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Punxsutawney Phil to ‘Text’ His Groundhog Day Prediction

by Alexandra Zega

 Fans of Punxsutawney Phil, Pennsylvania’s world-famous weather-forecasting groundhog, can sign up to be among the first to know if there will be an early spring when he makes his annual prediction on February 2, 2010.

For the first time, Punxsutawney Phil’s followers can receive his official prediction via their mobile device by texting “Groundhog” to 247365 between now and February 2. After the initial text message, participants will be invited to submit their e-mail address to receive additional tourism-related messages.

“Punxsutawney Phil holds the fate of winter close to the vest and in his stump until daybreak on February 2, but the moment he emerges you can be among the first to learn of the forecast on your mobile phone,” said Mickey Rowley, deputy secretary for tourism at the Department of Community and Economic Development. “While we would love to have everyone come to the Pennsylvania Wilds to see Phil at Gobbler’s Knob, we don’t want anyone to miss his forecast.”

The text promotion was announced during Punxsutawney Phil’s annual visit to the Pennsylvania Farm Show. “Punxsutawney Phil’s popularity has grown so fast in the last few years. The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the perfect place for people to see him in person,” said Mike Johnston, vice president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

In addition to a text notification, a Webcast of the Groundhog Day festivities will be available at, including links to Punxsutawney Phil-related videos on YouTube.

In a tradition dating to the 1800s, Groundhog Day is celebrated each February 2 in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in the Pennsylvania Wilds. According to folklore, if the groundhog emerges in the early morning and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of wintry weather. If he does not see his shadow, there will be an early spring.

The more than 30,000 visitors who visit Punxsutawney each year for Phil’s prognostication can expand their experience by exploring the Groundhog Wine Trail or by staying in a bed-and-breakfast featuring a farm-to-table dining experience.

For more information, visit

In an effort to stabilize home values and improve conditions in communities where foreclosure activity is high, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan recently announced a temporary policy that will expand access to FHA mortgage insurance and allow for the quick resale of foreclosed properties. The announcement is part of the Obama administration’s commitment to addressing foreclosure. Secretary Donovan recently announced $2 billion in Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants to local communities and nonprofit housing developers to combat the effects of vacant and abandoned homes.

“As a result of the tightened credit market, FHA-insured mortgage financing is often the only means of financing available to potential home buyers,” said Donovan. “FHA has an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill its mission by helping many home buyers find affordable housing while contributing to neighborhood stabilization.”

With certain exceptions, FHA currently prohibits insuring a mortgage on a home owned by the seller for less than 90 days. This temporary waiver will give FHA borrowers access to a broader array of recently foreclosed properties.

“This change in policy is temporary and will have very strict conditions and guidelines to assure that predatory practices are not allowed,” Donovan said.

In today’s market, FHA research finds that acquiring, rehabilitating and reselling these properties to prospective homeowners often takes less than 90 days. Prohibiting the use of FHA mortgage insurance for a subsequent resale within 90 days of acquisition adversely impacts the willingness of sellers to allow contracts from potential FHA buyers because they must consider holding costs and the risk of vandalism associated with allowing a property to sit vacant over a 90-day period of time.

The policy change will permit buyers to use FHA-insured financing to purchase HUD-owned properties, bank-owned properties, or properties resold through private sales. This will allow homes to resell as quickly as possible, helping to stabilize real estate prices and to revitalize neighborhoods and communities.

“FHA borrowers, because of the restrictions we are now lifting, have often been shut out from buying affordable properties,” said FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens. “This action will enable our borrowers, especially first-time buyers, to take advantage of this opportunity.”

The waiver will take effect on February 1, 2010 and is effective for one year, unless otherwise extended or withdrawn by the FHA Commissioner. To protect FHA borrowers against predatory practices of “flipping,” where properties are quickly resold at inflated prices to unsuspecting borrowers, this waiver is limited to those sales meeting the following general conditions:

-All transactions must be arms-length, with no identity of interest between the buyer and seller or other parties participating in the sales transaction.
-In cases in which the sales price of the property is 20% or more above the seller’s acquisition cost, the waiver will only apply if the lender meets specific conditions.
-The waiver is limited to forward mortgages, and does not apply to the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) for purchase program.

For more information, visit

Sound Advice for Stretching Your Dollar in a Tight Economy

by Alexandra Zega

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, thrift is in. Surveys show that in 2010, a majority of Americans want to skinny expenses as much as they want to whittle their waistlines. But living on a budget doesn’t have to mean doing without. A little buying savvy can result in big savings, if you know how and where to trim costs, stretch resources and find deals.

Shop local
Don’t assume that smaller businesses always charge more than big chains. Aside from the money you’ll save on gas by shopping close to home (and the free personal service you’ll receive), local stores have plenty of specials and sales. Check newspaper ads,, and for coupons, and sign up at stores for e-mailed notices and mobile alerts of sales. (If you’re worried about spam, set up a free e-mail account at or

Learn the value of a phone call
If you’ve made home improvements such as adding a security system or replacing your roof, you may be eligible for lower homeowner premiums. Give your insurance provider a call. Taken a senior driver refresher course? Joined a car pool and driving less? Call your auto insurance agent to see if you quality for savings. Cellphone plan up for renewal? Visit for guides on switching providers and to compare plans and prices. Once you’ve found the best deal, call your current provider and see if they can match it.

Fix it free
Before you run up tech-support fees or call the Maytag repairman, check out free resources online. At, close to a half-million users offer solutions to technology questions. Computer techies hang out at and provide fixes for error messages, recalls and updates. “Check Engine” light on in your car? Visit for how-to videos and guides for simple auto fixes. At, you can learn how to do appliance repairs on your own. and list clear, easy-to-understand instructions for all types of projects. Be sure to check out Home Depot and Lowe’s hands-on home-improvement clinics.

Cut energy costs and get money from Uncle Sam
At, a do-it-yourself energy audit tool shows how much you’ll save by buying energy-efficient appliances. provides details on federal tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements. includes a home audit tool that helps homeowners save money on utility bills and find tax-credit-eligible products. You also can save by unplugging “vampires,” those small appliances that suck energy even when they’re off. Plug them into a power strip that you can turn off and on when needed. Still have those energy-eating incandescent light bulbs? Switch over to compact fluorescents.

Avoid credit card interest charges
At, make purchases from Web retailers without using credit cards. The site lets you pay directly from an online bank account.

Trim the fat from your grocery bills
Have some meals without meat. Try private-label and store-brand products. Most are made by the same companies as brand-name products. Shop discount grocers for low-cost staples. Combine sale prices with coupons for greater savings as often as possible. No time to clip and file coupons? Choose your top five most-purchased products (i.e., cereal, milk, eggs, laundry detergent and juice) and tear out just those alone. You’ll save as much as $20 each month. Take advantage of price matching. Bring in a competitor’s sale circular and ask if your store will match the deals. Check local store prices at, always get a rain check for out-of-stock advertised sale items and don’t bypass organic goods. As more organic products have become available, prices have gone down, in some cases selling for less than regular items.

Cut prescription costs
Always comparison-shop (prescription prices vary from store to store) and go generic when you can. Walmart and other discount, grocery and pharmacy chains offer 30-day supplies of hundreds of generic drugs for $10 or less. At, find lower-cost options to expensive drugs and compare prices at thousands of pharmacies. Ask your health-care provider for samples and/or coupons. Check for special offers and coupons from drug companies.

Get social
Facebook and Twitter aren’t just for teens anymore. Stores, airlines and companies now use social networking sites to promote deals and specials and offer free samples of new items. You’ll also find local bargains posted by area deal hunters.

Research equals savings
Before heading to a mall or outlet center, check websites for discounts, specials and coupons. Sign up for loyalty clubs. Watch for coupons on grocery store shelves and on the back of register receipts. Check those blue envelopes that arrive in the mail for savings on dry cleaning, restaurants, car repairs and other services. If you’re purchasing something online, check for the best price at or

Buy and sell secondhand
Find new and gently used items at consignment stores, and newspaper classified ads. Get rid of all that stuff in the basement and attic, and make some quick cash. Encourage your teens to do the same.

And last but not least, don’t buy anything you don’t need.


(c) 2010, K. Vann, The Hartford Courant

Taking the time to do a little preventative maintenance on household items is far less costly than having to replace a soiled carpet, broken vacuum cleaner or scratched TV.

The October 2009 issue of ShopSmart magazine, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, offers the following tricks to help your household products last throughout the years.


Clothes washer- Don’t overload it. That wears down the machine.
Dishwashers- Periodically remove any debris from the filter and the bottom of the machine.

Gas ranges- Inspect the burners regularly and clean the burner ports with a needle, but don’t touch the igniter.

Refrigerators and freezers- Clean door gaskets with water and mild detergent periodically. Vacuum the coils every few months, as they tend to collect dust, which lowers efficiency and raises energy costs.

Vacuum cleaners- Small objects such as coins can damage the power head and even the motor on some uprights, and string can wind its way around the rotating brush. Unplug the machine and dislodge items ASAP.


Digital cameras and camcorders- Use the strap to keep from dropping your camera, and stow the camera in a case when it’s not in use. Clean dirty lenses gently with a microfiber lens cloth and lens-cleaning fluid.

Laptop computers- Use them on a flat surface. Soft surfaces can block airflow and lead to overheating.

LCD TVs- Clean the screen gently with a soft, slightly damp cloth, ideally a microfiber one. Avoid cleaners and paper towels, which can cause scratches.

CDs and DVDs- If you have to clean one (avoid cleaning it unless it’s dirty), wipe it with a soft, lint-free cloth from the center to the outer edge.

Kitchen gear

Baking pans- Dry thoroughly after washing to prevent rust. Smearing a little vegetable oil onto the sides and bottom with a paper towel after each use will also work.

Knives- When they’re not in use, store them in a wooden knife block or individual plastic shields. Be sure to keep them out of the dishwasher as well- going through a cycle can cause pit blades and wooden handles to crack.

Nonstick pots- Hand-wash your pots, removing burned-on food with a plastic scrubber.

Stainless-steel flatware- Use a stainless cleaner to remove scratches and stains and restore shine. Scouring powder or steel wool can cause scratches and reduce stain resistance.

Teakettles- Remove mineral deposits from the interior by filling the kettle with equal parts white vinegar and water, bringing it to a boil, and allowing it to stand overnight.


 (c) 2009, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).

Tips on How to Stay Warm When Temperatures are Frigid

by Alexandra Zega

 Bone chilling temperatures have gripped much of the country recently and the American Red Cross urges everyone to be safe and prepare as much as possible.

Many are looking to cut down on expenses when temperatures drop and home-heating costs rise. “There is usually an increase in home fires at this time of year because of the use of candles and space heaters,” said Scott Conner, Red Cross senior vice president for Preparedness and Health and Safety Services. “We have steps people can follow to reduce their risk of starting a fire in their home, and still cut down on their heating bills.”

Heat your home safely
-All heaters need space. Keep things that can burn, such as paper, bedding or furniture, at least 3 feet away from heating equipment, fireplaces and stoves.
-Place portable space heaters on a hard, level, nonflammable surface. Do not put space heaters on rugs or carpets, near bedding or drapes, and keep children and pets away. Look for a model that shuts off automatically if the space heater tips over. Do not use heating equipment to dry wet clothing.
-Never use the stove or oven to heat your home.
-Never leave portable heaters, wood burning stoves or fireplaces unattended. Turn them off before leaving or going to bed.
-Keep the fire in the fireplace by using a glass or metal screen large enough to catch sparks and rolling logs.

Cut down on your heating bills
-Eliminate drafts. Use either insulating tape or caulking strips to surround windows and door moldings. Cover your windows with plastic sheeting. If you have storm windows or storm doors, get them up to keep the cold out.
-Make sure heat vents aren’t blocked by furniture.
-Turn down the thermostat.
-Close off any rooms that aren’t in use and close heat vents or turn off radiators in those rooms.
-Insulate your light switch and outlet plates with foam pads. Cold air can seep into the house through them.
-Use heavy curtains to keep cold air out. Open them during the day to let the sun help warm your home and close them at night. Use fabric snakes or old carpets in front of windows and doors to help eliminate drafts.
-Turn off vent fans in the kitchen and bathroom when they are no longer needed.
-Set ceiling fans to blow air down.

Don’t forget Fido and your neighbor
-Dress in several layers of lightweight clothing. Don’t forget gloves or mittens, and a hat, preferably one that covers your ears.
-Wear waterproof, insulated boots to keep your feet warm and dry and to maintain footing in ice and snow.
-Don’t forget your pets- bring them indoors. If that’s not possible, provide adequate shelter to keep them warm and make sure they can get to unfrozen water.
-Check on people who require special assistance such as elderly people living alone, people with disabilities and children.

For more information, visit

Shoppers Beware: January Is the Month for Bargains

by Alexandra Zega

 Got a trunk-load of holiday returns? Take back those ties, cologne and panini makers and make some practical purchases instead.

Here are the 5 best buys for January.

-In the past, bed linens were available in one color—white—and sales on sheets and towels took place primarily in January. Now bedding is available in more patterns and colors than our grandmothers could have imagined and stores discount merchandise year round. But the tradition of January white sales continues. This month is a great time to shop for sheets, blankets, towels, comforters, tablecloths, electric blankets, pillows and more.

-Don’t ignore the bins of marked-down holiday gift wrap and candles. With a little digging, you’ll uncover merchandise in white, green, gold and other solid colors that can be used any time.

-Planning to redecorate? New furniture appears on showroom floors in February, which means big sales on past-season merchandise this month, says Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of public relations and marketing for American Home Furnishing Alliance.

-The annual Consumer Electronics Show takes place in early January in Las Vegas, which means new cameras, televisions and other electronics will be appearing on store shelves in the spring. Now is the time to pick up last year’s models at discounted prices.

-If Santa dropped an engagement ring into your stocking this holiday season, savvy scheduling can help you avoid saying “I do” to a high-priced wedding. Plan your ceremony and reception (or any other event) for next January, February or March—the wedding industry’s slow season—and you’ll cut costs on facilities, flowers, entertainment and catering.


(c) 2010, By K. Vann, The Hartford Courant


Displaying blog entries 1-6 of 6

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