Friday, March 28, 2008

New Jersey Housing Prices Fall

I came across a pretty interesting blog recently- It publishes news stories and examples of New Jersey homes being offered well below previous purchase or asking prices (which it refers to as "comp killers" because when they sell for lower prices, they serve as comparisons ("comps") for other homes being sold nearby and therefore drive down prices in an area.) Perhaps the most interesting part of the site is the comments, so be sure to check out the discussions when you're reading posts.

I think the blog is written by a real estate broker in NJ who very correctly called a top in the NJ real estate market in 2005.

It's an interesting read if you're following the real estate market, or if you're in the market to buy a house in NJ (or the northeast in general).

So where am I in the process? I'm still on the sidelines for a first home. I got married in 2005, at or around the top of a real estate bubble in one of the most overpriced areas in the country. I realized it would have been impossible for me to responsibly buy a home at that time, even though people with significantly lower incomes and down payments were doing so all around me. It was very easy to look at the numbers and see that I couldn't afford jack at that time. I posted about this a few times in the past, and I'm still waiting for prices to fall further. The news has been getting more and more encouraging, but prices are still ridiculous. I'm hoping real estate price declines continue, I'm hoping nobody bails out the people who took on mortgages they couldn't afford, and I'm continuing to build my down payment savings in the meantime. I hope to buy sometime in the next couple of years. I'm not worried about "missing a bottom" because I know once real estate prices fall, they don't generally bounce right back up, they tend to stagnate for a while.

How am I going to know when the time is right to buy? First of all, I'm definitely not going to try to pick a bottom. What I am going to do is continue to update my calculations of what my wife and I can afford on one salary, and when something looks both affordable and attractive to me, I'm going to go for it. I'm not too worried because my rent is pretty cheap for the time being. Right now, prices in general are still pretty ridiculous. I either need to save a lot more money, or see prices come down a lot before I really focus on the home buying process.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Profiting From the Bear Stearns Trade

So we all know that JP Morgan offered to buy Bear Stearns for $2 a share a week or so ago. And by now we also know that JP Morgan increased its bid to $10 a share a few days ago.

This seems like one of the easiest "quick buck" trading opportunities I've seen in a long time, for anyone brave enough to have acted on it. When the initial $2 bid came out, it was so grossly low that many people (myself included) initially thought it was a typo. Bear Stearns employees thought it was crazy, many analysts thought it was crazy, media pundits thought it was crazy, and the market also thought it was crazy... bidding up the stock so it traded at or around the $6 a share level (give or take a few).

It would have been easy to place a bet on an increased bid by buying the stock or the calls after the initial announcement and selling them after the bid went to $10.

"If it was so easy, why didn't you do it, moneyman?"

Well for one, I'm really not a trader by nature. I do have a small trading account so that I can nibble here and there, but I don't have any cash in the account right now. For another, it would have been very risky. In hindsight it's pretty easy to have seen this coming, but before an offer comes out in writing, you're treading on thin ice. If the market had taken a nosedive, or if the due diligence process showed some more skeletons in Bear's closet, that increased bid may have never materialized.

Still, I follow the stock market pretty closely and this was one of those rare situations where it seems like EVERYBODY saw it coming. I'm sure plenty of people profited from the Bear Stearns trade over the past week or so. Even so- many, many more lost their shirts in Bear Stearns stock over the past few years, most notably the employees, most of whom will be laid off sometime in the near future.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

How to Pack For A Business Trip

My job requires occasional business travel, and while some people might think business trips are a great way to see the world on someone else's dime, I have to say it's not all that glamorous. In fact, most times all you really see is an airport, a hotel room and a conference center or a meeting room in an office building.

I've actually traveled pretty extensively on both buses and planes throughout my life. The greyhound bus was my primary travel route to and from college, and it often required a 2 or 3 stage trip to traverse the many hours it took to get from home to my dorm. Having dealt with everything from delayed departures to missed connections and the heavyset person with the seat belt extender sitting next to you, I learned a few things about how to travel comfortably and I figured I would share them here with anybody who wants to listen.

I've learned over time that the biggest predictor of how your trip is going to go is how much you have to carry with you. I became a big proponent of packing light after my first trip home from college via bus. I made the mistake of bringing my acoustic guitar home with me (a mistake compounded by the fact that I didn't even have a guitar case. I carried it in one of those big black contractor's garbage bags). And my laundry. And some books. Needless to say, things went badly for me. I was forced to put two of my bags under the Greyhound bus, which delayed my boarding the bus and prevented me from getting a good seat. I didn't have anything to do in my seat but read a newspaper that bored me after about 30 minutes. I tramped through the Port Authority with bags digging into my shoulder, looking like an out-of-towner/traveler and potentially a good target for muggers or pickpockets. I bumped people with my bags when I boarded the subway, and the worst part of all, the door of my LIRR car didn't open at my stop and I had to rush back two cars, with my guitar bumping shoulders and heads and everything like that. After this 5 hour-2 connection greyhound bus odyssey into New York's Port Authority, a subway ride, and a ride on the Long Island Railroad lugging all of this stuff with me, I vowed that never again would I travel with much more than a book bag on my back, if I could help it.

I've even extended this traveling light philosophy to shorter trips. I commute 1 hour to work every day via bus, subway, and foot. As anyone who's ever commuted on the NYC subway can tell you, the less stuff you have, the easier it will be to find a place to stand comfortably during rush hour. I've been looking for a businesslike briefcase that I can carry to and from work to replace the heavy faux leather briefcase I currently carry, but haven't had any luck sofar. If anyone knows of anything like this (more professional than a messenger bag but lighter than the typical briefcase, with an outside pocket for a newspaper and an umbrella) let me know.

So, my setup for business travel is based around a few things that I want out of a trip:

  • I want to be able to move quickly wherever I am
  • I want to be able to get through airline security with a minimum of hassle
  • I want to be able to get on the plane without checking any luggage
  • I want to be comfortable on the plane
  • I want something to do during the trip to make it go quicker
  • I want to be able to get off the plane quickly without waiting for luggage that may or may not appear on the luggage carousel
  • I want to carry my business clothing with a minimum of wrinkling/need for ironing
  • I want to have everything I need and be prepared to handle unexpected situations

Packing light gets me 2/3 of the way there. For an excellent discussion of packing light, one of the sites you absolutely have to read is Doug Dyment's One Bag - The Art and Science of Travelling Light.

From the above endorsement, you might have guessed that I like to travel with only one bag, a carry on that can fit my stuff and fit in the overhead bins on an airplane. The smaller the bag, the better, but the bag I usually use for business trips (which I bought on the recommendation of One Bag) is the Red Oxx Air Boss. It is slightly bigger than I would ideally like, but I need it to hold a laptop, so the size is pretty necessary. The good thing about this bag is that it is soft sided so as long as you don't over-stuff it, you can fit it into an overhead bin fairly easily.

Getting Through Security

When going to the airport, I always pack with security checks in mind. If you're prepared, you can get through security pretty quickly. If you're not, it can be a huge, embarrassing hassle.

For those of you who don't fly much, a quick walk through of the airline security drill is appropriate.

When you arrive at the terminal, the first thing you need to do is to go to one of those kiosks and print out your e-ticket, if you don't already have your boarding pass. I recommend going online and registering for your flight the night before if possible, because it's one less thing you have to do when you get to the airport.

From there you proceed to the security screening area. If you don't want to get held up there, you'll want to be prepared for things they will probably make you do:

  • Take off your shoes
  • Take off your jacket (this includes an overcoat as well as a suit coat/sport coat you might be wearing underneath
  • Take all of the metal things out of your pocket and put them in a tray to run through the x-ray machine
  • Take your laptop and put it in its own tray to run through the x-ray machine
  • Take your liquids, which should be in small containers of 4oz or less inside of a clear plastic bag, and put them in a tray to run through the x-ray machine
  • Have your boarding pass out to show to the guard as you walk through the metal detector

If you're not prepared for the steps above, you can be sure that security will catch you on at least one of the above and send you back to the line to do it right. This holds you up, but possibly even worse, it holds up the people in line behind you and makes the security team pretty upset. Preparation is key here because I can't count the number of times I've seen someone send a bag through with a laptop only to have security ask them to take the laptop out. Invariably the laptop is in the center of the bag, wrapped with clothes and undergarments, and the person struggles to get it out without revealing their tightie whities to the world. The liquid rule can be even worse, especially if someone's big bottles of hair gel or shaving cream are scattered throughout the bag, and too big for security so they have to throw them out.

Taking off your shoes is easy enough. The right way is to slip them off and toss them in a bin to go through the x-ray machine. The wrong way is to have some kind of 8 inch high heeled boots that lace up to your knees and take 10 minutes of fumbling or sitting on the dirty floor to get off.

Taking off your overcoat/jacket can be another story entirely. The right way to do it, if you've prepared in advance, you ideally have nothing in the pockets that can fall out. You whip the jackets off and stuff them in a bin. This is opposed to the wrong way where you have a giant, bulky jacket with 10 pockets and small smooth bits of metal in each pocket. You go to take it off and nickels start hitting the floor along with keys, your lucky matchbox car, and a small bouncing ball that you chase around the security area. To top it off- oh $hit, you left your boarding pass in the pocket and as you pass through the metal detector, the guard asks you for it and you fumble around and point to the x ray machine.

Taking the metal things out of your pocket is something you can plan for in advance. If you have some kind of an outer pocket in your bag, you can take all of the metal keys, cell phone, blackberry etc... out and put them in the bag either before you go to the airport, or right when you walk in the door. In other words, somewhere that is not the security table where you have 20 people waiting behind you in line. If you don't plan this right, you'll walk through the metal detector with keys, a phone, a beeper, and a matchbox car in your pockets. You'll have to go back and empty them, forgetting you have a spare key in the little key pocket of your jeans and take a third trip back to the scanner.

Ideally, your laptop has its own compartment in your carry-on bag that you can get to very easily. You unzip, take the laptop out, put it in a tray and run it through the machine. If you don't do this right, you will have to dig through your bag, messing up your careful packing scheme, pull out your laptop and then try to squeeze it back into the bag on the other side of the scanner.

The liquids thing is easy as well. Have your liquids in a quart sized ziplock bag that is easily accessed from an outside pocket of your carry-on bag. They're all in one place, they are all under the maximum legal limit, you toss the bag into a tray and through the machine it goes. If you're not prepared, your bag goes through the x-ray machine with the liquids inside. The security guard rolls their eyes and says "whose bag is this?" They make you open it up and they dig through your underwear to find your full sized bottle of shampoo. They toss it in the garbage. They find your travel sized lotions and perfumes after a few minutes of digging and admonish you that your liquids have to be in a clear bag the next time.

Your boarding pass should always be folded up in the same place on every trip. I can't stress this enough. I use my shirt pocket. I always keep it there, and I always know where it is. I pull it out as I walk to the metal detector and show it to the guard. If you do this wrong, you will leave your boarding pass in your bag and it won't be ready to show the guard. Even worse, you won't remember where you put it, causing you to empty every pocket in your pants and jacket, go through all of your bags only to find it after 10 minutes folded neatly in your wallet.

If you follow the guidelines above, I can almost guarantee that you will get through security quickly every time (depending on how many people in front of you are unprepared and hold you back). If you're running late for a flight for some reason, delays at security can mean the difference between making it on to the plain and being forced to spend a night at the Peoria, IL Airport Marriott while your daughter performs her first piano recital back at home, or some similar scenario.

Boarding the Plane

Boarding the plane is another crucial step in the process. Hopefully you've picked out and reserved a pretty good seat by checking out before the flight. I recommend standing as close to the front as possible before they start boarding the plane. This way, when they call your boarding group, you can scoot right on. Normally I would say it's no big deal since you have an assigned seat, you can wait until whenever you want to get on the plane. However, I've noticed many more people carrying laptops (even non-business travelers) and things over the past few years, and the overhead storage bins seem to fill up pretty quickly, so I recommend getting on as soon as your group is called to board to ensure you have a place to store your bag.

In-Flight Entertainment

My favorite in-flight diversion is watching a movie either on a portable DVD player, or as I've been doing recently, a video Ipod. I like the video Ipod because it takes up very little space, but the portable dvd player gets the edge in terms of screen size and picture quality. If you're at all a fan of movies (and I can't think of anybody I know who isn't), nothing makes a flight fly by faster than immersing yourself in a movie as soon as you've reached cruising altitude. You can play Russian Roulette waiting to see what the in-flight movie will be, but I do not recommend it because you might find yourself watching Gigli or Maid in Manhattan and contemplating jumping out the window.

I recommend using cushioned headphones on your flight, ideally noise-cancelling headphones that can drown out the drone of the engine and allow you to escape the world around you. Earbuds just do not work. You have turn the volume up so high to drown out the noise around you, and this will a) damage your eardrums over time, causing you to go deaf at an early age and b) disturb the people sitting around you. Cushioned headphones keep your sound in and to a pretty good extent, keep the surrounding sounds out, especially if you have noise reducing headphones.

I've tried three different kinds of headphones over the past few years, and they have all had their ups and downs. First was the AKG Acoustics K26P Foldable Stereo Folding Headphones. These were a pretty decent pair of headphones for traveling. They had good sound quality, folded pretty small into a little carrying bag, and did a pretty good job of sealing sound out and in. However, they broke on me. They have a little plastic hinge that helps the earpiece fold and this thing broke, making them useless. It was impossible to fix them with krazy glue and the warranty had expired so I tossed them.

My next set of headphones I really liked were a set of Maxell Noise-Cancellation Headphones I bought at Wal-Mart. They were my first experience with noise-reducing headphones, had these really big comfortable cushions and folded up reasonably well (though not as small as the AKG ones). I really got a lot of use out of these headphones, but after a while, I stopped getting sound out of one ear. I played around with it to no avail, but I'm guessing a connection was severed somewhere when i bent the wires, and after a couple of movies with left channel sound only, I decided it was time to get a new pair.

I didn't go cheap on my next set, though I wasn't willing to pay a few hundred for a set of BOSE noise reducing headphones. Instead I settled on my current set, (which I've only used on one flight) and they seem to work pretty well. After reading some reviews, I settled on the Logitech Noise-Canceling Headphones I found on for $50. So far, they work great, and one of the reasons I got them was they came with their own semi-hard shell case that also had a pocket to hold a video Ipod.

The hard shell case has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, after breaking two pairs, I am treating these headphones like a baby and the case really helps with that. On the downside, it adds a little bit of bulk and wouldn't fit in the magazine pocket of the seat in front of me comfortably, so its sort of a question as to where to put the case during the flight.

I think I solved that problem with a carabiner. I'm going to clip the carabiner to the case and this way I can hang it from the webbing of the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me to keep it out of the way.

Before going on the flight, I make sure to set this up as my primary food/entertainment option during the flight. I've found it pretty easy to toss a couple of powerbars along with the ipod, the headphones and the battery (it takes one triple A battery to power the noise-reduction feature) into the headphone case. By throwing a couple of snacks in there before the trip, it prevents me from buying the $3 cookie or the $5 sandwich from American Air. I really miss the old days and the free in-flight meals.

From there, I settle in to the flight (preferably with an aisle seat for easy access to the bathroom), watch my movie, and I'm as comfortable as can be as time floats by.

Carry-On Bag

If you frequently travel on planes, it makes sense to have a pretty good carry-on bag. For a while I had been using the rolling duffel bag from this 6 piece Eddie Bauer luggage set (its the bag tilted on the left). It is a decent bag but it is kind of heavy due to the apparatus for the rolling handle, the handle tends to stick, it has no shoulder strap, and it cannot stand upright on its own, which made it a pain in the neck to lug around an airport.

After my last trip with this thing, I got pretty fed up and I immediately ordered the Red Oxx Air Boss. Though I haven't used it yet, I know it is going to be a big step up from my previous bag. The Air Boss was designed with input from Doug Dyment of the previously mentioned "" and it seems to have everything I'm looking for. I know many will balk at the $225 price tag but for me having a bag that I won't have to replace anytime soon due to its lifetime warranty was worth paying up for. Since I haven't actually used it yet, I can't recommend it, but if you want to read some reviews, check out what people have had to say, including Brad at Onebagger,,, and last not but least, Doug Dyment's review. Also check out Dyment's page on choosing a carry on bag while you're on the site. One quick first impression of the Air Boss- it seems bigger than I thought it would be. In fact if you pack it pretty full, it will look like a big stowaway bag with a strap on it, something you might want to avoid. If you do decide to order one of these bags, be sure to get a tape measure and get a good sense of what the dimensions are before you make the purchase.

What to Pack

Finally, the most important thing you can do in order to travel light is to pack as little as possible. I'm not going to go into a detailed packing list here. You can find many of those on google. What I am going to say is that you should bring as little as possible, and you can figure out how much this really means by trial and error.

Good luck!