Friday, May 23, 2008

Getting settled in NYC

Wow, I am actually here and actually started to get settled in my new apartment in New York City. I flew in Wednesday evening, made a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond and Duane Reade to get enough stuff for my apartment that I could spend the night. Today I opened a local bank account (at Capital One Bank, which was North Fork Bank), got my phone and Internet cable modem installed, bought and installed a new air conditioner, read almost all of my accumulated email, did a little billable work, attended a bi-weekly meeting of the local Cafe Philo philosophy discussion group, and even found a spare minute to write this blog post. Friday I may get my New York State ID, and Monday I may go down to Atlantic City for the day on the casino bus.

So, I may be close to the end of hemhoragging cash. Maybe a couple hundred dollars of minor expenses, such as keeping my old phone number on voice mail for a couple of months, a final payment or two for MSN dial-up Internet access as I transition to RCN cable access, and a few other odd expenses I am simply forgetting or things I need to do to make the apartment more liveable. And my budget for RCN for unlimited phone and cable Internet access did not include the taxes. And I need to put New York City and State income taxes in my budget as well.

With everything going so smoothly, I went and incurred an unanticipated $15 charge by running one of my credit cards slightly over the credit limit. I caught my mistake in my spreadsheet even before the credit card company is aware of the overlimit problem. All it took was a restaurant tip does not yet show on the pending charge for the restaurant. I rsuhed and made an extra payment myself online, but it will not post until Tuesday (Monday is a holiday), possibly after the tip hits my account. I called up the credit card company and after unsuccessfully attempting to get a tiny $100 increase in my credit limit, I went ahead and agreed to pay them a $15 fee to make an "emergency" payment of $100 that would post today and maybe hit my account before that incoming restaurant tip posts to my account. What a pain. Later on Friday I will call them again and ask to speak to a superviser to request that the $15 fee be waived. They actually told me that if I had simply let the account go over-limit, they would likely be willing to waive the $35 over-limit fee since I already had a payment scheduled, but I do not want my account to show that I actually did go over-limit. What a pain. The main reason I was using this account even though it was near its limit is that it pays 2% cash-back. But, they won't let you credit any of your accumulated cash-back against your balance and pending charges. How silly is that.

One pleasant surprise today was that I received a USPS Priority Mail package that I had mailed to myself on Tuesday. It contained my swiss army knife and a couple of other items that I did not want to carry on the plane and neglected to pack in the last box I shipped via UPS. Maybe I was better off forgetting to pack my knife since otherwise it would still be in transit somewhere in some fly-over state.

-- Jack Krupansky

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Budget for life in NYC

I am almost there. I am still hemorrhaging cash as I complete my move to NYC, but very soon that process will be over and then I will have to finalize and stick to a rather strict and limited budget. Most of my moving expenses are already "baked into the cake", with all of my possessions en route via UPS and my plane ticket ready for departure tomorrow morning. I have set aside cash in my brokerage account to cover all of the credit card payments. I'll spend $2.50 to take the bus to Sea-Tac airport, $7 to take the train from JFK to the city, spend some money at Bed Bath & Beyond and Duane Reade for some stuff for the apartment, spend a little on some new clothes and shoes, get my New York State ID, buy a new phone, and maybe have to buy a new air conditioner. At that point I should be "set" and ready to get back on a budget track. I also have to budget keeping my old voicemail for a month or two and paying final utilities for my old apartment.

I already did work out a budget a month ago, but I will have to revisit it and validate my assumptions.

The good news is that I will no longer have to struggle to budget two annual trips to New York City with sky-high hotel rates. There is plenty of stuff to do for free or cheaply in New York City, and Atlantic City is just a cheap casino bus ride away. I can even go to Washington, D.C. reasonably economically. I prefer the Amtak train, but the bus is fine with me as well. I look forward to being able to travel to Boston and Washington, D.C. without having to go near an airport.

-- Jack Krupansky

Monday, May 19, 2008

Microsoft and Yahoo now making some sense

The so-called "renewed" talks between Microsoft and Yahoo are a lot more sensible. Rather than pursuing a full-blown takeover, Microsoft is seeking some sort of arrangement that will provide Microsoft with access to Yahoo's customer base to display ads for Microsoft advertising customers. The terms and details are anybody's guess. Some sort of "partnership" between the two companies makes a lot more sense than the large-scale disruption of a full takeover. Although Microsoft says that it reserves the right to pursue a full takeover in the future, it also stated that in the near-term it does not intend to pursue a takeover. Overall, this announcement is very good news, especially for Microsoft shareholders, even if mindless traders initially gave a negative knee-jerk reaction.

From the chatter about a proposed or hypothetical deal, it sounds somewhat similar to the proposed deal between Yahoo and Google, but the question then becomes how Microsoft would make its proposal more attractive than that of Google, since Google can charge a premium for ads. Maybe... maybe Microsoft would be willing to shift some or all of its online content to Yahoo content and then split the resulting ad revenue with Yahoo. Microsoft might also "offer" to host content on its growing "cloud" infrastructure, an investment whose expense is straining Yahoo's limited finances but is a key investment for Microsoft and makes more sense at the scale envisioned by Microsoft. In other words, Yahoo could leverage off of Microsoft's data center investments. That is speculation on my part, but it would make sense and allow Yahoo to focus on content and services while Microsoft focuses on software and infrastructure and a larger-scale advertising business.

See: Microsoft Issues Statement Regarding Yahoo! - May 18, 2008 - Microsoft announced that it is continuing to explore and pursue its alternatives to improve and expand its online services and advertising business:

"In light of developments since the withdrawal of the Microsoft proposal to acquire Yahoo! Inc., Microsoft announced that it is continuing to explore and pursue its alternatives to improve and expand its online services and advertising business.  Microsoft is considering and has raised with Yahoo! an alternative that would involve a transaction with Yahoo! but not an acquisition of all of Yahoo!  Microsoft is not proposing to make a new bid to acquire all of Yahoo! at this time, but reserves the right to reconsider that alternative depending on future developments and discussions that may take place with Yahoo! or discussions with shareholders of Yahoo! or Microsoft or with other third parties. 

"There of course can be no assurance that any transaction will result from these discussions."

-- Jack Krupansky

Friday, May 16, 2008

Box of pain

I am in the process of sorting through my stuff to see what I can toss out rather than ship to my "new" apartment in New York City next week. I actually do not have that much in the way of physical possessions. No furniture other than two oriental rugs and no electronic gear other than my notebook PC that fits in my backpack. No kitchen or dining ware since I do not cook. Mostly I have a lot of files packed in standard office filing boxes, mostly one per year dating back to 1993 and other business records. I have been keeping files back to 1998 due to ongoing dot-com securities litigation and older business records related to a couple of former software products that I used to sell and simply to preserve evidence of my ownership and investment in that intellectual property. Most of these files were and are very organized and simply need to be re-boxed since past shipping has left some of the boxes in rather sad shape.

And then there is 2005, or what I now call my "box of pain."

That was the year I filed for personal bankruptcy. Some of my records were in fact in a box labeled 2005, but I had several other boxes which had bags of unfiled papers dating from 2004 through early 2006. It is all somewhat of a haze, but apparently the distraction of extreme financial difficulty prevented me from successfully completing even the simple task of filing telephone bills in the appropriate manila folder.

It took me about three hours, but I finally sorted through all of those records and filed them in the appropriate boxes.

Who knows, maybe that simple act of filing those papers will finally allow me to put that "year on pain" behind me. Actually, 2005 was not my most painful year. The period from June 2003 through June 2004 was probably the worst since not only was my balance sheet drawn down to zero and my credit cards maxing out, but I simply could not find professional work. In April 2004 I finally found a little part-time work and then in July I found some full-time contracting work, but not steady enough to regain control of my credit card debt and minimum monthly payments. I had some full-time work in the Spring of 2005, but when that was reduced to part-time in June of 2005 I finally bit the bullet and decided to pull the plug. I met with a bankruptcy attorney in early June, got my "affairs" in order by moving out of my NYC apartment and paying down some back taxes (and buying a new computer to replace my four-year old one) and then actually filed for bankruptcy in August 2005. It was discharged at the end of November 2005, but I still had all of my back taxes to pay off, which finally occurred just two months ago.

I finally got back to my normal habit of carefully filing records in a timely manner halfway through 2006, but all of my records remained packed up unsorted in boxes until yesterday.

Now, I feel that I am all caught up, sort of. At least my 2005 "box of pain" is in order.

-- Jack Krupansky

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Moving to NYC

My decision has been made and the deal is done. Yesterday I signed a lease for a studio apartment in New York City. Rent is $1695 and I only had to fork out one extra month of security (two months total) due to my bankruptcy on my credit report. Since it was before the middle of the month my lease starts on May 19th.

The place is somewhat "funky", but works for me. It does not have a kitchen sink (only in New York!), but it does have a door onto the rooftop terrace, so it is probably a net good deal for me. It also has plenty of natural lighting, with a window and door (to the roof) on one wall and another window on the opposite wall, so I can get a cross-flow of air as an alternative to using the air conditioning as much as I might need to for a "normal" city apartment. The building is mostly surrounded by taller buildings, so it gets decent shade for much of the day. And since it is facing the interior, street noise is somewhat muted. The floor is linoleum tile, which is fine with me. A lot of NYC apartments have hardwood floors.

It is on the 10th floor of an older building. It does have an elevator, but also has a really nice wide stairway and I like to walk a lot anyway. When I had my apartment in Tudor City I used to walk up eleven floors all of the time.

The manager has a full-time office in the building, which assures better service for issues that might arise. I dealt directly with the manager (with my broker), who makes all of the management and operating decisions, which is much better than a lot of situations, especially for the typical "walk-up" apartment building you find in the city.

I went through a broker, Century 21, so I had to pay a fee of 15% of the annual rent (typical in Manhattan). Ouch. Yeah, that is a lot of money, but it gave me access to an apartment that I might not otherwise have been able to find on my own or as quickly. Total time from initial meeting with the broker to walking away with a signed lease was just under seven hours. I did look at a couple other apartments and a lot of other listings, but I was able to focus my priorities and the initial listing was a great match to begin with. I did find this listing on Craigslist.

I think I was lucky to get this apartment. People were calling while I was sitting in the manager's office filing my application and still calling when I was signing the lease and the manager had the card for someone ready to file an application if I backed out. Finding an apartment in a doorman building in midtown east in Manhattan with a terrace for less than $1700 is quite a good deal.

Electricity is the only utility that I have to pay. The apartment has an electric range, but I don't cook. It has steam heat. It does have an air conditioning unit left by the last tenant which is in so-so condition, so the good news is that the apartment is wired and set up for A/C, but I may have to buy a new window A/C unit depending on what shape the old unit is in, especially in the middle of the summer.

Now I need to decide what to do about telephone and broadband Internet access. Since I need broadband for my work, I may go with cable-based phone service from either Time-Warner or RCN. I do not watch TV, so I do not need normal "cable" access, but the package price may still be a decent deal, especially since traditional phone service is so pricey these days.

I flew to NYC on a one-way ticket. I still haven't decided when to fly back to Bellevue, WA. I need to make some arrangements for window shades and whatever else I may need to do to make the apartment ready for occupancy. One of my priorities for an apartment was to get a "doorman building" so that a lot of services can be arranged even though I am not at the building.

The location is quite decent (for me), in midtown east, on 50th Street just east of Lexington Avenue. That is a block away from Ess-a-Bagel, the best bagel shop in the world.

The really good news is that the most anxiety-provoking part of the move is done. Sure, plenty of the remaining tasks will be annoying and distracting, but manageable and with minimal uncertainty.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Moving to NYC?

Last week, Anonymous left a comment on one of my blogs asking:

So - what did you ever decide about the move to NYC?

Good question, but I did not have an immediate answer. The short answer was that I had decided that the first week in May was when I was going to decide both whether to renew my apartment lease in Bellevue, WA and whether and where to move if I did not renew the lease, including whether I would move to NYC.

Unfortunately, I focused on my bill-paying work last Monday and Tuesday and didn't seriously dive back into looking at apartment listings in Craigslist until Wednesday. I had been checking the listings off and on over the past month or so, but was disappointed that prices didn't seem to be falling due to the weak economy. Sure, there are some apartments in the $1450 to $1550 range (or even below $1200 in Harlem), but they are somewhat... depressing. I was considering a couple of apartments in the $1600 to $1650 range in Tudor City, but the ones I knew about were actually rented by the end of the week. I probably could have picked up one of them, but I was not yet comfortable with paying $1600 in rent. When I lived in NYC back in 2004, I was paying $1275 in Tudor City.

So, by the end of the week I still did not have a new place lined up and the deadline for giving notice not to renew my lease (Sunday) was looming.

Friday afternoon I finally bit the bullet and went ahead and gave notice on my current lease. I felt that I had enough options in New York, or that I could move to Washington, D.C. or Atlantic City if New York didn't work out.

One of the reasons I did not get one of those apartments in Tudor City is that with personal bankruptcy only a little more than two years ago, the apartment co-op board might not approve my application. My broker had a call in to the board to find out, but unfortunately a couple of people snapped up the apartments before the board called back. The only other apartments in Tudor City that the broker had were in the $1800 range. I should call the broker back to at least find out what the board's answer was.

This morning I talked to another broker who had a place listed for $1695 that actually sounded fairly decent. I gave him all the details of my financial situation and he said I should be fine as long as I was willing to prepay rent, and that pre-paying maybe six months or even the whole year would sway a fair number of landlords.

So, I went ahead and made the decision to fly to New York City on Monday and meet with the broker on Tuesday morning.

I decided to fly one way since I have no idea how long my search will take and I will want to fly back to Bellevue ASAP to starting sorting through junk and packing.for my move. I will probably ship all my boxes via UPS.

I checked out prices on Priceline but decided to make a reservation directly with Continental since I did not see any non-stop flights that would get me into NYC at a reasonable hour. I booked a flight leaving Seattle at 11:30 a.m. that arrives in Newark a few minutes before 8:00 p.m. for "only" $460, one way. I could have gotten a round trip on Priceline for $500 to $550 (with stops and connections), but I had no idea when to schedule the return and staying an extra night or two in NYC would erase any savings on the flight. And, Priceline was not showing any non-stop flights. I will book a round trip from New York City to Bellevue, WA as soon as I finalize my new apartment. That could take a single day or two or could take an entire week or even longer.

Then I bit another bullet and used Priceline to reserve a hotel in NYC at least for the first couple of nights. I tried to get a place for $250 for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, but had no luck. I checked and it turns out that the rate jumped dramatically from Tuesday to Wednesday. So, I bid again for just Monday and Tuesday nights and did get a place for $250. Unfortunately, Priceline put me in the Wellington Hotel, which it did as well back in November on my last visit. My first night there in November was horrible, with poor heating incredible noise and a rather drab and depressing room that was in desperate need of renovation. Not something worth two and a half stars. A Holiday Inn Express would have been much better. I complained (back in November), but since I had checked in late in the evening they had no other rooms. They did put me in a much better room the second night, but that still did not make up for the disappointing experience of the first night. I tried to call the hotel today to put in a request for a decent room, but they said there was nothing they could do yet since it sometimes takes 24 hours before the Priceline reservation gets into their system. I also called Priceline to complain, but they simply suggested that I go ahead and check in and then call Priceline immediately if there is any problem and then Priceline will directly call the hotel on my behalf. The problem is that since my flight does not arrive in Newark until about 8:00 p.m., even the 8:30 p.m. shuttle bus will not drop me off in New York until about 9:30 p.m., so I will get to the hotel around 10:00 p.m., which almost guarantees that I will get one of the last remaining rooms and make it difficult for even Priceline to fix things up for me. And then, that is kind of late to find a decent restaurant on a Monday evening. I could go to dinner as soon as I get off the bus, but then I would be checking at after 11:00 p.m., which only increases the probability that I will have to hassle with the front desk. I will give the hotel another call tomorrow and see if they can flag me for early check in and somehow verify that my "standard" room is not as defective as the last time I was there.

If I need to stay beyond Wednesday, I may try Priceline again or take the casino bus to Atlantic City and stay down there for a couple of nights. That is a long commute, but it is cheap on the casino bus and a lot cheaper than paying more than $250 in NYC -- as long as I do not dump the savings into a slot machine! And depending on how things are going in NYC, I may also look around for a cheap place to rent in AC as a backup plan. Or, I could even take the bus from AC to DC (Washington, D.C.) and check out some apartments there.

Olympic Trailways runs the CoachUSA bus between Newark Airport and midtown Manhattan. The round trip ticket costs $25 and can be purchased online to avoid hassling with cash and you can get right on the bus. It is nominally a 50 minute ride. They stop at Port Authority, Bryant Park, and Grand Central Terminal.

So, I have my flight, my bus to the city, my hotel for two nights, and my appointment on Tuesday morning with a broker who claims to get "a hundred" new listings every week. I am good to go, so far.

The broker emailed me their "requirements" just to get started. Being self-employed, I need copies of the first two pages of my last two years of income tax returns, a letter on company letterhead from my accountant verifying the income reported on those returns and my forecast income for this year, and a debit card that can charge the last month's rent and one month's rent as deposit since they do not take personal checks or credit cards. And then there might be application fees and credit checks by individual landlords.

AND THEN, brokers in NYC typically charge a 15% fee on rentals. And that is 15% of the annual rent. So, if I manage to rent an apartment for $1750, the broker fee would be... $3,150. Ouch. That's life in the big city. Yes, there are brokers and owners  who do not charge fees, but they are typically managing a single property or small collection of properties, so you would have to bounce around to more owners and brokers to get access to a comparable number of properties. And, in my case, I would have to repeatedly tell my financial story about bankruptcy and part-time self-employment. This broker can figure out which properties to focus on and which to skip. I do want to find a doorman building for security, deliveries, handling mail and package issues, etc. That may add another $100 or $200 to the price for an apartment compared to a non-doorman building. And I would prefer to be in midtown east for convenience, which is a little more pricey.

So, that is where my infamous move to NYC stands. But until I finalize a deal for an actual apartment, I will not have made a final decision.

-- Jack Krupansky