The new tax law: What you need to know now

(BPT) – With the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 having been signed into law, here are some of the things you should be thinking about as tax season approaches, according to Robert Fishbein, vice president and corporate counsel, Prudential Financial Inc.

2017 tax returns

The new tax law is generally effective starting in 2018, which means that your 2017 income tax return is largely unaffected. However, there may be actions you can take now to benefit from the change. For example, assuming you are eligible, you could fund a traditional IRA before the due date of your tax return; the income exclusion may be more valuable under higher 2017 tax rates.

Lower tax rates and new withholding

The hallmark of the new tax law is lower marginal tax rates for individuals. The IRS has issued withholding tables employers started using in February to reflect these lower rates. While this could mean lower tax withholding and more take-home pay, you should evaluate your personal income tax position to determine if you will pay more or less under the new law and adjust your withholding accordingly.

If you make estimated tax payments, you should also estimate your tax liability under the new tax law and make necessary adjustments to your quarterly tax payments.

Assuming your withholding or estimated tax payments need no adjustment may create an unpleasant surprise if you are under-withheld and owe penalty tax and interest when you file your 2018 income tax return.

Higher standard deduction

The new higher standard deduction of $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples will greatly reduce the number of taxpayers that itemize deductions. If you did not itemize in 2016, and your tax position is similar now, you will probably not itemize in 2017. The increased standard deduction, combined with lower marginal rates, may mean your tax liability will go down.

If you itemized in 2016, compare your total itemized amount to the new standard deduction. If less, and assuming a similar tax position in 2017, you will likely no longer need to itemize.

For many, this provision will turn out to be the greatest simplification aspect of the new tax law, since they no longer must track itemized deductions or complete multiple associated forms.

No personal exemptions

Some taxpayers will need to look more closely to determine if they will pay less or even more. The new law eliminates personal exemptions and reduces deductible items, such as limiting the total deduction for state and local income taxes to $10,000, reducing the amount of deductible mortgage interest and eliminating the deduction for interest paid on a home equity line of credit. Therefore, if you itemized deductions in 2017 and your deductions were greater than the applicable standard deduction, you will have to consider what deductions are available in 2018 and estimate your tax liability.

In states with higher income taxes and property taxes, it is possible that the loss of itemized deductions will be greater than the benefit of lower rates and your tax liability could increase.

Increased child and dependent credits

The new law increases the child tax credit for children under 17 to $2,000. The income limits to phase out the credit are also significantly increased so more taxpayers will be eligible. In addition, there is a $500 credit for other qualifying dependents. Depending on your tax bracket, this could be better or worse than getting an exemption for each dependent.

Increased AMT exemption

Adding one more layer of complexity to your 2018 planning is the new tax law’s modification of the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT. The AMT is a parallel tax system that requires you to calculate your income tax under the normal rules and then again under AMT rules, paying the higher of the two. The new tax law increases the AMT exemption, or the amount you can earn and not be subject to this alternative tax. If you have been subject to AMT in the past, you should review the new increased exemption and whether that will change.

The bottom line

The bottom line for most is whether they will pay more or less income tax in 2018 than in 2017. While it is likely many will pay less, you need to consider all the above before you know how you will be impacted by the new tax law.

Please consult your legal or tax advisor concerning your particular circumstances. The Prudential Insurance Company of America, Newark NJ and its affiliates.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Simple ways to save on your pet’s medical costs

(BPT) – Pet parents know that there’s nothing like the love of furry family members. Keeping your pets healthy is a priority because you want them to live as long as possible. However, health care costs for pets are expensive, and if you are dealing with additional expenses such as prescriptions for chronic conditions, it can become a burden to your budget.

Fortunately, there are several things pet owners can do proactively to keep pets healthy and save money on health care costs.

Invest in preventative care

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is just as applicable to pets as it is to their human caregivers. One of the most important things a pet parent can do to ensure the ongoing health of any animal is to bring them in for annual checkups whether they are experiencing health issues or not.

During wellness checkups, veterinarians can screen for a variety of health conditions. They provide insight on diseases, age-related concerns, dental health, nutritional considerations and so much more. Plus you’re able to provide your pet with important vaccinations. Regular checkups help vets identify problems sooner rather than later, and this can translate to more affordable health care costs to pet parents in the long run.

Get an Inside Rx Pets prescription card

Costs for managing your pet’s health can be a bear with pet owners spending more than $8 billion on prescription and over-the-counter medications annually. The Inside Rx Pets program offers savings on commonly prescribed medications such as insulin and antibiotics, as well as seizure, glaucoma and anti-inflammatory drugs. The Inside Rx Pets savings card is not insurance; it is a savings card you can use for certain human medications that may be prescribed for your pet. A complete list of the medications with which you can use the Inside Rx Pet card, as well as pricing information and other details, can be found at https://InsideRx.com/Pets.

Benefiting from these discounts is easy for pet parents: If your pet’s veterinarian writes a prescription for an applicable medication, simply download the free discount card from the Inside Rx Pets website and present it with the prescription at one of the 40,000 participating pharmacies located across the U.S. that fill prescriptions for animals. These include national chains such as Kroger Family of Pharmacies, CVS and Walgreens (yes, the same pharmacies you go to for your own medications).

Exercise and focus on nutrition

Obesity is a growing concern for many pets. Poor nutrition paired with limited exercise causes pets to put on additional weight. This weight can put them at higher risk for health concerns like diabetes, osteoarthritis and ligament injuries. These health concerns not only risk the quality of life for Fluffy or Fido, but also can deeply impact your pocketbook.

Pets, just like humans, require exercise and proper nutrition to stay healthy and feel their best. Whether that’s letting your rabbit out of the cage to run or going on a walk with your dog, be sure to make regular exercise a part of your fur family’s routine. If you’re unsure what is appropriate for your pet, call your veterinarian or bring it up at a wellness visit. They’ll be delighted you reached out for more information to keep your pet healthy.

Start an emergency fund

Choosing between a pet and an unexpected health expense is something no one wants to experience. Being prepared can make a big difference when facing difficult decisions, so it’s wise to have savings set aside in case of a rainy day.

Some people are starting pet health savings accounts (HSAs) that are similar to the accounts that people hold for themselves to pay for medical expenses. Whether you choose that path or a traditional savings account, when you have an emergency fund you won’t have to worry about any unexpected expenses, so you can simply focus on getting your pet well again.

Being proactive is important for keeping your pets healthy for many years. From scheduling annual wellness visits to taking advantage of the Inside Rx Pets discount card, there are many easy actions pet parents can take today to reduce costs so furry family members stay well.

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5 practical and fun ways to spend your tax refund

(BPT) – It’s that time of year again when you may find a little bit of extra money in your pocket, thanks to your annual tax refund. There are plenty of practical ways to spend it, such as putting it toward paying off credit cards, loan payments or even starting a college fund, but there is always something tempting about taking that money and putting it toward something just a little bit more fun. Instead, consider something that is both practical and fun that you will use every day and will help you save money throughout the year.

1. Learn something new: Maybe you have been meaning to learn a new skill or explore a subject that you have taken interest in. Your refund is the perfect solution to fund a new hobby. A little bit of cash and a few extra hours a week can go a long way in honing in on one of your new (or old) passion points. Look into your local community college, dance studio, art center, etc. and check out the various classes offered to find one that piques your curiosity. If you are lucky, these courses could turn into something far more fruitful that will last far beyond tax season.

2. Be on the cutting edge: Haven’t you always wanted to be the first among your friends with one of the latest smartphones? Often though, it becomes too expensive between the phone, the update charge and the data fees. This year, use your tax refund to purchase one of the latest smartphones and a new wireless plan that allows you to save in the long-term. Achieve balance with Straight Talk’s $55 Ultimate Unlimited* Plan, and stay in touch with friends and family, stream the latest videos and navigate while you’re on-the-go without worry. While you reward yourself with the latest technology and unlimited* data, you’ll also give yourself the gift of saving on your phone bill all year long.

3. Plan a staycation: Planning a vacation can be tough with a hectic family schedule. Between working out the details and packing, the planning process can become overwhelming. Why make it complicated when you can instead vacation from the comfort of your own home? Use your refund to have family-based experiences in your hometown — many museums, zoos, waterparks, etc. offer discounted year-round family memberships, too. Even though your staycation may end once the weekend is over, the new membership will allow for family fun to continue throughout the year.

4. Get fit: Have you faltered on that New Year’s resolution to spend a few more hours a week at the gym? Your tax return is your second chance at getting into better shape this year. If the gym isn’t for you, put it toward trying a new exercise class, or better yet, do it with a friend or partner! Many workout studios give discounted classes for your first session, so you’ll have the opportunity to “try before you buy” — and if you love it, pick up a package of classes to reduce longer-term costs.

5. Cook a homemade family feast: While you could take your hard-earned tax return to a fancy restaurant, you could also make a fancy dinner right at home. Use your extra spending cash to revamp your kitchen with new appliances and ingredients that will allow for more exciting in-home dining. Splurge on a homemade pasta maker or a brand-new mixer, then work as a family to cook up your very own secret recipe. These purchases and new creations will result in a fun night of cooking for the whole family, but also will be around for years to come!

You work hard all year and deserve to reward yourself with something fun and practical that can bring a little more balance to your emotional and financial health. For more information and ways to save, visit StraightTalk.com.

*At 60GB, Straight Talk reserves the right to review accounts for usage in violation of its Terms and Conditions. Please refer to the latest Terms and Conditions of Service at StraightTalk.com. A month equals 30 days.

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Deciphering the legalese in your furnace warranty

(BPT) – From smartphones to mattresses, almost everything you buy comes with a warranty. How can you ensure you get the most benefit from a warranty, especially for a major investment that’s critical to the comfort of your home, like a new furnace?

“Warranties are meant to assure a homeowner that the furnace they’re purchasing will do what it’s supposed to, is free of defects and meets applicable government regulations or standards,” says Chip Wade, HGTV expert. “However, warranties are often very specific about the circumstances under which the manufacturer will repair or replace the furnace if it doesn’t work properly. It’s important to carefully read your furnace’s warranty to ensure you understand exactly how it works.”

Warranty terms

Because written warranties are legally binding documents, you may come across unfamiliar terms as you’re reading yours, including:

Product warranty — This is the guarantee that comes from the company that manufactures the furnace. Contractors and installers may offer extended warranties that apply to their work, including the labor required to install the furnace. York, for example, manages its own extended warranties. Other manufacturers often work with outside firms.

Warranty term — The length of time the coverage is offered is called the warranty term. These can vary significantly.

Parts warranty — Most furnace warranties will cover replacement of specific parts if they malfunction within the warranty time frame and the problem is a result of a manufacturer’s defect. Most warranties have different coverage periods for different parts.

Non-transferable — When you have a new home comfort system installed, if the furnace warranty is non-transferable, the coverage will not transfer to the new owners if you sell the house before the end of the warranty term.

Protect your warranty

“No homeowner ever wants to hear their warranty has been voided by something they did or something they were supposed to do but didn’t,” Wade says. “That’s why it’s so important to read your detailed furnace warranty very carefully, so you know what the manufacturer and installer require in order to honor the warranty.”

Actions that help ensure a valid warranty:

* Register the product purchase with the manufacturer. Most manufacturers require homeowners to register their furnace with the manufacturer within a specified window of time after the purchase and installation. If the contractor does not register the warranty on behalf of the homeowner, homeowners are required to register within 90 days of installation.

* Work with a qualified contractor who can properly install the product. If a part doesn’t work because it wasn’t installed properly, the manufacturer will likely say the installer, and not the manufacturer, is liable for fixing the problem.

* Use branded parts or parts the manufacturer has certified for the furnace. Otherwise, you may void the manufacturer’s warranty, even for parts that would normally be covered.

* Follow manufacturer maintenance recommendations. For your furnace to operate as it should, it will need to be professionally serviced every year. Keep service records for reference, in case an issue arises.

York heating and cooling offers a lifetime heat exchanger warranty on its Affinity gas furnaces. In addition, it offers the Complete Assurance Warranty Pledge with this furnace. If the heat exchanger fails within 10 years of installation, the company provides optional furnace replacement in lieu of heat exchanger equipment.

“A new furnace is a big investment, and it’s one that’s essential to preserve the comfort of your home,” Wade says. “A good manufacturer’s warranty can help you be sure you’re getting a quality product that’s backed by a company that will stand by its work.”

Visit www.york.com/warranty to learn more about warranties.

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House hunting? Use this handy checklist before you make the offer

(BPT) – House hunting can feel like an adventurous new chapter in your life. If you’re lucky enough to find the property that checks off all the “must have” boxes — appearance, size, price, location — it’s easy to fall in love.

Not so fast. Before making an offer on any property, it’s smart to take a deeper look at the overall structure and its systems, just to make sure warning signs of major and costly problems are not hiding in plain sight. If the house holds more issues than your budget (and drive to renovate) can handle, it might be best to walk away.

Of course, once the offer is accepted, it’s always a smart idea to hire a third-party home inspector to take an in-depth look at the property. In the meantime, one last pass-through with this checklist in hand can give you peace of mind about taking the next step.

Exterior: Walk around all four sides of the house, scanning it from ground to rooftop. Note the condition of the doors and window frames, and look for cracked or peeling paint or signs of loose siding. Higher up, eye the chimney, making sure it appears straight and is in good condition, while the gutters and drainpipes should be in place and functional.

Roof: Ideally, the roof would be 10 years old or less, so scan the roof for the classic warning signs of aging and neglect. Things like curled and missing shingles, dark stains, moss growth and signs of sagging can signal serious issues. (A home inspector can confirm if full replacement is needed, or if a few simple repairs would stabilize things for another decade or so.)

Yard: Take note of the landscaping. Is there a slope angled away from the house, or is there a potential for a flooded basement after a major rainfall? Mature trees provide lots of shade, but watch for overhanging branches, as these can break off in a storm and do major damage to the roof. Finally, take note of the condition of the driveway and sidewalks.

Foundation: The sight of a few hairline cracks in the cement is no cause for panic. Do look for telltale signs of serious issues, such as widening cracks, water stains and bulges. It doesn’t hurt to bring a level to make sure the walls are straight.

Plumbing: In addition to checking basement and under-sink pipes for signs of leaks, scan the ceilings for water stains. Open all the faucets to check the water pressure as well as the time it takes for hot water to reach the tap.

HVAC system: Know the age of the heating and cooling systems, and check these for tags and other signs of routine maintenance. If the system is older than a decade, that can spell costly repairs and a replacement in a brief time frame. When it comes to older systems, energy efficiency is another consideration, according to Tom Tasker, product manager with Coleman Echelon Variable Capacity residential systems.

“Newer HVAC systems are remarkably more efficient when compared to those from even a decade ago, which means they keep your house comfortable for as little as half the cost,” says Tasker.

For example, Coleman’s Echelon products are rated up to 20 SEER, which stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. Compare these to the 10 SEER systems of 25 years ago, and that can give you an idea of what to expect in potential energy costs, he says.

Appliances: Note the age and condition of things like the refrigerator, oven and range, washer and dryer, and hot water heater. As with the HVAC, older appliances tend to consume more energy and you’ll face a shorter timeline for needed repairs and replacements.

Buying a house is a big decision, but knowing what you’re buying can go a long way in assuring you that you’ve found the right place!

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6 other college costs (and opportunities) to consider when the financial aid letter arrives

(BPT) – The last year of high school is a whirl of activity, and it’s no different when it comes to the final leg of college selection. Once the acceptance notifications arrive, it will soon be time to sit down with a different stack of mail: financial aid letters.

As you undoubtedly know, the cost of college is no small investment. In the 2017-18 academic year, the average tuition and fees for four-year public colleges is $25,620, while for private colleges, the costs are $33,520, and public two-year colleges cost $3,570, according to the College Board.

At the same time, the College Board reports that more than 70 percent of students receive grants to help pay for college. Hopefully, those financial letters contain some good news.

For most families, analyzing the letters is a process of uncovering the college that can offer the best education at the best value for your student. One way to get there is to parse the details of the letter itself so you understand the net cost of your student’s education. Still, it’s critical to look at other factors and opportunities around higher education costs. Taking a deeper look at these can help you and your student reach the best possible decision.

Deciphering free aid vs. other options: Take a close look at each line in the aid column. Key words, such as scholarships, grants and fellowships, signal no-strings money for school. Work-study and student loan packages are options that will need students to find a job or pay the money back.

Cost-of-living expenses: Think about those extra costs that come up over the weeks and months of any college year, such as meals, phone, transportation and laundry. Don’t forget entertainment. After all, they’re not going to spend all their time studying in their dorm room. Does the campus and community offer plenty of low-cost and no-cost attractions and entertainment so they can have fun with their friends without breaking the bank?

Local economy: One thing worth considering is the local economy of the first-choice school, especially if your student may want to pick up a part-time job along the way. Even better, look for local employers that are compatible with your child’s career goals. An entry-level job at one of these workplaces can help make ends meet, while making your student more marketable when it’s time to graduate.

Student achievement: Do a little digging on the success rate for students and graduates, so you have an idea on whether the school has a high job placement rate after graduation. Know the school’s graduation rate, along with the average first-year salary for graduates.

Ongoing costs: The financial aid letter describes the student’s first year. As much as you can, do some forecasting for the next three to four years. It’s especially important to understand whether awards are renewable, or if they’re available only to first-year students.

Negotiation: If the college isn’t coming through with enough aid to make college affordable for your student and family, don’t give up. You might be able to negotiate more aid. Submit a letter and ask for a follow-up appointment. Be specific about what you are requesting, and be sure to explain if you have specific circumstances such as medical costs or a job loss that may have affected your ability to meet the expected family contribution.

If you find the amount of financial aid provided isn’t enough (including the amount offered in federal loans), families may want to research and explore private student loans as an option to cover the additional expenses. Look for competitive interest rates and flexible repayment options that match your budget. College Ave Student Loans also offers a calculator that showcases how much families can save with various loan options at www.collegeavestudentloans.com.

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