August 11, 2011 8:57 pm
Recently, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the availability of $95 million to support sustainable local initiatives through the FY 2011 Regional Planning and Community Challenge Planning Grant Programs from HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. Awarded competitively, both programs work to expand housing choices, improve connections between employment centers and homes, and reduce barriers to achieving affordable, economically vital, and sustainable communities.
"This funding renews an important commitment the Administration made to American families with the announcement of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in 2009,” says Donovan. "Connecting affordable housing choices with quality schools and jobs not only ensures families will be able to provide a safe environment for their children, but it also provides communities large and small with the resources they need to make a sustainable plan for their future.”
This year’s Regional Planning Grant program will encourage grantees to support regional planning efforts that integrate housing, land-use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure developments in a manner that empowers regions to consider how all of these factors work together to bring economic competitiveness and revitalization to a community. The program will place a priority on partnerships, including the collaboration of arts and culture, philanthropy, and innovative ideas to the regional planning process.
Recognizing that areas are in different stages of sustainability planning, HUD will establish two funding categories for the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program.
• Group 1 Funds: Can be used to support the preparation of Regional Plans for sustainable development.
• Group 2 Funds: Can be used to support efforts to modify existing regional plans so that they are in accordance with the Partnership for Sustainable Communities’ six Livability Principles. Category 2 Funds also may be used to prepare more detailed execution plans for an adopted regional plan for sustainable development and limit predevelopment planning activities for catalytic projects.
The Community Challenge Planning grant program will be competitively awarded to state, local and tribal governments for efforts such as amending or replacing local master plans, zoning and building codes to promote mixed-use development, building more affordable housing, and the rehabilitation of older buildings and structures with the goal of promoting sustainability at the local and neighborhood levels. In addition, this year’s grant program will set aside $3 million for jurisdictions with populations under 50,000, and reward high scoring applicants with Preferred Sustainability Status (PSS), which will qualify them for several benefits, including access to capacity building resources and potential points in a number of funding opportunities managed by HUD.
Both programs, now in their second year build on the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an innovative interagency collaboration, launched by President Obama in June 2009, between HUD, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide more sustainable housing and transportation choices for families and lay the foundation for a 21st century economy. Guided by six Livability Principles, the Partnership is designed to remove the traditional silos that exist between federal departments and strategically target the agencies' transportation, land use, environmental, housing and community development resources to provide communities the resources they need to build more livable, sustainable communities. Last month the Partnership marked its second anniversary through a website, www.sustainablecommunities.gov, which provides a one-stop shop for best practices, grant announcement and accomplishments of the Partnership. This year’s grant awardees will join more than 80 communities around the country that have already used sustainable communities funding to plan their region’s future.
The Partnership’s interagency collaboration gets better results for communities and uses taxpayer money more efficiently by coordinating federal investments in infrastructure, facilities, and services that meet multiple economic, environmental, and community objectives with each dollar spent. The Partnership is helping communities across the country to create more housing choices, make transportation more efficient and reliable, reinforce existing investments, and support vibrant and healthy neighborhoods that attract businesses. At a time when every dollar the federal government invests in jumpstarting the economy is critical, the President’s plan ensures that all these agencies are coordinating efforts and targeting resources with precision. Community Planning Challenge grants will reinforce the principles of the Partnership, and provide the grantees with the necessary tools to build economic competitiveness in their regions.
For more information, please visit www.hud.gov.
August 10, 2011 8:57 pm
Selling a house isn’t easy these days. There are a huge number of homes on the market, and buyers are easily scared off if they encounter problems that may negatively impact resale value. Among the many issues that need to be addressed in order to make a house more marketable, foundation problems rank near the top of the list, according to Walter Molony, an expert in statistics and research at the National Association of Realtors.
“Before a house is listed for sale, the real estate agent will work with the homeowners to make sure that the property is competitive with similar properties in the area,” Molony explains. “A little dampness in the basement or a small drywall crack are flaws that a potential buyer may be willing to overlook,” says Molony, “but a cracked or bowed foundation wall will be a major red flag. Since most home sales are contingent on a satisfactory home inspection, foundation problems are very likely to stop a home sale dead in its tracks.”
Home improvements vs. home repairs
In today’s tight economy, it’s understandable for homeowners to put off home improvements until they feel more financially secure. But it’s important to make a distinction between basic “feel-good” improvements (like painting a room or installing shelving) and repairs that correct safety issues or prevent a problem from getting worse. Fixing a damaged foundation definitely falls into this latter “must-do” category.
“It’s risky to put off fixing a damaged foundation,” says Dave Thrasher, an expert from a Nebraska-based foundation company. “If a crack starts to enlarge or a wall starts to buckle, you’re seeing a failure that is probably going to get worse,” Thrasher continues. “The longer you wait, the more extensive the problem becomes and the more expensive the repair is going to be.”
Foundation problems follow the building boom
Some foundation problems are obvious—cracks, tilting chimneys and bowing basement walls, for example. But there are other symptoms that may signal a settling or shifting foundation. For example, windows or doors can be racked by a shifting foundation and become difficult to open and close. Drywall cracks that extend from the corners of windows and doors are another telltale sign.
According to journalist M.P. McQueen, the decade-long building boom that began in the late 1990s “caused shortages of both skilled construction workers and quality materials. Many municipalities also fell behind inspecting and certifying new homes.” This perfect storm of poor quality control definitely took its toll. Research conducted by Criterium Engineers, a national building-inspection company, confirmed an uptick in the percentage of new homes with major construction defects.
Specialty foundation repair contractors have the right solutions
The good news about foundation problems is that most of them can be corrected, as long as the contractor has the training, tools and materials to do so. “We certainly get our share of calls from panicked homeowners,” says Thrasher. “By the time people call us, they’ve probably realized that local remodeling contractors can only temporarily fix cosmetic problems, but are unable to permanently solve the problem.
For more information, visit www.foundationsupportworks.com.
August 10, 2011 8:57 pm
The remodeling market slipped under pressure from a sluggish economy according to the National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB) Remodeling Market Index (RMI), which dipped during the second quarter to 43.9 from the first quarter result of 46.5. An RMI below 50 indicates that more remodelers report market activity is lower compared to the prior quarter than report it is higher.
The overall RMI combines ratings of current remodeling activity with indicators of future activity, like calls for bids. Current market conditions for the second quarter of 2011 fell to 44.8 from 46.1 in the first quarter. Future market indications dropped to 43.0 from 46.8 in the previous quarter.
"Remodelers have experienced the same hiccup that has rippled through the U.S. economy," says NAHB Remodelers Chairman Bob Peterson, CGR, CAPS, CGP, a remodeler from Ft. Collins, Colo. "After picking up the pace early in the year, the calls from customers dropped off and remodeling slowed down."
Regionally, current market conditions shrank in two areas: the Midwest to 44.4 (from 47.1 in the first quarter) and the South to 42.9 (from 46.1). The West at 48.2 (from 46.1) and Northeast at 48.1 (from 46.1) both climbed modestly.
Two indicators of current market conditions dropped: major additions to 46.2 (from 50.3 in the first quarter) and maintenance and repair to 38.4 (from 39.5). A third indicator, minor additions, remained essentially flat at 48.5 (from 48.0). Future market indicators also descended: calls for bids to 49.8 (from 53.1), backlog of remodeling jobs to 45.7 (from 49.7), and appointments for proposals to 44.2 (from 52.4). The amount of work committed for the next three months stayed level at 32.3 (from 32.1).
"While the RMI indicates that the home remodeling market softened somewhat in the second quarter, this is still the second highest RMI we've been able to report since the third quarter of 2007," says NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "There are several barriers blocking the way to a stronger recovery. Home owners who may want to remodel still face stringent lending requirements, and uncertainty about the economy is making them hesitant to undertake major improvements."
For more information, visit www.nahb.org/remodel.
August 10, 2011 8:57 pm
Have you ever received repeated cell phone calls from an unknown number? Or opened a text message offering an update to a phone app you don’t even use? These are just a few of the situations that should raise security red flags, according to computer science and information technology students at the prestigious Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) Lab at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. The students offer tips on how they keep their own personal information safe and dodge traps set by clever hackers.
When using social networking sites from your phone, skip the native apps – which know far more about your life than web browsers ever could – and access the sites through your phone’s browser. Also, use a password-protected screen lock to keep your phone secure.
Beware the false “update” link for apps! Verify the link you’re using to download an app before you click on it, or go directly to the company’s site to download the update. Sending fraudulent “update” links is a common method for directing users to sites where personal information can be compromised.
Clean up your apps regularly, removing those you don’t use. Some apps may be able to monitor and access various types of data on your phone, including your contact list. And if your phone has a SIM card, set a PIN code for the card — if the phone is ever lost, nobody can use the card.
Read the reviews of apps before you download, and choose reputable apps. Apps without many reviews and those that have been recently uploaded to the app market or app store are more likely to contain privacy and security problems.
Don’t trust Bluetooth! If you use a hands-free device to make cell phone calls, always use a wired headset. Bluetooth devices can be compromised and your personal data can be accessed or corrupted. If you do use Bluetooth, protect the connection with a longer, more secure password instead of a short PIN.
Watch out for apps that ask for too many permissions – If you’re installing a calculator app and it requests Internet and contacts permissions, that’s a bad sign. One way cyber-thieves exploit smart phones is by creating a good app with some extra code and overreaching permissions.
Log out of all Web services every time you’re finishing using them, or you may stay logged in indefinitely – even to sensitive sites like banking and email. On desktops, there’s a timeout period if you remain inactive, but not always with mobile access. If the phone is lost, anyone can access the sites you’re logged into.
Think twice before answering calls or text messages from unknown numbers, especially if you’ve received a call more than once. Phishing scams are often initiated through cell phone calls or texts. Google the phone number that’s calling you, and see if anyone has reported it as linked to a scam.
August 9, 2011 8:57 pm
Americans who reach age 65 are living an average of 18.5 more years—a four-year increase from 1960—according to a recent federal Aging Forum report. Friends and family can’t always stay with individuals who remain at home and require caregiver help, so home security is of high concern for this growing segment of the population. Consider these tips to help keep seniors secure at home:
1. Light the outdoors: Motion-activated outdoor lights can discourage potential intruders and alert seniors to potential emergencies. Standard, constant lights should also be installed at home exits like porches and garage doors, and turned on each night.
2. Install a security system: Many home alarm systems offer remote access through key chains that allow seniors who have trouble moving around to arm or disable a system from any room in their homes. Make sure the chosen system covers burglary, fire and medical emergencies. Some providers also offer personal emergency monitoring systems that seniors can use to alert medical professionals in case of an emergency like a fall.
3. Check IDs: Scam artists may promise money and prizes in exchange for payment or personal information like a Social Security number. Ask for identification from anyone that comes to the door. Checking with the affiliated business before letting a service or delivery person in is also a good idea. The website Snopes keeps track of circulating scams and hoaxes. Police should be alerted to any suspicious individuals and activity.
4. Use locks on a regular basis: Existing locks on all entrances and exits of a home are useless if they aren’t routinely used. Make a habit of keeping them locked and replace any in poor shape. Locks should be accessible to seniors from the inside in case of an emergency.
5. Schedule routine check-ins: Whether it’s with a hired caregiver or a loved one, seniors should check-in at least once a day in person or via phone to ensure that all is well.
For more information, visit www.securitychoice.com.
August 9, 2011 8:57 pm
By Keith Loria
If you are selling your home and you have an old, worn-down or fading fence on your property, chances are that it will leave a prospective buyer with an unfavorable impression.
One solution is to just remove it, but fences are often looked at as a good thing and so replacing or renovating the fence is a better solution. Many agents agree that something simple like fence updating can help set a house apart from others in the neighborhood.
“The feeling of security with a fence is about keeping something or someone in or out of a defined space,” says Gregory Knoop, of Hercules Fence Corporation in South Carolina. “Sometimes these goals overlap. Fencing can help delineate property lines, or mark off the area around a pool, or a homeowner might want to confine their dog, and keep other dogs out.”
While the standard silver-gray chain link fence remains the most economical model, there is a plethora of fence options to better match a home’s style and color scheme.
“People are going away from chain-link fencing, and going more to the PVC, vinyl or aluminum fencing,” says Tom McKenney, owner of Tom’s Fence Co. in St. Clair Shores, Mich. “It’s a better look, and a lot of people want more privacy.”
Cedar fencing is growing in popularity for aesthetic reasons, although beige boards will weather to a silver-gray color if not sealed or stained.
Another fast-growing segment of home fencing is polyvinyl. Extremely durable, vinyl withstands harsh elements and offers carefree maintenance.
“This plastic fencing can recreate the storied white picket fence of American lore, but with zero maintenance,” Knoop said. “It’s more expensive, but will last much longer than many of the other options.”
Wooden fences are charming until they weather, warp, and rot from the elements or lack of diligent annual maintenance. Wood also requires frequent sealing to keep it viable.
“When choosing a fence, know what your goal is,” Knoop says. “For safety, choose fencing with pickets close enough together so a child or dog can't stick their head through and become trapped or strangled. For privacy or noise reduction, choose a taller, solid fence.”
McKinney says that for yards with many ups and downs, you should use stair-stepped fencing, which ensures a level fence.
Another important thing to consider: When adding a fence to your property it’s vital that you check with your municipality about local zoning ordinances and building codes as some fencing projects require a permit.
Of course, you could always go the Tom Sawyer route and simply paint your old fence, but make sure that you replace all broken sections as well, experts note.
August 9, 2011 8:57 pm
Prices of “normal” homes—those that aren’t foreclosures or short sales—are stabilizing and the numbers of future foreclosures are falling. That “sliver of good news for consumer spending” was included in CoreLogic’s July report on housing and market trends.
In May 2011, the firm’s Home Price Index excluding distressed sales only dropped 0.4 percent from a year ago, compared to a decline of 7.4 percent for the all transactions measured by the HPI. Even while including distressed sales, the HPI increased between March and April —the first time in more than six months—and was up again between April and May.
“These increases represent the resumption of seasonality in home prices and are a positive sign for the market. When disaggregating median prices by type of sale for the first complete month of the spring home buying season, it is clear that despite the whipsaw impact of the federal homebuyer tax credit, state homebuyer tax credits and increases in FHA premiums, non-distressed median existing and new prices are back to 2009 levels,” the report says.
Although the distressed sales share remains high, the geographical sources of distress are shifting and becoming more dispersed. As of December 2008, the top five largest distressed markets averaged a distressed sale share of 68 percent. As of April 2011, the top five average distressed share was 56 percent — a 12 percentage point decline relative to top markets in late 2008.
For more information, visit www.realestateeconomywatch.com.
August 8, 2011 8:57 pm
It’s easy to help fight against global warming by implementing an Energy Star programmable thermostat in your residence.
“With over 50% of typical household energy consumption attributed to heating and cooling, these affordable and easy-to-use temperature-controlling devices can go a long way in lowering electricity usage, utility bills and carbon emissions,” notes Christina Hansen, a product specialist with CableOrganizer.com.
Energy Star programmable thermostats work by maintaining a uniform comfortable setting so that you are not adjusting your thermostat throughout the day, which is not energy or time efficient. Depending on a family's routine, the temperature can be pre-set to match these needs. “In fact, these thermostat units have pre-programmed settings that will keep your ambient temperature regulated in both winter and summer and whether you are home or away on vacation,” Hansen adds.
How to determine the best programmable thermostat for your needs
An Energy Star qualified programmable thermostat is factory set with four pre-programmed settings for maximum energy efficiency. There are other features that may add to your comfort and preferences:
-Digital, backlit displays for easier viewing in all lighting
-Touch pad screen programming for quick and easy adjusting
-Voice and/or phone programming which allows you to change your settings whether or not you are at home
-Alerts which let you know when to change your air filters for optimal effectiveness
-Alerts which let you know your unit is not working properly
-Features that let you see how long it will take to reach your desired set temperature
The determining factor when considering which model you should purchase is your schedule. Consider how often you are home versus away, and then select from the 7 day programmable, 5/2 split for weekdays and weekends, or the 5/1/1 split, which allows you to have 5 days set to one program, and the other two days at different settings.
Guidelines for using a programmable thermostat
Don't adapt the settings by overriding them regularly. You will save the most money by adhering to the settings.
-If you must override, use the temporary button instead of the permanent/vacation button. Using the permanent hold will not be as efficient and you may forget to unlock it, whereas the temporary only holds the new setting until the next cycle.
-If your unit has batteries, remember to change them regularly
-Use more than one programmed set back if your home has more than one temperature zone.
For more information, visit www.CableOrganizer.com.
August 8, 2011 8:57 pm
Back-to-school is the busiest shopping season right after the holidays. According to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, nearly half of all U.S. consumers say they’ve become more practical in their purchases. Consumers are now buying what they need instead of what they want.
“Money is becoming a top priority for shoppers, especially with the current economic outlook,” says Howard Dvorkin, MBA, CPA, president and founder of Consolidated Credit. “For parents of school-aged children, it’s important to set a budget and plan out what the necessities are. It will set a prime example for children in their future spending habits.”
For parents on a back-to-school budget, check out the following shopping tips to make school shopping a little easier.
Supplies: Buy the basic school items in bulk. This includes crayons, paper, pencils, erasers, even tissues and hand sanitizer. Things like sunscreen or brown bags for lunch will also last throughout the school year.
Clothing: Kids aren’t too picky at this age. Get them some clothes that look nice, but are cheap. Look on clearance racks for extra deals and savings.
Supplies: The supplies for middle school students all depend on what their teachers want. Of course, get the basic school supplies like paper and pens, but also wait until the first few days to finalize what miscellaneous items you might have to get.
Clothing: During this age, kids tend to grow fast. Don’t buy tons of clothes that may fit in the beginning of the school year and seem too sizes too small half way through the term.
Supplies: Aside from the basic school supplies like pens and paper, let your child decide what they need for their classes. Don’t buy things that may not be used. Much of the work will be done in workbooks or online. For specific novels, head to a local library to borrow a book for free.
Clothing: Give a certain shopping budget for high school students. Let them buy whatever they prefer as long as they stay within their limit. Thrift store shopping is getting more popular among teens since it’s cheap and lets them develop their own style.
For more tips to save during back-to-school shopping, visit www.ConsolidatedCredit.org.
August 8, 2011 8:57 pm
The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index®, which had declined in June, improved slightly in July. The Index now stands at 59.5 (1985=100), up from 57.6 in June. The Present Situation Index decreased to 35.7 from 36.6. The Expectations Index rose to 75.4 from 71.6 last month.
The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey®, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by The Nielsen Company, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for July's preliminary results was July 14, 2011.
Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, says "Consumer confidence posted a modest gain in July, the result of an improvement in consumers' short-term outlook. Consumers' appraisal of current business and employment conditions, however, was less favorable as concerns about the labor market continue to weigh on consumers' attitudes. Overall, consumers remain apprehensive about the future, but some of the concern expressed last month has abated."
Consumers' assessment of current day conditions weakened further in July. Those stating business conditions are "good" decreased to 13.4 percent from 13.7 percent, while those claiming business conditions are "bad" increased to 39.0 percent from 38.4 percent. Consumers' appraisal of the job market was also less favorable. Those claiming jobs are "hard to get" increased to 44.1 percent from 43.2 percent, while those stating jobs are "plentiful" remained unchanged at 5.1 percent.
Consumers' short-term outlook improved moderately in July. The proportion of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased to 17.7 percent from 16.5 percent. However, those anticipating business conditions will worsen also increased, to 15.2 percent from 14.9 percent.
Consumers were also mixed about the outlook for the labor market over the next six months. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 16.7 percent from 13.8 percent. However, those expecting fewer jobs also increased to 21.8 percent from 20.7 percent. The proportion of consumers anticipating an increase in their incomes rose to 15.7 percent from 14.1 percent.
For more information, visit www.conference-board.org.