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Mary Mastroeni

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Help for Homeowners with Storm Damaged Homes

July 10, 2012 5:30 pm

Was your home damaged by a recent storm? Are you unsure of what steps to take next? Before you start stomping those puddles in your basement, review the following steps to help ease the process of dealing with your damages, and insurance.

Document Damage. The first step should be to carefully document all damage with photographs. These will be necessary to prove the extent of the damage, both to home insurance adjustors and the IRS if the homeowner is eligible for tax deductions as a result of uninsured losses.

Contact Insurance
. At the same time, homeowners should contact their homeowners insurance company to make sure they understand what is covered and what is not. For example damage caused to your home by a falling tree is usually covered. However many policies do not cover the removal of a tree that fell into your yard but didn’t damage your home.

Are You Covered? Flood coverage is another area that is often misunderstood. Most standard flood insurance only covers damage caused by rising waters from a river, creek, lake or pond. It doesn’t cover such things as water backups caused by overflowing drain pipes, or when the drain in a basement stairwell gets clogged with debris, causing water to fill the stairwell and come in under the basement door.

“That once happened to me during a big storm,” says AHF President Bruce Hahn. “After I learned that the extensive damage to our finished basement was not covered by our insurance policy, I reconsidered how much I could afford to spend out of my own pocket to repair the damage.” Homeowners shouldn’t commit to expensive repairs until they learn what is covered and what isn’t, and the terms of the coverage of things that are.

Bring in a Professional. Finding a qualified contractor after a major event is another challenge. In the real world of supply and demand, reliable contractors often quickly get booked well into the future, and their rates often go up as well. At the same time, con men and amateurs start coming out of the woodwork. An amateur may be a decent carpenter, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good electrician, plumber, or roofer. The risk to homeowners of being ripped off by a dishonest contractor or receiving shoddy work that might not pass muster with the building inspector increases dramatically.

Homeowners should take the same steps to protect themselves that they would if they were planning a major home remodeling project. Check the contractor’s credentials carefully. Are they licensed and insured for workers compensation, property and personal liability? If in doubt, ask to see their insurance certificate. Do they belong to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Council, and/or any of the more specific trade associations in the remodeling sector? That's not a guarantee, but it is a sign of commitment to their trade and to professionalism. Ask for recent references on similar jobs (employee and subcontractor turnover is often fairly high, so recent jobs is the indicator of their current capability). Check their record with the Better Business Bureau while you're at it.

Make sure you get a comprehensive bid. It should detail as many of the specifications as possible. Try to get bids from three or more contractors, which is sometimes difficult to do when demand is high. If one of the bids is unusually low, make sure that they have included everything.

If the bids are higher than expected and too much for you to afford, you might be surprised how much money you can save if you’re at least semi-handy and can do some of the work yourself. Things that come up near the end of the job, such as painting, trim carpentry, etc. are good bets since the other parts aren't dependent on their completion. Some finish work can even be done after the home inspector’s final approval of the work. But make sure you're not getting into something you don't have time to do.

One of the most important suggestions is to use a comprehensive written contract. It will greatly reduce the likelihood of disputes with your contractor. Make sure the contract covers the description of the project, timetable, payment schedule, etc., and has general provisions defining the responsibility of the contractor and the subcontractors, defects and correction, change order procedures, warranties, right to termination, and alternative dispute settlement mechanisms (since many of the costs of lawsuits are for legal fees, homeowners and contractors will almost always be better off with mediation, conciliation, and/or binding arbitration clauses should a disagreement arise). Some contractors use their own standard contract forms, but read the provisions carefully before signing them. If you feel some of the provisions in their contract are unreasonable, ask them to make reasonable modifications.

Never hire a contractor by signing a brief proposal or worse yet, on a handshake. You can also hire an attorney to draw up a contract that includes the aforementioned provisions to protect you. Another alternative is to use the American Homeowners Foundation’s standard six page remodeling and repair contract, which is available on the AHF website. It contains these protections and fill in the blank areas for the specifics of your job.

If you take all the right steps, you can make the best of a bad situation. If you don’t, you’ll be asking for headaches and trouble.

Source: www.AmericanHomeowners.org.

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Summer Car-Buying Advice: Tips for Calculating ‘On-Budget’ Loan Payments

July 10, 2012 5:30 pm

Buying a car is complicated, and figuring out your loan—and what you can afford—is a crucial step. Below is some advice on calculating potential auto loan payments that will keep consumers on budget by identifying the car, and monthly loan payment, they can actually afford.

It's a whole new post-recession lending era for the hundred million+ Americans that now fall into the below-prime credit category; especially for those that want to jump into the summer new-car buying season, when automakers offer incentives to clear 2012 models off the lot. Credit lines are opening up, interest rates for less-than-prime buyers are lowering and loan terms are getting longer, making monthly payments more manageable.

"Buying a new vehicle, and sticking to on-time monthly payments, is one of the top weapons in building back a credit score, but correctly figuring out that payment can be challenging," says CarFinance.com president and CEO Jim Landy. 

Top Tips for Calculating Loan Payments

  1. Monthly Payment: Understand what level of monthly payment you can afford by doing a detailed, hyper-honest budget-setting exercise. Take your monthly income minus all payroll tax or estimated monthly tax deductions, then subtract everything: monthly mortgage payments or rental costs, credit card and other loan payments, health and car insurance (calculating how much more the latter will be with the new car) and get serious about estimating real-world living expenses (from food to fun, etc.) by looking at the last 6 months of your real spending (bank statements, withdrawals, checks, etc.) from your monthly income. What is left over is what you can afford each month.
  2. Know Your APR Upfront: The higher the APR (Annual Percentage Rate - the cost you will pay on the loan, including your interest rate), the higher the monthly payment – and the more you will ultimately pay for the car. Waiting until you get to the dealership to find out your APR could mean you drive off in a vehicle that you can't afford. The good news is that today you can get pre-approved online for a loan in minutes, providing you with key numbers, including your APR, to help you make a rational decision on which cars you should be looking at.
  3. Length of Loan: Determine how long it will take to pay off your loan based on the monthly payment you can afford and your APR.  For a given amount financed, the lower your monthly payments, the longer the term of your loan, but the longer the term, the more interest you pay, meaning you will ultimately pay more for your vehicle.  Calculate what you will be paying overall to determine if you are willing to pay extra in the long run in order to pay less each month, or if you should look at a lower-priced vehicle.
  4. Rebates vs. Rates: Understand the difference between the benefit of a cash rebate versus lower monthly interest rate before including it in your calculations. In many instances, you have the option of a manufacturer cash rebate or a low APR. While a low APR sounds enticing, remember that a cash rebate decreases the price of the vehicle, thereby lowering the amount you need to borrow, reducing your interest expense and less overall money spent in the long run. If you trade your vehicle in early, you can lose much of the benefit of the low interest rate. Plus if you have less than perfect credit you may not be eligible for the low interest rate anyway.
  5. Total Price of the Vehicle You Can Afford: This is the holy grail and to calculate this using one of the many calculators you can find online, you will need to allow for your down payment, monthly payment, APR, and the realistic price of the vehicle you are interested in, as well as trade-in (be sure to do your research to get a realistic sales price, whether you are selling the car yourself or trading in), rebates, sales tax, and loan term. You also need to allow for title and licensing fees; a good rule of thumb is 10 percent to 15 percent on top of the selling price. But remember, fees vary by state, from as little as $50 to as much as several thousand dollars depending on the state and the value of the vehicle.
  6. Go Shop: Now that you know what you can afford, you can research online on sites like Edmunds.com to find vehicles that fit your budget.  Many online sites offer a search by monthly payment or search by the amount you plan to spend; just be sure you are using the amount that you can afford and that their formulas take into account all the information you have accrued. Once you have found the vehicle that you can afford and want to buy, go ahead and get financed online so your conversation at the dealership is about the vehicle itself, and not the financing.

Source: www.CarFinance.com


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Vacation Bound? Five Prevention Tips to Protect Your Home

July 10, 2012 5:30 pm

Summer vacations may be fun, but they can be costly if you fail to prepare your home and property adequately. Burglars see vacations as an opportunity to target empty homes, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). 

There are more than 2.15 million burglaries each year, over 65 percent of which are residential break-ins. The FBI notes that the summer months of July and August have the highest rates of burglaries, usually about a 10 percent increase over other times of the year. 

"Once in your home, a burglar can easily steal computer equipment, televisions, CD and DVD players, as well as jewelry and other valuable items," says Jeanne M. Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokesperson, I.I.I. "In fact, the average dollar loss per burglary is over $1,700."

However, criminals tend to be opportunists, notes Salvatore. If you make your home more difficult to break into, the crook will likely target another home. Research shows that if it takes more than four or five minutes to break into a home, the burglar will go elsewhere.

In addition to having the right insurance coverage, the I.I.I. offers these five preventive measures to keep your home safe:

  • Make it time-consuming to break into your home. Dead-bolt window and door locks can slow a burglar down. You may also obtain a discount of 2 to 5 percent on your insurance policy for installing these devices.
  • Make it noisy to break into your home. Invest in a burglar alarm. The most effective systems ring at an outside service, which alerts the police, fire department and other emergency services. A sophisticated alarm system could result in insurance discounts of 15 to 20 percent.
  • Make sure you have strong doors. Outside doors and frames should be made of metal or solid hardwood and be at least 1 3/4-inches thick. Each door must fit its frame securely. Even the best lock will not deter a burglar if it is installed in a weak door. Garage doors also need strong locks. If you have a tool shed, keep it locked since burglars can use the tools to break into your home.
  • Turn off your computer and disconnect it from the Internet. If you save personal information on your computer, make sure it is difficult to access. You don't want a hacker at work while you are on vacation.
  • Keep valuables under lock and key and well hidden. Do not leave personal documents in your home office or desk--burglars know to look for them there. Put critical documents in a lock box or safe somewhere else in the house. Keep copies of important documents at another location--a relative's home, for example. Expensive jewelry should also be hidden somewhere other than the bedroom or left in a safety deposit box at the bank.

As you prepare to leave on vacation follow these additional steps:

  • Keep your home well lit. Mount exterior lights out of reach of would-be burglars in your yard or on your house. Put indoor lights on a timer so that they go on and off at appropriate times, making it look as if the house is inhabited.
  • Make the house look inhabited. Leave blinds or curtains open in their usual position. Put indoor lights on a timer. If you are going to be away for an extended period, arrange to have your lawn mowed in the summer and your driveway shoveled in the winter.
  • Arrange to have mail picked up or held by the post office. Stop newspaper deliveries and ask a neighbor to pick-up "throw-away" circulars.
  • Ask a neighbor for help. Ask a neighbor you trust to keep an eye on your home while you are gone. You may also want to tell your local police you will be away.
  • Only tell people you know and trust that you are going away. Be careful not to discuss your vacation plans at the supermarket or hairdresser or other public places where you don't know who may be listening.

Standard homeowners insurance policies provide coverage for theft of personal possessions and damage to the home caused by the break-in. With replacement cost coverage, which is only about 10 percent more than actual cash value coverage, damaged property is replaced without deducting for depreciation.

Source:  www.iii.org


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Word of the Day

July 10, 2012 5:30 pm

Master Deed. Document that converts a parcel of land into a condominium subdivision.

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Q: Are There Specific Questions I Should Ask a Contractor?

July 10, 2012 5:30 pm

A: According to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, sometimes it’s not the responses you get that are important, but what you don’t get. So you should trust your instincts and pay attention to the information that is obviously missing. Nevertheless, here are some questions NARI suggest you ask before signing that remodeling contract:

• How long have you been in business?
• What is your approach to a project such as this?
• Who will be working on the project? Are they employees or subcontractors?
• Who will be assigned as project supervisor for the job?
• Does your company carry workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
• How many projects like mine have you completed in the past year?
• May I have a list of references from those projects?
• Are you a member of a national trade association?
• Have you or your employees been certified in remodeling or had any special training or education?

It also wouldn’t hurt to inquire about how trash removal and clean up will be handled and the times workers will begin and end work – this is not only for your convenience but also for your neighbors, who have to endure the noise and fewer parking spaces that may result from your project.

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Last-Minute Tips for Summer Celebrations

July 9, 2012 5:28 pm

(ARA) - The weather's warming up, and people everywhere are gearing up for the summer season. For many, with it comes the opportunity to enjoy outdoor parties and share great meals with friends and family.

Preparing your home for summer entertaining doesn't need to be a lot of work; in fact, with a few quick tips, it can be downright easy. To make your summer soirees a breeze, read on and get ready to greet your guests.

Start prepping for summer fun with these simple tips:

Light it Right. The sun keeps the sky lit up fairly late throughout the summer, but it's important to provide lighting once dark sets in. Make sure that entry lights are working and your driveway is well lit. Try adding small, solar-powered lights along the footpaths. For additional lighting, colored lanterns or Tiki torches add decorative flair to decks and patios, perfect for setting the mood.

Clean Inside, Too. Even though summer festivities may be on the patio, it's important to keep your home's interior guest-ready too. Encourage everyone in the family to keep clutter confined, and take a few minutes each week to tidy up. Lightly scented candles, potpourri and even an open window can make a world of difference in keeping things fresh and summery. Most importantly, make sure any bathrooms guests might use are tidy and stocked with hand soap and paper products.

Accessorize! Both indoors and out, touches of cheerful summer decor are easy to achieve with accessories. Colorful glass hurricane lamps and boldly printed outdoor furniture cushions feel fun and summery, while the simple addition of bright pillows, light cotton throws and linen drapes bring a beachy feel to your home's interior. Keep them in place throughout the season and you'll have the perfect backdrop for hosting a summer party.

Freshen the Menu. Summer's bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables makes picking a menu easy. Choose your in-season favorites at the local farmers market - from tomatoes to corn on the cob - which makes a simple and delicious evening meal. Sweet nectarines and blueberries are always a guaranteed hit, so make sure they're easily for family and guests to grab on the go. And, whether it's the festive party cocktail, more of that delicious spread, or even a touch more dessert, an excellent hostess always offers seconds.

Keep your house ready to welcome guests at all times and you'll be making the most of the season. Not sure what to serve? Fun, tropical drinks - that can be modified for the kids to enjoy, too - are always popular. When the temperature heats up, light bites - like summer salads - are refreshing.

Source: www.lg.com.

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Word of the Day

July 9, 2012 5:28 pm

Marketable title.  Good and clear title that is free from reasonable doubt as to who the owner is.


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Why Is Location So Important When Buying a Home?

July 9, 2012 5:28 pm

A: Location remains the single most important factor when choosing a home. It can make or break the value and desirability of a home.

Because everyone’s preferences vary, your lifestyle will determine the best place for you to live. Some people prefer the suburbs while others thrive on downtown living. If you favor city living, find out what part of the city suits you best – a fast-paced neighborhood or one slightly more subdued. Talk with the neighbors and keenly observe such things as traffic patterns, lifestyles, and even sounds and smells.

When choosing a town, take property taxes, schools, accessibility to work, services, recreation, and the character of the community into consideration.

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Energy Vampires? Here’s How to Slay Them

July 6, 2012 5:22 pm

I am always writing about the little things you can do to save a lot of energy in the long run. And yet it seems with all the advancements in technology and hardware, we should be conserving a lot more power.

Suspicions were vindicated recently when information from a poll, paid for by a grant to the AP-NORC Center from the Joyce Foundation, shows that just 4 in 10 questioned think their own actions can significantly affect the country's energy problems.

While 15 percent of those polled say individual actions make "a very large difference," only 7 percent say individual action makes no difference at all. And, despite our almost monthly reminders, only 1 in 3 reports knowing a lot or a great deal about the government's Energy Star product labels.

And not even 20 percent know a lot or a great deal about rebates for energy-saving products, home renovation tax credits or home energy audits.

About 6 in 10 people cite lack of knowledge about energy-saving products as a major reason they don't do more to conserve.

So what can you do to push the efficiency of those already energy-saving appliances further?

Eliminate sources of "standby power." While standby power sometimes provides useful functions such as remote control, clock displays, and timers, the average U.S. household spends $100 per year to power devices while they are off (or in standby mode).

To slay these energy vampires in your house:
• Enable the ENERGY STAR power management settings on your computer and monitor, so they go into power save mode when not in use.
• Use a power strip as a central "turn off" point when you are done using equipment, which completely disconnects the power supply. You can use one for your computer and all peripheral equipment, and another for your home electronics (TV, VCR, DVD, stereo, gaming).
• Keep in mind though that if you've set a timer to wake up a product, such as programming a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) to record a program, then the product must remain plugged in (and able to draw standby power) to function as intended.
• Unplug your chargers: cell phone chargers, camera chargers, battery chargers or power adapters, etc. These are drawing some amount of energy even when not in use (and even when not connected to an end-use product).
• Look for ENERGY STAR when shopping. All ENERGY STAR qualified products are among the lowest power consuming in their category in standby mode.

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What’s On Your Cone? American Ice Cream Facts

July 6, 2012 5:22 pm

Summer is in full gear and temperatures are on the rise. What better way to cool off than with ice cream? In honor of July Ice Cream Month, the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), representing California's more than 1600 dairy families, surveyed consumers to find out just where they find themselves enjoying some good-old fashion ice cream, frozen yogurt and gelato.

The survey showed that over two-thirds of consumers nationwide say they find themselves eating ice cream, frozen yogurt or gelato most frequently in front of the TV or on the couch (64 percent).

Women are more likely than men to eat ice cream, frozen yogurt or gelato in bed.

Young adults, ages 18-34, say they find themselves eating ice cream, frozen yogurt or gelato on the couch more frequently than others (20 percent).

Maybe it's the drip factor but parents are more likely than non-parents to eat ice cream, frozen yogurt or gelato outside (19 percent versus 11 percent, respectively).

"Consumers definitely enjoy a good scoop of ice cream on a regular basis. So much so that former California governor, President Ronald Reagan, recognized America's love for ice cream and declared July National Ice Cream Month back in 1984," says Jennifer Giambroni, director of communications for the CMAB.

Whether on the couch or outdoors, the results are conclusive that most consumers enjoy a good scoop of ice cream every now and again, so here are a few tricks and tips of the ice cream trade:
• To prevent an ice cream cone from becoming soggy while you eat, drop a mini marshmallow in the bottom of the cone before scooping.
• To soften ice cream, transfer it to the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes before serving. A faster option is to use a microwave but be careful of ice cream soup! Place the ice cream in its cardboard container into a microwave set to High: microwave one pint for 10-15 seconds; one quart for 15-25 seconds; and a half-gallon for 30-40 seconds. (Don't use microwave if ice cream is in a plastic container.)
• After serving ice cream, return carton to the freezer immediately to help prevent the formation of ice crystals that can occur when ice cream is partially thawed and then re-frozen. This will keep the texture smooth for your next bowl (if it lasts that long).

Source: RealCaliforniaMilk.com

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