March 28, 2013

Real Estate Tips: Boost your credit profile before shopping for a mortgage.

Filed under: Real Estate — Chuck @ 9:41 am

March ushers in the warm weather, and along with it comes the busiest season of the year for real estate buying and selling. But don’t be too quick to run out the door and go house shopping, unless you can afford to pay for the whole thing in cash. Anyone who plans to finance their purchase using a bank loan will need to have good credit, especially these days. Lenders got burned during the collapse of the housing market and have tightened their underwriting guidelines. So one of the most crucial elements in the home buying process is the mortgage – and one of the keys to a successful mortgage application is great credit.

Here are some tips about how you can improve your chances of getting your loan approved. Keep in mind that those with the best credit are also the ones who are usually offered the lowest interest rates and mortgage closing fees.

The first step when working to boost your credit is to access your current credit score and credit report. You can do that by contacting one or more of the “big 3” credit reporting agencies, namely Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. By law you are allowed access to this information once a year, for free, and if you want to see your file more often you typically just have to pay a fee of about $15.

Review the information in your files, and if you find any errors you have a right to dispute those, in writing, and ask for them to be corrected. It is a good idea to send as much supporting evidence and documentation as possible – such as payment receipts or letters from creditors.

Lenders are also keen on providing loans to people who are not already carrying a relatively large amount of debt. So you will want to lower the ratio of your debt to income as much as possible. If you have credit card debts, for example, try to pay those off. But don’t cancel the credit card accounts. Keeping your account open but not using your available credit demonstrates to the bank that you are disciplined about managing your money, and that will help when you apply for your mortgage.
Many homeowners have lots of incidental expenses that they incur right after buying a home, too, because they may need to buy furniture and other necessities. But try to postpone those purchases until after your loan has closed. If you start spending money before your loan is approved that will just increase your debt ratio and could prevent you from getting the loan you need.

Even after your mortgage is approved, though, you still need to curb your spending. That’s because many lenders will continue to monitor your debt levels right up until the time that you close on your purchase and take possession of the keys to the new home. In some cases banks have halted funding or made borrowers reapply for loans because the debts were too high. In other cases they went ahead with the loan funding but charged the homeowner a higher rate of interest. So wait until you have your mortgage in hand and the keys to the house in your pocket before going on any shopping sprees.

That isn’t always easy, and it can take time to bolster your finances and clean up your credit. But the time and effort you put into it will reward you with a smoother mortgage process and perhaps a lower interest rate – which could save you money for decades every time you make your monthly mortgage payment.

Homeowner Safety: Is your webcam watching you?

Filed under: Home Safety — Chuck @ 9:40 am

A recent news item – first published by the high-tech news site “The Verge” –alarmed lots of homeowners who read it, because it described how there is security flaw in some web cams or Internet cameras that can leave you and your home vulnerable to spying.

Many web cams use TRENDnet technology, but hackers who know how to exploit a flaw in systems sold as recently as last year can get past the software’s security wall and turn on your web cam, even without your knowledge. Then they can basically peer through it across cyberspace and see whatever is going on within the view of that computer camera.

Here’s how the scary issue was describe by journalist Leo Kelion, who is a technology reporter for the BBC News agency.
“Feeds from thousands of Trendnet home security cameras have been breached, allowing any web user to access live footage without needing a password. Internet addresses which link to the video streams have been posted to a variety of popular messageboard sites. Users have expressed concern after finding they could view children’s bedrooms, among other locations.”

Once the word got out about the security flaw, websites and blogs devoted to the topic began to pop up around the Internet. Some of them showed comments publicly posted by people who had peered into the homes of complete strangers. One person explained how they watched someone getting ready to take a shower, for example, while others said they looked across cyberspace and realized they had a full view of a vacant home while the homeowner was away on holiday. To make matters even worse, some websites linked the location of the faulty web cams to Google Maps. That made it possible for anyone in the world to stare into a home through one of those web cams while also finding the exact location of the home on a map. So if somebody with bad intentions, for example, wanted to case your home prior to burglarizing it they had a great tool at their disposal.

The good news is that TRENDnet recently offered a security patch download to plug the gap and stop unwanted people from peering into your house through your TRENDnet engineered web cam.

But it won’t do you any good unless you download it and install it, and many homeowners who haven’t heard about this issue have not bothered to take that preventative safety measure. Although the company said that it has sent out notices to all registered users of these products, many consumers but items but never register with the manufacturer. If you are one of those folks then the company that made the web cam has no way to get in touch with you. Sometimes people move, too, and it could be that a consumer alert was mailed or emailed to you at an address that you no longer use.

When you purchased your web cam is also important, because not all cams made by TRENDnet are susceptible to this kind of uninvited voyeurism. It is believed that only the 20 or so different models of cams that were made between April of 2010 and February of 2012 were vulnerable. So it could be that your particular unit falls outside those dates and is not at risk, even without the security patch download.
In the BBC article it was also noted that TRENDnet was responding to the problem in a proactive way. The story said that on TRENDnet’s home page, for example, there was a link to this statement: “It is Trendnet’s understanding that video from select Trendnet IP cameras may be accessed online in real time. Upon awareness of the issue, Trendnet initiated immediate actions to correct and publish updated firmware which resolves the vulnerability.”

So what can you do? First of all you can unplug your web cam when you aren’t using it. If it is not powered up or connected to your computer it’s not going to be a portal for anyone to see through into your home. Or you simply cover the camera’s eye with something like a piece of fabric to block it, the way you block a regular camera’s lens with a lens cap. But what if you use your web cam for 24 hour security purposes and do not want to turn it off or block its view? In that case you have to rely on the manufacturer. Buy the best, highest rated, most secure unit you can afford, be sure to register it with the company, and keep yourself informed about any developments like new security patch downloads.

March Home Maintenance

Filed under: Home Maintenance — Chuck @ 9:39 am

With winter fading into the background and spring almost here, March is one of those months when home maintenance is crucial. Changes in the seasons provide you with an excellent chance to survey your property for any potential damage or needed repairs and to take care of small tasks before they turn into bigger and more troublesome issues.

Here’s a handy checklist of items and errands that you can do each and every year at this time, to ensure that your home stays in tip-top condition.

Check for Wood Damage

Use a screwdriver as a probing tool and lightly test the wood around your house in places such as the exterior siding, window and doorframe trim, porches and decks, and wooden stairs or railing. Oftentimes paint will disguise wet and rotting wood that is just beneath the surface. But when you probe with your screwdriver, if the wood is soft from rot or insect damage it will cave in under slight pressure, revealing the source of the problem. You want to uncover any of those issues now, before the long wet season ahead. Otherwise wood will continue to deteriorate as more moisture migrates up into it from rain and high humidity.

Look at the Roof from the Ground

Wintertime can be tough on a roof. Oftentimes snow and ice collect in the valleys of the roof, for example, and create what are known as roof dams. Then instead of water running off the roof it backs up and the dam just gets bigger, adding weight and wetness that can damage a roof. Shingles often get bent out of whack by wedges of ice, too, and as soon as those March winds start to blow they are liable to end up in your yard. Then with an unprotected roofing surface your home is susceptible to rain damage, and the problem just keeps growing from there. To prevent those unwanted developments, use a pair of binoculars and survey the whole roof, noting any missing or damaged shingles or areas where flashing isn’t snug and tight. The reason to do this from the ground instead of on a ladder is that thousands of people wind up in the hospital each year after falling off a roof or a ladder. That can be way more expensive and painful that the cost of paying a contractor to mend your roof.

Watch for Peeling Paint

Look for peeling paint, too, because once the warm weather comes the rains will get under that protective coating and do damage to the wood around your home. Plus the sun will bake that old paint and accelerate the peeling process. Soon you will have to not only invest in a paint job but will also first have to repair the damage to the surfaces beneath the paint. That turns a rather simple and basic painting project into a big deal involving contractors. But if you only have a few isolated patches of peeling paint you may be able to sand them down and repaint them without having to actually repaint the entire wall or house. The same goes for painted surfaces like stair railings, porches, and doors. Clean them really well and if they need a paint touch-up or a new coat, do it as soon as the weather is dry and warm enough for painting.

Move the Firewood

Those who burn firewood during the wintertime will want to move their stored wood away from the house, too, so that it does not attract insects. Oftentimes wood-destroying termites and carpenter ants, for example, will migrate directly from your firewood into the house where they can inflict serious structural damage. Stack the wood at a distance from the house and any out buildings or structures like decks. Place the wood on pallets or use some other system to raise it off of the ground. That lets air circulate underneath to keep it from getting soggy and rotten.

Homeowner Tips: Save more water this spring.

Filed under: Home Owner Tips — Chuck @ 9:37 am

March is famous for its rains, and most homeowners will have plenty of water puddling in the yard and flowing through the gutters this month. But despite periods of heavy precipitation, water is quickly becoming one of the scarcest vital resources on the planet. Clean drinking water is a luxury in many places, and it could be that where you live bottled water costs almost as much as milk. Plus we all want to cut down on unnecessary water consumption to help save on our utility bills. So here are some tips for simple and easy ways to conserve water around your home, not just this month but for the foreseeable future.

Upgrade the Toilet Tanks
Perhaps the fastest and cheapest was to dramatically lower your water usage is to limit the amount of water needed to flush toilets in your home. If you have an older toilet then chances are good that it uses a great deal more water than necessary. So you can enjoy the same level of performance and reliable function with much less wasted water, by simply displacing some of the water holding capacity in the toilet’s tank.
First, check the flush volume label on your toilets. You should be able to find that information permanently stamped into the porcelain – either on the back of the tank or beneath the hinge of the seat. If the tank is rated with a flush volume of 3.5 gallons or more, your toilet is a good candidate for water conservation.
To accomplish that, just fill a half-gallon plastic bottle with some pebbles in order to weight it down, screw the cap on it, and lower it into the tank – taking care to place it where it won’t be in contact with any moving parts. Some homeowners place bricks in the tank in lieu of a plastic bottle, but that’s a mistake. Those will disintegrate over time and just make a muddy mess.

Kitchen and Bathroom Faucets
Faucets are another feature in your home that often uses too much water, and they offer another cheap and easy opportunity to cut down on your water usage. You can purchase aerators – which are water-saving gadgets that fit into the faucet or shower heads – for about $4 or $5 at any home improvement store. These work by mixing some air with the water that cascades out of your faucet. That way you still get adequate water pressure, but with considerably less water flowing from your pipes.

You install them by just screwing then onto the tip of your faucet. Those who have aerators already installed should do annual maintenance on them, which only takes a few minutes. You unscrew the aerator, clean out any accumulated mineral deposits that may have built-up to clog the screen, and replace the unit back on the faucet. If it is too gunked-up or if the screen in the aerator has been damaged then just toss it out and replace it with a new one. You can, of course, also buy fixtures – especially shower heads – that are manufactured in such a way that they automatically save more water. These are also an easy and inexpensive way to create a permanent water-saving solution in your home.

On Demand Water Heaters
Another great device that not only saves water but will substantially lower your electrical or natural gas energy consumption is the on-demand water heater. These units are much smaller than a conventional water heater and they are installed close to your faucet or shower-head. When you turn on the hot water tap they instantly heat the water, so you don’t have to wait around for it to get warm. That gives you the convenience of faster hot water while also cutting down on the amount of water that runs down the drain and is wasted while you wait for the water to get hot.

The way a conventional water heater works is that it heats a large quantity of water – maybe 30 or 40 gallons – and stores it in its tank. When you turn on the tap the water travels through the pipes until it reaches the faucet. In a 2-story home, for instance, it may have to travel from the basement or garage all the way upstairs. But the on-demand version is located right near the faucet, eliminating that travel distance. Conventional heaters also heat so much water at a time, and reheat it each time it cools down again, that they are highly inefficient. They gobble up electricity or gas in the process. So if you want to really attack your energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint, invest in one of these convenient and high-tech water heating systems.