Jagged Thoughts | Dr. John Linwood Griffin

December 19, 2012

Eighteen hours later

Filed under: Homeownership — JLG @ 10:12 PM

Not even 18 hours after I wrote the previous post, our water heater’s relief valve decided to relieve itself.

Water heater pressure and temperature relief valve.

Water heater pressure and temperature relief valve. The valve releases water into the pipe (shown), which in turn releases water onto your basement floor (not shown).

Fortunately for us it didn’t flood very much.  The water was about an inch deep in the middle of the basement (a concrete floor with no sump or drain) and was dry along much of the basement walls.  I was easily able to reach the water supply cut-off valve and stanch the flow.  Most worrisome is that the bottom of our expensive new furnace was submerged—though thankfully none of the internal components got wet—so I’ll need to keep an eye out for rusting for awhile.

The plumber’s working theory is:

  1. We had the temperature set higher than necessary (about 135 degrees);
  2. the old temperature control module somehow caused the temperature to rise much hotter than the setting;
  3. the relief valve opened due to overheating; and
  4. the relief valve stuck open due to sediment in the tank.

We now have a shiny new relief valve, several shiny new water sensor alarms, and a shiny new bill for emergency service from our plumber.

Other things that were helpful to have on hand:

  • Wet/dry vacuum.  We have a model that is able to empty itself automatically via a garden hose attached to the pump exhaust.  Without this feature you’ll spend 10 minutes emptying the bucket for every 1 minute you spend vacuuming up the flood.
  • Dehumidifier.  We have a model that automatically pumps its contents into the basement sink via a supplied 18-foot hose.
  • Box fan.
  • Shop towels.
  • Large garbage bags into which to put the sodden contents of the cardboard boxes that just yesterday you moved from shelves onto the floor “just for a couple days.”

While waiting for the plumber we spent a day with the water heater shut off.  And holy smokes, Boston tap water is cold this time of year.

It could have been much, much worse.  I went to the basement yesterday morning just to see if there was any seepage through the basement walls from the heavy rain outside.  (And good news: I didn’t see any seepage from the walls.)  If it hadn’t been raining we probably wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss until the flooding shorted out the main electrical panel, which at that point would have represented tens of thousands of dollars of damage and the loss of our “claims free discount” from the insurance company.

$10 water sensor alarms are your friend.

December 16, 2012

So you’ve bought a house!

Filed under: Homeownership — JLG @ 9:14 PM

Once you’ve bought a house there is a temptation to be very Munroevian about the whole matter:

The Munroevian approach to homeownership. (Source: xkcd.com/905/)

It’s been pretty fun geeking out about home maintenance options, making plans for repairs and additions, and even picking up a hammer myself now and then.  There are several surprisingly informative websites with details about how houses work, including:

  • Inspectapedia:  for example, this article about the insulation we just had installed.
  • Check This House:  for example, this article about the importance of second-floor air return ducting (a potential long-term maintenance item for our house).

Six months after closing I understand a little better the #1 question in buying a house—“how much house can I afford?”—or, more to the point, “how big a monthly housing expense can I afford?”

Monthly housing expense = mortgage payment + homeowners insurance + property tax – interest tax deduction + maintenance [or association fees]

Mortgage payment:

Conventional wisdom says to make your mortgage payment as large as possible.  It will be painful now but less painful over time, especially as your earnings rise over the course of your career.  That easing is because your payment will stay the same over the lifetime of your mortgage:  If you have a 30-year mortgage and you make $1000/month payments today (on principal and interest), you’ll still be making exactly $1000/month payments in 29 years.

The effects of inflation will mean that, in 30 years, your $1000/month payment will only feel like a $400/month payment.  (Note however that it is statistically unlikely that you will hold the same mortgage for 30 years—I’ve read several times that mortgages average about 7 years before the house is sold or refinanced.)

Low interest rates are good except for one thing:  I worry about resale value if interest rates rise significantly.  At 3.5% interest rates, a buyer who can afford $1000/month payments can buy a $225,000 house.  But at 7.0% rates, that same buyer can only buy a $150,000 house.

When interest rates go up, many prospective buyers won’t be able to afford to pay as much for your house as you did.  Will we have problems selling our house without taking a bath?

Homeowners insurance:

We pay $90/month.  Annoyingly, our loan documents require a $1,000 deductible for the policy—i.e., we’re not allowed to crank up the deductible to lower our rate.

One thing that surprised me is that none of the “big boys” (Allstate, State Farm, GEICO, etc.) write insurance policies in Massachusetts.  I had a similar problem trying to get renter’s insurance in Florida.  Perhaps we should move to some milquetoast state with uniform laws and no propensity for natural disasters?

Property taxes:

You can find out what we (or your neighbors, or pretty much anybody) pay for property taxes by looking them up on the county tax assessor’s website; these are matters of public record.

As with many jurisdictions, Boston has a residential tax exemption—your taxes are reduced by $130/month if the property serves as your principal residence.  So budget for additional expense if you plan to rent out your house.

Tax deduction:

I can’t imagine the federal mortgage interest tax deduction surviving much longer.  My guess is that it will be phased out over the next few years.  Without the deduction our monthly housing expense will increase by $300/month.

Also, as with rising interest rates, I suspect a tax deduction phase-out will have a depressing effect on home resale prices.


The expensivity of home maintenance has surprised me.   So far we’ve spent money in three categories:

A. Required maintenance:  $10,000 for new roof shingles.

The home inspectors and roofing experts who evaluated the house initially gave us a one to two year window for replacing the roof.  However, when we had roofers up to do minor repairs (repointing the chimney, recementing the vents, cleaning the gutters) they found cracking asphalt and other problems that prompted us to schedule the replacement immediately.  The new roof will hopefully be good for about 20 years.

B. Opportunity-cost improvements:  $3,600 for whole-house insulation and $3,900 for an oil-to-gas conversion of the furnace.

Massachusetts has an astounding program called Mass Save where you can receive an interest-free loan to defray the up-front costs of energy-efficiency improvements to your house.  The improvements will pay for themselves within three years (in the form of reduced utility bills), plus the house is more comfortable afterwards.  It’s a total win-win-win program for homeowners.

There are also incentive rebate programs for efficiency improvements.  The insulation work actually cost $5,600 (minus a $2,000 rebate from Mass Save); the furnace conversion cost $4,700 (minus a $800 rebate from our gas utility company).

We could have waited a year to make these improvements—the oil heater and indoor fuel oil tank were only about ten years old—but with the rebates and interest-free loan there was no reason not to jump on these, especially with the possibility that the program might not be renewed in future years.

The old 275-gallon oil tank, taking up space in our basement.

With the oil tank removed, there is space aplenty to eventually install a demand water heater.

C. Functional improvements:  $6,000 for electrical work and exhaust ventilation.

Our house is over 100 years old and (not surprisingly) didn’t have outlets or lights or exhaust fans everywhere we wanted them.  Worse, we were occasionally tripping breakers by running too many appliances on a single circuit.

We could have waited a year or two before performing this work, but I wanted to have the new wires pulled before having the insulation work done on the exterior walls and in the attic.  (The electricians said they could certainly do it even after the insulation was put in but that it would be “messier”.)

Also, it is a perpetual source of happiness for me to walk into the kitchen and see:

New externally-vented range hood. We use it daily. The white square of paint is where the over-the-range microwave used to be hung.

or into the bathroom and see:

New bathroom electrical outlet (one of two). Previously the bidet power cord ran along the bathroom floor, via an ugly grey extension cord, into the outlet by the sink.

Every time I take a shower I look over at the safer, neater, convenient bathroom outlet and feel the joy of homeownership.  (We also solved four other extension-cord problems elsewhere in the house, each of which bring joy in turn.)

D. Deferred maintenance and improvements:  Water heater replacement, carpentry, repointing the basement walls.

Our water heater is nine years old and has a nine year warranty.  I don’t believe it’s been cleaned nor flushed regularly, nor had the sacrificial anode replaced, so given the lack of maintenance I worry that it could start leaking—that would be a big problem since there is no floor drain in the basement—so I plan to replace it in 2013 with a demand water heater.

Demand water heaters need a fat gas pipe.  They consume up to 200,000 BTUs/hour or more; in comparison, our new high-efficiency furnace that consumes only up to 60,000 BTUs/hour and a typical gas stove and oven consume up to 65,000 BTUs/hour.  Our current gas pipe is thin, old, and lined (basically not up to snuff) so I’ve submitted an application to the gas company to lay a larger pipe in the spring.  I’ve requested a future-proofed pipe large enough to accommodate those three appliances plus a potential upgrade to a gas clothes dryer and a natural gas grill.

The lesson learned for me is if you’re buying a house, keep at least an extra $10,000 in reserve to cover any urgent maintenance items.  In other words, don’t completely exhaust your financial reserves by making a larger-than-needed down payment or purchasing new furniture too quickly.

In aviation there is a concept of prepaying into a maintenance fund every time you fly your own aircraft.  You know that you’re required to pay for major maintenance every 2,000 flight hours—at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars—so you divide that cost by 2,000 and prepay $10 into your maintenance fund for every hour you fly.

I’ve seen similar recommendations about prepaying for home maintenance.  You know that you’ll periodically have to pay for roofing work, new water heaters, and whatnot, so forecast out when you’ll make those repairs and start prepaying into a maintenance fund.  (If you buy into a condo association, part of your condo association fees are earmarked for exactly this purpose.)

There are a couple other housing-related websites I’ve been reading regularly, including The Mortgage Professor and (perhaps of local interest only) the Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog.  The professor relates a story of an ill-prepared homeowner, who asked:

“I hadn’t been in my house 3 weeks when the hot water heater stopped working. Only then did I realize that I hadn’t been given the name of the superintendent…who do I see to get it fixed?”

One of the challenges we’ve faced is finding good contractors.  Here’s what I’ve learned about finding good contractors:

  • Get three quotes.  Not because you’re trying to find the absolute lowest cost, but rather that you’ll hear three different perspectives on what they think you should do.  For example, I had three heating contractors in to discuss the oil-to-gas conversion.  One suggested that I simply replace the burner on my existing furnace; one suggested that I install a new 100,000-BTU gas furnace; one suggested that I install a new 60,000-BTU gas furnace because of the square footage of the house.  Those three conflicting opinions gave me a lot of information to mull over; in the end I chose option #3 and it’s worked out perfectly.
  • Ask your neighbors for recommendations.  Several folks in my community recommended a particular roofing company; I ended up hiring them and was thoroughly satisfied with their work and professionalism.
  • Join Angie’s List for recommendations.   I hesitated to join at first—whining about how it costs money!—but in the end I figured was only hurting myself by not joining.  I ended up hiring an electrical contractor that I found on Angie’s List and was thoroughly satisfied with their work and professionalism.

And here’s what I’ve learned about hiring contractors:

  • Read the installation manuals yourself.  I wasn’t happy about how the heating contractor didn’t bother to configure the DIP switches on my new furnace.  (Specifically, he didn’t set the furnace’s fan speed to match the tonnage of the air conditioner’s compressor; he claimed it wasn’t important because he’d never done it before.)  So, I read up on furnace fan speeds and compressors myself, make the correct setting myself, and now find myself self-satisfied with better air conditioning performance.
  • Do your own homework before the contractors arrive.  I asked potential electricians about adding an exhaust fan in our half-bathroom.  One of them suggested that I buy the fan and he’d install it.  I asked why; he explained that if it were up to him he’d just buy the cheapest fan available, but he felt I’d likely be interested in a higher-end fan.  And he was correct!  After I scoured the Internet for information on exhaust fans I identified one of the low-sone (quiet) fans as the one I wanted, and we’re much happier with this choice than we would have with a louder fan.  (Note: I also installed a wall-switch timer on the exhaust fan—a great idea that I learned about while doing my homework on options for fans.)
  • Keep track of your paid invoices.  Some work you perform might increase your basis in the property (see IRS Publication 523), which could reduce the amount of tax you (might) pay when you sell the house.
  • Be ready to be flexible.  The heating contractor said it’d be done in one weekend, but it ended up taking a month and a half before the last of the work (sealing the old hole in our chimney) was complete.  The roofing contractor gave a two-week window in which they’d do the work, then ended up doing the work three days before the start of the window.  The insulation contractors said it’d be a two day job, but it ended up being a three-day job spread out over two weeks.  Fortunately, all of our contractors have taken pride in their work—so we’ve been left largely happy with the work that’s been done.

December 14, 2012

I can’t keep on renaming my dog

Filed under: Opinions,Work — JLG @ 12:00 AM

A clever meme hit the Internet this week:

“Stop asking me to change my password. I can’t keep on renaming my dog.”

If you (or the employees you support) aren’t using a password manager, clear off your calendar for the rest of the day and use the time to set one up.  It’s easy security.  Password managers make it simple to create good passwords, to change your passwords when required, to use different passwords on every site, and to avoid reusing old passwords.

The upside to using a password manager:

  • You only need to remember two strong passwords.  (One to log into the computer running the password manager, and one for the password manager itself.)

The downside to using a password manager:

  • All your eggs are in one basket.  (Therefore you need to pay close attention to choosing a good master password, protecting that password, and backing up your stored passwords.)

Generally speaking a password manager works as follows:

  1. You provide the password manager with a master passphrase.
  2. The password manager uses your master passphrase to create (or read) an encrypted file that contains your passwords and other secrets.

(For deeper details, see KeePass’s FAQ for a brief technical explanation or Dashlane’s whitepaper for a detailed technical explanation.  For example, in the KeePass FAQ the authors describe how the KeePass product derives 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard [AES] keys from a user’s master passphrase, how salt is used to protect against dictionary attacks, and how initialization vectors are used to protect multiple encrypted files against known-plaintext attacks.  Other products likely use a similar approach to deriving and protecting keys.)

Password managers often also perform useful convenience functions for you—inserting stored passwords into your web browser automatically; generating strong passwords of any desired length; checking your usernames against hacker-released lists of pwned websites; evaluating the strength of your existing passwords; leaping tall buildings in a single bound; etc.

The root of security with password managers is in protecting your master password.  There are three main considerations to this protection:

(A) Choose a good passphrase. 

I’m intentionally using the word “passphrase” instead of “password” to highlight the need to use strong, complex, high-entropy text as your passphrase.  (Read my guidance about strong passphrases in TCS’s Better Passwords, Usable Security whitepaper.  Or if you don’t read that whitepaper, at least read this webcomic.)

Your master passphrase should be stronger than any password you’re currently using—stronger than what your bank requires, stronger than what your employer requires.  (However, it shouldn’t be onerously long—you need to memorize it, you will need to type it every day, and you will likely need to type it on mobile devices with cramped keyboards.)  I recommend a minimum of 16 characters for your master passphrase.

(Side note:  For similar reasons, another place where you should use stronger-than-elsewhere passphrases is with full-disk encryption products, such as TrueCrypt or FileVault, where you enter in a password at boot time that unlocks the disk’s encryption key.  As Microsoft’s #7 immutable law of security states, encrypted data is only as secure as its decryption key.)

(B) Don’t use your passphrase in unhygienic environments.

An interesting concept in computer security is the $5 wrench.  Attackers, like electricity, follow the path of least resistance.  If they’ve chosen you as their target, and if they aren’t able to use cryptographic hacking tools to obtain your passwords, then they’ll try other approaches—perhaps masquerading as an IT administrator and simply asking you for your password, or sending you a malicious email attachment to install a keylogger onto your computer, or hiding a pinhole spy camera in the light fixture above your desk.  So even with strong encryption you are still at risk to social engineering attacks targeting your passwords and password manager.

One way to reduce the risk of revealing your passphrase is to avoid typing it into computer systems over which you have neither control nor trust, such as systems in Internet cafes, or at airport kiosks, or at your Grandma Edna’s house.  To paraphrase public-service messages from the 1980s, when you give your passphrase to an untrusted computer you could be giving that passphrase to anyone who used that computer before you.

For situations where you simply must use a computer of dubious provenance—say, you’re on vacation, you take a wrong turn at Albuquerque, your wallet and laptop get stolen, and you have to use your password manager at an Internet cafe to get your credit card numbers and bank contact information—some password managers provide features like one time passwordsscreen keyboardsmultifactor authentication, and web-based access to help make lemonade out of life’s little lemons.

(C) Make regular backups of your encrypted file.

If you have a strong passphrase [(A)] and you keep your passphrase secret [(B)] then it doesn’t matter where copies of your encrypted file are stored.  The strong encryption means that your file won’t be susceptible to a brute-force or password-guessing attack even if an attacker obtains a copy of your file.  (Password management company LastPass had a possible security breach of their networks in 2011.  Even so, users with strong passphrases had “no reason to worry.”)  As such you are safely able to make backup copies of your encrypted file and to store those backups in a convenient manner.

Some password managers are designed to store your encrypted file on your local computer.  Other managers (notably LastPass) store your encrypted file on cloud servers managed by the same company, making it easier to synchronize the password file across all devices you use.  Still other managers integrate easily with third-party cloud storage providers (notably Dropbox) for synchronization across multiple devices, or support direct synchronization between two devices over a Wi-Fi network.  (In all remote-storage cases I’ve found, the file is always encrypted locally before any portion of the file is uploaded into the cloud.)

Whichever type of manager you use, be aware that that one file holds your only copy of all of your passwords—it is critical that you not lose access to the contents of the file.  Computers have crashed.  Password management companies have disappeared (Logaway launched on May 4, 2010, and ceased operations on February 2, 2012).  Cloud services havelost data and have experienced multi-day disruptions.  Protect yourself by regularly backing up your encrypted file, for example by copying it onto a USB dongle (whenever you change or add a password) or by printing a hard copy every month to stash in a safe deposit box.

If you maintain a strict separation between your home accounts and your work accounts—for example to keep your employer from snooping and obtaining your Facebook password—simply set up two password managers (one on your home laptop, the other on your work PC) using two unique passphrases as master keys.

Password manager software is easy to set up and use.  The biggest problem you’ll face is choosing from among the cornucopia of password managers.  A partial list I just compiled, in alphabetical order, includes: 1PasswordAnyPasswordAurora Password ManagerClipperzDataVaultDashlaneHandy PasswordKaspersky Password ManagerKeePassKeeper,LastPassNorton Identity SafeParanotic Password ManagerPassword AgentPassword SafePassword WalletPINsRoboFormSecret ServerSplashIDSticky PasswordTK8 Safe, and Universal Password Manager.  There is even a hardware-based password manager available.

Your top-level considerations in choosing a password manager are:

  1. Does it run on your particular OS or mobile device?  (Note that some password managers sometimes charge, or charge extra, to support synchronization with mobile devices.)
  2. Do you already use Dropbox on all your devices?  If not, consider a manager that provides its own cloud storage (LastPass, RoboForm, etc.)  If so, and only if you would prefer to manage your own encrypted file, choose a service that supports Dropbox (1Password, KeePass, etc.)

I don’t recommend or endorse any particular password manager.  I’ve started using one of the “premium” (paid) password managers and am astonished at how much better any of the managers are over what I’d been using before (an unencrypted manual text-file-based system that I’d hacked together last millennium).