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

50 Percent of Americans Now Using Social Media

August 31, 2011 2:57 pm

Further proving the staying power of social networks such as Facebook, Twittter and LinkedIn, 50% of Americans are now reported to be members of various social media sites, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

This statistic is not just those who say they are online, rather, 50% of all Americans. In a study conducted nearly six years ago by the Pew Research Center, only five percent of all adults said they used social media.

The survey also found that the rates of participation are higher as well among adults who are online: 65%, up from last year's 61%.

This new data is a true sign of how pervasive social media has become in our society, transforming the way companies sell their products, how governments run, and more importantly, how people communicate.

These results are not to say that social media isn't more popular among younger people: 83% of those surveyed between the ages of 18-29 say they use social networking sites, compared to 51% of those in the 50-64 age bracket. Younger Americans are twice as likely to use these sites every day.

In addition, women 18-29 have been described as "the power users" of social media, with 89% using social networking sites, and 69% of them using them every day.

For more information, visit http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Social-Networking-Sites.aspx or www.nytimes.com.
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Builder Confidence Unchanged in August

August 31, 2011 2:57 pm

Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes held unchanged at a low level of 15 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) for August.

"Builders continue to confront the same major challenges they have seen over the past year, including competition from the large inventory of distressed homes on the market, inaccurate appraisal values, and issues with their buyers not being able to sell an existing home or qualify for favorable mortgage rates because of overly tight underwriting requirements," says Bob Nielsen, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a home builder from Reno, Nev. He noted that 41% of respondents to a special questions section of the HMI indicated they had lost sales contracts due to buyers' inability to sell their current homes.

"The uncertain economic climate and concerns about job security are discouraging many potential buyers from exploring a home purchase at this time," says NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "While buying conditions are very favorable in terms of prices, interest rates and selection, consumers are worried about what the future will bring, and builders are echoing those sentiments in their responses to the HMI survey."

Derived from a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for more than 20 years, the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as "good," "fair" or "poor." The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as "high to very high," "average" or "low to very low." Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

Two out of three of the HMI's component indexes posted marginal gains in August. The component gauging current sales conditions gained one point to 16 —its highest level since March of this year—and the component gauging traffic of prospect buyers rose one point to 13 following two consecutive months at 12. However, the component gauging sales expectations for the next six months declined two points to 19, partially offsetting a six-point gain from the last month's revised number.

For more information, visit www.nahb.org.
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Hearing Tests Rarely Included in Back-to-School Medical Exams for Kids

August 30, 2011 8:57 pm

Fall signals the beginning of a new school year and sports season, prompting many parents to schedule a mandatory medical exam for their budding football players, soccer stars and cross country athletes. However, most annual medical exams don’t include a routine hearing test, putting children at risk for undetected hearing loss.

Many children may head back to school with a hearing problem that could hinder their performance in the classroom and on the playing field. Parents are urged to request a routine hearing test for their child during this fall’s back-to-school medical exam and get hearing loss treatment if necessary.

It is estimated that at least 1.4 million children age 18 or younger have hearing problems, and ear infections are the most common cause of hearing loss in young children. It is especially important for young children to have their hearing checked before each school year, as many ear infections crop up during the summer months when kids are spending more time at the pool or beach.

Here is a list of common signs of hearing loss in children, including:

• Saying “huh?” or “what?” frequently
• Increasing the volume on a television or stereo to very loud levels, or sitting very close to the TV
• Switching ears frequently when using the telephone
• Having difficulty understanding what is being said in a noisy environment

Teachers and parents should also watch for other signs of hearing loss in children and teens:

• Delayed speech or language development
• Attention deficit or behavior problems
• Poor academic performance

Hearing is critical to speech and language development, communication and learning. Professionals agree that when a child has hearing loss, early intervention is critical. Even a few months can be a major delay in the rapidly changing brain of a child. Studies show that early intervention helps improve language development, increase academic success and increase lifetime opportunities for a child with hearing loss.

For more information, visit Hearing-Aid.com.
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Smartphone Users at Risk for Personal Information Theft

August 30, 2011 8:57 pm

Smartphone users are at risk of personal information theft as hackers target mobile devices and online banking mobile apps. Users are being warned to take precautions to prevent identity theft, a threat that can jeopardize the financial stability of their assets.

A new virus that records and saves a user’s private conversation has recently emerged. The recorded conversation is uploaded to a remote server, where it becomes available to thieves and hackers. These tactics are being directed at smartphone users who are unaware of the increased malware attempts to steal important personal information.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that around nine million U.S. residents have their identities stolen each year. Thieves gain personal information to obtain credit cards, open telephone accounts and even rent properties. Information can also be used to apply for federal benefits such as Social Security payments.

These preventative measures are recommended for smartphone users to ensure the safety of their personal information and financial assets:

1. Lock Your Phone. If your phone gets lost or stolen, it can easily fall into the wrong hands. Even if the phone is not returned to you, the thief would have to restore everything to its factory settings if she/he wanted to use it. All personal information would be wiped-out.
2. Use a Secure Network. Transactions with personal information should always be used on a secure network. Avoid places with free Wi-Fi connections to ensure your data isn’t being transmitted openly, especially if you’re making money transfers.
3. Only Install Trusted Apps. Only applications from trusted companies should be installed. Always read through reviews of the app and consider the rating before downloading it.
4. Log Out. Never keep your log-in information stored on any application. Remember to log out each time you finish your online banking to terminate the username and password to your accounts.
5. Get Mobile Security Software. There are security apps available in certain mobile marketplaces that will act as a virus protection program. Packages from anti-virus companies such as McAfee or Norton can also be purchased.
6. Keep the default. Devices are on factory settings to give consumers the best type of protection – unless he/she changes it. Jail-breaking or unlocking a phone immediately voids the original software settings within a phone, which makes it much more susceptible to third-party manufacturers.
7. Beware of unknown texts. Just like emails, viruses can be attached to text messages, and if opened, the virus can infiltrate a mobile device. If you get a text from an unknown number, especially one that doesn’t look like a real phone number (e.g., 013284823157 or 82047), simply delete it.

Source: Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc.
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Existing-Home Sales Down in July but Up Strongly From a Year Ago

August 30, 2011 8:57 pm

Existing-home sales declined in July from an upwardly revised June pace but are notably higher than a year ago, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. Monthly gains in the Northeast and Midwest were offset by declines in the West and South.

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, fell 3.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.67 million in July from 4.84 million in June, but are 21.0% above the 3.86 million unit pace in July 2010, which was a cyclical low immediately following the expiration of the home buyer tax credit.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says there is a tug and pull on the market. “Affordability conditions this year have been the most favorable on record dating back to 1970, but many buyers are being held back because banks are offering financing to only the most highly qualified borrowers, ignoring a large share of otherwise creditworthy buyers,” he says. “Those potential buyers represent the difference between an uneven recovery and a much more robust housing market that could stimulate additional economic activity and create jobs.”

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage was 4.55% in July, up from 4.51% in June; the rate was 4.56% in July 2010. Last week, Freddie Mac reported the 30-year fixed rate dropped to 4.32%.

Contract failures – cancellations caused largely by declined mortgage applications or failures in loan underwriting from appraised values coming in below the negotiated price – were unchanged in July, reported by 16% of NAR members. In addition, 9% of REALTORS® report a contract was delayed in the past three months due to low appraisals, and another 13% said a contract was renegotiated to a lower sales price because an appraisal was below the initially agreed price.

NAR President Ron Phipps says an unacceptably high number of potential home buyers are unable to complete transactions. “For both mortgage credit and home appraisals, there’s been a parallel pendulum swing from very loose standards which led to the housing boom, to unnecessarily restrictive practices as an overreaction to the housing correction,” he said.

“Beyond the tight credit problems, all appraisals must be done by valuators with local expertise and using reasonable comparisons – it doesn’t make sense to consistently see so many valuations coming in below negotiated prices, often below replacement construction costs,” Phipps says.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $174,000 in July, down 4.4% from July 2010. Distressed homes – foreclosures and short sales typically sold at deep discounts – accounted for 29% of sales in July, compared with 30% in June and 32% in July 2010.

Total housing inventory at the end of July fell 1.7% to 3.65 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 9.4-month supply at the current sales pace, up from a 9.2-month supply in June.
First-time buyers purchased 32% of homes in July, up from 31% in June; they were 38% in July 2010. Investors accounted for 18% of purchase activity in July compared with 19% in June and 19% in July 2010. The balance of sales was to repeat buyers, which were a 50% market share in July, unchanged from June.

Single-family home sales declined 4.0% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.12 million in July from 4.29 million in June, but are 21.5% above the 3.39 million level in July 2010. The median existing single-family home price was $174,800 in July, down 4.5% from a year ago.

Existing condominium and co-op sales were unchanged at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 550,000 in July, and are 17.3% above the 469,000-unit pace one year ago. The median existing condo price was $168,400 in July, down 4.0% from July 2010.
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Facebook Makes Much-Needed Changes to Privacy Settings

August 29, 2011 8:57 pm

Riding on the coattails of the recent developments from Google+, Facebook has announced changes to its privacy policy. Members will now have increased control over what personal information is shared and who that information is shared with on the network.

These changes went into effect last Thursday and incorporate some of the same privacy features recently released by Google. Facebook members can now:

Choose who can read your posts: Members have full control over content posted on their walls. A new dropdown box offers options for Public (previously, "Everyone"), Friends, or Friends of Friends. Custom-created groupings can also be created in order to share with a limited selection of Friends, further protecting users' information and privacy.

Edit already-published wall posts: For already-published wall posts, users can now edit the privacy options for each specific posting. Previously, deleting the item in question was the only option, however, users may now edit the privacy settings on any selection, at any time.

The company says that further changes are on the horizon and that they plan on launching interactive tutorials alongside every new feature as they are rolled out.

For more information, visit www.consumerreports.org and www.facebook.com.
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Safety Crucial for Post Natural Disaster Clean-Up

August 29, 2011 8:57 pm

This weekend's Hurricane Irene has left many states with rubble and debris that is in dire need of proper removal. For homeowners affected by Irene's wrath (or any other weather- or natural disaster-related damage), safety is a crucial, yet often overlooked aspect of the daunting clean-up task.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness encourage residents to be cautious when removing harmful debris from homes, yards and roadways.

Debris piles are dangerous - follow the safety guidelines below:

• Do not place debris on or near fire hydrants, utility boxes or gas meters. Dangerous gases could escape if utility boxes or gas meters are damaged during debris removal.
• Keep children away from debris piles. They can be full of broken items, glass, nails and other sharp objects. Children could easily be injured playing in, around or on these mounds of debris. The pile may also contain rodents, snakes or bugs.
• Do not allow children near equipment and debris removal operations. Inquisitive children could be standing or playing in the equipment operator's "blind spot" and may not be seen when equipment and trucks move.
• Keep all open flames and lit cigarettes clear of debris piles. The piles often contain flammable materials.
• Don't park cars near debris piles. This will make it easier for the equipment operator to pick up the material and reduce possible damage to your car.
• Drive carefully if you're behind a debris removal truck. Leave a safe distance between your car and the truck. Materials may fall from the truck creating a driving hazard.
• Observe all traffic rules and flagger directions when driving near debris collection sites.

For more information, visit www.fema.gov.
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Hurricane Irene Underscores Importance of Reauthorizing National Flood Insurance Program

August 29, 2011 8:57 pm

As homeowners across the East Coast continue dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the threat of similar disasters underscores the importance of flood insurance, which is the only way for homeowners to financially protect their property or businesses from flood damages.

Hurricane damage from water is only covered by flood insurance, which must be purchased separately through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and if Congress doesn’t act soon, this critical program will expire on September 30, 2011, putting millions of homeowners at risk.

“As the leading advocate for homeownership and housing issues, NAR believes that the NFIP is essential to a properly functioning real estate market, ensuring access to affordable flood insurance for millions of homeowners,” says NAR President Ron Phipps. “REALTORS® support any and every effort to extend the program for as long as legislatively possible, so that American families won’t have to go without essential flood protection.”

Floods are also not just a coastal issue and are not only caused by hurricanes. Floods claimed more lives and property than any other natural disaster in the U.S. over the past century and have been declared in every state, along rivers and anywhere rain falls or snow melts.

The NFIP is set to expire on September 30 for the tenth time in three years, and NAR urges Congress to reauthorize the program for five years, before it expires. The NFIP ensures access to affordable flood insurance for more than 5.6 million home and business owners in 21,000 communities across the nation.

“We strongly urge Congress to speed passage of legislation to reauthorize the NFIP for the long term and end the current stopgap approach that has already led to numerous extensions and lapses of program authority in the past two years,” says Phipps.

NAR also calls on Congress to develop a proactive national policy to reduce natural disaster risk beyond floods, so that homeowners have access to affordable, comprehensive property insurance for a full range of natural disasters, and taxpayers no longer have to fund rebuilding efforts through federal disaster assistance.

“Whether it’s a tornado, flood, hurricane or earthquakes like those that hit Colorado and the Eastern U.S. this week, virtually every region of the country is susceptible to nature’s unexpected fury,” says Phipps. “Our thoughts are with all Americans who were affected by this hurricane, and we will continue to work with public policymakers on these important issues.”
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Protect Food and Family During Power Outages

August 26, 2011 8:57 pm

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued recommendations for residents in states that might be affected by Hurricane Irene to minimize the potential for foodborne illnesses in the event of power outages, flooding, and other problems that could be associated with the storm. But regardless of storms, if the power goes out under any circumstance, it's always important to know how to keep your food safe to ensure your family's health is never in jeopardy.

Steps to follow to prepare for a possible emergency:
• Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. An appliance thermometer will indicate the temperature inside the refrigerator and freezer in case of a power outage and help determine the safety of the food.
• Make sure the freezer is at 0°F or below and the refrigerator is at 40°F or below.
• Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers after the power is out.
• Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately — this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
• Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.
• Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours. Purchase or make ice and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.
• Group food together in the freezer — this helps the food stay cold longer.
• Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.

Steps to follow after the emergency:
• Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
• The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) and the door remains closed.
• Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.
• Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40°F or below when checked with a food thermometer.
• Never taste a food to determine its safety!
• Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for two days.
• If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
• If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
• Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.
• Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
• Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety.

With a little preparation, you can salvage the most food possible from your fridge and freezer and ensure that your family only consumes the freshest of products.

For more information, visit www.usda.gov.
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Loan Limit Extended for Reverse Mortgages

August 26, 2011 8:57 pm

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has recently released Mortgagee Letter 11-29, which will keep the lending limit at $625,500 for Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs or reverse mortgages) through Dec. 31, 2011.

This is welcoming news for older homeowners interested in reverse mortgages. Reverse mortgages are available to homeowners 62 and older wherein the lender makes monthly payments or a lump sum payment to the homeowner. Many seniors use reverse mortgages to supplement social security, meet unexpected medical expenses, make home improvements, and more. No monthly repayment is required until the borrower no longer uses the home as their principal residence.

“Homes tend to be a higher value when borrowers 62 and older are allowed to withdraw larger amounts of equity out of their homes without having to qualify in the traditional income and debt requirements,” explains reverse mortgage expert Sue Drawdy.

If HUD had not extended the $625,500 limit, it would have dropped down to the pre-American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) conforming loan limit of $417,000. Drawdy says it is uncertain what will happen to the limit after December 31; unless congress acts, the loan limit will likely drop down to the 2008 limit.
“This extension of the loan limit makes now a great time to take out a reverse mortgage,” says Drawdy. “You can even purchase a new home with the reverse mortgage.”
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