News Link – A 15,000 dollar tax credit for buying a house after all??

I saw this link on one of the message boards I frequent. Apparently the Senate wants to increase the home buyer tax credit to 15,000 and remove the income and first time buyer restrictions.  Originally, when the stimulus bill was being considered in Congress, the first time home buyer tax credit was $15,000 in the Senate version and nothing in the House version. Through negotiations, the tax credit was watered down to $8,000 with certain restrictions.

Now apparently to encourage even more home buying the Senate would like to increase this tax credit back to the original $15,000! You got to love the government for trying. Personally, no tax credit is going to completely solve the problem with people losing their jobs, unable to meet their monthly obligations, and unable to easily get approved for financing.

This is definitely one to watch though.

Senators Want Homebuyer Tax Credit to Rise to $15,000 (Update2) – Bloomberg.com.

Advertisements

Twin Cities Restaurant Review – Enjoy Restaurant in Apple Valley, MN

On Saturday, June 13, A friend and myself at a restaurant called Enjoy. I admit I am a city person so I probably would have never gone to this restaurant myself, but my friend insisted on driving somewhere and she had one of those 2 for 1 entertainment coupons. The biggest selling point was the happy hour on tap beers for $2.00. So who was I to argue with not having to drive, being able to save some money, and getting cheap on tap beer? Plus it had been awhile since I had caught up with my friend. So the situation was pretty hard to argue with.

Location:Enjoy is located in Apple Valley, one of the southern suburbs in the twin cities metro. It is off of Cedar Avenue, but if I was driving there I would have had to google maps it to figure out how to get there. I am sure it is convenient for those who live in Apple Valley and south metro.

Pre-Restaurant Experience: We weren’t actually planning on going to Enjoy to start out with. I can’t remember the name of the other place, but when my friend called to see how busy the first place was, the person who answered the phone did not sound too happy to take a reservation. So a few minutes later, my friend decided to cancel our reservation and call Enjoy. Enjoy gladly took our reservation and indicated they weren’t overly crowded for a Saturday night. Restaurant managers and staff – let this be a lesson that when you answer the phone be sure to act pleasant as it could affect your potential customer’s perception of the restaurant even before they step foot in the door.

In Restaurant Experience: My friend and I arrived while happy hour was still going on. This was definitely a major plus in my book. The restaurant does have an outdoor patio which there were some people eating at. Since it was getting, we decided to eat at the bar area where there was plenty of room. If you look on Enjoy’s website, the bar area is the only area that is not pictured, but it is nice and relaxing and fits the whole casual dining atmosphere.

We were promptly seated and I immediately began flipping through the selection of on-tap beers which included Fat Tire, Guinness, and Harp. Originally, I was going to order a fat tire on tap, but I changed my mind at the last minute and went with a black and tan. This was definitely a wiser move because it let me re-discover black and tans!

After a round of drinks and thumbing through Enjoy’s menu, we were ready to order. I ordered a 10oz. Prime Rib (queen prime rib) which came with 2 sides and my friend ordered a chicken dish. Our friend was delivered fairly quickly. One thing I do want to comment on is the number choices you have to pick from for sides. There are 11 sides including baked potatoes, grilled asparagus, sauteed mushrooms, steamed green beans, creamy hash browns, sweet potato fries, garlic mashed potatoes, macaroni & cheese, steamed broccoli, whipped sweet potatoes, and creamed spinach. This is certainly enough to satisfy anyone’s desire to eat healthy or a little unhealthy. I went with the mac and cheese and the steamed green beans. I certainly did not regret these choices either.

Even though I ordered the smaller prime rib, I found it to be very filling. In fact, I could not finish it all. This was partially due to the fact the sides I choose were decent portions and the beers I drank while waiting also filled me up. I enjoyed eating the prime rib and found it made no problems in the way it was prepared. By the time we were done eating our meals, we were extremely full and did not have any room for desert.

Paying the bill: Between my friend and I our bill was about $40 with tip. This included 2 entrees and 3 beers. Definitely not bad for a casual dining place in the suburbs of the twin cities. Also having the 2 for 1 coupon helped. Our dinner would have been less without the drinks but it is hard to pass up $2.00 on tap beer.

Verdict: While I can not say that I will be a regular at Enjoy dining, I had a really positive experience. Everything from the cheap beer, food, and service were good. Understanding that there are many restaurants in the twin cities metro, Enjoy would be one to consider if you lived in the south metro and especially if you have an entertainment coupon. If I lived in the area and had out of town guests and needed a high quality, “safe” restaurant pick, Enjoy would be a good bet to go with.

Note: I apologize for the lack of photos. I did not have my regular camera on me and my iPhone does not do very well in low light situations. I will try to take photos of the food I order at various restaurants on a more regular basis.

China Trip Update 2 – Booking my Hostels and choosing my seats on the Northwest Airlines

My previous update on my trip to China discussed why I wanted to go to China and receiving my Chinese visa.Now that it has been a few weeks I wanted to provide an update on my activities to prepare for the trip. So far to date, I’ve done some research into sites to visit, but I also wanted to take care of a couple logistical details including booking hostels and choosing my airline seats.

Booking my hostels…For the truly adventurous, some might advise you to wait until you get to China to find accommodations, however, I’m a realist. Maybe if I was staying in China for 6 weeks or longer would I do something like that, but I am only there for two short weeks. I don’t want to waste any of my time while I am in China finding a place to stay.

As a side note, I also considered couch surfing, but I decided that this trip was not the right time to do that. I may just try to meet up with a few couch surfer hosts in their city though. Probably the next time I go to China, I will try couch surfing out as I think it would be an awesome experience.

In my past trips to New Zealand and India, I have used Hostelworld.com to read reviews and book hostels. Unfortunately, Hostelworld charges a booking fee. They probably charge this booking fee to recoup the costs of running their site and while that’s understandable, I’d prefer not to pay a booking fee which was why I was excited when I found a new hostel site called Hostelbooker.com. Hostelbooker has pretty much the same line up of hostels as Hostelworld. There may have been one or two different hostels listed on Hostelworld, but there wasn’t enough of a difference to make me think twice about using Hostelbooker. The main savings I saw was the fact there was not a $2.00 booking fee. This may seem a bit cheap to haggle over a booking fee, but I tend to think most people would prefer knowing a site that doesn’t charge such a fee.

I read many reviews of hostels in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian covering things like safety, cleanliness, service, and fun at the hostel. I am pretty easy going myself and probably could not have made a mistake with picking any of the hostels listed. Here are the hostels I selected:

Shanghai
Shanghai Blue Mountain Youth Hostel
Dates: August 30, 2009 – September 3, 2009

(September 3, 2009 – I will catch a night train to Xi’an that arrives on September 4, 2009)

Xi’an
Xiangzimen International Youth Hostel
Dates: September 4, 2009 – September 5, 2009

(September 5, 2009 – I will catch a night train to Beijing that arrives on September 6, 2009)

Beijing
Haina Hostel
Dates: September 6, 2009 – September 11, 2009

(September 6, 2009 – I will catch a night train to Shanghai that arrives on September 12, 2009)

Shanghai
Le Tour Shanghai Youth Hostel
Dates: September 12 – September 13, 2009

September 13 – Head home!

Certainly, if you have any comments about these hostels (hopefully I did not go wrong) or you will be these hostels yourself, feel free to leave a comment.

Choosing my airline seat…Usually, when you choose a seat on an international flight, you are dreading that economy seat. I’m actually very excited to be flying in business class on a Northwest Airlines 747 jet. While I’ve flown on a 747 jet before, this will be my first time in business class. Before everyone thinks I have a ton of $$$ and can actually afford a business class seat, I used frequent flyer miles to obtain this seat. I plan on enjoying and relaxing on my flights to and from China. In order to aid in my seat selection in the business class cabin, I consulted threads in flyertalk’s Northwest Worldperks forum. I eventually went with exit rows on the upper deck of the 747. Needless to say, I’m excited to be finally trying the 747 upper deck. This could be my only chance as many airlines are retiring these jumbo jets because of their operating costs. Let me know if you are on a DTW-PVG flight on Aug 29. If so, we can hang out at the DTW airport. Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve experienced business class service on a NWA 747.

As the day of the departure gets closer, I am definitely getting more excited for the trip. I have already started making a list to pack even though I will only be gone for 2 weeks. In future trip updates, I’ll discuss some of the activities that I have planned.

The Idiots that run Delta

I was talking with a friend today. He is headed over to Nairobi, Kenya and had his flights booked on Delta. Recently, Delta had to cancel their Atlanta to Nairobi flight because they were not granted permission by the U.S. government to operate it. This forced Delta to rebook passengers via other cities like Amsterdam or London-Heathrow.

My friend logs into his account and see that his flight had been changed. He was actually kind of expecting it due to a link I sent him a few days ago stating the cancellation of the Nairobi flight. What he was not expecting was to be re-routed via Brussels!! Delta in its “wisdom” decided it would be great to re-route him ORD – ATL – BRU (Brussels) – BJM (in Burundi) – NBO! This absolutely boggled both my friend’s and my minds. To give a little background, there are standard protocols airlines typically follow when re-routing passengers including:

1. Re-route through a major hub in the region.
2. Re-route on partner airlines
3. Take the most direct routing

Delta missed the mark on all three of these items. First, Brussels is not a major hub for Delta or the Skyteam Alliance, which Delta is a member of. Second, by re-routing through Brussels, my friend was being booked on Brussels Airways, an airline that is not a partner of Delta. Third and probably the most important, ORD-ATL-BRU-BJM-NBO was not the most direct routing. A more direct routing would be ORD-AMS-NBO. I am not sure if this points to a large problem with Delta’s IT systems because you’d think the computer would be smart enough to book through your major hubs, choose appropriate airlines, and use the most direct routing if seats are available. Of course, when I found this out, I immediately said “what the hell” and told him he would have to call Delta/NWA.

Now as a side note, one of the primary reasons my friend booked the flight originally was to obtain 10,000 bonus miles for flying through Africa on Delta’s new route. Unfortunately, Delta wasn’t granted permission to operate the Nairobi route. So when my friend called in to get the proper re-routing, he asked for his promotion miles as well. Of course, NWA said since the route was no longer valid that the promotion didn’t apply and that the offer on their website had been updated to reflect this.

Turns out this wasn’t as accurate as NWA said it was. If you go here, you will notice the qualifying routes have been updated. But if you look in the terms and conditions, you will notice under rule number 2:

“Qualifying travel must be after registration and by August 31, 2009. Your itinerary must include travel on the Northwest Airlines or Delta Air Lines operated flights (Los Angeles – Sydney, Los Angeles – Sao Paulo, or Atlanta – Nairobi). Travel must be on a paid published fare. Bonus Miles will only be awarded for travel that includes one of the specified nonstop flights. One-way travel will qualify for half the Bonus Miles for the specific fare class. Routes can not be combined. A maximum of 15,000 Bonus Miles will be credited for each roundtrip ticket purchased and flown during the promotional period.

* 15,000 Bonus Miles will be awarded after roundtrip travel in NW BusinessElite (J/C/Z), DL Business Elite (J/C/D/S/I) class.
* 10,000 Bonus Miles will be awarded after roundtrip travel in NW Coach (Y/B/M/H/Q/V/L/T/K), DL Economy (Y/B/M/H/Q/K/L/U/T) class.”

The things that make you go “Hmmmm”. Looks like NWA forgot to update their terms and conditions because Atlanta – Nairobi is still listed! My friend has a screen shot of this. I am going to help him write a letter to NWA to get those bonus miles. Plus I think that he should get some form of compensation for having to spend time calling in for a simple re-routing that should have been done correctly in the first place.

I’ve said in the prior posts that I am burning all of my NWA/Delta miles. When NWA was a stand alone company, it had one of the best IT systems in the industry. With its merger with Delta, I think that competitive advantage has been lost. There are many broken things on NWA and Delta’s websites. Again, a situation like this just helps validate my reasons to burn the rest of my NWA/Delta miles.

View from the bike – some trail users lack a general awareness of their environment

I decided that I had to sound off on what I have determined to be people’s lack of awareness on the bike paths and trails in Minneapolis. I was hoping it would not come to this and I realize most people are not like what I will end up describing, but this is both concerning and frustrating especially as an individual who is aware of others that share our fine trails together. With this post, I call on all trail users to be more aware…

Ever since I have started riding a bike in late April, I have noticed an alarming trend – one where people are not aware of their surroundings and others around them. At first, I thought this awareness factor would get better as the weather warmed up. I thought maybe it was something with the weather. Finally though, especially on my last two bike rides, I have come to the conclusion that there is a certain subset of individuals that are not paying attention to anything but themselves when they are walking around the lake or on the bike paths. Let me discuss a few examples.

The I can’t read the signs bike rider… There are a number of signs painted on the trail that indicates the trail is one way in certain spots. Yet, I have seen more people in my last two rides blatantly riding the wrong way on the trail. To those folks, I say wake up! If I am speeding down the trail going the right way and trying to pass another biker on their left and someone is riding the wrong way, if we collide, one of us (probably me) is going to be injured. I would prefer to avoid this.

The next type of persons are the groups of riders/roller bladers who take both sides of the path… I realize everyone likes biking with their friends around the lake. I’m all for that. What I’d like those people who ride/roller blade very very slowly to understand is that people want to get through. When I yell, “On your left!”, it is because I want to get through. Another thing, when I yell “On your left!”, it is not a great idea to stop in the middle of the trail while riders are trying to pass you. If you’re going to stop, pull off the trail and let people use the trail. Be proactive…try to sense when a person is approaching you and proactively move to the right.

The final type and probably most concerning are those people who don’t look when they cross a trail…” I realize many of the people in this category are young kids which is why when I approach an aware with a lot of young kids I slow way down. On my ride on Friday around Lake Nokomis, I was near the main beach where there were a lot of kids crossing the bike trail. I was going real slow because the kids were not paying attention. I would get their attention and they would divert their path around my bike. I can understand kids not having the foresight to look for a biker when they are crossing the path, but how about adults. On this same ride, I ran into 2-3 adults trying to cross the path not realizing they were about to get run over by me. This is the part that intrigues me.

I realize as a biker that I need to be as aware as possible because I don’t want to injure myself. What would help is if fellow trail users would be equally aware meaning don’t stop in the middle of the path, stay on the right if you’re biking or rollerblading slowly, and look before you cross. If trail users are more aware of their environment, they can remain safe and injury free. So far I have been lucky and had no biking related accidents, I would like for this to continue.

Feel free to sound off in the comments if you have noticed additional things about trail users not being aware of their surroundings or have suggestions on how to remedy this problem.

Developing a secondary strategy for Credit Card Rewards Points

In previous posts about credit rewards strategies, I’ve talked about how to develop a rewards strategy, discussed why I use the Starwoods American Express and Schwab Visa as my primary cards, and talked a little bit about how I’ve earned extra SPG points buyingcoins from the U.S. Mint. Now it’s time to talk about secondary strategies for earning rewards points.

So you understand your goals and spend profile and you’ve picked a card that matches these two things, but you are thinking, “There are so many rewards programs”, you begin to wonder if you can take advantage of a few more programs. The answer is a resounding Yes! Let’s talk about secondary strategies for a minute. The way I view secondary rewards programs where it can either help contribute to an overall goal such as travel or you obtain one time bonus for things like gift cards or cash back. In other words, the credit cards that are part of your secondary strategy should include those cards with sign up bonuses. Let’s discuss a couple of examples.

I recently signed up for the American Express Rewards Plus Gold card and the Business Gold Delta Skymiles card. Both of these cards had sign up bonuses if I spend a certain amount of $ within the first 3 months of getting the card. My intentions are to fulfill the spend requirements for the sign up bonuses by ordering coins from the U.S. Mint. This way I do not have to divert any of my real spending away from my Starwords American Express card to earn those valuable SPG points.

The specific bonuses offered by the two American express cards were 30,000 skymiles and 15,000 membership rewards points. Now, in prior posts, I have alluded to the fact I am in the process of dumping all my NWA/Delta frequent flyer miles due to the massive devaluing of the program. These 30,000 miles will help me get close to having a 120,000 remaining miles to use on award travel. If I am lucky and search diligently enough, I will be able to find a perk saver business class award ticket to Asia.

In regards to the gold card and the reason for getting that, I currently have about 135,000 membership rewards points. Amex membership rewards points are similar to SPG points in that they can be converted to miles in frequent flyer programs. Additionally, if I so choose, I could convert the points to SPG points at a 3 Amex points to 1 SPG point redemption ratio. So with these 15,000 membership rewards points, I have the possibility of another 5,000 SPG points. I’m still in the process of determining if a conversion is the right way to go on this. I’ve also read that converting to Air Canda miles is another step in the right direction because of their generous award ticket policies of 2 stop-overs with one going across the Atlantic Ocean and the other going in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. My decision on which program to convert to will depend on how many SPG points I have at the end when I am trying to book my round-the-world trip and how I decide to book the travel (a bunch of one way award flights or one massive ticket).

If you can not tell, my primary goal for rewards points is travel. These two cards help me towards that goal even though after I fulfill the spend requirements for the bonus points, I will not use them again. In fact, I will probably cancel the Delta Gold Card. Additionally, I will my business Amex gold card. The reason I hold on to an Amex gold card is because I want to keep the membership rewards points and not have to spend them. So on a yearly basis, I find another Amex gold card with a sign up bonus and free annual fee the first year and I can continue to keep my membership rewards points.

Your primary goal may be cash back or you may come across an offer for an amazon giftcard or just a random $250 cashback that may have nothing to do with your primary goal at all! Maybe you have planned a big purchase at Amazon.com and could use that amazon giftcard or cashback. My suggestion is do not shy away from those opportunities. I recently applied for a chase sapphire preferred card. The bonus points being offered was 25,000 after the first purchase. I don’t even have any ties to any chase reward program, but I figured I could make use of those 25,000 points some how! This is what I mean by take advantage the opportunities. Of course if Chase approves me, I will get the bonus points, figure out the best use for them and close the card 3-11 months later. You can do a similar thing with Citi thank you points – apply for those cards that offer thank you point bonuses, cancel them in 3-6 months, apply for a different card with a thank you point bonus, and continue this process. I have even read of people applying for the same card a year or so later and getting the sign up bonus again!

Now, I will add a couple of caveats here. I caution you against applying for a large number of cards if you’re looking to get approved for a loan in the near future. Also, make sure you understand the terms for getting bonus points and if there are any annual fees involved. Typically, it is best to look for cards that are at least fee free the first year. Additionally, you do a need a decent credit score of 720+ to fully execute this strategy. These are just a couple of additional points to keep in mind.

There are many rewards points programs and credit card offers out there. Developing a secondary strategy that is geared towards your primary goal can help you realize your goal even quicker. Additionally, if you find one of those really good offers like $250 cash back or a $250 giftcard, jump on it! Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the offer helps you towards your primary goal or not if it is really good!

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments for your primary and secondary rewards earning strategies.

What to do with GM

Well it’s been quite a week of activity for GM. Many events have led to the what has finally happened this week. On Monday they filed for bankruptcy. In past few months, GM has received over 19 billion dollars in government loans to continue operating while it came up with a re-organization plan. Their first restructuring plan was rejected by the government. As part of rejecting this plan, the government told Rick Wagnor, the long time CEO of GM, that he must resign.

This week GM also sold its Saturn brand to the Penske Automotive Group and sold the Hummer brand to a Chinese manufacturing company. GM has also gotten its unsecured bond holders to agree to an equity share in the new company in exchange for debt forgiveness. Rounding out the shedding of GM brands is Opel which was sold to the Canadian auto parts company, Magna.

GM also took steps to reduce its legacy costs. In its deal reached with the United Auto Workers union, GM was able to get the union to agree to taking on 10 billion dollars in equity in the union healthcare benefit fund. In exchange for this, the UAW’s healthcare fund will receive a 17.5% equity stake in the new company.

Finally, GM was able to secure bankruptcy up to 30 billion dollars in financing from the government. It’s not like this wasn’t a given, considering the U.S. government will control 60% of the new GM making it the majority owner.

For those who say the GM bankruptcy filing was a product of the economic crisis that started in real estate, I say think again. In 2005, BusinessWeek ran an article analyzing GM’s business plan. Here’s what BusinessWeek predicted:


How bad could it get? BusinessWeek’s analysis is that within five years GM must become a much smaller company, with fewer brands, fewer models, and
reduced legacy costs. It’s undeniable that getting to that point will require a drastically different course from the one Wagoner has laid out so far. He is going
to have to force a radical restructuring on his workers and the rest of the entrenched GM system, or have it forced on him by outsiders or a bankruptcy
court. The only question is whether that reckoning comes in the next year, if models developed by Vice-Chairman Robert A. Lutz fall flat; in 2007, when the
union contract comes up for negotiation; or perhaps in five years, when GM may have burned through its substantial cash cushion.”

It’s now about 5 years later and GM is finally shedding brands, closing factories, and reducing costs. There has been a lot of other analysis done on why GM has failed. This is one article I highly recommend reading which takes a look at the decisions that GM made decades ago to pay for employee healthcare and pensions and how accounting changes in 1992 affected the company.

Make no mistake about this, GM’s failure is a result of poor management decisions.

Now that the U.S. tax payers are the new majority shareholders of GM, we have a chance to have a say in the way GM operates. I propose to the Obama Administration that not only should the current Board of Directors be replaced for violating their fiduciary responsibility to manage the company, but the top 3 layers of management at GM be shown the door. Too often have these same people been granted the authority to manage the company and change the direction of the company only to make poor decisions. It is time to get new blood in the highest levels of GM management and run the company appropriately. Apologists may say that this time will be different in that GM will be smaller, have less legacy costs, and that the decisions will be easier for management to make. I disagree. Top management has had their chance for decades to make GM work. We’re here today because of poor management decisions, nothing more, nothing less.

Feel free to leave your solution and suggestions for GM in the comments especially since the U.S. tax payer is financing GM’s bankruptcy and the new majority shareholder!