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Mary Mastroeni

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Q: What is the best way to find a real estate agent?

March 16, 2011 6:43 am

A: Begin by asking someone that you know. Friends, relatives, co-workers, or neighbors who have recently purchased a home can give you a firsthand account and attest to the agent's professional abilities. Sometimes an agent you contact will refer you to another one who works more closely with buyers and sellers in your neighborhood. Once you have a list of names, interview at least three agents and ask questions about their community knowledge, professional experience, and commitment some agents work full time; others only work at nights and on the weekends.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Take Care of Your Eyes with These Vision Safety Tips

March 16, 2011 6:43 am

RISMEDIA, March 16, 2011-By this time of year, many adults are eager to lie on the beach and read a book while the kids swim in the pool and build sandcastles on the beach. These spring break activities are fun, but they can also be harmful if the necessary precautions aren't taken.

"Many people are aware of the risks of the sun's ultraviolet radiation on the skin, but often, they do not realize the dangerous effects on the eyes," said Dr. Mark Lynn, owner and/or operator of 45 Dr. Bizer's VisionWorld, Doctor's ValuVision and Doctor's VisionWorks in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia. "UV-A and UV-B radiation can have long- and short-term effects on a person's vision."

Excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation over a short period of time can cause photokeratitis, which is like sunburn of the eyes. Symptoms include painful, red eyes, extreme sensitivity to light, excessive tearing and a foreign body sensation. Photokeratitis rarely causes permanent damage, but long-term exposure to the sun can be more harmful.

Research has shown long-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation over many years can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration and damage of the retina. With spring break approaching, Dr. Mark Lynn and Associates is warning kids, teens and their parents to take note of some important vision safety tips before heading south:

-Children should wear goggles when swimming in pools or hot tubs to protect their eyes from chlorine.

-UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed can cause age-related macular degeneration. Always wear sunglasses or eye protection when tanning.

-When buying new eyewear, look for lenses that block out 100% of UV-A and UV-B rays.

-Sunglasses should wrap all the way around to your temples so sunrays can't damage your eyes.

-The sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Wear a hat/sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays.

-New cataract implants (IOLs) can block the sun's harmful rays. Speak with your doctor before having surgery.

-Research shows UV radiation increases the risk of developing certain kinds of cataracts. Millions of Americans develop cataracts and cost billions of dollars to treat each year.

-Protective eyewear also helps prevent: macular degeneration, skin cancer around the eyes and pterygium, (tissue growth that can block vision).

-Overexposure to UV radiation can weaken the body's immune system, reducing the skin's ability to protect against invaders, including cancers and infections.

-Drinking alcohol in excess can cause blurred vision and can impair a person's ability to drive.

For more information, visit www.aoa.org.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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6 Questions to Ask Before Paying Off a Mortgage Early

March 16, 2011 6:43 am

RISMEDIA, March 16, 2011-In the face of stagnant home values, paying off a mortgage early might appear to be a good way to reduce debt, but the strategy is not right for everyone, said Freedom Debt Relief (FDR) vice president Kevin Gallegos.

"With consumer revolving debt balances declining nationwide and home values flat, some homeowners are considering paying off their mortgages early," said Gallegos. "For people who are staying put in their home for some time, paying a mortgage off before the end of its term has benefits. Obviously, making extra payments eliminates the loan debt faster. This in turn dramatically lowers the total interest paid over the life of the mortgage."

But not everyone gains from paying off the mortgage early. Gallegos suggested consumers take these factors into consideration before launching any accelerated payment process:

1. Are all other needs under control? For anyone, paying off credit card debt and contributing the maximum to a retirement plan are goals that should beat out paying off the mortgage early. Those planning to retire soon might find it appealing to eliminate the mortgage. "It's most important, in that situation, to be sure you will have enough cash to fund your retirement," said Gallegos. Consumers should ask: Can they afford to pay more each month? Do they have an emergency fund that could cover six months' living expenses? If not, rest content with paying the mortgage as scheduled until these safeguards are in place.

2. Is a move coming up? Homeowners who might sell soon would do better to put extra cash in a fund for a new-home down payment. "The market is still a bit wobbly in most locales," Gallegos said. "And lenders are demanding higher down payments than in recent years. If you plan to relocate soon, hang on to your cash for the move."

3. Check for prepayment penalties. Most mortgage loans do not have a prepayment penalty. But those that do present heavy charges for paying the balance off early. Review the Truth in Lending disclosure to find out.

4. The earlier, the better. Making extra payments earlier in the life of the mortgage makes a bigger difference in the amount of interest the bank collects over the years.

5. Analyze the mortgage interest deduction. Homeowners who itemize deductions reap tax benefits from paying mortgage interest. Naturally, paying a smaller amount of interest results in a lower total itemized deduction amount. (To find out the potential savings, multiply the mortgage interest paid by the applicable tax bracket). The difference could be thousands of dollars annually, so plan accordingly.

6. What else could be done with the money? Find the rate of return for a paid-off mortgage with an online mortgage tax-deduction calculator. Then compare it to potential earnings on investments. Most people would fare better by investing the money instead of paying the loan, especially when considering the interest saved over time. Those who can pay the mortgage off early might do well to do so and then invest what had been spent on monthly payments in a savings or retirement vehicle.

People who decide an accelerated payment schedule is right for them have several options to choose from, Gallegos said.

-Pay off any excess debt, and then add any available income to the mortgage payment. This is simple to do if the statement has a line for "additional principal." If not, check with the lender to find their preferred method-and confirm there is no prepayment penalty.

-Some mortgage companies offer biweekly payment plans. These plans usually involve a set-up fee as well as a monthly charge. Traditionally, mortgage payments are made monthly, with 12 payments per year. A biweekly payment plan has the borrower pay half of a regular mortgage payment every two weeks-equating to 26 half-payments over a year. Without adding much to the monthly budget, a homeowner making a biweekly mortgage payment is effectively making one extra mortgage payment per year.

-Simply pay half the mortgage biweekly. Caution: Some mortgage companies will return a check that is less than the amount of the bill or received at an odd time. Others may charge a prepayment penalty. Check the lender's policies carefully.

-Divide the monthly mortgage payment by 12. Then add that amount each month to the regular monthly payment (write it on the "Additional Principal" line of the statement). Doing this every month will result in an extra month's payment each year.

"Paying off a mortgage can be a great relief. On the other hand, with mortgage debt, you're paying to own your own home, with beneficial tax deductions," said Gallegos. "Either option can be a good one. Consider your complete financial picture before choosing the right path to homeownership."

For more information, visit www.freedomdebtrelief.com.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Don't Become a Victim of Home Improvement Fraud Tips to Hire and Knowledgeable and Trustworthy Home Improvement Contractor

March 15, 2011 12:43 pm

RISMEDIA, March 15, 2011-In 2010, 1,401 consumers filed complaints related to home improvement fraud in New Jersey alone, making it the second most common consumer complaint filed in the state last year. National Consumer Protection Week (March 6-12, 2011) aims to arm consumers with an arsenal of resources and emphasizes the importance of protecting privacy, managing money and debt, avoiding identity theft and avoiding fraud and scams.

In honor of National Consumer Protection Week, Power Home Remodeling Group, one of the nation's largest home improvement companies offers the following tips to help homeowners select a home improvement contractor and navigate an industry often fraught with dishonest providers and unethical practices.

This winter's heavy snowfall and subsequent thawing and refreezing caused thousands of dollars in damages to homes across the region. Repairs will be needed for leaky roofs, down gutters and soggy drywall before the rainy spring season, making now a great time for homeowners to become knowledgeable on best practices to avoid home improvement fraud.

"There are several critical questions homeowners must ask before hiring and trusting someone to work on or at their home," said Jeff Kaliner, co-founder and chief executive officer of Power Home Remodeling Group.

Here are several tips for homeowners looking to hire a knowledgeable and trustworthy home improvement contractor:

-Don't pay in full up front. Only make a final payment when the work is completed.

-A written contract is your right as a consumer. Always obtain a written proposal, including a cost estimate.

-Seek proof of your contractor's license and insurance. You are well within your right as a consumer to insist on seeing proof that your potential contractor is legally operational.

-Obtain recommendations. Use established and well-recommended contractors. Consider how long the company has been in business and how many service and installation technicians they have at their disposal.

-An award-winning company is more trustworthy. A company that has won industry awards is confident enough to be in the spotlight. If the company welcomes the scrutiny that comes with an award selection process, it is likely they have upstanding business practices.

-Research your contractor with a consumer-friendly third party. Check out the company with your city or county, or opt for a contractor who is affiliated with the Better Business Bureau or local Chambers. Researching the company online is also a cost effective way to gather background information.

-Consider the company's hiring policies. Do they drug test and background check employees before hiring them-and continue random tests?

-Plan for emergencies. It is important to know that the company is available nights and weekends with customer service representatives and technicians to handle any service calls or emergencies.

For more information, visit www.powerhrg.com.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Fannie Mae's Latest National Housing Survey Shows Key Changes in Americans' Attitudes toward Housing and the Economy

March 15, 2011 12:43 pm

RISMEDIA, March 15, 2011-Fannie Mae's latest national housing survey finds that Americans are more confident about the stability of home prices than they were at the beginning of 2010, even though they lack confidence in the strength of the economy:

Seventy-eight percent of respondents believe housing prices will hold steady or increase over the next twelve months, up from 73% in January 2010; but almost two-thirds still believe the economy is on the wrong track, virtually unchanged (61%) from the beginning of last year.

The Fannie Mae Fourth Quarter National Housing Survey, conducted between October 2010 and December 2010, polled homeowners and renters to assess their confidence in homeownership as an investment, the current state of their household finances, views on the U.S. housing finance system and overall confidence in the economy.

"Over the course of the last year, we gained deeper insights into Americans' confidence in the strength of the housing market and the economic recovery," said Doug Duncan, Vice President and Chief Economist of Fannie Mae. "More Americans believe that housing prices will remain stable over the next year. We are also seeing encouraging signs in the positive attitudes toward homeownership among younger Americans, despite the severe impact of the housing crisis on Generation Y. But most respondents to our survey continue to lack confidence in the strength of the economic recovery, and they are less optimistic about their ability to buy a home in the years ahead. This sense of uncertainty is weighing on the housing recovery today and reshaping expectations for housing for the future."

Additional survey highlights include:

-Younger Americans, Hispanics and African-Americans are generally more positive about owning a home than the general population. Fifty-nine percent of Generation Y (ages 18-34) believes buying a home has a lot of potential as an investment, even though this age group suffered the steepest decline in homeownership during the housing crisis-from nearly forty-four percent when home prices peaked to under forty percent in 2009.

-More than one-third of Hispanics (34%) and African Americans (35%) say they will buy a home in the next three years, compared to only one in four (23%) of all other Americans.

-The percentage of Americans who believe that buying a home is a safe investment declined to 64% over the course of the year, from 70% in January 2010. This is down sharply from a similar survey conducted in December 2003, when 83% of the general population thought buying a home was a safe investment.

-During 2010, survey respondents increasingly expressed a strong belief that it will be harder for future generations to obtain a mortgage. Three-quarters of those surveyed (74%) believe it will be harder to get a mortgage in the future, up from just over two-thirds at the beginning of 2010.

-One out of three delinquent borrowers continues to say they have considered defaulting on their mortgage. However, that number fell from 39% at the beginning of the year to 31% in the fourth quarter. The number of delinquent borrowers who say they have seriously considered defaulting has also declined, from 25% in January 2010 to 19%.

For more information, visit www.fanniemae.com.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Word of the Day

March 15, 2011 9:43 am

Plat. Map or survey showing the location and boundaries of individual properties and how they have been subdivided into lots and blocks.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Q: What is a lease option?

March 15, 2011 9:43 am

A: It is an agreement between a renter and a landlord in which the renter signs a lease with an option to purchase the property. The option only binds the seller; the tenant has a choice to make a purchase or not.

Lease options are common among buyers who would like to own a home but do not have enough money for the down payment and closing costs. A lease option may also be attractive to tenants who are working to improve bad credit before approaching a lender for a home loan.

A lease option also may be a way for the seller to move property in a slow market. Seller advantages include earning above-market rent, retaining all the property income tax deductions during the lease-option period, and attracting tenants who will care for the property as though they owed it.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Simple Tips to Help Slash Your Gas and Grocery Bill

March 15, 2011 9:43 am

RISMEDIA, March 15, 2011-Despite declining incomes and challenging economic times, the cost for food and gasoline continues to rise. As gasoline inches closer to $4 per gallon and the cost of many basic food items has also increased, consumers are looking for ways to save on these expenses.

"Gas and groceries are among our basic necessities," said Michelle Jones, senior vice president of counseling for CredAbility. "Both our commute and putting food on the table are getting more expensive and, for families already struggling to make ends meet, these added costs only make it more difficult."

As the cost of filling our tank and our pantry continues to go up, CredAbility offers the following tips to help consumers save at the pump and in the grocery store.

Saving on Gasoline

-Look for opportunities to carpool. Work with neighbors and co-workers to share the expense of getting kids to school and driving to work.

-Telecommute. If your job requires little more than a computer, try and work from home one or more days per week to cut down on commuting costs.

-Look for the lowest prices. Websites, such as www.gasbuddy.com keep track of gas prices throughout the country and post them. You can also download an app for your smartphone and get prices on-the-go.

-Look for discounted gas or rebate options. Some retailers offer discounts on gas for shopping in their stores or using a specific card.

-Pay cash for gas. If you don't know how much you are spending in gas, or you are struggling to pay off gas purchases made on a credit card each month, use cash to pay for gas.

-Lighten your load. If you have a trunk full of stuff, you are getting fewer miles per gallon. Empty your trunk and save.

-General tips. Keep the appropriate air pressure in your tires to get the best gas mileage. Reduce the cost to cool down a hot car by using a sun-shade in the front window and parking in a shady area. Plan your day so you can combine trips and drive fewer miles. Drive the speed limit-speeding reduces your miles per gallon.

Saving on Groceries

-Make a list, and stick to it. While grocery shopping can be expensive, it is often the unplanned purchases that put the bill over the top. Plan your menus for the week and make a list of things you need before you go to the store.

-Take advantage of coupon savings, special purchases and buy one-get one promotions. Coupon savings are usually worth the cost of the Sunday paper. In addition to manufacturer's coupons, sites like www.couponmom.com compare in-store specials at many grocery chains. A great sale or double or triple coupon values may make it worth the trip to a store you don't usually go to. For staple items with a long shelf-life, stock up during sales. Avoid buying things you wouldn't normally buy just because you have a coupon.

-Use technology to help you save. There are many apps to help you organize your lists, find coupons, track prices at stores in your area and more. Grocery Pal shows you what's on sale at your local retailers. Apples2Oranges allows you to compare prices on various sizes to see which offers the better deal. Grocery Gadget can help organize your shopping list and track prices for maximum savings. Most apps are available for multiple devices.

-Buy in bulk, sometimes. It may be cheaper to buy three dozen eggs, but only if you don't end up throwing out a dozen because they have expired. Compare prices on bulk purchases. Consider shopping for bulk items with a friend and share the cost.

-Eat before you shop. Shopping on an empty stomach will always cost you more. Have a snack before you go and you'll be less tempted to impulse buy.

-Don't limit your shopping to eye level. Many lower cost items, including store brands, are stocked on higher and lower shelves while higher priced items are at eye level.

-Don't assume items are cheaper because they are a larger size or displayed separately. Take a calculator along to determine the price per ounce or pound so you can get the best deal. And remember, larger is not always better. Buy only what you will use.

-Save on eating out. While it may add slightly to your grocery bill, packing your lunch can save you a hundred dollars or more per month when compared to eating out.

For more information, visit www.CredAbility.org.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Word of the Day

March 14, 2011 12:43 pm

Planned Unit Development (PUD). Individually owned houses with community ownership of common areas, such as swimming pools and tennis courts.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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Q: If faced with foreclosure, what are my options?

March 14, 2011 12:43 pm

A: Talk with your lender immediately. The lender may be able to arrange a repayment plan or the temporary reduction or suspension of your payment, particularly if your income has dropped substantially or expenses have shot up beyond your control.

You also may be able to refinance the debt or extend the term of your mortgage loan. In almost every case, you will likely be able to work out some kind of deal that will avert foreclosure.

If you have mortgage insurance, the insurer may also be interested in helping you. The company can temporarily pay the mortgage until you get back on your feet and are able to repay their "loan."

If your money problems are long term, the lender may suggest that you sell the property, which will allow you to avoid foreclosure and protect your credit record.

As a last resort, you could consider a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure. This is where you voluntarily "give back" your property to the lender. While this will not save your house, it is not as damaging to your credit rating as a foreclosure.

Copyright 2011 RISMedia, The Leader in Real Estate Information Systems and Real Estate News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be republished without permission from RISMedia.


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