Going green has never been easier! Here’s how you can help the environment while cutting back your bills!
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Buy products with less packaging. Buy reusable canvas bags for your grocery shopping. Buy a reusable water bottle and drink filtered tap water rather than buying bottled water. Recycle your food waste in the yard waste bin. Start your own compost bin. Buy locally and support shops and restaurants that do the same. http://www.heartofwashington.com/ http://www.ecovian.com/ Pay bills online.
Saving Gas Walk, bike, carpool or take public transportation whenever possible. Telecommute... even one day a week makes a difference. Avoid waiting in long drive-thru lines. Park your car and go in. Buy a SmartWay Certified vehicle. There are lending institutions that discount loans for buying them. www.epa.gov/smartway
Saving Water Turn off the faucet when brushing teeth and shaving. Take showers instead of baths. When buying new appliances look for the WaterSense label.
Saving Energy Turn off appliances when not in use and unplug them from outlets. Replace light bulbs with CFLs. Install a programmable thermostat. When buying new appliances make sure they are Energy Star. Purchase a portable spin dryer (for use by itself or paired with a conventional dryer). Conduct a home energy audit.
A Home Energy Audit This can help you pinpoint where your home is losing energy and will determine the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems.
March is a great time to do some spring maintenance around your home? Below are a few tips to get you started!
• Replace your furnace filters. They will be especially filthy after the winter months. • Clean your kitchen exhaust hood and filter. You probably cooked a lot more hot food on the stop top during the cold winter. • As the weather warms, spend a day and check your roof for winter damage. You should also check fences and sheds. • Check all smoke and carbon dioxide detectors. • Clean out the gutters. • Aerate, thatch and fertilize your yard.
The word "as-is" can indeed be one scary phrase. Especially when buying a home in today's market where foreclosures and short sales that need fix-up work are plentiful.
Last year, Tom Meyer found a classic Oakland, Calif., home built in 1925. As a short sale it was priced right and about half the original asking price. Trouble was, the place needed fix-up work â€” foundation improvements, dry-rot work, a new roof over the garage and other improvements.
With the help of the Federal Housing Administration's 203(k) renovation-financing loan program, Meyer folded about $100,000 worth of repairs and improvements into his $422,000 mortgage. He had bought the home for $320,000.
"I would not be able to pay a contractor $100,000 and buy a house at the same time," said Meyer, who works in corporate media. "It had been essentially allowed to start falling apart over the last 20 years."
He had rented in San Francisco for 25 years before moving into his new digs in September with his girlfriend.
"We like old houses, and a great benefit of this program is that it helped us keep a beautiful but deteriorating house from deteriorating further. With the work we did, we expect it to still be standing and beautiful 80 years from now," he said.
Renovation financing through the 203(k) program allows the costs of needed repairs and improvements to be included in the FHA federally insured loan amount instead of having the buyer come up with cash or a separate loan to do the work.
"This is a perfect loan for an as-is situation," said Kristine Marr, a loan officer with Prospect Mortgage in Lafayette, Calif. "It's not a new loan program, although I think it's going to have a lot more use today because we have so many foreclosures and bank-owned properties. You go into lots of homes and see people have yanked out stoves and ovens and fixtures and sinks."
The work has to be done within six months after escrow closes. Borrowers have the option of putting up to six months of mortgage payments on the end of the loan if they don't want to live in the house while the work is being done.
"Renovation financing is a program that allows you to not only finance the purchase of a home but finance any repairs and/or improvements. It provides (buyers) with a responsible way to purchase a fixer-upper property," said Luis Munoz, who helped Meyer with the loan and is a renovation-loan specialist.
Munoz gives presentations about the program at monthly home-ownership workshops sponsored by the Unity Council, an Oakland-based nonprofit.
At a time when equity loans are hard to get, the program can also be used as a refinancing vehicle for borrowers who want to do repairs and improvements, provided the value of the home is greater than the value of the loan. "At the same time as you refinance, you pop in the extra dollars you need for whatever you want to do," Marr said.
FHA home loans require certain health and safety standards be met and that needed repairs identified during the inspection process be completed before escrow closes. However, minor repairs and improvements costing between $5,000 and $15,000 can be done after escrow closes for borrowers who opt for a streamlined repair program.
A 203(k) loan can help buyers finance both minor and major repairs and improvements. It can also help buyers compete with investors when bidding for short sales and foreclosures, said Sheri Powers, director of the Homeownership Center at Unity Council.
The loans can also be used, for example, to pay for improvements such as new appliances, second-story additions, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, and skylights.
"Property repairs cost money and they want to make sure people using their loan program are going to be in the home in long run and not just the short run," Powers said.
The loans have become more popular since home prices started falling and FHA lending limits were raised a couple years ago, but are still a tiny sliver of overall FHA loan volume.
Marr said that 203(k) financing is not for everyone. A buyer will have to work with contractors and may have to wait several months before moving in, she said. And there is no guarantee they won't be outbid by an investor for the property.
"A lot of listing agents are preferring the investors, because the investors tend to be all cash or 50 percent cash. That's always hard to compete with," she said.
By Eve Mitchell
Contra Costa Times
If you want information on how to obtain this terrific FHA loan -- just let me know!
WASHINGTON ” With the Obama administration and private lenders now actively considering mortgage principal-reduction programs to help financially distressed homeowners, the Internal Revenue Service has issued a new advisory to taxpayers who receive or seek to receive such assistance if it's offered.
The IRS gets involved in mortgage principal write-downs because the federal tax code generally treats any forgiveness of debt by a creditor in excess of $600 as ordinary taxable income to the recipient.
However, under legislation that took effect in 2007, certain home mortgage debt cancellations â€” such as through loan modifications, short sales or foreclosures â€” may be exempted from tax treatment as income.
Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., recently confirmed that her agency is working on a new program to expand the use of principal mortgage reductions to keep underwater borrowers out of foreclosure.
Major banks and mortgage companies have preferred monthly payment reductions and other loan-modification techniques over cuts of principal balances, but a handful have made limited use of the concept.
One of the largest servicers of subprime home loans, Ocwen Financial of West Palm Beach, Fla., has strongly advocated principal reductions to keep people out of foreclosure, and claimed broad success with them.
Ron Faris, president of Ocwen, testified recently to a congressional subcommittee that borrowers with negative equity are as much as twice as likely to re-default after a standard, payment-reduction loan modification than those who receive partial forgiveness on their principal debt.
But what are the tax implications when your lender essentially says: OK, we recognize you're underwater, maybe you're thinking about walking away, and we're going to write off some of what you owe to keep you in the house?
IRS guidance issued March 4 spelled out, step by step, how financially troubled and underwater borrowers can qualify for tax relief when a lender agrees to lower their debt.
Here are the basics, should you be considering a short sale or loan modification involving principal reduction.
To begin with, be aware that the federal tax exclusion only applies to mortgage balances on your principal residence â€” your main home â€” and not on second homes, rental real estate or business property.
The maximum amount of forgiven debt eligible under the law is $2 million for married taxpayers filing jointly and $1 million for single filers.
But there are some potential snares: Your debt reduction can only be for loan amounts that you've used to "buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence." This includes refinancings that increased your total mortgage debt attributable to renovations and capital improvements of your house.
But if you used the proceeds for other personal purposes, such as to pay off credit-card bills, buy cars or invest in stocks, the mortgage debt attributable to those expenditures is not eligible for tax exclusion.
Say you refinanced and used some of the proceeds to purchase a boat and pay off business debts. Those expenditures would not qualify for the tax-relief provisions because they were not intended to substantially improve your house or build a residence.
In all refinancings, make sure you can document where the money flowed.
When your lender formally forgives all or part of your mortgage balance, the lender is required by law to issue you an IRS Form 1099-C, a "Cancellation of Debt" notice, which is also sent to the IRS.
The form shows not only the amount of debt discharged but the estimated fair-market value of the house securing the debt as well.
A few other noteworthy features of the IRS rules: If you've been foreclosed upon or you do a short sale and you lose money in the process, don't claim a tax loss on your federal filing. The IRS will turn you down.
However, if you go to foreclosure and your lender agrees to cancel all or part of the unpaid mortgage balance as part of the deal, then you can file for an exemption from the IRS.
What if your lender reduces the debt on your house but you continue to own the property and live in it? There's a tax wrinkle in the fine print: The IRS will require you to reduce your "basis" in the house your "cost" for tax purposes by the amount of the forgiven debt.
But that's not likely a big concern for most homeowners digging their way out of the bust.
Finally, if you want to claim the debt forgiveness exemption, download IRS Form 982 (available at www.irs.gov) and attach it to your return for the year in which the debt was forgiven. And don't assume this tax-code benefit to homeowners will be around forever. It expires at the end of 2012.
Elizabeth Woyke, 03.02.10, 06:00 PM EST Forbes Magazine
Raleigh is the kind of tech-forward city that, innovative as it is, often gets overlooked in favor of San Francisco, San Jose or Seattle. But this year the North Carolina capital passed its flashier rivals to grab the No. 1 spot on Forbes' Most Wired Cities list.
Raleigh's win means it ranks higher overall than any other U.S. city in three measures: broadband penetration, broadband access and plentiful wi-fi hot spots. Taken together, the factors point to a populace that readily uses high-speed Internet inside and outside the home.
At stake is more than just bragging rights. As the U.S. formulates a national broadband plan designed to connect the entire country to fast, affordable Internet, Raleigh and other top-ranking Wired Cities could serve as models for change.
Though a surprise winner, Raleigh boasts plenty of technology assets, including a high concentration of info-tech companies, research universities and state government offices.
Several tech powerhouses, such as IBM, Cisco and Lenovo, maintain large offices in North Carolina's nearby Research Triangle Park. Raleigh and its surrounding cities are also home to North Carolina State University, Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This combination of a highly educated and relatively higher-income population is "fertile ground" for high broadband demand and usage, says Brooks Raiford, head of the North Carolina Technology Association trade group. Regular folks can exploit Raleigh's IT resources too. The city's downtown is covered by a wi-fi network that is free to users. Operator Sprint Nextel recently launched its "4G" next-generation mobile broadband in Raleigh and the rest of the "Triangle"--months before larger cities like Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., will get the service. "We're very lucky to be at the epicenter of a lot of market strengths for these different companies," say Raiford.
Past winning cities haven't lost their wired factor. Last year's No. 1, Seattle, ranks No. 3 this year, while Atlanta, the most wired city from 2008, is No. 2. Each city has its strengths. Of the three, Seattle claims the most wi-fi hot spots per capita, while Atlanta enjoys the highest broadband usage and Raleigh ranks consistently high across categories.
Raleigh's elevation from No. 15 last year to No. 1 represented the greatest year-over-year improvement in the list. Miami, which dropped from No. 6 to No. 17, accounted for the steepest drop, mostly due to a lower rate of broadband usage this year.
The biggest losers, of course, are the cities that didn't make the list at all. Drop-offs include some of the country's largest metropolises, like New York and Los Angeles, as well as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Nashville, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and Tampa. The falloff list is longer than usual this year because we trimmed the number of finalists from 30 cities to 20.
The changes didn't stymie new entrants. Colorado Springs and Salt Lake City joined the list for the first time, propelled by higher broadband usage figures than in previous years.
As in the past, we compiled the list by computing the percentage of Internet users with high-speed connections in a particular city and the number of companies providing high-speed Internet in that area. Since many urban residents access the Internet by wi-fi, we also measure the number of public wireless Internet hot spots. In previous years, we relied on Nielsen for broadband usage data. This year, we used data from market researcher Scarborough Research. Information about broadband providers came from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. JiWire, a San Francisco-based wi-fi advertising network, calculated the hot spot data.
As broadband data improves, the Wired Cities formula will evolve. JiWire, which maintains a sprawling directory of public wi-fi hot spots worldwide, is considering expanding its catalog to include newer wireless technologies, such as WiMax, says David Staas, the company's senior vice president of marketing. The fast, fourth-generation technology--essentially the same thing as Sprint's "4G"--is currently available in 27 markets across the U.S.
Improved data collection from the FCC will also make it possible to add factors like broadband speed and cost to the mix. The FCC doesn't currently collect broadband pricing data, but has already begun tweaking its surveys to measure Internet use by census tract--rather than county--and divide broadband into different "speed tiers." The new research is the "first iteration of the commission's plan to collect more detailed broadband data," says FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. The FCC is due to present its national broadband plan to Congress on Mar. 17.
By next year, we may be able to gauge broadband availability simply by eying a map. The U.S. Commerce Department is compiling "broadband maps" for each state and says the project will be completed by February 2011. The data should pave the way to get a lot more cities wired and connected.
Here it is in black and white. If you are one of those individuals who has been sitting on the fence waiting for prices to drop even more, I think you will find this information very informative and enlightening to help justify NOW is the time to buy!
During a meeting with Robert Wolverton at Cobalt Mortgage earlier today, he shared this spread sheet with me. Basically, he shows here is you buy a home today at a point when interests rates are really low versus waiting a year or two or five down the road when rates will most likely increase. Many people fear home values could potentially drop (although all indicators see the market as leveling out) but Rob breaks it down so you can see even if they did when compared to an increase in the rise in interest rate you would have a very minor difference in mortgage payments -- just goes to show it is a wise choice to buy now!
Call Rob for any questions relative to financing, including a great new program to buy Fannie Mae owned properties! His number is 425.418.3233
By Beth Braverman, staff reporter March 2, 2010: 10:30 AM ET
(Money Magazine) -- If you've been holding off on a real estate purchase, glimmers of a turnaround in the housing market may have you wondering if it's finally time to make your move.
While home prices remain low, they're no longer free-falling in most markets. Mortgages are historically cheap. And the sweet tax credit that was offered to new buyers last year has been extended to April 30 and expanded to include current homeowners too.
But for all the motivation to act quickly, buying right now is not a no-brainer. In some areas home prices may fall further. If you own a house now, it may take longer than you expect to sell it, and you may walk away with less cash than you thought.
"It's a good time to buy, but it's still a really difficult market," says Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight. As the clock ticks toward the tax-credit deadline, answer these questions to decide whether it's time to get off the sidelines.
Can you really nab that tax credit?
Current homeowners who sign a contract to buy a home on or before April 30 get a dollar-for-dollar reduction on their taxes of 10% of the purchase price of the home, up to a maximum of $6,500 (first-time buyers can get up to $8,000).
But according to the National Association of Realtors, buyers spend about 12 weeks home shopping before making an offer, so if you haven't already started looking, you may be pressed to meet the deadline.
Plus, to qualify for the full credit, your household income must be under $225,000 if you're married and less than $125,000 if you're single; repeat buyers must have lived in the home they are selling for five of the past eight years. The good news: Once you've signed the contract, you have until June 30 to close the deal.
How much could you lose by waiting?
Besides the loss of the tax credit, the biggest game-changer facing buyers is a potential jump in mortgage rates. If the Fed moves ahead with its plan to stop buying mortgage-backed securities at the end of March, the rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is expected to increase nearly a percentage point from today's 5.18% to 6.1% by the end of 2010, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. On a $300,000 fixed-rate mortgage, that's an extra $174 per month.
But if home values are falling in your area, you don't have much to lose by waiting. If the house you want costs $375,000 today and you put down 20%, you'd pay $1,644 a month for a fixed-rate mortgage at 5.18%. Buy that same home for 5% less later on with rates at 6% and you'd only pay an extra $65 a month. If prices plunge 10% or more this year (as they are expected to in 12% of markets, according to Fiserv), you'll come out even or ahead.
To get a handle on the direction of your market, check trulia.com to see whether inventory levels are increasing, and visit realtytrac.com to find out whether foreclosure filings are still rising. A glut of properties and bank-owned homes means a recovery may not be in sight.
How quickly can you sell the home you now own?
Even in markets that are recovering, sellers must price aggressively to make a fast deal.
"Everybody thinks their house is worth more than it is," says Dallas realtor Bruce Lynn. Before you sign a contract for a new place, ask a few agents to give you a realistic figure that will generate a quick sale. Can't bear to part with your home at that price? Waiting may be your only option.
Also keep in mind that, with the credit crunch not far in the past, lenders may not approve your purchase until you've sold your home. A delay in sale could also stick you with two mortgages, far outstripping any savings from the tax credit.
See if the sellers will let you put a contingency in the contract that negates the sale if you don't find a buyer -- it's a long shot but worth a try. If they won't, propose adding a kick-out clause that allows the sellers to keep their home on the market, but lets you either pull out or quickly move ahead with the deal if they get another offer.
While extra contract negotiations may be a hassle, the past few years have proved that a purchase decision shouldn't be taken lightly. "This may be the best time in history to buy a home," says Denver realtor Jeff Fogler, "but only if you can really afford it."
Are you underwater on your mortgage? Money Magazine can help. Send your name, age, hometown and photo to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be profiled in an upcoming story.
February house prices nudged up in February in Seattle and on the Eastside while falling by double digits in South King County.
By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times business reporter
After a two-year slide, home prices may be starting to inch up in big chunks of King County, February home-sale statistics suggest.
The median price of a house that sold on the Eastside last month was $490,000, up 1 percent from February 2009, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service reported Thursday. While minuscule, it was that area's first year-over-year increase since December 2007.
Seattle's median price also rose slightly for the second month in a row after nearly two years of declines.
Countywide, however, the median single-family home price, $373,010, was down 0.5 percent from a year ago. The chief reasons: Southwest and Southeast King County, the county's most affordable areas, where median prices fell by double digits.
Sales volumes were up strongly throughout the county, 51 percent overall from February 2009. It was the ninth straight month of year-over-year gains, fueled by low interest rates, federal tax credits and mild winter weather.
But brokers say prices in South King County are continuing to fall because houses repossessed by banks and short sales — those for less than the seller owes on the home — make up a bigger share of that market.
Those sellers are more likely to settle for less. "It's putting a lot of downward [price] pressure on sellers who are not in trouble," said Tony Hettler, broker-owner of the John L. Scott office in Des Moines.
In Seattle and on the Eastside, in contrast, brokers say move-up buyers are returning to the market.
In Seattle's Capitol Hill and Madison Park areas, 39 houses sold in February with a median price of $596,000, according to the listing service. That's up from just 17 houses that sold in February 2009, with a median price of $409,000.
"We are starting to see high-end sales in bigger numbers," said Dave Hale, broker at Windermere Real Estate's Madison Park office.
Prices have dropped, he said. Jumbo loans — more than $567,500 — are easier to get. And the stock market has come back from the depths of a year ago.
"For a lot of these folks, their portfolios have probably come up 30 or 40 percent," Hale said. "They're feeling more confident."
He said he sees few short sales or sales of bank-owned homes in the central-city neighborhoods he serves.
In Southwest King County, in comparison, foreclosed homes and short sales make up 26 percent of active listings, Hettler said.
He said he recently completed an analysis for an owner who wondered why condos in his building weren't selling. The answer: Prospective buyers were gravitating toward single-family homes in the same relatively low price range.
"Two or three years ago [condos and houses] wouldn't have been competing for the same buyer," Hettler said.
Overall, King County condo sales rose 26 percent last month from February 2009, the listing service said. The median condo price was down 3 percent but, again, it varied significantly by area.
The median price rose 6 percent in Seattle and 19 percent in Southeast King County, but fell 13 percent in Southwest King County and 12 percent on the Eastside.
The median price of single-family homes sold in Snohomish County in February was $280,000, down 10 percent from the same month last year. Sales were up 53 percent.