7 Best Things About Buying A House In The Fall

 

For the first time in recent history, October surpassed June as the most popular month to get married. And these autumn-loving brides may be on to something: Although the spring months are notoriously the best time to buy real estate (as well as have a wedding), fall may be the new ideal season to buy a home.

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One obvious reason is that it’s easier to get from open house to open house without questioning if you’ll need an AC repair ASAP upon moving into that home for sale in Phoenix, AZ. Also, families on a mission to move into a new home before school starts are out of the picture. Besides these two more obvious reasons, here are seven expert insights on why you should consider a fall real estate purchase.

1. There’s less competition

Competition for houses drops off in the fall, a time many people consider to be off-season in real estate. But there are still homes for sale — and in some cases, there’s just as much inventory as there was during the spring and summer. “[Fall] means new inventory and re positioned old inventory that did not sell in the prime season,” says Wesley Stanton, a New York, NY, agent with The Stanton Hoch Team.

This puts you in a great position to negotiate. “Fall home buyers should consider [making] lowball offers, followed by more aggressive negotiation,” says Brian Davis, a real estate investor and director of education at Spark Rental. Davis points out that many sellers are very motivated to sell before the holidays. If possible, buyers should let these sellers know that they can close before Thanksgiving or before the school winter break.

2. Sellers are worn-out

Some sellers who put their homes on the market during the prime selling times of spring and summer might have been a tad overconfident by listing their homes for more than buyers were willing to spend. After months of no action, these sellers are often ready to make a deal. “Sellers who were unrealistic earlier in the year about price will now be more willing to reduce the price come fall,” says Thomas Miller, a Washington, DC, real estate agent. “Because there [are fewer buyers] and because the sellers are now eager to sell, they are more inclined to take the low offer than wait another six months for spring to come around.”
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3. Sellers are serious

Not all homes on the market in fall are summer leftovers. Some people need to sell in the fall because the timing is right. Maybe they were having a home built, and it’s now ready. Maybe they need to move because of a job. “The sellers with houses on the market in the fall tend to be serious,” says Sam Heskel, president of Nadlan Valuation, an appraisal management company in Brooklyn, NY. “That means sellers could be more open to negotiating and accepting a lower offer.”

4. You can take advantage of tax breaks

First-time home buyers, take note: Although you can’t escape paying income tax, you can make a dent in what you owe when you become a homeowner. “Property tax and mortgage interest are both deductions you can take for your whole year’s worth of income, even if you closed on your home in December,” says David Hryck, a New York, NY tax adviser, lawyer, and personal finance expert. “Any payments that are made prior to the closing of the loan are tax-deductible. This can make a serious difference in the amount you owe the government at the end of the year.”

5. Fall is a safer time of year

Did you know that burglars have peak seasons? They do, says Sarah Brown, a home safety expert for SafeWise.com. “July and August are prime months for burglaries to take place,” she says. “Waiting until the fall [to buy] gives you an advantage when learning about a home and the neighborhood.” You’ll be settled in your home and can take precautions — like setting up that new alarm system — before the next burglary season rolls around. Note: Check Trulia’s local maps with the crime filter before you buy.

6. You’re the center of attention

Because spring and summer are ideal times to buy a home, real estate agents are usually busier then. And that could mean you might not always get the attention you want. This is also true for other professionals you’re working with to buy a house. “Service providers, such as mortgage lenders and title companies, are moving out of the summertime sales swamp and can often respond more quickly,” says John Lazenby, president of the Orlando Regional Realtor Association in Orlando, FL.

The same goes for movers. “Because summer is the peak moving season, people often experience more delays and service issues, such as moving companies reaching capacity and running out of trucks to pick up shipments,” says Jack Griffin, president and chief operating officer of Atlas World Group. “The probability of experiencing a delay goes way down in the fall season.”

7. You can take advantage of end-of-year sales to outfit your home

There are bound to be improvements you’ll want to make after buying a house. You’ll also probably need to buy items to maintain your home, and if appliances weren’t part of the deal, you’ll need those too. Wouldn’t it be great to coordinate your home purchase with sales on items you’ll need? According to Consumer Reports, the calendar determines when it’s a good time to buy all sorts of consumer goods. In particular, September is a great time for buying carpet and paint. October means lawn mowers go on sale, and appliances and cookware are cheaper in November.

Did you buy your home in the fall? Would you recommend buying in the fall real estate market? Let us know in the comments.

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Questions to Ask Before Deciding on a Real Estate Agent

 

Roughly 5 million residential real estate transactions were conducted in 2014. Of those, nearly 87 percent involved real estate agents, who can help both buyers and sellers of residential properties save time and maximize the value of their home. Before deciding which real estate agent might be the best fit for your needs, you might want to ask yourself—or your agent—the following questions.

1. ARE THEY LICENSED?

Real estate agents licensed by state property boards are usually expected to complete regular training courses and abide by board-approved practices. Agents affiliated with the National Association of Realtors (NAR) are also bound by the organization’s Code of Ethics, which are intended to make sure real estate agents follow NAR’s approved protocols for home sales.

2. HOW MANY HOMES HAVE THEY SOLD IN YOUR AREA?

Because neighborhoods often have their own unique traits when it comes to advertising benefits like school districts and property values, you’ll want an agent who has successfully completed several transactions in the area you’re considering. For sellers, an agent with experience in the local market will know how best to appeal to buyers most likely to complete a sale.

3. HAVE YOU VISITED AN OPEN HOUSE THEY ARRANGED?

One of the better ways to assess an agent’s ability to move a property is to visit an open house to see how they handle prospective buyers. An impressive presentation means they’re likely to devote a similar amount of energy to your own transaction.

4. HAVE THEY WON ANY AWARDS?

While it’s not necessary that an agent’s office be packed with trophies, third-party recognition for outstanding sales or customer service can be a good sign that the agent is proactive and attentive to their client’s needs.

5. DO THEY HAVE THE RIGHT CREDENTIALS?

Agents often come with designations that might resemble a word jumble until you get familiar with details. An Accredited Buyer Representative has had additional training in representing those in the market for a home; a Seniors Real Estate Specialist has had experience working with buyers over the age of 50. Get to know an agent’s abbreviations and find out if they specialize in your situation.

6. HAVE THEY SOLD A HOUSE SIMILAR TO YOURS ALREADY?

As a buyer, you’ll want an agent familiar with the specific type of home sale you’re interested in. That means experience in navigating the details of federal loan programs, dealing with military financing, or having sold more residential properties than commercial. Buyers and sellers of private properties can also have a variety of special interests depending on the type of home being targeted. Rural homes, for example, have different details to work through compared to historic properties or condominiums. You’ll want an agent who has experience dealing with your specific case needs.

7. HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?

Agents typically receive a percentage of the sale price from the seller. Ask for specific amounts (typically three to seven percent), along with other closing costs. Sellers should also know whether an agent charges a fee for things like staging (dressing the home for viewing), photography, and other attempts to stand out in the market.

8. DO THEY HAVE REFERENCES?

Hiring an agent should be like hiring any other employee: You’ll want to know that they have gotten the job done previously. While you can look at online reviews, it shouldn’t be a problem for an agent to provide contact information for buyers or sellers they’ve worked with so you can benefit from their perspective.

9. WILL IT BE A TEAM EFFORT?

Keeping homes visible in the market, analyzing new listings, and communicating to clients requires a lot of leg work, so many agents have workers who assist them in keeping on top of their workload. At the same time, you don’t want an agent who will use assistants to pass along information. Make sure the agent will make keeping you informed their first priority.

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Setting Priorities In A Senior’s Move

Tips For Whittling Down The Options To Find The Perfect Spot

Trying to decide where to live during one’s golden years can be a difficult process. There are many different types of options available and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. When a senior is trying to choose a new place where they will spend their remaining years, it can be helpful to work through their priorities in relation to the new home.

 

Evaluate the reasons for the move and the priorities in a new home

ABC News shares that there are many reasons why seniors consider downsizing in their later years. This type of change may be due to the death of a spouse, financial challenges, or health concerns, or it may be time to retire and free up money to travel. Whenever possible, it is best to work up to a big move like this, as rushing into a relocation can lead to regrets.

Money Sense explains that many older adults are downsizing so they can reduce their expenses or boost their nest eggs, so determine a realistic budget and stick to it. Don’t be distracted by amenities available in a community if the overall cost would cause a financial strain, as this type of stress in one’s later years can be quite detrimental.

Next, do some thinking about how much space is needed. Will you have guests staying over frequently or will you be on your own most of the time? Do you need some unfinished storage space for belongings or will you be able to pare things down sufficiently to transition to a smaller home?

Location and maintenance work are key factors, too

Apartment Guide notes that you will also want to consider whether living in a maintenance-free home is something you want. Seniors often want to let go of any responsibilities regarding snow removal, lawn care, or exterior home repairs, so focusing on maintenance-free living can narrow your options quickly.

Another key priority for many seniors related to the location of the new home. If one needs to have easy access to a specific medical facility, care center, or shopping area, that needs to be factored in during the search. Location also plays a role when a senior depends on extended family for help, wants to be by grandchildren, or hopes to stay near neighbors or friends they have had for years.

Get organized early for a smooth transition

As the search for a new home plays out, start planning for the move itself. Staying organized and starting early are the best ways to ensure a smooth transition for your senior. Keep a notebook containing all of the information related to the move, including an inventory list of what will go to the new home, so that everything is maintained in one spot.

Then, work consistently on purging unwanted or unneeded items. Help your senior decide what will fit in the new place and what can be sold or donated, tackling one small area at a time. Keep similar items together while packing and label or color code all of your boxes to speed up the unpacking on the other end of the move.

Moving in one’s later years is rarely an easy decision. Get organized early on so you can help your senior focus on their best options and keep the move progressing smoothly. Consider factors such as a senior’s financial picture, their reasons for downsizing, and the ideal location of their new place so they can ultimately settle in the perfect spot to enjoy their golden years.

 

Jim Vogel vogel[email protected]

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Selling Your Home for Maximum Value

HomeChecklistSelling a home is almost as exciting and nerve-wracking as buying your first property. Fortunately, if you work with an experienced real estate agent and take the time to prepare your home, it will sell faster (and most likely net you an excellent price.)

Don’t underestimate the power of home improvement projects and home staging—these things can amp up your home’s appeal inside and out, and have buyers fighting to make an offer. Preparing your home for the market is a chance to make money and gain experience—take advantage of this opportunity by working hard.

Home Improvement Projects and Repairs

Small repairs and upgrades often have the biggest impact. Buyers want a home that is move-in ready. Minor things like burned-out lights, broken windows and cracked pavement detract from a home’s perceived value. Make sure everything is in good working order, and then tackle the upgrades. With a return on investment of 130 percent, replacing your front door is the top improvement.

If you’ve lived in your house for years, you probably have a few projects that have been on your to-do list forever. Some of these may be good choices, but others may be prohibitively expensive—projects that have excellent returns share these traits, as they are affordable and reduce maintenance requirements. They improve efficiency, and they address problems.

Improvements for Kitchens and Baths

The kitchen and the bathroom are prime candidates for remodeling, but you might be able to get away with less—replacing drawer handles and knobs is an excellent step. You may also want to repaint or refinish drab cabinets if they are structurally sound. Purchasing a new fridge or oven is also a nice step, as a premium appliance can give a room a measure of quality.

Installing modern light fixtures is another winning effort. In the bathroom, neutral colors create a classic look. Install a new shower head, and make sure the floor and shower itself are in good condition. Replace the caulk. Review thishome improvement guide to see which projects are worth the work.

What about Paint?

Fresh paint is one of the most welcome and recommended improvements if you’re selling your home. This project is simple and inexpensive. With good preparation, paint can cover minor blemishes and nicks—it can also conceal the bold paint in a child’s bedroom (buyers generally prefer neutral colors). You can maximize your return and achieve professional results by completing appropriate prep work, masking the trim, spackling holes and sanding the base coat. Low-VOC paint is an excellent choice and can be a selling point when you’re marketing your home.

Outdoor Upgrades

Exterior improvements are extremely beneficial for improving your home’s market value. Purchase new house numbers, replace broken or drafty windows, or install a new garage door. Invest in new siding, or make sure that your existing siding is free from mildew and stains. If you want to make a more major improvement, build a deck or patio. These functional areas will help buyers visualize a new life in a new home.

Landscaping for Curb Appeal

Landscaping can increase your home’s curb appeal and value considerably—the challenge is knowing where to start. First, how does your landscaping compare to other homes in the neighborhood? Is it lagging behind, or is it leading the way? Second, if your home has overgrown landscaping, it should be trimmed back, or even removed completely. Dying, neglected or overgrown plants will decrease your curb appeal. However, if you add a variety of landscape plants, your home’s value can increase by as much as 10 percent. You can easily double the money spent on plants, mulch and other supplies.

If you spend just 2 percent of your home’s estimated value on landscaping, you’ll see major returns. A study by Virginia Tech found that adding landscaping increased the value of a $150,000 home by more than $8,000. The sophistication of the design, the diversity of the plants and the size of the specimens are generally the most important aspects.

If you’re getting ready to sell, you should have about two months to make changes to your landscaping—a bag of lawn fertilizer and a load of mulch are ideal for sprucing up a home quickly. Outdoor furniture, potted plants and seasonal flowers are excellent choices for improving the appearance of your yard, and adding value to your home.

The Best Times of the Year to Sell

You’ve worked hard to spruce up your landscaping, and you want buyers to see the result. However, this might be impossible if your yard is covered by a foot of snow. Timing a sale is tricky, and it can’t always be helped, but you can maximize your returns by understanding what drives the market. Traditionally, spring has been the best time to sell, though this may not be the same in every case.

Buyers are active, and families want to get their kids settled before school starts. Approximately 60 percent of families who move do so in the summer, which shows how many homes sell in the spring. However, this trend is slowly changing. If you aren’t ready to list in the spring, you still have a good chance to profit—new data shows that November is one of the hottest months for home sales. But why?

Today, more than half of home buyers are retirees, single millennials, and couples without children. The school calendar doesn’t affect these individuals—in fact, listing in the autumn and winter is advantageous, because the housing supply is lower. It becomes a seller’s market!

As a general rule, homes listed in the fall and winter are 10 percent more likely to sell for the listing price, and to sell within six months. Don’t fear the holiday season either! If you can handle showings during this hectic time of year, feel free to list your home. Wintertime buyers are often in a hurry to relocate for a job, and thus need a home quickly. If your home is available, they may be willing to pay a premium price.

Staging a Home

Homes that are staged sell faster, and for more money. You could hire a professional, but many of these things can be done on your own (and for a fraction of the cost). Home staging starts with a thorough cleaning—strip waxed floors, shampoo carpets, and make every surface spotless. How much light a home has is also a major selling point.

Wash the drapes, or buy new curtains. Clean the windows and screens to let in more sunlight. Put in high-wattage bulbs that show off your home.

After you’ve cleaned, it’s time to declutter. Remove family photos and keepsakes. Clear out the garage. Donate items that you don’t use. Then, store the rest!

Ideally, your home should be 90 percent packed when it’s time for a showing. Closets and storage spaces are especially important to buyers. Make sure closets are tidy and no more than half full.

Finally, arrange furniture to give each room a distinct purpose. Multi-purpose rooms give buyers a mixed message—it’s better if the buyer imagines a home office in a spare bedroom, rather than seeing a computer desk crammed next to a daybed.

Test your improvements by walking around your home and looking at everything like a buyer would. Staging gives you the power to decide what potential buyers see (and what they don’t see), including your children and your pets. This process starts before you list your home, and continues through the showing. It can be a good idea to brainstorm a variety of home staging ideas in advance.

Aromatherapy for Home Sellers

Staging makes your home look great in listing photos, however, pleasant smells can make your home appealing in person. Before you get out the air freshener, it’s important to remove unwanted odors. Pet odors and cigarette smoke are two of the biggest turnoffs for home buyers. If you have a problem with either, take steps to address these issues early in the process.

Some homes suffer from musty odors. Open the windows regularly to draw in fresh air. Clean the walls, carpets, upholstery and any surfaces that harbor unwanted odors.

Scientists know that olfactory experiences have a great effect on behavior. Neutral and natural scents, such as lavender, orange, lemon and pine, appeal to potential buyers. Avoid overbearing blended fragrances or artificial air fresheners. Studies show that strong scents create a mental disturbance and inhibit the decision-making process that is critical when someone is making the biggest purchase of their life.

Vanilla extract and essential oils are excellent choices for perfuming various areas of your home. You can also boil cinnamon sticks or orange peels about an hour before a showing.

Think seasonally, and consider what fits your home and the buyer. Avoid derisive scents like patchouli, and keep in mind that many people are sensitive to powerful fragrances.

Hiring the Right Realtor

All of your hard work up to this point won’t pay off without an effective real estate agent. The right realtor can make the process of selling your home easy and profitable. It’s tempting to hire the realtor who originally sold you the home or who found the perfect property for a friend, but these choices can prove to be less than ideal.

A selling agent needs to be on top of the market and understand all the nuances of your neighborhood, including the sale prices of comparable homes—pricing a home is an art!

If you start with the right number, you’ll get more offers and still have room to negotiate. If you start too high, your home might sit on the market, face price reductions and eventually sell for less than it would have.

Look for an agent who is experienced and works in your area regularly. You need an accurate market analysis, not an inflated valuation. Here are a few questions to ask to help you find the right realtor.

1. How quickly are your homes selling? How does this compare to the average selling time?

2. Did the homes sell for more or less than the listing price?

3. What will you do to market my home locally and online?

4. How often will you update me on any progress?

5. May I speak to your most recent clients? Ask about the agent’s communication skills, sales strategy and interaction from the listing through the closing.

How well you prepare your home for the market can alter a buyer’s perception and help you get top dollar. Everything you do should send the message that your home is well-maintained and ready for new owners. If you’re preparing to move, you’re probably ready to buy, which means that you should be able to see your home from a buyer’s perspective. These strategies will help you sell your home quickly, and capitalize on its full value.

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Start an Online Business without Breaking the Bank

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But here’s the thing: Instead of jumping on the bandwagon to start an online business, make sure you do your homework first. Most people launch a product and market it later. Big mistake!

You want to do the opposite – study the market first, launch next. How? Since it’s going to be an online business, start looking at online forums, comment sections of your competitor sites and what people are searching in Google (using Google Keyword Tool).

Once you pass stage one successfully, you can think about launching a website/product/service. That’s where the real magic happens.

Here’s what comes next:

  • Writing content
  • Starting a blog
  • Having a presence on social media
  • Establishing an expert status for yourself
  • Email marketing
  • Outsourcing tasks you don’t have the time or inclination for
  • Following influencers closely
  • Launching a product or paid service

The list is unending.

It’s easy to get burned out in the sea of tasks and strategies when starting an online business. Thankfully, there are tools available to help you get off the hamster wheel and launch a successful online business.

The best part? You don’t have to spend a fortune on these tools. Here are eight tools to start an online business without breaking the bank: 

1. Hostt

An online business needs a website domain name and space to “host it”. Hosting is an ongoing expense for your business and it usually incurs a monthly cost with an option to pay it upfront on a yearly basis.

And that’s where Hostt.com is revolutionizing the hosting world. What I love about Hostt is that it offers free hosting for all your websites. They also have a 24/7 tech support and a cpanel that makes website management quick and painless.

There is no catch – no ads. The hosting is 100% free. They only ask you to have one domain name with them (which costs $13.95 a year).

2. WordPress/Shopify

Once your website is set up and hosted, you’re ready to install a CMS or a platform on which your web pages and content will sit.

WordPress, originally a blogging platform, is the most popular solution in existence today. Most top bloggers use and recommend WordPress. The best part? It’s free to use.

Once you have your website hosted (see #1 above), your hosting company’s cpanel should let you install WordPress using the “1-click install” functionality.

WordPress is great for any type of website; but, if you want to create mainly an e-commerce store (in other words, an online store with a checkout shopping cart), you have better options out there.

Although WordPress is pretty flexible and a full-blown CMS now, it was originally built for blogging, not for e-commerce purposes. If you predict having a large product catalog and lots of e-commerce relevant features, try a service such as Shopify.

Most e-commerce experts will advise you against WordPress for an online store. Shopify is highly customizable, robust and affordable for a professional shopping cart. There are other alternatives available in the marker too, so make sure you do your research before launching a web-store.

3. BuzzSumo

Once you have a platform ready, you need content. And not just any content but good, solid content one that your readers find educative, interesting and engaging.

BuzzSumo is a neat little tool that analyzes what works for your readers. It helps you find content and topics that will do best for your type of audience.

Just open their webpage and enter your main keywords in the top search bar. You can also add a domain name to see what’s working well for them.

BuzzSumo returns a list of articles with the number of shares (so you know what is popular and can get ideas from those topics for your own website).

Super-helpful from SEO perspective also. So go on, give it a try!

4. MailChimp

But you can’t just stop after creating juicy content. The next step in line is to promote your content and one of the best ways to do it is email marketing.

Mailchimp is an email newsletter service that is used by more than 7 million people. You can get started with their “free forever” plan if you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers and send less than 12,000 emails per month (which is very likely when you’re starting out).

To get add-ons such as autoresponders and delivery by time zones, you can upgrade for as little as $10 per month. I’ve been using MailChimp for years now for my own websites and that of my clients, and have no regrets.

5. Buffer

Apart from promoting content and educating your readers via email, you can also use social media to share and push your new posts out there.

Buffer is a nice little tool to schedule all your posts across different social media. The clean and easy to use interface is one of the reasons it’s so popular. What I personally love is their “Suggestions” tab on the dashboard.

Buffer scours the web for best posts on other websites that you can instantly use to share with your own followers. When I’m low on the shareable content reserve, this feature is super-handy – all I have to do is read the suggested article and (if I like it) click the link to share or schedule it for my own channels.

6. ClickMeeting

If you are in a freelance/service-provider business model like I am, you have a constant need to communicate with your clients or collaborate with your team all over the world.

ClickMeeting is a platform to meet and record audio and video conferencing with your clients (for up to 25 participants). It’s perfect for briefing and presentation purposes. You can also brand all your meetings and impress your clients like a pro. Plus, they have a translation service if you’re exploring international markets.

They also offer a sister-product called ClickWebinar to conduct virtual trainings (for up to 1,000 participants) and webinars with your audience.

7. FancyHands

Let’s face it – despite all the tools in the world, you will still need external help. That’s where services such as FancyHands come into picture.

FancyHands brings you a team of virtual assistants who can do a lot of things at less than $1 a day, if you’re using their basic plan that costs $29.99/mo.

Here are some services for which people have requested in the past (as per the company’s website):

 My co-worker is in the hospital after a bad car accident. Can you call the gift shop there and ask them if they sell fun things to do to pass the time that they could send in a gift basket type of thing to him? Crossword puzzles, trashy magazines, stuff like that. I’d like to spend about $50. If they don’t do that sort of thing, please find a place that can.

Please make a lunch reservation at Barolo under my name for Friday at 1pm and call Jennifer Wilson’s office and let her know that the meeting is confirmed. Please add it to my schedule as well.

Please fill me in on the top 5 trending topics on Twitter today, both worldwide and locally in Los Angeles.

A fun way to get your time back, right?

8. Xoom

I saved the best for last – getting paid. Xoom is a perfect alternative to Paypal. Where Paypal is notorious for charging hefty transaction fees (try this calculator to find how much you’re being charged), Xoom charges a flat fee of $4.99 for up to $2,999.

With their 24/7 customer support and faster money transfers, Xoom is one of the easiest ways to send money.

Your Turn

Are you starting an online business? Which one of the above tools is your favorite? Would you like to add more? Tells us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Fireplace Maintenance and Safety

Tend to your chimney with care with these expert tips!

 

Enjoying a warm, cozy fire requires a clean, safe fireplace.
Here are some tips for keeping it that way.
Fireplaces should not be used as furnaces. Use a fireplace for a short-duration fire — no longer than five hours.Keep the glass open to allow air to be drawn up to cool the chimney, but keep the screen closed to prevent sparks from jumping onto the carpeting.
 

 

 

 

Never leave a fire unattended when children are in the house. Adults, even if near, should not allow children to play near or with fire tools and equipment.

 

Open a window when using the fireplace to prevent the room from becoming smoky. The air coming in from the window will go up the chimney.

 

 

Before making a fire, open the glass doors, pull aside the screen curtains, and place the kindling, newspaper and logs inside. Next, open the damper and a window. The window needs to be open only a few inches. You can check to make sure the smoke will go up the chimney properly by lighting a match, quickly blowing it out and watching the smoke to see whether it’s going up and out.

 

Keep a nonflammable rug (available at fireplace-supply stores) in front of the fireplace so that sparks won’t melt or otherwise damage your carpeting.

 

Use fireplace tools to handle burning logs. Never use your hands.

 

Use a chimney cap to prevent water damage, to keep animals from nesting and to keep debris from blocking the chimney and causing carbon monoxide to flow into the house. Use a spark arrester to help prevent sparks from flying out, which could start a fire on the roof or lawn.

 

Glass doors may develop tough stains from flames and heat. To clean them, make sure the glass doors are cool, then scrape off any thick gunk deposits with a razor blade. Add a squirt of liquid dishwashing detergent to a bucket of warm water, or add a cup of vinegar to a gallon of water. Spray or sponge the cleaner on, and then wipe it away with newspaper (which is lint-free). Another option is to buy glass cleaner at a fireplace store.

 

Fireplace coals can remain hot enough to start a fire for up to three days, so always wait at least that long before removing the ashes. At that point, close the damper to prevent cold air in the flue from stirring up excess dust while you’re removing the ashes. Be sure to wear a dust mask and open a window in the same room as the fireplace to prevent negative air pressure. Use a shovel to scoop the ashes into a metal container. Store the container far from combustible materials and surfaces and wood floors.

 

Never use a vacuum to clean up ashes, because live coals may remain in those ashes.

 

Have a certified chimney sweep inspect and clean the chimney when necessary. Have him show you how to check it yourself, too. The chimney should be checked at least once a year or after about 80 fires.

 

Shine brass fireplace utensils with Worcestershire sauce and a toothbrush.

 

Clean the firebox (the area where the logs burn) at least once a week during the months you use it, when ash builds up. Leave about an inch of ash because it acts as insulation, allowing the coals to heat faster and retain the heat easier.

 

Keep the firebox completely clean during the months when the fireplace is not in use.

 

To clean an exterior slate hearth, wash, dry and coat it with lemon oil every six weeks to make it shine. For cleaning exterior brick hearths, buy a brick cleaner at a fireplace shop.

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When Should You Retire?


Should you retire at 60? 62? 65? 70? It’s a tough decision.

A recent survey from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found that the average retirement age is now 62 for women and 64 for men. That has some interesting implications, and it can have each of us pondering our own retirement date.

To put those numbers in perspective a bit, know that the average retirement age for Americans overall has been stabilizing in recent years. It had been inching up over decades, because of factors such as the death of the corporate pension, the increased “full” Social Security retirement age for some, increases in overall health and longevity, and a shift away from manufacturing jobs, which can wear out a body faster. According to Gallup data, the average retirement age in 2002 was 59.

Interestingly, even though the average retirement age has increased over the past few decades, to most people, retiring at 62 or 64 seems a bit early. After all, that’s earlier than the earliest possible full retirement age for Social Security — that’s 65 for those born in 1937 or earlier (and 67 for those born in 1960 or later, and somewhere in between for those born between 1937 and 1960).

Should you retire at 62 or 64, too?
If so many people are retiring around age 62 to 64, should you do so, too? Do they know something you don’t? Well, the best retirement age for you is … it depends. There’s really no one-size-fits-all best retirement age. Here are some reasons you might want to retire early or late, followed by some suggestions.

There are pros and cons to retiring early or late. (Photo: Julia Manzerova, Flickr.)

Why retire early?
The most obvious reason to retire early is to enjoy more years of not having a full-time job. If you have a sufficient nest egg, retiring early can be a reasonable financial move, too, Social-Security-wise. That’s because although you’ll receive smaller monthly checks if you retire before your “full” retirement age, you’ll receive a lot more of them than you would if you retired on time or late. Another plus for retiring early is that despite actuarial tables, exactly how long we’ll live remains a mystery — and it would be a shame to end up with far fewer retirement years than you expected.

Why retire later?
Many people retire later simply because they have to, but others choose a late date because they want to beef up their finances more or perhaps because they’re afraid they’ll be bored in retirement. By working longer, you can save more of your income, and you can give all your retirement accounts more time to grow before you start tapping them. You may also be able to remain covered by your employer’s health insurance, saving more money. (The folks at Fidelity have estimated that a 65-year-old couple will spend, on average, more than $200,000 on health care during their retirement.) Better still, if you don’t start receiving Social Security benefits at your full retirement age, your monthly checks will increase by about 8% for each year you delay until age 70.

Keep in mind …
Clearly, there are many factors involved in the when-should-I-retire decision. As you deliberate, the most important question to ask yourself is, “Am I financially ready to retire?” It’s not smart to quit working early if you don’t have enough expected income in retirement to carry you through it — and through more of it if you retire early. Estimate your expected nest-egg size at retirement, your anticipated income streams in retirement (Social Security, income from IRAs and 401(k)s, dividend income, and so on) and your expected living and enjoyment expenses. Then crunch the numbers to see when retiring makes sense. (Think hard about your expenses, so that you don’t forget any significant ones. Many retirees, for example, spend a lot supporting their children. If you will, too, factor that in.)

It can be worth spending some money on a financial advisor, too, to get a professional opinion on the state of your finances, some suggested actions, and assurance that your ducks are or will soon be in a row.

Finally, remember that many people don’t get to retire at the age they choose. A job loss or health setback may push you out of the workforce before you’re ready. You can defend against being financially hurt by that by saving aggressively and investing effectively for retirement. If you end up with a little more than you need, that’s not the worst problem to have.

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A First Time Home Buyers Story!

 

I like to think of the first year of home ownership akin to (what I assume to be) the first year of marriage. It’s often the most difficult, because you don’t know what to expect. You’re used to something different (renting) and the entire year is spent adjusting. It’s just as great at you imagined it would be, but it often involves a lot of very hard work.

Next week it will be my one year anniversary of closing on the house. I’m celebrating in my own small way, but looking back on it, there are more than a handful of things I wish I’d done differently. Here are five (of many) first time home buying mistakes that cost me big time.

Buying Too Much House

I bought a house when I was engaged and expecting the single family home to be for a growing family rather than a swinging single gal. I did the best job I could and made a decision based on the set of circumstances that were true at the time. If I had a crystal ball to see if I would have been a single female homeowner three months after I bought the house then, yeah, I would have bought a lower maintenance condo in a nicer area and skipped the renovations altogether.

The relationship was far easier to get out of than the mortgage, so I think the first mistake was buying something I couldn’t manage on my own. I know buying for a current situation rather than a future one feels a bit like betting on the relationship to fail, but better safe than sorry when you’re playing the high stakes real estate game with someone you’re not married to.

I Would Have Prioritized Renovation Projects Like an Investor

It’s the old real estate adage that kitchens are what sell the home, and bathrooms hold their value. Thinking I was making a home for a family I did a bunch of other projects that would only make sense if I were going to stay in the house long term. The game changed, as did my desire to stay in the home longer than necessary and so looking back I wished I’d prioritized the renovation projects with the precise eye of an investor looking to make money.

I renovated the downstairs bathroom instead of the “master” bath simply because the green bathroom was hideous and I couldn’t stand to look at it. Yet every day when I run out of counter space or have to shower in my teeny-tiny stall in my bathroom upstairs, I wish I’d done things differently.

I Would Have Asked More Questions

I think there is a difference between paying attention and asking questions. You can pay attention your whole life and never get up the nerve to ask questions.

Looking back on it, I was definitely afraid to ask questions during the mortgage and renovation process because I didn’t want to seem unintelligent. I think being young and naive I expected someone — anyone — else to come charging in and ask them for me, not remembering that the biggest part of being an adult is having to have the tough conversations yourself.

Truth time: What you don’t know CAN hurt you and if you don’t ask you’ll never know.

Most importantly, if you don’t ask, no one else will and we’re talking about the most expensive purchase of your adult lifetime. If you neglect to ask your mortgage broker, real estate agent, or contractor something, you could risk losing thousands of dollars, so why take that risk? Just ask the darn question.

I Would Have Done More Research

I only shopped at two places for a mortgage. I only got two bids for the renovation work (partially because it was difficult to find a contractor willing to take on 203k renovation loan). I didn’t check references or anything. I just felt like I got a “good vibe” from my contractor and trusted my gut. Sometimes even your gut can be wrong, and there isn’t anything bad about backing up a “gut feeling” with a little hard research.

I Would Have Budgeted More

I had my budget for the purchase and the renovation. Even without the down-payment assistance I received from the City of Atlanta, the budget barely left any room for overages. If I’d done more research, I would have been able to make a better budget. My rule of thumb now? Whatever I think something home-related is going to cost, I double it, just in case. Better to be surprised than stressed.

I know I’m painting a very negative picture, but it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve got a lot of equity in the home to fund whatever venture I want to do next, and I now know all kinds of crazy stuff: like how to hang a light fixture, troubleshoot plumbing problems, and install shelving and closet systems. It’s been a tough journey, sure, but also and incredibly rewarding one personally and emotionally. With the purchase of a home I’m officially adulting, I just wish I could’ve saved myself a little bit of the stress along the way.

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Millennials Are Waiting to Buy a Home

Young couple looking at a new house

Say what you will about millennials and their commitment issues, but when it comes to real estate, younger Americans aren’t shying away from homeownership because they refuse to stay put and settle down. Rather, millennials aren’t buying homes at the same pace of previous generous because they feel they just can’t afford it. To further understand this phenomenon, NerdWallet did some digging into why millennial’s have slowed down considerably on the home-buying front, and these are the reasons it uncovered.

"poor" option checked off on credit score options

1. Their credit isn’t good enough

Back before the housing bubble burst in the ugliest way possible, it seemed like almost anyone could get approved for a mortgage. Standards have since gotten stricter, however, and these days, a growing number of millennials feel they can’t take the leap into homeownership because their credit scores just aren’t high enough.

Since length of credit history is one of five key components that goes into determining a credit score, it’s natural for millennials to have a clear disadvantage on that point alone. But what many younger would-be homebuyers don’t realize is that while credit requirements have gotten more rigid, folks with lower credit scores have different avenues to explore. While it’s true that an estimated one-third of millennials don’t have a high enough credit score (620) to meet the industry’s minimum standard requirement, FHA loans require a minimum credit score of just 500.

Furthermore, there are ways to build credit quickly to make homeowner a more feasible option sooner rather than later. Paying off a chunk of existing debt, requesting a higher credit limit, and correcting credit report errors can all work to boost a credit score in a relatively short period of time.

Model house on a pile of dollar bills

2. They don’t have enough saved for a down payment

Many prospective homebuyers of all ages assume they’ll need to put 20% of their property’s value down at closing — a target that, according to Fannie Mae and the Federal Reserve, is well out of reach for the majority of millennials. But what many folks don’t realize is that there are ways to get around that 20% requirement. FHA loans, for example, require as little as 3.5% down. And those who qualify for USDA or VA loans can get away with putting no money down at all.

A big part of overcoming that 20% hump therefore boils down to education. In a 2015 Fannie Mae survey, 73% of millennials had no clue about the aforementioned lower down payment options, but a little research might help more young Americans overcome this particular barrier. Of course, putting more money down at closing means paying less in mortgage costs overall, but those who are really intent on owning should know that they may have other options, especially if their credit is strong.

Paycheck

3. They don’t earn enough to cover their monthly mortgage costs

Americans aged 25 to 34 earn an average income of just over $35,000 a year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And at first glance, that may not seem like enough to swing a monthly mortgage payment, especially when you consider the peripheral costs of homeownership, like property taxes, insurance, and maintenance. In addition, Trulia reports that there are fewer starter homes on the market these days than in previous years, which means millennials with limited income have even fewer options for finding affordable properties.

But when NerdWallet ran some numbers, it found that in most regions of the country, millennials do earn enough to afford the monthly mortgage payment for a median starter home. Also, taking on that sort of mortgage payment wouldn’t push their debt levels into dangerous territory. And because interest rates are at an all-time low, now is actually a good time for millennials to lock in their home loans, while they’re still reasonably affordable.

While those housing costs might seem daunting on a modest salary, younger Americans who are serious about owning should create a budget and map out their monthly expenses to see what taking on a mortgage might actually look like in practice. Those who are willing to sacrifice in other spending categories, like leisure and restaurant meals, may come to find that they can manage those payments after all.

Debt sign

4. They have too much existing debt

One final reason why millennials are delaying homeownership boils down to existing debt. And it’s a valid concern, especially given the extent to which student debt levels have climbed year after year. Student Loan Hero reports that the average college grad aged 20 to 30 makes a $351 monthly loan payment. Meanwhile, ValuePenguin estimates that the average borrower under 35 has $5,808 in outstanding credit card debt.

Interestingly enough, data shows that college grads have a greater likelihood of buying homes — especially since they typically have higher earning potential than those without a degree. But given that the average Class of 2016 graduate came away with over $37,000 in loans, it’s certainly reasonable that millennials might choose to delay homeownership until they’re able to get their debt levels under control.

Though millennials have several good motives for holding off on homeownership, these reasons, as NerdWallet puts it, may be more a matter of perception than reality. While it’s true that younger Americans have their share of hurdles to overcome, those who are really intent on becoming homeowners have more options than they probably realize. And the sooner they act on those opportunities, the less money they’ll end up throwing away on rent.


Maurie Backman is personal finance writer who’s passionate about educating others. Her goal is to make financial topics interesting (because they often aren’t) and believes that a healthy dose of sarcasm never hurt anyone. In her somewhat limited spare time, she enjoys playing in nature, watching hockey, and curling up with a good book.

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