Mary Mastroeni
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Mary Mastroeni

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Add Class to Your Yard with a Gazebo

July 15, 2011 4:59 pm

I regularly review the latest trends in outdoor projects and improvements, from patios and decks to pools, fountains and outdoor kitchens—but today we’re going to talk gazebos. According to the folks at Arlington, Texas based, gazebos are one of the most classic elements for a backyard.

When it is the right size and structure, a gazebo is a great place to hang out with friends and enjoy the nice summer nights. And gazebos add design to your yard along with more functional space.

A comprehensive report on gazebos is also available from our friends at, who say when deciding on a gazebo, one of the most important things to consider is where to install it. Aesthetics are also equally important—you may choose to highlight your gazebo by making it the center of attention or build it into the existing surroundings, a quiet place to relax and reflect.

Existing structures and lot size will also impact the final site choice. Depending on the size of your property, you may want the gazebo to be close to the house, or have it set back as a destination point on the property when taking a leisurely stroll.

Don't forget about checking on permits for your gazebo build, or you may get an expensive reminder.

Since gazebos are often used as a focal point for gardens, a great idea is to highlight your structure by making it the center of attention. Think how you may want to cultivate the landscape in your gazebo's immediate surroundings.

Shrubs, flowers, and other garden details provide a nice complement to your gazebo design and will help to define the space. Many people also choose to lay flagstone or other pavers to create a unique pathway to the gazebo opening.

A little garden decor provides nice finishing touches to a tranquil space. Strategically placed, things like trellises, pergolas, lights, wind chimes, birdhouses—and even your favorite piece of weathered furniture can go a long way to creating the perfect setting for your gazebo.


Question of the Day

July 14, 2011 7:59 pm

Q: Are impound accounts required for all mortgage loans?

A: They can typically be waived on a conventional loan if the loan amount is 80 percent or less of the purchase price. But the lender might charge you an additional 1/4 point for this option to waive the escrow.

One way to avoid an impound account on an owner-occupied mortgage is to raise your down payment amount slightly. The exact amount necessary to avoid the escrow will vary with the lender.

In some states, lenders let buyers set up separate accounts in which they place specific funds and then pay the insurance and property taxes themselves. These are called pledge accounts, and they must be set up before you close on the home.

An impound account can usually be dropped on an owner-occupied loan once the loan-to-value ratio equals 80 percent or less. But restrictions apply: payments will have to be current and your record of making on-time payments pretty solid. Contact your lender if you meet these requirements and want to drop your impound account.


Word of the Day

July 14, 2011 7:59 pm

Commission. Payment, or brokerage fees, given by the seller of a property to a real estate agent for services rendered. Usually paid at the closing.


10 Re-deck-orating Ideas

July 14, 2011 7:59 pm

Create the ultimate destination for socializing or relaxing with these easy deck updates.

1. Rock solid. Settle into a sturdy wood rocker with a comfortably curved slate seat. Who could resist whiling away the hours with a great read and a cool drink?

2. Trunk show. Stash cushions in style and add bench seating for guests with a deck box made of weather-resistant resin.

3. Screen star. Gain privacy in an instant wherever you need it with a freestanding folding screen that’s easy to reposition.

4. Table talk. Chats over coffee could be a daily delight with a bistro set in the corner.

5. Warm hello. Extend the seasons with a heater that warms up to 400 square feet.

6. Easy living. Cozy up outdoors with seating that includes stain- and fade-resistant cushions.

7. Crowd pleaser. With a gas grill, it’s a snap to feed family and friends in style.

8. Living color. Add blooms to urns and planters.

9. Night light. Solar post caps extend outdoor living long after the sun sets.

10. Stage setter. Add style and comfort to your outdoor seating area with a weather-resistant rug.

This article is excerpted from Lowe’s Creative Ideas magazine. For more information, please visit


Choosing the Best Mortgage Lender

July 14, 2011 7:59 pm

In today’s tightened credit arena, it’s easy to feel so relieved when a mortgage lender approves your loan that you decide to look no further. But if your credit is good, you should have the luxury of choosing the lender who offers the terms and service you need.

Chicago loan officer Mel Stevenson offers the following tips for settling on the lender best for you:

• Consider your lending needs – If you have special lending considerations, such as a small down payment, or if you are self-employed, look for a lender who specializes in your circumstances. A mortgage broker can help you determine what you need.
• Start with references – You very likely chose your doctor, attorney, and stock broker based on recommendations from friends. Choose a lender the same way, checking with friends and neighbors about their happiness or unhappiness with their mortgage holder.
• Compare fees as well as rates – Comparing loans based on annual percentage rate (APR) is a good place to start. But ask lenders for a ‘good faith estimate’ of the fees you will incur with your loan, and ask about charges that may not appear on that list, such as prepayment penalties.
• Check the range of loan types – There are more loan types available today than ever, from conventional fixed rate and adjustable rate loans to hybrid and option ARMS. Look for a lender who offers a wide variety of loans so you can choose the one that seems best for you.
• Evaluate customer service – Does the lender appear to listen to you? Will they charge a fee for locking in their quoted rates? Are they amenable to amending one of the terms—such as the payment cap or payment date? Choose the lender who appears to be most flexible and responsive.


What You Need to Know Before Refinancing

July 14, 2011 7:59 pm

With interest rates lower than they've been in 15 years a lot of consumers are looking to save money on their monthly mortgage payments. Although this is a great option for many borrowers, choosing the right type of refinance is a very important decision.

You can save money by refinancing at the similar term you started with or you can shave years off your mortgage by refinancing into a shorter term mortgage, potentially without upfront costs. Some borrowers are waiting for the rates to bottom out before considering a refinance; the problem with that is there is really no consistent, verifiable way to predict which direction rates will go in the future. At this time with the current financial markets in such a "perplexed" state, no one can reliably predict the short term direction of mortgage interest rates.

The best refinance option depends on the specific borrower and their current economic condition and what the near future holds for them and their lifestyle choices. For example, an ARM may be the right fit for someone who knows they are going to be moving for one reason or another in the next five to seven years. They can get a short term ARM that will have a very low interest rate for a number of years. This could add up to be a significant savings over their current mortgage. If you are not planning on moving but would like to cut down on the number of years you will be paying your mortgage you could reduce your term in a refinance from the most popular 30 year fixed to a 20, 15 or 10 year fixed. The rates will be more attractive and the amount of interest you will save could be very significant over the term of your loan.

Before considering any refinance, you should take a very good look at the current mortgage, the interest rate, and how long you have been paying it off. Additionally in today's environment it is very important to have a good understanding of home values in your neighborhood. Values have come down now for the past two years and a reduced value on your home could influence your ability to refinance. Lastly, as mentioned above, know what your short and long term ideas are for staying in the current home or possibly moving to a new location.

It is important to ask a lot of questions about your lender and their way of doing business. Are they brokers? What banks do they use for mortgages? How long have they been in business? Can they supply references? It is also important to shop around for competitive rates on your transaction. Referrals are a great way to locate a mortgage person that you can trust. Ask your friends and family who they have had experience with and start your search with those that get favorable remarks.

When refinancing, be sure to understand the costs associated with the refinance. In some situations the breakeven point when paying closing costs can be way too long to make it an effective move. However, if your mortgage lender offers a true no point no closing cost loan it is probably a good reason to start the process right away. 

For more information please visit


Question of the Day

July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

Q: What is an impound account?
It is a special bank account held by the lender to collect monthly payments from the borrower to pay property taxes, mortgage insurance, and hazard insurance. These accounts also are called escrow or reserve accounts.

Lenders like to set up impound accounts to ensure the property taxes and insurance will be paid on time. They typically also collect a two-month cushion for taxes and insurance at the closing. A few states require the lender to pay interest on funds held in these accounts.


Word of the Day

July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

Commingle funds. Mixing of a clients’ funds, or escrow, with an agent’s personal funds in an account; considered to be grounds for the suspension or revocation of the broker’s real estate license.



July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

What do guests expect when staying at a hotel? Studies have found that cleanliness, amenities, quality beds and safety consistently make the top of the list. In fact, more people become victims of credit card fraud and scams while dealing with the hotel industry, than when interacting with any other industry. 

The Numbers
Based on a myriad of sources such as stories in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and information provided by observers of the hotel industry, findings show that 38% of all credit card hacking involves hotels. This is double the number of hacking done in the finance industry, which is ranked second at 19%. Other, retail, and restaurants and bars came in third, fourth and fifth respectively with 15.8%, 14.2% and 13%. 

Charles Tran, founder of CreditDonkey, says this news was highly unexpected to him and his team. “Frankly, yes, we were surprised at the numbers showing that hotel visitors run the greatest risk of all for having their credit card information stolen,” Tran says. 

Lack of Security Upgrades
The recent economic recession has hit the hotel industry particularly hard, which may have kept some hotels and hotel chains from upgrading their computer security systems as much as they should have. This could be one of the main reasons they have become prime hacking and credit card fraud targets."
Two Recent Incidents
There have been a number of costly cases that appear to back up the findings presented in infographic. In one recent three-month-long hacking incident, credit card information was stolen from 700 hotel guests resulting in losses averaging from $2,000 to $3,000 per credit card account. 

In a separate incident in the Lone Star State, hotel guests are now being targeted by a new scam, according to Monica Horton, president of the Better Business Bureau of North Central Texas. "The BBB has been alerted of a scam that is again plaguing hotels and their guests, whereby a scam artist obtains the credit card information of hotel guests over the phone," says Horton. 

Explaining how the scam works, Horton says, "The caller indicates they are a hotel employee, and the hotel computer system has crashed. To complete the hotel audit, they must have the credit card number. Many times, the caller also offers a discount on the room for the inconvenience. These callers are very convincing, and many hotel guests do fall for this scam." 

Horton added that the calls are normally made when guests are sleeping. The BBB has yet to determine whether or not the calls are being made from within the hotels or from people who have the direct numbers to specific rooms. 

The BBB of Central Texas is actively trying to get the word out about this new scam by contacting hotels. Horton wrote in a letter sent to hotels in Wichita Falls, "Please alert your hotel guests of this scam and remind them not to provide their credit card information over the phone during their stay. Let them know if there is ever a problem with billing, your staff will handle it at the front desk and not over the phone."
Can We Protect Ourselves? 

CreditDonkey says that credit card users can protect themselves from identity theft by reviewing credit card purchases and regularly checking their online statements for unknown purchases. Criminals will often make numerous small “test” purchases to test the card owners’ vigilance, before they try to steal a large amount. 

Tran adds, “Unfortunately, this is the world we live in today. We’d just be foolish to think our electronic data was safe. It is not. We must assume that all of our electronic personal information may be compromised, because that is in fact the case. This means we must be diligent about regularly checking our accounts and credit reports, just as we are about checking our windows and doors before going to bed at night.” 

The BBB says that people should never give out personal information over the phone if they did not initiate the call. And, while staying in a hotel, guests should only give out their information in person.
To see a complete infographic and read more coverage about credit card safety and threats in hotels, visit


Have Food Allergies? Read the Label

July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

Since 2006, it has been much easier for people allergic to certain foods to avoid packaged products that contain them, says Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at the Food and Drug Administration. 

This is because a federal law requires that the labels of most packaged foods marketed in the U.S. disclose—in simple-to-understand terms—when they are made with a “major food allergen.”
Eight foods, and ingredients containing their proteins, are defined as major food allergens. These foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies: 

• milk 
• egg
• fish, such as bass, flounder, or cod
• crustacean shellfish, such as crab, lobster, or shrimp
• tree nuts, such as almonds, pecans, or walnuts
• wheat
• peanuts
• soybeans 

The law allows manufacturers a choice in how they identify the specific “food source names,” such as “milk,” “cod,” “shrimp,” or “walnuts,” of the major food allergens on the label. They must be declared either in: 

• the ingredient list, such as “casein (milk)” or “nonfat dry milk,” or
• a separate “Contains” statement, such as “Contains milk,” placed immediately after or next to the ingredient list. 

“So first look for the ‘Contains’ statement and if your allergen is listed, put the product back on the shelf,” says Kane. “If there is no ‘Contains’ statement, it’s very important to read the entire ingredient list to see if your allergen is present. If you see its name even once, it’s back to the shelf for that food too.”
There are many different ingredients that contain the same major food allergen, but sometimes the ingredients’ names do not indicate their specific food sources. For example, casein, sodium caseinate, and whey are all milk proteins. Although the same allergen can be present in multiple ingredients, its “food source name” (for example, milk) must appear in the ingredient list just once to comply with labeling requirements. 

"Contains" and "May Contain" Have Different Meanings
If a “Contains” statement appears on a food label, it must include the food source names of all major food allergens used as ingredients. For example, if “whey,” “egg yolks,” and a “natural flavor” that contained peanut proteins are listed as ingredients, the “Contains” statement must identify the words “milk,” “egg,” and “peanuts.” 

Some manufacturers voluntarily include a “may contain” statement on their labels when there is a chance that a food allergen could be present. A manufacturer might use the same equipment to make different products. Even after cleaning this equipment, a small amount of an allergen (such as peanuts) that was used to make one product (such as cookies) may become part of another product (such as crackers). In this case, the cracker label might state “may contain peanuts.” 

Be aware that the “may contain” statement is voluntary, says Kane. “You still need to read the ingredient list to see if the product contains your allergen.” 

When in Doubt, Leave It Out
Manufacturers can change their products’ ingredients at any time, so Kane says it’s a good idea to check the ingredient list every time you buy the product—even if you have eaten it before and didn’t have an allergic reaction. 

“If you’re unsure about whether a food contains any ingredient to which you are sensitive, don’t buy the product, or check with the manufacturer first to ask what it contains,” says Kane. “We all want convenience, but it’s not worth playing Russian roulette with your life or that of someone under your care.”

For more information, please visit