RE/MAX 440
Ann M. Ciesielka
aciesielka@aol.com
Ann M. Ciesielka
1110 North Broad Street
Lansdale  PA 19446
PH: 215-362-2260 x1720
O: 215-362-2260
C: 215-280-2649
F: 267-354-6811 
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My Blog

Poll: Americans Embracing the Smart Home

September 14, 2015 1:58 am

According to a recent report by The Harris Poll®, over three-quarters of Americans (78 percent) expect newly built homes to include smart home technology within the next five years - and 60 percent believe household devices that can connect to the Internet are good for homeowners, in part because they can save money, keep their family safe and protect their property from theft and vandalism.

Per the poll, the most popular devices currently owned are wireless speaker systems (17 percent) and smart/wireless home security and monitoring systems (9 percent).

For future purchases, Americans would consider the following devices, pending certain “tipping points” like price and potential “bugs in the technology”:

• Smart Thermostats (40 percent)
• Smart Lighting (37 percent)
• Wireless Speaker Systems (35 percent)
• Smart/Wireless Home Security and Monitoring Systems (35 percent)

Interestingly, many Americans have difficulty reconciling the umbrella term “smart home technology” with specific “smart” products, according to the poll. In fact, just 7 percent of Americans say they’ve adopted “smart home technology,” but nearly five times as many (34 percent) say they have at least one smart product in their home, suggesting a disconnect among retailers and consumers.

Still, over half of Americans (51 percent) say smart home technology will improve their quality of life within the next five years, and 43 percent say it will have a big impact on how they manage their home within the next five years.

Source: The Harris Poll®

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Credit Scoring Lost on Majority of Americans

September 11, 2015 1:52 am

According to a recent report by Bankrate.com, approximately four in five Americans (77 percent) do not know that accounts with high outstanding balances can hurt their credit scores, even if they pay bills on time. Nearly the same percentage is unaware that closing an account lowers their credit scores.

“There’s a lot of confusion around credit scores,” says Jeanine Skowronski, Bankrate.com’s credit card analyst. “Three simple rules to follow are pay your bills on time, keep your balances low and build a diverse portfolio of long-term credit accounts.”

The most expensive misconception, Bankrate.com found, is the notion that Americans must carry a credit card balance in order to improve their credit score. Not so—the average credit card interest rate is 15 percent, so someone carrying a balance under the (false) impression that it will help his or her credit score could be throwing away hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year.

Additionally, 37 percent of Americans did not know that making a payment more than 30 days late can result in a negative account on their credit report, even if the bill is later paid in full.

Zeroing in on millennials, more than half do not know that having a short credit history can potentially delay major life milestones, such as buying a home.

Source: Bankrate.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Fixed Mortgage Rates Unchanged

September 11, 2015 1:52 am

As a result of mixed economic signals, the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) remains largely unchanged at 3.90 percent, according to Freddie Mac’s recent Primary Mortgage Market Survey® (PMMS®). The 15-year FRM stands at 3.10 percent.

“Following a shortened week, mortgage rates were virtually unchanged, inching up 1 basis point to 3.90 percent,” says Freddie Mac Chief Economist Sean Becketti. “The employment report released last Friday provided mixed signals, adding one more note of uncertainty prior to the Fed’s September meeting.”

According to the survey, the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.91 percent with an average 0.5 point. The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.63 percent this week with an average 0.3 point.

Source: Freddie Mac

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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A Pre- and Post-Hurricane Checklist for Homeowners

September 11, 2015 1:52 am

With hurricane season underway, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross encourage homeowners to follow this pre- and post-storm checklist to weather any hurricane-related emergencies.

In advance of hurricane season:

• Build an emergency kit
• Make a family communications plan
• Know your surroundings and whether your property is flood-prone
• Identify levees and dams in your area
• Figure out at least two evacuation routes

To secure your property:

• Cover the windows in your home (and keep in mind that tape will not prevent a window from breaking)
• Install straps or additional clips to securely fasten roof to frame structure
• Trim trees and shrubs around your home to make them more wind resistant
• Clean rain gutters
• Reinforce garage doors (if any)
• Bring in outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans, and anything not tied down
• Secure your boat (if you have one)

Before a hurricane hits:


• Charge your phone and other portable electronic devices
• Fill bathtub(s) and other large containers with water
• Buy a 3-5 day supply of drinking water
• Buy non-perishable food
• Have battery-powered flashlights on-hand

During a hurricane:


• Listen to the radio or television for current information
• Turn off utilities, if instructed to do so; if not, set refrigerator thermostat to coldest setting and keep refrigerator door closed
• Turn off propane tanks
• Avoid using phone, unless an emergency (and be sure you’ve fully charged all electronic devices in the event of a power outage)

After a hurricane:


• Listen to the radio or television for current information
• Drive only if necessary
• Avoid flooded roads and washed-out bridges
• Stay off streets, but if you must go out, be aware of fallen objects and downed electrical wires
• Notify power company of any loose, dangling, or downed electrical wires
• Inspect the outside of your home for damage and loose power lines and gas leaks

Source: U.S. Federal Contractor Registration

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Steering Clear of File Sharing Fraud

September 10, 2015 1:46 am

Users of file sharing websites, take note. The Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) urges caution when accepting files through email, even if the message appears to be from someone you know.

“Criminal hackers are exploiting consumer trust in popular file sharing services,” says Bill Fanelli, CBBB chief security officer. “The emails look authentic, and they appear to be from someone the user knows. But the link goes to a fraudulent site that tricks the user into entering their login credentials, then installs malware on their computers, and sends phishing emails to everyone on their contact list.”

According to Fanelli, the basic attack is simple: you receive an email from someone you know with a link to a file that says it is from a file sharing site such as Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive. If you click the link, there are two typical scenarios.
In one version of the attack, a file containing malware is downloaded. Malware typically succeeds by exploiting a weakness in a software program or the operating system.

A more advanced version sends the user to a page that resembles a popular cloud-based file sharing service, and requests the account name and password for the user. Once those are entered, they can be used to log in to the user’s real account at that service. In addition, because most people use the same password for multiple accounts, hackers may now be able to access bank, credit card, and other financial accounts.

In both scenarios, one of the actions taken by the hacker is to access the user’s contact list and send similar emails to everyone on it, which is how the scam is spread.

To prevent file sharing malware attacks, the CBBB encourages users to heed the following advice.

1. Do not click on links from unsolicited emails. Be cautious with all links, as phishing emails can mimic people and companies you know.

2. Keep systems up-to-date with the most recent versions of all software that you use regularly.

3. If you believe an email is authentic, pay attention to the linked site. Make sure the URL is expected (for instance, dropbox.com, not dropbox.scam4u.com).

4. Look for two-factor authentication (a second way to identify you besides your password) and activate it whenever you are given the option. Many legitimate sites now use a second step to help reduce fraud.

Source: BBB

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Homemakers Can Save for Retirement, Too

September 10, 2015 1:46 am

A recent report by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies® (TCRS) and the Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement (ACLR) explored the unique circumstances surrounding homemakers’ retirement, offering proactive steps to improve overall outlook.

“Homemakers contribute greatly to their families and society, as parents, caregivers and role models to their children,” says Catherine Collinson, president of the TCRS and executive director of the ACLR. “Because their work is unpaid and comes without employer or retirement benefits, homemakers face even greater retirement risks than workers due to their reliance on others for income.”

According to the report, most homemakers in the U.S. are women (81 percent), married, cohabitating or in a civil partnership (90 percent), aged 18 to 44 (56 percent), and are a parent of one or more financially dependent children (55 percent).
When presented with a series of word associations about retirement, workers and retirees were more likely than homemakers to cite positive words such as “leisure,” “freedom” and “enjoyment.”

The report highlights the following key recommendations for homemakers.

• Become personally involved in your family finances, from daily budgeting to long-term planning. Working with your spouse or partner, calculate retirement savings needs and develop a financial plan for achieving those needs. As part of that plan, be sure to have a backup plan for unforeseen circumstances such as separation, divorce, or loss of a partner. Consider seeking the expertise of a professional financial advisor.

“It is a myth that only workers retire,” says Collinson. “Homemakers also need to plan and prepare for financial security in old age. For everyone, and especially homemakers, a separation, divorce or loss of a spouse or partner can be devastating both emotionally and financially.”

• Consider working on a part-time basis to reduce future retirement risks. Part-time work brings income and greater access to government and employer retirement benefits. Staying in the workforce can also help keep job skills current and make it easier to find higher paying and/or full-time work, if needed.

“Clearly, it is difficult for homemakers to save, given the unpaid nature of their work. However, homemakers are not off the hook for their future retirement. Getting into the habit of saving, even if it’s just a little bit, along with careful planning, may help homemakers improve their long-term prospects,” says Collinson.

Source: TCRS

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5 Tips to Pick the Perfect Paint

September 10, 2015 1:46 am

A number of factors play a role in how color is perceived in a home. While choosing a room color is a deeply personal choice, it's helpful to understand how certain influences can help guide paint color choice, says Noelle Parks, an interior design professional with Dunn-Edwards Paints®.

Parks recommends homeowners follow these guidelines when selecting paint colors.

1. Choose color based on desired mood.

From high-energy red to mellow blue, psychological responses to color inform effective and stimulating home design. Consider the ambience of the room before choosing a color. Will it be a lively dining room? A peaceful study? A luxurious bedroom?

Warm tones like red, orange and yellow evoke energy, playfulness and action – great for spaces for interaction like dining rooms or kitchens. Cool tones including green, blue, indigo and violet shades create tranquil and soothing environments. Try cool tones for places of relaxation and meditation, like the bedroom.

2. Use neutral colors as a base.
Neutral colors pair well with many shades. White, the most neutral of colors, coordinates with almost every other shade. Crisp and elegant, white opens up spaces and provides a clean, well-designed look.

Brown keeps color schemes grounded with its earthy tones and works best with an accent color. Black adds drama and is often used as an accent to embolden other tones.

3. Consider lighting.
Color looks different on a swatch in a store, and on the wall at home at different times of day with different amounts of light. It's imperative to test colors under the lighting conditions at home to see how the paint will truly appear. If there’s a lot of natural sunlight, consider a deeper, richer color.

4. Pay attention to details.
Permanent features like the flooring, architectural trim, moldings and columns will affect how color appears and blends with the rest of the room. Dark flooring, for example, will go well with lighter wall colors as opposition creates interest and visual excitement. Or, the design on a large piece of furniture may inform the color choice of the overall room.

5. Take climate and windows into account.
Typically, warmer colors are more acceptable in cold climates and cooler colors in warmer regions. A south-facing window orientation suggests a cool to neutral color preference, while a north-facing window suggests the use of a warmer color.

Source: Dunn-Edwards Paints®

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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The Facts on Educational Tax Credits

September 9, 2015 1:46 am

For parents and students, back-to-school season is a good time to review education-related tax benefits. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), taxpayers may qualify for one of either two college tax credits or other benefits when they file their 2015 federal income tax returns.

In general, the American Opportunity Tax Credit or Lifetime Learning Credit is available to taxpayers who pay qualifying expenses for an eligible student. Eligible students include the taxpayer, spouse and dependents. The American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a credit for each eligible student, while the Lifetime Learning Credit provides a maximum credit per tax return.

Though a taxpayer often qualifies for both of these credits, he or she can only claim one of them for a particular student in a particular year. To claim these credits on their tax return, the taxpayer must file Form 1040 or 1040A and complete Form 8863, Education Credits.

The credits apply to eligible students enrolled in an eligible college, university or vocational school, including both nonprofit and for-profit institutions. The credits are subject to income limits that could reduce the amount claimed on their tax return.
To help determine eligibility for these benefits, taxpayers should visit IRS.gov.

Normally, a student will receive a Form 1098-T from their institution by January 31 of the following year. (For 2015, the due date is February 1, 2016, because otherwise it would fall on a Sunday.) This form will show information about tuition paid or billed along with other information. However, amounts shown on this form may differ from amounts taxpayers are eligible to claim for these tax credits. Taxpayers should see the instructions to Form 8863 and Publication 970 for details on properly figuring allowable tax benefits.

Many of those eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student. Students can claim this credit for qualified education expenses paid during the entire tax year for a certain number of years: the credit is only available for four tax years per eligible student; the credit is available only if the student has not completed the first four years of post-secondary education before 2015. Key features of the credit include:

• Qualified education expenses are amounts paid for tuition, fees and other related expenses for an eligible student. Other expenses, such as room and board, are not qualified expenses.

• The credit equals 100 percent of the first $2,000 spent and 25 percent of the next $2,000. That means the full $2,500 credit may be available to a taxpayer who pays $4,000 or more in qualified expenses for an eligible student.

• Forty percent of the American Opportunity Tax Credit is refundable. This means that even people who owe no tax can get an annual payment of up to $1,000 for each eligible student.

• The full credit can only be claimed by taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is $80,000 or less. For married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $160,000. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. No credit can be claimed by joint filers whose MAGI is $180,000 or more and singles, heads of household and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $90,000 or more.

The Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000 per tax return is available for both graduate and undergraduate students. Unlike the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the limit on the Lifetime Learning Credit applies to each tax return, rather than to each student. Also, the Lifetime Learning Credit does not provide a benefit to people who owe no tax.

Though the half-time student requirement does not apply to the Lifetime Learning Credit, the course of study must be either part of a post-secondary degree program or taken by the student to maintain or improve job skills. Other features of the credit include:

• Tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance qualify, as do other fees required for the course. Additional expenses do not.

• The credit equals 20 percent of the amount spent on eligible expenses across all students on the return. That means the full $2,000 credit is only available to a taxpayer who pays $10,000 or more in qualifying tuition and fees and has sufficient tax liability.

• Income limits are lower than under the American Opportunity Tax Credit. For 2015, the full credit can be claimed by taxpayers whose MAGI is $55,000 or less. For married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $110,000. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. No credit can be claimed by joint filers whose MAGI is $130,000 or more and singles, heads of household and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $65,000 or more.

Eligible parents and students can get the benefit of these credits during the year by having less tax taken out of their paychecks. They can do this by filling out a new Form W-4, claiming additional withholding allowances, and giving it to their employer.

There are a variety of other education-related tax benefits that can help many taxpayers. They include:

• Scholarship and fellowship grants, which are generally tax-free if used to pay for tuition, required enrollment fees, books and other course materials, but taxable if used for room, board, research, travel or other expenses.

• Student loan interest deduction of up to $2,500 per year.

• Savings bonds used to pay for college. Though income limits apply, interest is usually tax-free if bonds were purchased after 1989 by a taxpayer who, at time of purchase, was at least 24 years old.

• Qualified tuition programs, also called 529 plans, used by many families to prepay or save for a child’s college education.
Taxpayers with qualifying children who are students up to age 24 may be able to claim a dependent exemption and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The general comparison table in Publication 970 can be a useful guide to taxpayers in determining eligibility for these benefits. Details can also be found on IRS.gov.

Source: IRS.gov

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Avoiding Exposure to Laundry Chemicals

September 9, 2015 1:46 am

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), nearly 30,000 children have been exposed to the toxic contents of liquid laundry packets. Children often are attracted to the colors and texture of the packets. With just a small amount of liquid or saliva, the concentrated detergent in the liquid soluble capsules can be released.

Like all medicines and household chemicals, laundry packets should be stored in their original packaging and placed up and out of a child’s reach and sight. To prevent unintentional exposure to the packet’s contents, the CPSC advises liquid laundry packet users to the following:

• Do not let children handle laundry packets.

• Do not puncture or take packets apart.

• Do not leave loose packets around. Keep them stored securely in the container.

• Store laundry packets in their original containers, out of a child’s sight and reach.

• Keep containers closed and dry.

• Read and follow package warnings and instructions.

• Call Poison Help (800-222-1222) immediately if a child swallows or is exposed to the chemicals.

Source: CPSC

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First-Time Buyers: 7 Home Service Contract Tips

September 9, 2015 1:46 am

As an additional incentive, an increasing number of home sellers are purchasing home service contracts on behalf of buyers, according to the National Home Service Contract Association (NHSCA). For first-time buyers benefitting from these contracts, it’s important to:

1. Review the home service contract to be sure you understand all terms and conditions. Home service contracts generally provide service, repair or replacement for items such as dishwashers, ovens, disposers, electrical and plumbing systems, and most importantly, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC).

2. Maintain all appliances and household systems to keep them in efficient operating order. You will benefit from uninterrupted service as well as potential energy savings.

3. Request optional coverage if you feel you may need coverage on items not typically specified under the standard coverage, such as a swimming pool, septic tank or spa.

4. Keep a copy of your contract easily accessible and post the provider’s toll-free service number in a visible location, like the refrigerator door.

5. Call your contract provider at the first sign of trouble. Do not call a repair contractor directly. One of the benefits of your home service contract is that your provider works with a network of prequalified and licensed contractors in your area. If a breakdown (such as a lack of water or heat) poses an actual risk to your health or safety, most providers will work to expedite emergency repairs.

6. Follow up
with your provider if for some reason you are not satisfied with the service provided. They will work with you to resolve your concern.

7. Note
when your contract expires. For your convenience, many companies will provide automatic renewal of your contract. If you do not wish to renew, contact your provider right away to exercise your cancellation rights.

Source: NHSCA

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