Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Buyer's Market

CNNMoney confirms what we already know. It's a buyer's market in housing right now.
  • It's official - even the nation's leading group of real estate agents now says it's a buyers' market in housing, as a soaring supply of homes for sale means nearly flat prices and longer waits for sellers.

My friend has been trying to sell his house for the past 2.5 months because he accepted a job offer in another state. At the 60 day mark, he lowered his asking price by $40,000. And he's thinking of lowering it even more. His realtor told him that since early June, 150 houses came on the market within the same price range within his town. And only a handful have actually sold. So, he's facing some stiff competition.

And as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm thinking of putting my condo on the market next spring. It's probably an understatement to say that I'm just a tad bit worried.

Pros and Cons of Debit Cards

In this week's edition of Newsweek, Jane Bryant Quinn outlines some of the pros and cons related to debit card usage in A Debit-Card Nation.

The Pros
- You know you're spending real dollars. The purchase is pulled immediately from your bank account.
- They're an easy source of walking-around money. As with Discover Card, you can usually use debit cards to get cash at most grocery or drug stores by asking the cashier to add a specified amount to your total.
- They're a way to save. Not sure I agree with this one, especially for those folks who don't carry a balance. But if you have a lot of credit card debt, it's true that you can avoid racking up additional interest on credit card purchases by using your debit card.

The Cons
- You can't use debit cards to establish credit history.
- Very few debit cards offer decent reward programs. And for the few that do, only signature debits count towards reward points. In other words, you need to swipe your debit card, choose debit/credit, and then sign the receipt (vs. PIN transactions, where you just swipe your card and enter a PIN number).
- You risk losing the contents of your entire bank account. Although Visa and MasterCard advertise "zero liability" if you're a victim of identity theft, some banks only offer this protection for signature debits. And only if you notice and report the theft within a specified period of time. With credit cards, you're usually only liable for $50, no matter when you report the issue.

And one final piece of advice. Don't use debit cards for online purchases. "With your bank account open, you risk too much. Order by credit card or order only by phone."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Happy to be a Guinea Pig

Thanks to all the pf bloggers out there (including Jim at Blueprint for Prosperity), who clued me in on survey networks. I've been faithfully filling out on average, five surveys a week for the past few months, in the hopes of winning some easy money through the raffles and sweepstakes that most of these companies sponsor. Each survey takes about 10 minutes to complete (I usually skip the longer ones). And this past week, I received my first $5 check from PineCone Research.

Aside from the extra income, one of the unexpected and neat side benefits to all this is being able to sample and help shape new products before they hit the general market. A few weeks ago, after I filled out a survey about food products, I was asked whether I'd be willing to test a product and provide feedback. I figured, 'Sure. Why not?' So, they sent me a big bag of yummy BBQ flavored potato chips. And last night, they sent me two full sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner that I'll need to use every day for the next two weeks. Of course, there are certain products that I probably wouldn't want to try, especially if I had health concerns about the product. But it's been kind of fun being a guinea pig for all of the marketing gurus out there.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

When It's Better Not to DIY

Yesterday afternoon, I played hooky from work and went for a bike ride along the lakefront. Halfway through my usual route, I veered off of the bike path and onto the concrete breakers. Along that particular stretch of the lakefront, people apparently have some pretty wild parties. You can see the evidence in the debris because they apparently don't know how to clean up after themselves. I usually manage to ride around the piles of garbage without too much trouble. But after a particularly violent thunderstorm the other night, there were shards of glass everywhere. Just as I was about to turn around and head back toward the paved bike path, I heard a hissing sound behind me. And I realized that I'd managed to puncture the inner tube in my rear tire. I got off my bike and managed to pull a sizeable chunk of glass out of the tire. Not such a good idea because that pretty much flattened the tire completely.

At that point, I had a couple of options. First option was to ride back home with the flat tire and basically ruin the rim. I wasn't sure exactly how much a new rim would cost, but I was pretty sure that it was more than I wanted to pay. Second option was to try and flag down an experienced rider with a patch kit and a mini bike pump and offer to pay him $20 to fix my flat. I only had a $20 bill and a credit card on me. But if I asked someone to patch the leak, it would probably take a while, and I would still need to replace the inner tube at some point in the near future. And what if the guy didn't really know what he was doing and wound up making things worse? My ex-boyfriend had a tough time getting my rear tire back on when he replaced my tires last year. And he works with bikes all the time. The third option was to walk my bike all the way back to the neighborhood bike shop, approximately 3 miles away. Although it would take about an hour, I figured once I got to the bike shop, they could fix my flat fairly quickly. And it probably wouldn't cost that much. So, I went with the last option.

And boy, it was a loooooong walk in the hot afternoon sun. But since I'd call the bike shop owner beforehand, he was expecting me. He had me in and out of there in 10 minutes flat (no pun intended). And he only charged me $9.95 (for both parts and labor) to replace the inner tube. Now that's what I call a good deal!

All this to say, sometimes it's best just to leave it to the experts. I know that my ex-boyfriend would've been disappointed that I didn't bring with me the patch kit and mini pump that he'd given me. But I can honestly say that if I had attempted to fix the flat on my own, it would have taken me twice as long and been just as expensive as walking all the way home and having the bike shop do it for me.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sizing Up the Competition

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm planning on going back to grad school next fall. So, I'll probably need to sell my condo. A realtor friend mentioned that there's a huge inventory of condos in my neighborhood right now because they're throwing up new buildings left and right. And I'm worried that higher interest rates are scaring away potential buyers. All this to say, I think it'll take me a heck of a lot longer to sell this condo than it took to sell my last one.

Well, the other day, I bumped into my upstairs neighbor. Her husband and I had purchased our condos at around the same time, nearly 2 years ago. So, I mentioned that I was thinking about selling my condo next spring. Her encouraging response? "Yeah, we're probably going to do the same thing." I'm thinking, 'Uh, oh.' Our units are nearly identical in terms of floor plan and layout, except that my unit has a couple of extra upgrades, a larger outdoor deck and hardwood floors throughout. I also paid more for my unit than they did for theirs. So no matter how you slice it, my condo is going to be priced higher. And I can totally see some buyer wanting to use their selling price as a starting point for negotiations on mine 'cause that's precisely what I did when I bought my place. Sigh. This'll be interesting.

On a more positive note, one of my good friends has been looking to buy a new townhouse, in the general vicinity of the school where I'm hoping to do my graduate studies. And she offered to let me stay with her (assuming that I pay rent, of course). So, that's a load off of my mind. I was so not looking forward to the prospect of student housing or renting a house with a bunch or random strangers.

Just a Small Cone, Please

So, I ran over to Dairy Queen this afternoon for a dipped cone. I figured I'd reward myself for achieving my 10 week fitness goal in less than 7 weeks. Of course, a bunch of people had the same idea, because there was a huge group ahead of me. But with 2 servers, the line was moving fairly quickly.

Then I noticed that the guy in front of me was sort of hanging back, and he refused to move any closer to the counter. So, I asked him if he was in line? "Yes, but I'm waiting for the next server. I've learned the hard way that the short lady is pretty stingy with the ice cream. Not sure what her problem is." Umm...okay (mental shrug).

Well, a new server pops in and asks to take care of the next customer. So the guy in front of me lunges towards him and quickly places his order. Meanwhile, the short lady finishes waiting on another customer, and I'm up next. I figure, who cares? I get a smaller cone, I get a smaller cone. Enforced portion control. So, I went ahead and placed my order for a small dipped cone. Well, low and behold, I finish paying the other server, and the woman hands me this absolutely hugeantic cone. Yikes! I'm guessing she must've overheard the other guy complain about her service. Or maybe she just doesn't like the other guy 'cause he was rude to her at some point or another. She was clearly trippin' off of something.

Oh well. So, much for portion control. My only consolation is that I'll be helping to load up a friend's truck tonight in preparation for a cross country move. Hopefully I'll be able to burn off the extra calories.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Wishing I Were Average

In terms of shoe size. In one of my earliest posts, I mentioned that I have trouble finding clothes that fit because I'm what the clothing manufacturers refer to as 'petite' (i.e., another nice way of saying that I'm vertically challenged). Well, I also have what my friends refer to as tiny feet, as well as short toes and low arches. Which means that I have trouble finding shoes that fit. On Wednesday, I ordered a brand new pair of Chaco ZX/1 sport sandals from shoes.com in a size 6, the smallest size that they had in stock. I was all excited because they're supposed to be really comfortable. And I got a great deal on them using a discount from the upromise website. Unfortunately, when I tried them on yesterday evening, they were too big. Huh! According to the Chaco website, the sandals do come in a size 5. So, I checked for a smaller size at Amazon, REI, shoemall and shoebuy. No such luck. Oh, to be an average sized American female...sigh.

Remanufactured Inkjet Cartridges - Money Saver or Waste of Time?

Back in early March of this year, I decided to try and save some money (approx. $10) by ordering a remanufactured inkjet cartridge from 4inkjets, one of a handful of online companies that refill and recycle old inkjet cartridges. Well, I've since read in a couple of news articles that inkjet cartridges can only be refilled about 10 times before the print quality starts to erode. And yesterday, I learned the hard way that you really do get what you pay for because I ran out of ink. Mind you, in the past, I've rarely had to replace the cartridge because I hardly ever use my printer. I mostly download stuff onto my hard drive or my Palm.

So, rather than running out and buying a new cartridge, I decided to call 4inkjets this morning to lodge a complaint. The customer service rep put me on hold for a few minutes. But when he got back on the line (without any additional prodding on my part), he told me that he would send me a new cartridge. Which leads me to believe that it's a fairly routine customer service issue that they encounter every day. And not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but part of me really just wanted a refund. I'm going to be really annoyed if I run out of ink again 3 months from now, especially if I'm in the middle of printing out something that I need ASAP.

Anyway, live and learn. If this cartridge turns out to be a dud, I'm going to stick with purchasing new cartridges.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Corporate Responsibility

Two recent headlines from the Chicago Tribune that I'd like to highlight. In my mind, illustrate both the good and the bad in corporate America when it comes to business ethics and moral responsibility.

Lay's Death Robs Many of Closure

  • The death of Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay on Wednesday puts an abrupt stop to a criminal prosecution that appeared to be leading inexorably to a life sentence for the one-time corporate kingpin. His death also eliminates an opportunity to deter wrongdoing by imposing a severe penalty, and robs American society of closure in one of its most painful commercial affairs, some observers said.

Suspects in Coke Case to Appear in Court

  • Coca-Cola and Pepsi are usually bitter enemies, but when PepsiCo Inc. got a letter offering Coke trade secrets, it went straight to its corporate rival. Six weeks later, three people were scheduled to appear in federal court Thursday to face charges of stealing confidential information, including a sample of a new drink, from The Coca-Cola Co., and trying to sell it to PepsiCo. "Competition can sometimes be fierce, but also must be fair and legal," Pepsi spokesman Dave DeCecco said. "We're pleased the authorities and the FBI have identified the people responsible for this."
Fair and legal competition? What a concept ;-) I have several friends who work for PepsiCo, so it's good to hear that their employer walks the talk when they encourage moral and ethical behavior. My employer just came out with a new version of its business principles, including my absolute favorite, "operate with the highest standards of integrity". If even half of my fellow employees started adhering to that particular principle, I'd be a really happy camper.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Initiating a Refund

I mentioned in a previous post that I've been selling some of my old books and CDs to clear off some shelf space. So far, I've had tremendous luck with Amazon.com and the USPS. But this morning I had to initiate my first refund because a shipment got lost in the mail. The buyer was really decent about it. He submitted his order on June 15th, I sent the book out via USPS media mail on the 16th, and he waited until a week and a half had passed before sending me a polite inquiry about the order. I asked him to wait a few more days, which he did. But as of last night, the book still hadn't arrived. So, I emailed him back to tell him that I'd refund his money and to apologize for the inconvenience. If the book does eventually arrive, I'll just eat the cost.

Call me cynical, but I do wonder if this guy is trying to pull the wool over my eyes? Since I didn't pay for delivery confirmation, who's to say that this guy didn't already get the book when he sent me that first email?

Sigh. The sad thing is that the book was fairly heavy and quite large, so it took more effort on my part to package the darn thing, and to add insult to injury, the shipping costs were more than double what I would've paid for a normal trade size book. Oh well. Live and learn. The cost of doing business, I suppose.