A Quantitative Guide to Buying a Home in the San Francisco Bay Area

A framework for making one of the most difficult personal and analytical decisions--buying a home

At ZeroDown, we help people purchase homes across the San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, we spend a lot of time thinking about the home buying process and assembling data to inform decisions. We have decided to share some of our analysis more broadly, through a quantitative guide to home buying in the Bay Area.

This guide is organized into 4 major sections: deal economics, schools, commuting, and quality of life. In each section, we assemble data related to these attributes to show you where various locations rank and how that relates to their price. In the final section, we attempt to synthesize all this data to help you choose a home based on your needs.

We analyzed housing-related data from 80 Bay Area towns and cities (incorporated municipalities) in the following counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. Some of them like San Francisco and San Jose are located near where the jobs are. Some of them are much farther away but have desirable attributes like lower prices or particular school districts. All cities are a collection of tradeoffs between their attributes and price.

Deal Economics

When buying a house, there are a lot of aspects of the deal to consider such as financing, contingencies, upfront expenses, ongoing expenses, and your opportunity cost of capital (what else you could do with the money). But since price is what people typically focus on, let's talk about the affordability aspects.

How much does it cost?

Across all cities, the median price was $1,109,750 with a wide distribution. Among the cities we examined, the most expensive were Atherton, Hillsborough, and Los Altos Hills where the median home is above $4MM. Of these locations, only 4 have homes priced less than half a million dollars with 2 of them in proximity to work centers in San Francisco and Oakland.

Median sale price of single-family homes and condos across Bay Area cities in 2019
Source: ZeroDown

At $1,375,000 and in close proximity to many jobs and cultural activities, a home in San Francisco nearly seems like a bargain compared to the prices in other locations. However, remember in San Francisco this median price also includes condos, in addition to single-family homes, while suburbs are mostly single-family homes. The median sale price of a single-family home in San Francisco in 2019 is $1,425,000.

What can you afford?

A good rule of thumb for affordability is the 28% rule: your monthly mortgage, property taxes, and insurance should not exceed 28% of your gross salary (before tax). Though the 28% is a good rule of thumb for conforming mortgages, it does not apply to jumbo mortgages. A jumbo mortgage is used to finance properties when the loan amount exceeds the conforming loan limits. This is true for most homes in the Bay Area. Jumbo loan lenders typically use a debt-to-income ratio of 43% to determine affordability.

"Jumbo loan lenders typically use a debt-to-income ratio of 43% to determine affordability."

So on a $1.375MM place in San Francisco with a 20% downpayment, your monthly payment would be approximately $6500. This monthly payment estimate assumes a 30-yr fixed-rate loan at 3.625%, 1% annualized property tax, and 0.3% annualized home insurance expense. In order to meet this 43% rule, your annual salary should be greater than approximately $180,000 per year. Note that this assumes no other debt. With a nominal debt expense (say car and/or student loans) of $850 a month, the annual income requirement jumps to approximately $205,000.

In order to meet the 43% rule for a median priced Palo Alto home of $2.82MM million, for which your monthly home expense will be roughly $13,350 (with the same loan, taxes, and insurance assumptions as above), you need an annual salary of approximately $372,000 assuming no other debt. Even with a salary that high, it would take you a considerable amount of time to save up for the down payment. In Pittsburg, the least expensive city we looked at, you still need roughly a $90,000 annual salary to meet the 28% rule for a conforming mortgage for the median priced home of $460,000.

How sound an investment decision is this?

Whether it's from Bitcoin, Facebook Stock, or real estate there's always the feeling that everyone except you is getting rich in the Bay Area. Sure, prices have increased substantially, but just how much money are people making from home appreciation versus other investments?

To get the 3-year appreciation in home value for each city, we used the data for homes sold in 2016 and 2019. And to prevent large home deals in small cities from skewing our results, we use the price per square foot as our measure of value and calculated the compound growth rate for each city. Of the cities we looked at, the average annual price appreciation over the last 3 years is 5.4%.

Annual appreciation in median sale price/sqft since 2016 vs. the median sale price
Source: ZeroDown

In contrast, the annual return of the S&P 500 during this same 3 year period was 12.5%. Real estate seems like a comparatively worse investment. But we haven’t talked about a key variable yet, which is the degree to which the home was financed with a mortgage.

The effect of debt is a critical factor in real estate returns, particularly since it’s much easier for a consumer to obtain a mortgage loan than margin debt to make leveraged investments in the stock market. So for example, if you put $200,000 into a $1 million home with a 20% down payment mortgage, and that home appreciated $54,000 per year (5.4%), then your annual return on your money would be 27% ($54,000 / $200,000). Now the relative performance looks better for real estate.

So, when you see an annual home appreciation number, you can roughly multiply it by 5 to calculate the return on your initial 20% down payment. If you live in a housing market with rising prices like the Bay Area, this amplifies your returns. However, if you live in a market with falling prices, leverage makes a bad bet much worse. For example, on a home with a 20% down payment, a 5% drop in home value translates into a 25% loss on your initial investment.

"The effect of debt is a critical factor in real estate returns, particularly since it’s much easier for a consumer to obtain a mortgage loan than margin debt to make leveraged investments in the stock market."

Over the last three years, the historically more affordable locations of East Palo Alto, Newark, Union City, Pittsburg, El Cerrito, and Richmond have experienced some of the highest home price appreciation (price per square foot) among the Bay Area cities. In East Palo Alto, the annualized appreciation over the last 3 years has been 7.6%, largely, due to its proximity to work centers in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. If you bought a home there with just 20% down in 2016, your rate of return would have been 38% per year. Of course in order to cash in on those returns, you need to either sell the place or tap into its equity using some form of financing, e.g., a home-equity loan. Note, however, that you might incur significant transaction costs in that process that effectively lowers the net return. Also note that the figures above are measured against only the original amount of the equity investment (i.e., the down payment), and not netted against the carrying costs of the home (monthly payments and repairs and maintenance) and further adjusted by increasing equity in the home from paying down the mortgage debt.

Thinking About Becoming a Landlord? Think Again

Data suggests that Bay Area homes have been great investments from an equity appreciation standpoint over the last decade. But the answer is less clear if you plan on renting out the home as a landlord. Because of the intense demand to own a home in the Bay Area, prices are sufficiently high that your mortgage payment is typically higher than your rental income. Moreover, many cities have different rent control laws limiting how much you can charge.

"Because of the intense demand to own a home in the Bay Area, prices are sufficiently high that your mortgage payment is typically higher than your rental income."

Some homeowners rent their places out to short term renters via sites like Airbnb to realize a higher yield. However, there are a number of issues to consider with this strategy. First off, short term rentals in many cities in the Bay Area are heavily regulated and require a permit or are not legal. In areas where short term rentals are legal today, there's no guarantee that they will stay legal in the future.

Second, running a short term rental is like taking on a second job as a bed and breakfast owner—it's a lot of work. You can outsource that task to a vacation rental property manager, but they typically charge 25% to 30% of gross revenue in fees, dramatically lowering your net revenue. By contrast, a property manager for a long term rental may only charge between 8-12% of rent in fees.

Competition and costs

Having discussed price, appreciation, and potential revenue of a home, let's conclude this section of the guide by discussing deal terms, financing, and major expenses.

In a highly competitive real estate market like the Bay Area, a strong or a unique offer greatly improves the chances of closing on your dream home. One strategy is to make an all-cash offer. If you have sufficient cash for an all-cash purchase (as savings or with help from family members), you have the option to purchase with cash upfront and refinance the property after. Sellers prefer all-cash offers because the deal tends to close faster and there is less risk of the deal getting scuttled due to financing issues.

"Sellers prefer all-cash offers because the deal tends to close faster and there is less risk of the deal getting scuttled due to financing issues."

Another strategy to make offers more attractive is waiving inspection and/or financing contingencies. While the risk of waiving inspection contingencies can somewhat be minimized with thorough diligence of seller-provided disclosures and inspection reports, waiving the financing contingency requires a hefty downpayment at the very least. A higher downpayment typically helps with timely and favorable financing terms. In cases when you are not able to personally come up with at least a 20% downpayment, co-buying with a family member may be an option. This trend has already been observed in the San Jose and San Francisco metro areas in the past.

Without proper research and guidance, first-time buyers may fail to budget for all the added costs of the deal. First and foremost, there are additional "closing costs" that must be paid for the deal to close. These fees, like title insurance, mortgage closing costs, and inspections can add up to around 2-3% of the closing price in California.

"First-time buyers may fail to budget for all the added costs of the deal. Fees like title insurance, mortgage closing costs, and inspections can add up to around 2-3% of the closing price in California."

Second, your monthly payment is not just the interest and principal on the loan. There are also property taxes and insurance, which significantly increase your monthly bill. Lastly, your home costs money to renovate and maintain. When you're a renter, you just call your landlord and things get fixed, typically with no added cost to you. When you own the home, you're on the hook to get it fixed!

We hope this section has given you some perspective on the financial pros and cons of home ownership and an understanding of how the process works. But, for many, homeownership is more than a financial decision. Perhaps they want their kids to attend highly-rated schools, a short commute, an open and sunny kitchen, a big yard, or easy access to places they frequent. In the next sections, let's explore which locations may give you the kind of home you want.

Schools

Places with highly-rated public schools tend to have relatively higher home prices because of the perpetual demand for those neighborhoods. In the US, public schools are funded by local taxes and managed locally. Higher property values imply higher property taxes and therefore, greater funding for local schools. This, in turn, impacts school ratings and hence, the demand for homes in those neighborhoods.

Let's examine the school quality in different locations and see if there are any “value deals” where the schools are highly-rated and the property prices are less than what you'd expect.

What's the school rating in different locations?

Assessing the quality of schools and school districts is extremely challenging, even if one spends his or her entire life studying the subject. What’s right for one child is not for another. Test scores can be a good signal, but they also often just correlate with family income. Moreover, each school district is a collection of many different schools of varying quality.

"Assessing the quality of schools and school districts is extremely challenging, even if one spends his or her entire life studying the subject. What’s right for one child is not for another."

With the understanding that any approach is going to be imperfect, we're going to present publicly available data from Niche, an independent site that rates schools and colleges. Some people contend that these ratings do parents a disservice by reducing schools to a single score, but we will let you learn more about their methodology and data sources in detail so you can decide for yourself. It should go without saying that this is a very high-level overview and you should do additional research when choosing to buy a home based on the school district.

For this analysis, we looked at the Niche grade for public elementary schools assigned to homes in each of the 80 cities. We looked only at elementary schools to make this analysis more tractable. Also, children of first-time home buyers often enter a school system at the elementary stage.

Niche assigns every school a letter grade based on how it performs compared to all other schools included in the ranking by using a specific distribution of grades and standardized scores, with A+ being the highest and D- being the lowest. The chart below shows the median home price for different Niche grade cohorts.

Median home sale price in 2019 for different Niche grade cohorts
Source: ZeroDown and Niche

If there was any doubt about it, this data confirms that the higher the school (or school district) ratings, the more expensive the homes. From the above chart, notice there are huge discontinuities in home prices based on school ratings. Homes around schools that are rated well below average, i.e., (D+, C-), cost around $760K. However, to move to a neighborhood with average school score there is a huge price jump past $900K for a house. For schools rated between B- and A-, homes prices are clustered around the $1MM mark. However, prices jump up to $1.25MM and beyond once you enter school districts rated A and higher. Thus this data should be pertinent for both (1) parents looking to quantify the relative costs of various public elementary schools connected to various home options, and (2) people without children who may want to look for homes that don't have a price premium due to their proximity to particular schools.

Are there any "value deals"--equivalently rated schools at comparatively lower prices?

We examined the median Niche grade of elementary schools in each of the 80 cities to understand which of those have the highest-rated schools.

Median home sale price in 2019 vs. median Niche grade for Bay Area cities
Source: ZeroDown and Niche

Santa Clara county has the highest percentage of cities with highly-rated schools. And there are quite a few cities with a Niche grade of A- or higher in the East Bay--Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

If we divide the chart into 4 quadrants, the top right quadrant shows that the higher-rated school districts tend to have more expensive homes. The cities in the bottom right quadrant have highly rated schools at relatively affordable prices.

In fact, there are just seven locations among these cities where median-priced homes cost less than a million dollars and the schools are highly rated: Milpitas, Fairfax, Dublin, Clayton, Walnut Creek, Alameda, and Albany. And the East Bay clearly has the highest number of cities with relatively affordable home prices and highly-rated schools.

"7 Bay Area cities have highly-rated schools and have median home prices under $1MM. East Bay has the highest number of cities with relatively affordable home prices and highly-rated schools."

But schools are just one of the many factors to consider in a home purchase. And it is important to consider the trade-offs carefully. For instance, a lot of the more affordable locations with highly-rated public elementary schools have very challenging commutes to work centers in San Francisco and Mountain View.

Commute

Virtually every study about commuting confirms that having a long commute to work seriously diminishes your happiness. In the Bay Area, however, all indications are that commutes are on the rise. Just crossing the Bay Bridge can take an hour or more and there's a growing number of "super commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes to get to work.

Which locations can offer you the best commutes to work? It depends of course on where you work and whether you drive or take public transit. In this section, we estimate the commute times from various cities to two different locations: downtown San Francisco and downtown Mountain View (as a proxy for commuting to "Silicon Valley").

To perform this analysis, we leveraged the Google Maps API to determine the drive time and public transportation time from each of these cities to San Francisco and Mountain View during morning commuting hours.

Commuting to San Francisco

Let's start with San Francisco and people who drive to work. How much is a short commute going to cost you?

Median home sale price in 2019 for different driving time cohorts (to San Francisco)
Source: Google Maps Platform

Of note, some of the locations closest to the city are the most affordable. Places like Daly City, South San Francisco, and Emeryville offer short commutes and lower prices.

Homes are most expensive when the commute is between 30 and 50 minutes. These are homes in the North Bay and Peninsula cities like Sausalito, Tiburon, Corte Madera, San Carlos, Belmont, Redwood City, Foster City, Menlo Park, etc. Some of these Peninsula cities are work centers themselves in addition to being proximal to Palo Alto and Mountain View. To look at the complete list of cities for every driving distance bucket, hover over the individual bars in the chart.

For San Francisco commuters (by car), it is not simply a case of "the farther you live the cheaper it gets". While this is true for cities in North Bay (Marin county) and East Bay (Alameda and Contra Costa counties) the story around Peninsula (San Mateo and Santa Clara counties) cities is a bit more nuanced.

"For San Francisco commuters, it is not simply a case of the farther you live the cheaper it gets."

Cities at around 40-70 minutes from San Francisco are also proximal to the traditional "Silicon Valley" work centers in the South Bay in addition to being historically high-demand cities with highly-rated schools. While homes in the peninsula may seem to come at a premium for not-so-optimal commute to San Francisco, if you choose carefully, you may be able to check a number of other boxes like school ratings and quality of life.

Commuting to Mountain View

Turning our attention to people who work in Silicon Valley, how long is the commute to downtown Mountain View from the different cities?

Median home sale price in 2019 for different driving time cohorts (to Mountain View)
Source: Google Maps Platform

If you're willing to drive, there are a lot of locations that are convenient to drive from to Mountain View. Much of the South Bay offers easy access (less than 40 minutes) to Mountain View. However, the median home prices are above a whopping $1.5MM. Note that there is a significant drop in median prices--nearly half a million dollars--if you add an additional 10 to 30 minutes to your commute.

"There is a significant drop in median prices--nearly half a million dollars--if you add an additional 10 to 30 minutes to your Mountain View commute by car."

Breaking down the cities into 3 categories clearly shows that the value deals for the Mountain View commuters are in the East Bay and in the Peninsula. The median home prices hover around a little less than a million for a 40-60 minute commute.

Commuting By Public Transit

What if you would rather not stew in road rage for hours per week in your car and prefer to take public transportation to work in San Francisco? Then the key is to be near a train station (either BART or CalTrain). The places that top the list all have a train station or are extremely close to the cities with one. Of note, while drive times from the East Bay to San Francisco can be significant, a number of the locations have easy access to BART trains. If you're traveling from the North Bay, your main option is the bus (or in some cases, the ferry).

Commute Time by Public Transit
Show Commutes To
Source: Google Maps Platform

However, much of the South Bay isn't really set up for commuting by public transport to Mountain View unless you live on the Caltrain line. You may notice just how much longer it takes to commute by public transportation than by driving in the South Bay. For example, a drive from Saratoga to Mountain View is approximately 35 minutes, but public transportation would be 76 minutes. You could drive from Orinda to Mountain View in roughly 80 minutes, but public transportation takes an additional 40 minutes!

Unless you work from home, where you live heavily influences your commute. After reading this section, perhaps more of you are considering working remotely as an option. For the most part, longer commutes correlate with lower prices or schools with higher Niche grades.

Quality of Life

Quality of life, as it relates to wants (and not needs) is subjective. While some home buyers might want a walkable city that offers ample things to do closer to where they live, others might prefer the suburbs with its tranquil streets and proximity to open spaces and nature. For some, the idea of being car-dependent is unacceptable, while for others, a reasonable drive time to their favorite weekend hangout is a dream come true.

Urban vs. suburban living

"While some home buyers might want a walkable city that offers ample things to do closer to where they live, others might prefer the suburbs with its tranquil streets and proximity to open spaces and nature."

As you get further away from the urban centers and into the suburbs and exurbs, what are some of the tradeoffs? We figured that preferences may lie anywhere on this spectrum and so we looked at the different cities' walkability and share of open spaces simultaneously. Walk Score, a site owned by the real estate company Redfin, provides walkability scores for most Bay Area cities. Having a high score means that there are a lot of places nearby like stores, restaurants, coffee shops, schools, and more. While the scores are by no means perfect, they are a good indicator for "stuff to do" around those places.

For the share of accessible open (green) spaces, we decided to go with the percentage area occupied by publicly accessible parks and gardens in each location. As with any problem that requires geographic boundaries, we leveraged OpenStreetMap for our data. We got the boundaries for each city, then we extracted all parks and gardens within those places. With the land area values for cities provided by US Gazetteer Files and the calculated areas of the parks, we determined the percentage of accessible open spaces in each location.

Park area vs. Walkscore for Bay Area cities
Source: OpenStreetMap and Walkscore

Not surprisingly, cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley rank very highly on Walk Score. However, some non-urban locations with vibrant downtowns and nearby housing score well on this metric as well. Small cities in Marin county, San Pablo, Burlingame, Albany, and Alameda all have high walkability. That's not to say that all homes in these locations are walkable, but there are at least some homes that can provide an urban lifestyle.

Cities like San Carlos, Belmont, Foster City, Pittsburg, Richmond, Danville, Milpitas offer lots of accessible park spaces (more than 10% of cities' land area) even though they score moderately on walkability. Note that some of these cities score highly in terms of school ratings and are situated closer to work centers. San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley score highly in terms of both walkability and accessible park space. However, the amenities and space are shared by a much larger population compared to other cities in the list. These are some trade-offs to consider when it comes down to the quality of life you desire.

Population growth can be a signal of how flexible the housing stock is for housing new residents and also some level of attractiveness. At the same time, high population growth can be indicative of a city "bursting at the seams" to provide the necessary services and housing to an expanded population base. East Bay cities take the top spots in terms of population growth in the last decade with Dublin leading the way with an eye-popping 38.2% growth. During this time period no Bay Area city we examined shrunk in population.

"East Bay cities take the top spots in terms of population growth in the last decade with Dublin leading the way with an eye-popping 38.2% growth."

The kind of city or town you want to live in is undoubtedly a personal decision. Some thrive on the energy of a densely packed city while others seek the relative peace and quiet of suburban life. And for those looking to "thread the needle" of a suburban location with some level of walkability, some locations even offer that if you pick the right house.

House Quality

Let's now focus on the quality of life inside the house. If you're spending north of $1MM for your house, are you getting a wonderful palatial estate for your money? In many places, the answer is no. A comparably sized house in Palo Alto would cost 2.5 times more than one in Orinda, a tiny suburb in the East Bay. Many cities in Silicon Valley have a higher cost of square foot than even San Francisco.

The good news from the cost per square foot perspective is that there are good deals to be had out there. For example, you can save money by living in Campbell versus Saratoga or San Rafael instead of Tiburon. Every city has something to offer, whether it is highly-rated schools, short commutes, or a lower price. You have options as long as you don't "have to" have a house in a particular city.

One of the primary reasons why people transition to home ownership is the desire for larger living space - to accommodate a growing family, to set up a comfortable home office, or to have a private vegetable garden. What we have learned from countless user interviews and from our own ZeroDown members is that the present generation of aspiring home owners look for naturally lit homes with a big yard. That is why we have baked it into our home search product with easy to use tags and we have decided to share some of our analysis with you in this guide.

"One of the primary reasons why people transition to home ownership is the desire for larger living space - to accommodate a growing family, to set up a comfortable home office, or to have a private vegetable garden."

To get the percentage of homes with big yards in each city, we first had to identify which listed homes had big yards. We took only single-family homes into consideration for this analysis. To get the area of the yard, we calculated the yard size as the difference between the lot size and the total built-up area per floor. We define big yard homes as homes where the yard size is at least 2000 sqft, and the yard covers at least 50% of the lot.

To identify naturally well-lit homes, our proprietary algorithm scores every listed home based on a number of factors including the facing of the house, the solar irradiation on the roof, number and size of windows in the living areas and kitchen. The following chart illustrates the cities that boast the maximum number of spacious lots with naturally-lit homes.

% of homes with big yards vs. % of naturally well-lit homes in Bay Area cities
Source: ZeroDown

This chart shows that you have very few options in San Francisco or Emeryville if you want a big yard or a naturally-lit home. Foster City on the other hand has the highest percentage of naturally-lit homes. East Bay and North Bay cities rank highly in terms of the percentage of homes with big yards, whereas South Bay cities fare well in terms of how well the homes are lit. Los Altos and Saratoga seem to have it all--highly-rated schools, proximity to Silicon Valley work centers, and desirable homes--and it clearly explains why they have remained at the top of the most expensive cities in the Bay Area for a long time.

Find your ideal city

Given this framework, how do you determine what's the right home for you and where you should buy it? This of course depends on you and what you value. Do you want a short commute or a large house? Do you want proximity to urban amenities or quieter streets? Or do you want it all? What's your budget?

Below are some hypothetical buyer profiles that we suspect are relatively common. You can choose the profile that best describes you to see for yourself what your ideal cities are. Also, feel free to adjust the filters to fine-tune your search for your ideal cities.

San Francisco
Mountain View
Search for Your Ideal City








Find homes in these cities

Buyer profile 1: Families hoping to "have it all" on a budget

This kind of buyer prioritizes highly-rated schools, a short commute, and has a limited budget. Cities like Albany, Alameda, Walnut Creek, Milpitas and San Bruno check most of the boxes and have some homes under a million dollars.

Buyer profile 2: People who prioritize convenience and things to do

This kind of buyer wants a short commute, and proximity to amenities and activities. They're not particularly interested in school ratings or large houses, so they're willing to sacrifice those attributes for convenience in order to stay in their budget. For buyers like this, we have filtered cities with high Walk Scores and short driving or public transport times to San Francisco or Mountain View, and with prices under $1.5MM.

Buyer profile 3: Families that want a big house and highly-rated schools, and don't mind a commute.

This kind of buyer is willing to have a longer commute in exchange for a more traditional suburban lifestyle. They are hoping to get a nice and large house at a relatively low cost per square foot. Locations to consider with the median price under $1.6MM include San Ramon, Fremont, Pleasanton, Danville, Moraga, Corte Madera, Mill Valley, Foster City and Lafayette.

Buyer profile 4: People who have extremely high budgets

Money is not a constraint for this kind of buyer. So they have options all around the Bay Area, particularly cities like Saratoga, Palo Alto, Tiburon, Piedmont and Belmont.

Closing thoughts

Homebuying is a personal process, but hopefully this guide has helped bring a quantitative lens to the endeavor. Here are a few things we hope you take away from this guide:

And good luck in the process! If you are looking to purchase a home in the Bay Area and are finding that coming up with the downpayment is a challenge, please contact us at ZeroDown to see if we can help.

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