December 20, 2011 4:04 pm
Kitchens are where family and friends come to cook, eat and socialize. With 2012 just around the corner, kitchen design trends for the new year are an industry-wide hot topic, as experts predict where kitchen design is headed and which materials will be in vogue.
Home design experts predict that 2012 is going to be an exciting year for kitchen design because homeowners want more creativity in their homes and are becoming more thoughtful in their decision-making.
To begin a kitchen overhaul, homeowners shouldn’t be afraid to dispose of anything from the last two decades, especially Old World kitchen styles with heavy molding. Instead, homeowners should embrace new materials, like countertops made out of quartz, glass and wood, which can vary in style, shape and color. As we move into 2012, the overall trend is to keep it simple, energy-efficient, and comfort-oriented. De-clutter, go natural, lighten up and make it work for you and your household.
"Green design" will also become a standard request this year. Designers recommend homeowners choose to use energy-efficient items like compact fluorescent bulbs because they use two-thirds less energy. For those who do decide to “go green,” work with a professional lighting designer who can help introduce modern technology fixtures and more energy saving items.
For more information about home design, kitchen renovations and upgrades, follow @FaceYourKitchen on Twitter.
December 20, 2011 4:04 pm
While retailers are busy trying to stimulate enough holiday sales to put them into the black financially, consumers are dreaming of a black Christmas, one that keeps them in the black on their personal ledger sheet.
Although Black Friday and Cyber Monday spending tempted millions of shoppers to part with some cash, or at least pull out the plastic, many have now not only returned to financial reality, but have also returned their purchases.
According to a November poll hosted on the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) website, 40 percent of shoppers intend to spend zero on holiday purchases, while 51 percent plan on cutting back on what they spent last year.
Here are some last-minute tips to help avoid buyer’s remorse, whether that guilt comes a few days after shopping, resulting in returning the purchases, or in January when the bills start arriving.
• Don’t make impulse purchases. Resist the temptation to buy anything just to be able to mark it off your list. A thoughtless gift isn’t worth the paper it’s wrapped in.
• Make your shopping trips short by having a shopping strategy. Know what you want, where you’re going to get it, and how much you’re going to spend. Your goal is to get in and get out of the stores, thus limiting the temptation to spend.
• While shopping, take frequent breaks and track your spending. Staying on budget equals staying in the black.
• Resist paying steep rush shipping charges. It’s better to find an alternative gift than to spend as much in shipping as you did on the gift.
• If you can’t find the right gift, know that a gift card always fits. Further, the recipient can use it during the steep after-Christmas sales and maximize the value.
Also, play it safe and inquire about the return policy before you buy. If the store offers a gift receipt, be sure to include it with the package, thus making a return much simpler.
If your holiday spending has you seeing red, visit www.DebtAdvice.org for more information.
December 20, 2011 4:04 pm
The number of improving housing markets continued to expand for a fourth consecutive month in December, rising from 30 to 41 on the latest National Association of Home Builders/First American Improving Markets Index (IMI), released recently. The December list featured 20 new additions, including several major markets such as Washington, D.C.; San Jose, Calif.; and Toledo, Ohio. Meanwhile, nine smaller markets dropped off the list, primarily due to softer house prices.
The index identifies metropolitan areas that have shown improvement from their respective troughs in housing permits, employment and house prices for at least six consecutive months.
New entrants to the list in December include the following:
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Fort Wayne, Ind.
Grand Forks, N.D.
San Jose, Calif.
"The increases we continue to see in the number and geographic diversity of improving metros are quite encouraging, and evidence of the fact that all housing markets are dependent on uniquely local factors," said NAHB Chairman Bob Nielsen, a home builder from Reno, Nev. He noted that as of December, a total of 21 states and the District of Columbia are represented on the improving markets list—up from14 states represented in November.
"The December IMI results are very much in keeping with the latest government housing data and our own builder surveys, which have shown modest signs of improvement in certain individual markets where employment is gaining and distressed properties are not as numerous," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "These gradual improvements are now becoming evident not just in small, energy-producing metros that have previously dominated the IMI, but also in several larger markets and areas with more diverse economies."
The nine markets that dropped off the IMI in December include Alexandria, La.; Fairbanks, Alaska; Hinesville, Ga.; Houma, La.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Lima, Ohio; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Sumter, S.C. and Waco, Texas. All but two of these metros fell from the list due to softening house prices. The exceptions to the rule were Jonesboro and Waco, where declines were registered in employment and single-family housing permits, respectively.
The IMI is designed to track housing markets throughout the country that are showing signs of improving economic health. The index measures three sets of independent monthly data to get a mark on the top improving Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The three indicators that are analyzed are employment growth from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, house price appreciation from Freddie Mac, and single-family housing permit growth from the U.S. Census Bureau. NAHB uses the latest available data from these sources to generate a list of improving markets. A metro area must see improvement in all three areas for at least six months following their respective troughs before being included on the improving markets list.
For more information, visit www.nahb.org/imi.
December 19, 2011 10:04 pm
The time to make New Year’s resolutions is fast approaching, and upping the fitness ante can be one of the hardest to keep. After months of being relatively sedentary, jumping into an ambitious workout program often results in muscle pains and strains that can squelch enthusiasm and quickly derail fitness goals.
Here are some tips for meeting fitness goals and keeping health and fitness a top priority throughout the year:
-Walk or bike to work, or get off a stop or two early on a bus/subway trip to help jump start your metabolism and engage in a bit of functional fitness.
-Take the steps instead of the elevator. Walking up and down the stairs burns many more calories than hitting the “up” button. Of course, this applies only if there are no specific limitations placed on your joints by your MD.
-Rather than linger over brunch, lunch, or dinner, invite a friend to take a walk on the weekends instead.
-Bring your food to the office to ensure portion control and to know exactly what ingredients you are eating.
-Employ the buddy system for your workouts. You are far more likely to work out if you know someone else is relying on you.
-Cut calories without sacrificing taste by substituting sugar with healthier sweeteners when you are cooking or in coffee and tea, such as honey, maple syrup, agave, or stevia.
-Set realistic goals that will let you become your own cheerleader and continue all year long.
Remember that it is perfectly natural to allow yourself a "cheat" day and indulge in the less-than-healthy foods you crave. The key is to use that day as a reward for a well-balanced nutritional investment you abide by the rest of the week.
Source: Topical BioMedics, Inc.
December 19, 2011 10:04 pm
Choosing the perfect album to give or listen to during the holidays can be more difficult than one may initially assume. If playing this album during a Christmas party, it must have the right pace and vibe to keep the party upbeat and exciting. If giving the album as a gift, it must reflect the values and musical taste of its recipient.
Oftentimes, people fail to understand how much thought should go into choosing the right soundtrack for a party, or the right musical gift for a friend. There are some very important considerations to be made when choosing an album for a holiday get-together or when picking up a gift for someone else. Good hosts and hostesses will be wise to consider the values, in addition to the musical taste, of their guests.
Here is a list of tips to help individuals choose the perfect music this holiday season.
1. Consider the nature of a party when choosing the music. Is the party a dinner party? One that will encourage dancing? The music that is played should reflect the vibe that the party is going after.
2. Think about the theme of the party. Is it a Christmas party, general holiday party, or other kind of celebration? Make sure that the songs played reflect the kind of party that is taking place, such as Christmas music at a Christmas party and general, winter-themed music at a party meant to celebrate the season.
3. Take into account the musical tastes of party guests. The demographic is important, as guests may prefer one genre of holiday music, such as pop or R&B, over another.
4. Choose a musical gift that will represent the values of the friend or family member. If the gift is intended for someone who is Jewish, a Christmas album may not be the wisest choice.
5. Consider the musical tastes of the person receiving the gift. If they have a favorite musician or genre of music it is best to stick with their preference.
Source: Kristen Knowlens, Hovenford Records
December 19, 2011 10:04 pm
The news media has made no secret of the fact that U.S. stock markets have been shaky for a while now and that continued instability is almost certainly in the cards. According to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, the “haphazard” nature of the stock market has made it difficult for anyone but the savviest investors to truly generate profit.
However, becoming a smart investor is simpler than one might think, even in trying times. Dealing with a haphazard market is doable with a little flexibility and an adapted investment strategy. Unpredictable markets don’t mean one should refrain from investing, but they do make calm, level-headed thinking more important than ever.
Keeping a cool head and remembering a long-term perspective are the foundations for these five tips.
1. Review the entire financial plan: Before investing, meet with a financial advisor and take the big picture into consideration.
2. Diversify as much as possible: Volatile markets make it especially key to spread investments between stocks, bonds and cash investments.
3. Keep emotions out of it: Don’t allow frustration or anxiety to force unwise decisions or intemperate investments.
4. Exercise self-discipline: Things like dollar-cost averaging can prove to be invaluable tools for any investor.
5. Avoid market timing: This is going to be a big temptation during volatile markets, but it is ultimately a major risk that seldom pays off.
These tips are generally solid for any market condition, but this level-headed approach is particularly integral during a shaky market or a tumultuous economy.
Source: Mitch Feinberg, Warren & Moore
December 15, 2011 3:58 pm
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced that more than $40 million is available for a broad range of housing counseling programs to help families find and preserve housing. These grants will be awarded competitively to hundreds of HUD-approved counseling agencies and State Housing Finance Agencies across the nation that offer a variety of services, including how to avoid foreclosure, how to avoid mortgage scams, how to purchase or rent a home, how to improve credit scores, and how to qualify for a reverse mortgage.
“The HUD-approved counseling programs this funding will support not only help families make more informed choices about buying or renting, it is crucial in helping thousands of families avoid foreclosure and remain in their homes,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “We fought hard to persuade Congress to restore funding for housing counseling in HUD’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget and I’m pleased that they did so. We will now work to make these important resources available to help families as quickly as possible.”
HUD-approved counseling agencies also provide counseling as well as financial literacy education to renters and homeless individuals and families. This year HUD’s Housing Counseling Grant program will provide $36.05 million for comprehensive counseling and $4 million for Reverse Mortgage Counseling.
National and regional agencies distribute much of HUD’s housing counseling grant funding to HUD- approved community-based housing counseling organizations that provide information and guidance to low- and moderate-income families seeking to improve their housing conditions. These larger organizations help improve the quality of housing counseling services and enhance coordination among their counseling providers. In addition, HUD approved counseling agencies provide services in a variety of languages to meet to the needs of the population in the service area as well as ensuring communications and access is provided for persons with disabilities.
HUD will award grants to approximately 500 applicants. Instructions are posted on Grants.gov.
December 15, 2011 3:58 pm
Real estate listings are full of slideshows and photos showcasing houses, condos or apartments for sale. There is no better way to get potential buyers or renters on the hook to reel them in for an in-person showing. There is nothing worse, however, than a listing with terrible photos.
If you want your listing to sell, the photos should match its description. Often, listing photos are bogged down by lack of focus, terrible lighting or messy appearances. You don’t want to turn away potential buyers before you even get them through the front door! To quicken your turnaround, you need clean and sharp images that highlight the home’s more attractive qualities.
Clean up. Mowing the lawn and cleaning up the yard may seem like obvious suggestions, but this first step is often overlooked. First impressions count, as does curb appeal. The photos taken of the exterior should look stellar and put the home’s best foot forward. Clean up the inside of the home as well before snapping photos. If the home is currently occupied, try to move as many things out of a room as possible before shooting.
Good exterior shots go a long way. A good shot of the exterior of a home is the equivalent of curb appeal and could be the make-or-break aspect of your listing. Take a shot 10-20 feet above street level and be sure that cars, garbage cans and For Sale signs aren’t included in the shot. The less foreground elements, the better—unless they add to the appeal.
Using available light is softer and more appealing than a strobe or other artificial light, which washes out textures in wood, flooring and cabinets. Use a tripod if you have one for help in low-light situations.
Watch the weather and sun. The time of day you take photos is extremely important, especially if you’re shooting into the sun. Too much natural light will make your image feel flat, providing no contrast between light and dark. This will affect the overall appeal of the photos and the home. A professional photographer can make your home look great rain or shine, but if you’re going it alone, pick a day with great weather to shoot.
Try different angles. Sometimes moving a few feet from center really makes the home feel open. Having too many shots from the same angle fails to provide shoppers with enough views. Mix it up and try new, fresh ways of taking pictures of the home.
Hide those pets. Keep your pets, or any signs of them, out of listing photos. Some people are pet lovers, but those who aren’t associate pets with bad smells, dirty homes and germs. Get all pet toys, dishes and cages out of the way so everyone can look at the home with an unbiased eye.
To be successful, your photos need to accentuate the home’s potential and they need to be professional. Even if you can’t afford a professional photographer for every listing, you can still take these steps toward making your listing photos more presentable. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words.
December 15, 2011 3:58 pm
A recently released study by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. found that a much larger portion of the U.S. population has ready access to recycle commonly used plastics than previously believed. Specifically the study, "Plastics Recycling Collection: National Reach Study," found that 94 percent of Americans have access to recycle plastic bottles and 40 percent of the population also can recycle other types of plastic containers, such as yogurt cups, dairy tubs and lids.
Although the study surveyed nearly 2,500 communities across the United States, it found that within the 100 largest cities, the percentage of the population with access to recycle plastic containers in addition to bottles has nearly doubled since 2008.
The study did not look at recycling film plastics—a category that includes plastic bags and many product wraps—but it is well documented that these materials are collected separately at more than 12,000 locations across the country.
Recyclers—typically small community-based businesses—rely on consumers to recover a steady supply of used plastics, such as assorted bottles, containers, bags and wraps. Recycled plastics can be made into a variety of innovative products, including soft T-shirts, durable backyard decks, storage containers, car parts, decorative moldings and other home building products, cutting boards, and even fashionable hand bags.
The study also noted that it is more effective to communicate which plastics are recycled in various communities by listing shapes (e.g., bottles, tubs, trays, lids, etc.) than by listing resin codes (numbers 1-7), which can be confusing.
Below are some tips to make it easier to recycle more of the plastics we use every day:
Bottles: For recycling purposes, a bottle is any container with a neck or an opening that's smaller than its base. Include the following wherever plastic bottles are recycled:
• Milk jugs
• Beverage bottles (e.g., water, soft drinks, juice and beer)
• Bottles from shampoo, toiletries, laundry detergent and other household cleaners
• Salad dressing, cooking oil and condiment bottles
• Food jars, such as peanut butter and mayonnaise
• Tip: Twist caps back on before placing in the recycling bin; recyclers want those, too!
Containers: Include the following wherever containers, tubs and/or lids are recycled:
• Yogurt cups
• Butter tubs
• Deli containers
• Dairy containers
• Frozen food trays
• Produce containers (hinged or lidded)
Bags and Wraps: Clean and dry plastic bags and wraps should be returned to grocery and retail stores for recycling instead of being placed in curbside bins. Include the following wherever plastic bags are recycled:
• Grocery bags
• Retail bags (remove hard plastic or string handles)
• Newspaper bags
• Dry cleaning bags (remove paper and hangers)
• Bread bags (with crumbs shaken out)
• Produce bags
• Sealable and non-sealable food storage bags
• Product wraps from paper towels, bathroom tissue, napkins, bulk beverages, and diapers
For more information, see: http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/recycling.
December 15, 2011 3:58 pm
The Alliance to Save Energy urges American consumers to give themselves the gift of energy efficiency this holiday season – and reap the benefits when they file their 2011 federal tax returns – by taking advantage of tax credits for energy efficiency home improvements. The tax credits of up to $500 are set to expire on December 31 and Congress may not renew them for 2012.
"The outlook for renewal of federal energy efficiency tax incentives is uncertain at best," stated Alliance President Kateri Callahan, "so we encourage homeowners to complete those upgrades before the ball drops in Times Square at midnight on New Year's Eve.
"Making efficiency improvements this year will lower home energy bills and improve home comfort for years to come, while also reducing 2011 federal income tax bills," Callahan added.
The specific home improvements that qualify for tax credits fall into a number of categories:
• Exterior windows, skylights and storm windows.
• Insulation, exterior doors, roofs, storm doors and products to seal air leaks such as caulking, weather stripping and foam sealants.
• Highly-efficient heating and cooling equipment, including central air conditioners, heat pumps, furnaces, boilers, water heaters and biomass (e.g. corn) stoves.
Each product category also must meet specific energy efficiency requirements, which are spelled out on the Alliance's tax credits web page.
Percentage and/or dollar limits on particular energy-efficient upgrades include:
• 10% of the cost of insulation and sealing materials, exterior doors and roofs.
• 10% of the cost, up to $200, of exterior windows or skylights.
• Up to $300 for electric heat-pump water heaters, electric heat pumps, central air conditioners, biomass stoves and natural gas, propane or oil water heaters.
• Up to $50 for advanced main-air circulating fans.
• Up to $150 for natural gas, propane or oil furnace or hot-water boilers.
For more information, visit http://ase.org/.