Ann M. Ciesielka
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Top Chef: 10 Kitchen Tips for Beginners

May 11, 2016 1:10 am

No doubt chefs with years of training have learned a few tricks along the way. The food editors at Family Circle Magazine recently interviewed a panel of these culinary experts, coming out with 10 all-star tips for novice chefs:

1.  Bump Up the Veggies – Making pasta? Toss a few veggies into the boiling water during the last five minutes of cooking.

2. Clean Cutting Boards with Ease – Get the odors out by liberally sprinkling the board with salt, then scrubbing it with half of a lemon.

3. Cook Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs – Add a bit of oil to the water while boiling, and the shells will slip right off when you peel them.

4. Cut It Right for Stir-Frying – Put meat into the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing into thin, even strips.

5. Improvise Buttermilk – Need buttermilk for just one recipe? Put a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar in a measuring cup, then add a cup of milk and stir.

6. Measure Ingredients Before You Cook – Chefs call it, “Mise en Place.” Save time by chopping and measuring all of your ingredients and spices beforehand.

7. Melt Chocolate in the Microwave – No need for a double boiler. Place squares or chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on high for 30 to 45 seconds. The chocolate will continue melting on its own, so stir it after a few seconds to see if more microwave time is needed.

8. Mince Garlic in Two Steps – Cut thin, vertical slices almost to the stem end, then slice crosswise two or three times to mince.

9. Rescue Dishes with the Right Additives – A heavy hand with any seasoning can ruin a dish. If it’s too spicy, add sugar or butter. If it’s too sweet, add lemon juice. If it just doesn’t taste up to par, try adding a bit of salt.

10. Water Will Not Put Out an Oil Fire – If the pan flares, smother the flame with salt or baking soda, or simply turn off the heat and clamp a lid on the pan.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Healthy Home, Happy Home: Choose EPA "Safer Choice" Products

May 11, 2016 1:10 am

A number of household cleaning products are laced with chemicals not only harmful to our health, but also to the environment. How can you identify the safest products?

Look for the “Safer Choice” label, which denotes products that have been federally evaluated and approved for safety. The moniker, recently launched by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is part of a program backed by over 500 partner companies, and is available for more than 2,000 qualifying products.

The program covers a range of household products, including all-purpose cleaners, carpet and fabric shampoos, deck and siding washes, kitchen and bath cleansers, laundry detergents, and more.

EPA scientists have stringently assessed the products with the Safer Choice label, determining that they contain ingredients healthier to humans and less damaging to the environment.

“[The] EPA has developed its new Safer Choice label so that it will be easier for shoppers to choose cleaning and home care products that are safer for families, pets, communities and the environment,” says EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin. “Our Safer Choice program empowers consumers to protect their health and minimize the impact on the environment through everyday purchasing decisions.”

Source: EPA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Is Earthquake Insurance Necessary?

May 11, 2016 1:10 am

Though an uncommon occurrence, many areas of the U.S. are susceptible to earthquakes. Should homeowners in these risk regions purchase earthquake insurance?

According to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.), earthquake damage is not covered under standard homeowners or renters insurance, and, in most circumstances, coverage must be purchased through a supplemental policy.

“All Americans need to be financially prepared, and have an up-to-date home inventory and an evacuation plan,” says Janet Ruiz of the I.I.I. “Purchasing an earthquake policy will protect their home from the disasters that pose a risk to their personal safety and property.”

Generally, the supplemental policy provides coverage for property damage brought on by cracking or shaking—other damage sustained as a result of the quake, such as fire or water damage, is typically covered by the standard policy.

It is important to note that homeowners in California have the option to obtain insurance coverage from the California Earthquake Authority (CEA). The CEA limits coverage to that of the insured value of the home, as stated on the standard homeowners insurance policy.

Earthquake insurance carries a deductible, generally in the form of a percentage of the insured value of the home, rather than a dollar amount. Insurers in states with a higher-than-average risk of earthquakes, such as Nevada, Utah and Washington, often set minimum deductibles at around 10 percent—equal to $10,000 on a home that would cost $100,000 to rebuild. In most cases, homeowners can get higher deductibles.

Only about one in every 10 households on the West Coast has coverage for quake-caused property damage, the I.I.I. reports. Still, earthquake insurance sales have risen, especially in Oklahoma, where fracking-induced quakes have become cause for concern.

“While we’re seeing an increase in earthquake coverage in the most vulnerable states, everyone—no matter where they live—should contact their insurance professional to make sure that they have the right type and amount of insurance,” says Ruiz.

Recently, central states have seen a spike in seismic activity, with a total of 32 quakes registering 4.0 or higher on the Richter scale last year. Umnak Island, Alaska, saw a 6.9-magnitude quake last year—the highest of the year—and a 6.0-magnitude quake hit South Napa, Calif., the year prior.

The costliest-ever earthquake, the 1994 Northridge quake, caused $15.3 billion in insured damages.

Source: I.I.I.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Yard Work: Time-Saving Tips from HGTV Experts

May 10, 2016 1:10 am

Ah, yard work. We take pride in our manicured landscapes, but begrudge the work it takes to get them.

“Landscaping is our business and our passion, but we still want to take care of our yard work in a way that makes life easier, so we can spend time doing the other things we enjoy,” explains Chris Lambton, star of HGTV’s “Going Yard.”

Lambton and his wife, Peyton, who also hosts the show, recommend starting your lawn care routine early in the day. This ensures you’ll be working in cooler temperatures, and leaves time later in the day for other activities.

Worried about waking the neighbors? Don’t be, say the Lambtons. The cordless outdoor power tools of today are virtually noise-less compared to gas-powered equipment.

Yard work doesn’t have to be strenuous, either, the Lambtons add. Battery-powered mowers are fume-free, easy to maneuver and lightweight. As with gas-powered mowers, the blade should be adjusted to the correct height for your lawn.

“The height of your mower blade is determined by a combination of factors, including temperature, season and type of grass,” Chris says.

A good rule of thumb: never cut your grass more than one-third of the total height. Any more will leave your lawn susceptible to burnout and weeds.

What about edging? The Lambtons endorse it. They advise edging along driveways, garden areas, patios and sidewalks, either with a trimmer or hardscaping.

If using a string trimmer, walk in the same direction as the machine spins. If it spins counter-clockwise, walk left to right.

“Edging is an important landscape design element that transitions one space to another," says Chris. “When done with a cordless string trimmer, it's a small yard maintenance step that adds huge curb appeal.”

Yard work should also include maintenance of social gathering spaces, adds Peyton. Sprucing up an entertainment area is as simple as tending to the bushes and shrubs surrounding the space.

“Shrubs can grow into your patio, invading your dining and social areas,” Peyton says. “A mid-powered, cordless hedge trimmer is the perfect tool for quick clean-up of the perimeter of a designated party area.”

Clean up any debris once all of the yard work is done, the Lambtons say. This allows for a “clean sweep” that takes less time than cleanup after each chore.

“Remember to look beyond the trimmings that are visible on the ground,” Peyton says. “Use an axial blower behind and on top of the shrubs and hedges you've just trimmed to clear the area of the mess.”

The Lambtons’ litany of lawn care to-dos are put into practice both at home and on the show. Time-saver? Check.

Source: Greenworks™

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Whole-House Remodels on the Rise

May 10, 2016 1:10 am

Whole-house remodels are making a comeback.

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), whole-house remodels, including additions, are regaining market share, signaling a return to household financial straits seen prior to the housing collapse. NAHB remodelers report bathrooms and kitchens remain at the top of the list of most common remodeling projects.

“While bathroom and kitchen remodels remain the most common renovations, basements, whole-house remodels and both large- and small-scale additions are returning to levels not seen since prior to the downturn,” says 2016 NAHB Remodelers Chair Tim Shigley, a remodeler from Wichita, Kan.

The NAHB finds whole-house remodels have risen by 10 percent, room additions have gone up by 12 percent, and large-scale projects, like finished basements, have increased 8 percent.

Given the scale of these types of renovations, Shigley strongly urges homeowners to seek out the services of a professional.

“Clients want to add more space, but remodeling a significant portion of the home is no easy feat,” Shigley says. “That’s why it is important to work with a professional remodeler who has the integrity and expertise to take on these large remodeling jobs.”

Source: NAHB

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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It's National Moving Month: Get Going—Carefully!

May 10, 2016 1:10 am

May is National Moving Month!

If you’re planning a move in the near future, your first step should be researching prospective moving companies, says our insider at the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Connecticut BBB spokesman Howard Schwartz says moving to a new home, apartment or condo is exciting, but stressful, especially when it comes to putting possessions and irreplaceable keepsakes in the hands of strangers. Unfortunately, when they go missing or are damaged beyond repair, the BBB and other consumer agencies—and occasionally police departments—hear about it.

Schwartz says an estimated 37 million Americans pull up stakes every year to move to another neighborhood, town, state or country. The BBB receives thousands of complaints a year about movers, moving brokers and moving supplies dealers.

In their complaints, consumers describe a variety of problems with unscrupulous movers:

• Missing or damaged belongings;
• Broken or scratched furniture or electronics;
• Damage to the new apartment or condo caused by the movers;
• A final bill well in excess of the estimate;
• Rude customer service;
• Difficulty obtaining compensation for damage, and;
• Having furniture “held hostage” on a truck unless the consumers pay additional fees.

Schwartz says movers provide free insurance coverage, but with limitations. With “Released Value” insurance, however, the mover assumes liability for no more than 60 cents per pound per article, regardless of the item’s value.

The second type of insurance, he says, is “Full Value Protection,” which offers substantially better coverage.  Your mover would be liable for the replacement value of lost or damaged goods in your entire shipment.

While state regulations vary, Schwartz says all interstate movers must, at minimum, be licensed by the federal government and assigned a verifiable motor carrier number. Visit ProtectYourMove.gov, the U.S. Department of Transportation site, for tips, warnings, checklists and other resources.

If the moving company does fail to live up to its promises or threatens to hold your belongings hostage, Schwartz recommends filing a complaint with the BBB and contacting local law enforcement.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Nutrition Myths That Sabotage Your Diet

May 9, 2016 1:04 am

If dropping a few pounds is on your agenda, don’t look to the trendiest new diet. Nutritionists assure the best way to lose weight is to follow tried-and-true nutrition guidelines—but some of the guidelines we’ve taken as gospel may be doing us more harm than good.

Dietary and fitness experts cite five nutrition myths that may be doing us more harm than good:

1. It’s healthier to eat egg whites than whole eggs.
The yolk contains 40 percent of the egg’s protein and the lion’s share of iron and B vitamins. It also contains all of the egg's fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and that extra fat helps keep you full and satisfied for longer than you would be with just the whites. Bonus: the most recent research shows the cholesterol in eggs has a much smaller effect on total cholesterol and harmful LDL than we thought.

2. Fat-free or low-fat foods are best.
When a product is artificially made low-fat or fat-free, it won't be as satisfying due to the absence of fat, which keeps you full longer. This can lead to overeating because you never feel satisfied. Artificially fat-free/low-fat items often have sugar and other fillers added, as well. Go for the natural full-fat version of yogurt or peanut butter, for example, to satisfy your hunger and skip the additives and sugar.

3. Multigrain or wheat bread is a healthier choice.
It is, but only if 100-percent wheat or 100-percent whole grain on the label. Unless 100 percent is noted, it may be just white bread with a tiny grain of something added—or with caramel color added to make the bread look darker.

4. White potatoes are a poor choice.
White potatoes get a bad rap compared to their orange cousins, but they're packed with fiber, which helps keep you regular and aids in feeling full. They also have more potassium than sweet potatoes!  A USDA study recently found that the levels of phytochemicals in them rival the amounts found in broccoli, spinach, and brussels sprouts.

5. Diet soda aids in weight loss.
Several studies have linked artificial sweeteners to weight gain. Why? The research suggests artificial sweeteners actually increase appetite and contribute to sweet cravings. The more you know!

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Don't Get Duped: Scammers Peddling Good Credit Scores

May 9, 2016 1:04 am

Was your credit negatively impacted by the downturn? Don't be lured by the promise of a raised credit score, Freddie Mac warns. Schemes that falsely raise credit scores will land borrowers in scalding hot water—as well as cost time and money combating both origination- and servicing-related fraud.

Consumers should watch for any person or credit repair service trying to "help" with one of these three common fraud schemes:

1. Disputing Credit with Credit Bureaus

2. Falsely Claiming Identity Theft

3. Misusing Credit Privacy Numbers (CPNs)

Your Credit Privacy Number (CPN) is a nine-digit number that can be used in lieu of a Social Security number (SSN) for credit reporting and other financial purposes, like applying for a loan. Given that it helps shield your finances from the public eye, it's most commonly used by borrowers in the public eye, such as celebrities and politicians.

But some consumers with poor credit acquire a CPN with the intent of creating a new, clean—and misleading—credit profile. It’s important to keep in mind:

• This is an illegal use of a CPN;
• CPNs were not created for this purpose; and
• Mortgage loans originated using a CPN are ineligible for sale to Freddie Mac.

Borrowers who use a CPN with the hope of leaving their bad credit histories in the rear view mirror are in for a rude awakening. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) points out, "By using a stolen number as your own, the con artists will have involved you in identity theft," for which you may face legal trouble.

Remember:

• Credit scores aren't used unfairly to block you from accessing credit;
• Credit scores ensure successful repayment of borrowed money.

Ploys to circumvent official credit controls will likely set up consumers to fail. The best way of raising and maintaining a healthy credit score is by consistently paying bills on time. A quick jump in credit score is never worth the stain on your record.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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6 Ways to Finance a Renovation

May 9, 2016 1:04 am

(BPT)—If you're planning to take on a home improvement project, you're in good company. A recent report by the Joint Center of Housing Studies at Harvard University predicts that the home improvement industry is expected to post record-level spending this year. As you prepare for your renovation, it’s important to review your financing options based on the size of the project, your intended repayment plan and whether you plan to use a contractor or do it yourself. Some financing options to consider:

Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) - A HELOC can provide ongoing access to funds using the equity in your home, which typically results in lower interest rates than unsecured credit. This type of credit may also provide you potential tax benefits. Consult your tax advisor regarding the deductibility of interest.

Mortgages with Built-In Renovation Financing - These loans help homeowners complete renovations with a loan amount that is based on an appraiser's estimate of what the property value will be with completed improvements. This is also an option for aspiring homeowners who purchase properties that need repair. Whether a home purchase or a refinance, this option finances the renovations and mortgage in one loan.

Cash-Out Refinance Mortgages - A cash-out refinance replaces your current mortgage with a new and larger mortgage that pays off your current balance and allows you to use the equity in your home to provide additional funds for other purposes.

Credit Card - Credit cards can be used for large or small purchases and may earn rewards, which can add up to significant benefits when you're making big home improvement purchases. However, credit cards often have higher interest rates than other loan or credit options, which should be taken into consideration.

Personal Loans and Lines of Credit - These personal credit options typically offer quick credit decisions and access to funds in a day. Lines of credit provide ongoing access to funds.

Savings - If you have a do-it-yourself project or a small renovation, accessing your savings might be an option. By paying cash, there is faster access to funds and nothing to repay.

Your bank may not be the best source for what color to paint your room or which walls to move, but it can help you identify your financial options. Each option has its associated benefits and considerations, and your bank can provide valuable information to help you make informed decisions about which options are right for you.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Retiring Homeowners FAQ: What the Heck Is a HECM?

May 6, 2016 12:55 am

The number of retiring homeowners is projected to expand exponentially in the coming years. Maximizing your real estate investment can help underwrite retirement expenses. For your consideration: the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM).

HECM is the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) reverse mortgage program, which enables homeowners to withdraw some equity in their home in a fixed monthly amount, a line of credit, or a combination of both. 

To be eligible for a FHA HECM, you must:

• Be a homeowner 62 or older;
• You must live in the home;
• Own your home outright, or;
• Owe a low mortgage balance that can be paid off with proceeds from the HECM, and;
• Have financial resources to pay ongoing property charges like taxes and insurance.

You are also required to receive consumer information free or at very low cost from a HECM counselor prior to obtaining the loan.

A longevity annuity can also be a useful tool. Retirees aged 65 could draw $3,000 a month to age 100 with assets of $600,000, at which point their assets would be fully depleted. Retirees could use $200,000 of their nest egg to purchase a longevity annuity that begins payments of $3,000 after 10 years. These same retirees could draw on a reverse mortgage credit line to bolster their retirement income, as long as they had sufficient equity in their home.

Retirees with equity in their home who depend on pensions (rather than a nest egg of financial assets) can supplement their pension income using a HECM reverse mortgage in either of two ways. One way is to exercise the “tenure” option under the HECM program, and receive a fixed annuity payment for as long as the retiree remains in the house. The second way is to exercise the credit line option, using some or all of it to purchase an immediate annuity from a life insurance company.

You can find a HECM counselor online at HUD.gov, or by phoning 800-569-4287.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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