July 29, 2011 10:25 pm
Summer is in full force and there are many ways for people to get out and enjoy the weather. What can a family or organization do to make sure that they are protecting the environment while they are having fun? In an effort to make this easier, here are a few tips and tricks to help make the most of this season of sun and fun:
Fill a few hours on a summer afternoon or plan an all-day outdoor adventure by having a green picnic. An ideal green picnic combines healthy foods, a great location, and environmentally-friendly paper products and picnic supplies. Consumers should make sure that eco-friendly paper products are Green Seal certified, as this takes the guesswork out of the green evaluation process for the purchaser.
Before setting out on a green picnic with eco-friendly paper products, families and organizations should choose reusable picnic baskets such as cloth grocery bags or even an old fashioned picnic basket. Choose organic food from farmers markets—this is better for both the earth and the environment. Also try to include whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and other similar food items that don’t require any additional packaging in order to stay fresh.
Environmentally conscious picnic-goers should choose recycled or recyclable picnic products. Biodegradable dishes, corn cutlery, cloth napkins, and Green Seal certified paper products are ideal for green picnics. Even though the picnic products are eco-friendly, picnic-goers should still remember to leave the site cleaner than it was found. Garbage—no matter how biodegradable—is not a natural part of any picnic site.
The right biodegradable eatery can make any picnic Mother Nature’s dream.
July 29, 2011 10:25 pm
Any changes to the mortgage interest deduction now or in the future could threaten recent progress toward stabilizing the housing market, critically erode home prices and values, destroy middle-class wealth accumulation and hurt economic growth.
That was the message delivered by National Association of REALTORS® NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun during this last week's Rethinking the Mortgage Interest Deduction forum, where he joined a panel of experts to debate the future of the MID. The event was hosted by the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institute, and the Reason Foundation.
“As the leading advocate for housing and homeownership, NAR firmly believes that the mortgage interest deduction is vital to the stability of the American housing market and economy,” says Yun. “The MID facilitates homeownership by reducing the carrying costs of owning a home, and it makes a real difference to hard-working middle-class families.”
Yun argued that now is the worst possible time to discuss changing the tax laws, which could further impair the housing market’s fragile recovery and a broader job market recovery.
“One thing that is indisputable is that eliminating the MID will lower the homeownership rate in the U.S.,” he says. “While we must ensure that the conditions that led to the artificially inflated homeownership rate of the bubble years do not resurface, we also need to create the conditions for sustainable homeownership, which has been shown to provide myriad social benefits for families and communities.”
During the debate, Yun challenged recent proposals calling for changes to the tax code, stating that it’s a misplaced argument to say the MID was a cause of the housing market bubble and is suddenly part of the deficit problem, when it’s been part of the federal tax code for more than 100 years.
Reducing or eliminating the MID is a de facto tax increase on homeowners, who already pay 80 to 90 percent of U.S. federal income tax. Yun said the share could rise to 95 percent if the MID is eliminated.
“Doing away with the MID shouldn’t be thought of as removing a tax break for homeowners, but rather increasing taxes on the middle class,” he said. “Furthermore, housing equity has been a major source of funds for small businesses, and any change to the MID will greatly hamper their ability to create jobs.”
Yun also asserted that it’s a misconception that only the wealthy benefit from the MID, when in reality it benefits primarily middle- and lower-income families. Almost two-thirds of those who claim the MID are middle-income earners and 91 percent of people who claim the MID earn less than $200,000 per year.
For more information, visit www.realtor.org.
July 29, 2011 10:25 pm
“The U.S. debt crisis is likely to cost home buyers at least $122 per month,” says Gibran Nicholas, chairman of the CMPS Institute, an organization that trains and certifies mortgage bankers and brokers. “Bonds issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will probably lose their AAA status if the US credit rating is downgraded." This means that mortgage rates will likely go up. The monthly payment on a $200,000 30-year mortgage would increase by a whopping $240 per month if mortgage rates go up slightly from 4.51% to 6.43% like they were just 3 short years ago. Even if interest rates only go up by 1% it would cost an extra $122 per month.
If you have an adjustable interest rate tied to LIBOR or US Treasuries, your mortgage rate will probably fluctuate a little over the next few months as banks, investors and money market funds figure out what to do with the temporary loss of a AAA credit rating for US Treasuries.
“Many investment funds are only allowed to invest in AAA rated investments," Nicholas says. "This means they will have to either (1) change their bylaws in order to keep their US Treasuries and mortgage bonds; or (2) sell their US Treasuries and mortgage backed securities. This will cause Treasury and mortgage bond yields to fluctuate considerably over the next few months, adding even more uncertainty to an already fragile mortgage and housing market.”
So how bad can this debt crisis get? Do you think it would be too risky to get a $150,000 mortgage if you were a homeowner making $150,000 per year? Most people would agree that you wouldn’t be over-extending yourself in that situation. In fact, your lender would probably consider you a very safe credit risk and be very eager to lend you the money.
“That’s exactly what the U.S. debt burden would be like if the debt ceiling was increased,” says Nicholas. “Our country generates around $15 trillion dollars per year in economic activity, and all we are asking for is a total ‘mortgage’ or debt burden of around $15 trillion. If this was such a high risk proposition, nobody would be loaning us money and we’d be paying much higher interest rates on our debt.”
Now, switch hats for a minute and go back to the homeowner making $150,000 per year. How would the scenario change if they suddenly were at risk of no longer generating $150,000 in annual income? What if their debt was simultaneously growing by about $15,000 per year (meaning they’d owe $165,000 next year, $170,000 the year after, etc.)?
“That’s what the current crisis is all about,” Nicholas says. “The U.S. debt burden is growing by about $1.5 trillion per year and our elected officials are jeopardizing even the $15 trillion in economic activity that we do have as a nation. That’s why the rating agencies are probably going to temporarily downgrade our credit rating. The bottom line is that we don’t have a ‘debt crisis’, we have a ‘credibility crisis.’ There will be some temporary negative consequences because of all this even if the debt ceiling is increased at the last minute.”
For more information, visit www.cmpsinstitute.org.
July 28, 2011 4:25 pm
Many Americans are using the hot summer months as an excuse to travel and break out some brand new styles. For those heading off on planes, trains or automobiles, check out the following suggestions to help stay comfortable and look stylish while en route to your end destination.
Look for a bag that has space for travel essentials: a water bottle, inner pockets for a cell phone and other gadgets, room for reading material, a sweater or wrap, and a few deep outer pockets to tuck boarding passes and other important travel documents. Air travelers should look for a bag about 11 inches tall, so it will sit upright under a standard airplane seat. A tote or structured bag is preferred for travel, so it won’t slouch and let the contents fall out.
Layers are always a good idea for traveling. A wrap or cardigan can ward off air from a chilly vent or act as a makeshift pillow. Sprayed lightly with a favorite scent, it can work as a discreet barrier against undesirable airplane odors. Cardigans purchased in a neutral color or coordinated with other items of clothing are among the most versatile clothing items a traveler can have in the wardrobe.
Easy-on, easy-off shoes are a must, especially if summer travels involve flying or hitting the road for a family vacation. Kids can help keep the car clean by taking their shoes off after rest stops, and slip-on flats make that easy. Airport security is a breeze in comfortable sandals or Velcro-closure sneakers.
Be practical when packing for your next summer hotspot. With these helpful travel tips, your journey can be a smooth one.
For more information, visit Zappos.com.
July 28, 2011 4:25 pm
By Zoe Eisenberg
There is nothing like the warm evenings of summer to set the mood for a great party. Ideally, a party should be a time for you to catch-up with your friends, eat delicious food and enjoy yourself. However, planning a party often becomes more stressful than it needs to be. The following tips will ensure a hassle-free summer party that both you and your guests can enjoy.
Setting the right mood for a party is vital. Decorate with brightly colored tablecloths, plates, glasses and cloth to create a vibrant atmosphere. Keep guests cool in the daytime by offering a shaded tent or covered porch, and for evening affairs, create subtle lighting with candles and torches. If outside, create conversation spaces around the yard using outdoor furniture, blankets and bistro tables so you don’t wind up having everyone crowded around the grill. Have enough seating for at least half the guests to sit at any given time.
The Guest List
Don’t over-invite—You want to have a good time, too. Invite members from different social circles who haven’t had a chance to connect yet, but who you think would really hit it off—like friends from your office and your buddies from book club or some of the parents of your children’s friends. Most importantly, make sure you have enough room for all guests indoors, in the chance a sudden summer shower may occur.
In the summer, it’s a good idea to keep party fair fresh and light. Burgers, kebabs, grilled veggies and pizzas are all great choices. To avoid having a crowded fridge and empty wallet post-party, think about food costs and quantities. Hosts usually purchase too much food, so be sure to think about portions to people. If you are offering hot dogs, hamburgers and barbequed chicken, the average party-goer is not going to have one of each.
To keep stress at bay, do as much cooking as possible ahead of time. Or, even better, let your guests do some of the work themselves. Allow them to build their own skewers, personal pizzas or handle their own burgers on the grill, giving the food an interactive focus. Add a few simple, seasonal side salads for variety, like sweet corn and black bean with avocado, or garden tomato and fresh mozzarella.
Keep dessert simple and light, so guests have more energy for mingling and dancing. Try serving sliced seasonal fruit with fresh, home-made whipped-cream or your favorite local ice-cream.
A summer fiesta isn’t the same without a selection of cool beverages, alcoholic or not. First, decide whether you want to keep it simple or go all out. Making a delicious punch available (spiking optional!) with an assortment of beers and chilled wines is a perfectly acceptable, low-maintenance beverage idea. If you want to get fancy, hire a bartender or enlist the help of a neighborhood college student home for the summer. And don’t forget the details—find festive glasses and freeze fruit or mint leaves in ice cubes for a fresh finishing touch.
Do as much prep-work as you can ahead of time—set tables, prepare food and make sure everything is clean and clutter free. Place trash and recycling receptacles around your home and yard so you don’t end up cleaning tons of trash after the party has ended. Create a festive playlist and turn on the music before the guests are scheduled to arrive, so they walk into a party atmosphere and not a quiet house. To make your party memorable, end the evening by sending guests home with a thank-you gift—like a jar of home-made jam, locally made honey or a candle with a summery scent.
July 28, 2011 4:25 pm
Back to school shopping can be overwhelming for many budgets, but Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com says there are ways to strategically take advantage of special deals and coupons this year if consumers plan and research before they shop.
“The key to saving is planning,” Nelson says. “Before you even leave your house to start buying new school clothes, backpacks and supplies, sit down and plan what you need to buy with your student.”
Nelson suggests that parents take an inventory of their children’s clothes to prevent overbuying. “Go through drawers and closets to inventory your child’s current wardrobe, and sort out the items that are too small or never get worn and donate them to a local charity,” she says. “Older children’s acceptable outgrown clothes can go to a younger sibling, if possible. After determining the number of acceptable outfits you already have on hand, make a realistic list of specific items you need to buy.”
Here are some of her strategies for back to school savings:
-Buying shoes with free coupons: The back to school season is the busiest time of year for shoe sales. As a result, stores have many special promotions to get buyers' attention including buy one, get one free. Check in your newspaper circular and online for special shoe deals.
-School supplies—stock up at 90% off: Take advantage of price matching for school supplies. Basic school supplies are at their lowest price at this time of year (50-90% off)—some items are as low as 10 cents each. Watch for sale prices of up to 90%, and stock up for the entire year. Look at ads for grocery stores, drugstores, big box discount stores, and office supply stores. Bargains will continue starting now through September. At the end of August/early September, watch the clearance sections at discount stores for even lower prices if they have items left.
-Backpacks: For younger children, the backpacks on sale at discount and drugstores may be all they need. As students get older, it may be worth investing in a higher quality backpack to last several years. You can expect a good backpack to last a few years and provide the necessary support and padding for heavier books.
-Buy school clothes later in the year and find free coupons. Wait until a few weeks into the school year to stock up on new clothes, to take advantage of later-in-the-season sales and to give your child time to see what new styles they like.
-Look for advertising circulars in the newspaper for your stores. Many will have generous coupons in addition to sale prices.
-Check your store websites for coupons and promotions. Sign up for their email newsletter.
-Check coupon code websites for printed coupons or online codes at your favorite retailers.
-Check sites and print free coupons from outlet mall websites (example: http://www.premiumoutlets.com). Printing one free coupon could save $20 at your favorite store.
-Subscribe to the email newsletter of your local mall. You will be sent information and free coupons for special promotions.
-Take advantage of tax-free holidays in some states to save the cost of sales tax. See www.taxadmin.org/fta/rate/sales_holiday.html for more information.
By following these tips, parents can save a significant amount of money when shopping for back to school supplies. A little planning goes a long way.
For more information visit www.couponmom.com.
July 27, 2011 4:25 pm
Traveling with pets is becoming more and more popular, as recent surveys indicate. According to a 2011 survey by PetRelocation.com, 60% of pet owners traveled at least one time with their pet in 2010, and 93% of pet owners expect to take at least one trip with their pet in 2011. Many of these pets have traveled more than once, with 22% expected to travel monthly.
For those wanting to travel with pets, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
To find pet-friendly accommodations, websites such as petfriendlytravel.com, dogfriendly.com, petswelcome.com, or packthepets.com provide listings based on location. Many individual businesses will post on their website if they are pet friendly, but just because a website doesn't specifically say it doesn't mean that Fido isn’t welcome. A quick phone call or email will clarify.
Find out the details. It is important while communicating with a lodging choice to find out exactly what is expected. There may be fees, limitations on pet size, specific pet policies, etc. Companies that charge a fee should not be viewed negatively. Many times, they are just weeding out the pets that don’t really belong, as people who are willing to pay the extra fees typically have pets that are better behaved.
When traveling with a pet, it is a good idea to take along the pet license and rabies certificate, as well as toys, bedding, and other familiar items that will help him feel at home. Of course, making sure that flea and tick medicines are up-to-date will help to make sure that unwanted hitchhikers don't make it back home.
And most of all, respect of others will go a long way toward making sure that pets are always welcome. That means the pet should be kept under control at all times and be crated when left alone so they don’t damage anything. It goes without saying that picking up behind a pet is a basic common courtesy that should be extended no matter what the location.
For more information, visit www.cabincreekwood.com.
July 27, 2011 4:25 pm
By Keith Loria
There is nothing quite as frightening in the mortgage process as learning that your credit report contains some late payment you made in college or some mistake from a phone company that happened a decade ago.
Luckily, most errors and negative items can be taken care of and eliminated; and when it comes to buying a home, you will need to get your credit cleaned up so you can qualify for that low interest loan.
“Your credit score is the basic decider regarding your capability to attain loans, ideally on much lower interest rates,” says Greg Tilley, from a credit repair agency in Colorado. “Put simply, the higher your credit score is, the higher your chances are of being permitted to get a loan and/or credit. In the case of a low credit score, you may find yourself in an ‘extreme-risk’ classification which means lenders will be reluctant to offer you any sort of financial assistance.”
According to credit counselors, there are approximately 43 million people in the United States with credit blemishes severe enough to make obtaining home loans with reasonable terms difficult.
“There are things that can be done, regardless of whether it is a mistake or an actual failed payment on your part,” says Anna Rodriguez, of an Arizona-based credit information center. “The important thing is not to panic, get ready to plead your case and be courteous when talking to the people who have the power to make the changes.”
The simplest thing to do if you’ve missed a payment and have it on your record is to call the creditor and ask them politely to erase the negative listing. You can also do this with a well thought-out letter. There is no guarantee that a lender will do this, but if you’ve been a good customer through the years, this method has proven to be successful.
“You can also get a collection agency to agree to remove a debt from your report if you pay it,” Tilley says. “This method is called ‘pay for delete’ and it works great on smaller amounts of $500 and under, especially medical collections.”
It is advisable to get the agreement in writing before you pay them though, and only send a money order after you get them to agree.
If you are one of the millions who have defaulted on a student loan you can enter into a “rehab program,” which will get your account back on track after 12 months. This may not be the quick fix that someone buying a house needs, but the sooner you do this the better.
For disputing something that was not your fault, you can try disputing the account with the credit bureaus as “not mine.”
“The older and smaller a collection account, the more likely the collection agency wouldn’t have bothered to update the correct information and the credit bureau won’t be able to match up computer records,” Rodriguez says. “This is a great way to clear blemishes.”
A quick fix that some people use to boost their credit score is to have an older family member with a great credit rating add you as an authorized user on one of their old credit cards. This could help your score increase dramatically and you wouldn’t even need to have the card in your possession.
With more loans requiring higher credit scores today, it’s never too early to start fixing those problems.
July 27, 2011 4:25 pm
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced recently that HUD will provide $46.2 million to public housing agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to supply permanent housing and case management for 6,790 homeless veterans in America.
This funding, from HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH), is a coordinated effort by HUD, VA, and local housing agencies to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans.
“Over the past three years, HUD helped thousands of homeless veterans find a permanent place to call home while VA provided medical treatment, case management and other services to address their specific needs,” says HUD Secretary Donovan. “We have no greater mission than to prevent and end homelessness, especially for those brave men and women who risked their lives to protect our nation.”
“This initiative will strengthen our ongoing efforts to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015 and improve quality of life for veterans,” says VA Secretary Shinseki. “Working with our partners at HUD and in Congress, we continue to make good progress to reduce veteran homelessness though much work remains. VA is committed to providing veterans and their families with access to affordable housing and medical services that will help them get back on their feet.”
This funding to local housing agencies is part of the Administration’s commitment to end Veteran and long-term chronic homelessness by 2015. Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness serves as a roadmap for how the federal government will work with state and local agencies to confront the root causes of homelessness, especially among former servicemen and women.
The grants announced are part of $50 million appropriated for Fiscal Year 2011 to support the housing needs of 6,900 homeless veterans. VA Medical Centers (VAMC) provide supportive services and case management to eligible homeless veterans. This is the first of two rounds of the 2011 HUD-VASH funding. HUD expects to announce the remaining funding by the end of this summer.
Homeless veterans are referred to the public housing agencies for these vouchers, based upon a variety of factors, most importantly the need for and willingness to participate in case management. The HUD-VASH program includes both the rental assistance provided by the vouchers and the comprehensive case management that VAMC staff provides.
Veterans participating in the HUD-VASH program rent privately owned housing and generally contribute no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. VA offers eligible homeless veterans clinical and supportive services through its medical centers across the U.S., Guam and Puerto Rico.
For more information, please visit www.HUD.gov.
July 26, 2011 4:25 pm
All over the country, people are taking the time to enjoy the simple pleasures of growing their own vegetables and herbs. From small container gardens and raised beds, to community-based home farms where people grow food with neighbors, the idea of home-grown goodness has taken root. In fact, a survey from Triscuit found that more than 60% of Americans say they are interested in growing fruits, vegetables, and/or herbs in a backyard garden and 44% have grown some of their own food in the past year.
If you haven't started digging in to the trend, it's not too late. "The Gardener Guy," Paul James, has teamed up with Triscuit to celebrate the "Home Farming" movement, which encourages the simple joy of growing fresh herbs and vegetables on home farms and community-based home farms. James shares the following tips to get you started.
Helpful tips for the novice:
Where to plant - Vegetables and herbs can be grown in practically any container, which should have a hole in the bottom so it can drain.
Nourish your garden - Make sure plants get at least five to six hours of sun a day and feed them every couple of weeks with a balanced fertilizer.
Water, water, water - Water plants every few days and increase to every day in the summer. Saturate the top half inch of soil so seeds can absorb moisture to germinate.
Give them space - All plants need sufficient room to get an adequate supply of water and nutrients. Be sure to read spacing requirements on the back of seed packets or plant tags before planting.
"The number one rule is to start small. Whether it is growing herbs on your windowsill or vegetables in your backyard, anyone can start a home farm. As you gain confidence and knowledge you can always expand,” says James.
Helpful tips for the advanced home farmer:
Secret is in the soil - Good soil can help plants grow. A great recipe for container plants is to mix 75% sterilized potting mix with 25% bagged compost. Mushroom compost is ideal.
Organic matters - Organic matter can improve soil, and includes compost, leaves, grass clippings, hay and straw. At least once a year, add organic matter to the top six inches of soil.
Block party - When you plant in blocks, there are no paths between plants for weeds to grow, or wasted space.
If you don't have space for your own home farm, consider volunteering at a community-based home farm.
For more information, visit www.triscuit.com.