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HUD Aims to End Housing Discrimination

September 16, 2011 4:57 pm

A report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows that the agency is resolving individual housing discrimination complaints faster, increasing its focus on complaints that affect multiple people, and launching more investigations using its authority to initiate cases on behalf of discrimination victims where no one has filed a complaint.

HUD’s Annual State of Fair Housing Report also illustrates how the agency is helping municipalities and state and local agencies receiving HUD funding to comply with civil rights requirements and holding non-compliant recipients accountable.

“Our goal is to put an end to unlawful housing discrimination,” says John Trasviña, HUD assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “We have made progress in reducing housing discrimination, but more work needs to be done."

More than 10,000 fair housing discrimination complaints were filed in fiscal year 2010, according to the report. Discrimination based on a person’s disability continued to be the largest single category of complaints. Of the 10,155 complaints filed with HUD and its Fair Housing Assistance Program partner agencies, 48% alleged disability discrimination, 34% alleged discrimination based on race, and 15% alleged discrimination based on family status—consistent with the number and type of complaints received during the previous three years.

The report shows that in fiscal year 2010, HUD and its Fair Housing Assistance Program partner agencies processed 4,494 new complaints within 100 days, 328 more than in 2009 and 583 more than in 2008. The report also shows that HUD proactively pursued its own Secretary-initiated investigations, charging four and conciliating eight cases that developed from such investigations, and launching another 10 such investigations.

This year’s report shows that HUD has placed greater emphasis on ensuring that recipients of HUD funding create greater housing opportunities for minorities, families with children, and people with disabilities. HUD’s activities in fiscal year 2010 have led to significant relief for victims of housing discrimination, including:

• African Americans in whose neighborhoods a bank did not locate branches or provide banking services.
• Women on maternity leave who were denied mortgage loans and insurance.
• African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and families with children who were tenants or prospective tenants of an apartment complex that engaged in widespread discriminatory rental practices.
• Six families with children who were charged fees for using the common recreational areas of a condominium.

In addition, the report highlights how HUD, through its Section 3 program, is creating jobs for low-income residents of areas where HUD-funded construction is taking place, and contracting opportunities for the businesses that hire them. Between 2009 and 2010, the program provided jobs to more than 16,000 residents and contracts to 2,900 Section 3 businesses. HUD also announced, in June, that it was providing $600,000 in competitive grants to enable public housing authorities and state and local agencies that receive Section 3 funding to hire a program coordinator to help report on the success of their job creation and training efforts.

Furthermore, the Department is expanding its education and outreach to immigrants. HUD is conducting fair housing conferences throughout the nation to raise awareness of fair housing rights among advocacy and social service organizations working with immigrant communities. Also, as part of HUD’s efforts to make its programs accessible to all, the agency has translated more than 100 vital documents into 17 different languages.

For more information, visit www.hud.gov.

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Fixed-Rate Mortgages Continue to Find New Record Lows

September 16, 2011 4:57 pm

Freddie Mac recently released the results of its Primary Mortgage Market Survey® (PMMS®), showing fixed-rate mortgages remaining near their 60-year lows as ongoing investor concerns over the European debt market kept Treasury bond yields low. The 30-year fixed averaged 4.09%, a new all-time low. The 15-year fixed, a popular refinancing option, also reached a new record low for the week averaging 3.30%.

News Facts

• 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.09% with an average 0.7 point for the week ending September 15, 2011, down from last week when it averaged 4.12%. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.37%.

• 15-year FRM this week averaged 3.30% with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.33%. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.82%.

• 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.99% this week, with an average 0.6 point, up from last week when it averaged 2.96%. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.55%.

• 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.81% this week with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 2.84%. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 3.40%.

Average commitment rates should be reported along with average fees and points to reflect the total cost of obtaining the mortgage.

"Continued investor concerns over the state of the European debt markets kept U.S. Treasury bond yields low and allowed mortgage rates to ease once more this week. In comparison, the average interest rate of mortgages outstanding in the second quarter was 5.28%," says Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist of Freddie Mac. "By refinancing into today's 30-year fixed mortgage, homeowners could shave almost $1,715 a year in interest payments on a $200,000 loan."

For more information from Freddie Mac's Office of the Chief Economist, visit www.twitter.com/FreddieMac.

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Experts Urge Fall is the Time For a Financial Check-Up

September 15, 2011 10:57 pm

Now that the summer fun is over, it’s back to reality. With the kids back in school, this can be a great time to do an assessment of one’s personal finances and make a plan for future spending. Consumers are urged to evaluate their expenses to make sure their personal finances are in order for the rest of the year.

In the first half of 2011, the average national mortgage debt per borrower increased to $190,115, according to TransUnion. The average credit card debt per borrower was $4,679.

“With debt in the United States continuously growing, it is extremely vital to seize control of your current finances,” says Howard Dvorkin, CPA and founder of Consolidated Credit. “The best way to end the year is to achieve financial prosperity through knowledge of your assets, money management and proper savings.”

Steps consumers should follow to do a financial check-up are:

1. Get a free credit report. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — to provide a free credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. Visit annualcreditreport.com to request it immediately. Knowing one's credit score is a valuable asset for any future large purchases or employment opportunities.

2. Pay off debts. Don’t put off debt any longer. If debt is becoming a burden, enroll in a debt counseling agency to get help. Certified financial counselors can offer advice that can lower payments by consolidating debt, enabling a person to become debt-free faster and easier.

3. Manage finances. Create a budget to know how much you’re able to spend each month. Do not use credit cards; it’s much better to pay for items in cash to avoid credit card troubles. Also, start a savings account in case any emergency expenses turn up.

4. Do taxes early. Gather documents and receipts now. It’s better to start on taxes early to allow time for changes. Do research on allowable deductions. For example, medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of income can be deducted.

5. Identify goals. People are more encouraged to save money if they have a goal in mind. A trip to Hawaii or a cruise in the Bahamas can serve as an incentive to putting away savings. Buying a newer car in full can also be a great aspiration as there is no need for financing or any associated interest.

6. Protect assets. Look over insurance plans and see if any policies have changed. Review homeowner's or renter's insurance to make sure the home is well-protected. Don’t forget about auto insurance and health insurance. Also, do a quick check-up on the warranties associated with expensive electronics to determine whether purchasing a newer model is better than extending the warranty.

7. Review retirement plans. One of the best tax-reducing strategies is to contribute the maximum to a 401(k) plan. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has announced that the 2011 maximum pre-tax contribution to the 401(k) is $16,500. If one's employer doesn't have a 401(k), they may want to set up an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) on their own to ensure funds for retirement.

For more information about money management visit www.ConsolidatedCredit.org.

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Back-to-School Skin Care Tips

September 15, 2011 10:57 pm

Good skin care is not just about looking good. It is about establishing the basics for feeling great from head to toe.

“For starters, work on eliminating blackheads and whiteheads by using the right skin care products," says Barnett Dermatology co-founder and board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Channing Barnett. Look for non-comedogenic acne products, which are less likely to cause blackheads (open comedones) and whiteheads (closed comedones).

According to Barnett, it is always a good idea for a parent to test any new product on their own skin before using it regularly on their child. Handheld cleansing devices such as Clarisonic Sonic Skin Cleansing System are great for deep cleansing and exfoliation. Two of Dr. Barnett’s favorite over-the-counter products include Clean & Clear Advantage 3 in 1 Foaming Acne Wash and Elta MD’s Deep Pore Facial Cleanser.

New shoes can take a toll on a child’s feet. Calluses are hardened areas of skin that have become relatively thick and tough in response to repeated pressure, friction, or other irritation. More frequent or forceful rubbing will cause blisters rather than calluses to form. Barnett encourages kids to use properly fitting shoes and protective pads to minimize rubbing and pressure. Calluses may also be dissolved with keratolytic agents (dissolves or breaks down the outer layer of the skin) containing salicylic acid, filed with a callus shaver, sanded down with a pumice stone, or pared down by a professional, such as a dermatologist or podiatrist.

“Lice go back-to-school with students,” reports Barnett. Head lice are transmitted mainly through close head-to-head contact, but can also be transmitted by sharing personal items such as combs, brushes, towels and hats. Barnett recommends treating lice as soon as possible so that other members of the family or close friends may avoid infestation. Remember, head lice are not related in any way to cleanliness and anyone can become infested by them. Lotions and shampoos containing 1% permethrin (Nix) often work well. They can be bought at the store without a prescription. If these do not work, a doctor can prescribe stronger medicine. Such medicine should be used exactly as directed.

Already feeling dry and itchy as the weather changes? “A few simple things make a big difference in hydrating the skin,” says Barnett. Bathe or shower in lukewarm water, because hot water dries out the skin. Avoid using harsh soaps and stick to fragrance-free products. Dove Sensitive Skin or Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser are both recommended. Avoid vigorous use of a washcloth, and when toweling dry, do not rub the skin. Pat dry or blot to leave some moisture on the skin. Apply a moisturizer (emollient) to the skin immediately after bathing so that it holds in the moisture from the shower. Personal favorites of Barnett’s include Cetaphil, Eucerin Calming Creme and CeraVe Moisturing Cream. For laundry, try All Free Clear, Tide Free & Gentle or Cheer Free & Gentle detergents. Avoid using fabric softeners, especially in the dryer. And remember to hydrate by drinking plenty of water.

For more information, visit www.barnettdermatology.com.

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Is Your Loan Modification Application Stuck?

September 15, 2011 10:57 pm

If you’re on the verge of losing your home, or you know someone who is, then you also know about the long, bureaucratic process involved in applying for a loan modification from a lender. The most common approach is to apply under the new Home Affordability Mortgage Program (HAMP), but lenders also accept modifications from mortgage holders because lenders really don’t want to take the house—they just want their money. In many cases, however, the approval process takes longer than many homeowners can afford. But one expert believes it doesn’t have to be that way, and that there are solutions for homeowners whose applications seem stuck in the mud.

“Applying for a loan modification can be an extremely stressful process,” says Stephfan Nurse, CEO of Consumer Education—the makers of software designed to educate people about the modification process.

“Even if you send in your documents and your lender tells you everything is okay, you may still have a great amount of anxiety because you have no idea what the lender is doing with your file. You may not know what the next step is and how long it takes to move through each step in the process. There are reasons, however, why the process can get stuck, and there are ways to move that process along, if you understand what goes on behind the scenes.”

Nurse’s tips for making the process smoother include:

Account Numbers – It often happens that when you fax your paperwork to your lender, the lender either says they lost your paperwork or they just didn’t receive it all. This isn’t because they are incompetent. It’s because they receive thousands of faxes each day, and they use an image scanning technology to capture them all and place them in the appropriate file. In that system, a cover sheet that has your account number on it will get placed correctly, but the following sheets that lack your account number can be easily misplaced. The solution is to put your account number on every page of your paperwork, so they have a better chance of placing all your paperwork in your file.

Complete the Paperwork – When your file gets assigned to a document manager, typically about 30 days after you first applied for the modification, the document manager’s job is to check to make sure all your required documents are ready to be submitted to the negotiator/specialist for review. If you have an incomplete file, even if you’re missing just one single required document, the document manager will note your account as having an incomplete file and move on to the next file to review. At this point, a generic letter is automatically mailed to your home requesting the additional information your file lacks. This letter can take up to two weeks to get to you, and then another two to four weeks before they look at your updated information. The key is to never send an incomplete package to your lender. It can lead to a delay or even a flat-out denial.

Follow Up – Finally, follow up every week with your lender to make sure all the documents they have are up to date. Don’t worry about being a pest. After all, it’s your house on the line if things get stuck in neutral. If you do this consistently, you will avoid getting caught in the delay cycle.

“The process is like any other, and it can be rife with mistakes and bureaucratic snafus,” Nurse adds. “But if you take the steps to reduce the opportunities for error, your application can move through the process much faster and you’ll have a much better chance at being approved.”

For more information, visit www.consumereducationonline.com.

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Does Your Aging Parent Have a 'File of Life'?

September 14, 2011 10:57 pm

A “File of Life” is a portable medical history and vitally important for seniors to have readily available in case of an emergency. This document, usually affixed to the refrigerator, enables emergency personnel to obtain a quick medical history when a patient is unable to give one.

“When a senior citizen is rushed to the emergency room, the emergency physician on duty needs to know about any medications and dosages, allergies or chronic conditions. That’s one of the reasons why seniors should have a File of Life containing their complete medical history,” according to Janice Williams, CLTC, vice president, Matrix Home Care, a statewide service provider.

“An elderly person who has been dazed by a fall, suffered a stroke or is unconscious won’t be able to communicate with the ER physician,” says Williams. “Without a File of Life, valuable time can be lost, and mistakes can occur.”

In fact, Williams believes that any aging senior who is living alone should have a File of Life and share that information and copies with other family members. “If you change physicians, medications or have had a recent surgery, for instance, the most important medical information is easily accessible,” she says.

Available free of charge from many local fire-rescue, police and senior service agencies (or at a modest cost from retail and online pharmacies), a file of life is a magnetized pouch designed to be posted on a refrigerator. Documents inside the pouch include the person’s name and insurance policy numbers, emergency medical contact, and a list of health problems, medications, allergies and other relevant medical information. Documents that could also be included are a person's health care surrogate and a DNR (do not resuscitate) form. These forms can be prepared by your family attorney.

“When paramedics arrive in an emergency, they can quickly see the pouch on the refrigerator and bring it with them to the hospital,” Williams said. “It’s also important to be sure that other family members have a copy of that information as an added safety measure.”

As an example, Williams cites the case of an 83-year-old woman who fell and broke her hip in her home. She had not prepared a File of Life or chosen and completed a healthcare surrogate form. As she sat in her hospital room, her six children could not agree on which skilled rehabilitation facility she should be sent to for her rehabilitation and if she should receive private duty care. This situation is at times the norm with many families, Williams says. “That’s why making your wishes known and having the correct documentation completed in advance is important.”

Pernille Ostberg, MBA, RPh, Matrix president and CEO, has seen greater awareness of the need for a File of Life in recent years. “People need to realize that the Emergency Room won’t be able to reach the family doctor at 2 a.m. on a Sunday night,” she says. "And, your loved-one’s medical file will be in the physician’s office not the ER. Having the necessary medical documentation available in an emergency can literally be a matter of life or death."

For more information, visit matrixhomecare.com.

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Window Bird Feeders: Bringing Birds Closer

September 14, 2011 10:57 pm

Window bird feeders are a wonderful way to see the true beauty of birds up close this fall. Feather colors, eating habits and the interaction of birds creates a dynamic viewing experience of blue jays, northern cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, nut hatches, tufted titmice, woodpeckers, pine siskins, redpolls, and other finches. Even seasonal birds such as hummingbirds and grosbeaks will come to window bird feeders.

Window bird feeders are convenient to fill and clean, great for kids and seniors who sometimes have a hard time walking to replenish traditional feeders. They offer hours of entertainment for pets (pet TV) and offer an alternative for areas that do not allow traditional feeders.

Window bird feeders come in a variety of styles. Those with suction cups adhere to almost any window and can be located anywhere in your home or office. Others are designed for single or double hung windows, casement windows, bay windows and sliding glass doors/decks. After a while, birds get familiar with activity inside the house and eat more naturally. Some window feeders also have mirrors that allow viewing birds without them viewing you.

Dining areas are a great location for window bird feeders. Birds’ feeding habits are similar to humans and they eat most frequently in early morning, lunch time and early evening. Window strikes are often a problem with east/west feeder placement due to reflections that cause the bird to fly into the window, or they may think it is another bird and attempt to attack. Using window alerts, which have a see-through pattern that adheres to the window, will help avoid window strikes as well as curtains or alternative placement.

Attract specific types of birds to window bird feeders with different types of food. Suet window feeders will attract woodpeckers while sunflower will attract most birds and thistle will attract finches, siskins and red polls. To avoid house sparrows, starlings and cowbirds avoid grains used in mixes—corn, milo, red millet, oats, wheat and canary seed. Jays prefer peanuts (but then, so do squirrels).

For more information, visit USABirdSupply.com.

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REALTORS Urge White House to Gather Leaders, Stabilize Housing

September 14, 2011 10:57 pm

To help develop policies that will stabilize the nation's housing market and support an economic recovery, the National Association of REALTORS® recently urged the White House to host a summit of policy makers, industry leaders and government stake holders focused on revitalizing the nation's housing.

"As the leading advocate for housing issues, REALTORS® know that homeownership supports our nation's economy," says NAR President Ron Phipps. "Housing and homeownership issues affect all Americans, which is why we need strong policies that will help stabilize the housing market and lead the way out of today's economic struggles."

A housing recovery is key to America's economic strength, and NAR wants to make sure that proposed legislation and regulatory rules or changes to current programs and incentives don't further exacerbate problems within fragile real estate markets across the country.

A broad discussion among all stakeholders about what needs to be done to put the housing market and economy on a path to recovery could provide valuable recommendations and solutions to promote responsible, sustainable homeownership and stabilize and revitalize the housing industry and economy.

"REALTORS® look forward to coming together and working with President Obama and his administration as well as our industry partners to design a housing recovery plan that will serve our nation, its 75 million homeowners and indeed all Americans today and into the future," says Phipps.

Information about NAR is available at www.realtor.org.

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New Black Friday iPhone App Released for the 2011 Holiday Shopping Season

September 13, 2011 4:57 pm

A new mobile application has been released that will aid shoppers this year on Black Friday. Created by FatWallet, the Black Friday iPhone App allows iPhone and iPod touch users to review and sort 2011 Black Friday ads as individual deals. The app is the mobile version of FatWallet.com’s Black Friday Deal Finder, which aggregates all major retailers’ Black Friday ad rumors and organizes them by store and category. Users can sort by store or by category and have options to filter results for a more refined search. These options include; sub-categories, brand and price range. Capabilities also let users search by phrase and sort deals for free shipping, rebates, online availability and/or doorbusters.

Push Notifications are sent each time a store’s 2011 Black Friday ad is published. FatWallet members can flag deals as favorites for quick in-store reference and comparison. They can also create customized shopping lists online for easy access on the app and share any deal or view via text or email, with possibilities of more social sharing options in future updates.

The app also comes pre-loaded with 2010 Black Friday content allowing users to compare all 13,676 deals from 90 stores. Users can expect many of these deals to be available online (2010 saw over 800 deals online with more than 500 of those deals offering free shipping). The content will be replaced with 2011 data as soon as the first Black Friday ad is made public in FatWallet’s Black Friday 2011 forum and Black Friday Deal Finder.

For more information, visit www.fatwallet.com.

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Tips for Hiring the Best Contractor for the Job

September 13, 2011 4:57 pm

When it comes to hiring a contractor, finding one you can trust in your home for an extended period of time is crucial to the project's success. A fair and hardworking contractor may take some time to find. These tips will help facilitate your search:

Get as many estimates as you can: By pricing out many different contractors, you will be able to determine the going rate for your area. Beware of any prices that are either too low or too high, and always make sure to ask if the price is a hard quote (the price you will actually be charged) or simply an estimate.

Make sure the contractor is insured and licensed: In addition, ensure that all of the company's employees are insured as well. In the case of an accident, you want to be sure that any worker working in your home is covered by workman's comp and liability insurance.

Call references: Never neglect to ask for references and always call to check up on the contractor. Was work completed on time? Were there any issues on the job? How close was the estimate to the final cost? You may be able to learn from someone else's hiring mistakes.

Research the company: Find out how long the contractor has been in business and see if you can find out information about any past jobs. If any red flags have been raised, you'll likely find them on the Internet.

Make sure it feels right: Are you comfortable communicating with the contractor? Do they understand exactly what you want? Are they able to clearly explain what exactly will be done and how long it will take? If any problems or delays happen on the job, you want to make sure you have a solid working relationship with your hired help so you can properly discuss how to move forward. This can make all the difference as you head toward a happy end result.

Source: Relocation.com Blog

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