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Bankrate - Mortgage Rates Dip Again

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA, August 29, 2008-Mortgage rates were lower for the second week in a row, with the average conforming 30-year fixed mortgage rate falling to 6.60 percent. According to Bankrate.com’s weekly national survey of large lenders, the average 30-year fixed mortgage has an average of 0.39 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year fixed rate mortgage popular for refinancing dropped to 6.14 percent, while the average jumbo 30-year fixed rate is now 7.61 percent. Adjustable mortgage rates were mostly higher, with the average 1-year ARM rising to 6.28 percent and the average 5/1 ARM inching up to 6.27 percent.

The ongoing credit crunch continues to impact all borrowers through higher rates. With the spread between benchmark Treasury yields and rates on fixed mortgages at the highest levels in 22 years, borrowers are seeing rates that are one full percentage point higher than normal. From 1985 until the onset of the credit crunch one year ago, the average difference between fixed mortgage rates and yields on 10-year Treasury notes was 1.64 percentage points. Today, that difference is 2.8 percentage points. The higher borrowing costs reflect the perceived risk investors wish to be compensated for as well as additional fees layered on by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Although mortgage rates have been relatively calm in recent weeks, it has been a wild ride for much of 2008. Seven months ago, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 5.88 percent, meaning that a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,183.71. But at today’s rate of 6.6 percent, a $200,000 loan would mean a monthly payment of $1,277.32.

Survey Results

30-year fixed: 6.60% — down from 6.66% last week (avg. points: 0.39)
15-year fixed: 6.14% — down from 6.18% last week (avg. points: 0.42)
5/1 ARM: 6.27% — up from 6.26% last week (avg. points: 0.45)

For more information, visit http://www.bankrate.com/mortgagerates

The Ethics of Taking a Vacation

by Alexandra Zega

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RISMEDIA, August 12, 2008-(MCT)-Taking a vacation regularly is not only acceptable; it is our ethical obligation.

Consider how you feel after working for a long time without a break, and how you feel during and after some restorative time at the beach. Can you really be at your best when you’re running on empty? Aren’t you more likely to do a good job when your batteries are recharged?

Leaving work behind from time to time to relax enables you to be of service to others to the best of your ability, and this is one reason why we ought to take vacations. Another reason is because we simply owe it to ourselves to rest. The ethical obligation to be compassionate applies not just to how we treat others, but how we treat ourselves, too. Going on vacation is a great way to meet this obligation.

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for not taking time off, and how you can respond effectively to these challenges:

- “I work for myself/My employer doesn’t provide paid vacations/I’ve been laid off, and I need to work.”

The reluctance to give up some future revenue is understandable, particularly in our current economy. But how often is this an excuse, rather than an accurate reflection of one’s financial situation? A vacation need not break the bank. With “staycations” becoming more popular, time away from work can mean nothing more than sleeping late, watching DVD’s, and eating lots of comfort food at home. We budget for meals, clothing, and transportation. Shouldn’t we also budget for a vacation? Yes, there ought to be a law mandating paid vacations, as is the case in many countries, but until that comes to pass, we’ll have to find creative ways on our own to take time off.

- “I love my work, and I’m miserable when I’m away from it.”

Maybe it’s time to get a hobby. I’m reminded of Godfrey Reggio’s astounding 1982 film, “Koyaanisqatsi.” The title is a Hopi term for “life out of balance.” It’s wonderful to be jazzed about one’s job-I feel the same way-but a rich, meaningful life involves things beyond work.

- “Most of the people I work with aren’t taking vacations, so I don’t want to burden them with the extra work they’d have if I left for a while.”

It’s praiseworthy to want to avoiding causing undue stress on your colleagues, but you-and they-are entitled (ethically, if not legally) to some time off. Ultimately, the fair distribution of labor is a management issue, and employees shouldn’t have to worry that a justifiable absence will result in an undue burden on the team.

- “I’m the only one at work who can do my job. The company, and my clients, can’t afford for me to be away.”

It’s nice to feel wanted or needed, but few of us are truly indispensable, as much as we may hate to admit it. I submit that in most cases, the idea that you, and only you, can do your job is a delusion of grandeur rather than a reflection of reality.

- “I feel guilty when I take vacations.”

If you’re not yet convinced that it’s ethical to take time off, perhaps it’s time to talk with a trusted adviser about why you feel you aren’t worthy of a trip to the mountains or the shore, or even just some time to yourself. You have every reason to feel good about treating yourself right, and vacations, however you choose to spend them, are self-indulgent in the best possible way.

Checking e-mail, taking work-related phone calls, and reading material related to one’s job are not the elements of a true vacation. A working vacation makes about as much sense as showing up for a corporate job in shorts and a tank top with a margarita in your hand.

Take a break. A real one. It’s the right thing to do.

Dr. Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy, appears each Friday on CNN’s “American Morning” to discuss ethical issues in the presidential campaign and beyond.

Tech Products for the Back-to-School Crowd

by Alexandra Zega

816homespunweb.jpgRISMEDIA, August 14, 2008-(MCT)-Summer may still be in the air but school is starting soon, which means it’s time to go shopping-for technology.

Clothes, books and school supplies are the old standbys, of course, but tech products-computers, electronics and gadgets-are just as important. Whether your kid is returning to grade school or heading out to college, here are some tech items to consider.

Computer: Computers are probably the most important tech tools around. And these days, you have a wide range of prices and features.

Laptops are a good choice, especially for college students because they can be taken to class, the library or the local cafe. Apple’s Macbooks-the company’s entry-level notebooks-have been especially popular among the student crowd, and for good reason: They’re easy to use, stable and much more resistant to viruses than Windows machines. They start at about $1,000 with an educational discount.

If that’s too costly, there are numerous Windows-based notebooks you can get for less than $1,000. Fry’s, for instance, recently had a Compaq with an AMD Turion chip on sale for about $500.

Software: You’re probably going to want to buy at least two software packages to go with any new computer-an office suite and a security program.

Microsoft Office is still the standard for writing papers and putting together spreadsheets. But it’s expensive, starting at $400 if you buy it off the shelf. College students can get a slightly slimmed-down version for about $150 for Windows or Mac computers.

With all the viruses, spyware and spam on the Internet, a security program is more important than ever these days. Macs are less vulnerable, but could get more so as they become more popular-giving hackers more reason to write Mac-only viruses.

Symantec’s Norton (about $45) and McAfee (about $35) have been the traditional standard-bearers in security suites for PCs, though Kaspersky’s Anti-Virus package (about $60) is starting to gain recognition. For Macs, Norton offers an anti-virus program for about $20 and Intego has an entire line of security programs starting at about $50.

Computer Backpack or Sleeve: Because your student will most likely be lugging her laptop around quite a bit, she’ll need something to carry it in. Accessory makers have come out with backpacks specifically designed for laptops. They have extra padding and come in a range of sizes and styles. Best Buy offers more than a dozen types starting at about $32.

For those who don’t want to look “dorky” sporting around an extra-thick pack, vendors offer a variety of padded sleeves that can be carried inside a regular backpack. San Francisco-based WaterField makes 40 different sizes of customizable sleeves starting at around $40 that it offers through its website at www.sfbags.com.

External Hard Drive: Laptop hard drives tend to quickly fill up with music, movies-and term papers, of course. With an external hard drive, a student can offload some of that data to save space on the main drive.

Another, more important, reason to have an external drive is for backup. The last thing you want as a student is to lose the paper you’ve been working on because of a hard-drive failure.

In recent years, drive makers have come out with slimmer, lighter models designed specifically for laptops. Western Digital, for instance, offers the My Passport line of drives, which range in size from 160 to 320 gigabytes and cost $70 to $120 online.

USB Flash Drive: E-mail servers often block large files, and even when they don’t, such files can take a long time to download over the Internet. That’s where flash drives come in, helping students who need to share a file with a project partner or who want to print a document from a computer center without lugging along a laptop.

The good thing is that they’re cheap: You can find a 2-gigabyte drive, such as the SanDisk Cruzer Micro, for $15 or less online.

All-In-One Printer: Some teachers now accept class reports via e-mail, but much class work is still submitted on paper, meaning students need a printer.

Look for an all-in-one model that also makes photocopies and scans documents or photos, and costs about the same as a stand-alone printer.

Canon and Hewlett-Packard each offer several models of all-in-ones for $100 or less, among them the Canon Pixma MP210, which can be found for as little as $55.

iPod: OK, so your student will probably use an iPod far more for listening to music than for any kind of academic purpose. But don’t dismiss the idea that the ubiquitous music devices can have real educational value.

Students can now find 50,000 lectures, lessons and speeches from university professors around the nation for free on Apple’s iTunes music store. At schools such as the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University, the downloadable lectures have been a boon both to the lazy who’ve missed a class and the industrious who want to review a lecture before an exam.

Apple’s iPods run from as little as about $50 for the low-end, screenless iPod shuffle to $500 for the top-of-the-line iPod touch.

iPod Speakers: These are just the thing to allow your student to listen to his music-or podcast lectures, of course-in his bedroom or dorm room. Lower-end models, such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM600 ($112 and up) tend to be smaller and more portable. Higher-end ones, such as Bose’s SoundDock Portable Digital Music System (about $400) tend to offer better sound.

Regardless of price, you can find features such as a built-in FM tuner or an alarm clock. Look for speaker systems that will work with a variety of iPod models, including the iPhone and iPod touch; otherwise, newer devices may not work well with the speakers.

Cell Phone: The older students in your life most likely already have a phone. If not, they’re probably begging you for one.

Apple’s new iPhone 3G ($199 and $299, depending on the model, with two-year contract) is all the rage. But it can make a good educational device, thanks to Apple’s new applications store, which offers plenty of academically useful applications, such as scientific calculators and language training programs.

But there are other useful and fun cell phones out there, including T-Mobile’s Sidekick (from about $150 to $300, depending on the model) and the Samsung Instinct (about $130 after rebate).

Digital Camera: Your student will probably want to record his moments with friends, trips and parties-and share them online. While most cell phones these days have cameras built into them, the pictures they take generally can’t match those from a standalone camera.

The nice thing is that with all the competition from cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras have been coming down in price. You can find a lightweight 7-megapixel camera, such as Canon’s PowerShot SD750, which has plenty of shooting modes and takes good pictures, for less than $200.

© 2008, Troy Wolverton - San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

5 Big Mistakes Consumers Make When Moving

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA, August 11, 2008-Moving may seem like an overwhelming experience for some home buyers, so we’ve compiled a list of “don’ts” to help consumers gear up for a smooth move.

1. Getting a quote over the phone or Internet: A big mistake that consumers make, when planning their moves, is obtaining a quote over the phone or the Internet. Any quote obtained in this manner is a non-binding quote. The only way to obtain a guaranteed or binding quote is to have a visual survey of your household goods by a reputable mover. If you choose to accept a quote over the phone or Internet you are setting yourself up for a nasty scenario when the mover shows up at your new home and demands more money.

2. Waiting too long to line up a mover: Allowing time for a visual survey, receiving a written and binding quote, and reserving a truck for your move takes a lead time of 4-6 weeks. Although moves can be arranged in a shorter period of time, many consumers find that their choices are limited by availability, especially in the busy summer months. In our current real estate market many homes are taking longer to sell, but once sold are closing very quickly. The time to obtain estimates for your move is before your home sells so that you are prepared when it does.

3. Misrepresenting what you are moving: It is very important to show the surveyor or estimator everything you are planning to move. If you forget to show items in a basement, garage, attic, or off-site storage unit and then add those items at time of pick-up, your estimate will no longer be binding. In the same vein, if you commit to packing your own items but don’t have time to finish, the van line will pack your items and charge you for the service. If you are uncertain of whether you will be taking something, or are not sure if you will have time to pack everything, ask the surveyor to put the items or service in the estimate. If you decide not to take something, or do not require the packing, the cost will be adjusted downward.

4. Paying a deposit up front: Reputable movers do not ask for payment up front to reserve trucks or dates. This is a classic red flag in moving. A reputable mover will expect payment upon delivery.

5. Finding a mover based upon price rather than reputation and service: If a mover gives you a price that is significantly lower than other movers it is likely that you are being low-balled. If a surveyor has underestimated your weight in order to give you a lower price you may find, on moving day, that the moving truck does not have enough room for your shipment. This is called an overflow. An overflow means that your items will not all travel together, will not all arrive at the same time, and will generally just cause you a big hassle. Another way to lower cost is to compromise service. Look for a competitive bid from a professional mover who is certified and reputable. Although price is an important factor, don’t base your decision on price alone.

RISMEDIA, August 7, 2008—Despite widely covered housing woes and significant market data to the contrary, homeowners reveal high confidence in the value of their own home with even greater optimism for the next six months, according to the Zillow(R) Q2 Homeowner Confidence Survey of 1,361 U.S homeowners conducted by Harris Interactive(R).
‘Not My House!’ Sentiment Showcases Wide Homeowner Perception-Reality Gap.
Nearly two out of three (62%) homeowners think their home value has increased or remained the same in the past year. Unfortunately, the reality of the market is not quite as bright; in fact, it’s getting worse. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. homes lost value in the past 12 months, according to preliminary analysis of Zillow’s Q2 Real Estate Market Reports, due to be released August 12, while only 19 percent increased and 5 percent remained the same. Whether it’s apathy, confusion or just plain denial, homeowners seem to believe the housing crisis affects every other home but “not my house,” underscoring a wide gap between homeowners’ inflated perception of their home values and the gloomy market reality. 
According to the company, to monitor this perception-reality gap over time, Zillow has created the Home Value Misperception Index, which is the difference between the adjusted percentage of homeowners who believe their home value increased over the past year and the adjusted percentage of homes that have increased in value. Nationwide, the Q2 Home Value Misperception Index is 32, reflecting this broad gap. Those in the West, which has the highest proportion of homes (88%) that declined in value during the quarter, seem to have the best grasp on reality with a Misperception Index of 23, while those in the South have the widest gap at 36. 
More Optimism for Own Home vs. Neighbors’ Homes in the Short-Term.
Homeowner short-term outlook is even more optimistic than current perception as three out of four (75%) homeowners expect their home value will increase or stay the same over the next six months, with 25 percent expecting a decline. The same level of optimism doesn’t extend to neighboring homes, however, as 42 percent expect values in their local market to drop and 58 percent think values will increase or remain the same. 
More Foreclosures Expected yet Half Oppose Government Bailout for Those Facing Foreclosure.
Four in five homeowners (82%) expect to see more or about the same amount of foreclosures in the next six months as they did in the last six. Already, more than nine out of 10 (92%) of all homeowners say there have been foreclosures in their local real estate market. Of these, 70 percent are at least somewhat concerned that foreclosures will decrease home values in their local market within the next year. Despite these concerns, nearly half of all homeowners (48%) say homeowners who are currently facing foreclosure because they took out an adjustable rate mortgage or other loan that they can no longer afford should not receive government assistance to stay in their homes. Only 28 percent support government intervention and 24 percent “don’t know.” 
Two-thirds (64%) of Homeowners Planning Home-Investment Activities in Next Six Months: 
56% are planning major (e.g. replace the roof, remodel the kitchen) and/or minor (e.g. install new garbage disposal, repaint or wallpaper a room) home improvements, with 17 percent planning major improvements and 49 percent planning minor ones. Of interest is how the perceived change in home value can impact home investment plans. Homeowners who believe their home has increased in value are significantly more likely to plan major home improvements (22%) than those who believe their home’s value has decreased (14%).
7% are planning home financing activity [refinance their mortgage (5%), take out a home equity line (2%), or take out a second mortgage (1%)].
7% are planning to buy or sell a primary or secondary residence [sell their home (5%); buy a new primary or secondary residence (4%).
“Our survey reveals a wide gap between the perception homeowners have about their own home’s value and the realities of a market in which three-quarters of homes declined in value in the past year. We attribute this gap to a combination of inattention and a fair bit of denial that causes people to believe their home is insulated from the woes of the market that affect others, but not them,” said Dr. Stan Humphries, Zillow vice president of data and analytics. “This sentiment is also carried through in homeowner confidence for the short-term as more people expect their home to perform better in the next six months than the market and recent past. Although many homeowners may believe the worst is over, we think this level of optimism is out of sync with actual market performance.” 

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