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Is Your Family Safe From Tipping Furniture?

November 6, 2019 - 3:36pm

While many of us think about safety in our vehicles, safety at home is often less front and center, especially when it comes to furniture safety. Lawmakers recently introduced the Stop Tip-Overs of Unstable, Risky Dressers on Youth Act (STURDY) that would direct the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to adopt a stronger, mandatory stability standard for household furniture.

According to lawmakers, furniture or items on top of them like TVs have caused at least 363 deaths between 2000 and 2011 from children being trapped or crushed by unstable products.

Sadly, more than eight of every 10 victims were under the age of eight.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org agrees that dressers seem to be especially dangerous, as kids can pull out a drawer to use as an unstable step to get to the TV. A study this group cites found:

Most of the overturned TVs fell off a dresser or armoire (46 percent), an entertainment center or TV stand (31 percent) or a table or nightstand (8.8 percent).

Kids under age five represented 64 percent of all injured patients; boys accounted for 61 percent.

The most common injuries were lacerations (37 percent) and soft tissue injuries (35 percent). The injuries most often affected the head and neck region (63 percent).

SafeKids.org offers these important suggestions to prevent tipping injuries:

Secure TVs. Mount flat-panel TVs to the wall and place older, box-style TVs (CRTs) on low, stable furniture that can hold the weight.

Attach furniture to the wall using anti-tip brackets, braces or wall straps, and install stops on dresser drawers to keep them from being pulled all the way out.

Rearrange household items. Store heavy objects on lower shelves or in lower drawers.

Recycle old TVs. To find a location that safely and easily recycles unwanted TVs, go to www.GreenerGadgets.org.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also reminds parents and caregivers to remove anything that might tempt kids to climb, such as toys and remote controls, from the top of the TV and furniture.

John Voket is a contributing editor to RISMedia.

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Categories: Real Estate

For Boomers Reframing Aging, Age-Proofing a Home Won’t Come Cheap

November 5, 2019 - 4:03pm

(TNS)—Chris and Dennis Cavner, in their early 70s, are preparing to move less than two blocks away into a 2,720-square-foot, ranch-style house they bought this year. But first a renovation is underway, taking the 45-year-old property all the way back to its studs. When the work is completed, these baby boomers are confident the move will land them in their forever home.

“We wanted to find a house that we could live in literally for the rest of our lives,” he said. “We were looking specifically for a one-story house—and one that had a flat lot, to age in place.”

Aging in place is a major financial commitment, one that may be at odds with retirees’ plans to downsize their lives and budgets and squirrel away cash in anticipation of rising health care costs. The Cavners are rebuilding this house—assessed at $700,000 around the time of the sale—from a shell. The updates will easily cost $300,000 in the hot Austin market.

Leaving nothing to chance, the Cavners are making a number of modifications they might never need. For instance, neither uses a wheelchair, but contractors are making all doorways three-feet wide for accessibility throughout—just in case. The master bath roll-in shower, flat and rimless, will provide room to maneuver and the master bath vanity is also at wheelchair-accessible height. Kitchen drawers, rather than cabinets, will allow easy access in a wheelchair. The Cavners are closely watching details of the renovation, but it wasn’t a hard decision.

For some seniors, aging in place might amount to simple home modifications, such as adding shower grab bars and handrails or replacing a standard toilet with one that sits taller. But many seniors anticipate a financial crunch as they try to plan for their future on a fixed income, uncertain their savings and retirement funds will last.

With an average 10,000 people a day turning 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 65-and-older segment of the population is the nation’s fastest-growing: By 2050, almost one-quarter of Americans will be at least 65. A host of surveys conducted over the past decade show that older adults overwhelmingly want to age in their homes. Two in five U.S. homeowners are baby boomers, according to a 2018 report released from Fannie Mae.

But for many people, aging at home isn’t in the cards. Abbe Will, associate project director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, said that many houses aren’t suited to “aging in place.”

“Currently, a lot do not have single-floor living—especially in certain parts of the country. There are lots of stairs and multistory homes when land is more valuable,” she said, and “many households and homeowners don’t necessarily have the funds to do aging in place.”

Home modifications and costs vary widely, starting with those simple safety features in the bathroom or lever doorknobs throughout the house, to more extensive changes, such as widening doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, replacing kitchen cabinets with drawers or lowering light switches to wheelchair height. Will said simple retrofits, such as grab bars and railings, “could be several hundred dollars,” but a “whole bathroom remodel would be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”

And a lot of people won’t have the money for extensive modifications. A new survey of 1,000 people age 65 and older by the California-based nonprofit SCAN (formerly the Senior Care Action Network) found 80 percent of respondents were concerned about their ability to age in place. The driver appears to be financial: About 60 percent said they have less than $10,000 in savings (including investments and retirement plans), while 28 percent reported minimal or no retirement savings.

A study in the journal Health Affairs published this spring illustrates the shaky situation for middle-class aging adults who can’t afford modifications to stay at home but who have too much money to qualify for federal housing assistance. Over the next decade, the researchers expect the number of middle-income seniors 75 and older to more than double to over 14 million. And, of that group, more than half (54 percent) won’t have the assets they will need to cover the projected average yearly cost of $60,000 for assisted living and other out-of-pocket medical costs.

“We don’t know what’s coming down the pipeline as we age,” said sociologist Deborah Thorne of the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, lead author of a study that found skyrocketing bankruptcy rates among those 65 and older.

The research, to be published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, finds the share of older Americans filing for bankruptcy has never been higher, with a filing rate increase of more than 200 percent from 1991 to 2016 among those 65 and older. “And bankrupt households are more likely than ever to be headed by a senior—the percentage of older bankrupt filers has increased almost 500 percent since 1991,” the study found.

James Gaines, an economist with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, attributes the increase “to the labor market and employment downsizing and letting older people go first. It can force them into retirement whether they’re ready for it or not. Retirement income may not be enough to carry their debts, and they don’t have enough savings.”

“The leading edge of baby boomers has not hit 75 yet,” said Jennifer Molinsky, whose work at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University focuses on housing for older adults. “When you think about the next five, 10 or 15 years when they’re in their 80s, you’re really going to see the needs shift.”

Because disability rates will rise with chronic illnesses and conditions, requiring more assistance, Molinsky said, communities need to think more about transportation for seniors, as well as “different kinds of housing than we have now.”

Don and Lynn Dille, both 75, built their Austin home with the intention of staying there for a long time. After living in California, Virginia and elsewhere in Texas, they moved to Austin in 2012 and, within a year, began drawing plans with an architect for an energy-efficient home to age in place. Their home was featured this summer in Austin’s annual Cool House Tour for its design making the most of natural light, cross-ventilation and solar panels, as well as wider-than-normal doorways and level floors for a wheelchair.

One key feature of the construction acknowledges that they might need live-in help down the road to avoid long-term nursing care. Just as the Cavners may convert a bedroom and bath on the opposite side of their new home into caregiver quarters, the Dilles constructed a second floor above their detached garage that could easily convert into living space.

“We think having a separate apartment where we could have a caretaker or part-time help to maintain our property makes us able to stay where we’d like to be and be independent,” said Don Dille, who retired from the federal government.

But, as adults consider whether to plunge ahead with simple modifications or undertake more extensive renovations, there are always unknowns.

Cavner, an investment adviser and co-founder of a new health care startup, said he believes what they’re spending to renovate the house for the years ahead will prove a sound investment. “The modifications we’re making are not going to make it less desirable. It will feel more spacious.”

©2019 Kaiser Health News
Visit Kaiser Health News at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

How the Fed’s Interest Rate Decisions Affect Mortgage Rates

November 3, 2019 - 1:02pm

(TNS)—The Fed lowered rates by a quarter of a percentage point Wednesday, for the third time this year, in an 8-2 vote. Citing “global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures” in a statement released by the Federal Reserve, policymakers dropped the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent.

The mortgage holders that will benefit from the rate cut are those with adjustable rate mortgages or ARMs, as a Fed cut means another reduction to their mortgage bill. Variable rates usually move in the same direction as the federal funds rate. The federal funds rate, however, doesn’t directly affect long-term rates, which include financial products like 30-year fixed-rate mortgages; those tend to move with long-term Treasury yields.

“Fed rate cuts have very little direct correlation to long-term fixed mortgage rates. We have seen mortgage rates moving in the other direction of the rate cut or not moving at all in the past,” says Shashank Shekhar, CEO of Arcus Lending in San Jose, Calif. “However, in the short term, a Fed rate cut usually boosts the stock prices and takes the money away from bonds. Also, a rate cut is intended to increase economic growth which can be inflationary. All of this is usually bad for mortgage rates and could result in higher rates for the borrower in the immediate future.”

How Fed Rate Affects Short-Term Loans
Most variable and short-term rates are linked to two benchmark rates: the prime or the London interbank offered rate (LIBOR) plus a margin, which is a number of percentage points. These rates usually march in step with the federal funds rate, so today’s rate means an extra jingle in some borrowers’ pockets.

One thing to note is that LIBOR as the key rate in mortgage contracts is on its way out, which is important for consumers to keep an eye on. Loans might get more expensive once LIBOR is replaced, says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst.

“The future for many adjustable-rate mortgages is further clouded by the coming demise of LIBOR as a loan index. There is an open question as to whether the replacement index and margin will mean a higher rate for borrowers than the current LIBOR plus margin,” says McBride.

Addled with credibility issues, largely due to manipulating rates in order to drive profit, LIBOR will likely be replaced by risk-free rates or RFRs. The major flaw in LIBOR is that it depends on empirical data, which means banks report rates without being required to provide numbers to back up their claims. This process led to some LIBOR banks underreporting their interest rates for profit, which meant higher loan prices for some borrowers.

Unlike LIBOR, RFRs would promote transparency by calculating rates based on real transactions in the market.

What ARM Borrowers Should Know
Variable-rate loans, such as 3/1 and 5/1 ARMs, as well as home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, get more or less expensive as the Fed boosts or lowers rates. This can be a boon for borrowers or a drain on their wallets, which makes variable-rate loans a sometimes-risky proposition.

Products like 5/1 ARMs give consumers the first five years with a fixed rate; after the fixed-rate period ends, there are annual rate adjustments for the remainder of the loan. So, if your rate drops during the adjustment period, the cost of your ARM drops, too.

Many HELOCs are also variable-rate loans, which means a win for borrowers in a falling rate environment.

The problem is that rates don’t always drop. So, it’s important for borrowers to analyze all scenarios: how much they’ll spend as well as how much they’ll save if rates rise and fall. It’s important to ask yourself: Can I afford my mortgage payments if rates spike? Although your initial out-of-pocket payment will likely be lower with an ARM, that low cost might not last if rates rise.

“My brother and sister-in-law have a 5/5 ARM with a great rate and a low down payment. But, if rates go up in five years, their payment might go up by a couple hundred bucks a month. That’s a big increase,” says Sean Murphy, associate vice president of Equity Lending at Navy Federal Credit Union.

A 5/5 ARM is a 30-year adjustable-rate mortgage with a principal and interest payment that stays the same for the first 60 months, and after that, the interest rate could rise or fall every five years.

Often borrowers choose ARMs to get the lowest initial rate possible, regardless of the variable-rate risk. This can be a cost-saving strategy if the borrower is certain they’re going to sell before the fixed-rate period ends or can refinance into another mortgage.

For borrowers who plan on staying put or might not be able to refinance later (due to credit or employment issues, for example), that upfront cost savings likely isn’t a worthwhile gamble.

“There is only about one-quarter percentage point difference between the rate on a 7/1 ARM and a 30-year fixed. For a quarter percentage point, are you going to subject yourself to potentially higher rates seven years from now? You’ve got to be awfully certain you’ll be out of that house within seven years to make that risk pay off,” McBride says.

Consumers May Want to Keep an Eye on These Indicators
The Fed’s decisions on rate movement are often influenced by several economic factors, which consumers can easily track. Employment, inflation and consumer price index are essential data the Fed considers when deciding what to do with rates. One thing consumers may want to look at is the employment report, which is published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The target inflation rate is another yardstick for rate changes. Currently, inflation is still dipping just below the Fed’s target 2 percent rate, which—in concert with other economic trends—could nudge the Fed toward future rate cuts.

As long-term rates hover below 4 percent, many borrowers are in a good position to save money.

©2019 Bankrate.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Check In on Holiday Airfares

October 9, 2019 - 4:29pm

(TNS)—Filled your gas tank recently? You probably noticed an uptick in prices and may have attributed it to the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities. Then, if you’re a worrier, you said, “If I’m paying this much at the pump, can airfares be far behind?”

No, because…

It takes time for fuel increases to cycle into the airfare flow. “The short answer is months—maybe four to six months—before we see a noticeable change in airfares, if the airlines believe the higher fuel prices are more than fleeting,” Seth Kaplan, an airline and transportation analyst, said in a September 18 email.

“Airlines can’t really adjust prices per se based on fuel price movements. What they do control is the supply of seats in the marketplace.”

But airlines can’t just willy-nilly cut supply, Kaplan said. “Too disruptive.”

“Once you get about four to six months out, you’re looking at flights that don’t have many people booked on them, where an airline can take a few flights out of the schedule and just move the few booked passengers onto other flights, and that’s where you are seeing meaningful fare increases,” he said.

By our count, four months from September 18 is mid-January.

Thanks to basic economy, fares have been reasonable this year, and basic economy continues to gain ground. Once U.S. fliers caught on that they could swap comfort for savings, they’ve warmed to no-frills fares.

“There is such fierce competition for the airlines to attract customers, basic economy tickets are priced very aggressively, which will always attract people to travel,” said Tom Spagnola, senior vice president of Supplier Relations for CheapOair. “Even if there were a slight fare increase in ticket prices, the fares are still very affordable.”

One of the most recent entrants in the basic fare rodeo is Hawaiian Airlines, which on October 21 will roll out its long-planned reduced-rate tickets.

If you look at the Honolulu market from LAX, you’ll find round-trip fares for November 6-13 (both Wednesdays, because those tend to be cheaper) of $358 on several carriers; basic on Hawaiian is $20 more.

Consider also that Southwest is now flying to Hawaii.

Given that competition for passengers has increased and has kept a lid on fares, is it time to panic about holiday fares? A bit, because…

Airline growth has slowed. In an email September 30, Kaplan, the airline analyst, noted that growth in the number of seats this year should have been on par with 2018, a good year. But then came the 737 Max grounding, which slowed things.

“The impact of slower growth, in the context of what seems to be still-robust travel demand, is higher airfares, not dramatically higher because of 4 percent versus 6 percent growth, but every bit matters during a high-demand travel period,” Kaplan said. Your “fare might be cheaper. But it will not be cheap.”

Should you go into raving lunatic mode now? Maybe, because…


Airlines, you’ve made flying (at least price-wise) so easy to love that record numbers of us want to do it, especially at the holidays.

“The airlines are expecting yet another year of record numbers of passengers during the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s travel period,” Spagnola said. “Demand is high so flights will be sold out for the peak travel days within the week of the actual holiday.”

Bottom line, he said: “Don’t wait. Buy now.”

So how jittery should we be? Based on a quick price comparison on a single route, pretty jittery.

Let’s say you want to fly from LAX to Washington, D.C., (any airport) for Thanksgiving. You want to leave November 27 (Wednesday) and return December 1 (Sunday). You do not want to spend your kids’ inheritance, so you’re looking for a basic economy fare.

In reviewing fares on September 30, I found basic economy for those dates was mostly sold out on United, American and Delta. Southwest, which doesn’t have basic, had little availability in its “Wanna Get Away” fares, its lowest-priced ticket.

The most reasonable ticket was United’s round-trip at $642.

So thanks a lot Mom, Dad, Granny, Sissy or whoever is waiting for you at the other end. Our apparently insatiable desire for low fares and our ability to find them most of the time made us believe we’d find a good fare—and most of the time we can, except when, for many of us, it matters most. It’s a lump of coal in the stocking, but at least we have the stocking. Happy holidays.

©2019 Los Angeles Times
Visit Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

How Retirees Can Check If They’re Having Enough Taxes Withheld

October 8, 2019 - 3:54pm

(TNS)—If you’re retired or soon to retire, one big thing you’ll need to ask is: Am I going to be socked with a huge income tax bill come April?

“During the first year or two of retirement, it’s a big transition tax-wise,” said George W. Smith, a certified public accountant with his own firm in Southfield, Mich. “It’s a whole new tax reporting ballgame for them.”

Many times, newbies to the retirement game get caught short on how much they’ve withheld for taxes out of their pension checks. And many times, they’re not even aware that they’re dealing with a new set of retirement-related tax forms.

“No more W-2s. Now it’s 1099-Rs for pension and IRA distributions,” he said. “And SSA-1099s for Social Security benefits.”

This summer, the Internal Revenue Service launched its much-anticipated Tax Withholding Estimator. For those still on the job, the idea is to spend some time plugging in your own numbers to calculate whether you’re having enough money withheld from each paycheck to cover your income tax bill.

There’s much publicity about getting a “Paycheck Checkup” to review your potential income tax bill now. Someone who just bought a home, had a baby or just saw one of their kids turn age 17 is going to want to use the estimator. (Tax breaks are less generous for families who have children age 17 and older.)

But what about a checkup for those pension checks? It’s a smart idea for retirees. The IRS has begun making a push to alert retirees that the new estimator can help judge where you’re at tax-wise if you’re retired and getting a pension check or withdrawing money from a 401(k), too.

The task is essential if you’re unsure how your tax deductions changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

Are You Withholding Enough?

The new tax rules included a higher standard deduction—$12,000 for singles and $24,000 for married couples on the 2018 return—and that may mean that you’re not going to itemize and deduct as much in charitable contributions as in the past.

But retirees may even have a higher standard deduction than that. An additional standard deduction can apply for those who are 65 or older, or blind. Single filers 65 and older can claim an additional $1,600, and married filers who are both 65 and older can claim an extra $2,600. Another $1,300 is available if an elderly taxpayer is blind.

A married couple filing jointly, for example, might have a standard deduction as high as $26,600 if both meet the age requirements or both are legally blind. So you need to take into account some specifics in your own situation.

The IRS notes that people most at risk for having too little tax withheld include those who itemized in the past but now take the increased standard deduction. “They also include households with two wage earners, employees with non-wage sources of income and those with complex tax situations,” the IRS said.

And yes, some retirees.

“Retirees are one of many groups of taxpayers that may be left owing (money) at year’s end if they do not have enough taxes withheld and fail to make the estimated tax payments during the year,” said Andy Phillips, director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

A retiree, for example, can use the tool to enter any pension income or Social Security benefits that a couple might be receiving. The estimator goes over your finances, line by line, to give you a more accurate picture.

The IRS online estimator is broken into six sections: information about your household, income, adjustments to your income, deductions from income, tax credits and your results.

You need some paperwork on hand. You must know how much in taxes has been withheld already, for example. The taxpayer can use the estimate to calculate their projected tax liability for the year. And then, if necessary, they can withhold more money now from their payouts.

The estimator makes things a bit easier for retirees by linking directly to Form W-4P, the withholding certificate for pension and annuity payments. Retirees can get a specific withholding recommendation by using the estimator to review their own tax situation. Many times, retirees would want to talk with their tax professional, too, to get a better idea of how much money to have withheld.

Someone who is getting two or three pension checks—maybe from earlier jobs—wants to take particular care with withholding enough money to cover taxes. If you’re working part-time now, you’d want to take that into consideration as well. The same’s true if you have income that you’re receiving from your investments.

 Where You Get Retirement Dollars Matters

Where you’re getting your tax dollars in retirement matters, too.

Most often, distributions you receive from a 401(k) plan are taxable, too, and you’re automatically going to see 20 percent withheld from those payouts if it’s not a required minimum distribution. But that doesn’t necessarily mean enough in taxes are being withheld.

In general, income tax will be withheld from your pension or annuity distributions unless you choose for it not to be withheld, Phillips, at H&R Block, said.

Even so, retirees can get caught short and need to pay more than they’d expect at tax time if they don’t carefully review their own situation.

One point to consider: Did you retire early and end up taking an early distribution from your 401(k) plan when you were younger than age 59? Early distributions may be subject to a 10 percent penalty unless one of the long list of exceptions applies.

“The key thing to remember here is the issuer is not going to determine that a taxpayer is subject to the 10 percent early distribution penalty,” Phillips said.

So the taxpayer would need to take that 10 percent penalty into account and consider taking action to have more taxes withheld or submitting an estimated payment during the year. At the very least, the taxpayer needs to be prepared for the potential tax liability when they file their tax return for the year when the early distribution was made.

Stay on Top of Your Situation

Of course, your tax situation can change year to year, even in retirement. So you may want to review how much you’re having withheld for taxes even after you’ve been retired a few years. Sure, no one wants to sit down and run their the tax numbers as part of fun and festivities in retirement. But it’s an exercise well worth doing.

Anyone who changes their withholding later in the year needs to do another checkup in January, too, so they’re having the correct amount withheld for all of 2020.

©2019 Detroit Free Press
Visit Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Hurricanes Take a Toll on Homes: How Homeowners Can Protect Their Biggest Investment

October 2, 2019 - 2:52pm

It’s hurricane season, and for millions of Americans and others, that means getting ready to not only protect themselves and their families, but also the single biggest investment of their lives—their homes.

Catastrophic property losses and damages due to hurricanes are becoming more commonplace. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2017 alone, Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey led to a combined $75,000,000 in estimated insured losses. Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas as a monstrous Category 5 over Labor Day Weekend, devastated the island, skirting Florida and flooding the Carolinas with rain. So far, 56 people are reported dead in the Bahamas (at press time), with the death toll expected to rise dramatically, and an estimated 70,000 people are homeless.

With hurricanes an ongoing concern, especially in real estate markets that are consistently hit hard by these natural disasters, it’s important to educate today’s buyers and sellers about how to best protect their investment and maneuver through a hurricane-threatened transaction.

While standard home insurance typically covers a property against disasters such as hurricanes, protection against flooding is normally excluded. This can be a serious concern for affected homes that are not in flood zones and therefore not covered by flood insurance. Additionally, homeowners should consider another possible exclusion—sewer backup insurance. During a powerful storm, sewers can back up and cause significant damage. Agents should remind consumers to be knowledgeable about their insurance policy, as well as what it covers and what it does not, so that they can be prepared in case of an emergency.

For those who own a condo or co-op, the coverage can get confusing. When guiding consumers who are buying these properties, agents should make sure they are aware of what they are protected against by the master insurance policy for the building, and what they are responsible for on their own.

The biggest factor for homeowners with properties in truly vulnerable areas is having enough insurance should they encounter a catastrophic loss. Is there enough of a policy limit to cover the rebuild of the home should it be completely destroyed?

Consumers who are in the middle of a transaction when a hurricane hits will be overwhelmed. Sellers will be worrying that their sale will be cancelled due to damages—a truly nerve-racking scenario for those who have already purchased elsewhere and cannot afford paying two mortgages at once. Secondly, buyers may get cold feet, worrying that their new investment will be damaged and they will be responsible for paying the repair costs. This is where real estate agents matter most, as they can guide the transaction to a close despite the storm, as well as mitigate any issues should the property incur damages. While transactions can often be delayed during a storm, especially for those paying with a mortgage rather than cash, agents should help all parties keep calm to ensure negotiations run smoothly and both seller and buyer walk away happy. Many times, it’s as simple as following the terms outlined in the “force majeure” portion of the real estate contract.

Personal Items
While the main focus during this time should be personal safety for family members and pets, agents should remind their clients to take preemptive steps ahead of hurricane season to minimize any losses. The biggest thing here is sensitive documents. Anything of importance such as Social Security cards, birth certificates, insurance documents, other forms of identification, etc., should be put in a waterproof safe or storage container or a safety deposit box. Copies should also be saved on a flash drive or hard drive as a backup. These should be easily accessible in case of a sudden evacuation. Forms related to the home for mortgage and insurance purposes will be essential should there be damage to the property. And in order to recover as much as possible in terms of costs, homeowners should have “before” pictures on hand to showcase what was lost and what the level of damage was.

While hurricanes can be devastating, the impact can be softened with the help of a real estate agent, as well as by ensuring homeowners are prepared when the time comes.

Liz Dominguez is RISMedia’s associate content editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at ldominguez@rismedia.com.  

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Categories: Real Estate

Real Estate Q&A: What Happens When a Storm Disrupts Home Deals?

September 9, 2019 - 3:21pm

(TNS)—Q: I have been on a tear, damaging homes up the Atlantic coast. How does this affect people who are under contract to buy or sell a home? – Dorian (yes, that Dorian!)

A: Here in Florida, we are experienced in dealing with you and your siblings. When we get wind that you are coming to town, it becomes next to impossible to get homeowner’s insurance and financing approval, delaying most closings.

The standard real estate contract used in most closings will contain a clause dealing with the issue of a natural disaster or “force majeure.” Typically, the closing will be delayed for a week after things return to normal.

However, if the delay lasts for more than 30 days, either the buyer or seller would be able to cancel the contract. Of course, it’s important to carefully review the terms of each particular contract as it might be different from the standard.

After you leave town and power and water are back on, the buyer will need to have the home carefully inspected for damage. Generally, if the repair cost is no more the 1.5 percent of the purchase price, the seller must fix the problems, hopefully before closing. If they take longer to fix, the funds will be held in escrow while the seller keeps at it.

If the repairs cost more than that, the buyer can take the 1.5 percent as a repair credit on the closing statement and close as-is, or cancel the contract and get the deposit back.

The buyer and seller, or their real estate agents, should stay in good communication with each other, the closing agent and lender to determine what must be done to continue to closing. Everyone should stay patient and work with the process as things return to normal. In my experience, things get back on track fairly quickly, and very few deals are lost due to a storm.

Gary M. Singer is a Florida attorney and board-certified as an expert in real estate law by the Florida Bar.  

©2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
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Categories: Real Estate

Enjoy the Vibe in These Great College Football Towns

September 3, 2019 - 3:26pm

(TNS)—You don’t have to be present for game day to appreciate the enthusiastic ambience of a great football town. Here are five places that may appeal to the sports fans in your family:

  1. Ann Arbor, Mich.
    It’s all about the maize and blue in a community where the University of Michigan Wolverines capture the town’s attention every fall. Those lucky enough to snag tickets to the “Big House,” as the 100,000-plus-seat stadium is called, will revel in the sweet smell of barbecue as fans fire up their grills before the game. While in town, check out the local farmers market, enjoy breakfast at Zingerman’s, a local fan favorite, and visit the botanical garden. Stay at the cleverly renovated and centrally located Graduate Hotel, where you’ll appreciate the classic collegiate inspiration and the nod to local history and tradition. Contact: www.annarbor.org, www.graduatehotels.com/ann-arbor/
  1. Los Angeles
    It’s fun to take in a spirited college football game in a stadium that is also brimming with Olympic history. The Coliseum, home to the University of Southern California Trojans, has twice hosted the world event and in remembrance, has integrated the lighting of the torch ritual into every home game. Before the start of the fourth quarter, the Trojan rider and the USC mascot, a majestic white horse named Traveler, ride onto the field, accompanied by the band’s rendition of the William Tell Overture. On the rider’s command, the torch is lit and play resumes. From the Harry Potter fun at Universal Studios to the Getty Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall and Starline tours, the beaches and hiking in the hills, there is no shortage of family fun in the LA area. Contact: www.discoverlosangeles.com
  1. Boise, Idaho
    The Idaho capital city, named by French-Canadian fur trappers, is a dynamic destination known for a plethora of outdoor activities, a thriving culinary scene and an enthusiastic fan base that comes out in force to support the Boise State Broncos. You’ll want to ride bikes or stroll along the wooded Boise River, where a scenic greenbelt provides recreational access for visitors and locals. On game day, “Smurf Turf,” the artificial blue playing field at Albertsons Stadium, is center stage for the sporting action. The unique blue surface, the brainchild of athletic director Gene Bleymaier, was introduced in the 1980s and continues to set the venue apart. Contact: www.boise.org
  1. Columbus, Ohio
    Along the shores of the Olentangy River, Buckeye fever rises to red-hot as fans prepare for the annual rivalry with the Michigan Wolverines. For every home game, expect tailgate parties around The Horseshoe, as the stadium is known, and enthusiastic support for The Ohio State Marching Band Skull Session, a pregame music fest. Later the band famously spells out O-h-i-o on the field, and on rare occasion reserves the option to “dot the I” with an honored Columbus resident or alum. While in town, visit the world-famous Columbus Zoo; COSI, the Center of Science and Industry; and explore the historic German Village. You’ll find a burgeoning art, culinary and fashion scene. Contact: www.experiencecolumbus.com
  1. Your SportsTown, USA
    Do you or someone in your family have a sports tradition to share? Take the kids to your own high school or college homecoming game and take a stroll down memory lane. Wear the school colors and sing the old fight song. Revisit your favorite haunts, recall the taste treats, music or other details that have made the memory stick. Head on to campus and revisit your classroom time and share what you learned along the way.

©2019 Lynn O’Rourke Hayes
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Relocating? Best Cities for Buyers

August 29, 2019 - 3:00pm

While homebuyers can’t always relocate to enjoy the best market advantages, if you’re looking to buy in a new locale, the financial site WalletHub.com published a list of communities where new homebuyers might want to consider as their newest “home town.”

According to WalletHub, nearly 40 percent of 2018’s single-family home purchases were made by first-time buyers. Researchers at the site point out that all homebuyers must balance what they want and need with what they can afford. All too often, WalletHub says, people begin searching for their dream homes without a realistic idea of market prices, interest rates or even their eligibility to get a mortgage.

To simplify the process, WalletHub compared 300 cities of varying sizes across 27 key indicators of market attractiveness, affordability and quality of life, and qualified affordability as the median house price divided by median annual household income.

Among some of the findings are: 

  • Akron, Ohio,has the most affordable housing (median house price divided by median annual household income), with a ratio of 1.83, which is 8.2 times cheaper than in Berkeley, Calif., the city with the least affordable housing, with a ratio of 15.04.
  • Honolulu has the lowest real estate tax rate, 0.29 percent, which is 12.9 times lower than in Waterbury, Conn., the city with the highest, at 3.74 percent.
  • Cleveland, Ohio, has the highest rent-to-price ratio, 16 percent, which is 6.1 times higher than in Sunnyvale, Calif., the city with the lowest, at 2.61 percent.
  • Shreveport, La., has the lowest average energy cost per household, $93.58, which is 4.2 times lower than in Honolulu, the city with the highest, at $388.65.

WalletHub’s overall top five best cities for first-time buyers are: Tampa, Fla.; Overland Park, Kan.; Thornton, Colo.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Boise, Idaho. When it comes to quality of life, the study says Colorado hits the jackpot with Fort Collins, Boulder, Greeley, Thornton and Centennial dominating the top five positions.

John Voket is a contributing editor to RISMedia.

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Categories: Real Estate

Now, a New Way to Estimate Next Year’s Tax Refund

August 28, 2019 - 3:04pm

(TNS)—Summer will soon be fading out of view and, like it or not, 2019 will move toward a close.

So what exactly have you done to withhold more money out of your paycheck to cover that 2019 tax bill?

If you need a motivator, the Internal Revenue Service has launched its much-anticipated new Tax Withholding Estimator. The calculator reportedly makes it “easier to enter wages and withholding for each job held by the taxpayer and their spouse, as well as separately entering pensions and other sources of income.”

Stepping back to fine-tune how much money you’re withholding in taxes now can make a huge difference between dreading having to write a big check to pay taxes in April or actually looking forward to getting a tax refund.

The estimator, which replaces the old IRS online tax withholding calculator, should help you see how on track you are right now. If necessary, you could make adjustments and dedicate more or less money toward federal income taxes out of your paycheck, and your spouse’s paycheck, too.

Many people found the old calculator to be a more than a bit cumbersome, but the new estimator is getting some good reviews. So it’s clearly worth a look.

See www.irs.gov and click on “Tax Withholding Estimator.”

Why do I need to think about taxes now?
Getting your withholding right, of course, takes on greater importance after a rather unsettling tax season earlier this year when many taxpayers ended up paying more than expected or took home far smaller tax refunds than usual.

If you’re working in the gig economy and juggling more than one job, the new program can take that into account, too.

Remember, take-home pay went up in 2018 once withholding tables were adjusted to reflect the lower tax rates in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

For some tax filers, though, the extra money that ended up in their paychecks turned out to be even more than the amount their taxes would have gone down under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, according to H&R Block data.

Were you upset by a smaller tax refund?
Under the new tax rules, some people lost key tax benefits. Maybe your children are 17 or older and you don’t get as big of a tax break. Maybe you now can only deduct up to $10,000—and no more—for the money paid for state income taxes, local taxes and property taxes.

If your tax story fell into one of those buckets, you could have faced more significant swings than the averages would indicate.

The average tax refund was $2,729 this year through May 10. That’s down 1.7 percent from a year earlier. The total amount of refunds was down 2.7 percent for that same time frame, totaling $277.26 billion through May 10. That’s the latest IRS information available; other statistics will be released later in the year.

While only a few months remain in 2019, it is still possible to have more money taken out of your paycheck to cover income taxes now to avoid unwelcome surprises in 2020.

How does this estimator work?
The IRS online estimator is broken into six sections: information about your household, income, adjustments to your income, deductions from income, tax credits and your results.

You need some paperwork on hand, such as your most recent pay stub and pay information for your spouse. You must know how much in taxes has been withheld already and how much you plan to contribute to your tax-deferred 401(k) plans this year.

You can be more detailed by entering any adjustments to income, but that’s not required. The IRS site notes that most taxpayers don’t have a large enough adjustment to have a significant impact on their tax obligation. Adjustments could include a student loan interest deduction, alimony paid that could be deductible for some in many cases and other factors.

What do you do next to update your W-4?
The online tool gives you step-by-step instructions for how to fill out a W-4, and you’re easily able to download a blank W-4 to give to your employer. If you want to withhold more money in taxes, you need to fill out that W-4 and give it to your employer.

Will this exercise even be worthwhile?
The more willing you are to dig for your real numbers, the better your odds for a clear tax picture.

Amazingly, the format of the new estimator is extremely straightforward. To get more comfortable with it, I played around by plugging in some random numbers to see how you move from one point to the next.

The only challenge, as I see it, will be getting your correct paperwork in order. It’s important to know information about your tax situation, such as if you’re going to claim deductions or take the standard deduction.

If you can do that, well, a clear graphic pops up at the end to spell out what kind of refund you might expect after you file your tax return in 2020.

You’ll be shown an estimate for how much you might owe in taxes or the size of you estimated tax refund.

And there’s a bar to show you how to make adjustments—even now. There’s process to follow if you want to get a refund and another if you want to owe as little as possible.

“Just as before, the more detail you put in the calculator, the more accurate the outcome will be,” said Nathan Rigney, who is a lead tax research analyst at H&R Block’s Tax Institute. “Unfortunately, we know that most people aren’t comfortable updating their W-4 on their own and that very few did, even after tax reform.”

So it’s important that the IRS took the step to make it as easy as possible for people. What’s attractive about the online format is that it’s not intimidating and you’re not handing over anything personal like a Social Security number or your bank account information.

“It’s easy if you’re sophisticated enough and organized enough to use it correctly,” said George W. Smith, a certified public account in Southfield. “Do I like and support it? Yes, definitely.”

Some tax experts say they’d view the new estimator as a much more helpful tool than previous online calculators at www.irs.gov.

“It’s user-friendly and takes a more comprehensive look at a person’s overall tax picture,” said Patricia A. Bojanic, a certified public accountant at Gordon Advisors in Troy, Mich.

One highlight: A married couple has a simpler time taking into account the wages, as well as the taxes being withheld, for both spouses.

“If used with the right information, it should result in much more accurate withholding,” Bojanic said.

Maybe it won’t turn out exactly on the money—but even if you make a good faith effort, things could turn out far better than if you simply kicked next year’s tax return down the road and totally ignored the potential problems.

©2019 Detroit Free Press
Visit Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

5 Things Retirees Should Do With Their Credit

August 21, 2019 - 2:39pm

(TNS)—Whether or not you’re one of the 147 million consumers affected by the 2017 Equifax data breach—which resulted in a Federal Trade Commission settlement of up to $700 million—retirees need to stay vigilant about their credit profiles, experts say.

That may seem counterintuitive, particularly to those who pay off their homes, cars and other debt by the time retirement is on the horizon. Retirement itself, in fact, doesn’t hurt a credit score directly.

But the absence of credit can, indeed, torpedo a pristine credit score because payment history over the past two years—or the lack thereof—is the biggest determinant of a credit score. The length of credit history, where most retirees can really shine, carries less than half the weight of the overall payment record.

And a credit score dive can be trouble, even for retirees.

“It’s an important tool to have available and to protect,” said Rod Griffin, director of Public Education for Experian, one of the three major credit-reporting agencies.

A later-life move, purchases of items like cars, cell phones or insurance, even an application for a reverse mortgage may require a strong credit score. What to do?

Consider these five moves:

Leverage the positive. Retirees who’ve experienced a dip in their credit scores could be ideal candidates for Experian Boost, a program that lets consumers give the agency a look into their checking accounts to verify positive track records on paying utility and cell phone bills.

Two-thirds of the customers who try the Boost program see a rise in their scores, Griffin said, with an average increase of 12 points. Note that it can’t negate bad credit behavior; it simply can help consumers with thin credit records beef up their profiles.

“When you think about people heading into retirement, if they are adding recurring on-time utility payments, that could help maintain activity” on their reports, he said. The program is most helpful for people who started with scores below 680. (Scores range from 300 to 850.)

Embrace the freeze. If you’re retired and don’t plan to move or buy a car in the near term, this may be a good time to put a freeze on your credit with the three main bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. If you do this, creditors can’t access your information until you remove the freeze with a PIN number. So, keep that number in a safe place. For a fee, the bureaus offer a credit lock, which can be removed without a PIN, but may not carry all the protections of a true freeze.

Clean up. A lot of credit experts tell consumers never to close credit accounts because it can hurt scores, but Griffin says any dip is typically short-lived.

“If you close an account your scores will dip, but they usually recover within two or three months,” he said. If you’re not planning to buy a house or a car in the next six months, cleaning up orphan accounts may be a good idea now, he said.

Be ready. If you’re thinking about a reverse mortgage, where a lender provides funds to homeowners 62 and older that are tied to home equity, be aware that your credit history is now part of the equation. Since 2015, these lenders have been required to assess whether a borrower has the ability to continue making home improvements and tax payments on the property, and credit reports are a key part of the equation.

Check for a windfall. If you want to check your potential eligibility to claim part of the Equifax settlement, go here: https://eligibility.equifaxbreachsettlement.com/en/eligibility. To file a claim, go here: https://www.equifaxbreachsettlement.com/file-a-claim.

“You should always be diligent about managing your credit history,” Griffin said. “It can affect a wide range of financial transactions and you want it to be there to work for you when it is needed.”

©2019 Tribune Content Agency
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

If You’re a Homebuyer, Pay Attention to Which Grocery Stores Are Nearby

August 18, 2019 - 12:02pm

(TNS)—The old real estate adage of “location, location, location” could be changed to “Trader Joe’s, Trader Joe’s, Trader Joe’s,” if recent analysis is any indication. A report by ATTOM Data looked at how home values were affected by proximity to different grocery stores, and the results are eye-opening.

It turns out that if Trader Joe’s is nearby, your house might be worth more than if it were close to other grocery chains. The average return on investment, or ROI, for Trader Joe’s-adjacent homes is 51 percent, 10 percentage points more than the runner-up, Whole Foods (41 percent), and almost 20 percentage points more than Aldi (34 percent).

The results were based on an analysis of 1,859 zip codes with at least one of each of these grocery stores: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Aldi. ATTOM, a property data company, looked at current average home values from 2014 to 2019, current average home equity, home seller profits and home-flipping rates to learn whether these stores had any impact on equity, home-flipping returns and price appreciation.

Homeowners near the famous “Two-Buck Chuck” retailer, i.e., Trader Joe’s, also had more equity in their homes, with an average of 37 percent ($247,445). The runners-up were Whole Foods with 31 percent ($187,035) and Aldi with an average 20 percent equity ($53,650).

Aldi came in first place in the gross flipping ROI contest, however, with an average of 61 percent—almost double the second-place store, Whole Foods, which had a 35 percent ROI, trailed by Trader Joe’s with a 31 percent ROI.

Aldi also had the best five-year price appreciation: 42 percent, more than 10 percentage points ahead of Trader Joe’s, which had 33 percent. Whole Foods came in last place with an average five-year, home-price appreciation of 31 percent.

What Your House Is Near Today Might Predict Its Value Later
A popular grocery store is not the only neighborhood amenity that can increase your home’s value, according to experts.

Where you live can impact your investment as much—or even more—as your actual house, so it’s important to know what makes a location desirable, says James Marshall, director of Real Estate Analytics Products at Clear Capital.

Clear Capital’s automated valuation model, called ClearAVM, uses machine learning to predict the values of residential properties across the U.S. One of its findings is that desirable locations can predict home values.

“When we overlay points of interest (like transit, shopping and amenities) on top of prices, we see trends in the distance to these features,” Marshall says. “In urban areas, ClearAVM has found that access to public transit has a large correlation with higher property prices. We have found the same with access to restaurants, coffee shops and groceries in urban and suburban areas.”

While different folks will place more or less value on certain things—one person might love their craft brewery neighbor while another would prefer a yoga studio—there are universally positive (and negative) elements, says Chris Hunt, chief appraiser at Clear Capital.

Some of the positive location amenities that can impact home values and equity include high-ranking schools, hospitals, shopping centers, green spaces and being near the waterfront (think oceans and lakes), as well as access to highways and main thoroughfares.

Negative location markers include things like high-traffic and high-noise areas, crowded commercial properties, high-tension power lines or other utility easements, a poorly maintained home or neighborhood, and not being near the appealing attractions mentioned earlier, Hunt says.

Scope Out the Location Before You Buy the Home
Since buying a home is a major decision that can have serious financial consequences, both good and bad, buyers should think beyond the four walls. A solid investment strategy includes looking at the home’s surrounding location.

Whether you plan to sell your house in a few years or stay put for a lifetime, location will have a bearing on both your wallet and long-term satisfaction.

Take the time to get to know the neighborhood. Do people tend to stay, or is there a lot of turnover in sales? It’s important to get an idea of how a neighborhood might age based on community involvement, how long businesses have stayed there and what locals have to say.

“The beneficial amenities listed previously are those that, over time, tend to hold up as positively, adding to the home’s appeal and overall value impact in the market,” Hunt says. “That said, as neighborhoods mature and homes trade in the market, amenities and influences change, as well.”

Buyers should also consider where they’re buying in order to measure the long-term impacts of certain amenities. For instance, in urban areas, transportation is king, Marshall says. Likewise, in coastal markets, the distance to water is the largest driver of desirability.

“On a more micro level, a property that backs up to green space or has a slight view can fluctuate values on homes that may be next to each other,” Marshall points out.

©2019 Bankrate.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

These Are the Biggest Mistakes People Make With Social Security

August 13, 2019 - 3:02pm

(TNS)—Navigating Social Security can be cumbersome, to say the least. Even basic questions such as when you should retire can come to take on an immense and sometimes desperate tone as you try to make a decision that doesn’t screw up your retirement beyond repair.

Bankrate spoke with some experts to get their take on some of the biggest mistakes you can make with Social Security. Here’s what you should try to avoid doing as you navigate Social Security’s labyrinth.

Stick to a One-Size-Fits-All Strategy
The biggest mistake people make is “they do a quick Google search and take information that is meant to be very much at the macro level, and thus not individualized,” says Daniel Milan, managing partner of Cornerstone Financial Services. Often, they “fail to take into account their own household budget, financial needs and outside investment income.”

Since life situations can be different, it’s necessary to have a personalized approach that helps you optimize your retirement. And Social Security is not a “one-size-fits-all” experience. Social Security is complex. While that’s partly by design to help as many people as possible, it still creates a lot of headaches for those nearing retirement. While many retirees have a straightforward experience, others need and can receive specialized aid from the program.

“There are so many different strategies that exist when it comes to collecting benefits, and so many variables to consider, that listening to advice painted with a broad brush can prove to be detrimental,” says Cory Bittner, co-founder and COO of Falcon Wealth Advisors.

“Creating a financial plan and understanding the inner workings of it should be a prerequisite before making the decision to file to collect benefits,” says Bittner. He suggests people look for a financial adviser who is a fiduciary and is experienced at planning for retirement.

Misunderstanding How Much Money You’ll Receive
If you’ve been working and contributing to the Social Security fund, then you’ve likely received a statement of benefits, an estimate of what you might likely receive in the future. But that figure can be misleading in several ways, and you need to understand what’s driving the estimate.

“People see their statements, the dollar amount that is listed on the front, and assume that’s what they will start receiving monthly whenever they begin filing for their benefits,” says Bittner.

“However, the amount reflected on the front page of a Social Security statement is typically the amount someone will receive if they wait until their full retirement age to begin collecting benefits, and it assumes they work until that age and contribute to Social Security,” he says.

So if you stop working immediately at the earliest age to collect your benefits and don’t wait, don’t expect the full amount. In addition, this dollar amount is pre-tax, so you’ll have to figure how much tax will be stripped from your monthly check before you actually receive it.

As you’re planning your retirement budget, you’ll need to carefully assess how much money will actually make its way into your pocket.

Assuming Social Security Will Fully Cover Your Expenses
After a lifetime of working, many people assume that Social Security will meet their needs when they can no longer clock in. But unless your budget is minimal, that probably won’t be the case.

“The biggest mistake people make is thinking Social Security will be sufficient to retire on without also cutting one’s standard of living significantly,” says Ryan McMaken, economist and fellow at the Mises Institute, an economics think tank.

“If they try to fund their entire retirement on Social Security, they’re going to quickly find they’ll need to downsize in terms of housing and also in transportation and entertainment,” he says.

“Social Security is only designed to replace about 40 percent of your income,” says Tony Drake, a CFP and founder of Drake & Associates. “Most people will need at least 80 percent of their pre-retirement income to maintain the lifestyle they want in retirement.”

And with all that free time in retirement, you may be inclined to increase your spending well beyond that 80 percent level, Drake suggests. Healthcare is another expense that may consume a much larger portion of retirees’ budgets than they initially suspect.

So with the limited nature of Social Security, retirees who want to live large in their golden years must make sure that they have other sources of income. Many workers turn to their company’s 401(k) plan, but many other attractive options exist to fund retirement.

Not Making Extra Preparations, as a Woman
For a variety of reasons, women need to be extra prepared when planning for retirement. Women typically earn less than men over their working careers, and studies have shown that women have longer lifespans on average compared to men, leaving many widows with substantial financial needs, for example.

“While Social Security benefits are neutral when it comes to gender, there are many factors that women need to consider with regard to their benefits,” says Mary Ann Ferreira, a certified financial planner at Viridian Advisors.

“Women who work outside the home typically miss an average of 11.5 years of employment due to childcare and care of elderly parents.” She also notes the substantial gender pay gap.

And those lower lifetime earnings carry on into retirement, with smaller retirement accounts and a lower Social Security payout.

She sees many women working longer and saving more in order to cope with the challenge. “Many women are considering retiring at 70 rather than the full retirement age of 66 or 67. In doing so, they may boost their Social Security benefits by as much as 24 percent,” she says.

In addition to spousal support benefits that surviving spouses may receive, divorcees may also receive benefits.

“I find that women typically forget that they are eligible for divorced spousal and survivor benefits if they were married for over 10 years,” says John Foxworthy, director of Financial Planning at Foxworthy Wealth Advisors. “If they have been divorced for more than two years, the ex-spouse doesn’t even need to file in order to receive the divorced spouse benefit.”

Foxworthy says that the ex-spouse is not notified of the benefits election, so “there is no need to worry about a long-lost ex-spouse finding out that you are taking benefits on their record.”

Taking Social Security at the Wrong Time
And the question that keeps soon-to-be retirees up at night: When should they take their benefits? That depends heavily on their unique situation, but one of the biggest blunders is even simpler: failing to calculate what the best option is.

“The biggest mistake that I see most regularly is when people elect their benefits without doing the math first,” says Foxworthy. “There really isn’t a ‘do-over’ when it comes to Social Security, and the vast majority of people are leaving money on the table.”

Foxworthy details a situation involving a married couple, both of whom turned 62 years old and were planning on filing for benefits immediately. “We ran an analysis and uncovered a strategy to elect benefits that will get them $221,000 more over their lifetime,” he says. “That much money can have a significant impact on their retirement picture.”

Retirees who can go a few extra years without claiming their benefits can continue contributing to the program and increase their benefits at the same time.

“Claiming Social Security too soon is one of the most common mistakes we see,” says Drake. “Although 62 is the earliest and most popular age to claim your benefits, your monthly check will be permanently reduced by about 25 percent or more.”

To get your full benefit, you have to wait until full retirement age, between 66 and 67, he says.

But there’s potential for more. “There’s an added benefit to waiting to claim after you hit full retirement age. Your benefit increases by as much as 8 percent each year until you reach age 70.”

Bottom Line
Because Social Security is so complex, it’s tough to navigate, maximize your benefits or even just figure out where to begin. Even if you don’t quite maximize your payouts, it’s beneficial to know the mistakes to avoid. Most notably, you’ll want to know how much money you’ll receive and develop personalized strategies—perhaps with a financial adviser—that best fit your needs. 

©2019 Bankrate.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Home Improvement, Construction Issues Top List of Worst Complaints in 2018

August 6, 2019 - 3:29pm

(TNS)—Problems with home improvement and new-home construction topped the list of worst complaints received last year, according to a new report from the Consumer Federation of America.

The 2018 Consumer Complaint Survey Report looked at information related to 1.1 million complaints from agencies in 21 states. Home improvement and construction issues generated the second-most complaints in 2018, behind trouble related to vehicles.

The CFA asked the 35 state and local consumer agencies that participated in the report what they considered to be the worst complaints characterized by the volume of complaints, the financial cost to consumers, the impact on vulnerable consumers or the “sheer outrageousness” of the reports. Home improvement and construction issues rose to the top of the list.

Consumers can end up spending tens of thousands of dollars to rectify issues they encounter during a new-home build or remodeling project. And those expenses can lead to big headaches.

“The financial loss that consumers suffer when they pay for work that is shoddy, incomplete or never performed is bad enough, but these problems can also make their homes unlivable and cause emotional distress,” according to the report.

Top 10 U.S. Consumer Complaints by Topic 

  1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars; lemons; faulty repairs; auto leasing; rentals; and towing disputes.
  1. Home improvement/construction: Shoddy work; and failure to start or complete the job.
  1. Retail sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices; defective merchandise; problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates; and failure to deliver.
  1. Services: Misrepresentations; shoddy work; failure to have required licenses; and failure to perform.
  1. (Tie) Landlord/tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions; failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities; deposit and rent disputes; and illegal eviction tactics.

Utilities: Complaints about gas, electric, water and cable billing and service.

  1. Health products/services: Misleading claims; unlicensed practitioners; failure to deliver; and medical billing issues.
  1. (Tie) Credit/debt: Billing and fee disputes; mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud; credit repair; debt relief services; predatory lending; and illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.

Communications: Misleading offers; installation issues; service problems; and billing disputes with telephone and internet services.

  1. Internet sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices; and failure to deliver online purchases.
  1. Home solicitations: Misrepresentations; abusive sales practices; failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations; and do-not-call violations
  1. (Tie) Household goods: Misrepresentations; failure to deliver; and faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances.

Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries; work-at-home schemes; grant offers; fake check scams; and imposter scams and other common frauds.

Worst Complaints in 2018 

  1. Home improvement/construction: Shoddy work; and failure to start or complete the job.
  1. Services: Misrepresentations; shoddy work; failure to have required licenses; and failure to perform.
  1. Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries; work-at-home schemes; grant offers; fake check scams; and imposter scams and other common frauds.

Complaints Related to Home Improvement and Construction
“Home improvement and construction have always been in the top three of our survey,” says Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at CFA, adding “that is because, along with auto sales, these are very expensive transactions, and if something goes wrong, consumers are more likely to complain than if their toaster breaks down or they have some other minor problem.”

Home remodeling and improvement activity has increased in recent years, creating more potential for consumers to run into problems. Mortgage rates have also fallen in recent months, which means homebuyers and homeowners who want to refinance might save on monthly interest payments.

“It’s hard to say what will affect the rate of home improvement,” Grant says. “Certainly, low-interest rates puts more money in consumers’ pockets to do home improvements, as well as programs like PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) which provide easily attainable loans for consumers to do certain kinds of energy-efficient home improvements.”

Rising home equity can also spur homeowners into renovating their homes. Home prices have boosted American’s overall home equity to record-setting levels in recent years. Some buyers tap into that equity with a home equity loan or home equity line of credit to pay for major remodeling projects or home repairs.

“One of the lessons in the report is if you are taking any kind of home improvement loan that involves a lien on your property, you need to understand what that means and the ramifications of it if you want to sell your home,” Grant says.

Tips for Home Improvement and Construction
The Federal Trade Commission offers advice on how to avoid home improvement scams, including how to find a competent and reliable contractor for your project. Some states, such as Florida and California, require general contractors to be licensed.

“For a big, expensive investment like home improvement or construction, it’s vital to find out what the applicable requirements are before you hire a contractor,” Grant says. “Make sure your contractor has complied with them; that way you’ll be better protected if something goes wrong and, hopefully, it will be less likely that something goes wrong.”

In addition to familiarizing yourself with the rules for your home project, CFA recommends you pay a smaller initial deposit when you hire a contractor for home improvement work. Plus, make sure you get a written contract that sets out the scope of work, the project timeline and payment schedule.

“Never pay the full amount for home improvement work until the job is done. You have no leverage if the work is incomplete or unsatisfactory,” the report states. “If the contractor’s work doesn’t look right to you, hold off on making the final payment until you resolve the issue.”

If a contractor fails to finish a job or does shoddy work, CFA suggests keeping notes of your communication and taking photos to document the situation. You can ask your state or local consumer protection agency for advice. 

©2019 Bankrate.com
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Categories: Real Estate

Survey: Real Estate Is Back as Americans’ Favorite Long-Term Investment

August 4, 2019 - 12:03pm

(TNS)—Stocks have long been the most glamorous of the major asset classes. Many a Hollywood film has centered around making fast money in the stock market, and becoming a Wall Street big shot.

But despite their great long-term returns—they’ve averaged about 10 percent annually for decades—stocks are no longer Americans’ favorite long-term investment. What is? According to a nationwide Bankrate survey, it’s real estate.

Years after a housing crash that left the economy hurting, many Americans still see real estate as their top pick. Some 31 percent of survey respondents named real estate as their favored investment for money that they wouldn’t need for 10 years or more. It’s the best showing for real estate in the seven years that Bankrate has conducted the survey.

In 2018, stocks were the most popular investment. But this year they ran a distant second, with 20 percent of respondents naming stocks their top pick for holding periods of more than a decade.

Cash investments, such as savings accounts and CDs, finished third at 19 percent, while gold and other precious metals earned 11 percent. Americans picked bonds as their top long-term investment 7 percent of the time, while bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were favored by 4 percent. Meanwhile, 5 percent of respondents said that none of these options were the best way to invest.

Millennials Are Most Drawn to Real Estate Investing
While some commentators have bemoaned the fact that millennials seem unwilling to buy housing, it’s not for lack of desire. Millennials in total scored the highest (36 percent) among all age groups in their preference for real estate as a long-term investment.

While millennials might be the most drawn to property, real estate still remained the most popular investment among all generations, from millennials to Generation X (31 percent), as well as baby boomers (30 percent) and the Silent Generation (23 percent).

“Millennials are higher on real estate than any other age group, have cooled a bit on cash, and still aren’t keen on the stock market when investing for more than 10 years,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst.

Strikingly, the preference for real estate is virtually identical in all four income categories surveyed by Bankrate. Between 32-34 percent of the time it was the top investment choice for those who reported earning more than $75,000 per year; between $50,000 and $75,000; between $30,000 and $50,000; as well as less than $30,000.

Home—or least, real estate—is where the heart is for Americans.

Stocks More Popular Among Higher Earners
While real estate outdistanced stocks in each age and income demographic, stocks were more popular with higher earners compared to those with lower incomes. In fact, stocks were two and almost three times as popular with the highest income groups in the Bankrate survey.

For the two groups with incomes of at least $50,000, stocks were their top pick 28 percent and 29 percent of the time, just behind real estate. For the two groups earning less than $50,000 annually, stocks were their top pick only 15 percent and 11 percent of the time. In fact, the higher a respondent’s earnings, the more likely the choice of their favored investment was stocks.

Meanwhile, lower-income households showed a higher preference for cash investments such as savings accounts and CDs (22 percent), as well as for gold and other precious metals (12 to 17 percent).

Cryptocurrency Most Popular Among Younger Investors
One notable result, though perhaps not surprising, is the extent to which younger generations prefer bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Millennials picked cryptocurrencies as their top long-term investment about 9 percent of the time—about triple the rate of Generation X. Earlier generations had negligible numbers of respondents selecting virtual currency as their top choice.

While many investors have written off cryptocurrencies, one of the world’s largest companies is setting up a project that may disrupt some more traditional payment networks. Social media giant Facebook is in the process of creating a virtual currency called Libra that may potentially be cheaper than traditional payment services.

Declining Interest Rates May Not Affect Investing Decisions
At press time, the Federal Reserve had hinted that it may be open to cutting interest rates, and investors had been nearly unanimous in expecting a rate cut in recent weeks. With that as a backdrop, the survey also questioned Americans about how the expected decrease in U.S. interest rates would play into their investment decisions.

The surprising result is that declining rates would appear to have little effect at all. Declining rates are not likely to move them to invest in the stock market, borrow money or put money into savings accounts or CDs, say respondents.

“A Fed interest rate cut is unlikely to influence how consumers manage their finances,” says McBride. “Only a minority of Americans say they would save more, invest more or borrow more as a result.”

For example, just 40 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to move money into cash investments such as savings accounts and CDs in response to declining rates. Only 26 percent said they would be more likely to borrow more money in response to falling rates. Meanwhile, just 33 percent of respondents said they were likely to invest in the stock market as rates fell.

But the responses varied by income level. For example, households earning less than $50,000 were more likely (37 to 49 percent) than high-income households (31 to 33 percent) to move money into bank products as rates fell. The lower the income, the more likely the respondent was to move assets into the bank.

What Should Investors Do to Meet Their Goals?
While a person should choose the investment that works best for their own individual situation, there are smart ways of accomplishing your goals regardless of what you choose: stocks, bank accounts, bonds or something else entirely.

If you’re moving your assets to a bank, then it makes sense to find a bank that offers higher yields. An online bank can offer many of the benefits of a brick-and-mortar rival, while still paying much higher interest rates.

Similarly, if you’re looking to move into stocks, you should consider a broker that meets your needs, not necessarily the cheapest or the flashiest. For example, many brokers offer research and education, including research reports, that help when making investment decisions.

©2019 Bankrate.com
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Categories: Real Estate

New Home Trends: Dome Lights, ‘Maximalism’ and More

July 30, 2019 - 3:28pm

So you’re all fired up to make some changes around the house this season? Good! In the following rundown, you’ll hear from a bunch of worthy experts pointing to some of the hottest design and decorating trends that everybody will be gabbing about.

Gabrielle Savoie at MyDomaine.com says you’ll have the coolest place on the block when you light up your guests with retro dome or mushroom lamps. Maybe match that with a hot new plinth table. Savoie says coupled with the recent hype over colored marble and other stone finishes, these low and heavy tables are expected to have a moment in 2019.

The folks at DecorAid.com say 2019 is ushering in a return to “maximalism”—a natural evolution from the more minimalist design trends over the past few seasons. They say maximalism provides even experimental decorators much more freedom to follow their instinct. The key to getting maximalism right, Decor Aid says, is to maintain a well-judged edit and visual consistency so your efforts don’t appear as heavy-handed or overstimulating. Instead, stick to no more than three contrasting colors, patterns and finishes for a more timeless take on maximalism that won’t feel dated.

At ElleDecor.com, Lucia Tonelli rounded up a slew of tips from her deck of design sources:

Warm Colors – Katharine Pooley of Katharine Pooley London says colors she is seeing for 2019 are blush, dusty pink and bronze—warm colors and feminine tones for the walls and dashes of soft pinks to break up expanses of taupe or neutrals will instantly update a tired room.

Florals – Erin Gates of Erin Gates Design touts the traditional beauty of floral patterns, either abstracted or straight-up chintz, according to Tonelli.

Graphics – Amy Sklar of Sklar Design is gravitating toward making a little more impact in kitchens with bolder color choices or graphic tiles with a lot more pop and punch.

Spa Vibes – Kesha Franklin of Halden Interiors reports with relief that the spa-inspired bathroom trend has officially returned. These days, she says it’s all about bold, dark, sultry bathroom designs that evoke an indulgent high-end experience, Tonelli reports.

If you’re going DIY with a project, do your research and learn how these and other top designers are advising their own clients to embrace these trends.

John Voket is a contributing editor to RISMedia.

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Categories: Real Estate

Putting $0 Down on a Home Was Big Right Before the Housing Crisis—It’s Getting Popular Again

July 25, 2019 - 2:00pm

(TNS)—More Americans are taking out zero-down loans to buy a home, but not at the rate or with the risk that helped bring on the U.S. recession a decade ago.

Experts say zero-down programs, through which people can purchase a house without a down payment, have become more popular since the 2008 housing crisis, creating an easier path to homeownership but posing risks if the market takes an unexpected downturn.

“We didn’t have to put $30,000 down on a house, but you still get the house you want,” says Christina Martinez, whose family bought a home in Kissimmee, Fla., a few months ago with a zero-down loan through Veterans Affairs. “We could have put (something) down, but since we didn’t have to, we just didn’t.”

In April, zero-down payment loans accounted for 3.6 percent of loans nationally, according to data from realtor.com®, compared with 2 percent nationally in 2008 when they hit a low.

But zero-down loans are still nowhere near as popular as they were pre-recession, when they made up 12.7 percent of loans nationally.

“As people have recovered, now banks are becoming a little bit looser with their lending standards,” says Jason Martin, a financial adviser with Allgen Financial.

Economists say it’s a relatively safe time to use zero-down programs, as home values continue to rise and the labor market remains strong. But some urged caution, pointing out the programs usually have high interest rates and high monthly mortgage payments.

In the past year, home values in the United States have shot up 5.2 percent, and Zillow predicts they will rise another 2.2 percent within the next year.

Martin says typically people who can’t afford to save enough for a down payment are not ready to buy a home, and most people who lost their homes in 2008 were those who put little down.

If the home’s value drops, buyers wind up owing more than the houses are worth.

“Why take the risk? You don’t want to get yourself into a position where, if the market does top, you’re way underwater on your home,” Martin says. “It’s very dangerous for someone to buy a home when they’re not ready to buy a home.”

Stacy Luna, a lender with Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group, says buyers who don’t make much of a down payment are more likely to lose their homes to their lenders.

“Unfortunately, what we do find with people with less skin in the game, those are the people who end up in foreclosure,” Luna says. “Maybe they lose their job, or maybe they had a roommate and now the roommate’s gone, something breaks on the house. All they know is I only had $1,000 in it so why should I stay?”

Some experts say the zero-down programs themselves are much safer than in the early 2000s, when applicants in some cases didn’t even have to prove income.

The most popular zero-down loans are for former military through the Veterans Affairs and people living in rural areas through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Federal Housing Commission requires buyers to put 3 percent down.

“We certainly are not back in the freewheeling days of 2006 where anyone could get a half-million dollar mortgage,” says University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith. “Availability to mortgage credit was beyond easy.”

For Dana Signore, a single mother who recently bought a house in Clermont, Fla., the only way she could afford to buy a home was if she didn’t put anything down. She qualified for a zero-down loan through the USDA for her $230,000 home.

“That was really the only option,” Signore says. “The money wasn’t there.”

If her clients qualify and are comfortable with the monthly mortgage payments, Annie Amalfitano, a manager and loan originator for Motto Mortgage Exclusive, encourages them to utilize the VA and USDA programs. It’s better than renting, she says.

“Why would you pay $1,200, $1,500, $1,600 a month…when you can get into a home for that much? Why would you?” Amalfitano says. “You’re just lining somebody else’s pockets and you’re not building any equity yourself. Your rent is going out the window.”

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com
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Categories: Real Estate

Concerned About Climate Change? Plant a Victory Garden

July 23, 2019 - 3:19pm

(TNS)—Catherine McDonnell-Forney has been growing food at her Minneapolis home for the entire decade that she’s lived there. But now she tends a registered Climate Victory Garden.

“Climate change is one of the top issues for me,” she said. “It affects all of us, and our ability to live happy, healthy lives. One way we can help is growing our own food and making healthier soil.”

Last year, she saw an online ad for the Climate Victory Garden initiative developed by Green America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. On its website, a YouTube video starring fashion designer/”Gangsta Gardener” Ron Finley and actress Rosario Dawson outlines basic steps for regenerative gardening that restores soil and captures carbon, including “Ditch Chemicals,” “Keep Soil Covered,” “Encourage Biodiversity,” “Grow Food” and “Compost.”

“I was totally sucked in,” said McDonnell-Forney. “It’s a positive call-to-action, presented in a way to get more people on board and excited—not doom and gloom.”

At 39, she’s too young to remember the original Victory Gardens, part of the war effort during World War I and II. “But my dad remembers that his parents had a Victory Garden,” she said.

During those conflicts, food was rationed. In addition, labor and transportation shortages made it more difficult to harvest and move fruits and vegetables to market. So the government encouraged citizens to plant “Victory Gardens” to provide their own fruit and vegetables.

By 1944, nearly 20 million Americans had answered the call, planting gardens that produced 8 million tons of food that year alone. But when World War II ended, so did government promotion of Victory Gardens.

About a year and a half ago, Green America decided the time was ripe to reboot the concept, this time in service to planet Earth.

“We wanted a campaign that addressed the climate issue—using gardens as part of the solution,” said Jillian Semaan, food campaign director for Green America. “Bring them back but this time for the climate and the environment. People want to help but they don’t know how.”

The initiative offers gardeners a tool kit with step-by-step instructions for planting a Climate Victory Garden and 10 carbon-capturing practices. There’s also an online community where gardeners can swap information and advice.

So far, it’s a small community—413 people have registered their gardens nationwide, including 43 in Minnesota, according to Semaan.

“It would take a lot of people doing this to make a significant difference,” said Paula Westmoreland, owner of Ecological Design, Minneapolis and vice president of the Permaculture Institute of North America. “On the other hand, it’s important that people have tangible things they can do. It’s much better than just having a lawn. Gardens that sequester carbon are generally multifunctional and good for pollinators.”

Yard to Table
McDonnell-Forney, a Hennepin County, Minn., Master Gardener, was already growing fruits, vegetables and herbs at her home long before registering as a Climate Victory Garden.

When she and her husband, Nick Schroetter, bought the house 10 years ago, the yard was mostly lawn. Over the years they’ve replaced much of it with fruit trees, shrubs and native plants for pollinators in front. On their south-facing side yard, they’ve added five raised beds where they grow tomatoes, onions, garlic, lettuce, peas, beans, potatoes, peppers and squash.

Every year, she experiments with a few new crops. “I finally got asparagus to take—I’m very excited,” she said.

The couple also are trying their hand at growing mushrooms on inoculated logs, and have converted their backyard into a bee lawn, planted with a mixture of fescue, white clover and creeping thyme. “When I mow, it smells like thyme,” she said.

They produce enough food to put something homegrown on the table for just about every meal during the growing season, she said.

That’s good for their family (they have two young daughters) as well as the environment because they’re not shipping produce from across the country, and they know it’s healthy and organic.

“I could get E. coli from my own lettuce, but it’s much less likely,” she said.

As an experienced gardener, McDonnell-Forney views the Climate Victory Garden initiative as “permaculture lite—easily digestible stuff.”

But that’s important because many enthusiastic would-be gardeners lack know-how and are intimidated.

“A lot of us, like city kids, didn’t grow up growing our own vegetables,” she said. “It’s a skill that a lot of us have lost, one that’s important to learn.

“Gardening seems overwhelming to some people,” she added. “But it’s easier than people think it is. Plants just grow. It’s what they do.”

Her advice to newbies? “Start small. It’s really rewarding.”

©2019 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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Categories: Real Estate