July 15, 2011 4:25 pm
Summer brings out barbecue grills—and bacteria, which multiply in food faster in warm weather and can cause foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning). Following a few simple guidelines can prevent an unpleasant experience.
Wash your hands
Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. If you're eating where there’s no source of clean water, bring water, soap and paper towels or have disposable wipes/hand sanitizer available.
Marinate food in the refrigerator
Don’t marinate on the counter—marinate in the refrigerator. If you want to use marinade as a sauce on cooked food, save a separate portion in the refrigerator. Do not reuse marinade that contacted raw meat, poultry, or seafood on cooked food unless you bring it to a boil first.
Keep raw food separate
Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood in a separate cooler or securely wrapped at the bottom of a cooler so their juices won’t contaminate already prepared foods or raw produce. Don't use a plate or utensils that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood for anything else unless you wash them first in hot, soapy water. Have a clean platter and utensils ready at grill-side for serving.
Cook food thoroughly
Use a food thermometer to make sure food is cooked thoroughly to destroy harmful bacteria. Partial precooking in the microwave oven or on the stove is a good way to reduce grilling time—just make sure the food goes immediately on the preheated grill to finish cooking.
Keep hot food hot and cold food cold
Keep hot food at 140°F or above until served. Keep cooked meats hot by setting them to the side of the grill, or wrap well and place in an insulated container.
Keep cold food at 40°F or below until served. Keep cold perishable food in a cooler until serving time. Keep coolers out of direct sun and avoid opening the lid often.
Cold foods can be placed directly on ice or in a shallow container set in a pan of ice. Drain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.
Don’t let hot or cold perishables sit out for longer than two hours, or one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90°F. When reheating fully cooked meats, grill to 165°F or until steaming hot.
Transport food in the passenger compartment of the car where it’s cooler—not in the trunk.
Put these items on your list
These non-food items are indispensable for a safe barbecue:
• food thermometer
• several coolers: one for beverages (which will be opened frequently), one for raw meats, poultry, and seafood, and another for cooked foods and raw produce
• ice or frozen gel packs for coolers
• jug of water, soap, and paper towels for washing hands
• enough plates and utensils to keep raw and cooked foods separate
• foil or other wrap for leftovers
For more information, visit http://www.fda.gov.
July 15, 2011 4:25 pm
Nationwide housing starts rose 3.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 560,000 units in May, according to newly released figures from the U.S. Commerce Department. The gain partially offsets a larger decline that was registered in April.
"While the upward movement registered in the report is somewhat good news, housing production continues to bounce along the bottom near historic lows, and is only running at a level necessary to replace dilapidated or destroyed units," says Bob Nielsen, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a home builder from Reno, Nev. He also noted that "Amidst this fragile marketplace, the nation's policymakers should be aware of a recent poll that confirms the strong value that most American voters continue to place on homeownership and housing choice."
Conducted this May on behalf of NAHB by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., and Lake Research Partners of Washington, D.C., the poll asked 2,000 likely voters about their attitudes on homeownership and housing policy. It found that the vast majority of current homeowners are happy with their decision to own a home and believe that owning their own home is important, while nearly three-quarters of those who do not now own a home consider it a goal of theirs to eventually buy one. Additionally, the poll determined that 73 percent of owners and renters believe the federal government should provide tax incentives to promote homeownership.
"Like consumers, builders remain very concerned about the pace of economic growth and are awaiting signs of improvement before moving forward with new projects," notes NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "The relative bright spot in new-home construction is on the multifamily side, where improving demand for rental apartments is spurring gains in that sector. However, access to construction credit remains a limiting factor for new building."
Single-family housing starts rose 3.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 419,000 units in May—their strongest pace since this January. Multifamily starts rose 2.9 percent to a 141,000-unit rate in May.
Regionally, housing production rose 1.5 percent in the South and 18.1 percent in the West, but declined 3.3 percent in the Northeast and 4.1 percent in the Midwest in May.
Issuance of building permits, which can be an indicator of future building activity, rose 8.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 612,000 units in May. This was the strongest pace since December of 2010. Single-family permits were up 2.5 percent to a 405,000-unit rate, while multifamily permits rose 23.2 percent to 207,000-units—their best pace since October of 2008.
Permit issuance posted double-digit gains in the Northeast and West in May, rising 35.6 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively. The South also posted a gain of 3.5 percent, while the Midwest registered a 1.1 percent decline.
For more information, please visit www.NAHB.org.
July 14, 2011 10:25 pm
Choosing a dog—especially a puppy—on a whim, or because a child is begging for one, is rarely a good idea. Since the lucky pup you choose will likely be a member of the family for some years to come, the decision should be made carefully and properly.
“Evaluate your lifestyle first,” suggests Ken Ribisi, a dog trainer from San Diego, Calif. “Is the family away for much of the day or is someone at home much of the time? The answer says a lot about the kind of dog you choose. Some breeds are better left alone a lot than others – and since puppies require house-training, you may want to consider an older dog that is already trained.”
Consider the expense as well, said Ribisi. Believe it or not, owning a dog will cost the best part of $1,000 a year including food and vet bills. If that is a hardship, you may want to rethink the whole idea.
Once you have decided to move forward, Ribisi suggests the following cautions:
Do the research to learn which breed of dog most closely fits your lifestyle and requirements. Do you want a large dog or a small one? An active one or a companion by the fire? There are plenty of books on the subject, or you can do the search online.
Look for a reputable local dog breeder or adopt from a shelter or a private party. In general, avoid pet stores, as many get their animals from inhumane “puppy mills.”
When possible, get to know the dog a bit before adopting. Its basic personality and energy level will be apparent early on. If you buy from a breeder, you may be able to “meet the parents” as well.
Read up in advance on house-training, so you are prepared to begin as soon as the dog is home. Also make sure you have the time and make the effort to begin obedience and socialization training – or call on a dog trainer to help.
Try to avoid unwanted strays if you can, unless you plan to formally adopt it, and always spay or neuter your pet as soon as feasible. If your family can follow the tips above, a pet can be a great addition to any family.
July 14, 2011 10:25 pm
Testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, the Appraisal Institute’s president-elect told lawmakers their intent was “right on target” and asked them to “guide the regulators’ aim” in implementing consumer-friendly real estate appraisal guidelines.
Sara W. Stephens, WAI, told members of the House Financial Services’ Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity that the Dodd-Frank Act passed by Congress last year is not being properly implemented by federal regulators.
Among other highlights, the Act calls on appraisal management companies (AMCs) to pay “customary and reasonable” fees to residential appraisers. While lenders can manage appraisal operations with internal staff, some choose to outsource these functions to third-party management companies called AMCs. These firms act as “middlemen” between lenders and appraisers.
“Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve’s Interim Final Rule is not faithful to Congressional intent,” Stephens told lawmakers. “The Appraisal Institute thinks Congress’ intent was right on target. We urge Congress to guide the regulators’ aim, directing them to correct the Interim Final Rule to promote credibility over speed and cost.”
She added: “Many lenders have chosen to outsource the appraisal management function to third-party management companies who pass only a small percentage on to the appraiser actually performing the appraisal service. Current policy leaves consumers completely in the dark. Here, we need transparency between appraisal and appraisal management fees, especially since it is the consumer who pays these fees in nearly all transactions.”
Due to the low fees many AMCs pay appraisers, consumers often have to rely on valuation services from some of the least qualified and least competent appraisers hired by some AMCs. Congress intended to protect consumers by requiring AMCs to pay “customary and reasonable” fees to appraisers.
“Last year, Congress passed the most significant legislative update of the appraisal regulatory structure in two decades. In our view, this was only a beginning,” Stephens told the House subcommittee. “Moving forward, Congress must maintain an active role in oversight of appraisal regulators and build on these reforms to address ongoing weaknesses. We can ill afford to allow another 20 years to pass without a thorough audit of appraisal regulations. Consumers, lenders and taxpayers deserve much better than they have been given to date.”
July 14, 2011 10:25 pm
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded nearly $15 million to more than 200 public housing authorities across the U.S. to help public housing residents find jobs that lead them toward economic independence.
HUD’s Public and Indian Housing Family Self-Sufficiency Program, provides this funding to public housing authorities (PHAs), which allows them to hire program coordinators who work directly with residents to connect them with local education and training opportunities; job placement organizations; and local employers. The purpose of the program is to encourage innovative strategies that link public housing assistance with other resources to enable participating families to increase earned income; reduce or eliminate the need for welfare assistance; and make progress toward achieving economic independence and housing self-sufficiency.
“Family self-sufficiency programs have a proven track record of helping families succeed,” says HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who announced the grants. “When families are given the tools they need to join a skilled workforce they move beyond HUD’s rental assistance programs to self-sufficiency. This is how Americans will win the future—individually and collectively.”
Participating public housing residents sign a contract to participate. They outline their responsibilities towards completion of training and employment objectives over a five-year period. For those families receiving welfare assistance, the PHA establishes an interim goal that the participating family becomes independent from welfare assistance prior to the expiration of the contract. During their participation, residents may create an escrow account funded with their increasing income, which they may use in a variety of ways, including continuing their education, making a major purchase or improving their credit score.
The Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) Program is a long-standing resource for increasing economic security and self-sufficiency among public housing and HCV participants. A HUD Prospective Study, issued earlier this year, evaluated the effectiveness of the FSS Program. Conducted from 2005 to 2009, HUD found substantial financial benefits for participants who complete the program. This study is the second of a three-part evaluation of the FSS program. The first study found individuals who participated in the FSS program fared better financially than those who did not enroll in the program. HUD will launch the third and final study in this series this year.
For more information visit www.hud.gov.
July 13, 2011 10:26 pm
By John Voket
Anybody can toss a few items out in the driveway and pronounce a garage sale in progress, but if you want to maximize the effort and profit from proffering your possessions, much like a real estate deal, you’ve got to set the stage. GetRichSlowly.org has some great advice on prepping for that all important day of the sale:
1. Be clear on the purpose of your sale. Are you selling things to make money or to get rid of them? This question affects everything you do, from how you price things, to how willing you may be to negotiate. Surprisingly, you can often make more money (and get rid of more junk) by pricing things low. If your goal is to get top dollar, you should really be selling on eBay or Craigslist.
2. Advertise. Stick an ad in the newspaper. Put up a notice on Craigslist. Post simple, effective signs around the neighborhood. It’s best to use big bold text like “HUGE SALE” with an arrow pointing the right direction. Make sure your sign is readable.
3. Get cash for change. Get a roll of quarters, a stack of twenty-five $1 bills, and a few $5 bills. Do this two days before the sale, so that if you forget, you can still get the change the day before.
4. Prepare your staging area. People will be more inclined to stop if you set up shop in your yard or driveway. Some people are reluctant to enter a dark and dreary garage. Make your sale inviting and easy to browse. You can lure customers by placing highly-desirable items near the road.
5. Think like a customer. As soon as you’ve opened and fielded the initial flood of shoppers, walk through your sale as if you were there to buy something. How does it feel? Are things clearly marked? Is it easy to move around? Are your books on the ground in boxes? Or are they placed neatly on shelves or tables?
6. Display items to their advantage. Be sure to properly display items and make sure everything has its own place. For example, if you have a lot of books to get rid of, take the time to set up a few bookshelves so that people can clearly see what you have to offer.
7. Play background music. Break the silence with a little background music. While some people might find it uncomfortable to visit a garage sale when there’s complete silence, playing some background music might help. Be sure to pick something that is appropriate for your audience.
8. Promote expensive items. Big-ticket items can be tough to sell, but you can do it with a little extra effort. For example, print out a website page from a business still selling the item that shows the original retail price and all the features.
9. Make it easy for shoppers to test electronic items. If you’re selling electrical items, make sure you have an extension cord handy so that people can test them. No smart person is going to just take your word that your television “works great.” Also, have some batteries on hand so a prospective buyer can test hand-held electronics.
July 13, 2011 10:26 pm
By Keith Loria
As home theater technology has evolved over the past 10 years, this popular feature has become a much more integral part of many homes today. Beyond the place where the family comes together to be entertained, studies show that next to the kitchen, the family room is the most occupied room of the house.
That combined with all of the “cool” new technology has created an environment where people want to show off their home theater, so many home buyers are looking for houses that have media rooms available or are already set up to support the latest technology.
Maria Bastone, president of Staging Magic, says that home theater staging has increased dramatically in the past few years.
“These days, people pass more time in their house so they want their house to be practical, big and without renovations,” she says. “Everyone works hard and they need to decompress and relax. They need a room that will satisfy this. Technology is so present in our lives that we need a place to enjoy them comfortably.”
Real estate experts agree that home theatres add value to a home because technology has become more affordable and more present in every family. The 50-inch flat screen with surround sound has become the norm rather than the exception. Having rooms to showcase this equipment is therefore a criteria for a great number of buyers.
“Home theater is a way for the homeowner to bring all these cool new pieces of technology together and fit them seamlessly into their lifestyle,” says David Start, VP of Sacramento, Calif.-based theater furniture manufacturer California House. “You have Apple, Netflix, now Amazon—all these big tech companies with really fantastic products. Home theater allows you to integrate these products into the way you live.”
According to the Home Builders Association, in most new homes built with a $250,000-plus price, home theater or media rooms are almost standard now.
“I think a media room does add value, however it is truly a personal preference based upon what the buyer wants and/or is looking for in a home,” says Teresa Cwik of Showcase Staging Houston. “I have seen a lot of these rooms staged and in my professional opinion I believe the room should be staged with appropriate media room furniture, such as theatre seating.”
There are several ways one can make the home theatre room more appealing prior to showing a home.
First of all, you should clean all surfaces, keep wiring as discrete as possible, and if necessary, store electronics that may look sloppy due to wires or size. Also, although having lots of seating space is practical in a media room, it may be a good thing to reduce the number of sofas to give a spacious look to the room.
There are also smart furniture choices to make the room look better.
“Customers are looking for furniture that will present their TV in style while concealing many of the other components—DVDs, gaming consoles, speakers—neatly out of sight,” says David Adams, marketing director for furniture theatre manufacturer BDI. “Unique features that are integrated into better home theater furniture include hidden wheels, flow-through ventilation, adjustable shelves, built-in media or speaker storage, and integrated cable management systems.”
This is the 21st century and many times rooms focusing on technology can be just as important to a home buyer than a large kitchen or walk-in closets.
July 13, 2011 10:26 pm
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced a historic collaborative effort to build upon current federal investments for regions that support sustainable and livable communities. For the first time ever, HUD and EPA will join forces to competitively award $5.65 million to strengthen the capacity of existing sustainable-communities grantees to create more housing choices, make transportation more efficient and reliable, and support vibrant and healthy neighborhoods for American families.
The award program will build upon the Partnership for Sustainable Communities—an interagency collaboration—launched by President Obama in June 2009, between the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), HUD and EPA to provide more sustainable housing and transportation choices for families and lay the foundation for a 21st century economy. Award recipients will form a national leadership network of existing and future HUD and EPA grantees that are advancing sustainable regional planning and development in their respective contexts and areas. The network of grantees will exchange ideas on successful strategies, lessons learned, emerging tools, and public engagement plans. The Capacity Building for Sustainable Communities grant program will award funds to capacity building service providers who will work directly with grant recipients from the FY2010 and FY2011 HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning and Community Challenge, HUD Preferred Sustainability Status Communities, and EPA Sustainable Community Technical Assistance and Brownfield Area Wide Planning grant programs.
HUD will take the lead in administering the notice of funding availability (NOFA) while both agencies will collaborate in the review and selection process of the grantees. The grantees must demonstrate significant knowledge, skills, experience, and a cohesive plan for delivering the specific skills and tactics necessary to build the capacity of existing sustainability grantees. Both HUD and EPA contributed funding to the grant opportunity.
For more information, visit www.hud.gov and espanol.hud.gov.
July 12, 2011 10:25 pm
Nobody is perfect and oftentimes, consumers make mistakes when shopping that may end up costing them. Here are the top five mistakes consumers make and tips for what you can do to protect yourself in the future:
1. You Don't Know Who You're Dealing With
You wouldn't buy a watch from the sketchy guy on the corner, so why entrust your credit card to a questionable website? The same is true for flyers you receive in the mail for discount services, or an unsolicited e-mail offer. Before you are wooed by a low price:
-Google the name of the company or site plus the word "complaint" or "scam" and see what you get.
-Look up the company's standing on the Better Business Bureau website (bbb.org).
-Carefully scrutinize any "free introductory offer" you receive. (Tip: If they require a credit card number, you should be wary of how "free" it really is).
2. You Forget to Save Receipts
No receipt means no proof of purchase. Without it, you'll only receive store credit if you need to return unused, still-sealed and still-tagged items. Keep receipts for minor purchases in a file for at least one month, particularly for those on your credit card (so you can compare them to your monthly statement). For items with warranties, staple the receipt to the owner's manual or keep in a separate "warranty" file. If you're sending the receipt off to claim a rebate, make a copy of it first for your records.
3. You Don't Use a Product Immediately After Purchase
Return policies and warranties start from the date of purchase. Even if it's July and you bought a snow blower on clearance, remember to start it to make sure it's working. It's also smart to check products you buy and plan to give as gifts at a later date: Do they work properly and are all the parts in the box?
4. You Don't Read Contracts Carefully
When you sign up for a cell phone plan, cable or satellite TV service, gym membership, or diet program, you are most likely agreeing to pay a monthly fee for a specified length of time and to owe a cancellation fee if you decide not to fulfill the terms of your contract. Read all the fine print before signing anything and make sure anything the salesperson tells you is also listed in writing. Ask plenty of questions. Are any additional charges such as taxes or "service fees" above the quoted price? Can you freeze your plan if you go on vacation? Is there a pay-per-month plan at a slightly higher rate? It may be worth considering, if you're not sure you're in for the long haul.
Remember to keep track of contract dates. Some services, such as cable TV and phone companies offer "introductory" deals of a flat rate for the first year or two and then significantly increase the price when the term is over.
5. You Don't Examine Warranty Policies
Right after buying a product, check the length of time of your warranty coverage and exactly what the warranty covers: Parts only? Repairs? Replacement?
If you save your receipt, you usually don't need to send in the Warranty Card. Companies typically just use these to collect customer data; the main consumer benefit is that you'll be alerted if the item is recalled.
When making a warranty claim, gather all paperwork before you call or e-mail, including your sales receipt, the model number of the malfunctioning item, and a detailed description of what went wrong. Take careful notes on your phone call, including date, time, and full name or customer-service ID number of anyone you speak with (or print out any e-mail correspondence). Get concrete instructions, including expected dates or time frames, and follow up if they don't follow through.
July 12, 2011 10:25 pm
It's often hard to decide when to repair older appliances and when to replace them. If your home's refrigerator is puttering, hissing or leaking, it may be time to make a game-time decision to ensure that you're never without a fridge in the home.
A good rule of thumb is to compare the cost of each. If replacing your fridge will cost you more than half the price of buying a new one, you're better off taking the plunge and purchasing anew. If the replacement will only cost a couple hundred dollars or less and your refrigerator isn't too old, replacing will be the better bet.
Side-by-side fridge/freezer combos with icemakers attached are more than twice as repair prone as top-or-bottom freezer models without an icemaker. The repair rate for side-by-side refrigerators with an icemaker is 36%; the rate for top-and-bottom freezers with an icemaker was 28%; and the rate for top-and-bottom freezers without an ice maker is 15%.
Always remember, the age and configuration of your refrigerator should always be taken into consideration. Generally, built-in fridges are worth repairing; side-by-sides should be considered repairable within five years; Bottom-freezers should be repaired within seven years; top-freezers should be repaired within three years and replaced if they are older than seven years.
Although replacing an entire appliance is an expense that no homeowner is ever ready for, there is a benefit to replacement. When shopping for a new fridge, find a model that uses less energy than older ones, particularly one that is Energy Star qualified. This will help you save on your monthly utility bills and assist your transition into becoming a green household.
For more information about repairing or replacing a fridge, visit consumerreports.org.