Liz Hieter
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For Some, Eco-Friendly Investments Too Much Green

April 15, 2015 1:24 am

As Earth Day approaches, those seeking to go green may be asking themselves, “At what cost?”

The majority of consumers (81 percent) believe environmentally friendly items are more expensive than non-green products, according to recent research from RetailMeNot.com. Yet 89 percent are willing to purchase at least one kind of product that has a positive impact on the environment, including energy-efficient light bulbs, energy-efficient appliances or electronics.

Big ticket items, however, like solar panels or hybrid and electric vehicles are far less popular eco-friendly investments.

Cost savings are the most effective factor when deciding to purchase green products, with close to one in three consumers likely to buy a green product if it were guaranteed to save them money over time. This opportunity to save far outweighed other factors, like high-quality or being linked to a good cause.

And just what would people do with the extra money they gained from purchasing an energy-efficient or eco-friendly product? Half of consumers would put that money into savings and nearly as many (40 percent) would put it toward bills or pay off debt.

Beyond supporting the green movement with their wallets, a majority of consumers are willing to make small changes in behavior to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, such as turning off lights when leaving a room, turning off water when not in use, recycling plastic, paper or metal, reusing towels before washing, and reusing plastic bottles or containers.

Source: RetailMeNot.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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14 Trends in Kitchen and Bath Design

April 15, 2015 1:24 am

As the housing recovery continues, kitchens and bathrooms remain the most popular areas for investment by homeowners, according to a recent survey by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Kitchens, in particular, remain the center of operations within the home, with energy-efficiency, water conversation and healthy home materials topping the list of homeowner must-haves.

“The major point of emphasis in kitchen design nowadays revolves less around actual cooking activities,” says Kermit Baker, AIA chief economist. “Rather, homeowners are looking for kitchens that are gathering spots for family and entertaining, as well as serving as a hub for electronic devices and recharging stations.

“Another important trend we see appearing more, not only in kitchens but the entire project, is specifying healthier construction components such as paint, caulking, glues, grout and other potentially high VOC (volatile organic compounds) products, that may contain harmful ingredients and off-gas noxious fumes or vapors over time as they are curing.”

The survey concluded that the most popular kitchen products and features are:
  • LED Lighting
  • Computer Area/Recharging Station
  • Larger Pantry Space
  • Upper-End Appliances
  • Double Island
  • Adaptability/Universal Design
  • Drinking Water Filtration Systems
Based on the survey, the most popular bathroom products and features are:
  • LED Lighting
  • Doorless Showers
  • Adaptability/Universal Design
  • Large Walk-In Showers
  • Stall Shower without Tub
  • Water Saving Toilets
  • Radiant Heated Floors
Source: AIA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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10 Tips for Last-Minute Tax Filers

April 14, 2015 1:21 am

Though the tax filing deadline is imminent, taxpayers must remain thorough when filing their returns. To avoid processing hiccups, take note of these tips from the IRS.

1. File electronically.
Filing electronically, whether through e-file or IRS Free File, vastly reduces tax return errors, as the tax software does the calculations, flags common errors and prompts taxpayers for missing information. And best of all, there is a free option for everyone.

2. Mail a paper return to the right address. Paper filers should check IRS.gov or their form instructions for the appropriate address where to file to avoid processing delays.

3. Take a close look at the tax tables. When figuring tax using the tax tables, taxpayers should be sure to use the correct column for the filing status claimed.

4. Fill in all requested information clearly. When entering information on the tax return, including Social Security numbers, take the time to be sure it is correct and easy to read. Also, check only one filing status and the appropriate exemption boxes.

5. Review all figures.
While software catches and prevents many errors on e-file returns, math errors remain common on paper returns.

6. Get the right routing and account numbers. Requesting direct deposit of a federal refund into one, two or even three accounts is convenient and allows the taxpayer access to his or her money faster. Make sure the financial institution routing and account numbers entered on the return are accurate. Incorrect numbers can cause a refund to be delayed or deposited into the wrong account.

7. Sign and date the return. If filing a joint return, both spouses must sign and date the return. E-filers can sign using a self-selected personal identification number (PIN).

8. Attach all required forms. Paper filers need to attach W-2s and other forms that reflect tax withholding to the front of their returns. If requesting a payment agreement with the IRS, also attach Form 9465 to the front of the return. Attach all other necessary schedules and forms in the sequence number order shown in the upper right-hand corner.

9. Keep a copy of the return. Once ready to be filed, taxpayers should make a copy of their signed return and all schedules for their records.

10. Request a Filing Extension. For taxpayers who cannot meet the April 15 deadline, requesting a filing extension is easy and will prevent late filing penalties. Either use Free File or Form 4868 – but keep in mind that while an extension grants additional time to file, tax payments are still due April 15.

Source: IRS.gov

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Staying Safe in Severe Weather

April 14, 2015 1:21 am

Whether it’s a thunderstorm, tornado or flooding, severe weather can be detrimental not only to your wellbeing, but also to your property and neighborhood. If severe weather threatens your area, keep in mind these FEMA guidelines.

1. Become familiar with the terms used to identify a severe weather hazard and discuss with your family what to do if a watch or warning is issued. Terms used to describe weather hazards include the following:
  • Watch: Meteorologists are monitoring an area or region for the formation of a specific type of threat (e.g. flooding, severe thunderstorms, or tornados).
  • Warning: Specific life and property threatening conditions are occurring and imminent. Take appropriate safety precautions.
2. To prepare for power outages and the disruption of essential services, prepare an emergency supply kit for their homes and cars. When preparing a kit, remember water, medications, and items needed for the well-being of your pets.

3. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes and should be abandoned. A mobile home can overturn very easily even if precautions have been taken to tie down the unit. Residents of mobile homes must plan in advance and identify safe shelter in a nearby building.

4. While community safe rooms offer significant reassurance and protection during a severe weather event, always make the safe and certain choice about where to seek shelter – particularly if there is little time to travel to the location of the community safe room. It is always best to seek shelter in your basement or in the lowest possible structure in your residence if time and warning are limited when severe weather hits.

5. Know your surroundings and your structures if you’re planning to attend an event, take a vacation, visit family, or if you are staying in a location other than your home like a hotel, campground or cabin. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the facility’s emergency plans including sirens and warnings, how to shelter in place, and steps to be taken in the event of an evacuation.

6.
Do not touch downed power lines or objects in contact with downed lines. Report downed power lines and electrical hazards to the police and the utility company.

7. After a disaster, be aware of possible structural, electrical or gas leak hazards in your home. Contact your local city or county building inspectors for information on structural safety codes and standards before going back to a property with downed power lines or the possibility of a gas leak. They may also offer suggestions on finding a qualified contractor to do work for you.

8. Staying informed is equally important when preparing for any emergency, particularly severe weather threats. In addition to monitoring the guidance and reports of local emergency and weather officials, monitor social media before, during and after emergencies. Consider following the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram handles of your local emergency management office, as well as hospitals, schools and voluntary organizations that serve your community.

Source: FEMA.gov

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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5 Ways to Enhance Curb Appeal

April 14, 2015 1:21 am

Boosting your home’s curb appeal is a must when placing your home on the market. When readying your home for sale, consider making cost-effective upgrades that add value, rather than over-the-top remodeling projects. According to Remodeling magazine’s 2015 Cost vs. Value Report, several exterior improvements recoup the most return, including new entry doors, siding and roofing.

“Choosing the right renovations to ensure your home stands out among the rest is key,” says Matt Hess, Power Home Remodeling Group, “and with intense focus on increasing curb appeal this year, we recommend moving that to the top of the to-do list and avoiding over-upgrades and mammoth projects where you won’t get your money back.”

These high-ROI exterior projects that enhance curb appeal include:

Replacing Entry Doors – Updating your home's front door can drastically impact its value and draw in a potential buyer. Think about replacing a door with half-glass panels or a change in color, and modernize the look with a mortise lock with lever handle and matching finish.

Creating Functional Outdoor Living Spaces
– Outdoor living is here to stay, and buyers are taking notice. Consider enhancing your backyard with a new high-end feature or large gathering area, such as a patio with comfortable furniture, a stone fire pit, an outdoor kitchen or a fireplace with an out cove.

Modernizing the Siding – New vinyl siding and trim can make even an older home look brand new. Choose a color that balances both personal taste and long-term ROI. Newer trends include bolder shades like deep blues and heavy greens, while bright white homes continue to resonate. For those who like a pop of color, consider a neutral siding – maybe a taupe or gray – with a bolder trim color.

Making Minor Updates to Landscaping – Add seasonal flowers or a stone border to spruce up your garden. You could also create your own wall garden to grow herbs in mason jars – a feature many buyers will appreciate, says the Power Home Remodeling Group.

Lighting Up with LEDs – LED lights continue to be a popular, inexpensive trend and are a great way to subtly light your yard. From rope lights to walkway or garden fixtures, there are all sorts of LED options that coordinate with your home's exterior. They are dimmable and low-maintenance – you don't have to worry about going outside to turn them off or on.

Source: Power Home Remodeling Group

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Tax Refund Outlook Differs by Generation

April 13, 2015 1:09 am

Two-thirds of millennials expect to receive a tax refund this year, more than any other age group, Bankrate.com reports. The likelihood of receiving a tax refund decreases with age: just 35 percent of people age 50 and older anticipate getting money back from the government.

Although experts generally frown upon receiving a tax refund because it amounts to an interest-free loan to the government, 38 percent of Americans prefer to receive a big refund and another 19 percent prefer a small refund.

"It's surprising that so many people still prefer to get a big refund, rather than adjust their withholding to get their money throughout the year," notes Bankrate.com tax analyst Kay Bell. "You'd think during lean times, they'd need the money more to meet their monthly expenses. But old and bad tax habits die hard.”

Twenty-two percent of all Americans would welcome higher taxes if they would lead to free health care for anyone who needs it. Additionally, 43 percent of millennials are willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for free college tuition for all students, versus just 20 percent of other adults. Senior citizens are significantly more likely than other age groups to support higher taxes for repairing and rebuilding roads, bridges and mass transit.

Most Americans will use their tax refunds to pay down debt (34 percent). Thirty-three percent plan to save or invest their windfall, 26 percent will spend it on necessities such as food or utilities, and just 3 percent will splurge on a vacation or shopping spree.

Source: Bankrate.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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How Landscape Design Can Boost Home Value

April 13, 2015 1:09 am

(Family Features) A recent survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) found that sustainable, low-maintenance designs are top trends among residential landscape projects. The study, which asked landscape architects to rate the expected popularity of outdoor design elements, points to a great demand for ecologically sensitive upgrades intended to preserve the environment, conserve water and reduce landscape maintenance.

According to the study, the top five upgrades are native plantings, adapted drought plantings, food or vegetable gardens, fire pits and fireplaces and low-maintenance landscapes. If you'd like to incorporate these ideas into your outdoor space, it’s best to hire a professional. Here’s why:

1. A landscape architect is well equipped to design an outdoor living space that will add value to your home, extend your living space and allow you to enjoy all that nature has to offer in a controlled setting. From arbors to fountains, they can create a space that is both inviting and environmentally sustainable.

2. Hiring a landscape architect is a terrific investment for your home. Research from Virginia Tech shows that landscapes literally grow in value over time, while traditional home additions or remodels start to lose value the minute the dust settles.

3. Landscape architects are licensed professionals who often work with landscaping or other construction companies to install their designs. Think of the fashion designer imagining an outfit while a clothing manufacturer makes the apparel, or an artist designing a wall poster that's printed by another company.

4. Landscape architects are trained to think about landscapes as systems. They will assess your property's problem areas, as well as possibilities, and create a solid plan that addresses both the big picture and exact details of how your landscape will look. They will handle all the details, saving you time and stress.

5. Landscape architects will deliver a finished project that you will love and that will comply with regulations and codes. It will be a special place that you and your family and friends will enjoy for years to come.

Source: ASLA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Your Complete Guide to Digital Spring Cleaning

April 13, 2015 1:09 am

In many households, spring cleaning is an annual ritual marked by cleaning top-to-bottom at home. But now is also the perfect time for a “digital” spring cleaning, say the experts at the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

The bulk of digital cleaning falls into four categories: keeping a clean machine, staying secure, cleaning up your online reputation and purging files. Use this handy guide to complete one or all of these tasks this spring.

1. Keeping a Clean Machine
Keeping all web-connected devices ‒ including PCs, mobile phones, smartphones and tablets ‒ free from malware and infections makes the Internet safer for you and more secure for everyone.
  • Keep all critical software current. Having all software current is one of the best security measures you can take. This includes security software, web browsers, document readers, operating systems and any other software you use regularly.
  • Clean up your mobile life. Most of us have apps we no longer use as well as ones that need updating. Delete unused apps and keep others current, including the operating system on your mobile device. An added benefit of deleting unused apps is more storage space and longer battery life.
2. Staying Secure
Enhancing the security of your online accounts is a fast and simple way to be safer online.
  • Get two steps ahead. Turn on two-step authentication ‒ also known as two-step verification or multi-factor authentication ‒ on accounts where available. Many of the Internet’s most popular email services, social networks, and financial institutions offer this key security step free of charge, but you must opt in to turn it on.
  • Make better passwords. If your passwords are too short or easy to guess, it’s like leaving your car unlocked in a parking lot. Longer passwords and those that combine capital and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols provide better protection.
  • Unique account, unique password. Having separate passwords ‒ at least for key accounts like email, banking, and social networking ‒ helps to thwart cybercriminals.
  • Write it down and keep it safe. Everyone can forget a password. Keep a list that’s stored in a safe, secure place away from your computer.
  • Secure your phone. Use a passcode or a finger swipe to unlock your phone.
3. Cleaning Up Your Online Reputation
Take an active role in shaping your digital footprint.
  • Own your online presence. Review the privacy and security settings on websites you use to be sure that they remain set to your comfort level for sharing. It’s fine to limit with whom you share information.
  • Clean up your social media presence. Delete old photos and comments that are embarrassing or no longer represent who you are.
  • Search for yourself online. Update information that is no longer current.
  • Update your “online self.” Is your LinkedIn profile current? Are other social media sites up to date? Review your personal information and update it where needed.
4. Purging Files
Tend to your digital records just as you do for paper files.
  • Clean up your email. Save only those emails you really need. Your inbox is likely stuffed with offers, logistical arrangements and other outdated materials. Delete what you don’t need and be sure to empty your deleted mail folders. If you must keep old messages, move them to an archive.
  • Manage subscriptions. Unsubscribe to newsletters, email alerts, and updates you no longer read.
  • Update your online photo album. Delete or back up old or less flattering photos of yourself, your family and friends. In addition to not showing your best side, they take up space.
  • Empty your recycle bin.
  • Update your online relationships. Review friends on social networks and contacts on phones and PCs and make sure everyone on those lists still belongs.
  • File upkeep. Delete or archive older files such as numerous drafts of the same document.
  • Back it up. Copy important data to a secure cloud site or to another drive where it can be safely stored. Password-protect back-up drives and keep them in a different location off the network for maximum security.
  • Dispose of electronics securely. Wiping data isn’t enough. When you dispose of old electronics, look for facilities that shred hard drives, disks and memory cards. BBB is hosting “Secure Your ID Day” paper shredding events in communities nationwide, and many of these will include electronic shredding. Some municipalities also offer this service.
Source: NCSA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Mortgage Rates Tick Lower

April 10, 2015 1:03 am

Average fixed mortgage rates moved lower this week following a weaker than expected jobs report in March, according to Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey® (PMMS®). The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.66 percent, down from 3.70 percent the previous week. The 15-year FRM averaged 2.93 percent, down from 2.98 percent the previous week.

"Mortgage rates fell across the board following last week's disappointing employment report,” explains Len Kiefer, deputy chief economist, Freddie Mac. “The U.S. economy added 126,000 new jobs in March, well below market expectations of 247,000 jobs. We did see some uptick in wages, as average hourly earnings increased seven cents for the month, and are up 2.1 percent over the year. Meanwhile, jobless claims fell sharply to 268,000 this week, much lower than market expectations of 285,000."

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.83 percent this week, down from 2.92 percent the previous week. The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.46 percent, unchanged from the previous week.

At this time last year, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.34 percent; the 15-year FRM averaged 3.38 percent; the 5-year ARM averaged 3.09 percent; and the 1-year ARM averaged 2.41 percent.

Source: Freddie Mac

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Solar-plus-Battery Could Power Homes in the Future

April 10, 2015 1:03 am

Over the next 10 to 15 years, grid-connected solar-plus-battery systems may become an increasingly cost-effective option for customers, according to a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and HOMER Energy. No matter how expensive electricity gets, customers that invest in these grid-connected systems can contain their electricity costs and see significant savings on their monthly utility bill.

“Today’s electricity system is at a metaphorical fork in the road. Down one path are pricing structures, business models and regulatory environments that favor eventual grid defection,” says Jules Kortenhorst, CEO, RMI. “Down another road, those same factors are appropriately valued as part of a transactive grid with lower system-wide costs and the foundation of a reliable, resilient, affordable and low-carbon grid of the future in which customers are empowered with choice.”

Solar-plus-battery systems will likely play a central role in the grid of the future, but exactly what role they’ll play has yet to be determined.

Source: RMI

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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