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Loan officers and mortgage brokers may have their own criteria, but you can generally expect to provide these papers.

If anything about refinancing your mortgage might be described as “fun,” it would have to be locking in your new lower interest rate. But once that’s done, you’ll have to deal with the decidedly not-fun part of gathering all the documentation you’ll need to support your refinance loan application.

To get started and stay organized, it helps to have a checklist of which documents you’ll need. While each loan officer or mortgage broker might have his own specific checklist, here’s a look at what you can generally expect:

Photo ID: Typically a driver’s license or passport, this document is used to confirm your name, identity and home address.

Pay stubs: You’ll need to produce your pay stubs from at least the past 30 days. If you don’t have your pay stubs, ask your employer’s payroll or personnel department to give you these documents, which must show your name, the name of your employer and your total year-to-date earnings, says Joe Metzler, mortgage specialist at Mortgages Unlimited in St. Paul, Minn.

Asset statements: Gather monthly or quarterly statements from your various asset accounts from the past two to three months. Asset accounts include checking, savings, investment and retirement-plan funds.

If you don’t have your statements handy, you can print them from most financial institutions’ websites, Metzler says. Each statement must include your name, the name of your financial institution and the beginning and ending account balances. A printout of your current transactions “usually does not work” for loan application purposes, Metzler warns. Rather, a true statement is required.

Documentation of deposits: You’ll need documentation that shows the source of any deposit of more than a nominal sum, other than payroll.

This relatively new requirement helps the lender figure out whether you have enough money from allowable sources for closing costs and reserves, says Joe Parsons, senior loan officer at PFS Funding, a mortgage company in Dublin, Calif.

W-2 tax forms for the past two years: If you’re self-employed, earn commission or tip income or own rental property, you’re going to need to produce federal income tax returns for the past two years. Self-employed borrowers might also be required to supply a K-1 tax form, which shows your percentage of ownership of your company. If you’re a substantial owner, you’ll also be asked to supply the company’s tax returns for the past two years.

If you don’t have your tax documents, ask your tax preparer to provide them to you or get copies from the IRS. Be sure to include all the pages and schedules, including the signature page.

A copy of your most recent mortgage statement.

A copy of the original promissory note for your existing mortgage: This relatively new requirement helps lenders ensure that your refinance will offer a legitimate benefit, Parsons says.

“They can look at the mortgage statement, but most lenders want to see the promissory note, too,” he says. “It’s not a big deal, but it adds more time to the process.” If you don’t have these documents, call your loan servicer and request copies of them.

Phone bill: A copy of a recent home or cellphone bill, showing your name and address.

Some lenders have added this requirement to find out whether you occupy your home as your principal residence, says Kirk Chivas, chief operating officer at First Commerce Financial in Wixom, Mich.

Divorce decree: If you got divorced within the past two years or want to use the alimony or child support you receive toward qualifying income, you’ll need to present a copy of your divorce decree.

Proof of attendance: If you’re a first-time homebuyer who has taken advantage of some state or county homebuyer assistance programs, you are required to attend first-time homebuyer education classes. You must show proof of your attendance.

You’ll probably notice that this list is “significantly more comprehensive than it was even a year ago,” Chivas says. Still, the requirements can be met if you keep track of what you need and what you’ve already supplied.

One final tip: Be sure to submit only complete and legible documents. Also, when your lender asks for multiple documents, submit all of them at once. This way, it’s easier to keep track of what you have and haven’t provided your lender.

 

 

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

Original Article by: Marcie Geffner of HSH.com

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While the price of food and other essentials continues to climb, some costs are bucking the trend.

 

As the economy recovers, rising prices can seem inevitable. But they’re not universal.

Experts say some items and expenses are bucking the trend, and may actually be cheaper in the new year. In some cases, the drop is due to evolving technology and increased competition. In others, shoppers are making choices that may result in lower bills — without leaving them feeling deprived.

In particular, the cost of these four essentials may seem less daunting in 2013:

Automobiles

Used-car values have been on an upswing in recent years, with lower supply from fewer leases and inventory cleared out by 2009’s federal Cash for Clunkers program.

But after peaking in 2011, used-car prices have begun to ebb again. “Consumers shopping for a used car will find that pricing will be more affordable in 2013 than in 2012,” says Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

He expects prices to be 1% to 2% lower by the first quarter, and 3% to 4% lower by the end of 2013. Many cars in the new used-car supply will be recent off-lease returns.

Drivers in the market for a new car may also see some savings, although that opportunity is more about the ability to downsize than falling prices. Compacts and subcompacts in the $25,000-and-under category are getting more features typically found in full-size and luxury cars, Gutierrez says.

“That’s part of what’s been driving additional sales in the smaller-car segments,” he says. The category also includes a few hybrids, such as the popular $20,000 Toyota Prius C.

Cable television

The cable bill itself isn’t getting any cheaper. Prices for expanded basic service rose 5.4% in 2011 from the year before, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But there may be less need to pony up for a subscription.

Talk of cord-cutting — ditching paid television subscriptions in favor of a combination of free and inexpensive streaming options — has been on the rise in recent quarters, as providers like Netflix and Amazon.com gain more partnerships to stream movies and television shows. During the third quarter of 2012, providers lost an estimated 127,000 subscribers, according to reports from research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, after losing 400,000 in the second quarter.

But experts say the trend isn’t yet an option for everyone. Live sports aren’t always available for streaming, nor are many TV shows — especially those on premium channels.

Flat-screen TVs

It has become cheaper and easier for manufacturers to make large flat-screens, which has steadily pushed set prices down.

Average prices for 32-inch sets have dropped nearly 50% since 2010, from $600 to just below the $300 mark, says Mike Fridgen, the chief executive of price-comparison site Decide.com.

Fewer consumers are in the market for a new TV, and the competition among manufacturers and retailers is likely to fuel further drops, he says. Global demand for new TV sets fell 4% this year and is expected to stay flat for 2013, according to DisplaySearch, a division of research firm NPD Group.

But surprisingly, falling prices may spur consumers to spend more — on a bigger set. The $600 budget that in 2010 might have bought you a 32-inch set would today be enough to get one measuring 40 to 55 inches, depending on the brand.

Digital media

Prices for electronic editions already often edge out their print counterparts. Barnes & Noble, for one, sells the novel “Gone Girl” in hardcover for $14.34 and as an e-book for $12.99. The gap could widen in 2013.

In recent months, four publishers reached settlements with the Justice Department in a lawsuit alleging that they and Apple had conspired to raise e-book prices. (Apple and the fifth publisher named in the suit, Macmillan, will continue to litigate, according to the DOJ.)

The settlements give retailers more pricing flexibility. Deeper discounts are likely to pop up on current best-sellers and trendy topics, says Peter Hildick-Smith, president of consulting firm Codex Group.

As more people opt to buy tablets instead of e-readers, though, consumers may not buy as many e-books. “What we find is when someone has a tablet only, they’re spending a lot less time reading books on it,” says Hildick-Smith.

E-reader owners spend five hours a week reading on the device, according to Codex Group. But iPad owners spend two hours per week reading books and 72 minutes reading newspaper and magazine tablet editions.

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

Original Article by: MSN Money partner

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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

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Shopping for that special lady in your life? While no two people are alike, there are some gifts worth skipping.

 

It should go without saying that not everyone has the same idea of the perfect gift. There are men hoping for cologne and women longing for power tools.

But that won’t stop us from having some fun with potentially horrible gifts for the woman in your life. Here’s our tongue-in-cheek list of the 15 worst gifts:

1. Any appliance she didn’t ask for

Unless she specifically asked for a waffle maker or blender, don’t buy her one. Even women who enjoy cooking don’t want to feel it’s expected.

2. Clothes

Clothes are a no-no for several reasons. There’s the size issue: If you get her something too big, she’ll probably be offended; if you get her something too small, she might feel bad about herself.

There’s also the issue of style. If a wardrobe makeover is what she wants, make a nice card promising to take her on a shopping spree with your cash.

3.  A framed picture of yourself

This “gift” is strangely common, based on personal experience and its presence on almost every “worst gifts” list out there. Nothing says you’re self-absorbed like a framed photo of yourself posing like a model. And the picture of you when you were 6 years old? That’s not cute either. A picture of the two of you doing something memorable is a much better gift idea.

4. Anything that can’t be easily exchanged

If your significant other absolutely hates the expensive gift you bought her, be sure you can exchange it, for her sake and yours.

5. Diet or fitness products

Unless you’re looking for trouble, don’t buy her anything related to losing weight. The implication is that you’re not satisfied with her the way she is.

6. Gifts for yourself

Buying her the new flat-screen TV you want and calling it a gift because she’ll use it too doesn’t work. Give her something she can appreciate and enjoy.

7.  Tickets to sporting events

Your significant other might tolerate, or even like, baseball or football. But unless she’s a die-hard fan, skip the tickets to sports events. Tickets to the ballet or a Broadway musical (unless, of course, she hates those things) are a better option, and you’ll get bonus points if you go with her. Choose something you might not normally attend, and she’ll appreciate it even more.

8. Tacky novelties

She’s not going to be as amused by that singing coffee cup as you were when you spotted it at the store. Unless there’s an inside joke behind the novelty gift, and it’s in addition to a larger gift, this is a bad idea.

9. Perfume

If she asked for Elizabeth Arden’s newest fragrance, by all means, buy it. Otherwise, stay away from the perfume counter. She might hate the fragrance you choose, or worse, she might be allergic to it.

10. Cash

Remember the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry gave Elaine cash for Christmas? Elaine got mad, as will the lady in your life if you give her this thoughtless gift.

11.  Cosmetics (including wrinkle cream)

It’s almost unbelievable that men buy women wrinkle cream as a gift. I once heard about a woman who received wrinkle cream from her boyfriend when she was 22. It’s also weird to buy a woman makeup. Just stay away from the cosmetics department.

12. Alcohol

A bottle of wine is nice for a housewarming party, but it’s not quite as classy when you give it to a woman as a holiday, birthday or anniversary gift.

13. Flowers

Flowers are appropriate at certain times, but the holidays call for something more thoughtful and longer-lasting.

14.  Last year’s gift

She loved the one-hour massage you bought her last year, but she’s expecting something different this year. Even if you have a hard time remembering the details of last year’s gift, chances are she hasn’t forgotten.

15. Candy

Many women love chocolate,  but it’s just not a sufficient gift at the holidays. Use it as a stocking stuffer, and put some more thought into a larger gift she’ll appreciate.

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

Original Article by: Stacy Johnson

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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

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Avoid foolish impulse buys by asking yourself these 4 pre-purchase questions.

 

If you’re feeling blue, hide your green. According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, sadness can lead to impulsive (and irresponsible) financial choices.

Study participants watched either a sad or neutral video. Then researchers asked them to choose how they’d like to receive a cash reward. They could either receive one sum of money at the end of the session, or receive a bigger reward mailed to them in the future. Participants who watched the neutral video chose the delayed reward 13 to 34 percent more often than people who watched the sad video, according to Jennifer Lerner, Ph.D., director of the Harvard Laboratory for Decision Science and one of the study’s authors. These differences emerged even though real money was at stake.

“Sadness makes people devalue future gains relative to present gains,” Lerner says. In other words, when you’re sad, you’re more focused on the now, rather than the future. You just want to be happy. You don’t care about what happens down the line.”

“This process occurs unconsciously,” Lerner adds. “Decision makers themselves do not recognize that sadness has such effects.” Meaning: If you shop while sad, you could set yourself up for some potential wallet pain and not even know it. (Is the cold weather making you feel more sad than normal? Try these 6 Ways Beat the Winter Blues.)

Before you sprint to the mall, ask yourself these four questions to make sure you’re not being financially shortsighted.

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

Original Article by: Vera Sizensky, Women’s Health

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In a one-day blitz of shopping, consumers are expected to empty their wallets of more than $1 billion on Cyber Monday, the online shopping spree on November 26, according to spending projections from research firm, ComScore.

The day follows closely on the heels of Black Friday on November 23, which kicks off the holiday shopping season at stores, and is often the busiest shopping day for retailers.

Come Monday, not every web-browsing window shopper will hit the “buy” button, and 65 percent of shopping carts are typically abandoned by online shoppers, says the Baynard Institute in Copenhagen. These consumers may be motivated by a belief, often correct, that there’s a better deal out there.

Cyber Monday 2012 may offer the best deals on technology products this year, says Brian Hoyt, senior writer for RetailMeNot.com, a coupon code site.

That’s because merchants have held back their best deals for the Black Friday-Cyber Monday shopping bonanza to whittle down their inventory, and they are likely to sell out without needing to discount further, he says.

Here are strategies that should help you navigate Cyber Monday and enjoy the best possible prices this year.

MAKE A LIST

Successful Cyber Monday shopping is not about aimlessly browsing or getting everything in one place, says Hoyt. It’s about honing your list down to specific items and searching for the lowest prices for each of them.

One way to do this is to browse at stores over the holiday weekend, to scan bar codes of desired products into a price-checking application like Red Laser, and to check reviews or browse ads at home.

“If I were a consumer trying to be as thrifty as possible, I would invest my time at the aggregated websites that are compiling the Cyber Monday deals,” says Andrew Baker, assistant professor of marketing in the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University. (Some such sites are http://dealnews.com, http://cybermonday.com and http://slickdeals.net)

And, when stores are shut, check for deals online.

“That’s what retailers want you to do,” says Dan Olds, who runs Gabriel Consulting Group, a retail trend watching firm.

MAXIMISE SAVINGS

Once you’ve narrowed down your wish list, it should take minutes to find the lowest price, says RetailMeNot’s Hoyt. Simply plug the item into a search engine like Nextag, Google Shopping or Pricegrabber, and evaluate.

Then, enter details on the stores with the best prices into a coupon code site (such as http://RetailMeNot.com or http://couponcabin.com, http://dealcatcher.com) to see if there are codes that come up.

When you do the math, you may find that the merchant in the No. 2 spot may be offering a 10 percent discount deal or free shipping, offering better overall value than the store in the top spot.

Indeed, try to avoid shipping costs altogether.

To broaden your chances of finding deals, “Like” and follow your favorite stores on Twitter and Facebook; some retailers will post deals just for their online fans.

If you are an active online shopper, you may receive personalized deal offers as the holiday season progresses. For example, if you like to buy Coach handbags at Nordstrom, you might see offers to get 20-percent off of Coach accessories.

“The conversion rate of a typical coupon deal is less than one percent, which is very low, but the conversion rate for tuned and personalized offers is much higher – in the 5 to 10 percent range,” says Kevin Sterneckert, vice president of retail research at Gartner Group.

Lands End, LL Bean and CVS are among retailers who are tapping their databases to entice shoppers with customized offers.

Should you jump at these deals? Only if the items are on your shopping list and you’ve done your research on prices.

BEST PAYMENT METHODS

You can reap additional rewards by picking your mode of payment wisely.

For online shoppers, Brian Kelly of ThePointsGuy.com recommends checking your credit card’s rewards website and visiting retail links from there. Some cards will offer a 5 percent bonus for such transactions. You can check your card benefits for details.

This year, PayPal is offering price-match guarantees and free return shipping for purchases made using PayPal. Citi, Visa and MasterCard also frequently offer price matching. Other shoppers rely on various reward and cash-back cards to maximize their benefits.

If you’ve taken all these steps and still don’t like the deal you’re getting, you could take your chances and wait – December 17 is “Free Shipping Day” (http://www.freeshippingday.com) for procrastinators who want a day of their own.

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

(Additional reporting by Chelsea Emery and Lauren Young; Editing by Linda Stern and Bernadette Baum)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012.

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