4 ways hardscapes can add value to your home

(BPT) – Outdoor hardscape projects add resale value to a home as well as bring extra enjoyment to homeowners while they are living in the home, according to the “Remodeling Impact Report: Outdoor Features” by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP).

The report confirms that investing in landscaping and hardscaping is a win-win, whether you plan to stay in your home or prepare it for market.

“This report validates that outdoor remodeling and landscaping improvements are a necessity when it comes to improving your home’s resale value,” said Missy Henriksen, NALP vice president of public affairs. “Homeowners working with a landscape professional to embark on renovations — whether that means enhancing their turf and growing a lush lawn, overhauling their entire landscape, or incorporating new features like patios or exterior fireplaces — can rest assured that they are making a smart, worthwhile investment.”

Curb appeal

Real estate agents suggest that a home’s first impression is paramount when preparing it for sale. Simple updates such as adding retaining wall units or paving stone edging around gardens add value and curb appeal. More ambitious projects like a front paving stone entrance with patio and a seat wall or two add major curb appeal plus the enjoyment factor from adding a beautiful, functional front yard.

Varying hardscape colors and textures in the front outdoor living space lends maximum visual appeal. Hardscapes also can make routine maintenance easier, such as creating a tree ring from retaining wall units and surrounding it with pavers to reduce the need for trimming after mowing.

Making unusable space usable

A family in Maple Grove, Minnesota, had a hill behind their home that sloped down to a pond. They knew that excavating would be required and contacted Villa Landscapes in St. Paul to help them decide how best to make use of the space.

“The Versa-Lok Standard retaining wall system was perfect for retaining the soil behind the garage when we excavated to create their outdoor living space,” said Lonny Sekeres, a designer with Villa Landscapes. “There are no voids in the units to backfill, and the top-down pinning system made the installation easy. By back-splitting the retaining wall units, we easily created matching freestanding seat walls around the fire feature area too. Plus, the same unit was used to create columns that provide a base for a pergola while giving a nice definition to the outdoor living space.”

Prevent erosion

Damage to your property can devalue a home plus create major headaches. Retaining wall systems are essential in preventing erosion, controlling grade changes in a yard, and preventing damage to the landscape, and in certain environments, even damage to your home.

One homeowner in Apple Valley, Minnesota, had a steep, unusable backyard that sloped toward the home’s foundation. Over the years, water damage to the foundation occurred.

“The negative flow caused water damage, a leaky foundation and the accumulation of dirt that had been eroding down the slope for years,” said Paul Devine, owner and principal of Devine Design Hardscapes in Rosemount, Minnesota. “There was no flat, usable area at the base of the hill, and the client had never been able to grow grass because of constant erosion. The Versa-Lok wall design created a positive flow away from the home’s foundation, steps to the top of the hill, and a flat, usable area for a backyard.”

Devine created a tiered retaining wall design with ample space for perennials and a staggered staircase with landings that feature seat walls for resting.

Safety and privacy

Seat walls can add a measure of privacy and protection against the elements, and energy-efficient landscape lighting can be installed along patios, paver walkways and under retaining wall caps for nighttime ambiance and functionality. Landscape professionals can suggest how adding these and other hardscape elements can increase value and offer measures of safety and privacy.

In the end, investing in your home’s landscape with hardscapes is a long-term win-win, no matter how long you stay in your home or if you are preparing it for sale. Says Henriksen: “Further, that investment is coupled with the immediate happiness received by beautiful landscaping and the long-term enjoyment of outdoor living spaces, which are priceless.”

Read more

Cash clever: Be too smart for these tax-time phone scams

(BPT) – If a smooth-talking phone caller has ever tried to cheat you out of your hard-earned money, you’re far from alone. Further, such scams tend to be rampant at tax time.

An estimated one in 10 Americans lost money in phone scams between April 2016 and April 2017, says a recent Harris Poll, parting with an average $430 per person for a national total of $9.5 billion. That marks a 56 percent monetary increase over the previous year; that’s partly because such fraud has become easier for criminals as technology has enabled both number-finding and robo-dialing, and Americans are more likely to answer unknown calls on their ever-present mobile phones.

Many fraudsters see tax time as an ideal time to prey on people facing uncertainty or anxiety about getting their tax returns right, which is why they may call and impersonate IRS officials threatening arrest, deportation, eviction or license revocation if taxes are not paid immediately by using a money transfer, loading a prepaid card or purchasing a gift card. Remember, though, that the IRS almost always resolves issues by mail, not phone. It will never request payment without sending a bill first; will allow questions or appeals about your bill; won’t direct you to use specific payment methods; won’t ask for your credit or debit card numbers by phone and won’t threaten arrest or similar consequences.

A consumer’s greatest weapon in fighting fraud is education and awareness. While fraudsters can often be clever, knowing some of their strategies can be the first step toward protecting yourself from their tactics.

“The tax return season is upon us, and scammers are posing as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) representatives, demanding victims send money to avoid arrest or deportation,” advises Lee Buchmann, Western Union director of anti-fraud operations. “Do not send a money transfer to anyone who asks you to send them money to pay taxes. The IRS does not contact consumers to demand payment for taxes through money transfer or prepaid cards.” More descriptions of scams that use tax season as a lure are available at IRS.gov.

The Western Union Consumer Protection Center (www.wu.com/fraudawareness) offers specific information about protecting yourself from fraud based on your country of residence. Stay informed and follow their updates on Facebook and Twitter. If you believe you are a victim of fraud, call the Western Union Fraud Hotline at 1-800-448-1492.

Read more

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month: Know When to Stop Before You Start

(BPT) – The bright lights. The energy and laughter that fills the room. Casinos are fun and exciting to the vast majority of people but for some, they can be problematic.

Casinos are a form of entertainment, so how do you ensure what’s meant to be a fun and leisurely activity continues to be a positive experience? Time spent at a casino should be a planned and budgeted entertainment option — like you would approach an evening out for dinner or a sporting event. There are preventative measures that can be taken to help ensure that an experience at a casino remains a fun one.

Leading experts in the field of gambling research maintain that it starts with being an informed consumer who understands the realities of gaming. “Being informed means understanding your thoughts about the next big win, beating the odds, and finding the hot machine or deck of cards,” said Dr. James Whelan of the University of Memphis. “Misunderstanding these thoughts about chance can lead to harmful mistakes and excessive losses of money. Informed consumers know that setting limits on how much you spend and how long you play is the best way to not let these thoughts result in you losing more than you can afford.”

Here’s what everyone should keep in mind before their next casino visit.

Betting on a winning streak

It’s always exciting to hit a jackpot, but winning streaks are highly uncommon and beyond anyone’s control. Each spin of the wheel or roll of the dice is an independent event, which means that the chances of a specific outcome aren’t influenced by previous outcomes. So rolling snake eyes once makes you no more (or less) likely to roll snake eyes again.

The chances of beating the odds

Casino games are designed with a house advantage. Mathematically, the house advantage is a measure of how much the house expects to win, expressed as a percentage of the player’s wager. For example, in a wager with a house advantage of 5 percent, the player will lose, on average over time, $5 for every $100 wagered. Because the odds always favor the house, the longer or faster a person plays a casino game, the more the person should expect to lose even in skill­-based or hybrid games. In the same way, the more a person wagers, the more the person should expect to lose.

Believing in superstitions

It might be fun to imagine that rubbing a rabbit’s foot improves a player’s chances of hitting a jackpot, but the reality is that this “magical thinking” has no impact whatsoever. Cheating aside, there’s nothing a player can do — no ritual or lucky charm — to influence the outcome of any casino game. Superstitions can’t determine whether a player wins or loses because every casino game — whether it’s blackjack, craps or a slot machine — is based on randomness, or on chance.

Lisa Arroyo has worked at Harrah’s Joliet Casino in Illinois for the past 25 years. Like everyone who works at a Caesars Entertainment property, Arroyo thinks about gambling as a fun activity you pay for, like going to the movies or to a theater performance.

Arroyo has heard customers laughing and having fun playing blackjack — and she has also heard customers make troubling statements that have caused her concern. “We definitely don’t want people to come in and spend more than what they have budgeted. We want our guests to simply have fun and gamble responsibly. If someone makes a statement or series of statements that concern us, we will have a discussion with the patron and inform them of responsible gaming options and alternatives if needed.”

Gambling responsibly?

Is responsible gaming an oxymoron? Not at all. Arroyo wants gambling to be a choice made for the right reasons. She is one of the advocates of Caesars Entertainment’s Responsible Gaming program, the first hospitality gambling program of its kind to formally train employees on the importance of Responsible Gaming.

The premise of the program involves Arroyo and her colleagues across Caesars’ global network of properties, called Responsible Gaming (RG) Ambassadors, who are celebrating their 15th year of assisting casino guests who may not be gambling responsibly. If comments or statements are made that are concerning to any employee, that concern is brought to the attention of the RG Ambassador who will sit down with the guest to address the reported concern, offer problem gambling program assistance and help resources, and answer questions. “We just let them know that if they feel like they might have a problem, we’re here to answer questions and help,” said Arroyo.

She informs people who express they might have a gambling problem to ask themselves some of the following questions.

* Do I lose time from work due to gambling?

* Is gambling making my home life unhappy?

* Have I ever felt remorse after gambling?

* Do I ever gamble to get money to help pay debts or to otherwise solve financial difficulties?

* Does gambling cause a decrease in my ambition or efficiency?

* Do I ever gamble longer than I had planned?

Caesars Entertainment wants everyone who plays at its casinos to be there for the right reason — to simply have fun. For the past 25 years, Caesars has been committed to promoting responsible gaming and has provided assistance to guests who may not be gambling responsibly. This year, Caesars’ Responsible Gaming Ambassador Program is celebrating its 15th anniversary with 815 Responsible Gaming Ambassadors that may assist guests with problem gambling help resources.

Read more

The Merchant Bill of Rights seeks to level the playing field for small businesses

(BPT) – Consumers who make just a few purchases each day may not think much about the companies that process their credit card. But for a small or mid-sized business, processors who aren’t transparent about the costs they pass on can add up to an expensive headache. Heartland is celebrating 10 years of the Merchant Bill of Rights as an industry standard to promote fair card processing practices.

Its purpose: to enable merchants who don’t have the resources of large purchasing organizations to effectively manage their costs, determine which processor best meets their needs and realize significant savings.

1. The right to know the fee of every card transaction, who is charging it, and if there are surcharges and bill-backs.

Owners or operators of a small or mid-sized business deserve — and should expect — competitive pricing and the best value for payments processing including credit, debit and prepaid card processing.

Many processors and their middlemen hide arbitrary charges — often classified as “surcharges” — without disclosing them to merchants. These charges are pure profit to processors and their middlemen, making transactions that are already expensive even more costly.

2. The right to know the markup of major credit card fee increases and reductions.

Credit card companies typically adjust interchange rate categories and fees semi-annually in April and October. When rates go up, many processors seize the opportunity to inflate them even more and then deceptively blame the increase on the card brands.

3. The right to know all transaction middlemen, and have reasonable equipment costs.

The chain of events that begins when a merchant swipes a customer’s card is fairly straightforward. At minimum, it requires four essential entities to process the transaction: a bank, a credit card brand, a telephone or internet connection and a processor.

When big companies buy equipment, they often solicit proposals from multiple equipment manufacturers to drive the best deal. Owners of a small or mid-sized business may not have the time or resources to shop around for a payment device, and oftentimes turn to their processor for guidance. However, they may not be getting the deal they’ve bargained for — and most likely don’t know it.

4. The right to real-time, dedicated, live service 24/7/365.

Service and support are critical factors in implementing and maintaining a card acceptance program. Unlike national merchants, small local businesses may lack the resources needed to ensure proper training, ongoing support and the best available rates.

With most Americans relying on credit and debit cards for their purchases, one minor problem that prevents or delays the processing of transactions at the point of sale can have devastating effects. Combine the ripple effect of customer dissatisfaction with lost revenue, and it’s easy to see why live customer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year is mission critical for all merchants.

5. The right to encrypted card numbers, secure transactions and real-time fraud and transaction monitoring.

Credit and debit card fraud costs American businesses billions of dollars every year. Thieves work overtime to find ways to steal from merchants. Often disgruntled or dishonest employees — even some customers — are masters at making money the illegal way, and not getting caught.

For more information, to share stories about dishonest business practices or scams, or to ask a question, visit MerchantBillofRights.org.

Read more