Friday, July 4, 2008

Web Barterers' Tricks of the Trade


Cash-strapped consumers and businesses are coming up with creative ways to fight higher costs. One practice gaining popularity: the ancient custom of bartering.

Teia Henderson, a self-employed accountant in Cary, N.C., says there has been less demand for her services lately amid a sputtering economy. So rather than plunk down cash for new bunk beds for her children, she posted an online ad offering to exchange accounting services for a set.

"It's not about charging clients money," says the 35-year-old Ms. Henderson. "It's about the end product -- getting the bunk beds." This method of doing business also helps her add to her client list. She now does the books for a contractor, for example, who in exchange installed a patio in her backyard.

The rise of bartering for goods and services means consumers are now trading for such things as wedding services, tombstones, breast augmentation and Botox treatments. The cash-free transactions are often facilitated through the Internet and barter exchanges, which are third-party record keepers that coordinate trades between business owners.

A number of online bartering Web sites -- including U-Exchange, and Barter Bucks -- are seeing significant growth. Online classified-ad site Craigslist also has seen its monthly "barter" postings across all cities double to 121,173 in April, up from 63,624 in April 2007.

Depending on the site or barter exchange, consumers can choose whether to trade directly with someone who has something they want or to "bank" their credits -- some of which are worth thousands of dollars -- and use them at another time.

But before signing up, individuals need to assess the potential costs. Some barter businesses have no fees, but others charge an introductory or annual rate, often a few hundred dollars. They also may charge a monthly fee of about $10 to $15 and a percentage of the value of the trade, often 10% to 15%.

Traders need to scrutinize the fairness of the trades, consider the tax implications and exercise the same due diligence they would with a cash purchase. This typically means checking references and inspecting products. "The drawback is that it's not as easy to trade as it is to use cash," says Tom McDowell, executive director of the National Association of Trade Exchanges, an industry association for barter-exchange companies in Mentor, Ohio. "There's a little bit of an inconvenience because you have to be flexible about where you're doing business."

Traders also need to consider the potential tax liabilities. The Internal Revenue Service says income from bartering is taxable and needs to be reported. Some barter companies keep track of the credits consumers earn with their trades and send them the necessary tax documents.

"There's no tax advantage to bartering and no tax disadvantage," Mr. McDowell says. "It's treated exactly the same as cash."

In the past two years, membership in trade-exchange businesses has climbed 10% to 15% annually compared with 5% to 8% annual growth prior to that, says Mr. McDowell. He estimates his members do $3.8 billion to $4.3 billion in trades a year.

Debbie DeSousa, chief executive and president of Barter Bucks, says trading also provides businesses with more potential clients and revenue, even if it isn't in cash. Barter Bucks works like a bank, but it stores "barter bucks" rather than dollars. Participants use cash for shipping, tax and to leave a tip for, say, a restaurant or hair stylist.

"You can't go shopping until you put money in your account," says Ms. DeSousa, who personally has bartered for everything from dental work and eyeglasses to auto repairs and part of the cost of a manufactured home.

Richard Harris, president of the National Commercial Exchange, a St. Louis-based barter-exchange business, says: "We had one person find his birth parents by hiring a detective with his [trade] credits." Mr. Harris says he has also had clients avoid bankruptcy by paying off their debts with credits.

Home of the Free Stuff

Free attractions abound in Washington, D.C. Here, a few attractions off the well-trod path.
Most visitors to Washington, D.C. know there's a bevy of free cultural and historical attractions, from the Smithsonian museums to the Lincoln Memorial or Washington monuments. There are so many free things to explore in D.C. that it's easy to burn out long before your wallet does.

If you've hit the major freebie attractions like the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum and are seeking something a little different, here are five ideas for free things to do, slightly off the well-trod path:

A dancer performs Latino dance during a performance at the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. The yearly event, which started in 1967, presents contemporary culture and encourages visitors to learn through participation in song, dance, conversation and eating.

Music outdoors. During the warm months, there are free concerts in Washington nearly every day of the week, but a few venues have shows that stand out, such as the National Zoo's free Sunset Serenades on Thursday evenings. The concerts, which start around 6:30, draw a mostly family crowd for picnics on Lion/Tiger Hill, which slopes down to the stage. Acts, mostly local bands, play a variety of easygoing styles from jazz to zydeco. To reach the zoo, take the Red Line of the Metro to Woodley Park.
3001 Connecticut Ave., NW. Tel: 202-633-4800. Web site

In the heart of downtown Washington, the U.S. Navy Band plays "Concerts on the Avenue" at the Navy Memorial Plaza every Tuesday at 8 from now until Labor Day. The Navy Memorial is at the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro stop on the Green and Yellow lines.
701 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Tel: 202-737-2300. Web site

And one of the biggest free concert programs is this week's Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. This year's festival features artists from Bhutan, Texas and elsewhere; concerts are held in tents set up throughout the National Mall. The festival has dozens of concerts, dances, and demonstrations daily from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with evening events beginning at 6 p.m. (July 2-6)
National Mall, between 7th and 14th streets, NW. Tel: 202-633-6440. Web site
[Visitors look at an altar depicting Frida Kahlo for the Day of the Dead at The Mexican Cultural Institute on Friday, Nov. 2, 2007, in Washington, D.C. . Mexicans and the Mexican community living in the United States celebrate the Day of the Dead, in which families remember their dead and celebrate the continuity of life]
Associated Press
Visitors look at an altar depicting Frida Kahlo for the Day of the Dead at The Mexican Cultural Institute.

Check out some international offerings. As the home to foreign embassies, Washington also offers places to get a glimpse into cultures beyond our own. The Mexican Cultural Institute, located at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at 2829 16th Street, has several art galleries open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
2829 16th Street, NW, Tel: 202-728-1675. Web site

More free cultural displays – photos, maps, and costumes from opera performances -- can be found at the Inter-American Development Bank's Cultural Center, currently celebrating the 100th anniversary and restoration of Buenos Aires' Teatro Colon.
1300 New York Ave., NW. Tel: 202-623-1213. Web site

And the Japan Information and Culture Center, located at 1155 21st Street, NW, four blocks from the Farragut North Metro station on the Red Line, presents "Four Seasons of Kyoto," an exhibit of artistically displayed kimonos, through July 10, open weekdays 9-5.
1155 21st St., NW. Tel: 202-238-6949. Web site

Visit a few religious centers. One of the most beautiful spots in D.C. is the interior of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the stunning church that honors the patron saint of civil servants, and the site of President John F. Kennedy's funeral mass in 1963. Each fall, this cathedral celebrates the "Red Mass," a special service honoring the Supreme Court justices. The interior of the church is based on the mosaic d├ęcor of the churches of Ravenna, Italy. The cathedral holds weekday masses at 7 a.m., 8 a.m., noon and 5:30 p.m., but visitors can peak into the cathedral during the hours in between.
1725 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Tel: 202-347-3215.
The west front of the Washington National Cathedral at dusk.

The Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center is more of a gathering place than a place of worship, but the center's art gallery hosts an exhibit of "Hebraica Mirrors" of prints designed with Hebrew calligraphy, starting July 1.
1529 16th St., NW. Tel: 202-518-9400. Web site

Another free wonder, the National Cathedral, (officially called Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul) situated at one of the highest points in the city, is a gorgeous structure with exquisite stained glass and a beautiful garden for spiritual contemplation. Count the 110 gargoyles and 215 stained glass windows.
Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, NW. Tel: 202-537-6200. Web site

Take a break in the city's gardens and green areas. Inside the greenhouse and surrounding grounds, the U.S. Botanic Gardens are a natural respite from the hustle of the Capitol and the Mall. The National Garden, part of the Botanic Gardens, features plants from all over the nation. Just across Independence Avenue is Bartholdi Park, with its centerpiece, the Bartholdi Fountain, the stunning work depicting three sea nymphs holding a large basin and adorned with fish, turtles and shells (you almost have to see it to take it in) first exhibited in Philadelphia at the International Exposition of 1876, and created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the same sculptor responsible for the Statue of Liberty. The Botanic Garden's restored conservatory – which soars to a height of 80 feet -- contains rare orchids from the Himalayas, medicinal plants such as Aristolochia littoralis from Central America, and blooming cacti from the Mojave Desert.
245 First St., NW. Tel: 202-225-8333.
A pond reflects the U.S. Capitol in the National Garden at the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The National Garden was founded to educate visitors about American plants and their role in the environment.

A bit further afield, the nature center inside Rock Creek Park is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9-5, offering daily guided nature walks, planetarium shows and "creature features," kids' programs about the animals that inhabit the park.
5200 Glover Road, NW. Tel: 202-895-6070. Web site

Enjoy some pomp and circumstance. On the Virginia side of the Potomac, the memorial to Iwo Jima, more formally known as the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, is the site of a sunset parade each Tuesday, with music from the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and a precision drill by the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon. No reservations are necessary, and visitors sit on the grass surrounding the memorial. Until July 28, the parade will start at 7 p.m. Aug. 5 and 12, the parade will start at 6:30.
Arlington Boulevard and Meade Street, Arlington, VA. No phone. Web site