Monday, September 3, 2012

Allergies at Home

If you have allergies at home, you’re hosting allergens with specific needs. If those pollutants could write classified ads, here’s what they’d want.

DUST MITES in need of a cozy mattress. Please, no dust mite-proof covers (we can’t hack latex mattresses or silk bedding, either). Bedding and comforters must be rarely washed. Absolutely NO water heaters set above 130 degrees -- we’d be goners. Prefer natural materials for hanging out -- no synthetics or air purifiers with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, please, as we find them inhospitable.

POLLEN wants airy home with windows and doors frequently left open. Prefer windows where mold and condensation are never cleaned from window frames and sills. Definitely prefer a location with no HVAC air filtration system so we can easily circulate to keep eyes watering and noses running. Absolutely NO small-particle or HEPA filters allowed.

MODERN ALLERGEN FAMILY (dust, pollen, pet dander, and dust mites) in need of carpeting. Thick carpet piles that are rarely shampooed or vacuumed given preference. No homes with hardwood, laminate, or vinyl flooring considered because there’s nowhere for us to hide. Also, no calls accepted from homes where surfaces are steam-cleaned or that feature low-pile carpets that are regularly vacuumed (equipped with a HEPA filter). Washable area rugs not considered.

RESPIRATORY AILMENTS willing to trade a clean-burning gas fireplace for an old-fashioned, inefficient wood-burning model that produces plenty of smoke and gasses. Please, no wood-burning fireplace inserts. Also looking to sell our vented range hood (which really sucks the life out of us).

WANTED: Horizontal blinds where dust and pollen can settle undisturbed. Please, no natural and synthetic curtains that are regularly washed, or we’re down the drain.

DUST AND OTHER ALLERGENS seek comfy home fully furnished with upholstered goods that are never vacuumed. No leather, wood, metal, or plastic furnishings considered, as we don’t find these hospitable.

MOLD AND MILDEW need hot, humid home with no air conditioning and no dehumidifier. (A place with a dehumidifier may be considered if it’s rarely cleaned. We’ve found these make a nice home too.) Especially happy in a location with water damage: damp carpeting, a soggy basement, leaky plumbing, and a clothes dryer that isn’t vented outside. Also interested in locations with non-ventilated bathrooms lined with wallpaper, and equipped with a shower, tub, mats, and curtains that are rarely cleaned. Leaky toilets considered a plus. Please, no tiled bathrooms.

CLUTTER WANTED: Dust and pollen seek a variety of knickknacks, books and magazines, dried flowers, toys (especially stuffed animals), wicker baskets, and other items to collect on. No dusting considered. Also, please don’t wash stuffed animals monthly in hot (130 degree) water as this is a killer move when it comes to us allergens! And, if you’ve heard about putting nonwashable stuffed animals in the freezer for 24 hours and then rinsing the dead dust mites off with cold water -- don’t do that either.

MUST SELL: HEPA filters for heating and cooling system. Allergens can’t thrive when these filters are changed in the furnace once a month. Priced for quick sale.

COCKROACHES seek dine-in home where food and garbage are easily accessible. (i.e. Don’t wipe down the stove, countertop, or table after dinner. DO pile unwashed dishes in the sink and leave the trashcan uncovered.) Please, no food stored in airtight containers. Positively no homes accepted where poison baits, boric acid, or insect traps are in use.

By: Jan Soults Walker Published: June 22, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Turned Down for a Refinance? Don’t Take No for an Answer

When a lender says you don’t qualify for a mortgage refinance, you may be able to fix what’s wrong or find another lender willing to step up.

The five things that most often stop a refinance from going through:

Your home is worth less than your current mortgage (also known as being underwater). Your credit score is too low. You can’t document your income. The lender thinks you’re not making enough money to cover your bills. Your home is listed for sale. You can overcome some of those five issues fairly quickly, but others will take time.

Your owe more on your mortgage than your home is worth

You have three options:

1. Tell the lender you’ll bring cash to the closing table to create a downpayment on the new loan. For example, if your home is worth $100,000 and you owe $110,000 on your existing mortgage, bring the $10,000 difference between what you owe and what your house is worth. Plus, you’ll need to bring the minimum downpayment that the lender requires.

If you’re seeking an FHA loan, add another 3.5%, or $3,500 in this example, to meet FHA’s minimum 3.5% downpayment requirement, suggests finance columnist Jack Guttentag, a professor at the Wharton School. Some loan programs requre a 5% minimum downpayment.

Although the cash you bring to closing will help build equity, treat it as an expense when you calculate your refinancing costs, and when figuring if refinancing saves you money.

2. Double check the accuracy of the appraisal, and share anything concrete with your lender that the appraiser doesn’t know. Check to make sure the information in the appraisal is correct, such as square footage and number of bedrooms and bathrooms. Note amenities, such as a deck, an extra-large lot, and green improvements, and make sure they’re properly valued.

Guttentag cites the case of a home owner who knew an identical house across the street that sold for a low price because the home owners sold to a family member. The borrower got documentation of why the price was low, the lender ordered a new appraisal, and the refinance went through.

3. See if you qualify for the federal program Making Home Affordable, which helps home owners in your situation, or a program run by your mortgage lender.

Your credit score is too low

These days, the minimum credit score you’ll need to get a mortgage is higher than what was required just a few years ago. It’s possible that even if your credit score hasn’t fallen, it’s now too low for you to refinance the loan you already have.

In general, the lowest acceptable credit score is 620. To get the best rates, you need a 740 or higher, says Keith Gumbinger of, one of the nation's largest publishers of mortgage loan information.

Today, lenders make you prove every dime of income you use to qualify for your refinance. To ensure consideration:

Report all your income to the IRS on your tax returns. You need a two-year income history to refinance.

Try applying for a mortgage at a local bank that holds onto the mortgage loans it makes instead of selling them. These banks can make their own rules about loans. Try credit unions, community banks, or lenders recommended by the REALTOR® who sold you your home. Apply for a loan from the “Bank of Mom and Dad.” Cash-rich relatives might welcome the chance to earn 4% by giving you a mortgage.

Your lender says you’re not making enough money

Lenders look at your monthly expenses and compare that with your monthly income to come up with debt-to-income ratios. Improve yours by either lowering your debt or increasing your income. Strategies include:

Borrowing money from family members to pay down your debts. Borrowing against your 401(k), if the advantages outweigh the risks for you. The cons are many, including the fact that you’ll pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you’re younger than 59 1/2. But it’s often a lower cost of borrowing. So do your homework. Going with an FHA loan. FHA allows borrowers to qualify using the income of family members willing to co-sign your mortgage. The family member doesn’t have to own your house, but the person does have to meet the same underwriting requirements as the main borrower (that’s you) does.

Your home is listed for sale

Because it can take a year or more to sell your home in some areas, it’s possible you’ll want to pursue a refinance while your home is on the market. But lenders won’t grant a refinance mortgage while your home is listed for sale. Some lenders will give you a mortgage refinance the day after you take your house off the market, others make you wait 60 days. When you and your REALTOR® discuss taking your house off the market, ask her for a referral to a lender that won’t make you wait 60 days.

If these tactics all fail, try waiting until the latest refinance boom ends and lenders aren’t so busy. “When lenders are scrapping for business, they’re more likely to work with you or take you though manual underwriting,” Guttentag says.

By: Dona DeZube

Published: November 1, 2011 .

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Carpool Cost Savings: $650 - $1,000

The average American commutes to work 16 miles each way, and the average car gets under 23 mpg, which equates to about 7 gallons of gas per week to commute. At today's prices — $3.68 per gallon on average, as of this writing — that's about $25.75 a week, or nearly $1,300 a year!

Share your ride and the gas bill with just one friend, then, and you each save $650 a year. Fill the car, and you each save nearly $1,000.

And remember, the average car costs $9,000 to own, if you factor in gas, registration and insurance, maintenance and depreciation and other costs; if you halve or quarter the number of miles you drive, you'll also save on maintenance, and your car will last longer.

If you're looking for help getting started, consult with Divide the Ride, eRideShare, CarPool World or other Web-based tools designed to help like-minded commuters find each other.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Color Me Happy!

Colors have the power to change your mood and your outlook on life! Keep reading to find out how to color your home happy. Over the years researches have attempted to understand and harness the true power of color in the home and workplace. Their findings have filtered their way into everything from popular wall color to throw pillows and furniture.

Our world is about visual experiences. We see displays at department stores and are drawn to items. We even buy items simply out of impulse because we like the way they look!

We use color to elicit moods in all sorts of social situations. A red cocktail dress can mean excitement and fun. A black gown can be somber or elegant. A beige room with neutral accents can create peace and calm.

When it comes to our homes it's too easy to play it safe or worse yet too easy to pick the wrong color for the wrong mood.

First, when it comes to design avoid competing patterns or colors. If your happy color is on the walls then be sure your rugs and furniture are happily neutral. Pick one focal point and play the room around it.

The queen of mood-lifting paint colors of course starts with yellow. It's charming, fun, and oh-so welcoming. Soft yellows can still be classic and relaxing, perfect for traditional decor, all while adding a touch of whimsy to your room. A soft buttercream or daffodil color is a great accent color for kitchens and baths, where you want spaces to appear light, bright, and clean.

If you are wanting to be really, really happy then consider turning up the volume on your yellow and going canary. Pick one accent wall and then accessorize with modern, clean-lined accents. Not bold enough to paint the walls yellow? Then incorporate yellow accents (pillow, throws, frames, and vases) throughout the space.

Pink is another cheerful hue that can work well with youthful spaces. Soft, baby pinks are wonderful for nursery spaces. Bolder, more claret rose color tints can be used in living rooms and outdoor spaces. This color trend can be a beautiful accent for Moroccan designs. Match up your pink with crisp, white molding or a fantastic area rug of muted colors.

The third color for a happy room is apricot. This sun-drenched color is the tasteful way to use orange. Apricot has a delightful way of reminding homeowners of summer days and of beautiful sunrises, both happy occasions!

Yellow, rose, and apricot. What wonderful ways to bring happiness to your home!

by Carla Hill

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Buy a Gas Grill

With models priced from $29 to $5000 and up outdoor gas grills offer convenience and ease-of-use to fit any budget.

Cost range: $29-$5,000 and up

Likely additional costs: Assembly, natural gas hookup or propane tank, cover

Average life span: 2-16 years

Sub-$50 range

Grills in the sub-$50 range are often of the tabletop propane variety. These units are constructed of thin painted sheet metal and cheaply fabricated components, all but guaranteeing a short lifespan. Brief 90-day warranties don't offer much of a safety net.

When it comes to power, these grills are positively entry level, says Marguerite. The single, 12,000 BTU burner is satisfactory for grilling hamburgers and hot dogs but will be far less successful at charring a thick porterhouse. Still, when it comes to portability, these grills have no equal. If you are looking for a highly mobile tailgating grill, look to this sector of the market.

$50-$150 range The biggest differences between a $50 gas grill and a $150 grill will be size and fuel source. Boasting cooking areas over twice that of their less expensive counterparts, these grills are the most economical options for families.

Models in this price range run on liquid propane stored in large refillable tanks (as opposed to the small disposable cylinders). Construction quality is moderate, featuring lightweight steel or aluminum bodies. However, the boost in price over the cheapest gas grill models yields an extra burner (albeit a low-powered one). Most are furnished with thin, steel-rod cooking grates that may warp from exposure to high temperatures, such as those from flare-ups.

$150-$350 range

Marguerite says buyers in this price range can expect to get "middle of the road" power, with burners putting out around 20,000 BTUs. Shoppers should expect a three- or four-burner grill, a roomy cooking surface, and perhaps even a storage cabinet and side burner—a separate burner used for boiling water or other independent cooking chores.

With widths of 20 to 24 inches and boasting around 400 square inches of grill surface, these units can simultaneously cook about two dozen burgers. Homeowners in cool climes who grill year round likely will lament the thin-body construction, says Marguerite. "These grills do a poor job of retaining heat in cold weather," he says. At this price range, expect less-expensive porcelain-coated steel cooking grates that tend to chip, rust and need replacing at a cost of $30 to $60.

$350-$600 range

Constructed of heavy cast-aluminum or thick-gauge steel, and utilizing high-quality stainless steel burners, these units are built to last. Parts that do fail will be covered by five- to 10-year warranties.

Averaging between 400 and 500 square inches of cook surface, these units are not substantially larger than those in the $150-$350 category. But they are constructed of heavy cast aluminum or thick-gauge steel and utilize multiple high-quality stainless steel burners. Heavy-duty castors and solid-built carts make it easy to move these grills from spot to spot.

Grills in this category can handle enough food for 15 to 18 people. Buyers are urged to select a burner configuration that appeals to them as some models arrange them front-to-back versus side-to-side, which can complicate indirect cooking.

$600-$1,500 range

Units starting around $600 feature burners that reach 40,000 BTUs, power that will make short work of even the largest barbecue payloads. Precision controls and even heat distribution give home cooks the ability to simultaneously sear, cook, and keep food warm. To step up to a 36-inch grill that approaches 900 square inches of cook space, a shopper should expect to spend at least $1,000.

Constructed of high-quality stainless steel throughout, these grills will weather years of use. These first-class rigs often include heavy cast-iron grates, side burners, under-grill storage, and even a rotisserie spit and motor. Buyers also get the peace of mind that comes with improved customer service and best-in-class warranties that range from 10 years on burners to 25 years on the body.

$1,500 to $5,000 range

When you spend upwards of $2,000 on a grill, you’ll get a host of features and quality construction. These appliances boast six or more top-of-the-line burners. Almost standard issue these days is an infrared sear burner that can reach temps topping 700 degrees.

Most include a rear-mounted rotisserie burner with motor, interior and exterior lighting, and even a spring-assisted lid for effortless opening. With the best grills also come the best warranties, typically covering most components for 10 to 25 years.

Propane vs. natural gas

Homeowners should decide before buying a grill whether they intend to fuel it with propane or natural gas, says Marguerite. While many grills can be converted for around $50, it is best to buy one factory engineered for one fuel type or the other.

Owners of built-in units typically choose natural gas as there are no tanks that need filling and the cost to operate is roughly half that of propane. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's most recent figures, propane costs $20.47 per million BTUs compared to natural gas's $12.18. Assuming a homeowner grilled once a week, he or she can expect to pay about $40 per year for propane and $24 for natural gas. Marguerite says that his company charges $150 plus $7 per foot to connect a grill to a natural gas line.

Suggested extras

A good-fitting cover will extend the life of any outdoor appliance. Expect to pay between $30 and $50. Owners of propane powered grills should consider purchasing a $20 back-up tank so that a fully charged spare is always on hand. A $20 gas gauge will take the guesswork out of estimating a tank's contents.

By: Douglas Trattner

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Flavorful Landscapes–It’s a Growing Trend

Nothing beats the flavor of a fresh-from-the-garden tomato; warmed by the sun, plucked right from the plant and eaten in the garden. And the good news, you don’t need much space. Many gardeners have and more will continue to grow food in containers or mixed in with their flowers, shrubs, and other ornamental plantings.

Save the sunniest spots in your landscape for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and other vegetables where you eat the flowers or fruit. They produce their best and have the fewest disease problems when grown in eight to twelve hours of sunlight. Root crops such as beets, radishes, and carrots can get by with about a half of a day of direct sun and leafy crops like lettuce and spinach can still produce in a shady location with only 4 hour of sunlight.

Get your garden off to a good start. Use a quality potting mix when growing in containers. It should have good drainage and retain moisture. In the garden, prepare the soil before planting. Add several inches of compost, peat moss or other organic matter to the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. This improves drainage in heavy soils and increases water holding capacity for sandy or rocky soils. Add a slow release fertilizer like Milorganite to the soil or potting mix. This goof proof organic source of nitrogen meets the EPA Exceptional Quality standards and will help encourage growth without interfering with flowering and fruiting.

Jump start the season with the help of floating row covers. These polypropylene fabrics let air, light, and water through, while trapping the heat near the plants. The best part, you won’t need a hammer, nail, or other tools. Simply lay the fabric over your planting, leaving enough slack for the plants to grow and anchor the edges to the ground with stones, boards or other items.

Increase your harvest with intensive planting techniques. Succession planting, several plantings of short season crops in the same space, can double or triple your harvest. Interplant quick-to-mature crops like radishes and lettuce, in between longer maturing plantings of cabbage, tomatoes or eggplant. The short season vegetables will be ready to harvest just about the time the bigger plants are crowding them out.

Consider planting vegetables closer together in wider rows. You’ll waste less space for pathways, putting more room in plantings. Make sure each plant has enough space to grow and that you can reach all planted areas to weed and harvest

Provide proper care and get ready to harvest and enjoy a bountiful harvest from your own garden.

Gardening expert, TV host and author Melinda Myers has 30 years of horticulture experience and has written over 20 gardening books, including “Can’t Miss Small Space Gardening.” She hosts the nationally syndicated “Melinda’s Garden Moment” segments which air on TV and radio stations throughout the U.S. She is a columnist and contributing editor for “Birds & Blooms” magazine, hosted “The Plant Doctor” radio program for over 20 years as well as “Great Lakes Gardener” on PBS. Melinda has a master’s degree in horticulture, is a certified arborist, and was a horticulture instructor with tenure. Myers’ web site is

By Melinda Myers

Friday, February 24, 2012

Smartphones May Increase Your Identity Theft Risk

Daily Real Estate News | Thursday, February 23, 2012 Your smartphone may be putting you at increased risk for identity fraud, according to a new report issued by Javelin Strategy & Research.

According to the report, nearly 12 million Americans last year became victims of identity theft, an alarming 13 percent increase over 2010 numbers. Seven percent of those victims came from using the smartphone, the report says.

The report blamed smartphones and social media for making more Americans vulnerable to identity theft. The report says that Americans tend to be less cautious when using their smartphone or logged onto social media sites. Letting their guard down and not taking safety precautions can easily make them a target.

Sixty-two percent of smartphone users were found to not password protect their home screens, according to the report. As such, if you happen to misplace your phone, anyone can gain access to the device if you do not have a password on it.

Smartphone users also need to be careful about what apps they download. Some apps can contain viruses or can compromise your personal information. The report says services such as iTunes monitors apps and is a safer place to download apps than directly from a Web site page.

As for social media users, they can increase their chances of identity theft by revealing too much personal information online. For example, social media users should be more cautious about revealing information such as birth dates, where they went to high school, phone numbers, and additional personal information.

The report also warns Americans to be careful when you log onto a public wifi network and be cautious about the information you share, which may be more at risk.

Source: “Rise in Identity Fraud Tied to Smartphone Use,” Reuters News (Feb. 22, 2012)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

10 Common Errors Home Owners Make When Filing Taxes

Don’t rouse the IRS or pay more taxes than necessary — know the score on each home tax deduction and credit.

Sin #1: Deducting the wrong year for property taxes

You take a tax deduction for property taxes in the year you (or the holder of your escrow account) actually paid them. Some taxing authorities work a year behind — that is, you’re not billed for 2011 property taxes until 2012. But that’s irrelevant to the feds.

Enter on your federal forms whatever amount you actually paid in 2011, no matter what the date is on your tax bill. Dave Hampton, CPA, tax manager at the Cincinnati accounting firm of Burke & Schindler, has seen home owners confuse payments for different years and claim the incorrect amount.

Sin #2: Confusing escrow amount for actual taxes paid

If your lender escrows funds to pay your property taxes, don’t just deduct the amount escrowed, says Bob Meighan, CPA and vice president at TurboTax in San Diego. The regular amount you pay into your escrow account each month to cover property taxes is probably a little more or a little less than your property tax bill. Your lender will adjust the amount every year or so to realign the two.

For example, your tax bill might be $1,200, but your lender may have collected $1,100 or $1,300 in escrow over the year. Deduct only $1,200. Your lender will send you an official statement listing the actual taxes paid. Use that. Don’t just add up 12 months of escrow property tax payments.

Sin #3: Deducting points paid to refinance

Deduct points you paid your lender to secure your mortgage in full for the year you bought your home. However, when you refinance, says Meighan, you must deduct points over the life of your new loan. If you paid $2,000 in points to refinance into a 15-year mortgage, your tax deduction is $133 per year.

Sin #4: Failing to deduct private mortgage insurance

Lenders require home buyers with a down payment of less than 20% to purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI). Avoid the common mistake of forgetting to deduct your PMI payments. However, note the deduction begins to phase out once your adjusted gross income reaches $100,000 and disappears entirely when your AGI surpasses $109,000. Also, unless Congress acts to extend the PMI deduction again, 2011 is the last tax year for which you can take this deduction.

Sin #5: Misjudging the home office tax deduction

This deduction may not be as good as it seems. It's complicated, often doesn’t amount to much of a deduction, has to be recaptured if you turn a profit when you sell your home, and can pique the IRS’s interest in your return. Hampton’s advice: Claim it only if it’s worth those drawbacks. If so, here's what to know about what you can write off.

Sin #6: Missing the first-time home buyer tax credit

While the original home buyer tax credit deadline passed in April 2010 (and isn’t available in 2012), military families and some government workers on assignment outside the U.S. were given an extension until April 30, 2011, to get a home under contract and take advantage of up to $8,000 in tax credits for first-time buyers and $6,500 in credits for repeat buyers.

It applies to any individual (and, if married, the individual’s spouse) who serves on qualified official extended duty service outside of the United States for at least 90 days during the period beginning after Dec. 31, 2008, and ending before May 1, 2010.

Sin #7: Failing to track home-related expenses

If the IRS comes a-knockin’, don’t be scrambling to compile your records. Many people forget to track home office and home maintenance and repair expenses, says Meighan. File away documents as you go. For example, save each manufacturer's certification statement for energy tax credits, insurance company statements for PMI, and lender or government statements to confirm property taxes paid.

Sin #8: Forgetting to keep track of capital gains

If you sold your main home last year, don’t forget to pay capital gains taxes on any profit. However, you can exclude $250,000 (or $500,000 if you’re a married couple) of any profits from taxes. So if you bought a home for $100,000 and sold it for $400,000, your capital gains are $300,000. If you’re single, you owe taxes on $50,000 of gains. However, there are minimum time limits for holding property to take advantage of the exclusions, and other details. Consult IRS Publication 523.

Sin #9: Filing incorrectly for energy tax credits

If you made any eligible improvement, fill out Form 5695. Part I, which covers the 30%/$1,500 credit for such items as insulation and windows, is fairly straightforward. But Part II, which covers the 30%/no-limit items such as geothermal heat pumps, can be incredibly complex and involves crosschecking with half a dozen other IRS forms. Read the instructions carefully.

Sin #10: Claiming too much for the mortgage interest tax deduction

You can deduct mortgage interest only up to $1 million of mortgage debt, says Meighan. If you have $1.2 million in mortgage debt, for example, deduct only the mortgage interest attributable to the first $1 million.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn't be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice; tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

By: G. M. Filisko ~ Published: January 5, 2012