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Thomas Skiffington, CRS, GRI, CRB, ABR, ePro, CLHMS, SRES, RECS, CDPE, ECOBROKER
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Taxpayers Should Act Now to Take Advantage of IRS Changes

October 22, 2013 4:21 pm

Unlike last year, tax planning for 2013 is not hampered by uncertainties over a looming fiscal cliff. Unfortunately, there is always some uncertainty and a few expiring provisions to warrant special attention by taxpayers.


Managing income taxes at year end involves techniques designed to address three issues:

• Accelerating or deferring income: If a taxpayer expects to be in the same or a lower tax bracket next year, it's best to defer as much income as possible until after the yearend.
• Accelerating or deferring deductions: If a taxpayer's overall tax rate is the same in both years, accelerating deductions achieves tax savings this year rather than waiting for those tax savings to materialize next year.
• Take advantage of tax provisions scheduled to expire at the end of 2013. There are several temporary tax provisions which can only be used this year.

Tax planning begins by projecting income and deductions for the year to determine your tax bracket and income thresholds that trigger higher and/or additional taxes, or limits the effectiveness of deductions.

One of the impacts of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA12)is the reintroduction of the Pease limitation, which can greatly limit itemized deductions.  Once a taxpayer knows what his or her income taxes will look like, it’s time to evaluate which techniques will help the most.

Strategies to accelerate or defer income:

• Adjust your elective deferral plans at work: Taxpayers who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, or in the Thrift Savings Plan can defer up to $17,500 this year.  Taxpayers age 50 and older can defer up to $23,000.

• Harvest capital gains or losses: Long-term capital gains are taxed at 0 percent for taxpayers in the 15 percent bracket.  Capital losses can be used to offset capital gains and reduce other income up to $3,000.

•Use the IRA. Taxpayers age 59 ½ and older can accelerate IRA distributions in 2013.  Contributions may be deductible depending on your income level and whether you’re covered by a retirement plan through work. Taxpayers under age 59½ can convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs to accelerate income.

• Health-care assistance: People with health savings accounts – available with some high-deductible health insurance policies -- can save up to $3,250 tax-deferred for an individual and $6,450 for a family.Those who are 55 and older can save an additional $1,000. Flex spending contribution limits are capped at $2,500 this year.

Strategies to accelerate or defer deductions:

• Medical expenses: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) raises the income threshold this year to 10 percent of adjusted gross income for taxpayers under age 65. The threshold remains at 7.5 percent for those 65 and older. Taxpayers may need to prepare or defer medical bills to lump expenses in a single year to get the deduction.

• Gifts to charities: Use a donor advised fund (DAF) to maximize the tax savings from charitable giving.   A DAF makes gifting appreciated securities easier.  The DAF can be funded in tax years when the deduction will have the most impact.  Distribution to charities can be made at any time without tax consideration.

• Qualified Charitable Distribution: This year only, taxpayers age 70½ or older can choose to direct up to $100,000 of their IRA-required minimum distribution to charity. By doing so, the distribution does not show up as taxable income, which can lower taxation of Social Security benefits and help reduce other threshold levels to further minimize taxes.

ATRA12 extended—but did not make permanent—several tax incentives for individuals.Taxpayers should consider whether they can benefit from these incentives this year and plan accordingly.

The following provisions are set to expire on Dec. 31 unless extended again:

• State and local sales taxes deduction. Taxpayer can choose between deducting state and local income taxes or the sales taxes they’ve paid through the year.

• Deduction for teacher expenses. Eligible educators can deduct up to $250 of any unreimbursed expenses.

• Deduction of mortgage insurance premiums. Payments of Private Mortgage Insurance premiums can be treated as deductible home mortgage interest in 2013.

• Discharge of principal residence indebtedness. This can be excluded from gross income this year.

• Qualified Charitable Distribution. Taxpayers can make tax-free charitable donations from their required IRA distributions.

2013 is certainly an exciting year for tax planning. Start now in order to minimize your tax bill in April.

Certified Financial Planner® Rick Rodgers is president of Rodgers & Associates, “The Retirement Specialists,” in Lancaster, Pa.

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Six Tips for Quick and Convenient Healthy Eating during the Holidays

October 22, 2013 4:21 pm

For many people, the holidays involve indulging in buffet tables loaded with lots of fattening, processed foods and sugary sweets.

For those of us who strive the rest of the year to eat a healthy diet while leading busy lives, it can be a challenging time. Not only are we busier than ever, we know that all those foods we usually try to avoid are going to give us indigestion, sap our energy, and pile on the pounds.

“It really isn’t hard to give yourself, your family and friends the gift of delicious, nutrient-rich meals over the holidays,” says holistic chef and certified healing foods specialist Shelley Alexander, author of “Deliciously Holistic.”

“Instead of heading to the local supermarket, visit a farmers’ market, where you can buy fresh, local, seasonal and organic produce, along with other nutritious foods created by farmers and local food artisans,” she says. “You’ll have a much more enjoyable experience in addition to stocking up on all the ingredients you need to have handy. You can also find excellent choices at natural and health food stores.”

Nutrient-rich, whole foods that don’t have unnatural fillers and other additives, including seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits, wild-caught seafood, and pasture-raised, organic chicken and meats that come from well-fed, unadulterated, healthy animals, will completely nourish your body, make you feel better and ramp up your energy, she says. And you’ll find you won’t overeat, so it’s much easier to maintain your weight without counting calories.

Alexander offers six tips for quick and convenient healthy eating during the holidays.

• When shopping, check labels and avoid foods with a long list of ingredients. The best whole foods have one or just a few unprocessed or minimally processed, easily recognized ingredients, Alexander says. Among ingredients to avoid: chemicals, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, nitrates, MSG, genetically modified ingredients and preservatives (indicated by the initials BHT, BHA, EDTA and THBQ.)

• Set aside a few hours each week to prep foods to eat in the days ahead. Cut up produce and store it in airtight containers. Lightly wash produce before using with natural vegetable wash or use one part white vinegar to three parts water. Make several homemade vinaigrettes or dressings to last all week so you can make leafy greens and vegetable salads in minutes. Clean and marinate enough meat or poultry for dinners over the next few days.

• Start your day with a green smoothie. Cut and freeze organic fresh fruit to use in green smoothies. You can also buy frozen fruit that’s already cut up. Add organic kale or spinach, coconut water or nut and seed milks plus natural sweeteners such as dates or stevia for an energy-boosting beverage.

• For your holiday dinners, plan on making at least three to four dishes that are both delicious and nutritious. Good examples are pasture-raised, wild turkey with sage and garlic, baked wild salmon with lemon and herbs, steamed greens, roasted heirloom root vegetables drizzled with balsamic glaze, pureed winter squash soups, and desserts made with seasonal fruits, spices, and healthy sweeteners like coconut sugar or raw honey.

• Invest in a dehydrator. Dehydrate fruits and vegetables and raw nuts or seeds that have been soaked in unrefined sea salt water (which removes anti-nutrients, kick-starts the germination process, and increases key vitamins), and you’ll have plenty of on-the-go snacks with a long shelf life. Dehydrators are convenient and easy to use; Alexander recommends Excalibur.

• Make batches of fermented vegetables twice a month. Alexander recommends eating fermented vegetables every day to keep your digestive system healthy. They’re loaded with probiotics – the good bacteria your intestines need. Mix a variety of organic vegetables such as carrots and celery into brine with warm filtered water, unrefined sea salt, and cultured vegetable starter or liquid whey, and mix with shredded cabbage heads. Pack the mixture into sterilized glass jars and allow the vegetables to ferment for five to seven days. Once done fermenting, store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

“Stick to whole, healthy foods this holiday season, and you’ll feel so good, you won’t want to go near the buffet table at your office party,” Alexander says.

Shelley Alexander received her formal chef’s training at The Los Angeles Culinary Institute. Alexander is a holistic chef, certified healing foods specialist, cookbook author, and owner of the holistic health company, A Harmony Healing, in Los Angeles.  

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Fun and Creative Kids' Activities for Fall

October 22, 2013 4:21 pm

(BPT) - Each year autumn marks a time for change - leaves turn colors, the air becomes crisp and parents everywhere prepare for their children to return to school. -The new season brings with it a shift in rhythms and patterns, including a new weekly routine for families as children go back to school.

For young children starting school, it's important to maintain a learning environment even after the last school bell rings and they return home. Spend this time building family traditions and making learning fun by incorporating some of these fun indoor and outdoor fall activities into your seasonal routine.

Explore the outdoors:

- Set up a scavenger hunt with your kids to teach them about the differences between the tree seeds — this activity allows children to run around the neighborhood learning about the wide variety of living things in their environment.

- Collect fallen leaves to create a beautiful fall collage. This is a fun activity for young children as they can use their imagination and creativity to design a unique image celebrating the fall season.

- Use a metallic marker so kids can write on the leaves, creating patterns or images, then place the leaves on wax paper and apply Mod Podge to keep the design in place as it hangs.

- Visit a local pumpkin patch: One of the most cherished fall traditions for families is spending a day at a pumpkin patch. Full of fun and games, the pumpkin patch is a perfect place for young children. Whether you're making your way through the corn maze, interacting with the animals in the petting zoo, or enjoying a hay ride around the grounds, your family is sure to have a blast.

Halloween prep:

- Use the pumpkins brought home from the patch to design a spooky Jack-o'-lantern with your children. Let them design a face on the front of the pumpkin and cut it out for them.

- As Halloween approaches your little one will need a costume. Whether it's shopping for the perfect costume or making one from scratch, use this time to learn more about your child's likes and dislikes while encouraging them to express their creativity.

Make this fall season unforgettable and continue to help your children grow by introducing these lifelong family traditions.

 

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Word of the Day

October 22, 2013 4:21 pm

Condominium. Type of housing where buyers own their units outright, plus an undivided share, or joint ownership, in the common elements of the building or community.

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Q: Are Low-Ball Offers a Good Idea?

October 22, 2013 4:21 pm

A: Any offer can be presented, but a low-ball one that is extremely less than the asking price can dampen a prospective sale and prevent the seller from negotiating at all. Unless the home is overpriced to begin with the offer will probably be rejected.

Do your homework before making an offer. Compare prices of recently sold homes and new listings in the neighborhood. It also helps to know something about the seller’s motivation. A lower price with a speedy closing, for example, might motivate a seller who must move, has another house under contract, or must sell quickly for other reasons.

Also recognize that while your low offer in a normal market might be rejected at once, it might motivate the seller in a buyer’s market to either accept it or make a counter-offer.

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Staying Safe on the Web: Tips for Online Security

October 21, 2013 6:09 pm

October is Cyber Security Awareness Month, and the Independent Community Bankers of America® (ICBA) wants consumers to know valuable tips and advice on how to be safe online. ICBA and the nation’s community banks encourage members of the public to stay informed and become educated on how to prevent their financial information from being stolen and misused.

“Cybercriminals are on the prowl looking for unsuspecting victims online to hijack sensitive financial information,” says Bill Loving, ICBA chairman. “The community banking industry as a whole needs to be aware of the increased risk of cybercrimes. It’s vital that we stay alert to protect our customers and financial institutions from these criminals.”

ICBA provides consumers valuable tips when it comes to taking proactive cybersecurity measures:

• Be sure to use unique passwords for all financial online accounts. Never share your password, account number, PIN or answers to security questions.

• Do not save credit or debit card, banking account or routing numbers, or other financial information, on your computer, phone or tablet.

• Be careful about using a password on mobile devices. Be sure to set your devices to automatically lock after a selected period of time to ensure no one can access your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

• Do not provide your secure financial information over the phone or Internet if you are unsure of who is asking for it. Contact your bank directly by using the phone number on the back of your debit or credit card, or stop in your bank to speak with someone in person. Remember, your bank will never contact or text you asking for personal or banking information. Assume any unsolicited text request is fraudulent.

• Be aware of the location of your mobile devices (smartphones, tablets) at all times. Only log on financial websites when you have a secure, safe and trusted Internet connection.

“Contact your community bank immediately if you think your online identity has been compromised,” Loving says. “The sooner you alert proper authorities about suspicious activity, the sooner it can be resolved.”

Source: www.icba.org.

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The Best-for-You Halloween Candy

October 21, 2013 6:09 pm

The minute the calendar turns to October, it seems candy begins popping up all over – front and center on grocery and drug store shelves, and increasingly tough to resist.

While it will never do wonders for your teeth or your belly fat, if you’re tempted to indulge in a little something sweet, nutrition experts point to some traditional candy favorites that have at least some nutritional value:

  • Dark chocolate – Bars with at least 60 percent cocoa have proven antioxidant and anti- inflammatory properties. A small piece nibbled each day may actually provide a health boost.
  • Peanut butter cups – Made with real peanut butter, these chocolate treats contain five grams of protein, which helps balance the sugar content and keep you satisfied longer.
  • Nut bars – For the same reasons, any candy bar loaded with nuts provides some satisfying healthy fat and a few grams of protein.
  • Fruity treats – For a fruity munch, flavored candy bits like Skittles are fat-free and contain a bit of vitamin C to go with the sugar.
  • Chocolate bites – Minimize your sugar intake by choosing foil-wrapped chocolate kisses over a handful of the colorful, candy-covered kind. Kisses take a bit longer to eat, too, which may help to keep you from eating more than just a few.
  • Sweet and tart candies – If you must indulge, try a roll of Smarties for a minimal 25 calories in the roll.
  • Chocolate covered peppermints - Compared to a standard candy bar, a 140-calorie Peppermint Patty is a major calorie bargain, especially since it has only 2.5 grams of fat. It’s also on the lower end of the scale for saturated fats and sugar.
  • Lollipops and suckers – To minimize the sugar bombarding your teeth over a long period of time, choose a plain one rather than one with a sweet, chewy gum or candy center.
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Selling Your Place? Tips for Negotiating

October 21, 2013 6:09 pm

In talking with real estate professionals across the country, I noticed that most of them are expressing concerns about dwindling or dismal inventory for sellers to consider.

Most are advising that if potential buyers learns about a property that appeals to them, they should run - not walk - to check it out. Even those who are the first to learn of a new listing should be prepared to negotiate against other aggressive and possibly well-financed contenders.

In the next few segments, we'll take a look at what prospects need to know when they are pursuing, or competing to get into a new home in a tight inventory market. We'll also provide some insight to sellers who want to get their price.

A blog at helpinghomesellers.com, has good advice for sellers who want to respond to low ball offers. The site suggests instead of getting into a debate about money, try sweetening the pot with a variety of counter-offers, including:

  • Paying for some of the buyers’ title insurance, closing costs and/or points.
  • Pay homeowner’s association fees for a year.
  • Look into buying down the buyers’ mortgage rate for the first year.
  • Cover a year's cost for a lawn-maintenance/snow removal service.
  • Pay or provide an allowance toward moving expenses.
  • Provide the buyers with a home warranty.
  • Pay for the lawn and pool services for a year.
  • Offer a golf club membership, pool membership, or cable subscription.
  • Offer an allowance to repaint, new carpeting or for window treatments.

Incentives, especially for first time homebuyers, can often do the trick, the site states.

Investopedia.com says even in declining markets it is extremely important to be cognizant of comparable properties, and to price one's home to entice potential buyers to view it and ultimately bid on it.

That site says sellers should reject the temptation to hold out for top dollar, or to price the home at the upper end of what the market will bear. To get a sense of what similar homes are selling for, Investopedia.com recommends:

  • Attending open houses
  • Perusing the newspaper for local listings
  • Ask a real estate agent to print up comparable listings on the multiple listing service (MLS)
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Word of the Day

October 21, 2013 6:09 pm

Consideration. Something of value, usually money, given to induce another to enter into a contract.

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Q: In Home Improvement, When Should I Tackle the Job Myself or Call in the Pros?

October 21, 2013 6:09 pm

A: A lot will depend on your time, level of expertise or willingness to handle the job, amount of help from friends or relatives, and how much you want, or need, to save by doing the job yourself. You could save up to 20 percent of the project cost through your own hard work.

There are several do-it-yourself books that offer guidance, and some home improvement stores, such as Home Depot or Lowe’s, offer classes that can be helpful getting you on the right track.

Be aware, however, that you may end up spending more time, and up to double your estimated budget, if problems arise. Also, you may have difficulty selling your home if the workmanship looks shoddy.

Unless you are very experienced, home improvement experts suggest that you stick to painting, minor landscaping, building interior shelving, and other minor improvements.  

Remember, too, that you may need to deal with local agencies to get permits, inspections, variances, and certificates of occupancy.

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