decisions, diversification, financial, Investing, mortgage, Real Estate

Is Investment Real Estate Right for you? (So you want to be a landlord?)

Rental House Income
Investing in Rental Property

I have been a rental property manager (landlord) for just over two years now.   I’ve learned many things; two stand out:

  1. Residential real estate can be a great investment.  Rental real estate can provide steady cash flow, excellent asset diversification, favorable tax treatment… all with modest capital gains potential.
  2. Rental real estate can be a real pain to manage at times.  Both tenants and repairs cause headaches.

I currently own one rental property through my LLC.  Because of item #2 above, I’ve recently turned over the property management to property management company.  This choice will probably reduce net revenue about 10-12%, but will help take much of the stress out of finding and screening new tenants and dealing with repairs and tenant issues.  If things work out well, I will consider purchasing a second rental property.

In my local real-estate market it is reasonable to expect about 5-6% net income on a fully-owned rental property.  And over a 30-year period I conservatively estimate 1.5% appreciation.  Further since real-estate prices are a large competent of cost-of-living and inflation, real estate makes a good hedge against real inflation.  Finally, just as property values tend to go up, so do rental rates.  Simply put, residential real estate is the best long-term inflation hedge I’ve found.

The flip side of rental property is the eventual likelihood of landlord/tenant issues ranging from breaking the lease, to late or unpaid rent, to property damage, to eviction — just to name a few. Vacancies without rent can really take a bite out of your cash flow.  Properties can drop in value, and marketable rental rates can fall dramatically.

Somewhat of a wild card is the tax treatment of rental properties.  In the “pro” side are depreciation of the structure which can be deducted, and the fact that “passive income” like other investment income is not subject to Social Security tax.  On the “con” side is that fact that nothing can offset “passive income” except passive losses (and vise versa).  Owner’s of rental real estate (or at least their accountants) will become very familiar with IRS Schedule E of their income taxes.

Rental real estate is not for every investor.  Personally I wouldn’t recommend buying rental real estate until you have a minimum of $250,000 net worth.  Managing a rental property can be time-consuming and challenging.  Alternately, finding a good property management company is also a real challenge.  And unlike infomercials and “Rich Dad Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosaki suggest, real estate is not a financial panacea.  However, for some higher net-worth individuals, rental residential real estate is worth considering as part of their investment portfolio.

decisions, finance blog, financial, Investing, money

Dumb Phone, Smart Money

My two-year contract expired, and I traded in my smart (HTC Android) phone for a “dumb” phone.  The main reason was to save money: I will save $25/month by being able to drop the data plan.  That’s a savings of about $340/year including tax.  I enjoyed my Android phone, but I also have an Android Tablet with wifi only (and a 10.1″ screen) so that satisfies my Android needs.  Of course my laptop has wifi which allows me to write this very blog in a coffee shop.   I just don’t need a smart phone, and $340/year in savings is not insignificant.

I will divulge that I have been much less vigilant with my spending habits this year.  Since my girlfriend and I have stable, high-quality jobs and our financial strategies have been reasonably successful, it has been easy to indulge a bit.  One indulgence has been adopting two wonderful rescue dogs.  We spoil them, and they eat a lot.  I figure they collectively cost $4000/year.  We enjoy their company greatly so the price, while steep, is worth it to us.

I used to be a master of savings.  Now I am merely pretty good living below my means.  I still have the extreme saver know-how, but I am no longer living the extreme-saver lifestyle.  I am living the disciplined saver lifestyle.  I say this because I am sensative to the fact that my finance blog readers are in a wide variety of financial positions.  I am a strong believer in living below your means, especially in your accumulation (savings) years.

decisions, editorial, finance blog, financial

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: an Entrepreneur’s Perspective

It’s hard, but I believe that if you can’t find a job then make a job.  I have been working or in school (or both) since age 11 or 12.  I had a shared a paper route with another paperboy (delivering alternate weeks) for a couple years.  I worked odd jobs while in junior high and high school including painting fences, mowing lawns and babysitting.  In late high school I had summer jobs doing things like HVAC maintenance (as an assistant/gopher), a surveying assistant, and installing Ethernet cable.  I even did freelance work for a small/medium-sized publishing company, producing graphics and slides and sent in over a 2400-baud modem.

I always found a job, because a) I needed the money for college, b) I was willing to take what I could find.

Now that I am a professional I have steady work.   I’ve also continued to be an entrepreneur as I worked.  If I was laid off and couldn’t find work I’d like to believe that I would continue to pursue my entrepreneurial effort.  I’d take part-time work (like I did during my school years) to pay for the basics.

I write this after having returned from an internet entrepreneurial group meetup.  I get to meet and reacquaint with other entrepreneurs at varies levels in the entrepreneurial process, from “haven’t a clue, just getting started” to “been self-employed for 20+ years”.

If your are unemployed, I’d encourage you to consider what job you would like to create for yourself.  Sure, keep applying for “regular” jobs to, and if a good-enough one comes around, take it.  In the mean time apply yourself to developing your own small business.  I recommend something with low start-up costs, and something that you have a passion for.  You may find yourself developing new and valuable skills in the processes…  Discover talents you didn’t know you had.

You may, just may succeed in creating a wonderful business.  Even if you don’t, you will learn more about yourself, your talents and what you really like (and don’t like).  So when you do land that cushy corporate job, you will have a better idea of how to shape your career.  Even after landing that job, you might find yourself dabbling in entrepreneurial enterprises.

decisions, editorial, finance blog, financial

Financial Opinion on Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana Plant
Marijuana Plant in Pot

As a non-user of marijuana, I find it interesting and unfortunate that many other non-users are opposed to marijuana legalization.  My  argument starts fiscally.  Illegal marijuana is a net cost to society.  It finances crime syndicates both in the US and particularly Mexico.  Illegal marijuana also poses several direct fiscal burdens:

  1. Law enforcement costs to arrest and pursue marijuana use and sale cases.
  2. Expenses to incarcerate marijuana transporters, sellers, buyers and users.
  3. Cost of taking employed users away from their jobs and family.

Conversely, legalized marijuana provides fiscal benefits:

  1. Decreased law endorsement expenses.  Law enforcement can focus on under-age (under 21) marijuana crimes.
  2. Decreased incarceration expenses.   Freeing non-violent users (and sellers) from prisons will save tremendous sums of money.  Further not incarcerating such people in the future saves money.
  3. Otherwise law-abiding individuals will retain jobs.
  4. Tax revenue can be collected on legal marijuana.

That is just the beginning of my supporting argument.   Think of the other “Freakonomic” effects of marijuana criminalization:

  1. Drug violence in the form of turf wars and transportation route protection (esp. at border crossings).
  2. Financial support of other illegal enterprises, such as human smuggling and weapon smuggling.
  3. Lack of quality controls (regulations) leading to contaminated (with pesticides) and laced marijuana leading to sickness, disease and occasional death of consumers.

Please note that I am NOT advocating the use of marijuana, in the same way (as a non-smoker) that I do NOT advocate the use of tobacco!  I avoid both because of their negative health effects.

However, I do use alcohol.  I like microbrew beers, fine Scotch, and assorted other libations.  I have done some research and have learned that 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day is an overall  health-enhancing activity.

I liken marijuana prohibition with alcohol prohibition in a few ways.  For example, both have lead to increases in organized crime and related violence.  And both reduced sales tax revenues.   Further, both moratoriums have lead to poor quality products… such as blindness induced by the lacing of ethanol with methanol during Prohibition.

Now I switch gears to the ethical arguments.  I have seen a loved one die of cancer and cancer-induced starvation.  Cancer and chemotherapy frequently leads to nausea and vomiting.  These are miserable symptoms and lead to weakness and premature death.  The 70-something person I refer to was a vital, strong and healthy person before cancer struck.  He could do manual labor in his 70s that 30-year-olds would struggle to do.  And his mental faculties were also razor sharp.   Nonetheless his cancer deprived him of the ability to eat and retain food.  This reduced his weight from a trim 165 pound pre-cancer 6’1″ frame to a sad 110 pounds.  I personally believe, based on my research, that marijuana would have helped his appetite and nausea, which would have greatly improved his *quality* of life.

There you have it.  Financial and ethical arguments for the legalization of marijuana.  Note, I don’t couch the arguments in terms of medical marijuana… I speak in general terms.  I have had friends and dare I say colleagues who have used marijuana.  Some of whom have retained great talents and intellects.  On close inspection I have seen their short-term memory impaired in a manner similar to that produced by overindulgence in alcohol.   In my college years I have “babysat” many an alcohol overdose “patient” including one time we had to call 911.  Conversely, I never had to “babysit” a marijuana OD person.  My research confirms that anecdotal evidence.  Cliff Notes version: “Alcohol OD bad, marijuana OD… virtually impossible.”

It makes no sense to make marijuana illegal.  Tobacco and alcohol are arguably more dangerous… but society has wisely seen clear to regulate rather than prohibit their sale and use.  Marijuana should be no exception.

decisions, editorial, finance blog, financial, Investing

Stimulus Hypocrisy

Are you excited about Obama’s campaign speech, State of the Union Address, jobs speech presentation to a joint session of Congress?  If so, tune in to hear platitudes and ineffectual, half-backed rhetoric.  Extended unemployment benefits, trivial hiring incentives, infrastructure, stimulus, Keynesian hyperbole and excuses.

I try to stay out of politics on this blog, but I feel compelled to comment about gross fiscal negligence.  I accept the argument that US GDP as a percentage of global GDP is susceptible to decline.  As an US citizen I see no reason to accelerate the decline.  For elected officials to do just that is negligent, naive, or fundamentally hostile to the general welfare of the United States.

The fact that the US has been so successful from 1945 to present is a testament to something unique and special about our whole socioeconomic system.  The fact that we have righted or ameliorated our past social mistakes while improving our economic quality of life is remarkable.

Why our President is so hostile to basic economic factors is shocking.  Historically massive US National deficits siphon capital from the private sector.  Federally-manipulated low interest rate actions (QE1, QE2) sap safe investment opportunities from senior citizens, while fueling speculation in gold, silver, and commodities ranging from oil to corn to aluminum.   Putting the hammer down on domestic oil and natural gas production, particularly off-shore, puts another deep bleeding gouge into the US GDP.   Presidentially-dictated EPA mandates on coal plants put US electrical production in limbo.  Crony-capitalism (or faux capitalism) puts basic free enterprise on notice to be politically correct as a first priority.

I have been silent too long.  I avoid social political issues, but I must address fiscal political issues.  This is my first salvo.

bond funds, bonds, decisions, finance blog, financial

Bitcoin: The More the Merrier, up to 21 Million

S&P made the right declaration: AA+.  Moody’s and Fitch showed relative weakness.   The downgrade of US Treasurys makes complete sense given that US debt loads will easily surpass 100%  of GDP within a decade.  The US Treasury accuses S&P of negligence for not using their $20T vs $22T figures.  I’ve heard stronger arguments from 8th grade debate teams. [Been there. Done that.]

Here I am, Joe investor, watching the markets whipsaw like mad.  I braced for impact in my oh-so-slow way and mitigated perhaps 10% of the damage, but my investments have been generally damaged too.

Maximum caution lies not on either side of the coin, but on the edges.  100% “safe” investments are not safe in the same way that 100% aggressive investments are not safe.  Safety should be measured in terms of the following risk factors 1) situational 2) statistical (non-monetary)  3) inflationary (monetary).

In the midst of worldwide and US market turmoil there has been similar chaos in the fledgling currency called bitcoin.  It is so “new” that my spell checker suggests “bitchiness” or “bit coin” as alternatives.   Meanwhile I’m thinking of a very small exposure to bitcoin as an alternative to precious metals or commodities.

I should disclose that I have I have an emotional connection to bitcoin.   Bitcoin has aspects of finance, technology, and financial engineering that are intriguing to me.  So please consider this factor as I continue to write.

Bitcoin is all that fiat money is not… Bitcoin is finite!   The number one rule I am painfully learning about ANY fiat currency is that it is potentially infinite.  (Unbounded, if you will.)  The fiat currency “presses” are only bounded by the constitution and discipline of the political systems that underlie them.  And these very systems have show over historically documented periods to be ultimately undisciplined. Simply put: lack of monetary discipline leads to economic calamity leads to runaway inflation.

That is one factor that is engineered against in the bitcoin ecosystem.  The bitcoin “printing presses” are inherently limited to 21,000,000 bitcoins.  Further some bitcoins will be forever lost into the digital black hole.

I am not here to say that there are not flaws with bitcoin (BTC).  Just that very few have been discovered yet, and those are very minor so far.  I am saying that bitcoin also has unprecedented advantages: 1) digital portability, 2) relative anonymity, 3) potentially fee-less transfer, 4) agent-less security, 5) inflation-resistance.  I love all of these factors, especially resistance to inflation.

I am here to say that the business cycle is real.  There are booms and busts.  And there is government meddling with the business cycle that, in the long run, only magnifies booms and busts.  And that bitcoin is one possible antidote.  That said, I am sticking with stocks, bonds, ETFs, etc in a not-so-contrarian manner.  I just happen to be mining a few bitcoins on the side.  Not familar with bitcoin mining?  Google it!  🙂

bond funds, bonds, decisions, finance blog, financial, Index Investing, Investing, Low-Cost Funds

401k Plan Redux (Coming Soon to Your Company?)

Poker Chips (financial asset allocation)My current employer is radically revamping its 401K plan.  I have noticed that companies tweak their 401K plans about annually, and dramatically change them every 5-7 years.  This time it’s big. One of the choices allows for both ETF and mutual funds purchases.  The EFT option has me excited.

So far in my career I have worked for three Fortune 500 technology companies.  Long story short, I have two 401Ks and a couple IRAs.  Between them I have about 8% invested in ETFs and the rest in mutual funds.  After the 401K redux, I’ll likely have about 30/70 ETF to mutual fund mix.  I’ll keep my asset allocation largely the same, but I’ll work out a bit of math here and there to do so.  Some mutual funds stay, some funds go, some switch to higher expense-ratio versions, and some are frozen from new money after a certain date.  Over time my retirement assets may approach a 50/50 ETF-to-mutual-fund ratio.

A similar 401K change may be coming your way soon.  The booming ETF trend is continuing unabated with over $1 trillion dollars in assets under management in 2010; some predict that doubling by 2015.  Why?  1) Institutional investors like ETFs, 2) retail investors like ETFs, 3) exchanges like ETFs, 4) brokerages like ETFs.  Generally for the same reason: lower costs.

The upside of more options is access to better options and greater potential for diversification.  The downside is trading fees for ETFs… $7.95 under the new 401K paradigm.  Wise, infrequent purchases can mitigate trading costs.  This requires a bit of financial planning, but is not really a big deal for serious investors.  And there are ~25 ETFs that trade for free.  One can invest in them every paycheck (like buying EEM for free) then periodically, every 6 months or one year, bite the bullet to sell EEM (for free) and buy the better ETF VEU.  Brilliant — low fees and true dollar-cost averaging.  [Not my idea, but a good one.]

In summary, fear not the change to more ETF-centric investing.  Your particular company may pull a fast one on you… but in many cases not.   Read ALL the fine print before determining the case.  I’m glad I did, and I sense greater investing opportunity.