September 7, 2020Comments are off for this post.

Calculating property taxes

TL;DR

In late 2019 we started the process of buying our first house and found estimating property taxes in NY to be more difficult than it should be. I learned how to calculate taxes, found a state-provided tax spreadsheet, and wrote a small web app to estimate property taxes on the go.

Overview

Late in 2019 my wife and I decided to move back east after a little over three years in the Bay Area. We started looking at homes in New York and while there's plenty we had to learn about the home-buying process, what really threw me for a loop was how important it was to calculate property taxes.

Understanding the tax implications of each property is essential in planning a budget. A property tax difference of just $833 per month means an extra $10,000 per year. Assuming you live in the home for 10 years you're looking at adding $100,000 to the total cost of your home.

But getting to this total property tax figure isn't an easy task. First, property taxes are complicated to calculate. The tax for each property is a sum of taxes from a number of different entities like the county, town and school district for that property. Second, unlike sales tax which is often shown as a percentage, property taxes are usually presented as a mill rate.

What is a mill rate?

According to Investopedia:

The mill rate is the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property. The mill rate is based on "mills." It is a figure that represents the amount per $1,000 of the assessed value of the property, which is used to calculate the amount of property tax.

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/m/millrate.asp

Ok so what does that mean for us? If you were to find a mill rate presented as a dollar value you could calculate the effective tax for that rate relatively easily.

mill rate * property value / 1000 = tax cost

For example:

A $20 mill rate on a $100,000 property would be $100,000 * 20 / 1,000 or $2,000.

As a first-time home buyer it was easier for me to think in percentages since it matched my model for other taxes. We can just move the decimal by one spot so that $20 mill rate becomes a 2% tax.

mill rate / 10 = tax percentage

To figure out what the tax impact of a property is going to be we need to start with adding up each of the individual taxes.

Multiple jurisdictions

Property taxes can be levied by a number of authorities for any given property. In New York state this means your effective property tax rate is the sum of:

  1. County tax
  2. City OR town and village tax
  3. School district tax

There may also be additional taxes for specific departments like the fire department. Finding the tax rates for each jurisdiction can be tricky. They're not easily searchable on Google and most search results show only county averages. Since the county is only 1 of multiple jurisdictions, however, taxes can vary significantly by property, making the average a less than ideal tool for estimating budgets. To determine the effective rate for any given property you need to get the tax rate from each of the separate agencies. Complicating things even further is the fact that a property can have a postal address for one town and be managed by another. If you live in a town you might also live in a village which applies additional taxes.

At first I tried finding rates on the county, city, or town websites. Not all municipalities listed this information publicly and some of it wasn't up to date. When I did find information it was presented in spreadsheets I had to download and parse. I started keeping notes for the tax rate as a percentage for each of the towns and villages we were looking in.

Building a calculator

I eventually lucked out and was able to find a state-wide list of property tax rates for each county, city, town, and village in New York. With this spreadsheet I could find the taxes for each entity and add them together for each house we were looking at. This worked well for houses we planned to visit in advance, but we'd often find new homes as we were visiting others. I wanted a quick and easy way to calculate taxes at any time from my phone which created the perfect opportunity for a mini web app.

I converted each of the tax spreadsheets into JSON and wrote a set of filters to show only the appropriate school districts and villages within a city or town. As you select each entity the following entities are filtered so you never have to worry about finding / matching the correct villages with your selected town.

Next I added an optional field to capture the estimated property value so you can see the actual tax implications in dollars. The results table shows the mill rate, tax rate as a percentage, and the total cost per year while showing the rates for each entity.

I used Bulma to simplify my CSS and wrote the rest in vanilla JS and HTML. Since there is nothing to save, hosting was as simple as pushing a new folder to my personal website. I made the site mobile friendly so I could visit it from my phone and it ended up coming in pretty handy as we looked for a home.

What I would do next

I'm not sure what the property tax situation is in other states, but if it's as confusing as it is in NY then I think it would useful to add additional states to the app. It would also be great to be able to save particular property tax estimates so you can keep track of multiple properties instead of having to fill out the form each time. Finally I didn't look into how this would work for other types of properties. I'm not sure how condos or rental properties are taxed for example. It'd be great to extend this to include more property types in the future. For now, however, the calculator got the job done for me and I've had plenty of home projects to keep me busy in a nearly 100 year old home.

October 19, 2019Comments are off for this post.

What (and who) smart locks leave behind

Earlier this year the property management for my apartment building gave us notice that all apartments would be upgraded with smart home technology by Smart Rent. We were given a brief notice via email and a meet and greet to ask a few questions. A few days later they replaced each apartment lock with a Yale smart lock and texted us our PIN.

Image result for yale smart lock

In general I’m a huge fan of our increasingly connected world. I’ve worked on home security cameras that help families find peace of mind and delivery robots that make hotel guests and staff feel safer by delivering to guest rooms late at night. Every day I ask Google to play music while my wife and I cook dinner or clean the apartment. When it comes to connected devices and the smart home I tend to be an early adopter and have been looking forward to a smart lock for years, ever since the beautiful August smart lock was announced.

Unfortunately the reality of living with a smart lock has been mostly disappointing with one major benefit. Let's start with the highlight and then dive into some of the challenges.

Dynamic codes and peace of mind

Hands down the best part of a smart lock is being able to share temporary codes. This mostly comes in handy for us when we're traveling so that we can have a friend stop by to water our plants. Our landlord limits the code window to 48 hours, but for our use case that's plenty of time.

Sending a code is relatively easy, but it does require providing Smart Rent with our friend's email or phone number. It's not clear why they can't just generate a code that I can share myself and this does raise some privacy concerns for me (more on that later).

In addition to the convenience of temporary codes, the lock also lets me check its status from wherever I am. If I ever think I've left the door unlocked it's just a few swipes and taps to make sure. I can even lock the door via Google Assistant for added convenience. The lock could definitely be smarter here by knowing when I come and go based on location or bluetooth proximity, but I'm ok trading some extra legwork for the added privacy here.

So if the lock adds convenience and peace of mind then what is that mostly disappointing part I was talking about? My concerns and frustrations boil down to two primary categories: usability and accessibility, and privacy and security. I'll be tackling each in a separate blog post.

Let’s start with usability and accessibility

Sometimes the old ways are best, however, and sometimes the best interface is centuries old. Let’s break down using a traditional key.

1. Remove key from pocket
2. Insert key into keyhole (this may require some fiddling)
3. Twist key
4. Turn handle and open door
5. Remove key
6. Twist knob to lock the door from inside

In theory, a digital smart lock can help reduce these steps. I no longer need to find or insert a key so steps 1-3 go away. Now all I have to do is:

1. Enter my pin
2. Turn handle and open door
3. Twist knob to lock the door from inside

We’ve cut the process in half! Not only does a digital lock save steps, but it also has those super useful temporary pins.

Unfortunately the physical / digital interface introduces more complexity and failure points than the traditional physical-only lock.

A touch screen

Gone is the physical affordance of a lock and key. Instead of a key we can insert and turn, we now have a blank sheet of glass. Remember the PIN code management emailed us? Let's use it to unlock the door.

1. Activate the touch screen by placing your palm over the screen.
2. Enter your four digit PIN.
3. Hit the check mark to confirm
4. Wait for the motor to finish moving the bolt
5. Enter your apartment
6. Manually turn the knob on the inside of the door to lock the door

Within each of the steps there are a number of possible failure points and complications.

Step 1: Activate the touch screen

For new users there's no guidance on how to activate the screen. The only way to activate it is by placing your palm over the whole screen - a simple touch isn't enough. I'm not sure someone would figure this out without reading the documentation other than a lengthy battle of trial and error. Even when you know what to do, getting your palm flush with the door can be tricky given the hip-height placement of the lock and the flush alignment against the door.

Yale could improve on this by waking the touch screen on a tap or an extended press. If the screen were angled up towards the user the angle would be easier to achieve, especially for someone with tight forearms from rock climbing like me.

Step 2: Enter your PIN

Now that we've activated the screen we need to enter our code. The screen is a typical touch screen but lacks additional forms of feedback like haptics or sound. The only feedback that you've hit a button is a brief flash. With the lack of physical buttons and the close proximity of each number it's pretty easy to hit a number accidentally. Unfortunately there's no backspace so if you make a mistake you have to hit the checkmark, wait for a wipe animation, and start again back at step 1.

For someone with impaired vision unlocking the door would be nearly impossible. Theoretically you might be able to use the voice assistant or accessible smart phone apps, but both still require significantly more interaction than finding a physical keyhole.

Just because you can see the buttons, however, doesn't mean you can press them. What happens if you have your hands full of groceries, children, or are someone living with a disability? Making the precise movements to enter your code without accidentally hitting the wrong number is going to be a challenge.

What kind of message does this send to renters? Oh you’re blind? Too bad you won’t be able to open your front door. Oh you’re frail or have Parkinson’s Disease? This isn’t the place for you. You’re a parent carrying a baby in one arm with two bags of groceries on the other? Good luck making precise movements to hit your PIN just right.

Adding physical buttons could help both avoid accidental touches and also help visually impaired users find the right keys. I understand these could become worn over time and reveal your pin, but touchscreens show fingerprints and a rotating PIN could help avoid wear and tear on a limited set of buttons.

Steps 3 and 4 aren't too bad, other than taking some extra time for the motor to open the lock.

Step 5: Enter your apartment

The next big problem point happens as you're entering your apartment. When the door is unlocked, placing your palm against the screen locks the door. It's easy and convenient when you're leaving, but can you see the problem when you're entering?

As you're holding the door open, it's easy to accidentally cover the lock with your arm, hip, or back, extending the lock and preventing the door from closing. Luckily you're inside now so you just have to rotate the knob to unlock and then re-lock the door. The lock is too difficult to activate when you're trying to unlock the door and too easy when you're entering your apartment.

A "smart" solution here could be to use a simple sensor to know whether the door is closed. With the door closed, placing your palm on the screen could lock the bolt, and when the door is open accidental touches could be ignored.

Accessibility and usability

So many of the usability challenges with the Yale smart lock become even greater barriers for people in "complex" situations like carrying groceries or for people living with disabilities. Designing for inclusivity would make this a more user friendly product for everyone. Just because it's a smart lock doesn't mean we need to lose the benefits of physical, tactile interfaces like a lock and key.

January 17, 2019Comments are off for this post.

Codea on Menus in iOS

I've been using an iPad Pro on and off for the past year and have yet to find a way to use it as my daily work machine. Some of this is due to missing applications like Sketch or Adobe XD, but also in the limitations of most iOS apps. Mobile apps are simple, accessible, and focused, but don't typically offer the robustness of desktop counterparts.

Codea recently addressed this gap as co-creator Simeon wrote in a recent blog post:

I realised six months ago as I was using my Mac, using the menus, that I need these things — menus — in Codea. I was trying to solve a problem that has been solved for decades.

So I set out to make the best menus I could make for iOS.

For simple apps, menus aren’t necessary, and that’s great.

But Codea isn’t a simple app and there’s nothing I can do about that.

What it can be is discoverable. Compared to all the options I considered, menus are exactly that, discoverable. You pull down a list of named features complete with shortcut keys (if a keyboard is attached). Then you activate that feature by tapping on it, or by dragging your finger and releasing.

Hamburger menus, side-drawers, whatever you want to call them, are a conventional way to bury additional and often unrelated functionality into an app. But they are much heavier than the good old-fashioned menu bar. They often pull out a whole modal side-thingy, maybe they slide all your content to the right. It’s a context switch for your brain.

Menus categorise items under common, plain-text headings, and they appear and disappear without fanfare.

I wanted menus that looked beautiful, looked like iOS, and felt great.

https://codea.io/blog/the-ios-menu/

Simeon perfectly describes the missing component in many of today's productivity apps - discoverability. Features and complexity are often dropped for the sake of simplicity, sacrificing the value of the app. But Simeon doesn't just stop at adding menus to Codea, he dives deeper in a second post to focus on the interactions.

The other interaction I really needed for this menu was something I first noticed in Procreate, an iPad app for painting. It uses popover menus to allow the user to change tools and colours. Standard iOS popovers require the user to tap outside the popover to dismiss it before she can interact with the background. In Procreate, you can just start drawing and the popover dismisses.

This behaviour gives the menus their lightweight feel. They don’t stutter your interactions with the rest of the system. The clip below shows what happens when you scroll the editor with an open menu.

There are so many great details in this piece, but I particularly love how he handled scrolling for various device sizes and his brilliant implementation of dynamic button colors for increasing legibility (see the video).

February 11, 2018Comments are off for this post.

The quantified self: Wedding edition

Who says you can't quanitfy love? I tracked my heart rate during our wedding ceremony in September and time-stamped a few highlights with the help of photos from family, friends, and our official photographer. I tried a few different tools for creating the chart (Google Sheets, Numbers, Sketch, etc.) but eventually landed on Plot.ly for the interactive annotations.

 

Plot 2

I wore the heart rate monitor under my shirt cuff to keep it out of the photos and against my skin. I'm sure it moved around a bit, but I was happy to see repeated measurements even after some of the steep drops or climbs.

Waiting for it to begin

www.sethkaye.com

My heart rate climbs slowly but steadily towards the beginning of the procession. The wedding party waited inside for everyone to be seated before the procession started. We could see the guests arriving, chatting, and getting to their seats through the windows of the auditorium we were waiting in. I definitely got more and more nervous watching and waiting.

Calm during the vows

A lot of friends and family have pointed out how the vows and then exchanging the rings seemed to calm me down a lot. It definitely did. I think part of the calm came from the most normal moment in the entire wedding. The whole day is this crazy ordeal. The two of you are the center of it, but it's not really about you. It's about celebrating with your friends and family, making sure the buses arrive when they're supposed to, remembering how slowly you have to step to take up all the time of the music during the processional.

But when it came to the vows it's really just the two of you again. Vows can be cliche and overplayed, but at the end of the day it was just me and my wife telling each other how we felt. Sure everyone else was there, but the words were just for us.

The glass

Oddly enough I was most nervous about this. Stepping on a wine glass isn't the most natural thing in the world. Not only that, but my father-in-law warned me not to step too hard as he'd actually injured his ankle at his wedding. You don't really get to practice either - unless you order extra glasses or have some at home you're not fond of.

Needless to stay I stepped a bit too delicately and needed a second attempt. If my heart rate wasn't up from the nerves it definitely was up from the embarrassment!

Blurred for friends privacy

Full day

Here's the full day chart from the actual Fitbit app. It's crazy to me that breaking the glass topped everything - including dancing at the reception!

November 16, 2017Comments are off for this post.

How Twitter solved the character problem for different languages

Great writeup from Josh Wilburne of Twitter detailing the challenges of designing for the 140 character limit across the world. Two major aspects that stand out:

Automatic density-based adjustments

With this in mind, we designed a system that defines two types of written languages, dense and non-dense, and expands the character limit for non-dense languages.

Continuous insight

While I thought removing the UI until it was relevant would help alleviate the stress of the character limit, it ended up having the opposite effect; people were unable to properly plan their Tweet since they had no feel for how far along they actually were.

There's plenty to debate in the final implementation (as there always is in design), but I love the outside box thinking to classify languages, adapt automatically, and to show progress throughout composition, regardless of the language.

August 5, 2017Comments are off for this post.

Commitments in the age of bailing

A recent New York Times article from David Brooks visits contemporary bailing culture, where it's become easier than ever before to commit to something and then back out last minute. Before smart phones and the ever-present internet, canceling was so much more difficult and time consuming. I first noticed (and started participating in) the bail culture primarily through events scheduled via Facebook. The RSVP system made it so simple to reply yes to something that Yes basically became a sign of support rather than an actual RSVP. Friends were essentially saying "Sounds like fun!" rather than "I'll definitely be there". Maybe (now Interested) provided an even more explicit endorsement of bailing. One could have the appearance of support without the burden of committal. When hosting parties and events I quickly learned to only expect the Yes's and even then to be prepared for a few "so sorry, but I'm swamped with work" texts last minute.

While I'm definitely not a stranger to bailing, especially on Friday night commitments after a long week with the couch and Netflix beckoning me home, there's no denying that there is a cost to the false commitment culture. How many times can a person bail before inviting them starts become a second thought. What is the value of a friendship when it's not worth committing to?

To help combat these tendencies, Mr. Brooks recommends three simple bail barriers:

First, is it for a good reason (your kids unexpectedly need you, a new kidney became available for your transplant) or is it for a bad reason (you’re tired, you want to be alone)?

Second, did you bail well (sending an honest text, offering another date to get together) or did you bail selfishly (ghosting, talking about how busy your life is, as if you were the only person who matters)?

Third, did you really think about the impact on the other person? (I’ve learned it’s almost always a mistake to bail on somebody’s life event — wedding, birthday party, funeral — on the grounds that your absence won’t be noticed.)

I try to challenge my own bailing instinct and I love the idea of thinking through a specific lens. Why do I want to bail? How should I communicate it? And is it really something I shouldn't skip out on for the sake of the other party? I'll take this one step further and add an addendum to #3, how would feel if the other person were bailing on me. A little bit of empathy and sympathy can go a long way. So here's to making some commitments and actually showing up!

April 26, 2017Comments are off for this post.

Pinnacles

One of our major goals after moving to the west coast was to make sure to take advantage of the amazing geography out here. California is full of state and national parks worth exploring, including the United States' newest national park, Pinnacles.

It's less than a two hour drive from the peninsula and makes for a pretty easy day trip. The park was packed due to spring break, so we parked near the campground and looked into the shuttle to the Bear Gulch trailhead. With an approximately two hour wait for the shuttle, we decided to hike along the road and then up to Bear Gulch. Luckily for us this was a beautiful hike through some lightly wooded area with wildflowers and an open stream that led to a more heavily wooded, shaded area.

We decided to hike to the lower caves, having brought our headlamps for just the occasion. While the hike itself wasn't particularly intense, it was incredibly beautiful. The recent rain rewarded us with lush greenery among the brilliant red rocks. Before entering the caves we donned our headlamps and then headed into the pitch black. The first section crossed over a small stream where a group of middle schoolers abandoned the log bridge in favor of splashing through the ankle deep water.

After exiting the cave, we hiked back down the way we came. We only scratched the surface of what Pinnacles has to offer and I can't wait to go back! Although while there's still snow I have to admit I'm going to be tempted to get in as much spring skiing as possible.

December 21, 2016Comments are off for this post.

Disney Channel’s AI is Better Than Yours

One of my favorite movies growing up was Disney Channel’s Smart House. Pat, the Smart House AI, could play the best music, make you a better dancer, and even kick out the bully when he started causing trouble at the party she organized for the kids without them even asking!

Today’s voice activated "assistants" like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa have been on the market for years now, but still seem to fall short of capturing the imagination like the voice-activated assistants inhabiting cultural masterpieces like Smart House and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Serving more as voice-controlled UI translators, today’s assistants match trigger words and phrases to fairly specific actions. Sometimes machine learning helps make these queries more flexible, but in the end we’re still asking a device to complete an action.

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October 16, 2016Comments are off for this post.

Daily UI #003

Over the past week I've started taking part in the Daily UI design challenge to showcase and improve on my design skills contained in the rest of my portfolio. Day 3 was a particularly fun challenge as it opened up the prompt to any landing page. I've never designed with video before, so I wanted to experiment with scenic imagery showcasing an elegant experience. I landed on the concept of creating a website for a helicopter tour company, mostly so I could use this beautiful footage.

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September 12, 2016Comments are off for this post.

Moving to San Francisco

I've lived in Boston almost my entire life. I was born in the city, went to public school in my hometown and then studied at Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, only 15 miles from home (perfectly in line with data from the NYTimes).

I'd entertained the thought of moving away to live somewhere new, but it's never been a major priority. During college I struggled with this feeling of loving my home and my city, but also wondering if maybe I was missing out by not being somewhere new. Objectively Boston is a great place, a city where thousands of people come to study, many of whom stay after graduating. But there was always a question hanging in the air - is it really this great or is it just because it's what I know?

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