Do it yourself auto maintenance

When I turned 16 and started driving, I didn't know a tie rod from a leaf spring, but I was fortunate enough to have a shade tree mechanic neighbor who, along with my Chilton's manual, taught me the basics. I've done my own car maintenance ever since. If you don't have a handy neighbor, you're in luck... and don't even have to leave your PC to learn things like how to change your oil.

With my 11 year old Ford Explorer hitting 158,000 miles, I know I need to be more diligent about its maintenance. So this morning at the crack of dawn I picked up new oil, air, and transmission filters along with a case of Mobil 1 synthetic oil.

What would have cost $150 and taken several hours of my time at an auto repair shop was only $67.67 and took only an hour. I also have the peace of mind in knowing the job was done right. And if I can do it, anyone can.


Saving on prescription drugs

Working for a Fortune 500 company, I have a good health plan along with prescription coverage. While my doctor co-pays have remained steady over the last several years, I've noticed that my prescription co-pays have risen dramatically.

The area of greatest expense is with formulary prescription drugs (i.e., brand-name medications or those for which there is no generic equivalent). FDA guidelines require generic medications to contain within 20% the active medication of its non-generic counterpart. So while generic medications could potentially have 20% more active ingredient, would you presume drug companies would actually provide more for less?

When my wife was recently written a prescription for a medication she has used in the past, she knew that the efficacy of the generic was poor compared to that of its formulary counterpart. Since our prescription coverage only pays for a percentage of the cost of formulary medications, we know to shop around, despite having insurance. After calling all of the major local pharmacies, we found that the least expensive one was Sam's Club. At the bottom of the pack and 45% more expensive than Sam's Club was Eckerd Drugs. Others such as Kroger, Publix, Costco, Walgreens, and CVS all fell somewhere in between. It once again reinforced the old adage that it pays to shop around.


Disconnect to connect

I enjoyed several well-deserved vacation days this week where I disconnected from technology as best as I could and stayed home. What I long for is a long sabbatical, but that won't be happening anytime soon. I had several home-related projects to do and actually accomplished more than I expected. On top of it, I got to spend some quality time with my girls. It's helped me mentally refresh & recharge.


How to buy Super Bowl tickets

Some day I may want to see the Super Bowl live, but until then, I'll continue submitting my request to purchase tickets for the ultimate arbitrage opportunity. The NFL does not sell tickets to travel agents or ticket brokers; the way they get their tickets is by purchasing them from individuals. And one such individual sold his pair of tickets for $9,200 for this last Super Bowl in Miami.

To have the opportunity to purchase Super Bowl tickets at face value, follow these instructions from the NFL website:

Entries for the random drawing are accepted between Feb. 1 and June 1 of the year preceding the game in question. All ticket requests must be sent via certified or registered mail. Those selected in the random drawing will have the opportunity to purchase two tickets.

Requests for Super Bowl XLII, to be played Feb. 3, 2008 in Glendale, Ariz., will be accepted beginning Feb. 1, 2007. They should be sent to:

Super Bowl Random Drawing
P.O. Box 49140
Strongsville, OH 44149-0140

Please note that only one request per address is accepted. All duplicate requests will be disregarded.
If your name is drawn, you'll need to pony up the estimated $700 per ticket, but you'll easily be able to double your money. For an interesting article on the secondary market for Super Bowl tickets, read Howard Bloom's "Countdown to Kickoff".

19" LCD Monitor for $100 from Office Depot after rebate

I've been looking for a cheap LCD monitor to replace my wife's huge CRT monitor, and tonite I found it. Office Depot has the Norcent 19" Widescreen LDC monitor for $149.99 online with a $50 mail-in rebate and free delivery.

I'm still waiting for a deal on Turbo Tax Premier (most of the specials are for Turbo Tax Deluxe).


Free disposable telephone number

My parents had a Hot Springs hot tub that stopped working after years of repairs. Rather than fix it (again) or try and sell it, they decided to list it for free in their local newspaper, and in doing so provided their home telephone number for some lucky individual to arrange pickup. The day it was listed, an early-bird called at some God-awful hour of the morning asking to stop by. The problem was that the phone calls kept coming. The ad only ran once, but weeks later they still received calls asking if the hot tub was still available. What they needed was a disposable telephone number.

And that is exactly what Craigsnumber offers--a free disposable telephone number! If you live in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New Jersey, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C., the telephone number is from a local area code. You can configure this telephone number to expire in one hour, one day, one week, or one month depending on your need.

If you're looking for a similar service for email, try KasMail which gives you up to 25 disposable email addresses at a time.


Last day for free $10 from Google

Save $10 on your first purchase of $10 or more when using Google Checkout.

Note: You don't need to make a purchase today; you just need to sign up by the end of the day today (February 14, 2007). Purchase must be made by March 31, 2007.

Profiting on Foreclosures

There was a great article in Saturday's print edition of The Wall Street Journal on making money in foreclosures, and I was glad to see this article make its way to Yahoo's Personal Finance section where you can read it for free!


Simple way to keep track of receipts

Whether it is with my sock drawer, office, inbox, or in tracking receipts on a business trip, I am constantly striving for organization in my life. I'm sure that years of misplaced and lost receipts have cost me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Fortunately after years of trial and error, I finally have an incredibly simple way to keep track of travel receipts.

I no longer randomly stuff receipts into pockets on my laptop bag, store them in an overflowing wallet, or put them in a hotel envelope. These $.49 clear 9"x11" reusable envelopes from Staples save me a lot of frustration and stress from trying to locate a receipt I just know is somewhere!


Exorcising a possessed toilet

I'm not a big believer in the supernatural, but an upstairs toilet has shaken my belief that paranormal activities are a myth. So for the fourth time in as many years, this toilet needed to have the fill valve replaced as it would not stop running. I've decided if a new valve doesn't work, I'm calling a priest to have the toilet exorcised.

In this toilet I've already had fill valves from Fluidmaster, American Standard, Korky, and today I installed a Peerless/FillPro water saver anti-siphon fill valve. It's much smaller than traditional ones and is only about two inches high inside the tank. I'm hoping this will finally solve the problems and am keeping my fingers crossed.


Hopefully getting it right: Valentine's Day

While it's true that once you have kids life is never the same, perhaps it is never more true than on Valentine's Day. I'm so very fortunate to have married a woman who gets the "male logic" that February 14 is just a randomly selected day, and so Valentine's Day can really be celebrated on any day should this date be inconvenient. And so given the complexities of finding a baby sitter and getting a dinner reservation on Valentine's Day, we are going to celebrate it this Sunday evening instead.

As a guy, this is the most intimidating holiday of the year. It has the potential to make my wife see me as man she fell in love with or... not. So my goals on this particular day are to: 1) love and treat my wife as I always wish I did, 2) not fight, and 3) never raise the bar lest I be screwed next year.

So with flowers ordered and the card purchased, there's only one thing left to do, and that's to make the dinner reservation. No, we won't be catching a flight to eat at a White Castle, but I did check DinnerBroker and iSeatz to see if any good restaurants had discounts available. Not finding what I wanted, I went to OpenTable and finding our favorite restaurant available, I booked our reservation.


My home, my castle: Tankless water heater

Today begins a regular feature I'm calling "My home, my castle" where I'll be highlighting some renovations and/or improvements I've either made or am considering making to my home. Today's topic is on tankless water heaters.

Five years ago when my water heater died, I had three options: 1) replace my 40 gallon natural gas-fueled water heater with another one, 2) go tankless, or 3) incur the wrath of my wife. After much research, I opted to install a tankless water heater.

There are several benefits to going with a tankless water heater over a traditional tank water heater. The first benefit is green, both environmental and fiscal. Tankless units use less energy and therefore save you money. Most estimates show that a tankless water heater will use 25 to 45 percent less energy than a tank water heater. While a tankless unit only heats water when a hot water spigot has been opened, a traditional tank water heater is constantly heating water regardless of whether you're using hot water or not. I've personally found the energy savings to be about 20%.

Another benefit to going with a tankless unit is that you never run out of hot water. We have a garden tub in our master bathroom, and our old 40 gallon tank water heater would fill the tub about half way before running out of hot water. With our tankless unit, we never run out of hot water.

And as a real estate investor, I highly recommend replacing tank water heaters with tankless units because they require less maintenance and therefore last longer (often twice as long). It is recommended that homeowners drain a gallon of water once every three months with a standard tank water heater to reduce sediment, whereas tankless units have no tank to drain! And there is little risk in a tankless unit rusting through and flooding a home or basement as can happen with a tank water heater.

One of the few and yet frequent complaints of a tankless water heater is that multiple hot water-using appliances can't be used simultaneously. This, however, isn't a limitation of the tankless water heater itself; rather, this situation is the result of installing a unit too small for one's household use.

I'm guilty of this, but we're making it work for now. Fortunately the situation is pretty easily remedied. The unit I purchased is a Bosch AquaStar 125B-NG and is rated for 3.2 gallons per minute (gpm) at a 55 degree rise (the water flowing out of the unit will be heated 55 degrees above the temperature of it flowing into the unit). This particular model is recommended for 1 major application at a time. That was fine when it was just my wife and I, but having doubled the size of our household, we now take more baths, wash more clothes, and wash more dishes. I ultimately need to either install a second identical unit in parallel or simply swap my Bosch 125B-NG for a Bosch AquaStar 2400E, which is rated for 5.2 gpm at a 55 degree rise and supports 2 major uses at a time.

A very real drawback to tankless units is their cost. A 40-gallon tank water heater will cost around $300 whereas the higher-flowing tankless units will cost around $1,000. In addition to the cost of the appliance, most will need to pay a plumber to install these units. If you're swapping a tank water heater for tankless, expect to pay ~ $500 for installation because of the need to run additional copper water lines (since the tankless mounts to a wall). Installation for a tank water heater used to run ~ $200, though it's now code to install an expansion tank before the water heater which typically pushes the cost to over $400. There is currently a $300 tax credit for gas water heaters having an energy factor (efficiency rating) of .8 or greater, and several Bosch units qualify.

Another reason I opted for the Bosch AquaStar 125B-NG is because I was able to buy a reconditioned unit for $399 with no tax or shipping and with the original manufacturer's warranty from HouseNeeds.com (which still has this same price). And since I installed the unit myself, my labor costs were zero while parts ran me ~ $25 for 1/2" copper elbows, couplings, and pipe.

In hindsight, I look at my move to a tankless water heater as an investment in my home, my castle. And I wouldn't change a thing. I would still go with the smaller unit knowing that I can upgrade later... and knowing I have several rental properties where I can install the smaller unit should I choose to upgrade. If you're a do-it-yourself person or are planning on living in your existing home for a long period of time, I'd definitely go tankless whereas if you're planning on moving anytime soon, I'd save my money to go tankless at the next house.


Reduce taxes by fighting your property appraisal

Until this past week of winter temperatures, it almost felt like spring was in the air. As in many states, each spring in Georgia is met with the arrival of flowering quince, birds singing, and the dreaded local tax assessor's annual Statement of Appraisal for Residential (and commercial) Property. These statements are used as the basis for calculating property tax for every piece of property, and in my experience, municipalities are becoming more and more aggressive in boosting appraised values to increase revenues from property taxes. Rather than falling into the usual routine of filing this document with your mortgage statements, I'm going to challenge you to appeal this year's appraisal in an effort to reduce your property tax bill.

In years past, fighting your tax appraisal (and therefore your tax bill) required access to tools only available to real estate agents, appraisers, mortgage brokers, and those willing to spend a lot of time digging through real estate filings in the county courthouse. Those days are gone. With tools like Zillow's semi-nationwide Zestimate coverage (thank you for finally providing data on metro Atlanta!!), ShackPrices, HomePriceMaps, and HomeRadar, there is no reason to be ignorant of the value of your home. Information is power, and in this case, information can = money in your pocket.

The first step upon receiving the tax appraisal is to read it thoroughly. Read it again. Each tax appraisal should offer several pieces of information: 1) the appraised value, 2) the process for appealing this appraised value, and 3) the deadline for filing this appeal.

For my county, the process is simple: I need only provide a written statement that I wish to appeal the appraised value, and this written appeal must be postmarked within 21 days of the date of the tax appraisal statement. This appeal is one of the annual rites of spring. The appeal costs me nothing, and the worst case is that my assessed value remains the same; in the best case I get a significant reduction on my property tax bills. The steps and process I'm going to describe are specific to Georgia, so please be mindful that this process and corresponding deadline will vary by state, county, and/or city.

Once the appeal has been filed I wait for the county's response, but while waiting I am also gathering information. As a real estate investors with multiple properties, thousands of dollars are on the line, so I'll use Zillow and the other tools referenced previously to help determine the fair market value of my homes. In addition, I'll compile a list of between 5 and 7 properties that have recently sold to serve as good comparables. If you've recently refinanced your home and paid for an appraisal, you can add this to your quiver if it's to your benefit or at least study the comparables from your paid appraisal to see if they would help your argument.

A couple of months later I receive a letter acknowledging my timely appeal along with an optional worksheet to complete and remit to my local Board of Tax Assessors (hereinafter, "Board"). The key word for this worksheet is "optional". The letter also advises that the Board will review all information in 30 days and respond in writing within two weeks after said review. Included in the worksheet they provide is a summary of the characteristics of my property along with a request to verify the accuracy of these characteristics and to provide additional information to support my appeal. If the characteristics of the home reflect less square footage than the home actually has or there are any details which, if corrected, would actually hurt your argument for reducing the appraised value, I would advise against completing this worksheet.

If you wish to avoid the chance of appearing before the board in person, you may choose to complete the optional worksheet or respond in writing with a detailed explanation of why you believe the tax appraisal is too high and provide supporting evidence, and by all means, include your list of comparables.

I've found success by not completing the worksheet and not responding at all. This works best when the home was recently purchased for much less its tax appraisal. Last year I had a tax appraisal reduced by $50,000 in this way. In other cases I've found success by completing the worksheet and providing a detailed explanation as to why the tax appraisal was too high.

While I've yet to encounter them, the Board of Equalization is the means of last resort if all else fails. They hear all appeals should the Board of Tax Assessors not rule in your favor.

In my years of appealing tax appraisals, the Board has always reduced the appraised value when I follow the procedures and complete items by their respective due dates. I've become much more systematic in my approach to this process as the times I've not had a change in the tax appraisal are always due to either failing to follow procedure or simply not completing paperwork by a deadline.

Please let me know your experience!