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Tom's Blog

First Time Home Buying Doesn't Have to Be Intimidating

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Traditionally, spring marks a busy period of time for housing market activity. Buying a home can be the largest and most important financial decision one can make, so it is important to be aware of all the factors that go into making a responsible purchasing decision, especially if you’re buying for the first time.

"The first step is figuring out how much you can afford to spend on homeownership, which means an honest assessment of the household balance sheet," says Dave Sheedy, mortgage market manager for M&I, a part of BMO Financial Group. "Once you have a clear idea of where you stand financially, you can then make a responsible decision of what you can afford, including your down payment, monthly mortgage costs and other expenses like utility costs and property taxes."

M&I offers the following tips for people looking to buy a home.

Making an affordability assessment
Sheedy noted that there are two rules of thumb first time homebuyers can use to determine what they can afford.

"First of all, housing costs, including mortgage payments, property insurance and taxes, should not take up more than one-third of your income. In addition to this, servicing your overall debt, including loans, credit card payments and lines of credit, should not account for more than 40 percent. If you can land safely within these parameters, than homeownership is an affordable and realistic option."

Many banks offer free online tools to help you wade through the home-buying process. For example, Mibank.com/mortgages provides useful information for the potential homebuyer including: affordability calculators, term options, and mortgage qualification estimates.


Coming up with the down payment
The bigger the down payment you come up with, the less interest you'll pay over the life of your mortgage. Financial institutions may offer special savings accounts designed to help you save for that first home. Consider opening a savings account specifically to fund your down payment. One easy way to save is to set up an automatic monthly deposit from your checking account to your savings account, allowing you to build the balance over time.

Choosing the right mortgage for you
Your mortgage needs to fit in with the rest of your financial priorities – which could mean increased flexibility or security. Consider the following when choosing your mortgage:
• Choose a shorter amortization period – The shorter the life of the mortgage, the lower the overall cost. Consider choosing a 20-year amortization rather than a 30-year amortization to save you money on interest costs and help you become debt-free sooner.
• Fixed vs. variable – Variable-rate mortgages have been a winning strategy over the long term, but fixed rate mortgages (currently at historic lows) provide cost certainty and peace of mind.
• Stress-test your mortgage payments – Use a mortgage payment based on a higher rate to stress-test your budget; total housing costs (mortgage payments, property taxes, and insurance, etc.) should not consume more than one-third of household income.

Applying for pre-approval
A pre-approval establishes the amount you can reasonably afford to pay for your first home. Consider the following benefits to getting pre-approved:
• Have a good idea of your finances – You will receive a better idea of how much you are qualified to borrow, saving time looking at homes out of your affordability range. Your term and amortization, as well as estimated monthly payments, are provided at approval so you can use these figures when planning your overall budget.
• Moving quickly – If you are pre-approved for a mortgage, you'll be able to move quickly to make an offer when you finally find the perfect home for you.

Source: http://www.harrisbank.com
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Mortgage Fraud: How to Protect Yourself When Buying or Refinancing

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

The promise of a quick profit in real estate can be hard to resist. But consumers who misrepresent information when buying or refinancing a home could end up being responsible for any shortfall when the property is sold. If the misrepresentation is intentional, they could also be held criminally responsible as accomplices to mortgage fraud.

The most common form of mortgage fraud, called straw buying, occurs when someone with good credit is convinced to put their name on a mortgage application for a home that someone else will be buying, usually in return for the promise of a quick profit. To protect your name, your credit and your family, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) offers the following tips on how to avoid becoming part of a mortgage fraud scheme:

• Never accept money, guarantee a loan or add your name to a mortgage unless you fully intend to purchase the property. If you allow your personal information to be used for a mortgage, even for a brief period, you could be held responsible for the entire debt even after the property is sold.
• Always know who you are doing business with. If you are buying or selling a home, use only licensed real estate agents and other industry professionals. And never sign anything until you know exactly what you are signing.
• Determine the sales history of any property you are thinking about buying, and consider having it inspected and appraised. Ask for a copy of the land title search, and find out if anyone else has a financial interest in the home. If a deposit is required, make sure the funds are held "in trust" by the vendor's real estate company or lawyer/notary.
• Get independent legal advice from your own lawyer. Talk to your lawyer about title insurance and other alternative methods of protection.

Most importantly, be wary of anyone who approaches you with an offer to make a quick profit in real estate. Remember: if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Source: www.transunion.ca.
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Spring Forward: Maintain Clocks, Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Detectors this Weekend

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

This weekend marks “Spring Forward,” the time when we lose an hour of sleep to welcome the new season. Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann recently urged residents to change the batteries in smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors when they turn their clocks forward this weekend.

"It's a message that's repeated twice a year, and that's because it's important for people to realize that this simple step takes just a few minutes and it saves lives," Mann says.

Working smoke alarms cut in half the risk of dying in a home fire. Worn or missing batteries are the most common cause of a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector malfunction. Changing the batteries at least once a year is one of the simplest, most effective ways to prevent tragic deaths and injuries.

Carbon monoxide is created when combustible materials burn incompletely. Often called "the silent killer," it is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that can incapacitate victims before they're aware they've been exposed. Sources include wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, gas-fired appliances, grills, and motor vehicles. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often mistaken for the flu and include nausea, headaches, dizziness, disorientation and fatigue.

Before installing a detector or an alarm, Mann suggested writing the purchase date inside the unit. Whether a unit is battery-powered or hardwired, it should be replaced every 8-10 years.

Mann says this weekend also serves as an ideal time for families to review their home evacuation plans; planning two ways to escape from each room and practicing escape routes with the entire family.

Source: www.ReadyPA.org.
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Word of the Day

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Buy-down. Cash payment to a lender to reduce the interest rate a borrower must pay on a new mortgage loan. Commonly used by builders to sell new homes.
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Question of the Day

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Q: What are allowances and what should I know about them when planning with a remodeling contractor?

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.
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Simple Steps to Home Safety

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Keeping your home and family safe is a high priority. If home fires, break-ins or weather-related disasters have you worried, here are some simple steps you can take to make your home a safer place.

Be Forewarned
Every home should have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide monitors, but they require some minor maintenance and don't last forever. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a working smoke alarm significantly increases your chances of surviving a home fire.

• Make sure you have smoke alarms installed on every level of your home, including the basement. The USFA recommends installing them inside and outside of sleeping areas.
• Replace your batteries regularly. While having a working smoke detector more than doubles your chance of survival, it's estimated that one third of smoke alarms are not working, often due to worn out batteries. Many people use the time change each spring and fall as a reminder to change batteries.
• Replace old smoke alarms. According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years. It is also recommended that homes have both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms, or dual sensor smoke alarms which have both types of sensors. (Ionization alarms sound more quickly in a flaming, fast-moving fire. Photoelectric alarms are faster at sensing smoldering, smoky fires.) When the time comes to replace your detectors, consider a First Alert product. You can find affordable options with both types of sensors.

Seeking Security?

Taking precautions to protect your home extend to home security, as well. According to the Bureau of Justice, many home burglaries occur simply by a thief walking through the front door.

• Protect yourself and your family through the use of deadbolts on doors and locks on windows.
• Installing motion-sensor lights on walkways or driveways can potentially deter a thief.
• Many home security kits are available in a "do it yourself" complete package, allowing you to customize sirens, entry points and more.
• If installing an entire security system seems too much, something simple like a keyless entry system provides peace of mind and easy installation. A garage door keyless entry using fingerprint identity ensures that only the right people gain access to your home.

Weather the Storm

Protecting your home from inclement weather is an essential part of ensuring your family's safety.

• The first step is having a family discussion about safe rooms in the house and a plan in case of dangerous weather.
• According to FEMA, a weather radio with NOAA technology allows as much as eight minutes lead time before public alarms sound to move family and pets to a safe room or secure location.
• Make sure you have a weather safety kit that contains a flashlight, portable power for your electronics, an emergency radio, walkie talkies, bottled water and dry goods. Let each child choose 1 to 2 items to put in the weather prep toolkit, such as a toy, game or personal item to help keep them occupied and calm in the case you have to take shelter for a long period of time. Additional alkaline batteries are always good to have on hand in case of emergency.

Source: www.radioshack.com.
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5 Tips for Mold Removal from Walls

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Spring is here, and that means the rainy season may very well be upon us. With rain comes water damage and with water damage comes every homeowner’s worst nightmare: mold. Okay, that might be a bit extreme, but mold is a pesky problem.

Mold is the single most common byproduct of water damage, appearing in as little as 72 hours following a water damage event (sooner if the water is sewage based), and proving extremely difficult to remediate. Even worse, mold can be the cause of all kinds of health problems, ranging from mild allergic reactions and skin irritation to more serious neurological disorders and respiratory problems.

RestorationLocal.com, a provider of water damage restoration and mold removal services, has come up with the following tips on how to best remove minor mold growths from walls and ceilings in your home and office.
• Start at the top of the wall and work your way down. This will prevent any contamination of clean areas with drips or runs as you move down the wall.
• Wear proper protective gear. Long pants, sleeves, rubber gloves, and a filtration mask are necessary items in order to prevent exposure to mold spores.
• Don’t even try to clean porous surfaces. You will not be successful. Mold gets down inside the surface and cannot be reached. Porous surfaces affected by mold will need to be cut away and replaced.
• Make sure all cleaned surfaces are properly dried out. Moisture is the single most important factor in mold growth.
• Removing mold is never just as easy as killing off the growth. The environment must be properly treated to make sure the problem doesn’t return. This involves disinfecting, sanitizing, improving the ventilation, and reducing humidity and moisture levels. Appropriate humidity levels in any residence of business should be maintained at 40-45 degrees.

Source: RestorationLocal.com
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Workplace Woes: Feeling Valued Links to Higher Performance

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Half of all employees who say that they do not feel valued at work report that they intend to look for a new job in the next year, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Conducted online among 1,714 adults between January 12 and 19, 2012 on behalf of the APA by Harris Interactive, the survey found that employees who feel valued are more likely to report better physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and motivation, compared to those who do not feel valued by their employers.

Almost all employees (93 percent) who reported feeling valued said that they are motivated to do their best at work and 88 percent reported feeling engaged. This compares to just 33 percent and 38 percent, respectively, of those who said they do not feel valued. Among employees who feel valued, just one in five (21 percent) said they intend to look for a new job in the next year (vs. 50 percent of those who said that they do not feel valued).

A variety of factors were linked to feeling undervalued at work, including having fewer opportunities for involvement in decision making (24 percent vs. 84 percent), being less satisfied with the potential for growth and advancement (9 percent vs. 70 percent), having fewer opportunities to use flexible work arrangements (20 percent vs. 59 percent) and being less likely to say they are receiving adequate monetary compensation (18 percent vs. 69 percent) and non-monetary rewards (16 percent vs. 65 percent). Overall, more than one in five (21 percent) working Americans said they do not feel valued by their employers.

Stress at Work
Many Americans continue to report chronic work stress, with two out of five (41 percent) employees reporting that they typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday. Commonly cited causes of work stress include low salaries (46 percent), lack of opportunities for growth or advancement (41 percent), too heavy a workload (41 percent), long hours (37 percent) and unclear job expectations (35 percent).

3 Quick Ways to De-stress:

If you’re feeling stressed at work, try the following calming methods.

Walk it out. Walk away from your office or desk for 5 minutes. Deep breathe and take a lap around the building. When you come back, you will feel more centered.

List it. Write a list of what needs to be done in order of importance. See if you can delegate any tasks to other employees or place low-priority projects on the back burner.

Keep a Smile File.
Keep a file on your computer of inspiring images, photos of family and friends, funny jokes or any material that will bring a smile to your face. Open the file when you need a quick pick-me-up.

Sources: http://www.apa.org, http://www.phwa.org
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Protect Your Family against Foreign Lottery Fraud

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Every year thousands of Americans fall prey to scammers, with the elderly and disabled being the most vulnerable to their schemes. Luckily, there are safeguards in place to protect you, and to provide crucial guidance for spotting scams that could be targeting your family.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), founded by Benjamin Franklin, is the oldest law enforcement agency in the country. It works every day to stop these criminals from the millions of attempts they make to scam Americans.

During National Consumer Protection Week, which ends March 12, USPIS is making an extra effort to help you protect yourself. One of the most prevalent scams around is the Foreign Lottery Fraud, from as far away as Australia and Europe.

Scam operators target U.S. consumers by phone, Internet and direct mail to buy into high-stakes foreign lotteries. This is not only illegal, it also robs millions of Americans of billions of dollars. Lottery hustlers use victims' bank account numbers to make unauthorized withdrawals or their credit card numbers to run up additional charges.

Tips and warning signs to protect yourself from foreign lottery fraud
Use these tips to ensure you and your family are protected against fraud. Remember to inform family members to look out for the following signs.

There are two main techniques used in a foreign lottery scam:
• They tell you that you've won and only need to send a few hundred dollars to claim your prize.
• They ask you to buy tickets to enter a foreign lottery, where the odds are better.
Either way you can't win.

If you are a caretaker to someone with diminished mental capacity, keep a close eye on warning signs that they have fallen prey to scammers. According to the USPIS these criminals are "deliberately targeting victims with dementia."

Signs include:
• Checks written or money wired internationally
• A telephone that rings constantly
• A stack of lottery or sweepstakes entries
• Calls from foreign countries, especially if they're calling your elderly family members

Scammers are constantly updating their methods:

Criminals are increasingly using new technology like VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and Caller-ID "spoofing," making it seem like the call is coming from the U.S. or even a government agency.

For more information visit www.deliveringtrust.com and postalinspectors.uspis.gov.
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Word of the Day

March 9, 2012 5:14 pm

Buyer’s market. Describes an excess supply of homes for sale, in which there are few buyers and many sellers. In such a market, the buyer can typically negotiate more favorable prices and terms.
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