November 7, 2012 3:24 pm
A: You can find out more about an existing property and neighborhood before you buy than you can a new home in a newly developed community.
When the home is on the outskirts of town, ask the developer about future access to public transit, entertainment venues, shopping centers, churches, and schools. Also review local zoning ordinances. A remote area can quickly turn into a fast food haven.
You want to ensure the neighborhood will not spiral out of control and lose its residential appeal.
Other things to consider:
- Ask homeowners already living in a development about the builder. If none currently live there, find out where the builder has previously built and speak to those owners to find out if the builder followed through on promises and needed repairs.
- Ability to make changes. Most homes in a development resemble each other. But the developer may impose restrictions on house color, landscaping, renovations, and other items that a homeowner may want to alter.
- Do not buy into the highfalutin images created by marketing experts. Form your own opinions about a property and only buy where you feel comfortable. After all, you are the one who will be living there.
November 6, 2012 5:16 pm
I recently tapped the Energy Communications Council (heatingnews.org) for 10 simple ways to save money on home heating costs this winter.
In this segment we’re going to talk about going to the next step by considering a few effective but higher cost efficiency initiatives. While these investments are somewhat larger than that of simply caulking a window, the potential savings are larger as well.
These investments include:
- Making sure you have good insulation in exterior walls, ceilings with cold spaces above, and floors with cold spaces below.
- Installing and closing storm windows.
- Consider new windows designed to decrease radiant heat loss without lowering visibility.
- Considering having a solar water heating component installed. This small, easily installed system is virtually maintenance free and warms the water your family uses on a daily basis, using free heat from the sun.
The EEC also suggests you talk with your local heating oil dealer about Bioheat, a cleaner burning, renewable product that can be blended seamlessly with the heating oil you already use. It lowers emissions and cuts down on the amount of traditional heating oil used.
According to Cape & Islands Self Reliance (reliance.org), a Massachusetts nonprofit promoting environmentally sustainable energy programs, Bioheat is petroleum based heating oil that is blended with some percentage of biodiesel (typically 2-20 percent). Biodiesel is a diesel fuel and heating oil alternative that is made from vegetable oil instead of petroleum oil.
Bioheat works in any regular heating fuel application, such as home heating oil equipment, commercial boilers and diesel generators, without any modifications. To maximize the benefits of using bioheat, our product is made from 20 percent biodiesel (80 percent regular heating oil).
And in states where ultra-low sulfur heating oil is sold, biofuels can be blended, creating a fuel suitable for burning in the world’s most efficient heating equipment.
November 6, 2012 5:16 pm
It’s possible to reduce home energy costs by as much as a third this year by following four simple recommendations from big-box home improvement center Home Depot.
“Fans, lighting, doors and windows can suck up a lot of energy,” said Do-it-Yourself video host Jeff Meacham. You can improve efficiency and save money in four main areas.”
Ceiling fans – Clean the blades with a dusting cloth and some white vinegar. The reduced weight will make them rotate more easily, reducing the motor effort and saving energy. Also, for maximum efficiency, flip the switch in winter so the fan rotates clockwise, forcing warm air down into the room. Come summer, switch it back so the blades rotate to the right.
Lighting – Spiral shaped CFL bulbs use about a third of the energy of regular light bulbs. (They also emit less heat, so you can save on air conditioning costs in summer.) Switching to the new bulbs can save you as much as $200 per light over 20 years.
Heat loss through doors – Adding a tight seal of weather stripping around your front door provides a barrier against escaping heat. Place the weather stripping along the inner door jambs on both the top and sides. Press snugly into place and check to make sure the door closes fully and securely. Adding a door sweep to the bottom of the door will also help to seal heat in – and stopping the loss of heat is a win-win for your budget and the environment.
Water drips and temps – Fix dripping faucets. A single dripping hot water faucet can waste 212 gallons of water a month, increasing the cost of water and gas or electricity for heating. Set the water heater to 140 degrees or ‘normal’ if you have a dishwasher, If not, set the water temp to 120 degrees or ‘low.’
November 6, 2012 5:16 pm
In the wake of severe weather, homeowners may have questions about what damages are covered by insurance.
While each insurance policy differs, Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine recently offered the following examples of what is and is not covered in a typical homeowner's policy:
Flood damage. Standard homeowners and renters insurance does not cover flood damage. Flood coverage, however, is available in the form of a separate policy from the National Flood Insurance Program and takes 30 days to become effective. If your flooding was related to sewage backup, ask your insurance agent or carrier if an endorsement for sewer backup coverage was added to your homeowner's policy. If so, your losses may be covered if the water damage was caused by sewer lines backing up through your home's drain pipes.
Auto damage. If you have comprehensive coverage on your auto insurance policy, the damages sustained from flooding will be covered.
Power outages. Generally, there is no coverage for damage or a loss caused by a power outage if the source of the power outage did not occur on the insured premises. However, if the source of the power outage occurred on the insured premises, there is coverage.
Removal of trees and branches. The removal of downed trees and/or debris is covered if there is damage to a covered structure or if the area where the damage occurred is declared a disaster area by the state government.
Additional living expenses. There may be an allowance for offsite housing until your home is repaired. Keep all your bills and payments made for offsite housing.
Consedine encourages consumers to read the terms and conditions of their own policies.
After you contact your insurance company, take pictures of the damage and log your expenses:
Do not throw away your damaged property and do not make any permanent repairs. Your claim could be denied if the insurance company or adjuster is unable to see the extent of the damage to your property. If you do make permanent repairs before the adjuster has seen the damage, your claim could be denied.
Be wary of anyone who knocks at your door and offers to do your home repairs. Natural disasters can be a magnet for scam artists.
Know your options when working with a property claims adjuster. You have the option of working with a company-appointed adjuster or you may choose to use a public adjuster to assist you in filing your claim. Be aware that public adjusters will charge a fee for their services.
Be sure you are working with a reputable, dependable contractor. Take the time to ensure that your home-improvement contractors are licensed.
November 6, 2012 5:16 pm
A: Many builders offer financing incentives to help move more buyers into a project. In fact, major building companies often have their own mortgage brokerage subsidiaries, while many other builders routinely refer buyers to "preferred" local lenders. If it is a buyer's market in your area, you can be sure developers will offer incentives such as low-down-payment financing or interest rate subsidies.
November 5, 2012 6:04 pm
As is. Said of property offered for sale in its present condition with no guarantees as to quality and no promise of repair or fix-up by the seller; property is purchased in exactly the condition in which it is found.
November 5, 2012 6:04 pm
A: You would think not since it is new and the developer has to adhere to local construction guidelines. However, err on the side of caution – always hire an inspector, whether the home is old or new.
You can ask the builder to provide copies of any inspection reports on the property, architectural plans, surveys and pertinent construction documents for your inspector to review.
The inspector should either be a professional home inspector, an engineer, an architect or a contractor. When hiring a professional inspector, look for one who belongs to a home inspection trade organization, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).
This group has developed formal inspection guidelines and a professional code of ethics for its members. Membership in ASHI is not automatic. Proven field experience and technical knowledge about structures and their various systems and appliances are required.
As for rates, they vary greatly. Many inspectors charge about $400, but costs increase based on the scope of the inspection.
November 5, 2012 5:04 pm
Experts are predicting a harsh winter this year in certain areas of the country, a stark comparison to last year—one of the warmest winters in recent history.
However, those who experience winter’s wrath who heat with oil can save on heating costs this upcoming season by being proactive and taking a few small steps to conserve energy.
Thanks to many advances made in heating oil technology, today’s heating oil equipment is more efficient than ever. However, to get the most out of your equipment, you need to pair it with the right efficiency and conservation measures.
The heating oil industry’s Energy Communications Council (heatingnews.org) recommends doing simple things to save energy and lower heating costs:
1. Fill in gaps around windows and doors with caulking
2. Cover older windows with weather-resistant plastic sheathing
3. Insulate your attic
4. Wrap exposed pipes with proper insulation to prevent both heat loss and freezing
5. Replace your manual thermostat with a programmable model, and lower it just a few degrees while at work or sleeping
6. Open shades and drapes when the sun is out to help warm your home. Close them when the sun goes down to reduce heat loss through drafty windows
7. Eliminate any gaps between your door and threshold by adding a seal to the bottom of the door – it should brush up against the threshold to fill any gap
8. Close your kitchen vent, fireplace damper and closet doors, and remove, cover or close air conditioning units and vents when not in use
9. Move furniture away from heating elements, as it can block heat from circulating
10. Remember that hot water uses fuel too. Take notice of how much you use while bathing and washing dishes, and make an attempt to reduce consumption
In our next segment, we will look at some long-term energy saving investments you can make.
November 5, 2012 5:04 pm
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you know that the presidential election is today. The constant media coverage and ubiquitous political ads simply won’t let you forget (no matter how much you’d like to!). And amid the candidates’ posturing, daily interviews, debates, and gaffes, one important question keeps popping up: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
Though the recession and the hardships that followed mean many Americans can’t answer that question with a simple “yes” or “no,” personal finance guru Eric Tyson suggests it might be more to your benefit to ask yourself a slightly different question: What can you do now to ensure you are better off in four years, no matter who gets elected?
“Does it matter who gets elected president?” asks Tyson, author of Personal Finance For Dummies®, 7th Edition. “Absolutely. But regardless of who is elected and no matter what your current economic situation may be, what’s most important for you and your family is knowing how to make sound financial decisions for now and the future.”
To improve your financial outlook during the next four years, read on for a few of Tyson’s tried and true personal finance tips:
Create a foolproof financial plan. What occurred over the previous four years that you wish you would have been better prepared for? It could be that you or your spouse lost a job (revealing the need for life insurance or a health plan that’s not tied to a job). Or it brought home the need to have an emergency fund. Or perhaps it woke you and your spouse up to the fact that you weren’t going to be able to retire when you previously planned.
“Step one is finding these holes in your financial plan,” says Tyson. “Step Ttwo is making the necessary changes to bridge these gaps in your long-term financial outlook. You may need to make cuts in one aspect of your spending in order to put more money toward an emergency fund. You may want to look into different healthcare plans, such as a health savings account. Or it might be time to take a serious look at your retirement savings strategy: Could you be doing more to prepare?
“If you make the right changes, you may look back at the recession as a good thing because it pushed you to make better choices regarding your financial future,” he adds.
Get real about your long-term financial goals. Of course, creating a foolproof financial plan means setting realistic long-term goals. For instance, Tyson says it’s unrealistic for most parents to fully fund their children’s college educations. This is especially true considering the escalating cost of higher education. It’s best for the average family to focus on funding Mom and Dad’s retirement account and to realize that kids will have to rely on scholarships, financial aid, and loans.
“Explain this reality to your kids early on and let them know they need to set themselves up for success by doing all those things that colleges find appealing—getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities, and so on,” he advises. “It’s actually a great opportunity to teach your kids what good financial management looks like. It’s not just saving money here and there. It’s about making good decisions in all aspects of your life.”
Invest wisely. Stock market fluctuations have a lot of people worried about investing. Is it safe? Tyson has said it over and over again for years: 401(k)s and IRAs based on respected mutual funds are best.
“Don’t chase trendy investments,” says Tyson. “In my years as a financial adviser and a columnist answering many readers’ questions, I’ve seen the same, avoidable mistakes being made over and over.
Often these investing mistakes occurred for one simple reason: a lack of investment understanding. People didn’t know what their investing options were and why particular options were inferior or superior to others.
“Everyone can take advantage of an excellent investment vehicle: mutual funds—the best of which offer you diversification, which reduces your risk, and low-cost access to highly diversified portfolios and professional money managers, who can boost your returns with less risk,” he says.
Avoid extreme changes that won’t last. Be real about it: You’re probably not going to spend several hours a day couponing. Nor are you likely to live with no TV at all.
“What you might do is find a less expensive grocery store where you consistently shop, or trim your cable bill by cutting extraneous movie channels you rarely watch,” suggests Tyson. “The idea is to make changes that don’t disrupt your whole life or zap it of all happiness.”
Cut monthly expenses. No one wants to spend their valuable free time checking on lower auto insurance rates or better cell phone plans. But when you consider the potential payoff, you’ll be more willing to invest a couple of hours in doing Internet research and making phone calls.
Step away from your credit card. True of everything from consumer goods to vacations to cars: If you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it.
“Resist the lure of 0-percent-down financing and credit cards that make too-good-to-be-true offers to get you to sign up,” advises Tyson. “Credit cards offer temptation for overspending and carrying debt from month to month. If you absolutely must use credit, replace your credit card with a charge card. A charge card, like the American Express Card, requires you to pay your balance in full each billing period.”
Get informed about changes in healthcare costs. Healthcare costs continue to increase to astronomical levels, and it’s only going to get worse. Even if you get your health insurance through your company, there’s a good chance you are (or soon will be) paying a higher percentage of the monthly premium than ever before. (And of course, those premiums are rising.) If possible, says Tyson, ask your employer and/or shop around for better/less expensive options such as HSAs, FSAs, and so forth.
HSAs, for instance, are very helpful when tax time comes around. These accounts allow you to save on a tax-free basis toward current or future unreimbursed medical expenses. If you get sick and haven’t met your deductible, the funds in your HSA can be used to pay it off. Once your deductible is paid, your insurance plan will kick in and cover any subsequent medical costs under your policy, but your HSA can still be used to pay for your co-pays and any non-covered healthcare expenses. Single people can contribute $3,100 to an HSA, and families can contribute $6,250. That means depending on your status you can reduce your taxable income by $3,100 or $6,250 in a given year.
“And controlling healthcare costs is not all about health insurance,” says Tyson. “There’s a lot to be said for doing everything possible to stay healthy: eating right, exercising, and kicking bad habits like smoking. Of course, we can’t control everything, but we can treat our health like it’s the most important asset we have—because it is.”
Hang up on high tech costs. Between watching TV, Facebooking, endless texting, and so forth, we’ve gotten brainwashed into thinking a) we have to be constantly entertained, and b) we need the latest and greatest electronic gadgets. Unfortunately, these twenty-first century revelations aren’t good for your bank account or family togetherness.
“Err on the side of keeping your life simple,” he advises. “Trade in your family’s smartphones, and the costly plans that come with them, for regular phones. And then put in place a no-phones-at-the-dinner-table rule. Go for basic cable instead of one of the more expensive plans and start having a weekly family game night away from the TV. Making these and similar changes costs less, reduces stress, and allows more time for the things that really do matter in life.”
Don’t allow food spending to eat up too much of your budget. Eating at restaurants all the time adds up fast. Plus, those meals tend to be bad for you (especially fat-laden fast food meals). Plan a little better and you won’t find yourself going through the drive-through out of desperation. On the other hand, if you are cooking most of your meals, don’t use that fact to justify overspending on groceries. “Eating in” is not carte blanche to go crazy at the supermarket.
“Try to keep a healthy inventory of groceries at home,” suggests Tyson. “This will minimize trips to the store and the need to impulsively dine out because your cupboard is bare. Try to do most of your shopping through discount warehouse-type stores, which offer low prices for buying in bulk, or grocery stores that offer bulk purchases. And if you’re trying to eat fresher, healthier, and organic foods more often, buy more of what is currently less expensive, stock up on sale items that aren’t perishable, and buy more at stores like Trader Joe’s that have competitive pricing.”
To view more of Tyson’s tips, visit him at www.erictyson.com.
November 2, 2012 5:36 pm
After a storm settles, it may be tempting to shake off cabin fever by hopping in your car and getting on the move. However, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) is urging vehicle owners to take caution before trying to start or move a rain soaked or flooded vehicle following the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.
"The amount of damage depends on how long a vehicle has been submerged and how deep," says NADA Chairman Bill Underriner. "A good rule of thumb is to take caution if a vehicle's carpets have been wet for an extended period."
NADA recommends that affected motorists contact their auto insurer before attempting to move a water-damaged vehicle.
"Do not try to start a vehicle that has been severely damaged by water," Underriner warns. "Starting a vehicle even in a damp condition could cause harm to the driver and the vehicle's onboard computers and wiring. A short in the electrical system can cause a shock, or worse, a fire."
Severe damage will result when water enters an engine through the air intake. Internal systems were not designed to be submerged. Vehicle parts can start to rust in a matter of hours when underwater and transmission fluid and engine oil will be compromised if contaminated.
Water in fuel is another big problem that many car owners overlook as the damage can take months to appear, Underriner added. Water can seep in through the overflow valve or an improperly sealed gas cap. Rust in the gas tank and water running through the fuel system will do significant damage over time.
"Have any water-damaged vehicle thoroughly inspected by a certified service technician before driving it," Underriner urges.
Once the clean-up, reconditioning and rebuilding begins, NADA is concerned that water-damaged vehicles may return to the marketplace. Nefarious individuals may buy these vehicles, thoroughly clean them and attempt to resell them.
While there is no sure way to know if a vehicle has been damaged by flooding, NADA offers 10 inspection tips that may be used to detect water damage. A prospective buyer can spot a flooded vehicle by following these simple steps:
Check the vehicle's title history by VIN through commercially available vehicle history reports like Carfax (www.carfax.com), Experian's Auto Check (www.autocheck.com), or through the National Insurance Crime Bureau's VinCheck (https://www.nicb.org/theft_and_fraud_awareness/vincheck). The report may state whether a vehicle has sustained flood damage.
Examine the interior and the engine compartment for evidence of water and grit from suspected submersion.
Check for recently shampooed carpet.
Look under the floorboard carpet for water residue or stain marks from evaporated water not related to air-conditioning pan leaks.
Inspect for rusting on the inside of the car and under interior carpeting and visually inspect all interior upholstery and door panels for any evidence of fading.
Check under the dashboard for dried mud and residue, and note any evidence of mold or a musty odor in the upholstery, carpet or trunk.
Check for rust on screws in the console or other areas where the water would normally not reach unless submerged.
Look for mud or grit in alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses and around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays.
Complete a detailed inspection of the electrical wiring system looking for rusted components, water residue or suspicious corrosion.
Inspect the undercarriage of other components for evidence of rust and flaking metal that would not normally be associated with late model vehicles.
While these inspection suggestions will not detect flood damage in every case, they do provide some information to protect the consumer from purchasing a vehicle damaged by water or flood.
"When in doubt, have the vehicle checked out," Underriner urges. "Your safety and your family's safety are far too important to risk."