November 29, 2011 9:36 pm
Although the housing market struggled to maintain an even footing in 2011, gradual improvement is expected in 2012 and beyond, according to projections from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR).
Lawrence Yun, chief economist of NAR, said home sales should be stronger. “Tight mortgage credit conditions have been holding back home buyers all year, and consumer confidence has been shaky recently,” he said. “Nonetheless, there is a sizeable pent-up demand based on population growth, employment levels and a doubling-up phenomenon that can’t continue indefinitely. This demand could quickly stimulate the market when conditions improve.”
Yun projects growth in Gross Domestic Product to be 1.8% this year, then rising moderately at a rate of 2.2% in 2012. With job growth of 1.7 to 2.2 million next year, the unemployment rate is expected to decline to 8.7% by the second half of 2012.
Mortgage interest rates should gradually rise from recent record lows and reach 4.5% by the middle of 2012.
“Housing affordability conditions, based on the relationship between median home prices, mortgage interest rates, and median family income, have been at a record high this year,” Yun said. “Very favorable affordability conditions will dominate next year as well, which will probably be the second best year on record dating back to 1970. Our hope is that credit restrictions will ease and allow more home buyers to take advantage of current opportunities.”
Existing-home sales are forecast to edge up about 1% this year, and then rise another 4-5% in 2012. Based on NAR’s current projection model, existing-home sales would total 4.96 million in 2011.
NAR presently is benchmarking existing-home sales, and downward revisions are expected for totals in recent years, although there will be little change to previously reported comparisons based on percentage change. There will be no change to median prices or month’s supply of inventory. Publication of the improved measurement methodology is expected in the near future.
New-home sales are expected to be a record low 302,000 this year, rising to 372,000 in 2012. Housing starts are forecast to rise to 630,000 next year from 583,000 in 2011. “Although a double-digit growth in new-home sales and housing starts sounds encouraging, the projections remain historically soft relative to long-term underlying demand,” Yun explained.
With falling inventory, the median home price should rise in 2012. “Home prices have yet to show a definitive stabilization pattern in most areas. Still, given an over-correction in prices, there likely will be moderate appreciation in 2012,” Yun said.
“Once home prices turn positive on a sustained basis, consumer confidence will rise and help the broader economy to improve,” Yun added. “If we could maintain sound and reasonable mortgage underwriting standards, the market would be able to avoid a future big boom and bust cycle, but mortgage standards remain overly stringent.”
For more information, visit www.realtor.org.
November 28, 2011 3:34 pm
Throughout the holidays and into the new year, consumers should be cautious when shopping online in order to protect all of their personal information. Cyber criminals are looking to take advantage of the high volume of users and transactions during this time in order to gain access to accounts, steal data and conduct other malicious activity.
The following tips will help you improve security and minimize risks while shopping online:
1. Secure your computer. Keep your operating system and application software updated/patched. Be sure to check that your anti-virus/anti-spyware software is running and receiving automatic updates. Confirm that your firewall is enabled.
2. Shop with trusted merchants. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. If you have questions about a merchant, check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. Confirm the online seller's physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
3. Secure your online transactions. If you submit your financial information through an organization's website, be sure to look for indicators that the site is secure. Look for the browser's status bar and be sure “https” appears in the website’s address bar before making an online purchase. The "s" stands for "secure” and indicates that communication with the webpage is encrypted.
4. Use strong passwords. If you need to create an account using a password with the merchant, be sure to create a strong password. Use at least eight characters, with numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Don’t use the same passwords for online shopping websites that you use for any other account. Never share your login and/or password.
5. Avoid scams and fraud. Don’t ever give your financial information or personal information over e-mail, text or by phone. Be aware of unsolicited communications purporting to represent charities. Always think before you click on e-mails you receive asking for donations and contact the organization directly to verify the request.
6. Do not use public computers or public wireless to conduct transactions. Public computers may contain malicious software that steals your credit card information when you place your order. Criminals may be monitoring public wireless networks for credit card numbers and other confidential information.
7. Ignore pop-up messages. Set your browser to block pop-up messages. If you get an e-mail or pop-up message that asks for your financial information while you’re browsing, don't reply or follow the link. Legitimate companies won’t ask for financial information in a pop-up message. Close out of the pop-up message by closing out of the browser.
8. Pay by credit card. Pay by credit card rather than debit card, as credit cards are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and may reduce your liability if your information was used improperly.
9. Keep a paper trail. Print or save records of your online transactions. Carefully review your credit card statements as soon as you receive them to confirm that all charges are legitimate. Contact your credit card company immediately if you have unauthorized charges on your account.
November 28, 2011 3:34 pm
This holiday season, seniors and aging adults are urged to stay active in order to enjoy good health during this year's festivities. While nonagenarians, a person whose age is in the nineties, may not be able to go “dashing through the snow” as fast as they did in their youth, they can make an effort to see friends, do volunteer work, play a rousing game of Scrabble or even knit holiday sweaters for their nieces and nephews. Extra servings of pumpkin pie, however, are best avoided.
Each of those actions during the festive season can lead to a better quality of life for seniors, according to studies of elders in Okinawa, which boasts more centenarians per 100,000 people than anywhere else on Earth. To ensure older adults throughout North America can benefit from the findings of these studies, Americans should observe the five components of healthy longevity identified among the Okinawans:
Physical activity: Taking a walk after a hearty holiday meal is a good idea for those of any age, but it is particularly beneficial to seniors. Even aging adults who are less ambulatory can take part in some form of exercise, whether it is lifting their feet repeatedly while seated in a sturdy chair, or raising their arms skyward several times in a row.
Healthy diet: Comfort foods drawn from family or ethnic traditions are especially enjoyed by seniors during the holidays. However, the recipes for these dishes should be adapted to the palates and dietary needs of aging adults. Lean meats, such as turkey breast, are readily available during this time of year and serve as a healthy alternative to red meat for seniors. Also, limit the intake of sweets and desserts that accompany celebrations – except perhaps for antioxidant rich dark chocolate. Other “super foods” for seniors that are beneficial to include in holiday meals are blueberries, flax seed, carrots, eggs, nuts and salmon.
Sharp minds: While dementia and short-term memory loss are common among seniors, mentally-stimulating activities can help them delay, or possibly even prevent, the onset of these conditions. Designing holiday festivities around skill-based games, such as Scrabble, checkers, backgammon or Boggle, not only makes the event fun for party-goers, but these activities can also help seniors maintain cognitive function. Engaging in pattern-following crafts like knitting or needlepoint also stimulates the brains of older adults in ways that can help keep them mentally fit.
Social ties: Though the holiday season can bring back memories of lost loved ones, this time of year also offers numerous opportunities for seniors to engage with other people, whether through social gatherings, phone calls, email or greeting cards. Research shows that social ties keep people healthy by providing emotional support, limiting stress levels, and helping seniors maintain an irreplaceable level of independence. While group activities in family homes or senior centers can be the centerpiece of holiday celebrations, aging adults can also benefit from receiving a daily phone call or email because it helps them feel connected to those they care about.
Calmness and Purpose: For some seniors, participating in a religious service helps them maintain a calm center and focus on their life purpose, while others may prefer practices such as yoga or meditation. The holidays also offer ample opportunities for older adults to fulfill a purpose by volunteering at local organizations and nonprofits. Sharing personal stories or reading special holiday stories to younger family members and friends can also help seniors maintain a sense of connectivity to those around them.
For more information on how seniors can remain healthy and happy, visit www.homecareassistance.com.
November 23, 2011 3:34 pm
For many Americans, the Internet is where they go to pay off credit card bills and student loans, manage checking and savings accounts, check email, and more. Just about everything these days is controlled with a username and password granting the user access to important and private information.
Undoubtedly, the amount of passwords adds up, however, you still want to be sure that you keep your information safe. You’ll want to make sure your password isn’t on this list of the top 10 worst passwords. Imperva analyzed 32 million passwords stolen from a hacked website called RockYou to reveal the most stolen passwords. The list is as follows:
To create safer passwords to protect your information against hackers, create passwords that contain at least eight characters and that include a mix of at least four types of characters, such as uppercase or lowercase letters, and special characters like “!” or “@”. Also, avoid having a password that is a word found in the dictionary or that includes any part of your name or email address.
With attention to detail and a little organization to keep your various passwords straight, you can feel secure that your information is safe on the Internet.
November 23, 2011 3:34 pm
According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2011 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, Americans will spend an average of $704.18 on holiday gifts and decorations, down slightly from last year’s average of $718.98. However, retail sales expectations for November and December show a 2.8% growth to $465.6 billion. Even in a shaky economy, consumers are willing to swipe for the right price.
Declining credit card usage over the past year has credit card companies boosting their reward incentives in hopes of luring customers back. This holiday season consumers are more likely to use cash for purchases, hinting they’re concerned about taking on high-interest debt in a weak economy. Creditors are offering free gift cards, triple bonus points and air miles, but consumers need to understand the broadening restrictions that apply to these rewards.
“People need to read the fine print and speak with the card issuer about details related to bonus points and incentives. If you have the money to pay-off the credit card purchases before payment is due it is OK to use your card to get additional rewards,” says Howard Dvorkin, author and founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc., a financial literacy provider that has helped more than 5 million Americans pay off their credit card debt. “Let’s say you sign up for a Target card which offers 5 percent off every purchase. If you don’t pay the balance within 30 days of the purchase, that 5 percent becomes nonexistent when the 25 percent interest rate is added onto your balance. It is important to know all aspects of your credit card contract and act wisely,” Dvorkin continues.
Tips for managing credit cards this holiday season include:
1. Read the fine print. Become educated about new rewards/bonus points/incentives creditors are offering for swiping a credit card. Shoppers can’t expect to follow rules and guidelines if they don’t know what they are.
2. Only swipe what can be paid off in 30 days. To establish a positive credit score people can use credit to pay for monthly bills such as electric, auto payments, etc. This is a good way to get rewards because the money to pay the bills should be in their monthly budget. Caution: this method can backfire if a person is not saving enough money to pay off the balances each month.
3. Know interest rates and credit balances before holiday shopping begins. In order for people to be successful managing their credit, they must be up-to-date about their credit card balances, interest rates, payment due dates, and how long specific interest rates last.
4. Seek out cards with the best rewards. Find a credit card that offers double or triple points. One resource to find the best credit card is creditcards.com.
5. Pay credit card bills on time every month. By paying credit card bills in full and on time each month, people can prove they are trustworthy.
Source: Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc.
November 22, 2011 9:34 pm
For many, shopping on Black Friday has become as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, with friends and families whipping up a shopping strategy along with the dressing and gravy. Following are five steps consumers should take before hitting the stores on Black Friday, helping them enjoy their shopping excursion without harming their pocketbook.
• Beware of special credit card offers – Issuers are tempting consumers by offering incentives such as no interest balance transfers, extra perks by meeting certain spending levels, and increased cash back in specified categories. However, no deal is a good deal if you can’t afford it. Responsible shoppers will commit to spending no more than what they can repay in full when the bill arrives, regardless of how many bonuses are tacked on.
• Know what you currently owe – Review all existing debt obligations, tallying what you’ve already spent and committed to repay. This reality check may put a temporary damper on your holiday mood, but that’s better than digging the financial hole even deeper.
• Create a plan – Knowing who you’re shopping for, what items you hope to find, and most importantly, how much you intend to spend is critical to a successful shopping trip. Commit in advance to stick to your plan, and enlist an accountability partner if necessary, as it is very easy to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and get off course.
• Find the best deals at home – Shop from home before heading for the stores. Compare prices online, as well as local circulars for sales in your area. Be aware of time restrictions, as some prices may only apply during certain time periods throughout the day. Once the actual shopping begins, going directly to the store which has your item at a good price will save you time, gas, money and frustration.
• Remove all unnecessary cards from your wallet – Spreading purchases across multiple cards makes you feel as though you’re charging less and can trick you into overspending. Designate one card for holiday spending, and remove all others from your wallet. This will not only help you stay within your budget, but will also lessen the damage in case of loss or theft.
“It is important for consumers to shop with their head, not their heart,” says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for The National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “Preparing in advance will help you stick to your budget, in spite of the decorations, carols and Santa himself beckoning you to spend.”
Source: The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, www.DebtAdvice.org
November 22, 2011 3:34 pm
Even during a recovering economy there are people relocating, downsizing, getting married, starting families and buying a second home. Life goes on. Something to keep in mind, however, is that moving is not the only way to change your environment.
Feng Shui is the flow and containment of energy (Qi). Good Feng Shui is the relationship between nature, landscape, buildings and the happy people inhabiting their environment. There are simple practices that can deeply improve the energy in your home or office.
Try the following and make a positive change in your life:
1. Get rid of your clutter. Clean, scrub and organize. Make room for new and wonderful things to come into your life!
2. Electromagnetic fields minimize your health and wellness. Move computer screens and televisions further away from you. Even a small difference in distance can make a big difference in your exposure. Pull plugs out of the outlets when you are not using them. Think of options to replace the use of some of the electric items you are using.
3. You may feel unsettled when you sit or sleep in a corner. The energy moves very quickly in that kind of path. Soften the edge of a corner with plants or a wind chime. To avoid restlessness, rearrange your furniture so you are not sitting or sleeping in the corner of the room.
November 22, 2011 3:34 pm
The start of a new season means that it's time to clean up the house, swap out clothes in your closets, and break out the seasonal tools in the garage. Check out the following tricks that will prepare any homeowner with the organizing skills necessary to keep everything tidy year-round.
Store it in the fall
1. Garden tools and pots: Hose off dirty gardening gear and stack pots in tiers. For pots with fragile surfaces, layer newspaper between vessels to protect from scratches and chips. Outdoor garden storage benches and cabinets are also great for storing tools and pots over the winter. To find gear easily come spring, group like items together.
2. Summer clothes: To free up precious closet real estate, measure the number of feet of hanging space your clothes take up and get a garment rack wide enough to accommodate it all. Stow in a dry basement or attic. And be sure to clean clothes before putting them away—even if they look spot-free. Stains that seem invisible can oxidize over time and be hard to get out if left untreated.
3. Beach towels, picnic blankets, outdoor linens, and tableware: Clear the linen closet of summer beach towels and outdoor tablecloths and place mats; stash in giant plastic tubs. Cradle outdoor dishes and cups on top. Park the bin in a basement or attic.
Store it in the winter
1. Garden rakes: Hang long-handled rakes and garden tools from a pegboard. Affix the board to any garage or shed wall, leaving about an inch of space between the wall and the board to accommodate hooks.
2. Seasonal decorations: Stow jack-o-lanterns and cornucopias in opaque bins—clear bins let in light, which can damage memorabilia. Seasonal bins, which can be found at discount stores, are a great way to store items for specific holidays so that you can quickly and easily tell what’s for Halloween or Thanksgiving.
3. Bikes: There are many types of bike racks; some mount into studs on the wall, others mount from a track system. Check out your options and choose one that works for your space. Hang it in an empty spot on a wall in the garage.
Store it in the spring
1. Boots: Stuff boots with boot forms to help them keep their shape. You can also use balled-up gym socks in a pinch. Lay each pair of boots flat in a plastic bin. Stack bins at the back of your closet or put under your bed.
2. Sleds and ice skates: Most sleds have holes for a steering rope; thread heavy rope through the holes, then hang sleds in the garage. Stash disc-type sleds in a large clear contractor bag. Tie a knot at the top and hang from a hook, flat against the wall of your garage.
3. Bulky coats and bedding: Wash or dry-clean throws, quilts, and duvets, then store in space bags in a linen closet. Short on closet space? Use a rolling garment rack with a zippered front closure to keep out moisture and moths. For bug protection, place cedar blocks at the bottom of the bag before putting it in the basement or attic.
Store it in the summer
1. Backpacks and lunch boxes: Clean backpacks and wash lunch boxes, then air them out in the sun before putting them away in a storage tote labeled "Back to School." Store the tote in the back of an entryway closet or in the attic. If you don't have a large storage area, use your child's closet: Put the lunch box inside the backpack and hang it on a hook in the side or rear of the closet.
2. Artwork and school papers: "Condense and preserve" is your mantra for children's school papers and projects. Condense what you need to store by weeding out items your child is no longer attached to. Preserve especially important projects by asking your child to pick out five pieces he/she wants to save. Put the rest in a portfolio labeled with your child's name and school year. Store it at the back of his/her closet or in the attic.
3. Wool rugs: Roll up cleaned and vacuumed rugs to keep them free of deep creases or bends, then wrap them in large plastic bags. Store them up high on a garage shelf or in your attic.
For more information, visit www.ShopSmartmag.org.
November 22, 2011 3:34 pm
The Thanksgiving holiday weekend has become responsible for more cooking related fires and accidents than many other times of the year. In recent years, a new and popular nation-wide trend for Thanksgiving dinner is deep fried turkey. This method has been introduced and shown on cooking television shows and in popular recipes. The draw to a deep fried turkey is the recipe’s ability to create a cooked turkey that is not dried out, as can happen with the traditional method of oven cooking a turkey.
Even if you follow the deep fryer instructions, the practice of deep frying a turkey can be dangerous as it involves submerging the turkey in two to five gallons of oil or fat heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s important not to overheat the oil or the vapors could burst into flames. It is also important to maintain the proper level of oil—if the oil level is too high it may over flow and ignite, which can quickly create a large fire. There is also the possibility that the fryer could tip over, spill or splash causing a risk of ignition and burn injuries.
Here are a few safety tips for deep frying turkeys:
• Following the deep turkey frying mechanism manufacturer’s instructions is an important start.
• Keeping children away from the deep turkey fryer, open flames, propane tanks and similar hazards is always good practice.
• One should never use a deep turkey fryer indoors or in an enclosed area. Using the device outdoors and away from combustible or structural components, such as decks, can help avoid flare-ups.
• A deep turkey fryer or similar device should never be left unattended.
• Ensuring that the deep turkey fryer is secure and on a flat surface, can reduce the risk of the device tipping over.
• Great care when handling the lid, side handles, or the pot should be used. These will be extremely hot and may pose a burn or tipping hazard.
• If a deep turkey fryer does ignite, water should not be used to douse the flames. Calling the fire department and/or using an ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher should be the first step in such an emergency.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Thanksgiving Day records the most home cooking fires in the United States. With these safety tips, you can prevent a fire from happening in your home.
Source: All Hands Fire Equipment
November 21, 2011 9:32 pm
Children are magnets for colds. But when the “cold” won’t go away for weeks, the culprit may be allergies. Long-lasting sneezing with a stuffy or runny nose may signal the presence of allergic rhinitis—the collection of symptoms that affect the nose when you have an allergic reaction to something you breathe in that lands on the lining inside the nose.
Allergies may be seasonal or they can strike year-round (perennial). In most parts of the United States, plant pollens are often the cause of seasonal allergic rhinitis—more commonly called hay fever. Indoor substances, such as mold, dust mites, and pet dander, may cause the perennial kind.
Up to 40% of children suffer from allergic rhinitis, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). And children are more likely to develop allergies if one or both parents have allergies.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines that offer allergy relief as well as allergen extracts used to diagnose and treat allergies.
Immune System Reaction
An allergy is a reaction of the immune system to a specific substance, or allergen. The immune system responds to the invading allergen by releasing histamine and other chemicals that typically trigger symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, eyes, skin, or stomach lining, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. In some children, allergies can also trigger symptoms of asthma—a disease that causes wheezing or difficulty breathing.
Avoiding the Culprit
If your child has seasonal allergies, you may want to pay attention to pollen counts and try to keep your child inside when the levels are high.
• In the late summer and early fall, during ragweed pollen season, pollen levels are highest in the morning.
• In the spring and summer, during the grass pollen season, pollen levels are highest in the evening.
• Some molds, another allergy trigger, may also be seasonal. For example, leaf mold is more common in the fall.
• Sunny, windy days can be especially troublesome for pollen allergy sufferers.
It may also help to keep windows closed in your house and car, and run the air conditioner when pollen counts are high.
For most children, symptoms may be controlled by avoiding the allergen, if known, and using OTC medicines. However, if a child’s symptoms are persistent and not relieved by OTC medicines, it is wise to see a health care professional to assess your child’s symptoms and see if other treatments, including prescription medicines, may be appropriate.
While some allergy medicines are approved for use in children as young as six months, Dianne Murphy, M.D., director of FDA’s Office of Pediatric Therapeutics, cautions, “Always read the label to make sure the product is appropriate for your child’s age. Just because a product’s box says that it is intended for children does not mean it is intended for children of all ages."
Children who don't respond to either OTC or prescription medications, or who suffer from frequent complications of allergic rhinitis, may be candidates for allergen immunotherapy—commonly known as allergy shots. According to NIAID, about 80% of people with allergic rhinitis will see their symptoms and need for medicine drop significantly within a year of starting allergy shots.
After allergy testing, typically by skin testing to detect what allergens your child may react to, a health care professional injects the child with “extracts”—small amounts of the allergens that trigger a reaction. The doses are gradually increased so that the body builds up immunity to these allergens.
Allergen extracts are manufactured from natural substances, such as pollens, insect venoms, animal hair, and foods. More than 1,200 extracts are licensed by FDA.
For more information, visit www.fda.gov.