REMAX 440/Central Blog

Switching Banks on the Rise

February 28, 2012 2:12 am

Consumer backlash against bank fees, coupled with poor service and unmet customer expectations, has fueled increases in defection rates among customers of large, regional and midsize banks, according to a new study from J.D. Power and Associates.

As an increasing number of consumers switch from larger banks, smaller banks and credit unions continue to benefit, according to the 2012 U.S. Bank Customer Switching and Acquisition Study (SM).

Acquisition of new customers by smaller banks and credit unions has increased by 2.2 percentage points to an average of 10.3 percent in 2012 from 8.1 percent in 2011. Among big banks, regional banks and midsize banks, switching rates average between 10.0 and 11.3 percent, while the defection rate for small banks and credit unions averages only 0.9 percent, a significant drop from 8.8 percent in 2011.

The study, which examines the bank shopping and selection process, finds that 9.6 percent of customers in 2012 indicate they switched their primary banking institution during the past year to a new provider. This is up from 8.7 percent in 2011 and 7.7 percent in 2010.

The study finds that fees are the main reason customers shop for a new primary bank. In particular, one-third of customers of big and large regional banks cite fees as the main shopping trigger. When banks announce new fees, customers weigh the price they pay against the value of their experience. According to the study, a poor service experience followed by a fee increase is often the trigger that causes bank customers to look elsewhere. More than one-half of all customers who said fees were the main reason to shop for another bank also indicated that their prior bank provided poor service.

J.D. Power and Associates offers the following tips for customers looking to switch banks:
  • Shop around to compare terms and service before deciding on a bank. Don't forget about direct online banks, as their competitive fees and rates may offset any inconvenience due to lack of physical branches.
  • Don't be swayed by promotion gifts/cash alone. It is more important to ensure the bank that you are selecting offers the right products to meet your needs and that the fees associated with the products are in line with what you are willing to pay.
  • Read account brochures and disclosures carefully and don't be afraid to ask questions about the products you are about to open.
Source: J.D. Power and Associates

Published with permission from RISMedia.

Hard Water is Harsh on Appliances

February 27, 2012 2:12 am

Most Americans have hard water flowing through their plumbing, and it's taking a silent, but pricey toll on their water-using appliances and pipes, say the experts at Angie’s List.

"If you think you're not affected, think again: 85 percent of Americans have hard water," says Angie Hicks, founder of the website dedicated to consumer reviews of contractors and service companies. "Water with a high mineral count is really hard on your appliances and can take years off their useful lives."
Hicks advises that homeowners watch for the following red flags to see if their water is an issue:
  • Reduction in supply of hot water from a traditional tank water heater
  • Clothes are dingy or unclean after going through the washer
  • Calcium rings or deposits in tubs, sinks and dishwasher
  • Shower head and faucet clogs
  • Spotty or unclean dishes, glasses and flatware after the dishwasher has run
  • Water pipe leakage
Determining if you have hard water is simple and relatively inexpensive to address. Step one is to have your water analyzed, says Hicks. Some utilities and health departments offer this service, but companies that specialize in water conditioning also offer it, often free-of-charge. Because those companies have a vested interest in the outcome of such tests, consumers should consider getting at least one outside opinion.

Consumers have a few options when it comes to removing calcium and magnesium, the troublesome minerals that make water hard. Traditional water softeners use salt to remove those minerals. Devices that do not use salt to accomplish the same thing are often called "water conditioners" or "descalers."
Here are Angie's List tips for buying a water softener:
  • Water softeners can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 depending on size and type. Some companies offer rental equipment for a nominal monthly charge. Installation typically runs $150 to $300.
  • Before you buy a water softener or conditioner, research available products and service companies. Insist on a money-back guarantee.
  • In most states, installation does not require a licensed plumber. At a minimum, use a company with technicians certified by the Water Quality Association.
  • Understand and follow the maintenance required to keep the unit operating properly.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

Americans Prepare to Pay Even More at the Pump

February 27, 2012 2:12 am

Sticker shock at the pump is expected to get even worse in the coming years. According to a survey from the Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), 62 percent of Americans expect a gallon of gasoline to be $5 or more within the next five years. Eight in 10 Americans said that the country's dependence on foreign oil was either a "crisis" or "major problem" and that the cost had become a "burden."

Findings from the survey include:
  • 62 percent of Americans think a gallon of gas will cost $5 or more in the next five years. What's more, 31 percent believe it will be $6 or more and more than 1 in 10 (12.4 percent) believe it will be $7 or more.
  • 82 percent see our dependence on foreign oil as a "crisis" or "major problem" and where you fall in the political spectrum is largely irrelevant – this view applies to 85 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Independents.
  • 78 percent called the amount of money they spend on gasoline a "burden,” with nearly half saying a "serious burden" and nearly two-thirds reporting they are taking steps to save on gas costs.
  • 67 percent of Americans say they have taken steps in the last three years to save gasoline (such as buying a car with better gas mileage or changing their driving behavior). Even more than 60 percent of those making over $100,000 annually reported taking action to reduce their gasoline use.
  • 55 percent of Americans believe that efforts to make greater use of energy saving technologies that help our country do more with less have been "positive" because they save money over the long run and make our economy more productive and competitive. Twenty-five percent believe these efforts have been "negative" and 20 percent don't know/aren’t sure.
The AEE online survey of 1,004 adults was conducted from Dec. 6 through Dec. 7, 2011, by JZ Analytics.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

For Many, More Than Half of Income Spent on Housing

February 27, 2012 2:12 am

The share of working households paying more than half their income on housing rose significantly between 2008 and 2010 for both renters and owners, says a new study from the Center for Housing Policy. The “Housing Landscape 2012” annual report explores the latest Census data from 2008 to 2010 on housing costs and income, including housing cost burden data from the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Among other conclusions, “Housing Landscape 2012” finds that nearly one in four working households in the U.S. spends more than half of its total income on housing.

“Working households” are defined as those with a household income of no more than 120 percent of the area median income in which the household members worked an average of at least 20 hours per week for the preceding 12 months. Housing cost burden for working households grew over the two-year period studied largely due to falling incomes and rising rental housing costs. Report author Laura Williams says rents rose due to increased demand for rental housing, which has outstripped supply, partly due to the crisis on the homeownership side of the market.

For working homeowners over the same two-year period, incomes slid more than twice as much as housing costs. In fact, incomes for working homeowners fell even more sharply than they did for working renters. Additionally, the housing costs of most working homeowners are still tied to homes bought before the sharp drop in home prices and thus do not reflect today’s lower home purchase prices.

Following, are several key national findings from the report:
  • Nearly one in four working households spends more than half of its income on housing. The share of working households with a severe housing cost burden increased significantly between 2008 and 2010, rising from 21.8 percent to 23.6 percent.
  • Despite falling home prices and values, housing affordability worsened for working homeowners. Median housing costs for working homeowners declined modestly between 2008 and 2010. Meanwhile, the incomes of working homeowners declined even more, driven in large part by a decrease in the median number of hours worked per week between 2008 and 2010.
  • Working renters fared even worse, with both increased rents and decreased incomes between 2008 and 2010. While incomes increased somewhat between 2009 and 2010, over the two-year period renters saw a four percent decline in household income. The housing costs of renters rose over the two-year period by four percent.
Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the following five had the highest share of working households with a severe housing cost burden in 2010:
  • California - 34 percent
  • Florida - 33 percent
  • New Jersey - 32 percent
  • Hawaii - 30 percent
  • Nevada - 29 percent
Among the 50 largest metropolitan areas, the following five metropolitan areas had the highest share of working households with a severe housing cost burden in 2010:
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Fla. - 43 percent
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif. - 38 percent
  • San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif. - 37 percent
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif. - 35 percent
  • New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Pa. - 35 percent

Published with permission from RISMedia.

Spring into Gardening

February 24, 2012 2:08 am

As the first months of 2012 quickly tick by, now is the time to start thinking about your garden. By planning now, you’ll be ready to go once the season’s last frost is gone. The following tips from the experts at Preen can help you get a jumpstart on your season:
  • Investigate your shrubs. Winter weather may have wreaked havoc on shrubs and flowering bushes, so use this time to prune branches back to the next healthy joint or bud.
  • If you grow flowers from seeds, keep in mind that many plants need a big head start indoors. Petunias, impatiens, verbena and snapdragons should be planted indoors under lights, 10-12 weeks before the last spring frost.
  • Mustard, ragweed, henbit and many other pesky weeds start growing with the first hint of spring. Keep them from sprouting by applying a weed preventer two weeks before the ground begins to warm up.
  • Consider adding raspberries, blueberries, currants or other small fruits to your landscape. For the best selection, order dormant plants by mail. All should be planted in earliest spring as soon as the soil can be worked.
  • Grow your own micro-greens. Plant leftover broccoli, radish or basil seeds in a pot and grow on a sunny windowsill. Snip young plants with scissors for a pretty garnish or a spicy addition to a salad.
  • Take cuttings of geraniums, coleus, rosemary and other tender plants that you have overwintered indoors. Root them in water or in moist potting mix.
  • Most perennials benefit from being divided every few years. The best time to do this is earliest spring just as new growth appears. Think about the plants that are most in need of dividing and make a list of them so this task doesn’t get forgotten in the rush of spring.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

Top Kitchen Design Trends for 2012

February 24, 2012 2:08 am

A recent survey of more than 350 designer members of the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) revealed their top design trends for kitchens based on the materials, product types, and styles they incorporated into their kitchen designs over the final three months of 2011.

According to the results of the 2012 NKBA Design Trends Survey, while broad trends won’t be evident in every local market, the following represent overall trends for kitchens across the United States and Canada.

Cherry Wood in Decline

Cherry wood has consistently been the first or second most popular type of wood for cabinetry, jockeying for the top spot with maple each year. However, designers are slowly shifting away from it. While 80 percent of NKBA member kitchen designers had recently specified cherry cabinetry as 2010 approached, that figure dropped to 72 percent last year and fell again to 69 percent heading into 2012.

No one other wood species is taking that market share on its own, as even maple dropped in popularity this year, falling from 77 percent last year to 70 percent now. Instead, a number of lesser-used woods are being specified more often, including oak, which is specified by twice as many designers now (22 percent) versus two years ago (11 percent); walnut, which has increased from 3 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2011 to 13 percent today; birch, which is now specified by three times as many kitchen designers as it was a year ago (15 percent vs. 5 percent), and bamboo, which has doubled from 5 percent last year to 10 percent now. While alder is currently specified by 27 percent of kitchen designers, that figure is down from 30 percent last year and from 40 percent two years ago.

Darker Finishes

Natural kitchen cabinetry continues a steady move toward darker finishes. While light natural finishes have been recently specified by 30 percent of kitchen designers, medium natural finishes stand at 55 percent, with dark natural finishes at 58 percent. Two years ago, dark natural finishes were specified by only 43 percent of designers. Among painted cabinetry, white continues to be the most popular option, as white cabinets have been recently specified by 59 percent of NKBA member kitchen designers. Another trend to note is that distressed finishes are making a comeback.

Glass Backsplashes

Although glass remains a niche material for kitchen countertops, it’s been used recently by more than half of kitchen designers as a backsplash material, rising from 41 percent a year ago to 52 percent now. This trails only natural stone tile at 60 percent and ceramic tile (including porcelain), which has been specified of late by some 74 percent of designers. Even at that high rate, ceramic tile backsplashes are on the decline, as they stood at 78 percent a year ago and 88 percent two years ago. Other popular backsplash materials are granite at 30 percent and quartz at 20 percent.

LED Lighting
Energy-efficiency is clearly not a fad, but a real trend that can be seen taking hold in homes across the United States and Canada. Despite the higher initial cost, light-emitting diode (LED) lighting is proof of this trend. Specified by 50 percent of NKBA member kitchen designers entering 2010, that rate increased to 54 percent the following year and has jumped over the past year to 70 percent. However, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) aren’t sharing in this trend. Although they use roughly a quarter the energy of an incandescent bulb when producing the same amount of light, measured in lumens, the poor color of the light they produce and the presence of mercury in these bulbs are keeping them out of newly remodeled kitchens, falling from 36 percent last year to 26 percent today.

Pull-Out Faucets

Pull-out kitchen faucets have become established as the dominant type of kitchen faucet. Designers are increasingly eschewing the standard faucet with a detached side spray in favor of pull-out models that integrate the two functions into a single unit. The use of pull-out faucets has increased from 88 percent to 91 percent to 93 percent. In other words, 14 of out every 15 designers who designed a kitchen over the final three months of 2011 incorporated a pull-out faucet. These versatile models might also be mitigating the need for pot-filler faucets, which have recently been specified by just 28 percent of designers, down from 41 percent two years ago.


Published with permission from RISMedia.

February Reveals a Slow, Steady Path to Recovery

February 24, 2012 2:08 am

Yesterday, Freddie Mac released its U.S. Economic and Housing Market Outlook for February, showing cautious signs of the economy and housing market moving in a positive direction. The report attributes this good news to the current environment of low interest rates and more favorable job prospects.

Freddie Mac compiles data on major economic and housing and mortgage market indicators and offers forecasts based on those indicators. Highlights from the report include:
  • Job gains exceeded expectations for the past two months, but those leaving their jobs voluntarily were 2 million in December compared to the pre-recession average of 3 million, reflecting worker uneasiness.
  • The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent; and weekly unemployment benefits applications decreased for the third consecutive week to 348,000, the fewest since the first week in March 2008.
  • More warmth is expected in the housing market sometime in 2013 as the economy continues on its slow path to a stronger recovery in a low-interest-rate environment.
  • Low mortgage rates will continue to keep homebuyer affordability high and help drive more HARP refinances.
  • Consumer sentiment weakened in January although home builder confidence continued to show signs of growth.
According to Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac, vice president and chief economist, "The U.S. economy continues to build on the momentum from the end of last year. Our outlook anticipates gradual but steady improvement in the economy and the housing market, supported by low interest rates and brightening job market prospects."

Published with permission from RISMedia.

How to Close the Income Inequality Gap

February 23, 2012 2:00 am

If you feel you’re one of the many being unfairly compensated while others continue to build wealth, there is something you can do about it says Trevor Bolin, author of “Take Charge and Change Your Life Today.”

“I went from the bottom 10 percent at age 17 to the top 2 percent at 28 by making some changes in my life,” says Bolin, who owns three realty companies in British Columbia.

“The system is very simple, but not all of the steps are easy. It requires self-discipline and changing bad habits, but it’s all possible if you follow the steps.”

Bolin’s strategies include:
Commit. Vow right now that you will follow through 100 percent on every step you take toward changing your life, whether it’s making more money, losing weight or becoming a better parent. Commit to succeeding, not just surviving. Know that luck has nothing to do with it – it’s hard work, attitude and giving back. Committing 100 percent means that, if you decide to read a book on investing, you won’t quit after three chapters. If your goal is to drop 20 pounds, don’t stop after 10.
Change your attitude. Just as negative thoughts have the power to negatively affect outcomes, so do positive thoughts. Start each day with positive thoughts, and change negative thoughts to positive ones throughout the day. This may be hard at first, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. Remind yourself each morning of all the good things in your life – your health, your home, your spouse. Tell yourself that your meeting today is going to be engaging and productive, or your job interview is going to go well.
Figure out your “Y.” Your Y is your reason for everything. It’s shaped by the past, formatted for the present and goal-formatted for the future. It’s reflected in every decision you make. If you don’t know your Y, your decisions will be made on the basis of habit, what you learned growing up, and what your immediate needs are. But if you’ve decided your Y is that you want the peace and security of financial success, you’ll be guided by that every time you make a choice.
Set goals. On a piece of paper write down all of your goals, short-term and long-term. Next, number them 1, 3, 5, 10 or 20 based on how many years it should take to achieve them. Now, take your top five 1 goals and write down why you want them and how you plan to achieve them. Do the same thing for each set of goals. Having goals is vital and keeping them in front of you will help keep you on track toward achieving them. Most important – be sure to cross each one off as you achieve it. Take it from me, there’s no better feeling. 

“It’s all about having a plan,” says Bolin. “You can create success as long as you’re putting a plan into motion.”

Published with permission from RISMedia.

8 Ways to Scam-Proof Your Next Vacation Home Rental

February 23, 2012 2:00 am

While renting a home instead of booking a hotel room has become a hugely popular choice for vacationers, there is a rising occurrence of vacation home scams to watch out for says Christine Karpinski, author of “How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition.” However, taking certain precautions can greatly reduce this risk. Karpinski offers the following eight tips to help you safely book your vacation home in today’s environment: 

• Beware of super-cheap rates. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The most common way scammers work is by enticing a large number of travelers in a short period of time. They do this by low-balling the rental rates.
• Do some digging to make sure the owner really is the owner. Many states make it easy to look up property tax records. Google the property appraiser in the county where the property is located to make sure the person you are renting from actually owns the property. You might also Google the homeowner’s association and look for a phone number on the website. Call the HOA and ask if the owners really are the owners.
• Cyber-stalk the owner. Do some cross-referencing across various websites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so forth. Make sure the place of residence (where the owner lives—not where the vacation home is located) is the same as the information the owner provided. 

Also, Karpinski suggests Googling the phone number listed on the advertisement. Many property owners and managers list their homes on many different websites. If you Google the phone number listed on the ad in this format XXX XXX-XXX (area code, space, first three digits, dash, last four digits) many other websites that the property is listed on should show up in search results.
• Look for clues in the reviews. When you are reading the reviews of the property (either on the vacation rental website or on other sites such as, there are sometimes references to the owners’ names. A review might say something like: “Thanks, Tom and Christine, for allowing us to rent your lovely home…” If the names in the reviews do NOT match the name of the person renting the home to you, it could be a sign that something is not right.
• Speak with the owner via phone. Sure, it’s possible to be scammed over the phone. However, it’s usually easier to fool someone when you’re communicating via type. If the owner sounds warm and engaging and seems to know her stuff, you’re probably okay. If she sounds guarded or uncertain, you might have reason to worry. Also, says Karpinski, when you get someone on the phone, you can ask specific questions—and listen carefully to the answers.
• Pay only by credit card. Don’t use PayPal, don’t send a personal check, and NEVER, EVER pay by wire transfer, advises Karpinski.
• Go with one of the major vacation rental websites. You’re probably safest choosing a site like HomeAway, VRBO, FlipKey, or Airbnb. Of course, a respected name doesn’t guarantee a 100 percent safe transaction—there have been instances of owners having their email accounts hijacked by scammers—but the major websites tend to have better safeguards in place.
• Listen to your gut…it’s often right. Do your research. Call the property owner. Listen carefully to everything he or she has to say. If something just feels “off,” move on to another property, advises Karpinski.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

Unfairly Foreclosed Upon? Deadline to Request Review Now Extended

February 23, 2012 2:00 am

For those who believe they might have suffered financial injury as a result of errors in foreclosure actions on their homes in 2009 or 2010, the deadline for submitting requests for review under the Independent Foreclosure Review has been extended to July 31, 2012. The announcement of the extension was made yesterday by The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (Federal Reserve). The deadline extension provides more time to increase awareness of how eligible people may request a review through the Independent Foreclosure Review process and to encourage the broadest participation possible. 

As part of enforcement actions issued in April 2011, the OCC, Federal Reserve, and the Office of Thrift Supervision required 14 large mortgage servicers to retain independent consultants to conduct a comprehensive review of foreclosure activity in 2009 and 2010 to identify borrowers who may have been financially injured due to errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies in the foreclosure process. If the review finds that financial injury occurred, the borrower may receive compensation or other remedy.
Borrowers are eligible for an Independent Foreclosure Review if they meet the following basic criteria:
• The mortgage loan was serviced by one of the participating mortgage servicers.
• The mortgage loan was active in the foreclosure process between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010.
• The property securing the mortgage loan was the borrower's primary residence.
Participating mortgage servicers include: America's Servicing Company, Aurora Loan Services, BAC Home Loans Servicing, Bank of America, Beneficial, Chase, Citibank, CitiFinancial, CitiMortgage, Countrywide, EMC, Everbank/Everhome Mortgage Company, Financial Freedom, GMAC Mortgage, HFC, HSBC, IndyMac Mortgage Services, MetLife Bank, National City Mortgage, PNC Mortgage, Sovereign Bank, U.S. Bank, Wachovia Mortgage; Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo; and Wilshire Credit Corporation.

For more information, visit

Published with permission from RISMedia.

search for homes in southeast pennsylvania search for homes in lehigh valley