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Thomas Skiffington, CRS, GRI, CRB, ABR, ePro, CLHMS, SRES, RECS, CDPE, ECOBROKER
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Perkasie, PA 18944
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Tom's Blog

TechTools: Must-Have Free Apps That Save Money

October 15, 2012 5:34 pm

Nearly everyone thinks that saving money is a good idea. But hunting down deals and finding the best stuff to buy can sometimes feel like a hassle. However, now that mobile technology is here to stay, these days, shoppers can easily find what they are looking for at a great price. The November 2012 issue of ShopSmart, from Consumer Reports, features ten must-have, free apps that can help shoppers score some of the best deals.

ShopSmart's feature story on sites and apps that can save shoppers big also identifies 17 must-see sites and 10 fun new ones for smart beauty picks, comfy home items, kids' gifts and more; plus an update on new offerings from old standbys like Amazon, eBay, Google and Walmart.

"The Web is filled with tons of deals and finding the best bargain can take time," says Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. "These apps can save shoppers time and money, possibly scoring them even better deals than they may find on their own."

Here's five free apps from ShopSmart's list of must-haves--the entire list can be found in the November issue:

Amazon mobile is a great tool for shopping on a smartphone. Users can buy almost anything, anywhere with this app. Quick barcode scanning and picture search make it easy for users to find what they're looking for (or to check prices against those in-store) and checkout is a breeze, especially with the one-click option. Amazon mobile is available for Android, Apple and BlackBerry.

CardStar is best for organizing loyalty cards. Shoppers can get rid of all those bulky cards and grimy key chain tags--CardStar puts all of this info neatly into one app. To save, users show their phone to the cashier in stores and local deals may pop up on the app (if it's open) while they are there. CardStar is available for Android, Apple and BlackBerry.

Coupon Sherpa helps users grab hundreds of coupons for dozens of stores. Users have a good chance of finding a deal on this app for the store they're heading to and cashiers can scan directly from a phone. Grocery coupons, available for several chains, can be applied directly to loyalty cards, so the savings automatically comes off the bill. Coupon Sherpa is available for Android and Apple.

RedLaser is an eBay-owned barcode-scanner app that locates great deals. Users can scan items and find the best price locally and online or buy stuff and arrange for pickup at participating retailers. It also searches using images and voice commands to give product details, reviews and nutrition info. Redlaser can help users take advantage of price-matching policies at stores like Target and Walmart and is available for Android, Apple and Windows.

Shopkick automates rewards. Users can earn points (called kicks) just for entering participating stores. The kicks can be redeemed for a reward such as a free drink at Starbucks or a Coach bag. Users can link credit or debit cards to earn even more kicks. Nationwide partners include ExxonMobile, Macy's, and Target. Open the app when walking in or by a participating retailer to claim available rewards. Shopkick is available for Android and Apple.

For more information, visit www.ShopSmartmag.org.
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Home Staging for a Modern World

October 11, 2012 5:24 pm

A recent visit to the Academy of Home Staging (theacademyofhomestaging.com) revealed some of the latest home-staging trends and how they could translate into selling your home faster.

The academy blog about 2012 design trends reveals a couple of key points about color and accessories.

According to the site, 2012 interior design trends regarding furnishings will favor seating that is much lower to the ground. Home furniture manufactures are debuting chairs and sofas that offer lower seating arrangements than standard products.

There is also a growing trend to incorporate the industrial look into furnishings, not just kitchen and bathroom spaces. With all shades of grey remaining favorable within interior design, it can be expected to see more yellow integrated into furniture to enhance this color pairing.

Also, rustic wooden furnishings will be popular this year, the academy advises.

We touched on this earlier this year, but it bears repeating - the accent color of 2012 is bright, bold and orange. The Pantone Color Institute recommends the reddish orange Tangerine Tango to replace last year’s pink Honeysuckle.

The Academy of Home Staging explains that this color has a lot of depth, being dramatic and simultaneously seductive and sophisticated. It’s important to be conservative in the use of a vibrant color, however, otherwise it can overpower the surroundings.

Selecting patterned trimmings that incorporate this color will give an edge to pillows, bedspreads, or tabletop accessories. For a more bold approach, painting an accent wall in a hallway, kitchen or entrance can create a dynamic burst of energy, the academy advises.

Finally, never as well overlook ‘dynamizing’ - giving the room in your house that special look. Make sure that each room clearly conveys its function and purpose.

For the bathrooms or toilets, the academy advises displaying fresh towels and toiletries like they do in hotels. For the living room, put a vase of fresh flowers on the coffee table.
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3 Tips for Taking Advantage of This Year’s Lower Tax Rates

October 11, 2012 5:24 pm

Income taxes are going up next year, and not just for those who earn more than $200,000 a year.
“Taxes are likely to be higher for everyone” says financial planner Rick Rodgers, author of The New Three-Legged Stool: A Tax Efficient Approach To Retirement Planning.

“We all know about the expiring Bush tax cuts, which may or may not be extended for everyone or just some,” he says. “There are also new taxes that were part of the healthcare reform law passed in 2010; the expiring payroll tax cut; the alternative minimum tax that already expired in 2011, and many other provisions that have expired or will expire at year end.”

Nearly everyone should prepare to pay more, Rodgers says.

The good news is you still have time to take advantage of 2012 tax rates, which may turn out to be the lowest we will see in some time. Rodgers offers these strategies that can be implemented before the end of 2012:

• Roth Conversion - No one knows for sure what will happen to the tax code next year, which is why a Roth conversion is one of the best tax-planning strategies available. Converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA creates a taxable event in 2012. All future earnings in the account will be tax-free, as long as you wait five years and are age 59½ or older when you take withdrawals. The biggest advantage to the Roth conversion strategy is the ability to “undo” the transaction as late as Oct. 15, 2013. Should the new Congress pass a major tax reform bill next year that lowers tax rates across the board, you can put the money back into your IRA. It will be like the transaction never happened.

• Harvest capital gains - Harvesting gains is similar to harvesting losses. Sell appreciated securities that you’ve held for at least 12 months to realize the long-term gain for tax purposes. You can immediately repurchase the same asset because there is no wash sale rule for realizing gains. This allows you to pay tax on the gain in 2012, when rates are low, and establish a new cost basis in the asset to minimize increased gains that may be taxed at higher rates. This strategy should appeal to anyone in the 15-percent tax bracket because capital gains are taxed at zero and may jump to 8 to 10 percent in 2013 if the tax cuts expire. The strategy is also appealing to anyone subject to the Medicare surtax. If the current tax laws expire, the tax rate on long-term capital gains will jump from 15 percent to 23.8 percent (21.8 percent for assets held more than five years).

• Pay medical expenses - Anyone who normally itemizes medical expenses on their tax return should accelerate those expenses into 2012 if they can. Medical expenses are deductible only if they exceed 7½ percent of adjusted gross income (AGI). This means if your AGI is $50,000, you can deduct only medical expenses over $3,750. Next year the threshold jumps to 10 percent of AGI. Pay your January medical insurance premium in December to move this deduction to 2012. Any routine eye exams or dental visits should be moved up to December. Paying with a credit card would give you the deduction this year and delay the actual payment until 2013.

Rodgers warns that a common mistake is to wait and see what happens. It has not been uncommon for Congress to make significant changes to the tax code late in December, leaving taxpayers little time to react. He advises a diversified approach to tax planning. Make a partial Roth conversion, harvest some capital gains but don’t wait until it’s too late to do anything about rising taxes.

Take a proactive approach to tax planning this year to cushion any fall from the fiscal cliff.

Certified Financial Planner Rick Rodgers is president of Rodgers & Associates, “The Retirement Specialists,” in Lancaster, Pa. He’s a Certified Retirement Counselor and member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers.

For more information, visit www.RodgersSpeaks.com.
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Turn Great Art into Great Home Decor

October 11, 2012 5:24 pm

(ARA) - From the moment the first cave dweller marked the wall of his home with a bit of charcoal, art has been a home decor must that has stood the test of time. Whether it's the vibrant colors of a van Gogh, the almost-mystical perfection of a da Vinci or the dreamily diffused light of a Monet, great art speaks to the soul.

The works of master artists have inspired home decor for centuries, and technological advances have made it easier than ever to incorporate their genius into your own home. It's no longer necessary to visit the Louvre in Paris to view the “Mona Lisa” or to travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to savor van Gogh's “Starry Night.”

You can easily incorporate great artwork into your home decor.

Reproductions are the most obvious - and accessible - way to enjoy great masterpieces in your home. Fortunately, you have a variety of options when looking for a quality reproduction. From simple paper prints purchased at your local home decor store to actual paintings digitally reproduced with the aid of a computer program, you can find reproductions for virtually every price point.

You can use your reproduction to enhance your home decor in a number of ways. A small print tucked into a discrete spot on the wall can add a pleasant, surprising pop of color in a room. Or, a larger reproduction can be a focal point for a room's decor, and even provide color inspiration for the rest of the room, from walls to upholstery and accessories.

Another versatile option that can be bold and striking is a wall mural. When you think of inspiring murals, does Michaelangelo's famous work from the Sistine Chapel come to mind? With easy-to-install wallpaper murals, you can recreate the world's most-recognizable ceiling in your own home.

A mural can fit into the decor in virtually every room of your home. Imagine the whimsical delight of Katsushika Hokusai's “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” as an accent in your master bath. Or, van Gogh's “Cafe Terrace at Night” can impart a distinctive Old World flavor to the decor in your breakfast nook. You can even incorporate a masterpiece mural in your outdoor design. Website MuralsYourWay.com offers wallpaper murals in SmartStick, a peel-and-stick material that can be used indoors or out and adheres to most smooth wall surfaces (including glass) and is easily removable and repositionable. No paste is needed and you can use the mural over and over again.

Your foray into great art doesn't have to be limited to paintings, however. While reproductions of renowned sculptures are easy to come by, and an obvious choice, you can also find a variety of accessories and even furniture that draw their inspiration from famous works of art.

Looking for something thought-provoking and edgy for your home decor? Consider items - from wall clocks to furniture - inspired by the work of Salvador Dali. Is modern and abstract more to your taste? Fabrics that draw on the colors and design of Picasso's works may fit your vision.

Great art speaks to the soul, and whatever genre you prefer - impressionist, Renaissance, modern or abstract - you can find a place for it in your home. Thanks to modern technology, it's easier than ever to enjoy great art and incorporate it into your decor.
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Word of the Day

October 11, 2012 5:24 pm

Warranty deed. A deed in which the grantor guarantees that he or she is giving the grantee good title free of encumbrances. Considered to be the best deed a grantee can receive.
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Q: When Is the Best Time to Sell a Home?

October 11, 2012 5:24 pm

A: The best time to sell is when you are ready, or when you must. That is, when you have outgrown the space in your current home, or you prefer to trade down to something smaller. Perhaps your martial status has changed, which necessitates a move, or you need to relocate for a job.

Market conditions also play a role, as do seasonal conditions. For example, your chances of getting top dollar for your home are more likely in a seller’s market, when demand outweighs supply, than in a buyer’s market.

Local and national economic factors also may dictate when to sell. If a major employer in your area is laying off workers, it may not be a good time to put your home up for sale. People will be cautious about buying when the future seems so unpredictable or bleak.

Most agents agree the best time to sell is in the spring. This is when the largest number of potential buyers hit the market. Your home is likely to sell faster and at a higher price, although sales begin to pick up as early as February and start to slack off in July, the slowest month for real estate transactions.
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Tips for Protecting Your Home from Pests This Fall

October 11, 2012 1:22 pm

The change in seasons from summer to fall means several species of common household pests are crawling their way into homes across the country as the weather cools. The annual end-of-summer invasion poses many potential risks to homes that are not properly protected from the seasonal onslaught.

"Homeowners need to take the threat of pests seriously because they can do so much damage to the structure of a home," says Matt Hess, Home Remodeling Group 's VP of Operations-Installations. "Most pest infestations and accompanying damage are considered maintenance issues by homeowners' insurance carriers, forcing homeowners to cover costs themselves. Prevention is key to protecting both your home and your wallet."

Some species of pests are more likely to invade your home come fall than others. Power offers tips below to help protect your home from pests this fall:

Eliminate yard clutter. Remove piles of wood and rotted stumps or logs from around your home to keep termites and carpenter ants at bay. When storing firewood, keep it at least 20 feet away from the home and five inches off the ground as a precautionary measure. Also, keep soil at least six inches away from structural wood to prevent decay.

Get rid of standing water. Termites, carpenter ants and Powerpost beetles all thrive in moist conditions. Many pests use vegetation as a bridge from the ground into your home; so keep bushes, shrubs, vines and trees from touching the house. Wood mulch and plants should also be kept at least 18 inches away from the foundation to prevent rot.

Seal gaps and cracks. Stink bugs, which are very prevalent this time of year, can easily pass through gaps and cracks in search of a warm place to rest. These pests are a smelly mess when they make it into the home. Inspect walls, windows, doors and the roof for places where pests could possibly enter the home. Seal any cracks or gaps with caulk or epoxy, and use steel wool or hardware cloth to block openings where wires, pipes and cables come into or out of exterior walls. Also be sure to ventilate attics and crawl spaces to ensure the venting system has a good airflow to prevent the buildup of moisture.

Install and maintain screens on doors and windows. With the summer heat and humidity subsided, fall is the perfect time to open the windows and enjoy the fresh air. Torn or damaged holes in screens can allow a slew of pests easy access to your home. Replace old screens on doors and windows with fine mesh screening to prevent an invasion.

Cover attic and crawlspace vents with mesh. Larger pests like raccoons, squirrels and mice can easily make themselves home in unprotected spaces. A warm dryer vent is a pest's ideal home as the weather gets chilly this fall, causing homeowners a huge headache. Placing a mesh barrier over points of entry, like vents, holes or large cracks, will keep both the animals, and the mites and fleas they carry, outside where they belong.

Homeowners are sure to save themselves time, money and frustration by taking the above steps to help protect their home from pests this fall. Prevention will make a home inhospitable to pests and will keep a seasonal intrusion from becoming an all-out pest invasion.

For more information please visit www.PowerHRG.com.
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Top 10 Tips for Staying Safe Online

October 11, 2012 1:22 pm

(ARA) - Whether playing online games, sending and responding to emails, visiting social networks or checking bank accounts, the average American spends 13 hours per week online, according to a survey taken by Forrester. While the ever-evolving conveniences of online shopping and digital communication often make life a little easier, sharing valuable information over the Internet comes with a considerable amount of risk. Consumers should not only be aware of the dangers of being online, but should also take preventative measures to avoid becoming a victim of online scams or fraud.

“Protecting valuable information online is just as important as securing a home, car or personal possessions,” says Rebecca Smith, vice president, marketing for Master Lock. “It is essential that people educate themselves and take the proper precautions to safeguard their information online, ensuring important account data and passwords are protected within the digital space.”

1. Firewalls are your friend: Be sure to activate your computer's firewalls as they are great tools to provide you with a line of defense against hackers and Internet crime. They watch all the communication occurring between your computer, a network (say at the office) and the Internet and can prevent strangers from accessing your information.

2. Surf and shop safely: While online shopping is a great, convenient tool, consumers should be careful when surfing or shopping on a site they've never visited before. Good indicators that a site is secure include checkout pages with lock symbols or sites with the prefix "https," indicating that a page is encrypted or scrambled.
3. Download security software: There is a wide variety of security software available that automatically updates itself and can protect your personal computers from viruses, spyware and other online threats that are constantly in play. Sign on and scan your computer for viruses and other malware once a week to ensure your information stays safe.
4. Create strong passwords: Short, easy-to-remember passwords, are typically not complex enough to prevent being hacked. When creating passwords for online bank accounts and other sites, use passwords with at least 10 characters that are a combination of letters, numbers and most importantly, symbols. It's also a good idea to change your password on a monthly basis to keep it secure.
5. Be cautious - always: Internet fraud and online crime are a constant threat to all Americans who interact online or store anything digitally. Be cautious and avoid posting any personal information online, do not open email messages from strange addresses and never give your browser permission to remember your passwords.
6. Shut it down: We all know that with many advances in technology, one can be connected at all times. However, being online 24/7 comes with risks. Attackers and/or viruses are more likely to target your computer if you are always connected. Therefore, it's good to shut down once in a while and take yourself offline.
7. Back it up: Whether it happens by accident, a natural disaster or because of an equipment malfunction, computers and networks crash and can leave your information exposed or just lost altogether. Consider backing up all of your most important information at least twice a month and rest easy knowing it is stored safely in more than one place.
8. Use parental controls: Children use the Internet as frequently, if not more, than adults. Many Internet browsers offer the option to set parental controls. Check out your options to restrict the websites viewed on your computer and protect the settings you select with a password your kids won't be able to figure out. This way, you're keeping your information, and more importantly, your children safe from various online dangers.
9. Lock up your valuable info: Every time you step away from your computer, you should know all of your most important information is secure. Consider utilizing a secure, online storage application or website, such as the free Master Lock Vault, to house all of your passwords, account numbers and essential information and documents under one easily accessible, yet completely secure location. Storing this information online is safer than keeping hard copies or a non-protected file on your computer. Services like the Vault can act as an encrypted digital safe deposit box and give users peace of mind that their vital information is locked up tight.
10. Two is better than one: User authentication, also known as two-tier or device authentication, should always be enabled if offered by sites that collect your secure or private data at registration. With this enabled, you may receive an email or text message with a verification code to complete your account set-up. While this may seem inconvenient at the time of sign-up, the extra protection is well worth this extra step.

For more advice on online safety and security, visit www.masterlock.com or www.masterlockvault.com.
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Word of the Day

October 11, 2012 1:22 pm

VA loan. Veterans Administration-backed mortgage. The VA, a federal agency, operates a loan guarantee program for honorably discharged veterans and widows of veterans who died of a service-related injury. Mortgages call for low or no downpayment. Sometimes referred to as GI loan.
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Q: Can a home be sold for less than its mortgage?

October 11, 2012 1:22 pm

A: Sometimes. But it is a complicated process and a lot will depend on the lender.
This process is called a “short sale,” which occurs when a lender agrees to write off the portion of a mortgage that's higher than the value of a home. But, usually, a buyer must be willing to purchase the property first.

A short sale may be more complicated if the loan has been sold in the secondary market. Then the lender will need permission from Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, the two major secondary-market players.
If the loan was a low down payment mortgage with private mortgage insurance, the lender also will need to involve the mortgage insurance company that insured the low down payment loan.

The short sale can keep the homeowner from landing in bankruptcy or foreclosure. But it is not an easy procedure to approve, and it involves as much, if not more, paperwork than an original mortgage application.

Instead of proving your credit worthiness and financial stability, you must prove you are broke. And any remaining difference between your home's value and the balance on your mortgage is considered a forgiveness of debt, which usually means it is taxable income.
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