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Winter gardening makes for a much sweeter spring. Here are the best ways to protect plants from the cold — inside or out.

 

Gardening, in January? Absolutely.

There are still lots of things you can plant, and you can start the new year on the right foot by doing timeless chores that will add to your garden’s health as spring approaches

Everything you accomplish now will make spring that much sweeter.

Trees and shrubs
This month’s tree and shrub tasks are all about planting, pruning and protecting.

  • If you live in a place that has mild winters, you can still plant trees of all kinds: fruit trees, shade trees and flowering trees; and choosing them is fun now, since nurseries tend to add their new selections in January.
  • On a day when temperatures are below freezing, plant new evergreens, rose bushes and deciduous shrubs.
  • While you shouldn’t prune flowering trees until after they’ve bloomed, you can now prune most shrubs and deciduous shade trees.
  • When you notice new buds on deciduous trees, possibly late this month or in early February, give them their third and last shot of dormant spray — follow the label’s instructions and avoid spraying on days that are windy, rainy or below freezing.
  • Keep up with raking; fallen leaves can do heavy damage if left to smother grass.
  • If you have snowfall, knock snow off the branches of evergreens and fine-branched deciduous trees using an upward motion to keep limbs from breaking — don’t risk the benign fluffy stuff turning into ice overnight. If breakage does occur, prune broken branches.

Winterizing
With winter in full force, there are several things you can do to protect challenged plants, trees, shrubs and even birds.

Don’t haul that Christmas tree out to the curb just yet: Its branches can be used to protect tender plants and even root vegetables and perennials or to form a wind or sun shield for shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons, holly and boxwood. Or the full tree can be staked near a feeder to shield birds from cold. (Place far enough away to avoid accidents with cats.)

If you live in an area that has heavy winters and you haven’t yet wrapped newly planted trees or thin-barked trees such as maple, ash, mountain ash and linden, do so now. Wrap from the base upward to repel moisture.

Keep protecting tender plants against freezes by covering them with burlap or other cloth supported by a perimeter of stakes; just don’t let the cloth touch the leafy parts.

Houseplants
Winter houseplant care is more about attentive restraint than high maintenance.

  • When you water, which should be minimal during the winter, do it just enough so that water saturates the soil and comes through the drainage holes; at this time of year, plants left in standing water can suffer root damage.
  • Turn plants every two weeks for balanced foliage as they seek sunlight.
  • Check for pests in the greenhouse and on houseplants; treat with organic products so kids and pets aren’t endangered.
  • Hold off on transplanting those plants whose roots are potbound.
  • On nights that are extremely cold, be sure to draw the curtains or blinds of plant windows.

Wouldn’t it be nice if birds ate slugs for a living? If you’re a feeder of birds, don’t stop now — during this month they’ll need all the help they can get, and it needn’t be fancy. Birds will likely find any station above snow level, from old logs to carpet scraps.

Every slug you catch before it reproduces can spare you from facing several more generations. (And you thought rabbits were prolific.)

Maintenance
Take this chance to get sleek for spring. No, not to buff up for your getaway swimwear — you know, the fun stuff. Machines. Tools.

  • Any machine repair you have done now will spare you spring headaches — or at least a long wait in the queue that begins to form in February. Consider mowers, chain saws and other power tools.
  • Clean, sharpen and oil hand tools, from clippers to shovels.

Perennials
Even after the holidays, the catalog season continues.

  • Start planning your spring garden now by making a map of your garden, including what you’d like to plant where, with seed and bulb catalogs by your side for inspiration.
  • Clear away mulch from winter-blooming bulbs.
  • Dig up and divide winter-blooming bulbs after they’ve flowered.
  • In mild climates, you may still be able to plant hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and crocuses.
  • If an unexpected warm streak fools bulbs into thinking it’s springtime, help protect them with an extra light layer of mulch.

Weeding
It’s a nasty job, but unless your garden is buried under snow, somebody has to do it. Too bad weeds don’t take winter vacations.

  • Many weeds are still merrily going through their flowering and seeding cycle even in January. Uproot them before seeds spread to spare yourself weeding future generations.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Sally Anderson of MSN Real Estate

Click here to view the original article

Read Full Post »

The most important job this month is to prevent water damage from bursting pipes and leaks in your home.

 

The dead of winter is the time for the greatest vigilance in your home-maintenance routine. The most important job this month is to head off damage to your home from water and dampness from a number of sources:

Groundwater and rain seeping into your home.

Leaky pipes inside the walls.

Pipes bursting from freezing and thawing.

Take a tour
After a winter storm, get outside as soon as you can. Walk around the house, checking for damage from wind and broken tree limbs. User binoculars if you can’t see your entire roof. Scan for loose or missing shingles.

Give special attention to vulnerable pipes — indoors and out — that are exposed to the cold, including hose bibs, pipes in outside walls, garden sprinkler lines, swimming pool pipes and pipes in unheated attics, basements and garages. A frozen pipe needs only a one-eighth-inch crack to leak as much as 250 gallons a day, according to this State Farm Insurance video, which demonstrates how to shut off your water and insulate pipes.

Take these steps to safeguard against damage from frozen and bursting pipes:

  1. If practical, insulate any pipes exposed to the cold. Ask hardware-store personnel for the best materials for the job.
  2. Seal any leaks that are letting cold air in, especially around dryer vents and pipes and where electrical wiring enters the house.
  3. Search for uninsulated water supply lines in the attic, garage, basement and crawl spaces and in bathroom and kitchen cabinets adjacent to outside walls. During a cold spell, open cupboard doors in the kitchen and bathroom so the home’s heat can reach them. (Reminder: Put harmful household cleaners out of the reach of children.) Keep doors shut tight in the garage and outside closets and cupboards during freezing weather.
  4. When temperatures drop below zero, open both hot and cold faucets a trickle to relieve pressure in the pipes.
  5. Locate your home’s water shut-off valve; learn how to turn off the water quickly in case a pipe bursts.
  6. If you’ll be gone in freezing weather, even overnight, ask a friend or neighbor to check on your house for broken or leaking pipes. Show him or her how to shut off the water.
  7. Keep temperatures inside the house at 55 degrees Fahrenheit or above, night and day, even when you’re gone.
  8. Promise yourself that when the weather improves you will add to the installation in the basement or crawl space and attic.

Leak prevention

  • Install small, battery-powered individual leak alarms, also called flood alarms, under the refrigerator, kitchen and bathroom drain pipes, dishwasher and laundry appliances and behind toilets. Cost: around $10-$15 each.
  • Check to make sure your sump pump is operating properly. If it has a battery backup, unplug the pump from the wall and test it.

Look for pests seeking shelter
Cold weather drives mice and insects into the walls of your home. Even unheated parts of the house invite these pests. Insects need only a crack to enter, and mice can get in through a dime-sized hole. Houseflies, particularly, pose a health risk because they can transmit disease.

  • Seal any cracks where pests enter.
  • Empty compost and garbage frequently.
  • Keep food covered and put away; keep counters clean.
  • Fix leaky pipes quickly.
  • Pour boiling water down bathroom and kitchen drains monthly, preventing the buildup of bacteria-laden sludge; scrub removable drain covers weekly.
  • Check basement, attic, crawl spaces and the back of cupboards and cabinets for mice droppings or holes. If you find evidence, install traps immediately or call a pest-control service.
  • Pick up and dispose of outdoor pet waste promptly; turn compost piles frequently.

Make an inventory
While you are putting away holiday gifts, seize the opportunity to make a quick home inventory.

An inventory is a record of your home’s features, conditions, furnishings and valuable possessions. If your home is damaged or destroyed by fire, flood, mudslide or other disaster, you can use the inventory to substantiate your insurance claim to get the maximum replacement value for what was lost.

Your inventory doesn’t have to be fancy. You can get started and add to it later. Supplement your record with photos or video. The Insurance Information Institute has free software for making a room-by-room home inventory. Download it here and watch an instructional video here.

Tips:

  • Save receipts for valuable home purchases and for work you have done to upgrade the interior or exterior of your home.
  • Keep a copy of your inventory in a bank safe-deposit box or on a hosted server online, so you can get it even if your computer is destroyed.

Also …
Here are a few more winter tasks:

  1. Check the labels on the switches in your electrical circuit-breaker panel and make new labels if necessary.
  2. Check your furnace filter monthly in the winter to see if it needs replacing.
  3. Use a vacuum-cleaner tool or a long-handled brush to clean under and behind the refrigerator, including the coils.
  4. Clean lint from under laundry appliances, especially the dryer, carefully work the cleaning tool down into the lint filter; outdoors, clean the dryer vent outlet, reaching as far as possible into the pipe.
  5. Gather product documents and warranties into a folder. Go through the contents and discard outdated materials.
  6. Walk around inside the house with a screwdriver, pencil and paper. Tighten any loose knobs and attachments and list repairs to tackle later.
  7. Examine the ducts of your forced-air furnace and seal any leaks with duct tape.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Marilyn Lewis of MSN Real Estate

Click here to view original article

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7 holiday traditions that can trigger an allergic reaction

 

Don’t let allergies put a damper on your holidays.

When you wheeze through your fa-la-la’s and your nose rivals Rudolph’s, it’s a little tougher to feel jolly. Although allergies peak in the spring and fall, the holidays may surprise sensitive sufferers with a gift of unexpected triggers, from dusty decorations and potent potpourri to even–say it ain’t so–the Christmas tree. Here are seven yuletide allergens, and expert tips to help you stay focused on shopping and wrapping, not sneezing and scratching.

How To Keep Your Allergies From Ruining Your Day

1. Trigger: Christmas trees

That’s right–the one and only, the centerpiece of all things Christmas, that perfect fir you found hiding in the lot of freshly-cut trees that’s now twinkling with the lights you spent hours untangling – may be to blame for your stuffy nose, watery eyes and rash-y skin. “Mold is the biggest problem with live Christmas trees,” says Marilyn Li, MD, an asthma and allergy specialist with the Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center. “Often, they are cut in advance and kept in humid environments, promoting spore growth.” Within just two weeks of bringing a tree into your home, indoor mold counts can increase significantly, according to one study.

Other tree-related allergens: The sap contains terpene and other substances that can irritate skin and mucous membranes; and pollen stuck to the tree may be released inside and lead to reactions, adds Nathanael S. Horne, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU school of Medicine and fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. What about the artificial versions? They could harbor dust and mold from their time in storage, also triggering allergies.

Prevent it: Slip on gloves and wear long sleeves when handling your fresh tree to avoid the sap coming into contact with your skin. Before schlepping your tree inside, give it a good shake (or a blast with a leaf blower) and spray it down with a garden hose (especially the trunk) to help remove some of the pollen and mold, suggests Horne. Then sit the stump in a bucket of water and let the tree dry for few days on a covered porch or in a garage. For an allergen-free fake tree, give it a good wipe-down before decorating with lights and ornaments.

2. Trigger: Decorations

For eleven months out of the year, all your ornaments, lights, and holiday chotchkes sit stored out of sight, collecting dust and maybe developing mold. When the boxes of red, green, and gold goodies come out, the symphony of sneezing, coughing and nose-blowing commences.

Prevent it: Before decking your halls, mantels, windows and trees, wipe down each item thoroughly; when it’s time to repack, store your holiday trimming in airtight containers, and in a dry spot if possible. Also, go easy on the spray snow–you may love the look of frosted windows, but any aerosolized chemical can cause irritant reactions in the eyes, nose or lungs of a sensitive person, says Horne.

3. Trigger: Homemade pie

The fact that she makes “Why aren’t you pregnant yet?” the topic of Christmas dinner is enough to make you break out in hives – but the nuts that she baked into her dessert crust could be to blame, too. If you have food allergies, the holidays in particular are a ripe time for reactions, simply because you’re around so. much. food. The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and wheat. “Of those, peanuts and tree nuts will most often make it into holiday dishes without people knowing, and have the potential to cause severe reactions,” says Horne.

Prevent it: It’s a good idea to let your holiday host know about your food allergies; it’s important to ask about the ingredients in each dish; and it’s very nice to volunteer to bring something that’s safe for you, and shareable with others. But what’s crucial is to be prepared with an epinephrine auto-injector (Epi Pen), an emergency dose of antihistamine, and an inhaler if you have asthma–just in case, adds Li, director of the USC Breathmobile, a pediatric clinic that travels to schools and provides ongoing asthma and allergy care to children. Learn which foods and recipes are unexpected sources of allergens at FoodAllergy.org and AAAAI.org.

How To Prevent Holiday Weight Gain

4. Trigger: Cocktails

You raise a glass to your loved ones, your boss and colleagues, friends and neighbors, and even the strangers sitting next to you at a bar. There’s lots of cheers-ing this time of year, but be mindful of what you’re using to toast. Some people may experience mild wheezing or other symptoms from the sulfites in wine, for example, and certain alcoholic concoctions contain major food allergens.

Prevent it: There aren’t good tests for sulfite sensitivity, but your reaction to dried fruit–high in this sulfur-based preservative–could be an indicator, says Horne. Pay attention if you have asthma, as sulfites can trigger symptoms. Maraschino cherries contain small amounts of sulfites, as well. Stick with organic wine for a sulfite-free sip. Other triggers to be aware of: Tree nuts may be found specialty beers, particularly seasonal ales; milk is in Irish creme and white chocolate liqueurs; and egg whites may be used to add froth to specialty drinks.

Low Calorie Holiday Treats

5. Trigger: Poinsettia

This festive plant is a member of the rubber tree family and contains compounds similar to those found in latex, so stay away if you have a latex allergy. Certain groups of people–such as healthcare workers and people with spina bifida who have had numerous surgeries–are more likely to be allergic to latex, says Li, and one study showed that 40% of latex-allergic individuals were also allergic to poinsettias.

Prevent it: If you have a latex allergy, keep the iconic plant out of your house–not only can it give you a rash if you touch it, but inhaling the allergen can lead to serious respiratory problems, like shortness of breath and wheezing.

6. Trigger: Smelly stuff

Pine-infused potpourri, dessert-scented candles, cinnamon air sprays–while they will make your house smell like Christmas, they can irritate the nose and throats of allergy-sensitive people. “Candles in particular are an increasingly recognized source of indoor air pollution,” says Horne. “The same is true for air sprays and other types of air fresheners–they can release many different types of noxious compounds, which can generate adverse reactions in sensitive patients.”

Prevent it: If skipping the scents feels Grinch-like, try making your own potpourri with cinnamon sticks and cloves so you know what’s in the mixture, says Horne. And choose candles made of soy or beeswax, suggests Li. There’s not much smell, but you can still enjoy the warm glow. By the way, fireplaces are an absolute no-no for asthmatic patients–the ash and smoke can trigger an attack, so keep the log unlit.

7. Trigger: Shopping

Stress doesn’t cause allergies or asthma by itself, but it can hinder your immune system and be a trigger for asthma attacks, says Horne. Chemicals released by the body during stressful times can cause the muscles around your airways to tighten, making it difficult to breathe.

Prevent it: All the deep breathing in the world probably can’t calm the chaos that comes with the season, but what you can do is make sure you take the steps to stay healthy: Stick to your controller medication regimen and get a flu shot, advises Li.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Teresa Dumain, Prevention

Click here to view original article

 

Read Full Post »

Outside, you’ll need to check gutters and problem tree limbs. Indoors, you’ll want to tend to your large appliances and tackle overflowing closets.

November is a good month to move some maintenance efforts indoors. This month also provides an opportunity to see if your hard work during earlier months paid off — nothing tests waterproofing efforts like a hard November rain.

Maintain large appliances
As the holiday season begins, make sure your appliances are prepared for the demands you will place on them.

Pull your refrigerator from the wall and clean the condenser coils in back with a vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment. Also, vacuum dust from the front lower grille and clean the drip pan and the drain leading to it, if your unit has one.

Clean the oven and stove drip pans on your electric range. Clean the surface burner on your gas stove to ensure proper flame level.

De-stench your in-sink garbage disposal by packing it with ice cubes and 1/4 cup of baking soda; then turn it on. After the ice-grinding noise stops, pour a kettle full of boiling water into the sink.

Check the dishwasher strainer and washer arm; clean if necessary.

Clean and maintain closets
Go to your closets and perform these two simple tests: Can you see floor space, and can you easily close the door? If the answer to either one of these questions is no, clean your closet. Cramped closets can provide haven for pests, too-full racks can break free from walls, and sliding doors can be derailed by too much stuff. Add compartments and hanging racks at different levels to make better use of space.

Maintain woodwork
November is a good month to repair and reglue woodwork, because indoor air is at its driest. If you are regluing wobbly dining room chairs, clamp during drying by wrapping a rope tightly around the perimeter of the legs. Be sure to protect wood surfaces with cardboard before tightening rope. Try using toothpaste on white water stains on wood surfaces. Once the stain is removed, polish with furniture polish. Use paste wax and elbow grease to put a new sheen on wood furniture.

Clear leaves from gutters
Cleaning gutters is a slimy job, but the task will protect your siding and basement from expensive water damage. Don long rubber gloves, grab a gallon bucket and scoop leaves into the bucket by hand. Trying to use a garden trowel or other device just makes the task more cumbersome and can damage gutters. Blast the scum from the bottom of the gutter with a hose equipped with a pressure nozzle. If it doesn’t drain well, feed your running hose up the pipe to knock loose the clog. Dump the contents of the bucket on your compost pile and pat yourself on the back for a dirty job well done.

Speaking of leaves …
Check some other places where accumulated leaves can be a problem. If leaves are piled in the valleys of your roof, they can retain water and initiate leaks. Walk your property with a shovel and clear drainage ditches and culverts of leaf buildup. Also, a moderate amount of leaves on a lawn can provide a natural mulch, but if large amounts are left to soak up winter rains, they will smother the grass beneath them.

Have problem trees trimmed
Now that you’ve cleaned your gutters, you know which trees are dumping leaves on your roof, shading it enough to encourage moss, and close enough to cause serious damage should they lose a branch in a storm. Trees are dormant this time of the year and can withstand extensive pruning. Decide which ones need cutting back and hire a professional to do the job. This is not a do-it-yourself task if the trees you are looking at are high enough to affect your roof. Trimming large trees is a dangerous job that should be left to an expert.

Maintain moisture
Heaters, especially forced air and wood stoves, can rob a home of humidity. A touch of moisture in the air makes heated air feel warmer, so you can keep the heat at a slightly lower temperature if your humidity is balanced. If your woodwork is cracking or your skin seems excessively dry, you need more moisture in your home. A furnace-mounted humidifier is likely the answer if your home has central forced-air heat and other measures don’t moisten things up. If you have a wood stove, put a nonwhistling teakettle on it and add water regularly (check it daily to make sure the water hasn’t evaporated). If you prefer not to go by feel, buy an inexpensive instrument called a hygrometer that measures humidity.

Maintain pools down south
For most of the country, pools are out of sight and out of mind during November. But if you live in sunny southern climes, this month marks the beginning of the dry season and the time to begin any pool maintenance job that requires emptying the pool. If a pool is emptied when groundwater levels are high, it can “float” and damage itself. So if you’re fortunate enough to live in a place where you can actually enjoy your pool in December, consider having major maintenance like replastering done this time of year.

Check your sump pump
Some unfinished basements in wet areas have sump pumps installed. These pumps switch on automatically when groundwater levels rise, eliminating basement water before it becomes a problem. If you have one, make sure it is in good working order before the rainy season starts.

Buy foam-cup covers for outdoor faucets
Be prepared to protect your spigots when the weather gets chilly and flirts with going below the freezing level. The foam cups are commonly sold at hardware stores and provide a cheap insurance policy that will help keep exposed pipes from freezing.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Anne Erickson of MSN Real Estate

Click here to view the original article

Read Full Post »

Outside, you’ll need to check gutters and problem tree limbs. Indoors, you’ll want to tend to your large appliances and tackle overflowing closets.

 

November is a good month to move some maintenance efforts indoors. This month also provides an opportunity to see if your hard work during earlier months paid off — nothing tests waterproofing efforts like a hard November rain.

Maintain large appliances
As the holiday season begins, make sure your appliances are prepared for the demands you will place on them.

Pull your refrigerator from the wall and clean the condenser coils in back with a vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment. Also, vacuum dust from the front lower grille and clean the drip pan and the drain leading to it, if your unit has one.

Clean the oven and stove drip pans on your electric range. Clean the surface burner on your gas stove to ensure proper flame level.

De-stench your in-sink garbage disposal by packing it with ice cubes and 1/4 cup of baking soda; then turn it on. After the ice-grinding noise stops, pour a kettle full of boiling water into the sink.

Check the dishwasher strainer and washer arm; clean if necessary.

Clean and maintain closets
Go to your closets and perform these two simple tests: Can you see floor space, and can you easily close the door? If the answer to either one of these questions is no, clean your closet. Cramped closets can provide haven for pests, too-full racks can break free from walls, and sliding doors can be derailed by too much stuff. Add compartments and hanging racks at different levels to make better use of space.

Maintain woodwork
November is a good month to repair and reglue woodwork, because indoor air is at its driest. If you are regluing wobbly dining room chairs, clamp during drying by wrapping a rope tightly around the perimeter of the legs. Be sure to protect wood surfaces with cardboard before tightening rope. Try using toothpaste on white water stains on wood surfaces. Once the stain is removed, polish with furniture polish. Use paste wax and elbow grease to put a new sheen on wood furniture.

Clear leaves from gutters
Cleaning gutters is a slimy job, but the task will protect your siding and basement from expensive water damage. Don long rubber gloves, grab a gallon bucket and scoop leaves into the bucket by hand. Trying to use a garden trowel or other device just makes the task more cumbersome and can damage gutters. Blast the scum from the bottom of the gutter with a hose equipped with a pressure nozzle. If it doesn’t drain well, feed your running hose up the pipe to knock loose the clog. Dump the contents of the bucket on your compost pile and pat yourself on the back for a dirty job well done.

Speaking of leaves …
Check some other places where accumulated leaves can be a problem. If leaves are piled in the valleys of your roof, they can retain water and initiate leaks. Walk your property with a shovel and clear drainage ditches and culverts of leaf buildup. Also, a moderate amount of leaves on a lawn can provide a natural mulch, but if large amounts are left to soak up winter rains, they will smother the grass beneath them.

Have problem trees trimmed
Now that you’ve cleaned your gutters, you know which trees are dumping leaves on your roof, shading it enough to encourage moss, and close enough to cause serious damage should they lose a branch in a storm. Trees are dormant this time of the year and can withstand extensive pruning. Decide which ones need cutting back and hire a professional to do the job. This is not a do-it-yourself task if the trees you are looking at are high enough to affect your roof. Trimming large trees is a dangerous job that should be left to an expert.

Maintain moisture
Heaters, especially forced air and wood stoves, can rob a home of humidity. A touch of moisture in the air makes heated air feel warmer, so you can keep the heat at a slightly lower temperature if your humidity is balanced. If your woodwork is cracking or your skin seems excessively dry, you need more moisture in your home. A furnace-mounted humidifier is likely the answer if your home has central forced-air heat and other measures don’t moisten things up. If you have a wood stove, put a nonwhistling teakettle on it and add water regularly (check it daily to make sure the water hasn’t evaporated). If you prefer not to go by feel, buy an inexpensive instrument called a hygrometer that measures humidity.

Maintain pools down south
For most of the country, pools are out of sight and out of mind during November. But if you live in sunny southern climes, this month marks the beginning of the dry season and the time to begin any pool maintenance job that requires emptying the pool. If a pool is emptied when groundwater levels are high, it can “float” and damage itself. So if you’re fortunate enough to live in a place where you can actually enjoy your pool in December, consider having major maintenance like replastering done this time of year.

Check your sump pump
Some unfinished basements in wet areas have sump pumps installed. These pumps switch on automatically when groundwater levels rise, eliminating basement water before it becomes a problem. If you have one, make sure it is in good working order before the rainy season starts.

Buy foam-cup covers for outdoor faucets
Be prepared to protect your spigots when the weather gets chilly and flirts with going below the freezing level. The foam cups are commonly sold at hardware stores and provide a cheap insurance policy that will help keep exposed pipes from freezing.
Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Anne Erickson of MSN Real Estate

Click here to view the original article

Read Full Post »

The housing market seems to be turning a corner, with prices ticking up thanks to reduced inventory and a decline in foreclosure sales. But problems looming in the broader economy could roil this housing rally.

 

Will the housing recovery last? That’s the question some economists are asking, given the plodding growth in the economy, as well as the looming “fiscal cliff,” which threatens to raise taxes and cut jobs.

Tight inventory in many markets and a decline in foreclosure sales have lifted prices, and record-low mortgage rates eased some buyers off the fence, but weak job growth, lousy credit and the large number of buyers with little or no equity could conspire to flatten out the rebound, making this one of the longest, most excruciating recoveries in housing history.

That’s possible even if Congress manages to stave off the “fiscal cliff” in January that would take away the Bush-era tax cuts and raise taxes for most Americans.

“It’s clearly not sustainable,” says Sam Khater, deputy chief economist for real-estate analytics firm CoreLogic. “Real incomes are not growing. We are at the same level we were in the mid-1990s. [The recovery] is not sustainable until incomes recover.”

Some markets have yet to hit bottom, says Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who first warned of the looming crisis in real estate, and who — with Carl Case — created the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. Home prices have yet to turn positive in markets such as Milwaukee, Atlanta, Philadelphia and even New York City.

Shiller, for one, is still reluctant to call the recent improvement in the market a solid recovery.

“The question is how strong is it, and will … this rally fizzle or not? And I don’t know the answer to that,” Shiller said in a recent interview with NPR. “But I point out that this is the fourth time we’ve had a rally since the crisis ended.”

A good start
Still, there’s no question that the overwhelmingly negative news about the housing market has turned positive.

Existing-home sales jumped 11% in September from the same time a year earlier, while the median home price of $183,900 was 11.3% higher than a year ago — the seventh straight month of year-over-year increases, according to the National Association of Realtors.

With sales increasing, the supply of for-sale housing has dwindled to a healthy 5.9-month supply, down from the 8.2-month supply last summer. Of those homes on the market, far fewer are foreclosures, which typically sell for 20% to 30% less than traditional listings.

“When properties come on the market they move fast,” says Gary Bauer, a broker and blogger in Denver. “It’s not uncommon in the price ranges up to $750,000 for a new listing to get multiple offers.”

While new-home sales dipped slightly in August, the median price of a new home surged 11.2% to $256,900, the biggest one-month increase ever recorded. Prices have climbed 17% over the past year and are at the highest level since spring 2007, according to the Commerce Department, fueling some talk of a growing bubble.

It’s true that homebuilders are feeling more confident. New single-family home starts ticked up 5.5% in August from the previous month.

Add to that rising consumer confidence and record-low mortgage interest rates in recent weeks, and it’s easy to see why so many are starting to think the housing market has really turned the corner.

Too much excitement?
Of course, some things are missing for a robust and sustained rebound, including meaningful job growth, pay increases and enough affordable inventory in some markets.

Tight inventory helped pushed the NAR’s Pending Home Sales Index (based on signed contracts) down 2.6% to 99.2, despite being 10.7% higher than the same time last year.

Prices have yet to rise enough to make selling viable for those who bought in the past seven years, Khater says.

About 10.8 million, or 22.3%, of homes financed with mortgages were in negative equity at the end of the second quarter, according to CoreLogic. And 45% of all homes have mortgages with an 80% loan-to-value ratio, giving homeowners little to put down on another house.

Moreover, many foreclosures that would have wound up with a for-sale sign in front are being sold in packages to investors as rentals. While that’s good for propping up prices near term, this affordable inventory won’t make it to individual buyers.

And despite the record-low mortgage rates of late, qualifying for a loan can still be tough.

Paul Diggle of Capital Economics pointed out the growing gap between the NAR’s Pending Home Sales Index and its monthly sales figures in a recent housing report. As many as 15% of contracts don’t make it through to closing, he says, in part because of today’s tight lending environment.

But the real driver of the recovery, Khater says, needs to be jobs. Without meaningful growth in jobs — job creation that outpaces population growth — and stronger pay raises, the recovery could fizzle out.

“The economy is fundamentally very weak,” he says, “and that could keep the malaise out there for an extended period of time.”

Especially, he says, if Congress fails to push off the spending cuts and tax increases due to take effect at the beginning of next year. That could send the country back into a recession.

The road ahead
Of course, analysts say, there’s a chance that legislators could extend those cuts to keep the economic recovery on a firm footing or replace them with something else to help low- and moderate-income Americans.

But the economic uncertainty will keep many buyers on the sidelines, says Alex Villacorta, director of research and analytics at Clear Capital. Debt-ceiling brinksmanship pushed down consumer sentiment 14.3% last year, the largest amount since the end of the recession, and uncertainty over taxes could “throw a wrench into the recovery.”

The Federal Reserve did its part recently by announcing a third round of monthly mortgage-backed securities purchases, a stimulus designed to increase employment and keep mortgage rates low so more people will want to buy homes.

If consumer confidence can survive the weak economic news, Clear Capital predicts a strong market through the start of the spring buying season.

With prices rising in most markets, growing numbers of people who already own a home may be nudged into moving up to a larger one. First-time buyers will still need to be making enough money at their jobs to qualify for loans.

But with the large number of low-down-payment FHA loans available, and lower mortgage rates bringing down the cost of homes, would-be buyers won’t have to spend as much to get one.

Indeed, Diggle sees the high home-contract cancellation rate as a positive rather than negative for the housing market in the months ahead. The cancellations, he says, “reflect would-be buyers’ willingness to buy increasing at a faster pace than the bank’s willingness or ability to lend.”

In other words, you have an eager pool of buyers who might have less than perfect credit — good news if credit loosens a bit.

As far as supply goes, inventory should grow as more homeowners gain equity in the next year or two. CoreLogic says that just a 5% jump in annual home prices would be enough to get a significant number of those underwater homeowners into an equity position.

Still, that might not happen, he says, at least not in the next year. Local Market Monitor predicts values in the U.S. will remain relatively flat in the next year, with a larger increase — up to 7% — in the next 36 months.

“It seems as if we have a long recovery in order, given the slow economic growth and pace of hiring,” says Ingo Winzer, president of Local Market Monitor.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Melinda Fulmer of MSN Real Estate

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Home prices have edged up in Washington, DC, making the president’s mansion slightly more valuable than it was 4 years ago.

 

What’s happened to the value of your house in the past four years?

In Washington, D.C., home prices have edged up slightly. And that means President Barack Obama can say that his house, at least, is better off now than it was four years ago.

The White House is now worth about $284.9 million, or about 1.5% more than the $280.8 million in was worth in 2008, MarketWatch reports. If homes in the area continue to increase in value, then the White House’s worth could rise an additional 1.1% in the next year to $288 million. MarketWatch got the data from real-estate site Zillow (Z -1.45%).

So why is the D.C. area doing so well when other parts of the country are not? Washington is home to four sectors that have done extraordinarily well even in the housing downturn: health care, government, education and military, Zillow CEO Stan Humphries told MarketWatch.

A recent report found that D.C. home prices rose 4% in the third quarter from a year earlier, The Washington Post notes. Sellers there are getting about 98% of their asking prices.

But the White House still hasn’t reached the value hit during the years of President George W. Bush. In June 2006, the building was worth $299.9 million.

My question: Has Zillow figured the White House’s mysterious renovation into its value calculations? The mansion has wrapped up an $86 million, two-year project that appeared to build something deep underground, The Associated Press reports. No one in the federal government will talk about it, though.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Kim Peterson

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Moving day is a giant logistical hassle, but a missed detail can make it much worse.

 

Moving day is a giant logistical hassle before you get to the minutiae. A missed detail just makes it that much worse.

Renting a truck, hiring movers and getting stuff packed up and out of the house are the relatively easy portions of the move. Only when you get second notices forwarded to your new address or the lights cut off as you’re packing up the old place do you realize how much the little things add up.

In the interest of saving readers some hassle while they plan to ship out, we contacted the American Moving and Storage Association and asked about common oversights that people made while planning long or involved moves. The following 10 items are usually the easiest to overlook and the toughest to just shove into a garbage bag with the contents of the junk drawer at the last minute.

1. Your local government
If you don’t have a driveway for a moving truck to pull into or a storage container to be dropped in, chances are you need to put it on the street. If that’s the case, in some places you’re going to need a permit. To get that permit, you’re going to need some sort of proof that the company you’re working with is insured or bonded with the local government. That’s the case in Massachusetts, Florida and elsewhere. It can really put a crimp in your moving plans if you don’t check first and your belongings end up in the impound lot.

2. Your hidden belongings
It seems pretty obvious, but taking another few sweeps around the house can help you avoid leaving grandma’s china to the new tenants or going without holiday decorations for a season or so. AMSA spokesman John Bisey says the easiest items to forget are those tucked away in crawl spaces, attics and built-in cabinets. If there’s a spot in your house or apartment that’s out of sight, chances are that’s where your last box full of stuff is coming from.

3. Your items on loan
Wondering where your reciprocating saw or popcorn maker got off to? Check in with the neighbors. The AMSA says items lent to neighbors, family or friends tend to cause customers the greatest headaches once they realize they’re gone. Take a quick inventory and make some rounds at the going-away party.

4. Your sleeping arrangements
So you’ve packed up the truck or container and are ready to take off in the morning. That’s great, but where are you going to sleep tonight? The first night at the new destination isn’t that big of a problem, as you’ll get to your bed eventually, but the last night after the big load-up can be tough if you don’t pack the bed last or plan to stay with someone else.

5. Your records
It’s a lot easier to do things electronically these days, but that’s not always the case with medical, dental or school records. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep these things on hand, so try to get copies from everyone as soon as you’re ready to pack them up. Once you have them, keep them all in the same place so they’re easy to refer to once you’re setting up your new home.

6. Your heat and lights
If you don’t turn the electricity, gas or oil heat on, nobody’s going to do it for you. The AMSA advises turning off all utilities two to three days after you load out and turning them on at the new place two to three days before you move in. It’s not great to get a bill for lights that someone else is using forwarded to the address you’re already being charged for. Speaking of forwarding …

7. Your mail
Oh yeah, you’re going to want to check in with the Postal Service and make sure it knows you’re leaving. It will forward mail to your new address only if you check with it in advance, and even then it’s not permanent. Forwarding basically gives you a couple of months to change your mailing address with various institutions. At some point, that yellow forwarding label will stop appearing.

8. Your insurance
“Be careful when referring to ‘insurance,'” Bisey says. “Very few movers offer true insurance, which is regulated by the states and is offered by an insurance agent.”

The best you can get from the movers themselves is valuation protection, which covers only a percentage of what your goods are worth. In May, a federal regulation took effect requiring interstate movers to include the cost of full-value protection in their initial written estimate. This should give consumers some second thoughts about choosing the minimal valuation option, which is only 60 cents per pound.

9. Your paid labor
If you tip someone for carrying a tray of food to you, you may want to consider tipping the people who just lugged a dresser to your fourth-floor walk-up. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about this, but if you’re not at least offering some water afterward, you have no sense of empathy whatsoever.

10. Your mess
Whether there are a few nail holes left in the walls where your family photos once hung or a huge paint spot in the closet from when you knocked over a gallon of Periwinkle Blue, it’s usually in your best interest to take care of it immediately. Your security deposit or even a sale could hang in the balance.

“I think the last-minute repairs and/or fix-ups are legit,” Bisey says, “especially when, for example, a large piece of furniture is moved away, revealing a problem with the floor or wall it was hiding.”

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Jason Notte of TheStreet

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Financial institutions have no obligations to disclose or fix flaws in an as-is property, so buyers need to do the due diligence and hire seasoned foreclosure home inspectors to make sure they are not stuck with a lemon.

 

Q: When a bank forecloses and then sells a house, do they have to disclose any faults or flaws? My friend bought a house that had been foreclosed and didn’t get the power turned on to see if the well and heat pump worked. They don’t!
—  Olga

A: Though some banks are fixing up foreclosure properties, the vast majority are sold as is, hence these institutions have no obligations to disclose flaws and typically don’t know exactly what the defects are, anyway. Moreover, banks are under no obligation to fix as-is homes, and they tend to provide only a narrow time frame for inspections.

So it’s usually up to buyers to do the due diligence and a thorough inspection. As your pal discovered, it’s not a stretch to suspect that the previous owner of a distressed home let maintenance slide. Further, many such homes are vacant for months with no caretaker. Plumbing and sewer problems result.

Unfortunately, your friend found out the hard way that getting the power restored is a must when examining a foreclosure. Granted, getting that done is not always easy. Banks often state upfront in their special addendums that they won’t be responsible for having utilities turned on to allow inspections.

And little wonder: Electric companies often remove a home’s electric meter after terminating service, which complicates the whole process. Depending on the site and city, it might cost money to have a meter reinstalled, a permit fee may be required, a county inspector may have to inspect the meter post, and an electrician may even have to conduct an inspection to make sure the house won’t burn down when power is restored.

In short, some would-be owners find themselves forking out $400 to $900 just to get an inspection. As a result, some will drop the deal. Others, like your friend, simply choose to forgo that part of the inspection entirely.

One cheaper way is to secure a foreclosure inspector who can power the entire home with a portable generator to check the furnace, heat pumps, condenser, water heater, appliances, lighting, outlets and any electrically operated well, as in your friend’s case. A call to such an inspector will let you know if this is allowable in your area.

Let this serve as a cautionary tale. As tempting as it is to go it alone in an effort to save some bucks, a foreclosure buyer is always wise to hire a real-estate agent experienced with foreclosure deals and their nuances, get that power turned on and use a seasoned foreclosure home inspector to give it the twice-over. Good luck.

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Steve McLinden of Bankrate.com

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For years it was assumed that renters were simply less civic-minded. But low tenant turnout may be due to something far easier to overcome: the cumbersome registration process.

 

With time running out in some states to register to vote in the presidential election, see if you know which of the following questions is more crucial for renters:

A) Will you take the time to vote on Nov. 6?

B) Are you registered to vote?

The answer is “B.” The distinction is particularly important for tenants, who have just as much of a stake in election outcomes as do homeowners. (Even if Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said in 2010 that the nation’s founders were on to a good idea in allowing only property owners to vote, “because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community.”)

For years, the massive population of tenants — one-third of Americans and climbing — has turned out at a markedly lower rate than homeowners. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, 52% of renters voted, compared with 68% of homeowners, a sizable gap that, if closed, could turn elections. A back-of-the-envelope calculation using census figures shows that if tenants voted at the same rate as homeowners, an additional 11.2 million tenants would cast ballots in the upcoming November election.

For years, the reason for low tenant turnout has been chalked up to demographic factors, such as lifestyle or income — really just a polite way of saying, “Renters don’t care.” That’s because the demographics of tenants tend to mirror the demographics of those with low voter-turnout rates:

Lower income: The median income of tenants is about half the median income of homeowners, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Low-income citizens register and vote at lower rates. In 2008, according to census data, 80% of people with incomes of more than $100,000 were registered and 73% voted; only 64% of those with incomes of less than $20,000 were registered and 52% voted.

Less education: People with less education are less likely to own a home, and voting trends again correlate. In 2008, only 50.5% of eligible voters with less than a high-school diploma had registered to vote, compared with 64.1% of those with a high-school diploma and 81.2% of those with a four-year college degree, according to census data.

Younger: The 2008 election saw near-record youth turnout, which was credited with helping to secure victory for President Barack Obama. Even so, among 18- to 29-year-olds, only 51% of eligible voters went to the polls, compared with 69% of those between the 45 and 64.

More mobile: Tenants are far more likely to move than homeowners. Because of that, theorists have surmised, they are less likely to put down roots and become civically engaged.

Oops, I completely forgot to register
But evidence is mounting that it is the last point — the fact that people move — that is key, and that past assumptions about why tenants don’t vote may be incorrect.

Political scientists who have been re-evaluating reams of voting data have found that whether a tenant votes is less about political will and more about the cumbersome and at times elusive process of registering.

Think about it: The last time you moved, which tenants obviously do far more frequently than homeowners, at exactly what point in the unpacking process did you jump and say: “I’ve got to go re-register to vote at my new address!”

“Registration itself is really the red tape and the stumbling block right now,” says Liz Kennedy, a counsel with Demos, a public policy research group that advances voter rights. “There are so many different jurisdictions that administer elections that a lot of this can be perhaps somewhat tricky to navigate.”

It isn’t until an election draws near that many people even remember that they need to re-register at their new address. Then it’s up to them to find out how, where and by when. Recent, tighter voter ID laws present further complications, while threatening to disenfranchise millions of elderly, minority and low-income citizens.

There’s still time to register to vote
Meanwhile, voters may hear or read little about legal protections afforded citizens, including those designed to help people who have recently moved.

For example, under the National Voting Rights Act, if you did not move out of your jurisdiction (for example, New York City is in one jurisdiction), you are allowed to cast your ballot at your old polling place.Furthermore, many states allow anyone who has moved within the state to vote at the new polling place, even if that person hasn’t yet registered to vote at his new address. A voter can update his address on the day of the election. Many states allow voters to register online.

Those laws alone affect millions of tenants. Within the past year, almost 20 million voting-age adults moved in this country. Of those, two-thirds moved within their county and 84% moved within their state.

“So all is not lost when people move, and they should certainly not think, ‘Oh, gee, now I can’t vote at all.’ They should instead call their Board of Elections,” Kennedy said.

States determine their own voter-registration deadlines. The earliest are 30 days before the election, or Oct. 7 for the upcoming presidential election. Eleven states, including swing states Iowa and New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia allow voters to register up to and including Election Day. North Dakota has no registration requirements.

To find voter-registration details for your state and jurisdiction, you can call the 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) hotline or go to www.866OurVote.org. You can also see deadlines and other information at VoteSmart.org.

If you register, you will vote
But back to bucking the old stereotypes about why tenants don’t vote.

It turns out that once renters register to vote, they are just as likely as homeowners — or those who haven’t moved — to cast a ballot. About 90% of registered voters show up to vote for president.

“A lot of our under-represented demographic, these groups are highly mobile. But if you look at the turnout rate among the registered voters, they turn out at the same rates,” says Youjin Kim, apolicy analyst with Demos.

A 2011 academic study of 1.8 million voter-registration records found that after about age 22, people were more likely to register only because they were more likely to have been at one address for a longer period of time. The authors found a correlation with the registration process itself, not with a lack of resources or interest.

“So the argument that the younger you are, the less ties that you have to the community, and the less interested you are, is not true,” Kim says.

A 2000 study by a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, found that while voter-turnout rates were highly affected by the act of moving, it didn’t matter how far away the voter moved. In other words, it wasn’t changing communities that mattered, but simply changing addresses. So much for the assumption that low voter turnout meant people hadn’t established roots in their community, the author concluded.

Furthermore, says Demos, when registration is uncomplicated, people vote. The five states with the highest voter-turnout rates all have same-day registration.

Just give tenants the forms?
In Madison, Wis., where half the city households are renters, one elected official introduced a novel idea to help streamline voter registration for city clerks, who were getting inundated with applications on Election Day.

Since so many people move into new apartments in mid-August, just as election season is heating up, why not require that landlords give all new tenants voter-registration application and information sheets?

As in other states, efforts have been under way to clamp down on voter registration. And Wisconsin does not ask about voter registration when drivers apply for a license, as many states do under the National Voter Registration Act. Really, though, Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci says she just wanted to reduce government costs and ease clerical workload by preventing tens of thousands of registration applications from landing on Nov. 6.

Since the law went into effect this summer, city clerks have been receiving about 1,000 applications a day, a far more efficient stream to handle. Local government provides the paperwork to landlords, who then include it in the packet of information they already provide tenants.

“We’re trying to get the forms to people so they can come in in a staggered fashion,” she says. The clerk’s staff “is able to manage that and get everyone into the poll books.”

Minnesota, which has had same-day voter registration since 1974, has the country’s highest rate of voter turnout: 75% in 2008, compared with 64% nationally.

“It doesn’t matter to me how you’re voting; it matters to me that we have accessibility for individuals to go vote,” Maniaci says. “I don’t understand how we got to the point as a country where discouraging voting is a positive policy goal to have.”

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Karen Aho of MSN Real Estate

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