Housing Market Is On The Move In Southern California

According to Union Tribune “DataQuick expects to report today that the six-county Southern California region saw defaults rise nearly 159 percent last month to more than 9,200, compared with 3,562 in April 2006, and that foreclosures skyrocketed from 311 to more than 2,800 over the same period. San Diego’s defaults rose from 554 to 1,346, and foreclosures increased from 85 to 525, April to April.”

“But San Diego was painted as an area less vulnerable to any further major downturns, contingent on the health of the general economy. Reasons include relatively few unsold, newly built homes and new projects; steady if not improving job growth; and an earlier end to the housing boom than other markets where sales and prices are now in decline. … Prices, which had peaked at $517,500 in November 2005 and lately dropped to as low as $472,000 in January, have recovered somewhat to stand at a median $490,000. But they remain 10 percent or more below where they stood a year ago in many neighborhoods”.

As I remember, the housing market in San Diego headed south earlier than Los Angeles and San Francisco. The current slide was only from the drain of cheap money, which means that the market is vulnerable to further slides resulting from rising foreclosures and the weakening of local job market. Unfortunately, with depreciating housing value, foreclosures are rising really fast. With economy growth significantly slowed down, the job market is unlikely to absorb the loss in housing related jobs. So there are certainly more drops to come.

Tips on finding a competent real-estate agent

With a burst of U.S. housing bubble, affordable housing may finally come in a few years. I started to learn some knowledge on real estate investment a while ago. From what I learn, a competent real-estate agent is invaluable. Here is one interesting article from MSN titled Find a superstar real-estate agent.

Besides referral, the article listed eight questions to ask your candidate agents:

  1. May I see your resume? This is an interesting one. I have been interviewed by many people, and didn’t expect that I can interview agents this way. I’ll take this advice.
  2. What’s your commission? Only relevance to a seller?
  3. What makes you special?
  4. How often will I hear from you?
  5. What’s your plan for marketing my home? Seller only.
  6. How many transactions did you complete last year?
  7. What do you know about the neighborhoods where I want to live? I’m surprised that information on crime and school performance are not allowed to be disclosed by real estate agents. Again, asking for information sources such as Sperling’s Best Places may come in handy.
  8. Are you a solo agent or part of a team? This may impact how you evaluate the performance of this agent.

Now expensive U.S. Healthcare is also inefficient?

Two days ago a report from Commonwealth Fund came out comparing healthcare in five developed countries: United States, Germany, Britain, Australia and Canada. And the conclusion: “The U.S. health care system ranks last compared with five other nations on measures of quality, access, efficiency, equity, and outcomes.”

It is well-known that we have the most expensive healthcare in the world. And many people are proud of the fact that the U.S. has the most vigilant and productive market for biomedical research and pharmaceutical companies. I even read about envious comments on U.S. healthcare industry from a British economist on The Economist. However, it is undeniable that the paid price might be too high: we have fast growing insurance premiums; about 1/6 of total population is uninsured mostly because of affordability; need to pay the most for prescription drugs compared with everywhere else in the world…

How much more do we pay for health care compared to other countries? “Per-capita health spending in the United States in 2004 was $6,102, twice that of Germany, which spent $3,005. Canada spent $3,165, New Zealand $2,083 and Australia $2,876, while Britain spent $2,546 per person.” $6000 annual expense per-capita is a lot of money. For a family of four, that’s $24,000 per year. Twice that of other rich countries is simply too much, not a good buy!

However, U.S. healthcare providers are usually very proud of themselves for being the best in the world. Medical students have been trained to give patients the best care possible regardless of the cost, and we also know very well that how long (months and years) patients need to wait inline to have a non-emergent medical procedure done in UK and Canada. We actually read some similar stories on HMO or Medicare patients in the U.S.

Now why is U.S. healthcare also inefficient? Let’s take a look at the primary measures: infant mortality and healthy lives at age 60. Given the high prevalence of obesity and diabetes, I can understand why the U.S. did not do well in the later measure. However this is hardly the responsibility of the healthcare system alone, given the powerful commercials from fast food chains targeting our young children. Another convenience measure is also understandably low for the U.S. healthcare system: emergency room waiting time. If you have 1/6 uninsured people who on average need more serious interventions and only get medical care in various emergency departments of hospitals, how fast can you expect patients turned around there?

“The area where the U.S. health care system performs best is preventive care, an area that has been monitored closely for over a decade by managed care plans,” I am rather surprised by this measure. Vaccines in U.S. are usually expensive and not covered by health insurance. In fact, there are many such examples that private insurance companies put their short-term profitability above long-term societal values, which in the end, leads to higher medical cost for everyone.

In the end, I think that we are indeed paying too much for healthcare. Ethically and economically speaking, we should have a national program to cover uninsured 45 million people and free ERs from providing the care though expensive, but usually very late. Educating people to have a healthy life-style is at least as important as medical technology to reverse the increasing prevalence of chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

How much do we need for healthcare after retirement?

Healthy fully-employed young professionals may not pay much attention to healthcare cost. However, that will be an expensive part of retirement savings. Fidelity Investments have released its annual study for retiree healthcare cost for seven years. It is reported that “a 65-year-old couple retiring this year needing about $215,000 to cover medical costs after they stop working”. I remember some young people were arguing if 1 million dollars are enough in 30 years for retirement. This report certainly shed a light on the answer: you will need $521,861.43 in 30 years assuming healthcare cost increases at a historical annual inflation rate of 3%; $1,270,281.51 in 30 years if healthcare cost increases at an average of 6.1% annual rate as in the last seven years.

And the scary part is the conservative assumptions of Fidelity’s estimate. It’s not all healthcare cost.
1. It doesn’t include over-the-counter medications, most dental services and long-term care;
2. It assumes retirees have no employer-provided health care coverage;
3. It projects life expectancies of 82 for men and 85 for women.

People may wonder if we can get employer-provided health care coverage after retirement in 30 years. Let’s look at this trend identified by the same study: “between 1988 and 2006, the share of large employers offering retiree health benefits declined to 35 percent from 66 percent. Employers also have shifted more of the costs to retirees through higher premium contributions and higher cost-sharing requirements.” It does not look like that most of us can get it!

Fidelity actually has a breakdown of annual medical expenses.

Type of Expense Annual Cost Monthly Cost
Medicare A Premium $0 $0
Medicare A Deductible $231 $19
Medicare A Co-Pay $51 $4
Medicare A Skilled Care $77 $6
Medicare B Premium $1062 $89
Medicare B Deductible $83 $7
Medicare B Co-Pay $902 $75
Other misc. $293 $24
Dental/Vision/Hearing $388 $32
Medicare Supplement (Medigap) F2 $2,244 $187
Prescriptions (Medicare Part D)3 $1,300 $108
Total: $6,631 $551

Are you ready?

A whole new market for anti-depressant producers?

Since there has been so many bad news for pharmaceutical companies for a while, I feel that there stocks may come to some historical low now. I started watching the news from this industry closely to look for a bargain time.

Today I got this news sent to my email: Lilly Receives FDA Approval For Antidepressant For Dogs.

My glasses literally fell down off my nose. I know that dogs get sick too, I know that dogs sometimes look sad too, but I do not know that they are “depressed” too. How do they diagnose a dog to be “depressed”? I guess some dogs become “suicidal” too? Where do dogs get prescription? From a psychiatrist, or from a veterinarian?

This is a great new market for anti-depressant producers. If dogs can be depressed, so can cats, birds… any pets. How many pets do we have in this country?

Maybe time to buy these stocks?

Got my second raise.

Just got a small raise yesterday. together with a small promotion. I made a mistake by accepting a very low starting salary. Thanks to Yannick’s persistence, I started the battle for correcting it since last year. And I am lucky to have two bosses who are very nice to me. I won both battles, and adding up, it is about 30% raise in a year.

I am not really that pround of the raise or promotion. As my boss says, this is still very low compared with market value. But I made the mistake, and this is as much as he can help.

But I am really grateful to my boss. 30% raise for a new hire in the first year is very rare, I believe.

This actually encourages Yannick to go to Industry.I am one of those women who find “asking for a raise really difficult”. On the other hand, I feel that Yannick is obessed with “fighting for a raise”. Both times, it was him who pushed me to fight for the raise. And he keeps saying that one of the regrets he might have from going to academia is that he will lose the opportunities to fight for a raise.

And recently, moomin’s little raise discouraged him even more from going for academia.

What shall I say? He is in a field where a professor’s pay is much lower than a professor’s pay in my field. I wanted him to be a professor, based on my knowledge, which does not apply to his case.

And, if I still want to be a stay-home housewife, I think that I should help him to go to industry. After all, I would rather encouraging him to fight for a raise than struggling for the little pay check myself. He can enjoy the battle, I can enjoy the money, a real win-win situation.

How much premium are you willing to pay for top university education?

Since our last discussion about PhD’s career choice, I came across an interesting discussion about paying for education in a forum.

“Case study: please see quick summary for more details.
A 17 yr old got into one of the top 5 schools (the $48k a yr type) and her parents make about $250k so she cannot get fin aid. She can get a free ride to a state school that actually has a lot of national merit scholarship finalists going there, so it’s not a dump.
I turned the problem around countless times (mostly at around 3 am).
What would you wise fatwallers do? Right now I try to convince her that free undergrad is better than $200k top school, especially if she wants to go to grad school right after undergrad. Am I wrong to ask her that?
Personal experiences and/or any other advice are greatly appreciated.
Thanks a lot!

Edit: MIT vs. Ariz State honors college; her goal is med school.

Ok guys, thanks. More replies than I expected. I really appreciate this. Her parents are old friends of mine and they asked me for input.

I am glad to see that my main thinking gets somehow confirmed:
-want to go into engineering and work directly after undergrad: MIT no-brainer
-want to go to med school: ASU might not be a bad choice

Her parents are in their low 40s but they’d really like to semi-retire early (before 50). They have about $400k in assets. They came here I believe about 8 or 9 yrs ago and they started earning in the $200k range 2 yrs ago. They live frugally, no bmw, lexus, etc. Perhaps their only extravagance is some international travel. However, their thinking is that they can pay for med school, no questions asked. They also are afraid that her going to MIT might entice her to stop after undergrad and scrap the medical school plans. I also believe that the MD job security is better than life in a cube, even at GS or GOOG.
Right now she is depressed, she thinks that her dreams are being shattered by not going to a top school.”

Many people joined the discussion, including graudates from state colleges, graudates from MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and recruiting faculty at graduate schools or medical school. Many people faced similar difficult choice.

The thread originator concluded

“I am glad to see that my main thinking gets somehow confirmed:
-want to go into engineering and work directly after undergrad: MIT no-brainer
-want to go to med school: ASU might not be a bad choice”

I disagree, not just on his/her main thinking, but also on his/her summarization of the discussion. As I read through all the replies, I feel that the majority of the people do not regret what they chose–Ivy League or state college. Those who chose to go to top universities do not regret being in a school with “unusual culture where hacking and tinkering with things and figuring out how much bend there is in the rules are all valued” even though they came out of school with $10K debt, Those who chose state college felt happy that they left college without any debt, and went to good graduate school afterwards. These people emphasize that only the rank of the graduate school counts.

Yannick and I discussed this during the dinner time. We came for PhD program, which normally offers full fellowship or assistantship, so going to a top university was a no-brainer for us. If our kids someday face this choice, what shall we do?

At first, I was inclined to recommend the 17 year old girl to attend a state university. I was a TA for a class with more than 900 students in an Ivy League University. We had to divide the class into small TA review sessions. I was TAing two honor sessions, each with about 22 students. While I did see some very smart and hard-working students, I do not think that they got much attention from the professor. Some later came to me for recommendation letters, because the professor is not very accessible. Those famous professors in top universities are famous because they do research, they publish papers. They get recognition only by the number of papers they publish, or the level of the journal their papers get published. To publish papers, they had to squeeze their teaching effort. Pretty much every professor I know consider teachinga a burden. What’s the point of paying $200K to a school where the professors never see you anyway, and do not pay much attention to teaching?

However, after the discussion with Yannick, I started to change my mind. I transferred from an Ivy League university to another top private university, so I do not really know much about public schools. I started TAing graduate course after my transfer, so I really do not know the undergraduate life well either. Yannick has been to both public and private universities, and his experience tells him that the course qualities at the private school are better than the public school he stayed even when they are ranked similarly ( I guess public school professors pay even less attention to teaching?) And more importantly, you see many more smart people in a top university, and you will learn and benefit from them.

Moreover, as I read through the discussion, I saw surviving bias in the replies from those state college graduates. It looks like that everyone is happy with their decision. However, most of the state college graduates who do not regret are people that survived well in the public schools. Most of them got admission to the medical school, or went to top universities for PhD programs later. I do not see many replies from people who chose public state universities and went to work afterwards. Where are they? Does that mean that anyone who face this choice will survive well out of the public school? I doubt it.

My hypothesis is: given a group of people who faced similar choice as described and who chose to go to public school, those survived well out of public schools tend to reply to the thread more than those who did not. 17 is a very young age, anything can happen. What if she decides not to go to graduate school? What if she gets to know people whom she should not know?

Only satisfied people responded. So we have to take some discount on these replies. There are people who dropped out from top universities, like Bill Gates, we can be sure that he does not regret. There must be a lot people who dropped out from public schools too, but we do not see them very often in the news.

Yannick and I do not belittle public schools. But I am very risk-averse. If our kids face the same decision, I think that we will let them choose MIT. After all, I know that they have a much higher probability of making good friends at MIT than at ASU, and with that, I will have some peace in mind. And if we have a daughter, I will sent her to MIT or Stanford, no question asked! She can bring back a very good husband, maybe better than Yannick (I have not found one yet, and will not :). $200K is a lot of money, but our peace of mind and our children’s happiness are worth more than $200K, right?

Better start saving for our children now, and prepared to rent for a long, long time. I believe that the investment in education will give higher return than investment in real estate or stock market.