July 6, 2011 5:27 pm
Q: Why do homeowners have to pay property taxes?
A: Property taxes are assessed by city and county governments to generate the bulk of their operating revenues. The taxes help pay for such public services as schools, libraries, roads, and police protection.
Re-valuations of the tax are often done periodically, although the time interval varies from state to state or, in some states, from town to town, and can range from annual reassessments to periods of ten years or more.
July 6, 2011 5:27 pm
An energy bill unveiled recently on Facebook by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) , an honorary vice-chair of the Alliance to Save Energy, would save Americans more than $33 billion annually with a variety of immediate and longer-term energy efficiency initiatives for autos, buildings and industry. By trimming U.S. energy needs and leveraging private investments in energy efficiency, the Practical Energy Plan of 2011 would encourage job-creating economic growth, improve U.S. global competitiveness and protect the environment.
“The Alliance commends our honorary congressional vice-chair, Sen. Lugar, for proposing sound, cost-effective public policy that deploys a foundation of energy efficiency to save taxpayers money, create jobs and keep U.S. industry competitive” says Alliance President Kateri Callahan. “The senator’s bill demonstrates that energy efficiency advances national priorities that resonate with Americans across the political spectrum and in all regions of the country.”
Lugar Bill Creates Energy Efficiency Targets
The Lugar bill sets annual fuel efficiency improvement targets of 4% or more, reducing U.S. oil dependence by 2.7 million barrels of oil daily and saving consumers $400 to $550 a year.
Further, the bill leverages private financing to provide low-cost loans to homeowners, small businesses, nonprofits and commercial facilities for cost-saving energy efficiency upgrades to buildings. A separate provision facilitates low-interest loans to rural homeowners and businesses for energy efficiency retrofits.
The bill also requires that all new federal buildings meet or exceed national model energy efficiency codes and accelerates implementation of Energy Saving Performance Contracts (ESPCs). The latter provision will save taxpayers $800 million annually in avoided federal energy costs.
Boosting American Competitiveness
By accelerating deployment of energy-saving equipment and processes in U.S manufacturing with a self-sustaining, low-cost loan program administered by state and local governments, the bill would save 1.1 quadrillion Btu per year and boost American competitiveness.
Callahan concludes, “The Lugar bill is a sound national investment with a tremendous return. In addition to the tremendous money and energy savings, the bill is expected to leverage considerable private dollars to maximize various federal investments.”
For more information, please visit www.ase.org.
July 6, 2011 5:27 pm
U.S. exports supported an estimated 9.2 million jobs in 2010, up from 8.7 million in 2009, according to a report issued recently by the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. For every billion dollars of exports, over 5,000 jobs are supported.
“The exports surge in 2010 supported an additional half million jobs for U.S. workers—growth critical to America’s economic recovery,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke says. “It’s easy to understand why it’s so important to reach President Obama’s goal of doubling exports by 2015 and doing more than ever to help U.S. businesses reach the 95 percent of consumers who live outside our borders.”
New data also shows employment supported by manufactured exports plays a significant role in many states. Twenty-one states each counted over 100,000 jobs supported by manufactured exports in 2009, with two states registering more than a half-million—California at 616,500 jobs, and Texas at 538,500 jobs.
“As we continue to make progress in reaching the goals of the President’s National Export Initiative, we are confident that the number of jobs supported by exports will continue to rise,” says Francisco Sánchez, under secretary of commerce for international trade. “More businesses are reaching customers in foreign markets and seeing their sales rise which leads to more good-paying jobs in the United States.”
The recent report updates ITA’s April 2010 report “Exports Support American Jobs,” and highlights that, now more than ever, exports are central to a strong U.S. economy. The value of exports that support one job was $181,000 in 2010, an increase of $17,000, or 10 percent from the 2009 figure, as export prices and productivity have strengthened.
“The International Trade Administration is committed to helping U.S. firms find lucrative exporting opportunities around the globe, and ensuring access to these markets,” Sánchez says. “Our efforts improve the global business environment and help U.S. companies compete abroad, creating jobs at home.”
The International Trade Administration has a lead role in implementing the National Export Initiative and helps businesses grow through exports.
For more information, please visit www.commerce.gov.
July 6, 2011 5:27 pm
Despite the economic downturn, Americans have not cut back on spending on Fluffy and Fido. According to a survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center, during the darkest days of the recession in 2009 and 2010, only 16 percent of Americans said they reduced the amount they spent on their pets.
On top of this, the price of pet food, veterinary care and other pet-related products and services has risen 4 percent since 2008.
To help consumers keep more money in their pockets during these tough times, Consumer Reports compiled six ways for pet owners to curb expenses and still provide the best of care.
"It's still possible to save hundreds of dollars a year on pet care without shortchanging your furry, finned, or feathered friends," says Greg Daugherty, Executive Editor, Consumer Reports.
1. Don't pay a premium for pet food. Food is the biggest ongoing cost of owning a cat or dog. CR's survey respondents spent an average of $36 a month on food for dogs and $20 a month on food for cats. A significant part of the national pet-food bill goes for so-called premium and super-premium varieties. But "premium" has no legal definition in terms of nutritional quality. Pets with problems such as sensitive skin, digestive difficulties, or obesity might do better on special types of food, so talk with your vet. Even in those cases, you're likely to find significant price differences among equally appropriate foods.
Other ways to save: Hit the big box stores. CR sent secret shoppers around the country in search of the same list of pet-food brands and package weights. Target and Walmart had the lowest prices most of the time, cheaper than supermarkets and specialty retailers. Consider store and private–label brands. Among the least expensive pet foods CR found (on a unit-price basis) were Costco's Kirkland Signature, PetSmart's Grreat Choice, Safeway's store brand, and Walmart's Ol' Roy.
2. Consider new options for flea and tick protection. The big news on the flea and tick protection front is that the patent has expired on fipronil, one of the active ingredients in Frontline Plus, a leading brand, opening the market to competitors. CR found two that were new to the market, SentryFiproGuard Plus at Petco and PetArmor Plus at Walmart. The savings can be sizable. PetArmor Plus was the best deal CR saw: A three-month supply cost $28, compared with $50 for FiproGuard Plus and $62 for Frontline Plus at Petco.
Other ways to save: Shop online (mostly). CR found cheaper prices at 1-800-PetMeds, Drs. Foster & Smith and PetCareRx than at Petco or PetSmart. But the internet sellers didn't sell PetArmorPlus, and only two of the three carried FiproGuard Plus when CR checked in early June.
3. Comparison shop for your pet's veterinary care. Survey respondents spoke glowingly of their vets in general, but they were far more critical of the vets' efforts to keep costs down. Because veterinary care is an infrequent, sometimes emergency expenditure, it's difficult for consumers to gauge what constitutes a fair price for any of the hundreds of services their pet might require. The best time to comparison shop is when your pet needs a routine checkup, not when you're stressed out by a sick or injured animal.
Call at least two or three nearby vets and ask what their physical-exam fee is.
Nationally, it can range from roughly $35 to $46. That difference might seem like small change, but the exam fee forms the cornerstone of every vet bill, and vets often set their other fees as a percentage or multiple of that charge.
Consequently, the range of fees to, say, repair a midsized dog's tibial fracture can grow significantly wider: $726 to $1,207.
4. Don't automatically get pet medicines from the vet. About two-thirds of the pet owners CR surveyed for this report said they buy their pet medicines from the vet who prescribes them. That's often a mistake because vets' markups over wholesale start at 100 percent and frequently hit 160 percent, plus a $5 to $15 dispensing fee. If your pet is taking a medication that's also prescribed to humans, as is often the case, you might be able to have the prescription filled inexpensively at a chain drugstore, supermarket pharmacy, or big-box retailer.
Walgreens, for example, allows customers to enroll their pets as family members in its Prescription Savings Club. Another option is to shop at one of the Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites accredited by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Eleven such sites currently exist, including 1-800-PetMeds, Drs. Foster & Smith, KV Vet Supply, and PetCareRX.
5. Think twice before you buy pet health insurance. If you're the kind of person who would do almost anything for your pets, insurance can seem like an attractive option. For monthly premiums of less than $10 to more than $90, the insurers promise to pay a portion of your pet's bills for medical and surgical treatment, and depending on the policy, some other types of care. You pay the vet up front, file a claim, and wait for reimbursement. CR analyzed policies marketed by insurers representing roughly 90 percent of the pet-insurance market. None would have reimbursed more than the premiums they charged for a basically healthy dog over a 10-year life span. Only when CR looked at extreme and uncommon situations involving two very sick cats did all the policies pay out more than a pet-owner would have paid in.
For most people, CR advises they budget for routine care and put a few hundred dollars each year for more serious health problems into their household emergency fund.
6. Take simple steps now to prevent costly health problems. Brushing your dog's teeth with chicken flavored toothpaste or your cat's with the fish-flavored variety might seem silly, but it's a preventive measure that can be beneficial. Tooth plaque can lead to periodontal disease in pets, which, in turn, can cause kidney and lung disease.
Other smart preventatives: Spaying reduces mammary tumors in female animals, and neutering might reduce aggression as well as some diseases in males. Keep shots current, but don't over-vaccinate; the core vaccines are needed every three years, not annually. Keep dogs leashed and fenced in for the protection of the animals and your neighbors. Try not to overfeed your pet: Obesity rates in cats and dogs mirror those of humans these days. Being significantly overweight can lead to arthritis and diabetes for your pet and huge prescription bills for you.
For more information, please visit www.cunsumerreports.org.
July 6, 2011 5:27 pm
For many drivers, a few simple lifestyle or habit changes can drastically affect the rates we pay for car insurance, according to Certified Financial Planner Joel Ohman.
“Even if you have recently checked for the best available rates,” Ohman says, “the rates change all the time. You need to be vigilant about checking regularly —and there are several ways to save money that every insurance buyer should know.”
Here are Ohman’s seven possibilities for cutting car insurance costs:
• Drop coverage you no longer need – Just as adding a teen driver may up your rates, moving to a less busy zip code may reduce them. Check with your agent after any family or lifestyle change to see if any part of your coverage may be dropped.
• Search for discounts – New discounts pop up all the time. Check online with competing companies every six months or so to see if you qualify for any of them.
• Improve your credit score – Car insurance rates are affected by credit score. If you’ve been working to improve yours, check with your agent to see how better scores may affect your rates.
• Pay premiums with a credit card – Paying your premiums with a cash back credit card can help you shave between one and five percent off your car insurance rate, depending on how much cash back your credit card offers.
• Tell your kids to keep their grades up – Just about every insurance company offers some kind of good student discount. If your kids get good grades, you save money. You can even pay the kids some of the money you saved as an incentive to keep up those good grades.
• Take a driving course – Check with your carrier to see what courses they recommend that will result in reduced premiums—like a 55 Alive driving course for seniors, or a defensive driving course open to all.
July 5, 2011 5:27 pm
Q: Are there tax credits for first-time homebuyers?
A: Yes, thanks to the many city and county governments that offer Mortgage Credit Certificate (MCC) programs, which allow first-time home buyers to take advantage of a special federal income tax write-off. The credit reduces the amount of federal taxes paid by the buyer each year, if he keeps the same loan and lives in the same house.
An MCC also makes it easier for eligible buyers to qualify for a mortgage loan. The lender can reduce the housing expense ratio—the percentage of gross monthly income applied toward housing expenses—by the amount of the tax savings. Normally, lenders reject loans if the housing expense ratio is too high.
Program requirements for MCCs vary, although most adhere to the following guidelines:
• The buyer must live in the home being purchased with an MCC-assisted mortgage.
• Total household income cannot exceed certain limits.
• The buyer cannot have owned a principal residence within the past three years. This restriction may be waived if a property is purchased within a certain targeted area.
• The purchase price must fall within an established limit.
More information is available by calling your local housing or redevelopment agency, or contacting your real estate agent.
July 5, 2011 5:27 pm
CC&Rs. Stands for covenants, conditions and restrictions. They are the rules by which a property owner in a condominium agrees to abide.
July 5, 2011 5:27 pm
Over-reaching by federal audit contractors in Medicare is restricting the ability of legitimate providers to supply medically required care and equipment to patients. The American Association for Homecare is working with policy makers to ensure that fraud prevention efforts are effective at stopping fraud without limiting access to care.
At a June fraud prevention summit conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) admitted that audits designed to detect fraud are a "blunt instrument." After hearing several complaints from healthcare providers participating in the fraud prevention summit, another CMS official stated that federal officials will conduct an "audit audit" to ensure that audit contractors do not needlessly hamper legitimate providers.
"The current auditing strategy is expensive, inefficient, and distorts the Medicare claims error rate for at-home care products," says Tyler Wilson, president of the American Association for Homecare. "The burdensome process disrupts the service and care provided to patients in need of these at-home services and severely taxes providers' resources."
In 2008, the Medicare homecare claims error rate was approximately 9%. However, in 2009 CMS adopted its new auditing criteria, which resulted in a claims error rate of 52%. In 2010, the claims error rate jumped to an astonishing 75%, incorrectly suggesting that three out of four Medicare claims for at-home equipment and services are paid improperly or are the result of fraud or abuse.
"When 75 percent of Medicare HME claims are considered to be improper, we believe that this shows a breakdown in the system. The American Association for Homecare is working to inject common sense and accountability into the audit process and address the complexity of Medicare at-home coverage policies to ensure that beneficiaries are receiving medically necessary items and services. Both these steps are necessary to make the program work better for all stakeholders," says Wilson.
Current audit standards employed by Medicare contractors are having the following unintended consequences:
• Data regarding fraud is being distorted;
• Eligible Medicare beneficiaries are not receiving medically necessary and covered benefits;
• Auditors for CMS misinterpret and then misapply Medicare rules and regulations, sometimes on a retroactive basis, leading to inaccurate error-rate data;
• Legitimate providers furnishing medically necessary items and services are being hurt by unjustified monetary recoupments; and
• CMS will not be able to achieve the Administration's goal of reducing the error rate until it modifies its current audit policies.
For more information, please visit www.aahomecare.org/athome.
July 5, 2011 5:27 pm
As Americans take off on their Summer 2011 vacations, be prepared for the extra costs. CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison website, released a new infographic tallying up the most common costs American travelers will encounter on their trip.
"Unfortunately, many leisure travelers forget to add in all of the additional costs that go hand-in-hand with flying. These costs can add up to hundreds of dollars for a family of four, placing strains on already tight family budgets," says Charles Tran, founder of CreditDonkey.
"We want to make everyone aware of the hidden costs that come with travel so travelers can make smart choices this summer," shares Tran.
As revealed by the Real Cost of Flying infographic, the costs of flying are much more than just the airfare. And that's not including the unfortunate incidents of losing luggage or needing to reschedule flights.
“These somewhat hidden costs make a huge impact on your wallet,” says Tran. “But when you’re talking about a family of four, these unexpected costs can really put a wrench in a carefully planned budget. It’s about the same as an entire extra seat on the plane, making the parents ask if the vacation is really worth all of the costs.”
And there are some even larger expenses lurking in the shadows according to CreditDonkey. "Need to change your itinerary? That’ll put you out an additional $150. Traveling with small children? In the past they would have flown free, but now they’ll add an extra $49 to $100 to your bill. Don’t want to leave your furry friends at home? That will cost you too—up to $400 with some airlines," shares Tran.
Thankfully, the folks at CreditDonkey shared some tips to help Americans who are planning to travel this summer:
• Take advantage of airline credit cards - if you're going to spend the money, you might as well be rewarded for it. Besides seat upgrades and free flights, airlines often waive fees for their top frequent flyers.
o Gold Delta SkyMiles - Check your first bag free for up to 9 people on your reservation on every Delta flight; 20,000 bonus miles with your first purchase; no annual fee for your first year.
o United Mileage Plus - 25,000 bonus miles + $50 statement credit after your first purchase; no annual fee for your first year.
o Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus - 20,000 points toward free flights + $50 after the first time you use your card; your bags fly free; no change fees; $69 annual fee.
o »Miles by Discover - 12,000 bonus miles (earn 1,000 miles each month you make a purchase for your 1st year); 2 miles on travel and restaurant purchases on your first $3,000 each year; no annual fee.
“If you’re going to be using your hard earned dollars on flights this summer, why not take advantage of these cards?” asks Tran. “These cards can also be used for booking hotel rooms, rental cars, gas and restaurants, taking care of virtually any travel expense you may run into. Of course, you’ll want to be responsible with your credit card usage. No rewards will ever be worth additional interest payments if you’re unable to make payments.”
• Read up on your credit card benefits. Rental car insurance, baggage insurance, roadside assistance… the right credit cards are full of useful travel benefits. The best part? These extra perks are often free to cardholders.
• “As long as the traveler used the right credit card for their travels, they can cash in on these benefits in the unlucky instance that their bags get lost or damaged, they’re in a rental car accident or their car breaks down,” saysTran. “These events can really put a dent in your bank account.”
• Avoid the weekends. The cost of flights varies greatly throughout the week, with the weekends being most expensive as they are the most popular times to travel. Consumers looking to cut down the costs of traveling should consider flying on Mondays and Tuesdays, as they are typically the least expensive days of the week.
“Flexibility is truly key when it comes to traveling on the cheap,” says Tran. “Flying at unpopular times and unpopular days can help you cut corners so your travels don’t make you rack up unnecessary debt.”
To view the Infographic, please visit http://www.creditdonkey.com/cost-of-flying.html.
For more information, go to http://www.creditdonkey.com.
July 5, 2011 5:27 pm
What do side-by-side refrigerators, laptop computers, and zero-turn-radius riding mowers have in common? They're among the most repair-prone products consumers can buy, according to Consumer Reports' most recent Product Reliability Survey. And in Consumer Reports' separate Repair or Replace Survey, 27,404 subscribers reported about the troubles they had with 53,218 broken appliances, electronics, lawn equipment and more.
Though consumer goods have become more complex and contain more electronics than a decade ago, the 33 products featured in the survey aren't failing more frequently. But when things go wrong, they tend to go horribly wrong. Consumer Reports National Research Center found that more than half of the products that did break stopped working altogether, and another 30 percent still worked, but poorly.
"’Should I repair or replace it; how much is the repair likely to cost; what will a new one cost.’ These are many of the questions that go through a consumer's mind when a major product breaks," says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home and yard editor at Consumer Reports. "Being armed with the right answers can save people thousands of dollars on appliances and gear."
To ensure all consumers are well equipped to avoid lemons, check Consumer Reports August issue for the "What Breaks, What Doesn't" list of temperamental products and of some of the most and least reliable brands, and then use the "Repair-or-Replace Timeline" charts to find out which products to fix and which aren't worth the effort and expense. Here's what else Consumer Reports' survey found:
• Computers break – a lot. Around one in three laptops and desktops break by their fourth year. Many computer breakdowns are due to malicious software (malware) or hard drive failure. Installing antivirus software on a computer is the best defense against malware. To be safe, always shut down the device before traveling even a short distance.
• Some technologies are finicky. Refrigerators with icemakers are twice as likely to break down as those without. The device's complicated design and the extreme environment it must operate in explains the high failure rate. Among laundry appliances, front loading washers are more repair-prone than top-loaders. The large rubber gasket that forms a watertight seal around the door is the common culprit. Mold is another issue. Manufacturers recommend periodically cleaning the gasket with a bleach solution and keep the door ajar after each use to allow ventilation.
• Extended warranties don't deliver. Based on Consumer Reports' survey, appliances usually don't break during the extended-warranty period, normally after the standard warranty has expired, but within two to three years of purchase. Even when breakdowns occur in that time the median repair cost isn't much more than the median price of a warranty. And if a product doesn't break, the extended warranty is just a waste of money. A computer might be an exception, especially if you travel frequently and take the device along for the ride. Make sure the warranty covers accidental damage and extended tech support.
• Brand reliability varies by product. Manufacturers often have strengths and weakness in different product categories. GE, for example, has made very reliable cooking appliances, but its refrigerators with icemakers have been repair-prone. John Deere's lawn tractors have been very reliable, but its self propelled lawn mowers have been significantly more repair-prone than other brands. And LG has made reliable plasma TVs and clothes dryers, but not reliable side-by-side refrigerators.
• The 50-percent rule still stands. Consumer Reports recommends that a replacement should be purchased if the repair will cost more than half the price of the new product. Replacing electronic gear might be less costly than most people think because prices are steadily dropping in some categories. Major appliances, on the other hand, are getting more expensive and they usually have long service lives, which is why Consumer Reports generally recommends holding onto them longer than electronics.
• Some products are harder to repair. Consumer Reports' survey indicates that repairs of gas cooktops, built-in refrigerators, and home-theater systems can also be frustrating because they take an inordinately long time or cost a lot, or because the item requires further service calls. Dryers, electric cooktops, and digital cameras have the highest success and satisfaction rates.
The full report on repairing or replacing appliances, electronics, lawn equipment, and home exercise gear, appears in the August issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.