RE/MAX 440
Mary Mastroeni
mmastroeni@remax.net
Mary Mastroeni
731 W Skippack Pike
Blue Bell  PA 19422
PH: 610-277-2900
O: 215-643-3200
C: 610-213-4878
F: 267-354-6212 
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Mary's Blog

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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 CreditDonkey.com.

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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 www.fda.gov.


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Planning the Perfect Summer Party

July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

There is nothing like the warm evenings of summer to set the mood for a great party. Ideally, a party should be a time for you to catch-up with your friends, eat delicious food and enjoy yourself. However, planning a party often becomes more stressful than it needs to be. The following tips will ensure a hassle free summer party that both you and your guests can enjoy.

The Space

Setting the right mood for a party is vital. Decorate with brightly colored tablecloths, plates, glasses and cloth to create a vibrant atmosphere. Keep guests cool in the daytime by offering a shaded tent or covered porch, and for evening affairs, create subtle lighting with candles and torches. If outside, create conversation spaces around the yard using outdoor furniture, blankets and bistro tables so you don’t wind up with everyone crowded around the grill. Have enough seating for at least half the guests to sit at any given time.

The Guest List

Don’t over-invite—You want to have a good time, too. Invite members from different social circles who haven’t had a chance to connect yet, but who you think would really hit it off—like friends from your office and your buddies from book club or some of the parents of your children’s friends.

Make sure you have enough room for all guests indoors, in the chance a sudden summer shower may occur.

Dining

In the summer, it’s a good idea to keep party fair fresh and light. Burgers, kebabs, grilled veggies and pizzas are all great choices. To avoid having a crowded fridge and empty wallet post-party, think about food costs and quantities. Hosts usually purchase too much food, so be sure to think about portions to people. If you are offering hot dogs, hamburgers and barbequed chicken, the average party goer is not going to have one of each.

To keep stress at bay, do as much cooking as possible ahead of time. Or, even better, let your guests do some of the work themselves. Allow them to build their own skewers, personal pizzas or handle their own burgers on the grill, giving the food an interactive focus. Add a few simple, seasonal side salads for variety, like sweet corn and black bean with avocado, or garden tomato and fresh mozzarella.

Keep dessert simple and light, so guests have more energy for mingling and dancing. Try serving sliced seasonal fruit with fresh, home-made whipped-cream or your favorite local ice-cream.

Drinking

A summer fiesta isn’t the same without a selection of cool beverages, alcoholic or not. First, decide whether you want to keep it simple or go all out. Making a delicious punch available (spiking optional!) with an assortment of beers and chilled wines is a perfectly acceptable, low-maintenance beverage idea. If you want to get fancy, hire a bar-tender or enlist the help of a neighborhood college student home for the summer. And don’t forget the details—find festive glasses and freeze fruit or mint leaves in ice cubes for a fresh finishing touch.

The Details

Do as much prep-work as you can ahead of time—set tables, prepare food and make sure everything is clean and clutter free. Place trash and recycling receptacles around your home and yard so you don’t end up cleaning tons of trash after the party has ended. Create a festive playlist and turn on the music before the guests are scheduled to arrive, so they walk into a party atmosphere and not a quiet house. To make your party memorable, end the evening by sending guests home with a thank-you gift—like a jar of home-made jam, locally made honey or a candle with a summery scent.


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Hunting for the Right Contractor

July 13, 2011 7:59 pm

With summer in full swing, many spring plans have given way to hunting for the right contractor to complete your home improvement or repair projects. So it is as good a time as any to review this checklist on the subject provided by the Connecticut Dept. of Consumer Protection—which has many points applicable no matter where you live.

1. Before choosing a contractor, decide exactly what you want done; the type of materials you want used; for renovations, have photos from magazines, brochures or friends’ homes.

2. For names of dependable (and undependable) contractors, talk to friends; check out work being done in your neighborhood, and contact local building officials for referrals or suggestions.

3. Get more than one estimate. If bids are far apart, be skeptical; get more bids. The lowest bid is not necessarily a bargain.

4. Look at contractors’ recent and past jobs. You can even see if your state or county permits you to check contractors’ litigation history to see if they’ve been sued by former clients. Or check to see if your preferred contractor and/or salesperson are registered and to see if there are any complaints against the company.

5. Ask contractors about their workload. Can they truly start and finish on time?

6. If a contractor offers to finance your home improvement project or put you in touch with a finance company, have an attorney or some other informed person review the finance agreement before you sign, to verify that it complies with the State and Federal Truth-in-Lending Act.

7. Ask for at least three references from former customers and check them. Verify that the contractor has the appropriate level of worker’s compensation and liability insurance.

8. Require a detailed, written contract including start and end date, work to be done, materials to be used, and price. Include a payment schedule corresponding to the project’s progress. A contract that provides some money up front, some while work is underway, and a final payment when everything is satisfactorily completed is strongly suggested. Get receipts for all payments, never pay in cash.

9. In Connecticut, building permits are ultimately the property owner’s responsibility. Make sure that either you or your contractor applies for all necessary building permits wherever you live.

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Question of the Day

July 12, 2011 7:59 pm

Q: Can I contest my property taxes?

A: Many people do, mainly because determining value can often be tricky. This is especially true in a changing market when local prices either take off dramatically or plunge precipitously, like during the Texas oil bust of the 1980s. 

While it is up to a professional assessor to evaluate property value for tax purposes, property owners are usually allowed to contest their assessment until a certain date after they are made public. 

Once you contest, you will have to prove why you think your property is worth less – few homeowners contest hoping to pay more taxes! The two most popular ways for determining value are an appraisal and a comparative market analysis. With an appraisal, a professional estimates the property's market value based on recent sales of comparable properties. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value performed by a real estate agent based on similar sales and property attributes. Most agents will offer free analyses to win your business. 

Contact your local tax assessor's office for procedures on appealing your property tax assessment.


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Word of the Day

July 12, 2011 7:59 pm

Collateral. Something of value given or pledged to a lender as security for the repayment of a loan.

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Market Forecasters Reveal Best Markets to Invest in Rental Property

July 12, 2011 7:59 pm

HomeVestors of America, Inc., known as the "We Buy Ugly Houses®" company, and Local Market Monitor, one of the leading forecasters of real estate markets, recently unveiled the "HomeVestors-Local Market Monitor Best Markets to Invest in Rental Property" ranking. In order to help inform real estate investors of current rental property investment opportunities, the "Best Markets" ranking will be updated quarterly.

HomeVestors and Local Market Monitor estimate that approximately 14% of single-family homes in the U.S. are maintained as rental properties. The companies believe there is no other regularly produced, reliable national ranking of the expected future performance of homes maintained as rental properties, which makes this ranking particularly useful to prospective investors.

"Since 1996 HomeVestors® real estate franchises have been buying older houses in need of repair, and updating or rehabbing them, often in the interest of maintaining the homes as rental properties. Until today, there's never been a reliable national performance indicator for this growing segment of the investment market," says David Hicks, co-president of HomeVestors of America, Inc. "We're pleased to have developed this ranking system with Local Market Monitor to help investors in single-family rental property identify opportunities and gauge potential local market investment performance relative to the national average and other markets."

Top 10 Markets, Commentary and Top 100 Markets Ranking

The "HomeVestors-Local Market Monitor Best Markets to Invest in Rental Property" ranking forecasts the expected performance of rental real estate properties, specifically single-family homes maintained as rental properties. The rankings show the extra return, or risk-return premium, that an investor must demand from rental property in a local market. The risk-return premium can be added to the regular capitalization rate to produce a risk-adjusted cap rate at full occupancy for a local market. The ranking is calculated based on three-year forecasts of home prices (reflecting underlying home-price appreciation potential) and gross rents (as a proxy for potential investor cash flow).

The Top 10 markets in the new ranking are:
1. Las Vegas, Nevada
2. Detroit, Michigan
3. Warren, Michigan
4. Orlando, Florida
5. Bakersfield, California
6. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida
7. Phoenix, Arizona
8. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
9. Rochester, New York
10. Stockton, California

Current rental vacancy rates are 12 percent in Las Vegas, 19 percent in Detroit, 9 percent in Tampa, and 13 percent in Phoenix.
• Las Vegas – Jobs are still being lost and home prices are down 45 percent since the peak in 2006. Rents have dropped 10 percent. Much of the large workforce in the casino industry consists of renters; the homeownership rate is a low 55 percent. The current unemployment rate is 12 percent.
• Detroit – Although the recession bottomed out a year ago, the unemployment rate is still high at 11 percent. The population shrank 4 percent since 2006.
• Tampa – Largely a retirement market, home prices fell 10 percent in the last year due to the over-supply of investment properties built during the boom. Jobs are growing again in the service industries. Homeownership dropped a sharp 5 percent since 2007.
• Phoenix – Jobs are growing again after a very deep recession. Home prices dropped 40 percent since 2006, with rents decreasing just 8 percent. Population growth since 2006 is a strong 8 percent.

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


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Safer Fruits and Vegetables: FDA Aims to Set Production Standards

July 12, 2011 7:59 pm

As headlines from Europe implicate tainted vegetable sprouts in more than 4,000 illnesses and dozens of deaths, American consumers may wonder, “Could that happen here?”

The U.S. has had its own headline-grabbing outbreaks from contaminated vegetables—such as lettuce in 2010, peppers in 2008, and spinach in 2006—but a new law has set in motion sweeping improvements to the safety of our food supply.

President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act into law on Jan. 4, 2011, but the year before, the Food and Drug Administration was already gearing up for important work that was mandated by the act: the Produce Safety Regulation.
This regulation will establish mandatory, science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, sorting, packing, and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“This will be a monumental shift in food safety,” says James R. Gorny, Ph.D., FDA’s senior advisor for produce safety.

Since 1998, produce growers have had available the “Good Agricultural Practices” issued by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But this guidance is not an enforceable regulation like the Produce Safety Regulation will be, says Gorny. 

Farmers Have Their Say
As part of the regulatory process, FDA publishes a “proposed rule” and then invites comments to the proposed rule “docket” (public record) online or by mail. Anyone can comment on a proposed rule, and the agency considers all comments submitted to the docket before drawing up the final rule, or regulation. FDA also intends to hold public meetings about the proposed Produce Safety rule after it is published, to provide additional opportunities for the public to comment. The agency expects to publish a proposed Produce Safety rule by spring 2012.

Due to the diversity of produce farms throughout the country—ranging from a few acres to thousands of acres, and growing from a few crops to dozens of vegetable varieties—FDA decided to reach out to growers before drafting the proposed rule. 

In 2010, technical experts, scientists, and other staff from FDA and USDA went on the road to meet with growers as well as produce industry groups, public policy groups, state agricultural departments, and public health departments in 13 states. They toured farms—both big and small—and talked to the owners. Some of the farm tours were attended by FDA leadership, including FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., and Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael R. Taylor, J.D. At the invitation of FDA, USDA Deputy under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Ann Wright joined several of the tours as did a number of state commissioners of agriculture.

“Before we put pen to paper, we wanted to find out what growers are doing now and the food safety challenges they face,” says Gorny.

“It was a very refreshing change in the process that was welcomed by the growers and that allowed them to be a part of the process,” says Bob Jones, Jr., co-owner and production manager of the Chef’s Garden, a 300-acre farm in Huron, Ohio.

“The Ohio growers, in general, have a great appreciation and understanding of the necessity of good food safety,” says Jones, who also serves on the board of several agricultural associations in the state. “We have a social responsibility to consumers who purchase and consume the food we grow.”

Several themes emerged from the visits, says Gorny. Many growers commented that produce safety standards should
• be appropriate and flexible
• be science-based and risk-based
• be practical—not overly burdensome
• apply to both imported produce and domestic produce
• be accompanied by a strong education and outreach program
The agency is working to create a regulation that will be flexible and appropriate for both large-farm operators and smaller farmers—including sustainable, organic, and Amish farmers FDA met when touring the country. 

Education and Outreach
“One of the themes we heard over and over is ‘educate before you regulate,’” says Gorny.

FDA doesn’t make produce safer, he adds. “We make the rules that must be followed to keep produce safe. So we need to assist growers with knowledge and training to comply with those rules.”

FDA is exploring partnerships with state agricultural departments and extension services, produce industry groups, and coalitions such as the Produce Safety Alliance—a collaboration between Cornell University, USDA, and FDA—to reach out to growers and provide them with training regarding on-farm produce safety. 

Jones says everybody who handles food—growers, packers, transporters, processors, grocers, and consumers—has an important part to play in food safety. “You can educate growers on all they can do in the field—for instance, with water quality and worker hygiene—to lower the likelihood of microbial contamination,” he says. But it won’t be effective unless all the other food handlers practice food safety, too.

The bottom line, says Gorny, is that FDA wants American consumers to be able to buy healthful fruits and vegetables with the utmost confidence in their safety.

For more information, please visit www.fda.gov.

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Consumers Want More Fuel-Efficient Vehicles, but Are Confused about Options

July 12, 2011 7:59 pm

Despite uncertainty regarding prices at the pump, Americans are resisting a move to more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles largely because of confusion over the differences between these types of cars. The findings from a recent survey conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation and funded by Johnson Controls. (NYSE: JCI) suggest there is a clear gap between consumers' attitudes toward fuel-efficient cars and their actual purchase intent.

"It's clear that consumers are confused about their options for more fuel-efficient vehicles, despite their desire to save on fuel costs," says Alex Molinaroli, president of Power Solutions for Johnson Controls. "These findings indicate U.S. drivers need to have a better understanding of the offerings available to them now as well as options that will become available in the U.S. market. This includes Start-Stop technology which has been marketed in Europe in recent years and will be offered to the U.S. market in 2012."

Forty-five percent of those surveyed said there are too few options when it comes to hybrid vehicles, while 39 percent of those surveyed had no idea what the differences are between types of fuel-efficient vehicles such as Start-Stop vehicles and hybrids. The findings reinforce the need for greater education about the full spectrum of vehicle technology options, as well as cost considerations both at purchase and over the lifetime of the vehicle.

The four main vehicle technology categories included in the survey were:

• Internal Combustion: Gasoline-powered internal combustion engines are expected to continue to become increasingly more fuel-efficient.
• Start-Stop: With minimal change to the vehicle system and a modest price premium, Start-Stop technology allows the engine to be turned off during stops such as traffic lights (similar to a feature of full hybrid vehicles) and automatically restart again when the driver engages the clutch or steps on the gas, thereby reducing emissions and providing fuel saving of 5-12%. Widely used across Europe, vehicles with Start-Stop technology are slated to come to the U.S. market in 2012. Of the car owners surveyed, 28 % would consider purchasing a Start-Stop vehicle when shopping for a new car.
• Hybrid Electric Vehicle: By using two different sources of traction power (such as a gasoline engine paired with a high voltage battery), the technology maximizes the overall vehicle-efficiency. There are different degrees of hybrid functionality ranging from mild to full to plug-in, each of with greater levels of fuel economy performance, ranging from 15-50 percent. Nearly 40 % of the drivers surveyed would consider purchasing a hybrid vehicle when shopping for a new car.
• Electric Vehicle (EV): All electric driving requires an advanced lithium-ion battery with more energy and power. The potential fuel economy improvement of EVs is infinite. About 20 percent would consider purchasing an EV when shopping for a new car.

"We are ramping up our efforts to educate drivers about the spectrum of vehicle technologies available to consumers who want to improve fuel economy and decrease emissions in their vehicles," says Molinaroli. "For example, we recently introduced a new on-line tool called My Demo Drive (http://mydemodrive.com/) that allows consumers to virtually test-drive and compare fuel usage, CO2 emissions and travel costs among a vehicle with a standard internal combustion engine, a Start-Stop vehicle, and a hybrid electric vehicle. With such tools, we are hoping to raise awareness about technology options and help drivers become better informed."

In addition to lack of understanding between fuel-efficient options, perception of price continues to be an issue. The data shows 75 percent of car owners would consider a more fuel-efficient vehicle when shopping for a new car. However, only 20 percent of car owners are willing to consider actually purchasing a hybrid, Start-Stop, or electric vehicle at current gasoline prices hovering between $3.50 and $4.00 per gallon.

"Our findings show that consumers will really take action when gas hits somewhere between $4 and $5 a gallon," Molinaroli says. "The bottom line is that these vehicles will take off when they make sense financially, likely the most quickly with Start-Stop and hybrid electric vehicles. Consumers do have options, they just are not aware or understand them. We're focused to help them gain that understanding."

For more information, please visit http://www.johnsoncontrols.com.

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5 Things to Know Before You Buy a Car

July 12, 2011 7:59 pm

If your plans include buying a new car this fall, it’s wise to be armed with some key information that may save you lots of money in the long run.

That’s the advice of CNN money writer Peter Valdes-Dapena. “Relying on the salesperson instead of doing your own homework can set you up for car-buying rip-offs,” he says. “Once you’ve decided on the car you want, you need to be ready when financial negotiations get under way.”

Valdes-Dapena suggests being prepared in these five areas:

• Financing options – Having pre-arranged financing puts you in the best possible bargaining position. Know your credit score and get a solid financing commitment from a credit union or bank before you head for the dealership. If you do depend on dealer financing, knowing your credit score can help you negotiate the best possible interest rate.
• Cost of the loan – It’s easy to get lower monthly payments by stretching out the term of the car loan. But you’ll end up paying more in interest if you do that—and you may find yourself owing more than the car is worth when it’s time to trade cars again. The best option is a three-to-four year loan.
• Buy or lease – Leasing is becoming a growing alternative because it can save you money in the short term. But once the lease is up, you’ll have to start all over again—and you will have gained no equity in the vehicle. If you can manage it, pass on the leasing terms and buy the car.
• Warranty options – Most cars today come with warranties on the engine and transmission for 5 to 10 years, and three years on most everything else. There is rarely a need for an ‘extended warranty,’ so don’t give in to the sales pitch.
• Trade-in value – Get a good sense of your car’s value before you head to the dealership. Websites like Kelley’s Blue Book (KBB.com) can help. If you are not satisfied with what the dealer offers, think about selling the car on your own before you make your new car deal.

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