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You’ll encounter special joys and hurdles when you’re alone in the deal. These 8 strategies will smooth your path to buying.

If you’re single and thinking of buying a home, you’re in great company. Solo buyers made a quarter of all U.S. real-estate purchases last year, according to the National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers 2012. Twice as many single women bought homes as did single men. 

Buying a home as a single person is much like buying with a partner. You shop, select and finance a piece of property, as all buyers do.

But there are distinct differences when you’re alone in the deal. All the joys and burdens are yours alone. The research, the shopping, the financing and, eventually, the bills and upkeep – yep, all yours. While that probably sounds obvious, there are implications you may not have considered.

Master of his domain
Carl Toll, a single, 36-year-old network technician, bought his 1,600-square-foot Denver home in 2007, after a bad roommate experience soured him on the rental life.

“This isn’t working out,” he decided after the housemate moved out without telling him. “I want to be the master of my own domain.”

Shopping and purchasing were pretty easy, he says. He thought through each aspect of his purchase carefully. He wanted a low-maintenance home: “I didn’t want to have to replace water heaters and furnaces right off the bat.” So he looked for something built recently.

He’s not a parent, but he shopped only in highly rated school districts to help ensure the resale value of his purchase. He has enjoyed the house, the neighborhood and the sense of independence that owning his own home gives him, he says.

Getting a mortgage alone
Toll’s experience was smooth, but many solo buyers face challenges. The recession has been one of the biggest. In the early recession years, single homebuyers enjoyed a boost from federal first-time-homebuyer tax credits in 2009 and 2010.

Stacy Erickson, a 29-year-old professional organizer, bought her 700-square-foot co-op apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in 2009. “That was a really good year for people like me,” she says. “I was able to borrow some money for a down payment and then pay it all back with the tax credit.”

But by 2011, the recession hit solo buyers hard. “Single-income households are more reluctant to make big-ticket purchases in times of economic uncertainty,” according to the NAR’s Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. Home purchases by singles fell an “unprecedented” 7% between 2010 and 2012.

The biggest hurdle for singles is qualifying for a mortgage. “In most cases that I see, it is more difficult for a single buyer to purchase than a two-person household,” says Craig Tashjian, vice president at Fairway Independent Mortgage in Needham, Mass.

One bonus: Singles aren’t dragged down by a partner’s credit score, loans or credit card debt. Tashjian says couples often get stuck with a higher interest rate because of one member’s low credit score.

Couples, though, usually have an advantage, says Marcus McCue, executive vice president at Guardian Mortgage Co., which operates in Texas and Michigan. Not only do they have two incomes but also, when sharing overhead, “one plus one usually equals more than two, as many expenses are joint and not duplicated.”

Difficulties in qualifying sometimes lead buyers, especially younger ones, to ask parents or other relatives for financial help.

“I have seen people choose to continue renting as a result of not wanting to involve any other parties in a purchase and pay more rent than they would if they purchased,” New York real-estate agent Brad Malow says.

Shopping solo — the triumphs
Single shoppers are alone with all the decisions required to buy a home. That can be harrowing. But there’s also a special sense of accomplishment to buying a home alone.

“I was the one who had to come up with all of the financing without support from a spouse or partner,” Erickson says. “However, I was also the one who got the choices and all of the decisions. I didn’t have to worry about someone else and what they liked or didn’t like.”

Homebuying is a means of self-expression, particularly for singles, says Jennifer De Vivo, an Orlando, Fla., real-estate agent. “It’s a way for singles to express their lifestyles and values. They are able to focus on the exact communities, home styles and features that cater to their individuality with much less compromise.”

Despite the exhilaration, buying solo can be nerve-wracking without a confidant and sounding board. To compensate, singles often work more closely with their agents. In the best cases, they form a tight bond.

“I find that I become more involved, like a friend,” says Jerry Grodesky, managing broker at Farm and Lake Houses Real Estate Inc. in Loda, Ill.

Watching the satisfaction that single buyers get from tackling one of life’s major milestones on their own is rewarding for an agent, Malow says. “I have to say that the closings with these buyers just thrill me.”

 

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

Original article by: Marilyn Lewis of MSN Real Estate

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Where smoke and swagger meet urban ethnic style with a twang.

Star Tastemaker
Tyson Cole of Uchi and Uchiko, who shook the scene with his landlocked sushi mecca andhas launched talent such as Top Chef contestant Paul Qui, whose first                                    solo venture, qui, opens in Austin this month.

Best Bites
Brisket ($10/plate) with espresso BBQ sauce at Franklin Barbecue; Hill Country Board (pain au levain, sausage, venison pâté infused with Real Ale Brewing Company’s Sisyphus barley-wine ale, pickled vegetables, and house mustard; $15) from Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden; Laura Sawicki’s Miso-White Chocolate Semifreddo ($9) with crispy rice, coconut sticky rice, and mango sorbet at Sway.

Nightcap
A Joe Buck (corn whiskey, Dijon syrup, lemon juice, and ginger beer; $12) at Midnight Cowboy.

 

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

Original Article by: Story by Paula Disbrowe

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As the stumbling retailer tries to rebuild ties to shoppers, it has a massive employee morale problem to deal with as well.

Under ousted chief executive Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney (JCP -1.47%) had a massive housecleaning, sweeping away thousands of  jobs as it eliminated popular clothing lines like St. John’s Bay.

 

Now, returning CEO Myron Ullman has a knotty problem on his hands: how to revive those brands with a company suffering from deep morale problems and an employee base that has shrunk by 23%, reports The Wall Street Journal.

 

When Johnson completed his first full fiscal year on the job, Penney employed only 116,000 people, down from its recent historic level of 150,000, according to the report.

 

While the ex-CEO argued that the job cuts were needed to boost Penney’s financial performance, the opposite resulted: Loyal customers fled, with many angered at his decision to dump St. John’s Bay. Sales plunged 25% last year.

 

St. John’s Bay may have been a linchpin leading to Johnson’s failure. MSN moneyNOW readers often cited the disappearance of the casual-wear clothing line as the reason they abandoned Penney stores.

 

“If JC Penney brings back the brands that they ditched, St. John’s Bay women’s jeans for instance, I will think about shopping there again……but not until then,” one reader wrote on Thursday.

 

And it turns out that Penney is planning on bringing back the clothing line, which had brought in annual sales of a billion dollars, The Journal notes.

 

Why would Johnson single-handedly get rid of a brand that racked up such huge sales? The former Apple executive wanted to “de-frump” the stores and instead brought in edgier designers such as Cynthia Rowley. The problem, though, was that Penney customers had been happy with those comfortable clothing lines. Feeling alienated, many of them swore off shopping at the retailer.

 

Johnson misunderstood the store’s customer base, which tends to be older than 55. One-third of its customers earn less than $35,000 a year, according to BloombergBusinesswee​k. Getting rid of coupons also alienated his price-conscious customers.

 

Penney plans to return coupon advertising to newspapers, activist investor William Ackman said on Thursday, according to Bloomberg. The company needs to “calm the vendors,” he added.

 

But what to do about those morale problems? According to The Journal, the layoffs weren’t pretty. Because Penney didn’t have enough staff to cut people in face-to-face meetings, groups of employees were ushered into Penney’s auditorium to hear the news. Sometimes more than 100 people were fired at once, the story notes.

 

With Ullman’s plan to bring back St. John’s Bay, he might be taking one step toward dealing with his alienated customer base. And getting rid of Johnson was likely a big boost to internal morale. According to the New York Post, clapping and laughing erupted last Monday at an employee meeting when word of his ouster was announced.

 

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

Original Article by: Aimee Picchi

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The IRS will grant an automatic extension to anyone who asks. But you still have to estimate what you owe and send the money.

For taxpayers who can’t manage the April 15 deadline, the Internal Revenue Service offers an automatic six-month filing extension. This year the due date is Oct. 15, and taxpayers qualify by filing Form 4868.

 

Getting an extension is preferable to filing a return with mistakes, says Melissa Labant, a tax specialist with the American Institute of CPAs. “If you have already filed, then you will need to amend the return, which is often more trouble,” she says.

 

Remember that an extension to file isn’t an extension to pay. Uncle Sam wants 100% of the total tax by the April due date, or interest and perhaps a late-payment penalty will be due.

 

Here are common reasons to seek an extension.

 

Incomplete records, especially for investments or a closely held business. A sore point with many tax preparers is that brokers sometimes issue multiple Form 1099s reporting investment tax information.

Lack of a letter confirming a charitable contribution. The law is clear: Taxpayers must have proper notification from a charity before deducting a donation. “Get that letter before you file,” Labant says.

 

Roth IRA reversal. Taxpayers who converted all or part of a regular IRA to a Roth account have until the October due date the following year to undo the conversion, which is taxable. That might be a good idea if assets in the Roth account have fallen in value since the conversion.

 

Roth IRA owners who file in April can amend their returns before Oct. 15 to undo last year’s conversion, but filing for an extension is often the easier route.

 

You are traveling, or it is your busy season. Harried tax preparers often file extensions for their own returns.

 

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

Original Article by: MSN Money partner

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These homes still watch programs but mostly on laptops, tablets and phones.

There are 5 million “zero-TV” households in the U.S., more than double from 2 million in 2007. It’s a small but growing trend that has the media establishment plenty worried.

These people, who make up fewer than 5% of U.S. households, haven’t stopped watching television shows. They just do it on their own terms over laptops, tablets and cellphones.

As Nielsen notes, about 75% of these homes still have TVs, but people use them mostly to play video games and watch DVDs.

This creates a huge problem for the industry, one that will likely be a key topic at this week’s National Association of Broadcasters’ annual trade show. Content creators and broadcast networks make money from these viewers through arrangements with streaming sites such as Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu and through advertising on their websites and apps, according to The Associated Press. Television stations, however, get shut out.

“Unless broadcasters can adapt to modern platforms, their revenue from zero-TV viewers will be zero,” the AP says.

The New York Times on Monday noted the trend of people sharing passwords for video-streaming sites such as HBO Go, which is owned by Time Warner (TWX +0.74%), making it even easier for cable users to cut the cord.

Though more than 130 TV stations in the U.S. broadcast live signals to mobile devices, most users don’t have the tools to receive them. The dongles that catch those signals are just starting to be sold, according to the AP.

A handful of video-streaming sites have become hot properties. Hulu, for example, has reportedly received a $500 million bid from former News Corp. (NWS +2.20%) president Peter Chernin. The site is jointly controlled by News Corp. and Walt Disney (DIS +1.86%).

Luckily for broadcasters, most people are still transfixed by the boob tube. According to Nielsen, Americans spend an average of nearly 41 hours a week, or about 5.5 hours a day, watching content across all screens. People spend more than 34 of those hours in front of a TV.

Even so, given the technological changes in the works, the television industry 10 years from now may not look much like it does today.

 

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

Original Article by: Jonathan Berr

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Lenders look at other factors, not your credit score alone, before approving a condo loan.

Some lenders can make condo buyers with pristine credit feel like rejects. Blame it on the building.

Before making a loan to a would-be buyer, lenders comb through the building’s financial statements to see if too many condos remain unsold, or if units are mostly rentals instead of owner-occupied. Lenders also look to see if the building’s cash reserves, which help cover maintenance costs, are too low.

These factors — which have nothing to do with a potential buyer’s finances — can put a chokehold on a loan.

A lot of condo buildings don’t make the grade. At national lender EverBank, for instance, roughly 30% of condo mortgage applicants encounter a roadblock due to the building’s finances. “A perfect borrower can’t fix a bad project,” says Tom Wind, executive vice president of residential and consumer lending at EverBank.

Shaky condos have been popping up more frequently over the past two to three years, even in luxury buildings, says Zeke Morris, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors. Real-estate agents say they’re also prevalent in other markets, including Houston and Miami.

In general, lenders say they view condos as riskier purchases than other homes. Much of that stems from condo-association fees. If existing owners are behind on those payments or many units remain unsold, monthly fees are likely to rise to help cover costs.

At some point, lenders argue, those expenses could rise to a level where an owner can no longer afford to pay the fees and walks away from the property, leaving the lender with the outstanding mortgage. That’s why, currently, it is almost impossible to get a mortgage — regardless of your wealth — if more than 15% of condos in a building are behind on dues, says Jeff Gennarelli, president of Bridgeview Bank Mortgage Co., based in Lombard, Ill.

But luxury buyers have alternatives besides paying all cash for the condo. One is private mortgages, loans that lenders hold on their books rather than sell to the government. They tend to be larger than traditional loans, require larger down payments and are often offered only as adjustable-rate mortgages. Rates are also generally higher than traditional mortgages.

Private loans are sometimes the only source of financing for condos sold in luxury hotels and in buildings where more than 20% or 25% of the units consist of commercial space, like restaurants and shopping malls. They’re also common for a condo in a new building where a certain percentage of the units are still owned by the developer.

To find such a loan, borrowers should consider a community bank or other local lending institution where they have a lot of assets or where they have been banking for years, though an existing relationship isn’t always required. Or they can ask mortgage brokers who may know a lender willing to fund such a loan.

The opportunity for profit is partly why these lenders take on the risk when others won’t. Whatever leniency they offer on a building’s finances they often make up for by imposing strict lending requirements, including high credit scores, says Eddie Hoskins, president of First Florida Financial Group, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based mortgage broker that arranges such loans.

Some points to consider when applying for a condo loan:

Get an early start: Buyers should ask lenders for the list of criteria the building will need to meet; then real-estate agents can provide those answers when potential buyers shop for properties.

The type of building: Some condo buildings have a greater risk of not being approved for financing. Jonathan Cherry, senior mortgage banker at Wyndham Capital Mortgage based in Charlotte, N.C., says buyers who want to avoid financing complications might want to stick to mid- to larger-size buildings that are mostly owner-occupied.

Large down payments: With a private mortgage, borrowers often need to make at least a 20% to 30% down payment if it’s a primary residence. If it’s a second home, they could need to put down at least 40%. For investment purposes, cash is among the few options, since a mortgage may be impossible to get.

Rising costs: With adjustable-rate mortgages, rates could be low now but rise in a few years, thereby increasing the monthly mortgage payment. And borrowers could still end up with rising condo dues if the other owners in the building hit hard times.

 

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

Original Article by: AnnaMaria Andriotis of The Wall Street Journal

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Here’s just how seriously you should take the radiation emanating from your granite counters, among other potential home hazards.

Every now and then a news report gets people worked up about hidden dangers lurking in their homes. Should you be afraid that the radiation coming from your granite countertop or the flame retardants in your furniture are trying to kill you?

Granite countertops
A beautiful granite countertop can make any kitchen pop. Yet every once in a while people go into panic mode, freaking out about the fact that granite is a rock that can have some radioactive elements and could potentially give off radon, which can be harmful in high concentrations. But while the very mention of the word radiation is enough to stoke fears, you don’t really need to worry about this one. The EPA says that radon is more likely to come into your house from the soil than from your kitchen counters (and granite isn’t a very porous stone to begin with, meaning it doesn’t give out as much radiation as others).

Furthermore, any buildup of radon in the kitchen or bathroom is unlikely, as those rooms tend to have good ventilation systems. “It is extremely unlikely that granite countertops in homes could increase the radiation dose above the normal, natural background dose that comes from soil and rocks,” the EPA says.
Fear rating: Extremely low
Precautions: Be more worried about legitimate dangers in the kitchen, such as food safety and keeping sharp objects and cleaning solutions away from kids.

Particleboard and formaldehyde

Particleboard-based furniture may be great for furnishing your place on a budget. But pressed wood products such as particleboard tend to contain formaldehyde resins in the adhesives that hold the wood particles together. Formaldehyde is a surprisingly common volatile chemical, but it’s definitely not good for you. Luckily, good ventilation and keeping heat and humidity to a minimum can reduce the amount of formaldehyde released from furniture.

Fear Rating: Low
Precautions: Check what kind of adhesives furniture manufacturers used to make your products. Since the 1980s, when the EPA restricted the maximum allowable formaldehyde emissions from this kind of furniture, many companies have made efforts to substantially reduce the amount of the chemical in their production.

Flame retardants

A recent study found that 85% of couches tested in California contained flame retardants that have not been evaluated for human safety.

Couches in California are required to have flame-retardant properties, but some scientists worry that the chemicals used to prevent flaming sofas might be linked to hormone disruption, cancer and neurological issues — not to mention that these flame retardants aren’t necessarily present at levels in which they are effective at fire prevention.

No decisive link to health problems has been proved. The problem is that the replacements for pentabromodiphenyl ether, which the EPA banned from new products after 2005, haven’t been fully tested, according to study author Heather Stapleton of Duke University. Stapleton says that she and her colleagues are pursuing long-term health studies. The presence of these chemicals in the air outside the couch is worrying — especially as the same kinds of foam are currently used in baby mattresses and supplies.

Look for a label that mentions Technical Bulletin 117 — if it’s there then your couch probably has flame retardants. If it’s not, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t flame retardants, it just means that you don’t know for certain.
Fear rating: Medium
Precautions: Stapleton says that people worried about the dust should wash their hands frequently, especially before eating, to reduce chances of ingesting any toxic chemicals. Removing dust by cleaning regularly can help, too, but Stapleton cautions that vacuuming and dusting can cause some particles to become airborne.

 

Microwaves

Microwaves have been in our homes long enough to inspire lots of fear mongering, worries and urban legends. Rumors that microwaving plastic will poison your food, or that the radiation will disrupt pacemakers, have been around for years. According to the FDA, most of this is nonsense. No, you shouldn’t use some plastics in the microwave — because they could melt —but you can solve that problem by checking the bottom of the package to see what’s allowed; if the item is microwave-safe, there is sometimes a symbol (a box with wavy lines inside it) that indicates it is safe for microwave use. Pacemakers used to be affected by microwaves, but are now shielded. And you’re not going to get radiation injuries from a microwave; it just isn’t powerful enough to do any damage.

Interestingly, the FDA does warn about erupting hot water. Apparently, heating water in a clean cup for a long time can cause the water to get superheated. It reaches temperatures above the boiling point without the distinctive bubbling of a rolling boil. When anything is added to the water, or it is shaken, then it can erupt, causing burns.
Fear Rating: Medium
Precautions: Check labels, and don’t heat that cup of water for tea for too long.

 

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

Original Article by: Mary Beth Griggs of Popular Mechanics

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