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

Simple Steps for Staying Warm and Saving Money this Winter

October 19, 2011 5:10 pm

As seasons change and winter weather looms ahead, homeowners throughout the nation are bracing themselves for frigid conditions. With bitter cold temperatures and above-average snowfall predicted for some areas of the country this year, many people are concerned about keeping their homes warm and comfortable without spending a fortune on heating bills. There are several simple steps you can take to keep energy bills low throughout the season, starting with an annual assessment to ensure that your heating system is operating properly and efficiently before the harsh winter weather hits. 

Start the Season with Energy Savings 

For a smart start to combating winter weather, homeowners should have their heating systems inspected annually by a Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration (HVACR) professional. When selecting a local contractor, it's essential to shop around because not all HVACR technicians offer the same level of expertise. 

Keep Heating Bills Low as Temperatures Drop 

Once you've confirmed that your heating system is running at peak performance for optimal efficiency, there are several easy ways you can keep energy bills to a minimum:
• Clean your heating filters. Check them every couple of weeks and change them at least twice in the season, or as directed by the manufacturer.
• Check and maintain your insulation. Improperly insulated walls, floors, attics, basements and crawlspaces drain away heat and can lead to moisture imbalance. Adding weather stripping and caulk around windows and doors can also go a long way toward improving your home's insulation.
• Turn down your thermostat. Keeping your thermostat five degrees cooler can lower your heating bills without affecting your home's comfort.
• Install a programmable thermostat and adjust the settings to reduce the temperature when you're not at home, such as during the work day.
• Clean the furnace area. Don't keep chemicals or cleaning products near your heater, and don't store anything next to it that could impede ventilation.
• Keep vents and returns free of obstructions. Don't lay carpet over vents, place furniture over or in front of them, or obstruct the flow of air.
• Install a humidifier. Humidity in summer makes you feel hotter, and the same is true in winter since dry air feels cooler than moist air. A simple humidifier may make the home feel five degrees warmer than a home with dry air.

As homeowners continue to adopt green, eco-friendly heating systems, it's important to realize that even the highest efficiency equipment can waste money and energy if it's not properly maintained. 

For more information, visit www.HVACRAdvice.com.
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Painting a Nursery? Tips, Trends and Ideas

October 19, 2011 5:10 pm

One of the most exciting design and decorating experiences a couple can have is preparing a room for a newborn. Dunn-Edwards, one of the Southwest's leading manufacturers of premium paint, has compiled a wealth of ideas and inspiration for designing and painting a nursery—for both DIYs and those hiring a professional painting contractor. 

The first step is to decide if the nursery will have a theme or simply a mix of colors and details you like, points out Sara McLean, color expert at Dunn-Edwards. "Some current trends in nurseries include modern baby chic, vintage nostalgia, Bohemian, school themes such as science and tech, and fun twists on nature including beach and woodland themes," she says. "Or even opting for a traditional theme, like nautical, carousel or cowboy, you can add your own sense of playfulness, creativity or whimsy." 

The color palette is the next step, thinking beyond just pink or blue. McLean says that the tradition of using blue in a boy's nursery has evolved into combinations of blue—particularly turquoise—with other colors such as red, green and orange. Pink for girls has evolved into fuchsia tones with elements of aquamarine, lilac, white and orange. In fact, aqua and orange have become popular choices for both boys and girls. "There is a new boldness in the way colors are combined in the nursery—pink and purple with green or blue and yellow with green, for example," she says. Striped ceilings can help stimulate the room and a touch or slight accent of black is trendy right now, to add a little sophistication. 

Today's baby rooms include bold and brightly colored carpets, wall decals, maps, figurines and "monster dolls" that are so ugly, they're cute; owls and other woodland critters; and elephants. "Be sure to keep an open mind and eye out for items and styles that can make your nursery unique," she adds.

When decorating a nursery, it's important to use non-toxic products—from the paint to the rugs, to the furniture. Opt for biodegradable timber and certified formaldehyde-free furniture, and take special care with any antique baby furniture to sure its finish and/or underlining paints and varnishes are safe before use. 

For more tips and ideas for decorating a baby's room, visit http://www.dunnedwards.com
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The 10 Best Places to Retire in 2012

October 19, 2011 5:10 pm

U.S. News worked with Onboard Informatics, a premier data services company for top tier organizations in real estate, media, and technology, to create a list of great places to retire in 10 key categories.

"Everybody's got their own idea of the best place to live," says Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News, "so we've created tools to make the search fun and useful. There are some great and unexpected choices." 

Many of the categories focus on how to achieve the retirement lifestyle you want on a fixed income, such as the best place for water views on a budget (Traverse City, Michigan), an affordable mountain town for retirees (Boone, North Carolina), and the best place to find affordable housing (Port Charlotte, Florida). We also recognize Pittsburgh as a place that provides a great mix of affordability and amenities for retirees. 

This list also includes a place with pleasant weather year-round (Flagstaff, Arizona), a locale with unique recreation and cultural opportunities to explore (Santa Fe, New Mexico), and a college town that is also friendly to retirees (Ithaca, New York). Retirement is a period of life in which many people reinvent themselves, so we've included a great place to launch a second career (Lincoln, Nebraska) or form a new relationship in a city with plenty of single people age 55 and older (Pittsfield, Massachusetts). 

The U.S. News Best Places to Retire search tool provides extensive information for consumers considering relocating in retirement. The interactive search tool can help users find locations that best fit their individual lifestyles. Visitors can examine and sort through economic and quality-of-life data, such as housing prices, proximity to hospitals, and even the average temperature, to find a locale that best meets their needs. 

The cities honored as The 10 Best Places to Retire in 2012 are:
Pleasant year-round weather: Flagstaff, Ariz.
Affordable mountain town: Boone, N.C.
Water views on a budget: Traverse City, Mich.
Greenest place to retire: Walnut Creek, Calif.
A college town for retirees: Ithaca, N.Y.
Place to launch a second career: Lincoln, Neb.
Best mix of affordability and amenities: Pittsburgh
Best place for affordable housing: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Best place for single retirees: Pittsfield, Mass.
Best place for recreation and culture: Santa Fe 

For more information, visit http://usnews.com/retire.
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Word of the Day

October 19, 2011 5:10 pm

Marketable title. Good and clear title that is free from reasonable doubt as to who the owner is.
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Question of the Day

October 19, 2011 5:10 pm

Q: How do I qualify for a home loan?

A: Your real estate agent has information on lender loan requirements and will be able to calculate a rough monthly figure you can afford based on the maximum monthly payment for the loan, taxes, insurance, and any type of maintenance fees. This pre-purchase evaluation by the agent can save you a lot of time spent looking at properties you cannot afford.

Lenders also routinely calculate what you can afford and can pre-qualify you for a loan even before you begin your home search. This way, you know exactly how much you can afford to buy.

Lenders generally stipulate that you spend no more than 28 percent of your gross monthly income on a mortgage payment or 36 percent on total debts.

Ultimately, the price you can afford to pay for a home will also depend on other factors besides your gross income and outstanding debts. They include the amount of cash you have available for the down payment, your credit history, current interest rates, closing costs and cash reserves required by the lender, and the type of mortgage you select.
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Marketing Your Home—Picture Perfect

October 18, 2011 7:06 pm

So you are trying to market your home. I don’t have to be the one to tell you that when it comes to hooking prospective buyers through web, mobile or print, you need to start with great pictures that pop.

I recently looked up Todd Arena at arenacreative.com, who posts a few quick tips you might be able to use to improve the quality of your photos in your online listings no matter what camera you have. (Feel free to share these tips with your REALTOR®, too!)

Among Arena’s recommendations:

• Don’t shoot the exterior mid-day when the sun is highest in the sky. Early morning or later in the afternoon is much more visually pleasing. Save mid-day for shooting the interior, so that the light is more even.

• Keep the sun to your back. It’s a rule that is meant to be broken, but when it comes to shooting houses it’s a pretty good one to stick by. The sun rises in the East, and sets in the West, so figure out which direction the front of the home is facing before you plan your shoot.

• Take a look up at the sky. Is it overcast? Unless you’re a whiz at digital special effects, you might want to wait until the weather gives you a nice blue sky, even if it is partly cloudy. Although, Arena says a bright overcast day is excellent if you’re taking features of the building where the sky isn’t showing. It will give you shadows that are less harsh, and a nice diffused style of light.

• Try to remove distracting elements beforehand. Are there kids toys laying all over the front yard?

• Keep your images season appropriate. Do you have pictures with snow in the yard when it’s June?

• And step back! Capture images of the home from across the street, or even further if you think it would help a potential buyer envision its situation or property size. Arena thinks this tip helps your property stand out from the crowd in the sea of listings.
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Advice to Prevent Pests and Costly Home Repairs

October 18, 2011 7:06 pm

RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment)®, recently announced that a survey conducted by the trade association shows that nearly 70 percent of homeowners state that zero is the acceptable number of pests allowed inside their home before they take action to get rid of them. The fall season offers the most advantageous time of the year to protect homes, lawns and communities against unwelcomed pests and disease, such as being able to identify cool-air leaks where holes or cracks might invite critters to come inside. 

Utilizing indoor and outdoor integrated pest management approaches allows homeowners to have more control in preventing infestation, structural damage, and disease from negatively affecting their homes. To help homeowners pest-proof their homes this fall, RISE is offering an easy-to-implement checklist with a memorable acronym. 

INvestigate. Become a pest detective and investigate your home and yard for clues that pests may be present. You never know where they may be lurking. 

Study. Take a deeper look into your home and study the situation, learn more about the pests causing problems and the damage they can bring with them. 

Prepare. In this step, plan how to most effectively solve your problem. Proper planning includes understanding the safe and correct way to execute any pest control approach. 

Eliminate. Put your plan into action. This step includes eliminating the pests’ entry way into your home and eliminating problems that already exist. 

Clean. Once you’ve eliminated welcoming entries for pests, maintaining a clean home and lawn is essential for discouraging pests from calling your home theirs. 

Treat. Proactive and preventative treatment is key when talking about pests. Treating for problems at the first sign or before they appear will keep your home pest-free. 

“We’ve seen how the extreme summer heat had pests looking for water in many unexpected places, and though the weather is beginning to cool, it’s no time for homeowners to be idle in protecting their homes,” says Gail Getty, research entomologist at the University of California at Berkeley and industry liaison. “The winter cold will send pests indoors looking for food and warmth. It’s important for homeowners to consider the significant damage that can result from an untreated pest infestation, and this week lends the perfect time for them to stop and do their home-work.” 

With much of the U.S. population spending more time indoors during the fall and winter seasons, the chances increase for diseases to be spread if pests are left mismanaged. Uncontrolled pest populations, especially rats, cockroaches, bed bugs, spiders, and dust mites, can negatively affect the health of a family. 

Cockroaches, the most frustrating pest among homeowners who participated in the recent RISE study, transmit Salmonella while also contributing to the development of allergies and asthma, particularly in children. 

Outdoor spaces are not exempt to proactive pest management and routine maintenance to keep harmful plants and pests away. Before winter weather hits, help your lawn store up for the winter by fertilizing and adding grass seed before heavy rainfall saturates the ground or frost creates a barrier. 

“Find a convenient time to attend to the outside of your home when you get home from work or while you’re letting the dog outside. It’s important to conduct routine grooming to deter harmful plants like poison ivy, oak, or sumac away from where your family lives and plays,” says Getty. “Keeping your lawn healthy during the winter can also help reduce cost when summer comes back around.” 

For more information, visit http://www.pestfacts.org and http://www.debugthemyths.com.
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Top 10 Foods for Fighting Cold and Flu

October 18, 2011 7:06 pm

There are two reasons why nutritionists say chicken soup is effective for fighting winter colds. The first is that an amino acid released from chicken during cooking chemically resembles the drug acetylcysteine, often prescribed for bronchitis and other respiratory problems—and the broth itself contains many common nutrients. The second reason is that the steam rising as you sip from a mug or bowl of hot soup can help clear nasal and bronchial passages and help you to relax and feel better.

But there are many foods, herbs and spices deemed helpful for warding off or relieving the symptoms of cold or flu.

“Think of foods as an insurance policy against winter’s cold viruses,” says Karen Gibson, RD, a dietitian at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.

“Cold viruses are contagious, and some foods offer assistance in preventing colds by helping you develop and maintain a healthy immune system.”

Gibson and other nutritionists suggest these top 10 foods and spices for helping you and your family prevent and fight colds and flu:

• Dark colored fruits and veggies – Benefit from the vitamins and antioxidants in such colorful choices as tomatoes, spinach, squash, eggplants and blueberries.
• Fresh-cooked or canned chicken soup – Fresh-cooked may taste better, but both contain cold-fighting benefits.
• Oatmeal (and other whole grain cereals) – delivers selenium, zinc and beta glucan, known to support your immune system.
• Yogurt – active cultures, known as probiotics or healthy bacteria, may actually help fend off colds.
Cinnamon or ginger – sprinkled on cereal, toast or yogurt, these tasty and popular spices can help reduce fever, relieve upset tummies, and kill germs.
• Garlic – Thought to guard against infection, garlic also contains an agent that acts like a decongestant.
Cayenne pepper or hot chilis – They contain capsaicin, which acts as a decongestant, expectorant and pain reliever.
• Green or black hot tea – Like chicken soup, the steam alone may help reduce congestion and other cold symptoms. They also contain beneficial antioxidants.
• Pure orange or grapefruit juice – Drinking lots of it adds an increase of the protective vitamin C. Add lemon to your tea.
• Margarine – contains lysine, an amino acid that helps to prevent and combat cold sores.
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Behind the Wheel: Teen Driver Safety Reminders

October 18, 2011 7:06 pm

Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for teenagers in America – with an average of eight teens a day killed in car crashes.

“Young drivers need to be reminded of the dangers that come with driving,” says Lisa Melton, an assistant vice president with Amica Insurance. Consider these statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
• Most crashes happen during the first year a teenager has his or her license.
• The risk of being involved in a crash increases when teens drive with other teens in the car.
• Most fatal car crashes, for all ages, occur at night.
• Drivers aged 15 to 20 are three times as likely to get into fatal crashes as all other drivers. 

“Driving can be especially dangerous for inexperienced drivers,” Melton says. “That’s why parents and guardians need to discuss safe driving habits with their teens, long before they get behind the wheel.”
If your child will be driving soon, be a responsible role model, Melton says. Teenagers will model adult driving habits. It’s also important to choose a reliable driving school that provides the classroom and on-the-road training a young driver needs. Parents should also practice driving with their teens. Give them plenty of practice driving at different times of days, on different roads and with different weather conditions. The more time they drive, the better drivers they will be, Melton says. 

“Remember, too, that not all teenagers are ready to drive at the same age,” Melton says. Consider whether your teen is responsible enough to drive before allowing him or her to obtain a driver’s permit or driver’s license. If not, wait a few months before reconsidering. 

Once your teen gets his or her license, be sure to set firm rules about their driving, Melton said. Restrict the number of passengers they can have in their car, especially while they are novice drivers. Set curfews to get them off the roads by 9 or 10 p.m., to reduce the risk of late-night crashes. 

“Research shows which behaviors contribute to teen-related crashes: Inexperience and immaturity combined with speed, drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts, distracted driving (such as cell phone use, loud music or other teen passengers), drowsy driving, nighttime driving and other drug use aggravate this problem,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) website. 

The NHTSA and the CDC also offer these safe driving tips:
• Always wear a seatbelt to prevent death or serious injury.
• Never text while driving. Avoid other distractions, including talking on cell phones, eating or playing with the radio while behind the wheel.
• Do not use alcohol or drugs if you will be driving.
• Follow all traffic laws. Stick to the speed limit. Don’t tailgate.
• Be aware of road and traffic conditions. Drive defensively. 

“National Teen Driver Safety Week is a great opportunity to remind your teens about driving safety,” Melton says. “Hopefully, they’ll develop good driving habits that will last a lifetime.” 

For more driving safety information, visit http://www.nhtsa.gov or http://www.cdc.gov.
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Word of the Day

October 18, 2011 7:06 pm

Market value. Generally accepted as the highest price that a ready, willing, and able buyer will pay and the lowest price a ready, willing, and able seller will accept for a property.
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