Thinking about a van? That hybrid is actually your cheapest option.

We are probably going to buy a mini-van at some point in the next few months. At a certain point, the cumulative mass of our family just isn’t going to fit in a 2011 Elantra anymore.

And as I’ve started the process of figuring out which one to buy, I noticed something interesting. Hybrid vans are cheaper. Way cheaper.

I’m specifically referring to the Chrysler Pacifica, which is the only hybrid van on the market right now. Cost is obviously the big concern in a new car purchase. We don’t really care about features with the exception of:

  • safe enough
  • rear air-conditioning
  • good gas mileage

That’s it. We are simple folks.

Depending on your driving habits, hybrid is way cheaper

This was the most interesting thing to me

When I started the search, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about a hybrid van. But our Elantra gets 30+ miles / gallon. And when I started to look at the mileage of your run-of-the-mill used van, it was eye-opening.

Most vans are getting somewhere in the range of 18-22 mpg in normal driving conditions and close to 30 on the highway. And you can imagine why; compared to an Elantra, a van is way heavier.

But since most of our driving is in-town, we would be nearly halving our fuel economy. In North Carolina, it would appear that the average family spends about $1,150 per month on gas. Since we have one car and a very short commute, let’s say we are spending $700.

That works out to about $250/yr in extra gas costs, right off the bat. (Math is $700 * (11 [difference in weighted mpg] / 30 [old mpg]).) I can do a lot with $250 a year. And that is the conservative figure.

Depending on how you think about the value of $250/year, the equivalent lump sum value of that extra cost is thousands of dollars. (For me, specifically, I value that $250/year at roughly $7k in lump sum form.)

So on this measure, I should be willing to buy a comparable hybrid van if it is no more than seven thousand dollars more expensive than its non-hybrid twin.

But there’s more…

(And no, I’m not even to the tax credit part yet.)

A nifty feature of the Pacifica is that it can run on the battery alone for a certain number of miles; it’s around 33. So that means that if you never drive more than 32 miles in a day and can charge it overnight, you literally never buy a drop of gas.

Of course, we like trips, so that is unrealistic, but still, an extremely conservative estimate shows that more than 65% of our driving is in-town. And since the amount of electricity needed to charge the battery to full (16Kwh) is way less than the amount of gas needed to drive 32 city miles, in-town driving becomes way cheaper.

My calculations put the extra savings at about $6k. So when I compare the annual cost to own a non-hybrid van and a hybrid van, then convert that amount to a lump sum value, it works out to $13k.

In other words, given how much more expensive a non-hybrid is to operate, I should demand a 13k discount relative to the price of a hybrid. Or put another way, I should be willing to pay 13k more for a hybrid.

With the average price of a used van at Carmax running around $24k, this means I would value a hybrid van at $37k. Can I buy a hybrid van for $37k? Amazingly, I can.

For the past month, I have been recording the price of a hybrid van in my local market to see what sort of options are out there and how the prices fluctuate over time. And with the exception of 1 day that I’ve run it, there is a hybrid van available for less than $34k.

The cherry on top

So comparing the two van options, it’s clear that the hybrid is a better value, just based on the price of the two options and the gas savings. (And note: I described us as not driving very much, but I actually used a pretty normal 65% split for hwy/city driving.)

So the hybrid wins.

Of course, that is neglecting the fact that there is also a federal tax credit for hybrid vehicles in the amount of $7,500. So the hybrid wins on gas alone, to the tune of about $3k. When you add the tax credit, the hybrid is now a $10k steal relative to a used van.

I think it’s important to note that the hybrid wins with or without the tax credit.

New was cheaper than used

I assumed, when I started the process that we would buy a lightly used van. Makes sense right? Then I do the analysis above and go: “whoa, it had better be a hybrid.”

Ok, that’s no big deal, hybrids are cool. Let’s go see what sort of hybrid selection there is…uh-oh.

I was shocked that there is a single model. The Chrysler Pacifica.

The minute you drive off the lot with a new car, it loses half its value. Heard that one? Not really.

The first thing I did was check out Carmax.com for a nationwide search of vans. So this really dented my confidence for a bit. There were at most (depending on the day) 5 or 6 hybrid vans available anywhere in the US. Carmax will drive the car to your home market for a fee, so it wasn’t necessarily a cost issue.

I was just expecting to see a lot more options. Few options meant that I might not be getting the deal I thought I would with a lightly used car. Few options was a worrying sign. So maybe this hybrid van idea wasn’t such a good idea.

A did some other searches and eventually realized that there were as many new hybrid vans within 30 miles of my house than there were used vans on the entire Carmax inventory. Ok, great, but new cars have that new car premium attached right?

Shockingly, the new vans were, on average, a good 6 or 7 thousand dollars less than the used options. So much for the “lightly used” car is always the best value mantra.

I did some research and found a potential explanation (though I have no way to verify whether it’s true generally). The idea is that there are a limited number of used cars; you can’t order a used car, you have to buy it from a willing seller.

Compare that with new cars, where the dealer can order as many as they want from the manufacturer, who is gladly willing to make as many as they want to buy. So the new car market and the used car market behave opposite each other in some ways.

A popular new car means lots of cars that become used when first-time owners buy them. More used cars means lower used car prices. On the other hand, a new car that isn’t selling well produces relatively few used cars. So a dealer that wants to stock a specific non-popular vehicle is going to have to bid up the price at auction (classic supply and demand issue).

And in the case of a hybrid van in an era of (relatively) low gasoline prices, you can see how that dynamic might come into play. Again, I’m not willing to say that this theory explains the prices I saw, but it’s consistent with the phenomenon and most crucially, it seems plausible.

7,500 cherries on top

If you are ready this in 2019, there is one more thing. If not, you can skip this section.

The real cherry on top is that there is a $7,500 tax credit for new vehicles with a sufficiently large EV component. And the Pacifica qualifies because the battery is 16Kwh.

So even if the used vans had been $7,000 less than the new vans, after accounting for the tax credit, they’d still be more expensive in practice.

I stuck this section at the end because the key point is that new vans were cheaper than used vans and hybrid vans are cheaper than gas vans. Both of these are somewhat counter-intuitive and I thought they deserved a post.

But if you have read this far and are still on the fence, I wanted to make sure that you had all the information.

The Catch

It would not be intellectually honest of me to extol all these virtues without acknowledging the obvious fact that to get a hybrid Pacifica takes a huge up-front investment to receive a long-term benefit. That includes both the savings from substituting expensive gas for cheaper electricity and the tax credit, which can take several months (at minimum) to show up.

I wonder if there would be a legal way to build some sort of organization that could help support this cost. Companies that can demonstrate predictable future cash flows are able to sell bonds to finance the development of that income. A driver switching to a new hybrid van is going to have similar future cash flows (from gas savings and from the tax credit) that should suffice to allow them to borrow to finance the car.

Of course, they could just finance the car through the dealership, but that would have to be at rates that offset at least some of the financial benefit. An organization that wanted to help people realize the benefits of hybrid might be constructed to provide the same financing at more competitive rates.

Just a thought. If anyone builds this, let me know. Would love to hear about it.

Robot Greenhouses

I was reading about direct air capture technologies today. The idea is really cool (passively removing carbon from the air), but they are also hard to make. You can’t just go in your backyard and build one.

For one thing, you need to do something with the carbon, usually captured as a gas, in order for the machine to be worthwhile. Typically, the companies that build them try to sell the carbon as a gas for products (think fizzy drinks) or turn it into fuel. Not exactly something a tinkerer like me wants to get involved with.

But as I thought about it, I realized that the concept is not interesting because it’s explicitly removing carbon from the air. It’s interesting because it’s a passive way to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. The article helped make that point when they said that a flight produces emissions that could be offset by direct air capture. Continue reading “Robot Greenhouses”

Vote even if it’s guaranteed to not change the outcome

If you want a say in this country, you need to vote, whether or not you are voting in a competitive race. Here’s why: politicians care only about the preferences of voters. If they know that you voted, they will care about not pissing you off. If you don’t, what you want will not matter to them.
I have spent my entire life, until this year, in deeply liberal places. With the exception of governor races, my state and district always elects Democrats. As someone who has tended to agree with Democratic policies, I was fine with that. I didn’t vote because I knew that my vote would have no impact on the outcome. Even if the overall elections didn’t always work out, I never ran the risk of my non-vote costing my preferred candidate the election.
As I have become more interested in the data side of politics, I realize there is another reason to vote that I have overlooked. In short, there is an industry built around measuring political preferences and participation. Every candidate has reams of reports that describe the preferences of voters, possible voters, and non-voters. These reports may say things like: “voters under 35 are really nervous about racking up a huge government deficit, which they will have to pay for later in life” as well as “voters under 35 do not vote as much as voters over 65.”
But what incentive does a candidate or politician have to care about the first statement given the second? None. The first statement doesn’t matter in a world where that preference is not going to be communicated via voting, especially if the opposite preference is held by people who are way more likely to actually vote on whether a candidate is elected or re-elected.
These numbers are from the 2012 presidential election, but only 46% of those under 35 voted.  (72% of those over 70 voted.) If that number was 50% instead of 46%, you can be damn sure that politicians in competitive races would be a lot more hesitant to favor policies that under 35s are nervous about. It’s that simple, it really is. If you are in a race where the difference is less than a thousand votes (many House races will be within this margin), pissing off under 35s could sink your campaign…but only if we show them that we are willing to vote.

The Carbon Dividend: so why hasn’t this happened yet?

I’ve known that this concept existed for a while.  Now I’m starting to wonder why it’s not a bigger deal.  In its simplest form, the idea goes something like this: tax products that contribute to carbon emissions, then send every American a check with their share of the proceeds (estimated at $2,000 for a family of four).

There are some tricky topics, like how to protect American companies against rivals that don’t have to deal with this.  Or the basic question of what price to set the tax at ($43/ton is the proposed level starting in 2021).  And of course, you’d need a whole lot of infrastructure to monitor all this.  Still for the most part, it’s a pretty simple and effective solution to a really hard problem.

The most shocking thing about all this is that it has a ton of support (from all sides). Exxon-Mobil donated $1M to the effort (a token amount, but still).  Republican grandees are the most vocal and visible supporters of the plan.  55% of Republicans surveyed by the Climate Leadership Council and 58% of Democrats think it’s a good idea.  A lot of different kinds of people are saying that they are on board.

Which begs the question: why hasn’t this progressed farther?  Continue reading “The Carbon Dividend: so why hasn’t this happened yet?”

Civic Hacking and Twitter Bots

I recently started my first experiment with civic hacking.  For those not familiar, the concept of civic hacking is basically creating some sort of tool that complements or supplements the services of government.  That is a simplification, but it encompasses the basic idea.

The idea appeals because if what you build works, then your fellow citizens benefit.  And the cost, especially relative to the government Continue reading “Civic Hacking and Twitter Bots”

You know what would be cool: Time-Lapse Tomato Sauce

You know what would be cool: using a Raspberry Pi to take time lapse photos of tomato plants and tomatoes on their journey from seedling to tomato sauce.

Imagine this: Continue reading “You know what would be cool: Time-Lapse Tomato Sauce”

LacrosseReference Launch 2018: Success

Yesterday was the first day of the college lacrosse season (D1 Men’s that is).  It was also the re-launch of my LacrosseReference website that I wrote about previously.

It’s been an exciting couple of days for a few reasons.

Continue reading “LacrosseReference Launch 2018: Success”

D3 is a great helper in my Real Estate hacking quest

Quick update to my last post about hacking the rental search process.  Earlier this week, I finished the scraping required to store each new listing in my DB.  That means that I know have feeds coming from Trulia, Zillow, and a personal feed set up by a real estate for us.

Trickle in, data

After all that scraping, I currently have about 254 listings captured over a period of months.  And that number will keep creeping up as new listings hit the market.

We aren’t moving until Oct, so there will be quite a while when this is mostly a passive exercise.  Once we hit the middle of July, it sounds like the available-Oct-1 listings start to show up.  So come July, we are going live.

Advance Recon

But until then, there is still a lot that can be done to make the actually selection process easier.  The crux of it is trying to get the same sort of information that a local real estate agent develops over years of following the market.

We are coming from Chicago, where rents are going to be higher.  We also live in an apartment, so things like acreage aren’t really part of the calculus to rent prices.  My biggest worry is that because we are used to higher rents, we would see something way cheaper than our current place and jump at it…only to realize that it was way overpriced for the area.

My biggest goal is to find a house that is close enough to stuff that I can bike for groceries (as an example).  Right now, even though I’m getting a feed of new listings, it’s still a laborious effort to gather the metadata on a property to either avoid mistakes or identify the places that hit our stretch goals.

On top of that, I don’t have a great sense of the market mechanics yet.  Apparently, the RTP area gets hot in the summer, when the academics are arriving or leaving the area.  So for us, it should be a slower rental market in October.  But if I were to start looking in July, I might be tricked into thinking that the current frothiness would persist into our sweet spot.

Rent to Buy

Finding a rental is not a huge deal one way or the other because we aren’t planning to rent for all that long.  If we end up overpaying or in a non-ideal place, it’s temporary.  But at the same time, our rental situation will impact our buying decision.

If we are motivated to get out of the rental, we won’t be as discerning with purchase opportunities.  But if everything is hunky dory with the rental, then we can be way more patient about the actual house purchase.  So in reality, the rental decision has a big impact on our long-term plans.  Anything I can do to make it work out better, it’s worth it.

And if you think about it, the positive effect from getting the rental right on the higher leverage decision (house), gives you some extra wiggle room.  Might it even be worth it to pay for a month of rent (i.e. Sep) that we won’t be in the place in order to get an optimal rental?  Who knows, but it could be.

Mining the data

Having a database is one thing, but it’s hard to make decisions through SQL jockeying.  For one thing, we are geo-restricted.  Not severely, but the goal is to be in an area that is likely to be a good location for us.  In practice that means, not too far from friends and close enough that daycare/groceries could be done without a car.

I’m not saying that areas that don’t meet those criteria are automatically out, but it becomes a trade-off.  Is the cost of a second car worth being farther from groceries?  Is the higher rent in the optimal areas worth the benefits.

But before you can really answer any of those questions, you need to know the trade-off between rents and the geographic advantages of different areas.  If we can eliminate areas that are high rent and non-optimal geographically, then there will be less to look at.  And having less to look at means you can devote more effort to the places that are worth a second look.

So I made a map

Real Estate Data Viz

This is just one view of many that I have implemented so far, and it’s the most basic. It shows each rental listing that has come from one of my three feeds, plotted on the map.  It also shows the larger cities as well as two other landmarks.

If you aren’t familiar with the area, this might look like nothing, but at this point, I know where each dot is relative to the target areas.  So it works.  That’s the benefit of being the sole-user of things you build.

Some other views include:

  • average price per sqft in an area
  • average square footage in an area
  • number of listings in each area
  • average rent by each area
  • distance to the closest grocery store for each listing

Together, these maps are going to be incredibly helpful to narrow in on an area to focus on.  And since we are so far away, that’s the type of insights that I need to be generating right now.

Hacking the Rental Property Search Process

We recently were put in touch with a real estate agent who is helping us to scout out potential rental properties in the NC area.  We aren’t going to be really looking seriously until the summer, but figured: why not start now.

Fortunately, Melisa was able to set up a great personalized site for us that shows listings as they appear in the market in our target areas.  The searches are broader than the areas we are interested in, but that’s ok because it gives us a broader view of the market.

Continue reading “Hacking the Rental Property Search Process”

Crypto Bot Lives

Very exciting way to start my day today.  Crypto-arbitrage bot made some trades last night!

An exciting notification

I have a Telegram bot that I use to allow my scripts to send messages to my phone.  Mostly, they are notifications about rental properties being listed on the market or generic notifications that some script finished its daily duties.

But every once in a while, I get an alert about an arbitrage trade having been executed.  And last night, there were 3!

Since the crypto-bubble started deflating earlier this month, trade volumes and volatility had been way down on the exchanges my bot operates on.  After several trades made last week, when I finally got the bot working as expected, there was almost 10 days of radio silence.

Like a satellite checking in with a ping

I kept checking just to make sure the thing was still running.  It was, happily calculating the profitability of possible trades.  All day and night for 10 days.  Such is the power of automation; such a mundane task, dutifully performed ad infinitum.

It’s weird to think that the bot wasn’t even excited when it found trades that were profitable.  It just executed them and continued on calculating.

So you’re saying there’s a chance

But I sure was excited.  Not that there was a large gain (I think I netted about .000003 BTC over the three trades), but it’s just nice to know that after my last set of changes, the bot is working as expected.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of this guy is not to make lots of money.  It’s just a experiment to see whether a crypto bot could produce a return (in crypto currencies) that rivals basic online savings rates.

And as of this morning, I have another data point that says…maybe.