How Affordable is Your State?

WalletHub offers an annual survey of the property tax burden on homeowners in the 50 states and ranks them accordingly. But which data you look at determines whether you’re getting a good deal or not.

The survey’s basic ranking says the top 5 states for property taxes are Hawaii, Alabama, Louisiana, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.1 Now, Alabama and Louisiana make sense and maybe Delaware, but Hawaii and DC are notorious for high-cost of living and real estate. How could they be top-ranked for property tax? Because the survey ranks based on tax rate, not the average dollar amount of taxes paid.

When you rank the states by total annual taxes priced at state median home value, the best states are Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina, which are all top 10 states for tax rate as well. Combined with low median home value, you’re getting a good deal. The worst states are, in order from the top, are New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire2, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts at #6.

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Cooking Tip: Save the Drippings

With a family of 7, buying family packs of food at the grocery store is a given. And one of the common packs we’ll get is bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. A package of 14 or more pieces at 99 cents per pound is very economical and versatile. What we’ll usually do is bake the whole package at once, in a half-sheet pan on a rack in the oven, then serve half of them for dinner and bone and freeze the other half for another meal.1

But there’s one special byproduct here that you don’t want to overlook. After cooking the thighs, that sheet pan will be filled with golden goodness. You might be tempted to think it’s just rendered fat and toss it, but it’s much more.

Before you clean up your pan, pour the juices off into a gravy separator, or if you don’t have one, a container with lid to stash in the fridge. If you use the separator, the drippings at the bottom can be separated out now, but if you don’t have one, you can just scoop the fat off the top tomorrow.

You could throw away the fat, but if you have a good recipe that calls for some chicken fat (what they call in Yiddish schmaltz), then save it by all means.

But the rest of it, those golden and now gelatinized drippings are pure chicken flavor. The next time you’re making a soup or sauce for chicken, add some of this and you’ll boost the richness and chicken-y flavor a hundredfold.

Just be forewarned, it won’t keep forever. Use it within a week or so to be sure. But it should freeze just fine too.2

  1. Of course, we save all the bones for stock, but that’s another tip.
  2. After all, it’s essentially just super-concentrated chicken stock.

A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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Worst Mortgage Refinance Ever

At the end of January I finished the most arduous and stressful consumer experience of my life: refinancing my mortgage. When people would tell me that going through a refinance was difficult, I assumed it was normal difficult. Maybe for them it was. For me, it was an epic journey, like Frodo and Sam crawling through Mordor to Mount Doom, half-dead and expecting to be done for with every step. My Mount Doom was my mortgage and my Sauron was Freedom Mortgage.

I started this process in March 2015. Between that date and August 2015, I tried to close three times, but each time encountered sloppy errors in the paperwork made by their employees: spelling errors in my name, failure to include all parties, forgetting necessary documents. Once we got to the date of closing and I even had my certified check with closing costs in hand when they cancelled.

By then I was falling behind in my mortgage due to late fees and other issues and so I suspended the process until I felt ready to proceed again. I contacted Freedom again in March 2016 and everything proceeded until June when I was then told we couldn’t move forward because I had more than one late payment in the past year… Yes, due to their errors!

So I came back in September and once more encountered problem after problem. I was told one thing and then a week later told something else that contradicted it. Their several employees I had to deal with squabbled among themselves about who had responsibility for particular areas and even disagreed about necessary steps I had to take.

Each person I talked to gave me seemingly arbitrary demands for paperwork. One said I needed this document, another said I didn’t. And every time I talked to someone new I had to go through the same rigamarole of fixing mistakes in their records. For instance, they had a phone number for me that had been disconnected for 10 years in the system. Every time I talked to someone new, I had to tell them to take the old number out. This happened right up to the closing despite me correcting them a half dozen times. I even had the closing signing agent show up at my door unannounced because they had given her the old number.

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Unnecessary Verizon Backup Battery

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I started hearing a loud beep every few minutes in my home office. For the life of me I couldn’t track it down because it was so intermittent and unexpected.1 Eventually, after nearly going insane and crawling about the office, listening carefully, I tracked it down to Verizon’s backup battery unit on the Fios equipment where it comes into the house.

At the time, I determined that rather than pay an exorbitant fee to Verizon to send out a tech with a new battery so he could slide off two leads on the old one and slide two leads onto the new one, I would do it myself. I bought a replacement on Amazon for $20, swapped it with the old one and then drove around with the old one in my car for a year, trying to find a place to recycle it.

Now, you can probably guess why I’m writing this today, 3 years later. Yep, the replacement battery has died and the beeping has resumed. I couldn’t remember the details of what to get to replace the Verizon backup battery, so I went to Verizon’s web site and found the replacement instructions. But what I also found was a note that told me that I don’t need the battery backup unit!

That’s right. The Verizon backup battery unit is only there to ensure that your Verizon landline service continues to operate in case of a power outage. Except we don’t have a Verizon landline. We’ve never had a Verizon landline. This battery backup serves no purpose at all! What a waste of time and money.

Oh well, at least now I won’t ever hear the incessant beeping again.

Until my smoke detector batteries die, of course.

  1. What is it with consumer device manufacturers? If you want my attention to a rarely noticed device beep constantly. I’m looking at you too, smoke detectors.

Buckle Up for a Bumpy Four Years

I declared last year that I would be a NeverTrumper, that I would vote third party before I voted for Donald Trump.

Then last July I realized that if Trump were to somehow win the Electoral College and Clinton won the popular vote, it would tear the country apart like never before. (I wish I hadn’t been right on that one.) So I asked NeverTrumpers to reconsider so as to ensure he won both popular and Electoral votes.

Later, I began to embrace the idea of Trump as a pro-life and conservative ally, albeit a personally odious one, even as it became more and more certain he would lose. And then suddenly, he had won.

Meanwhile, in the first week of his administration we have made more pro-life and conservative gains than we did in the entirety of the last Bush administration. Not only did Trump defund International Planned Parenthood again, he reiterated his promise to appoint a Supreme Court justice who is a strict constructionist (i.e. will not find the umbras and penumbras used to justify Roe v. Wade in the first place); the House took the first step to repeal the bloated mess of Obamacare and to defund the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; and Trump appointed cabinet secretaries with the mandate to start downsizing bloated bureaucracies like the Departments of Education, Commerce, Agriculture, and Energy, among others. In addition, by sending Vice President Mike Pence to speak at the March for Life and publicly chastising media for its annual failure to give the March its due, he ensured it would get unprecedented media exposure this year. For these actions, pro-life conservatives rightly cheered.

On the other hand, Trump has followed through on some of his less savory campaign promises. He got into a diplomatic Twitter war with Mexico over the border wall. He ordered a freeze on all government research grants in several departments and issued a gag order on public communications in all executive departments.1 And worst of all, he ordered a halt to all refugee arrivals for 120 days and permanent halt to refugees from a handful of majority Muslim countries and created a giant mess of chaos and recrimination and anecdotal stories of innocents caught in jeopardy and a media firestorm that has even those of us who voted for him shaking our heads.2 This was the part of Trump-as-president that made me a NeverTrumper in the first place.

My social media feeds have been filled with heads exploding all over the place, and not just the usual liberal friends sprinkled in the mix, but a broad spectrum of people. And while I think that many were and are overreacting (No, Trump is not an incipient Hitler), there is justification for anger from all sides for this last misstep.

So this is what I’ve been preparing myself for: The next four years are going to be very bumpy, whipsawing between joy at some advance of the conservative agenda and chagrin or outrage over some bombastic excess and then back again. I can console myself that this is certainly better than what we would have got under Hillary Clinton, but I fear for what the future brings. Will people get so fed up over the excesses that Congress shifts to the Democrats in 2018? Will they get so fed up with Trump that we get some populist ultra-liberal (like Elizabeth Warren) in 2020?

My hope is that Trump settles down and gets in a groove. He’s never held elective office before and so there’s a steep learning curve. But as a prominent real estate developer in New York and New Jersey, he’s certainly had to be a political wheeler and dealer. Let’s hope that part of his personality helps him overcome this other nonsense.

  1. Never mind that these are standard procedure and temporary. The hold is designed to allow the new administration to formulate and promulgate new policies for communications that reflect the new president’s priorities. It’s entirely justified, but the way it was done led to a media storm.
  2. As I write this, a federal court has ordered a temporary hold on the executive order while its constitutionality is challenged.

Why Is There So Much Hatred of the Wealthy?

On my commute to work on Boston’s Southeast Expressway, there is a carpenter’s union building right next to the highway with a billboard. In addition to the usual pro-union messages, they occasionally have other sorts of political messages. One in particular caught my eye that claimed that a handful of billionaires held more wealth than 50% of the world’s population.

My immediate reaction was that this was another instance where we should talk about raising up those who live in poverty instead of railing against the few who have wealth.

Jeff Jacoby tackles the same subject in today’s Boston Globe when he calls out Oxfam’s executive director got up at the ultra-exclusive World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to proclaim that the eight richest men in the world hold as much wealth as half the world’s population and that 1 in 10 people live on less than $2 per day.

Of course, as Jacoby points out, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, it’s a tragedy that so many suffer on so little, but the glass is also half full: Three decades ago, the number was twice as large. Yes, we cut extreme poverty in the world by 50%.

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MacBook Pro Would Not Login (File Vault Corruption)

I embarked on a scary and unexpected journey today with my MacBook Pro when it would not login when I started it. I’m writing about it here in case anyone else has a similar problem.

It began when Safari froze while I was in Facebook.1 In fact, it wasn’t just Safari. The spinning beach ball was on the screen, but nothing was moving. I couldn’t switch to other apps. One notable fact: The trackpad was still working, insofar as it was registering clicks.2

So, of course, I restarted the computer by holding down the power button until it went black and I heard the System Startup sound. Here’s where the real trouble began.

When the login screen came up, I couldn’t do anything. If I typed, nothing showed up. Well, that’s not exactly true. It was like everything was extremely slow. Eventually, one character might appear in the password box. The cursor didn’t move, although it would eventually jerk a little like it was catching. After a while, a message came up asking if I was having trouble with my password.

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Sorry, Here’s A Billboard

In late November, I sent a support request to Ring.com with a question about a couple of their products I own.1 Their site claims that they are committed to respond to every request within 24 hours. Instead, I waited four days with no response and then sent another request. Again, nothing, and I didn’t make another attempt.

Two weeks after that, I finally got a response. They apologized for failing to respond, were willing to help now, and offered to send me, as a sign of gratitude for my (assumed) patience and understanding, a complimentary “Ring Solar Sign”, which is a solar-powered version of those little alarm company signs you see on lawns as a deterrent to would-be burglars. Emphasis on “little”.

Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I don’t think the proper response to a customer service failure is to offer to send me something to stick on my lawn to advertise your service. I wasn’t looking for any handouts at all, just help with my problem, but am I wrong that this feels a little tone-deaf?

Anyway, not wanting to be a roadblock to getting my problem solved, I said, thanks, and then laid out my problem, saying I figured out one part, but still had trouble with the other. Their response said that the complimentary sign was on its way and we addressed my troubles.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to today when I received a package in the mail, containing the box you see above. I was curious that they would need such a large box for a little sign. So I opened it up and found this monstrosity.

That thing is almost a foot wide! And it will be lit up at night! I thought it was going to be a little sign and they send me a billboard. I suppose if I was living in some McMansion with a long driveway, you might need something that big to see it from the street, but I live in a little ranch with a postage—stamp driveway. That thing could keep my across-the-street neighbor awake at night.

So, thanks but no thanks, Ring. I think I’ll go stealth on my security and stick to the doorbells and video cameras.

  1. You can see my review here.

Ford’s Creepy Post-Sale Come-On

Talk about skeevy marketing attempts. We bought a used van from a Ford dealer back last May and it came with a limited 36 month/36,000 mile warranty that started from the day it was new in 2015, not when I bought it. The sales manager had tried to get me to bite on an extended warranty, but I know enough not fall for paying thousands of dollars in case I need a several hundred dollar repair.

This week, I got a letter from Ford, marked “Warranty Expiration Notice”. That’s odd, I thought, the warranty shouldn’t expire for another 1-1/2 years. Ah, but when I read it I saw it said: “Our records indicate that you drive more miles than the average driver” and then estimated my mileage at 26,000 miles. Now, keep in mind I have not returned my van to the dealership for any service since we bought it.

So how do they know how many miles we drive? They don’t! This is pure marketing deception. In fact, we don’t drive nearly as many miles as they think and there’s no way for them to know how many miles we drive.

Is it any wonder people hate the car buying process and dealing with car companies?

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