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Tom's Blog

Weak Employment Continues to Impede Economic Recovery

September 7, 2011 4:59 pm

September's Consumer Reports Index, a measure of overall consumer financial health, showed signs that sentiment is improving after plummeting to its lowest level in nearly two years. With the poor job market, recovery is a grueling process.

"Weak employment growth is the number-one issue facing Americans," says Ed Farrell, director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center. "Continued improvement in Sentiment and sustained declines in financial difficulties faced by consumers, hinges on getting American's back to work."

The Consumer Reports Sentiment Index rose to 48.8, up from 43.4 in August. The figure represents the percentage of people saying they were financially better off versus worse off than they were a year ago. The Consumer Reports Trouble Tracker, a gauge of the breadth and depth of financial difficulties among American households, dropped 15.3 points to 45.3 in September, reflecting a drop in financial difficulties including inability to pay for health care, missed mortgage payments and falling behind on other bills. Employment remains weak. The Employment Index was virtually unchanged from last month, reflecting an economy shedding more jobs than it is creating. The underlying problem is anemic job creation. This month, the number of Americans who started a new job in the past 30 days was at its lowest level since March 2010.

"The Consumer Reports Trouble Tracker showed a large swing in the right direction, but that's just a snapshot of the big picture," Farrell adds. "At this time, we are in an economy that is shedding more jobs than it is creating. Households that earn less than $50,000 a year, which represent nearly half of the population, continue having trouble finding new jobs, paying bills and affording health care."

While the North East states saw a rise in financial difficulties, the North Central, South and Western regions showed a large decline in financial difficulties reflected by the Trouble Tracker Index.

The retail indicators tracking recent and planned spending declined after moving in a positive direction in August. The Past 30-Day Retail Index* registered a 10-month low.

For more information, visit http://www.ConsumerReports.org
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For Your Graduate: College Grads Can Land the Job of Their Dreams

September 7, 2011 4:59 pm

You may have aced Intermediate Accounting, but you didn’t count on getting lost on the way to your first big job interview. So you arrived late and flustered, chugged a restorative cup of coffee in the reception area, and then offered your interviewer a sweaty handshake.

Those simple mistakes may have cost you the job, according to Patricia D. Sadar, a 20-year veteran of Human Resources Management and author of Congratulations…You Aced the Interview and Congratulations…You’re Hired (www.congratsbooks.com) for recent college graduates.

“Students and parents alike spend their valuable time and hard-earned money to get into the right school and earn their college degree,” says Sadar, an adjunct professor at Florida International University. “It seems as though they forget the big picture—landing the job.”

That’s an even greater challenge in today’s market, which can be especially hard to crack for young workers. Sixty percent of recent college graduates do not have full-time jobs in their fields of study, according to a spring CNN Money report citing the job-placement firm Adecco Group.

Sadar’s CliffNotes-style books point students towards the career fast lane. Some tips include:

• Tailor your résumé to the job: Recruiters often simply scan résumés, so be sure the experience and skills being sought are easy to spot, and the same information is repeated in your cover letter. Include a professional summary, competencies, strengths and accomplishments all focused on the position for which you’re applying.
• Prepare for the interview – what you do before, during and after counts: Know how to get there and allow extra time so you don’t arrive late. Don’t use strong cologne or tobacco products, and don’t drink coffee beforehand, all of which can be smelly turn-offs. Do pop a breath mint – not chewing gum, which has no place in an interview. If your palms are sweaty, wipe your hand discreetly before giving a firm handshake. Follow up with a thank-you note to the interviewer within 24 hours.
• Be truthful when asked about weaknesses: People often avoid these questions or answer by presenting what they consider to be a strength as a weakness, such as “I’m a workaholic” or “I’m a perfectionist.” The interviewer wants to know if you can recognize your weaknesses and how you’re working on them, or whether you can admit mistakes and learn from them. Be prepared to honestly discuss one weakness and one past mistake.
• Ask questions, but not about salary, benefits, sick or vacation time: Go prepared to ask three to five questions about the company, the department or the position. You might ask the interviewer to describe the ideal candidate for the job, what he or she most enjoys about working for the company, or what the company’s biggest challenges will be in the coming year.
• Remember, mealtime interviews are not about the food: Order a conservatively priced meal that doesn’t have a strong smell and that you can eat without making a mess. Don’t order an alcoholic beverage, even if your interviewer does, and mind your table manners.
• Be courteous to everyone you meet, from the parking lot to the restroom: Don’t underestimate the importance of parking attendants, receptionists and security guards, who often have influence with decision-makers. The person in the elevator or at the lavatory could be the CEO or a potential future boss.
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Word of the Day

September 7, 2011 4:59 pm

Fixtures. Any personal property that has been permanently attached to real property and, therefore, included in the transfer of real estate. For example, the kitchen sink is a fixture.
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Question of the Day

September 7, 2011 4:59 pm

Q: Should I hire a home inspector for a new home?

A: You would think not since it is new and the developer has to adhere to local construction guidelines. However, err on the side of caution – always hire an inspector, whether the home is old or new.

You can ask the builder to provide copies of any inspection reports on the property, architectural plans, surveys and pertinent construction documents for your inspector to review.

The inspector should either be a professional home inspector, an engineer, an architect or a contractor. When hiring a professional inspector, look for one who belongs to a home inspection trade organization, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).

This group has developed formal inspection guidelines and a professional code of ethics for its members. Membership in ASHI is not automatic. Proven field experience and technical knowledge about structures and their various systems and appliances are required.

As for rates, they vary greatly. Many inspectors charge about $400, but costs increase based on the scope of the inspection.
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5 Easy Ways to Become a Millionaire

September 6, 2011 4:59 pm

Who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? It’s a status most people aspire to—and, says Thomas J. Stanely, co-author of The Millionaire Next Door, it’s easier than ever to become one for those who lead a relatively frugal lifestyle and adhere to a few simple financial guidelines.

Stanley points to research that shows how five lifestyle and financial decisions can set you on the road to realizing your dream to be a millionaire:

1. Marry only once – The average millionaire is married with three children and a wife who may or may not work but is often a better budgeter than her husband. Marrying only once avoids the cost of divorce and remarriage, not to mention the cost of alimony, child support, etc.
2. Live on one income – If you and your spouse have two incomes, try to structure your expenses so you can live on one income and save/invest the second. Doing so provides a safety cushion if one spouse loses a job, and a painless way to build your net worth.
3. Choose the right career – That means one you enjoy, either as an employee or in your own, self-employed profession. The right career is also one that is in step with the trends and that you feel passionate enough about to put in extra hours when necessary.
4. Invest in appreciating assets – Millionaires generally invest at least 20% of their household income each year, primarily in “transaction securities such as publicly traded stocks and mutual funds—and rarely sell their equities. Most buy instead of lease their cars and tend to live in their homes for 20 years or more.
5. Don’t live like a millionaire – Warren Buffett is a good example of a many-times millionaire who lives a frugal lifestyle in a mid-price home and is more concerned with increasing his assets than in living the so-called high life. With discipline and a little common sense, you can be a millionaire, too.
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Hurricane and Earthquake Create Roof Damage; Timely Repairs Now Prevent Risks Later

September 6, 2011 4:59 pm

Regional Spotlight—The recent record-breaking earthquake and violent hurricane Irene pummeled homes along the East Coast, potentially damaging hundreds of thousands of roofs, according to Kirk Kandler, senior vice president of retail for Henry Company, a leading provider of building envelope systems. Kandler and other experts agree that homeowners need to act quickly to repair possible roof leaks to protect their homes, health and valuables.

Impact of the Double Disasters
The Virginia earthquake—the most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in over 60 years, caused an estimated $200 million to $300 million damage. Hurricane Irene's high winds, floods, falling trees and tornados caused another estimated $7 billion in damage.

"While both types of natural disasters can wreak havoc on a roof," explains Kandler, "it is the combined effect that can be particularly harmful, causing a variety of problems as a result of the shifting roof, high winds, flying debris and heavy rainfall. This 'perfect storm' of natural phenomena act together to dislodge, and split shingles, uplift and puncture roof membranes, and form cracks where different surfaces or materials come together."

Unfortunately, much of the damage is likely to be uninsured, as less than five percent of East Coast property owners have earthquake coverage and it is estimated that less than half of the hurricane damage is covered , placing a huge burden on homeowners whose properties are affected. Nevertheless, homeowners should contact their insurers early to determine the best course of remediation and move quickly to repair damage.

The Need to Act Quickly
According to Reed Hitchcock, executive vice president of the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association (ARMA), it is imperative to address roof leaks immediately. "What starts as a small leak can turn into a significant and costly problem very quickly, resulting in moisture damage to a home's roof, framing, insulation, ceiling and walls and, ultimately, mold growth," he notes.

A report published by the Centers for Disease Control confirms, "Buildings with leaking roofs...are susceptible to mold growth." The report also points out that mold can appear on wet building materials within just 48-72 hours, feeding off of nutrients in wallboard, wallpaper and upholstery and causing illness in otherwise healthy individuals.

Historical weather records also suggest that homeowners should proceed with a sense of urgency. According to the National Hurricane Center, the climatological peak of hurricane season is mid-September, and tropical cyclone Katia is building force offshore even now.

Finding the Leak
The first step in remediation and the most difficult, according to Kandler, is to find the leak: "Eighty percent of leaks can be found at vertical protrusions, such as skylights, chimneys and roof vents. The remaining leaks are likely to be where dissimilar materials are joined, such as between shingles and flashing." Clues include ceiling staining or gaps between roofing surfaces.

Fixing the Leak
Three-quarters of the residential roofs in the United States are asphalt roofs, which can be relatively easy and inexpensive to repair, according to Kandler. Homeowners should check their roofing warranties prior to completing any non-emergency roof repairs.

If a homeowner is comfortable climbing on his own roof and addressing a roof leak, the first step is to identify areas where the leak may be originating. If the problem area is easily identifiable, the roof repair involves four easy steps:

1. Clear the area of any loose materials or debris.
2. Using a trowel, apply a quarter- to half-inch of roof cement/mastic over and around the area where the leak originates.
3. Apply some reinforcing fabric (available where the roof cement is sold) into the first layer of roof cement, press it in firmly with the edge of the trowel in a "waffle" pattern.
4. Completely cover the reinforcing fabric with a second layer of roof cement, quarter- to half-inch thick.

Repair vs. Permanent Patch
Kandler advises both homeowners and professional roofers to choose their materials carefully, as roofing products are not all equal. Repairs that don't involve replacement of shingles typically require just three items: trowel or putty knife, a quality roof repair cement and reinforced fabric. A quality mastic is identified as one that is:

1. Rubberized
2. All weather
3. All purpose - can be used on all roof surfaces
4. Made with virgin mineral spirits/solvents

In addition, homeowners should ask for roofing cements that provide a lifetime warranty. Some mastics offer only a one- to three-year warranty, which provides a short-term repair rather than a permanent patch.

The fabric should be designed for use as a roof repair reinforcement and is usually found wherever roof repair cement is sold.

For more information, visit www.henry.com.
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Consumer Reports Offers Energy Saving Tips

September 6, 2011 4:59 pm

Discussions about federal regulations on Energy Star ratings and energy efficient products continue and homeowners need to keep a pulse on the changes. The latest issue of Consumer Reports looks to help shoppers make the best decisions for their needs and possibly save some cash. Consumer Reports recent tests revealed some of the best appliances, electronics, and heating and cooling equipment are also among the most efficient. There are a number of home-energy retrofits that, if done right, can quickly pay for themselves. But not all efficiency promises pan out.

"You don't have to sacrifice performance, comfort, or convenience to save energy and money, providing you know what to look for," says Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. "Our tests have found many models of efficiency among a variety of appliances, but shoppers should beware that there are also products whose energy-saving claims are mostly hype."

The full energy package, including ratings of light bulbs, testing-based information on alternative energy options as well as additional tips on saving energy, can be found in the October issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org. 

What's New, What Works and What to Think Twice About

Powering electronic devices can cost almost as much as powering your kitchen appliances. Electronics and appliances account for 30 cents of every dollar someone spends on electricity. Appliances have become more efficient, but increased use of electronics has offset those gains, according to the Energy Information Administration. To help save energy and money, be sure to set computers to hibernate when they aren't in use; ask the cable company about replacing the current set-top box with one that meets Energy Star's 3.0 specifications, which became effective Sept. 1, 2011. Also inquire about whole-house DVRs, which can eliminate the need for an energy intense recording device on each TV. Get rid of the early-model plasma TVs that could cost well over $200 a year to operate. There are now large screens that cost $70 or less per year to run, including the 55-inch LCD Samsung UN55D65000, $1,900 with a fine picture, and an annual energy cost of $29.

More efficient appliances perform better than older ones, and the Energy Star program has improved. Starting this year, before a product can display an Energy Star logo, it must be tested for compliance by an accredited third-party lab. Front-loading washers use less energy and water than most top-loaders and extract more water in their spin cycle. Dishwashers with soil sensors adjust the use of hot water depending on how dirty the dishes are, saving energy and water. But watch out for many manufacturers introducing smart appliance lines in 2012. They will cost more, but smart technologies won't save money unless the home has a smart meter—an interface between the meter and the smart appliances and the utility companies implement time-of-use pricing—all of which are rare at this time.

There are more alternative energy options available to homeowners. Check out Consumer Reports first-ever report on a home wind turbine designed for residential use in the latest issue. Geothermal systems, which use the relatively constant temperature of the earth to heat and cool homes, are an emerging alternative to fossil-fuel-powered systems. A home energy audit can identify low-tech, high-yield energy retrofits. Expect to pay between $300 and $800 for a complete audit by a trained pro. The Department of Energy's website, www.energysavers.gov, has advice for conducting an audit yourself. But think twice about using a space heater to lower winter heating bills, unless you turn the heat down in the rest of the house. Also, there's little proof that cleaning ducts actually improve efficiencies, and shoddy work can damage the ducts. Only consider this if there is visible mold or vermin, or debris is coming out of supply registers. Before replacing the primary heating or cooling equipment in your home, consider having the duct distribution system sealed and insulated as the savings will be far greater than realized by simply switching to a more efficient furnace or central air conditioner.

Energy management is improving with the use of a "smart grid," that adds digital sensors, wireless communications, and other intelligence technologies to the nation's century-old electrical grid. The new grid could pave the way for wide-spread time-of-use pricing, which should help to make the demand for electricity more uniform over the 24 hour day, thus foregoing the need for more electric power plants while handling a greater overall load. Depending on the actual time-based pricing, some consumers may be able to reduce their energy costs.

One thing you can do now is buy a programmable thermostat, which can lower annual energy costs by as much as 10 percent. The Lux Smart Temp Touch Screen TX9000TS, $80 was one of the easiest to use during testing, and it kept temperatures constant. Think twice about switching utility suppliers to save money. Several states and the District of Columbia have restructured markets to allow consumers to choose their electricity and gas suppliers.

Smarter building practices, developed for new construction, are being used to make existing homes more energy efficient. Keeping heated and cooled air from leaking out of your home from ceilings, walls, and windows could lower annual energy costs by $500. Start by checking if your attic needs additional insulation, then seal and insulate leaky ductwork, and lastly, eliminate air leaks with a combination of caulk, foam board, expandable sealant, and weather stripping. Don't replace windows just for the sake of saving energy. Consumer Reports tests found that it could take up to 20 years to recoup that investment.

Alternative Energy Update: So Far, New Wind Turbine Delivers Little
Generous federal and local rebates and credits have helped put wind power on a growing list of options that use the forces of nature to trim an electricity bill. Wind turbines are supposed to save by powering homes and sending or selling any unused energy they create to a utility so that a credit can be provided back to the owner. But Consumer Reports early tests of one wind turbine suggests that one could save far less than the manufacturer claims, and wait decades for the investment to pay for itself.

At about $11,000 installed, the Honeywell WT6500 Wind Turbine being tested at Consumer Reports' Yonkers headquarters costs less than many wind systems, even before rebates. It's warranted for five years and can be ordered through popular home improvement stores, from dealers and online. It's one of the few that can mount on a roof. WindTronics, which makes the system, says it can deliver 18 to 23 percent of an average home's annual electricity needs, depending on wind speed. That should mean the Consumer Reports system pays for itself in about six years, given the energy it should create in the designated area, the 30 percent federal tax credit for small turbines, and the thousands in state rebates.

But so far, Consumer Reports has only seen a fraction of the total power that WindTronics says should be measured based on the area, even after several visits from a company-authorized installer. At that rate, the Honeywell wouldn't pay its way over its expected life of 20 years. Consumer Reports will be updating their data during the next year and will report on further developments as the testing continues.

For more information, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.
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Trying to Make Your Home More Energy Efficient? Act Now to Save.

September 6, 2011 4:59 pm

MXenergy, an energy provider and a strong sustainability proponent, is encouraging homeowners to act now on home energy efficiency improvements, while federal tax incentives are still available.

"Clearly there are not the enormous incentives that were available two years ago," says Marjorie Kass, MXenergy managing director of marketing. "However, there are still significant savings to be had and for those homeowners on the fence about energy improvements or upgrades, now is the time to act before those dollars are gone."

The energy efficiency tax credits, which have been offered as part of the federal government's economic stimulus program, are set to expire on Dec. 31, 2011.

Efficiency Incentives Still Available:
Biomass stoves: $300
Central Air Conditioning: $300
Furnaces and Boilers: $150
Insulation: 10 percent of cost, up to $500
Roofing: 10 percent of cost, up to $500
Gas, Oil or Propane Water Heaters: $300
Electric Heat Pump Water Heaters: $300
Windows & Skylights: 10 percent of cost, up to $200
Doors: 10 percent of cost, up to $500

Kass encourages people to think locally, too. "Many people may not realize there are also numerous incentive programs on a state and local level that can offer additional savings," she says. "We know it is often the issue of cost that prevents people from making efficiency changes and it is our goal to help inform consumers so they can offset as much of the expense as possible."

To learn more about local incentive programs in your state, customers can visit www.dsireusa.org. Information about available federal incentives and how to qualify can be found at www.energysavers.gov.

For more information about MXenergy, visit www.mxenergy.com.

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3 Painless Ways to Boost Cash Savings

September 2, 2011 12:59 pm

Having a stash of ready cash is a great way to pay for unexpected car repairs, a new spring wardrobe, or a much-needed weekend getaway. But saving isn’t easy, and some people are just not motivated—or disciplined enough—to put away money for a rainy day by the most traditional means: stashing part of every paycheck in a designated savings account.

Others fear they won’t have enough left to get through the month if they put away a percentage of every check before they start paying the bills.

If that describes you, says financial consultant Farnoosh Torabi, you may benefit from tricking yourself into stashing a few bucks in less traditional ways. She offers three fun ideas for stretching your savings without feeling the burn:

• Save dollars, not change – Open your wallet every night and remove one or two singles. Place them in a coffee can on your closet shelf or an envelope in your dresser drawer. Chances are you won’t miss the missing singles, but do it for a year and your little stash could amount to $500 or more.
• Tip yourself – If you skip a manicure and do it yourself—or mow your own lawn or paint your own living room, take the cash you would have spent on the service and add it to your secret stash. Try tipping yourself every time you drive a carpool or take out the trash—or whatever other chores you choose to reward—and watch your cash stash grow.
• Save the savings – When coupons lower the cost of your groceries by a couple bucks or more, set aside the amount you’ve ‘saved’ and dump it into your stash. The same holds true for the money you ’saved’ by buying a wanted item on sale instead of at its regular price—or not buying it all.
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Beware Of Flood Damage Scams in the Wake of Irene

September 2, 2011 12:59 pm

Water Damage Local.com, a nationwide network of water restoration providers, is advising people to beware of scam artists in the wake of Hurricane Irene. The recent storm sideswiped the Eastern Seaboard, causing devastation from the Carolinas to New England. Such a scenario is prime territory for those looking to separate desperate property owners from their money. 

Among the more nefarious scams to watch out for:
Insurance Fraud. A lot of people don’t have flood insurance, and as a result may be facing some fairly stiff repair costs. Some scammers pose as insurance agents, offering to write a policy that will cover the damage. Of course once they have the homeowner’s money, they vanish, never to be seen again. Residents should remember that no insurance company will write a policy to cover any damage that has already occurred. The time to take out flood insurance is, obviously, before the disaster strikes.
Contractor Scams. Following a disaster such as Irene, contractors will show up on doorsteps almost immediately, offering to repair the home or business. People falling for the scam will pay the scammer up front, usually for “materials,” only to find the person (and their money) vanishes almost immediately. The wise approach is to avoid any contractor who asks for money upfront, or who appears just a little too anxious to begin the work. Avoid the urge to get things done straight away and check references before hiring anybody.
Bogus Charities. These are as numerous in the disaster world as Tribbles on the Enterprise, with fly by night charitable organizations popping up to cash in on the unfortunate victims of natural disasters. Whatever they claim to represent, the only person who is going to benefit from the money donated is the scammer. Only make charitable contributions to reputable charities, with name recognition, such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army. If the charity calling you sounds legit, but their name is unfamiliar, give.org and charitynavigator.org are both excellent resources for verifying their claims.
E-mail Scams. This is the crazy first cousin to the Bogus Charity. Emails will show up claiming to be from a given organization, asking for a donation in the form of a credit card or bank account number. Of course if the number is given, the bank account is promptly drained or the card maxed out with charges in no time. These numbers should only be given out to persons or organizations that are familiar or trusted.
Facebook Scams. With the rise of social media comes the natural evolution of the scam artist to adapt to this new avenue of communication. This usually comes through the form of videos posted that ask for your personal information before they can be viewed. A scammer can do quite a bit of damage with just a person’s basic information. 

More than 40 million people are victims of scams every year, and the reason they keep cropping up is because people keep falling for them. Always verify the person you are doing business with, and report any fraudulent or suspicious activity to the police. 

For more information, visit www.WaterDamageLocal.com.
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