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

Question of the Day

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

Q: How does a lease option work?

A: A landlord agrees to give a renter an exclusive option to purchase the property. The option price is usually determined at the outset, but not always, and the agreement states when the purchase should take place – whether, say, six months, or a year or two down the road.

A portion of the rent is used to make the future down payment. Most lenders will accept the down payment if the rental payments exceed the market rent and a valid lease-purchase agreement is in effect.

Before you opt to do a lease option, find out as much as possible about how they work. Talk to real estate agents, read published materials, and, in the end, have an attorney review any paperwork before you sign on the dotted line.
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Holiday Home Fire Safety Tips

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

Family gatherings, entertaining and festive decorations are among the highlights of the holiday season. According to the United States Fire Administration, during the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s season, there is an elevated risk for home fires due to extensive cooking, decorations, home heating and open flames. 

Paul Davis Emergency Services, a provider of fire damage and water damage clean up and restoration services for residential and commercial properties offers the following tips to make the holidays safe for you and your family. 

Holiday Decorations: Decorate with non-combustible or flame-resistant materials. Never use lighted candles on a tree, evergreens or other flammable materials. Don’t place candles near children, pets or gift wrapping.

Lights: Make sure there are no frayed wires, broken sockets or loose connections. Check labels to be sure about the proper use of indoor and outdoor lights. Don’t overload electrical outlets.

Trees: Cut a few inches off the trunk of a live tree and fill the stand with water to keep it from drying out and becoming a fire hazard. An artificial tree should be labeled "Fire Resistant." Place trees away from fireplaces, radiators or portable heaters.

Fire Escape Plan: Make sure everyone understands the escape routes and where to meet once outside.

Smoke Alarms: Make sure your smoke alarms are in proper working order and change the batteries at least twice a year.

Fire Extinguishers: Make sure there is a working fire extinguisher in the kitchen, laundry room, and garage. Learn how to use the fire extinguisher.

Fireplace/Chimney: Have your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned by a professional chimney sweep. Never burn greens, boughs, papers, or other decorations in the fireplace. Check to see that the flue is open before starting a fire.

Keep a list with important emergency phone numbers: Include police and fire departments, doctors and the national poison help line. 

In case of emergency property damage, contact a licensed, professional fire damage clean up and restoration company. 

For more information, visit www.pdrestoration.com.
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Big Ideas for Less Party Waste

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

Whether you're hosting a tailgate party at the stadium or a child's party at home, you know that a paper plate here and an empty can there quickly add up to a lot of trash. Eco-friendly actress and mom Ali Larter knows it too, and is here to share innovative and eco-friendly party planning ideas, so you can increase the fun, while decreasing your environmental impact. 

Larter believes tackling this problem is as simple as taking small steps to waste less, which is why she co-hosted a tailgate at the University of Southern California (USC) earlier this year. With an estimated 80,000 fans in attendance, Larter teamed up with The Glad Products Company to help tailgaters learn how to take steps to go "One Bag," working toward the ultimate goal of sending just one bag of trash to the landfill, with the rest being diverted to recycling and compost. 

"Being green is something I strive for in my daily life, which is why I've teamed up with Glad," says Larter. "My goal is to inspire others to go one bag, no matter the occasion. Whether I'm hosting a family reunion or a birthday party for my son, it just takes a little bit of planning to cut down on waste. Before long, planning an eco-friendly gathering becomes second nature." 

With that spirit in mind, Larter suggests these tips for hosting your own One Bag event:
Send Electronic Invitations: Rather than mailing a printed invitation for your next party, use online invitations such as Paperless Post, or Facebook. 

Buy in Bulk: A large package of hot dogs for a tailgate uses less plastic than four or five packages from the super market for the same amount of food. 

Ditch the Disposables: While it's tempting to break out paper plates and plastic cutlery, most dining disposables end up in the landfill rather than the recycling stream. Instead, use real cutlery and plates or look for options that are compostable. I'm a fan of mixing and matching vintage china patterns for a shabby chic look. 

Turn T-Shirts into Tablecloths: Recycle gently used clothing or logo-wear to create party-themed tableware. For example, old college t-shirts or jerseys make the perfect tablecloths for your next tailgate. If sewing is a challenge, try cutting clothes to create napkins instead. 

Use Better Bags: Glad recently unveiled a new tall kitchen trash bag that is stronger, yet uses less plastic. This innovation saves 6.5 million pounds of plastic per year—that's the equivalent of keeping 140 million extra trash bags out of landfills annually. Recycling and compost bags are also available from this family of products. 

Save Your Skewers: Kabobs are one of the easiest party appetizers to make, especially if you're grilling out for a tailgate. Instead of using disposable wooden skewers, purchase reusable stainless steel or wire ones that are dishwasher safe and better for the environment. 

For more information, visit www.GladtoWasteLess.com.
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5 Modern Twists on the Time-Honored Tradition of Giving Thanks for Food

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

While celebrating the end of harvest season is a tradition that can be traced back for centuries, modern-day twists on the custom have evolved since the 1621 Plymouth Colony fall feast. Just as pilgrims rejoiced in their first good harvest, Americans today have found meaningful ways to honor the bounty, and express gratitude: 

1. Give #foodthanks. Farmers long ago traded in their oxen for tractors and other technologies to raise nutritious, great-tasting food. This year, a group of farmers and ranchers is cultivating a social media campaign to initiate meaningful conversations about food with Americans on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and beyond, says Kansas farmer Darin Grimm of the AgChat Foundation. "For farmers on the go, social media is a great way to connect with consumers," he says. "We're hoping to see everyone from chefs to foodies to farmers using the #foodthanks hashtag." Check out www.foodthanks.com, then tweet what you eat, using the #foodthanks hashtag, now through Thanksgiving. 

2. Plan your meal with an app. New recipe and meal-planning applications are a bounty in their own right. Try the Thanksgiving Menu Maker from Fine Cooking, which allows you to "tap your way to a customized holiday menu," offering more than 75 of the magazine's all-time favorite Thanksgiving recipes, along with a shopping list and schedule. 

3. Preserve the flavors of fall. Early American settlers would salivate over modern-day canning equipment. Once dismissed as a bygone art, canning has attracted a growing number of enthusiasts in recent years, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which provides tips on canning, pickling, freezing and more. To really make a food statement, create your own labels at www.myownlabels.com. 

4. Host your own tasting party. The holiday table inspires us to create treasured traditions at home, including exploring new foods in the company of friends and family. Home entertaining expert Domenica Marchetti suggests a trend-worthy twist on the wine and cheese tasting party. The author of Big Night In (Chronicle Books, 2008) says, "Embrace the season's bounty and host an apple tasting party!" 

5. Share in the bounty. Thanksgiving is a great time to talk with your family about helping others in need, whether it's a family down the street or a hungry child on the other side of the world. Charitable organizations like Farmers Feeding the World and Heifer International believe that giving families a source of food, rather than short-term relief, is a more sustainable way to lift them out of poverty and hunger. 

For more information, visit www.agchat.org.
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9 Tips to Help Someone Grieving during the Holidays

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

For many people, the holiday season is a special time of year marked by celebrations and gatherings with family and friends. For those struggling with the death of a loved one, the holidays may be a difficult time full of painful reminders that emphasize their sense of loss. 

Often, friends and family members of those affected by a loss are unsure how to act or what to say to support their grieving loved one during the holidays. 

Hospice professionals, who are experienced at helping people deal with grief and loss, offer some suggestions:
1. Be supportive of the way the person chooses to handle the holidays. Some may wish to follow traditions; others may choose to avoid customs of the past and do something new. It's okay to do things differently.
2. Offer to help the person with decorating or holiday baking. Both tasks can be overwhelming for someone who is grieving.
3. Offer to help with holiday shopping. Share catalogs or online shopping sites that may be helpful.
4. Invite the person to join you or your family during the holidays. You might invite them to join you for a religious service or at a holiday meal where they are a guest.
5. Ask the person if he or she is interested in volunteering with you during the holidays. Doing something for someone else, such as helping at a soup kitchen or working with children, may help your loved one feel better about the holidays.
6. Donate a gift or money in memory of the person's loved one. Remind the person that his or her loved one is not forgotten.
7. Never tell someone that he or she should be "over it." Instead, give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.
8. Be willing to listen. Active listening from friends and family is an important step to helping some cope with grief and heal.
9. Remind the person you are thinking of him or her and the loved one who died. Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch. 

In general, the best way to help those who are grieving during the holidays is to let them know you care and that their loved one is not forgotten. 

Many people are not aware that their community hospice is a valuable resource that can help people who are struggling with grief and loss. 

For more information, visit www.caringinfo.org.
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Word of the Day

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

Quit-claim deed. A conveyance by which the grantor transfers whatever interest he or she has in the real estate without warranties or obligations.
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Question of the Day

November 18, 2011 4:32 pm

Q: How do you determine how much a home is worth?

A: The short answer: a home is ultimately worth what is paid for it. Everything else is really an estimate of value. Take, for example, a hot seller’s market when demand for housing is high but the inventory of available homes for sale is low. During this time, homes can sell above and beyond the asking price as buyers bid up the price. The fair market value, or worth, is established when “a meeting of the minds” between the buyer and the seller takes place.
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Money-Saving Winter Tips

November 17, 2011 6:30 pm

Rising heating costs will be a concern for many families this winter, so Amica Insurance is offering tips to help homeowners save money while keeping warm. 

“Now is the time to look around your house to make sure it’s as energy efficient as possible,” said Sean Welch, a senior assistant vice president with Amica Insurance. “Even small things—such as making sure doors and windows are tightly closed or turning your thermostat down a few degrees—can help you save money during the winter months ahead.” 

A good place to start is with your thermostat, Welch said. Make sure it’s not near a heating source or drafts of cold air, to help prevent faulty readings. Consider turning it down, even a degree or two, from what you’re used to. That can save quite a bit over the course of a few months. Also, don’t forget to turn it down while you’re not home and while you’re sleeping. Consider installing a programmable thermostat, which can be set to automatically adjust the temperature for you. 

Here are a few more money-saving tips:
• Shut doors and heating vents in rooms that are seldom used.
• Close curtains and draperies at night, to help preserve the heat. And make sure they’re open on sunny days.
• Use plastic sheets to cover windows and doors that aren’t used during the winter to help prevent drafts.
• Check the weather-stripping around all doors and windows. Repair or replace it in any spots that may make your home drafty.
• Keep dampers closed on fireplaces and stove vents shut when they’re not in use.
• Make sure you don’t have any cracks or openings in your foundation. If you do, fill them with caulking.
• Consider increasing the insulation in your attic and ceilings. If possible, cover the attic entrance with plastic. 

“While it’s great to save money by turning down the heat, never let a particular room or area of a house get too cold or you run the risk of having frozen water pipes that can burst and cause tremendous damage,” Welch said. “If possible, inspect all plumbing pipes leading in and through your house. Any pipes that run through unheated areas—such as attics, crawl spaces or outside walls – should be insulated.” 

“Also, if you’ll be using your furnace a lot this winter, make sure it’s ready to run as efficiently as possible,” Welch says. “Have your furnace inspected and cleaned by a professional and make sure you change the furnace filter regularly.” 

Every little bit helps, so before you turn up the heat, prepare your home for cold weather, Welch said. Hopefully you will save money and have a warm and comfortable winter. 

For more information on protecting your home for winter, visit http://www.disastersafety.org.
 
This is the third in a weekly series of tips Amica Insurance is offering during November to help prepare and protect your home and family this winter. To see the first and second installments of the series visit Amica.com.
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10 Holiday Gift Tips to Keep Families Debt Free

November 17, 2011 6:30 pm

With holiday shopping upon us, I’ve devised a list a list of 10 almost-no-money gift ideas for the whole family this holiday season. These tips will help you keep spending to a minimum, while still offering your loved ones gifts to be treasured. Best of all, you’ll set a good example for your kids on how to give at the holidays without overspending or taking on any credit card debt. 

Make it
Use only what you have at home. We all know that we have enough leftover craft stuff to last us a lifetime. Make a game of finding everything you have and bring it all into the kitchen and then start making a few homemade gifts for those you love. Grandparents especially love this kind of gift. Go ahead, make their day!
Re-gift it
One year my youngest wrapped up a stuffed animal she owned as a holiday present for her older sister. Well, that did not go over so well, as my youngest was 13 and was clearly late to the gift game and trying to make a silk purse out of a sows ear. With just a bit more thought, giving something you really love to someone you really love can be a great gift. 

I give books that I have read and adored. This way my friends get a book that is guaranteed to please. I often include a note with other books that I have read by that author and suggestions they might want to follow up with at the library. 

Kids can re-gift a favorite book, gently used and much-loved toy or even clothing that they have seen a sibling or friend admire. As long as they are willing to share the gift permanently and understand this, it’s a great way to let the person know you were listening. This strategy will also help strengthen a child’s sharing and empathy skills. 

Write it
Letters are so important. In the 21st century we are all inclined to email and text, but a real hand-written or typed letter is now so rare that it truly will get your child’s attention. Use it this holiday as a gift of your time and attention. Tell them how you spent your holidays as a child; what was most important. Pick a moment this year when you were proud of them. Recap a moment they really showed you what they were made of and then wrap the letter as a gift. Because it is a gift – showing you see them and think enough of them to capture this memory on paper for them to read and re-read. 

Forgive it
This is an all-time favorite of my family at New Years–but it can work at Christmas as well. I give them each a free pass on one thing they did wrong but have yet to confess. It’s a brilliant way to hear what might be lurking out there for you as a parent to yet be aware of, and it gets everybody talking about what took place that needs forgiving. 

Craft a “Forgiven” coupon and again, wrap it as a gift with a date and time when all will gather and share what they need to unburden themselves with. 

Acknowledge it
Look around you. There are likely a multitude of things to be grateful for. A word or a letter of acknowledgement is one of the best gifts you can give anyone. Thank your pastor for his or her spiritual leadership. Thank your friends for being there for you. Thank your doctor for his or her compassion. I’m sure that if you sit down for five minutes and think about the blessings in your life you will generate a very long list of people that deserve a gift of your acknowledgement. 

Promise it
My favorite gifts from my kids when they were young – coupons! “Anytime kitchen clean-up”, “shoulder massage”, “one hour of quiet time”, oh there were many such wonderful gifts. Kids made the coupons and wrapped each up and I got to “cash-in” throughout the year.

Grandparents love to get coupons for guaranteed time with grandkids. From face-to-face time to time on the phone or Skyping on the computer on a regular basis—this will be a cherished commitment that will end up being a gift to both grandparents and grandkids. 

This year, as budgets are tight and Christmas is notoriously tough on budgets, because so much money gets spent all at once, try stretching that budget with a coupon. Do the kids love baseball? Coupon them tickets to a home game this summer and add a baseball or t-shirt to the gift to make it fun. 

Tackle it
Everybody in the family can make a list of needs and wants for things that do not cost money, but need someone’s time and talent to do. Then print the lists and cut apart each item from the list separately. (To make sure you do not pick your own, you can either color the paper or use colored paper when you print your list –using a unique color for each family member.) Fold each item “card” up and place them all in Santa’s hat, then on Christmas Day, everybody gets to pick 11. And that becomes the family’s gift to one another. 

What’s on my list this year? Changing light bulbs around the house inside and out. Picking up shoes at the back door and putting them where they belong! Emptying the dishwasher. What kids list will depend on their age, but requests can range from a ride to the library to using the car on Friday night. 

Start it
Set a great example by starting something this year that your kids (or spouse) have been after you to do. Lose weight? Exercise? Cook more meals at home? Eat out more? Read more?

If you have a habit that is stressing out your kids—not to mention your own health—make a gift of quitting, tapering, changing or getting some kind of help that gives them peace. Show them how you plan to tackle the issue, and enlist their help. Everybody wins. 

Bake it
Okay, it does cost time and some money, but baking has long been a tradition for gifting at this time of the year for our family. I have a long list of kids that wait on my chocolate chip banana bread. Attach the recipe to the baked goods and you are good to go! 

Lend it
Make a list of what you have that you would be willing to “lend out” when asked. Maybe you have a snow blower—for those of us here in the Midwest, it’s a welcome gift on those wet, snow days—which you could lend to a friend and neighbor. Take the list and place it in your holiday card and include an email or phone number they can use when they’d like to take advantage of the gift you have offered for use. 

Susan Beacham is CEO of Money Savvy Generation. Susan is an award-winning education entrepreneur and nationally recognized kids and money expert.

For more information, visit http://www.msgen.com.
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Traveling Over the Holidays? Safety First!

November 17, 2011 6:30 pm

Wallet? Check. Passport? Check. Phone charger? Check. According to the Air Transport Association, an estimated 23.2 million air travelers will be going through similar mental checklists this holiday season. However, many will forget the importance of checking personal safety off of their lists. FrontierMEDEX, a global medical, safety and security solutions provider, conducted a survey of more than 400 travelers last week, and found that most travelers place a higher priority on the weather than on their own safety.
According to the survey, only 29 percent of travelers considered the crime rate a primary concern when researching their destination, as compared with 62 percent citing weather and 55 percent citing recreational activities as most important. FrontierMEDEX experts say that a shift in priorities is critical to keeping travelers safe this holiday season. 

A recent study conducted by USA Today found the risk of becoming a crime victim is four times greater than the national average in areas outside most of the nation's big city airports. However, only 51 percent of the FrontierMEDEX traveler safety survey respondents recognized those specific areas as the biggest threat to their personal safety. The number one choice for 73 percent of respondents was city streets, followed by subways at 53 percent. 

“During the holidays, people are carrying large sums of cash in their wallets, purses and bags,” said Charlie LeBlanc, president of security solutions for FrontierMEDEX. “They are in and out of airports and train stations and are distracted by getting to where they need to go, and not paying close attention to their surroundings when traveling. Larger crowds, longer lines, and extra articles to carry like coats, gifts, and luggage create an even greater opportunity for distraction. Being alert and mindful of who and what are around you are crucial to staying out of harm’s way.” 

In an effort to ensure travelers have a safe, and hopefully happy, holiday season, the following are tips from LeBlanc, a leading authority on security principles: 

• Skilled thieves steal smaller items like wallets, passports, and cell phones, so keep a close eye on all your possessions, especially small bags, purses and laptop cases as these are prime targets for airport thieves;
• Do not let your purse or laptop go through the security scanner before you do;
• Carry wallets in front pockets or in a zippered purse or handbag;
• Separate cash and valuables into different bags, so that if your wallet or purse is stolen, not everything will be gone;
• Arrange ground transportation in advance to ensure swift airport departure via a trusted driver you hire or a friend. 

“Most people let their guard down at the train station or airport because of a perceived increase in security,” LeBlanc added. “There are several no-cost things a traveler can do to help reduce the chance of personally becoming a victim of crime. By staying focused, knowing where the greater risks are and following our recommended tips, they’ll increase their personal safety this holiday season. A safe holiday should help to create a happy one.” 

For more information, visit http://www.FrontierMEDEX.com.
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