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Summer Ushers in Highest Consumer Sentiment in Four Years

July 10, 2012 2:12 am

The Consumer Reports Index, an overall measure of Americans' personal financial health, saw a sharp improvement in its consumer sentiment measure, which jumped to its highest level since October 2008.

The rise in sentiment (53.1 from 47.5 the previous month) was broad-based, with significant gains among those Americans in households earning less than $50,000 (+5.5 pts) as well as more affluent households earning $100,000 or more (+7.7 pts).

"With more than half the country earning less than 50,000, any improvement among that group may have a significant impact on the economy. They still have some distance to climb, but these are positive signs," explains Ed Farrell, director of Consumer Insight at the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

The improvement in consumers' mood was supported by a decline in financial difficulties, which reached the lowest level since first measured in April 2009. The Consumer Reports Index's Trouble Tracker, a gauge of financial difficulties faced by Americans in the past 30 days, dropped to 41.8, down from 46.5 last month.

The decline in financial troubles was evident in both lower- and upper-income households. However, the level of financial difficulties faced by those in households earning less than $50,000 is three times as great as experienced by those in more affluent households (earning $100,000 or more) as measured by the Trouble Tracker, 58.9 versus 19.5, respectively.

The Consumer Reports Index's employment measure climbed into positive territory this month (50.9), up from 49.7 last month, indicating that more Americans have started a new job versus those that reported losing a job in the past 30 days. The employment measure's improvement was driven by a gain in job starts (5.5 percent), up from 4.0 percent last month, reversing a three-month decline.

After a five-month slide, the index's past 30-day retail measure moved upward this month to 9.9 from 8.9 a month earlier, but is virtually unchanged from a year ago (10.2). Planned purchasing over the next 30 days (8.6), reflecting intent to buy in July, was also up versus last month (7.0), but lags last year at this time (7.7).

Source: Consumer Reports

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Smart Advice for Bathroom Renovations

July 9, 2012 2:12 am

Updating or remodeling your bathroom is a sure-fire way to add value to your home and enhance your everyday lifestyle. 

When considering bathroom renovation, whether you choose to do an extensive remodel or a smaller project, most kitchen and bath designers agree on these tips:

Take size into account. A sleek, stylish glass shower enclosure helps your bathroom appear more spacious, and in most instances, a frameless shower enclosure will provide the cleanest, most open look. If you decide to go with a framed shower enclosure, you'll have two choices: frameless sliding doors or framed doors. For framed doors, be sure the finish of the metal framing and handles matches your bathroom fixtures.

Be innovative. Taking a creative approach to bathroom necessities can help you make the most of your space. For instance, the majority of shower enclosures are square or rectangular, but today's designers encourage you to think about other shapes. Don't be afraid to consider a circular or oval-shaped enclosure, a triangle or even a standard shape with an artfully bowed glass door, which can redefine the space and make your bathroom more versatile.

Brighten things up. Repainting your bathroom with light colors can make it feel more spacious. If your bathroom has windows or skylights, use window treatments and accents that maximize the amount of light that comes through to give the room a more airy feel.

Find the best use for your space. Move bathroom cleaning items to a hall closet if you are stretched for storage space in your bathroom, especially if you have freestanding storage units that are taking up valuable floor space. If you need more storage space, consider adding built-in compartments if possible between your wall studs to maximize useable space.

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Maintaining a Healthy Lawn

July 9, 2012 2:12 am

While regular watering and mowing are standard for maintaining a healthy and attractive lawn, preventing lawn moss and algae is also critical. Moss and algae are harmful non-flowering plants that compete for space with healthy grass when it is on the verge of being in bad shape.

Removing shade helps to keep your lawn strong by providing natural nutrients. So, if you have any trees in your garden, cut branches that prevent the whole yard from receiving sunlight. Also, take down any umbrellas or lawn furniture that may block sunlight from reaching the lawn when they are not in use.

Drainage and aeration also help to solve the issues of compacted soil and too much moisture. You can spike the affected area to allow air in, break up the soil and eliminate excess moisture. You can also work to increase sunlight to the area, when possible, and improve growth of turfgrass. You should also avoid watering your lawn without spiking it first to allow for proper drainage.

Source: TruGreen

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5 Ways to be Ready for Whatever the Economy Brings

July 9, 2012 2:12 am

Regardless of how the economic landscape progresses in the coming months, there are certain steps consumers can take to safeguard their own financial well-being. Nonprofit firm InCharge Debt Solutions advises following these five steps:

1. Reduce your debt – Paying for debt instead of life's necessities (food, shelter, utilities) is counterproductive, particularly during a recession. Take steps to pay down your debt as much as possible before another downturn.

2. Create an emergency fund. Even if you only have a small amount of "extra" money every time you receive income, put as much as you can away.

3. Cut your expenses. It is amazing how many things you can save on when you really put your mind to it - cable, insurance, entertainment. There are always ways to cut back.

4. Be a better employee. Work harder, do more at work, become more visible and more valuable to your employer. Who knows, you may get a raise or a bonus!

5. Do a financial inventory – Have a certified professional evaluate your financial situation, budget, and spending habits, and develop a strategy to help you deal with whatever the economy throws at you.

Source: InCharge Debt Solutions

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How to Save on Power Bills this Summer

July 6, 2012 2:08 am

As we move into the dog days of summer, Georgia Power offers some helpful tips to stay cool and save on energy bills.

Keeping cool

  • During the summer, the air conditioner is usually the biggest user of electricity. For many homes, it accounts for more than half of the summer electric bill.
  • Set your thermostat at 78 degrees or higher and leave it there. For every degree below that setting, you'll use 3 percent to 4 percent more electricity.
  • Set the thermostat even higher when at work or away from home for long periods of time, but no more than five degrees higher.
  • Invest in a programmable thermostat that automatically adjusts your home's temperature to your schedule so you're comfortable when at home and save energy while away.
  • Change or clean your air conditioner filter regularly to maximize the unit's cooling potential. Dirty filters restrict airflow and reduce efficiency.
  • Check your windows and doors for a tight fit. Apply weather stripping or caulking if needed.
  • Use fans whenever possible. Ceiling fans can make the air in a room feel 6 degrees cooler and allow you to save energy. However, remember to turn them off when you're not in the room.
Proper insulation
  • Increasing attic insulation can reduce heat loss/heat gain by up to 28 percent.
  • Insulation is measured in R-value, which is a measure of resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation value.
  • Experts recommend you use an R-value of R-30 or higher, depending on local energy codes, in ceiling areas.
In the kitchen
  • Try to use the range instead of the oven. Or better yet, turn on the microwave or use a pressure cooker. Both use less power than a standard electric range. 
  • Whenever possible, cook a lot of meals at the same time. This uses less energy than cooking each meal separately.
Using the refrigerator
  • Make sure your refrigerator door seals are airtight. Check them by closing a piece of paper in the door, half in and half out. If you can pull the paper out easily, you may need to make some adjustments or replace the seal.
  • Set the refrigerator thermostat between 35 and 38 degrees, and your freezer at zero degrees.
Clothes washer/dishwasher
  • Turn down your water-heater thermostat. A setting of 120 degrees is adequate for most homes and will save money and energy.
  • When using the dishwasher, turn off the drying cycle if you don't need the dishes right away.
  • Run the dishwasher, dryer and stove in the morning or after the sun goes down to avoid adding heat to your house during the hottest part of the day.
  • Wait until the dishwasher is full before running it. Partial loads use just as much water and power as a full load.
  • Dry clothes in consecutive loads so the dryer does not have to reheat every time. Always clean the lint filter after each load.
Source: Georgia Power

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Mid-Year Job Forecast Points to a Better Hiring Picture in Back Half of 2012

July 6, 2012 2:08 am

While the jobs recovery continues to lag that of previous recessions, the outlook for the back half of 2012 shows continued improvement over 2011, according to a survey from CareerBuilder. Forty-four percent of private sector employers reported they are planning to hire full-time, permanent staff from July 1 through December 31, 2012, an increase of nine percentage points over the same period last year. In last year's forecast, the number of companies planning to hire full-time, permanent employees (35 percent) increased seven percentage points over 2010. The nationwide survey, which was conducted by Harris Interactive© from May 14, 2012 to June 4, 2012, included more than 2,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes.

"The rate of job creation has been slower than what we would have expected at this point in the recovery, but the market is stable," explains Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. "Two years ago, the hiring activity in the U.S. was driven primarily by large employers recruiting in metropolitan areas for a handful of industries or job functions. Today, we see job listings in all industries, market sizes and company sizes. The outlook for the remainder of the year is better than 2011, but it will follow the same pattern of steady progress rather than a surge in job growth. Employers will remain careful as they assess barriers and opportunities for growth in the economy and their own businesses."

Employers plan to add a mix of new employees over the next six months, with each category trending up from last year:
  • Hiring full-time, permanent employees – 44 percent, up from 35 percent in 2011
  • Hiring part-time employees – 21 percent, up from 15 percent in 2011
  • Hiring contract or temporary employees – 21 percent, up from 12 percent in 2011
The top functional areas for which businesses plan to hire first are those directly impacting revenue and innovation. Customer Service remains in the No. 1 spot for recruitment with Information Technology and Sales rounding out the top three.
  • Customer Service – 24 percent
  • Information Technology – 22 percent
  • Sales – 21 percent
  • Administrative – 16 percent
  • Business Development – 13 percent
  • Accounting/Finance – 12 percent
  • Marketing – 11 percent
More employers are also reporting that their organizations have created entirely new job functions within their organizations to respond to evolving business demands. When asked if their organizations currently have positions that didn't exist in their firms five years ago, employers pointed to the following:
  • Positions tied to social media – 16 percent
  • Positions tied to storing and managing data – 15 percent
  • Positions tied to cyber security – 12 percent
  • Positions tied to financial regulation – 10 percent
  • Positions tied to promoting diversity inside and outside the organization – 9 percent
  • Positions tied to green energy and the environment – 8 percent
  • Positions tied to global relations – 8 percent
One-third (34 percent) of employers added full-time, permanent headcount in the second quarter, up from 29 percent last year and 33 percent last quarter. Nine percent decreased headcount while 56 percent made no change to staff levels and 1 percent were unsure. Looking ahead, 30 percent of employers plan to hire full-time, permanent employees in the third quarter, up from 26 percent last year. Given that employers historically have been more conservative in estimates than actual hiring activity, the number may come in higher at quarter end.

Source: CareerBuilder

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May Home Price Index Shows Third Consecutive Monthly Increase

July 6, 2012 2:08 am

Home prices nationwide, including distressed sales, increased on a year-over-year basis by 2.0 percent in May 2012 compared to May 2011, according to CoreLogic’s May Home Price Index (HPI®) report. CoreLogic is a provider of information, analytics and business services.

On a month-over-month basis, home prices, including distressed sales, also increased by 1.8 percent in May 2012 compared to April 2012*. The May 2012 figures mark the third consecutive increase in home prices nationwide on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis.

Excluding distressed sales, home prices nationwide increased on a year-over-year basis by 2.7 percent in May 2012 compared to May 2011. On a month-over-month basis, excluding distressed sales, the CoreLogic HPI indicates home prices increased 2.3 percent in May 2012 compared to April 2012, the fourth month-over-month increase in a row. Distressed sales include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transactions.

The CoreLogic Pending HPI indicates that house prices, including distressed sales, will rise by at least another 1.4 percent from May 2012 to June 2012. Excluding distressed sales, house prices are also poised to rise by 2.0 percent during that same time period. The CoreLogic Pending HPI is a new metric that was introduced within the April 2012 HPI report. It provides the most current indication of trends in home prices, and is based on Multiple Listing Service (MLS) data that measure price changes in the most recent month.

Other highlights as of May 2012 include:
  • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest appreciation were: Arizona (+12.0 percent), Idaho (+9.2 percent), South Dakota (+8.7 percent), Montana (+8.2 percent) and Michigan (+7.9 percent).
  • Excluding distressed sales, the five states with the highest appreciation were: Montana (+9.1 percent), South Dakota (+8.5 percent), Arizona (+7.3 percent), Idaho (+6.6 percent) and Wyoming (+6.6 percent).
  • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to May 2012) was -30.1 percent. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -22.2 percent.
  • Of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population, 29 are showing year-over-year declines in May, 12 fewer than in April.
*April data was revised. Revisions with public records data are standard, and to ensure accuracy, CoreLogic incorporates the newly released public data to provide updated results.

Source: CoreLogic

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Understanding Short Sales

July 5, 2012 4:14 pm

No matter where you turn these days, short sales are still a hot topic. However, if you’re in the process of looking for a new place to call home, the term ‘short sale’ shouldn’t scare you off. In today’s market especially, pursuing a short sale can be a unique competitive advantage.

In its simplest definition, a short sale is when a home is sold for less than what is owed and the bank forgives the excess debt. Although this was once considered taboo by banks, with the housing climate that exists today, many lenders will gladly go this route rather than having the homeowner join the tens of thousands who have let their house fall into foreclosure.

A home that is listed as a short sale is more likely to be kept up, as the seller still wants to get as much money as they can and attract buyers to the home. But beware. If there are improvements that need to be made to the home, even if they are necessary to get a loan, it is often unlikely that they’ll get done.

According to Irvine-based data tracker RealtyTrac, in the first quarter of 2012, short sales grew 25 percent from a year earlier, hitting a three-year high in the process. In fact, short sales seem to be turning into the preferred method for many lenders. Owners unloaded 109,521 homes during the first three months of the year for less than what they owed on the mortgage.

Unlike in a foreclosure, the bank does not own the property in a short sale. However, because the bank must approve the sale, it will seem like the buyer is purchasing the property from the bank.

The entire short sale process hinges on the hope that the bank will approve the sale, take the loss and eliminate the costly process of foreclosing, clearing, and reselling a home.

A short sale can often take longer than a traditional sale because of the documentation required and the sign-off needed by the lender, so make sure to work with an agent who has experience in short sales and can help expedite your transaction and protect your interests.

By checking recent home sales in the area to get a better idea of which properties are selling, your agent can work with you to come up with an appropriate price that will more likely be approved by the bank.

Even though banks lose money when it comes to short sales, lenders almost always lose more when they foreclose on a property, making short sales a practical option in today’s market. With so much inventory on the market from foreclosures, it could take years before the bank sees any money.

One important thing to keep in mind is that with a short sale, there is no leniency with the closing escrow date and a buyer must close on time. Because of this, it is important to take care of all loan paperwork immediately after opening escrow.

For more information about short sales, contact our office today.

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Lockboxes Provide Unique Advantage in Today's Competitive Market

July 5, 2012 4:14 pm

When it comes to getting your home sold, agents across the board agree that utilizing a lockbox can make a big difference between whether or not your home sells, and how quickly. In fact, real estate professionals go as far as saying that lockbox codes and lockboxes allow for quicker sales and more views by qualified buyers.

In its simplest definition, a lockbox is a metal box that literally attaches to the front doorknob or other secure part of the home. Inside the lockbox is a smaller box that contains the key to the house, so when an agent opens the lockbox, the smaller container slides out, providing easy access to the home.

Since the majority of today’s real estate listings are entered into a Multiple Listing Service, your home is getting more exposure as more real estate agents than ever before can show your home to prospective buyers.

This means that real estate professionals need access to your home on fairly short notice, however, you and your agent can control when prospective buyers have access to your home by setting the lockbox hours.

Without a lockbox, sellers have to plan accordingly so that they are present when prospective buyers come to see the home with their agent. In addition, if you simply leave your house key out for your agent, he or she might have to rush off to another showing across town, leaving your home unavailable to other interested buyers.

Lockboxes are also much more advanced than they used to be. Unlike the lockboxes of a decade ago, today’s lockboxes are mostly electronic and record the time and date as well as which agent showed your home. They even notify your listing agent immediately so that he or she can quickly get to work on your behalf.

For those worried about security issues, a stranger cannot come by, open the box, get the key and gain entry to the house. The only way to open a lockbox is with an electronic key, and the only way to get a key is to become a member of the local MLS. Each key has a unique identifier and agents are forbidden to let another agent use their electronic key.

If your agent doesn’t recommend using a lockbox, don’t be afraid to ask for one. It’s your home and you can certainly call the shots.

To learn more about taking advantage of lockboxes when selling your home, contact our office today.

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Going Once, Going Twice...Sold! Put Together an Offer the Seller Won't Refuse

July 5, 2012 4:14 pm

Submitting an offer on a home and waiting to hear back is one of the most stressful parts of the home-buying process. Since there is always room to negotiate when it comes to price, you want to be sure to put in an offer that the seller can’t refuse or you risk losing your dream home to someone with a higher bid.

While prospective homebuyers are often unaware of current trends in the real estate market, many typically rely on advice and guidance from their parents, friends and coworkers who don’t necessarily have a good pulse on the real estate market.

That’s why educated buyers who have spoken with their agent about an acceptable offer will have a better chance of hearing “sold” when the phone rings. Not only will a good agent offer valuable information, they can also help you buy the home you want at the price you want to pay.

Real estate agents have access to statistics and trend information that others don’t, so their advice is invaluable. But when it comes to submitting an offer, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s about more than just the money. In fact, there are several things you can include in the bid to help foster a successful deal.

When it comes to getting a bid accepted, first-time homebuyers often have a significant advantage over repeat buyers because their agent is instrumental in advising them to not only take the time to get pre-qualified, but to also be pre-approved for a mortgage before they even begin looking for a home. And since they don’t have to wait for another house to sell, their offer will be attractive to someone looking to sell a home.

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that sellers are typically attracted to “clean” bids. A clean bid is one in which the buyer doesn’t ask for any contingencies, repairs or updates to be done. In the end, sellers are happiest when they can simply collect their money and move out quietly.

Buyers should also plan in advance to have funds available for a fast closing. Many agents will tell you that even if you’re not the highest bidder, your bid may still be accepted because you are willing to close right away.

Before making an offer, be sure to talk with your agent and decide what you’re willing to give up in order to have your bid accepted, as it could be the most important bid you ever place in your life.

For more information on increasing your chances of having your offer selected, contact our office today.

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