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Mary Mastroeni

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Question of the Day

April 5, 2012 4:00 pm

Q: Should I avoid an adjustable rate mortgage?

A: Because adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, fluctuate with the market, they offer less stability than fixed-rate loans. If an ARM is adjusted upward, monthly payments will increase, and for a lot of people that can be too big a risk to take. On the other hand, should rates drop dramatically, homeowners can reap the benefits of lower rates without refinancing, thereby saving thousands of dollars.

Lenders first introduced ARMs in the 1980s when interest rates soared into the double digits, forcing many people out of the home buying market. They tied the rate to a variable national index, such as U.S. Treasury bills.

Today, many first-time buyers who have difficulty qualifying for a home loan, still settle for adjustable rate loans because the initial, “teaser” interest rate of the mortgage is normally two or three points lower than a fixed rate loan. ARMs are particularly attractive if you plan to be in your home a short time. They tend to adjust yearly or every three years, usually within certain limits, or caps, that prohibit the interest rate from shooting up too high. Make sure terms such as these are spelled out in any ARM agreement you choose.

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5 Design Tips for Small Backyard Patios

April 5, 2012 4:00 pm

Don’t let a small backyard space inhibit your creativity; get tips on incorporating a new concrete patio to fit a yard of any size. ConcreteNetwork.com has compiled a list of five design tips to help you create a perfect patio for a small backyard by incorporating decorative concrete techniques.

As more housing tracts are developed and living spaces across the U.S. get smaller, homeowners are faced with making the most of the space they have and that includes optimizing smaller backyards. Concrete patios are a great way to incorporate an outdoor living and entertainment area, without worrying about space restrictions.

Here are ConcreteNetwork.com’s five design tips for small backyard patios:

1. Incorporate curves so that the patio blends with the landscaping.
2. Add a pattern or stenciled design to give the look of natural stone.
3. Include a border to clearly and cleanly define the patio area.
4. Create a wide array of decorative effects by incorporating colors that complement surroundings.
5. Allow enough space for desired outdoor furniture to fit properly.

For more information, visit www.ConcreteNetwork.com.

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Herbs and Spices That Can Boost Your Health

April 5, 2012 4:00 pm

Most cooks know how well herbs and spices can boost the flavors of food. But, many nutritionists say, the extra benefit of flavoring our food may be the hidden health boosters in many herbs and spices. From the health gurus at Fitness Magazine, here is a list of commonly used flavor-boosters that may be good for your health—along with tips on how to use them:

Cinnamon – One fourth to one half teaspoon a day can reduce blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol. Sprinkle cinnamon on toast or cereal, or mix with low-fat sour cream and use as a dip for fruit.
Turmeric – Contains curcumin, which can inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Try adding up to half a teaspoon when cooking a pot of rice.
Rosemary – May help reduce damage to blood vessels that raise heart attack risk. Add to spaghetti sauce or combine with seasoning salt and thyme for a tasty rub on chicken or fish.
Garlic – Studies show one or two cloves weekly may provide cancer-preventive benefits. Chop fresh garlic and let sit a few minutes to develop phytochemicals. Then sauté the garlic in olive oil over low heat and mix with pasta or vegetables and parmesan cheese.
Paprika – Contains capsaicin, whose anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects may lower the risk of cancer (also found in cayenne and red chili peppers). Sprinkle on chicken or cooked vegetables or combine with ground thyme and ground red pepper to liven up popcorn.
Oregano – Gram for gram, oregano has the highest antioxidant activity of 27 fresh culinary herbs. Use it fresh or ground to liven up tomato soup, cooked veggies and pasta or pizza sauce.
Ginger – Can reduce motion sickness and nausea; may reduce arthritis pain and swelling. Chew on candied or crystallized ginger for nausea. Ground ginger is nice sprinkled on cooked carrots or sweet potatoes, or on fresh or canned peaches. (Caution: Ginger can hinder blood clotting, so discuss with your doctor if surgery is in your future).

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Child-Related Tax Tips and Benefits

April 5, 2012 4:00 pm

Having a child is a significant milestone, and during tax season, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service® is reminding parents that there are many valuable tax benefits available to taxpayers with children.

"Parents know that having children can be expensive, but come tax time they can also be money savers," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt Tax Services Inc. "For many hard-working American families, child-related tax credits can bring back significant, and much needed, refund dollars. The first step is to make sure your children meet the qualifying criteria, which include age, relationship, support, dependent status, citizenship and residence. A qualified tax preparer with current knowledge of tax laws can work with you to determine eligibility."

For taxpayers with children getting ready to file their 2011 returns, here are some child-related tax tips and benefits for which you may be eligible:

The Child Tax Credit – The Child Tax Credit is a non-refundable credit that provides up to $1,000 for each qualifying child under age 17 at the end of the year. Generally, a child qualifies if he or she is a U.S. citizen or resident for some part of the year, lived with the taxpayer for more than half of the year, did not provide more than half of their own support and is claimed as a dependent.

The Additional Child Tax Credit – The Additional Child Tax Credit is any remaining Child Tax Credit for which the taxpayer is eligible after the Child Tax Credit is used. Taxpayers can receive this remaining credit as a refund, which is equal to the amount left of the remaining Child Tax Credit (after the taxpayer's taxes have been reduced to zero), or 15 percent of their earned income over $3,000.

Education Credits and Benefits
– Parents who are paying a child's qualified tuition and related higher education expenses may be able to take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which requires the student to be enrolled at least half-time in one of the first four years of post-secondary education. The credit can be up to $2,500 per eligible student. If the student does not meet the requirements for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, they may be able to claim the Lifetime Learning Credit. Alternatively, parents may choose to claim the Tuition and Fees Deduction for a child, which covers up to $4,000 in expenses for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution, and is available to those with a modified adjusted gross income of less than $80,000 ($160,000 if married filing jointly).

Adoption Credits – Those who adopt a child and pay adoption expenses may be eligible for a refundable credit of up to $13,360 in expenses per child. If the taxpayer's modified adjusted gross income is over $185,210, the credit begins to be phased out. The credit is not available to those with a modified adjusted gross income of $225,210, or more.

For more information, visit www.jacksonhewitt.com.

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Home Maintenance 101: Purchasing a Hot Water Heater

April 5, 2012 4:00 pm

The water heater is the second biggest energy drain in the home behind the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system—also known as the HVAC system. Yet when it comes to understanding the requirements and specifications for water heaters, most homeowners don't know the basics.

According to GE, almost 80 percent of consumers purchase a water heater only when their current unit breaks or leaks and they are forced to look for a quick replacement. But it's important to know the facts about water heaters and consider different options before making such an important purchase. The following tips will help you choose the best model for your home:

Look to energy guides and rebates
Pay attention to how much energy each water heating unit uses and pay special attention to those models that are Energy Star-qualified. By selecting an Energy Star-qualified appliance, you'll not only gain the best energy savings, but these water heaters may also qualify for utility rebates, which can lead to a savings between $100 and $1,000 depending on your region. This savings often means replacing your water heater can be relatively inexpensive, allowing you to invest in a more energy-efficient model that will help with continued savings down the road. Check the rebate finder at www.EnergyStar.gov for a list of rebates in your area.

Don't purchase based on price alone
If you're looking to save money, a moderately priced unit may seem appealing. But the truth of the matter is that water heating systems aren't all created with efficiency in mind, and a cheaper unit up front may end up costing you more over time.

Study fuel source and size
Before purchasing your replacement water heater, make sure to study the size and fuel source of your previous heater. You don't want to downgrade to a smaller system, and you want to make sure you have plenty of space for your new appliance. In addition, make sure to replace an electric water heater with an electric model, and a gas heater with a gas model. Also, look for models with a heat pump, which helps with efficiency.

When in doubt, call the plumber
While some models boast of do-it-yourself capabilities, others require a plumber's expertise. Plumbers can also provide recommendations for purchasing water heaters and can help ensure you choose a model with the proper connections.

For more information, visit www.familyfeatures.com.

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Word of the Day

April 4, 2012 10:00 pm

Contingency. A provision in a contract that keeps it from becoming binding until a certain event happens. A satisfactory inspection report might be a contingency.

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Question of the Day

April 4, 2012 10:00 pm

Q: Is a home equity line of credit similar to a second mortgage?
A:
A home equity loan, like a second mortgage, lets you tap up to about 80 percent of the appraised value of your home, minus your current mortgage balance. But because it is set up as a line of credit, you will not be charged interest until you actually make a withdrawal against the loan, although you will be responsible for paying closing costs. The withdrawals can be made gradually as you begin to pay contractors and suppliers for handling your remodeling project.

The interest rates on these loans are usually variable. Of particular importance: make sure you understand the terms of the loan. If, for example, your loan requires that you pay interest only for the life of the loan, you will have to pay back the full amount borrowed at the end of the loan period or risk losing your home.

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Last-Minute Filers: 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Filing Your Tax Return

April 4, 2012 10:00 pm

With just about two weeks left until the April 17 deadline, it is getting down to crunch time for taxpayers who have yet to file their 2011 tax returns. As Tax Day approaches, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service® is reminding last-minute filers of the most common mistakes to avoid when filing their tax returns, as well as what they need to know about filing a six-month extension.

"Each year, there are many who wait until the final days to file their taxes," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc. "With the last-minute rush, it is important to carefully check your tax return prior to filing because even the simplest of mistakes can cause delays in the issuance of a refund."

Steber discusses the top five most common mistakes made when filing a return:

Incorrect Filing Status – Choosing a filing status is usually one of the first steps when preparing a tax return, but it can also be a confusing decision that leads many to choose an incorrect status. The wrong filing status can significantly impact the amount of a tax refund or tax liability, so speaking with a knowledgeable local tax preparer about your situation can help guide you in selecting the correct status.

Providing Incorrect Information – Another common mistake is when taxpayers misspell a name or incorrectly record their Social Security numbers. It is vital to clearly record the correct name, Social Security number and address (including zip code) directly on the return. Names and Social Security numbers for a spouse, dependents and qualifying children should be documented exactly as they appear on their respective Social Security cards. For those who changed their name due to getting married or divorced, or for any other reason, make sure the name used on the return is your legal name.

Mathematical Errors – Another error on tax returns is bad math, which remains common on paper returns. Making mathematical miscalculations can greatly impact your tax return by reducing your expected refund or positioning you to owe more money than you actually do.

Claiming Ineligible Exemptions – With so many complex rules, taxpayers often claim exemptions for which they are not eligible. Some examples include claiming a grown child who no longer qualifies as a dependent or claiming an exemption for a live-in significant other. A local tax preparer can help you properly claim eligible exemptions.

Forgetting to Claim Items – In the rush to file, forgetting to claim certain items is a mistake that is made all too often. For example, certain charitable contributions, medical expenses and IRA contributions can all be claimed on a return, if you have the proper documentation.

"For those who need more time to file, filing a six-month extension may be an option," says Steber. "But keep in mind that while you can postpone filing your return until October 15, 2012, filing an extension does not provide additional time to pay. You must pay any taxes owed by April 17, 2012. Otherwise, you may be subject to penalty and interest charges."

For more information, visit www.jacksonhewitt.com.

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10 Basic Maintenance Procedures to Keep Your Vehicle Running Smoothly

April 4, 2012 10:00 pm

National Car Care Month in April is the perfect time of year to give your car some extra attention. Basic car care is the key to a long-lasting vehicle, improving its safety and dependability, says the Car Care Council.

"Neglected vehicle care almost always means much higher costs down the line in the form of more extensive repairs or lost resale value," said Rich White, executive director, Car Care Council. "Following a routine maintenance program makes financial sense, extending useful vehicle life and helping avoid costly repairs down the road."

The Car Care Council recommends 10 basic maintenance procedures to keep your car operating at its best for the long haul:

-Check all fluids, including engine oil, power steering, brake and transmission as well as windshield washer solvent and antifreeze/coolant.
-Check the hoses and belts to make sure they are not cracked, brittle, frayed, loose or showing signs of excessive wear.
-Check the battery and replace if necessary. Make sure the connection is clean, tight and corrosion-free.
-Check the brake system annually and have the brake linings, rotors and drums inspected at each oil change.
-Inspect the exhaust system for leaks, damage and broken supports or hangers if there is an unusual noise. Exhaust leaks can be dangerous and must be corrected without delay.
-Schedule a tune-up to help the engine deliver the best balance of power and fuel economy and produce the lowest level of emissions.
-Check the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system as proper heating and cooling performance is critical for interior comfort and for safety reasons such as defrosting.
-Inspect the steering and suspension system annually. This includes shock absorbers, struts and chassis parts such as ball joints, tie rod ends and other related components.
-Check the tires, including tire pressure and tread. Uneven wear indicates a need for wheel alignment. Tires should also be checked for bulges and bald spots.
-Check the wipers and lighting so that you can see and be seen. Check that all interior and exterior lighting is working properly and replace worn wiper blades so you can see clearly when driving during precipitation.

For more information, visit www.carcare.org.

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6 Steps to Making Better Decisions

April 4, 2012 10:00 pm

By Barbara Pronin, RISMedia Columnist

Big or small, every decision we make impacts our own lives and those of others, and one thing every adult has in common is making a decision they have come to later regret. But sound decision-making is a learned process, according to corporate leadership advisor Mike Myatt.

Whether it’s a business or personal decision, Myatt says you should always begin by looking back at important decisions you have made in the past. Have they mostly turned out all right? Next, examine your personal biases, and realize that you need to balance them against the facts.

In his book, “Leadership Matters,” Myatt offers six steps to making sure the decisions you make are more often sound than not:

Perform a situation analysis – What is motivating the need for a decision? What if no decision is made? Who will be impacted by your decision, and how?
Subject the decision to public scrutiny – No decision is totally private. How would you feel if the decision you made were printed on the front page of the newspaper?
Know the cost/benefit ratio – Will the benefits of your decision outweigh the costs, financially, emotionally or in any other way?
Ask yourself if it’s the right thing to do – Your values, your character and your integrity should never be compromised. When making a tough decision, stand behind what you believe is right.
Assess the risks and rewards  – What are all the possible rewards of your decision? When contrasted with the potential risks, are the odds in your favor or stacked against you?
Know when to make the decision – Will the opportunity evaporate if you don’t make an immediate decision? Try to take the time to go over the facts one more time and/or fill in any missing data before you decide to act.

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