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

From Arizona to Hawaii, How Does Your City’s Air Fare?

February 11, 2013 2:36 am

Are you breathing clean? On average, people take more than 21,600 breaths a day, yet two-thirds of the American population does not think about the quality of the air they are breathing.

The AirGenius Awards, sponsored by the makers of the new Honeywell AirGenius Air Cleaner, set out to ‘clear the air’ by assessing the nation’s cities based on specific criteria related to air quality. 
So where can you find the cleanest air in America? In short, the answer is Florida. The awards, evaluated by scientists at the leading consulting firm Environmental Health & Engineering, highlighted six Florida metropolitan areas in the top 25, with Palm Bay/Melbourne/Titusville in first place. 

“Data on pollen counts, particulate matter and ozone concentrations, public smoking laws, and ‘green’ city rankings for the 100 most populated U.S. cities were used in this assessment,” says Dr. Ted Myatt, ScD, a senior scientist at the leading environmental consulting company Environmental Health & Engineering and Biological Safety Officer at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Massachusetts. “The results are relevant to city dwellers and homeowners, particularly the elderly, young children, and individuals with allergies or asthma.”

Below is a list of the top 10 U.S. areas with the cleanest air:
1. Palm Bay/Melbourne/Titusville, Fla.
2. Cape Coral/Fort Myers, Fla.
3. North Port-Bradenton/Sarasota, Fla.
4. Honolulu, Hawaii
5. Tucson, Ariz.
6. Colorado Springs, Colo.
7. Albuquerque, N.M.
8. Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue, Wash.
9. Charleston/North Charleston/Summerville, S.C.
10. Lakeland/Winter Haven, Fla.

Source: www.HoneywellCleanAir.com.

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Valentine's Day Dining Trends

February 8, 2013 2:32 am

Whether you love or loathe Valentine’s Day, you have to admit that America seems smitten with the annual celebration of love. This day, dedicated to romance, has long been one of the most popular for dining out.

According to a survey by OpenTable, a leading provider of online restaurant reservations, restaurants are poised to be busy with diners celebrating love not only on Thursday, February 14, but on the weekend following Valentine's Day. OpenTable diners also indicated that they plan to celebrate love in a big way with a projected check average of $139, which is 63 percent more than the typical OpenTable check average of $85 per couple. The survey results also provided a peek into dating habits and trends related to the busiest holiday for dining out.

“The idea of a romantic Valentine's Day meal often conjures up images of lavish tasting menus, enchanting small plates, and prix fixe menus," says Caroline Potter, chief dining officer of OpenTable. "However, our survey revealed some surprising insights into how people want to celebrate Valentine's Day and an indication of romantic trends to come. Diners prefer a la carte ordering in a classic three-course meal where they can personalize their experience."

Long Weekend of Love
• 51 percent of respondents said they plan to dine out on Thursday, February 14, while 36 percent said they plan to celebrate Valentine's Day on Friday, February 15, or Saturday, February 16.
• 5 percent of diners said they plan to celebrate on Wednesday, February 13.
• 8 percent of respondents plan on dining out more than once for Valentine's Day.

Positive Reviews and Ambience Matter Most
• Respondents indicated that the top three factors in selecting a restaurant for Valentine's Day are positive reviews (34 percent), romantic ambience (27 percent) and service (16 percent).
• Less important attributes included restaurant location (14 percent), special Valentine's Day menus (8 percent) and the quality of the wine list (1 percent).

Most Desirable Menus
• When presented with menu options, diners said they prefer A la Carte (67 percent) over Prix Fixe (33 percent) menus.
• Traditional menus came out on top with the majority of diners (56 percent) saying they would select a classic three-course meal (starter, entrée, and dessert).
• Others preferred sharing several small plates (23 percent), feasting only on entrees (13 percent) or enjoying an extensive menu (8 percent).

Romance and Restaurants Go Hand in Hand
• 21 percent of diners said they would go on a first date on Valentine's Day, while 42 percent said that Valentine's Day dining is reserved for those dating for a month or two.
• The remaining 37 percent of respondents think that dining on the most romantic day of the year should be reserved for those who have been dating at least 3 months.
• 71 percent of diners said that only some PDA is appropriate on the most romantic day of the year, while 21 percent think Valentine's Day is all about the PDA. Still, 8 percent said that PDA in a restaurant is never appropriate.

Check, Please!
• Put your phone away! 56 percent of women and 61 percent of men say talking and texting at the table is the biggest dining faux pas a date can commit.
• Being rude to wait staff was the second biggest no-no for 32 percent of women and 28 percent of men.

Source: www.opentable.com

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Buying a New Furnace: Tips from the Pros

February 8, 2013 2:32 am

With winter in full swing, heating bills are on the rise. For people looking to lower their costs, the best place to look is of course the furnace.

“When I talk to people that are experiencing higher than expected heating bills, they are always surprised when they think back to how old their furnace actually is,” said David Coulson of Napoleon Fireplaces. “For furnaces 10 to 15 years old, you are looking at older, inefficient technology that is sucking the money right from your wallet. If you are looking to replace an older furnace, it’s really important to educate yourself before buying, as choosing the right furnace will save you money in the long run and keep the house at the perfect temperature.”

For people looking into a new furnace for their home, Coulson suggests the following tips:

1) Size matters – One of the most important factors when buying a furnace is to have a professional installer examine the size of the house and then determine the size of the furnace necessary for the space. A furnace that is too large leaves gaps in temperature as it turns on until it overwhelms the thermostat. The house ends up cooling down until the next cycle and creates an inconsistent temperature. A furnace that is the right size for the space, however, will be able to better regulate a constant temp.

2) Don’t buy on price alone – Always be sure to ask a professional installer, contractor or reputable salesperson about annual operating costs for whatever furnaces you may be looking at. While there are a variety of factors to consider, price should not necessarily be number one. Efficiencies, however, can vary drastically depending on price, which means that if you pay more up front, you’ll still enjoy lower heating bills 10 or 15 years down the road.

3) Get the right documentation – Any reputable installer or manufacturer will be sure to not only include the purchase agreement and warranty information, but also explain exactly what you are getting. If you feel confused or unsure about anything, don’t be afraid to ask.

4) Correct installation and maintenance – Furnace installation should be done by a trained professional, as not only can it be a safety hazard, but if anything is off, it can severely impact your efficiency and therefore your heating bill. Regular maintenance, generally in the fall, will keep the furnace performing like it should, keeping your family warm and your wallet a little fuller.

Above all, Coulson recommends that anyone looking to replace an old, inefficient furnace first explore all of their options and consult with a professional manufacturer or installer to find the right fit for their home.

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Tips to Help Homeowners and Buyers Avoid Appraisal Problems

February 8, 2013 2:32 am

The Appraisal Institute recently released some helpful tips for consumers, providing guidance for homeowners and buyers seeking to ensure their sales are completed in a timely manner.

As one of the nation’s largest professional associations of real estate appraisers, the Appraisal Institute created these helpful tips to let consumers know how to protect themselves and how to avoid unnecessary frustration when selling or buying a home.

“Too many consumers in this struggling real estate market face problems with appraisals when attempting to buy or sell a home,” said Appraisal Institute President Joseph C. Magdziarz, MAI, SRA. “But rather than passively endure delays in closing a sale, homeowners and buyers can take proactive steps to avoid pitfalls.”

The Appraisal Institute’s tips encourage homeowners and buyers to:
- Understand the role of appraisals.
- Make sure their lender hires a qualified appraiser (such as a designated SRA, SRPA or MAI member of the Appraisal Institute).
- Accompany the appraiser during the inspection of the property if possible.
- Request a copy of the appraisal report from the lender.
- Examine the appraisal report and ask questions.
- Appeal the appraisal if appropriate.
- Ask the lender to order a second appraisal by a qualified and designated appraiser.
- File legitimate complaints with appropriate state board or professional appraisal organizations.

“Credible opinions of value can help to stabilize the real estate market,” Magdziarz said. “Appraisals are especially important because they are an objective and unbiased source of information. Unlike others involved in real estate transactions, the appraiser is an independent professional who performs a service for a fee rather than for a commission.”

Magdziarz noted that normal declines in the real estate market have led to increased caution by lenders. That caution has led to delays in completing some real estate transactions.

“Appraisers today are doing the same thorough, fact-based research and analysis they have always done,” Magdziarz said. “Nothing has changed in that regard.”

Magdziarz added that appraisers have been wrongly accused of prolonging the nation’s real estate downturn by developing value opinions that are below proposed sale prices. Specifically, he said, they’ve been unfairly criticized for including comparable sales in the valuation process that provide opinions that are below the cost to build.

It serves neither the lender nor the consumer to enter into an upside-down mortgage, he noted. Some real estate agents, mortgage brokers and home builders have used the Home Valuation Code of Conduct and Interagency Appraisal and Evaluation Guidelines as a scapegoat for current declines in the real estate market caused by the weak economy and the general oversupply of homes in the market, Magdziarz said.

For more information, visit www.appraisalinstitute.org.

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Consumers Trust the Mail

February 6, 2013 2:32 am

The Postal Service ranks as the fourth most trusted company — a two-point increase from 2011 and its highest company ranking since the survey's inception by the premier privacy trust study in America. The same survey also named The Postal Service the "Most Trusted Government Agency" for the seventh year in a row.

The Ponemon Institute in its Most Trusted Companies for Privacy Study ranked the Postal Service as the fourth most trusted company of 704 entries from 25 industry sectors. The results show that customers regard the Postal Service as one of the best in keeping their information safe and secure.

"We are honored to be among the top five most trusted companies in the country. Our employees work hard each day to maintain that trust," said Krista Finazzo, consumer advocate. "We know our customers depend on the security of the mail and they trust and expect the Postal Service to protect their privacy."

Finazzo attributed the high ranking, in part, to the trusted relationship Americans have with letter carriers who deliver mail to every home and business. Despite the vast size of the Postal Service's network and scope of operations, many customers know their letter carriers by name and see them as welcomed and trusted members of the local community they serve each day, she said.

"Consumer confidence in the mail is a priority for the Postal Service. Each day we process nearly 40 percent of the world's mail to more addresses in a larger geographical region than any other postal service in the world. Customers expect us to protect the privacy of their personal information. We do not take this responsibility lightly," Finazzo said.

The survey asked adult-aged consumers to name up to five companies they believe to be the most trusted to protect the privacy of their personal information, based on the company's ability to handle and protect their information. Questions ranged from factors creating trust in the company and the levels of confidence consumers have in the company to protect their information — including information provided on websites — to limiting the amount of information collected.

Survey respondents also listed worries they had about how their privacy rights are possibly undermined by new technologies such as social media, smart mobile devices and geo-tracking tools. Despite this concern, 63 percent of respondents admit to sharing sensitive personal information with an unknown organization mainly when making purchases.

"We believe this survey validates the Postal Service's commitment to privacy and excellent customer service which are both key to building trusted consumer relationships," said Dr. Larry Ponemon , chairman and founder of Ponemon Institute. "And we are pleased to recognize the U.S. Postal Service as one of the most trusted organizations overall and among government agencies."

Source: U.S. Postal Service

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10 Smart Tips for Fun and Inexpensive Springtime Travel

February 6, 2013 2:32 am

Getaroom.com, a leading online discount hotel stay company, released a list of 10 travel tips for individuals looking to enjoy springtime travel without breaking the bank.

1) Spring skiing helps you avoid the crowds while still enjoying fresh snow.

2) Try to avoid the typical spring break week for both college kids and secondary school students. If you have kids and need a trip, then consider a northern destination to have more peace and quiet and available hotel options.

3) Europe is on sale from now until the end of March. Avoid the substantial summer crowds at destinations including London, Barcelona, Paris and Munich.

4) Spring of course means spring break for college students. Top destinations include: Cancun, New York City, London, Panama Beach, Las Vegas, LA and Miami. Avoid the beach communities during spring break if you are looking for peace and quiet.

5) Enjoy the famous National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. from March 20 to April 14 and also take in some outstanding museums. Book early for the best rates.

6) Spring weather can be unpredictable, so check the weather ahead of your trip and bring lots of layers to be ready for the cold or heat wave.

7) New York City is beautiful in spring. Enjoy Central Park without a winter coat. Book hotels from $135 a night.

8)Visit New Orleans after the craziness of Mardi Gras in February to enjoy great food and festivals including the Jazz Festival and the free Lafayette Square concerts.

9) Check for flash sales for spring travel. These limited-time deals feature savings of up to 60 percent off typical rates if booked by the deadline.

10) Miami is a great destination for beachgoers, with warm but not yet hot weather. Book in South Beach for less than $100 a night during May.

"Springtime is supposed to be a time of rebirth and discovery, and travelers should embrace their trips with a similar spirit of adventure and fun," said Robert B. Diener, president and co-founder of Getaroom.com. "Many top destinations are available at a substantial discount during the spring months, and the warmer and longer days make many outdoor attractions very appealing."

Source: www.getaroom.com

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3 Pitfalls to Avoid When Paying Your Kitchen and Bath Contractor

February 6, 2013 2:32 am

With the stabilizing of the real estate market, more homeowners are spending money on remodeling projects. If they are not careful, homeowners can end up paying more than they ever expected. Here are some valuable tips on how to avoid three of the most common pitfalls.

A homeowner makes a large deposit, then gets no work done
This is one of the most common scams among unscrupulous contractors. They ask for a big deposit or to pay for all of the materials upfront, then the homeowner never hears from them again. To avoid this pitfall, homeowners should not pay for work or materials upfront and should avoid any large deposits.

Suppliers or subcontractors come after the homeowner for payment
Homeowners are responsible for suppliers and subcontractors who do not get paid on their job. They can even put a lien against the home where they did the work. To avoid this pitfall, there are several strategies a homeowner can use:

- Pay the supplier or subcontractor directly
- Issue joint checks to the contractor and supplier/subcontractor
- Get an unconditional lien release from suppliers/subcontractors

Homeowner is liable for an injury on the job, including lost wages
If the general contractor does not have valid insurance, the homeowner is liable for any injuries on the job. This includes paying lost wages, if someone gets hurt and cannot work for a period of time. To avoid this pitfall, check that the general contractor has valid liability and workman’s comp insurance.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid these and other potential pitfalls is to work with a reputable contractor who has a history of paying suppliers and subcontractors on time. Happy remodeling!

Source: Cornerstone Design & Remodel

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Tips for Remodeling Your Children's Rooms

February 5, 2013 2:30 am

The room is empty, the bed is made, and even stranger--it's dead silent. When your children move away to college or their own apartment, the question remains: What should you do with the room they leave behind? Remodeling unused bedrooms is a great way to deal with the changes in your household, plus, you can utilize the space into something far more practical than if you kept the room as your child left it.

Talk to your children and ask them what furniture they'd like to keep for the future and what can be thrown away. What belongings need to be saved? Can some be moved into the attic or basement for storage? If your child is only away at college (as opposed to a more permanent move), tailor the remodel after his or her personal taste. Color choices and style can be made with the child in mind, yet still be given a fresh new look.

Furthermore, here are a few examples of what you can do with the extra space:

Home offices are always great to add to your home. Whether you have a business, use it for work or simply for bill paying, an office is a great way to continue keeping your home (and its paperwork) organized and clean. A computer desk and chair, shelves, bookcases and cabinets will be a great start for any new office.

A game room will provide entertainment for years to come. With a few tables and a few games, you'll have a running start to an entertainment-based room. You may even want to add a mini-fridge or shelving for assorted snacks and food stuffs. It can be simple, but fun at the same time.

Alternatively, your game room can double as a media room as well (size depending). Do you love movies or have a guilty pleasure of television? Add a TV, surround sound system and a couch to continue entertaining your guests with. Large DVD cases can be purchased to display all of your CDs, DVDs, books and more. During the week, your entertainment room can also be a reading room and place of rest. The options are endless.

Cancel that gym membership and create your own personal exercise room. If you love working out and love it even more so from the comforts of your own home, consider purchasing a couple exercise machines, yoga mats and work out DVDs. Don't forget about a CD player or iPod speakers--the motivation to any solid work out!

These options only scratch the surface to what you can do with your extra space. Turn any hobby of yours into a room of personal paradise. Painting rooms, sewing rooms, large walk-in closets, and more can be used from the space left behind by your newly adult children. Renovating will be an exciting and rewarding project for you to take on--one that will match your interests and give your home a fresh feel.

Source: Relocation.com Blog

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How to Do Your Taxes for Free

February 5, 2013 2:30 am

(Family Features) Going to college; getting your first job; moving into your own place. To these rites of passage add one more: doing your own taxes. And, it’s not as scary as you might think.

It’s not scary because there’s help available. It’s called Free File, and it’s offered exclusively from the IRS in partnership with nearly 15 leading tax software companies. About 3 million people use it every year.

Free File lets you choose brand-name software that does the hard work for you — all for free. And, it offers a fast, safe and free option for everyone. Brand-name tax software is available to those who made $57,000 or less in 2012 — which is about 70 percent of us. Earned more? Try Free File’s online fillable forms, the electronic alternative to IRS paper forms.

Checklist of materials to do your taxes
Keep this list as a checklist of the items you will need to do your taxes. The IRS recommends keeping all tax-related documents for three years, in case of an audit. Tracking income-related documents can help you take full advantage of deductions available to you.

—A copy of last year’s tax return
—Valid Social Security numbers for yourself, spouse and children
—All income statements, i.e. W-2 forms, from all employers
—Interest/dividend statements, i.e. 1099 forms
—Form 1099-G showing any state refunds
—Unemployment compensation amount
—Social Security benefits
—Expense receipts for deductions
—Day care provider’s identifying number

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helps you keep more of what you earned
No tax benefit offers a greater lifeline to working families than EITC. Yet, one out of every five eligible taxpayers fails to claim it, according to the IRS. Because of the economy, even more people may be eligible if they have had changes in their earned income. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

—The maximum credit for 2012 tax returns is $5,891 for workers with three or more qualifying children.

—Eligibility for the EITC is determined based on a number of factors including earnings, filing status and eligible children. Workers without qualifying children may be eligible for a smaller credit amount.

Source: IRS

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84 Percent of Refinancing Homeowners Maintain or Reduce Mortgage Debt in Fourth Quarter

February 5, 2013 2:30 am

Freddie Mac released the results of its fourth quarter refinance analysis showing homeowners who refinance continue to strengthen their fiscal house. This release also contains annual statistics on refinances for the ten largest metropolitan areas and four Census regions of the U.S.

News Facts

In the fourth quarter of 2012, 84 percent of homeowners who refinanced their first-lien home mortgage either maintained about the same loan amount or lowered their principal balance by paying-in additional money at the closing table; just shy of the record 85 percent during the fourth quarter of 2011. Of these borrowers, 46 percent maintained about the same loan amount, and 39 percent of refinancing homeowners reduced their principal balance.

The average interest rate reduction was about 1.8 percentage points, or a savings of about 33 percent in interest rate, the largest percent reduction recorded in the 27 years of analysis.

The net dollars of home equity converted to cash as part of a refinance, adjusted for consumer-price inflation, remained at a low volume. In the fourth quarter, an estimated $8.1 billion in net home equity was cashed out during the refinance of conventional prime-credit home mortgages, down from an estimated $8.2 billion in the third quarter and substantially less than during the peak cash-out refinance volume of $84 billion during the second quarter of 2006.

Property-value change, loan age, and rate reduction differed between refinancings under the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) and other refinances.

For loans refinanced during the fourth quarter through HARP, the median depreciation in property value was 29 percent, the prior loan had a median age of about 5.9 years (to be eligible for HARP, the prior loan had to be originated before June 1, 2009), and the HARP borrower with a 30-year fixed-rate refinance (no product change) had an average interest-rate reduction of 2.0 percentage points.

For all other (non-HARP) refinances during the fourth quarter, the median property had very little (0%) change in property value between the dates of placement of the old loan and the new refinance loan, the prior loan had a median age of 3.7 years, and borrowers who refinanced a 30-year fixed-rate into the same product had an average interest-rate decline of 1.5 percentage points.

In the ten largest metropolitan areas, those that experienced the more severe property value declines tended to have older loans, very little cash-out, and larger percentage declines in mortgage rate. For example, borrowers that refinanced in the Detroit metro area (and had experienced a 37 percent decline in property value between placement of loans) paid off loans that were about 7.4 years old, cashed-out equity in only 7 percent of loans, and reduced their mortgage rate by 30 percent. In contrast, borrowers that refinanced in the Boston metro area (and had about 4 percent value decline) paid off loans that were 2.9 years old, cashed-out equity in 19 percent of loans, and had reduced their mortgage rate by 24 percent.

"On average, borrowers who refinanced reduced their interest rate by about 1.8 percentage points. On a $200,000 loan, that translates into saving about $3,600 in interest during the next 12 months. Fixed-rate mortgage rates hit new lows during December, with 30-year product averaging 3.4 percent and 15-year averaging 2.7 percent that month, according to our Primary Mortgage Market Survey®," says Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac vice president and chief economist. "While all borrowers that refinance have benefitted, HARP has enabled many borrowers that traditionally would not have had access to refinance to obtain low rates and significantly reduce their interest rate and monthly payment. This increases the likelihood that these borrowers will continue to perform on their loan and remain homeowners."

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