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Mary Mastroeni

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5 Home Remodeling Tips

January 10, 2012 5:54 pm

Remodeling your home can be stressful and complicated. The following tips, provided by the American Homeowners Foundation and the American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance, can help put your mind at ease while renovating.

• Request A Comprehensive Bid.
It should detail as many of the specifications as possible. Get bids from three remodelers. If one of the bids is unusually low, make sure that they have included everything.

• Consider Doing Some Work Yourself. If the bids are higher than expected and too much for you to afford, you might be surprised how much money you can save. But make sure you're not getting into something you don't have time to do. Things that come up near the end of the job, such as painting, finish carpentry, etc. are good bets since the other parts aren't dependent on their completion. Some can even be done after the issuance of the final occupancy permit.

• Get a Comprehensive Written Contract. It will greatly reduce the likelihood of disputes with your remodeler. Most disputes arise over issues that were not resolved in advance. Make sure it covers the description of the project, timetable, payment schedule, etc., with 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 more than half of the costs of lawsuits represent legal fees, homeowners and contractors will almost always be better off with mediation, conciliation, and/or binding arbitration clauses should a disagreement arise).

• Consider Buying Certain Building Materials in Advance. Styles for appliances and other building materials and suppliers are subject to change and are often heavily discounted when they go out of production. If there's a style you like very much, it may not be available next year, so consider buying and storing them when you see a really good deal. With the advent of the larger super discount home improvement stores, prices are down to the point that remodelers often can't get much better prices from other sources, even with their business discounts.

• Be Careful about Financing. If you're financing the project, you want the lowest rate possible and you want the interest to be tax deductible. Only certain types of loans will give you an interest deduction so check with an expert. In some cases, refinancing your mortgage can be the best bet.

Courtesy of the American Homeowners Foundation and the American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance, www.AmericanHomeowners

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6 Strategies to Help Avoid Credit Card Fees

January 10, 2012 5:54 pm

In order to avoid credit card fees, personal money resource Bills.com shares the following strategies consumers can employ to better avoid additional charges that have arisen because of changes outlined in the Credit CARD Act.

1. Monitor your communications from your credit card issuer. One of the best ways to stay abreast of changes specific to your cards or situation is to closely monitor information sent from your issuer. New regulations require much greater disclosure on all changes, so any update will be sent to your attention. Be alert for all mailings and read them carefully before throwing away or destroying.

2. Maintain prompt payment status with your credit card company. Despite all these changes, the simplest way to avoid fees is to pay your credit card bills on time. By missing or being late on a payment you will incur fees, potentially increase your interest rate and lower your overall credit score.

3. Pay down high balances to improve credit card utilization.
This will show that you can responsibly manage your credit limit, minimizing the chance of higher tiers of interest rates or reductions in credit limit. Additionally, better credit utilization will help boost your credit score.

4. Maintain activity on your credit card accounts. By using the revolving credit lines that you need or want to keep and promptly paying on them, you can help avoid cancellation of those credit card accounts. This will also help avoid faux inactivity fees and help boost your credit score, while having a long existing credit line closed could lower your score.

5. Avoid over-limit fees through responsible spending habits. Credit card issuers have begun to charge fees for opt-in over-limit coverage. By remaining aware of credit limits and balances, consumers can avoid a need for this service and these fees altogether.

6. New regulations do not apply to corporate or small business cards. This means some small business owners might consider using personal cards for business expenses because of fee and rate limitations. However, these owners should remain cautious because their personal credit scores could suffer in the event of missed payments or defaults. Conversely, be aware of companies that are increasing solicitations for corporate card members to avoid new regulations.

For more information, visit www.bills.com.

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Word of the Day

January 10, 2012 5:54 pm

Tax rate. The rate at which real property is taxed in a tax district or county. For example, in a certain county, real property may be taxed at a rate of 55 mills (or 0.055) per dollar of assessed valuation.

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Question of the Day

January 10, 2012 5:54 pm

Q: What kind of return can I expect from home improvements?

A: Some improvements offer a greater return than others do. This will vary greatly depending on the type of work you have done. Remodeling magazine publishes an annual "Cost vs. Value Report'' that can answer this question in more detail, based on the top 15 home improvements. A recent study it conducted says the highest remodeling paybacks have come from siding and window replacements, major kitchen remodeling, bathroom and family room additions, and mid-range master bedroom suites.

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2012 Energy Innovation: Bioheat Lowers Emissions

January 9, 2012 5:52 pm

Energy costs are expected to rise in the New Year, so I went looking for some trendy heat saving tips. The Energy Communications Council is talking a lot about Bioheat, a cleaner burning, renewable product that can be blended seamlessly with the heating oil you already use. It lowers emissions.

The Cape & Islands Self-Reliance Corporation (reliance.org) reports that bioheat works in any regular heating fuel application, like home heating oil equipment, commercial boilers, and diesel generators, without any modifications.

Bioheat burns cleaner than regular heating oil, reducing many air emissions by 15-20%; it reduces the demand for oil; and the environmental impacts associated with drilling, transporting, and refining.

Also, the biodiesel component of bioheat is biodegradable, and bioheat breaks down more quickly than pure heating oil if there is a spill. And according to the Massachusetts nonprofit, burning heating oil produces toxic air emissions like carbon monoxide, particulates, and smog forming compounds.

Bioheat reduces all of these emissions, making the air around your home healthier. That's why organizations like the American Lung Association and the Environmental Protection Agency are strong promoters of biodiesel, so perhaps it is a practical and environmentally-conscious alternative to explore in 2012.

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New Survey: Saving Takes Priority for Young Adults This Year

January 9, 2012 5:52 pm

Young adults have made saving a priority this year—ahead of losing weight, living healthier and other typical New Year's resolutions—as financial concerns take a toll on their friendships and personal lives, according to a new survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Ad Council.
The organizations released the results today to coincide with the launch of a new series of public service advertisements on behalf of their national Feed the Pig financial literacy campaign, which helps 25- to 34-year-olds take control of their finances and add saving to their daily lives.

According to the survey, nearly three in four young adults in the Feed the Pig demographic are worried more about personal finances because of today's economy. Asked how those concerns are affecting them, almost half, or 48 percent, said they are socializing less with friends; 38 percent said they are losing sleep; 34 percent said they are distracted at work; and 31 percent said they are short-tempered with family and friends.

The majority want to get on stronger financial footing this year, with 94 percent of 25- to 34- year olds saying they are at least somewhat likely to make saving a priority, more than those who said the same about living healthier, 90 percent, or losing weight, 78 percent. Even so, almost four in 10, or 38 percent, said they have a hard time socking away even $25 a week.

"Young adults, debt laden and savings starved, are literally losing sleep as they struggle to put in place financial foundations to support their ambitions," says Jordan Amin, CPA, chairman of the AICPA's National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, which oversees the profession's financial literacy programs.

"Given the state of the economy over the past couple of years and its impact on young adults today, these tools are an important resource to help them navigate their financial lives. We know that young adults have a hard time saving for their future and that they are living beyond their means," says Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. "I am confident the new work in this successful campaign will help ensure they are including regular savings as an essential part of how they manage their money."

Sources: www.feedthepig.org, www.aicpa.org , www.adcouncil.org

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Word of the Day

January 9, 2012 5:52 pm

Tax credit. An allowed deduction that can be subtracted from your income tax. If you are entitled to a $1,500 credit, and your income tax would otherwise be $10,000, the credit would reduce the tax due to $8,500.

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Question of the Day

January 9, 2012 5:52 pm

Q: Does the seller take the furnishings once the home is sold?
A: Normally. This is because the fixtures – personal property that is permanently attached to a home, such as built-in bookcases or a furnace – automatically stay with the house unless noted otherwise in the sales contract. Anything that is not nailed down is negotiable, including appliances that are not built in, such as washers and dryers.

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Time to Switch Banks? More Fees Coming in 2012

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Consumer Reports recently investigated upcoming banking fees, and found that consumers who say they're furious at behemoth banks for their lending practices, fees, account requirements and various other reasons, can get ready to vent some more.

Among the findings of the consumer organization's investigation:

The investigation showed that fee hikes and tougher account requirements will probably continue, especially while the economy remains weak.

While customers with a lot of accounts at one bank might avoid some fees, they're not immune. Banks may try a spectrum of charges even for good customers, including fees for paper statements and higher safe-deposit costs.

Consumers are more likely to find lower fees and better rates at community banks, larger credit unions, and online institutions. According to research, banks are trying to make up billions in lost revenue due to the bad economy, new regulations, and in some cases perhaps even their own inefficiencies.

Should you switch banks?
Now that you know that fees may fire up, you may be wondering if you should switch banks. If your bank plans to stick you with new fees or tougher account requirements, your first thought might be to find a new one. According to Consumer Reports, that might be your best option, but switching banks can be a hassle. So it's important to weigh your options before making a decision to move. The following tips can help you decide:
• Check the terms. If you're facing a single new fee, see what it would take to avoid it. Increasing your account balance by a few hundred dollars or signing up for direct deposit might work.
• Change your habits. For example, plan a weekly visit to an ATM in your bank's network to withdraw cash instead of going out of network. And check your statements more carefully so you don't rack up overdraft fees.
• Try to negotiate. You might be able to get a fee waived if you tell your bank you're thinking about moving your accounts.
• Consider convenience. Banking is about much more than rates and fees. It's also about the day-to-day banking experience. Does the bank have adequate ATM locations and local branches with convenient hours, or give you privileges to use out-of-network ATMs?
• Do your homework. Check with competing banks and credit unions, starting with their websites. That's where you'll find complete information about rates, fees, terms, and conditions.
• Plan your getaway. If you've decided that moving your money is the best solution, make the process as smooth as possible. Check to see whether your new bank offers a "switch kit" to help you streamline the process
• Make your move. Open up the account in your new bank or credit union with a small deposit. Then you can transfer funds from your old bank to the new institution electronically. Arrange to switch over your automatic payments and deposits to the new account.
• The grand finale. Leave at least a small amount of cash in your old account and close it once you're sure all checks and transfers have cleared.

Source: http://www.ConsumerReports.org

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Raising Money-Savvy Kids

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Adults aren’t the only ones making money-smart decisions these days. In fact, the 2011 Free Enterprise National Survey found that 64 percent of high school juniors were interested in starting or owning their own businesses. And, 15 percent of respondents had already started their own business.

Additionally, The 2010 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's Youth Entrepreneurship Survey found that 40 percent of students between the ages of 8 and 24 would like to start a business in the future, or already have done so.

Do your kids keep asking what they can do to earn more allowance? Do they know how to save up for something they want? You might have a budding entrepreneur on your hands. From setting up a lemonade stand on the corner to creating smartphone apps, kids are learning the ropes of running a business early.

Yet with all this interest in entrepreneurship, few students are getting this information from school. According to the Council for Economic Education, only 15 states require public high schools to offer a personal finance course, and there are no national standards for an entrepreneurial education.
If you have a budding entrepreneur in the family, what can you do to encourage and equip them to take on the challenges of starting and running a business?

Kim Danger, personal finance expert and founder of www.MommySavers.com, says that even if you're not a business-minded person, you can help your child or teen grow in this area.

"It's never too early to start learning about financial matters, whether it's managing their allowances or starting their own dog-sitting service," Danger says. "In addition to talking with them about money matters and being a good role model when it comes to finances, there are some things you can do to help them get some real-world business experiences."

• Take them seriously. If they have an idea for a product improvement or a service they can provide to neighbors, don't dismiss it. Listen to the idea and ask them questions to help them figure out how to make that idea a reality. Even if they don't make a dime, they'll get a boost in confidence and some lessons in planning and critical thinking that will pay off later.
• Don't do too much. It can be very tempting for adults to take over a project and "do it right," but kids need to learn from mistakes, and to take responsibility for decisions and their consequences. Entrepreneurship means facing a lot of challenges that require persistence, patience, determination and creative problem solving. They'll miss out on all those lessons if you do the legwork for them.
• Make sure it's a labor of love. It's one thing to come up with an idea to make some short-term pocket money. But starting a business takes a lot of time and effort, so it needs to be something that they can be passionate about. Starting a pet-care business when they don't really love dogs will not end well.

"Kids have energy, imagination and creativity that could very well lead to the next big idea or make a big difference in their world," says Danger. "All they need is some encouragement from you and they can start creating their own future today."

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