Thursday, May 17, 2012

Should DC Raise Its Height Limit?

That question is being discussed by Mayor Gray and Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (  Evidently, the current height restrictions, 130 feet for commercial districts and 90 feet for residential districts are restricting developers from providing more office and residential construction.  In turn this has lead to higher prices. 

On the other hand, having a low density city with historical housing stock is what makes DC unique.  We don't want DC to turn into Rosslyn or else it wouldn't be such a special place to live and work. 

What's your thought?  Preserve the status quo or let the market decide what the landscape of DC looks like?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Extra Cost to Live in a Great School District? $200,000

Ever wonder what the average housing cost differential is for homes in high-scoring public school districts vs. low-scoring public school districts?  A new report ( Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution breaks down the numbers. 

Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.  This housing cost gap reflects that home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools.  

Those sorts of numbers should weigh heavily on your home-purchasing decisions.  If you don't have school-age kids at the moment, is the purchase price premium and property tax premium really worth it?  
Another factor to consider is that homes in good school districts will keep their values better even in tough times.  With more data, you'll make better informed purchasing decisions.  We'll keep sending it your way!   

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Alexandria Planning Commission Approves Major Gentrification Project

The Alexandria Planning Commission voted to approve a major gentrification project yesterday:

The implications are broad reaching:  The area affected is 430 acres or four times the size of the Pentagon and its parking lots.  The move will shift from many of the townhouse and garden-style apartments currently available to more working class tenants to high-rises with a much higher price tag.  The city is setting aside 800 low-income units that must be provided as well as a number of improvements: a new fire station, $50 million for roads, athletic fields, etc.  

This effort is a part of a larger trend for the close-in suburbs. The real estate where many working class folks live is just too valuable to continue serving those populations.  

We'll continue reporting on these trends so you can make your investment decisions accordingly. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Look out Zipcar - New Carsharing Competition Comes to DC

You've probably seen them already.  The little blue Smart cars owned by car2go ( zipping around DC streets.  They are the latest entry into the carsharing market in DC.  As this great article on the Discovery website explains:, car2go has some interesting features.  

The most novel is that you can pick it up and return it from anywhere in the District (with a few limits).  The cars use GPS to show their current location and you can find them where the last person left them.  

Another benefit is that you don't have to reserve it in advance.  If you see one on the street all you have to do is walk up to on swipe the card they give you.  They charge you 38 cents a minute up to an hourly rate of $14.  

Lastly, you can leave the car in any legal parking spot.  

We'll see if these options draws consumers away from the more established carsharing companies.  Anything that shakes up the transportation options in the region is cause for celebration though.   

Friday, May 4, 2012

Despite Young Stars Nats Not Drawing a Crowd

Even though the Nats are in first place they are still only filling about half the stadium:

This is unfortunate.  They are a really exciting team right now.  Even with a slew of injuries to some of their best players, they are winning.  Two of their young phenoms are also electric to watch.  19-year old Bryce Harper brings an intensity to the game, which few can match.  Pete Rose (aka Charlie Hustle) would be impressed.  

Harper has a canon of an arm (here he is throwing a strike to home plate from the outfield: and is proving to be quite fielder in the outfield.  All this even though he was trained as a catcher!  In addition, the guy hits the ball hard every time.  He hit the game winner last night and is batting .375. 

Stephen Strasburg was also National League pitcher of the month in April.  He's 2-0 with a 1.13 Earned Run Average.  What do these guys have to do to get some attention?  Have Robert Griffin III throw out the first pitch?  

Eventually people will start to believe this team is legit and this will be a tough ticket to get.  Get out there and give them a look before that becomes true. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Private Equity Investors Buying Residential Investment Properties

It seems that the hedge fund and private equity crowd has finally figured out the returns that are available in the residential rental market at the moment:

The principles that we have been extolling for several years are now becoming clear to the denizens of wall street.  

Rental properties provide a hard asset with a solid return at historically low prices with room for appreciation growth.  They are definitely an opportunity ripe for the taking. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bryce Harper to Make His Major League Debut on Saturday

Much sooner than expected, 19-year old phenom, Bryce Harper will make his major league debut on Saturday in Los Angeles:

This should bring a lot more excitement to the red hot Nationals.  Another reason to get out to the park! 

We Can't All Be Donald Trump - And That's Okay

When considering the many obstacles on the road to success, you might overlook “perfectionism”, but you shouldn’t. This sneaky stumbling block can stop you from even beginning your journey.
Nancy’s Colasurdo’s excellent article, “We Can’t All be Shakespeare- And That’s Okay”, takes a look at a ‘defeat mechanism’ that can stop us from even trying to accomplish our dreams.  And as we all know, if you don’t begin your journey, you certainly won’t get there.
As a coach Colasurdo has found that clients “often feel that they have to be perfect or aspire to be at the level of someone they feel is at the top of the profession.” Looking at the end game, some feel that such an achievement is impossible for them. They forget the many steps that a leader took to achieve his or her goals.  And they also forget that each one’s way is individual.
How might this apply to real estate investing? What if a would-be investor chose Donald Trump as a model, and said, “What’s the point of buying a small rental property, or two or even three?  That’s nothing to Donald Trump.” 
But just because your journey may be different, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it. When looking at others’ success stories – remember, their starting point may be different, they have a different path to take, but the important factor to emulate is the mindset that looks for opportunities small and big and makes the most of them one by one.
Donald Trump learned the real estate business first hand from his dad, Frederick, a successful developer in Queens and Brooklyn.  When ‘the Donald’ wanted to invest in Manhattan, his dad tried to discourage him. But Trump had a vision of what he could accomplish, he felt he understood the risks, and was determined to go for it.  His mid-70’s transformation of the Commodore Hotel into The Grand Hyatt, not only made him a fortune and set him on a road to tremendous success, but it also completely revitalized a rundown area of Manhattan.
Few of us begin with Trump’s assets or a dad like his for a mentor. Instead, we have to learn the business on our own from the ground up. But we do have the ability to adopt the Trump mindset – the approach of a champion. 
What does it entail? Doing your homework, understanding the finances, taking well-considered risks, planning every step, being prepared for challenges and dealing with them, capitalizing on success, learning from failures.  And to quote Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never, never give up.”
And little by little, step-by-step you will build your real estate business, write your own story, improve neighborhoods and achieve success your way. And you’ll be glad you didn’t wait to become perfect before beginning your journey.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Pro’s and Con’s of Proposed Principal Reduction Program

In another attempt to fix the ailing housing market, the White House and Congressional Democrats are touting the benefits of a plan under which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would adopt a principal reduction program. But one man is questioning the wisdom of this approach. As we weigh the value of this proposal, we examine this man’s objections, because Ed DeMarco is acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and his opinion matters.
For some time the White House and Democrats in Congress have been urging the adoption of this approach insisting that it will save billions and get the market moving again.  DeMarco has stood his ground.  But he may be wavering.
Writing in Marketwatch on April 10, Steve Goldstein summarized DeMarco’s objections.
It’s costly. Although the Obama Administration claims it will save Freddie and Fannie $1.7 billion but that comes at a significant cost. The Treasury Department would pay out $3.8 billion in incentives for the principal reductions, meaning that taxpayers would foot at $2.1 billion bill. Some who have paid their mortgages on time, and have seen the value of their properties fall because of errant neighbors, may be reluctant to pay additional taxes to keep those neighbors in their homes.
It’s only a band-aid – and a small one at that. This program would help about 691,000 borrowers – out of about 11 million underwater homeowners.
We should use the programs that are already in place such as interest rate reduction and extending the terms of the mortgage instead of scattering our fire.
How this plays out, remains to be seen.
One question we might ask is why are so many government programs aimed at fixing the housing crisis failing so miserably?
Another question: do the politicians just want to look as if they are actually trying to fix the problem in an election year? Or are they really trying to fix the root causes, help underwater homeowners get back on their feet so they can responsibly pay what they owe, stabilize housing prices, and revitalize communities?
Let us know your thoughts on these issues.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Redskins Draft Needs

Now that it is virtually certain that the Redskins will take Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III with their second round draft pick, the question remains what needs will they try to fulfill in the later rounds.  
The Skins used free agency to sign wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan and they used the franchise tag to retain tight end Fred Davis.  So there are less needs for those positions.  Instead they need to shore up the offensive line.  
Filling Holes on the Offensive Line
Options at tackle in the third-round range figure to include Oklahoma’s Donald Stephenson, California’s Mitchell Schwartz, Iowa State’s Kelechi Osemele and Jeff Allen of Illinois.
Another lineman on the Redskins’ radar seems to be Virginia Tech’s Jaymes Brooks, a mid- to late-round prospect who played guard in the Hokies’ zone-blocking scheme but is believed to have the ability also to play center. 
Picking up Safeties and Cornerbacks
On the defensive side of the ball, the Skins need to be stronger at the safety and cornerback positions.  The team, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, has had contact with Syracuse safety Phillip Thomas, a projected mid-round player. Thomas last season intercepted six passes, which ranked sixth nationally.

Other safeties expected to be available in the third through fifth rounds include Antonio Allen of South Carolina, Michigan State’s Trenton Robinson, Aaron Henry of Wisconsin and Janzen Jackson of McNeese State.
Talented corners are likely to be available for the Redskins, who have a third-round pick, two fourth-rounders, a fifth, a sixth and a seventh. But the question for a team that also has needs at other positions is how long can they afford to wait before taking one.
One third- or fourth-round option could be Arizona State’s Omar Bolden. He established himself as one of college football’s top corners in 2010 after he earned all-Pacific-12 Conference first-team honors. He missed last season with a torn ACL.
Bolden, fully recovered, clocked a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at his school’s pro day last month and possesses the talent of a higher-round pick. But because of his injury history, he isn’t expected to hear his name called until the middle of the draft.
Oklahoma’s Jamell Fleming, Furman’s Ryan Steed, West Virginia’s Keith Tandy, Iowa State’s Leonard Johnson and Texas A&M’s Coryell Judie also lead a group of cornerbacks projected for selection in the middle rounds.
It should be an exciting draft and hopefully these changes can help end the Redskins woeful record under coach Mike Shanahan. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why the French Election Matters in the US

As the french go to the polls today for the first round of voting in their presidential election it is fair to say that not many Americans are paying attention.  We ignore what happens in the Gallic state at our peril however.  There's a great piece this weekend in the Washington Post about how the french election could affect the world economy:

Basically if the front-runner, Francois Hollande, wins then France may try to renegotiate the the Eurozone treaty.  In fact, there are major fears that the financial markets will react negatively to the fact of him getting elected.  This is because Germany may lose its partner in making sure that Greece, Italy, and Spain maintain fiscal discipline and avoid default.  We have seen the ripple effect of the Greek's flirting with default throughout the world economy and it has not been positive.  Let's hope that if Hollande is elected he approaches Eurozone questions with deliberation and caution. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's 10 Rules for Living

  • Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
  • Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  • Never spend your money before you have it.
  • Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
  • Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  • We never repent of having eaten too little.
  • Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  • How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
  • Take things always by their smooth handle.
  • When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.
  • Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    Metro to Boost Fares Up To 15% in July

    In case $4 gas wasn't enough for you, the Metro Finance Committee has voted to increase fares by as much as 15% beginning on July 1st:

    The largest fare is increasing from $5 one way to a whopping $5.75.  Many of these people also pay for parking which will go up 25 cents a day adding $1.75 to their daily commute. 

    The changes are meant to simplify the number of types of fares and help close the $103 million budget deficit.  However, many riders are left wondering whether they are paying more for deficient service. 

    Many escalators are broken more often than they are working, trains can be more packed than the Tokyo subway, and repeated mechanical failures and track work snarl traffic. 

    Hopefully, Metro will look at ways to reduce their budget and improve service without causing further strain on the wallets of their riders.  

    Monday, April 16, 2012

    The Nationals Are in First Place???

    It's very early in the season but the Nationals are currently atop the National League East with a 7-3 record.  With their $81 million payroll they are beating the Phillies who are loaded with stars and spend $175 million annually.

    What's going on?  There are a couple of factors:

    1) Phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg is healthy and pitching well.  He's 1-0 this year with 14 strikeouts and a 0.69 Earned Run Average (ERA).
    2)  Manager Davey Johnson has been able to institute his system in the organization since taking over for Jim Riggleman midway through the season.
    3)  The whole rotation is pitching great with a combined ERA of 1.99 - Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmerman are pitching really strong.
    4)  Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Jayson Werth all have batting averages above .340.
    5)  Most importantly they seem to believe in themselves and be having fun.

    Let's hope they have a better than .500 winning percentage for the first time and bring some excitement to DC baseball!

    Friday, April 13, 2012

    3 Types of Appreciation in Real Estate

    It is easy to think of appreciation in real estate as monolithic.  But there are different reasons why properties appreciate:

    1)  Inflation appreciation:  Over the long-term real estate prices have tended to rise.  In fact, the median price of a house in the United States in 1975 was $38,600.  In 2012, it is $171,250.  Prices of all assets generally increase over time due to this inflationary effect and real estate is no exception.  If it is rising for this reason alone more than the Consumer Price Index you are coming out ahead.

    2)  Demand appreciation:  This is a localized area where the demand for housing in that area exceeds the supply, forcing prices up.  These areas include those with good schools, access to mass transit, trendy restaurants that you can walk to and popular tourist destinations.  Especially when there is very little possibility to add properties to that location and the reason for the demand is strong these areas are a good bet.

    3)  Forced appreciation:  You force appreciation by improving the property and increasing the rents.  You add value by making it a nicer place to rent or buy by a larger increment than it cost you to fix it up.

    The best opportunities are when you can capitalize on all three types of appreciation.  Find a hot area, with a property that needs some cosmetic work, at a time with some real estate inflation and you'll hit a home run.

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    Finalists Chosen to Re-Design Parts of National Mall

    The Trust for the National Mall has announced the finalists for a design competition to make over areas near the Capitol, Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens.  Here are some pictures of the proposals:
    Many of these parts of the mall have not been re-designed in decades.  As a result, this non-profit group plans to raise $350 million to make these proposed changes.  There were entries from 32 teams and a jury has now narrowed it down to four finalists for each of the sites.  
    The Trust is seeking public comments to help them select the winners so make your voice heard in shaping the future of the National Mall.  Just go to this website:
    Click on the different proposals and you can submit your comments based on the proposals. 

    Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    This Maryland Man Really is a Superhero

    About two weeks ago, there were a lot of headlines in the DC area about cops pulling over a guy dressed like batman:  He was driving a black lamborghini with the bat symbol in place of the license plates.  Evidently they stopped him for not having the proper tags.
    Well it turns out that this guy is a real-life superhero.  He's a business man who made his money so he now spends his time going to local children's hospitals dressed as Batman.  He brings a ton of joy and hope to kids going through some pretty difficult times.  It's simple but an extremely inspired way to make a difference.
    Hats off to this caped crusader who had enough humility and unselfishness to help others in such a creative way.  (Here's the video of "Batman" being pulled over by the police)

    Monday, April 9, 2012

    Steve Jobs and Maximizing Your Innovative Potential

    Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen wrote a fabulous piece a couple years ago in Harvard Business Review called "The Innovator's DNA".  They did a six year study of 25 innovative entrepreneurs and surveyed more than 3,000 executives and 500 individuals who had started innovative companies.  Evidently, innovators like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page use five discovery skills to create new ideas.

    1)  Associating:  the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields.  Pierre Omidyar started Ebay because: i) he was fascinated with creating more efficient markets; ii) his fiancee had a desire to locate hard to find collectible Pez dispensers; iii)  local classified ads weren't very helpful for locating the Pez dispensers.  (This quality supports the argument for exploring a wide variety of interests: botany, history, philosophy, art, poetry, etc.)

    2)  Questioning:  Questioning the unquestionable is really important.  True innovators get a real kick out of disrupting the status quo by asking Why? Why not? and What if?

    3)  Observing:  Often the surprises that lead to new business ideas come from watching other people work and live their normal lives.  You see something and ask "Why do they do that?  That doesn't make sense."

    4)  Experimenting:  As Edison said, "I haven't failed, I've simply found 10,000 ways that do not work."  One of the most powerful experiments innovators can engage in is living and working overseas.  "In fact, if managers try out even one international assignment before becoming CEO, their companies deliver stronger financial results than companies run by CEOs without such experience.

    5)  Networking:  Innovative entrepreneurs go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains.

    What if you don't see yourself as particularly innovative?  Don't worry, innovative thinking can be developed.

    a)  Try spending 15 to 30 minutes each day writing down 10 new questions that challenge the status quo in your company or industry.
    b)  Try to sharpen your observational skills.
    c)  Start to approach life with a hypothesis testing mindset.  Attend seminars outside your area of expertise, read books that identify emerging trends.
    d)  To improve your networking skills, contact the five most creative people you know and ask them to share what they do to stimulate their creative thinking.  Hold regular idea lunches at which you can meet new people from diverse functions, companies, and industries.  Get them to tell you about their innovative ideas and ask for feedback on yours.

    Innovative entrepreneurship is not a genetic predisposition, it is a an active endeavor.

    Happy Innovating!!!

    Sunday, April 8, 2012

    Bold New 19-foot Sculpture Coming to Reston Town Center


    By 2013, the green space between Reston Parkway and the Hyatt Regency Reston Hotel in Reston Town Center will be home to this avant-garde sculpture.  It will be the work of Baltimore native Mary Ann Mears who has down similar projects throughout the country:

    Her work is playful and colorful.  With ideas drawn from nature, the sculptures are zany enough to excite the imagination of a child but still approachable to adults.  I expect it will bring much joy and delight to patrons at Reston Town Center as well as a few quizzical remarks. 

    Saturday, April 7, 2012

    The right temperament for success?

    Thomas Boswell wrote a great piece about the necessary temperament ( to win at the Masters.  Patience, calm in adversity, letting go of the past, refusing to blame others for your mistakes.  These qualities are what are needed to handle the pressure of a global sporting event.  They don't just apply to a Major golf tournament though.  

    In your real estate business, you will encounter adversity.  Tenants will be late with their rent.  Unexpected repairs will arise.  Someone else will beat you out to get the perfect property.  If you let those experiences make your blood boil, not only is it unhealthy for your body but it is unhealthy for your business.  

    Take these challenges in stride.  By planning ahead and having ample reserves you will recognize repairs and vacancies as part of the costs of owning a rental property.  You won't be ecstatic about it but you won't let it distract you from where you need to be focusing your mental energy:  the creativity that makes your business more efficient and profitable.  

    Take your setbacks as learning experiences and you won't let them slow you down.  They'll just make you stronger. 

    Friday, April 6, 2012

    Having trouble getting a mortgage? Here's why

    My good friend Rich Moroscak at Southern Trust Mortgage ( shared this great article from Forbes on all the hoops you have to jump through now to get a mortgage:

    As the article explains banks are now in the default avoidance business rather than the lending business.  It makes sense considering there were 22% default rates on mortgages loans made in 2007.  Nevertheless, the mortgage loan origination and underwriting process has become absurd.  The article is not exaggerating when it says that you will need to document every aspect of your financial life to the banks and then provide them with that information several times throughout the underwriting process.  Every transaction on your bank statements will be scrutinized and will have to be justified.  Good credit and a large down payment are no longer enough.  The underwriters now want the perfect paper file.

    To survive this new regime have plenty of patience and grin and bear it when the underwriters ask for the same documents for the 10th time.  It will be worth it when you finally close on the property.

    Thursday, April 5, 2012

    Solving the Housing Crisis With Community Land Trusts

    As the Federal government and banks roll out plans to help underwater homeowners avoid foreclosures and to protect real estate values from further decline, one community approach is having notable success in preventing the problems in the first place. Meet the Community Land Trust.  These innovative organizations – created over thirty years ago - focus on stabilizing communities by solving the problem of low income housing and thus preventing some of the underlying issues that cause housing bubbles and consequent bursts. And they have spread all across the country.
    What exactly is a Community Land Trust? The Community Land Trust Network gives an excellent description.  “A community land trust (CLT) is a private non-profit community organization that safeguards land in order to provide affordable housing opportunities. CLTs buy and hold land permanently, preventing market factors from causing prices to rise."
    “CLTs build and sell affordably-priced homes to families with limited incomes— the CLT keeps the price of homes affordable by separating the price of the house from the cost of the land. When a family decides to sell a CLT home, the home is resold at an affordable price to another homebuyer with a limited income."
    “The goal of CLTs is to balance the needs of homeowners to build equity and gain stability in their lives with the needs of the community to preserve affordable home ownership opportunities for future generations.” 

                   And many CLT’s are accomplishing their goals.  According to,
    a recent study conducted by The Housing Fund and Vanderbilt University found that
    conventional homeowners were 10 times more likely to be in foreclosure proceedings
    than CLT homeowners at the end of 2010. (The foreclosure rates were 4.63% and 0.46%
     for the conventional and CLT markets, respectively.)
    In her excellent piece in the Christian Science Monitor, (A Counterweight to Foreclosure Crisis, Community Land Trusts?) Nancy Humphrey Case describes how The Champlain Housing Trust in Vermont enabled one couple “to find a house they could afford, secure a loan, and survive the recession – without missing a single mortgage payment.”
    At the moment there are over five thousand community land trust homes across the country; but more are on the way as other cities are considering the CLT model. Of course, some critics disparage the land trusts as enemies of the free market, even leaning towards socialism.  But there’s no doubt that CLTs provide one very effective way to create affordable housing and prevent the ill effects caused by real estate booms and busts.  And they have the great advantage of being local! 

    Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    Preview of the Masters

    Spring has definitely arrived by the time the Masters kicks off at Augusta National Golf Club every year.
    The tournament is filled with tradition.  The azaleas, amen corner, butler cabin, Eisenhower's tree, the green jacket that the winner receives, the Champions Dinner where the previous year's winner picks the menu for all of the previous winners in attendance.

    The Masters is the only one of the four major PGA golf tournaments that is played at the same venue every year.  For some reason it never gets old.  There's a magic to it and this year will be no different.

    The honorary starters will be golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player.  Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and Phil Mickelson have really hit their strides and it should make for very exciting competition.  Tiger just won for the first time in 30 months at Bay Hill two weeks ago and he has 3 other top five finishes this year.  Phil had a win at Pebble Beach in February and a top four finish at the Houston Open last week.  McIlroy has been on fire with a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finish in his three PGA appearances this year.  He will of course be trying to overcome his meltdown at the Masters last year when he was leading by four strokes in the last round and almost hit a cabin with his tee shot on the 10th tee.

    Evidently, they've been getting some rain in Augusta so the perilous greens will be soft and ripe for birdies.  Scores should be lower than normal and there will be a lot of thrilling shots.  If you need a good local place to watch the action try one of our great local golf courses: Pleasant Valley ( or South Riding (  They'll have all the food and refreshments you need as well as flat screen tvs and a great atmosphere.  Enjoy this special event.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    Book Review: In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

    Rarely is there a company started like Google and even more rare is a great book to chronicle the rise of such a company.  Steven Levy ( rises to the task though.  He brings us into the brilliant minds of Sergey Brin and Larry Page.  We learn just how complicated and amazing the Google search technology is and it is constantly being improved!  It turns out, the founders of Google have this relentless drive to make things better, which is what motivates them.

    They are costantly asking Why? Why? Why?  The status quo is unacceptable to them and we are the beneficiaries of it.  Their frustration with running out of space in their e-mail accounts led to basically unlimited storage in Gmail.  Wanting to build a better browser where you could search directly the address field led to Chrome.  Wanting to have a better collaborative document system led to Google docs.

    I have a feeling they are not done with innovation!

    Beyond the incredible technology Google creates is the management lesson of how to create a successful corporate culture (Google's motto: Don't be evil) and the challenges that arise when you go from being a small smart-up to a corporate behemoth.  Many of the early employees have left Google now because they miss the excitement and creativity of an early stage company.  Getting large and successful leads to bureaucracy - something Googlers hate.

    All in all, this book is one of the most informative I've read about a subject that everyone should have a basic understanding of:  how Google shapes our world.

    Monday, April 2, 2012

    Wisdom from Warren Buffet on Investing

    Warren Buffet had a great piece in Fortune Magazine recently ( that had some great investing tips that definitely apply to real estate investing.

    He describes investing as "forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date."  What a succinct way to describe investing.  If you plan right a little sacrifice now will enable you to have more to enjoy later.

    One of the risks he identifies that we need to be aware of is inflation risk.  This is a shocking statistic that he shares:  "The dollar has fallen a staggering 86% in value since 1965, when I took over management of Berkshire.  It takes no less than $7 to buy what $1 did at that time."  You have to make sure that your investments are beating inflation or else you are falling behind.

    I love how he describes how investment bubbles are created:  "As 'bandwagon' investors join any party, they create their own truth -- for a while."

    "Over the past 15 years, both Internet stocks and houses have demonstrated the extraordinary excesses that can be created by combining an initially sensible thesis with well-publicized rising prices.  In these bubbles, an army of originally skeptical investors succumbed to the 'proof' delivered by the market, and the pool of buyers -- for a time -- expanded sufficiently to keep the bandwagon rolling.  But bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop.  And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: 'What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.'"

    That is sound advice.  If we stick to the value investing principles that Buffet espouses in our real estate purchases we will remain the wise men and women and not the fools.

    Sunday, April 1, 2012

    Bank of America Tests Out "Mortgage to Lease" Program

    As foreclosures continue to drive millions of Americans out of their homes, disrupting lives and in many cases causing blight and depressing property values in communities all across the country, Bank of America is testing a new approach to the problem.
    On March 23 the bank announced its “Mortgage to Lease” Program, which in essence will turn banks into landlords.  They are testing the plan on a small scale, offering the program to about 1,000 borrowers in Arizona, Nevada and New York.  If it is successful, they will roll it out nationwide.  And other lenders are sure to follow.
    Writing in the Wall Street Journal, BofA Tests an Option to Foreclosure, Nick Timiraos gives a comprehensive description of the plan.
    Here’s a thumbnail sketch.
    How it works: The plan will allow homeowners who risk foreclosure to give the bank the deeds to their houses, and to rent their houses from the bank. The bank would offer the former homeowner a one-year lease with options to renew the leases in each of the following two years.  The bank would offer a rent at or below the current market price.
    An example.  Timiraos uses this example to explain the numbers.  “based on a sampling of home values and rental rates in Phoenix recently, a consumer with a $250,000 mortgage and monthly payments of $1,600 could swap the house for a lease, renting the home for $900, depending on the condition of the property and the neighborhood.
    Who’s eligible: Borrowers who are at least 2-months past due on their mortgages and face considerable risk of foreclosure. They would have to prove that they are able to pay the market rent,
    The benefits: the borrower would avoid eviction, the credit damage of a foreclosure and would be able to stay in their homes for up to three years.
    The bank would get back troubled properties at a lower cost, avoid the high costs of foreclosure, and eventually be able to sell the property to an investor. In addition, by keeping homes occupied thus helping local neighborhoods, banks would help protect the value of other potentially at-risk properties.
    Will it work? No one knows. Of course, some homeowners may say, “I’m going to lose this property anyway, why not just stay here rent free while the bank goes through the long process of foreclosure?” One way to address this reaction might be to develop a plan back to homeownership for the underwater borrower.
    At the moment Mortgage to Lease is just an experiment. But if it does work it will be a great help to underwater homeowners, to banks, and of course to investors who are already buying up foreclosures and turning them into rentals.  And as home prices continue to fall and rental prices continue to rise – those investors will be lining up to seize the opportunity.

    Saturday, March 31, 2012

    Why Not Make Payments to Mortgage Principal Tax Deductible Instead of Mortgage Interest Payments

    Former FDIC Chair, Sheila Bair has a thought provoking piece in the March 19th issue of Fortune:

    In it she proposes a pretty controversial idea.  Why not get rid of the mortgage interest deduction and replace it with a tax break for paying down principal on a mortgage.  This is a very interesting question. What are we really incentivizing with a mortgage interest deduction?

    As Bair says, we are incentivizing homeowners to use their homes like a credit card because even interest on second mortages is tax deductible.  As Bair writes, "A dirty little secret of the crisis is that the majority of toxic mortgages were not made to expand home ownership. They were refinancings aggressively marketed as a tax-advantaged way to pull cash out of a house." 

    So if we really want to encourage homeownership, give consumers more of a reason to "own" more of their own home by paying down the principal faster instead of giving them a reason to hold on to a mortgage as long as they can.  I've heard people say that they don't want to pay off their mortgage because they would lose the tax break.  Ultimately that seems to benefit banks more than homeowners.  

    There are plenty of other tax breaks you can take advantage of including depreciation on a rental property (
    I would like to see some economic studies on this idea but benefiting consumers for paying down principal seems like an idea with a lot of merit. 

    Friday, March 30, 2012

    GMU in talks to Join Atlantic 10 Conference

    For all of you local GMU Patriots basketball fans, some interesting news is brewing.  There is a very real possiblity that GMU will leave the Colonial Athletic Association and join the Atlantic 10 Conference in the 2013-14 season.

    One of my favorite local bloggers reported the story here:

    What does that mean for GMU fans?  It means moving to a conference with better teams, bigger budgets, and more TV time.  They would be in the same conference with the likes of Xavier, University of Richmond, St Joe's, and UMass.  It is also rumored that two basketball powerhouses may also be joining the Atlantic 10: VCU and Butler.

    GMU would have some stiff competition and less local games in this new Conference but it could be a big draw for recruiting with more opportunities to play before a national audience.

    There should be a decision on this in about a month so we will keep you posted.

    Thursday, March 29, 2012

    Fairfax County had the largest influx of new residents in the DC area

    According to the latest available statistics, the top destination in the region for new residents is Fairfax County.  Liz Farmer gives the details in her piece today in The Examiner:

    In 2009, nearly 88,000 new residents moved to Fairfax County.  That is 20,000 more than the next closest county (Montgomery, 68,000 new residents).  The numbers are fascinating.  Apparently the reason Fairfax is no 1 is its business-friendly climate and excellent public schools.  In fact education was the main reason that Northrup Grumman chose Fairfax over Montgomery county in 2010 for its corporate headquarters.

    That type of growth and the foundation of a great educational system means its a great environment to invest in.  All of these new residents need somewhere to live so you might as well take advantage of the high demand for rental housing.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012

    Honey Pig in Centreville: Delicious Korean BBQ

    If you are looking for scrumptious, affordable korean bbq then Honey Pig ( is your place.  This restaurant is the epitome of authentic.  Korean pop blares throughout the restaurant.  The walls are festooned with advertisements and posters in Korean.

    Every table has a circular grill in the middle where they cook your favorite meats in front of you and there are a lot of options.  You can choose from pork bellies, octupus, squid, pork rib, pork neck, beef brisket, beef intestine, beef sashimi, flaming hot chicken and others.  The food (especially the pork bellies which are like large pieces of bacon) is delicious.  The grilling makes the meat very tender.  It is also accompanied by a wide variety of cabbages with varying degrees of hot sauce.  If cabbage is your thing then you will really love this place.

    The prices can't be beat.  Between $13-$15 for substantial portions.  They are open 24 hours so bring your appetite anytime.

    Sunday, March 25, 2012

    Prepaying Mortgage Interest at the End of a Tax Year Doesn't Bring Immediate Tax Breaks

    For all those in the throes of doing their taxes I thought I would pass along a little tip that I learned the hard way.

    At the end of 2011, I thought I had come up with a clever way to increase expenses and thus tax deductions in 2011.  I decided to pay my February 2012 mortgage payment on an investment property at the end of 2011 so the costs would go on the 2011 taxes.  Unfortunately, when the bank sent me my tax information it applied the payment to 2012's interest payment.  I thought timing the payment the way I did would give me an immediate tax deduction but that evidently is not allowed.

    I guess Einstein was right when he said "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax"

    Saturday, March 24, 2012

    William Carlos Williams Tribute to the Cherry Blossoms

    In honor of the cherry blossoms being in full bloom I thought this poem was appropriate:

    Cherry Blossoms at Evening by William Carlos Williams

    In the prebirth of the evening
    the blue cherry blossoms
    on the blue tree
    from this yellow, ended room --
    press to the windows
    inside shall be out
    the clustered faces of the flowers
    straining to look in

    Spa World: World Class Korean Spa in Centreville

    In the most unassuming of locations, a strip mall with an IHOP near the intersection of Route 29 and Route 28, is an incredible luxury Korean spa called Spa World (  What is so special about this place you may ask?  They do offer traditional spa services like body massages and salon services but that is just the tip of the iceberg.  This is a 50,000 square foot facility with large heated "Bade" pools, steam rooms, saunas, jacuzzis, cooling tubs, and 7 "Poultice" rooms that generate radiant heat from natural earth elements such as hot red clay, oak wood, blue onyx, salt, and amethyst.  There is even an ice room!!

    People looking for illicit services should look elsewhere.  This is a purely family friendly place.  In fact the rooms with all of the heated pools are segregated by sex.  And for good reason because you can only wear what God gave you into the pools.  (Evidently it is because of the residual detergents in swimming suits that could interfere with the ph balance in the water).

    The poultice rooms are co-ed and they give you a short and shirt outfit to wear there.

    Here's how it works:  $25 gives you 12 hour access to the Bade pool, steam, sauna, and jacuzzis.  They have delicious healthy food you can purchase and even a room where you can sleep if you want.  For $10 more you get access to the poultice rooms as well.  There are even yearly memberships of $2,000 for those who want to come really regularly.  This place is open 24/7!!

    If you ever really need to relax, this is the place to visit.  It is worth every penny.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    Public Transportation in Northern Virginia: Fairfax County Connector

    For anyone who has taken Metrobus they probably have a few war stories.  I found Metrobuses to be perenially late, never on schedule, and containing poorly functioning A/C and heat.  I also found them to take the most nonsensical circuitous routes.  Quite often I could have walked faster than taking the bus.

    You can only imagine my surprise then when I took my first bus run by the Fairfax County Connector (  Evidently the Connector took over from Metrobus a number of years ago because the County thought they could do a better job.  They were certainly right.  The Connector buses are clean, spacious, and modern.  They stick to a very strict schedule and are only late for reasons out of their control.  They also refuse to let their buses pile up leaving huge time gaps in service.

    Furthermore, they generally only have 1 or 2 stops at most so they make for a quick and efficient ride.  It is such a nice atmosphere that I have met a number of people on the bus.  A few have even become friends.

    Hopefully your experiences have been similar on the Connector.

    Saturday, March 10, 2012

    Great Investment Opportunity for a Cash Buyer

    I've listed a property for sale at 14709 Carlbern Drive in Centreville.  You can check out the specs at:  This property is going to foreclosure on March 28th and there is at least 100,000 in equity in the property.  An offer was received for 250,000, which was withdrawn and there is only 100,000 in mortgage debt on the property.  For someone with cash who can move quickly this could be the perfect deal. 

    Contact me at or 703-662-5992 if you want to make an offer. 

    Wednesday, March 7, 2012

    Should the Redskins Get Peyton Manning?

    Now that Peyton Manning is officially no longer an Indianapolis Colt, Redskins fans are definitely wondering if he is the quarterback answer their team needs? It's tough to say.  He's definitely on the downside of his career so he may not be spectacular for too many years.  He also doesn't fit with the Redskins' use of rollouts and bootlegs.  Manning just isn't that mobile.  Also the offensive line isn't built to protect a drop back passer for any length of time.  Lastly, he doesn't have too many current legitimate targets on the team.  So the Redskins will have to go find him some receivers as well.

    Evidently, the Manning sweepstakes could be over in less than a week so we should know pretty soon where he ends up.  In the meantime, give me your pros and cons of signing Manning to the Redskins.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    Learn to Shoot Skeet at Bull Run Shooting Center

    One of the great things about Northern Virginia is that it still has rural areas.  Just a short drive from our nation's capital there are farms, beautiful natural areas and places where you can go hunting.  One place to get you ready for hunting season is the Bull Run Shooting Center:

    They have reasonably priced introductory classes, shotguns to rent, and shells for purchase.  They also have five different shooting games:  skeet, trap, wobble trap, sporting clay, and 5 stand.  It is definitely a fun way to relax with friends and enjoy the outdoors.  Just one more place that makes this a unique and interesting area.

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    Book Review: Leverage Your IRA by Matthew B. Allen

    The folks at Northern American Savings Bank have written a very good book on how to use a self-directed IRA to invest directly in real estate.  They are probably the leaders in non-recourse lending to IRAs so they are definitely the experts in this complicated area. 

    The nice thing is that they make this rather daunting topic approachable.   They first explain how it is that you can use IRA money to invest directly in real estate.  Most people are unaware of that.  

    They next explain the tax implications of buying property through your IRA.  Where it gets tricky is if you use a mortgage to purchase a property in addition to using some cash from your IRA.  Then you have to pay taxes because of the unrelated debt-financed income (UDFI).  The tax you have to pay is the Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT).  They simplify the calculation of this tax as much as humanly possible.  

    The most important contribution of the book is to show you another way to finance real estate purchases in a tax deferred or tax free environment.  Leveraging your IRA does have significant benefits and it should be a part of your retirement planning.  

    Saturday, March 3, 2012

    Major League Baseball Adds Two More Wild Card Teams

    Major League Baseball has made it official.  There will be two more wild card teams in the playoffs this year.  Although any change is controversial, it should a lot of excitement.

    Basically these new wild card teams will play a one game playoff against the other wild card team to see who advances and plays the #1 seed in their division.  If this had been in place last year both the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox who had historic collapses would have gotten in to the playoffs.

    What I like about it is that it puts so many more teams in contention.  Otherwise you can get into August and 2/3rds of the teams have given up and they start dumping all of their good players to save payroll.  For a market with a rebuilding team, Nationals, this just increases the possibility that they could make the playoffs.

    For a more in-depth description of how the new rule works, Jason Stark has a great article on it:

    Play ball!