your razor increases its life. It would seem that my results with blade drying have been replicated by others:

If water causes rusting, and rusting is the main culprit of blade dullness, then, presumably, drying your razor blades could increase the life of blades. A high-profile test of this happened when consumer-advocate radio host Clark Howard of Atlanta used a 17-cent disposable razor for an entire year. He said he extended blade life by blotting his razor dry with a towel after use.

Howard’s report intrigued Atlanta resident Brian Cohn, who then tried it himself. Cohn said his results weren’t quite as good but still amazing. Instead of blades lasting the usual 10 days to two weeks, his blades lasted five to six months.

Save money. Dry your disposable razor blades after use.

Put it all together and what do you get?

  • Maintaining some amount of facial hair will result in less shaving/facial hair to maintain,
  • Shaving creams and gels are a waste of both time and money and seem to do more harm than good for your skin, and
  • Drying your disposable razors after rinsing them will make them last much longer.

All of the above will save you money, too. Let me know how these tips work for you.

Further reading:

Grind Skills Reading

Coping with early dark

I’m having a hard time coping with it getting dark so early. Fall being my favorite time a year, I wish it’d stay lighter later in the day so I could enjoy Fall ambiance in the evening. As it is, seems like the only way to take advantage of the daylight hours on weekdays is by doing so in the morning — say from 7:00 am to 8:00 am? Maybe during lunch?

At least as it’s the weekend, I’ll get a couple good days of brisk Fall daylight.

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