October 20, 2010

Electronic Home Security: Passwords, documents, and prior planning.

Filed under: Home Safety — Chuck @ 4:22 pm

Home security in this day and age is not just limited to door and window locks and a well-lighted property perimeter. In the information age of today one of the most vulnerable aspects of any home is its electronic data – which is stored on computer hard drives or within the mind of the homeowner.

Sensitive Data for the Taking

If you use accounting or tax filing software like many homeowners, for example, then confidential data – including bank account information and social security numbers – may be easy to steal from you by a burglar, a computer hacker tapping into your wireless network, or someone who works on your computer or does work inside your home and gains surreptitious access to your computer. Many hackers, for example, just drive up and down the street using a laptop until they find a home network that is not secured with a firewall. Then they can park outside your home while they steal virtually everything you or your kids have on your computers. Next they use that information to hack into such things as banks accounts, credit card accounts, or online payment systems like PayPal. By the time you realize you’ve been victimized they are long gone.

The Era of 12-Digit Passwords

A recent study by information technology companies also revealed that passwords that are shorter than 12 letters or digits and do not include a combination of letters, numerical digits, or keyboard symbols are no longer adequate to protect you.

Shorter strings of numbers are a carry-over from the days of combinations on vaults or padlocks, but these days computer programs can crack those codes within a matter of hours, if not minutes. University researchers and computer companies who ran security tests for this recent study found that it is, however, nearly impossible for those same programs or robotic software packages to decode and decipher passwords that are at least 12 or 13 digits, letters, and symbols long. In fact, they estimate that most of the cyber crime software in use today would need decades to figure out that kind of password – and for that reason these computer security experts all recommend changing your passwords to ones of that length.

Students of high-tech computer science at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University conducted experiments with various 12-13 character password combinations, and their research indicated that rather than thinking of passwords the way we have traditionally done – as a combination of numbers or letters – we should start thinking in terms of password phrases.

Use phrases, for example, like “5 Pies in 3 boxes” or “73 days of autumn” that mix numbers and letters of the alphabet and add up to 12 or 13 characters or digits long. If possible, throw in some quirky symbols. (Think #$%&! for example.) That gets more complicated, but if you include one or two of those it also makes your passwords exponentially harder to crack.

The Security of Estate Assets

Also related to this kind of cyber security is the emergence of new applications in the field of computer forensics. There are computer professionals who offer their forensic services to help the executors of estates and others uncover assets that may be hidden away in an electronic format that is password protected.

Many people die and leave behind bank accounts, stock market portfolios, and even entire businesses that are all Internet based – but they fail to leave clear instructions in their estate documents or Last Will and Testament to help their survivors gain access to these valuables. It is easy to make that mistake when doing basic estate planning, because we are so accustomed now to doing business online but not sharing our log-in information with anyone.

So if you have not taken that into account it is a good idea to do so. One way is to type up a list of all your current online assets, along with the log-in names or user names and passwords to access those websites and accounts. Leave the list in a safe, confidential place such as your bank’s safety deposit box or include it as an addendum to your Last Will and Testament that is safely stored away at an attorney’s office or in a bank.

Keep in mind that your automobiles may have computer codes also. Most cars manufactured after 1996, for example, are protected by anti-theft devices that use a special security code. If you disconnect your car battery, for instance, you may not be able to restart the car radio or other devices without first entering that code. So keep a copy of it in a safe place where you can access it easily in case that happens. Don’t leave it inside the owner’s manual in the car, though, because car thieves can find it to disable the car’s own security systems.

Uncommon Tips for Winterizing Your Home

Filed under: Home Maintenance — Chuck @ 4:21 pm

There are lots of ways to prepare your home for the cold season, and if you look around on this site you will find other articles on topics related to energy conservation to save on winter heating bills or preparations like caulking windows. But in addition to some of the more traditional ideas, here are some unique ones that can contribute to your comfort and savings and may be a bit innovative. You may not have thought about all of these yet, and even one fresh new home maintenance idea can pay off over time.

Program Your Thermostat

Keeping your heating system set to a specific temperature is more efficient than if you constantly adjust the thermostat, so set yours now to around 68 degrees to converse heat through the winter. If you do not have a programmable thermostat then now would be a great time to invest in one. The cost to have a more modern thermostat is just a fraction of the money it will save you this winter.

Clean those Filters

The harder your heating system has to work, the more it costs you in utility bills and the more difficult it is to keep your home at a warm and comfortable level. But one of the major culprits is heating unit filters, and these are really cheap and easy to replace. Be sure you have brand new filters going into the winter months because those help provide more heated air to your rooms while they also work to keep your heating bills lower.

Detect Pesky Drafts

Lots of homeowners know that it is a good policy to touch-up the caulking around doors and windows so that they seal in warm air and keep frigid winter air out of the home. But sometimes it is not easy to figure out where the drafts are, and those that go undetected can rob you of heat. So some experts offer this handy tip. Light a candle, and then hold in near the framework of your doors and windows. If the candle’s flame is steady then you probably have nothing to worry about, but if it flickers and dances in front of a window or door then that is a good indication that there is an air draft blowing the flame. Caulk and seal and then use your candle test to ensure that you got rid of the problem.

Enter through the Garage or Mud Room

When you enter through your front door lots of warm air escapes as cold air rushes into your house, and the same goes for a back or side door that opens directly into a main room of your home. But if you first enter an attached garage, close the garage door behind your vehicle, and then open the door to go in the house you expose your home to an environment that is not quite as cold. Similarly, if you have a mud room or other kind of vestibule area adjacent to an entryway it allows you to enter the house and close the door behind you before opening a door that accesses the main part of your home. Think of it like a hatch on a submarine or the NASA space station. If you can enter in stages, in other words, that might save you lots of escaped heat during the winter. So consider using those more protected entryways during the colder season.

Remember than any pipes that carry heat deserve a little attention in the form of added insulation. You can usually buy rolls of inexpensive foam insulation that already have adhesive on one side for easy application for almost any sized pipe. This kind of product works great for the plumbing pipes that carry hot water through your home and they can also be used to insulate heating pipes if you system uses those. Don’t forget to insulate any outside pipes and spigots, too, because otherwise a hard freeze might cause those to rupture and crack. One day spent adding appropriate insulation can help guarantee an entire winter of warming home life and improved energy conservation, and in most cases this is a reasonable do-it-yourself type of job.

Cold weather usually catches all of us off guard and somewhat unprepared. That’s why right now is the best time to get busy winterizing your home before the days of snow on the ground. You will be way ahead of schedule if you begin thinking of winter while the beautiful days of autumn are still here.

The Home Inspection Timeline

Filed under: Property Inspection — Chuck @ 4:20 pm

Many professional real estate investors consider the home inspection to be the most important part of the transaction process. That’s because in many cases as the home inspection goes, so goes the rest of the deal. If the inspection report indicates that the house is in relatively good condition, for example, then the buyer can proceed with confidence – as can the seller and the mortgage lender. When the inspection report shows potential for serious problems or expensive repairs, on the other hand, that can have a significant impact on the transaction and even cause the buyer to lose mortgage financing or back away and decide not to go through with the purchase.

So intentionally scheduling inspections in the right way can often help to facilitate a faster and smoother experience as a buyer or seller.

• As soon as a purchase offer is signed by both parties and any prerequisite earnest money payment is handed over by the prospective buyer, an inspection should be scheduled.

• The reason for doing this immediately is that the inspection is crucial to the sale, and there is no point in wasting money on other costs such as mortgage appraisals, surveys, or title insurance policies until you know what the inspection report will reveal.

• That way if you decide as a buyer to pass up the purchase you won’t already be out lots of money for other things you didn’t really need.

Many buyers like to start with the termite inspection, because these are relatively straightforward and simple. Most termite inspections cost in the neighborhood of $50 to $150, depending on the size of the home and other relevant factors, and the main purpose is to verify that the property is free of harmful pests.

• If the termite inspector sees no threats then he or she will issue a so-called “termite certificate” which is basically a letter stating that the property has passed an inspection conducted by a licensed and certified professional.

• If an infestation is found, on the other hand, the inspector will point out the telltale signs and symptoms and recommend that a pest control company be called in to remedy the problem.

• But if the buyer waits until the last minute to get the termite inspection done, that not only holds up the mortgage application process but it leaves the buyer in the dark regarding this vital report which could easily make or break the deal – since termite damage can sometimes be catastrophic.

Having found the results of that key inspection, the buyer can then order a General Inspection – which is the most common kind of home inspection and involves a limited visual inspection of major home systems and components. Sometimes this kind of inspection – which typically costs between $200 and $800 and takes a few hours to complete – will reveal issues that the inspector believes merit a closer look. In that case the buyer may want to do a more comprehensive or exhaustive inspection.

The Comprehensive Property Inspection takes approximately one to two days to complete. Inspection time varies based on the conditions and age of the property, as well as sub-contractors scheduling. This type of inspection generally costs between $2,000 and $5,000 or more, again, depending on condition, size and age of the property, as well as inspection scope and geographic region.

• After the appropriate inspections are completed, the buyer and seller can review the inspection report findings and decide whether or not they need to negotiate such things as repair allowances or the timeframe for satisfactory completion of any recommended repairs.

• The mortgage company, knowing that the termite or pest certificate has been issued, and proceed with ordering the appraisal and the buyer or seller can likewise order title insurance and schedule a closing date.

So as you can see, there is some value in scheduling inspections in a strategic order of priority. They do not have to been done in any particular order, of course, but organizing them with this kind of timeline in mind can potentially save the buyer – and even the seller – time and money. For more information and expert insight into how to leverage home inspections to your advantage, consult your Realtor or local home inspection professional.