January 26, 2012 4:30 am
Consumer Reports recently released its latest ratings of LCD and plasma televisions just in time for Super Bowl Sunday, when many Americans consider purchasing a new set. Those who are in the market can expect to find a whole host of new high-tech features, too, such as built-in Internet browsers, 3D, remotes with more interactivity, and bigger and wider screens to choose from.
In the latest Consumer Reports Ratings of LCD and plasma TVs, there are 10 models with 60-inch or larger screens, including a 70-inch Sharp LCD TV. Additionally, the ranks of 3D-capable sets have grown; so, too, have models with full 1080p resolution and LCD TVs with 120Hz or higher refresh rates designed to reduce motion blur. And very good or excellent picture quality is nearly a given, with 135 of the 142 models tested by Consumer Reports achieving that level – even secondary brand models with relative low price points.
LCD or plasma?
Both LCD and plasma TVs can offer top performance, but they have different characteristics that consumers should weigh. There's a greater variety of brands and screen sizes to choose from with LCD models, and most have ultra-thin designs and tend to be better in very sunny rooms. However, they do have limited viewing angles, which might concern people who like to watch anyplace but front and center.
Plasma TVs, on the other hand, only come in sizes 42 inches and up – and they typically give consumers more screen for their money. They also offer unlimited viewing angles and blur-free motion with more movie-like picture quality. And both plasma and LCD models should deliver years of good service.
3D or not 3D?
Even if consumers don't envision themselves using the 3D feature now, there are still good reasons to consider investing in a 3D-capable TV. Many of the 3D TVs in Consumer Reports' latest ratings are among the highest-scoring sets it's ever tested, and many of them are top-notch for regular HD, too. Furthermore, they often have other attractive features such as Internet access and Wi-Fi. Internet-connected TVs significantly expand the viewing possibilities available to consumers.
Consumers who are shopping for a new TV for the Super Bowl should keep the following tips in mind:
- Go bigger. A big game deserves a big screen, especially when watching it with a crowd. The good news is that price drops have been greatest on larger screen sizes.
- Get 1080p resolution. Unlike smaller sets, a TV with a big screen will benefit from "full-HD" 1080p resolution. Viewers will not only be able to see the difference in fine details—say, the textures in players' uniforms or individual blades of grass—they'll also avoid the "screen-door effect" that comes when you sit close to a TV, especially a very big TV.
- Go wide when it comes to viewing angles. While plasma TVs offer virtually unlimited viewing angles, the picture quality of many LCD sets starts to suffer if viewers move off-angle—something to consider for those who will have the gang over to watch the game,
- Don't blur the action. Some LCD TVs can blur during fast-moving scenes, such as those in many sports games. Sets with 120Hz or 240Hz technologies, which speed up the TV's frame rate, can help. Motion blur typically isn't an issue with plasma TVs.
January 26, 2012 4:30 am
During his State of the Union address on Jan. 24, President Barack Obama called on Congress to approve new legislation that would give all homeowners who are current on their mortgages the opportunity to refinance at record low mortgage rates.
According to a follow-up article by Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), administration officials declined to immediately outline specifics of how the program would work, stating that details would be forthcoming as the legislation emerges in the coming days. In theory, however, the new legislation is intended to give responsible homeowners a chance to refinance without “red tape” or a “runaround from the bank,” as the President said in his speech.
The existing refinance program, which was unveiled in 2009, limited opportunities to borrowers with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This newest proposal would remove such limitations.
As Timiraos explains in his WSJ piece, while mortgages have fallen to their lowest recorded levels, many borrowers haven't been able to qualify because they owe more than their homes are worth, while others feel that refinancing isn't worth the upfront costs. According to CoreLogic, an estimated 28 million homeowners could cut the interest rates on their loans by more than one percentage point if they could refinance.
Some are speculating that the new refinance legislation would involve the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are already responsible for backing nearly nine in 10 new loans, reports the WSJ.
Refinancing has been particularly limited in five states that have seen the biggest home-price declines: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada. In those states, some 6.4 percent of borrowers with credit scores between 680 and 719 refinanced in 2010, compared with 9.7 percent of borrowers in the remaining 45 states, according to Federal Reserve data.
To read the complete Wall Street Journal article, visit online.wsj.com.
January 25, 2012 4:30 am
Real estate information website Zillow® recently announced the launch of Neighborhood Advice on Zillow.com®, a social home-shopping experience that helps buyers and renters learn about neighborhoods from their Facebook friends.
While shopping on Zillow, users are prompted to activate Facebook Connect and then see locally where their Facebook friends live or "check-in" the most. As shoppers search for homes in a specific city or neighborhood, Neighborhood Advice will recommend Facebook friends connected to the area to contact for personal tips and advice.
For example, if a user is searching for homes in the San Francisco neighborhood of Noe Valley, Neighborhood Advice will identify friends who have shared that they live in Noe Valley, or who frequently "check-in" at places in Noe Valley. The home shopper can then send these friends a private message on Facebook to ask questions about the neighborhood.
According to Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff, Neighborhood Advice allows real estate consumers to tap into their Facebook network as they shop for homes. "When people are looking to rent or buy a new home, they always ask friends, family and co-workers questions about different neighborhoods. Neighborhood Advice takes this further and deeper by allowing shoppers to quickly and easily tap into their broader online social network," says Rascoff.
January 25, 2012 4:30 am
According to a report earlier this month from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Appraisal Subcommittee, which oversees the appraiser regulatory programs established by each state, needs to improve its monitoring procedures. A faulty appraisal process is believed to be hurting home values and hampering a full housing recovery.
The GAO report found the Appraisal Subcommittee’s “enforcement tools and procedures for reporting compliance levels have been limited.” The GAO cited “several weaknesses” that have potentially limited the subcommittee’s ability to monitor state appraiser regulatory agencies, the federal financial institution regulators and the Appraisal Foundation, a private, non-profit corporation that sets criteria for appraisals and appraisers.
Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the Appraisal Subcommittee was granted the authority to establish a national hotline to receive complaints over noncompliance with appraisal independence standards and grievances from appraisers, individuals or other entities over attempts to improperly influence appraisers or the appraisal process. Currently, no such hotline exists and the GAO report states that the creation of a national hotline could strain the Appraisal Subcommittee’s resources.
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) believes that an effective oversight system needs to be put in place to ensure that appraisals accurately reflect market values. How homes are valued can have a dramatic effect on homeowners’ mortgages, foreclosure rates, the health of banks and, ultimately, the condition of the U.S. financial system, says NAHB.
A recent NAHB survey shows that one out of three builders have lost signed sales contracts because of flawed appraisals and a fall survey conducted by the National Association of REALTORS® shows that 18 percent of REALTORS® reported a recent contract cancellation or delay as a result of a low appraisal.
Numerous flaws in the appraisal system have been causing inaccurate home valuations, both in times of housing weakness and strength, says NAHB. NAHB has been actively seeking improvements in appraiser education and training, particularly for appraisals of new homes, as well as more rigorous oversight so appraisal guidelines are enforced and errors can be corrected as they occur.
January 25, 2012 4:30 am
HGTV plans to roll out more than a dozen new original series and 20 specials in 2012, including a new season of the hugely popular HGTV Design Star, the new design series White Room Challenge and Selling London—a spin-off of the hit HGTV real estate series Selling NY. Here are some of the highlights from HGTV’s 2012 lineup:
White Room ChallengePremieres Tuesday, April 24, at 9 p.m. ET/PTInspired by a popular episode of HGTV Design Star, it's now a series all its own. Each week David Bromstad hosts four up-and-coming designers who compete to create the most original, eccentric and outrageous rooms using a variety of unusual materials. HGTV's Jamie Durie heads the expert judging panel which will award the grand prize of $10,000 cash.
Premieres Saturday, January 28, at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT
Eight talented, energetic designers led by Jonathan Pierce make their "home away from home" at the Nashville-based design firm Pierce and Company. In each episode, HGTV will follow this cast of experts as personalities clash and collaborate to create stunning room makeovers for VIP clients such as LeAnn Rimes, Eddie Cibrian and American Idol finalist, Danny Gokey.
Airs Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. ET/PT
Beautiful Homes takes viewers inside the gated communities, prestigious neighborhoods and most magnificent residences from around the world, from traditional classic abodes to fantastic contemporary retreats.
Premieres May 2012
Contractor Chip Wade comes to the rescue of families who love their home and love their neighborhoods, but whose houses no longer suit them. In each episode Wade updates and customizes homes with smart and eye-popping renovations.
Airs Sundays at 8 a.m. ET/PT
Contractor Kristi Hansen comes to the rescue of homeowners whose neglected homes are on the verge of disaster. Hansen relies on her 19 years of experience and a no-nonsense approach to save these homes before it's too late.
January 24, 2012 4:30 am
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), only one out of every two new start-ups survives after the first five years of business. That means that half fail, many times due to financial missteps.
Cash flow is a major factor in a business' success. Regardless of its size, a business' cash flow drives everyday operations, expansion and purchasing power. As most businesses face continued unpredictability in the local economy, managing the ups and downs of cash flow can have a major impact on reaching future goals.
Few business owners realize what untapped - and often free - resources are available to help them manage finances and stimulate positive cash flow.
To help meet the challenge of effectively managing accounts payable and accounts receivable in your small business, here are five simple tips from the SBA:
1. Pay your company first. A cash reserve can go a long way in making certain that in times of low cash flow, you are able to continue day-to-day operations.
2. Create a budget and track expenses. Even if your business' profit is more than the monthly expenses, it's important to keep a budget and continually track monthly operating costs and income. Always knowing the state of your business' finances allows you to spot red flags and issues before they become unmanageable.
3. Don't let past due accounts slide. If you're having trouble with receiving payment, re-invoice three to five days after the account is overdue. The longer a business waits to get paid, the less likely they are to receive all of the payment or even get the funds.
4. Focus on your largest debtors. Invoice customers who owe the most first.
5. Consider giving a discount for paying within 20 days. Depending on the nature of your business, it might make sense to offer a slight discount for those that pay by credit or debit within 20 days of the invoice. In addition to cash flow management, financing can help provide business capital.
Understanding financial options can help manage everyday expenses and purchasing needs. There are three primary ways to meet financing needs:
1. Business loans. For businesses that meet all credit and financial criteria, a conventional business loan allows for an infusion of cash that can allow a business to expand, buy necessary equipment or meet cash needs. SBA loans can be a great option for many businesses. For information on SBA loans, visit www.sba.gov.
2. Credit card. A business credit card can be used for everyday spending and has a set repayment schedule.
3. Credit line. A credit line can provide cash in a crunch to help cover the cost of operating expenses, unexpected expenditures or the purchase of additional inventory. A line of credit is not the right option for the purchase of capital assets, which might be better suited for a business loan. A credit line is great for purchases that are too large for a credit card but are not large enough to warrant a business loan.
January 24, 2012 4:30 am
Deloitte LLP's annual survey of Gen Y consumers shows that their strong affinity for hybrid vehicles could make it the generation that leads us away from traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, according to Craig Giffi, vice chairman and automotive practice leader at Deloitte.
A strong majority (59 percent) of Gen Y respondents surveyed prefer an "electrified vehicle" over any other type of car or truck. Moreover, Gen Y consumers heavily favor hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles (57 percent) over pure battery electric vehicles (2 percent) or vehicles with a traditional gasoline-only powertrain (37 percent).
The annual survey, now in its fourth year, canvassed 1,500 Gen Y, Gen X and baby boomer consumers in the United States, as well as 250 Gen Y consumers in China and 300 Gen Y consumers in Western Europe. Deloitte conducted the survey in September and October 2011. It defines Gen Y consumers as those ranging in age from 19 to 31.
According to Giffi, Gen Y consumers may be the game changers in the United States because, at nearly 80 million strong, they are one of the biggest domestic automobile buying market segments and the largest consumer segment since the baby boomers. Giffi indicates that, according to projections, one out of four new automobiles sold this year in the United States, and 40 percent of vehicles sold in the next 10 years, should be bought by a Gen Y consumer.
From the study, Giffi found that Gen Y consumers are drawn to hybrids for several reasons. Most notably, fuel efficiency: 89 percent of Gen Y consumers are considering buying a vehicle that gets better mileage, especially true when gasoline prices rise above $2.75 per gallon - the median price Gen Y consumers see as 'fair.' Further, 49 percent of Gen Y consumers are willing to pay an additional $300 for each mile-per-gallon of improvement they can get out of a hybrid - only $50 less than the $350 mile-per-gallon premium that Deloitte estimates a hybrid vehicle currently costs compared to an internal-combustion engine vehicle.
Gen Y consumers also prefer automobiles that are an extension of their social-media and digital lifestyles. In-dash technology is the most important part of a vehicle's interior for a majority (59 percent) of Gen Y respondents, with almost three-quarters (73 percent) seeking touchscreen interfaces. Gen Y consumers also rank smartphone applications as highly desirable in a new automobile (72 percent).
However, Gen Y consumers also realize that this increased connectivity can create safety issues.
Solution: a vehicle that may compensate for the distractions that result from increased connectivity with ramped-up safety features.
January 24, 2012 4:30 am
The latest numbers from the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) show that existing-home sales continued on an uptrend in December, rising for three consecutive months and remaining above a year ago.
The latest monthly data shows total existing-home sales rose 5.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.61 million in December from a downwardly revised 4.39 million in November, and are 3.6 percent higher than the 4.45 million-unit level in December 2010. The estimates are based on completed transactions from multiple listing services that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, believes these could be the early signs of what may be a sustained recovery for housing. For all of 2011, existing-home sales rose 1.7 percent to 4.26 million from 4.19 million in 2010. NAR President Moe Veissi says that the American Dream of homeownership is alive and well, and that more buyers are expected to take advantage of favorable market conditions in the coming year.
This could indeed be the case based on the latest inventory statistics. NAR reports that total housing inventory at the end of December dropped 9.2 percent to 2.38 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 6.2-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 7.2-month supply in November. Available inventory has trended down since setting a record of 4.04 million in July 2007, and is at the lowest level since March 2005 when there were 2.30 million homes on the market.
"The inventory supply suggests many markets will see prices stabilize or grow moderately in the near future," Yun says. In the meantime, prices are ripe for would-be homebuyers. The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $164,500 in December, which is 2.5 percent below December 2010. Distressed homes - foreclosures and short sales - accounted for 32 percent of sales in December (19 percent were foreclosures and 13 percent were short sales), up from 29 percent in November; they were 36 percent in December 2010. All-cash sales accounted for 31 percent of purchases in December, up from 28 percent in November and 29 percent in December 2010.
Investors account for the bulk of cash transactions. Investors purchased 21 percent of homes in December, up from 19 percent in November and 20 percent in December 2010. First-time buyers fell to 31 percent of transactions in December from 35 percent in November; they were 33 percent in December 2010.
January 23, 2012 4:30 am
If the recession has caused you to fall behind on your retirement savings, you're not alone. Forty-three percent of Americans had less than $10,000 saved in 2010. However, if you are one of the 43 percent, even if you haven't saved anything at all, you can still retire comfortably regardless of your age, according to retirement planning specialist Derrick Kinney of Derrick Kinney & Associates.
"When you hear an expert in the media say you need $1 million to retire and you haven't saved anything at all, it can be very discouraging," says Kinney. "But your 40s through your 60s are the time when all the financial obligations associated with raising a family have decreased and you can finally focus on funding your retirement. It's the perfect time to play catch-up."
Kinney offers the following four tips for speeding up the process:
Step 1: Create a detailed catch-up plan. Determining the amount of money you will need in retirement can be difficult, says Kinney. You must factor in the inflation rate, your retirement age, the longevity of your retirement and your expected expenses, including your increased medical costs. For obvious reasons, calculating retirement income can get complex fast, but there are online calculators that can provide an estimate. Plus, there are some widely accepted guidelines you can use as a baseline such as planning to live on 80 percent of your pre-retirement income. After you have determined the estimated amount of money you will need to save, use that number to create realistic, yearly goals.
Step 2: Redirect spending to build your savings. Since you are beginning to save later in life, Kinney recommends you save 20 percent of your salary each month. Take advantage of online budgeting websites and smartphone apps that connect to your accounts and track your spending to determine wasteful spending habits. Cut out these habits and redirect the money to your savings account. Also, consider automatically directing any raises you receive to your savings account. You can't miss money you never touched.
Step 3: Invest wisely and max out your 401(k). After you have built up your savings, you will need to invest some of it to ensure future income. Yes, the market does fluctuate, says Kinney, but overall, it has a pretty good track record and still remains a good bet against fighting inflation. Begin investing by maxing out your contributions to your 401(k), 403(b) or IRA. Next, consider purchasing exchange traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds. Make it a point to review your investments periodically to ensure they are performing to your expectations.
Step 4: Buy the appropriate insurance. Statistics show that nearly two-thirds of retirees will need long-term care either at home or through an assisted living facility and the cost can be upwards of $50,000 annually. To ensure skyrocketing medical costs won't destroy their financial security, retirees should consider purchasing long-term care insurance as well as health insurance, says Kinney. It's important to realize long-term care insurance does not cover the same day-to-day medical expenses that health insurance covers and if you retire at 59.5 you are on your own when it comes to providing health insurance. Retirees may also want to consider buying life insurance if they have dependents.
Following the above four steps can put anyone on the path to a more secure retirement, even if you're in your 40s, 50s or 60s.
January 23, 2012 4:30 am
More than 55.5 million Americans feed wild birds outside their homes every winter, according to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. But according to Joe Kosack, a wildlife conservation education specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, there are important steps to follow to keep your home, family and birds safe in the process:
- Place feeders near cover to shield songbirds from avian predators, but at least 15 feet away from windows and groundcover that roaming cats can hide in or behind. Most people who feed songbirds aren't in it to set the table for hawks and cats. So give some thought to feeder placement. Wild birds are counting on you!
- Windows can be as deadly to songbirds as predators because birds don't see glass. Therefore, it is important to move feeders away from windows.
- Identify which species you want to attract and then select the feeder and seeds/food you'll use to attract them. The three easiest ways to attract the greatest number of birds involve using cylindrical feeders – filled with black-oil sunflower seeds and/or thistle seeds – suet feeders, and ground feeding with corn, millet and black-oil sunflower seeds. This three-way approach will make just about any yard a food court for birds.
- Although some birds may become dependent on feeders, it likely won't be the only stop on their daily foraging route. Still, if you commit to feeding birds in the winter, it's best not to stop in the middle of the season. Those foods you've begun to provide help balance birds’ intense daily demands for energy to endure frigid winter nights and chilly winds.
- Keep your feeders clean so birds don't risk contracting diseases from contaminated seeds and fungus. The Game Commission recommends first cleaning bird feeders with soap and water followed by a solution that is one part household bleach and nine parts warm water. If you're not seeing sick-looking birds at your feeder, cleaning it once or twice a month is sufficient. Increase the frequency to once a week if trouble shows.
- Whenever you feed songbirds, there's always the potential to lure into your yard – and sometimes your house – critters you'd rather stay away, so keep a careful eye out for unwanted intruders. This includes black bears, deer, raccoons, squirrels and field mice. Black bears had a rough fall – acorn crop failure – and some may be more active this winter than usual. Suet and black-oil sunflower seeds would be very appealing to them. Raccoons also are partial to suet. Deer, on the other hand, can be drawn by shelled corn. So can field mice. Squirrels come to just about everything you offer.