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Mary Mastroeni

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Improving the Value of Your Home

August 18, 2011 5:03 pm

Every home is, first and foremost, a place to live and enjoy—a respite from the outside world and a place to build cherished family memories. But a home is also an investment —perhaps the most important investment you will ever make, and there are many small steps you can take over the years to increase its value, comfort, and marketability should the time come to sell it and move.

California REALTOR® Ellen Parker suggests seven cost-effective ways to treat your home like the investment it is meant to be:

• Curb appeal – First impressions are important, and regular maintenance shows. A well-kept lawn, tidy landscaping, a neatly painted exterior and a nice front door show pride of ownership and pride in the neighborhood.
• Fresh paint – One of the most cost-effective boosts to any home is a coat of fresh interior paint. Choose colors that appeal to you, but if selling your home is on your agenda, stick to neutral shades.
• Update kitchen – Dated counters, cabinets and floors can be a real turn-off to buyers. Investing in granite, tile and/or remodeled cabinetry will not only increase your own enjoyment, but can make a major difference in resale value.
Update windows – Double paned windows that shut out noise and help regulate indoor temperature are an attractive and worthwhile investment that will add value to your home.
• Update baths – Attractive bathrooms are always noticed. Tubs and showers are easily replaced or resurfaced, and newer, low-flush toilets can cost as little as $100.
Update floors and ceilings – Popcorn ceilings are a thing of the past. Scrape them away before painting. Carpeting, if used, should never look dingy or worn. Is there a real wood floor under the carpet? Think about ripping out that old carpeting and refurbishing the wood for a clean and updated look.
• Energy savings – Although not always noticeable, energy efficient additions like solar panels, insulated windows and water filtration systems will trim your own utility bills and add value when you sell.

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Many Still Lack Flood Coverage as Hurricane Season Nears Its Peak

August 18, 2011 5:03 pm

 Less than a fifth of U.S. homeowners have a flood insurance policy that protects their property and personal belongings, even though more than four out of every five natural disasters nationwide involve flooding, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). 

Coverage for flood damage resulting from surface water, including storm surge caused by hurricanes, is excluded under standard homeowner and renter insurance policies; however flood coverage is available both from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and from a few private insurance companies. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently upgraded its Atlantic hurricane season forecast. NOAA said it envisioned 14-19 named storms between August 4, 2011, and November 30, 2011, up from the 12-18 named storms the federal agency projected in May 2011. NOAA also said the number of 2011 Atlantic hurricanes would likely be closer to 7-10 in number, rather than the 6-10 hurricanes the agency predicted would develop in May 2011. 

During the first six months of 2011 alone, the federal government declared 28 major flood disasters. This put the U.S. well ahead of the pace set in 2010, when 50 federally declared major flood disasters occurred during the entire year. 

"People tend to underestimate the risk of flooding," says Jeanne M. Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokesperson for III. "But, in fact, 90 percent of all natural disasters in this country involve flooding. It is important to note that there is a 30-day waiting period for flood insurance to go into effect, so don't delay purchasing this important financial protection." 

While the risk of flood damage is real, a 2011 poll by III found that only 14 percent of American homeowners had a flood insurance policy. The percentage of homeowners with flood insurance was highest in the South, at 19 percent. Thirteen percent of Midwestern homeowners had a flood insurance policy in 2011, along with 12 percent of homeowners in the West and 5 percent in the Northeast. 

"A low risk from flooding does not mean there is no risk," points out Salvatore. "Even those who do not live in an area at high risk for flooding should talk to their agent or company representative about getting flood insurance. In fact," Salvatore adds, "Since the inception of the NFIP, 25 to 30 percent of the NFIP's paid losses were for damage in areas not officially designated as special flood hazard area at the time of the loss." 

Consumers can find out their risk of flood and the cost of a policy by going to the NFIP's website, www.FloodSmart.gov. 

The NFIP provides coverage for up to $250,000 for the structure of your home and $100,000 for your personal possessions. The NFIP policy provides replacement cost coverage for the structure of your home, but only actual cash value coverage for your possessions. Replacement cost coverage pays to rebuild your home as it was before the damage. Actual cash value is replacement cost coverage minus depreciation so that the older your possessions are, the less you will get if they are damaged. The NFIP policy may also have limits on coverage for furniture and other belongings stored in a basement. Flood insurance is also readily available for renters. 

If you need additional insurance protection over and above the amount of coverage in a basic flood insurance policy, excess flood insurance is available from some private insurers; it also provides coverage if you live in a community that does not participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. An excess flood insurance policy covers damage above the limits of the federal program on the same basis as the federal program—replacement cost for the structure and actual cash value for the contents. Some insurers have also introduced special insurance policies for high-value properties. These policies may provide enhancements to the traditional flood insurance policy. 

There is a 30-day waiting period after applying for flood coverage and paying the premium before the policy goes into effect. The only exceptions to this rule are:
• If a homeowner purchases flood insurance in connection with making, increasing, extending or renewing a loan. In those cases, there is no waiting period.
• If a lender determines that a loan on a property that does not have flood insurance should be protected by flood insurance, there is no waiting period as long as the premium is presented at the completion of a loan application.
• If a homeowner purchases flood insurance during the 13-month waiting period following the effective date of a revised community flood map issued by FEMA, the agency with oversight over NFIP. There is a one-day waiting period for policyholders meeting that criterion.

In addition to hurricane related flooding, flood insurance covers the direct physical losses resulting from heavy or prolonged rain, melting snow, blocked storm drainage systems and levee dam failure.
Despite the very real risk of flooding, the average flood insurance policy in 2010 was only $594 per year for $220,577 worth of coverage, according to III's Salvatore. And, the average amount of a flood insurance claim was $26,067 in 2010. 

"Flood insurance is also easy to buy. It can be purchased from the same agent or company representative who sold you your home or renters insurance policy," says Salvatore. "So to file a flood insurance claim, you can simply get in touch with your insurance company." 

To prepare for a disaster, the I.I.I. suggests the following steps:
1. Contact your insurance agent to make sure that you have both the right amount and type of insurance protection, including flood insurance.
2. Make sure you have an up-to-date home inventory. This will help you purchase the right amount of insurance and will make the claims process faster and easier. III has free Web-based home inventory software at KnowYourStuff.org.
3. Take reasonable steps to make your home disaster-resistant. III has a video outlining five key steps for Making Your Home More Hurricane Resistant. For detailed information on how to disaster-proof your home or business, go to www.disastersafety.org.
4. Have a disaster plan that includes your pets. You should know where you will go if you have to evacuate and know what you need to take with you.

For more information, visit www.III.org.

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Homeowners, Be Wary of Rogue Roofers

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

After one of the worst winters in recent memory, a lot of folks are finding out this summer that they have some substantial roof damage as a result. For those who do, the Better Business Bureau warns that among the summer’s usual list of unscrupulous peddlers, are contractors who try to pressure homeowners into repairing or replacing their roof.

Complaints to BBB about roofers concern high-pressure sales tactics, confusion over contract terms, poor workmanship, incomplete work, disputes over warranties and overcharging on the agreed upon price. To avoid these scenarios and find a roofer you can count on, BBB recommends that homeowners:

• Recognize the red flags - Beware of any contractor that uses high pressure sales tactics or requires full payment upfront. Also, avoid contractors that require you to get the necessary permits. This is usually an indication the contractor wants to avoid answering questions at city hall.
• Get at least three bids - Beware of lowball estimates that may potentially balloon over time or foreshadow shoddy work to come. If estimates for the same work vary widely, find out why. Sometimes unscrupulous operators may use sub-standard materials or take longer to finish the job.
• Check the qualifications - Verify the business meets all requirements including required licensing and insurance, that they are bonded and registered in many states. Ask a prospective roofer for references from recent jobs.
• Make sure everything is in writing - The full scope of the work should be explained in the contract. All verbal agreements need to be included in the written agreement. Pay close attention to the payment terms, estimated price of materials and labor, and any warranties or guarantees, a payment schedule and start and completion dates. Confirm whether the roofer will be subcontracting the job or relying on established, qualified employees.
• Know what to pay and when – Negotiate the lowest possible deposit, but keep in mind it allows the contractor to purchase materials for the project. Never pay the full amount upfront or with cash. Make checks payable to a company—rather than an individual.
• Know your rights – If you have second thoughts about having the work done, the Federal Trade Commission’s “Cooling-Off Rule” gives you three days to cancel purchases over $25 that are made in your home or at a location that is not the seller’s permanent place of business.

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Three Steps to Spruce up Your Outdoor Living Space

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

Warm weather means enjoying dinner al fresco, hosting neighborhood get-togethers and lounging outside. To create a backyard retreat before summer ends, consider these three steps from the outdoor living experts at Trex: 

Get Decked Out — Spend more time enjoying—rather than maintaining— your outdoor living space with materials that need only soap and water to keep a “like new” appearance for decades. Wood-alternative decking resists fading, staining, scratching and mold — even after years of heavy foot traffic and exposure to the elements.

Find the Best Seat Outside the House — Look for outdoor dining and seating options that combine livable design with worry-free durability. Find furniture that stands up to the sun, rain, wind, saltwater or snow and features all-weather fabrics that don’t need to be taken inside every time storm clouds threaten.

Brighten Up — Light up the night and extend the amount of time you can spend outside—while saving money on maintenance and energy costs—with proper lighting for the deck. 

“An outdoor living space should be just as comfortable and stylish as a home’s interior, while reflecting personal tastes and interests,” says Ron Kaplan, chairman, president and CEO of Trex, a manufacturer of wood-alternative decking and railing. 

For more outdoor living inspiration and information, visit www.trex.com.

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Three Steps to Spruce up Your Outdoor Living Space

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

Warm weather means enjoying dinner al fresco, hosting neighborhood get-togethers and lounging outside. To create a backyard retreat before summer ends, consider these three steps from the outdoor living experts at Trex: 

Get Decked Out — Spend more time enjoying—rather than maintaining— your outdoor living space with materials that need only soap and water to keep a “like new” appearance for decades. Wood-alternative decking resists fading, staining, scratching and mold — even after years of heavy foot traffic and exposure to the elements.

Find the Best Seat Outside the House — Look for outdoor dining and seating options that combine livable design with worry-free durability. Find furniture that stands up to the sun, rain, wind, saltwater or snow and features all-weather fabrics that don’t need to be taken inside every time storm clouds threaten.

Brighten Up — Light up the night and extend the amount of time you can spend outside—while saving money on maintenance and energy costs—with proper lighting for the deck. 

“An outdoor living space should be just as comfortable and stylish as a home’s interior, while reflecting personal tastes and interests,” says Ron Kaplan, chairman, president and CEO of Trex, a manufacturer of wood-alternative decking and railing. 

For more outdoor living inspiration and information, visit www.trex.com.

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For Your College Bound Kids: Stay Safe This Semester with Campus Fire Safety Tips

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

Along with the return of the school season, the month of September also marks campus fire safety month. McDaniel, a leader in full-service fire suppression, fire alarm and security systems for over 75 years, is offering some helpful tips to keep college students informed and safe this school year. 

According to FireSafety.gov, a Web site supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Fire Administration, most campus fires are caused due to a general lack of knowledge about fire safety and prevention. Cooking is also among the leading causes of fire injuries on college campuses, closely followed by careless smoking, alcohol use and arson. 

Here are some easy tips to follow to keep your dorm room or apartment safe from fire: 

Ask the right questions before you start school: Students and parents should ask school officials important questions such as: "Does every room have a smoke alarm?" "How often are fire drills conducted?" "Are the residence halls equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems?" "How many fires have occurred on campus in the past few years?" Being knowledgeable about your campus fire safety program can help keep you safe in the event of a fire.
Don't hide from fire alarms: Treat every fire drill as if it were the real thing, even if it occurs at 3 a.m. Leave the building immediately and close all doors behind you. Always be aware of alternative exits in case your main exit is blocked. Keep clutter out of hallways and entrances because they can become deadly obstacles to your escape.
Limit your use of open flames: The use of candles and indoor smoking are other top causes of on-campus fires. Don't allow smoking inside your dorm room or apartment and do not leave burning candles unattended. Finally, keep candles in a sturdy holder that keeps them away from papers, bedding, curtains and other flammable materials.
Never remove the batteries from your smoke or carbon monoxide detector: These devices can save your life, so taking out the batteries for use in other electronic devices is not a good idea. Always ensure that your smoke or carbon monoxide detectors are working properly and have fresh batteries at all times. An easy way to remember to change the batteries on these devices is to do it when you change your clocks for daylight savings time.
Appliance safety: Be sure to use appliances only as they were intended to be used and keep them in good working order. Appliances such as hot plates, electrical blankets, irons, toaster ovens, hair dryers and portable space heaters all can become fire hazards if not properly used and attended too. Do not use any appliances or lamps that spark.
Don't overload outlets: Using a series of adaptors to connect numerous machines or devices to an electrical outlet may result in an overload, power outage, spark or fire. Do not plug more than two devices into one electrical outlet. If multiple devices must be plugged into one outlet, have a licensed electrician evaluate the demands that can be placed on the power source. If an extension cord must be used, be sure to use an-approved (by a national testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories® - UL) and correctly rated extension cord for use with the particular appliance and location.
Follow school rules on in-house cooking: Cooking is the second leading cause of dorm fires after arson. The majority of cooking fires are started due to inattentiveness. Selecting appliances with automatic shut-off switches is a great idea for dorm rooms. Don't use stoves and microwaves for storage and don't use them to help heat a cold dorm room or apartment. Lastly, keep a functional fire extinguisher nearby the cooking area and make sure you know how to use it. 

For more information, visit www.mcdanielfire.com.

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Put Old Cell Phones to Good Use

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

When you get a new cell phone or wireless device, what happens to the old one? Instead of letting it clutter up drawer space, put it to good use by recycling it. 

In a survey conducted by MyWireless.org in March 2011, more than 84 percent of people indicated they were aware that their cell phones or wireless devices were recyclable. More than 68 percent were aware that their wireless accessories were recyclable. But only about 54 percent of them had donated or recycled an old device or accessory. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling one million cell phones saves enough energy to power more than 185 U.S. households with electricity for a year. Here's what else recycling wireless devices can do:
• Recycling helps the environment by saving energy and keeping usable materials out of landfills.
• Cell phones and other devices are made of precious metals, copper, and plastics—all of which require energy to mine and manufacture. Recycling conserves the precious metals that make up these devices, so that they can be turned into new products.
• Metals recovered in the recycling process—such as gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, tin and zinc—are used by industries such as automotive, electronics, jewelry and plating.
• The plastics recovered get recycled into plastic components for new electronic devices or other plastic products, including as garden furniture, license plate frames, non-food containers and replacement automotive parts.
• Rechargeable batteries can be recycled into other rechargeable battery products. 

The U.S. wireless industry recognizes its role to help preserve the planet, which is why many members of CTIA - The Wireless Association have developed or supported numerous programs promoting the recycling of cell phones and other wireless devices.
Before you recycle your device, erase your personal information. Here are some tips from CTIA:
• Preserve the contacts, photos, texts or other data you want to keep.
• Terminate your device's wireless service by contacting your provider.
• Use device-specific instructions to clear the device's memory of stored information.
• Remove the SIM card (found in some GSM or 4G devices). If you're unsure if your device has one, contact your provider for more information. 

There are a variety of recycling options, from carrier- and manufacturer-sponsored initiatives to third party organizations, such as drop-off or mail back programs, websites and charity drives. If you're not sure where to recycle your wireless devices, all of CTIA's carrier members will accept any device or accessory at their stores, regardless of which carrier provided your service. 

For a full listing of recycling programs, and to learn more about CTIA's green initiatives, visit www.Gowirelessgogreen.org.

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Word of the Day

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

Easement. Limited right to cross or use for some specified purpose the property of another. It may be permanent or temporary. Water, sewage, and utility suppliers frequently hold an easement across private property.

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Question of the Day

August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

Q: What is APR?

A: The annual percentage rate, or APR, is an interest rate that differs from the loan rate. It is the actual yearly interest rate paid by the borrower, including the points charged to initiate the loan and other costs.

The APR discloses the real cost of borrowing by adding on the points and by factoring in the assumption that they will be paid off incrementally over the life of the loan. The APR is usually about 0.5 percent higher than the loan rate and is commonly used to compare mortgage programs from different lenders.

The Federal Truth in Lending law requires mortgage companies to disclose the APR when they advertise a rate. The APR is usually found next to the mortgage rate in newspaper ads.

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Your Rights as a Renter

August 16, 2011 5:03 pm

With the trend in foreclosures showing no signs of letting up, I am taking an opportunity to review the rights renters have when their landlords fail to pay their mortgage.

According to the national Office Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), as the number of foreclosures increase across the country, some renters in good standing have received a nasty surprise—immediate eviction—when the houses, apartments or condos they rented went into foreclosure.

Fortunately, federal law helps protect the rights of tenants in properties facing foreclosure. The Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009 established national standards to provide renters sufficient notice when foreclosure happens. This national standard ensures uniform protection to renters who are vulnerable to sudden eviction.

The law states:
• In all cases, renters will get at least a 90-day notice prior to eviction.
• Renters can stay until their lease runs out except when the new owner will occupy the home as a primary residence, when renters have no lease or when renters have only a month-to­month lease. Even for these three exceptions, the 90-day notice still applies.
• The new law applies only to a “bona fide” lease or tenancy. Bona fide means:
o The tenant is not the landlord or a child, spouse or parent of the former owner.
o The rent is not substantially less than the fair market price.
o The rent is sharply reduced because of a government subsidy (tenants in Section 8 subsidized housing have separate protections under this law).

OCC experts advise renters to always be aware of their rights, and protect these rights by making sure they stay in good standing with regard to their rental property. Some tips on how to prove you are in good standing include:
• Sign a written lease.
• Pay your rent on time and in full.
• Use checks rather than cash to provide a record of payment.
• Pay your rent at the market rate. Paying a lower rent to a friend or family member will cut your costs, but may weaken your legal standing during a foreclo­sure or legal dispute.
• With all legal matters, the OCC encourages you to consult a lawyer. 

And remember, the OCC says paying a below-market rent can weaken a renter’s legal standing during a foreclosure. To learn more about foreclo­sures and banks in general, go to www.HelpWithMyBank.gov.

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