REMAX 440/Central Blog

Finding the Perfect Christmas Tree

December 6, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 6, 2010--Last year, Americans bought a total of 28.2 million natural Christmas trees to decorate their home, with one in five families opting to cut their own. Visiting a tree farm to pick out your own can be a wonderful holiday tradition for the entire family to partake in. Regardless of where you purchase your tree, the National Christmas Tree Association offers the following information regarding tree types so that you can pick the perfect tree for you and your family.

Balsam fir. These trees are known for their wonderful fragrance and needle retention. Easy on the house and on the eyes, Balsam firs are also one of the least expensive trees you'll find. A Frasier fir is a nice tree to consider as well, says Plant Talk, the official blog for the New York Botanical Garden. They have a nice blue-green tint to them, and with its branches turn slightly upward, they ship nicely even after being tied up. Since they're in the fir family, they also share the Balsam's nice aromas and strong branches.

Blue spruce. Many consumers consider blue spruce trees to be the best looking tree you can buy. The downside: they're infamous for needle shedding. The branch structure may not be as sturdy and dependable as a fir, but if visual aesthetic is what you're looking for, a blue spruce is high on your option list.

Scotch pine. Yet another popular choice, scotch pines are known for their exceptionally bright green color and excellent needle retention (they rarely fall, even when dry). The branch structure can be questionable. If you have many remarkably heavy or expensive ornaments, choose a different tree.

Additional tips: When picking out a tree, be sure to run your arm along the branches to test their strength. Avoid any tree that appears to have bugs or rotting. Make sure to keep in mind that your tree be at least one foot shorter than the ceiling in the display room (the stand will always add extra height). Keep your tree away from any heating vents, and as always, be sure to turn off the lights whenever you leave the home.


Mortgage Interest Deduction Vital to Homeownership and Economy, According to NAR President

December 6, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 6, 2010--The following is a statement by National Association of REALTORS President Ron Phipps.

"As the leading advocate for housing and homeownership issues, NAR firmly believes that the mortgage interest deduction (MID) is vital to the stability of the American housing market and economy.

"The MID must not be targeted for change. NAR is actively engaged on behalf of the nations 75 million homeowners and 1.1 million REALTORS to ensure that the current deduction is not modified as was recommended in the Deficit Reduction Commission report recently released.

"The tax deductibility of interest paid on mortgages is a powerful incentive for homeownership and has been one of the simplest provisions in the federal tax code for more than 80 years. In a new survey commissioned by NAR and conducted online in October 2010 by Harris Interactive of nearly 3,000 homeowners and renters, nearly three-fourths of homeowners and two-thirds of renters said the mortgage interest deduction was extremely or very important to them.

"Recent progress has been made in bringing stability to the housing market and any changes to the MID now or in the future could critically erode home prices and the value of homes by as much as 15 percent, according to our research. This would negatively impact homeownership for millions of Americans, including those who own their homes outright and have no mortgage.

"Any further downward pressure on home prices will hamper the economic recovery, raise foreclosures and hurt banks abilities to lend and likely tip the economy into another recession resulting in further job losses for the country. It will effectively close the door on the American dream.

"NAR will remain vigilant in opposing any plan that modifies or excludes the deductibility of mortgage interest."


HUD to Make 25 Million Dollars in Grants Available to Promote Affordable Housing and Economic Development in Rural Communities

December 6, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 6, 2010--The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that $25 million in grants is available to help rural and tribal communities struggling to address distressed housing conditions and concentrated poverty.In a speech to the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said HUDs new Rural Innovation Fund will promote an "entrepreneurial approach" to affordable housing and economic development in rural areas.

"All across this country, there are rural and tribal communities with forward-thinking plans on how to address their housing and employment challenges and we need to support this innovation," said Donovan."These grants will stimulate new approaches to old problems, particularly in areas struggling with poor housing conditions and deep poverty."

HUDs new Rural Innovation Fund offers grants of up to $2 million to support innovative housing and economic development activities.Eligible applicants include federally recognized Indian tribes, state housing finance agencies (HFAs), state community development agencies, local rural nonprofit organizations, community development corporations, or consortia of these groups.Grantees can use their grant funding to support a variety of housing and economic development activities including construction, preparation of plans, land acquisition, demolition, homeownership counseling and financial assistance.

Applicants may apply for only one of three grant types:

Single Purpose Grants At least $7.5 million will be awarded to certain applicants that identify a specific area of need, with maximum individual grants of up to $300,000. HUD is encouraging, though not requiring, applicants to address both housing and economic development needs within the defined "project area."

Comprehensive Grants HUD will award up to $2 million to certain applicants that comprehensively examine the social, housing and economic needs of a target area and address those needs through activities that leverage other sources of public and private financing. Eligible activities under this category of grant are broader than those outlined in the Single Purpose Grant category. Highly ranked applicants can also be expected to work closely and leverage resources with regional entities in order to promote economic competitiveness beyond the local level.

Economic Development and Entrepreneurship for Federally Recognized Tribes At least $5 million will be awarded to support economic development and entrepreneurship opportunities for federally recognized tribes, with maximum individual grants up to $800,000.

HUD anticipates posting its funding notice on Grants.gov by December 10th. The posting on grants.gov will begin the solicitation of grant applications.

For more information, visit www.hud.gov.


What to Do if Icy Weather Cuts Your Power

December 3, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 3, 2010--With inevitable freezing temperatures in our near-future, it is important to understand what you can do to keep safe and warm when icy weather decides to strike. Oncor has begun preparations for possible icy conditions by keeping an eye on the weather and alerting crews to be ready to restore power. They recommend that consumers follow these helpful tips to stay safe and speed restoration:

Safety Always avoid downed power lines. Any downed line should be considered energized and, therefore, dangerous. Report downed lines immediately by calling the number on your electric bill and stay out of the immediate area. If you are trapped inside a vehicle, stay inside the car. Call 911 for assistance.

Avoid debris that may conceal downed power lines and make sure there are no downed lines before allowing children out to play.

Steer clear of crew work areas. Equipment and energized lines may be in the area that could create a safety hazard. When driving, watch for crews working along the roadways, and obey all traffic signs and directions around work areas.

Dont attempt to make repairs to any electrical systems or pull limbs off lines.

Be careful when using portable heaters or other supplemental heating. Never place heaters near flammable materials or where they might tip over. Use fire screens to prevent sparks and embers from causing problems.

Exercise extreme caution if using candles during a power outage. Always keep candles away from flammable objects and never leave them burning unattended.

Restoration If your power goes out, dont assume the electric company knows. Call the phone number on your electric bill to alert them of the problem.

Leave porch lights on to show crews where power has been restored.

Be patient. When major outages occur, crews focus on restoring power to transmission lines and distribution lines that feed neighborhoods before working on distribution lines that feed directly to homes and businesses. However, be assured that these crews are working as quickly and safely as possible to restore power to customers.

To be prepared, keep flashlights, battery-operated radios, and a supply of food and water close by.

If the weather interrupts electrical service, customers are urged to call the number on their electric bill. This line is answered by an automated system designed to handle power outage calls. The most efficient way for customers to report outages is to leave all information on this system.

If icy conditions knock down power lines in your neighborhood this winter season, contact your electric company as soon as possible. For more information regarding power lines and safety, visit http://www.oncor.com/.


Strong Rebound in Pending Home Sales

December 3, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 3, 2010--Pending home sales jumped in October, showing a positive uptrend since bottoming in June, according to the National Association of REALTORS.

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator, rose 10.4% to 89.3 based on contracts signed in October from 80.9 in September. The index remains 20.5% below a surge to a cyclical peak of 112.4 in October 2009, which was the highest level since May 2006 when it hit 112.6.

Last October, first-time buyers were motivated to make offers before the initial contract deadline for the tax credit last November. The data reflects contracts and not closings, which normally occur with a lag time of one or two months.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said excellent housing affordability conditions are drawing home buyers. "It is welcoming to see a solid double-digit percentage gain, but activity needs to improve further to reach healthy, sustainable levels. The housing market clearly is in a recovery phase and will be uneven at times, but the improving job market and consequential boost to household formation will help the recovery process going into 2011," he said.

"More importantly, a return to more normal loan underwriting standards and removal of unnecessary underwriting fees for very low risk borrowers is needed and could quickly help in the housing and economic recovery," Yun said. Recent loan performance data from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac clearly demonstrates very low default rates on recently originated mortgages, much lower than the vintages of 2002 and 2003 before the housing boom.

Near term, Yun expects home sales will continue to climb from their cyclical low this past summer. "Even so, we now have some consumer concerns regarding the mortgage interest deduction, an important component in housing affordability," he said. "Preliminary results of a new survey show nearly three out of four home owners and two out of three renters consider the mortgage interest deduction to be extremely or very important to them. Home owners already pay between 80 and 90% of all federal income taxes and additional tax burden would hurt them and the economic recovery, so we have a reasonable hope that it will not be changed."


Recovery Act Funding Prevented or Ended Homelessness for Over 750,000, Says HUD

December 3, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 3, 2010U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced that homelessness for 750,000 Americans was prevented or ended, thanks to HUDs Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The program provided $1.5 billion to local communities to keep families in their homes or help them find other affordable housing after a sudden financial crisis, which might have otherwise led to homelessness.

"Preventing or ending homelessness for over 750,000 Americans is a major milestone for the Recovery Act and for the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," said Secretary Donovan. "Often times, a little bit of financial assistance can make all the difference between finding or keeping a stable home and being forced to live in a shelter or on the streets."

HUD requires each grantee to participate in its local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), where client-level data is entered and collected on the households served through HPRP on a quarterly basis. The grantee and/or sub-grantee compiles the reported data and provides HUD with an unduplicated count of person and households served in the reporting quarter and date, as well as whether the household exited the program to stable housing. On an annual basis, HUD captures additional detailed data from the grantees that is published in the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report.

The Recovery Act provided $1.5 billion to fund HPRP, which was a new program created specifically under the Recovery Act. These grants offer communities a resource to provide short- and medium-term rental assistance and services to prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless or to quickly re-house those who are experiencing homelessness.

Grants provided under HPRP are not intended to provide long-term support for individuals and families, nor do they provide mortgage assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure. Rather, HPRP offers short- and medium-term financial assistance and services to those who would otherwise become homeless, and those who are already in homeless shelters or living on the street, many due to sudden economic crisis. This can include short-term rental assistance (up to three months), medium-term rental assistance (up to 18 months), security deposits, utility deposits and/or utility payments, moving cost assistance, and hotel vouchers.Payments will not be made directly to households, but only to third parties, such as landlords or utility companies. The goal of the program is to increase housing stability for those individuals and families served with HPRP assistance.

Secretary Donovan and the Department are committed to providing the highest level of transparency possible as Recovery Act funds are administered. It is vitally important that the American people are fully aware of how their tax dollars are being spent and can hold their federal leaders accountable.

For more information, visit www.hud.gov.


The Ins and Outs of Gift Card Terms

December 2, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 2, 2010--With Thanksgiving behind us and December in full-swing, consumers everywhere are joining the shopping craze. Like most holiday seasons, gift cards remain an ever-popular option for gift-giving, but are you aware of the details involved? In order to be sure you're getting the most out of your money, Bankrate offers the following questions to ask yourself to make sure your recipient gets the most out of your gift:

Where can the card be used? Most gift cards can only be used at one store or one group of stores. A credit card-branded gift card is generally good wherever that card is accepted. Your recipient can use the card to suit their needs or liking and would be free from being tied down with their options. Another option you can seek out is a packaged-deal card. Some retailers team up to offer multiple products packaged together as one gift. These can be unique gift ideas surely suitable for someone on your list this year.

Are there any fees attached? With a regular retailer card, all of the money you spend goes directly on the card. Bank-branded cards, though flexible in usage, may have a transaction fee attached, which could range from $2.95-$5.95, depending on the card. No matter what decision you make, the Credit CARD Act guarantees that your recipients won't be charged for at least the first year, however, it's still important to understand the terms and fees attached before you purchase.

Are you buying from a legitimate vendor? Be careful with online sellers offering huge discounts to major retailers, warns KOMO News. Even though some may be legit, others are most likely ghost sites only looking for your credit card information. In addition to this, if you are buying a card that was hanging from a rack, make sure the scratch-off PIN number is in tact. You don't want yourself, or your recipient, to become the victim of fraud.

What happens if the card is lost or stolen? The Credit CARD Act significantly aids consumers with lost or stolen cards. Since its passing, the Credit CARD Act ensures that recipients can get a replacement card for the unused amount at no charge. A receipt is necessary for verification, but gift cards no longer have to follow the "lost and gone forever" policy. For this reason alone, it's extremely beneficial to stick with reputable vendors when making your gift card purchases. If you are buying from a local retailer or small business, ask about their policies. They may vary by store.

Gift cards are a great idea for those recipients who seemingly have it all, and they are fun to receive. But before you buy, make sure you understand all the terms and finer print so you can be sure to get the most bang for your buck.


5 Ways to Slash Your Heating Bills

December 2, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 2, 2010--Temperatures are plummeting and thermostats are rising. Some homeowners might not be able to avoid it, but there are many ways you can cut your energy bill this season. From GreenerChoices.org, a Web-based initiative that informs consumers about environmentally friendly practices, here are five low- and no-cost moves to help you save money, while staying comfortable and warm at the same time. 1. Add insulation. Adding insulation and weather stripping can slash your annual energy costs up to 30% by keeping out the cold and minimizing the stack effect. Start by sealing large gaps around the chimney, furnace flue, plumbing pipes, ductwork, light fixtures and soffits in your attic. Then lay insulation between attic-floor joists and on the hatch or door, or add more if it's already there. Look for insulation thats become dirty, a sign of air movement that reveals other gaps you must fill. Also insulate ducts running through the attic. 2. Seal up the leaks. Caulking and weather-stripping cracks and gaps around your home are some of the most cost-effective steps you can take to conserve heat. Focus on the attic, basement, windows and doorways. Also check near pipes, vents or electrical conduits that go through the wall, ceiling or floor. When sealing leaks, use no-VOC or low-VOC caulking to minimize potentially harmful indoor gases. 3. Program thermostats for savings. Shave up to 20% off your heating costs by lowering the thermostat 5F at night and 10F during the day if no one is home. Most electronic setback thermostats let you set different schedules for weekdays and weekends. Some automatically switch from heating to cooling, and many tell you when it's time to change your furnace or air-conditioner filter. 4. Save money on hot water. Insulating hot-water pipes and lowering the temperature on your water heater from 130 to 120 can help you save up to 5% on your energy bills. 5. Shorten showers. Showers account for two-thirds of your water-heating costs, so even shaving off a few minutes can help. Replacing a showerhead thats more than 12 years old with a low-flow model can save up to half the hot water used for showering.

By heeding the advice of these five tips, you can easily reduce your heating bills throughout the entire winter season.


Keep Costs in Check when Creating a Master Suite

December 2, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 2, 2010--Adding a master suite to your home can be your own personal safe haven. With no children and no stress, your master suite can be a place for you to kick back, relax and enjoy some peace and quiet.

According to Remodeling magazine's Cost vs. Value Report, a 16-by-24-foot addition to a house, including midrange features, costs a national average of $103,600. Costs will vary depending on the location of your home and the various decisions made throughout the upgrading process. With the right planning, you can create a suite that suits your budget, but still offers the relaxation you're looking for.

If you're extending outward, understand that giving up yard space, pouring a foundation, framing, excavating, etc, are all included in the process. You'll need the help of roofers, plumbers, and more, in order to successfully complete the task. You'll also need building inspections and zoning approval from your town or city, along with expanded heating and cooling systems, and maybe even upgraded electrical panels or water heaters. Keep all of this in mind when planning your budget for features and finishes--it will be easy to over-extend your finances.

To cut down on costs, consider taking advantage of the space you already have. HouseLogic suggests the following, which may save you between 20-60% on your addition:

  • Think 'up': Building your master suite on top of ground floor space can equal significant savings. Consider building on top of a garage or other previous addition to avoid having to add more pesky (and expensive) foundation.
  • Use any space you can: Do you have a guest bedroom or second bathroom that is rarely used? Incorporate that into your plans. If you can tap into existing water and sewer lines, you'll save thousands.
  • Finish the unfinished: Converting an unfinished spot in your home is the best way to go. Basements, attics or even garages can be converted to become part of your master suite. You'll avoid building a foundation, exterior walls and a roof--the savings will be tremendous.

The most important thing for upgrading homeowners to do is stay realistic. Don't assume that your addition will necessarily increase your home's value. (Remodeling magazine reports that the average nationwide master suite paid back 65% of its cost.) However, if you can afford to do so, adding a brand new suite could be invaluable to your life in the future.


Tips for Using Portable Generators Efficiently and Safely

December 1, 2010 10:29 am

RISMEDIA, December 1, 2010--When storms terrorize your neighborhood, knocking out the power for indefinite periods of time, portable electric generators are a great idea to keep the electricity flowing. Especially during this time of year, portable generators can keep your house warm should you lose power on a cold, chilly night.

Despite the many pros to using generators, there are a few common dangers that should be avoided in order to ensure safety while running a generator, including carbon monoxide poisoning, fire and electrocution or electrical shock. The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) and Reliance Controls offer the following tips for safe usage and warn against the improper use and installing of portable generators:

  • Never use a gasoline-powered generator inside your home or garage. High levels of carbon monoxide are generated quickly and opening doors or windows will not prevent build-up. Always use your generator outdoors and away from the home and open windows. Use a carbon monoxide detector to monitor the levels of hazardous gas.
  • Store generator fuel safely. Keep it away from living areas and fuel-burning appliances. Properly label your containers as well. Make sure the generator is off and cooled down before attempting to refill it.
  • Check the extension cords you plan on using beforehand. Make sure they are rated for the load, free of cuts or worn insulation and have three-pronged plugs.
  • Be careful not to overload the generator. Only use it when absolutely necessary to power essential appliances.

Another ESFI recommendation is that you do not connect your generator directly into your household wiring without an appropriate transfer switch being installed. A transfer switch is an electrical device that is permanently installed near the service panel in your home. It prevents the utility power and the generator power from powering your household circuits at the same time. A transfer switch also eliminates the possibility of backfeeding, which is when generator power travels back up the utility service line. Backfeeding can result in fires and serious injury or even death to you, utility workers or electricians working on nearby electrical systems.

"Transfer switches have been around a long time, but we find that a lot of people still don't know what they are, or they don't think they're necessary," said Jeff Flegel, with Reliance Controls Corporation. "A transfer switch is easy to install, can spare a lot of heartache and is an essential safeguard to protect families and property."

The National Electrical Code, which sets national standards intended to minimize the possibility and effects of fire and other risks, requires that transfer switches be used with all portable generators supplying alternate power to a home or business.

"This is the time of year when many people rely on portable generators for their homes, and many times they're putting themselves at risk by not installing or using the generator properly," said Brett Brenner, President of the Electrical Safety Foundation International. "People are in such a hurry to keep the heat, lights and television on, the refrigerator running, or the basement's sump pump operating, they don't think about the potentially devastating consequences of hooking up a generator incorrectly."

For more on transfer switches and generator safety, visit www.transferswitches.com.


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