Sunday, 7 April 2013

Tips for Renting in the SF Bay Area

Having just concluded my 2nd search for a rental in the Bay area, I thought its time to put down some of what I've learned, in the hope that other folks looking for rentals will get some helpful information.

1) Commute - Decide how much time/ fuel you and your family want to spend driving each day, to narrow down the localities you could choose to live in.

2) Choosing your neighborhood - Chances are you are moving into the bay area for work, in which case of course you'll want to be close to work. Now when you look at neighborhoods - look for one you are comfortable in - downtown, suburban, up in the hills, by the highway. Speaking for myself, I was used to a busy downtown atmosphere, but thought "resort style living" would make a nice change. It didn't - was bored by the quiet stillness, and had a lot of trouble getting to public transport.

3) Set your budget - decide what figure you are comfortable paying out as rent, before you rent. You will have to do some window shopping/ research before you can do this to get used to what rent levels there are, but its time well spent - that way when you see a apartment you want you'll know right away whether the rent makes sense or not.

4) Amenities - look at the amenities that come with the apartment.Parking, Laundromat,Swimming pool, gym, jogging track, accessibility to public transportation etc. Carefully evaluate which ones are important to you, which you will use, and which are just nice to have. Then use that to evaluate the rent.

5) Monthly charges - One you have chosen your apartment look at the components of the rent careful. Deposits - are often not returned fairly, so be prepared to let go of that amount. Many apartments will send you a bill for utilities - water, garbage, drainage etc. - which is not standard, but make sure to ask how much that would be per month and add it on to the rent for comparison with other places.

6) Pets - if you have a pet the good news is that many apartments welcome pets. Most charge an additional pet deposit, which is standard, and some charge a pet rent - which is not.

7) Older Buildings -Most apartment buildings are old - so you will get lead paint, termite, bed bug warning notices. Specifically avoidable are apartments with mold and those on higher floors specially if you have kids. The walls and floors are really thin and all sounds and many movements carry, so just be aware of that.

8) Look em up - check out the rental reviews on line- yelp, city data forum etc. Most of the reviews are cribby, but at least you'll get an idea of what they are commonly cribbing about and then you can decide if that is something you can live with or not. For example "noisy kids" is common, but if you have kids too...why not :)

9) Bargain - while most property managers will pretend to be busy and ultra efficient, if you really want a place, make sure to discuss the pricing and amenities and chances are you'll get offered a better deal.

10) Be ready to sign up right away, the rental property market here is fast, and when you like one, be ready, checkbook and all to commit so that you don't lose the chosen one.

Monday, 4 March 2013

ITIN application without sending passport

Just thought that I would post my experience so that it would help others in a similar situation.

The current regulations require that the ITIN application be submitted with original documents. In our three year old's case, this means his original passport, which the IRS can hang on to for up to 2 months. I found that pretty uncomfortable, so looked for options. One way is to get a photocopy attested by the issuing agency. This means the passport office of India - I thought the Indian consulate in San Francisco would help with that. Multiple calls to the consulate went unanswered. So I gave up on this route as well.

Finally discovered that tt is possible to do the ITIN application in person, without submitting the passport, at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center. For a list of offices in California, see:

I went to the San Jose office with our three year old on Friday. The dependent who is applying for an ITIN needs to be there in person - so you need to take your child/spouse along. The office starts at 8:30 am, I reached there by 9 am (had to hunt for a bit because the building was not numbered - look for the building undergoing some construction/repair work and enter from the side street). Got a token after waiting in the line for almost 45 minutes - and our number came up at around 3:45 pm. So expect to spend the day there - if you are going with a child, take lots of entertainment :) Luckily, you can go out regularly, so my son and I spent most of the day wandering about downtown San Jose.

One good thing - the center actually accepted my tax return itself, not just the ITIN application. So there is no need to send any documents to the Texas office.

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Friday, 1 March 2013

Celebrating the Chinese New Year @ Redwood City

Last weekend we went to the Lunar New year event, held in the Courthouse Square at Redwood City. It was a sunny morning, that complimented the beautiful Courthouse Square venue. A full days schedule was planned,  from 11 to 4, but we stayed only till 1 thanks to our 3 yo's nap schedule.

The show started with the traditional lion dance, with 3 lions - one red, one silver and one gold - a very regal and energetic dance. The San Mateo County museum had a free entrance as well that day, so we ventured in and saw first hand some Chinese crafts, were told our future per the Chinese zodiac, tried chopsticks and coloring a snake, 'cos its the year of the snake :). Very Kid friendly :)

We decided to see some of the exhibits too while we were there, and the Land of Opportunity was really nice.  An exhibit that celebrated the immigration stories and the diversity it as brought to the region, made all the more relevant by the vibrant lunar new year festivities going on outside. A moment of true appreciation for where we have come from and where we are going.

Back outside we sat in the sunny courtyard and had a sandwich lunch while watching acrobats from the Shaolin Culture Center. It never fails to amaze me how they manage to add in comedy to an acrobatic routine that's already so strenuous  It was fun, but the jaw clenching one was when a blind folded acrobat jumped through a hoop of fire... wheew!

Then we took a stroll through the makeshift booths all around the square and came away with a dragon garden ornament.  A fun and inexpensive weekend, as also an occasion to enjoy the richness that cultural diversity brings.

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Monday, 11 February 2013

Review of Dare to Dream at Stockton Arena

This weekend we had a special treat planned - we were going to see the Disney on ice show - Dare to Dream - Disney on Ice. I've always been a fan of ice skating, and so had bought tickets online early last month for an afternoon show at Stockton. We started off after lunch on Sat - this way we - better half and me had a peaceful drive through the beautiful California countryside while 3yo had his nap. We passed rolling farms, with sheep and cows out to graze, majestic hills and lots and lots of windmills.

Once in Stockton the GPS will guide you to the Stockton arena easily enough and there is paid parking available at $ 15 for the duration of the event +1 hour. There is also $10 parking available in a lot opposite. The weather was cold and windy, so best dress warmly  in layers. Also no outside food or drinks are allowed in, except baby food - they check the bags at the entry together with your tickets, so leave any food/ drinks behind in the car. Entry in is quite quick in spite of long lines, and once in you are in a world of Disney…merchandise that is. From wands and lanterns that light up and spin, to Mickey Mouse dolls and photo opportunities. Most of the items are prices between $12 to 20, so be prepared :). Similarly lots of food vendors once you are inside with buckets of popcorn, cotton candy, iced lemonade again in the $12-20 range. The atmosphere inside is like a fairground - with vendors calling and lots of kids and toys and a party all around.

The lights dim and the show begins - with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald waving to kids and introducing the show. First a short skit based on The Frog Prince, then Cinderella and finally Tangled - the story of Rapunzel. It was a good show - intricate footwork, great facial expressions and a nice lively tempo. The volume was on the high side, but it allowed all the kids to be as noisy as they like without spoiling the music or effects for all the rest of us, so it was ok. Tangled had the best effects and the 2 main characters Rapunzel and Van Ryder were not just good but also looked like they were enjoying themselves too. Needless to say most of the kids were having a very happy time, especially all the little girls all dressed up as princesses. If you have a little princess and want to make her feel extra special, consider buying rink side seats - then she will be part of the show too, the grand duke will try her foot for the glass slipper, or she will get a chance to float a lantern for Rapunzel... :)

Altogether a worthwhile experience, though the next time I go I will definitely look for tickets that are discounted online, closer to the show dates.

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Monday, 4 February 2013

Specialized Sirrus, off road

Someone I know on donated a pair of new cyclocross tires - 700x28 Kenda Kwicks - so I put those on the Sirrus, removed the rack, fenders, lights and went off roading. The trail probably doesn't count as anything much for real offroaders, but I had a blast. The tires had enough grip to keep me from sliding about, and I had much more fun than I imagined riding off road. Will do more of this on the weekends - and carry a better camera next time :) Till then -

See the bar ends? Nashbar, $9.99 on sale - and really nice. I'll try them out a little longer, but at the moment, they seem a bit too wide - so if I still find them too wide after a few more rides, maybe some handlebar shortening is in order.

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Day trip to Aquarium of the Bay, Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco

The weather forecast predicted a sunny day with a high of 64F in SF so we decided to revisit an old favorite - Aquarium of the Bay, at the Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco. We went by car, but a Caltrain and Muni combo will work just as well. Parking in downtown SF can be expensive most parking lots charge $12 for day long parking, street parking is better but getting parking around where you want to go can be tricky. Take along plenty of quarters just in case :).

We had a late start around 11 and reached SF Pier 29 by noon. We walked along the water seeing the boats and birds, and just before we reached the museum came a across a little blue play structure - slide etc. in a little park. So we took a break while our 2yo ran up and down and limbered up after his nap on the drive in. Lots of boats to look at on the bay and along the road, you can start to see the crowds and sightseeing bus tours.

About 30 minutes later we walked into the Aquarium, once again thanks to complimentary passes from Discover & Go. 
The first exhibit is about the bay’s ecosystems that support a wide variety of marine life, next an elevator ride and a walk through clear tunnels, with marine life from the bay and surrounding waters. There were beautiful jellyfish, schools of anchovies, sea bass and many colorful starfish. Here we also saw a beautiful Giant Pacific Octopus, rescued from a crab net, hermit crabs and red abalones.

In the second clear tunnel the deeper water habitat is shown with sharks, rays, sturgeon, rock fish etc. You can also see face to face (:)) - Sevengill sharks, Soupfin, Spiny Dogfish and Brown Smoothhound sharks. I liked watching a Skate glide by and then go and rest at the bottom of the tunnel, at a 45 degree angle to the wall, just as if he was parking! Once again there is an elevator ride and this time there are 2 pools where you can reach in and touch - rays, starfish etc.- typically the highlight of the visit for my 2yo. 

Then we were out and in the sunshine, and had a picnic on a bench overlooking the bay. Once done, we walked out into Fisherman's wharf - enjoying the sun, music and crowds. A little window shopping and 1 carousel ride later ( $ 3 per ticket), we walked out from the shops to see the sea lions. It was an interesting sight - the pier was full of people looking at the sea lions, and the barges on the water were full of sea lions basking in the sun.

We then wrapped up as it was time for another nap for the 2yo, with the feeling of another Saturday well spent :).




Saturday, 26 January 2013

Specialized Sirrus - my daily commuter

I started commuting to work in March 2012 on a $125 Magna Excitor bike from Target. It isn't a bad bike I suppose, my commute is 3 miles each way on flat roads and the Magna was up to that task. I started cycling to work because I didn't have a car, and kept at it even after I got the car because I liked it a lot. However, I found myself wanting a better bike, so I started test riding bikes at LBSes in my area. I finally ended up getting a 2012 Specialized Sirrus (the base model).

So far, I have only good things to say about this bike. The higher end models have better shifting and are specced more like a road bike, but the base Sirrus is just right for me. The bike cost me $487 (inclusive of tax) - and I have spent a lot more on accessories since then. A photo of the bike as it was after I got it:
The bottle cage is a Topeak plastic cage, light and with adjustable size - allows me to carry bottles of different sizes. The bike changed a bit as I commuted - I added fenders, a rack, bag, computer, lights, changed pedals. Here is an intermediate photo - this isn't the latest photo but it shows the bike in its correct place - my office :)
I like this bike quite a bit - like all new bike owners, I keep thinking of the n+1 bike - but I ride this bike and any desire to buy another bike melts away.

Things I like about the bike:
1. The 700x32 tires give a nice comfortable ride.
2. The 48-38-28 gearing up front has a gear high enough to push the bike to 30 mph, but also has a gear low enough to help me up hills. Race bike riders like close gearing so that they can maintain perfect cadence - I like the range in gearing more.
3. The frame has plenty of eyelets and braze-ons - adding fenders, rack and bag was no trouble.

Things I don't like about the bike:
1. The front derailleur could have been better. It is a Shimano Tourney - bottom of the barrel. It does its job, but it is definitely not snappy about it. However, an Alivio upgrade will cost about $15, so I'm not too worried about it. And all said and done, the Tourney does the job well enough, so I haven't felt like springing for the $15 yet.

I now take the bike on weekend rides as well - not really a pro rider yet, and my rides are restricted to two hours at the most (that is the time when our 2 yo is asleep) - but I really enjoy the rides.

A quick review of the accessories/changes I have on the bike so far:
1. Topeak Explorer rack, with Topeak MTX EXP bag.
Love this setup. The slide in and lock system is pretty nice, and more importantly, because the panniers start from the top of the rack bag, they end pretty high - so I have no heel strike. I carry my laptop (in a padded sleeve) in one of the panniers, clothes in the other and food, patch kit etc. in the rack bag.
$25 got the rack from, $60 shipped for the bag from

2. Planet Bike Hybrid fenders
$25 fenders from Was really upset with them initially, the rear fender didn't fit snug and rattled a lot. Solved that by removing the screw from the seat stay, and using twisties instead - the screw didn't hold the fender high enough. Additionally, after I contacted Planet Bike support, they kindly sent me another clamp - I used the clamp to give the fenders a better line - attached the clamp to the rack using twisties. Really solid fit now - no issues at all.
Older Sirrus versions have reported issues with fenders and the front derailleur - those issues seem to be sorted now. Plenty of clearance:
3. Sigma BC 1009 computer
Easy to setup, plenty of videos on Youtube. Inexpensive, and reliable.

4. Topeak cage
Works well, looks nice too.

Have a few other accessories, but will cover those later - I need a new photo for that. The bike looks more nicely setup now, so I want a better photo before I post further :D

Latest photo, fenders off for the summer.

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Bay Area Kids Museum

Another Kid friendly, Budget friendly trip in The SF Bay Area - Bay Area Kids Museum

It looked like it was going to be a warm day, so we decided to step out for an exploratory trip. Still on our resolve to spend more carefully, we decided to look first at Discover & Go options. We quickly decided on The Bay Area Kids museum, printed out our pass, packed a small picnic and set off.

From the Peninsula was about a 45 minute drive, through some lovely scenery on a great day. We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, and luckily for all the people walking on the bridge, there was a clear view. Once past the bridge we drove down into Sausalito, and very quickly reached the museum. Parking is free, and it’s next to the marina and just under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Inside, there are lots of play areas - indoors and out, all meant for kids. Imagination Playground is a small lot full of blue giant foam blocks, noodles and balls with kids busily putting them together. Meant to encourage kids to be creative and build, it was fun even to watch. From there we moved on to the next play area - the Lookout Cove. This is a couple of acres of playground with lots of features. Our 2 yo's favorite was the construction site (complete with helmets, shovels and dump trucks), representative of the Golden Gate construction scenario. There’s also a shipwreck, where kids can search for treasure (that friendly volunteers help along by secreting pennies in the sand) - coins, porcelain and even a sword.

Next we stopped at the TotSpot. There's a height restriction so not for kids above 42 inches. Outdoors there was a meandering stream that kids can splash in and play with toy fish and frogs. There are aprons for kids, to avoid getting wet, but it may be best to bring along a change. Indoors there are 2 areas - the woodlands and wetlands. Wood lands have meadow to roll in and tunnel to crawl through. The woodlands have ponds (water beds)  where kids can jump and hear ducks and frogs. The Cafe didn’t have too many vegetarian options and they were out of a lot of things - so may be best to bring your picnic along. Picnic tables and restrooms, with diaper changing areas are plenty, so you can plan to spend a day.

There was a lot more to see and play - Art Studios, Bay Hall, Discovery Hall, Wave Workshop - but our 2 yo was all played out so we headed out. As the emphasis is on unstructured play and the play areas have been designed to be kid safe - it was a relaxing and fun day for all of us.  Next time, I'm going to take a book.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Kid friendly day out in the SF Bay Area - Lindsay Wildlife Museum

Kid friendly day out in the SF Bay Area

If you are looking for ways to keep your kid entertained this winter, a visit to the Lindsay Wildlife museum could be the answer. An indoor museum, with a park outside - so this can even work on cold and/rainy day.

Tucked away in Walnut Creek, its about a 45 minute drive over the San Mateo bridge from the Peninsula. We had a big breakfast and started out planning to reach there by about 10 am. After a quick snack in the car on reaching (to avoid any hunger tantrums by 2yo) we went in and got started. The entry fees are $7 for adults, $6 for seniors 65+, $5 for children 2 -17, but if you have a SF bay area library membership, chances are you can get in for free, thanks to the Discover& Go program. 

See live, non-releasable California wild animals - Hawks, owls, eagles and other birds of prey perch overhead. There are also a fox, bobcat, opossum, coyote, Snakes, toads, turtles and other reptiles and amphibians exhibits. Young and old volunteers wander around offering information and answering questions, and they have regular sessions - Petting Circle,Live Animal Encounters - where kids can learn more about an animal - 'creature powers', habitat etc. Some of the fun things for kids include a fly like an eagle simulation with a birds eye view, microscopes to look through, animal sounds all at kid friendly height and meant for kids.

The basement has exhibits about local flora and fauna, and native Indian life and artifacts. From food they ate, to hunting habits and weaponry to baby pouches and grain baskets - its interesting, and not just for the kids. The volunteers are kind, patient, good with kids and animals and full of information. You can see that they care, and thats really the best way to show kids how passion and commitment can translate into meaningful work. There's also a gift shop- with interesting books and toys, mostly wildlife centric that make a good takeaway.

We've been there twice so far and my 2yo has touched a mouse, been introduced to an eagle, met a rattlesnake and a fox. We will probably go again :)

Both times we have finished this visit with a walk in downtown Walnut Creek and a meal at the Counter, also kid friendly - with kiddie meals and a toy for our 2yo. 

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