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Rent vs. own? More Americans are wrestling with that question as the economy continues its slow recovery. Even though homes are selling at record lows, many Americans are choosing to rent instead, maintaining their mobility and financial flexibility until the economy, as well as their job prospects, improve.

More than 38 million people currently rent their primary residence, which represents about one-third of total U.S. residences, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With the recent downturn in the economy and the spike in foreclosures, the demand for apartments and homes to rent has grown steadily in many parts of the country. For those new to renting or those who haven’t rented a place to live since college or their early 20s, it’s important to understand your legal rights, according to the legal experts at www.FindLaw.com, a leading online source of legal information. Knowing your rights can help you avoid being taken advantage of, or help avoid problems that could arise between you and your landlord.

Every renter should become familiar with these 10 tips from FindLaw:

Know your rights. It is illegal for a landlord to refuse your rental application for discriminatory reasons such as race, sex, color, religion, class, etc. If your application to rent is rejected, you have a right to know why. Landlords cannot say a property is unavailable if it isn’t or use a different set of rules for assessing different applicants.

Background checks. Landlords want responsible, trouble-free tenants. To aid them in selecting a renter, they can use background checks and credit reports to learn about a prospective tenant’s credit worthiness and potential criminal record. If you’re dealing with these issues, it’s often a good policy to be upfront with the landlord about any problems that may be revealed during a background check to gain the trust of the landlord.

What should be included in the lease or rental agreement? A lease can be wordy, but make sure that it has these important aspects: length of tenancy (month-to-month, one year or another period of time), amount of rent and deposits the tenant must pay, the number of people who can live on the rental property, who pays for utilities, whether the tenant may have pets, whether the tenant may sublet the property, and the landlord’s access to the rental property.

Keep a written copy. While most states honor a verbal agreement, they are more likely to cause a dispute. FindLaw recommends getting your lease agreement in writing and using it as a reference for any complications that happen during your time as a tenant. If a landlord offers any additional benefits for renting, make sure those are spelled out in the rental agreement.

Call the landlord with a maintenance problem. Usually the landlord is responsible for all maintenance issues. Document the problem by writing down the date it started and taking pictures if necessary. In some agreements, landlords need to respond to the maintenance issue, so refer to your lease for specifics. If they don’t respond, typical options include withholding a portion of rent until the problem is fixed, paying for the repair yourself and deducting the amount from your rent, or abandoning the property altogether without liability. Check the laws in your state.

Noisy neighbor. One of the biggest hassles of renting is dealing with a noisy neighbor. If your neighbor is disturbing you, notify your landlord. In most leases, tenants agree to be respectful of those around them. It’s also a good idea to use your landlord as a third-party enforcer to preserve the relationship between you and your noisy neighbor.

Safety first. In many states, landlords must provide minimum safety equipment such as peepholes, deadbolts, window locks and safety glass. If your landlord promises certain safety features, make sure he or she follows through on those promises. Ask other neighbors about the security and safety of the area before renting.

Get renter’s insurance. Renter’s insurance is relatively cheap and will protect you where your landlord’s insurance won’t. If you suffer losses due to theft or damage or are sued by someone who alleges they were injured in your rental because of your negligence, renter’s insurance can cover you and save you from a large financial loss.

Preserve your security deposit. Security deposits are one of the most disputed items between landlord and tenants, so make sure that your lease clearly spells out the exact manner in which your deposit will be used or withheld. When you first move in, do an extensive walk-through to record existing damage and keep a copy of whatever report you give to the landlord.

Handling an eviction. It’s hard to decide how to handle an eviction. If you can prove that the landlord was wrong, then it may be worth it to fight against the eviction notice and protect your rights as a tenant. Sometimes, it’s not worth the fight even if you win. Remember that in some cases you will still have to continue to deal with the same landlord. Also, remember if you lose a lawsuit, you’ll be evicted and have to pay a hefty fine.

To learn more about tenants’ rights, go to www.FindLaw.com.

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As the cold weather and holidays approach, homeowners are preparing to spend more time indoors. Winter utility bills can get expensive, and in an economic climate as biting as frost, consumers are watching every penny.

From insulation, to appliances, to faucets, these upcoming months are an opportune time for homeowners to make their homes more efficient, reducing costs and the family’s carbon footprint.

Aside from the more obvious advice, such as unplugging electronics when not in use to avoid phantom draws, many long-term solutions will help you save energy and water every day without any added effort.

“Homeowners are very aware of their responsibility to use less water and energy each month, both for environmental and cost-saving reasons,” says Paul Patton, senior product development manager at Delta Faucet Company. “But as the weather gets colder, few are willing to give up their long, hot showers.”

Patton adds that while changing habits and behaviors is worthwhile, homeowners should also consider products that are engineered to offer comparable experiences with built-in efficiencies.

Here are five easy home improvement tips to help make your home more comfortable and efficient this winter:

Replace your windows: Energy-efficient windows can save families a lot of money in the long run and although replacing them can be a significant investment, fall is the perfect time to replace old windows before the freezing temperatures blow through. Some replacement windows can be built to meet or exceed Energy Star standards in all climate zones, making your home more comfortable and efficient.

Install ceiling fans: You might think that ceiling fans are only for the summer months but in the winter, a ceiling fan can push heat down from your ceilings, circulating warmer air around the room. Your heating system won’t have to work as hard, cutting heating costs.

Install a water-saving showerhead that doesn’t sacrifice the experience: Warming up in a hot shower on a cold morning doesn’t have to feel like a guilty pleasure. New technology manages droplet size, velocity, spray pattern and thermal dynamics, which ultimately covers the bather in larger water droplets that retain their heat longer.

Dodge the draft: Check for drafts and potential air leakages around doors and windowsand throughout the home. To locate drafts, aim a fan at the cracks outside of doors and windows. On the inside, have someone hold a lit candle. If it flickers, you have a draft that you’ll need to treat by sealing with caulk, spray foam or weather stripping. Or have a professional conduct an air leakage test using diagnostic equipment. They can make specific recommendations to improve the energy efficiency of your home.

Install a water-efficient faucet: Often we let our faucets run longer than needed, wasting water and running up our monthly utility bills.

Remember, this year as the temperature falls, so too can your monthly utility bills. Many federal, state and municipal incentives will reimburse you for making your home greener – saving you green as well. Check out the Department of Energy website for more information on tax credits for which you might be eligible. Taking on a few easy DIY projects around the house could mean significant savings in return.

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Putting off that home improvement project? Waiting too long could be detrimental to your wallet.

On Dec. 31, the federal tax credit worth up to $1,500 for energy-efficient home improvements will expire, leaving procrastinating homeowners out in the cold—or at least chilly from their old, drafty windows.

In addition to tax credit savings, many window sellers are offering savings on qualifying windows during October, which happens to be National Energy Awareness month.

“The timing couldn’t be better for value shoppers to make the investment into new energy efficient windows for their homes,” says Erin Johnson, window expert for Edgetech I.G. “Special offers and tax credits will add up through December, but the long-term savings on energy bills will be long-lasting if consumers do their homework to find the right windows to meet all of their needs.”

Shopping for replacement windows
The first rule of thumb when shopping for new sustainable windows is to understand what the labels mean, and to read them carefully. Windows that bear the ENERGY STAR label are proven to reduce heating and cooling costs, and are National Fenestration Ratings Council (NFRC) approved for U-factor (the rate of heat loss through the window) and solar heat gain (how well the window blocks heat from the sun).

To meet the federal tax credit requirements, windows must achieve a .30 U-factor and .30 solar heat gain coefficient, and this information should be clearly marked on the windows. But to ensure the long-term performance of replacements, there are a number of other factors that should be considered, including condensation resistance.

“The existence of condensation on windows is a sign that a window is inefficient,” Johnson says. “This can even occur in newer, poorly constructed windows and will lead to other problems, including mold and damage to curtains, walls, carpet and the window itself. Most importantly, moisture can lead to seal failure and the need to replace the entire window system.”

Some NFRC labels include condensation resistance (CR), which is reported on a scale from one to 100, and measures the ability of a product to resist formation of condensation on the interior surface of the product. The higher the CR rating, the better that product is at resisting condensation formation. While this rating cannot predict condensation, it can provide a credible method of comparing the potential of various products for condensation formation. This rating is not required to be posted on new windows—so be sure to do your homework if it isn’t there.

The primary component to watch for to prevent condensation is the spacer—the window component that separates and seals the two panes of glass. According to the NFRC, an important step toward reducing the potential for condensation is the use of a warm edge spacer system that reduces the conductivity through the edge of the window.

“Non-metal, dual-sealed warm edge spacer systems, such as Super Spacer, are less conductive than metal spacers, which leads to less condensation in insulating glass windows,” Johnson says. “Because of its all-foam, no-metal design, Super Spacer offers the highest condensation resistance in the industry.”

According to Johnson, all-foam spacers have other benefits that will ensure the long-term energy performance of replacement windows. “Rigid, metal spacers do not bend, so over time stress from wind, snow and barometric pressure changes can cause the seal to crack. A flexible spacer will expand and contract with weather changes, keeping the seal intact and the window performing longer,” she says.

A survey conducted by the Alliance to Save Energy found that 64 percent of homes in the U.S. have single-pane windows, which contribute up to 35 percent of energy wasted in buildings. In cold climates, energy-efficient, dual-pane windows with low-e coatings can reduce heating bills by as much as 34 percent. In warm climates, they can cut cooling costs by 38 percent.

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Whether you recently moved into a new home or you’re looking for inexpensive updates to spruce-up your existing residence, consider experimenting with color.

Paint is the number one do-it-yourself (DIY) project because it’s easy, affordable and instantly refreshes the look of a room. The painting project has become even easier with advances in paint technology and application to save every DIYer time and money.

“Painting can refresh or change the look and feel of an entire room with a little planning and know-how and for less than $100,” says remodeling expert and DIY Network host Amy Matthews. “However, not everyone knows where to start or how to achieve the look they desire. That’s why preparation is so important.”

Even the most novice DIYer can complete a painting project with great results. This checklist provides everything you need for a perfect paint job, the first time, regardless of skill or experience:

• Painter’s tape. Tape with UV resistance will usually improve results if you are planning on using multiple coats and works well for both smooth and textured surfaces. 3M has recently introduced a new ScotchBlue Painter’s Tape with a paint line protector. The tape helps avoid seepage and ensures clean, crisp lines to give DIYers an edge.
• No-VOC paint. In addition to picking out the right color, select paint with zero-VOCs (volatile organic compounds), so you can breathe easier and maintain a healthy indoor air quality. Lowe’s is the only national home improvement store to carry zero VOC paint available in any color.
• Paint roller with extension pole, brushes, roller tray and roller covers. For the best finish, use quality brushes. You’ll need two brushes for every project – a small one for painting trim or detailed areas and a large one for covering surfaces quickly. Since most interior paints are water-based, choose a nylon or polyester (synthetic) brush.
• Putty knife or 5-in-1 tool, spackle and sandpaper
• Gloves, rags and drop cloths
• A level and tape measure if you are planning on different decorative techniques

Once you have your supplies, it’s time to prepare the surface you will be painting:

• Fill cracks and holes with spackle. Sand after it has dried to make smooth.
• Dust and clean walls with a towel or vacuum cleaner.
• Apply painter’s tape. Pull the tape off the roll a few feet at a time and avoid stretching tape. Secure the tape by pressing down with a putty knife or 5-in-1 tool. Use a credit card if you don’t have one of these.
• If the surface is highly textured, seal the edge of the tape with the existing base color of the wall, as it will prevent paint from seeping under the tape.

Now you are ready to paint. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

• When using a roller, paint in 3-foot by 3-foot sections. Paint in long strokes using a zigzag pattern for a more even coating. Go back over areas if they look like they aren’t fully covered.
• Always start in the highest areas, so drips can be smoothed as you go.
• Once paint has dried, remove painter’s tape at a 45-degree angle at a moderate speed, pulling the tape back on itself. If the adhesive is sticking to the surface, try a 90-degree angle.

Once the paint has dried and the tape has been removed, assess your work. If you’re satisfied, you can move on to more challenging paint projects with creative applications, such as faux painting or stripes.

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Not everyone who relocates has the luxury of doing it when school is out and the yard looks beautiful. If you’re forced to sell your house and/or buy a new one outside peak season, you might have to work a little harder and think creatively.

Anyone who has bought or sold a home has heard the standard advice: Find a good agent, be aware of local home values, fix up the house you’re selling and research school districts and crime rates where you’re buying.

“It’s all good advice, but it’s not always enough,” says Rich Novak, assistant vice president of Home Solutions, with USAA, a full-service financial services provider serving military personnel and their families. “Families who need to move quickly during a tough real estate market may need to go the extra mile to close a sale.”

Keep these five themes in mind from the moment you start planning your next move:

1. Dig deeper: You probably already know to use neighboring home values as a comparison point for selling or buying. But in today’s market, some additional homework can pay off. If you need to sell quickly, for example, keep a close eye on what other houses are selling for in your neighborhood and stay ahead of the market by pricing yours lower. In the wake of the bursting real estate bubble, it’s also important to have a heightened awareness of foreclosures, both where you’re selling and buying. As unfair as it seems, any foreclosures on your street can put a dent in your home’s market value. And if foreclosures are still prevalent in the neighborhood you’re moving to, it could be a warning sign that values could continue to drop after you buy.

2. Be involved: Just because you’re working with a realtor doesn’t mean you can’t do some of your own legwork.

“The first 10 days on the market are the most critical to selling a home because new listings tend to get the most attention from buyers,” says Brenda Wall, relocation director with ERA Colonial Real Estate. “Anything a seller can do to get their home ready to sell before putting it on the market would be helpful, including de-cluttering, cleaning, painting if needed and making the home look spacious and bright.”

The Internet and social media have opened limitless new strategies to sell your home and find your next one. Try Craigslist, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. And don’t be shy, say real estate agents. When you’re selling, post pictures that show your home at its best and upload a narrated video tour – because that’s what you’d want to see as a buyer. At some real estate agencies, a video tour is becoming the new requirement for sellers.

3. Accept a helping hand: Take advantage of a wide range of services, beyond your local realtor’s, that could help you streamline the buying and selling process. Some cost money, such as home “staging” services that can help whip your house into selling shape. Others are free, such as relocation benefits offered by some employers, or the military’s Homeowners Assistance Program. One free service actually helps you while you are out and about looking for a place to live. For example, Home Circle from USAA provides free home search services on the Web and through an iPhone app that gives you access to the same comprehensive listing information real estate agents use, driving directions to the homes you’ve searched and organization of pictures taken to help you keep track of all the homes you’ve seen. Chances are you qualify for some type of assistance through an employer, the government, or an association you belong to – you just have to ask.

4. Get creative: Sometimes it takes out-of-the-box ideas to seal a deal. If you know that a potential buyer is wavering on whether to make an offer on your house, buck convention by making a “reverse offer,” where you try to win the sale with an attractive price. Sellers might also sweeten the pot with extra incentives. Money toward closing costs or prepaid homeowner’s dues are common buyer incentives, but why not set yourself apart by offering a free trip to a beach resort?

If you’re the one buying but can’t find the perfect house, ask your agent to look up houses that were recently taken off the market. You might be able to request a “one-time showing” and get a bargain price on a house the owners thought they couldn’t sell.

5. Remain flexible: According to the experts, buyers and sellers should keep their pride in check and be willing to make some concessions, especially in a tough market. That means not haggling over minor repairs or refusing to leave behind the chandelier your potential buyer loves. Factor in the cost of keeping up your home for several more months versus just accepting a lower selling price today.

“Always think in terms of the bigger picture. Don’t lose a deal over $500,” says Jodi Van Wagner, a Coldwell Banker agent.

Even in the most sluggish real estate market, an early start and an open mind are two of the best strategies to make your next move go smoothly.

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We spend 90 percent of our lives indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A typical day can include traveling from home to work and back home again with a few periodic trips to schools, the grocery store, the bank, malls and entertainment venues. We depend on our homes, offices, retail stores and other structures to keep us safe; but can buildings also help keep us healthy?

Recent EPA studies indicate that exposure to air pollutants may be two to five times higher indoors than outside. Air pollutants can affect all buildings equally and have many sources, including pets, tobacco products, gas cooking stoves, building materials, paints, cleaning products and pesticides. Exposure to air pollutants can lead to negative health effects like asthma, irritation of the eyes and throat, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and allergic reactions.

Although these circumstances are concerning, you can do many simple things to improve the indoor air quality you and your family are exposed to.

Also consider this: “More and more retail businesses are assimilating ‘greener’ operations in order to satisfy rising consumer demands to go green,” says Scott Hite, chief architect at TD Bank. “As a result, consumers can choose to do business with retailers that build stores that provide good indoor air quality, make an investment in renewable energy and build sustainability to minimize their environmental footprint.”

Here are a few important things to consider:

* Keep it smoke-free. At home, banish smoking indoors and if it hasn’t already been done, ask your boss to do the same at work. Consider doing business with retailers that don’t allow smoking inside or near their businesses in order to keep their customers safe from tobacco smoke, a harmful air pollutant.

* Consider LEED certification. Do your research to find businesses that have pledged to be carbon neutral and are building LEED certified stores. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, evaluates buildings for their overall performance in indoor environmental quality and four other environmental areas.

“There a number of retail businesses that have made commitments to building LEED certified structures,” says Hite. “At TD Bank, for example, we made a commitment to be carbon neutral and to build LEED certified green stores that will benefit our customers’ and employees’ overall health.”

* Avoid products with VOCs. Paints, sealers, adhesives and many other building products emit VOCs, volatile organic chemicals. Exposure to these chemicals can cause numerous health effects.

For your home and at work, choose products that have no or low VOCs. Retail businesses that are carbon neutral with green stores also use building materials with no or low VOCs in order to achieve LEED certification.

* Choose green cleaning. Harsh cleaning chemicals contribute to poor indoor air quality and can cause adverse health reactions. Instead, choose from a large variety of cleaning products with low toxicity levels. Wherever possible, also store chemicals and cleaning supplies in well ventilated areas.

Buildings can be healthy through a combination of good technology, the right products, and a healthy dose of good old common sense. Knowing which rules to enforce at home, which products to purchase and choosing retail businesses that are making strides to provide healthier indoor air quality for their customers, can prevent many potential health problems in the future.

Photo courtesy of University of Washington

Owing more on your mortgage than your house is worth may seem like a bad investment. But the alternative – choosing to default on your mortgage even if you can afford the monthly payments – will take a significant toll on your credit rating.

“Strategically defaulting – deciding to stop paying your mortgage regardless of your ability to actually carry the debt – will have a far-reaching, long-lasting impact on your ability to secure future credit,” says Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education for global information services company Experian, one of the three large credit reporting companies that receive and update consumer credit histories which are scored to help predict risk. “It’s by no means a move to be undertaken lightly.”

About 355,000 borrowers strategically defaulted in the first half of 2009, according to research conducted as part of the Experian-Oliver Wyman Market Intelligence Reports. Interestingly, Experian and Oliver Wyman found that the homeowners most likely to strategically default were also those with the highest credit scores.

While it may seem like a good move to simply stop paying and walk away from a bad investment, keep several factors in mind when you consider strategic default:

* It’s very final. Strategic default will lead to foreclosure by the lender. Foreclosure will negatively impact your credit report and scores. In fact, only bankruptcy will affect your scores more adversely than foreclosure.

For more information on just how severe the impact can be, VantageScore LLC recently completed a study that evaluates the effect that foreclosures, bankruptcies, short sales and various mortgage programs have on consumers’ VantageScore credit scores.

* The default will remain on your credit report for seven years. Since credit scores are based on information in your credit report, the foreclosure will greatly impact your credit scores during those seven years. Securing other credit at reasonable terms and rates will be very difficult, if not impossible, during that time.

* Potential lenders aren’t the only ones looking at credit reports these days. Insurers, employers and even cell phone companies are considering the creditworthiness of those who want to do business with them. By impacting your credit report, a strategic default may affect your ability to get a job, secure insurance and enter into important service contracts.

* Fannie Mae, the government-controlled mortgage giant, announced on June 23 policy changes that will make you ineligible for a new Fannie-Mae-backed mortgage if you walk away from a current mortgage that you actually could afford to pay. The ineligibility will last for seven years from the date of foreclosure.

* Finally, in some cases, the debt that foreclosure “erases” may be recorded as income, which means you will have to pay taxes on it.

“Strategic default may seem like ‘walking away’ from a bad debt, but it’s really anything but,” Sweet says. “While you will no longer have to pay the actual debt, you’ll almost certainly ‘pay’ in other ways, in the form of lowered credit scores and a drastically curtailed ability to secure future credit for the next seven years. Higher interest rates and unfavorable terms could end up costing you more in the long run than continuing to pay on an upside-down mortgage.”

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If you think having great curb appeal is only important if you’re trying to sell your home, think again. Your house is one of your biggest investments and making a great first impression will leave everyone – not just potential buyers – wanting to see what’s inside. With 10 simple improvements, you can easily transform your home into the best looking house on the block.

In a day:

There are a number of quick fixes you can complete in just one day that will make a big impact on your exterior.

Replace old hardware. It’s the little things that make a big difference. Update dated or dingy house numbers, entry door lockset and overhead light fixture. Each of these elements can add style and interest to your home’s exterior, especially if you incorporate a great finish option like oil-rubbed bronze or brushed nickel.

Tame planter beds and landscaping. If your beds are overrun with weeds and unsightly growth, you’ll need to get them under control to give your home a well-manicured look. Prune, pull weeds and plant flowers to add color.

Illuminate your walkway. Adding low-voltage solar lighting to your front walkway can have a big impact on your home’s curb appeal. It also provides added safety and security. If you don’t have a walkway, string accent lighting in the trees for a whimsical-looking effect.

Freshen up the front door. The front entry is the focal point of your home’s curb appeal. To keep it looking free of abuse from the elements and use, clean off any dirty spots and remove any loose paint. If your door is beyond repair, install a new version that reflects the design of your house. Once you’re all set, be sure to add a piece of decorative flair, like a wreath or doorknocker that showcases your personality to the outside world.

In a weekend:

In just a couple of days, you can boost the beauty of your home with easy upgrades.

Renew paint and trim. Give your home an exterior facelift by adding a new coat of paint or stain. You’ll automatically update the look of your home by fixing any obvious defects, like loose paint, fading colors or cracks in your trim and fence. Be sure to use high-quality painting tools to get a professional-looking finish.
 
Add shutters or accent trim. Everything on the exterior of your home should be a reflection of what’s inside. To mirror the pulled-together appearance of your indoor rooms, install shutters and trim to provide an extra layer of interest on the exterior. Not only do shutters help control light and ventilation, but new materials such as PVC resins or polyurethane make them durable and low maintenance.

In a month:

Using a little elbow grease and taking extra time on some projects can reap huge rewards for your home in the long run.

Upgrade railings. Porch and patio supports and railings deteriorate over time and can become loose. If yours are past their prime, look for quality wood or metal replacements. Make sure the color, scale, design and details coordinate with the rest of your home’s main features.

Dress up the drive. If your driveway is cracked, stained or has weeds sprouting up from it, now may be time to show it some TLC. Upgrade it without completely starting over. Repair any cracks or stains and be sure to kill the weeds and then add some extra character by staining the concrete or affixing flagstone. For additional flair, add stone, bricks or pavers to the sides for a completely custom look.

With these easy curb appeal cures, your home will be the envy of all your neighbors.

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Can a potential buyer be compelled to make a big purchase if a pleasant background fragrance appeals to their senses and breaks down their defenses? Real estate agents and home sellers these days are widely banking on it.

Ambient fragrancing started to trickle into the real estate market years ago, with savvy real estate agents baking cookies or cinnamon rolls in the homes they were showing to create a comforting, deliciously scented atmosphere meant to entice buyers. If you’re trying to sell a home in today’s challenging real estate market, you may have tried this technique. However, with the excess of available homes, you may need to think a bit more creatively to make your home stand out.

The essential oils that are used in the practice of aromatherapy offer a more practical and potent way to use scent marketing to move buyers to feel good about a property. Using even tiny amounts of familiar, tempting aromas like cinnamon, clove, vanilla and orange, can fill a whole house with pleasant ambient fragrance. An added bonus is that essential oils are all natural and distilled from plants. They are less likely to elicit the kind of adverse reactions that harsh synthetic fragrances do.

Aromatherapy expert Tom Havran has several ideas to help you sell your home. He crafts blends for Aura Cacia. A passionate expert on the properties of essential oils, he has been crafting essential oil blends for 15 years.

His first suggestion is an easy and sleek way to create a warm, comforting atmosphere that can help put potential property buyers at ease.

Vanilla amber aroma crystals. Havran recommends using vanilla essential oil blended with jojoba for this first recipe.

Ingredients:
1 cup coarse-grained, chunky sea salt
1 teaspoon jojoba or grapeseed oil (just enough to make the salts glisten and gleam)
25 drops vanilla precious essential oil
10 drops lavender essential oil
10 drops sweet orange essential oil

Directions: Mix salt and oils, pour into a decorative dish or bowl and set out on a table. Placing the crystals in a warm sunny window or near a heat register will help diffuse the delicious aroma throughout the room. Stir in additional essential oils to boost the scent as needed.

Fresh flowers and bergamot vacuum powder. This light and transparent floral/citrus scent will create a cheerful, friendly and clean atmosphere to impress visitors. Since you need to vacuum before each property showing anyway, this is a great way to turn the chore into a smart real estate marketing move.

Ingredients:
1 cup baking soda
35 drops bergamot orange essential oil
5 drops ylang ylang or neroli (orange flower) essential oil

Directions: Mix baking soda and essential oils in a canister and lightly sprinkle over carpets, then vacuum.

Because essential oils are so concentrated, a little goes a long way. An initial investment in a small 1/2-ounce bottle of oil will provide you with enough applications to conduct dozens of open houses.

Using essential oils to craft your own bit of psychological scent marketing might provide a good return on a small investment. Aromatherapy may give you that much-needed unique and surprising edge on the competition.

Photo courtesy of ARAcontent

Spring is a time of new beginnings. Flowers and plants are blooming, the sun is shining and the weather is finally getting warmer after winter’s chill. So why not bring some of spring’s beauty into your home so you can enjoy it day after day?

“Some people think they have to purchase new accessories to refresh their home for spring. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Christine Silverman, director of small project paints for Rust-Oleum. “There are some easy, affordable ways to bring spring into your home by ‘upcycling’ the things you already have.

These simple projects are fun ways to give a new beginning to the things you have sitting in the garage or storage, while keeping them out of the land fill. It’s a win-win for both you and Mother Nature.”

Bring your flower garden indoors
A great way to perk up a home for spring is by decorating rooms where you spend the most time, like the living or family room or kitchen, with flowers. By spray painting flower pots you already own bright yellow, purple or green and grouping them into indoor “gardens,” you will give them new life, while bringing the great outdoors inside. Or, place your “new” pottery on wrought iron plant stands or pedestal tables painted in coordinating colors to add a burst of color to any room.

Winds of change
Adding color to a ceiling or oscillating fan is a great way to add a pop of color in an unexpected way. Rediscover a fan you have stored in the attic. Or find a good deal on a fan that compliments your personality at a flea market or discount store and bring it home for a facelift. Covering the fan in just one coat of inexpensive spray paint in a fresh spring color will create a conversation piece that will last throughout the year.

Bring the outdoor patio furniture inside
Remember the old wicker chair and loveseat you picked up at Aunt Ida’s garage sale? They’re not just for outside. Spray paint them in a bright spring color like Aqua or Green Apple and suddenly you have new seating that is perfect for your sunroom, front porch or foyer.

Restore and renew flea market finds
Flea markets are full of treasures that sometimes just need a little TLC to give them new life. Save that dingy chandelier, tarnished lamp or outdated bookcase from the trash by restoring it with a fresh coat of spray paint, which is sometimes all that is needed to turn garage sale or flea market finds into treasures.

For hundreds of easy project ideas to help you decorate and transform your home, visit www.paintideas.com. Before you know it you’ll have splashes of sunshine, spring color and great conversation pieces throughout your home without spending much time or money. Say goodbye to the winter blues and hello to some springtime cheer.

Photo courtesy of ARAcontent

Warm weather welcomes more than just outdoor barbeques, summer vacation and vegetable gardens—it brings back the pests that like to annoy us.

Insect problems are more than just irritating—they can potentially pose serious risks. If you’re struggling to solve a pest problem in or around your home, and don’t want to pay for someone to solve it for you, there are DIY solutions that are effective and affordable.

“While not all insects are harmful, some, such as ticks, mosquitoes and fleas, can carry life-threatening diseases,” says Larry Coltharp, director of insect control research and development with Black Flag, a leader in pest control solutions. “Some insects prefer building dangerous nests outside your home, while others find little voids to creep inside and then lay eggs in hidden areas around your house. This is when it can become a serious health threat to small children and pets, and becomes necessary to treat your house to remove these risks from your environment.”

Spring is here, which means insects are waking up hungry and looking for cool places to nest.

* Ants. Ants enter homes seeking food, moisture and shelter from extreme outdoor weather. To prevent ants from entering indoors, seal window frames and keep kitchen and food storage areas clean. Make sure sugar and honey items are stored in sealed containers. Remove garbage daily and inspect indoor potted plants, as they could be indoor nesting sites.

* Spiders. Spiders can be found under furniture, inside boxes, closets, shoes and other secluded places. To reduce infestation, seal under outside doorways, clean closets and eliminate clutter to reduce habitats.

* Scorpions. All scorpions can sting, so be careful when treating them. To prevent scorpions from entering your home, make sure all screens, outside doorways and cracks are properly sealed. Scorpions are most active at night and seek protected areas during the day. Remove all debris from the side of the house, such as boards, firewood and rocks.

* Roaches. Cockroaches hide in warm places where food and water is available. Keep kitchens and bathrooms sanitized and eliminate all food sources. Keep food sealed in containers, repair water leaks, use steel wool to close openings around pipes that penetrate walls, seal under outside doorways and around window frames. Use waterproof silicone caulking to seal cracks and crevices.

* Yellow jackets. Most species of yellow jackets are attracted to meat products, as well as garbage cans and dumpsters. They are also attracted to fruit and soft drinks. Keep garbage cans sealed and remove food sources to reduce yellow jackets from over-populating. They often build nests in the ground, rodent holes, tree stumps and wall voids of buildings.

* Mosquitoes. To prevent mosquitoes from entering the home, keep doors and windows closed and make sure window screens are in good condition. Outdoors, eliminate standing water which mosquitoes need to reproduce, such as in flower pots, old tires, ornamental ponds, children’s wading pools, buckets, pails and low areas in the lawn and garden. Mosquitoes are most active early morning and late evening.

For maximum protection against pests, Coltharp recommends applying insect control spray around the perimeter of your home, indoors and out. Prevention is the best solution, so spray all possible points of entry for insects, including doors, cracks, crevices and exterior windows. Don’t forget to cover areas like the attic and garage.

Photo courtesy of ARA

“It’s a buyer’s market” is a popular headline right now. It’s one that’s hard to ignore, especially if you’re a young adult or even a long-time renter who has been waiting for the right time to pursue the American dream of owning your own home.

Buying your first home can be scary, but as with anything else in life, the right preparation should bring you good results—a home you want and one you can afford.

Whether you are ready to buy a home in the next few months or next few years, preparation is critical.

Here are five “keys” to open the door to homeownership.

Obtain a credit report. Review your credit report prior to starting the home buying process. This will enable you to dispute any incorrect entries and satisfy any derogatory items on your report. You are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months. Ensuring your credit report is accurate is critical as it is an important element lenders review to determine your credit worthiness for a loan approval.

Establish a budget. Knowing where you spend your money and how much you are able to set aside each month can, first, help you decide if purchasing a house is a viable choice now or of it is something that will have to wait until later. Establishing a monthly budget also helps determine how much house you can afford, which will help you zero in on possible homes to look at. If buying the home you want is not in the cards now, use the opportunity to take a closer look at your spending and savings habits and develop a plan to begin setting money aside for a down payment and monthly mortgage payments.

Secure a down payment. Although there are loan programs that will allow you to purchase a home with no money down, making a down payment is almost always a good idea. The most common sources of a down payment are your savings or a gift of cash. The amount you put down has a direct impact on what your monthly mortgage payment will be and will also determine if you will be required to purchase PMI, or private mortgage insurance.

Understand mortgage options. There are many types of loans available to suit your needs. The following is a list of some of the more common types of loans.

* Fixed rate loan:  The interest rate is fixed for the life of the loan. The life of a fixed rate loan may range from 10 to 30 years.

* Adjustable rate mortgage (ARM):  The interest rate is fixed for a certain period of time, but once that period expires your interest rate will adjust according to the terms of the mortgage.

* Negative amortization (pay option) loan:  The minimum payment is less than the interest that accrued on the loan. In this loan, your principal balance will increase when you pay less than the interest that accrued.

* Balloon:  The interest rate is fixed for a period of time. At the end of that period, your entire balance on your loan is due. (Example: With a five-year balloon, your loan is fixed for five years and at the end of five years your remaining balance on your mortgage is due.)

* Interest only:  The minimum payment is just the interest that accrues on the loan.

Get pre-approved. Now that you have done your homework and are ready to purchase a home, you should meet with a personal banker to get pre-approved. A pre-approval allows the lender to review your situation and make recommendations prior to entering any formal purchase contract. The pre-approval will establish for you a limit on the dollar amount the lender will commit to your home purchase.

To begin this process, your loan officer will complete an application with you and will also check your credit report. After some analysis, your loan officer will inform you of the various programs and the amount you qualify for. They will also give you a pre-approval letter that you can give to your realtor so they know the price range of homes they can show you.

To be pre-approved, you’ll need to submit the following to a potential lender:
* Tax returns and W-2s for the past two years.
* Pay stubs to prove you’re currently employed.
* Documentation of other types of income, including investments or a second job.
* Recent bank statements.

These preparations are just the beginning of your journey to homeownership. You’ll also want to do your homework for the next stages such as selecting a realtor, house hunting, putting in an offer and getting an inspection.

Buying a home is one of the biggest decisions that you will ever make. In your pursuit of the American dream, make sure you follow the keys to success and enjoy this exciting journey.

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When you’re ready to sell your home in the current market, you need to take every step you can to ensure a timely sale at the price you want. A surplus of homes for sale means that yours needs to stand out in style, amenities and quality to make an impression on potential buyers. The more steps you take to make your house sale-ready, the better results you’ll get.

Currently, home sales are at a historic low — so what do you need to do to buck that trend? Updated decor and proper staging certainly help present your home well, but don’t think that cosmetic fixes are all you need. Buyers want to know the home they’re considering is safe and sound, and the best way to establish that is to hire a home inspector.

Twenty years ago, it seemed extravagant to hire a home inspector, but today it’s standard practice. Buyers will often bring their own inspectors to the table, so you need to start by hiring one yourself. Hiring a professional will give you a realistic perspective on what’s going on in the bones of your home.

“In a down market, a pre-sale inspection can make a home stand out,” says David Tamny, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors. “More and more, sellers are obtaining pre-sale inspections to help uncover and address potential issues before the first prospective buyer walks through the door. This simple step allows for better planning and lowers repair costs, adds value to the home, and it could increase the likelihood of an offer.”

Even if someone in your family is handy, a professional home inspector will be able to point out issues that might go unnoticed by someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of inspecting. Today’s buyers are quick to point out flaws uncovered by the home inspectors they bring with them, particularly if the flaws could compromise health or safety.

Buyers can use problems as bargaining chips, causing previously agreed upon prices to be lowered or even the cancellation of a deal. Inspections help uncover imperfections that often can be fixed easily and inexpensively, so it’s worth it to get your home inspected before you list it.

In addition, a good inspection can raise the likelihood of an offer being placed on your home. Buyers are looking for security. If you can show them your home has been inspected, they’ll feel more comfortable with it. That confidence often equates to more dollars in your pocket when you agree to the sale.

The areas covered in home inspections are: the major systems and components such as the foundation, exterior siding, flashing and trim, the roof, plumbing, electrical and heating and cooling units. In addition, some home inspectors offer additional services including radon testing, energy assessments and pool and spa inspections.

The current housing market requires a proactive approach to selling, and to get the result you want, you have to think about every aspect of your home. Having a home inspection can add value to the property, speed up the negotiation process, increase the likelihood of an offer and, most importantly, help sell your home.

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A few years ago, it seemed like you could stake a “for sale” sign outside your home and within a few hours you would have multiple offers. Not anymore. Today’s tough economic times mean that home sellers need to do their homework, take a more assertive role in marketing their home and, at times, get creative to help their home stand out from others that are on the market.

Regardless of how tough the times are, the fact remains that a nice home, well maintained, in a desirable neighborhood, and priced right will sell more quickly than a home that hasn’t been kept up or hasn’t been priced according to what other homes in the neighborhood would sell for. Whether you’re selling your home as part of downsizing your lifestyle or you’re seeking a larger home for a growing family, the following steps offered by FindLaw.com, one of the nation’s leading online sources for real estate law, can pay dividends in helping you achieve a quick sale and a price that reaches your desired goal.

Assemble your team. Most sellers prefer to work with a real estate agent or a lawyer at some point in the process. In fact, in a handful of U.S. states, a lawyer must help finalize the sale. Real estate agents typically charge a commission, about 6 percent, to be split between your agent and the buyer’s agent, if any. Lawyers normally charge by the hour. Despite the costs, experienced, responsible professionals can ultimately save you time, money and aggravation.

Conduct a pre-inspection. Many states require a home inspection report as part of a disclosure form before placing a home on the market. To make sure your home passes the test, hire a third-party home inspector to conduct a pre-inspection of your home to help you make necessary repairs and updates before an official inspection.

Conduct a comp. A “comp” is shorthand among real estate agents for comparing your home to similar types of homes in your area with similar features, such as square footage, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, etc. This process will help you determine a price range for your home. To get comps, visit open houses, read classified ads (in print and online), and check out Web sites such as www.realtor.com, by the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Review actual selling prices. Of course, list prices don’t tell you how much houses ultimately sell for – that’s the comparable data you really need. In a hot market, houses might go for well over list price, and vice versa. A number of Web sites offer such information, and you may want to carefully watch county Web sites that publish this information for tax purposes.

Price aggressively, but not too aggressively. As the seller, of course you would like to get every nickel out of selling your home. The balancing act is finding the right price where you don’t have to cut it multiple times to trigger an offer, or a price that is so low that a potential buyer might think there’s something wrong with it.

Go to open houses. Sellers need to understand what other sellers are doing and offering to sell their homes. The best way to do that is to go to as many open houses in your area and take note of who the potential buyers are, their feedback on nearby homes, and what other sellers are offering potential buyers in terms of price and incentives.

Make your home as attractive as possible. Buyers will pay thousands of dollars more for a home that is tastefully decorated and appears in ready-to-move-in condition. The first place to start is to declutter your home. Put away any personal items or items of expression that would detract from a buyer feeling at home. A fresh coat of paint doesn’t hurt either.

Fill out the disclosure forms. Some states require sellers to fill out a long form that explicitly asks about the seller’s knowledge of various significant or material defects that might be present in the home, according to FindLaw.com. States vary in their requirements. Some states require sellers to disclose water in the basement, leaks in the roof, the use of lead-based paint, or unsafe concentrations of radon gas. Regardless of what your state requires, it’s really in the seller’s interest to disclose any previous problems to reduce the risk of a lawsuit in the future by a disgruntled buyer.

Advertise on the MLS. If you’re working with a real estate agent, the agent should help put the property into the online Multiple Listing Service, and maybe in the classifieds too. If you don’t have an agent, you can take the same steps yourself (one Web site, www.iggyshouse.com, allows you to put your house on the MLS for free). Interested buyers can then make an appointment to see the house in person.

Hold an open house. Many home sellers find open houses a useful tool. They’re certainly good for bringing in the crowds. In deciding when to hold an open house, look for opportunities when your area attracts a large number of people from surrounding areas, such as a neighborhood or citywide festival or sporting event.

Be prepared to negotiate. Because there are more sellers than buyers in most markets, buyers currently have more leverage in negotiating. Be prepared to respond to a range of concessions, from lower-than-expected offers and requests for the seller to cover the closing costs to decorating allowances and mechanical repairs. On the other hand, as the home seller, you should be prepared to counter by demanding that all serious offers have their financing in place to ensure a smooth sale.

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With the downturn in the economy over the past two years, hundreds of thousands of homes have gone into foreclosure, offering a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many Americans to buy a home at an unheard of price, sometimes 30 percent or more off the most recent sale price.

Buying a home is always a challenge. Buying a foreclosed home presents unique challenges, however. You need to be willing to hunt, put up with lenders who offer surprisingly little information about the properties they’ve taken back, real estate agents who have little experience or incentive in selling foreclosed homes, and loan officers who demand nearly perfect credit ratings to obtain a loan in today’s tight-fisted market.

Foreclosed properties are typically referred to as REOs (real estate owned by the lender), according to FindLaw.com a leading online resource for legal information, and are owned by the lending institution or government agency that backed the mortgage. For one reason or another, the owner failed to make payments on the loan and the lender foreclosed on the property (repossessed it).

Banks and other home-lending institutions are not in the business of owning property. They’re in the business of making money on the money they lend. So it’s in their best interest to sell a foreclosed property, and they are often anxious to do so. Properties of all types, including single-family homes and condominiums, can be foreclosed. Depending upon local regulations and traditions, some lending institutions will sell their properties through real estate agents who specialize in REO properties, while other institutions will sell foreclosed properties through auctions conducted by a county sheriff.

Because of the volume of foreclosed homes currently on the market, a growing number of lenders have turned to selling properties through heavily advertised public auctions in which dozens or sometimes hundreds of properties are sold in one or two days. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has sold foreclosed properties through local auctions for many years, typically announced in the classified sections of local newspapers. Potential buyers submit bids on the day of the auction, accompanied by a certified check for a percentage of the bid price. The highest bidder usually gets the home.

Buying a foreclosed property can be risky if you are not familiar with the procedures involved. Such a sale may not include the safeguards that are present in a traditional sale, such as a lender and a title insurance company. Therefore, if you plan to buy foreclosed properties, says FindLaw.com, it is important to familiarize yourself with the process and consult with a lawyer who specializes in this area.

Here are some other tips from FindLaw.com about buying a foreclosed home:

* Not all foreclosed properties are good deals. It seems like foreclosed properties are everywhere these days; however, not every property is a smart purchase. Search for a foreclosed property as if you were buying a home in a hot market. Start by researching neighborhoods that you really want to live in, then get in your car and drive through the neighborhood looking for properties that aren’t kept up as well as neighboring properties.

* Find an experienced real estate agent. Some sellers of foreclosed properties, including lenders that have repossessed a property, may refuse to work directly with the buyer. Find a real estate agency that has experience in dealing with foreclosures and is willing to represent you.

* Hire a real estate attorney. All states have different laws and regulations involving foreclosed properties. You may need to consult with a real estate attorney specializing in foreclosed properties to assist you. Buying a foreclosed home can be a very complex and time-consuming process in some states; the right attorney may be able to help you cut through the red tape.

* Check the assessor’s office. Many counties now include vital ownership and tax information on their Web sites about residential property, including the identity of the owner, the previous price paid for the home, and how much the property is being taxed. Knowing what the previous owner paid for the property will help you gauge its potential worth now.

* Tour and inspect the property. It’s vital to inspect any property before buying it, but it’s absolutely critical when buying a foreclosed property. Many foreclosed homes are not kept up or have been abused by their former owner and may require thousands of dollars in repairs and maintenance. If the property is located in a neighborhood with a lot of potential, investing to rehab a property may be worth the money.

* Have your financing lined up. Over the past two years, many lenders have tightened their lending standards and are only offering loans to those who have solid credit ratings and the long-term means to pay for a home. Sellers of foreclosed properties are leery of buyers who don’t have their financing together. Like buying a home at the top of the market, it’s in your best interest to offer the most solid financial package in order to win the home you want.

To learn more about the legal aspects of buying and selling real estate, visit www.FindLaw.com.

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You’ve made the decision to sell your home. But before you put the “for sale” sign in the yard, make sure it’s ready to make a good impression on prospective buyers and clearly stands out among the many other homes on the market.

There are many easy and inexpensive ways to clearly differentiate your home so that it appeals to a wide range of buyers … and in return, yields a fast and profitable sale.

“To begin, purge. Nothing makes a home look smaller than cluttered countertops, cupboards and closets. Plus, buyers want to envision a home with their own possessions – not yours,” explains Denise Patterson, Krylon product manager. As you start cleaning, sort items in three categories: donate, sell or keep. Soon, your home will look neater, and you may add some cash to your wallet or gain a tax write-off.

Next, consider tackling projects that are easy, fast and inexpensive but will significantly boost your home’s appeal. Magazines are a great source of inspiration and offer practical advice and dozens of projects specifically designed to stage your home for sale.

Some indoor and outdoor projects that are quick, inexpensive and guaranteed to get your home noticed include:

Focal point finishes
Lighting fixtures are the focal point of many rooms but replacing them can cost hundreds of dollars. With a little elbow grease, $20 and less than two hours, you can update your existing ones with a new, more attractive and popular stainless steel finish.

Directions: Cover your work area with newspaper and disassemble the fixture. Clean the pieces and tape off areas that don’t need to be painted. Following the instructions, apply indoor/outdoor primer followed by the new metallic paint. Once dry, remove the tape and reassemble the chandelier.

Cover the smallest details
When sprucing up your home for sale, sometimes it’s the small details that can make the biggest impact. Painting dull, dirty or chipped register covers or light switch plates can give any room a quick pick-me-up, in less than an hour.

Directions: Remove register covers or light switch plates and place them on newspaper. Sand the surface lightly and wipe clean. Clean all pieces to remove any built up dust and grime. Following instructions, apply a number of light coats of primer, followed by a couple coats of gloss or metallic spray paint. Once dry, reinstall and enjoy.

Illuminate the exterior
Exterior lighting showcases the beauty of your home, so make sure that your light fixtures are just as attractive. Update faded, rusty or outdated finishes with a fresh new finish for a minimal price and maximum impact.

Directions: Turn off power to the lights and detach the fixture from the house. Remove the light bulb and mask off any parts that should not be painted, including wires. Place the fixture on newspaper and lightly sand. Clean all pieces and wipe dry. Following the directions on the can, spray several light coats of outdoor metallic finish paint. Make sure to evenly apply paint to the entire fixture. Once paint is completely dry, reattach the parts, reconnect the lightning fixture and turn the power back on.

Freshen up with flowers
The right landscaping and use of plants and flowers can greatly improve your home’s curb appeal for prospective buyers. Brightening up your flower boxes is a quick and easy way to add some color to the front of your home in just a few hours.

Directions: Place a clean flower box on newspaper; sand the exterior to create a smooth surface. Apply several light coats of indoor/outdoor primer to help ward off drips. Next, apply a few coats of indoor/outdoor paint in your favorite color. Once dry, the box is ready to display your favorite flowers.

Whether you’re prepping your house for sale or fixing up your new home, you’ll find dozens of fast and easy projects at beamoverandshaker.com.

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The typical taxpayer is expected to spend more than three business days and more than $200 completing his or her tax return.

“That’s too much time and too much money,” says Gary Lundberg, product management director for CompleteTax, an online income tax preparation program. “The good news is, there are a few easy things people can do that will help them save time and money doing their taxes, as well as make sure they get the biggest refund they’re due.”

As people get ready to file their 2009 tax returns, there are a few things they can do to save time and money.

1. Make sure you’re prepared.

Having a few key items available when you start your taxes will save a lot of time. These include:

* Your tax return from 2008
* Social Security numbers for you, your spouse and children
* All W-2s (wage and tax withheld form for 2009 supplied by your employer), 1099s (statements on investment income provided by your financial services institutions), mortgage interest statements and other statements related to income
* All statements related to expenses that you will be claiming on your tax return
* The routing numbers and account numbers for the accounts in which you want to directly deposit your tax refund.

2. Use an online tax program.

One advantages of using an online tax program is that the program can store many of the items you need to start your taxes — like your prior year’s return. So, you don’t have to waste time hunting down information every year.

More than 32 million people filed their tax returns from their home computers during 2009, up nearly 20 percent from the prior year, according to Internal Revenue Service data. That number is likely to continue to increase as more people realize the benefits of online tax prep and electronic filing.

Using the right online tax program makes it a lot easier and faster for people to finish their tax return with no need to go to the store or download a program onto their computer.

Online tax programs also are a lot more accurate. In fact, the IRS reports that an electronically prepared and filed return has an error rate of less than one percent, compared to an error rate of about 20 percent for a paper prepared return.

3. Free file if you can.

Depending upon how complicated a person’s taxes are, they may be able to prepare and e-file their tax return absolutely free. For example, if you don’t need to itemize, and only have a few simple requirements — such as claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit — you may be able to use a free online tax program. For example, CompleteTax offers a free version of its program and the IRS lists other providers participating in the Free File Alliance.

If your tax situation is more complicated — for example, you have itemized deductions, investment income or you are a small business owner — you will want to make sure to purchase the online solution that is tailored to your needs. Good online tax programs for people with general tax needs are available for less than $20, and even investors or small business owners who have more complicated returns can find solutions for less than $75.

“Completing your tax returns does not need to be a drain on your wallet,” says Lundberg. “The right tax program can save a taxpayer both time and money.”

4. Maximize your credits and deductions.

The average tax refund for 2008 was nearly $2,800. However, many taxpayers have the sinking feeling that they are not getting the tax breaks they should. In fact, according to an independent survey conducted by CompleteTax, two-thirds of 1,000 randomly surveyed taxpayers fear they may overlook tax breaks or make mistakes that could cost them in fines or penalties.

“There are dozens of credits and deductions that people may have available to them. So it’s important to make sure that the tax program they’re using is geared to identify these and guide them to options that will maximize their refund,” says Lundberg.

Some programs will also provide tools to help further ensure accuracy. For example, while millions of people donate clothing and household items to charities, few have any idea of the value. A tax program, such as CompleteTax, with a charitable donation calculator, provides an easy way for determining and documenting the fair market value of these items, helping you realize the greatest charitable contribution deductions you can.

5. E-file and use direct deposit.

Electronically filing and using direct deposit significantly increases how quickly taxpayers have access to their refund. Generally, e-filers can have their refund deposited directly into their accounts within a few days, compared to the weeks it takes to receive a mailed check. Certain tax programs also allow customers to split their refund and deposit it into three separate accounts. For example, you could deposit part in your checking account, part in your savings account and part directly into a tax-advantaged IRA account.

“E-filing and direct deposit don’t cost you anything, but they can mean you have your refund faster so that it can start working for you — whether that’s paying off debt, buying something you want or saving for the future,” Lundberg says.

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The proposition of selling a home is getting better with each passing day, according to a recently released report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR). If you need to sell your home, a few smart strategies can help you increase your profits.

A number of real estate pundits are pointing to the recent decline in home inventory and the fact that interest rates have increased on the 30-year fixed mortgage as a positive endorsement of a healthier housing market.

Joanne Sebby, a licensed Chicago real estate broker and operator of a local Two Men and a Truck moving franchise, believes she’s benefiting from what could be the start of a real estate “bloom,” if not a full “boom.”

“Bargain hunters are beginning to make moves on homes that are still way undervalued,” Sebby says. “The key for sellers is to get creative in marketing your home’s offerings so you can become one of those homes that get a look, and, hopefully, sell your house in a reasonable amount of time.”

While the real estate outlook is the best it’s been in recent memory, home loans are still more difficult to come by, and home values are down an average of 20 percent, according to the NAR. It’s likely that if you are selling your house today, you’ll do so at the cost of higher profits that you may have realized in healthier markets.

Regardless, Sebby suggests there are a number of creative ways home sellers can mitigate their losses on the sale.

“Most home sales involve some service-oriented companies such as moving companies, carpet cleaners, painters or other services,” she says.

Sebby suggests sellers need to think of their bottom line when selecting service companies in order to maximize profits on their home and should consider pitching in to keep costs down.

“Determine what budget you have to work with and be up front with the people providing you with estimates,” Sebby says. “I’ll often counsel people who call our moving company to maybe box and label everything themselves, or have all the boxes collected in the room closest to the front door. If there’s a number we have to work with, we’ll make suggestions on how to make it work to suit their needs.”

Sebby suggests using the same tactics with home inspectors, painters or other service personnel.

“Do a little research and find what portion of the work you can comfortably do yourself. If you’re saving money along the way, it’s going to impact your profit on the house. A little bit here and there can really add up.”

Chances are, even sellers with the best intentions won’t realize the full value of their home in today’s market. However, as Sebby suggests, there’s no harm in optimizing your profits with a little extra effort and a do-it-yourself approach.

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When you first entered the workforce, you probably didn’t anticipate the economy turning so sour. In fact, you’ve spent many years diligently promoting yourself up the career ladder and establishing a nice set of skills – only to find out your company can’t afford to keep you around any longer.

So what do you do now?

Now you can take those skills you’ve refined over the years and re-evaluate where you are in life. Here are some ideas to consider for your future:

1. Search for a new job.
While it may seem like everyone is unemployed, there are, in fact, job positions being posted. You just need to find them. Ask yourself these questions first: Where else can you reasonably consider relocating – across town or across the country? What salary do you really need to earn? What are you looking for at this point – something similar, which may or may not exist anymore, or venturing into a new field?

Next, determine if you or your résumé needs a makeover. Would working with a career coach help you think through what you want to do with your career and professional life? A career coach can also help you discover how your options match your values, lifestyle, priorities and long-term goals.

Finally, with clearer vision now in place, start looking everywhere. Online resources, newspapers, placement agencies and professional contacts – you have many resources at your fingertips. Plan on this taking a lot of effort – the more work you put into finding a job, the better opportunities you’ll discover during your search.

2. Put your skills to use.
Many people who hire career coaches quickly discover this is a potential career that allows them to produce fulfilling results in both their personal and professional lives. A certified professional coach helps individuals and businesses in a variety of ways, including creating a clear vision and goal achievement strategy; becoming more aware of what beliefs, skills, attitude, behaviors and resources are needed to succeed; streamlining decision making and ensuring it matches goals and priorities; forming a detailed, specific plan that lays out key milestones and progress; and, holding clients accountable to what they want to do and who they want to be.

Certified Professional Coaches are earning the reputation as catalysts for change and partners for success.

To learn more about becoming a coach and the training involved, visit the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Reasons to become a coach are: the challenge of thinking outside of the box, helping others, self improvement, personal financial growth (experienced certified professional coaches earn between $77,000 and $134,000 per year) and a growing field needing more coaches (part or full time).

3. Go back to school.
This is a very popular route for many laid-off workers to take for obvious reasons. It allows you to change your career path, updates you with the latest information available, and strengthens your resume with a higher degree of education. The educational options are wide open – from online to specialized courses to full four-year degrees, with many opportunities for scholarships and grants available.

4. Network.
The easiest way to network in your community is to get out and volunteer. And organizations are desperately looking for volunteers to help because of higher demands and less available money. See if you can find an organization that will appreciate your skills because this will be another great addition to your résumé.

You may discover that receiving a pink slip wasn’t the worst thing that could happen because it gave you the opportunity to take a good look at yourself and discover if you were going in the right direction. Now you just need to take advantage of the opportunity and find what’s best for your future.

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With the revised first-time homebuyer federal income tax credit currently in effect, now is the perfect time to consider making that big purchase, your first home.

“Buying a home is one of the biggest financial commitments a person can make, but first-time homebuyers and qualified return buyers are in an ideal position to take advantage of unique opportunities in the market, such as low interest rates and the choice among an abundance of for sale homes,” says Charlie Young, president and chief executive officer for ERA Real Estate.

But before you sign on the dotted line, learn about the first-time homebuyer federal income tax credit:

If you are considering purchasing your first home, or have not owned for at least three years, learn the parameters of the temporary first-time homebuyer tax credit, which is one of 10 provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law on Feb. 17, 2009. According to FederalHousingTaxCredit.com for those who qualify and purchase before Dec. 1, 2009, the bill provides a tax credit of up to $8,000, calculated at 10 percent of the purchase price.

Unlike the previously available credit from 2008, the money does not have to be repaid, as long as the homebuyer does not resell the house for at least three years. “The tax credit can help make the American dream of homeownership a reality for potential buyers who previously could not afford the investment,” says Young. He adds that potential homebuyers should consult with a professional tax adviser for full details on how the tax credit may benefit them.

Calculate what you can afford

Before you start searching for your new home, know what you can afford. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, your total monthly mortgage payment, which includes principal, interest, taxes and insurance, should be about 29 percent of your monthly gross income.

What you can afford is also based on, among other things, how large a down payment you can make and how much money you can borrow. You can start estimating this figure by using an affordability or loan calculator found on the Internet. These calculators can help compute what may fit comfortably within your budget based on factors such as annual income, annual debts, interest rates and credit score. Though Internet calculators and statistics are good references, it is recommended that you consult a financial adviser to determine exactly how much you can afford.

Choose a neighborhood

After you determine your home buying budget, think about where you want to live. Are you going to stay in your current neighborhood, or do you want to hit the open road and start fresh? No matter what, you should thoroughly research the demographics of the area. Some additional factors to consider are how far you will be from work and shopping — and if you have children, do some careful research on schools.

Make a wish list of needs and wants

Early in the home-searching process, list your basic needs such as minimum square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, location and, of course, the price you can afford. Web sites of leading real estate brands should have guided property searches that allow you to choose one or more of these criteria. If there are features that you would love to have in your home, but could live without, put them on your “want” list. This includes things like a pool, big yard, extra bedroom, etc.

Work with an experienced real estate professional

Searching for and purchasing your first home is an exciting experience, but it can be overwhelming. To help each step in the home buying process run smoothly, consider working with a seasoned real estate professional. Choosing a professional who is knowledgeable in your local and national markets, has access to the newest listings and can help you negotiate prices will increase the chances of finding your dream home.

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You open your mail and to your surprise there is a check for $4,000, claiming you won a sweepstakes. That money sure will come in handy right now. But wait, there’s a catch.

You’ve been instructed to wire a portion of the check to cover the taxes.You deposit the check and, after a couple of days, the bank gives you access to the money. A few weeks after wiring the money to supposedly cover the taxes, you learn that the check was counterfeit. Not only are you responsible for paying the money back to the bank, you may never be able to recover it from the criminal.

“This is just one of many ways that fake check scams work and savvy criminals are pursuing these types of crimes more frequently,” says Denise Jaworski of Western Union. “There is a misconception that when you deposit a check or money order, the bank confirms that it is good before allowing you to withdraw the money. This is an incorrect assumption, and one that clever scammers are taking advantage of.”

According to the National Consumer’s League’s (NCL) Fraud Center, fake check scams are the number one type of reported fraud. These scams accounted for more than 40 percent of the complaints received by the NCL in 2008. According to Jaworski, these scams seem to be increasing throughout the financial services industry.

A telephone survey by the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit association of more than 280 pro-consumer groups, found the most common fake check scams are those involving lotteries (66 percent), grants (36 percent) and work-at-home opportunities (35 percent).

“Unfortunately with tough economic times, people are even more vulnerable to phony claims of sudden riches or ways to make money,” says Jaworski. “Western Union takes steps to help prevent these types of crimes, but the public is the first and best line of defense against fraud. Always be skeptical.”

Western Union and other concerned businesses have teamed with the Consumer Federation of America to help educate people about what fake check scams are and how to avoid becoming a victim. Here are seven tips for avoiding fake check scams:

1. When faced with an offer that sounds too good to be true, take a moment to ask yourself a few simple questions:
* Who is this person?
* Does this money really have to be sent immediately?
* If you received a lottery check, did you actually sign up for the sweepstakes?

2. Never agree to pay to claim a prize. No legitimate sweepstakes or lottery would ever send you a check or money order and ask you to send payment in return. If you really won, you would pay taxes directly to the government.

3. Never agree to pay for grants from the government or foundations. They don’t offer money to people unexpectedly or charge to get it. Most grants go to organizations, not individuals, and require a lengthy and extensive application process.

4. Never agree to cash checks and send the money somewhere as part of a job working from home. That is not how legitimate employers operate.

5. Never agree to wire money to anyone you have not met in person or known for a long time.

6. If it seems suspicious, get advice. Consult your state or local consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission, the Postal Inspection Service or another trusted source.

7. Remember that there is no legitimate reason why anyone who wants to give you a check or money order for something would ever ask you to send money anywhere in return.

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Many people dealing with today’s recession are taking steps to financial recovery that bring to mind the resourcefulness of their counterparts during the Great Depression. One of those is home sharing, which is increasingly bringing together families, friends and even strangers in an effort to cut costs or make some extra money.

Just as they did in the 1930s and 1940s, Americans today show a generosity of spirit that has become our trademark in tight times. In fact, more than 76 percent of homeowners or renters who were forced to move because of foreclosure have been welcomed into the homes of family or friends, according to a study by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

And roommate listings are up 65 percent on Craigslist in the past year, says Susan MacTavish Best, spokesperson for the national online classified ad site.

Temporarily renting a room can help someone save enough money to get back on one’s feet. At the same time, by opening their doors to boarders, cash-strapped homeowners can generate a newfound source of income.

Making room for housemates

To make home sharing work, privacy is critical. As more homeowners open their homes, many will remodel for new housemates. Installing an additional bathroom makes home sharing a much more practical solution for the short term.

A recession may not seem like the best time to invest in your home. But smart remodeling helps maintain your residence, while boosting its value — better positioning you to capitalize when the market turns around.

According to Remodeling Magazine’s 2008-2009 “Cost vs. Value” report, a bathroom addition recoups nearly 65 percent of the investment. Small wonder then that bathrooms are the second most popular residential remodeling job, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Opening your home is a big step

Here are some additional tips to keep the transition a smooth one:

* Rental agreement: Even with family, it’s a good idea to have a formal agreement that spells out rent, house rules and chores.

* Homeowner’s insurance: Check with your insurance agency to determine if you need additional coverage.

* IRS: You may be able to deduct all or part of your bathroom addition installation costs, but you may also need to report the rental income. Contact a tax adviser or visit www.irs.gov.

* Rights and responsibilities of co-owners: The National Association of Housing Cooperatives has posted a great deal of helpful information on cooperative home ownership. Visit the Web site: www.coophousing.org.

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Homeownership and green improvements will be more affordable for more Americans in 2009, thanks to several provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The changes will put more money in taxpayers’ pockets and allow homeowners to save thousands of dollars over the next several years.

The First-time Homebuyer Credit has been extended and increased to qualifying individuals who purchase a home in 2009 before Dec.1. First-time homebuyers are defined as those who have never owned a principal residence or who have not owned a principal residence at any time during the three years prior to the date of purchase.

For 2008 and 2009 tax returns, the credit is equal to 10 percent of the home purchase price, up to $8,000. It phases out when modified adjusted gross income is $75,000 for an individual or $150,000 for joint filers. Married taxpayers must both qualify as “first-time homebuyers” in order to receive the full credit.

Taxpayers who claimed the full $8,000 First-time Homebuyer Credit on their 2008 federal return cannot claim it on their 2009 return. Those who have not claimed the credit should determine which year to use it based on their income. If you expect your income to decrease in 2009, it will likely make more sense to claim the credit on your 2009 return rather than your 2008 return.

The only scenario in which the credit must be paid back is if the home ceases to be the owners’ principal residence within 36 months of the purchase date. Then the full credit amount must be repaid on the federal return for that tax year.

The credit was initially created to be claimed after a home is purchased, but the Obama administration is now allowing qualifying taxpayers to use it to cover certain purchasing costs. Homebuyers with mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration may be eligible to receive advances on the credit, which could be used for closing costs, fees and additional money for a down payment beyond the FHA’s required 3.5 percent minimum.

Anyone can apply for an FHA-backed mortgage, regardless of income. However, there are limits on the size of the mortgage, and lenders may charge a fee for the credit. Some states are also offering similar programs.

The new stimulus plan also includes tax credits equal to 30 percent, up to $1,500, for certain energy-efficient improvements to residential properties. The Residential Energy Property Credit can be claimed on 2009 and 2010 returns for improvements such as adding insulation or installing energy-efficient windows, doors, or heating and air conditioning systems. Bigger improvements involving alternative energy equipment such as solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and wind turbines may be claimed on 2009 to 2016 returns under the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit.

In addition to homeowner tax breaks, the 2009 act includes several new or increased credits and deductions. Read the details of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 at www.IRS.gov.

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In bad economic times, it’s understandable for people to worry more about the security of their homes and families. With cities and counties across the country being forced to cut their budgets, homeowners may feel anxious about the safety in their community.

“With so many people out of work, many Americans are worrying about a possible increase in burglaries, home invasions and other types of crimes that target the safety of their homes,” says Charles Hemphill, a home security products expert for Montgomery Ward. “People are spending less discretionary income and more time in the home. Yet few families have the budget to install a high-tech security system and pay the monthly subscription fee to protect their peace of mind.”

Improving your home’s security doesn’t have to be an expensive job left to professionals. With a few simple and affordable do-it-yourself improvements, you can improve security and address your anxiety over possible risks to your home and family.

Make your home look unattractive to burglars

Burglars commonly look for homes that appear unoccupied or offer concealment for their crime, such as overgrown bushes or shrubs that block the view of the front door from the road. If you’re going away on vacation for a few days, be sure to suspend mail and newspaper delivery; an overflowing mailbox or multiple papers lying on the driveway alerts thieves that you’re not at home.

Ensure the exterior of your home is well lit. Always leave the front porch light on at night–all night–and install time-activated sensors to turn lights on when you’re away. If you prefer not to have lights on outside all night, consider installing motion-activated lights that will switch on when someone approaches your home. Motion-activated LED lights mount easily on steps, porches, balconies, gates and decks. The lights are waterproof and a passive infrared motion sensor detects movement in the dark and shines five bright, white LED lights for 12 seconds–long enough to scare off potential intruders. Or, for battery-free operation, try motion-activated, solar-powered lights.

Don’t make access easy for them

The front door and the garage door are the two most common access points for thieves. Never leave either unlocked, and be sure your front door has a deadbolt lock–the kind that can only be opened with a key from either side. If your garage is attached and offers direct access into your house, never leave the garage door open for an extended period of time and always lock–again, with a deadbolt–the door that leads from the garage into your house.

If you must leave your car sitting on your driveway overnight, always lock it and never leave a spare key or garage door opener inside the car. Thieves know that by breaking into your car they may find a way to access your home.

Beef up security with simple, cost-effective devices

“There are many simple-to-install, economical devices that can help enhance your home’s security,” says Hemphill. Here are a few items, which can improve your home security in just a few minutes:

* Telespy Intrusion Detector: the detector looks and functions like a normal telephone, but when you’re away you can set its special motion detector sensor to alert you when the device detects motion inside your home. The device calls a number you preprogram into it–a cell, office phone or friend’s home phone–and allows you to listen to what’s going on inside your house for up to 30 seconds.

* Replace your garage door opener remotes with a Keyless Entry System on the outside of the garage. The system reads your fingerprint to identify you as someone authorized to enter the garage. You can program the system to recognize up to 10 people’s fingerprints. Don’t want to get out of the car to open the garage door? Mount the system on a post beside the driveway so that you can reach it from the driver’s side window.

* Still want a home security system, but hesitant to take on the costs associated with professional installation? It’s possible to create your own low-cost security system, tailored to your needs, with programmable components that interface with one another. Start with a command center, available for less than $35 and add components to monitor doors, windows and garage entries for around $20 per component.

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Temperatures are rising, and people across the country are realizing they can’t avoid it anymore. That’s right; summer is here, and it’s time to clean the garage.

All winter long you kept the garage door shut, but summertime means that door is inevitably going to be open. You don’t want to be embarrassed when the neighbors drive by, do you?

This year, after you’re done wrestling the two most important summer accessory out of your garage — the grill — take the time to give the space a thorough cleaning and update. There are a number of simple steps you can take to clean and organize your garage so that when your neighbors do walk by, they’ll be amazed at the transformation.

Colorful, but still clean
Stroll by a dozen open garages and you’ll likely see one common thread. All the garages are painted white. There’s no rule against painting the walls of your garage something other than white, but choosing paint for your garage is more than color. Garage paint has to be strong enough to withstand grime, water and general dirt.

Consider applying a paint that is specifically designed for durability. The paint is actually infused with bonded ceramic beads that create an impenetrable film that doesn’t allow dirt and stains to set in. So, if you’re washing off the grill or your car and happen to splash muddy water on the wall, all you have to do is wipe it off with a wet rag. The paint won’t become discolored or chip off. It’s even strong enough to handle scrubbing with a sponge.

Power wash and kitty clean
Once you have the walls sealed and painted, you can now power wash the concrete floor without concern about damaging exposed drywall. Many large home and hardware stores will rent out power washers by the hour or day. Power washing is relatively easy and you’ll be amazed at how effective it is at removing dirt and paint splatter from your garage floor.

Once the floor is clean, break out the kitty litter. That’s right; kitty litter is an excellent absorbent and can remove those hard-to-clean oil stains. Simply spread the kitty litter on the stain and use a heavy object, such as a brick, to work the kitty litter into the stain. Once it’s worked in, let it sit for a few hours before sweeping up. After you’re all swept up, finish by taking a stiff-bristled brush and some soapy water to clean any remaining residue.

Waterproofed
Notoriously, the garage is a receptacle for dirt, mud, salt and water. Dirt and water from car tires, lawn mowers, and garden tools all seem to meld into one big mess that defies cleaning. Not only does this mess make the garage look bad, but also these elements can have a very detrimental effect on your garage floor. One way to combat the wear and tear is to consider waterproofing the concrete with a protective coating.

Many companies offer simple do-it-yourself coatings kits. This garage floor coating protects concrete against gasoline, motor oil and even hot tires. It also creates a glossy, showroom-like finish that hides imperfections like cracks or unsightly stains and easily cleans up with soap and water. Available in eight colors, it includes optional decorative flakes to give that previously boring garage floor just the right finishing touch. One easy-to-apply kit can cover up to 250 square feet and is water-based with virtually no odor.

Storage, not shelving
Just about every garage in America has the standard-issue white organizer shelving. Though the shelving does provide functionality, it still doesn’t look clean. All the car washing sponges, bug spray, small garden tools and miscellaneous tools are still visible and sitting out.

Instead of shelving, install storage cabinets. There are dozens of industrial grade and strength garage storage cabinets that will help hide all of the small items that you store in your garage behind magnetic, closable doors. Even if you still can’t seem to organize the items inside the cabinets, at least they won’t be visible, and it will provide a much cleaner appearance to your garage.

Once you’ve cleaned and sealed the floor, painted the walls and housed all your miscellaneous tools and supplies in storage cabinets, you’re ready for the fun part — relaxing. Plus, the fact that these simple solutions provide lasting durability means that next year you won’t have to do this again.

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Spring for many is synonymous with warmer days, greener landscapes – and a more plentiful housing market. Just as daffodils start popping up in neighborhoods across the country, so, too, will ‘for sale’ signs adorn lawns across the country.

But given the current economy, does this mean that it’s a good time to buy for first-time homebuyers? For Eric Wright, assistant director of admissions at Brown Mackie College – Louisville, who has more than 12 years of experience in the mortgage industry, the answer is yes. “It is probably the best time to buy or refinance ever,” he says. “It is a buyer’s market, and interest rates are the lowest they have been in history. Also, homebuyers can receive an $8,000 tax credit this year if they purchase a home by Dec. 1, 2009.”

In addition to the low interest rates most mortgage lenders are currently offering, the affordability of homes is rising. The National Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Index reported a 13.6 percentage point increase to 166.8 in January, which according to the association, signifies a new record high. In simple terms, this means that a single family earning nearly $60,000 annually could afford a home that costs $283,400 with a 20 percent down payment. A year ago, a single family with the same earnings and down payment could afford a $263,300 home.

Low interest rates. Check. Affordable pricing. Check. That’s all grand, but how do you know if buying now is a good time for you? “If you are first-time homebuyer who is planning on purchasing a home in the near future, the best advice I can give is to evaluate your financial situation,” says Wright. “Pull a credit report on yourself, calculate all your debt, know your liquid assets and have reserves, and expect a few extra monthly bills like homeowner dues, waste management and water.”

Wright also conveyed that it’s important to know your debt-to-income ratio, as this is how an underwriter will determine your income qualifications. To get this number, add up your entire monthly outgoing bills and divide the total by your monthly gross income. The key is to be under 45 percent.

Next step? Shop around. Wright advises to get at least three to five offers from lenders to compare interest rates and fees, and emphasized that you should never pay any application fees. He also says that it’s important to know what documents lenders require to help facilitate the approval process, including:

· A full month of pay stubs

· W-2s for the past two years (If you’re self employed, you’ll need to provide your tax returns in full.)

· Two months of bank statements

· Two months of statements related to your 401(k), savings or any other liquid savings account

· If currently renting, proof of rental payments and landlord’s contact information

The Federal Housing Administration insures loan products that benefit first-time home buyers – many of which offer down payments as low as 3.5 percent of the purchase price. After meeting FHA credit qualifications, borrowers are eligible for 97 percent financing. The upfront mortgage insurance premium can be financed into the mortgage upfront. For more information on FHA programs, visit www.hud.gov/buying/index.cfm.

Whatever you decide, knowledge is the key to borrower protection, so here are some additional resources to help you get started:

· U.S. Department of Housing & Development

· National Association of Realtors

· Home Loan Learning Center

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In bad economic times, it’s understandable for people to worry more about the security of their homes and families. With police departments across the country being forced to cut their budgets, homeowners may feel anxious about the safety in their community.

“With so many people out of work, many Americans are worrying about a possible increase in burglaries, home invasions and other types of crimes that target the safety of their homes,” says Charles Hemphill, a home security products expert for Montgomery Ward. “People are spending less discretionary income and more time in the home. Yet few families have the budget to install a high-tech security system and pay the monthly subscription fee to protect their peace of mind.”

Improving your home’s security doesn’t have to be an expensive job left to professionals. With a few simple and affordable do-it-yourself improvements, you can improve security and address your anxiety over possible risks to your home and family.

Make your home look unattractive to burglars

Burglars commonly look for homes that appear unoccupied or offer concealment for their crime, such as overgrown bushes or shrubs that block the view of the front door from the road. If you’re going away on vacation for a few days, be sure to suspend mail and newspaper delivery; an overflowing mailbox or multiple papers lying on the driveway alert thieves that you’re not at home.

Ensure the exterior of your home is well lit. Always leave the front porch light on at night–all night–and install time-activated sensors to turn lights on when you’re away. If you prefer not to have lights on outside all night, consider installing motion-activated lights that will switch on when someone approaches your home. Motion-activated LED lights mount easily on steps, porches, balconies, gates and decks. The lights are waterproof and a passive infrared motion sensor detects movement in the dark and shines five bright, white LED lights for 12 seconds–long enough to scare off potential intruders. Or, for battery-free operation, try motion-activated, solar-powered lights.

Don’t make access easy for them

The front door and the garage door are the two most common access points for thieves. Never leave either unlocked, and be sure your front door has a deadbolt lock–the kind that can only be opened with a key from either side. If your garage is attached and offers direct access into your house, never leave the garage door open for an extended period of time and always lock–again, with a deadbolt–the door that leads from the garage into your house.

If you must leave your car sitting on your driveway overnight, always lock it and never leave a spare key or garage door opener inside the car. Thieves know that by breaking into your car they may find a way to access your home.

Beef up security with simple, cost-effective devices

“There are many simple-to-install, economical devices that can help enhance your home’s security,” says Hemphill. Here are a few items, which can improve your home security in just a few minutes:

* Telespy Intrusion Detector: the detector looks and functions like a normal telephone, but when you’re away you can set its special motion detector sensor to alert you when the device detects motion inside your home. The device calls a number you preprogram into it–a cell, office phone or friend’s home phone–and allows you to listen to what’s going on inside your house for up to 30 seconds.

* Replace your garage door opener remotes with a Keyless Entry System on the outside of the garage. The system reads your fingerprint to identify you as someone authorized to enter the garage. You can program the system to recognize up to 10 people’s fingerprints. Don’t want to get out of the car to open the garage door? Mount the system on a post beside the driveway so that you can reach it from the driver’s side window.

* Still want a home security system, but hesitant to take on the costs associated with professional installation? It’s possible to create your own low-cost security system, tailored to your needs, with programmable components that interface with one another. Start with a command center, available for less than $35 and add components to monitor doors, windows and garage entries for around $20 per component.

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Motivated sellers, builders offering deep discounts and incentives, historically low mortgage rates, plenty of inventory and fierce competition for qualified borrowers – it’s actually a great time to be buying a house.

If your credit score is good, you’re in an even better position to negotiate the loan on the home of your dreams this spring.

Spring has always been a popular time to buy a new home. More people put their homes on the market when the weather is warm, and a wealth of inventory is available. With winter thawing into distant memory, home shoppers are ready for a fresh start in a new house. Buying a home in spring will help new homeowners ensure they move their families during the summer, and not at the beginning or in the middle of the school year.

With plenty of housing opportunities and low interest rates currently available, it pays to ensure you’re in a position of power when you go home shopping this spring. Here are some simple tips for ensuring you’re in the driver’s seat when buying a house:

Know your credit score

You may not be able to control the economy, but your credit score is a financial reality you do have control over. The higher your score, the more likely you are to be able to negotiate lower interest rates when mortgage hunting.

Before you look at a single house, find out what your credit score is. Sites like FreeCreditReport.com give you access to your free credit report – which will show potential lenders your payment history and help them decide if you’re a good or even great credit risk. Through the Web site, you can also get your credit score from Experian, one of the three top credit bureaus that lenders turn to when evaluating the credit-worthiness of potential borrowers.

The better your score, the better your chances of scoring a great loan, so take steps to improve your score, such as paying off credit cards quickly, paying bills on time and minimizing your use of revolving credit. Errors can occur, and, if you find some on your credit report, work directly with the credit bureaus to have them corrected.

Know the playing field

Once you’re confident you have a powerful credit score, research the market where you’re interested in buying. In addition to considering the quality of schools, proximity to work, entertainment and amenities a neighborhood has to offer; consider the number of foreclosures in an area and how much home values have dipped in the past year.

Is the neighborhood you’re interested in poised to regain value quickly when the real estate market rebounds? Recovery speed could be an important consideration if you plan to stay in the home only a few years. If you’re in the home for the long haul, you may be less concerned about how quickly home values in the neighborhood will improve.

This spring can be a great time to start fresh in a new home. To ensure you’re well positioned to take advantage of the great housing deals, first learn about your credit score.

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After a long, economically challenged year, many homeowners can look forward to one bright spot on the horizon: the expectation of a tax refund to help fund much-needed home fix-ups.

It’s hard not to want a fashionable, newly remodeled home, especially if your cabinets are cluttered and crumbling from years of use, and the bathroom is so out of date you’re embarrassed to have company visit. Now is a good time to do a little advance planning for remodeling to ensure every hard-earned dollar is used wisely.

One way to stay on budget is to prepare a top 10 list of must-have items. Look around your kitchen and bathroom and decide what needs to be replaced and what can be added later. If you can’t afford an entire kitchen remodel right now, perhaps you can update a kitchen island in a contrasting cabinet style, add a bathroom storage cabinet, put in new countertops or refresh paint and flooring.

Make every inch count

To get all you can out of your budget, squeeze as much as possible out of your space. Many cabinetry designs offer built-in storage and organization features — even in spaces just a few inches wide.

Scope out design trends

Remodeling on a budget doesn’t mean you have to forgo fashion. A little research now will ensure you’re up-to-date on the newest design trends, so look through decorating magazines and watch TV remodeling shows. And, since home design often follows fashion design, look through fashion publications to check out colors you might want to incorporate into your home. For example, in all areas of decor, the popular blues that remind us of sky and water from last summer remain prominent, even in the kitchen, according to the Color Marketing Group.

Complement your personal style

Once you have an idea for the general design themes you’re after, you’ll find that many stylish cabinetry products are available at affordable prices.

Stock cabinetry also allows you to create a custom look without paying a custom price. Style seekers have endless options to personalize cabinetry to create a one-of-a-kind look for kitchens and baths, whether it’s choosing unique hardware, adding embellishments such as crown moulding, or incorporating fashionable wood finishes in delicious colors like Java Glaze or Harvest Glaze.

Go online to visualize

Try checking out remodeling products online before you go to a store or showroom. In 2007, 19.4 percent of U.S. shoppers researched home improvement items online before purchasing them in a store, according to a report by eMarketer.

You can “browse” an online room gallery of completed bathrooms and kitchens in different styles, finishes and types of wood. Then, you can see how your cabinets will look in your space using an online visualization tool and print out a plan to keep track of your selections.

When you have some design styles and trends in mind and an idea of how you plan to go about your remodeling project, it’s time to visit cabinetry showrooms. Seeing products and construction quality in person can help you finalize your decisions. Share your ideas with the showroom’s design staff and ask them to develop a plan that meets your objectives and your budget. As an educated shopper, you’re more likely to get the most from your remodeling dollar.

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If you’re one of the approximately 50 million Americans moving this year, you probably don’t want to spend a fortune to get from point A to point B. With a little planning ahead, it’s possible to execute a do-it-yourself move without breaking the bank.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 16 percent of all moves are work-related — moving to find a new job or to be closer to a current job. Whatever your reason for moving, you don’t have to pay a company to pack up your belongings and transport them to your new home. Here are some easy ways to move yourself and stay on budget:

* If you need to rent a truck or trailer, especially if you only have a few large items that can’t fit into your vehicle, check out your local big box retail hardware store. They often rent trucks and trailers by the hour at a fraction of the cost of renting from a moving company.

* Collect free boxes from friends, family and from local grocery and liquor stores. Save old newspapers to wrap valuables in instead of purchasing expensive rolls of bubble wrap.

* Plug in the refrigerator at your new place a day or two ahead of time. Pack frozen and perishable foods in a cooler with ice packs and unpack that food into your new fridge first. Having your food melt or go bad means an additional, and expensive, trip to the grocery store.

* Pick up change of address forms, free of charge, from the post office. Request a free “welcome kit” from the local chamber of commerce in your new community. These kits contain valuable information and often include money saving coupons for local businesses.

* Pack wisely and avoid filling boxes so much that they’re too heavy for you to lift without help. You’ll get more done with each person carrying their own box.

* Clear a path. Before you lift a load, make sure you’ve got a clear path to your destination. You won’t be able to see well or move obstacles out of your way once the load is in your arms.

* Use the right tools for the job. Hand trucks can be rented inexpensively and should be used to transport multiple boxes at once or smaller items of furniture. Remember that hand trucks are not good for moving items up or down stairs and are difficult to maneuver around tight turns. For large pieces of furniture, appliances, stairs and tight spaces, try an ergonomically designed harness system that allows users to lift with their legs and safely pick up virtually any heavy or bulky item in the home.

* Don’t end up in the hospital. When lifting a load, keep your back straight and bend your knees. Keep your head up and look straight ahead to ensure your back remains perpendicular to the ground. Hold the object securely and use the large, powerful leg muscles to lift the weight. Avoid twisting or turning at the waist when lifting. Turn your entire body by moving your hips first, which will force your shoulders to stay in line.

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