Tag Archives: haggling

Making It Your Own vs Just Owning

Today: Extreme home decorating, TRON style! (Just kidding. Well, about the TRON bit, at least.)

I used to work in Chicago's ample theatre scene for several years before I got into real estate. In fact, theatre is what brought me out here - I started my Chicago tenure with a year-long stage management internship at Steppenwolf in the late 90's. The best introduction to this article that I can think of involves reaches back to those days for the story of a set designer who was pretty well known in Chicago for her adventurous scenery endeavors.

Normally when a set designer first visits a performance space he or she will take measurements of the existing dimensions so that they can create a set that will fit on the existing stage. This is logical. The designer I'm speaking of would walk into the theatre with her plans already fixed in her mind and start her assessment of the space with "okay, first off we'll need to knock out the back wall of the building." Most of the time she was quite serious about this opening volley and would have to be negotiated down to something that left the masonry reasonably intact.

Oddly enough, her sets wound up being the most creative and best suited to the scripts they surrounded than any of the others I've seen to date.

So what does this have to do with the real estate market?


Dear Piggy: Doesn’t my Landlord have to repaint every year?

In keeping with the spirit of normal Chicago apartments, this will be the only color in the whole article.

Paging Snopes.com

"I thought my landlord had to repaint every X number of years?" I get this question all the time. Usually from tenants who are either a) looking for a reason to move, b) looking for a reason to sue their landlord, c) looking for a fight, d) looking for permission to repaint their apartment in a different color of their choice, or e) originally from other states where such things actually are required. The short answer for Chicago apartments is NO. Your landlord is not required to repaint.

It's an urban legend, guys. In fact, they're not allowed to enter your apartment for any reason unless you tell them something is broken, something is obviously broken like water overflowing into another apartment, or they're showing the apartment. However, like all urban legends it has its roots in the truth. (more…)

Balsamic Vinaigrette, Buttermilk Ranch & Your Mortgage.

So I was at McDonald's today. (Bring it on, indignant foodie brigade! You'll pry my french fries out of my cold, greasy, dead hands.) I was confronted at the palais de graisses saturées with the "Under 400 calorie" menu that they've rolled out to go with the 2012 London Olympics. A copy is below in case you've not sullied yourself with such things lately.

The McDonald's "Under 400 Calorie" menu. This will make sense in a moment. Click to super-size me.

It was the salads that caught my eye. Maybe not for dinner, but for the purposes of explaining this article. Because salads - or rather, salad dressings - make a wonderful analogy for explaining APR and interest rates.

Salads are Kind of Complicated.

So, you get your basic side salad and it's 20 calories. You nibble, you gain very little weight, you feel full, end of story. But a salad of just iceberg lettuce, cucumber slices and a couple of cherry tomatoes won't get you featured in Time Out Magazine. People start getting creative. The good folks over at "Cooking Light" explain in a nifty slideshow how a restaurant salad can quickly rack up over 1500 calories, not to mention the fat & sodium involved. The more stuff you put on your salad, the more time you'll have to spend at the gym later to work it off. But it's so easy when you're ordering the salad to say, "OK, I can have these croutons now, it's no big deal."

We've been doing this for so long that it's become a cliché - "a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips."

If you're working with a weight loss deadline - say, swimsuit season or trying to squeeze into a fancy halloween costume - suddenly the amount of exercise you'll have to do to neutralize the ranch dressing gets compressed into a far shorter time period. 500 extra calories is a lot harder to work off in a week than slowly over a few months. You start giving some thought to your order. Hold off on the croutons, swap out the buttermilk ranch dressing for a low-cal balsamic vinaigrette.

From Our Lettuce to Your Cabbage.

So when you go to buy money from a bank or a mortgage broker, you're faced with a situation very similar to ordering a salad. Every lender will offer you a different base interest rate - that's like every restaurant offering you a different combination of vegetables on a bare, undressed salad. Some banks will be small local ones, others big national ones, just like some salads are organic & locally grown while others are covered in pesticide & imported from Mexico. It's your choice as to which way you want to go.

Beyond the basic lettuce, though, there's all of the extras consider. When dealing with salad, you're talking about dressings, croutons, and maybe those tasty little sesame sticks. In the case of the other green stuff - borrowed money - it's all of the lender's assorted fees & commissions. And in the lending world, all of that stuff found in the difference between the interest rate and the APR.

Lenders charge to give you a loan. They are selling money. They have to turn a profit. They may say it's a "no-fee" loan up front to get you talking to them, but the fees may actually be wrapped up in your monthly payments instead. The government has recently started requiring restaurants to disclose the calorie content of their dishes. Similarly, the Truth in Lending act requires lenders to disclose any hidden fees that you will be required to pay, either at closing or folded in.

I'll give you an example.

This image brought to you by lots of pounding on Excel very late at night.

That chart above explains it nicely. But there's a problem. See, the APR they disclose to you is based on the thought that you'll be in the place for the entire life of the loan. Most people are not planning on staying in their home for 30 years even though they get a 30 year mortgage. So while it's all well and good that the banks are disclosing their APRs to us, it doesn't really matter if you're planning on taking off much earlier.

Shorter-Term Loans are Kinda Complicated, Too.

Remember when I started talking about dieting on a deadline up above? That's coming back now. Just like that 1500 calorie salad is a lot more of a challenge if you're trying to drop 20 pounds in a short time, the actual APR that you would be taking on will be much higher than the quoted amount of you're planning on paying off the loan in, say, 7 years.

You're still borrowing $50k plus $2k in finance charges. You're still going to have to work off those extra calories - the finance fee salad dressing, if you will - but you'll have less time to do it. Remember, you still have a loan for $50,000 at 3% interest. But with the finance fees included you're suddenly paying off the balance plus the fees in a shorter amount of time. $2000 spread out over 84 months is a lot tougher than $2000 over 360 months.

Let's take a look at what the real APR would be for someone who leaves after 7 years. I've done another handy chart below.

If you're planning on staying for a short time, the quoted APR that the bank has to give you will not mean a whole lot. This chart explains why.

In Monday's article, the savings from paying discount points and a higher down payment at closing increased with a longer stay in the property, from 9% after 5 years to 35% over the life of the loan. This is also true for APR. The longer you stay, more fully distributed those fees will become, and the closer your real-life APR will get to the numbers quoted by your lender. It will take you less time to get to your break-even point.

Wrapping it Up to Go.

It's best if you can find a mortgage broker with no difference between the actual interest rate and the APR. However, if the best interest rates you get are quoted by lenders that are going to charge you fees, make sure you calculate your own actual APR or talk with your Realtor, accountant or a neutral and mathematically gifted individual to figure out if the cost in fees will be more than the difference in quoted rates.

Let's look at another handy chart to help explain what I mean.

Don't get all excited about a low interest rate if you're going to be paying through the nose in financing fees. Give some thought to how long you're planning on keeping the property before you start shopping for a loan.

So next time you see APR don't be confused and don't mentally check out of the conversation. Lenders are going to rely on you being both a) confused by the term and b) too ashamed to ask what it means. For a high-cost lender to voluntarily explain APR to you in a clear manner would be shooting themselves in the foot. Just remember when the term comes up that it's like figuring out what to get on your salad. High APR is like high-fat dressing. The best thing for your financial health is to stay away from the extras and find the most basic, low-fat loan you possibly can.

(Aren't you proud of me? I made it all the way through that without a single "bacon bits" pun!)

Confronting our Agoraphobia, Part IV: The Active Shopper’s Guidebook

(This is the fourth and final part of a series that started with Part I: Carefully Taught, Part II: The Bad Guys are Winning, and Part III: The Long Road Back.)

Let's Get Ready to Rumble! (Or at least have a polite chat.)

If you've been following the Agoraphobia series you may be ready to start shopping actively. However, if you're the average American shopper you're going to be pushing back against a lot of training and momentum trying to convince you that negotiation is difficult, scary, futile, or a waste of time.

It isn't.

Negotiation is, at worst, a conversation with a stranger. But the American consumer has been treated for 150 years like a submissive partner in an abusive relationship. As is the case in many of these situations, learning to speak up for yourself can be difficult at first. So let's assemble a guidebook to help you get started.

Level One Negotiation - learning to talk & think for yourself:

  • For level one, level two, and level three we're talking only about goods, not services. This is about items that you can take home from the store with you.
  • From this point forward, every time you go to the store you will ask the clerks about the products you are purchasing. It doesn't have to be about price. It can be about quality, color, country of origin... just get used to having the conversation. Get to know them. Be friendly and polite.
  • Never enter a shop without a shopping list. Never purchase anything that isn't on the list. Never make the list less than 30 minutes before you enter the store.
  • I've got about 7 local grocers so I can go a bit overboard on this. I cap myself at 3 stores max when comparing grocery circulars.

    If you must pick something up that isn't on your list, shop slowly. Carry it around with you in the store for at least half an hour before making the purchase.

  • Choose your favorite direct-to-vendor shopping site - Ebay, Etsy, or Craigslist. Find something you've been meaning to buy anyhow. Choose a handful of sellers and send them each some questions about the product you intend to purchase before you buy it.
  • Go to the farmer's market closest to you and have a chat with the vendors. Ask at least 3 questions of a vendor before you buy something. And please, do buy something.
  • Pick up grocery circulars from the 3 closest shops. Figure out the least expensive combination of goods, and then compare with how much you'd pay by purchasing everything in your usual store. You don't have to actually do the shopping in split locations. Just do the math. We're practicing here. (PS, if you're in Chicago and only shop at national chain grocers I am sad for you. Check out Tony's, Food4less, Cermak Market, Harvestime, Morse Fresh Market, Mayfair Market Place, Butera and Stanley's for some great alternatives.)

Once you've been at level one for at least 3 months, you're ready to move on to level two.


Confronting our Agoraphobia, Part III: The Long Road Back

(This is part 3 of a series that started with Confronting Agoraphobia, Part I: Carefully Taught and Confronting our Agoraphobia Part II: The Bad Guys are Winning.)

Where We've Been

Over the past two entries in this series we've reviewed how bargaining has gone from common to rare, and how shopping in America has become a passive experience. We've discussed how the evolution of marketing and discounting have consolidated the power of pricing entirely in the hands of the manufacturers. We've discussed the potential gain from choosing to haggle - a peak negotiator saved $2500 in a year. That means an average negotiator could save about $1500. What we haven't discussed is how to work our way back to an even distribution of power.

Let me expand on that number a bit. $1500 saved per person, per year. 206 million adults in the United States, give or take a hundred thousand or so.[1]Wolfram alpha: What is the adult population of North America, July 2012. Roughly 10% of them are incarcerated.[2]NY Times: Adam Liptak, "1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says," Feb 2008. If the rest of them saved $1500 per year, that would total $278.2 Billion saved. Annually. (That's about 2x the annual revenue of Wal-Mart as reported to the NYSE,[3]Ycharts: Wal-Mart Stores Revenue (WMT) as of July, 2012 or, sadly, just 1.7% of the national debt at this moment.[4]US National Debt Clock, July 2012)

Let's have one more quote to get things moving forward:

"A recent Consumer Reports survey showed only 28 percent of Americans haggle over prices. A separate report from market research firm BIGresearch found 45.1 percent of adults haggle for things other than cars and homes.

However, the Consumer Reports survey found that consumers who haggle succeed as often as 83 percent of the time in landing a better bargain."

-- Yuki Noguchi, "Haggling picks up steam during recession," NPR.org, August 2009.




1 Wolfram alpha: What is the adult population of North America, July 2012.
2 NY Times: Adam Liptak, "1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says," Feb 2008.
3 Ycharts: Wal-Mart Stores Revenue (WMT) as of July, 2012
4 US National Debt Clock, July 2012

Confronting our Agoraphobia, Part II: the Bad Guys are Winning

This is part II of a series that started with Confronting Agoraphobia, Part I: Carefully Taught.

Rollback Further

My folks have a good friend - we'll call him Doug - who's learned a thing or two about saving money. A wunderkind who made an early fortune in the evolution of microloans, he knows that small amounts add up. He's also learned that to most businesses any sale is better than no sale. Doug haggles for everything. He will walk to the counter at Wal-mart with a $25 pack of t-shirts, toss it on the belt, and tell the clerk "I'll give you $15." He renovates kitchens for a living. He will go to furniture stores and open with a bid at 50% of list price.

You'd be amazed at how often he gets the discounts he requests.

Did you think you couldn't haggle at Wal-mart? Have you ever tried? If you haven't, you're probably not alone, and you aren't entirely to blame. It sounds like a fairy tale because you've been on the receiving end of a lengthy, multifaceted agenda to make you think bargaining is scary, difficult, time consuming and futile. Let's take a look at how outside forces, both intentionally and accidentally, have contributed to the decline of negotiation in commerce. (more…)

Confronting our Agoraphobia, Part I: Carefully Taught

Fear of the marketplace

"Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

-- John F Kennedy


"In North America and Europe bargaining is restricted to expensive or one-of-a-kind items (automobiles, jewellery, art, real estate, trade sales of businesses) and informal sales settings such as flea markets and garage sales. In other regions of the world bargaining may be the norm even for small commercial transactions. In Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia where locals haggle for goods and services everywhere from street markets to hotels, haggling is a strong cultural tradition that even children learn from a young age."

-- Wikipedia, "Bargaining"

There are some places in the world where to get a bargain means that you've used your market savvy to nick some of the vendors' profit back for yourself. It's a win in the game. In America, getting a bargain generally means the vendor had decided to lower her list price on a certain item for a short period of time. There is a "win" involved, but it's more like winning at slots than winning at chess. You'd not believe it from looking at the crazed shoppers waiting out front of Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve, but American-style bargain hunting is a far more passive experience than it is elsewhere.

I have a hypothesis that Americans are afraid of haggling. It's a carefully taught agoraphobia - in the true translation of the term, "fear of the marketplace." It has a twofold basis. On one side, the dogma that only the most clever can successfully negotiate a deal. On the other, the forced separation between buyers and sellers. Transactions are automated and anonymized. The pace is quickened to limit a consumer's ability to research actual value.

This is a pretty major topic, so I'll be doing this as a multiple article series over the next couple of weeks. To give you an idea of where we're headed, I've provided this handy timeline.

Spiffy, no?