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September 2011

Donating your car to charity

Getting rid of an old car can seem difficult. If it's not in the best shape, you may be reluctant to sell it to someone because you're concerned it may break down any day.and they'll come back to you complaining. Of course, you probably don't want to pay someone to just haul it away.

Luckily, there's a third option that may be right for you. Instead of selling your car for money, you can donate the vehicle to a charity in exchange for a deduction on your taxes. For older vehicles in need of repair, it can be a better option with much less hassle. It also has the potential to benefit those in need.

The problem, however, is that not all charities are created equally. The following tips can help you avoid pitfalls and make the best choice:

1. Make sure your charity has 501(c)(3) status. If your intended charity doesn't have this type of status, your donation will most likely not be tax deductible.

2. Make sure the charity accepts vehicle donations directly. Many charities use companies that act as middlemen in the process. In these situations, the companies keep a percentage of the donation as payment for their role. Sometimes their cut is quite high, so do your homework before deciding on a charity.

3. Drive your car to the charity as opposed to having them pick it up. Hiring a service or a tow truck to claim the donation will cut into the amount of money your charity ultimately receives.

4. Understand how your deduction is valued. Discuss with the charity how much your vehicle is worth and how much you can deduct from your taxes - and make sure the charity is aware of and abides by the law when assigning value.

5. Sign over your car to the charity. If a charity asks you not to assign ownership, you should go elsewhere. The problem is that if you do not transfer the title, the car is legally still yours. Think about the liability issue this presents.

6. Get a receipt after the car is sold. It's a worthy point that requires no explanation.

7. Consult a tax professional. You should initially consult a tax professional to help determine if this is a good option for you. If you proceed with the donation, he or she can also be of help regarding what to do if the charity decides to keep your car for its own use, or sells it at a discounted price. Also, if the car is sold for more than $500, the tax professional can help you with the extra form that needs to accompany your yearly taxes.

6:21 PM - Sep. 30, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Are you getting a deal at the warehouse store?

This article is by John Miley for Kiplinger.com.

It's no secret that warehouse stores can offer compelling value. The markup over wholesale prices averages about 14%, according to Michael Clayman, editor of Warehouse Club Focus, an industry newsletter. Compare that with a 25% to 50% markup at conventional retailers, and odds are you'll find lower prices at warehouse stores.

But there's no guarantee that every item on your shopping list is a better buy at a warehouse store. In some cases, your neighborhood grocer or the local Wal-Mart can top prices at Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's. The best way to nab a deal is by shopping strategically.

There are several factors to consider as you compare costs at warehouse stores to those at non-warehouse retailers:

Membership fees. Sam's Club charges $40 a year; Costco and BJ's charges $50 annually. If you shop a warehouse store only once or twice a year, your savings might not offset the cost of membership.

Selection. Warehouse stores stock fewer brands than conventional retailers, so your favorites might not be available. Ask yourself: Can a Charmin family survive the switch to Quilted Northern?

Unit costs. Even if the top-line price at a warehouse store is tempting, don't neglect to calculate the unit cost. It's the apples-to-apples (or roll-to-roll) comparison that matters most.

Quantity. Items at warehouse stores often come in bulk packages. Consider whether you have the storage space -- and whether you'll really use it all.

Loyalty discounts. Many retail chains have free loyalty programs that offer added savings at the register. Combined with coupons, loyalty programs can sometimes undercut everyday prices at warehouse stores.

Don't limit your warehouse shopping to staples. As you'll see from these examples, bargains can be found on unusual big-ticket purchases. But for some items, you can find a better deal elsewhere.

Caskets: DEAL

The average metal casket costs $2,300 and is the single biggest expense of a funeral, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Costco's caskets run from $950 to $3,000. Wal-Mart sells discount caskets, too, ranging from $995 to $3,200. Confirm shipping availability to your state.

"Caskets from places like Costco and Walmart can be much cheaper than a funeral home," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Some funeral homes have dropped casket prices to compete, but fees for other services might be raised to make up the difference. Ask for an itemized price list.

Diamonds: NO DEAL

Buying diamonds from a warehouse club is risky. Stones generally aren't branded, and quality varies tremendously, so you're largely on your own to determine whether the cost is equal to the grade of the diamond. An appraisal from an independent gemologist is helpful, but getting an outside expert's opinion adds to the expense.

"The biggest problem consumers face when buying a diamond from a store like Costco is that the sales staff usually lacks the knowledge to be able to answer questions you should be asking," says Antoinette Matlins, author of Diamonds: The Antoinette Matlins Buying Guide. At a place like Tiffany, the price more accurately reflects a diamond's quality. Tiffany can also be cheaper than mall stores, which mark up diamonds 50% to 100%, adds Matlins.

Designer watches: DEAL

You won't find Rolex or Patek Philippe, but you can find a bargain on a midrange designer watch. After all, despite its bare-bones appearance, Costco attracts an affluent clientele. "They have tapped into a group of consumers who appreciate the value of buying luxury items at a warehouse club," says George Whalin, president and CEO of Retail Management Consultants.

Look for brands such as Movado and Raymond Weil, which even at Sam's Club can run into the thousands of dollars. Expect warehouse-store prices to undercut the traditional markup of 65% to 70% on luxury watches.

Televisions: DEAL

A giant Vizio 65-inch Class 3D 1080p 120Hz LED Edge Lit LCD HDTV from Sam's Club was $400 less than its listing on Amazon.com. We also found a Sony Bravia 55-inch set at Costco that was $300 cheaper than Best Buy's cheapest Sony Bravia 55-inch model. If a big screen at a small price is your goal, then you're in luck.

Here's the caveat: Warehouse stores carry a limited selection of TVs. Most have specific model numbers that you can't find anywhere else, so precise cost comparisons can be a challenge. For example, the specifications of the two Sony Bravias we compared varied slightly. Go elsewhere (and pay more) only if you require a wide selection of sets and brands, or if you have your heart set on a specific model.

Tires: DEAL

At Costco, Bridgestone Potenza RE92A tires -- the high-performance, run-flat tire that comes with the Infiniti G37 coupe and FX45 crossover -- cost $60 less per tire compared to Sears. That's a savings of nearly 20%. Like Sears, Costco offers installation. We also found a Michelin HydroEdge at Sam's Club that beat Sears by $20 (for a set of four) and Wal-Mart by $36 per set.

Warehouse-store prices are generally better than what you'd typically spend at a local tire dealer. "It's a lower cost of business than the tire store down the street," says retail analyst Christopher Ramey, of Affluent Insights.

Appliances: NO DEAL

The warehouse stores we visited had no washers or dryers in stock, compared with Sears, which had dozens of choices on the floor. The warehouse stores' online selection wasn't much better. There was only one washer and four washer/dryer combos available on Costco's Web site. Sam's Club had two washers and one washer/dryer combo from which to choose.

Costco's price on a Whirlpool 3.5-cubic-foot, top-load washer did beat Sears's price on a similar washer by $80, but that was the everyday price charged by Sears. Appliance retailers run big sales promotions over just about every holiday weekend, from Presidents' Day to the Fourth of July to Veterans Day. Time your purchase wisely and you can find bigger discounts -- and better selection -- away from the warehouse stores.

11:24 AM - Sep. 28, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

When Cheap is Expensive

This article is by John Kurowski of Kurowski Development Co.


Choosing a builder based on the lowest cost per square foot or the lowest sales price is likely not getting the best value. It's buying the cheapest home. No doubt about it, there is some cheap housing out there right now, but is "cheap" the best way to go?

Common sense tells us that there is a premium to be paid for a superior home. By that we mean a home that has more exacting standards, performs well over time, and is built by a builder who stands by his work. Let's take a closer look at these higher initial costs and why we believe it is worth paying a reasonable premium for such a home.

Better Materials. Professional builders who build to a high level of quality have higher standards for the materials that go into their homes. They cull lumber piles for the straightest studs and send the warped and knotted ones back to the lumberyard. They inspect and confirm deliveries, protect materials from weather, seek out the best warranties and track problems to weed out poor-performing materials.

When a company insists on that level of quality and provides that level of attention and care, one would expect to pay a bit more. Like cheap houses, cheap materials can deliver substandard results that often cost more to repair or replace than the premium you might pay upfront for a higher-quality option.

Better Construction. Builders who specify and only accept better-quality products do so to achieve a higher level of overall construction quality and long-term durability. They make sure products and materials are installed properly by the most competent subcontractors and adhere to performance standards that are far beyond what the local building code requires.

Why? Because professional builders know that their reputation is on the line with every home they deliver. When homeowners begin to see evidence of poor workmanship, it doesn't take long for them to spread the word about how poorly the builder (and the house) performed. This is too high a price to pay for any company who is in business for the long-term and understands the value of a satisfied client.

As with better materials and products, a better-built home may (and should) cost more upfront, but cost less over time. As we've seen repeatedly over the years, it requires less repair, replacement and maintenance in the long run.

A Better Experience. Is it possible to put a price tag on peace of mind? Consider the value of a hassle-free new-home project. Less stress, no hurt feelings, no horror stories, no busted budgets, no lawsuits. What is it worth to have your new home built on schedule, for the agreed cost, with a builder who is there to answer your questions from groundbreaking through move-in and beyond?

And what do you get? A house that meets your expectations, that is solidly built, with superior fit and finish. It's livable, comfortable, and meets your lifestyle needs. In other words, a "home." Your home.

11:22 AM - Sep. 26, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Protect your smartphone


Have you ever received repeated cell phone calls from an unknown number? Or opened a text message offering an update to a phone app you don’t even use? These are just a few of the situations that should raise security red flags, according to computer science and information technology students at the prestigious Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) Lab at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. The students offer tips on how they keep their own personal information safe and dodge traps set by clever hackers.

When using social networking sites from your phone, skip the native apps – which know far more about your life than web browsers ever could – and access the sites through your phone’s browser. Also, use a password-protected screen lock to keep your phone secure.

Beware the false “update” link for apps! Verify the link you’re using to download an app before you click on it, or go directly to the company’s site to download the update. Sending fraudulent “update” links is a common method for directing users to sites where personal information can be compromised.

Clean up your apps regularly, removing those you don’t use. Some apps may be able to monitor and access various types of data on your phone, including your contact list. And if your phone has a SIM card, set a PIN code for the card — if the phone is ever lost, nobody can use the card.

Read the reviews of apps before you download, and choose reputable apps. Apps without many reviews and those that have been recently uploaded to the app market or app store are more likely to contain privacy and security problems.

Don’t trust Bluetooth! If you use a hands-free device to make cell phone calls, always use a wired headset. Bluetooth devices can be compromised and your personal data can be accessed or corrupted. If you do use Bluetooth, protect the connection with a longer, more secure password instead of a short PIN.

Watch out for apps that ask for too many permissions – if you’re installing a calculator app and it requests Internet and contacts permissions, that’s a bad sign. One way cyber-thieves exploit smart phones is by creating a good app with some extra code and overreaching permissions.

Log out of all Web services every time you’re finishing using them, or you may stay logged in indefinitely – even to sensitive sites like banking and email. On desktops, there’s a timeout period if you remain inactive, but not always with mobile access. If the phone is lost, anyone can access the sites you’re logged into.

Think twice before answering calls or text messages from unknown numbers, especially if you’ve received a call more than once. Phishing scams are often initiated through cell phone calls or texts. Google the phone number that’s calling you, and see if anyone has reported it as linked to a scam.

12:32 PM - Sep. 24, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

What's really involved in flipping houses

”This business is a people business and I don’t know many people who would want to meet with and sell their house to someone working in their pajamas,” states Danny Johnson, a full-time house flipper in San Antonio, Texas. Danny and his wife, Melissa, are now making their house-flipping business transparent and sharing everything they do to flip houses on their new blog, FlippingJunkie.com.

If you have ever seen the house flipping reality television programs or have done any research on flipping houses, you’ve undoubtedly come away with a feeling that it seems easy enough to do. Many gurus will tell you it’s possible to make millions, working in your pajamas just 5 hours a week. Of course, they are trying to sell their information products to as many people as possible. Who wants to buy a program that tells you there is a lot of work involved?

Danny says there is a lot more to flipping houses than the shows or the gurus would want you to believe. That is why he started blogging about his day-to-day trials as a house flipper. “I wanted to allow people to see how much work is involved in the aspects of the business that the shows tend to ignore,” claims Danny. The areas he referred to were related to how people are finding such great deals with so much equity and buying them with huge discounts and the real costs involved. There seems to be a simplifying of the numbers on many of the reality shows. “Many assumptions are being made that are very far fetched and leave out a lot of the true costs involved in buying and selling a house,” Danny informs us.

Danny and his wife have been flipping houses since 2003 and have learned many hard lessons while flipping over 120 houses. The main thing learned is that the business requires a lot of education and hard work. This should come as no surprise, they said, as most things worth doing require hard work and dedication. This is what bothers them so much, they say, when they see shows and gurus talking about how easy it is to jump in and make a fortune. “It’s just not realistic,” Melissa stated.

As can be seen on their house flipping blog, they filter through dozens of leads to find deals worth pursuing. They then talk about all of the negotiating and patience that is required to get the deal done and closed. Following along with them, you really get a sense of how much of a people business it really is. Their house leads come from people with all sorts of different motivating circumstances which require a fast home sale in exchange for some equity. It appears that a lot of the quality leads come from people that inherit properties and people that want to sell their home, but cannot afford or just don’t desire to fix up the house to a condition suitable for a normal home buyer.

“We are sharing everything that is involved in running a successful house flipping business and we want to help people to get a better idea of what it takes to do this,” Danny continues. “We’ve seen too many people get into this business only to find out that they made some serious mistakes due to lack of education and real direction.”

You can read about Danny and Melissa’s real estate adventures in how to flip houses on their blog, http://www.FlippingJunkie.com.

1:25 PM - Sep. 22, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

What's with all these inspections?

This article is by John Kurowski of Kurowski Development Co.

During the construction of a new home, a professional builder is responsible for juggling a variety of inspections to ensure that a new home matches our client's vision, meets agreed upon quality standards, is on schedule and complies with applicable building codes.

Customer Walk-Throughs. In addition to the final client walk-through before the closing; we also schedule walk-throughs with our homebuyers during construction. These tours provide both parties with an opportunity to discuss the progress of the home in a very tangible way. As a result, homeowners feel more connected to the construction of their home and more confident in our abilities.

Client inspections breed confidence about a home's value because they can see how their home was built and what it contains. We believe it better prepares them to take care of their home and provides a comfortable platform for our clients to communicate any concerns to us.

Government Inspections. Building permits are required for nearly every new home built today. A permit is issued only after the local building department makes sure that the plans meet the building codes for a variety of issues, including occupant health, safety, and in some cases, energy efficiency.

At certain points during the construction process calls are made to schedule various inspections with the building department. The building inspector comes to the house and sometimes meets with the builder's site superintendent. Together, they walk through the project to confirm that the new section of the home has been constructed according to the previously approved plans and that all work complies with the building codes.

Most often the work passes muster and the inspector signs the building permit to signify its compliance. Sometimes there are items the inspector flags for additional work.  When the house is finished, the inspector's final approval prompts a Certificate of Occupancy (or CO) that allows the homebuyer to close and move into his or her new home.

Internal Inspections. In addition to the necessary, on-site inspections by the building department, we often conduct inspections of our own during construction, based on standards and expectations we've established as a company.  Sometimes engineers are hired to make certain soils and structural inspections. Also energy raters are often used as a third party inspection team.

The most important of these internal inspections happens just before our buyers move into their new home. At that time, members of our staff tour the house to make sure systems and products (such as the furnace, dishwasher, etc) are working properly and that there are no missing or misaligned finishes (such as switch plates or door casings). That process leads to the creation of a to-do list, often called a punch list. Items on the punch list are typically satisfied before the homeowners formally tour the house with the builder. This is the last step prior to the homeowners occupying their new home.

We welcome inspections of all kinds for several reasons. First, we do not like surprises. We want to eliminate any issues or missing pieces prior to the closing. Also, we want to spend time with our clients to demonstrate and explain the home's various systems, point out key features, and educate them about the proper maintenance of their new house. Finally, we make these efforts so that our buyers are satisfied that we've delivered what we promised and met or exceeded their expectations.

1:14 PM - Sep. 20, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Buying real estate at auction


With foreclosures flooding the real estate market, many property buyers and investors are hitting the auction circuit looking to capitalize on the next great deal. For those that are new to the auction block, there are a few ‘rules of thumb’ you’ll want to keep in mind before placing your bid. PropertyAuction.com provides some essential tips when looking to get in on the auction action, including:

1) Exercise your due diligence. Arm yourself with as much information on the property of interest before you bid. Many auctioneers provide a Property Information Package that contains vital information about the property (demographics, environmental information, tax data, etc.) as well as the contract of sale. Some simple online research prior to the auction can also assist in finding out some need-to-know facts before you invest your time and money.

2) Fully understand what ‘As Is, Where Is’ condition entails. Pretty self-explanatory, you are agreeing to purchase a property with whatever flaws it has at the time of sale, in the location stated on the contract. Unless there is something specifically outlined within the contract, the “As Is, Where Is” item means that the seller is not responsible for any damages or repairs the property may need. This could be as minimal as a broken window with a location on a busy street, or as mammoth as environmental issues on a property located right next to a set of working train tracks. Know what you’re getting into before you get into it.

3) Be aware that most auctions do not come with financing. “Since the majority of real estate auction contracts have no financing contingencies, it is imperative for a prospective auction buyer to be sure of their ability to purchase the property in question,” advises Ori Klein, president of PropertyAuction.com. “Usually, there are no refunds on bid deposits due to lack of financing if you are the winning bidder. Decide on the highest price you are willing to pay for the property in question and tack on some extra for additional fees. Have your funds lined up and ready to go by the time you’re going to bid.”

4) If you can’t close, don’t bid. If for some reason you can’t close on time, you can lose your deposit and could be held liable for additional damages and daily penalties. Be aware that most real estate auction closings are within 30 days. In short, be prepared to buy or walk away.

5) Don’t bid with your emotions. Most people have a ”dream house” in mind, or are seeking to start a business in a swanky new office building. Whatever your expectations, come prepared with a price you can afford and don’t go over it. Remember, real estate auction sales are final.

6) Inspect the property. Just as in traditional sales, prospective buyers can usually have a chance to inspect real estate properties offered at auction. These inspections are usually arranged by appointment or at specific scheduled times designated by the auction company. This is an excellent opportunity to find out all the ‘As Is, Where Is’ details you need to know before bidding.

Bottom line: You can get deals at real estate auctions. As a buyer, you simply need to do your homework beforehand, be sure of what you can afford at the time of auction, and keep a cool head come bidding time. Many a first-time home buyer and business investor have walked away from an auction with a newfound goldmine.

1:51 PM - Sep. 18, 2011 - comments {1} - post comment

There are deals on home upgrades


This article is by Al Heavens of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The situation: You want to make some improvements to your house, but don’t want to spend money you don’t have. Nor do you want to waste the money you do have by buying something inappropriate for your needs.

A tall order, for sure, and a situation many homeowners find themselves in as the economy totters toward a recovery that always seems just shy of a sure thing.

The Internet has made finding the best price for a product easier than it was 10 years ago, says developer Carl Dranoff, who has written the checks for more than a few renovations at his buildings over the years.

“The Internet has driven down the prices of just about everything,” he says, “so there is little variation” from, for example, one manufacturer’s refrigerator to the next.

Need replacement windows? A modest federal tax credit—up to $1,500—is available until Dec. 31.

Energy-efficient windows will cut utility bills 7 percent to 15 percent, government data shows. But the cost of complete window replacement for the average home is $7,500 to $10,000, according to the folks at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

They advise this: When you’re interviewing contractors, ask them to break down the price quote by labor and materials, keeping in mind that although energy-efficient windows cost more, the labor costs for installation should be the same for all kinds of windows.

In general, experienced buyers recommend that you shop carefully and know exactly what you want before you hand over your credit card or write a check to a supplier.

“A dozen years ago, you might have to go to specialty stores to find the really groovy items,” said Center City real estate agent Mark Wade, who also buys and renovates condos for resale. “Today, it is as simple as hitting Lowe’s, Target, or Home Depot.”

Stores don’t stock everything they offer, though. “Go online and see their entire product line,” he suggests.

Durability is what developer Liz Solms looks for when she shops for products.

Solms is using sustainable or “green” materials to renovate apartments at Touraine in Philadelphia, one of the buildings she co-owns around the country. She said she measured the value of these products by how long they would last.

“Time is money, right?” she says.

Jay Cipriani, president of Cipriani Builders, a Woodbury, N.J., remodeling contractor, thinks so.

“Features to consider other than price might include durability, as well as whether the product will result in a healthier or safer environment” in your home, he says.

Another question to consider, Cipriani says: “Does it add value to the home?” He suggested looking for lesser-known names to get a good product and warranty. Look into how to buy directly from the manufacturer “rather than through big-box store or distributor,” he says.

Sometimes, immediate need compels us to buy something without considering all the factors.

It’s hot, and you need a window air conditioner. You find a website that lets you calculate the size you need—say, a 7,500-Btu unit. Several retailers are selling them for about $300, so finding the lowest price isn’t the overwhelming issue. What else do you need to think about before you buy?

“Sales tax is one,” Dranoff says. “Can you pick it up yourself, or do you need to have it delivered? Can you install it yourself, or do you need someone to do it for you?”

Not to mention these pertinent details: Can it make it through the doorway? Is the window too small or too big? How can you adjust the window opening so it will fit?

How close is the outlet? Is the outlet grounded? Will you need an electrician to install the proper outlet? How will the unit drain?

What about the warranty? Who will repair it if the unit breaks down? How easy is it to obtain parts?

If you plan to install something yourself, Cipriani says, “think about the hidden risks of self-installation, such as technical obstacles—plumbing or electrical, for example—or whether or not you need a permit before installation.”

Dranoff favors American-made products because of the availability of parts and people who know how to repair them if they break. He prefers established products to new ones.

“New is not necessarily better,” he says. “Consumer Reports suggests waiting a year on any product before you buy so that it will go through a cycle of consumer testing.”

Of course, the goal is to do it right the first time, and that requires planning and common sense. Measuring helps, too.

How many times have you heard of people buying mattresses that won’t fit up their stairs? Or granite countertops too heavy for their cabinets? Or refrigerators with ice-makers for spaces where there are no water lines? Or gas dryers where there is no gas connection?

“It is as easy,” Dranoff says, “as asking if that washer you want to buy can make it down the basement stairs.”

12:10 PM - Sep. 16, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Paint it right the first time


This article is by Al Heavens from Your Place.

An expectant colleague sent word to me that she and her husband had visited a chain paint store in recent weeks, searching for the right color for the baby’s room.

The salesperson told her that many homeowners, unable to come up with the money to hire a painting contractor, were resorting to doing the job themselves —often with unfortunate results.

Many were returning to the paint store, virtual hat in hand, seeking ways to extricate themselves from the mess they had made.

Experienced do-it-yourselfers must be asking, “How could they mess up something as easy as painting a room?” Think back to when all of this was new to you, however, and very few will be able to say, “I was the Michelangelo of the paint roller from Day One.”

Paint jobs will go relatively smoothly if you keep a couple of things in mind.

First, surface preparation is critical. Second, don’t skimp on quality. Top-quality paints and tools offer the best results.

If you’re thinking about painting the exterior, get to it before the weather gets too warm and sticky, which affects drying. Windy days also are not good, because you want the paint to set up properly before it dries.

It’s also best to avoid painting in direct sunshine, since the surface of your house can be 10 to 20 degrees hotter than the air temperature—and that can cause the paint to dry too quickly. By painting in moderate weather, you’ll get the best performance from your paint and efforts.

Before you begin to paint, inside or out, make sure the surface is clean and free of chalk and dirt. Use soap and water with a scrub brush, then rinse.

Remove any loose, flaking or peeling paint by scraping, sanding or wire-brushing. (You might also consider wearing a mask and safety goggles.)

Feather back rough paint edges by sanding. If you are repainting a glossy surface, be sure to sand it, so the new paint will adhere better. And spot-prime any bare wood.

Finally, brush off any dust or particles left from the sanding and scraping prior to painting. For durability, be sure to purchase the best paint you can.

For exterior applications, acrylic latex paint works very well. Its flexibility enables it to expand and contract with the surface when temperatures rise or fall dramatically. That also extends the life of the paint job.

Good-quality paint is less expensive in the long run. Superior hiding power— provided by the paint’s pigment—will require fewer coats (coverage guidelines are typically found on the can), and its better flow will make the job go faster.

If a paint has good flow, it can even out an application so that brush and roller marks are not visible, and there’s less spattering and reduced cleanup time.

I also lightly sand between coats. It tends to get rid of bumps of dried paint but it always seems that the surface will take the second coat better if it is a little rough.

As I said, don’t go cheap on tools. To get the best results, use good-quality brushes, rollers and other application equipment. Use synthetic-bristle brushes that are tightly packed and well-balanced and synthetic-nap rollers for latex paint.

Don’t thin paint unless you need to (for spraying applications, for example). Thinning reduces the solids content of the paint and prevents better hiding and durability.

Never use interior paint outdoors. Manufacturers formulate paints specifically for indoors or out.

11:58 AM - Sep. 14, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Paint your home for profit

 When it comes to selling your home faster, Jeanette Joy Fisher, author of The Truth about Making Money Flipping Houses, is a top expert on using  house painting color psychology to influence buyers at deep subliminal levels.  Does it work?  Actually, the use of house painting specific colors for psychological motivation is a best-kept secret among professionals.

Jeanette Joy Fisher: When painting your home for resale, choosing the right colors can make a huge difference in your paycheck at closing. For instance, did you know that the exterior color of houses selling most quickly is a certain shade of yellow, but that choosing the wrong shade of yellow can kill a sale?

 You’ll find many brochures in home painting stores, showing various combinations of exterior paint colors. But most people don’t realize that most of those combinations actually include three colors, and not just two. Limiting your exterior paint scheme to just two colors also limits your income potential.

For a fast sale, think fun colors and go for a third, or even a fourth, exterior color. Think “Disneyland Main Street,” where every shop is painted in glorious multi-colors. Adding more colors will also add definition to the various architectural details of your home. Use gloss or semi-gloss paint on wood trim.

The Psychology of Exterior Colors

When choosing home painting exterior colors, take the sales price of your home into account. Certain colors, especially muted, complex shades, attract wealthy or highly-educated buyers, whereas buyers with less income or less education generally prefer simpler colors. A complex color contains tints of gray or brown, and usually requires more than one word to describe, such as “sage green,” as opposed to “green.”

On the other hand, simple colors are straightforward and pure. Generally, Denver houses in the lower price range sell faster and for higher prices when painted in simple colors like yellow or tan, accented by white, blue, or green trim.

Jeanette Joy Fisher: Using colored, rather than bland, white walls will increase your profit potential. Lynette Jennings tested the perception of room size and color, and discovered that a room painted white only appeared larger to a few people when compared to an identical room painted in color – and the perceived difference was only about six inches! Most people also look better when surrounded by color, and feel happier, and since buyers pick houses that make them feel happy, that knowledge can put dollars in your pocket at closing!


Paint homes’ entryways to bring the exterior colors into the house. Repeating shades of the exterior throughout your home will make the entire home seem to be in harmony. Living and family rooms painted in a slightly lighter shade of the exterior color will ensure that you’ve picked a color your buyers like, because if they didn’t like your exterior colors, they wouldn’t have bothered to look inside. If they loved the exterior colors, they’ll love the interior, too.

When choosing home interior painting colors, consider the use of each room. For instance, kitchen and dining areas that are painted in “food colors,” such as coffee browns, celery greens, and scrambled egg yellows, feel natural.

Since, deeper shades of color imply intimacy and serenity, I like to paint master bedrooms a medium shade of green or blue for warm selling seasons, and rouge red for cooler weather. Other bedrooms can be painted in creamy tones of green, blue, or a pale shell pink. (See the chapter on the Psychology of Color in my book “Joy to the Home: Secrets of Interior Design Psychology” for further information.)

Selling Season

Always consider your selling season (the time of year you’ll be marketing your home) and climate when choosing home painting colors. Estimate the amount of time you’ll need to get your home ready for sale, and then add on extra days for unexpected delays. Use cool colors, such as blues, greens, and grays, to sell during spring and summer, and warm colors, such as yellows, reds, and maroons, when selling in the fall and winter.

Color Intensity

When getting ready to paint your house, look at the colors of neighboring houses and choose home paint colors that harmonize, yet stand out from the crowd. Colors that clash badly with other houses will detract from the overall neighborhood.

At the beginning of the article, I told you that homes with yellow exteriors sell the quickest. But which shade of yellow sells best? First, the yellows to avoid: yellows with green undertones look sickly to most buyers.

The best-selling yellow exterior color is actually a pale, sunny yellow, especially when complimented with one or more carefully-chosen accent colors. For instance, a semi-gloss white trim will give your home a clean and fresh look, and adding a third color, such as green, can make your home painting even more attractive to prospective buyers.

Colors affect human beings in many ways, and by using the principles of Color Psychology, you can make your home stand out from the competition, sell more quickly, and at a higher price.

1:21 PM - Sep. 12, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Good handwriting is still important


This article is by Julie Deardorff at The Chicago Tribune.

Children are texting, tapping and typing on keyboards more than ever, leaving less time to master that old-fashioned skill known as handwriting. So will the three “T’s” replace a building block of education? It’s not likely. The benefits of gripping and moving a pen or pencil reach beyond communication. Emerging research shows that handwriting increases brain activity, hones fine motor skills, and can predict a child’s academic success in ways that keyboarding can’t.

“For children, handwriting is extremely important. Not how well they do it, but that they do it and practice it,” says Karin Harman James, an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. “Typing does not do the same thing.”

Here’s how handwriting makes its mark:

Handwriting can change how children learn and their brains develop. Indiana University researchers used neuroimaging scans to measure brain activation in preliterate preschool children who were shown letters. One group of children then practiced printing letters; the other children practiced seeing and saying the letters. After four weeks of training, the kids who practiced writing showed brain activation similar to an adult’s, says James, the study’s lead researcher. The printing practice also improved letter recognition, which is the No. 1 predictor of reading ability at age 5.

Good handwriting can mean better grades. Studies show that the same mediocre paper is graded much higher if the handwriting is neat and much lower if the writing is not.

Handwriting is faster. Researchers who tested second-, fourth- and sixth-graders found that children compose essays more prolifically—and faster—when using a pen rather than a keyboard. In addition, fourth- and sixth-graders wrote more complete sentences when they used a pen, according to the study, led by Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington professor of educational psychology who studies normal writing development and writing disabilities. Her research has also shown that forming letters by hand may engage our thinking brains differently than pressing down on a key.

Handwriting aids memory. If you write yourself a list or a note—then lose it—you’re much more likely to remember what you wrote than if you just tried to memorize it, says occupational therapist Katya Feder, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa School of Rehabilitation.

Handwriting proficiency inspires confidence. The more we practice a skill such as handwriting, the stronger the motor pathways become until the skill becomes automatic. Once it’s mastered, children can move on to focus on the subject, rather than worry about how to form letters.

Handwriting engages different brain circuits than keyboarding. The contact, direction and pressure of the pen or pencil send the brain a message. And the repetitive process of handwriting “integrates motor pathways into the brain,” says Feder. When it becomes automatic or learned, “there’s almost a groove in the pathways,” she says. The more children write, the more pathways are laid down. But if they write them poorly, then they’re getting a faulty pathway, so you want to go back and correct it,” Feder says.

Technology may help invigorate the practice. Handwriting applications that allow users to hand-scribble notes on the touch screen rather than paper may be useful tools. Researchers are also working on software to help improve handwriting.

1:17 PM - Sep. 10, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Cash can be king


For home buyers who need to finance their purchase using a mortgage, a cash buyer can be their worst enemy.

That’s because when a buyer makes a cash offer, the seller knows it’s a solid deal—and that financing hiccups won’t delay a closing. Sometimes, that’s enough for the seller to accept a lower bid for a cash deal instead of a higher bid from a financing buyer.

It happened to a client of Dan Quinn, a real-estate agent who works for Prudential Carruthers Realtors in Silver Spring, Md. Against a cash buyer, the financing borrower just couldn’t compete, Quinn says.

“We were wringing our hands over this because the offer that came in on this property was cash, and we were quite a bit higher than the offer,” Quinn says. The winning bid was for $370,000; his client’s offer was $395,000, he says.

It’s a scenario that is becoming more common with the number of cash buyers on the rise, swooping in for deals on low-priced properties. Yet while cash is king, there are some things financing buyers can do to better their chances of having an offer accepted.

Perhaps the most important tip: “The smartest thing they can do is make sure they talk to a competent mortgage banker … to preapprove them ahead of time,” says Mike Litzner, broker and owner of Century 21 American Homes, which has locations in Long Island, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York.

Also, remember that the more cash you’re willing to put down, the more secure your job and the better your credit, the better off you will be in getting the seller to accept your bid, he says.

In February, all-cash deals made up 33 percent of all home sales—a record high, according to the National Association of Realtors. In 2010, 59 percent of those who bought a home as an investment paid cash for the home, the group found.

People are plunking down cash on properties for a variety of reasons. One popular one: With low housing prices, some people are pulling their money out of the stock market and investing in rental properties, with a plan to own them long term, Quinn says.

That way, their money “is being put to work in what seems to be a bottoming housing market,” he says. “You can buy these things cheap enough and with a small amount of renovation … the rents pay the mortgage,” Quinn says.

Some parents may be providing the cash to help their children buy homes, at a time when financing can be out of reach for young adults, Quinn says.

Instead of applying for a loan from a bank, the kids make their payments to the Bank of Mom and Dad. Meanwhile, the parents can charge 5 percent to 6 percent interest on the loan—earning them more than they’d get on a safe investment such as a certificate of deposit.

Cash offers often win out when the bank is the seller. Those are most likely foreclosures now back on the lender’s books.

When dealing with a bank, remember that lenders are typically more analytical than a homeowner seller, Litzner says. And for an institution, they’re more apt to go with the safest bet.

“Time is money, and taxes are ticking away on (the house). They want to get the bad loan off their books quicker and the money on their ledgers,” Litzner says. Someone with cash on hand theoretically could close immediately, while a buyer who needs a mortgage typically drafts a contract contingent on the financing going through.

A typical home seller with equity is less likely to be motivated by a cash buyer, says Donne Knudsen, a mortgage loan originator with Cobalt Financial Corp., serving Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“When you have an equity seller, they don’t have to take a lowball cash offer,” she says. Instead, they’ll most likely opt for the best and highest offer, since they may not be as motivated by time, she adds.

To compete with a cash buyer, you’ll need a bit of strategy.

First, get prequalified—or better yet, preapproved—for a mortgage, Quinn says. Along with a high down payment, preparing to put down a high deposit could also up your chances of beating out a buyer who is bidding with all cash, he says.

Another tip: To beat the deep pockets, you might have to act quickly.

“What I found out is with these cash buyers, they act quickly. To compete, you have to act quickly. A lot of times, these are investors and they have a relationship with these listing agents,” Quinn says. It’s a good idea for the buyer’s agent—or the buyer if he’s representing himself—to develop a rapport with the listing real-estate agent, too.

Before writing the offer, your agent—or you, if you’re representing yourself — should do some sleuthing: If possible, figure out what the seller needs, including shorter or longer settlement time. In some cases, your flexibility will be a bonus for the seller, Quinn says.

It’s also important to ask if there are other offers and if any of them are cash, Quinn says. In his experience, a well-prepared contract that is typed out, plus a cover page summary of the contract details, is another way to show you’re serious, he says.

Finally, have patience. If you’re interested in bidding on bargain homes including foreclosures, you might end up looking at 40 different properties and make seven or eight offers before you get one accepted, Knudsen says. “You have to be willing to do whatever it takes,” she says.

And remember, cash deals can fall apart, too, Quinn says.

“Is it $300,000 in green cash in someone’s bank account? Or are they tapping into their 401(k), are they going to be cashing in CDs, are they going to take cash out of another property?” Quinn says. If investments need to be liquidated for the purchase, that can also put the deal at risk.

Sometimes, “cash isn’t really cash,” he says.

1:15 PM - Sep. 8, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Cutting down landscaping costs


This article is by Gregory Karp of the Chicago Tribune

As weather warms in most parts of the country, many homeowners will incur the expense and hassle of hiring professionals to help beautify their yard through grass mowing, landscape design or tree trimming and removal. These specialty services can be quite costly; that’s why it’s important to hire the right landscaper at the right price.

“The condition of your lawn has a big effect on the look and value of your home, whether you have a complicated landscaping plan with water features and/or an expanse of grass and flowers,” says Angie Hicks, founder of service-ratings website Angie’s List. “If you’re hiring someone to help maintain your lawn, match their qualifications, training and local reputation to your property needs.”

Here are the steps you can take to help get the best value from your landscaping pros.

Schedule Events: Not every homeowner is an expert on lawn, yard and tree care, so it helps to get several pros out to your property to advise you on what needs to be done and what the options are. It’s a free education about your property.

“The most important advice is to talk with several firms,” said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers’ Checkbook, which offers ratings of local service companies to subscribers in seven U.S. markets. “Use them as your consultants.”

To get names of companies for your initial visit, you can use the usual method of asking for referrals from neighbors and local friends and family. You can also go online to service-review websites. Good paid sites include Angie’s List and Consumers’ Checkbook at checkbook.org. You might get reviews and comments on some companies from such free sites as Yelp.com, Kudzu.com or even the firm’s own Facebook fan page.

You can cross-check names of any finalists with the Better Business Bureau, bbb.org; pay attention to the number of complaints lodged against the companies.

If all you need is simple mowing, raking or weeding, you might not need a professional at all. A hard-working, entrepreneurial teenager up the street might yield the best deal, Krughoff suggests.

Get Price Bids: Once you know what you want, request apples-to-apples estimates from at least three companies.

“You’ll find big price differences on these things,” Krughoff says.

Checkbook used one major metropolitan area as an example and found that the same tree-removal job could cost from $1,935 to $6,300, depending on the company. Prices on a smaller tree job ranged from $375 to $1,100. For lawn care, Consumers’ Checkbook found one case in which the same promise for the lawn brought prices ranging from $229 to $805.

But pricey firms do a better job, right?

Not really, Krughoff says. His publication found virtually no correlation between price and quality in lawn care and tree services, meaning you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. But that’s not true in all cases. Pricier garden nurseries were found to generally offer a higher quality, Consumers’ Checkbook found.

Get it in Writing: Especially for bigger jobs, be very clear—in writing—about what a firm is expected to do. In the tree-removal example, will they haul away debris? Will they cut up wood into firewood length and leave it? Will they remove a stump? If so, how? By cutting it to grade level or grinding it?

“A lot of times, people just don’t get specific,” Krughoff comments.

For lawn care, do you expect a green lawn quickly or can you be patient for a care program that will strengthen root systems and be healthier in the long run?

If you’re hiring a company to install plants, note the replacement policy. Angie’s List suggests not hiring a company if it won’t promise to replace and replant any plants that die despite proper care.

Get Credentials: Make sure the company has liability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance. Some yard work, especially in high trees, is dangerous to people and property. And for some jobs, you might look for certifications and membership in professional organizations—such as the Association of Professional Landscape Designers—Angie’s List suggests. For tree service, consider companies with a professional arborist on staff.

Be Wary of Add-ons: If a landscaper or lawn service recommends various fertilizers, sprayings and treatments, you want to hear a compelling case on why it’s necessary and evidence that it will make a difference, notes Krughoff.

Paying: Ideally, you will pay nothing until the job is done, which gives you the most leverage to ensure it’s done right. But some companies will require a deposit. Avoid paying the entire amount upfront, and use a credit card if you can. That allows you to dispute the charge with the credit card company if the service was incomplete or not done right.

National Companies: If you’re talking about weed-and-feed services, you have a number of options for national companies, such as Lawn Doctor, Scotts and TruGreen. In a 1008 report Consumer Reports notes that service varied, even within a company. Sometimes technicians were incorrect about their assessments of lawns, as judged by the experts Consumer Reports used. For example, some said the lawns had crabgrass, thatch buildup or insect problems, when in actuality they did not. However, the report did not evaluate the quality of services performed by these companies.

Consumers’ Checkbook finds local lawn care firms tend to have higher customer-satisfaction ratings than chains, and prices can be comparable, says Krughoff.

1:10 PM - Sep. 6, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Just laugh


Arms bent as if she were clutching the reins of an imaginary horse, Nydia Ramirez galloped around the room, letting loose a hearty laugh. Minutes later, she was buzzing like a bee, then faking a casino jackpot win. The elementary school teacher says she was “born to laugh,” and now meets weekly in Elgin, Ill., with others who share her passion.

This is part of my life,” she says. “I laugh at everything and sometimes at everybody.”

She and other members of the Elgin Hysterical Society, one of more than a dozen such groups in the Chicago area, meet to do nothing more than laugh. They don’t tell jokes. They don’t watch funny movies. There are no standup comics among them. They just … laugh.

Certified group leader Len Lempa, a social worker at Provena St. Joseph Hospital, started the club in January with the help of Norma Copes, adult services librarian at Gail Borden Public Library. The club typically draws about a dozen people each week to the library.

Laughter, Lempa says, helps with pain management by increasing endorphins, and it helps relieve stress.

“If you laugh on a regular basis, your body actually, I think, becomes inhospitable to illness or stress,” he says. “It’s a bad host.”

Roberta Gold, recreation therapist and creator of the Laughter for the Health of It program, offers a more detailed explanation: People anticipating laughter see their heart rate rise, then fall to lower than where it started. Hearty laughter, she says, can involve the entire body and exercise the respiratory muscles and relax the skeletal muscles.

When the body is more relaxed, people breathe more deeply, which benefits their circulatory system, she says. Laughter also can boost the immune system and reduce the anxiety and nausea people may feel when they’re stressed.

“If you’re always pounding it with negativity there’s definitely psychosomatic illnesses that make your body unhealthy,” Gold says. “People that are negative all the time and complaining … tend to have more illnesses than people that look at the sunny side of things.”

Lempa advises newbies to the group to fake laughing when they aren’t feeling it. Fake laughter, he says, has the same physical benefits as the real thing.

Besides, he says, “slowly but surely, the chances are it might become real.”

The group starts with warm-ups of slow and deliberate inhaling and exhaling, and at a recent Thursday meeting, giggles started even before the laughter officially began. They try a variety of laughs, such as by rowing, where they mime rowing a boat while laughing.

“Sometimes we lose control fast here,” Lempa says with a grin.

Not everyone in the hysterical society came giggling to the group. Jane Craig was skeptical.

“I thought, ‘What kind of losers am I going to be with tonight?’” she says.

She joined because she started feeling depressed this year as winter dragged on, and to her delight found the group to be uplifting.

Julie Gum stumbled into her first laughter club meeting earlier this year after seeing a sign in the library. She had lost her job and other things in her life also were going wrong, she says.

“I walked in the first time and I said I’m not going to participate. I’m going to watch all night and within seconds I was up there,” she says.

An hour later, a weight had been lifted. She concluded that sometimes when life is stressful, all you can do is laugh.

But the club isn’t just about relieving stress. Some members, such as Ramirez, just enjoy laughter and want to share it. Newcomer Joseph Lytle, whose mother works at the library, has been a chuckler since childhood.

“I’ve long been an amateur laugher, and it was time to take my game up a notch,” he says.

For serious laughers, there really is more training available. In addition to attending club meetings, people can go through a two-day course to become certified laughter club leaders through various laugh organizations: followthelaughter.com, laughteryoga.org or worldlaughtertour.org.

“Laughing on your own can be a little weird,” Lempa says. “Not that this isn’t.”

12:59 PM - Sep. 4, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

Saving energy


This article is by Dan Serra of Stragetic Financial Planning in Plano Texas

Recent bumps in the economic recovery and higher gas prices are putting a dent in plans for summer vacations this year. A recent survey found fewer than 50 percent of business owners plan to take a vacation this year, down from more than 60 percent last summer. Finding extra money to take that much-needed break is possible if you use the right strategies.

One way is by reducing energy costs. Begin by looking around your home. You will need to make a small investment in improving the energy-efficiency of your home, but in the long run it will pay dividends. Many local utility companies will do an energy audit on your home for little or no cost. Start by calling them. Or visit www.energysavers.gov and click on Your Home for tips on energy assessments.

Common areas that can be improved to reduce gas and electric bills are sealing window leaks, adding insulation and having your air conditioning unit tuned up. If you need a new air conditioner or hot water heater, tax rebates are available this year. These two units use the most energy in a home so updating them with more efficient technology can pay off the most.

Secondary are your home appliances. Check to make sure refrigerators are not too cold (37 degrees is recommended for refrigerator, 3 degrees for freezer). And only run washing machines and dishwashers with full loads. Outside the home, keep gas prices down by checking GasBuddy.com or GasPriceWatch.com for the best prices in town (or downloading the apps on your smartphone). Fill up your tank on Wednesday or Thursday before 10 a.m., recommends Chris Faulkner, CEO of Breitling Oil & Gas. Gas prices rise on Thursdays in anticipation of weekend travel, he says, and 10 a.m. is when most station owners make their price change for the day. Unless it is an emergency, do not buy gas Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Whether driving to work or to a vacation, take only what you need. Every 250 extra pounds in a car eats up an extra mile per gallon of gas, Faulkner says.

Making money doesn’t all have to be earned. Adjusting habits is an easier way to get more money for summer fun.

12:55 PM - Sep. 2, 2011 - comments {0} - post comment

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