Is it Better to Rent or Buy?

Most people know whether they’re better of renting or buying, but if you’re not sure, there are some guidelines and tools to help you decide.  As an agent I can help you sort this out.  You may think I’ll just tell you to buy because I’m a Realtor, but that’s not the way I work.  I don’t believe a lot of the hype from my industry and I want to help you make a smart decision.

Reasons to Buy

  1. You want freedom to be creative, fix up your house, tear down walls, and make the house “yours”.
  2. You’ll be staying in your home for five years or more and want stability.
  3. You don’t want to have to deal with a landlord.
  4. You don’t want to have to worry about your landlord deciding to sell your house and have to move.
  5. You have extra cash to put into a stable investment.
  6. Tax deductions on your tax return.
  7. Right now, buying can have lower monthly payments than renting in Seattle.

Reasons to Rent

  1. You plan move within the next five years.
  2. You want flexibility if a better job comes up in a different region.
  3. You are still building your career and not sure if you’ll be at Amazon or Microsoft and don’t want to be stuck driving across 520.
  4. You don’t have a down payment, your credit is poor, or you have too much debt. Pssstt… If you have poor credit, I know someone who can help!
  5. Let someone else deal with that leaking roof.
  6. You can’t afford to buy a house in the neighborhood in the neighborhood you want (but renting might not be any easier).

Rent Versus Buy Calculator

The New York Times has an excellent financial calculator to help you figure out if it’s better for you to rent or buy.  It factors in all kinds of things like interest rates, how long you want to live there, and your tax rates.  This is the best rent vs buy calculator I’ve seen.

Call or email me and I can help you fill in the things you’re not sure about such as interest rates and closing costs for selling a house.  I’ve added this to my “Calculators” menu, above.

NY Times Rent vs Buy Calculator


MPA: Jobs Data Revealed

Canadian Press –by MPA   04 Dec 2015

The Labor Department said Friday that employers added 211,000 jobs, led by big gains in construction and retail. And the government revised up its estimated job growth for September and October by a combined 35,000.

The unemployment rate remained a low 5 per cent for a second straight month. More Americans began looking for jobs in November, and most found them.

Employers have now added an average 213,000 jobs a month over the past six months. The robust hiring indicates that consumer spending is powering the economy even as weak growth overseas and low oil prices squeeze U.S. manufacturers and drillers.

Investors didn’t react much to the jobs report, which was generally in line with expectations. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was little changed at 2.31 per cent, and stock index futures were up about 0.5 per cent in pre-market trading, roughly the same as before the report was released.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen said this week that the economy appeared to be improving enough to justify a rate hike as long as no major shocks undermine confidence before the Fed meets Dec. 15-16. The Fed has kept its key short-term rate at a record low near zero for seven years.

For the Fed, conditions seem nearly ideal for a period of small and only gradual rate increases in coming months: Job growth has been consistently solid, and wages have begun to rise but not so much as to cause concern about future high inflation.

Since the Great Recession ended 6 1/2 years ago, average hourly pay has grown at only about two-thirds of the pace typical of a healthy economy. In November, average hourly wages rose 2.3 per cent from 12 months earlier. The November jobs report shows that the U.S. economy “is strong enough to withstand an initial hike in interest rates from what were seen as emergency record-low levels,” said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit. “A December rate hike now looks to be in the bag.”

Job gains were broad-based across the economy in November. Construction companies added 46,000 jobs, the most in two years. Spending in that sector has reached its highest level in eight years, boosted by more homebuilding and development of more roads and infrastructure.

The sizable gain in construction jobs last month, even as the Fed is preparing to raise rates, suggests that few expect higher borrowing costs to derail home building or sales.

“It was heartening to see growth in construction and that manufacturing held steady as … both are sensitive to higher interest rates,” said Tara Sinclair, chief economist at job search site

Government added 14,000 positions in November, retailers nearly 31,000. But factories shed 1,000 jobs.

Americans are spending more on costly items like cars and homes. Their stepped-up spending has supported the U.S. economy and offset drags from falling oil prices and weak growth overseas.

Auto sales, for example, jumped to a 14-year high in November, boosted in part by Black Friday deals offered throughout the month. Industry analysts expect auto sales to total a record 17.5 million for 2015.

Steady job gains this year and low mortgage rates have also boosted home sales, though sales have leveled off in recent months. Purchases of existing homes have increased nearly 4 per cent from a year ago. Sales of new homes have jumped nearly 16 per cent.

Americans are eating out more often, driving restaurant sales much higher. Retailers have reported weak revenue in recent months, but online purchases were robust on Black Friday.

Still, a strong U.S. dollar is weighing on U.S. exports and cutting factory output, while also lowering profits for U.S. multinational corporations. The dollar has jumped 13 per cent in value in the past year, thereby making U.S. goods costlier overseas and imports cheaper in the United States.

The dollar could rise further next year should the Fed raise interest rates even as its counterparts overseas, such as the European Central Bank, cut them further. Higher rates would attract investors to the dollar, driving up its value.

Separately, falling oil prices have cut factory output as drilling companies have ordered less steel pipe and other materials, such as fracking sand. Businesses overall have cut back on investing in computers and equipment this year.

The economy expanded at a modest 2.1 per cent annual rate in the July-September quarter. Most economists have forecast that it will grow at a still relatively subpar 2.5 per cent this year, only slightly above its average pace since the recession officially ended in mid-2009.

Weekend Traffic Update

I-90 and SR 520 lane closures this weekend across Lake Washington
Highway closures will be in opposite directions
SEATTLE – Drivers crossing Lake Washington on both Interstate 90 and State Route 520 will need to plan ahead to reach their destinations on time this weekend.
Beginning at 11 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, contractor crews working for the Washington State Department of Transportation and Sound Transit will reduce westbound I-90 to one lane near Bellevue Way Southeast. All westbound traffic will be rerouted to the express lanes until 5 a.m. Monday, Dec. 7, for the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project.
Eastbound SR 520 will be closed from Montlake Boulevard East to 92nd Avenue Northeast from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6. Contractor crews working on the SR 520 West Approach Bridge North project will use this closure to remove portions of the 24th Avenue East overpass and continue to construct a new westbound SR 520 off-ramp to East Lake Washington Boulevard.
“We need to do these additional closures now in order to stay on schedule and complete this work by the end of the year,” said SR 520 Construction Engineering Manager Brian Dobbins. “We encourage drivers to stay engaged this weekend, plan ahead, allow extra time or use alternatives to get around.”
I-90 closure details
11 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, until 5 a.m. Monday, Dec. 7
·       Westbound I-90 traffic will be reduced to one lane near Bellevue Way Southeast and rerouted to the express lanes.
·       Drivers wishing to access Mercer Island will need to exit westbound I-90 at East Mercer Way. There are no westbound exits to Mercer Island from the express lanes.
·       Those traveling from Mercer Island to Seattle should enter the express lanes at 77th Avenue Southeast or Island Crest Way.
·       Westbound I-90 drivers will be unable to exit to Rainier Avenue South and should follow the signed detour using 4th Avenue South and eastbound I-90.
·       Drivers transporting flammable materials westbound across Lake Washington must use alternate routes such as I-405, SR 520 or SR 522.
·       The I-90 Trail will remain open.
SR 520 closure details
6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6
·       All lanes and ramps along eastbound SR 520 will be closed from Montlake Boulevard East to 92nd Avenue Northeast.
·       Eastbound SR 520 will remain open from I-5 to Montlake Boulevard East.
There will be similar closures next weekend, Dec. 11-14, except in the opposite directions. Eastbound I-90 will be reduced to one lane near Rainier Avenue South and rerouted to the express lanes from 11 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, through 5 a.m. Monday, Dec. 14. Westbound SR 520 will be closed from 92nd Avenue Northeast to Montlake Boulevard East from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13.
Tools for drivers
·       Subscribe to WSDOT’s Eastside or Seattle Area News email updates.
·       Visit WSDOT’s What’s Happening Now website for a 24-hour highway construction look-ahead.
·       Get traveler information on your mobile device.
·       Find information and view Seattle area traffic online.
·       Call 511 for traffic updates.
·       Tune to highway advisory radio and watch electronic highway signs for information.
Hyperlinks within the release:
·        Rerouted to the express lanes:
·        I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project:
·        SR 520 West Approach Bridge North Project:
·        Email updates:
·        What’s Happening Now:
·        Mobile device:
·        Seattle area traffic online:

The Case for Buying a Home You Can’t Afford – Seattle IS AFFORDABLE

Trulia crunched income data to identify cities where mortgages will soon look more affordable.

Here’s a happy reminder if you’re someone who finds escape by perusing real estate listings for unobtainable homes: A mortgage that strains your budget now will be a lighter burden a few years, and a couple of job promotions, down the line.

Bloomberg Business Video

Young professionals willing to stretch their budgets now should consider Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., among other cities, according to a new report from Trulia. In New Haven, Conn., the typical millennial (defined by Trulia as an adult between ages 25 and 34) can expect to spend 37 percent of her income on housing in the first year of her mortgage. Three years later, though, the same home buyer’s monthly payments will fall below 31 percent of her income, according to Trulia’s estimates. By the last year of her 30-year mortgage, she’ll be spending 11 percent of her income on housing.

“There’s a sweet spot of metros where a mortgage looks obtainable but unaffordable, but where it doesn’t take long to become affordable,” said Ralph McLaughlin, a housing economist at Trulia.

Trulia built its model on the rough assumption that in three decades, today’s 25-year-olds will earn the same as today’s 55-year-olds. (It also baked in some inflation.) That seems like a reasonable basis for comparing local housing markets, but an overly broad one for making financial decisions.
Here are some other caveats: It wasn’t very long ago that U.S. homebuyers helped wreck the world economy by stretching their budgets to buy homes they couldn’t afford. Don’t do that. And even if you want to, it will be harder to find an enabling mortgage lender this time around. The average debt-to-income ratio that a borrower needs to close a loan has hovered around 25 percent in recent years, according to mortgage software company Ellie Mae, indicating that many buyers would struggle to convince a lender to let them stretch.

The other thing that stands out in the Trulia report is the low likelihood that young workers will ever be able to afford homes in California. In San Francisco, the typical millennial will still be spending 48 percent of her income on housing in the last year of her mortgage. In San Jose, the figure is 38 percent. In other words, the median home will still be unaffordable to the median millennial when that group is approaching retirement. It’s a grim picture up and down the coast.

California, to judge from the above, looks destined to become the land of the elderly.

Weekend traffic update Friday 10/23-10/25

Special Events Advisory for Friday, Oct. 23 -Sunday, Oct. 25

SEATTLE—The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) advises travelers to be aware of several events happening around the city through the weekend that will affect area traffic.

PRESIDENT OF IRELAND VISIT: The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins will be visiting the greater Seattle area from Wednesday to Saturday. Please be aware of potential traffic issues in and around the city.

SEATTLE HOME SHOW: The Seattle Home Show fall edition is at CenturyLink Field Event Center and runs 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through the weekend.

“R” DAY:  A celebration to benefit KEXP’s new home fund at the Old Rainer Brewery from 5p.m. to 11p.m. About 1500 people are expected to attend.

LIGHT THE NIGHT: The 15th anniversary of the lantern-lit night walk benefitting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  The Walk starts at 6p.m. at the Seattle Center, goes around the Center and the sidewalks of South Lake Union.  About 1500 people are expected to walk.

WEST SEATTLE HARVEST FESTIVAL:  A Fall celebration in the West Seattle Junction from 10a.m. to 2 p.m. California Avenue SW will be closed between SW Edmonds and SW Oregon Streets from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. About 500 people are expected to attend.

Sounders FC vs. Real Salt Lake, Sunday, October 25th, 2015 at 4p.m. About 40,000 people are expected to attend.

Seattle Area Traffic News What’s happening on the highway from Renton to Shoreline

Busy weekend of closures and roadwork

Whether you are headed out to find that one-of-a-kind Halloween costume, in search of the perfect pumpkin for carving or you plan to just run errands and gather supplies for a yummy fall soup, be sure to plan around a busy weekend of closures in the Seattle area this weekend. The significant closures include eastbound I-90 down to one lane across Lake Washington and a complete closure of the Montlake Bridge. That’s not all for the Montlake neighborhood. Watch for intermittent single-lane closures around SR 520, and for the westbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard to be closed. Want more details? We’ve got you covered, just check outour blog.

Special events to note

But wait, there’s more! Besides a lot of roadwork happening this weekend, you should also be aware of some special events. The Seattle Home Show at the CenturyLink Field Event Center takes place all weekend and the Sounders have a huge game at 4 p.m. on Sunday. All the details, plus other events happening throughout this month, can be found on our calendar.

Sound Transit closure in North Seattle

This is the fourth and final weekend of planned work on Sound Transit’s Northgate Link Extension project near Banner Way Northeast and Northeast 80th Street. The North 85th Street/Banner Way Northeast/Northeast 80th Street on-ramp will be closed from 7 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, through 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25. Drivers will follow a signed detour around the ramp closure to access northbound I-5 from Northeast Northgate Way. Some nearby city streets will also be closed or only allow local access.

Looking ahead: Alaskan Way Viaduct closure, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1

Your Halloween plans may need a detour. The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be closed next weekend for its semiannual inspection. That means both directions of SR 99 will be closed between South Spokane Street and the north end of the Battery Street Tunnel from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, and on Sunday, Nov. 1.

Montlake Bridge to close this weekend; ramp and local lane closures also on tap
WSDOT maintenance crews will close the Montlake Bridge in both directions this weekend, along with the westbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard and a single lane of the eastbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard. The closure, from 5 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, will allow WSDOT maintenance crews to begin important safety upgrades to the Montlake Bridge, including replacement of its aging metal decks.

Weather-permitting, crews this weekend will also intermittently close single lanes along East Park Drive East, along westbound East Lake Washington Boulevard between 24th Avenue East and Montlake Boulevard, and along northbound and southbound Montlake Boulevard between East Hamlin Street and East Roanoke Street, in order to complete paving activities.

During the weekend closures:                     

·       The SR 520 mainline will remain open, including its westbound off-ramp to Lake Washington Boulevard and a single lane of the eastbound off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard.
·       Drivers can access Montlake using the westbound SR 520 off-ramp to Lake Washington Boulevard, the open lane of the eastbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard, or via the University Bridge.
·       The Montlake Boulevard U-turn at East Hamlin Street for I-5 access will remain open.
·       Bicycle and pedestrian access across the west side of the Montlake Bridge will remain open.
·       Freeway transit stops will remain open, but other buses will be rerouted around the Montlake area. Check the King County Metro alerts webpage to find out information on your bus route.
·       Marine traffic will be restricted. There will be no Montlake Bridge openings for boats between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The bridge’s south span will open for boats (with one hour’s advance notice) between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.
Plan ahead: Eastbound I-90 closures also on the docket for this weekend
Please note that this weekend, Oct. 23-26, eastbound I-90 will also be down to one lane. As they have done in the past, contractor crews with the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project will reduce eastbound I-90 traffic to one lane just before the Mount Baker Tunnel from 11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, to 5 a.m. Monday, Oct. 26. Drivers will then be rerouted to the express lanes. Similar eastbound I-90 weekend work earlier this year resulted in added congestion in both directions of I-5. The Sounders are also playing their final regular season home match at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25. Just like the team will be preparing for the match, fans need to prepare for extra traffic- leave for destinations early and plan out alternate travel routes.

Best Corn Mazes in Seattle 2015

Field Day! 10 Corn Mazes You Need to Stalk This Fall

Bob’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Farm
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Bob’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Farm

The a(maze)ing facts: This year at Bob’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Farm, the maze will have you twisting and turning through the geometric paths that lead to a big ol’ barn at the center of Bob’s 10-acre maze. For new maze explorers who aren’t ready to tackle the whole 10-acres on their own (or at all!), the kids’ mazes are equally impressive and will keep little ones engaged with “stations” that they reach along the way.

Bonus: Bob’s is already booking up quickly, but you can also reserve one of their 15 fire pits that are scattered along the perimeter of the maze (you can see them on the photo above) – awesome for get-togethers with other families and some corn field marshmallow roasting! Fire pits are available for 2-80 people and run from $30-60 per hour, depending on the size of your group. Maze admission is required.

Car time: Approximately 40 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Daily, Sept. 26-Oct. 31, 2015. Daytime Mazes open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Night Maze open 6 p.m.-10 p.m. on Fridays & Saturdays (last admission at 10 p.m.)

Cost: Daytime Maze $6-$8 or $35/family (4 & under Free); Night Maze $10-$12 or $45/family (4 & under Free); Kids Maze $4/person or $20/family (under 18 mos. Free).

11907 Elliott Rd.
Snohomish, Wa 98296

Carleton Farm
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Carleton Farm

The a(maze)ing facts: This isn’t just a corn maze, it’s a crime scene at this year’s 12th Fan Challenge. Farmer Brown and his apple pie have been stolen and the only way to recover them is to collect all of the clues in the maze. Oh my! With one challenge for older kids and adults, using a punch card to follow the clues though the maze, and another challenge designed for younger kids to explore the maze following animal tracks, everyone in the family will be pleased with this maze. And if that’s not enough excitement, test your skills as a 12th Man fan. Navigate the maze and try and make it through 4 downs of trivia fun. As a fan, you have to get the correct answer or you may be forced to do a little cheer all while avoiding the penalties. With one maze and three games to play, plan on making a day of it at Carleton Farms!

Bonus: The Kids Korral Play Area at Carleton is also worth checking out, before or after the maze. There is an additional entrance fee for this part of the farm (parents are free), but between the zip swing, hay mountain, additional hay mazes (one is inside), that is money well spent! There is also an additional small fee for the Pony Express Train and the Pumpkin Cannon, so be prepared for those add-ons.

Car time: Approximately 40-50 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Daily, Sept. 26-Nov. 1, 2015 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (last ticket sold at 5 p.m.); the haunted maze is open from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, so you may want to plan on leaving before the chainsaws come out to play.

Cost: Daytime Maze $6/person or $25/family (3 & under Free); Night Maze $10/person.

630 Sunnyside Boulevard S.E.
Lake Stevens, Wa 98258 (you may need to use Everett, Wa in your GPS!)

Thomasson Family Farm
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Thomasson Family Farm

The a(maze)ing facts: Teaming up with Darigold to create one of the most gorgeous corn mazes in the area, the Farmalicious Corn Maze at Thomasson Family Farm is worth the trip to Enumclaw. The maze is hand-cut into the field by the owner’s daughter, Tia who also designs the maze every year. Now that is what we call aMAZEing!

Bonus: We love the old school farm vibe at Thomasson Family Farm and the fact that they truly keep kids in mind with every detail.

Car time: Approximately 50 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Daily, Oct. 1-31, 2015 from 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Cost: Weekdays $6/person; Saturdays & Sundays $7.50/person

38223 236th Ave. S.E.
Enumclaw, Wa 98022

Remlinger Farms
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Remlinger Farms

The a(maze)ing facts: A trip to Remlinger Farms in fall is like going to a pumpkin patch themed-Disneyland! We’re talking rides and food and go-karts and animals and so much more. But amongst all this fun, the corn maze should not be passed over, which has a kids helping kids-theme this year (think a gigantic pair of hands in the middle of the corn field).

Bonus: Need more corny fun? Don’t miss the flying corn rides when you’re done with the maze. No, the corn itself doesn’t fly… you do, in a giant ear of corn!

Car time: Approximately 45 minutes from Seattle (park in the outer lot to be near the corn maze).

Dates & Hours: Weekends Sept. 26-Oct. 31, 2015 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (weekdays are reserved for school tours).

Cost: Festival admission $15.75/person (under 1 Free)

32610 N.E. 32nd St.
Carnation, Wa 98014

Carpinito Brothers
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Carpinito Brothers

The a(maze)ing facts: As one of the closest corn mazes to Seattle, Carpinito Brothers goes all out each year with two mazes – you won’t be able to tell when you’re deep in the maze, but you’re actually running through a Headless Horseman and his Fiery Pumpkin Head! The mazes vary in difficulty and length, ranging from about one to two miles of paths.

Bonus: You can combine all of your fall activities into one trip to Carpinito Brothers – pick up pumpkins and fall veggies, take pictures with their fun props, travel through the hay maze, swim in a sea of corn and say hello to the farm’s furry friends. Plus, scoot over to their store when you can stock up on all of your family’s favorite fall veggies. Beets for dinner, anyone?

Car time: Approximately 20-30 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Daily, Sept. 25-Oct. 31, 2015 from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Cost: $6-$9/person (4 & under Free). Click here for $1 off adult corn maze admission.

6868 S. 277th St.
Kent, Wa 98032 (note, this is not their main store address)

Mosby Farms
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Mosby Farms

The a(maze)ing facts: After 24 years, Mosby Farms knows how to do corn mazes right. Parents rave about the maze at Mosby because it’s so well-maintained – the corn is lush and high, the paths are less mucky than at other farms and the routes are tricky enough to keep even mom and dad, who know everything, entertained. And this year, you can weave in and out of their Spider Web & Fly-themed corn maze.

Bonus: Well-behaved pets on leashes are welcome at Mosby Farms, so feel free to bring Fido to romp around with you. Just remember to bring a leash and a plastic bag for messes.

Car time: Approximately 40 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Daily, Oct. 2-31, 2015 from 10 a.m.- ‘til dusk.

Cost: $9/Adults; $6/Kids (3-12); under 3 Free. Click here for $2 off corn maze admission.

3104 Auburn Black Diamond Rd.
Auburn, Wa 98092

Rutledge Corn Maze
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Rutledge Corn Maze

The a(maze)ing facts: BOOM! That’s not corn popping that you hear… it’s the sound of this awesome 8-acre corn maze at Rutledge Corn Maze, near Olympia, in Tumwater. There are two different games to play in this challenging corn maze. Choose to find all 12 check point stations, which will ultimately help you find your way out or play The Farm Scene Investigation. Farmer Joe is missing and there was an accident that appears to be foul play. There are seven farm animal suspects that you will need you to investigate. Collect the evidence to find the weapon, the suspect and the location where the crime took place. Be sure to punch your card to keep track of your clues. Solve the mystery and put the guilty farm animal behind bars and save farmer Joe.

Bonus: This is a tech-savvy corn maze! Download the Rutledge Corn Maze app onto your smartphone for details about the maze, directions, admission prices, events and more.

Car time: Approximately 80 minutes from Seattle.

Hours: Daily, Sept. 23-Oct. 31, 2015 from 9 a.m.-10 p.m. or later for the haunted version of the corn maze.

302 93rd Ave. S.E.
Tumwater, Wa 98501

The Farm at Swan's Trail
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The Farm at Swan’s Trail

The a(maze)ing facts: Learn a little geography with your corn maze! A family favorite, The Farm at Swan’s Trail is well-known for its Washington State corn maze map. Start at one end of the state and make your way across to the other side… if you can! The maze is 12 acres (that’s 4.5 miles!) and shows more than 250 state roads and 400 towns and landmarks, each labeled with historical facts.

Bonus: Not to be missed are the duck races. And, we’re not talking about rubber ducks! Prefer your animal races with four-legged creatures? The pig races won’t disappoint either.

Car time: Approximately 45-60 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Daily, Sept. 27-Oct. 31, 2015 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. with flashlight mazes beginning at 6 p.m on Fridays and Saturdays.

Cost: Daytime Maze $6/person or $25/family (under 4 Free); Night Maze $10/person (by reservation only).

7301 Rivershore Rd.
Snohomish, Wa 98290

Dr. Maze’s Farm
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Dr. Maze’s Farm

The a(maze)ing facts: A sunflower and corn maze in one? Sign us up! This year’s maze at Dr. Maze’s Farm features a spider web who is sure to love corn himself. At 3.5 acres, the maze at Dr. Maze’s is a great size for families with younger kids, who will be thrilled with the 1/4 mile short path… if you don’t get lost! There are ten question signs to help you find your way. The correct answer will lead you on your way. How much do you know about spiders? Don’t miss the Color Balance Maze and Spider Rope Maze in the middle of the big maze. It’s included in your admission – an Instagramming parent’s dream come true!

Bonus: If you still need pumpkins, the farm has plenty to pick from as well as a Farmstand with loads of farm fresh products and botanicals, hayride tours, rubber duck races, farm animals and even a Singing Chicken Show.

Car time: Approximately 20-30 minutes from Seattle.

Dates & Hours: Weekends, Sept. 24-Oct. 31, 2015 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Flashlight Nights Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24, and 31 ’till 9 p.m.

Cost: Included with $9 Farmyard fee

15410 N.E. 124th St.
Redmond, Wa 98052

2015/09/29 – 

This is just Scary

Seattle installs new system to track individual drivers

Seattle installs new system to track individual drivers
David Kroman

Gray boxes, holding the wiring for nearby traffic signals, dot more than 1,000 intersections throughout Seattle. They fade into the background by design, many of them further camouflaged with graffiti and posters for candidates or concerts.

It would be no surprise, then, if you’ve missed a new accouterment added to many of these boxes in the last year: a small rubber antenna, like a lily pad or tiddlywink, perched on top.

1  A Skywave Antenna at 2nd and Cherry.

The antennas are a patented design from Skywave Antennas in Huntsville, Alabama. Each is connected to a modem that casts a net of Wi-Fi across the intersection. As you approach, the signal pings not only the sensors in your car, but your phone and tablet as well. A succession of these gizmos can track your progress down the street.

It’s another step in Seattle’s march to the future, a world where the street grid adapts to congestion, construction, accidents and football games in real-time. And as the city works to build a framework for vetting new technologies, struggling at times to keep pace with the speed of technology, it is also driving privacy advocate nuts.
Seattle’s street grid is packed beyond its capacity. The city recently ranked 7th worst in the country for congestion. Because of geographic constraints, however, building more roads is really not an option. That leaves either getting cars off the road or allowing them to move more smoothly through the system — and that means making the traffic grid a smarter place.

The core of this effort is the Seattle Department of Transportation’s Traffic Operations Center. High in the Municipal Tower, the operations center is a sort of NASA mission control for Seattle traffic: Desks with computers face an enormous screen, which is parceled into about thirty smaller views from traffic cameras around the city.

From this room, SDOT can monitor 200 traffic cameras, 34 message signs, 1,100 traffic signals and basically any major event or road closure, all in real time. The computers update travel times, dispatch incident responses, adjust routes around construction zones, and change messages on signs around Seattle. It’s all about moving people in and out of the system as quickly as possible.

But the thing about traffic is that it’s the result of spot decisions made by a million unpredictable human beings, and without an understanding of how people behave within that system, there are limits to relieving the immense pressure put on traffic after an accident, in rush hour or during an event. That’s where large-scale data collection comes in.

Before the most recent Wi-Fi based system, SDOT deployed license plate and Bluetooth readers to gather information as cars move from one place to the next. But while effective for highways and large scale roads, they left something to be desired at intersections and smaller corridors. The new system will provide a much more detailed picture: while Bluetooth readers capture 5-7 percent of cars passing intersections, the Wi-Fi readers capture nearly 50 percent from cars with smartphones or tablets with Wi-Fi turned on.

2The Skywave antennas are part of a larger system installed by a company called Acyclica. The readers are placed along a street corridor, creating a Wi-Fi signal. As a car passes one of the readers, any wireless device – phone, tablet, Bluetooth, car sensor – leaves a mark. As that same device passes through the next intersection, it gets pinged again. As the car passes more readers, algorithms are run to calculate speed, distance, time and general behavior.

One car doesn’t tell a lot. But as thousands, and eventually millions, of cars follow the same path, the data net thickens – that metadata we hear so much about – and the grid’s capacity to adapt grows. As a result, traffic signals and warning signs will, in theory, grow smarter, adjusting more accurately during certain times of day, and even learning to respond to isolated events.

“We have a Thursday night game between the Raiders and Seahawks and we’ll see how our system reacts,” said Adiam Emery, an Intelligent Transportation System Engineer with SDOT. “In real time this type of data will be feeding the system.”

After a pilot program along Mercer Street, SDOT is moving forward at full speed. Readers have been installed throughout downtown, along Mercer Street and, most recently, along the construction corridor on 23rd Ave. According to Emery, data will begin to roll in around the first quarter of 2016. If the effort is successful, it would allow for better use of existing infrastructure at relatively little cost – approximately $2,000 per reader. In a system that needs billions of dollars in improvements, that’s nothing.

It’s hard to talk about data without raising the issue of privacy, however. The new system works because cellphones and tablets have their own identifying numbers called media access control or MAC addresses. As you drive down Mercer Street or 2nd Ave or 23rd, it can tell that it’s the same device pinging the string of antennas at the streetlights.

SDOT representatives say they are exceedingly confident this new technology poses no privacy risks. Emery and SDOT Public Information Officer Norm Mah explain that the city receives no raw data from the readers, which they say means it cannot trace information back to individuals or individual devices. Mah compared it to a bar code on a baseball ticket: The system knows you’re there, but not who you are. The data fed into the readers is “scrubbed,” meaning it’s analyzed and aggregated into a lump of useful information, absent of discrete data-points.

But because SDOT is largely free to pursue infrastructure improvements without approval from the city council, advancements are not always aired in public. Emery called programs like this one “business as usual” for SDOT. That approach, though, can leave communication divide. The Department of Information Technology (DoIT) is working on fixing the divide with an initiative to consistently examine the new technologies of departments like SDOT and City Light to ensure they do not encroach too deeply on citizens’ privacy. But that initiative will likely not get up and running until January.

In the meantime, systems like SDOT’s traffic signals can proceed for months before other departments take notice. DoIT chief Michael Mattmiller said he first learned about the readers a few months ago, close to a year after the Acyclica system was installed.

This inevitably frustrates privacy advocates like Seattle Privacy Coalition’s co-founder David Robinson. He’d like more transparency when it comes to data-gathering, no matter how anonymous it’s purported to be.

The issue for Robinson is that the city does not own the technology; a private contractor does. Rather than develop its own system, SDOT found it would be cheaper and more effective to pay a service fee to get it up and running. When SDOT first experimented with the Bluetooth readers, they hired Acyclica, based out of Boulder, Colorado. The city was satisfied with the product so gave Acyclica a contract to build out the Wi-Fi reader infrastructure. More recently, SDOT added four more vendors — Digimax, Quality Counts, Western Systems and IDAX — to its vendor pool, meaning any of them may be used to expand the already existing data network.

“I’d like to know what kind of encryption and transparency measures they have in place,” says Robinson. “But we don’t know what the city is asking [of the companies]. If they would just say what they’re doing and make it transparent they would at least have us not worried about whether they’re lying or not.”

When Mattmiller learned of the program, he too had concerns about privacy. “Once we did hear about this, we recognized the concerns of privacy and we jumped in,” he says. Since examining the program, Mattmiller feels confident that the technology cannot be used to trace individuals or individual devices.

Acyclica President Daniel Benhammou says his company does not store any raw data. “In the case where you look at types of data with a unique identifier,” he says, “the practice is that it’s immediately anonymized and encrypted so that the identifier changes form in an irreversible way. None of that raw data is ever maintained.”

The president of one of the other four vendors, who didn’t want to be named for fear of hurting his company’s chances at more work, says it stores data for up to five years. But, as at Acyclica, the data goes through a “one-way encryption” process and “only a very smart person working for a lifetime could decode the information. We have no desire to track individuals,” he says.

To be sure, though, Mattmiller says a third party auditor has been hired to examine the city’s contractors.

The question of data-gathering and surveillance in Seattle exploded in 2013 when reporters at the Stranger exposed the Seattle Police Department’s “Mesh Network.” That network was eventually shut off after outcry from the public.

Robinson admits traffic management doesn’t concern him as much as law enforcement, but feels any sort of data-gathering device should be run through City Ordinance 124142, which requires all City departments to obtain City Council approval before using equipment capable of capturing or recording data. “The city is once again circumventing the spirit and letter of their own ordinance,” says Robinson.

When asked about the ordinance, SDOT’s Emery says, “the anonymous data gathered does not fall within the parameters of the ordinance. None of the anonymous data is retained.”

Chair of the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Councilmember Bruce Harrell could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mattmiller echoes Emery. “This would not be subject to the surveillance ordinance because it’s not a surveillance technology,” he says.

There is clearly a gap between what Robinson sees as the spirit of the law and the literal interpretation of city officials. In theory, this gap will be closed when the city has an official privacy initiative in place. If and when that is passed this fall, Mattmiller’s department will be better informed of new technologies and have a more in-depth review process.

“It’s going to take some time to educate city staff about what steps should be taken,” says Mattmiller. “We want to catch these programs up front.”

Meanwhile, SDOT’s new antennas create a certain knee-jerk reaction, even as data-gathering has become a fact of life. Any perception, real or not, of shrouding the truth is not taken well.

In this case, the ultimate question may be what concerns people more: the specter of overly surveillant law enforcement, or the prospect of spending yet another hour stuck in traffic?