Sunday, June 28, 2015

Home Buying

In my quest to learn all that I can about the home buying process, I've been visiting Barnes and Noble reading a couple "Real Estate for Dummies" type books  to educate me. I believe I can gain quite a bit and cultivate a broad base knowledge through my readings, but I also believe that nothing is as valuable as personal experience. Anecdotes can be extremely insightful and beneficial.

For example, my father made a career in real estate. He made enormous profits from the sale of property, developing land, selling homes and other businesses, and from rezoning areas for future development. Oddly enough, as he approaches his 70s  - and has lived through periods of exorbitant interest rates contrasted with ZIRP that we have today - he is facing some of his biggest challenges yet when it comes to liquidating some of his holdings. Where areas like Washington continue to be runaway seller's markets, other areas where he owns land and homes are not as highly coveted, and therefore he has reduced the listing prices and will quite probably lose money on some of these ventures.

Amazing, right? My Pops is an expert in real estate. You'd be hard pressed to find someone as skilled and knowledgeable and experienced as him, yet even he faces obstacles when it comes to navigating the landscape. I am confident that he will turn it around but even the best can struggle.

So I pose some general questions to my readership. What are your views on homeownership? What is the biggest challenge/obstacle you faced when purchasing a home? What percent down did you place on your first home? Did you select an ARM or a fixed rate loan and 15 or 30 year (or something different?). Did you finance your home through a big bank/credit union/lending agency like Quicken/Sofi? What were the unforeseen costs? How many points did you have to pay? Have you refinanced? Do you consider your home an investment that you will eventually sell for a profit? What books/reading material/etc. do you recommend those researching checkout? What mistake(s) did you make during this process that you could warn future owners of?

You do not have to respond to my queries but it is my hope that you do. I value each experience and I am certain that I can only benefit from learning from others' experience. If you have not or do not buy homes/real estate, you can also feel free to explain why you chose not to.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

My Job

I don't think I've followed up recently with what the hell I'm doing with my life most days. The times I'm not walking my dog, or bike riding/exercising, eating, or pleasuring my wife, I'm usually working some shift resembling a 9 to 5 M-F. There were no updates for a few years, because I was working the same job doing mostly the same things. I was a robot! A robot who occasionally day traded some stocks with the skill of a preschooler.

Then I applied for a fellowship that was kind of thrust before me and that's where I find myself today.

Here's the story:

The chief of the Investigations and Internal Review  division (a different branch within DoDEA) and I became friends over the past couple years. He's a gentile giant of a man - reminds me a bit of my former girlfriend Brittany's father. We connected over fitness and whatnot as I would see him down at the gym at lunchtime many days.

Anyway, he dropped a paper off on my desk one day that highlighted a Professional Development Program for people working in government. After reading through it, I found that I was ineligible to apply. I did not have a high enough ranking to meet the prerequisite. The application period also ended in two business days. It looked pretty cool but I almost tossed it in the trash before thinking better of it.

Since I've been taking my 'career' much more seriously recently, I thought to myself, "Fuck it, I'm going to apply anyway." I emailed the contact person to see if they would open the window for someone with a lower ranking to apply. Figured I had nothing to lose...A good way to approach life in general I might add...

I was right.

They said, "Absolutely, please apply anyway." Pays to be bold (a post on this coming your way). Even though I wasn't exactly sure what I was applying to at the time, I scrambled to get the application together which was much more extensive than anticipated. I needed a letter of rec, a letter of interest, resume, transcripts, and one or two other documents. They practically wanted a blood sample and fuck it, I was gonna get it for 'em.

I also needed agency and supervisory approval. That was a tad tricky,as it wasn't my chief who handed me the opportunity. I worked up the courage to broach the topic with him and was fortunate enough that my boss was receptive to the idea and gave me his blessing even though he noted that I was ineligible. Maybe he wanted outta the office for a year, who knows!? Can't blame 'em for wanting that!

I should clarify the fellowship opportunity is a 1-year detail working for the U.S. Congress. More specifically working for the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) - Surveys and Investigations Division. To briefly summarize what we do - we audit various Executive Branches (think Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Treasury, etc..) typically regarding fiscal matters but also any other number of reasons. It's the investigative/audit arm of perhaps the most important committee in the United States Government. Sounds pretty grandiose, eh? And it is very much an important aspect of our Legislative Branch.

Anyway, I went to the first interview and my exiting impression was it went really well. I enjoy speaking, especially about myself because that is a topic of great interest to me ;). I excitedly waited for a call-back. It seemed like it would never come. Almost two weeks later I got an email asking me to come for a second interview with another individual. The investigative team was doing their due diligence.

The second interview I also nailed I believed (I'm quite arrogant of my interviewing skills I must say). I downplayed the opportunity for an offer but I secretly hoped I would receive one.

During this time, I actually went on a separate job interview working for the Department of Homeland Security - Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This interview I actually thought I butchered. I was hammered with some tough questions and some of my answers were less than articulate. Additionally, I was asked to take a competency test at the conclusion of my interview and when I finished the 'exam' I was ushered out quicker than a homeless man at a Ritz Carlton. It was shocking how quickly I got out of there and not by my own volition. It was definitely an awkward feeling leaving.

Anyway, I scratched off that job mentally, and focused on the fellowship which I still hadn't heard back from. Over two weeks had passed and I was getting discouraged. I was attending an event in Bethesda for people hard-of-hearing in government one day when my boss called me to say that I was accepted into the 1 year detail as a fellow. He was stoked. I was stoked. Everyone was pretty fucking stoked.

I have precisely zero years of investigative experience, and even less budgetary expertise but somehow I talked my way into this thing and now I had a decision to make. Should I take a leap of faith and go anyway or know I was over my head and decline?

After talking it over with Ash, it seemed like the wise move to accept, as it's very prestigious and would expose me to a whole new world (kinda like Jasmine in Aladdin).

I accepted without much delay. However, during the intermittent two months before my start date I was fielding calls gauging my interest about the ICE job. This job was something my wife was not enthralled with whatsoever. She basically works on the other side of ICE, and I think I was somewhat philosophically opposed to the work myself. It did offer a substantial pay bump, so it was worth entertaining for sure (read the foundation caption for this blog after all).

A couple weeks later I received a tangible offer for the ICE job. Amazing how things come in bunches after 3 years of basically nada. After quite a bit of consternation for the ConArtist, I concluded that the construct of the ICE constitution was something I couldn't condone. I let them know convivially of course.

I declined it.

Instead I am now working just off Capitol Hill each morning in our nation's capital. I am biking to work some days and metro in from Arlington other days. I'm working on a team with three other fine gents investigating various components of our government. Think of us a bit like the IRS. We're not always welcomed, but you better take us fucking seriously. :)

Lots of words here so I'll end it at that; comment if you want to hear more about what we do/what it's like etc, and I can write a follow-up post if anyone's interested. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Finding Value

As most of you know, I've grown fairly infatuated with the stock market and have devoted quite a bit of time to studying various securities for research and investment purposes. Initially, I'm not gonna lie, I wanted to make a quick buck. I actually got my 'start' in trading OTC stocks about 2 years ago when my baby brother was making loads and loads of money in a 'pot stock boom'. Being this was my first foray into investing at all, it was hard to contextualize what was occurring. I want to write a detailed post regarding my feelings at the time but suffice to say, "Shit was fucking crazy". Each day obscure securities which may or may not have been real companies that offered any tangible good/service were exchanging volume in the billions. Of course their share prices were often a penny or less, but these 'companies' would move as much as 100% over the course of a 6.5 hours of trading.


Obviously, this boom, like all others, was short lived and while I did make a quick buck, I subsequently lost more than my fair share as well. All said and done I maybe broke even, and would've been better off just stashing the cash in the bank.

But then I wouldn't have such incredible memories and experiences to share and reflect on.

Anyway, you can see that there's been a marked shift as I've approached the 'old' age of 30 and that now I am more focused (where I wasn't whatsoever previously) on finances and planning. Tipping my toes in the water trading pot stocks served as a catalyst in my life to examine 401 (k) plans, IRAs, home equity and loans, even my election as a board of director for the credit union I bank at.

It spawned this massive interest that I never could've foreseen.

One of the most interesting thing I found, (about myself) is that I value time and travel more than things and stuff. Day to day expenditures are now scrutinized at a level that would make chemists blush. I went from being basically ignorant and flashy to frugal and practical.

Where I once wanted a Tesla (and I suppose on some level I still do), I now scoff at those who pour money down the drain on vehicles. Part of that thought was not-so-eloquently expressed in my previous post. I wrote that post without focus or time that was warranted and what resulted was a sloppy product that many of you rightly pointed that out after the fact.

Perhaps this post will shed some background light on where that post came from.

We have cut our cable bill by 60%. Our water and power bills have dropped significantly. We stopped paying for garage parking. I've been reading magazines and books at the bookstore or library and not purchasing them. And the biggest change implemented is that we eat out significantly less than we used to. All these changes have enabled us to save at a higher rate than most others, as well as given me more money to pursue my travel interests. Especially before we have a team of rugrats to put in our outsized SUV ;).

Back to the SUV post for a moment - while I stand behind many of my claims against owning one, I do respect that others have a different value system and for a select few they may actually need one. But for far too many, they're wasting their hard earned money on a liability that is depreciating and draining their limited resources. I suppose I should've artfully expressed that but I did not.

The overarching point is not that I'm a scrooge nor that I think being a tightwad is virtuous. I think an individual should examine what things in life bring the greatest joy and which smaller joys can we forego so as to allocate more resources into the things we love the most. So if we really, really want to buy a condominium in the heart of Manhattan, we can't be simultaneously dining at 5-star steakhouses twice a week. Unless you work on Wall Street in which case you probably do both.

But for the rest of us, we need to make sacrifices in order to accentuate our passions. Because what we don't want to do is complain and point fingers elsewhere about how we can never get ahead and can't do the things we want to do because we're not making the requisite sacrifices necessary in order to do so. By saving just a couple hundred dollars per month, I can afford a pretty luxurious trip in less than a year to many places across the world that many others would only dream of.

In the meantime I am not attending the happy hours, getting tickets to baseball games, or buying $5 lattes. For me, that sacrifice is worthwhile because (like many people) I'm on a budget and if I want to do what I really want to do, something's gotta give. This has been a lifestyle shift and while it may not be permanent or perfect, it has served me well in the past year.

Striking a balance between enjoying the present and preparing for a better future is not easy. It's not black or white and I think it's important not to get bogged down worrying about each and every purchase to the point where guilt is consumptive. Set some limits and be done with it. Set some goals and achieve them.

Moreover, what you find with the less you spend, is that value, and I mean bang-for-your-buck, takes time to find. No matter whether you plan to spend a lot or a little, you want to make sure you get a good value for your purchase. So, purchasing an SUV on credit is rarely a prudent fiscal move. Nor is eating Chipotle everyday a thrifty way to enjoy Mexican food. Occasionally I will eat Chipotle, but I'd prefer to sample some burritos in the hills of Bogota, Columbia, (during a vacation) from local eateries than by overpaying for it at a chain day after day.

Obviously our goals and passions are not the same. Variety is the spice of life, and I can respect other's choices even when they directly conflict with my own. So it is not that my way is superior, only that when you spend the time to really dig deep and discern what's meaningful to you, can you really live your life to the fullest. No matter what 'full' means to you.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

When to Buy an SUV


Next post, please.

Well, let's actually dedicate a few moments to this topic as it's been one of interest around my neck of the woods. See, if you were to drive in Arlington, Virginia, you may stumble across some apartment complexes that are semi-luxurious and give people the illusion they are rich.

They aren't. Even though they sure as hell act like it.

It cracks me up to see 55k Range Rovers with owners who can't afford to garage their car. Think of how loony that is. Garage parking costs maybe $50. Not only that, what kind of person who is purchasing/leasing (more likely) would waste money on a vehicle while throwing money away renting?

If you can afford a car worth $55k, I assume you're making about 200k per year. I think you'd still be overpaying but that would be my guess. In truth, we know these people are merely borrowing the world's number one depreciating asset, a car that literally drains your pocket book day after day.

It's a status symbol. But anyone with half a brain knows that the only status that it says is, "I like to waste fucking money!!!!" For the life of me I cannot understand why someone would buy/rent something so impractical.

You can fit 5 people fairly comfortably in almost any mid-size vehicle. 5 people is a lot - mormon style family. And rarely are all 5 passengers in the car simultaneously. If you need space for your gear/bags, you either aren't packing efficiently or you aren't using the hitch/other aerodynamic advantages available to the industrious folk who commute with big crews/gear all day.

And yet, with short-term gas prices hitting lows near $40/bbl people have been rushing to buy these things.

So let's get back to the big picture. You live in an apartment. You buy a car worth approximately 3 years of rent and keep it outside succeptible to theft, errant soccer balls, passer-bys, and it you have to move it all the time to avoid tickets/towed. Plus other drivers resent you for taking up two spots and making it harder to see around corners and park.

Then whenever you do get around to driving the thing, you have to stop and fill up your tank all the time. Isn't status enlightening!

It may seem like I'm bitter or my wife went off and fucked a dude with a lifted F150 but you'd be mistaken. I'm just flummoxed by the decision making skills of some people. And amazingly, these are the folks who can even afford to buy/lease a car that expensive. Makes you REALLY wonder about all the other fools out there....

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Shots from New York - Catskills and Woodstock

Ash and I and Leroy traveled north Friday night about 7PM to the long trek to the Catskill area of New York. I had been once - a couple years before, but this time we were staying in a lakehouse rented by her folks with them and her sister and her beautiful daughter Abbie. Ashley's uncle lives (and the Town Supervisor) in Bethel, and her grandpa lives in Jeffersonville. We were up there for their annual or biannual family reunion but this was a big one b/c it was "The Boss" (her grandpa's) 80th birthday. So this is my new family and while I know most of them over the past decade or so in one way or the other, it was nice to actually have a few days and make it more exclusive. Below are some pics from the trip. Enjoy. 

Shots from right outside our house. Amazing view, eh?
 Outside her Uncle's house. Abbie is playing with Leroy and Kelly, one of Ashley's cousins. 
 Dog was loving it. We kept receiving compliments the whole trip about how lovely he is. Was really nice, he definitely takes after me ;). 
 He gets pretty fixated on the frisbee...which by the way says, "Re-elect Sturm". Awesome. He runs the town where Woodstock was. How cool is that? 
 Speak of the devil. There's the politician himself with his father whose birthday we were celebrating. 
 The Boss was an amazing trumpet player. He was a professional. Doesn't really play anymore unfortunately but we have some music on CD's and records and it is fantastic. 
 As loquacious as he is, he didn't like the limelight dancing. 
 Here's the birthday boy receiving his cake (his daughter, Ashley's mom is blocking the view!)
 Ah....there's the cake. 
 Ya, 80 candles woulda been a lot. So 8 would have to do. 
 Techno-obsessed even the older generations. Ashley's Pops and other uncle. 
 We were at a cool little diner which was adjacent to a whiskey distillery. Great spot. 
 So the Boss and his wife, Kathy. Ash's folks behind them. The mayor and his wife Dina. And Andy and his wife Marilyn. The Sturm clan. 
 With the kids in the picture too. Can you spot me?
 It's worth another look!
 The Boss and his kids. I called him the Boss like 6 years ago when I first met him and it just stuck. So I still call him that. He's incredibly witty and laughs constantly. Truly vivacious dude. 
 "Little Falls" 
 Great spot to cool off on a hot summer day. 
 To be truthful...I love DD coffee. 
 At the Woodstock Museum. Wifey and her Mom. 
 Yeah, baby! 
 Me and Mom. 
 Grew my beard out for this trip. Either going orthodox or going hipster. Or jihad. Which one should I choose? 
 What's amazing about this shot is moments before she was swaying elegently jamming out to some Jimi Hendrix. And by the time I got the camera out...this is the shot I came away with. 
 Apparenly, Ken's got it going on. 
 Uber being repped in Woodstock. 
 I REAAALLLLYYY wish we got to try some shrooms. I asked Ash's Mom for some narcotics to share but she wouldn't have me my percocet. 
 If you ever get a chance you must visit this place...amazing stories and an amazing period in U.S. history. 
 Jamming out in the gift shop. 
 The grounds where the beatnicks roamed. 
 Now it's impeccably manicured. They still host concerts there but in a separate stage nearby. The original spot is preserved but does not have a stage. Just a big hill where the music boomed. 
 I wanna be a rock star. 
 I REALLY wanna be a rock star. 
 Yeah...well...when you do a lot of drugs just don't know what kind of scene you'll wind up in.
 Maybe you'll trip and wind up on a bean bag staring at wallflowers. 
 No monument would be complete without devout patriotism. 
 The real monument. 
 The left spot in this shot is where the concert was held. The hill is where all the 400k people watched. And fucked. And danced. And did drugs. 
 And it was being vandalized right before our eyes. 
 I was the only one that was like, "Um, dude. What the fuck are you doing?"
 Erasing history was what it seemed like. 
 Cool art. And more patriotic bullshit. But..the kicker here is this place is home to the best bagels in the entire planet. And that is a fact. 
 At the Bagel Shop in Monticello. 
 NY bagels. Can't beat 'em. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

More Pics

Has anyone else ever tried this flavor of HD? Holy fuck it's good. There was ants covering my spoon when I left it out overnight and I legitimately ate the fucking ants cuz I didn't want to waste any.
True story.
 BK within walking distance. Clutch.
 Worth repeating...BK. Walking distance.
 The view from our suite.
 Retire early???
 Dusk swims in the bay. I would LOVE to LIVE in a place where I could do this in my backyard. Anyone know a good spot??
 Is that a shark...I'm very afraid. Very, very paranoid and afraid.
 Swam at least 4x while I was out there. About a mile each time.
 Ye' man. Post-swim sipping some water and listening to some blues.
 Carib Beer. Somewhere in the West Indies. Not too bad really.
 Beautiful storm. Palm tree was just getting pummeled. Felt really bad for this guy. No repreive.
 Relentless wind.
 Literal sheets of rain.
 Ash was really, really concerned about the palm tree. He does the best he can.
 Champagne and anniversary cards.
 Just the bottles.
 Uhhhh. Wife. Why. Blocking. TV. Move. K. Thank. You.
 Self. Why Blocking. TV.?
 If you can't tell from here they're seersucker. Yep.
 I'm riding a carousel. Ash didn't know about how you 'win'. Do you???
 She won!
 Candid shots are the best.
 That shake be from BK. It was dank too.
 I had one job. Fry to mouth.
 My dream breakfast. Some coffee/latte. Something sweet or w/ chocolate. And a great view and a great book.
 Makes me REALLY think about retirement.
 The next few are from all over the island the day we rented a car. And I def broke it going over some curb and bottoming out. Would not want to be in the car rental business.

 In case you had forgotten Saint Maarten is home to the famous (or is it infamous) SUPER low plane landings. Check out the sequence.

 Ash snapped this pro shot. People 30 feet below. Insane.

 Not low enough!

 With all the coke you guys told me not to drink I'd figured I'd share this one...
 Mountain Biking. What they don't say is NOT for beginners.
 Ya if this were a ski hill they'd all be double-blacks.
 We did navigate past some steers.
 They were mostly unperturbed.
 Dutch or French???
 Getting ready for triathlon season baby!
 Look - a mini Washington Monument.
 Words. Words. Words.
 Final parting shot...