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How to Prevent Trolls From Zoom Bombing Your Online Meeting

April 6, 2020 - 4:01pm

(TNS)—As students at the University of Tennessee were participating in a virtual “Milkshake Monday,” an anonymous person jumped into the Zoom gathering and began berating everyone with racist rants.

As the video conferencing platform Zoom has grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, so have instances of “Zoom bombing.” Zoom bombing is when someone joins your meeting and disrupts it in some way. If you don’t want to risk this happening while chatting with your grandparents or co-workers, there are steps you can take to prevent it.

Create a Unique ID
Instead of using the personal meeting ID Zoom assigns when you create an account, PCMag.com recommends you instead generate a unique code.

“Here’s why,” PCMag.com writes. “Once you put your PMI into the world, people can use it to try and jump in on your Zoom calls at any time.”

Create a Waiting Room
By creating a waiting room, the host and/or co-hosts can control who joins a meeting. The “waiting room” option can be found under account settings. Once enabled, the host can either put everyone in the waiting room or “guest participants only,” which adds people on different Zoom accounts or who are not logged into the waiting room.

Disable Screen Sharing
The Verge also recommends the meeting host disable the screen-sharing feature.

“If you schedule a meeting from the web interface, you won’t see the option to disable screen sharing,” The Verge writes. Instead:

  • Click on “Settings” in the left-hand menu.
  • Scroll down to “Screen sharing” and under “Who can share?” click “Host Only.”
  • Click on “Save.”

The Anti-Defamation League has created a handy meeting checklist if you’re using Zoom. Before the meeting:

  • Disable autosaving chats.
  • Disable file transfer.
  • Disable screen sharing for non-hosts.
  • Disable remote control.
  • Disable annotations.
  • Use per-meeting ID, not personal ID.
  • Disable “Join Before Host.”
  • Enable “Waiting Room.”

During the meeting:

  • Assign at least two co-hosts.
  • Mute all participants.
  • Lock the meeting, if all attendees are present.

If you are Zoom bombed:

  • Remove problematic users and disable their ability to rejoin when asked.
  • Lock the meeting to prevent additional Zoom bombing.

©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com
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Categories: Real Estate

What to Do If You Can’t Pay Your Loans During the Coronavirus

April 5, 2020 - 1:02pm

(TNS)—James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, recently predicted that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. unemployment numbers may hit 30 percent in the second quarter. Considering nearly four in 10 Americans would have to borrow money to cover a $1,000 emergency, it’s easy to see how many will soon be left struggling to cover their bills.

Fortunately, banks, lenders and the federal government have already begun to address the dire financial situation many Americans will soon face. If you can’t pay your loans or you soon won’t be able to, you may have some options.

Federal Student Loan Payments Are Suspended
While it’s possible for the timeline to be extended, borrowers with federal student loans can temporarily suspend their monthly payments without penalty until at least September 30 under the new CARES Act. Interest charges for federal student loans are also suspended until at least September 30.

This change starts retroactively on March 13.

This suspension does not make your student loan debt disappear, and borrowers have to take steps to contact their loan issuer in order to suspend payment. To find out which servicer issues your loans, contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-433-3243.

Notably, if you are seeking public service student loan forgiveness, Forbes reports that suspended payments during this time period will count toward your 120 required payments.

For those who continue making their regularly scheduled student loan payments, their entire payment will be applied to the principal of their balance, helping them pay down debt faster.

Some Mortgage Lenders Step In to Provide Relief for Borrowers
Many mortgage providers have begun taking active steps to help borrowers negatively impacted by coronavirus or a resulting loss in income.

For example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are ordering loan providers to provide assistance in the form of mortgage forbearance for up to one year. During this 12-month pause on mortgage payments, penalties and late fees will be waived and all foreclosure sales and evictions are put on hold until at least May 17, 2020. Negative reporting to the credit bureaus will also be suspended, and loan modification options should be offered to help homeowners stay in their homes until the one-year reprieve on mortgage payments is up.

While these changes are currently applicable to homes guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, federal regulators expect that most mortgage lenders will likely opt for similar policies.

With that said, in its current state, this relief isn’t available to everyone. Per a Freddie Mac response on the program, you have to have “a decline in income” in order to qualify.

Help With Personal Loans and Home Equity Loans
Many banks are also stepping up to waive fees and help consumers stay on track with their loans despite losses in income. For example, popular personal lender Marcus by Goldman Sachs is letting customers defer payments for the month of March on their personal loans and the Apple Card without accruing interest.

U.S. Bank is also temporarily lowering costs for consumers interested in personal loans, and Fifth Third is offering payment forbearance for their mortgage and home equity loan customers. Bank of America is also waiving payments on mortgages and home equity products on request, and Wells Fargo is offering fee waivers, payment deferrals and other assistance for auto, mortgage, credit card and personal lending customers who reach out and inquire.

If you’re unsure if your lender is offering assistance on a personal loan, home equity loan or any other loan product, check its website for details to call to inquire. New programs may be announced on a rolling basis, so don’t give up hope that help is on the way. 

Other Steps You Could Be Taking Now If You Can’t Pay Your Loans
While the programs offered by lenders highlighted here can be helpful as you navigate your finances over the next few months, there are additional moves you could be making that might also buy you some time. Steps you should begin taking now include:

  • Contact your lender and ask for assistance. If you are unable to make an upcoming payment on a mortgage or another type of loan, experts suggest reaching to your lender immediately to talk over your options. It may be able to help you sign up for up to 12 months of paused payments, or it’s possible that it’ll work with you to waive late fees or move your payment due date.
  • Look into refinancing. If you still have an income and meet other qualification requirements, it’s possible that you could refinance your mortgage, a personal loan or another loan product you have into a new loan with an extended payment timeline and lower monthly payment. Interest rates recently dropped like a rock due to the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates down to 0 percent, so this may be a good option if you can qualify.
  • Cut all discretionary spending from your budget. Taking a long, hard look at your spending and bills can also help you determine some areas to cut. In times of financial hardship, it can make sense to keep food spending to a minimum, cancel subscriptions you don’t always use and figure out ways to spend less in your daily life.

©2020 Bankrate.com
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Categories: Real Estate

Can You Get an Airline Ticket Refund Due to Postponed Olympics or Coronavirus?

March 30, 2020 - 4:23pm

(TNS)—Getting a refund from an airline has never been easy, and it hasn’t become more so in this time of chaos in the airline industry and elsewhere.

I’d welcome you to The Twilight Zone, but anyone who has tried to get an airline refund, even if the flyer has died, has already visited The TZ. Now, with the postponement of the Olympics (and pretty much everything else), we may become permanent residents.

Before plunging in, please heed these words from Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, a consumer advocacy group. Your chances of getting a refund “varies by carrier, and it’s something that’s in flux right now,” said Ebenhoch, whose group specializes in airline and hotel issues. “Policies that were in place before are not always holding up as we’re finding that companies want to hold onto money.”

Into this shifting landscape we introduce shifting policy. Fasten your seat belts, friends. Bumpy doesn’t begin to describe it. Here’s what you need to know:

Don’t immediately cancel your ticket.
But, you protest, you always advise us to cancel a ticket if we know we’re not going to be able to use it. Shouldn’t I do that now?

No, said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group that does extensive work on airline issues.

“If you have a flight planned in the next three or four weeks, do not call up and cancel the flight,” Leocha said, even if you don’t want to go or can’t. “If the airline cancels your flight—and they are canceling flights right and left—you are eligible for a cash reimbursement.”

If the airline cancels the flight and can’t accommodate you within a certain period of time, it is supposed to refund your money.

Supposed to? Why ‘supposed to’?
Some may offer a voucher first. Don’t fall for it. Ask for the money. Nicely. But not all airlines are playing by the same rules. Consider the case of United Airlines, which, like all carriers, has been rocked by the coronavirus chaos.

Then it counterpunched, Brian Sumers reported in Skift. United’s policy, like many airlines’, was that you could get a refund if your flight was delayed by more than two hours.

Then United changed that to 25 hours and said it applied retroactively to all tickets. Then the policy changed again, this time to delays of six hours, Sumers said.

And now?

“At last check—and this may very well change again—United won’t allow refunds on international travel,” Brett Snyder, who runs CrankyFlier.com, a consumer advocacy site, said in an email. “If your flight changes by more than six hours, you can hold that in a credit. If you don’t use the credit within one year from the original date of ticket issue, then you can get a refund.” 

When should I cancel?
You usually can cancel up to about the time of departure, but as the rules shift, you should give yourself a bit of a buffer, Snyder said in an interview—a day or two before your flight. If you don’t cancel and you don’t show up for the flight, you’ll be considered a no-show and you’ll get nothing back.

Hold off on a request for a refund for Olympics tickets.
If you have a nonrefundable ticket, the general cancellation rules apply: You’ll get a voucher, minus a change fee, and it will be good for within a year of the purchase of your ticket, not the flight.

But, Snyder said, “I have seen Japanese airlines be pretty generous with refunds through this coronavirus mess. So, it wouldn’t shock me if they added a policy themselves that would allow refunds for Olympic tickets.”

Stay tuned.

Read the airline’s contract of carriage.
If you’re looking to while away those lonely hours in lockdown, read the terms and conditions, a.k.a. the contract of carriage, on the airline’s website.

Yes, this may seem like a bigger punishment than having to stay home, but these contracts lay out the ground rules for cancellations. Arm yourself with information before doing anything. Copy relevant parts of the contract on a document you can consult as you’re speaking with an airline representative.

Read your email.
The airline may have communicated with you by email about changes to your ticket, its polices or other matters. Get up-to-date on anything that pertains to the goal you’re trying to achieve.

Determine that goal and adjust your expectations.
Understand that getting a refund may be a struggle. It’s that way in the best of times.

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable. They’re almost always cheaper and thus more attractive to leisure travelers.

The downside is that if you want to cancel, you will probably not get your money back—but the downside to that downside is that you may get a voucher good for a year from the date of your ticket purchase, not from the date the trip was to begin, and you’ll have to pay a hefty cancellation fee.

Should I call the airline, then?
If you bought your ticket through a travel adviser (used to be called an “agent”), call the adviser. If you bought your ticket as part of a cruise package that is no longer going to sail, call the cruise line. If you bought your ticket through an online travel agency such as Expedia, call Expedia (which asks those who are not traveling within 72 hours to delay calling) or the OTA.

If you bought your ticket directly from the airline, call the airline, but be prepared for a wait. Call centers are overwhelmed. Some will give you a callback time so you don’t have to hang on the phone.

Whatever you do, gather your travel information before you call—ticket number, purchase date, credit card and frequent flyer numbers. You may not need all of it, but you won’t be fumbling at the last minute.

Dispute the charge on your credit card.
If you get nowhere, call your credit card company and file a dispute if you bought your ticket within the last 60 days. The credit card companies carry a fairly large stick when it comes to dealing with their users’ issues. This is a last-ditch effort, and you must be mindful of the 60-day timeline—determined from the date you bought the ticket, not the date of your trip.

File a complaint with the Department of Transportation.
Leocha of Travelers United notes that the DOT tells you first to contact your airline to try to resolve your problem. Then, when it receives few complaints about an issue, it may conclude that whatever you’re complaining about is not a problem. But, Leocha said, the DOT has no way of knowing how many complaints were made to the airline because that’s what it told you to do.

To file a complaint, go to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection page. It may not resolve your issue immediately or ever, but at least you will be on the record and a groundswell may result in changes.

Contact your elected representative’s field office.
Your elected officials aren’t usually the first people you turn to, but they often can have an enormous effect on the outcome of a dispute, especially if the entity in question is currently the subject of legislation that involves bailouts. Bailouts or no, we have seen excellent results in resolving passport problems and, more recently, Global Entry issues. 

Finally, deep, cleansing breaths.
One of my bosses used to tell me this fairly often. It doesn’t solve anything, but it may calm you a bit. In this time of turmoil, that’s quite an advantage. 

©2020 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Coronavirus and Other Threats This Tax Season

March 24, 2020 - 4:40pm

(TNS)—Tax filers now want to keep COVID-19 in mind, as well as other potential threats. The Internal Revenue Service has its own special page dedicated to tax-related coronavirus updates. [The deadline for filing is now July 15, not April 15.]

For those with health savings accounts, the IRS said high-deductible plans can pay for 2019 novel coronavirus testing and treatment, and individuals with such plans would still be able to contribute to a health savings account, even if the plan picks up COVID-related costs.

The high deductible plans would not lose their status merely because they cover the cost of testing or treatment of COVID-19 before plan deductibles have been met.

The IRS also noted that any vaccination costs continue to count as preventive care and can be paid for by a high-deductible plan.

How will you pay your taxes?
Many people pay their taxes by writing a check, pulling out a credit card or even applying online for some payment plans offered through the IRS.

It’s wise to do some research about any new kind of third-party payment service. The Better Business Bureau has received some complaints about Doxo, what’s known as a bill payment aggregation site. Users tap into a centralized platform to pay all of their bills owed to a variety of public utilities, such as water departments, as well as companies.

“Not good value for the cost,” according to one complaint listed earlier this year on the BBB site.

“The fees are high and the website is cumbersome,” said another consumer on the BBB site.

Other consumers said the payments were too slow and it took too many days to get bills paid.

The doxoPLUS program charges $4.99 a month to enable bill payments from your bank account with no delivery fees, up to a total of $3,000 of payments per month.

Roger Parks, a spokesman for the Seattle-based Doxo, said many consumers are happy with the service but in some cases, people don’t pay enough attention to making sure that a payment date will work in their situation. He noted that information is given online for the payment process for specific bills as they are being paid and customers need to check boxes to make sure those dates will work.

He said about 3.5 million people have paid at least one bill using Doxo. The service can be used when a biller cannot handle mobile payments or credit cards. Consumers can pay their bills with 60,000 entities through their bank accounts without paying any extra delivery fees.

Are you dealing with a ghost tax preparer?
Ever imagine you could get “ghosted” by a tax preparer, much like someone who never responds to texts, phone calls or emails after a bad date?

Consumer watchdogs, including the BBB, are warning that unscrupulous characters can set up shop in a short-term rental location and may promise large refunds. It’s possible the big refund depends on illegal short cuts when filling out that return.

“In 2006, the IRS made efforts to increase oversight of tax preparers to combat unscrupulous activity in the industry and began to require all tax preparers to have a PTIN, or a Preparer Tax Identification Number,” according to a BBB warning, “but this system only works if tax preparers sign the returns they file. Some tax preparers that don’t want to follow the process simply don’t sign the returns!”

Instead, it’s made to look like the taxpayer actually prepared his or her own return—and, yes, if something goes wrong, the tax preparer is long gone.

One warning sign: The ghost preparer may want to print the paper return for the client and tell them to sign and mail it to the IRS. For electronically filed returns, they will prepare it but won’t digitally sign it as the paid preparer.

Sarah Kull, the special agent in charge for IRS Criminal Investigations Detroit Field Office, suggests you ask if the tax preparer’s office is open all year and how you’d get ahold of someone if there’s a problem down the line.

©2020 Detroit Free Press
Visit Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Real Estate Q&A: How Is Coronavirus Affecting the Residential Market?

March 22, 2020 - 1:04pm

(TNS)—Coronavirus has changed the way we live, and I have received many questions about how it is affecting the real estate market.

So far, the residential real estate market has kept moving. While a few transactions have canceled, the vast majority are moving forward. Lenders are lending, and interest rates are strong.

If you are stuck at home, it is a great time to shop for a lower-rate refinance. Of course, until life gets back to normal, certain precautions are necessary.

Social distancing is a critical consideration. Experienced real estate agents can help buyers narrow down their choices and refine their expectations using online photo albums and virtual tours. Buyers can drive around the area they are interested in to get the feel of the neighborhood.

Even if you do not feel comfortable visiting your prospective new home, you can use this time to figure out what you can afford and which features are most important to you. Work with your lender to get your loan approved.

Most cell phones take great pictures and videos, making it easy for motivated sellers to help their agents beef up their listing.

While I am not recommending visiting a prospective house in person, I am aware that many people are still doing it. If you go this route, be cautious. The real estate agent and buyer should each take their own car. Follow published safety guidelines when looking around the house, avoiding crowds and touching surfaces, and maintaining personal distance. Use common sense and do not feel obligated to continue the tour if you feel uncomfortable for any reason.

The same goes for sellers. While it may be a bit rude to deny entry to a prospective buyer who is hacking and coughing, it is better safe than sorry.

When it is time to write the contract, you should get assistance making sure contingencies are added to account for this crisis. The real estate attorney community is all over this and ready to assist. Many documents can now be signed and even notarized online. Check with the closing attorney and lender to see if they offer this service.

If you do have to go to closing in person, make sure the title company has a detailed COVID-19 plan in place to deal with the crisis.

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

©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
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Categories: Real Estate

Protecting Yourself From Coronavirus While Flying

March 19, 2020 - 4:05pm

(TNS)—If you must fly during the coronavirus outbreak, how might you protect yourself?

Don’t eat on the plane.

That’s one of the tips suggested by Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, at a recent news conference:

  • If it’s a short trip, consider not eating. When you eat, you often put your hands in your mouth, and if your hands have touched a virus-infected surface, such as the seat tray, you don’t want to be putting your unwashed hands in your mouth.
  • Wipe down the area where you’re sitting on a plane. Bleach-based wipes and solutions with at least 60 percent alcohol can kill the coronavirus.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Scrub for at least 20 seconds with soap, remembering to lather the backs of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails.
  • Use hand sanitizer, with at least 60 percent alcohol, frequently. Hand sanitizer is helpful when you can’t wash your hands, but it doesn’t work on all types of germs.
  • If you’re seated next to a person actively coughing, ask to be relocated.
  • Under all circumstances, stop touching your face with unwashed hands.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said airline crew should report to the CDC any traveler who has had a fever for more than 48 hours or has a fever and one of the following symptoms: cough, difficulty breathing or an obviously unwell appearance.

Any such passengers should be moved as far away as possible from other passengers and crew, ideally by at least 6 feet—the maximum distance that virus-studded droplets from a person’s cough or sneeze can travel before falling to the ground.

The flight crew should then offer a face mask if available and if the passenger can tolerate it. If not available, the sick person should be asked to cover their mouth and nose with tissues when coughing and sneezing, the CDC said.

This coronavirus can be given to other people through the saliva of an infected person being coughed or sneezed into the wet areas of a person’s face, like the eyes, nose or mouth. It can also be transmitted through a person using their hands to touch an infected surface, like droplets of saliva coughed onto a seatback pocket, and then touching their face with their unwashed fingers.

©2020 Los Angeles Times
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Categories: Real Estate

Can Your 401(k) Stay Healthy as Stock Market Sickens?

March 10, 2020 - 3:35pm

(TNS)—Worst week since the market crash?

Don’t panic.

Billions of dollars in wealth evaporating in a matter of days?

Hang in there.

An infectious disease that could tank the economy and depress stock prices even more?

This might be a good time to buy.

Financial advisers are telling clients to maintain a steady course in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The markets will sort this out; they will come back,” says Kimberly Foss, president of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif. “It will work itself out in the long run.”

On Feb. 28, the Dow Jones average rallied furiously in the last few minutes of trading but still dropped another 357.28 points. That capped a week in which stocks lost about 10 percent of their value. The S&P 500 was down 11 percent, the worst weekly decline since the 2008 financial crisis as investors reacted to fears that coronavirus and COVID-19 disease would wreck the global economy.

By midday Monday, the Dow had recovered 750 points, a gain of 3 percent.

Carol Van Bruggen, of Foord Van Bruggen & Pajak Financial Services in Sacramento, Calif., says the 2008 meltdown was a lot scarier.

“That made us a lot more nervous than something like this,” Van Bruggen says. “This is a temporary situation.

“There’s still a lot of stocks that, after the initial panic of the market, they will continue to do well as long as they continue to provide services as they were before the panic started,” she says. “We’d say, wait this out. Everything cycles through. Even if we deal with this for another six months or eight months, the market will come back if you own good quality stocks diversified in various areas of the economy.”

Retirement Approaches for Many
Still, for many people the timing is terrible. Foss says a well-balanced, diversified portfolio should enable an investor to ride out the wave, even as they’re creeping up on retirement.

“If they’re 60 years old and they have 80 percent of their money in the (stock) market, that’s going to cause a problem,” Foss says. By contrast, she says investors would do well to maintain a roughly even split between stocks and bonds, the latter of which are less volatile.

Brokers and planners are urging clients to adopt a patient strategy, but they acknowledged that keeping calm is harder for investors who’ve forgotten what happened in 2008 and can’t wrap their arms around a significant down spell.

“They’re just so used to the market going up and up and up, they don’t realize we have things like (this downturn),” Foss says.

Foss and Jim McCarthy, a portfolio manager at Capital Planning Advisors in Roseville, are counseling investors to buy stocks if they have some idle cash.

“There’s more upside than downside here,” McCarthy says. “It’s difficult in times like this, but history says it pays to spend money (on stocks) during these big downdrafts.”

©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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Categories: Real Estate

Was Too Much Money Deposited Into Your Bank? It May Be a Scam

March 3, 2020 - 5:05pm

(TNS)—A Troy, Mich., man picked up the phone and a man who called himself Alex Wade was on the line.

Wade, who said he worked at Amazon, claimed that a drastic mistake took place where too much money had been refunded from an earlier purchase and deposited into the man’s bank account.

The man needed to pay back the money or he’d be in big trouble. Wade suggested that the man buy eBay gift cards at a variety of stores, including Walmart, CVS Pharmacy and 7-Eleven.

Was there really a big problem? The caller certainly convinced the man that he needed to rush out to fix things right away.

“The victim never called his bank account to confirm this,” said Sgt. Meghan Lehman, a police department public information officer in Troy.

The 69-year-old man put $1,300 on the eBay gift cards. He spent more money after facing even more pressure tactics. In all, the man lost $6,000 before realizing he had been scammed.

Sadly, the first thing on the to-do list of a scammer is to pretend to be someone, really anyone, else. Maybe the caller pretends to be from the Internal Revenue Service. Maybe it’s someone pretending to be from the Social Security Administration. Maybe it’s someone pretending to be from the 2020 Census.

Or maybe it’s someone claiming to be from Apple Support.

The impostor scam was the most common type of scam reported in 2019 to the Federal Trade Commission. Consumers reported losing nearly $667 million to impostor scams.

Nearly half of U.S. adults have been targets of an impostor scam, according to a new survey by AARP Research, and nearly one in five ended up experiencing health problems or emotional distress from being victimized or targeted.

Three in five adults are concerned that they—or a family member—could fall victim to a scam, according to the AARP survey.

Amazon, for example, warns that specifics of scams vary, but scammers generally follow a pattern of connecting with a victim by phone, email, through social media or online. The swindler will create a sense of urgency, ask for payment using gift cards and even tell you where to buy the cards.

“The scammer then demands or instructs the victim to provide the claim code on the gift card by phone, text message or email—and then disappears,” according to Amazon’s warnings.

Signs of financial manipulation are really everywhere, even though many people are too embarrassed to file a police report or admit that con artists scared them enough to hand over cash and gift cards.

Another victim in Troy lost $1,360 in early February after someone claiming to be from the FBI told her she would be arrested after some mishap with a vehicle in Texas. The woman bought the gift cards, according to the police report, provided serial numbers from the gift cards to the caller and was out a sizable chunk of savings.

Another woman in Troy lost $1,200 in a gift card scam in late January, according to police reports, when an impostor claimed to be from the Social Security Administration and scared her into thinking that there was a warrant out for her arrest and the matter would be resolved with her being issued a new Social Security number.

As scammers get more skilled, police departments state that they’re seeing more of these type of scams every day. And all sorts of people can become victims.

“We’ve had young people, old people, people who are new to the country, people who were born here,” Lehman said. “These scammers are getting more skilled.”

Consumer watchdogs warn that the 2020 presidential election, as well as the Census, could bring new variations of old scams.

Fraudsters already are using phony political fundraising calls to trick Americans into “donating” to a favorite candidate, according to warnings from the Better Business Bureau. The BBB warns that you could receive one of these robocalls, maybe even one that sounds like a presidential candidate.

“According to the recording, rivals have been raising a lot of money. In order to see your favorite candidate elected, you need to donate…immediately,” according to the BBB warning. “If you offer to give, you’ll be transferred to a live person and asked for your credit card information. But your money won’t go to support the political cause. Instead, the phony caller will make off with your money and/or personal information that can be used for identity theft.”

Sure, the calls can sound pretty convincing. Con artists, after all, work overtime at being believable. But remember, only the crooks are demanding you buy them gift cards.

©2020 Detroit Free Press
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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Homeownership Trends: Report Shows Some Don’t Know Their Interest Rate

February 24, 2020 - 5:05pm

Interest rates are often a big motivational factor when it comes to home-buying. High interest rates? Buyers may not bite. Low, however, and the market tends to get busy.

So what does it say that many homeowners don’t know what rate they’re currently paying on their mortgage? They may not be motivated to sell their home and buy again, or to refinance. According to a recently released Bankrate report, 27 percent of respondents stated they didn’t know what their interest rate was.

Here’s the breakdown for what other survey takers reported:

  • Paying 0% to 3.999% – 31%
  • Paying 4% to 4.499% – 18%
  • Paying 4.5% to 4.999% – 7%
  • Paying 5% to 5.499% – 6%
  • Paying 5% to 5.999% – 1%
  • Paying 6% or higher – 11%

“It is concerning that more than a quarter of mortgage borrowers don’t know the rate of interest they’re paying on their existing mortgage,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com, in a statement. “Given the decline in mortgage rates we’ve seen over the past year, many qualified homeowners would stand to benefit, or save, by refinancing.”

Where do homeowners stand on moving out? Over half don’t want to, according to the report. The survey found that 56 percent want to remain in their home “forever.” There is a sharp contrast, however, to the next largest group, at 19 percent, who has a much shorter time frame in mind: 1-5 years.

Is there a generational tie-in? A majority of baby boomers (63 percent) said they don’t expect to move out of their current residence. Meanwhile, only 42 percent of millennials hope for the same. Generation X is about 50/50, however, with 52 percent wanting to stay in a forever home.

Location, relationship status and income may also play a role. According to the report, 60 percent of those who live in the South don’t want to move, and of those earning under $40,000 per year, 67 percent want permanence, as well. A high percentage of widowers (70 percent) also plan to stay in their current primary home for the foreseeable future.

What about those wanting to move in the next 10 years? Thirty-two percent are millennials, 19 percent are Gen Xers, 18 percent are baby boomers and 11 percent are from the Silent Generation. For these homeowners, an understanding of their current interest rates, and those being offered in the market, could prove valuable if a move is in the cards. For those who are staying in their homes, being aware of their interest rate could provide opportunities for refinancing if market rates are lower, helping them cut down on costs.

“With the prospective reduction in monthly payments, the savings could be better put to use, including toward retirement or another worthy financial goal,” Hamrick said. “Here’s where what you don’t know can hurt you, costing you money.”

To access the report, visit www.bankrate.com.

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

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Categories: Real Estate

Eager to Sell Your House? Try Describing It as ‘Adorable’

February 18, 2020 - 5:02pm

(TNS)—Mary Beth Hurtado wields a kind of linguistic artistry to describe a house she’s trying to sell.

The good words: Classic. Stunning. Backyard paradise. Turnkey. Newly renovated. Redeemed to perfection.

The bad: Handyman special. Motivated seller. Tiny. Basement.

“Basement sounds like a dirty old stone basement,” said the 20-year real estate agent for RE/MAX in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “You want to say it has a ‘lower level.’ It takes a long time to write these descriptions for me. It takes hours because you have to say it exactly right for each house.”

Certain words and phrases—and even the number of exclamation points in a property listing!!!!!—can help improve the value of a property and reduce its time on the market, academics found through an analysis of more than 700,000 homes listed and sold over a decade in the Charlotte, N.C., area.

The researchers, Sean Brunson and Richard J. Buttimer Jr. of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Steve Swidler, the Hanson/KPMG professor of Business and Finance at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., suspected their conclusions would apply to most real estate markets.

The terms “adorable,” “awesome,” “gorgeous,” “historic” and “luxurious” were helpful in boosting property value, they found. The bigger the house, the more frequently it was described as “beautiful.”

“Adorable,” in particular, could add more than $43,000 to the value of what is often a small, hard-to-sell property, according to the study, “An Adorable Housing Paper: The Informational Content of Agent Remarks.”

Yet the research found that almost 40 percent of homes described as “adorable” also were characterized as “large,” the latter of which was found to reduce its value by $2,601.79.

“Adorable” still increased by 5 percent the chance a house would sell, according to the study. The use of “awesome” raised it 1.02 percent and “gorgeous,” 1.44 percent.

‘Historic’ Adds 18 Days on Market
The research found that though “historic” and “luxurious” were typically considered attractive descriptors, they seemed to have a harder time selling. It took “historic” homes about 18 days longer to get off the market, and eight extra days for homes touted as “luxurious.”

“It’s not unique to Charlotte, the quantitative numbers that you see,” Swidler said, adding that he and his colleagues studied the market in Charlotte after a real estate association there offered them a trove of data, the largest to date for such a study.

The descriptor of “adorable,” Swidler said, was a relatively infrequent term in property descriptions, appearing in just around 1 percent of entries in the Multiple Listing Service, an expansive real estate online search platform.

“It is relegated mostly to smaller-sized homes,” he said. “If you were in a home that was 300,000 square feet or larger, it’s unlikely that ‘adorable’ would be used. The words that you use have to have real meaning. I don’t think you can call a large house ‘cute’ or ‘adorable.’ It doesn’t make sense.”

The use of “investment,” “motivated,” “distressed” and “reduced” would slash the value of a property anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000, according to the study. For listings that included the words “motivated” or “reduced,” it took about a respective 29 and 44 extra days to sell.

Homes described as “large” and “spacious” saw their property values fall by a respective $2,601.79 and $7,351.26, according to the study, which attributed the decrease to a buyer “believ(ing) the REALTOR® is trying to conceal the lack of space by claiming the house or a room show bigger than they are.”

The team conducted the study around what it called the “hedonic modeling of house prices,” or the analysis of factors that contribute to the price of a property, including square footage; the number of bedrooms and bathrooms; location; and the area’s school district.

It did not indicate how important the description of a property was relative to other elements, such as photos of the house or the safety of the neighborhood.

“Using a superior data set with over 700,000 observations, we document the set of most frequently used descriptive terms and show that context is important,” according to the study, which said the size of the data set offset the chance of coming to erroneous conclusions.

The data collected by the team spanned the 2008 financial crisis and crash of the real estate housing bubble. Swidler said he and his colleagues had not studied whether certain descriptive terms could have even marginally helped some houses sell.

“Would ‘adorable’ have helped you during a real downturn?” he said. “The answer is I don’t know, but maybe we should look at it.”

The authors clarified that they did not conduct a “full-blown textual analysis that examines readability of sentiment or structure,” calling it “likely excessive.”

The Power of Punctuation
“MLS property descriptions tend to be relatively short (250 words or fewer) and frequently informal,” according to the study. “They may contain abbreviations (e.g., “SS appl” for stainless steel appliances).”

Even punctuation could prove fruitful!!

“One exclamation mark appears to generate extra excitement about the property and raise its value $6,649.62,” according to the study. “However, two exclamation marks raise the home’s value $4,295.19 and the more exclamation marks used, the less the added value.”

An overzealous real estate agent prone to “overuse (abuse) of exclamation marks” need not worry, the study said, finding that excessive punctuation—as many as five exclamation points—”has virtually no effect on buyer enthusiasm for the property.”

As she sells houses on the Philadelphia Main Line, Hurtado is careful with her use of punctuation. Just one exclamation point is sufficient, she said, “if it’s something really amazing.”

“Use nice words,” she said. “Use powerful, selling words. I think your words should be the exclamation point.”

©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Tornado Warnings Issued in California: How to Prepare for the Next One

February 9, 2020 - 2:03pm

As Christmas Day neared its end in 2019, Californians in parts of Santa Barbara and Orange County received an unexpected tornado warning due to a risk caused by heavy rain, snow and winds, resulting in a winter storm.

Are you prepared for a possible tornado or other natural disaster? Do you have adequate insurance, current infrastructure and preparedness?

Most California homes were built for earthquakes, not tornadoes. Two storms developed during this time, with one in Southern California that flooded the 5 Freeway in the Grapevine, the Angeles Crest Highway, the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass and other freeways across Los Angeles County. A second storm, arriving from the Gulf of Alaska, dropped more rain and snow across Southern California. So far (at press time), Los Angeles County has received 1.5-2.5 inches of rain, with some regions reaching three inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

In Northern California, there was a winter storm warning for both San Diego and Santa Barbara Counties as heavy snow made for dangerous travel by car. Up to 14 inches of snow was expected to fall in Santa Barbara County mountain areas, and up to eight inches of snow was expected in Julian and Pine Valley.

Fortunately, both tornado warnings expired shortly after with no reports of damage, but the incident has hopefully increased awareness among California residents.

Tornadoes are not commonly associated with the state of California, but they are more common than you might think. According to the National Weather Service data from an almost 20-year period between 1991 and 2010, California averaged 11 tornadoes per year, while Kansas averaged 96 and Oklahoma averaged 62. Northern California has observed 101 tornadoes since 1950.

As weather across the world becomes more unpredictable with climate change, it’s important for residents in California (and other states) to learn how to protect themselves and their homes in the event of a tornado. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Ready.gov has crucial information to begin your education.

What should you do when another tornado warning occurs? DHS recommends that you immediately find safe shelter in a sturdy building, safe room, basement, storm cellar or small interior room on the lowest level of a building. Make sure to stay away from windows, doors and outside walls.

Below are some steps you can take to prepare for tornadoes in the future.

Tornado Preparation

  • Know the signs: rotating, funnel-shaped cloud; approaching cloud of debris; or a loud roar.
  • Sign up for your community’s warning system. Also check out the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio.
  • Pay attention to weather reports for meteorologists’ predictions.
  • Identify a safe shelter near you, such as a safe room built using FEMA criteria or a storm shelter built to ICC 500 standards. Consider building your own safe room that meets these criteria.

For more information on being proactive in case of a tornado or other natural disaster, visit Ready.gov.

Desirée Patno is the CEO and president of Women in the Housing and Real Estate Ecosystem (NAWRB) and Desirée Patno Enterprises, Inc. (DPE), as well as chairwoman of NAWRB’s Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council (NDILC). With 30 years of experience in housing, Patno is a champion for women’s economic growth and independence. In 2017, Entrepreneur.com named her the Highest-Ranking Woman and 4th Overall Top Real Estate Influencer to Follow. For more information, please visit www.nawrb.com.

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Categories: Real Estate

Latest Tax Scam Holds Your Info for Ransom: Here’s How to Spot It and Other Fraud

February 6, 2020 - 5:05pm

(TNS)—Most of us find it nerve-racking enough that we’re forced to focus on gathering our piles of paperwork to fill out our tax returns.

Now adding to our stress, we must watch out for tax season scam artists, too. The crooks are everywhere from the gym parking lot to the latest emails and text messages.

A new trend: Expect an increase in ransomware attacks in 2020 on tax preparers where time-sensitive files may be frozen and only thawed when tax preparers pay a ransom to the hackers, according to Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout, which offers identity theft protection and data security.

Levin said sometimes a ransom is paid, the files are released and the hackers still use data that has been stolen to file false tax returns.

Fraudsters want your Social Security number and other key personal information in order to file fake tax returns as early as they can in the season to claim inflated tax refunds. So, the con artists will be busy long before the April 15 tax deadline.

The crooks want to e-file tax returns before you do because they know that the Internal Revenue Service system will reject a tax return when the IRS has already received another return using the same Social Security number. The IRS will first process e-filed tax returns on Jan. 27.

One huge red flag for ID theft: You discover that you can’t e-file your tax return because of an issue relating to a duplicate Social Security number. (The IRS will also reject an e-filed return for basic errors, such as if you misspelled the name the IRS has on file, but you would be able to resubmit an e-file in many cases if the issue is properly corrected.)

If you discover that a fraudulent tax return has been filed with your Social Security number, you must first file IRS Form 14039 to alert the IRS that you’re a victim of ID theft.

In 2018, the 649,000 confirmed fraudulent returns attempted to claim $3.1 billion in refunds, according to the IRS. The IRS said it stopped 597,000 tax returns filed by identity thieves claiming $6 billion dollars in 2017 tax refunds.

As part of a Security Summit Initiative, the IRS is working with representatives of state tax agencies, tax preparation firms, payroll processors and others to combat tax refund fraud that hinges on stolen personal information.

The crooks get a leg up by stealing key information to make their fake returns look more legitimate. Much financial information is already out there after major data breaches such as those at Equifax, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Anthem. But cybercriminals are still actively seeking Social Security numbers and other data, too, with tricks as common as a phishing email that targets tax professionals, retirees or business owners.

Here’s a rundown on some of the latest scams:

They’re calling, again, about your Social Security account.
Crooks are claiming that there is a problem with your Social Security account. Some may tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended. It’s another attempt to scare you into returning a robocall.

Many demand action now. Some want you to “verify” your financial information, such as your Social Security account and banking information. Others might demand money on a gift card or Bitcoin.

In January, the Inspector General of Social Security warned that telephone scammers may take the next step by sending phony documents by email to convince potential victims that they must comply with the fraudster’s demands. The attachments may involve letters that appear to be from Social Security or the Social Security Office of the Inspector General. But retirees and others shouldn’t be fooled by official-looking letterhead and government jargon.

A new online system was announced in November to report Social Security scams online at oig.ssa.gov.

Never provide sensitive information—or authenticate yourself—to someone who contacts you out of the blue, Levin said. Don’t trust caller ID.

Business owners, does that IRS notice seem weird?
ID thieves are increasingly showing sophisticated knowledge of the tax code and even aiming to file fraudulent tax returns relating to a business or partnership, according to the IRS.

Business owners are warned that one sign of trouble is that the company may fail to receive routine correspondence from the IRS because the thief has changed the address for the business. Or you might receive an IRS notice that doesn’t seem to make sense based on your business or tax situation.

Tax preparation software for business-related returns now requests more information to protect the tax filer, including the name and Social Security number of the company executive authorized to sign the corporate tax return.

Sophisticated phishing scams are targeting payroll offices, too, and requesting W-2 information. Scammers might pose as the CEO or vice president of the company’s payroll organization to trick someone with access to data into disclosing sensitive information for the entire workforce.

“This scam has emerged as one of the most dangerous phishing emails in the tax community,” according to H&R Block’s Tax Institute.

The W-2 scam has hit all types of organizations—big corporations, small businesses, public schools, universities, hospitals, tribal governments and charities.

“Never click on a link or open an attachment without independent confirmation of the sender,” Levin warns.

Cybercrooks are engaging in social engineering to make some emails seem more legitimate. Some may reach out to you directly by name to sound like your boss, such as: “Dear Chris: You really messed up this time. See attached.”

Or you might receive a text, robocall or email that’s supposedly from the security department of your bank or the board of elections to “confirm your information on file.” A text may even say your account has been frozen because of suspicious activity and ask you to click on a link and enter your User ID in order to resolve the issue.

Don’t be fooled. Contact your bank directly if you’re concerned.

Levin warned that some of the malware-laden links may include authentic looking graphics, excellent grammar and no misspellings.

“Often the only way to tell something is amiss is by looking at the URL—but even that can be misleading,” Levin said.

Is your tax preparer about to get scammed?
Andy Phillips, director of H&R Block’s Tax Institute, said fraudsters have really narrowed their focus on tax preparers, not only to steal client data but also to get their hands on information from the professional, such as e-service passwords.

“If a fraudster is able to hack into a tax preparer’s network, they may be able to steal personal information of all clients that have filed with that preparer,” Phillips said.

Some fraudsters, he said, have even found ways to change refund account information to ensure that the fraudster gets the tax refund.

No, the IRS isn’t emailing you a tax transcript.
ID thieves are crafting phishing emails to trick users into giving up passwords and other information, perhaps by even impersonating your tax provider. And they’re sending attachments hoping that you’ll be duped into downloading malware.

One scam involves emails that pretend to be from the “IRS Online.” The scam email carries an attachment labeled “Tax Account Transcript” or something similar, and the subject line uses some variation of the phrase “tax transcript.”

Phillips, of H&R Block, said other examples of imposter IRS emails include phrases such as “Automatic Income Tax Reminder” or “Electronic Tax Return Reminder.”

The pitch might look more legitimate because of links that show an IRS-like website and details pretending to be about a taxpayer’s income tax refund or e-filed return. Some emails contain a “temporary password” to access the files.

“But when taxpayers try to access these, it turns out to be a malicious file,” Phillips said.

You can forward malicious emails to phishing@irs.gov.

ID thieves still steal purses and wallets.
Crooks can go the old-fashioned route by breaking into unlocked cars in a subdivision or lockers at the local gym to steal personal ID information too, such as a Social Security card or an old Medicare card that includes your Social Security number in your wallet.

It should go without saying but you need to make sure that you don’t leave tax returns on the kitchen table or sitting on the front seat of your car where crooks could access that information too.

©2020 Detroit Free Press
Visit Detroit Free Press at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

New Retirement Rules Could Help Boost Your Savings: 5 Things to Know

January 27, 2020 - 4:34pm

(TNS)—The rules of the retirement game just saw a sizable overhaul in Congress, giving a nod to the reality that many Americans can’t afford to quit working.

The changes aren’t massive enough to put to rest concerns about an upcoming retirement crisis where some forecast a growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Even so, the adjustments are likely to help some households boost their retirement savings.

The new law, signed by President Donald Trump in late December, has key twists for those who work at small businesses, those who steadily work part-time at a given company and those who are worried about whether they’re on a bleak path to outlive the money in their 401(k). Eventually, workers may see their 401(k) plans begin to add options that offer annuities in their 401(k) plans, too.

The SECURE Act—or the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act—offers small business owners some additional tax incentives for starting a retirement plan and seeks to make it less costly to do so. Financial services firms would be allowed to offer new multiple employer 401(k) plans to unrelated small companies with unrelated businesses.

Workers who spend a large chunk of their careers at small companies that do not offer pensions or 401(k) plans are particularly vulnerable to an inadequate level of savings to cover the bills in retirement.

Here’s a look at some points to know:

Turning 70 in 2020? New rules can help delay spending savings.
Start thinking of age 72, instead of 70-and-a-half, if you want to delay taking money from your IRA or 401(k) for as long as possible.

Under the new law, savers who are currently in their 50s and 60s wouldn’t be required to take a minimum distribution from retirement savings until they hit age 72.

Taking out the correct required minimum distribution, or RMDs for short, is essential each year, especially since the penalty for not doing so is 50 percent of what you should have taken out that year. The penalty is in addition to the ordinary income tax you pay on the money you withdraw from the retirement accounts. (Tax experts at H&R Block note, though, that it is possible to get a waiver by making the appropriate withdrawal as soon as the mistake is discovered and filing Form 5329 with an explanation of the error. If the IRS considers the error to be reasonable, the penalty will be waived. It may help to talk with a tax professional.)

Given that many Americans are living longer and working longer, it can make sense for some to try to keep their hands off their retirement savings for as long as possible.

“This isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all-situation,” says Keith Bernhardt, vice president of Retirement Income for Fidelity Investments.

Keeping the money in a tax-deferred IRA or 401(k) can help the account grow more in the future, too, depending on the success of your investments.

“You’re still benefiting from the tax-deferred nature of having money inside the account,” Bernhardt says.

The new threshold applies to people who turn age 70-and-a-half in 2020 and later.

The new 72 is simpler to track than the old age rules. After all, it’s a little odd to try to figure out when you turn age 70-and-a-half.

One potential point of confusion: If you turned 70-and-a-half in 2019 or earlier, you don’t get the benefit of the new delay. You’re still required to take the RMD for 2019 and in future years.

The new rules can give you more flexibility for minimizing the tax hit in some years, too. Maybe you’d rather spend money from a regular brokerage account earlier in your retirement years.

Say that investment outside of a retirement account is worth $10,000 but only $2,000 of that money represents actual earnings. Then, you’d only be taxed on the $2,000 not the entire $10,000.

Take $10,000 out of the IRA and you’d be taxed on the full amount if you saved that money on a pre-tax basis while working.

Take a hard look at your own numbers and talk to a tax professional or financial adviser. Outliving your money remains a real risk for many. Once people retire, they can run the risk of dipping too heavily into their retirement savings and running short of money as they age.

Though people retire at different ages, Fidelity noted that participants in the 401(k) plans it manages often retire around age 65.

“Regardless of age, most make withdrawals in the first year, then the withdrawal rate declines until the required minimum distribution age,” according to Fidelity.

One drawback for withdrawing money from a tax-deferred retirement account is that withdrawals are taxed at your regular income tax rate. You might face a 10% percent penalty if you withdraw the money before age 59, as well. If you take out too much money, you’re at risk of driving up your annual income tax bill.

Retirement savings can help young families, too.
The Act allows parents to withdraw money without penalties—but you would pay income taxes on those withdrawals—from a 401(k) or IRA to cover costs associated with childbirth or adoption. The change applies to distributions in 2020 and afterward. New parents would be allowed to withdraw up to $5,000 without the 10 percent penalty if the money is withdrawn within a year of the birth or adoption. You’d have to check with your plan sponsor to see when this might be allowed within a given plan.

Working part-time won’t hurt your ability to save.
Going forward, the new law requires companies that offer 401(k) plans to allow part-time employees who have worked at least 500 hours a year for at least three consecutive years to set aside money from their paychecks into the plan. The employer isn’t required to make matching contributions until the worker meets the plan’s normal eligibility requirements.

In the past, someone who was steadily working part-time could legally be excluded from saving for retirement in a 401(k) or similar plan if he or she worked less than 1,000 hours a year. So the change is expected to open the doors for many people who work in retail, healthcare and other part-time heavy fields. The change may be particularly beneficial for women.

How soon will you be able to save? It might be sometime in 2024 or earlier.
Some plan sponsors could wait until 2024 to make this change relating to part-time workers based on the statute, says Mark Iwry, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Iwry was responsible for national retirement policy and regulation of the private pension system while serving as senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during the Obama Administration.

But, he continues, some plans will voluntarily implement this change earlier by taking into account years worked before 2021. Or, he said, some might conceivably decide for administrative simplicity not to look back for three years and simply allow participation by employees who have at least 500 hours of service in a given year.

Time for a wake-up call.
By December 2021 or after, savers are expected to begin receiving estimates once a year for how much monthly income their current 401(k) savings might generate in retirement.

Iwry, who has supported such a disclosure for more than a decade, says the number will be key in helping people understand what kind of regular income their retirement accounts could generate.

“People don’t readily have a way to translate the account balance that they’ve accumulated to the amount of regular income that it can deliver to them in their retirement years,” Iwry says.

Think of something similar to the estimates that you receive for Social Security retirement benefits.

Once you have a clearer picture, you may decide to work longer, save more, or maybe even realize that you’re well on track when it comes to saving for retirement.

Right now, many people are in the dark when it comes to their retirement savings, according to Joshua Gotbaum, a guest scholar for economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

Many people haven’t saved enough before they retire, but they don’t know it, he says. Or others who have retired don’t know how long their savings will last and they could be afraid to spend even when they have enough financial resources to do so.

“This lifetime income benchmarking will help both,” Gotbaum says.

Consider this example: A woman with $50,000 in her 401(k) at age 65 could get an annuity paying just under $3,000 per year—or $250 a month—for life.

It’s a number that might motivate you to bump up your regular savings rate.

In 2020, individuals can save up to $19,500 in their 401(k) plans, or $500 more than last year. If you’re 50 or older, you can save even more than that through what’s called catch-up contributions, which max out at $6,500 in 2020. In all, someone 50 and older could save up to $26,000 in 2020.

The annual contribution limit for Individual Retirement Accounts for 2020 is $6,000 or $7,000 for those 50 and older.

Want to work and save more into your 70s?
If you’re working, the new law removes the age cap for setting aside savings into a traditional Individual Retirement Account. Beginning in 2020, the age cap—formerly age 70—goes away for individuals who have wage income.

You’re allowed to set aside money in a traditional IRA as long as you have income from work. Another plus: If a couple could contribute to a spousal IRA before age 70, the new rules allow them to do so now even if the person is older than 70.

But remember, the change is only effective starting with tax year 2020 contributions made for the year 2020, so people should understand the 70 age limit is still in place for traditional IRAs when it comes to contributions made for tax year 2019.

©2020 Detroit Free Press
Visit Detroit Free Press at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Buyers Beware: Senior Living Comes With Risks

January 9, 2020 - 5:35pm

(TNS)—The market for housing communities intended for those ages 55 and older recently got a big makeover, marked by a much wider selection of amenities, homes and target buyers than in the past. Developments featuring hiking and biking trails, big-name entertainment, athletic sports, community gardens and upscale and solar-powered homes are in. Golf courses and country clubs are no longer required features.

Top developer Del Webb continues to build massive projects with resort-like features, adding in more modern perks like a BMX pump track. Smaller developments target niche populations, such as equestrians, small plane hobbyists or retirees from specific professions. Private beaches, pickleball, film festivals, RV clubs and serious cooking classes are popular. Safety—most developments are gated—continues to be a key sales driver.

Rules defining these “active adult communities” are changing too. In addition to traditional 55-plus developments that prohibit younger buyers, the market now includes more developments that cater to older residents but don’t dictate ages of residents or visitors.

Meanwhile, the nation’s baby boomers have aged into willing and able target buyers. The generation holds about $8 trillion in home equity—an almost two-thirds cut of the entire nation’s—and it has made 55-plus developments one of the hottest markets going for U.S. home builders. Today’s developments are attracting buyers that never would have gone for traditional golf and tennis communities.

To get a sense of what’s on offer in active adult communities, check out the searchable resources at 55places.com, a brokerage firm that offers research, photos and reviews of thousands of these developments. (They don’t take money directly from builders of these developments but do hope to hook you up with an agent selling property in one. No endorsement implied here.) Numerous articles from real estate brokers and seniors organizations offer good basic advice on factors to consider when comparing 55-plus communities.

We’ve added below a few less-noted quirks of active adult communities that could have major implications for your happiness. While each of these points is a potential pitfall for buyers, they aren’t intended to deter sales in this evolving market. Rather, consider this information a basis for forming questions to ask in order to avoid unpleasant, post-relocation surprises.

Children may be closer than you think. “Active adult community” is a neutral term that can mean strict rules for age or none at all. While 55-plus restricted developments bar younger residents by law, “age targeted” developments can have any number of kids. It’s trendy for developers to broaden their potential buying pool, sometimes with a creative blend of both.

It’s important to ask where the lines are drawn now and in future development that may share facilities. Almost every community allows young visitors, but restrictions will vary widely. Can teenagers stay all summer and use the pools? Will the future club house for the family part of the development be isolated from the adults-only facilities or next door?

That pickleball court may never look so good again. Development companies typically maintain the pools, golf courses, bike paths and other amenities as long as there’s ongoing home-building. Once development is complete, they often hand over those responsibilities to another entity, such as an on-site country club, a professional management company or a homeowners association.

Going forward, who will manage the perks that attracted you? The quality of those amenities will depend on their skills, priorities and budgets.

Local politics affect your fun and finances. The homeowners association within a 55-plus community can be extremely powerful, oftentimes controlling the community’s budget and rules. In other words, it can determine how much you pay in fees, the length of the grass on your putting green and the size of your beloved garden ornament.

All of those factors—fees, rules and budget priorities—can change. Tennis courts may get pushed out in favor of pickleball, for example. The association probably can ban your cigar smoke at whim. Even age restrictions aren’t always set in stone. Find out how much control you have over these decisions, or in choosing the team that will make them.

You need an exit plan. While it’s hard to predict when health will fail, most of us will need continuing help eventually. And if you live in an active adult community, you may have to sell to get it. Those underage caretakers may be reticent or even barred from moving into a restricted community to help.

What level of fitness is required for continuing residency? While the development’s marketing materials probably tout the convenience of nearby medical facilities, few are set up for people that cannot live independently.

©2019 Rate.com News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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Categories: Real Estate

Who Keeps the Earnest Money When a Real Estate Transaction Falls Through

January 2, 2020 - 4:58pm

Who Keeps The Earnest Money Deposit in a Home Purchase?

When buying a home, many folks have no idea what role earnest money plays in a real estate transaction. The earnest money payment forms part of almost all real estate contracts and agreements. It is a payment that you make to the seller of the property in good faith, proving you can back up your offer with cold hard cash. The idea is to show you are serious about buying the property. The money will be held in an escrow account.

If this is the first time you are purchasing a home, it may seem like you are handing over money and getting nothing in return. That, however, is not the case. Once the earnest payment has been received, the seller will take the property off the market, and the earnest payment will go towards the cost of the home. It forms the financial cement indicating you’re a sincere home buyer.

Does it always work out that way? No, it doesn’t, and since the earnest payment can be rather large, it is a good idea to understand what can go wrong before you hand over the cash.

It is also vital not to confuse a down payment with an earnest money deposit. A house down payment and earnest money are not the same things. The resource at Maximum Real Estate Exposure does an excellent job explaining what earnest money is, how it works, and how it differs from down payment funds.

How Much Should I Put Down?
It is only serious buyers who should put down an earnest money deposit. Let’s be honest; we are talking about a substantial amount of money. An earnest money deposit can be anywhere between 1 – 5% of the purchase price of the home.

So, if you are buying a home for $500,000, the earnest money will range from $5,000 to $25,000 and potentially more. That is a lot of money to put down to ask someone to take a property off the market.

Before you hand it over, you need to make sure that you have a contract covering the payment. That purchase and sale should include all of the obligations of each of the parties. From a buying standpoint, you will want to make sure there are essential contingencies, such as a home inspection and procuring financing.
When making an earnest payment, you’ll want to consult with your real estate agent on what is a traditional amount in the local market.

The Earnest Payment Makes the Purchase Contract Official
Handing over the earnest money effectively seals the deal. Once all of the financial issues have been settled, the property is now yours. That is unless something goes wrong. This is where it is crucial to have a buying agent on your side. He or she will look after you and make sure that everything stays on track.

Your buying agent will explain to you that the earnest money deposit is one of the four components that form part of the sales agreement. Without earnest money, the contract is likely not considered legal in most American states and foreign countries for that matter. One of the many things a buyer’s agent does is protect a buyer’s earnest money deposit by keeping up with contract performance time frames.

The Earnest Money Deposit – When Will It Come Through?
The earnest payment is best described as partial payment for the home you are about to buy. On average, the earnest money is handed over soon after an offer has been accepted. That is generally between 24 – 48 hours.

Some buyers who invest in prominent expensive properties may be asked how they obtained the money to make the deposit. This is to make sure there is no fraud, and that the money has come from legit sources.

Most of the time, buyers are asked to provide bank statements, deposit slips, and proof that the money has been in your account for at least 60 days. In some countries, it is easy to make offshore transactions, but that does not go for the United States. This can make it hard for foreign investors who often rely on financial resources from abroad or offshore.

Once the earnest money deposit is submitted, it is held by a third party, such as a real estate company or lawyer, until the completion of the home has gone through.

Specialist escrow companies have sprung up around the real estate industry, and many buyers and sellers turn to them.

What Happens If the Deal Falls Through?
Should the seller presume the earnest money is theirs the moment it has been submitted? Absolutely not. The seller will never see the money unless there is a default on the buyer’s part. Most of the time, a buyer’s lawyer or buying agent, will make sure there are clauses in the contract that protects the buyer.

There are many things that can still happen. If the home inspection brings up certain red flags, the buyer may just say thanks, but no thanks. The appraisal process might also affect the earnest money deposit. If there is an appraisal contingency that states the home must appraise for the purchase price and it doesn’t, the buyer will not have to proceed.

Financial problems such as the mortgage falling through will also mean the buyer can have his money back. Too many issues discovered in the home inspection are perhaps the most common reason for the earnest money being returned to the buyer. Yes, you can try to negotiate a new deal, but it doesn’t always work out.

The buyer being unable to sell his own home is another reason a sale could fall through. In real estate circles, this is known as a home sale contingency. The seller failing to stick to a moving out schedule is yet another problem that creeps up from time to time.

Does the Seller Ever Keep the Earnest Money?
Yes, the seller has the right to keep the money under certain circumstances. If the buyer decides to cancel the sale without a valid reason or doesn’t stick to an agreed timeline, the seller gets to keep the money. These are the most common ways a buyer will lose their earnest money.

Adhering to an agreed schedule is very important when it comes to buying and selling a home. The real estate business is all about making commitments and following them through. You may be one in the chain of many, and making sure that everything works out for all of you, is a bit like walking a tightrope in a circus. It is not easy, and you should not underestimate the skill of your local real estate agent.

If you are the buyer, it is imperative to have a professional with experience on your side. A buyer’s agent will help you to negotiate the earnest money deposit, make sure the entire home buying process runs smoothly, and ensure that you get the best value for money as far as the total purchase price of the property is concerned.

Final Thoughts on Earnest Money Deposits
So when answering the question “who keeps the earnest money when a home sale falls through?” it boils down to who violated the terms of the contract. If a buyer defaults on one of their commitments or time frames, they will lose their money. If, however, the buyer backs out of the transaction due to one of their contingencies, the seller will not be able to keep the earnest money.

Both buyers and sellers need to know the ins and outs of earnest money.

Bill Gassett is a nationally recognized real estate leader who has been helping people buy and sell Metrowest Massachusetts real estate for the past 33 years. He has been one of the top RE/MAX REALTORS® in New England for the past decade. In 2018, he was the No. 1 RE/MAX real estate agent in Massachusetts.

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Categories: Real Estate