Jeff Shauger, Associate Broker, ABR, CDPE, CRS, ePRO, GRI , SRES, SRS
 
Jeff Shauger, Associate Broker, ABR, CDPE, CRS, ePRO, GRI , SRES, SRS

Jeff's Blog

Poll: Many Americans Neglect Online Security

October 14, 2014 4:35 am

A recent survey of Americans' personal online security habits shows large numbers of Americans are putting their devices and personal information at risk. The poll commissioned by the Digital Citizens Alliance and Blackfin Security shows that Americans open their devices up to unknown entities, download files of unknown origin at high rates, and even ignore best practices when they know they should do otherwise.

"The hackings of Home Depot, Target, and other large retailers may be lulling Americans into thinking that it's big corporations that are rogue operators' prime targets, but that's a mistake," said Adam Benson, Deputy Executive Director of the Digital Citizens Alliance. "Hackers want personal data - credit card numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers. They'll look for open windows - and the online behavior we see reflected in this survey tells us that millions of Americans are leaving the windows open, the doors unlocked, and even giving some hackers the key to get in."

Some of the major findings from the poll include:
  • Nearly one-third of Americans don't change their passwords enough, going as long as a year without updating them.
  • More than one-third use public WiFi that doesn't require a password.
  • Sixteen percent said that using two-factor authentication (which requires the user to have two types of credentials before being able to access an account) makes signing on too much of a burden, while another 23 percent didn't know what two-factor authentication is.
  • Sixty-two percent said they didn't always check or weren't sure if their downloaded movies, music, games, or books were legally authorized.
  • More than 35 percent of all Americans like, follow and connect with people they barely know or don't know on social media. While that can often be with a celebrity or influential figure, in some cases, people might be connecting with someone more interested in your habits than they are in your safety.
Source: Digital Citizens Alliance

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Winter Storm Prep: Your Home's Interior

October 14, 2014 4:35 am

With forecasters anticipating a bitterly cold winter, take time now to prepare your home for weathering seasonal storms. Damage from a storm can be devastating to both the interior and exterior of your home, so it’s important to take precautions inside and out.

The Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) suggest taking these steps to protect your home’s interior.

1. Keep the house warm.
Set the thermostat for at least 65 degrees – since the temperature inside the walls is substantially colder, a lower temperature will not keep the pipes from freezing.

2. Add extra insulation to attics, basements and crawl spaces. If too much heat escapes through the attic, it can cause snow or ice melt on the roof. Water can then re-freeze, causing more snow and ice to build up. This can result in an ice dam that causes significant roof damage. Well-insulated basements and crawl spaces will also help protect pipes from freezing. You may also consider insulating unfinished rooms, such as garages.

3. Provide a reliable back-up power source. In the event of a power outage, continuous power will keep your home warm and help prevent frozen pipes as well as help if you have a battery operated sump-pump. Consider purchasing a portable generator and follow installation and maintenance steps to ensure safety.

4. Have the heating system serviced. Furnaces, boilers and chimneys should be serviced at least once a year to prevent fire and smoke damage.

5. Check pipes. Look closely for cracks and leaks and have the pipes repaired immediately. Pipes in attics and crawl spaces should be protected with insulation or heat. Pipe insulation is available in fiberglass or foam sleeves.

Heating cables and tapes are also effective in preventing pipes from freezing. Select a heating cable with the UL label and a built-in thermostat that turns heat on when needed. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.

6. Install an emergency pressure release valve in your plumbing system. This will protect the system against increased pressure caused by freezing pipes and can help prevent your pipes from bursting.

7. Remove combustible items placed near any heat sources. This includes wood stoves and space heaters.

8. Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and make sure they are working properly. Not only do residential fires increase in the winter, but so does carbon monoxide poisoning.

9. Learn how to shut the water off and know where your pipes are located. If your pipes freeze, time is of the essence. The quicker you can shut off the water or direct your plumber to the problem, the better chance you have to prevent pipes from bursting.

10. Hire a licensed contractor to look for structural damage. If damage is discovered, have it repaired now. Also, ask about ways to prevent water damage due to snow-related flooding. Plastic coatings for internal basement walls, sump pumps and other methods can prevent flood damage to your home and belongings.

Source: I.I.I.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Fixed Mortgage Rates Decline

October 13, 2014 4:35 am

Freddie Mac (OTCQB: FMCC) recently released the results of its Primary Mortgage Market Survey® (PMMS®), showing average fixed mortgage rates falling back near their lows for 2014.

“Fixed mortgage rates were down on a week filled with bleak forward projections from the Federal Reserve and concern over growth in Europe,” says Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “Despite gloomy vernacular from the Fed, mortgage purchase applications were up 2 percent on the week and the labor market added 248,000 jobs, beating expectations and lowering headline unemployment to 5.9 percent.”

Fixed mortgage rates average as follows:
  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.12 percent with an average 0.5 point for the week ending October 9, 2014, down from last week when it averaged 4.19 percent. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.23 percent.
  • 15-year FRM this week averaged 3.30 percent with an average 0.5 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.36 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.31 percent.
  • 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 3.05 percent this week with an average 0.5 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.06 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.05 percent.
  • 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.42 percent this week with an average 0.4 point, unchanged from last week. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.64 percent.
Source: Freddie Mac

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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How Families Can Combat Seasonal Stress

October 13, 2014 4:35 am

With the relaxing days of summer long behind us, the reality of returning to our busy fall routines can be stressful. Whether it's back to a full-time job or adjusting the kids back to school, fall is often a hectic time of year that can cause stress levels to spike.

“People who cope with stress in unhealthy ways end up creating significant personal health problems and more stress for themselves,” explains author Paul Huljich, one of America’s leading stress management experts. “Returning to work after a vacation, transitioning your children to a new school, or even fighting a busier rush hour as schools reopen can all contribute to increased stress levels.”

Don't fall back into old, familiar patterns of stress this season – fight back! When dealing with children, you should focus most on limiting your child's stress levels by preparing them for what's to come. Talking with your kids and understanding what may be causing their stress is a good first step in helping them cope. You'll teach them valuable stress management tips that can be relied upon throughout their lives, and also help to decrease the stress levels in your own life.

Another good approach to cope with stress this fall is to "un-schedule.” For example, there are many fun and rewarding extracurricular activities for children, but it is equally important that kids take time to relax with unscheduled time at home or outdoors. Try to reserve at least one weekday after school that is a "free day," and stick to that schedule for the school year. Both your child and you will be much more relaxed and prepared when you allow yourselves proper downtime.

Source: Mwella Publishing

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Watch for Red Flags with Home Appliances

October 13, 2014 4:35 am

Appliances can be a homeowner’s best friend or worst enemy. When working properly, they make everyday living more convenient and comfortable, but without proper maintenance, they can become very dangerous household fixtures.

“Every morning, we take a hot shower, heat up our breakfast and turn up the thermostat, all without giving a thought to how it happens. When we turn that knob, the hot water, flame or heat is there,” says Mike Rogers, Vice President of GreenHomes America. “One thing we must not take for granted is the safety and upkeep of these domestic devices.”

The first thing you can do to ensure a safe coexistence with household appliances is to have a licensed contractor do a yearly inspection of all gas piping, appliances and heating systems in homes. “This type of preventative action may seem excessive, but think of it like taking your car to a mechanic,” adds Rogers. “An expert can detect problems before they become dangerous.”

In addition, always run kitchen exhaust fans when gas appliances are being used and make sure all carbon monoxide detectors have fresh batteries. Also, make note of how your appliances are functioning, and be cautious of any strange smells or noises.

Vermont Gas recommends calling a licensed contractor if you notice any of the following red flags:
- Gas flames that appear pale or wavy
- Gaps, rust or blocks in vents
- Vents that do not lead outdoors
- Foul odors
- Dusty or rusted appliances
- Clogs or excessive dirt in furnace air filters
- Missing or improperly installed valves
- Absent fire door on gas appliances
- Soot near burner or vents
- Discoloration around burners, access doors or vent area
- Noisy appliances
- Water damaged appliances
Source: GreenHomes America

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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5 Affordable Home Improvement Ideas

October 10, 2014 4:35 am

It would be nice if we could always afford to remodel the kitchen or add another bedroom or a covered patio at will. But if expensive projects have to wait their turn, there are many smaller projects—many of them do-it-yourself or with friends—that can vastly improve the look of your home on a very small budget.

Sienna Beard at the Wall Street Cheat Sheet, an online consumer guide to saving time and money, offers five suggestions for tackle-now projects well worth their time and effort:

Snazz up the kitchen – Reface or replace the cabinets if you can, but if that’s not in the cards, then paint the kitchen, update the hardware, and/or establish a cool color scheme with kitchen linens and accessories for a fresh new look without spending a lot of cash.

Add baseboard and crown molding
– For a classic look in the living area, add wider baseboards painted white to set off the color of the walls. If you can afford it, consider crown molding at the ceiling line to make the room appear more polished and finished.

Improve the lighting
– Few people like to enter a dark room. Take stock of the areas where a ceiling fan with lights, some simple wall fixtures, or a few inset ceiling lights would considerably brighten a room.

Change the entry
– Painting or replacing an old front door improves the curb appeal immensely. Consider redoing a cracked walkway, painting the front porch, or simply adding pots of flowers near your bright, new front door.

Add some landscaping – In the front yard, plant flowers leading up to the entry, or add some hedges or attractive shrubs. In the back yard, create an attractive oasis for friends and family with a brick grilling area, an inexpensive fire pit, or some new outdoor furniture set off with attractive pots of spring and summer blooms.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Take Care when Handling Contact Lenses

October 10, 2014 4:35 am

Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), all contact lenses are classified as medical devices and require a valid prescription. The American Optometric Association (AOA) supports this assertion, stressing the importance of acquiring lenses only with a valid prescription from an eye doctor.

"Contact lenses are among the safest forms of vision correction when used properly," says Thomas Quinn, O.D., AOA Contact Lens and Cornea Section chair. "A medical eye and vision examination from your optometrist can determine if you are a good candidate for wearing contact lenses, regardless of whether they provide vision correction or not. During the exam, your eye doctor will make sure your lenses fit properly and teach you how to safely care for your lenses."

AOA eye doctors point to six common mistakes made by patients when it comes to handling contact lenses, including:

1. Not washing and drying hands.
Washing your hands may seem like common sense, but an AOA American Eye-Q® survey found that 35 percent of contact lens wearers skipped this important step. Drying is also an important part of the process since tap water can contain harmful microorganisms that can be transferred onto the lens and onto the eye.

2. Wearing lenses longer than recommended. Many contact lens wearers will try to make their lenses last longer by waiting to change them until the lenses become bothersome. Not following an eye doctor's recommended changing schedule can cause preventable eye irritation or even lead to permanent eye damage from bacterial infections.

3. Not replacing contact lens cases regularly. Eye doctors advise that lens cases be replaced at least every three months, and cases should be cleaned and disinfected periodically in between.

4. Sleeping in contacts overnight. Sleeping in contacts puts consumers at risk for an eye infection. Only do so when wearing lenses specifically designed for day and night wear and when closely monitored by your doctor.

5. Reusing old contact lens solution. Only fresh solution should be used to clean and store contact lenses. Stick to products recommended by your eye doctor to clean and disinfect lenses, and remember, saline solution and rewetting drops are not designed to disinfect lenses.

6. Wearing contact lenses while swimming or in a hot tub. According to the FDA and the AOA, contact lenses should not be exposed to any kind of water, including tap water and water in swimming pools, oceans, lakes, hot tubs and showers.

Source: AOA

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Is Your Home Prepared for a Wild Winter?

October 10, 2014 4:35 am

The 2015 Farmers’ Almanac predicts “copious amounts of snow and rain” over the eastern third of the country. In fact, along the Atlantic Seaboard, active wintry weather is expected for the first 10 days of January and the first week of February with bouts of heavy snow and strong winds. With a relatively mild autumn in many parts of the country, now is a good time to take steps to winter-proof your home and make sure that you have the right type and amount of insurance.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, water damage and freezing account for almost 22 percent of all homeowners insurance claims, averaging $4,024 per claim. In fact, winter storms are the third-largest cause of catastrophe losses, causing $1.9 billion in insured losses in 2013, according to Munich Re.

Standard homeowners and renters policies cover winter-related disasters such as burst pipes, ice dams and wind damage caused by weight of ice or snow, as well as fire-related losses. Coverage for flooding is available from the National Flood Insurance Program and from some private insurance companies.

Flooding related to snow melting can overburden sewer systems, causing raw sewage to back up into the drains in your home. Backed up sewers can wreak havoc, causing thousands of dollars in damage to floors, walls, furniture and electrical systems. Sewer back-up is not covered under a typical homeowners or renters insurance policy, nor is it covered by flood insurance. This type of coverage must be purchased either as a separate product or as an endorsement.

Source: I.I.I.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Keep Winter Energy Bills in Check

October 9, 2014 4:35 am

(Family Features) As winter temperatures drop, the potential for higher utility bills goes up. Taking steps ahead of the cold season can help you trim costs and make your home more energy efficient, keeping those utility bills in check even as the winter weather rages.

"Many homeowners just assume the winter season means their bills will go up as systems work harder to keep their home regulated," said Francois Lebrasseur, marketing manager of water products for GE Appliances. "In reality, there are many steps one can take to improve energy efficiency and minimize the added expense that comes with extreme winter temperatures."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, electricity costs are on the rise. Before winter weather sets in for your part of the country, take some time to assess your home for potential problem areas and improvements that can help lower your energy costs.

Lighting. Though turning off unneeded lights is a smart strategy any time of year, it's especially helpful during the winter months when utility expenses can add up. New technology lets you manage your lights away from home – handy if you're gone for the day and realize lights were left on, or if you’re away from home for an extended period. If you replace a 60-watt incandescent light bulb with a 12-watt GE Link LED bulb, you would save $132 over the life of the bulb at an electricity rate of $0.11 per kWh.

Water heaters. Heat isn't the only system that gets an extra workout come winter. Cooler house temperatures may require water heaters to work harder, so ensuring you have a model well-suited to your family's year-round needs is key. In fact, heating water is the second source of energy use in the residential home after space heating and cooling, with standard electric water heaters costing the average homeowner $585 every year to operate. One energy-efficient option is a hybrid electric water heater, which can save the average household $365 every year (using 1514 kWh per year and national average electricity rate of 12 cents per kWh).

Thermostat. A programmable thermostat is easy to install and saves energy (and money) by automatically adjusting to pre-determined temperature settings. This allows you to drop the temperature during the day when no one is home, but have a comfortable environment ready when you arrive home from work each day. Depending on the model you choose, you can select numerous settings to adjust your indoor climate for various days to fit your lifestyle patterns. According to ENERGY STAR®, when used properly, a programmable thermostat can save as much as $150 a year in energy costs.

Air leaks. An airtight house is critical to managing your heat-related expenses. You take time to close windows and doors to prevent heat from escaping, but that's only half the battle. Sealing cracks around those windows and doors, and other leak-prone areas such as the basement and attic, will help keep heat inside and costs down.

Source: GE Lighting

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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U.S. Consumer Housing Optimism Rebounds

October 9, 2014 4:35 am

Following a recent dip in consumer housing optimism, most indicators have rebounded to the modestly positive trend seen throughout 2014, according to results from Fannie Mae's September 2014 National Housing Survey. Turbulent geo-political factors likely weighed on Americans' attitudes toward the housing market during the past couple of months. In September, the share of consumers who say now is a good time to buy a home is back up to 68 percent, a four-percentage-point increase from August. Additionally, the share saying they would prefer to buy a home on their next move ticked back up to 66 percent after a three-point drop. The results also show a notable jump in consumers’ views toward the economy, with 40 percent of those surveyed saying it is now on the right track – a five percentage point increase from last month.

"The September National Housing Survey shows a slight recovery in consumer housing sentiment after a two-month setback, bringing us back to the modestly positive trend we've seen over the last year," said Doug Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist at Fannie Mae.

Key findings include:
  • The average 12-month home price change expectation rose to 2.2 percent.
  • The share of respondents who say home prices will go up in the next 12 months rose to 45 percent. The share who say home prices will go down decreased to 8 percent.
  • The share of respondents who say mortgage rates will go up in the next 12 months fell by five percentage points to 45 percent.
  • Those who say it is a good time to buy a house rose to 68 percent. Those who say it is a good time to sell also increased—to 39 percent.
  • The average 12-month rental price change expectation fell to 3.2 percent.
  • The percentage of respondents who expect home rental prices to go up in the next 12 months increased to 55 percent.
  • The share of respondents who think it would be difficult to get a home mortgage today decreased by one percentage point.
  • The share who say they would buy if they were going to move rose to 66 percent, while the share who would rent decreased to 28 percent.
  • The share of respondents who say the economy is on the right track jumped by five percentage points from last month to 40 percent.
  • The percentage of respondents who expect their personal financial situation to get better over the next 12 months fell to 41 percent.
  • The share of respondents who say their household income is significantly higher than it was 12 months ago increased by two percentage points to 25 percent.
  • The share of respondents who say their household expenses are significantly higher than they were 12 months ago increased slightly to 37 percent.
Source: Fannie Mae

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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