What's the easiest way to raise money in one Midwestern city? Asking questions like that. On any given winter weekend in the St. Louis area, thousands of people turn out and play trivia to benefit charity.
UPDATE: More than a year ago, Marketplace Money and The New York Times teamed up to tell the story of home ownership in America three years after the housing bubble burst. In a special report called "Which Way Home," we share the stories of the people who own homes, want homes, and have lost homes during this turbulent period.
While our reporting teams were hard at work finding, recording, and telling the stories that appeared in The Times (now online at NYTimes.com), and on the public radio airwaves on Marketplace Money, we on the digital team went in search of data to tell the story.
We put to work former Marketplace intern Ryan Faughnder, a USC journalism graduate student who has compiled the data for a number of our Marketplace Maps. What he put together for us this time stark. It revealed a nation underwater. This week, we've updated the map with the latest data to reveal that while the housing situation is improving across the U.S., pockets of the country like Nevada, Florida, and California still suffer from a high percentage of underwater homes.
In Nevada, for instance, 57 percent of homeowners owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth. The data comes from research and analytics firm Corelogic, which produces a quarterly negative equity report that reveals just how many borrowers are underwater.
The second data set we included comes from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates mortgages by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The FHFA tracks a data point called the House Price Index. That calculation of housing purchase prices and appraisal data measures changes in home values over time. It's the same data that the St. Louis Fed uses when graphing out the housing bubbles for each state.
When you line up home price data with the number of underwater mortgages, you can see why so many borrowers are in trouble. Housing prices have fallen far from their peaks in many states. There goes your equity.
Finally, we looked at a report that shows the worst of it; those homeowners falling behind in mortgage payments or those who just gave up and walked away. RealtyTrac's foreclosure report counts the number of homes that received a foreclosure filing of some kind during the quarter. RealtyTrac explains it like this on its website: "If the number is 100, you could say that one in every 100 housing units received a foreclosure filing during the quarter."
Here are a few notable ones: In California, 1 out of 43 housing units received foreclosure filings down from 1 in 88 reported a year ago. In Nevada, it was 1 out of 37 housing units down from 1 in 44.
Want to see how your state stacks up? All of this data is easily explored and sortable in our latest Marketplace Map: America Underwater.
A few months ago, I wanted to go to Japan, but I had a problem. Japan is one of the most expensive countries for an American tourist, and I had the budget of someone who works in public radio. A plane ticket is $1,300 in coach. A regular coffee there goes for as much as $6. And, hotels are something like $300 a night.
So, I embarked on an adventure to see just how much of this trip I could get for free, courtesy of the big banks and airlines. And, I found I’m one of many playing this game.
“They’re willing to try almost anything to maximize points, miles, or cash back from their rewards cards,” says John Ulzheimer of SmartCredit.com. He’s describing people like me: extreme point-hoarders, mile fiends.
This trip to Japan could easily have cost $6,000 or more. But all told, for 17 days and four regions, I probably spent about $2,000, much of that food and a rail pass.
I started by following the advice of Brian Kelly. He calls himself the Points Guy, and runs a website of the same name.
“Essentially, it’s like collecting money. Miles and points are money. If you’re not taking advantage of them, it’s like throwing a wad of cash in the trash can,” Kelly says. For this trip, I needed every mile and point I could hoard. And, I didn’t actually have to travel to rack up. I signed up for credit cards with big bonus offers. One card scored me 100,000 airline miles. On another, spending $3,000 netted 50,000 points. These bonuses alone paid for most of the travel.
What did it take to go on this trip?
CREDIT CARDS USED:
British Airways Visa -- 100,000 mile sign-up bonus
Chase Sapphire Preferred -- 50,000 point sign-up bonus at the time
United MileagePlus Explorer -- 25,000 miles, signed up when it was Continental Airlines
Chase Ink Bold -- 50,000 point sign-up bonus
Chase has a number of cards that use the same rewards program, known as Ultimate Rewards. The points can be transferred and consolidated among accounts. Some cards, such as the Sapphire Preferred, allow you to convert those points into other rewards programs, such as Hyatt, Marriott, British Airways, United, Korean Air, and others. With a little research, it’s easy to find the best deals for redemption.
FLIGHTS AND LODGING:
Direct Flight (New York to Tokyo) -- 65,000 miles on United Airlines + $50 fees
-25,000 miles from United (then, Continental) credit card sign-up
-15,000 from actual flying
-20,000 transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards
One night at Marriott Courtyard Ginza -- 30,000 Marriott points (from actual stays)
Four nights at Hyatt Regency Tokyo -- 24,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points converted into Hyatt points for two nights; two nights using British Airways Avios miles redeemed for hotel stay
Three nights at Hyatt Regency Kyoto -- 18,000 x 3 = 54,000 Chase points converted into Hyatt Points
One night at Holiday Inn -- Through British Airways Avios
Two nights at Mitsui Garden -- Through British Airways Avios
To save money, Dan also stayed four nights at a nice hostel in Takayama. And, he paid for two other nights at traditional Japanese inns.
But this hobby can become obsession.
“There’s one last term: the ‘are you freaking kidding me look.’ You’ll often get this from a spouse or partner,” Kelly said at one of his travel seminars.
James Crawford knows that look. His fiancée at first didn’t get it.
“She thought it was a little crazy that I was spending time on the phone with these banks,” Crawford says.
She came around when his points got them upgraded to business class on their trip to Japan.
I just flew coach. Clearly, some people are beating me at this game. Crawford plans to pay for his honeymoon in Paris, Thailand, and Hong Kong with his points.
Then again, he’s a former investment banker who programmed a spreadsheet to maximize his rewards.
“I have a model where I can put in the distance of the flight and then also put in what credit card I’m using, and each credit card has different bonuses. I then input what my value is for the points that I’m earning for an AmEx point or a Chase point,” Crawford explains.
There’s a lot of strategy here. For example, it takes far fewer Chase points to stay at a Hyatt than a comparable Marriott.
Some point-chasers collect their big sign-up bonus and then cancel their credit card before the annual fee.
John Ulzheimer of SmartCredit.com worries some will get into trouble with these games. Spending too much, racking up debt, or damaging their credit scores.
“If you are constantly opening new cards just because you like the sound of the newest, hottest rewards program, then the damage you’re doing to your credit is pretty perpetual,” Ulzheimer says.
That’s because every new application dings your credit score. And, credit agencies take into consideration the average age of your accounts, so many new ones hurts that.
But Brian Kelly, the Points Guy, says it hasn’t hurt him. He has 20 active credit cards.
“I usually get about six, seven, eight credit cards a year that bank me almost half a million [points],” he says.
So, how did I do on my trip? Kelly says I get an A in points-spending because I made the trip happen the way I wanted.
I didn’t tell him about the guy I met in Tokyo who got so many bonus points signing up for credit cards and bank accounts, that he got himself an around-the-world ticket. He was off to St Petersburg next. I guess that guy won that round.
The big economic story this morning is the U.S. trade deficit, which fell in December to its lowest level in three years.
Airlines are cancelling flights by the minute as a major winter storm bears down on the northeast. About 3,000 flights have alreday been cancelled today.
As Washington debates comprehensive immigration reform, one change is already in the works, starting next month the rules will be different for some immigrants who marry American Citizens.
And finally, to a new study about traffic from the transportation institute at Texas A&M. It says on average drivers in urban areas spend about 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. The worst city for that is Washington D.C. where it's 67 hours a year. LA is second at 61. See the rest of the top 15 worst cities for traffic here.
On paper, Omaha looks like a pretty great place to live: It's consistently rated one of the most affordable cities in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it has an unemployment rate of just 4.1 percent and it's the city Warren Buffet calls home.
"The number of homes on the market available for sale is lower than ever, but we still have the same number of buyers competing to get those homes. So the sellers are in a good position," says Ritter. "There are a number of short sales that are still occuring. I see it being a little higher than in the years past. The nice thing about short sales versus foreclosures is that the sellers are still able to redeem some of their credit. You would typically see credit impacted for about two or three years versus seven through a foreclosure. So more people are taking the time to go down that route versus just giving up."
CLICK HERE TO VIEW AN INTERACTIVE MAP OF HOW MANY MORTGAGES ARE UNDERWATER IN YOUR STATE
Ritter says typically in Omaha homes go for about $180,000.
"A lot of the buyers that we're seeing are people coming out of merged households. As a matter of fact, two of the sales that I was the listing agent on were people who were coming out of their parents' homes. Nationally, real estate projects say that we're going to continue to see that," says Ritter.
Ritter says a good economy and low unemployment are two factors why Omaha's housing market is doing so well.
"As a broker and owner in Omaha -- and I know a lot of my fellow broker/owners feel this way too -- we are more optimistic than we've been in a long, long time. We see sales increasing by 3-5 percent, which is a very healthy place to be."
A report in The Smoking Gun about the hacking has led to a criminal investigation. The hacker reportedly got hold of photos, cellphone numbers and home addresses. Also, some "sensitive correspondence."
The nation’s trade deficit plunged in December, likely giving the U.S. economy an unexpected boost to round out the year. The Commerce Department reports the trade gap dropped nearly 21 percent to $38.5 billion.
If you want to thank somebody -- in this case something -- gratitude goes to oil and natural gas. The U.S. exported an extra billion dollars of the stuff, all while importing the fewest barrels of crude oil in almost 16 years.
“It’s two months in a row that exports have grown, and the big driver there is the Chinese economy is beginning to pick up again,” says Chris Lowe, chief economist at FTN Financial.
Lowe says even though we import a lot of stuff from China, that country relies pretty heavily on us.
“They need raw materials, and we make a lot of the equipment from oil rigs to big construction equipment that they make get those raw materials out of the ground,” he says.
The strong showing means the GDP will likely be revised up enough to show growth, rather than decline.