Interesting ideas, technologies, and companies

I’m in the market for a job! I left my old job at Honor in San Francisco at the end of February. I love Honor, loved working there, I’m proud to have been a part of their growth over the last four years, and I know they’ll continue to be a shining light in the home care industry.

So now what do I do?

I’ve been keeping a list of ideas, technologies, and companies that are interesting to me or seem valuable or useful to the world. I’m sharing the list here as a way to organize my thoughts and figure out what to do, and also because I thought other people might be interested. I’d love feedback! Are you working in one of these fields and looking to hire a software engineer? Let me know! Is there something else I should look into? Something I’m overlooking? Any mistakes or oversights in my thought process? Any help is appreciated. Leave a comment or email me at mark@kingant.net.

A vague responsibility: Improve government services

I’m sure there are a ton of city, state, and federal government websites (both internal and external) and software that could be improved and I always get satisfaction out of making things work better. Things that are used by large numbers of people, like HealthCare.gov, DMV online services, online property tax payments, etc.

Let me share an example about paying property tax online… In either Wake County, NC or San Mateo County, CA (sorry, I don’t remember which) the website threatens a >$50 fee for failed bank ACH payments. Like, WTF? That should cost them $0. What are they doing that justifies needing to charge any fee at all? The form might have also prevented pasting into the account number field for some reason and used bad terminology like “e-check.”

Related links: The United States Digital Service, Code for America, America’s Cities Are Running on Software From the ’80s

An industry: Spaaaaaaaace

My understanding is that SpaceX’s entrance into the satellite launch business has caused launch prices to drop significantly. Also there has also been increased attention on building small satellites. Consequently we’re launching more satellites and getting more clever about how we use them.

There’s so much going on here. There are the old launch companies like United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and new launch companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab. Companies that build satellites like SSL (now part of Maxar) and SpaceQuest. Companies with for-hire observation satellites like Planet, BlackSky, DigitalGlobe (also now part of Maxar), Radiant Solutions (also also now part of Maxar) and Spire. Companies working on satellite-based internet service: Swarm Technologies, OneWeb and Astranis. There’s the company “Spaceflight,” which helps people get their satellite into space. There’s an increased need for satellite tracking/coordinating, and an increased need for the ability to clean up space debris (see e.Deorbit and read about laser brooms). Also ion thrusters are cool.

A huge undertaking: Wikipedia-like website for collaborative law drafting

This idea requires a long explanation to do it justice, so I wrote a standalone post.

A website: Car comparison tool

Before we bought our car in 2018 I made a spreadsheet that listed every crossover and SUV. I filled in statistics that were important to me and used them to narrow down the list. I thought it was a fantastic tool.

There are websites that let you compare a few vehicles at a time, but that’s not sufficient. I want to be able to filter through all cars and keep refining the list until it’s sufficiently short. My approach is:

  • Start with a list of all vehicles in the US, so you can be sure you’re not overlooking any.
  • Choose a set of attributes that you care about. Things like mileage, safety ratings, seating capacity, whether there’s adequate space for a rear-facing child car seat, length, price, etc.
  • Filter out vehicles with attributes that exceed certain values. For example, if you know there are cars you’d be happy with that get 25 mpg, then you might choose to completely rule out a car that only gets 15 mpg.
  • For each attribute, specify desired values and a weighting to indicate importance.
  • Use the weighting to compute a score for each car.
  • Write notes about each vehicle.
  • Give a subjective rating to each vehicle based on the computed score and the notes.

Building the website would be a great project with a little bit of everything: design, frontend, and backend to store all the vehicle stats and allow people to save their progress. Maintaining accurate vehicle specs over time would be an ongoing and tedious effort. But it’s easy enough for one person to create and maintain. It seems plausible that it could earn enough ad revenue to justify the effort.

A technology: Software-defined radio

Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been traditionally implemented in hardware are instead implemented by means of software. —Wikipedia

I don’t have any experience with this. There are certainly malicious uses, such as OpenSesame, a small device that opens non-rolling code garage doors by broadcasting every possible code very quickly and RollJam, which attacks rolling code garage doors and car remotes.

But I think there’s a lot of potential non-malicious uses, too:

  • Auditing the security of wireless protocols like garage door remotes, car keyless entry, mobile phone cell radios, bluetooth, and NFC, baby monitors, transit cards, hotel key cards, etc. SDR could be used to check that traffic is sufficiently encrypted and not vulnerable to spoofing or replay attacks. This is essentially what the guy behind OpenSesame and RollJam did (at least, I assume he told the manufacturers about his findings).
  • GPS has become pretty important in our lives and in our military. For planes and drones, but also for everyday navigation. It might be valuable to test how resilient GPS receivers are to spoofing and potentially try to figure out how to improve resiliency when faked GPS signals are received.
  • A Wi-Fi signal strength detection and mapping tool, to help users find the optimum antenna placement for their home router. Could also review/compare/publish Wi-Fi performance of off the shelf routers.
  • Sorta related: Spire, one of the space companies I mentioned above, says on their website, “Spire collects data with sensors that are programmable and re-programmable when in orbit.”

A company: Security audits of anything

I mentioned security audits in the context of software-defined radio above, but there are many more things that would benefit from a security audit. Electronic door locks with keypads might ship with default admin codes and not force the user to change it (that’s bad because people tend not to change them). Same with apartment intercoms/door buzzers. Here’s a related article about an IBM security team who found problems with visitor management systems. There are a ton of Wi-Fi enabled appliances these days that could have problems: refrigerators, doorbells, cameras, TVs, etc.

The economics here are tough. Companies don’t want to spend more money than necessary, and security problems only become a problem when they start being publicized or exploited. Some companies pay rewards (called bug bounties) when problems are shared with them privately, but generally only large players who are already security-conscious, like Google and Facebook. There might be justification for a government agency or non-profit to perform security audits as a public service.

A product material: Carbon fiber reinforced polymers

As a material I think carbon fiber reinforced polymers aka carbon composites are super cool. Also to a lesser extent carbon fibers themselves, carbon nanotubes, and graphene. There are so many products where “light and strong” are important qualities. In the relative scheme of things these materials haven’t been around very long. It’ll be exciting to see the improved products we make. It will be good to see prices decrease over time, too, so more people can get the benefits of things like carbon composite wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers.

We also need to make improvements to carbon composite recycling techniques, infrastructure and cost effectiveness.

An Internet standard: WebAuthn

WebAuthn is a web standard for more secure logins by using a physical device like a fingerprint scanner or USB keychain instead of (or in addition to) a password. Essentially eliminates account hijacking from compromised passwords. Two factor authentication is fantastic and everyone should use it for their important accounts (email and banks), but typing in a six digit code is kind of a pain. With WebAuthn you can touch your finger to your phone or laptop’s fingerprint scanner, instead. Or tap on a tiny piece of metal sticking out of a USB port. It’s roughly the same level of security with a fraction of the effort for the user. I thought this article had decent explanations, if you’re looking for more info.

Websites that want to support these types of logins will need changes to support WebAuthn, so it’ll never become ubiquitous. But I’m hopeful that major websites will adopt it over the next few years.

A big undertaking: Unmanned autonomous solar powered boat or submarine

I don’t know what this would be used for, but it sure does sound cool. Maybe ocean research, surveying, or surveillance (e.g. scouting for pirates off the east cost of Africa).

I’ve read of two similar efforts: the Zyvex Marine Piranha Unmanned Surface Vessel and the Pliant Energy Velox. The latter page mentions some potential uses.

A slog toward a greener tomorrow: Grid-integrated hot water heaters

I read about this recently and I think it’s pretty smart. Intelligent water heaters (decrease water temperature at known low demand times and increase temperature for peak demand) and intelligent hot water recirculation pumps also have the potential to save water and electricity.

A chemistry experiment: Measure the amount of caffeine in beverages

Some instructions here. Originally I thought this would make a great website, then I discovered that it already exists. But I still think it’d be interesting to make a bunch of mugs of tea and measure how caffeine content differs based on tea type, water temperature, and steep time. And also how much variation there is even when keeping those factors consistent. Could be a good science fair project.

A joke website: Hamazon.com

An online marketplace for great deals on pork products. Emily suggested the logo could be the normal Amazon logo but with a pig nose above the smile arrow. Mostly I just think it sounds funny.

An endless amount of work: Make Linux better

I love Linux. When I was younger I did some work on the Pidgin instant messaging program. I’ve always wished I had more time to smooth out Linux’s rough edges. It’s fair to say my dream job would be for someone to pay me to improve whatever random weaknesses I encounter in Linux software.

  • I think there’s a lot to be gained by updating old online docs, wiki pages and Stack Exchange posts to describe the current best practice for X. I feel like pretty much anytime I need to do something (e.g. “how do I add a hostname to the resolver search path on hosts using DHCP on Ubuntu 18.04?”) I find multiple answers and it’s hard to know which answer is correct.
  • I’ve always felt like Linux install processes were clunky, fragile, and asked too many questions.
  • info-zip apparently needs a maintainer
  • I think having more consistent UIs across apps would give users more confidence in the OS.
  • I don’t have first hand experience, but I suspect Linux on laptops tends to be an area in need of improvement. See a random blog post about running Linux on a Lenovo laptop for an example of tweaks an average user would not be able to make themselves.
  • Standardizing more core software across distributions would cut down on parallel work and make developers available to work on other things. I have mixed feelings about systemd but at least there seems to be a de facto standard init system now.
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An idea: A Wikipedia-like site for collaborative law drafting

Let me explain the idea first. I’ll get into why I love this idea further down.

I envision a public forum for the drafting of laws. “Crowd-sourced” is another way to describe it. The goal is to create turnkey legal text that can be incorporated into city, state, or federal law.

Basically a wiki… but a simple wiki isn’t sufficient. To be successful, structure is needed. Rules. Guidelines. A semi-rigid framework. A community where contributors can earn reputation and respect. These qualities have made Wikipedia and The Stack Exchange Network successful. The process and the people are the critical factors.

The main landing page would be a list of possible laws. Contributors would add a page for each law they want to draft, with each page divided into a few standard sections:

  • Goal – A sentence describing the desired outcome of the law in plain language.
  • Research – A list of research related to the law. Ideally from respectable independent sources. Contributors could provide commentary about the research, highlight potential flaws, dubious funding sources, etc. This commentary opens the door for misinformation and incivility, so an effective moderation system is vital. This section would also allow contributors to brainstorm ideas for future research that could be useful.
  • Existing examples – Similar laws might already exist, either at other levels of government or in other municipalities (including in other countries). It’s useful to reference them, discuss similarities and differences, and discuss research on their effects.
  • Full text – The full text of the law. An ability to annotate the text would be useful to allow contributors to provide additional context, pose questions, or make suggestions. Google Docs sidebar comments and suggestions are examples of similar functionality.

Why I love this idea

Why should legislators be the only ones drafting laws? Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens do it, too? We can certainly hope our elected representatives will do the work to enact the best laws for their constituents, but also their time is finite. It stands to reason that reducing their burden would allow them to accomplish more. If we want a law to be enacted then we should do what we can to help. We should do the research, draft the law, get feedback, iterate, and hand it off to legislators as a nice little ready-to-go package. Related: A description of how federal laws are created currently.

There’s nothing stopping people from drafting their own laws now, of course. As an example, Marion Hammer is a lobbyist in Florida for the NRA who writes laws and basically hands them off to state legislators to be voted on: “Hammer is not an elected official, but she can create policy, see it through to passage, and use government resources to achieve her aims.” That quote is from an article in The New Yorker. But there’s no framework for people to follow, no guide, no examples. And that’s a large barrier.

I have a tendency to think about this being used for federal laws, but the potential benefit at the state and local levels is greater. City council members are less likely to be career politicians and may not have much experience themselves. And local municipalities have fewer resources to lean on. Think of all the duplicate effort drafting, discussing, and revising similar laws in every city and state across the nation. I also would hope that having a central repository for laws would result in less variation across municipalities.

An advantage of a crowd-sourced approach is that it brings into the open a process that has tended to happen behind closed doors. I would hope that discussing issues in the open with a wide audience would encourage the creation of laws with broader appeal. And that less sound laws are identified and improved earlier in the process. And that making these improvements and having these discussions earlier in the process would streamline the final revising and voting.

Impediments to success

Lack of interest/uptake/momentum/critical mass

Making laws is hard and people don’t want to do it in their free time, that’s why we pay our representatives to do it. Would there really be people willing to spend time doing this? How do you spread the word about this and get people interested?

Joshua Tauberer, the creator of GovTrack wrote a thoughtful blog post warning people about thinking they can “fix” democracy. He even lists “have Americans draft legislation” as an example idea that won’t work. I think he makes valid points, but there’s a comment on that post that I like a lot: “It’s good, IMHO, to dream big about changing the world … It’s even possible that someday those big dreams could become reality. But not if you don’t dream them in the first place.”

And so I recognize that this might only be appealing to a very small number of people, and I think that’s ok.

Disagreements over what the law should be

This is a hard one. People have different opinions about what laws should and should not exist. Some people are in favor of the government paying unemployment benefits and some people are against it. Even two people who are both in favor of unemployment benefits might disagree on amounts, durations, eligibility, etc. I don’t have a solution for this. My only two suggestions are: people should try to use data to justify their beliefs, and people should focus their efforts on common ground (e.g. work on less contentious laws and leave the contentious ones to elected representatives).

Incivility

It’s easy to get emotional about politics. It can be hard to come to terms with other people’s opinions. It’s important for contributors to be civil, find common ground, and avoid polarizing issues.

Legalese is hard. Can we really expect average people to do a good job?

I’m not worried about this. Worst case the laws on the website would need more work before they’re ready. That isn’t any worse than what we have today. But I think people would learn over time how to write good laws. I think the community could create guidelines to help. And I think people with legal expertise could chip in.

What’s next?

I’d love to hear feedback about this! Does such a thing already exist? Are there reasons it would never work? I have very little insight into the legislative process, government, politics, etc… what things am I overlooking? I think it would work best as a non-profit. Is anyone aware of an existing non-profit where this would be a good fit?

I’ve thought about this idea for years and I love it, but I also currently have no intention of doing anything about it. So, uh, if you think this needs to happen then share this with your friends and talk people (and me) into working on it.

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Thoughts on health insurance

Last month we left our jobs and moved to a new state and we’ve been trying to figure out what to do about health insurance. The best way to sum up the experience is “ugh.” More thoughts:

  • First let me share my vague personal beliefs: The United States is sufficiently advanced such that all people should receive medical care even if they’re not able to pay for it themselves. Yes, that means I think people with more money should be subsidizing (or completely paying for) medical care for people with less money. Health care and insurance are complicated and I’m not foolish enough to think I can express an informed opinion about the best way to implement this. I don’t feel strongly whether “all people” is only permanent residents, or also people with valid visas, or also people without valid visas. My preference from a humanitarian standpoint is to provide care for everyone regardless of legal status. I don’t feel strongly about how it’s paid for… whether everyone’s care is 100% covered by tax revenue or whether people who can afford it are charged coinsurance or a copay. I don’t feel strongly about what medical care should be covered and what shouldn’t (Vaccines: Yes. Non-medically necessary cosmetic surgery: Maybe not? Though it’s complicated.).
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA” or “Obamacare”) is a move in the right direction. It placed a bunch of requirements on health insurance and established the HealthCare.gov marketplace.
  • Health insurance is expensive. Yes that’s a problem. Sure, maybe the ACA’s requirements contributed to higher prices, but also the requirements are useful consumer protections, so 🤷.
  • It seems like there might be insurance plans that aren’t listed on HealthCare.gov. These are called “off-market.” It seems like the reason for them to exist is that, while they still must adhere to federal ACA requirements, they might not have to adhere to state requirements? I’m not sure. I don’t know if any such plans exist for North Carolina—I couldn’t find any.
  • Short-term health insurance is a thing. These plans don’t have to adhere to the ACA. They’re not listed on HealthCare.gov. I thought they were hard to find, hard to compare, and hard to be confident that plans weren’t lacking something important. eHealth is one website for viewing plans. The premiums are lower because the coverage is worse. They were tempting, but we went with a full HealthCare.gov plan in part because I found the ACA’s regulations/requirements reassuring.
  • Since late 2016 short-term insurance plans could only be used for three months. In 2019 this was changed to one year and renewable up to three years. That makes short-term insurance plans a viable option for more people, which means more healthy individuals will sign up for short-term insurance, since it’s cheaper, which means fewer healthy individuals will sign up for ACA plans, which means the cost of the ACA plans will increase. It moves toward a more free market, but I think our society benefits when health insurance is more heavily regulated. This is a step in the wrong direction. It basically allows people to opt out of the protections of the ACA. I don’t understand why short-term insurance was allowed under the ACA. It seems like any reason someone would have for using short-term insurance would qualify them for a special enrollment period for a full health plan.
  • In 2017 the fine for not having health insurance (the “insurance mandate”) was eliminated. Similar to above, this is a step in the wrong direction. It removes healthier individuals from the ACA pools which means ACA insurance will be more expensive for less-healthy individuals.

Specific HealthCare.gov complaints

HealthCare.gov, the federally operated health insurance marketplace, works decently well. It’s better than most government, insurance, HSA, etc. websites I’ve used but there’s still room for improvement. Examples:

  • I got to a point in the application process where I could view all the available plans and compare them. I had to leave and come back to this over the course of weeks while I researched the best insurance option for the four of us. Each time I had to reconfirm a few selections I’d already made: Whether I wanted to list any primary care doctors (to check if they’re in-network, I assume), how much medical care each of us needed (low, medium or high), and whether to group the four of us together or split us up. Ideally I would have been able to go directly back to the list of available plans. Perhaps this only happened for me because I chose “skip” for the “primary care doctors” question.
  • If my session expired while my laptop was off and then I tried to use the website again, the error page was poor. I think it indicated that the URL was invalid without saying anything about the session having expired. I think it did not provide an easy way to log back in or resume where I left off.
  • After I picked a plan I saw some messages that used the acronym “MEC” without defining it. I don’t recall seeing this acronym anywhere else and it doesn’t seem common. It should have been written out or defined somewhere nearby.
  • Here’s a screenshot of an email I received:

    What’s up with those “YYYYMMDD” hints? While I love writing dates with year first then month then day, having to explain the date format is an indication that it’s a poor date format. This should be written as either “2019-05-27” or “May 27, 2019.” And the second “(YYYYMMDD)” hint shouldn’t be there at all since no specific date is displayed (just the word “soon” for whatever reason).
  • Check out this other screenshot, this one from the website:

    A few problems here.

    1. I don’t know why the upload failed. I don’t think it was my fault. I tried the same file later and it worked, so it does seem like “try again later” was accurate. It’s possible that logging out and logging in with a new session was enough to cause the upload to work. Either that or uploading was broken for a time. In either case this seemed like the fault of HealthCare.gov and not me.
    2. After clicking “SELECT FILE TO UPLOAD” and selecting a file I then had to click the green “UPLOAD” button next to the file name to actually upload the file. This second step shouldn’t exist. It adds unnecessary complication and it’s easy to not realize that it’s necessary.
    3. For the file size, the “b” in “Kb” should be capitalized. Lowercase “b” means “bits” and uppercase “B” means “bytes.” The latter is almost always used when talking about file sizes. Bits are typically only used when talking about data transfers at a low level (“the computer sent 156 Kb of data before disconnecting”) or when talking about data transfer speeds (“broadband means 25 Mbit/s or faster”).
    4. The file size should probably be displayed in megabytes instead of kilobytes, since file sizes are generally displayed in the biggest possible prefix that has a non-zero value. So this should be 1.59 MB.
    5. There should probably be a bit of spacing between the white content box and the “TAKE ME BACK” button.
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Move process takeaways

  • The final month would have been easier if we had been more vigilant all along about getting rid of unneeded things: Clothes we no longer wear, infant clothes, toys, and other things that we no longer need, kitchen bowls and tools and other things we never use, furniture that we don’t care about, etc.
  • It would have been helpful to have someone watching the kids for us during the final week, when daycare was closed, and especially during move day. We managed, but it was hard for all of us.
  • It’s hard not having a final destination for two reasons:
    1. We needed to put most of our belongings in storage. We wanted to avoid the silliness of having movers unload our truck into a storage locker only to move it back onto a truck months later. It’s wasted effort and adds opportunity for things to get damaged. We wanted a storage container but we felt that the storage container options weren’t great. PODS is the name everyone has heard of, but even those are a bit small. And expensive since we would have needed two of them. U-Haul has storage containers but they’re even smaller—we would have needed three or four of them. Also we didn’t want the storage container to be sitting in front of our condo for days. We wanted it to be dropped off, immediately loaded and then immediately taken away. The best we could manage was to schedule to have U-Pack drop off the trailer (their “storage container” is just the trailer portion of a semi truck) in the morning, schedule the movers to come that afternoon, and schedule U-Pack to pick up the trailer “some time the next day.” That’s a lot of coordination of notoriously unreliable parties on a street where you’re supposed to have a permit to park longer than two hours.
    2. Anything susceptible to heat damage shouldn’t be put in storage. That means we either had to mail it to our temporary house in NC, carry it in our baggage on the plane, or get rid of it. That includes food (we tried to eat most of it over our final months but we still ended up throwing a lot away), batteries, a fire extinguisher (gave it away), climbing ropes (took all three in our baggage), and camp stove fuel (gave the propane to a friend and mailed the isobutane/propane mix to myself).
  • Estimating how much space your belongings will take up in storage or on a moving truck is hard. U-Pack estimated that we’d use 17 feet of the trailer but we ended up using 21 feet. I was actually impressed with how close their estimate was considering it was based on a phone interview. One of my biggest fears was that we wouldn’t fit everything into the 28 foot trailer. I don’t know what we would have done.

Two noteworthy mistakes

  • When I went back to the moving truck to adjust some tie straps and put the lock on (had to buy one first), I took my jacket off and left it on the floor of the truck. I forgot to take it with me when I left. I think it might have even blown away without me noticing, so I didn’t see it and forgot to look for it. It was a $100 jacket but I’d had it for ten years. I was a little mad at myself, but it’s not the end of the world. At least it wasn’t brand new.
  • Edie had a doctor appointment scheduled for March 29, her last day of daycare. We decided to move it to the following week to take advantage of daycare as much as possible, since the kids would be with us the next week anyway. But that meant the appointment was in April and our insurance ended March 31. So we’ll either have to pay out of pocket or sign up for COBRA, which we were hoping to avoid. She got a few immunizations, so the appointment won’t be cheap. We haven’t seen the bill yet (good lord the world of healthcare moves slowly), but I estimate this to be a roughly $850 mistake.
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Moving update, the final week

We did it! we’re in North Carolina now. The final week in California was definitely the hardest, but no major problems, so that’s good.

  • Took Edie to her one year doctor appointment.
  • Took Toro to the vet to get a health certificate. Our airline (United) officially requires them even though no one ever asks to see it.
  • Took electronics to Green Citizen, a local electronics recycling center. They seem like the best bet for responsible electronics recycling around here.
  • Took batteries and antifreeze to the San Mateo County Household Hazardous Waste Disposal site.
  • Sold the Corolla with Peddle for $780. It was fine. Mostly easy, though the tow driver who picked it up arrived 3 hours 15 minutes after the end of his 10am-11am window with almost no communication at all (he called at 1:55pm and said he’d be here at 2:15pm). I assume he’s just some local tow truck driver and he got other calls that morning that were more urgent or paid better, so he took those first. I think donating it would have been about the same amount of effort and probably would have given us a larger tax deduction compared to the amount Peddle paid, but I imagine we’ll take the standard deduction again when filing our taxes next year since it’s so high now, so we wouldn’t benefit from the donation.
  • Picked up a rental car.
  • Sold a ton of stuff on Craigslist. Our TV for $50 (47 inch LG 47LE5400 from 2010), some decent-but-outdated computer parts from 2014 for $20 (Intel Core i7-4770S, 32 GB DDR3 memory, Asus Z87M-PLUS motherboard, and 430W Antec power supply), iRobot Roomba 650 Vacuum for $20, a decent pair of KEF C55 speakers from the late 80s for $30, a small bedside table, a Pack ‘n Play.
  • Paid the second installment of our California property tax.
  • Our No Parking signsPosted our No Parking signs outside. This process is super basic. Basically we went to city hall and told them we wanted to reserve space on the street for our moving truck. We told them the street name, date, and time, but it wasn’t clear if they did anything with that information. They sold us three blank paperboard No Parking signs for $3 each. We wrote in the date and time ourselves and were responsible for putting them up. We bought some long poles from Home Depot and taped the signs to the polls. It felt like we could have written pretty much anything on the signs. We felt weird.
  • Packed a ton of boxes.
  • Canceled Comcast.
  • Watched both kids all week because daycare was closed.
  • Moving day! The moving trailer was dropped off. The movers arrived and loaded everything while Emily and I watched the kids and Toro, took furniture apart, and finished packing/throwing things away. It was a hard day. We also handed off all our keys to our realtor.
  • We stayed in a hotel that night then flew from SFO to RDU the next day.
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Moving update, four weeks in

It’s been a busy two weeks since my last status update. We have just nine days to go and our kids won’t be in daycare for the remainder, so it’ll be harder to get stuff done. We have a good bit more to do (mostly more packing and getting rid of things), but I think we’re in good shape. Here’s what we did over the last two weeks:

  • Made a partial plan for our health insurance. Basically we’ll wait to do anything until we’re in NC. If something happens before then we can purchase COBRA and it’ll retroactively cover us starting from when our work health insurance ended. And then once we’re in NC we’ll compare COBRA and the HealthCare.gov options and go with whatever is better.
  • Picked up my new glasses. They’re great.
  • Took our Subaru Outback in for software updates for two minor recalls.
  • I requested quotes from a ton of car shipping companies and Emily and I discussed the timing of shipping the Outback and selling the Corolla. Car shipping will take between five and twenty days, with not much predictability, and even the pickup is hard to schedule exactly ahead of time. We decided that it would be easiest to ship the Outback early so that it’s there when we get there (or arrives shortly after we do), and then wait to sell the Corolla until shortly before we move. We picked a transport company, made arrangements, and dropped the car off with them. Price is $1,500 (I requested top placement in the carrier in an attempt to reduce damage from rocks flying up from the road, which was an extra $100). This was on the higher end of the estimates (the lowest was around $1,100 without top placement, and many were around $1,300 without top placement), but the company was reputable and had a local presence where we could drop off the car, which was more convenient for us than having to coordinate with a truck driver to pick it up.
  • Booked a rental car for the days between when we sell our Corolla and when we fly away.
  • Filled out the owner questionnaire portion of our disclosure packet for selling our home.
  • Replaced block and tackle window balances and a broken sash guide on a single hung window.
  • Had Home Depot measure the bedrooms in our condo as a preliminary step before replacing the carpet.
  • Subsequently went to Home Depot, picked out carpet, purchased, scheduled installation, and got HOA approval.
  • Rented a truck and took our mattress to Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos for recycling.
  • Gave away our two Ikea Malm dressers from 2006. We’ve moved with them four times and I’m not sure they’ll survive much longer. Some Ikea furniture is sturdy… these were not.
  • Gave away a super cheap small bookshelf.
  • Gave away a rug.
  • Took stuff to Goodwill.
  • Dropped off old infant car seat at California Highway Patrol for recycling. It had been used for three maybe four babies and was approaching the manufacturer’s expiration date. We didn’t feel comfortable passing it off to someone else. Also Edie threw up an unimaginable amount in it and neither of us wanted to clean it.
  • Emily spent a ton of time researching moving and storage companies, calling them, and summarizing the options, and together we spent a ton of time trying to figure out the best option for us. Do we or don’t we want to keep stuff in storage? If we put stuff in storage, should we use transportable storage containers or have movers unload into a storage building, and then later have movers move from the storage building to our final destination? If using storage containers, will it be easier to use a few smaller containers or one big one? Should we use their movers or hire our own? If our couch is too big to fit in the less expensive containers, are we better off getting rid of the couch and buying a new one? We decided on a 28′ moving trailer from U-Pack. A moving company will load it for us, then U-Pack will pick it up and park it at a storage lot until we need it. My takeaway is that the storage container options aren’t great. PODS is expensive, U-Haul’s containers are small. There are a few other options that are some combination of too small, bad reviews, sketchy, etc.
  • Got “no parking” signs from the city of San Mateo so we can reserve space on the street for our moving trailer. I’m still a little worried about this.
  • Packed Emily and my bikes in boxes. If I could do it again I would pay one hundred whatever dollars per bike for the local bike shop to pack them. Or at least my bike. It sounded expensive, but after having done it myself… it was definitely a pain in the ass. It was hard to pack the bikes in a way where I felt comfortable that they wouldn’t get damaged in the move.
  • Packed a ton of boxes.
  • Also, of course, continued raising two kids.
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Moving update, two weeks in

Friday, March 1 was Emily and my last days at our respective jobs. We’re flying out April 9th, which gives us only five weeks to prepare and we have a long list of things to do. We’re two weeks in. Let’s recap what we’ve accomplished:

  • Interviewed listing agents for selling our San Mateo condo and signed with one. This was stressful and not something Emily or I enjoyed.
  • Researched and bought a laptop for me.
  • Ordered new glasses for me.
  • Returned some library books and checked out others.
  • Gave away lots of baby things that we no longer need.
  • Sold our bed frame. Emily has never liked it and it’s a good time to replace it.
  • Took our 2003 Toyota Corolla in for a recall service. This car has had 10 recalls, four of them are for airbags, and it only has two airbags.
  • Bought our plane tickets.
  • Wrote my last newsletter for our homeowners association (I was appointed to the board last year after the previous Secretary moved away).
  • Organized my homeowners association notes and handed off responsibilities to my replacement.
  • Did our taxes.
  • Mailed in a form to request a refund for money on one of our Clipper cards.
  • Straightened out some pre-tax transit funds shenanigans.
  • Went running (four times!)
  • Went climbing (twice!, though I climb once a week anyway, so nothing new here).
  • Averaged more than 7 hours of sleep a night.

One observation: Our kids are in daycare during the day and Emily and I initially felt weird being at home and not being responsible for them. We can do whatever we want without worrying about saddling the other person with kid duty.

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Deciding whether to rent or sell

As mentioned earlier, Emily and I are moving out of our condo in San Mateo. We had to decide whether to keep it as an investment (and probably offer it for rent), or sell it. It’s not an easy question! If we sold it we’d likely invest in stock market index funds, so let’s compare the two.

Return on investment

This is the most qualitative consideration. We want to know how much we would expect to earn in a typical year from the two options.

Our home was first sold on December 12, 2003 for $620,000. Current value as of March 12, 2019 is approximately $1,300,000. That’s a return of 209.68% over fifteen and a half years, which is an annualized return of roughly 5%. That’s just for the property itself.

Expenses are $13,156.12 yearly property tax and $618.74 per month HOA dues, which comes out to $20,581 per year. That reduces the annualized return to 3.42%. Note that yearly property tax is only allowed to increase at most 2% per year due to Prop 13, so assuming Bay Area real estate appreciates more than 2% per year, property tax can be expected to become less of a burden proportionally as time goes on. Also I expect the monthly HOA dues to increase at a greater rate than inflation as part of the HOA’s plan for the reserves to be “fully funded.”

What if we rented it out? Looking at similar-sized rentals on Zillow we could expect a renter to pay between $4,000 and $5,000 per month. Let’s assume $4,500 per month. Let’s also assume 100% occupancy, 10% property management fee, and $1,000 per year in maintenance expenses. That’s $47,600 income per year. That brings the annualized return up to 7.08%—hey, not bad. If we wanted to be generous and assume $5,000 per month rent with no management fee and no maintenance then that’s $60,000 per year which is an annualized return of 8.03%.

Now what about the stock market? Let’s look at SPY because it’s enormously popular (most assets of any ETF). Let’s use the same fifteen and a half year time range as above. Assuming this random website that I found with Google (appears to no longer be working as of 2019-03-14) is correct, the total return is 244.19% which is an annualized return of 8.45%. That doesn’t account for taxes paid on the dividends. And of course there’s no guarantee future performance will match this rate.

So that’s pretty close. Of course there’s a high margin of error in the above numbers and it only increases over time. There’s no guarantee real estate or the stock market will appreciate at the same rates. But from my point of view it’s basically a wash. Neither option is obviously better than the other.

Effort

Owning stock is trivially easy. We use Schwab with “reinvest dividends” turned on, so there’s no ongoing work. The yearly tax filing effort is negligible—we’ll own stock either way, so there aren’t any additional 1099 forms.

Owning a home and not offering it for rent is fairly easy: Pay yearly property tax (manually-initiated online ACH transfer once or twice a year). Pay monthly HOA dues (auto draft). Maybe carry some kind of insurance (maybe not necessary if it’s unoccupied, since the HOA carries insurance on the building). Vote on HOA ballots.

Offering it for rent is significantly more work. Approving tenants. Coordinating with management company. Deciding on repairs while not being local. Dealing with tenants who might violate HOA rules. Keeping track of income and expenses and handling it correctly when filing our taxes (and forcing us to file with California, too).

Volatility

How dependable are the two options? The stock market has ups and downs but it averages out over time. I think it’s unlikely the US economy will collapse and never recover, and so risk of catastrophic loss of value is low.

Owning an expensive home is scary. It’s a lot of eggs to have in one basket. I’m not worried about sea level rise (I think it’s likely dams and locks will be built at the Golden Gate when sea level rise becomes severe enough to affect us). I’m not worried about fire. I’m mostly not worried about dam collapse (though I believe we are in the path of the Crystal Springs Dam). I’m mostly not worried about the Bay Area real estate market collapsing (there might be dips but I think it’ll be ok in the long run). I’m a little worried about potential loss of value from catastrophic earthquake.

So I think it’s unlikely the condo will lose significant value, but conventional wisdom is that it’s better to diversify. Real estate in aggregate is a sound investment but one unit of real estate has risk.

Summary

  • The return on investment from operating the condo as a rental is not clearly higher than investing in stock market index funds.
  • Owning the condo, and especially operating as a rental, is more work than stock market index funds.
  • Owning the condo has more risk, though this factor is insignificant.

And so in an effort to simplify my life and responsibilities, my preference is to sell the condo.

Two footnotes

At the top I said, “we’d likely invest in stock market index funds.” That’s not 100% accurate. We’d probably spend part of the money on a new house (or down payment on a new house). If we didn’t sell the condo then we’d quite possibly need to get a mortgage in order to buy a new house. It’s possible that mortgage rates are low enough that the mortgage would be effectively “free”—I haven’t checked.

When selling a primary residence there’s a “home sale exclusion” where, for married couples filing jointly, up to $500,000 of profit from the sale is tax-free. It seems like it’s not possible to take advantage of this if the property is converted to a rental. Which means that when the property is eventually sold we’d need to pay taxes on around $300,000 of profit (the approximate increase in value since we’ve lived here) that we otherwise would have avoided.

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