mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Friday, June 25, 2010

If the fine print taketh away, I taketh away my business...

So last week I got an email from a company I'd purchased from in the past, telling me that they missed my business and that they were giving me a 20% off coupon, plus their normal free shipping for purchases over $25, to get me back. They sold a product that I was eventually going to need more of, so I clicked on their link, found the product, calculated that it would be a few dollars less than other places after the discount, and put it in my cart.

And then I promptly got a message telling me that they could not offer free shipping on certain large and heavy items, including the one I'd just put into my cart.

Now, I'm an occasional eBay seller, so I'm pretty familiar with the cost of shipping. And I realize that there is a certain threshold at which it gets significantly more expensive to ship items. I wouldn't begrudge a company from advertising free shipping on most items, but not being able to offer it on, say, a pallet of concrete blocks or an 8-piece sectional.

But I knew about how much the item I was looking to buy was, and it wasn't nearly large enough to be oversize/overweight (which for UPS is over 70 pounds or 70" in girth). That's because the item I was looking to buy was a 5-pound jar of whey protein for protein shakes. (I've been doing some strength training and have added a small amount of protein supplements to my diet in the hopes of building some muscle).

That makes me suspect that their "heavy" items aren't so much things that cost more to ship, but rather things that are very price-competitive and that they want to be able to advertise a low price on for comparison shoppers but not actually have to deliver on.

The retailer, for those who are wondering, was . Suffice to say, I didn't buy it from them - with shipping, the price is about the same as from amazon, who has more of a selection of flavors, and from whom free shipping really is free.

I wonder how many other customers are like me, and if their little free shipping game is costing them more customers than it's attracting. I certainly would be reluctant to buy from them unless it was an amazing deal, because it seems like a very shady way to run a business.

Scenes from a hospital waiting room...

I'm sitting in the surgery waiting room of a hospital in central NJ right now. My my is having knee replacement surgery - she's needed it for a while, but finally was able to schedule it for today... for one knee. We'll get to go through this all over again next year for her other knee.

My dad has MS and isn't able to do much, so this is going to be tough for both of them. It's not really easy for my brother and I, either. He lives nearby, so much of the caring for them falls on him. I took today off, drove up last night, and will drive back to Maryland sometime Sunday. I'll be back again next weekend and we'll see if/when I'm needed after that.

I can't say I've been looking forward to this - I'm busy at work with a couple major projects, and I hate giving up my weekends, my house with my own bed in it, my cat, or my free time. Which means I'm a pretty selfish bastard, since I'm grumbling and I'm not the one who is having his knee replaced.

Watching your parents get old and having to start to take care of them is weird. I've already found myself doing the things for my parents that they used to do for me - driving them around, going shopping for them, holding my mom's hand so she doesn't fall down, cooking meals. And I guess that's only going to increase.

I guess in some ways it's a good thing that I don't have much going on in the way of relationships or a personal life, so I don't have to work around that - but this is only going to make it harder to try to have one. And once again, complaining about this makes me realize I'm a pretty shallow, heartless jerk.

I'm not the world's most religious person, but I do try to get to church on Sundays, and last week's homily included talking about how one of the things that makes us human and unites us is suffering - we all go through different kinds, but everyone has had some in their lives, and it's part of our shared humanity. I guess when I find myself envying people who have healthy parents (or girlfriends) I need to remind myself that some people are lucky in some areas and suffer in others, and those seem to be where I'm suffering.

Also, I'm incredibly grateful for whoever got the idea of putting wifi in hospital waiting rooms.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

New adventures in re-fi...

So yesterday, I refinanced my house. I've had some savings socked away that were burning a hole in my pocket, or at least in my savings account. I was seriously considering buying a second car - something sporty and topless - but the practical side of me just couldn't bring myself do something as unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible as buying a giant money pit. So I decided to look into doing a refi instead.

I was originally hoping that as part of it, I would be able to drop PMI. I bought my house 4 years ago, put 10% down, and took out a 40 year mortgage at around 6.3%. But I had to have an appraisal, and it came back lower than I hoped- evidently, my house is worth 5% less than I paid for it. Which actually, given how the housing market has been, isn't that bad, considering I bought at the peak of the market in 2006. It also means I'm not upside down, which is nice to know. But it also meant that I would have to kick in pretty much every dollar I had to my name if I wanted to drop PMI. My thought was to put an amount between the original amount I planned and what I would need to have a PMI-free 80% Loan To Value. But the mortgage company seemed to have misunderstood, and when I got the HUD-1 20 hours before I was due to close, it had the original numbers. I could have delayed closing, but decided to just go ahead. If I want to, I can always make a large one-time principle payment to bring it down, and it will drop off on it's own in 5 years, which will save me $68 a month.

So right now, the new loan will reduce my monthly payments by $140 a month, even with PMI, and will reduce the term by 6 years. That means in about 2 years I'll have gotten back what it cost in origination fees and closing costs, so I think it was a good deal.

I think I'm actually better off with the lower amount down as well. While it would be nice to drop PMI, I like actually having some cash on hand. Since I didn't buy a second car, I'm thinking of replacing my first one in the next year or two, and it makes more sense to pay cash for it rather than use my cash to reduce my low, tax deductible mortgage and then take out a high interest car loan - especially since I'm considering used cars, which have higher interest rates.

The car would be an indulgence - I don't really need a new one. But I'm trying to find a balance between saving money and being frugal, and buying things that I enjoy - and I've always been a car nut. We'll see, though, if I can really bring myself to buy a new vehicle, especially one that's a little pricey - what I want is a preowned luxury SUV, probably a Land Rover L3, Range Rover Sport, or Porsche Cayenne. Any of which would probably end up being money pits to maintain.

Anyway, there was one minor hiccup in the whole signing process. The lender sent a rep they contracted out with the papers for me to sign. Aside from a HUD-1 that was missing most of the numbers, everything seemed pretty normal - until I got to a form saying that I was in a flood zone, and that by signing it I was agreeing that the lender wouldn't make the loan unless I got flood insurance. Which was odd, since I wasn't in a flood zone 4 years ago when I bought the house, and since I had earlier signed a paper saying I wasn't in a flood zone and didn't need insurance. Rep calls title company, who says it's a lender issue. madanthony calls lender, leaves vm, luckily gets a callback a few minutes later. Rep says it's not in a flood zone, I don't need flood insurance, and I can either write that I'm not in a flood zone and sign it or not sign it at all. I elect to go with the latter.

Evidently there is a 3 day grace period where I can back out, so they wait until then to actually transfer the money and finish processing everything. So hopefully this won't blow up, and hopefully I've made the right moves financially.

Like Fergie, I'm up at the gym just working on my fitness...

So it's been a couple weeks since I began my attempt to build some upper body strength. So how's it going?

Eh. Hard to tell. The thing about when I started losing weight is that it was pretty simple to see if what I was doing was working - the numbers on the scale would be smaller and my pants would be looser. Gaining muscle isn't quite so easy, because it doesn't happen as quickly or dramatically. If I flex at the right time and look at the right angle and sort of squint, I maybe have something that sort of resembles a bicep. But I don't think anyone is going to notice anytime soon, because there isn't a whole lot to notice.

I'm taking a somewhat different strategy than what most people do - most of the people I know who do strength training do 45 minutes or so a couple times I week. I've been doing about 15 minutes at the gym, and maybe another 15 at home, pretty much every day. It fits into my existing workout schedule, and is easier to get myself to do, but I'm not sure if it's as effective.

A friend of mine showed me a ton of exercises, and I've been doing, well, a few of them. So I'm probably not doing enough, or the right ones. But I figure anything is better than nothing, and hopefully I can get myself to work up to both more variety and more reps/more weight/less assistance as time goes on. I'm hoping I'm at least in decent enough shape before school starts and the flood of students comes back and makes me look bad.

I've also started drinking protein shakes - 1 a day. At first the idea seemed kind of silly to me - I don't feel like I really exercise enough to justify it. But I figured it can't hurt - it doesn't add that many calories to my intake, and I don't get a whole lot of protein in my diet. Besides, anything that tastes as bad as it does has to be good for me.

So I'm not sure if I'm actually doing enough to get anywhere. But I figure it can't hurt and might help, and it's not like I have anything else better to do with my time, so I'm going to try to keep it up. I haven't had to open any pickle jars recently, though, so I don't know if it's working yet.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Correlation vs. Causation, or why home ownership isn't wrecking the economy...

I was reminded of this old blog post when I read this WSJ opinion column claiming that home ownership is overrated. While there are legitimate arguments against home ownership in certain situations, the statistics that Mr. Florida uses to try to demonstrate this are awful:

But cities with high levels of homeownership—in the range of 75%, like Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh—had on average considerably lower levels of economic activity and much lower wages and incomes. Far too many people in economically distressed communities are trapped in homes they can't sell, unable to move on to new centers of opportunity. The cities and regions with the lowest levels of homeownership—in the range of 55% to 60% like L.A., N.Y., San Francisco and Boulder—had healthier economies and higher incomes.

Besides their economy, there is something else that seems pretty obvious about those places - the cost of homes. Homes in Detroit are notoriously cheap - some have sold for as little as a dollar. LA, San Fran, and NYC, on the other hand, are notoriously expensive places to live, where closet-sized condos often go for half a million or more.

So I would argue that Detroit et al aren't economically depressed because home ownership is high, but that home ownership is high because they are economically depressed. Like any other good, houses are subject to the laws of supply and demand, and when demand goes down because the economy is tanking and supply stays stable because, well, the houses are already there, then price is going to go down, and consumption is going to go up. The opposite is true in places like NYC - demand goes up, supply stays flat, and prices go up.

Now, I'll admit that I do have a dog in this race - I own a home, and when I bought it I factored in the mortgage interest deduction that Mr. Florida wants to kill. That would hit me twice - it would raise my effective interest payments by a couple hundred bucks a month, and sharply decrease the value of my house, because buyers would no longer be factoring that interest deduction into how much they are willing to pay.

And while I do think that there are advantages to the flexibility of not owning a home - at various points, I've considered a career change or going back to school full time, but I can't since I own a house. However, there are also good things about people being stable - it may not be good for new businesses, but it's good for employers who want to retain their employees. It's also good for the stability of communities, to have homeowners who actually have a long-term stake in their communities.

I wonder if Mr. Florida thinks that lemons reduce car crashes, too.