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10 Food Safety Tips for Holiday Meal Prep

November 19, 2014 1:13 am

As friends and family gather together during the holidays, you want to make sure that you keep out any unwelcome guests in the form of harmful food borne bacteria. The following tips will ensure food safety and a great time for everyone at your table.
  • Wash your hands and clean all prep surfaces and tools regularly during food preparation. Bacteria can survive in many places around your kitchen, especially on your hands, utensils and cutting boards. Unless you wash your hands, utensils and surfaces the right way, you could spread bacteria to your food and your family.
  • Soiled cloths are a hot breeding ground for bacteria. Wash them in the hot water cycle of your washing machine.
  • Keep raw foods and ready-to-eat foods separate. Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can still spread illness-causing bacteria to ready-to-eat foods unless you keep them separate. When juices from raw meats or bacteria from unclean objects accidentally touch cooked or ready-to-eat foods like salads, bread or cooked vegetables, cross contamination can occur.
  • When shopping, keep raw meats away from other foods in your shopping cart and in grocery bags.
  • Use separate tools and utensils. Never use the same utensils, cutting boards or containers for ready-to-eat foods that were previously used for handling raw meat, poultry or fish.
  • Keep hot food "hot" and cold food "cold." Use a properly calibrated food thermometer to be sure. Cooking foods to a proper minimum internal temperature kills harmful pathogens. Many people think they can tell when food is "done" simply by checking its color and texture, but there's no way to be sure it's safe without a food thermometer.
  • Always check the food temperature in the thickest part of the roast or turkey and check in two or three different spots for a rice dish or casserole.
  • Refrigerate leftovers quickly after serving to prevent bacteria growth and potential food poisoning.
  • Perishable foods cannot be left at out for longer than two hours at room temperature, or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Never marinate or thaw foods on the counter at room temperature. These should be done in the refrigerator or in some other safe manner.
Source: Bart Christian

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Don't Let Hackers Ruin Your Holidays

November 19, 2014 1:13 am

With the holiday shopping season here, it's important to protect ourselves online. Major data breaches have been in the news regularly as thieves have made off with sensitive data from millions of consumers. By being aware and taking precautions, we can prevent ourselves from being victims of cybercrime, hackers, ID theft, viruses and more.

A survey by CreditCards.com indicated that as data breaches exposing consumer credit, debit card and other personal information become more common, nearly half of cardholding shoppers say they're reluctant this holiday season to return to stores that have been hacked.

“You can’t depend on your favorite retailer to protect your information from cyber crime, hackers, big data marketers and identity theft,” says Vince Mazza, co-founder of Guard Street. “You must actively manage your security and privacy."

Guard Street recommends these five tips:

1. Shop securely and anonymously. Use a secure virtual private network to shield cybercriminals and hackers from tracking your online activity from your mobile device, desktop or laptop. Be wary of free Wi-Fi or VPN – it may cost you a loss of privacy. Use a disposable email address should you need to enter an email address to enter websites or gain access to information. Try www.privacymart.com.

2. Stop and think before sharing information.
Don't provide information if you are unsure about the legitimacy of the request. Be careful of links taking you to sites that ask for your personal information. If an organization asks for your social security number to validate your identity, request another question.

3. Stay on top of your statements. Review credit card statements every month for any unauthorized charges and make sure to keep an eye on the smaller charges. Thieves will charge smaller amounts to test to see if you notice and then change larger amounts later.

4. Beware of email scammers. Some emails from scammers may mention big retailers who were hacked including Home Depot or they may offer free credit monitoring -- never click on these links! Many are fake sites that try to steal bank information or passwords. If an email looks creditable from a retailer, go to the retailers site directly instead of clicking on links.

5. Keep a clean machine. Having the latest security software, web browser and operating system are the best defenses against viruses, malware and other online threats.

Source: Guard Street

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Save Big Bucks This Winter with an Energy Audit

November 19, 2014 1:13 am

(BPT) - If you are winterizing your home to protect against the headache of frozen pipes and potential water damage, conducting a quick, three-step energy audit now can help prevent nasty surprises when the heating bill arrives.

It's human instinct to increase the heat during the coldest winter days, but this comes with increased heating costs that can stretch the household budget. Air leakage contributes significantly to home heating costs – the U.S Department of Energy suggests that floors, walls, ceilings and windows account for 41 percent of air leakage in homes. Air escaping from the home's envelope means the furnace has to work overtime to compensate and maintain a comfortable living temperature. As a result, energy consumption remains high, monthly bills continue to climb and any efficiency achieved through other methods is fruitless.

A simple energy audit can help you better understand your home's performance and ensure your heating bills don't break the bank this winter.

Start by thoroughly cleaning all vents, filters and ducts. Use a vacuum to remove any dust and debris around your furnace's filters. Then, have a professional clean your ductwork. Cleaning can noticeably improve the performance of your home's heating system, allowing it to run more efficiently.

Having a home energy auditor complete a "blower door" test will allow you to better understand how air flows through your home. This comprehensive test measures how much air is moving through any cracks around doors, windows and other potential problem areas. A well-sealed home should have no leaks. The energy auditor will also use equipment such as a "smoke pencil" and infrared camera to further assess the home's overall performance and identify problem areas that need to be addressed.

Finally, have an insulation professional assess your existing insulation's performance. Gaps, cracks and inconsistency of insulation coverage can significantly impact your home's energy performance, as well as your monthly heating bills. A licensed insulation professional can make recommendations as to how to address air leakage effectively with a better-performing insulation material. Spray foam insulation works well in all climates to fill cracks and gaps, stop air leakage and help reduce the strain on your heating and cooling equipment. This insulation material both insulates and air seals the home helping to noticeably reduce monthly heating and cooling bills.

While air leakage can cause your heating bills to jump significantly this winter, completing a quick energy audit and having a well-insulated home can help you get through the cold winter months.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Mortgage Tips for First-Time Buyers

November 18, 2014 9:04 pm

With numerous options to choose from, deciding which mortgage is best for your personal situation can be an overwhelming process. Whether you’re buying your first home—or even your third or fourth—the last thing you want to do is fall in love with a house you can’t afford.

While you may have gone online and used a mortgage calculator to figure out that you can afford a home close to $350,000, it’s important to take your full financial picture into consideration.

One way to determine exactly how much you can borrow is to consider three times your annual household income and subtract your debts (college loans, car loans, etc.). You’ll also want to meet with a mortgage professional before you begin looking at homes to get an accurate reading in regard to what you can truly afford. Knowing this figure ahead of time will save you heartache in the long run.

Lenders consider a variety of things before deciding your qualifications on a mortgage, including one’s employment history, credit history, FICO score and debt. You should know going into the meeting what these figures are to make the process smoother.

You’re also going to need to know the type of mortgage you want. Most first-time buyers will opt for a 30-year loan, but if you have the money, there are benefits to getting a 15-year-mortgage. A fixed-rate mortgage is for those concerned about where rates may go, but adjustable-rate mortgages are popular these days because of the low interest rates. Just be wary that interest rates can rise at any time, and your payments will rise with them.

Another factor to consider is how much of a down payment you want to place on the home, as this number will affect your mortgage. There are special mortgages available for those who qualify that allow for a buyer to put little to no money down, but this will cost you more in interest payments in the long run. For some buyers, this may be necessary because they may not have the equity needed to make a down payment.

There are also special loans available for those in the military, so keep this in mind if applicable.

To ensure the entire process is as smooth as possible, meet with a mortgage professional early in the process so that you understand your options and have a good sense as to what’s available. By collecting all the proper paperwork ahead of time and knowing one’s true worth, it can make the mortgage process much easier for everyone involved.

For more information about mortgages, contact our office today.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Buying New Construction

November 18, 2014 9:04 pm

Searching for a home can be a frustrating process. You might love the kitchen but hate the bathroom. The master bedroom might not have the walk-in closets you desire, or maybe you were hoping to install a home theater room, but none of the rooms in the houses you’re looking at have enough space.

If you find yourself running into these types of problems, it may make sense to purchase a newly constructed home, or one that you can help shape so that in the end, everything is just the way you like it. Your real estate agent can help you find your dream home if you let him or her know upfront that you’re willing to consider buying new.

While not all new construction provides buyers with the opportunity to help with the planning—it depends on the development, how far along things are and other factors—more often than not, the buyer does have a say. So that state-of-the-art kitchen or aforementioned theater room can become a reality. When purchasing new construction, buyers also get to have a say when it comes to the types of appliances that are installed, the materials used (tiles, fixtures and finishes) and even the paint colors.

In some cases, house hunters will first explore a model home to get a sense of what the new home will look like. But keep in mind that things in the spec house aren’t always carried over automatically. Model homes normally contain all the upgrades and bells and whistles, so it’s important to talk with the builder and your agent to understand exactly what your newly constructed home will and won’t contain. The last thing you want is to not have your dream house because you forgot to ask for it.

When buying a home of this kind, it’s vital that you get some sort of warranty, the same way you would when buying a new car. Since the home has never been lived in before, you have no way of knowing if the basement fills with water on rainy days or if things were built properly. Having a warranty (usually available for one year) will give you peace of mind when moving in.

And just like you would do when buying any home, an inspection is still an important part of buying a newly constructed house. Not only will an inspector be able to ensure that things are up to code, they’ll also check to see that no damage occurred during the build.

Newly constructed homes typically cost more than “used” homes, but there aren’t usually any problems with appraisals, and you can also take part in creating the home of your dreams.

For more information about newly constructed homes, contact our office today.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Living in a Staged Home: Simple Tips to Keep It in Tip-Top Shape

November 18, 2014 9:04 pm

In today’s competitive market, many sellers are pulling out all the stops when it comes to positioning their home above the competition. Not only are they upgrading certain areas and amping up the curb appeal, many are hiring stagers to come in and rearrange their home so that it’s in tip-top shape.

While the new arrangement put in place by the stager was conceived to attract buyers to your home, it can be difficult for sellers to adapt, especially if they continue to live in the house months after a home is originally staged.

Not only do sellers need to get used to the new furniture and décor, they must also try to keep their home looking at its best and in the staged light. That means no rearranging things or coming in the door and leaving your stuff on the counter, keeping the drapes closed or moving furniture to different rooms. To give your home the best shot at selling, you need to keep the space as close to its initial staged look as possible for any buyers who may be coming by to see.

One of the easiest ways to live in a staged home is to declare some rooms off-limits to the family. That extra bedroom probably doesn’t need to be slept in, and unless you have a big get-together, plan to eat your meals at the kitchen table so that the staged place settings can be left intact in the dining room. If you have multiple bathrooms, try to keep people out of one if possible. In the end, the less people you have going in and out of these rooms the better, since you’ll have less to do when it’s time to show the property again.

While living in a staged home may be stressful, it’s also a great time to start packing. If your stager had you put things in the garage, or out of site somewhere else, start packing them up now. Go through your closets as well and pack up any clothes you won’t be needing this season. You may also want to get a cheap storage unit so you have a place for anything that’s being packed ahead of your home selling.

To be sure you’re presenting your home in its best light each and every time, consider taking pictures of the rooms within your home as soon as they are staged so you know exactly how they’re supposed to look. If you move a pillow off a couch or have added items to the bathroom counters, be sure to take the time to change the appearance of the room back to the way it looked in the picture.

And when a showing comes up, have a plan in place so that everyone knows what they need to do to get the home back in picture perfect shape.

Living in a staged home isn’t easy—you almost have to think of it as staying in someone else’s home for a while—but with a plan in place and some attention to detail, you can successfully live in the space until it sells.

For more information about staging, contact our office today.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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5 Ways to Improve Your Kitchen Before Listing Your Home

November 18, 2014 9:04 pm

If you’re like most homeowners, you undoubtedly have a wish list full of home renovations in the back of your mind at any given moment. But for those looking to sell, real estate professionals across the board agree that if you’re going to invest money into your home prior to a move, the safest investment with the most return on your money will come from renovating the kitchen.

More than just a central gathering spot for families and friends, the kitchen is typically one of the first areas house hunters ask about. In addition, when it comes to looking at listings on real estate websites, kitchen photos are viewed more often than photos showcasing other areas throughout the home.

After all, families spend more time in the kitchen than any other room in the house, be it sharing a meal, talking about the events of the day, doing homework or baking for a special occasion. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the kitchen is considered the heart of the home. And people often use their hearts to make buying decisions.

Most real estate professionals will tell you that investing in your kitchen can help your home sell faster and at a better price. While this may be true, you don’t need to make major upgrades to give your kitchen a facelift. In fact, just making the space more visually appealing to potential buyers is enough.

Here are five easy ways to improve your kitchen before putting your home on the market:

1. Add Energy Star Appliances. Today’s green-conscious homeowners demand top-quality kitchen appliances with style and efficiency, and investing in new appliances may be the best thing one can do before selling a home. By replacing your old appliances with Energy Star ones, you’re letting the buyer know that you have put thought into adding sustainable elements into the home design. Plus, nothing turns off a potential buyer quicker than seeing old, dingy appliances.

2. Replace Your Backsplash. Adding a bright, colorful backsplash is an eye-catching way to ensure that potential buyers remember your kitchen. Not only does a strong backsplash protect your kitchen walls from water, oil and other elements, it’s also a great look that can be incorporated into any kitchen. Regardless of your kitchen’s style, a backsplash will accentuate whatever look you’re aiming for.

3. Restore Cabinetry. Cabinets that have fading paint or broken handles are going to scare people away, so at the very least, be sure to repaint any cabinets that are in bad shape. And don’t forget to replace any broken fixtures. If necessary, hire a cabinet-improving company to resurface or reface your cabinets. If you decide to go big and replace everything, think about adding pullout drawers, a lazy Susan in corner units and adjustable shelves. Not only will this improve the functionality of the kitchen, it’ll also go a long way toward keeping things better organized.

4. Add Furniture. Kitchen remodeling doesn’t have to stop at the cabinets and appliances. Think outside the box and add new furniture to the mix. Whether it’s a breakfast nook, tables and chairs, island carts, or bar stools, adding furniture to the space will help create a welcoming feel for those coming to view the home.

5. Improve the Lighting. Don’t rely on the dingy overhead light—or even the small light from the microwave—to brighten up the space. By adding lighting to key areas of the kitchen, you can attract buyers who love to cook or entertain. Be sure to have plenty of lighting above the stove, sink, island and family dinner table.

For more information about kitchen renovations, contact our office today.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Unique Focal Points Help Homes Stand Out Among Prospective Buyers

November 18, 2014 9:04 pm

One tactic real estate professionals have long touted when working to prepare a client’s home for sale is the process of removing clutter, personal photos and knickknacks to give the impression that the home doesn’t belong to someone else. This way, when a prospective buyer comes to view the space, they can better envision their life in it. After all, if they see photos of you and your family everywhere they look, they may feel as if they’re imposing, which can lead to them not taking your home seriously.

The problem with removing everything, though, is that you risk eliminating the home’s character. In addition, you don’t provide house hunters with a way to remember your home. That’s why more real estate professionals are changing their tune today, advising sellers to leave something memorable.

For example, if a seller leaves a shelf with his or her prized Pez collection in the office, it’s bound to be remembered by prospective buyers as “the Pez house” when they go to discuss the houses they saw at the end of the day. The same can be said of a home with a pinball machine or a collection of snow globes in the basement. By keeping these unique items in the space, they become a focal point that people remember.

This could be important when it comes to getting your home sold, as unique items will help your home stand out among the competition. More often than not, prospective buyers will compare notes with their loved ones about the various homes they’ve seen, remembering little things from each, sometimes mixing up the bathroom they saw in one house with the landscaped yard they saw in another.

Odds are, by having a focal point item that gives your house a Seinfeld-esque name, like “the pinball machine house,” “the pinball house” or “the snow globe house,” you allow your house to stand out a little more. This will go a long way toward keeping your home on a buyer’s mind long after they’ve seen it.

While taking the character of your home—and the possessions you’ve collected—into account when creating a memorable experience for prospective buyers, remember that you don’t want to overdo it. Keep it simple and make a lasting impression by incorporating a unique piece in one ancillary room like a basement, office or family room.

To learn more about showcasing your home so that it stands out from the competition, contact our office today.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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In this Edition: New Construction

November 18, 2014 9:04 pm

Our lead story in this month’s Home Matters, brought to you through our company's membership in RISMedia’s Real Estate Information Network® (RREIN), examines how sellers can create a memorable experience for prospective buyers by taking advantage of unique focal points. Other topics covered this month include simple ways to improve your kitchen before listing your home and how to keep your staged home in tip-top shape. We hope you enjoy this month’s edition of Home Matters and as always, we welcome your feedback. Email us anytime!

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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How to Get the Most from Your Insurance Dollars

November 18, 2014 1:25 am

When it comes to filing an insurance claim, knowledge is power.

“The best time to learn about the claims process is before you have a loss,” notes Jeanne M. Salvatore, the Insurance Information Institute’s (I.I.I.) chief communications officer. “Knowing what to do can make filing a claim less stressful if you have a loss.”

The I.I.I. recommends the following steps when filing an insurance claim:

Contact your insurance agent or company as soon as possible, either by phone or online.
When speaking to your insurer, have your policy number (if you have it), location of the incident, extent of the damage, cell phone number or other contact information. Ask them these specific questions: Is the damage covered? How long do I have to file the claim? Does the claim exceed the deductible? How long will it take to process the claim? Will an estimate be needed?

Document the loss.
Create a file for your claim—the better organized you are the simpler and easier the entire process will be. Take pictures of the loss and write up a summary of exactly what happened. Keep lists of any damage and write down the names and contact information of anyone involved in the claim. This includes the name and title of everyone you speak to at your insurance agency and/or company.

Submit the claim.
Once you have notified your insurance company, you will be told what information you will need to supply to them. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask them. Your claims representative is there to help you. Keep copies of all forms and any information or materials you provide to your insurance company. The company will likely send an adjuster to inspect the damage and help settle the claim. There is no charge for this service.

You may also be contacted by public adjusters who have no relationship with your insurance company. Public adjusters charge a fee for their services—as much as 15 percent of the total value of your claim settlement. Keep in mind that they can’t get more money for you than what is stated in your policy.

Know who to contact if you are not satisfied with your settlement.
Most consumers find that their claim is paid quickly, easily and fairly. If you are not satisfied with how your claim is being settled, talk to your agent or claims representative. Tell them about your problem and ask them to intercede on your behalf. If you are still not happy with the results, contact the head of the claims department or another person in authority at your insurance company. Send them a written note explaining why you are not satisfied and back your complaint up with facts, figures and any pertinent documents.

If you cannot come to an agreement with your insurance company, you may consider contacting your state department of insurance. Explain the reason for the disagreement so that the department can investigate your claim and help resolve any difference you may have with your insurer.

Source: I.I.I.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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