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.
November 8, 2011 9:20 pm
In a new survey about preparing financially for retirement, seven out of ten (71%) of over 1,000 adults aged 25 and older said they were personally in control of their finances and make financial decisions themselves. Half of those who are not yet retired (48%) believe they will not have enough money to maintain their current lifestyle in retirement, and half of those already retired (53%) are concerned about their current financial situation.
When we asked respondents if they wish they had a pension, half said yes, even among those aged 25-34. This was surprising considering how far removed this younger generation is from the days of defined benefit/pension plans. Whether they hit the job market 10 years ago or two years ago, younger Americans have experienced market bubbles bursting first-hand, which has seriously eroded their confidence in the equity markets.
"It's a smart and rational response to want something safe and secure now. The ramifications of this market dynamic on the investment choices Americans will make over the next 30 to 40 years is only now coming into focus. And, make no mistake, even the younger generation is very realistic about their prospects for retirement, especially when you find that only four percent of them believe that Social Security will provide enough income to live in retirement," says Peter Saracena, senior vice president of Ipsos, a research corporation.
As part of the research, Ipsos asked about the potential for a fixed-rate annuity inside of 401(k)s that could be contributed to over time, that was portable from one plan to another if you left your job, that would provide a guaranteed lifetime income, and that would pay a lump sum to beneficiaries upon death if the account balance exceeded the amount already paid out. Overall, three-quarters (74%) said they would like having this option available, with 83% of those 25-34 feeling the same way. More than half of all respondents (55%) felt that having this 401(k) annuity option would be like contributing to a pension.
Among those that do not currently have a 401(k), four out of ten (38%) said they would be more likely to participate if this annuity option was available. Eight in ten (77%) of those likely to participate in a 401(k), if available, said that they would allocate a portion of their regular contribution to the annuity product, and 81% said they would be likely to ask their employer to allocate the match to the annuity. More than half (54%) said they would have a more favorable opinion of their employer if the company offered the option to contribute the match to the annuity.
Given that half of those with 401(k)s have balances of less than $5,000, it should come as no surprise that seven out of ten adults not yet retired (69%) say they have a lot more to do financially before they are ready to retire. Unfortunately, while there is no silver bullet to fulfill the retirement needs of Americans, and four out of ten (38%) currently believe that they will outlive their retirement savings, creating an understandable and easily navigated pathway toward a guaranteed retirement lifetime income stream seems not only appropriate, but an absolute necessity.
November 8, 2011 9:20 pm
By Zoe Eisenberg
Even though Halloween has come and gone, carving a pumpkin can still be a fun Fall activity you enjoy with your family. It also doesn’t have to be as daunting—or messy—as one may assume. After you pick your pumpkin at the local patch or store, follow these easy steps to turn your squash into a festive jack-o-lantern with minimal effort.
1. Cut a Hole in the Pumpkin
First, use a keyhole saw or sharp knife to cut a wide circle around the stem of your pumpkin. The hole should be large enough that you have ample room to clean out the inside of the pumpkin—more on that in our next step. Carefully remove the top, clean the bottom of flesh and seeds, and set aside.
2. Scoop out the Inside
Scoop out flesh, pulp and seeds of your pumpkin with a large spoon, plastic scraper or your hands. Be sure the inside is clear of all stringy sinews, as they can be flammable once dry. Set aside seeds, which are fun to bake and delicious to eat.
3. Make Your Design
Draw your design—or trace one from a template—onto the side of your pumpkin using a thick pen or marker. Make sure all lines are clear, thick and simple enough for you to carve.
4. Carve the Features
Carve along your lines with a small saw, blade or sharp knife.
5. Light Your Pumpkin
Now it’s time to put the lantern in your jack-o-lantern. Place a candle with high glass walls in your pumpkin, or—for a safer solution—wrap a string of lights around a jar and place inside.
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, experiment with different November-themed designs. When paired with the naturally fallen leaves and a bale of hay, a carved pumpkin can add plenty of flair to your next holiday.
November 8, 2011 9:20 pm
Trees are often overlooked during the summer when it comes to watering. Yet, when trees go dormant for autumn and winter – meaning active root growth comes to a standstill – and deciduous trees lose their leaves, they make up for deficits and absorb as much water and nutrients as they can hold. Enter fall's first rains, windstorms and freezes, and homeowners are guaranteed a dose of trouble.
Homeowners are advised to follow seven guidelines this fall to avoid tree problems year round.
Trees with deep root systems typically do not need extra water, while trees with shallow roots do. Your tree is thirsty if it is brown in places, or if some of its branches are dead or brittle. If needed, place mulch at the base of the tree to help the soil retain water.
#2 Plant for all seasons, and for your region
It is best to plant trees that thrive in your home city's weather. Young trees planted in locations subject to harsh weather should be staked until their root balls have grown strong enough to support them. Protect against nibbling animals by placing a small fence around the base. And be sure to check with local jurisdictions on permits needed or other restrictions.
#3 Remove troublemakers
If a tree is located next to a foundation, path or fence, or along an irrigation, sewer or utility line, fall is a good time to move it, or even remove it.
To remove a tree quickly, and effortlessly, a chainsaw can be used to cut the tree down piece by piece (consult an arborist for larger projects or when tree falling has the potential to harm property or people). For safety and efficiency, keep the chainsaw chain sharp.
Fall is the time to prune most trees. With an expert's help or on your own, prune to open up the tree's crown and remove excess limbs and dead or weakened wood. Use your chainsaw to complete the job quicker.
#5 Remove fallen leaves
Remove fallen leaves to be certain that the base of your tree can "breathe," and to remove a haven for tree-damaging insects. This also assures that any plants below the tree get adequate water and light.
If an insect is attacking a tree, fall is the best time to apply dormant spray on fruiting trees.
Most trees don't require fertilizer although fruiting and flowering trees may benefit from it. Late fall is a good time to fertilize because winter rains will prevent chemical burn. Fertilize after the first frost to prevent new, tender growth from damage.
Requiring very little maintenance in the fall, trees provide strong focal points to landscapes. Deciduous trees present various colors and appearances throughout the year, and evergreens breathe life and color year-round. Take care of your trees and you will enjoy them for years to come.
November 8, 2011 9:20 pm
David H. Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) issued the following statement in response to the recent announcement of changes to the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP).
"The mortgage industry welcomes these changes designed to help more underwater borrowers who are current on their mortgages refinance at today's historically low interest rates. Not only will these changes allow more borrowers to qualify, but they will streamline the process and reduce the cost to borrowers and should lessen risk for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"Lenders are particularly gratified that the refinements will provide relief from some representations and warranties that lenders face when originating new loans. These changes alone should encourage lenders to more actively participate in HARP.
"Borrowers need to be aware that these changes will not be implemented overnight. Lenders likely won't receive specific guidance and operational details from the regulators for a couple of weeks, after which it will take a bit of additional time for lenders to implement them. Therefore we ask borrowers for patience as the changes are put into practice.
"While ultimately helpful, these changes are not going to be a silver bullet to solve all the issues facing our housing market and borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. But they will offer lenders another tool to help borrowers and hopefully help bring some stability to housing markets, particularly those most impacted by home value declines."
For more information, visit www.mortgagebankers.org.