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Mary Mastroeni

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Question of the Day

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Q: Are interest rates negotiable?

A:
It depends who you negotiate with. Some lenders are willing to haggle on both the loan rate and the number of points, but this is not typical among more established lenders.

This is why it pays to shop around for the best loan rates. And know the market so that you sound informed when talking to a lender. Read the published rates in local newspapers or check the growing number of Internet sites that publish such information.

Also, always make a point to consider the interest rate along with the points to access which loan is truly the best.

Interest rates are much more open to negotiation on purchases that involve seller financing. While they are usually based on market rates, some flexibility exists when negotiating on the rate.

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5 Tips for Comfortable Summer Flying

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Summer is the season of travel, and from June through August, many of us find ourselves snagging more in-flight time than usual. With extra-long security lines and overpriced airport eats, flying can be a real drag. But it doesn’t have to be. The following 5 tips will make your flight more comfortable. 

1. Bag it right. If you are making a connecting flight, it’s a good idea to cough up the cash (usually around 20 dollars) and check your large luggage. Rushing between flights with a roll-on in tow is stressful, and uncomfortable. Instead carry on a large shoulder bag or tote, big enough for all your essentials. Pack snacks and a water bottle (bring it through security empty and fill at a water fountain). Staying hydrated while flying minimizes jetlag!

2. Layer it up. In a heat wave, the thought of putting on a sweater might seem absurd. But airports and planes usually have the AC pumping—wear or carry extra layers to make sure you aren’t shivering all the way to your destination.

3. Socks and shoes. Make sure your shoes are easy-on, easy-off to avoid a hold-up in security. While flip flops are ideal for summer traveling, be sure to pack socks! This way, you won’t have to walk around barefoot on the dirty airport floor. Plus, an optional extra layer for your toes will keep you comfy throughout the flight.

4. Earplugs. Between the engine humming and the noise of your neighbors—crying babies included—bringing earplugs will allow you to relax, and maybe snag some sleep, on your flight.

5. A blanket. Blankets are no longer offered on every flight, and if they are, they aren’t always laundered in between. Pack your own lightweight throw for extra comfort and warmth.

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Homeowners Save Time, Money and Headaches by Calling Home Improvement Pros This Summer

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

It's peak home improvement season and many homeowners are itching to roll up their sleeves and tackle a home improvement project. However, before embarking on a home improvement or renovation project this summer, homeowners need to understand just what they're getting themselves into. 

Cutting costs on big projects by doing-it-yourself —or "DIY"—can actually cause huge problems down the road. Homeowners should educate themselves on what is best to leave to the professionals who are knowledgeable about what to consider when embarking on a home improvement project, including materials, sizing, project pitfalls, code requirements and permitting. Power Home Remodeling Group, a home remodeling company, offers homeowners tips and resources to assist them in making the decision when not to DIY. 

"As a remodeling enthusiast, I personally understand a homeowner's desire to tackle projects on their own. The feeling of pride that results from improving your own home is a wonderful sense of accomplishment, but it's also important to know your limits," says Power co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Kaliner. "Some home improvement projects can be complex and benefit from a professional's expertise, such as window and siding installation, electrical wiring and plumbing. If such projects go awry, it could end up causing the homeowner quite a headache or additional costs that could have been prevented by consulting a professional." 

Power offers several key tips for homeowners considering a DIY project:
• Do you have the time? This important question can easily aid your decision to complete a home improvement project. Take an honest evaluation of the time you can allot to the project. Diving into a project on a weekend without a realistic timeline can leave your house in shambles for weeks as you complete the project in your spare time. 

• Do you have the right tools? Window, siding and door installation projects require very specialized, expensive tools to produce a quality result. Cutting corners with improvised tools will produce a less than stellar final product that can negatively affect the home's resale value. Less obvious tools such as permits, licenses and insurance are required to complete several projects. Without these, homeowners could face fines or zoning issues that can affect their taxes. 

• Do you have the experience? For homeowners, their home is typically their biggest investment. Projects that change a home's structural integrity, energy efficiency and even visual appeal can drastically change its value. Before investing time and money in trial and error, homeowners should consider calling a professional to guarantee a high quality result.

Simpler projects such as landscaping, painting and shelving are great do-it-yourself opportunities for homeowners looking to save money. Green projects like 'upcycling' a piece of old furniture or caulking a leaky drain can also satisfy a desire to DIY on a smaller scale. These projects can be completed with less risk of doing any major damage to the home. Botched projects can even jeopardize the homeowner's ability to sell down the road. 

Kaliner added, "Homeowners should also consider starting with a smaller DIY project that won't take a lot of time, they can see to completion, gain some confidence and get a better understanding of what's involved for future home improvement projects." 

For more information, please visit PowerHRG.com.

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Tips for Electricity Conservation

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

With hot and humid weather predicted to continue throughout the region, FirstEnergy Corp.'s utility companies are offering tips to help customers save money, keep cool and conserve electricity. 

• Consider setting air conditioners a few degrees warmer on hot days. Every degree you add to your interior temperature in the summer can reduce your energy usage by up to 3 percent. 
• Close drapes or blinds on windows that receive direct sunlight. Blocking the sun's rays reduces the temperature in your home, which means your air conditioner has less work to do.
• Close air conditioning registers in unused rooms and keep the doors to those rooms closed. This will reduce the amount of energy your air conditioner will use to maintain your home's temperature.
• Don't position heat-producing appliances near wall-mounted thermostats. Doing so will make your air conditioner run longer than necessary to maintain your preferred temperature.
• Turn off electric appliances and equipment that you do not need or are not using.
• Postpone using major electric household appliances, such as stoves, dishwashers and clothes dryers until the cooler, evening hours.
• Cook with the microwave instead of the oven. Traditional ovens require far more energy than microwaves, and they produce substantial heat inside your home, making your air conditioner run longer.

For more information, please visit www.firstenergycorp.com.

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Most Americans Are without a Financial Back-up Plan

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

If the unexpected happens and a major life crisis occurs, most Americans today would be unprepared to handle the impact. These findings are detailed in the new State Farm® "Financial Plan B" survey. In the study, while 81 percent of all adults say having a back-up plan is very important, only 45 percent say they've actually planned ahead and are ready to weather a life crisis. 

"People naturally think the unexpected happens to somebody else. But setbacks can hit anyone and people need to be ready. Regrettably, most are not," says Joe Monk, senior vice president and chief administrative officer, State Farm Life Insurance Company. "With the economic downturn and concerns about continued slow growth, it's critically important that people take a clear-eyed look at their financial situation and develop realistic options they can have in place should unexpected financial difficulties pop up." 

The survey also shows that the pressure to have back-up plans is intensifying because whatever "rainy-day funds" people once had are now challenged in the wake of the economic downturn. In the survey, 35 percent of Americans say they have funds on hand to meet financial needs for just three months or fewer, with 15 percent lacking funds to meet commitments beyond a single month. Not surprisingly, in the event of a job loss, many respondents say they would accept a large salary reduction simply to restore household cash flow. Fifty-four percent indicate they would accept a lower paying job if they were out of work for six months or fewer. 

The telephone survey, conducted for State Farm by Harris Interactive®, asked people to consider their financial readiness in the face of a major life crisis such as loss of a job, a divorce, the unexpected death of a spouse or partner, or a catastrophic illness that leaves someone unable to earn an income. The survey was conducted from May 6, 2011 to May 16, 2011 among a nationally representative sample of 2,017 U.S. adults aged 18 and older. 

Not Ready, Not Realistic
The survey also found that many people may have a false sense of security when it comes to the adequacy of the plans they have embraced to prepare for the unexpected. In the survey, 69 percent say they feel well prepared or somewhat prepared in the event of a major life crisis. Yet in looking at the actual elements of people's back-up plans, many "go-to" options create just as many problems as they solve. 

• Sixty-one percent indicate they would take money from a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement savings vehicle as part of their Plan B. Thirty-four percent would downsize their home and 22 percent would move in with family.
• Sixty-eight percent of people 55 or older say it is likely that they would take on an additional job if necessary.
• Fifty-eight percent of adults who have a financial back-up plan say it is not written down and only exists in their heads.

"For many people, their current Plan B's don't provide the kind of safety net they ultimately need," says Monk. "Taking money from a 401(k) creates more vulnerability later in life, homes are not the piggybanks they once were, and not all people are in the position to take in extended family.
"Working multiple jobs also is not realistic for many Americans as they age," adds Monk. "Most sobering is the fact that most people don't have back-up plans that are written down and documented, which means they often come up with solutions in the midst of a crisis—seldom the best time for clear, stress-free thinking." 

Plan A's Suffering Too
The survey indicates many assumptions about retirement once thought to be unshakable also are coming under pressure. When asked, just fewer than a quarter of future retirees think they will be able to retire at age 60. Nearly one-quarter doubt they'll ever be able to retire. Additionally, slightly more than six in 10 Americans say they will not be able to retire without Social Security and/or Medicare being available as they exist today. 

Given these rising uncertainties, State Farm recommends people consider the following tips to ward off the damaging effects that unexpected life events can have on savings and retirement plans: 

• Start the conversation with loved ones. Financial planning conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it's important to start them before you're faced with a crisis. Planning ahead for the unexpected can alleviate some of the stress you would otherwise experience.
• Work with someone you trust. Talk to your insurance agent or financial advisor about your Plan A—and your Plan B. If you don't know where to turn, ask your friends or family members to recommend someone they trust.
• Put your plan in writing. By committing a step-by-step plan to paper, you can prepare in advance and make more rational choices. And if something unexpected happens to you, others will know your wishes.

For more information, please visit www.statefarm.com.

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Word of the Day

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Contract. A legally enforceable agreement between two or more parties. To be valid, a real estate contract must be dated, in writing, include a consideration, have a description of the property, the place and date of delivery of the deed, and spell out all terms and conditions that were mutually agreed upon. It also must be executed (signed) by the buyer and seller.

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Question of the Day

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Q: Why do most homebuyers prefer a fixed-rate mortgage?

A: Long-term, fixed-rate mortgages are preferred by most homebuyers because they offer security and stability. The interest rate does not fluctuate over the life of the loan, so the total amount of principal and interest always remains the same. The monthly payment can change, however, if local property taxes, which are normally part of the monthly mortgage payment, increase.

Because the life of a fixed-term loan is usually long – anywhere from 15 to 30 years – you have plenty of time to repay it and there is no call provision written into the mortgage. A call allows the lender to demand the balance of the loan be paid in full before the actual payoff date.

On the negative side, the interest rate on a fixed mortgage is usually two or three full points above the current rate on an adjustable rate loan, at least initially. But for buyers seeking security, the comfort of knowing what their payments will be year after year, and no plans of selling their home in the foreseeable future, this is a small price to pay. If rates drop, they may be able to refinance their home loan and get a lower rate.


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Saving Strategies That Work

July 21, 2011 4:59 pm

If you find spending money a lot easier than saving it, you may need to back your way into some out-of-the-box savings strategies, say the financial mavens at Money Magazine, who offer seven ways you may not have thought about to help you build up emergency savings.

1. Do it without thinking – Set up an automatic deduction from checking into savings. Pick an amount you won’t miss—as little as two to five percent of your deposits—and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your savings can grow.
2. Keep paying yourself – When you pay off a long-term loan, continue paying that money into savings. The cash is there for you if you really need it, but adds up fast when paid into savings.
3. Avoid temptation – Just as a dieter can avoid the bakery, so should the shopper avoid the mall. If diversion is what you’re after, opt for the park instead of the mall.
4. Squash the impulse – Try the 24-hour rule: if you still need or want an item after a 24 hour wait, go get it. If not—it’s money saved. Can you bank it?
5. Save for little splurges – Save up for that day at the spa instead of booking it and paying with plastic. Knowing the bill won’t show up on your statement next month makes the splurge even sweeter.
6. Enjoy the compounding – Instead of paying interest on the interest as you pay down credit cards, you can actually enjoy compound interest for a change as you watch your money grow.
7. Reward yourself – Set savings goals, and give yourself a little reward each time you reach a goal level. A new outfit, a nice dinner out or a weekend away are sensible rewards to plan for.

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How to Stock Your Home Bar

July 21, 2011 4:59 pm

Entertaining is a summer essential, whether for family, neighbors, friends, or community members. When entertaining, a relaxed atmosphere and some easy appetizers are key, but nothing is more crucial than a well-stocked home bar, perfect for plans made last minute.

A home bar should reflect your tastes, but also cater to the preferences of your guests. That’s why it’s important to have a wide selection of choices.

Standards
Having the following popular choices on stand-by will prove handy for unexpected company:

• Red wine, stored in a cool dark place such as the basement
• White wine, chilled in the fridge
• Light summer beer, chilled in the fridge
• Dark beer, either in the fridge or stored in a cool dark place
• A non alcoholic selection or soda, juice or iced tea

Base Liquors
Be sure to have at least three types of base liquors on hand, such as:

• Gin
• Tequila
• Bourbon
• Rum
• Whiskey
• Scotch

Base Mixers
These can turn your vodka on the rocks into a tasty summer special:

• Bitters
• Vermouth
• Tonic
• Seltzer
• Soda (diet and non)
• Juice, such as orange, cranberry or pomegranate

Tools
You don’t have to be a seasoned bartender to make a good drink. The following tools will help you make a variety of beverages:

• Medium sized cocktail shaker
• Glasses, including scotch, martini, red and white wine
• Wine and beer opener
• Ice bucket

Extras
The following accoutrement will take your drinks to the next level:

• Olives
• Lemons
• Limes
• Ice, either plain or with mint or fresh fruit frozen inside

The great thing about a well stocked home bar is that most things—beer, wine, hard mixers and juices—keep for a long time if left unopened. This means you won’t need to make a trip to the store if unexpected company arrives, and will be one less thing on your list while planning your next party or event.


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Sleep Tips Website Recommends against New Products to Sleep or Stay Awake

July 21, 2011 4:59 pm

Convenience store shelves have long featured a variety of products to give consumers a jolt of personal energy. Lately, they’re being joined by a new class of products like herbal sodas and melatonin-laced brownies that are designed to help stressed-out people relax at the end of the day. One of the web's premier sleep websites is recommending against the use of these products. 

“They may sound like a good idea, but all of that chemical stimulation and tranquilizing can interfere with healthy sleeping patterns,” says Dan Schecter, vice president of Consumer Products at Carpenter Co. and creator of SleepBetter.org. “All those uppers and downers are no substitute for regular natural rest.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” continues Schecter. “There’s nothing wrong with a cup of coffee in the morning or some soothing chamomile tea in the evening. But in our go-go culture, people are tempted to rely too much on these ‘energy products,’ especially when some of the products are being promoted in multi-million dollar marketing campaigns.” 

SleepBetter.org offers these natural, non-pharmaceutical strategies to promote beneficial and healthy sleep:
• Set regular times for going to sleep and waking-up, even on weekends
• Create a dark, cool and quiet environment in the bedroom
• Make sure bedding is clean, fresh and appropriate for the season and that pillows and mattress provide support
• As bedtime approaches, avoid stimulating activities like video games and using the computer
• A little light reading at bedtime is fine, but don’t put your brain into overdrive with a suspenseful thriller

For more tips to help you sleep better, visit http://sleepbetter.org.

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