November 9, 2011 9:20 pm
By Barbara Pronin
In these tough economic times, most of us have already found ways to save a little money – from eating out less often to shopping at discount stores to driving no more than necessary. Here are ten surefire ways to improve your bottom line over the long haul:
Slash the incidentals – Read your credit card statement carefully, being on the lookout for ongoing monthly fees you can eliminate – like club memberships, subscriptions and that daily stop for high-priced coffee.
Pay yourself first – Start saving as though it were a monthly bill, dumping five or 10% of each paycheck into savings before you start writing out your checks.
Make the payment wisely – Put that money into an interest-bearing online savings account or mutual fund – and make the payment automatic.
Pay ahead on your mortgage – It may be tough, but adding even an extra $25 to your monthly mortgage payment can make a surprising difference in paying off the mortgage early and saving thousands of dollars over the period of the loan.
Shed credit card debt – Use credit cards as sparingly as possible and pay off any balances monthly. If you are already in debt, ask the card issuer for a lower rate or transfer the balance to a lower interest card.
Say goodbye to late fees – If it seems your credit card bill is always due before you get your paycheck, call the card company and ask to have your due date changed.
Get the better of your “addictions” – Whether it is designer coffee every morning or cigarettes with their walloping “sin tax,” do your best to wean yourself and you’ll save more in the bargain.
Analyze workday expenses – Brown bag it instead of eating lunch in restaurants. If possible, commute by carpool or public transportation. Avoid extra fees for same-day dry cleaning service. Where else can you save?
Review your estate plan – If you don’t already have one, get a will or living trust – and review it every year. These are vital regardless of marital or family status and could help save measurably when the time comes.
Sources: MSNBC, Bankrate.com, the New York Times Home Finance Center, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine
November 9, 2011 9:20 pm
The cold seasons are here and households everywhere are igniting their fireplaces and turning on their space heaters to evade chilly weather. And with the cold weather comes many timely reminders of the overlooked dangers of fireplaces.
The United States Fire Administration reports that, on average, 54,000 home-heating-related fires occur every year around the country. The tragedy of these events stems from the acknowledgement that these fires were likely avoidable with proper maintenance. It's imperative to take care of your fireplace before heavy use occurs. Prepare yourself with the following suggestions:
Get your fireplace checked by a professional. For a wood-burning fireplace, with a flue and chimney, the biggest problem is creosote buildup. Shine a light up your chimney and look for fuzzy or shiny black stuff. Creosote looks fuzzy initially, like black mold. After a while, it looks shiny. If you see shiny black stuff in your chimney – that's highly flammable, and you need to clean that professionally before using your fireplace.
Sometimes birds and squirrels will make a home in your fireplace. Their nests are flammable, but a nest is something that you can probably clean out on your own. You can also slow creosote buildup by using the right wood. Burning soft or fresh woods gives off more moisture than burning seasoned hardwoods like maple. Moisture creates creosote.
For electric fireplaces and space heaters, maintenance is less complex but is equally important. Electric fireplaces are easier to take care of, but you're still dealing with a heat source, so ensure that you set up your portable heater three feet away from any flammable objects. Turn off your space heater every few hours so it's not always running. And make sure that the outlets you plug your unit into are working properly.
November 9, 2011 3:20 pm
By Keith Loria
It used to be that if you weren’t married or living with someone, the idea of purchasing a home was considered a bit outlandish, however, more of today’s home buyers are single than ever before.
According to the National Association of REALTORS®, in 2010, unmarried women made up 20% of all home buyers and single men comprised 12%. Savvy men and women understand that now is one of the best times to buy a home and they can probably get a price that won’t stop them from enjoying their single lifestyle. These buyers may be just starting out and still envision getting married and having kids some day; some may be divorced and are looking to start fresh; still others may see it as an investment that will pay off down the line.
In her book, Buying a Home When You’re Single, Donna Albrecht walks through all the steps that take place when searching for a home, getting pre-qualified, finding an agent, and struggling through escrow.
“Before anyone buys a home—single or not—they need to consider what they want their future to look like,” Albrecht says. “If kids are a big hope, buying a studio condo could be a mistake. Going the other route and buying a five-bedroom place may not be the best idea either.”
Purchasing a smaller home, say with two bedrooms or less, has a number of advantages for a single buyer. The lower purchase price will likely net you a mortgage payment that is lower than rent and you will save on utilities, maintenance and cleaning costs. You will also have fewer rooms to furnish and decorate.
Another important point to consider is that it could be easier to sell when you are ready to move on. Single buyers know that their circumstances may change so they want to be prepared, so making sure that the home can be sold or rented out is often a key interest to this group.
Single parents are more inclined to buy a home to give their children a more stable environment and the chance of a great school system. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Statistics State of the Nation’s Housing report, the nation's 4.5 million single parents have greater space needs and must worry more about safety and school quality when choosing homes than households without children.
Since there is only one name and one person responsible for buying the property, a person’s credit score and ability to meet all payments is more important to single buyers. The FHA even offers a special loan for single mothers that can help reduce mortgage costs.
Mortgage experts recommend that a monthly mortgage for home buyers with one income should not exceed 28% of a borrower’s pre-tax monthly income.
November 9, 2011 3:20 pm
Sin City sees over 30 million visitors per year and can proudly declare that Las Vegas taxi cabs have been voted the best overall in the U.S., according to the annual taxi survey compiled by Hotels.com. Over 1,900 travelers from over 50 major U.S. cities responded to the survey and judged cabs on seven categories - cleanliness, value, quality of driving, knowledge of the area, friendliness, safety and availability.
With roughly 2,000 cabs on the street at any given time and having logged over 2.1 million cab rides in July alone, Las Vegas' cab drivers ranked in the top three of all seven categories. Sin city beat out Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Orlando with 11.7%, voting it the place with the friendliest drivers. "In Las Vegas, Nevada, the driver took shortcuts to get us to our destination fast. He was courteous and was telling jokes to us. The real shocker was that he actually drove safely," said one survey taker.
"I was [in] Las Vegas and my taxi driver installed a karaoke machine in his car. While we were getting home late in the evening, we were belting out Britney Spears in the back!" said another voter.
With over 13,000 yellow cabs roaming the streets of New York City, it comes as no surprise that 42% of voters nominated the city with the best cab availability. It also came out on top as the city with the most knowledgeable drivers with 30% of the votes. Unfortunately, 39% voted the city that never sleeps the worst in driving, with 38% nominating New York cabbies as the least friendly of all cities surveyed.
Taxi services come in all shapes and sizes and survey takers have plenty to share when it comes to the most unusual experiences in foreign countries. "The 'matatu', [a small, minibus taxi that is an icon of Kenyan travel] common to Kenya, is unbelievable. I held someone's chicken [since the bus was crowded]," said one traveler.
Thailand's famous tuk tuk taxis left a traveler with an unforgettable memory. "Thailand's tuk tuk, basically a motor scooter with a trailer welded to the back end, had 'bench' seating and a plastic roof. We fit eight people in space possibly made for about five, going 35+ mph on city streets. We almost lost a passenger on one of the turns, but the driver just laughed and said 'hang on!'"
Out of those who took the survey 10% of travelers have used taxi cabs in Mexico. The United Kingdom (6%), France (3%), Canada (3%), and Jamaica (2%) rounded out the top five countries that Americans frequently hail cabs in.
Top 10 tips on hailing a cab from travelers:
• Take hand sanitizer. Greet every cab driver.
• When travelling in the Caribbean, hire a taxi for inexpensive and unique island tours. The drivers are local, friendly, and happy to show you around.
• Look at the locals; if there is a particular cab service they are using, follow suit.
• In foreign countries, always negotiate rate (or use of meter) before getting in.
• Have a general knowledge of the city map, main landmarks, and directions before taking a cab.
• Be polite, patient, and explain yourself well so the driver understands what you want. Especially important when there are different languages involved.
• If you are staying in a city for a few days and get a good taxi driver, get his contact number and use him often.
• Always take a card from the hotel you are staying at in case you need to call if there is a problem.
• Look up customs; in Japan for example, it can be offensive to try to tip your driver.
• Try to always have local currency (including small bills/coins) on hand. Don't assume credit cards or US dollars will be accepted.
November 9, 2011 3:20 pm
The Federal Reserve Board recently announced that borrowers who believe they were financially harmed during the mortgage foreclosure process by four institutions in 2009 and 2010 can now request an independent review and potentially receive compensation.
Four large mortgage servicers supervised by the Board—GMAC Mortgage, HSBC Finance Corporation, SunTrust Mortgage, and EMC Mortgage Corporation —are required to conduct this program as part of their compliance with enforcement actions issued by the Board in April 2011. Under these actions, servicers are required to compensate borrowers for financial injury resulting from deficiencies in their foreclosure processes. A number of servicers supervised by the Office of the Controller of the Currency must also conduct the program.
As mandated by the Federal Reserve's enforcement actions, the four servicers were required to retain independent consultants approved by the Federal Reserve to conduct the reviews. Borrowers are eligible for a review if their primary residence was in the foreclosure process in 2009 or 2010, whether or not the foreclosure was completed. The review is intended to determine if those borrowers suffered financial harm directly resulting from errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies. The Federal Reserve will monitor the implementation of the program and the servicers' outreach efforts.
To apply for a review, individuals may call 888-952-9105, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET), and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET). Individuals can get more information about the review through a website created by the servicers, www.IndependentForeclosureReview.com. In addition, the servicers will conduct an advertising campaign and send letters to borrowers who may be eligible to participate in the review to provide information.
Requests for review by the servicers' independent consultants must be received by April 30, 2012. Borrowers are encouraged to carefully consider the information about the review program to determine if they should participate. There are no costs associated with being included in the review.
In addition to conducting the reviews generated by this outreach program, the independent consultants retained by the servicers supervised by the Federal Reserve will separately review all cases in certain categories of foreclosure actions by the servicers to determine whether borrowers suffered financial injury.
These categories include members of the military who were in the mortgage foreclosure process in 2009 or 2010 who were covered by the service members Civil Relief Act and borrowers who had previously filed complaints with the servicers about foreclosure actions that were pending during 2009 or 2010. Borrowers who previously filed complaints with these servicers about foreclosures pending during the review period also may seek independent reviews of their foreclosures.
The enforcement actions issued by the Federal Reserve in April also require the servicers to correct other deficiencies in residential mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure practices going forward. Under the plans, among other things, servicers must specify a single point of contact for certain borrowers who are having difficulty paying their mortgages, ensure that foreclosures are not pursued when a borrower is performing on a loan modification, and establish robust controls and oversight over their third-party vendors.
As previously stated in April, the Federal Reserve believes monetary sanctions in these cases are appropriate and plans to announce monetary penalties. These monetary penalties will be in addition to the compensation provided to borrowers in the independent review process.
For more information, visit www.federalreserve.gov.
November 9, 2011 3:20 pm
The popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is continuing to grow dramatically, but not just with users. Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting these sites and their troves of sensitive, personal information.
"While many of these sites are great for finding friends and connecting with business partners, users are sharing more information than ever before and the bad guys are taking note," says Andy Hayter, anti-malcode manager of ICSA Labs. "And it is not just about the sensitive data that users are exposing; the threats are also coming from scams, viruses and other forms of malware that can take many forms on these sites."
Here are some helpful tips on how consumers can enjoy social networking while protecting themselves from security threats:
1. Be wary of worms, Trojans and botnets that can infect and take control of your computer. Access to sensitive documents and personally identifiable information poses a significant threat to users. The Koobface worm, for instance, infected hundreds of thousands of Facebook users in June. Users received a video claiming to be from a Facebook friend, but after downloading the video, the worm distributed the malware to a user's Facebook friends and granted attackers full access to the user's computer.
2. If you receive a request to connect from someone you do not know, do not accept it. Trojans are infamous for tricking victims into providing sensitive information and are increasingly surfacing on social networking websites. By taking over a user's contacts or "friend" list, the Trojan sends invitations to the user's friends to try to infect their computers as well. The ZeuS Trojan is one example of malware that is remotely controlled by criminals who infect computers, wait for users to log on and then try to gain access to their bank accounts.
3. Do not share too much personal information. Hackers can easily piece together different bits of information posted to Facebook and other sites and compile a complete profile of an individual's identity, especially using birth date information. With this knowledge, hackers can trick users with targeted information that only a "friend" would know.
To safeguard against misuse of personal information, it is important for users to review and understand the privacy policies on social networking sites to make sure they disclose personal information. In addition, users should regularly check their credit report and other financial statements to verify their identity is unharmed.
4. Be careful where you click. Just because a link came to a user from someone the user knows does not mean it is safe. Users can easily check by rolling over the link for a moment before clicking to verify the Web address is legitimate. Link shorteners, such as bit.ly and tinyurl, are becoming common practice and making hackers' jobs even easier as they try to mislead victims into clicking on malicious links.
5. Use and frequently update software security programs. Updating security software is the simplest way to protect a computer from malware like worms, viruses, Trojans and clickjacking. Users should make sure that their anti-virus, firewall and spyware products are up-to-date and that they have installed the latest software upgrades. Products should also be certified by an accredited third-party organization, such as ICSA Labs, and meet the appropriate standards.
Adds Hayter, "A lot of it comes down to 'whom do you trust?' and making smart decisions about who users accept as their friends on these sites. If users pay close attention to whom they are connecting with, what they are clicking on, what they post on these sites and keep their security software updated, they'll be in a much safer place."
November 9, 2011 3:20 pm
It may not be winter yet, but the snow, sleet and the winter driving season are just around the corner, and with them comes an increase in weather-related auto accidents and maintenance needs. Here is a list of simple steps drivers can take now to help ensure their cars and trucks are ready for a safe winter driving season.
Winter Check Up - A pre-winter check-up should be done in the fall, before the mercury starts to drop. It should cover an oil change, air filter replacement, valve adjustment, spark plug inspection, and tire rotation and balance. In addition, a winter tune-up should include: a clean fuel filter, inspection for leaks that may not be visible later when the weather is freezing, a test to make sure your heater is working, and check to make sure your coolant mixture is good enough to cover lower temperatures. Frozen water can lead to cracked radiators very easily, which can cost you in the end. Also, keep your fuel tank at least half full during the winter to avoid fuel line freeze up problems. Winter will definitely expose any compromised systems in your vehicle. Deal with them now and save time and money.
Battery - Car batteries rarely signal failure ahead of time, but those cold cranking amps are working harder than ever to get your car started in the winter. Batteries are highly vulnerable in the winter. Minivans and SUVs require more cold cranking amps to start those larger engines. While it's inconvenient to have a no-start in the summer, the consequences are more serious if you can't start your car and the temperature drops below freezing, especially with small children in the car. If your vehicle is taking a long time to start or the battery is more than three years old, consider replacing the battery. You can check your battery charge with an affordable battery tester that plugs right into your cigarette lighter. You should also do a visual inspection for corrosion or ice build up on the battery posts when it's cold. To be safe, always carry a set of jumper cables and know the basics of using them.
Tires and Brakes - Tires lose pressure when temperatures drop. Be sure to check your tire pressure and tread depth, and consider whether you need all-weather tires in your area. You should also check your brakes for wear and tear and have them looked at if they are showing any of the following symptoms: squealing sounds, brake pedal judder, a pull to one side when braking, or the feeling that your foot sinks to the floor when applying the brakes. If your vehicle has an anti-lock braking system (ABS), be sure it's working properly and you know how to use it. ABS is designed to reduce skidding and help you maintain control in an emergency as long as you apply them hard and stay on them and do not pump the brakes.
Wipers and Lights - Changing your wiper blades is one of the best things you can do to help ensure your safety, and it's easy to do. The right time to change the wiper blades is not during a downpour or a snowstorm when you cannot see three feet in front of you. A set of wiper blades only costs about $20 and can help drivers avoid an accident by seeing something a split second sooner. While you're at it, double check that all of your lights are working, including your fog, brake and emergency lights, and turn signals.
Cold Weather Car Kit - Carrying a basic emergency kit year-round that includes a flashlight with extra batteries, water, flares, duct tape, extra windshield wiper fluid, tire jack and first-aid kit is important, particularly during winter months. Add a few items as needed, including an ice scraper. Also, make sure you completely remove the snow from your car. Snow piled up on the hood will blow onto your windshield and refreeze almost instantly. Headlights and taillights need to be cleared as well, so other vehicles can see you. Your winter kit should also include blankets, waterproof clothes, sand or kitty litter for tire traction, a shovel and gloves.
For more information, visit www.CarMD.com.
November 9, 2011 3:20 pm
A report released recently, sponsored in part by the Appraisal Institute, outlines ways to finance $150 billion per year in energy efficiency projects that yield double-digit financial returns.
“Energy Efficiency Financing: Models and Strategies” by Capital-E and partner organizations says that within 10 years, investment at this level would save U.S. businesses and households $200 billion annually and would create more than 1 million new full-time jobs. This level of funding represents a more than five-fold increase from current levels of about $20 billion per year and would cost-effectively make the American economy more competitive, enhance national security and help slow the impacts of climate change, according to the findings.
“This important report reflects our commitment to providing insight into market trends and to supporting the appraisal industry’s critical role in valuing the impact of all property features, including ‘green’ and energy efficient buildings,” says Appraisal Institute President Joseph C. Magdziarz, MAI, SRA. “As the real estate valuation industry’s leader, the Appraisal Institute is in the forefront of preparing appraisers to analyze energy efficient buildings.”
With the end of the 2011 fiscal year, some $40 billion in public stimulus funding for energy efficiency and clean energy is rapidly winding down, leaving a huge financing gap that only the private sector can fill, according to the report. “Energy Efficiency Financing: Models and Strategies” details how the private sector can rapidly and cost-effectively expand private investment in energy efficiency.
For more information, visit www.appraisalinstitute.org.
November 8, 2011 9:20 pm
Once considered a luxury, decorating services are more of a necessity for today's busy homeowners who simply can't afford to make costly mistakes, or run all around town trying to pull it together. The best professional to decorate your home will most likely come from a combination of compatible personalities and tastes. Remember that you will be working together for several weeks, if not months. During your initial consultation, ask to review the portfolio of the designer or decorator to ensure that he or she is capable of working in diverse styles, and that your personalities are fairly compatible.
Working with a professional should be an enjoyable experience. Since interior decorating projects are highly personal and collaborative, the final results are always much more successful when the lines of communication are open and ideas are freely discussed. Be candid with your designer regarding such important elements as priorities, timing, budgets and tastes. If a style, color or home furnishing suggestion is one that you do not care for, feel free to say so early on, and provide a new direction for your team.
Be a keen observer. Consciously make note of what catches your interest as you peruse decorating magazines and the internet for interesting rooms and makeovers. Start a file of colors, patterns and designs that appeal to you. You may notice a chandelier, mirror, color combination or window treatment that you like. Once you clip and track these for a brief period, you will be better able to draw a conclusion as to your personal style and convey that to your new decorating professional. It’s really all about communication, once you’ve decided with whom to work.
Take an honest inventory of your existing décor to determine which pieces you want to keep. Assess your furnishings the way you periodically review your wardrobe. Plan to keep the pieces you truly love and put all others on the ‘to-be-replaced-eventually’ list.
Based upon your initial consultation, your designer should present you with fabric samples, sketches and pictures for your evaluation. Since professionals have access to a world of options unavailable in retail stores, be reasonable about asking to see more and more of everything available. Remember that the first two or three designs you are shown will be, in the decorator's opinion, the best looks for your home and your taste. One of the most important services a professional provides is sparing you the confusion of the unlimited choices available. Trust your designer's advice and stay focused on the overall design goal.
Give your decorator some latitude to decide for you the small details such as trims, pillows, accessories, etc. Your project will move forward more smoothly if he or she doesn't have to get your approval on every button and candle.
The last piece of advice is to give change a chance. The most dramatic changes usually come from introducing a strong new color or a different pattern. Don't panic. Trust your designer with color coordination. He or she will suggest the best paint colors for your home only after palette and fabrics have been determined to ensure you get the quality paint job your home deserves.
Just remember that all change requires a period of adjustment. After sprucing up your home with a new look, you'll be glad you finally took the plunge.
For more information, visit www.HowToBecomeAnInteriorDesigner.com.
November 8, 2011 9:20 pm
Pending home sales declined in September, although activity remains above a year ago, according to the National Association of REALTORS®.
The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, fell 4.6 percent to 84.5 in September from 88.6 in August, but is 6.4 percent higher than September 2010 when it stood at 79.4. The data reflects contracts but not closings.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the housing market is being excessively constrained. "A combination of weak consumer confidence and continuing tight lending criteria held back home buyers, even though the private sector added nearly 2 million net new jobs in the past 12 months," he says.
The PHSI in the Northeast declined 4.7 percent to 60.6 in September but is 4.0 percent above a year ago. In the Midwest, the index dropped 6.2 percent to 71.5 in September but remains 12.3 percent higher than September 2010. Pending home sales in the South fell 5.5 percent in September to an index of 91.6 but are 5.0 percent above a year ago. In the West, the index declined 2.1 percent to 105.8 in September but is 5.6 percent higher than September 2010.
"America's monetary policy is contradictory and confusing, where some consumers with the best financial capacity and top-notch credit scores pay higher mortgage interest rates," Yun says. "The Federal Reserve evidently has been attempting to lower mortgage rates, yet more consumers are faced with taking out jumbo loans that carry higher interest rates."
Yun emphasizes the need to reinstate higher loan limits in 42 states. "Just leaving excessive cash to sit in banks and not work into the economy is a drag on the overall recovery," he says. "We need a comprehensive approach to address housing issues—not additional impediments."
Information about NAR is available at www.realtor.org.