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Around the Home – Should Your Walls go Black?

by Alexandra Zega

87692161 Black walls are popping up in upscale shelter magazines, hipster design blogs and just about everywhere in between. Witness the black dining room at the Benjamin Moore paints website, where “Black Satin” is one of the featured “Colors for Your Home, 2009.”

“It’s funny how these things get in the air, isn’t it?” says Stephen Drucker, editor-in-chief of House Beautiful, which recently showcased black rooms from the home of designer Windsor Smith. “It took us very much by surprise, but we did suddenly start to see a lot of it.”

Explanations range from the economic (dark colors reflect the recession) to the aesthetic, with Apartmenttherapy.com founder Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan saying that people are tired of Scandinavian minimalism and are seeking bolder, darker, more traditional interiors.

And then there’s that brown wall thing. Dark brown walls have enjoyed a niche appeal for about four years, but with that color now going mainstream, designers are on the prowl for a new dark and daring option. Or, as Gillingham-Ryan puts it, “Black is the new brown.”

Drucker recently answered our pressing questions about black walls, chief among them: Should we ever, ever attempt this at home?

Q: Black walls? Are you sure this is a good idea for grown-ups?
A:
Excuse me, what about the little black dress? What color is more associated with being chic and sophisticated and modern than black?

Q: Who should consider black walls?
A:
Someone who sees them and falls in love with them. Black is not for the faint of heart. But it’s more versatile than you might think it is. It could be really great in any kind of library or game room or man-cave kind of situation. Let’s say you had a bathroom with a lot of white tile, or maybe a little black-and-white tile, and only a little wall space. It could be really beautiful there.

Q: Can you use black in small spaces?
A:
Sure, dark colors are the best colors to use in small spaces. Dark colors make the corners disappear. Use dark colors in a small room and you’ll never think of it as small again. While this is totally counterintuitive, when you paint a small room a dark color, the corners disappear. You lose all sense of how big it is.

Q: What’s the safest way to try black?
A:
If you’re not a professional designer, the safest thing is in a room with a lot of white trim. If you use pale blue upholstery or, depending on your taste, pink or stripes, it could be really chic.

Black basics
-If your walls aren’t smooth, be prepared to patch and sand, or just avoid glossy black, says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan of apartmenttherapy.com. A matte or satin finish will hide imperfections.
-Keep it crisp with clean, white trim. And make sure those whites are spotless.
-To get the richness that you want from black walls, use a really good dark-tone primer or be prepared to use several coats of paint.
-Want the style without the full commitment? Consider painting a hallway black, says Gillingham-Ryan.
-Add a little something shiny to the room to bounce light around and give a nod to fashion. Imagine silver or brass buttons on a tailored black jacket. Metal accents or even a mirror will work.

(c) 2009, By Nara Schoenberg, Chicago Tribune.

Carving the Meaning Out of Thanksgiving Traditions

by Alexandra Zega

87810310Friends and families will gather tomorrow to celebrate Thanksgiving and partake in their annual traditions. Whether they spend the day eating turkey, enjoying a parade, baking pies, watching football or all of the above, Americans know how Thanksgiving works. Or so they think.

“Year after year, friends and families get together to observe Thanksgiving and follow their annual traditions,” said Conal Byrne, Editor-in-Chief, HowStuffWorks.com. “Few people understand why they are giving thanks, eating turkey or making cranberry sauce; they assume it is their family’s tradition. The truth is that Thanksgiving traditions have been influenced by many different cultures over the centuries.”

This fall, HowStuffWorks.com, an award-winning, credible online resource that provides easy-to-understand information and explanation for thousands of topics, offers curious Thanksgiving guests something else to be thankful for: a cornucopia of little-known facts from an article titled, “How Thanksgiving Works,” which might make this year’s celebration even more meaningful.

The Pilgrims and Indians were not the first to celebrate “Thanksgiving.” Every autumn, the ancient Greeks enjoyed a three-day festival to honor Demeter, the goddess of corn and grains. The Romans had a similar celebration in which they honored Ceres, the goddess of corn.

You thought Grandma’s cornucopia was ancient. The cornucopia actually dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In Greek mythology, the cornucopia is an enchanted severed goat’s horn, created by Zeus to produce a never-ending supply of whatever the owner desires.

Thanksgiving Day parades began as a marketing technique. The tradition of Thanksgiving parades goes back to the early 20th century, when people began to associate Thanksgiving with the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. In order to attract customers, stores like Macy’s sponsored elaborate parades like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Turkey pardons date as far back as the 1800s. The tradition is thought to be connected to Abraham Lincoln sparing a turkey named “Jack” from becoming the main dish in a holiday meal.

There’s a reason we eat turkey. The connection between turkey and Thanksgiving goes back to the prevalence of wild turkey in the New World. At the time of the first Thanksgiving, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford commented on “the great store of wild turkeys.”

Corn and cranberries date back to the first Thanksgiving. Before you accuse the cook of going overboard with side dishes, consider this: after turkey, the most significant dish on the table is corn. This abundant crop was an important staple to the Pilgrims. Cranberries were also probably on the first Thanksgiving table. The American Indians taught the Pilgrims to make a cranberry sauce called “ibimi,” which means “bitter berry.” When the colonists saw the berry, they renamed it “crane-berry,” because its flowers resembled the long-necked bird called the crane.

Football is a Thanksgiving tradition too… kind of. In ancient harvest festivals, people usually celebrated with games and sports, so you could argue the football tradition has very deep roots.

For more information, visit www.HowStuffWorks.com.


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House shopping usually slows down in the winter, as people put their home searches on hold to trim the tree, buy presents to put under it and avoid the chilly weather. This winter, however, might be different, thanks to the extended—and expanded—first-time home-buyer tax credit.

We’re going to see far more interest in the fourth quarter than we generally do because of the tax credit,” said Heather Fernandez, vice president of Trulia.com, a real estate search engine. Traffic surged on the site on Nov. 5, the day Congress approved the credit extension, she said.

The new law extends the tax credit for first-time home buyers and opens it up to some existing homeowners as well: The credit is now 10% of the home price, up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and up to $6,500 for repeat buyers. All buyers must have a binding contract on a house in place on or before April 30, 2010. The sale must close on or before June 30. 2010.

To be considered a first-time home buyer, an individual must not have owned a home in the past three years. And to be eligible, existing homeowners need to have lived in the same principal residence for five consecutive years during the eight-year period that ends when the new home is purchased. The credit is only for principal residences.

Income limits have risen as well. According to the IRS, the home buyer tax credit now phases out for individuals with modified adjusted gross incomes between $125,000 and $145,000, and between $225,000 and $245,000 for people filing joint returns.

The inclusion of move-up buyers might inspire homeowners to take action and list their house if they’ve been putting it off, said Carolyn Warren, a Seattle, Wash.-based mortgage broker and banker and author of the book Homebuyers Beware. “If somebody loves their home, it’s not going to entice them to sell. If they’ve had it on the back of their minds and really would like to move up, it might push them into doing it sooner than later,” Warren said.

The credit isn’t expected to have as large of an effect on move-up buyers as it has on first-time buyers, according to the Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance Monthly Survey of Real Estate Market Conditions. The maximum tax credit is about 4% of the average purchase price for first-time buyers, but about 2% of the average purchase price for move-up buyers.

“We estimate that the first-time home buyer tax credit will result in a 10% increase in home sales from March through November of 2009,” said Thomas Popik, research director for Campbell Surveys, in a news release. “We’d expect the effect of the proposed tax credit for current homeowners to be about half as large—from December until the tax credit expiration in the spring of next year, it might be 5% of 3 million transactions, or about 150,000 incremental home sales. Incremental sales to first-time home buyers could be an additional 300,000, for a total of 450,000 incremental sales due to the tax credit extension.”

Tips for buyers
Interested in buying a home and claiming the home-buyer tax credit? Below are five tips:

1. Don’t procrastinate. Start searching for a home now. Getting an early start will give you a better chance of finding the right house before the credit deadline. Before you start house hunting, get preapproved for a mortgage, said Eddie Fadel, a Miami-based mortgage banker, and do a realistic assessment of what you can afford. Buyers who have to sell an existing home should price it aggressively from the beginning to drum up interest and get a buyer as soon as possible.

2. Don’t count on another extension. The credit won’t be available forever, Fadel said. If you want to take advantage, be sure to make that spring deadline.

“This is a medication for the housing crisis. Once the patient—which is the housing market—cures, there will be no medication needed,” he said.

3. Mind the interest rates. Mortgage interest rates are low right now, but will likely rise next year. Higher rates will affect your monthly mortgage payments, thus the affordability of the house you are buying. Average rates on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage have been hovering around 5%, but when the government stops buying large amounts of mortgage-backed securities, rates could rise.

4. Communicate with your lender. Throughout the process, make sure you’re communicating with your lender regularly; if there’s a piece of documentation you’re asked for, get it turned in as soon as possible, said Doug Heddings, a New York-based real estate agent with Charles Rutenberg Realty. Good communication is important in making sure the loan closes on time. And think twice before pursuing a short sale if you want to make the credit deadline. That’s where someone sells a home for less than what he or she owes on a mortgage, with permission of the lender. The process can be lengthy and unpredictable because the homeowner’s lender has to approve any deal, and can be complicated when there is a second mortgage associated with the property.

5. Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t forgo any of the steps you would normally take just to make the tax credit deadline. Make sure the house is a good fit for your needs and get a home inspection. Skipping steps could cost you in the long run.

(c) 2009, Amy Hoak, MarketWatch.com Inc.

 

Getaways – Tips for Safe Thanksgiving Travel

by Alexandra Zega

driving_11_20 This Thanksgiving, a record 40 million motorists are expected to take to the road. Additional motorists and winter road conditions can lead to dangerous situations, so a team of million mile accident-free drivers are helping to make our roads safer. A team of professional drivers from America’s Road Team offer the following advice on how to navigate through highway traffic and arrive at your destination safely.

-Prepare you vehicle for long distance travel: Check your wipers and fluids. Have your radiator and cooling system serviced. Simple maintenance before you leave your home can prevent many of the problems that strand motorists on the side of the road.

-Plan ahead: Before you get on a highway, know your exit by name and number, and watch the signs as you near the off-ramp. Drivers making unexpected lane changes to exit often cause accidents.

-Do not cut in front of large trucks: Remember that trucks are heavier and take longer to make a complete stop, so avoid cutting quickly in front of them.

-Check your emergency kit: Contents should include: battery powered radio, flashlight, blanket, jumper cables, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, bottled water, non-perishable foods, maps, tire repair kit and flares.

-Be aware of changes in weather: Weather conditions across the U.S. will be changing – especially during early mornings and evenings with the cold. Watch for ice, snow and other weather-related obstacles.

-Keep your eyes on the road: Distracted driving is a major cause of traffic accidents. Even just two seconds of distraction time doubles the chances of an accident. Use your cell phone when stopped and never text while driving.

-Leave early and avoid risks: Leave early so you won’t be anxious about arriving late and to accommodate for any delays. Road conditions may change due to inclement weather or traffic congestion.

-Be aware of truck blindspots: When sharing the road with large trucks, be aware of their blind spots. If you can’t see the truck driver in his or her mirrors, then the truck driver can’t see you.

-Slow Down: With the extra highway congestion due to holiday travel, speeding becomes even more dangerous. Allow plenty of space between you and the cars around you and reduce your speed.

-Buckle up: Safety belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45% and are a simple way to increase your safety on the road.

“Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year,” said America’s Road Team Captain Kurt Pedersen. “With so many motorists on the road, it’s important to use caution and patience while driving. Following these rules for the road will ensure that we all arrive safely to our loved ones.”

 

For more information, visit www.truckline.com.

Expanded Version of Tax Credit Will Allow More Homebuyers to Qualify

by Alexandra Zega

President Obama recently signed an expanded version of the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit that was set to expire on November 30. “The new version of the tax credit has the potential to stimulate the housing market even more than the old version due to the fact that more people will qualify under the new rules,” said Gibran Nicholas, Chairman of the CMPS Institute, an organization that certifies mortgage bankers and brokers. “Although the tax credit remains at $8,000 for homebuyers that have not owned a primary residence in the last three years, it has been expanded to include a $6,500 tax credit for homebuyers that have lived in their current primary residence for at least five consecutive years out of the past eight years. Under the old rules, move-up homebuyers did not qualify.” Consider these three examples: 

Example 1:
Jane purchased a home in 2002, lived there for 5 years as her primary home, moved out in 2007, and turned that home into a rental property. If Jane decides to buy a new primary residence today, she would qualify for the $6,500 tax credit based on the fact that she lived in the same residence as her primary home for at least five consecutive years out of the past eight.

Example 2:
Harry purchased a home in 2004, and lived there for the past 5 years as his primary home. If Harry decides to buy a new primary residence today, he would qualify for the $6,500 tax credit based on the fact that he lived in the same residence as his primary home for at least five consecutive years out of the past eight.

Example 3:
Nicole purchased a home in 2006, and lived there for the past 3 years as her primary home. If Nicole decides to buy a new primary residence today, she would not qualify for the $6,500 tax credit based on the fact that she did not live in the same residence as her primary home for at least five consecutive years out of the past eight. 

The tax credit applies to homes purchased for less than $800,000 before May 1, 2010. “If you sign a binding contract to purchase a home before May 1st, you would need to close on the transaction before July 1, 2010,” Nicholas said. “It works kind of like a gift certificate that can be redeemed for cash. You simply file a form with the IRS right after you buy your home, and the IRS will send you a check for the full amount of your credit.” 

The income limitation for single tax payers went up from $75,000 under the old rules to $125,000 under the new rules. For married tax payers, the income limitation went up from $150,000 to $225,000. “This means that more people will qualify for the credit – especially in parts of the country with higher costs of living,” Nicholas said. “This should help stimulate parts of the housing market that may not have been impacted by the old version of the credit.” 

There are many creative ways of structuring your home purchase transaction in ways that maximize the benefits of the credit. Here are a few examples: 

-The credit applies to 1-4 unit homes as long as you live in one of the units as your primary residence – you could live in one unit and rent out the others

-If two unmarried individuals buy a home, and only one of the individuals qualifies for the credit based on their income or past home ownership status, the individual who qualifies for the credit can claim the full credit. (Note: In the case of married couples, both spouses must qualify for the credit).

-The credit applies even if you have co-signers on your mortgage loan 

For more information, visit www.CMPSInstitute.org. 


11 Simple Ways to Teach Kids about Money

by Alexandra Zega

pigybank_1105 Financially speaking, it’s a tough time to be a parent. While the economic turmoil may be behind us, many companies have frozen pay raises and bonuses while others have faced layoffs, and as a result, some families are still strapped. If you’re feeling guilty because you can’t buy your child that video game system he desperately wants for Christmas or if you’re asking him to choose between playing basketball or taking karate lessons this winter, Eric Tyson has one word for you: Don’t. In fact, he says, now is the perfect time to teach your kids some valuable financial lessons. 

“Kids are surprisingly aware of what’s going on in the world,” says Tyson, author of Personal Finance For Dummies®, 6th Edition. “And if they don’t know that times are a little bit tough and that mom and dad are having to watch their spending, it’s time to tell them. Sheltering kids from financial realities does them no favors.” Indeed, the opposite is true, says Tyson. A good grasp of personal finance is one of the most valuable life skills a person can have. And while previous generations may have been raised with the constant admonishment that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” too many of today’s parents neglect that lesson. It’s time to change that—and the severe recession we’ve been through provides a great incentive for doing so. 

Tyson offers the following tips to help you teach your children about money:

1. Tell them the truth. Kids are perceptive. If you’ve been acting anxious and on edge lately, they’ve noticed. Rather than let them wonder why mom and dad are working so much lately or constantly talking about money, explain (on their level) what’s going on in the family’s financial world. 

2. Explain to them how much things cost. Some parents are surprised to find out that their kids don’t have a very good grasp on what things cost. A great hands-on way to open their eyes is to take them on a “money tour” around the house. For example, kids might not understand that hot water costs more than cold water, or that bumping up the heat results in higher power bills. This exercise will teach them how they can conserve and thus help the family save money. You can also pile up all of the bills for the month and have them look at the amount on each one. Show them what the family’s cost of living is and again reiterate the areas in which they can play a part in reducing the costs. 

3. Realize that kids learn what they live. It may sound like common sense, but you—mom and dad—are your kids’ most influential teachers. When you ring up a barge-load of credit card debt, take out exorbitant mortgages or car loans, and fail to save anything, that’s what your kids come to see as normal. If you are modeling unhealthy financial habits, you can’t realistically expect your kids to “do as I say, not as I do.” 

4. Deprogram them. Kids are constantly bombarded with information about what things cost, whether it’s the fancy sports car they like or the wardrobe of their favorite athlete or actor, not to mention the 40,000 commercials that the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates the average American child sees each year. What they aren’t bombarded with is knowledge concerning how to manage money effectively. And while schools are increasingly incorporating money issues into the existing curriculum, the broader concepts of personal financial management still aren’t taught. Frightening though it may be, some schools rely on free “educational” materials from the likes of VISA and MasterCard. 

5. An allowance is a great teaching tool. You don’t have to break child labor laws to find great ways to help your kids earn their allowances rather than just have the money handed over to them. A well-implemented allowance program can mimic many money matters that adults face every day throughout their lives. From recognizing the need to earn the green stuff to learning how to responsibly and intelligently spend, save, and invest their allowances, children can gain a solid financial footing from a young age. 

6. Start them saving and investing early. It’s never too early to start saving, and the sooner you can instill the importance of saving money into your kids, the better. After they start earning allowances, have your kids save a significant portion (up to half) of their allowance money toward longer-term goals, such as college (just be careful about putting money in children’s names as doing so can harm college financial aid awards). Tyson recommends that children reserve about one-third of their weekly take for savings. As they accumulate more significant savings over time, you can introduce the concept of investing. 

7. Reduce their exposure to ads. The primary path to reduced exposure to ads is to cut down on TV time. When kids are in front of the tube, have them watch prerecorded material. You can direct the television viewing of younger children in particular toward videos and DVDs. And for older kids, if you use digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TIVO, you can easily zap ads. But when an ad does sneak under the radar and set the kids to begging, address it. Explain to your kids that there’s never a good time for frivolous impulse spending—but it’s especially harmful when money is tight. 

8. Find entertaining ways to teach good money habits. You’ll probably face an uphill battle when teaching kids about personal finance. That’s why it’s so important to find entertaining ways to instill good financial habits in them. For younger kids, Tyson recommends age-appropriate books like The Bernstein Bears Get the Gimmies. For late-elementary-school-aged kids, Quest for the Pillars of Wealth by J.J. Pritchard is a chapter book that teaches the major personal finance concepts through an engaging adventure story. You could also get them a subscription to Zillions, a kids’ magazine from the publishers of Consumer Reports, which covers money and buying topics. 

9. Teach them how to shop wisely. Family shopping trips, whether for groceries or something else, are likely to be your kids’ first encounters with spending. They’ll see you make decisions based on what the family needs, watch you use coupons when possible, and observe how you pay. These trips are a great time to teach them lessons about money and the value of product research and comparison shopping. 

10. Introduce the right and wrong ways to use credit and debit cards. Those plastic cards in your wallet offer a convenient way to conduct purchases in stores, by phone, and over the Internet. Unfortunately, credit cards offer temptation for overspending and carrying debt from month to month. Teach your kids the difference between a credit and debit card, explaining that debit cards are connected to your checking account and thus prevent you from overspending as you can on a credit card. 

11. Encourage older kids to get a job. An allowance doesn’t have to be the only way for your kids to earn money. Your child’s initial exposure to the work-for-pay world can start with something as simple as a lemonade stand. Depending on age, he or she might do yard work for neighbors or offer babysitting services. And the fact that we’re in a recession makes it all the more appropriate for older kids to “help out” by getting a part-time job—especially to fund unnecessary purchases like DVDs or cool clothing. 

Besides the learning opportunities it presents, there’s another positive to the recession, says Tyson. It forces families to be more thoughtful about how they spend their time—and this often leads to the stunning realization that money really doesn’t buy happiness. 

“Often, all those unnecessary things we buy for ourselves and our kids are simply distractions from the people we love,” he says. “They send the message that it’s necessary to spend a lot of money in order to have a good time. It’s not, of course. The best things in life—friends, family, quiet evenings at home just being together—really are free. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that.” 

About the Author
Eric Tyson, MBA, is one of the nation’s best-selling personal finance book authors and has penned five national bestsellers. His work has been featured and quoted in hundreds of local and national publications and media outlets. He was also a featured speaker at a White House conference on retirement planning. 

senate_1105 After two weeks of delay, the Senate cleared the way to pass a seven month extension and expansion of the tax credit for homebuyers. By an 85 to 2 roll call vote, the Senate voted to cut off debate on a package of measures that includes the homebuyer credit, making it virtually certain that the legislation will reach President Obama for his signature this week. 

The homebuyer tax credit, due to expire at the end of November would be extended through April 30 of next year. First-time buyers who are in the process of making a purchase would not need to worry about qualifying for the $8,000 credit if they close after the November 30 deadline. 

For the first time, the legislation that was recently cleared makes move-up buyers as well as first-time buyers eligible for a credit. The $8,000 maximum first-timer credit will continue and will now be available to couples with income up to $225,000, a nearly $55,000 increase above the level in existing law. A new $6,500 maximum credit would also be available to move-up homeowners who have lived in their current residence for five of the prior eight years. 

For homebuyers across the country, the expanded tax credit would allow more people to qualify for the credit. While two-thirds of American families own their own home, and most earn less than the income limits that have been established within the extension, more buyers may be eligible. Move-up buyers don’t have to sell their current home to qualify for the new credit, but the money cannot be used to buy a vacation home. “It’s only for a primary residence,” said Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Sen. Harry Redi (D-Nev.), who helped engineer the deal. “In expanding the tax credit, we are helping first-time home buyers, as well as homeowners looking to move up to a new home, but we would exclude from the credit speculators who may have recently purchased a home intending to flip it for a fast profit,” said Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the Finance Committee. 

The tax credit has fired-up the housing market, driving existing home sales to the highest level in over two years. The National Association Realtors reported sales jumped 9.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.57 million units in September and are 9.2% higher than the 5.10 million-unit pace in September 2008. 

The legislation included provisions added to address complaints of fraud as well. The Internal Revenue Service is given greater authority to oversee the process to root out fraud, and provisions are added in response to past abuses of false sales or underage buyers. An investigation by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration found that more than 580 children, some as young as four years old, had received $627,000 in first-time homebuyer credits. The IRS has identified 167 suspected criminal schemes and opened nearly 107,000 examinations of potential civil violations of the first-time homebuyer tax credit.

 

 

Courtesy of Steve Cook and Brett Arends. For more information, visit www.realestateeconomywatch.com and www.wsj.com

 

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