Gunning Daily News
March 8, 2012 5:30 pm
With no end in sight to rising gas prices, consumers who modify their driving habits and properly maintain their vehicles will get more miles per gallon. The Car Care Council recommends the following ways to drive smart and save gas money:
• Observe the speed limit. Gas mileage decreases rapidly above 60 mph.
• Avoid excessive idling. Idling gets zero miles per gallon. Warming up the vehicle for one or two minutes is sufficient.
• Avoid quick starts and stops. Aggressive driving can lower gas mileage by 33 percent on the highway and 5 percent in the city.
• Consolidate trips. Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much gas as one longer multi-purpose trip.
• Don't haul unneeded items in the trunk. An extra 100 pounds in the trunk reduces fuel economy by 1 to 2 percent.
• Check the gas cap. Damaged, loose or missing gas caps allow gas to vaporize into the air.
• Replace dirty or clogged air filters on older vehicles to improve gas mileage by as much as 14 percent.
• Replace dirty spark plugs, which can reduce mileage by two miles per gallon.
• Change oil regularly and gain another mile per gallon.
• Keep your car properly tuned to improve gas mileage by an average of 4 percent.
• Keep tires properly inflated and improve gas mileage by 3 percent.
"Some motorists think they are saving money when they put off needed vehicle maintenance. What they don't realize is that neglecting routine maintenance can end up costing a lot more," said Rich White, executive director, Car Care Council. "Keeping your car running efficiently and adjusting your driving behavior are the best ways to improve your vehicle's fuel economy and keep more money in your pocket."
March 8, 2012 5:30 pm
Q: Can I contest my property taxes?
A: Many people do, mainly because determining value can often be tricky. This is especially true in a changing market when local prices either take off dramatically or plunge precipitously, like during the Texas oil bust of the 1980s.
While it is up to a professional assessor to evaluate property value for tax purposes, property owners are usually allowed to contest their assessment until a certain date after they are made public.
Once you contest, you will have to prove why you think your property is worth less – few homeowners contest hoping to pay more taxes! The two most popular ways for determining value are an appraisal and a comparative market analysis. With an appraisal, a professional estimates the property's market value based on recent sales of comparable properties. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value performed by a real estate agent based on similar sales and property attributes. Most agents will offer free analyses to win your business.
Contact your local tax assessor's office for procedures on appealing your property tax assessment.
March 7, 2012 5:58 pm
It’s that time of year when most taxpayers are gathering their paperwork, dusting off the calculator, and looking for new deductions. If you are among them, suggests MyBankTracker.com finance writer Marina Schifrin, you may want to look into some unusual deductions that have worked for some innovative taxpayers. (Note: the wise taxpayer will check the tax codes carefully or consult with a tax professional before deciding to make similar claims.)
• Taking a dip – A man with breathing problems was told by his doctor to start swimming daily. Deciding it was easier to install a pool in his back yard than go to a gym or public pool, he did so—and improved his breathing problems as noted by his doctor. The Tax Court allowed a deduction for the cost of the pool under the category of medical expenses.
• Babysitting – Babysitting fees are technically covered if you used a sitter to free up the time you give to charity. It applies as long as you didn’t make any money while working for the charity. (There are also allowable child care deductions of up to 35 percent of federal tax credit for those who are eligible. Information is on form 2441.)
• Pet airfare – Pet owners who had to relocate for a job and elected to move their pets with them were able to deduct the cost of airfare for moving the pet.
• Convention costs – Employers who held company business conventions in Bermuda, parts of the Caribbean, or other U.S. territories have enjoyed tax deductions as well as nice weather. Such deductions are not applicable for conventions held in many European countries.
• Greener grass – Business owners who work from home may claim certain household expenses as part of the cost of doing business. Such costs may even include landscape maintenance if the business owner regularly meets clients at home.
March 7, 2012 5:58 pm
Now is the time when college-bound students are receiving their official financial awards from the colleges and universities to which they applied. Scott Anderson, President of eduLaunchpad.com, says “In order to make sure you get the best college financial package and pay the least amount possible, you need to examine every offer with a critical eye.”
Here are three steps every college student can take to make sure they are getting their money’s worth from the college financial offers.
Don’t take the first offer you receive. You need to wait until you have all the college financial offers in hand before you make a decision on which college to attend. The financial offers are the real price tags of the colleges, not the sticker price or cost of attendance. And until you have all the financial offers in hand, you just don’t know what each school will cost.
Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Schools do not necessarily report all the same costs in their prices. Some schools report tuition, room, and board. Some schools report tuition, room, board, and books. Some schools report tuition, room, board, books, and supplies. You need to be using a standardized cost model to compare the costs associated with each school. The costs described at eduLaunchpad.com are all determined by adding the same factors for each school: tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation. You start with this standardized price and subtract the financial offer from the college to get a true cost for you. In this way, you ensure you are comparing apples to apples.
Ask the school if they can do more. The first offer you receive from a college is not necessarily set in stone. Very often, you can get a better financial offer if you go back and ask. It is called the Appeals Process. There are all kinds of reasons that you might want to file an appeal. Perhaps a parent lost their job. Or last year’s income was much higher than this year’s income. Maybe a grandparent just moved in with you. Or the student has an illness or condition that won’t allow them to work while in school.
What parents need to keep in mind during this time is college is big business, and the student and parents are the colleges’ customers. You are the consumer and should treat college the same as any other major purchase, like home or a car. Don’t accept the first offer if it doesn’t work for you. If the college wants your student, they will often consider sweetening the deal. Smaller and private colleges often have more flexibility with their offers than the larger and state colleges.
March 7, 2012 5:58 pm
Although a majority of the United States has experienced a significantly mild winter in comparison to the past couple years, the lack of snow and cool temperatures does not mean your lawn and landscape will thrive without a commitment to take better care of it on a daily basis.
“Many homeowners try to save money and tend to lawn care themselves, but end up skipping crucial steps that are routine for us to keep a lawn lush and healthy,” says Lawn Doctor Director of Technical Services, John Buechner. Spring lawns require extra care following dormant growth.”
Here are five spring lawn care tips designed to promote a healthy yard well into the summer.
Lawn Pest Control: “We’re not the only inhabitants to enjoy a mild winter. Lawn insect populations are often reduced by harsh winters. This spring, a proactive approach toward lawn pest control will be vital towards fighting a larger population of insects that have thrived during the mild winter,” says John Buechner, Lawn Doctor’s Horticulture expert. “Fertilization, weed and lawn pest control combined with proper mowing will stop problems before they start and ensure a beautiful, healthy summer lawn.”
Fertilization: Just like you, your lawn needs a healthy, balanced diet for optimal growth and nourishment. Spring is a crucial time to fertilize because it replenishes the food reserves your yard draws from while dormant in the winter and fuels grass’ rapid growth phase. A top recommendation in lawn care is to utilize a balanced fertilizer consisting of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is best, with 30 percent of the nitrogen slow release. Don’t over-fertilize your lawn – no more than one pound of nitrogen should be applied per 1,000 square feet. A thick, healthy lawn also helps prevent weeds.
Weed control: “After a mild winter, annual weeds that germinate in the fall, like henbit and chickweed, will be more visible and require higher levels of broadleaf weed control through herbicides,” says Buechner. There are hundreds of different types of weeds that may invade your turf this spring. Apply a pre-emergent weed killer on lawns to prevent grassy weeds from germinating. Spring broadleaf weeds like dandelions, clovers and plantains, are best prevented by maintaining a proper mowing height and fertilization.
Mowing: Contrary to popular belief, setting your mower at a very low height can actually increase weeds by exposing the soil surface to sunlight and removing stored nutrients in leaf blades. Cool weather grasses, such as bluegrass, ryegrass and fescues, should maintain a height of 2.5 to 3.5 inches. Warm season grasses, like Bermuda, Zoysia, St. Augustine and Centipede, should be kept at 1.5 to 2.5 inches tall.
Seeding: Spring is also the perfect time to plant summer annuals and vegetables, but seeding in fall is beneficial because there are fewer weeds, more moisture and cooler temperatures allow seedlings to develop.
March 7, 2012 5:58 pm
Builder’s warranty. Written statement by a builder assuring that a dwelling was completed according to a stipulated set of standards. It protects the buyer from any latent defects.
March 7, 2012 5:58 pm
Q: Does my contractor have to provide a warranty for the work?
A: It depends on whether one is required by state law. If your contractor offers a warranty, which ensures quality workmanship and required repairs if faulty products or workmanship is discovered, ask to see a copy of the written provisions to make sure you have sufficient protection from defective work. You may want to become familiar with your state law, if applicable.
March 6, 2012 5:38 pm
With foundation repair costs in the thousands of dollars, most homeowners have to find ways to finance the project. What can make the project even more cost-consuming is choosing the wrong company and dealing with a botched job.
As always, before plunging a large amount of money into any project, the homeowner needs to be comfortable with the work ahead and have a clear picture of what the scope of the repair will be.
Foundation repairs are sometimes complicated and experience in the field is of great importance, so choosing the right company for the repair is important. The homeowner should be sure they understand the warranty coverage offered by the company bidding for the repairs, including all the fine print. Always check references and previous jobs.
While selecting the company, homeowners should keep in mind that some of the more established foundation repairs companies will offer financing and allow the homeowner to spread the burden of what sometimes can be a very costly project. Home equity loans are sometimes a good option due to the low interest on the borrowed money.
Homeowners insurance policies most of the time do not cover foundations issues and foundation repairs unless those issue are caused by a sudden release of water due to a malfunctioning appliance, improperly installed or defective plumbing. Of course the homeowner should consult with their insurance company and the policy documents to see if the repairs are covered.
Often, homeowners may not think their foundation repair is of the upmost importance and may put off the project. This is a big mistake, and can actually increase the cost of repairs and reduce the property value. Therefore, homeowners need to consider the implications of short term cost, versus long term cost, keeping in mind that unfortunately, foundation problems will not go away or improve over time if left unaddressed.
March 6, 2012 5:38 pm
As families pack up for a week of fun and relaxation over spring break, everyone knows to take plenty of sunscreen to protect against sunburn. But taking steps to protect against identity theft are just as important.
"Identity theft can happen at any time but can be more likely while traveling because you're carrying a lot of sensitive information in a distracting and unfamiliar environment," says Jim Sathre, Senior Vice President, M&I, a part of BMO Financial Group.
Identity theft occurs when someone obtains your personal information—such as your Social Security number—and illegally uses it to open accounts or initiate transactions in your name. This can cause financial loss and damage your credit. The most common identity theft occurs when your wallet or purse is stolen, as the thief has access to check cards, IDs and other personal information to make transactions.
“Identity theft does not have to be the demise of your spring break or upcoming vacation,” says Sathre. Take a few simple precautions so you can enjoy your vacation without worry." Sathre recommends taking the following steps when traveling to protect you and your family from identity theft.
• Protect your Social Security number. Don't carry your card with you. If asked for your number, ask why the information is needed.
• Never leave your personal documents unsecured in a hotel room. This includes statements, checks and legal papers. Many hotels offer a security box in each room. This rule is especially important in foreign countries.
• Carry the minimum. You do not need to travel with every piece of personal information you own. Only carry necessary credit cards and documents.
• Beware of your surroundings. When accessing an ATM or using your PIN, beware of your surroundings. Cover your hand when typing in codes.
• Don't check-in personal information. At airports, never place personal documentation in luggage that you intend to check-in. Once it is checked-in, it is out of your control and sight.
• Use security measures when carrying money. Reduce the risk of personal information loss and identity theft by consciously using travel accessories like security money belts, a security travel purse, security travel bags and money clips.
For more information, visit www.ftc.gov/idtheft.
March 6, 2012 5:38 pm
It's that time of year again. Nope, not spring, but the time when W2s, 1099s and 1040s flood mailboxes and to-do lists. With tax season in full swing, a new CouponCabin.com survey reveals that some Americans may miss money-saving opportunities when filing their taxes. Nearly one-in-ten (8 percent) U.S. adults said they aren't aware that deductions can be made on their tax returns. In addition, of those eligible for deductions, almost two-in-five (37 percent) report they will not or are not sure if they will claim multiple deductions on their income tax return this year. This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive.
Missing deduction opportunities could be a result of the large number of U.S. adults who plan to prepare their income taxes without the help of a certified professional. Nearly half (45 percent) said they will prepare their taxes this year by themselves, using online resources, computer software or good old-fashioned pen and paper. More than one-third (38 percent) said they plan to use an accountant or tax professional to file their taxes.
While some aren't aware of deduction options on their tax returns, others aren't paying close attention to the calendar. One-in-ten (10 percent) of those who have ever filed income taxes said they have missed the deadline to file income taxes in the past, a mistake that can result in penalties from the IRS.
"Tax season can be a stressful time of year, but it's important to focus on having your return completed correctly and in a timely manner," says Jackie Warrick, President and Chief Savings Officer at CouponCabin.com. "Regardless of your plans for filing your return this year, make sure to do the legwork to learn what you may be owed, how you can maximize your refund and to figure out if you can save on the preparation itself."
Paying attention to tax parameters is essential for an accurate and timely refund, but there are other ways to ensure you're saving as much money as possible. Warrick offers the following tips for saving a little green before April 17:
All in the family: Fourteen percent of U.S. adults said they plan to ask a friend or family member to help prepare their taxes this year. Consider asking those who are close to you if they can lend a helping hand. It may make the process easier and can help you save extra dough.
Use a coupon: Many professional and online tax preparation services offer coupons to help filers save money. Head online to check out the tax preparation offers from services like H&R Block and Turbo Tax.
Seek out free resources: Organizations like VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) and AARP, among many others, offer complimentary volunteer resources depending on various criteria. Before you file your return, check to see if you qualify for free assistance.