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

Protect Your Pets from the Hidden Hazards of Winter

December 11, 2012 6:04 am

Rock salt, antifreeze and mistletoe - oh my! The holiday season brings many pleasures to our four-legged friends: family gatherings, big meals, special trips, and in many areas, some chilly white fluffy stuff to frolic in. However, many pet owners don't realize that when the temperatures drop, the unexpected risks for pets rise.

Here are the top five winter hazards that can be life-threatening for pets. They include:

1. Rock Salt: If you live in a cold climate where winter brings snow and ice, then you're familiar with our first hazard. Rock salt, also called road salt, is sodium chloride mixed with other chemical additives and is used to keep sidewalks and roadways from being too slippery from ice. While the mixture works well, it is very tough on our pets' paws and can be extremely dangerous if ingested. Other de-icing agents should also be avoided in areas where pets congregate.

2. Antifreeze
: Pets may be drawn to this popular engine coolant because it has a sweet taste, but this exceedingly toxic substance that contains ethylene glycol can be found anywhere vehicles drive or park, including streets, roadways, parking lots, or even your own driveway. If ingested, this fluorescent green fluid can cause kidney failure or even death in pets, and since it's used to control the freezing and boiling point of liquids, antifreeze is not exclusively a winter hazard, but also quite dangerous during the warmer months as well.

3. Heating Sources: Pets may enjoy cozying up near the fireplace to bask in the warmth, but this activity is dangerous because of the exposure to flames and increased temperatures that can potentially burn their skin. In addition, pet parents need to be extra cautious when exposing their furry friends to electric blankets and space heaters because these electrical items can become toxic or harmful.

4. Winter Plants: Although they look pretty, many holiday plants can be poisonous to pets. Mistletoe, Poinsettias, Holly and Christmas Cactus are all extremely toxic and can cause severe gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and neurologic effects if ingested. Christmas trees are also hazardous because not only are the pine needles poisonous, but also because of the bacteria and fertilizer harbored in the water stands (which pets are known to drink). Additionally, decorations such as tinsel can also be very noxious if consumed.

5. Festive Foods: Meats and sweets are treats that pets beg for, but are serious no-no's when it comes to your pet's health. Turkey and other holiday meats are very high in protein, but if meats in their natural form are not a regular part of their diet, they can be hard to digest, which can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, or inflammation of the pancreas. Chocolate may be the best-known food danger for pets because it contains caffeine. Dogs in particular do not metabolize these stimulants in their liver, and elevations in heart rate, blood pressure, or even seizures, coma, or death can occur. Of course, all candy is high in sugar, which can cause digestive issues for all pets.

During the holiday season, ensure that everyone enjoys a fun and safe celebration, which includes taking a few extra precautions for your beloved pets.

Source: Adopt-a-Pet.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Planning for Charitable Donations and Gifting

December 11, 2012 6:04 am

As consumers scramble to buy the perfect holiday gifts for those they care about, many are missing the opportunity to give a gift that keeps on giving long past the holiday season. According to Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) Consumer Advocate Eleanor Blayney, CFP®, gifting and charitable donations made at the end of the year can offer multiple benefits and long-term rewards if made with some thought and a plan.

"Too often we aren't smart about the gifts we make. We see gift-giving as a chore to find 'stuff' for the stockings, or we dash a check off to a charity before the end of the year," says Blayney. "We should consider transforming our giving from just stuff – opened today, forgotten tomorrow – to gifts that benefit the recipients and ourselves long after the tinsel and bows have been swept away."

Creating a plan for charitable donations and gifting is the last of 12 steps in CFP Board's year-long "12 for '12 Approach to Financial Confidence." As consumers make their gifts this year, Blayney suggests considering four strategies to giving:

Plan Now, Give Later, Part 1: By simply budgeting and setting money aside throughout the year for year-end giving, you're certain to make the season merrier, both for you and the people and causes you care about. Doing the opposite – spending without planning first, then paying later – is a sure-fire way to turn the joy of giving into a new year's hangover.

Plan Now, Give Later, Part 2: This good advice deserves a second look, but now in the context of charitable giving. Planned giving, a category of charitable transfers, involves pledging or earmarking assets today for a future transfer to charity. Making a charitable bequest in a will is one example; naming a charity as a beneficiary on a retirement plan or insurance policy is another. Charitable remainder trusts and gift annuities also provide for future donations, but can generate current tax deductions in an amount equal to the "present value" of the later transfer. From a financial planning point of view, planned gifts are both smart and generous: they ensure that a donor's assets are available to him or her for lifetime expenses if needed. Once that need is no longer there, the remaining assets go to benefit charity.

Plan Now, Benefit Later: This method of giving is really a form of "investing" – using today's money to build a better future. Most of the gifts we give are depreciable goods like clothes, games, and food. Once worn, used, or consumed, they have little remaining value. Instead, consider gifts with long-term benefits: a contribution to a child's college savings plan, payment for a skills-building workshop, or picking up the fee for an adult child or relative to talk to a CFP® professional.

Plan Now, Benefit Now: With a bit of careful planning, you can make some of your gifts this holiday season pay off almost immediately through added tax savings. For example, rather than just writing a check to a charity, review your portfolio for appreciated securities you have held for more than a year. Not only do you get a deduction for the market value of the securities donated, but you get the additional benefit of avoiding the capital gains when the security is sold. For individuals who may be subject to estate and gift taxes, making a gift to a beneficiary today can have the advantage of minimizing the total taxes that must be paid both now and later. A CFP® professional can assist with the finer points of this gifting strategy, helping you to choose the best types of assets to give now and the strategies to maximize the amount of current gifting that can be done transfer-tax free.

"With a plan, it's possible this holiday season to give gifts with benefits that last longer than the momentary joy of unwrapping a present," says Blayney.

Source: Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Improving Consumer Attitudes Suggest Continued Strength in Housing Market

December 11, 2012 6:04 am

Despite continued uncertainty surrounding the fiscal cliff, Americans are showing increased confidence in the housing market and the direction of the economy. According to results from Fannie Mae’s November 2012 National Housing Survey, such improvement bodes especially well for continued strengthening in the housing sector, which in turn is likely to support overall economic growth.

“Consumer attitudes toward both the economy and the housing market continue to gather momentum, with many of our 11 key National Housing Survey indicators at or near their two-and-a-half-year highs,” said Doug Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist of Fannie Mae. “On the housing front, attitudes about the current selling environment continue to improve, with a significant increase in those saying it would be a good time to sell. This growing confidence in a housing recovery, in addition to other factors, may reinforce growing consumer optimism regarding the improving direction of the general economy.”

The November survey results show significant movement across many of the indicators. The share of respondents who say now is a good time to sell a home jumped 5 percentage points in November to 23 percent – the highest level since the survey began in June 2010 – narrowing the gap with those who say it is a good time to buy. The percentage of respondents who expect mortgage rates to go up increased by 4 percentage points to 41 percent. Those expecting home prices to go down within the next year also rose by 4 percentage points to 14 percent over last month, a rebound from the survey's record low in the prior month, while the share who believe home prices will go up in the next 12 months edged up to 37 percent, tying the survey high. Of note, 51 percent of respondents now say it would be easy to get a mortgage, marking the highest rate since the survey’s inception.

Survey Highlights

Homeownership and Renting

• Average home price change expectation held steady at 1.7 percent.
• Fourteen percent of those surveyed say that home prices will go down in the next 12 months, a 4 percentage point increase over last month.
• The percentage who think mortgage rates will go up continued to rise, increasing 4 percentage points in November to 41 percent.
• Twenty-three percent of respondents say it is a good time to sell, a 5 percentage point increase over last month, and the highest level since the survey’s inception.
• The average rental price expectation hit 4 percent in November, a 0.9 percent rise over the past two months.
• Forty-eight percent of those surveyed say home rental prices will go up in the next 12 months, a slight decrease from last month.
• The share of respondents who said they would buy if they were going to move held relatively steady at 67 percent.
• Fifty-one percent of respondents now say it would be easy to get a mortgage, marking the highest rate since the survey’s inception.

The Economy and Household Finances

• Hitting 50 percent for the first time since the survey’s inception, the percentage who think the economy is on the wrong track has declined by 25 percentage points over the past year, and by 6 percentage points from last month.
• The percentage who expect their personal financial situation to get worse over the next 12 months rose 5 percentage points to 18 percent, the highest level since December 2011.
• Meanwhile, 21 percent of respondents say their household income is significantly higher than it was 12 months ago.
• Household expenses remained stable over the past month, with 56 percent responding that their household expenses stayed the same compared to 12 months ago.

Source: Fannie Mae

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Lighting and Energy Reduction Tips for the Winter

December 10, 2012 6:04 am

For homeowners looking to decorate their homes for the holidays, it's a great time to review some tips to help save money and conserve energy throughout this time of the year.

On average, holiday lights cost just pennies a day. However, elaborate displays that use large incandescent bulbs can add as much as $80 to a monthly electric bill, depending on the number of bulbs and how long they're lit each night.

There are many less costly, more energy-efficient options available today that even the most elaborate lighting display can fit into anyone's budget. Six 100-bulb sets of large, incandescent bulbs (600 bulbs total), plugged in six hours each night, can add up to $80 to a monthly electric bill. By comparison, six 100-bulb sets of similarly styled light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs would increase a monthly electric bill by $7.

Customers can estimate their holiday lighting costs using an energy calculator like the one found here: www.duke-energy.com/holidaylights.

Safety Tips

• Before installing lights, check each set – new and old – for damaged sockets, loose connections and frayed or bare wires. Discard damaged sets or repair them before using.
• Never use more than three standard-sized sets of lights per extension cord.
• Plug exterior lights into ground-fault interruptible (GFI) outlets only. If the home lacks outside GFI outlets, call an electrician to install them.
• Before climbing a ladder, inspect it to ensure it's in good working condition and follow the weight limits specified on the ladder. Ladders that lean against a wall or other support should be angled so the horizontal distance from the top support to the foot of the ladder is about one-quarter the working length of the ladder. Never use a ladder for any purpose other than the one for which it's designed.
• Never use a ladder on or near power lines.

Energy Efficiency Tips
The thermostat is the real culprit of a higher December bill, so homeowners are encouraged to select the lowest comfortable setting when they're home, then bump it down a degree or two when they leave.
Other money-saving tips include:

• Hire a qualified technician to inspect home heating and cooling equipment each season to ensure proper operation.
• Change air filters monthly, year-round.
• Ensure drapes, furniture, rugs and holiday decorations do not block heat registers and vents. Clean registers and vents regularly with a vacuum or broom.
• Take advantage of natural solar heat. On sunny days, leave the drapes or blinds open to allow the sun's rays to warm the house.

For more simple ways to control home energy costs, visit www.duke-energy.com/youtility.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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NAR Survey of Homebuyers and Sellers Shows Dual Income Couples Fueling Market

December 10, 2012 6:04 am

Dual income households are comprising a greater portion of the housing market and helping sales recover, according to an annual study. The 2012 National Association of REALTORS® Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers continues a long-running series of large national NAR surveys evaluating the demographics, preferences, motivations, plans and experiences of recent homebuyers and sellers.

According to the new survey, 65 percent of all buyers are married couples, 16 percent are single women, 9 percent single men, 8 percent unmarried couples and 2 percent other; percentages of single buyers were slightly higher in 2011. However, just two years ago, 58 percent of buyers were married, 20 percent were single women, 12 percent single men and 7 percent unmarried couples; the overall marketshare of single buyers declined a total of 7 percentage points over the past two years. Before 2010, the marketshares moved within a very narrow range, generally a percentage point or two.

Paul Bishop, NAR vice president of research, said the study is painting a clearer picture of the impact of mortgage limitations. “We’ve known for some time that stringent mortgage credit standards have been holding back home sales, but these findings show single buyers have been hurt the most over the past two years. Total home sales would be 10 to 15 percent higher without these unnecessary headwinds,” he said.

“The continued growth in married couples as single buyers shrink demonstrates that households with dual incomes are more successful in obtaining a mortgage. However, given the historically favorable housing affordability conditions, most single-income buyers could also purchase a home and stay well within their means, if lending requirements were more sensible,” Bishop said.

First-time homebuyers edged up to a 39 percent marketshare in the past year from 37 percent in the 2011 study. Long-term survey averages show that four out of 10 buyers are typically first-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery because they help existing homeowners to sell and make a trade.

The study shows the median age of first-time buyers was 31 and the median income was $61,800. The typical first-time buyer purchased a 1,600 square-foot home costing $154,100, while the typical repeat buyer was 51 years old and earned $93,100. Repeat buyers purchased a median 2,100-square foot home costing $220,000.

The median down payment for all homebuyers was 9 percent, ranging from 4 percent for first-time buyers to 13 percent for repeat buyers. “First-time buyers historically make small down payments, but repeat buyers like to put down 20 percent if they can to avoid paying mortgage insurance,” Bishop said.

“The general loss in home value since the peak of the housing boom means many repeat buyers in recent years had to make smaller down payments. Fortunately, prices have turned up this year and are showing sustained increases, so we’re on the road to a recovery in home equity.”

Source: NAR

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Brick Exteriors Test Strongest in Severe Weather

December 10, 2012 6:04 am

After the third most active storm season on record, tests continue to show that genuine clay brick outperforms other home exteriors in severe weather conditions. As homeowners head into peak home fire season in December and January, brick also offers a one-hour fire rating by itself—unlike other exteriors that need to incorporate fire-resistant materials in their wall systems.

In cumulative studies, genuine clay brick beats competitive exteriors in wind resistance, moisture resistance, earthquake resistance and protection from wind-blown debris.

"As a sustainable building product made from natural abundant resources, genuine clay brick exteriors can also help reduce property damage and increase survival odds," said Gregg Borchelt, president and CEO of the Brick Industry Association (BIA). "Combined with proper design, installation and maintenance, brick is an essential element of strong, safe homes."

A 2010 study by the NAHB Research Center comparing moisture resistance among typical residential exteriors evaluated genuine clay brick veneer as the highest in moisture resistance and dryness. Of the eight wall systems tested—accounting for approximately 90 percent of the cladding systems used today—brick veneer wall assemblies performed the best overall in controlling moisture.

In 2009, a brick seismic study funded by the National Science Foundation showed that buildings constructed with genuine clay brick veneer can resist earthquakes above the Maximum Considered Earthquake for Seismic Design Category D without collapse.

Videos of a 2004 wind-blown debris study at the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University demonstrate that a medium-sized and wind-blown object, such as a 7.5-foot long 2 x 4, would penetrate homes built with vinyl siding or fiber-cement siding at a speed of 25 mph, but would need to exceed 80 mph in order to penetrate the wall of a genuine clay brick veneer home. The tests showed that a single wythe of brick exceeded the impact resistance for high velocity hurricane zones in the Florida building code.

Free of volatile compounds, earth-friendly genuine clay brick is a key element of green building design with benefits including a 100-year lifespan, no- to low-maintenance, termite resistance, durability and other competitive benefits.

Source: Brick Industry Association (BIA)

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Five Money Tips to Make Your Holidays Merry, Bright...and Affordable

December 7, 2012 5:58 am

The 2012 holiday shopping season is underway and shoppers and budget-minded consumers should be reminded that it's never too late to start planning for an affordable holiday season and debt-free New Year. Now is the time to get together with family and friends and discuss a game plan for the remainder of the season.

In honor of the season, here is a five-step plan to help keep your finances in check:

1. Dial down the holidays. Consider asking family and friends to downsize the holidays to something less commercial, with fewer purchased gifts, more valuable time spent together and a "less is more" sentiment. You'll be well on your way to a very meaningful holiday that doesn't evolve into overwhelming financial stress in early 2013.
2. Start saving and budgeting now. Set a specific and reasonable amount for each person on your "must-buy-for" list. Before you start socking the money away, make certain the amount won't impact your ability to manage your existing monthly expenses.
3. Consider making your own gift. Gifts made from inexpensive materials can go a long way in showing someone you care because people do understand the value of your time. It can be extremely meaningful to your relationship and to the holiday, not to mention light on the pocketbook.
4. Don't end up shopping at the gas station. As the old holiday joke goes, wait until the last minute and you'll be shopping at the 24-hour GasMart. Have a plan and stick to it. Plan your shopping early on. If you wait until the last minute, you may end up spending more just to get the shopping done quickly.
5. Save on wrapping. Inexpensive wrapping paper (even a brown paper bag or color Sunday comics), combined with a nice bow or a well-placed flower, pine cone or holiday ornament, works wonders for adding significance to an inexpensive gift. If you don't have a talent for wrapping, find someone who does and ask for their help.

Source: GreenPath Debt Solutions

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Don't Bring Cybercrime Home for the Holidays

December 7, 2012 5:58 am

Cybercrime is on the rise and the holidays are no exception. In fact, this holiday season may prove to be the biggest ever for cybertheft. Hackers observe no holidays, instead using them as yet another theme to entice and trick computer users into letting them into their networks. Compounding this, many retailers and other businesses conduct more transactions and process more credit cards during the holidays than at any other time of the year, which makes breaking into any company's networks all the more lucrative and enticing, regardless of size.

Here are a few strategies for keeping the cyber-grinches out:

• Know what is happening on your network. With good security monitoring architecture in place, if a network incident occurs, you would be able to go back and trace when and how the breach happened and detect if any sensitive data was stolen. Network recording devices, such as full packet capture appliances, quickly establish the facts and timeline of any incidents and provide the forensic evidence necessary to pursue prosecution.

• Beware of holiday e-cards, even if received from a trusted sender. Unbeknownst to the sender, holiday-themed screensavers, e-cards and other free digital content from the Internet may contain malicious spyware, malware and trojans. Downloading these digital "freebies" onto your office computers can open your network up to intrusion and exploitation by cybercriminals who have no intent of spreading holiday cheer.

• Encourage employees to keep their holiday Internet shopping activities at home. Seemingly benign and legitimate retail sites may be fronts for disseminating malware, compromising both computers and networks. Hackers are fully aware that even a short-lived exploit on a busy website can bring high exposure. Hackers even go so far as to hide their malicious payloads in paid-for advertisements. Remember: a firewall cannot keep malicious programs out if an insider invites them in.

• Review what your business liability insurance covers and what to expect from lapses in PCI and other regulatory compliance. Standard business insurance does not cover the costs and liabilities resulting from data theft and a breach of your credit card processing system can result in suspension of your merchant account.

The reality is that business losses from cybercrime overtook losses due to physical theft for the first time in 2010, and 2012 stands as no exception, with a growing list of breach victims in all industries.

Cybercrime is on an upward trend and the question now is not whether an intrusion will happen, but when you will need to respond to a cyber-event. Businesses cannot afford to put cybersecurity off until the new year.

Source: IPCopper, Inc.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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HARP Enhancements Continue to Bolster Program

December 7, 2012 5:58 am

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) released its September Refinance Report, which shows that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans refinanced through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) accounted for nearly one-quarter of all refinances in the third quarter of 2012. More than 90,000 homeowners refinanced their mortgage in September through HARP with more than 709,000 loans refinanced since the beginning of this year. The continued high volume of HARP refinances is attributed to record-low mortgage rates and program enhancements announced last year.

Also in the report:

• Since the program’s inception in 2009, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have financed more than 1.7 million loans through HARP.

• In September, half of the loans refinanced through HARP had loan-to-value (LTV) ratios greater than 105 percent and one-fourth had LTVs greater than 125 percent.

• In September, 19 percent of HARP refinances for underwater borrowers were for shorter-term 15- and 20-year mortgages, which help build equity faster than traditional 30-year mortgages.

• HARP refinances in September represented 45 percent of total refinances in states hard hit by the housing downturn–Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Georgia–compared with 21 percent of total refinances nationwide.

• Also in September, HARP refinances for borrowers with LTV ratios greater than 105 percent accounted for more than 70 percent of HARP volume in Nevada, Arizona and Florida and more than 60 percent of the HARP refinances in California.

Source: FHFA

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Expert Tips for Getting the Sold-Out Toys Your Kids Really Want

December 6, 2012 5:56 am

Every parent or grandparent wants to make the holidays a special time, one that the beloved children in their lives will always remember. Be the holiday hero by getting the gifts they really want – those super popular toys making headlines across the country. Of course, the hottest holiday toys quickly sell out. With a few smart shopping strategies, you will be able to get the gifts they really want without a lot of hassle.

Your children or grandchildren are sure to squeal with delight when they tear open their presents and find a Nintendo Wii U, a Disney Doc McStuffins doll or a Furby in one of the hardest-to-find colors. How were you able to get the toys that your friends and neighbors could not get? You followed some simple shopping strategies for locating high-demand items:

Visit the manufacturer's website
The first step to tracking down a popular toy is to find out where the toy can be found. Each manufacturer's website will list where its toys are sold. Contrary to popular belief, not every major retailer carries all the popular toys of this year. Some manufacturers have exclusive agreements with certain retailers, while other manufacturers may stock at smaller toy stores as well as large retailers.

Call early and be courteous
Call when the store opens so you can speak with a department manager before peak shopping hours. Be courteous and ask if a toy is in-stock. If possible, ask for the item to be held for you. If you are told it is out of stock, do not be shy about asking when the store receives its shipments. On that day, call the store and ask if your item was in the shipment. Better yet, be there for when the store opens.

Use technology to your advantage
The Internet has changed the way people shop for holiday gifts. If you are having trouble tracking down a special toy visit TrackAToy.com, a free resource that helps people find the most popular toys. You can create a free profile and set up toy-availability alerts in three easy ways: email, text message or Internet browser notification. Free alerts can save you time and reduce holiday stress, notifying you as soon as your needed item is back in-stock at many major online retailers such as Walmart.com and ToysRus.com.

Online discussion boards are another valuable resource for holiday shoppers. A quick search and you will find a number of different online forums, where people chat about the season's top toys, where they found them and other unique shopping topics.

Finding that perfect holiday toy does not have to be an impossible mission when you utilize a few smart shopping strategies. From calling stores in the morning to free online product alerts, you will make this the most memorable holiday yet.

What are the top toys this holiday season? Here are a few of the most popular:

1. Nintendo Wii U
2. Furby – 2012 Collection
3. Disney Doc McStuffins Time For Your Check Up Doll
4. Monster High Werecat Sister Doll Pack – Meowlady and Purrsephone
5. LeapFrog LeapPad2 Explorer Learning Tablets
6. Monster High Ghouls Rule Doll – Abbey Abominable
7. Skylanders Giants Character Packs (Series 2)
8. Lalaloopsy Holiday Collector Edition Doll – Ivory Ice Crystals
9. LEGO Minecraft (21102)
10. Playskool Sesame Street LOL Elmo

Source: TrackAToy.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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