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Tips for Investors: Popular IRAs, Annuities Have Dark Downsides

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

IRAs and annuities are growing in popularity as retirement investment options, according to recent surveys, but three financial experts warn they can have serious disadvantages.

“Last year, four out of 10 U.S. households had IRA accounts – that’s up from 17 percent two decades ago,” says CPA Jim Kohles, chairman of RINA accountancy corporation, (, citing an ICI Research survey. “But they can be bad for beneficiaries if you have a very large account.”

Investment in annuities, touted as offering a potential guaranteed income stream, also continue to grow with sales up 10 percent in the second quarter of this year. “Annuities have several dark sides, both during your lifetime and for your beneficiaries,” says wealth management advisor Haitham “Hutch” Ashoo, CEO of Pillar Wealth Management, ( “My business partner, Chris Snyder, and I wouldn’t recommend investing in them.”

Putting large amounts of money in either annuities or IRAs can have serious tax consequences for your heirs, say Kohles, Ashoo and attorney John Hartog of Hartog & Baer Trust and Estate Law, (

“If you want to ensure your beneficiaries get what you’ve saved, you need to take some precautions,” Hartog says. The three offer these suggestions:

• Take stock of your assets – you could be worth more than you think: If your estate is worth more than $5.25 million (for couples, $10.5 million), your beneficiaries face a 40 percent estate tax and federal and state income taxes, says Kohles, the CPA. “It can substantially deplete the IRA,” he says.

To avoid that, take stock of your assets now – you may have more than you realize when you take into account such variables as inflation and rising property values. Be aware of how close to that $5/$10 million benchmark you are now, and how close you’ll be a few years from now.

“Consider vacation and rental properties, vehicles, potential inheritances,” Kohles says. Also, take advantage of the lower tax rates you enjoy today, particularly if they’re going to skyrocket after your death. “A lot of people want to pay zero taxes now and that’s not necessarily a good idea,” he says. For instance, if you’re at that upper level, consider converting your traditional IRA to a ROTH IRA and paying the taxes on the money now so your beneficiaries won’t have to later.

• No matter what your estate’s value, avoid investing in annuities. Wealth management adviser Ashoo warns annuities, offered by insurance companies, can cost investors an inordinate amount of money during their lifetime and afterward.

“Insurance companies try to sell customers on the potential for guaranteed income, a death benefit paid to beneficiaries, or a ‘can’t lose’ minimum return, but none of those compensate for what you have to give up,” he says.

That includes being locked in to the annuity for five to seven years with hefty penalties for pulling out early; returns that fall far short of market investments on indexed annuities; high management fees for variable annuities; declining returns on fixed-rated annuities in their latter years; and giving up your principle in return for guaranteed income.

“If you own annuities and have a substantial estate, there are smart ways to unwind them to minimize damage,” Ashoo says.

• Consider spending down your tax-deferred IRA early. If you’re in the group with $5 million/$10 million assets, it pays to go against everything you’ve been taught and spend the IRA before other assets, says attorney Hartog.

“It’s a good vehicle for charitable gifts if you’re so inclined. And if you’re 70½ or older, this year you can direct up to $100,000 of your IRA-required minimum distribution to charity and it won’t show up as taxable income,” Hartog says. (That provision is set to expire next year.)

You might also postpone taking Social Security benefits until you’re 70½ and withdraw from your IRA instead. “That will maximize your Social Security benefit – you’ll get 8 percent more.” Finally, anyone who has accumulated some wealth will do best coordinating their financial planning with a team of specialists, the three say.



Word of the Day

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

First mortgage. Mortgage on a property that is superior to any other. It is the first to be paid in the event of foreclosure.


Q: What Are Allowances and What Should I Know about Them When Planning with a Remodeling Contractor?

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

A: Rather than price specific products or materials, many contractors prefer to use product allowances, an amount included in the contract to be used toward the purchase of these products and materials as they are selected by the consumer.  Typical categories where allowances might be used include flooring, cabinets, and lighting fixtures.  Allowances allow homeowners more time to finalize exact selections as the project progresses, and they can simplify the cost control process. The disadvantage, however, is that the cost of final selections can easily exceed the amount of money allowed, resulting in significant extra charges to the homeowner.  Shop for each allowance category before you finalize the allowance amounts provided in the contract. This way, you can budget for additional funds or adjust allowances to better reflect the actual monies required.


Financial Aid for College in 5 Steps

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

(BPT)—The majority of parents of high school students know that the future will very likely hold a college education for their child. But what is often uncertain is how they will pay for that education. About 60 percent of high school graduates enroll in a college or university for advanced studies according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The average price for a four-year degree at a state school during the 2012-13 year was $22,261. It was $43,289 for a private, four-year college, according to the College Board. With these kinds of prices, many families will need financial aid to help cover tuition and room and board costs.

Financial aid comes in many different forms. Students can pursue scholarships, fellowships and grants, which typically don't require any repayment. Once these options are exhausted, students can also pursue loans.

When first reviewing the options for financial aid, it can be overwhelming for students and their parents to comprehend all the options and steps they might need to take to financially plan for college. The following tips can help families navigate the steps to obtaining the needed funds to cover educational expenses beyond high school.

1. Fill out the FAFSA - This is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and is recommended for all students planning on pursing college, no matter their family income. It is used to determine a student's eligibility not only for federal student loans, but for work-study aid and some grants.

2. Estimate total cost - Colleges can provide students and their parents with an estimated cost for tuition, as well as room and board each year at the school.

3. Determine additional expenses - College is more than just class, studying and taking tests. Other expenses like car insurance, gas money, memberships to campus organizations and even paying for a spring break vacation might not be covered by scholarships, grants and fellowships. However, students should apply all financial aid - even scholarships that might not have stipulations of how the money is used - first to educational expenses.

4. Learn about financing options - Create a list of private loans available through your bank, as well as federal loan options. Compare available loan amounts, interest rates, if payments can be deferred until after the schooling is complete and loan term lengths.

5. Know deadlines - There are deadlines for submitting the FASFA and for most scholarships. Keep these deadlines on a calendar so nothing gets missed.

View the videos on the Wells Fargo YouTube Channel at, or at Additional information about banking, credit, money management, financial assistance and financial matters connected with post-secondary education can be found at

Reviewing financial aid options early gives families a chance to best plan financial - and educational - options for their child. Also view the video series with "Mr. Fellows" to get a head start in learning about covering the cost of college education.



Problems with Overgrown Ivy Could Plague Home Sellers

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

Maybe it looks classy decorating the walls and halls of Ivy League universities, but this creeping decorative plant can wreak havoc, especially when homeowners are trying to get rid of the stuff when preparing their property for sale.

REALTOR® Sarah Snodgrass ( recently posted that there is a dark side to ivy - this stuff is destructive and invasive. For resale, ivy is bad.

Snodgrass says buyers are scared of ivy. They think it will be difficult to maintain or remove, and it just feels like a problem to them.

She suggests if a homeowner is planning to plant ivy - have a plan and be ready to maintain it or consult with a landscaping expert. And she supplies five reasons to avoid english ivy on your house:

  • Ivy scares away home buyers.
  • It is invasive and difficult to control, possibly invading unintended areas and choking out other plants if left unattended.
  • It can creep onto and under things like shutters and trim, windows, painted wood, mortar and siding, potentially causing damage, leaks and rot.
  • It can act as a ladder for bugs, spiders, and termites to enter your house.
  • It is difficult to remove. Pulling it out by hand is labor intensive and potentially dangerous if it has climbed high, but it is an effective and quick removal technique. Chemical herbicides take much longer.

Another site,, says if homeowners want to keep plants healthy and free from disease and insects, it’s extremely important to stop ivy from growing up trees and twining into shrubs.

The site advises homeowners or their landscapers to go around the trunk and cut out a vertical section of ivy about 1-2 feet wide around the entire tree, which will cut all the roots going to the upper section of the ivy.

Then, remove the cut section, but leave the upper ivy until it starts to die - ivy is much easier to remove once it’s dead. Finally, once the dead ivy is gone, remove the still-living ivy from the tree’s base and off any of the tree’s roots that may be exposed above ground.


How-To Protect Your Small Business' Data Privacy

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

According to The Ponemon Institute, 55 percent of small businesses experienced at least one data breach in 2012 and 53 percent had multiple breaches. Yet, a recent study by the National Cyber Security Alliance and Symantec found that only one in 10 small business owners say they have someone responsible for  online and cyber security at their business.

Below are five keys to help small business owners protect their businesses from cyber threats, provided by Hanover Insurance Group.

Five keys to small business cyber safety

Encrypt your data – Begin with the assumption that "bad guys" are going to get in. From this position, the first priority becomes minimizing damage they can cause—and that starts with making sure that data encryption software is properly installed. Remember that cyber-thieves are experts at finding and exploiting system weaknesses. For this reason, ensure that your encryption software is tested and updated on a regular basis.

Know your personnel – Insider threat is one of the main causes of data breach incidents. The fact is, employees are often the weakest link in the security chain. For this reason, conduct background checks on all personnel—including vendors and contractors—whose work requires them to have routine access to sensitive or confidential information.  Remember, too, that even the most trusted employees can cause a data breach if they misplace their laptop, USB device, or hardcopy files of sensitive or confidential information.

Understand exposures and find the right insurance coverage – Many businesses think it cannot happen to them – but Cyber-liability is a real risk for businesses. Business owners are wise to carefully review their exposures with the help of a qualified independent third party, and build an insurance program that protects their businesses from cyber threats.

Understand your insurance contracts – Regardless of what kind of coverage you purchase, the best place to begin always is talking to your independent insurance agent. Discuss your exposures and various risk scenarios and, together, decide on the policy terms and conditions that provide the most appropriate type and level of protection for your business.

Have an incident response plan developed in advance – Your company is better positioned to minimize potential damage from a data breach when you have a response plan in place. Make sure your plan identifies where and how sensitive data is stored, where and how it is backed up, and who has access to it. A robust response plan also includes a list of "first contacts" to notify, including law firms, forensic data experts, public relations firms, and credit monitoring companies. The faster you can respond, the better able you are to minimize and control potential damages.

These five steps can help small business owners protect their businesses from harmful and costly breaches in data privacy—including cyber-liability.




Word of the Day

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

Fiduciary. Person acting in a position of trust, responsibility and confidence for another, such a broker for his client.


Q: What Home Improvement Cost Controls or Budgeting Ideas Might Be Helpful?

October 25, 2013 6:36 pm

A:  Plan ahead and create a realistic budget.  Decide on the items and materials you would like to have in a room and set your budget accordingly.  This will prevent hasty, and costly, decisions down the road.  The experts suggest setting aside 10-20 percent of your budget to cover unforeseen problems and miscellaneous charges.  

Then, choose less expensive products that will help you achieve the look you’re trying to obtain.  Avoid labor intensive design features, such as tiled floors. You may also want to pursue your home improvement in stages, if you can’t afford to pay for the entire project at once.  Also, purchase surplus, secondhand, or discounted materials from other contractors, warehouses or classified websites like to reduce costs.  If possible, avoid too many take-out meals and/or hotel stays.  Try isolating construction areas so that your living space isn’t interrupted and other household space can be used to heat or prepare meals once the kitchen is being remodeled.



Tips for Buying a Home in a Low-Inventory Market

October 24, 2013 8:33 pm

If you're buying right now, you may notice that inventory is low. There are several factors you need to take in mind when buying in a tight inventory market.

Real estate investor Michael LaCava ( recently pointed out that when there are multiple bidders on the same house, you need to think and offer unconventionally.

The following are excerpts from LaCava's tips on how to do just that.

  • All Cash Offers - When you’re selling a property after the rehab is complete, a cash offer is often more appealing than a finance offer – no need to worry about financing contingencies, banks and all that.
  • Offer a Super-Fast Closing - For every day a house stays on the market, the seller is losing money. So offer a super-fast closing. LaCava says you need to get your inspections, financing and documentation in place in a short period of time. If you know you can do this, tell the seller you are willing to close within two weeks or less.
  • Waive The Inspection - LaCava believes waiving the home inspection is a very effective tool to entice sellers to accept an offer. If you waive the right to an inspection, then all you have to lose is your offer deposit. For newer investors, however, LaCava recommends getting an inspection.

Dotty Reuning, and agent in Tennessee, says if you love the property and it appears there will be several counter-offers, make your first concession the largest.

Reuning also recommends finding ways to "give." She says sellers do want money, but they want other things as well. Consider the following:

  • If you have a time share, let them use for a week this winter.
  • Let the sellers stay in the house an extra two weeks after closing.
  • If you own a large truck, maybe consider helping them move.
  • Or pet sit for the sellers while they take a vacation after closing, or while they're moving to their new home.

How to Test Drive a Car

October 24, 2013 8:33 pm

A car shopper can learn just as much on a test-drive when the car is parked as when it's zooming down the road, advises, a premier resource for car shopping and automotive information. In fact, says Sr. Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed, a quick orientation in the vehicle before you hit the road can answer a lot of your questions.

"It's a little like trying on clothes," says Reed. "People come in different sizes and shapes, and they have different tastes in what they want. The little things that you spot now could be major annoyances later, so don't discount any of your reactions."

At the start of any test drive Reed advises car shoppers to take note of some of the car's physical accommodations:

  • Is it easy to get in and out of the car without stooping or banging your head?
  • Does your body type match the pedal positions? If not, are the pedals adjustable?
  • Is the seat comfortable? Is it easily adjustable? Is there a lumbar support adjustment?
  • Is there enough head-, hip- and leg-room? Remember to sit in the backseat too.
  • Are the gauges and controls easy to read and use?
  • How is the visibility? Check the rearview mirror and the side mirrors and look for potential blind spots.
  • Check the trunk space and cargo area. Is the vehicle easy to load? Is there a pass-through in the trunk opening for long items?
  • Of course, the "drive" part of the test-drive is equally important. offers these recommendations to make sure car shoppers get an accurate driving impression of what just may be their next new or used car:
  • Turn off the radio so you can hear the engine and concentrate on the driving experience.
  • Make sure the test-drive route incorporates your specific driving requirements. If you regularly drive into the mountains, find a hill and see how the car climbs. If you have a highway commute, get on a freeway and see how the car accelerates into traffic and performs at higher speeds.
  • Be sure to evaluate these other specific points: braking, steering and handling, suspension and in-cabin ergonomics.




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