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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Tips for preventing pipes from freezing; thawing frozen pipes


Frozen pipes not only mean the inconvenient lack of water, they also can burst, causing an expensive repair problem.

Homeowners are often understandably frantic to get water pipes running again. But thawing the pipes improperly can lead to more problems.

Never use a device with a flame to thaw out pipes.
A little heat on the right pipe could get that water flowing. But a flame on the pipe is a very bad idea.
According to fire experts, flames under the house, even when directed at pipes, are a common cause of fire.

The open flame from a heater, especially a propane salamander, can instantly ignite insulation or flooring materials under a house.

Worse, pipes can heat up dramatically from flaming devices, with heat traveling along the piping systems inside walls. This heat can ignite wall materials, which can smolder for hours before being discovered, or bursting into flame. Alternatively, excessive heat on metal piping can cause water to boil, causing the pipe to burst, according to the Red Cross.
If you know where the pipes are frozen, first open the faucets and then apply heat with a hair dryer or electric heating pad.

Prepare ahead of very cold temperatures.
If you know your pipes are prone to freezing, take some simple steps ahead of cold weather.

First, give yourself a supply of water. Partially fill a bathtub with water when very cold temperatures are predicted. This can provide water for pets, cleaning, or bathing. It will also give you some breathing room so you can take your time unfreezing pipes.

Next, keep the faucets open to a drip. This will help prevent pipes from freezing. Although this can put a strain on water pump systems, it is usually better than broken pipe disasters.
Close garage doors, especially if there are pipes along the garage walls.

Open your cabinet doors in the kitchen and bathroom to allow warm room air to circulate.

Don’t turn down the house temperature during very cold nights.

Never set the thermostat to less than 55 degrees when the weather will be below zero.

Long-term prevention for frozen pipes
One of the best ways to prevent frozen pipes is with heat tape or heat cable. These low-heat products usually can be plugged in at the beginning of the season and left until Spring. This is especially good for pipes that are run along the outside of walls.

Be sure to unhook outdoor hoses and close valves supplying outdoor faucets.

If the problem with frozen pipes is persistent every winter season, consider moving exposed piping. Although this is a major project, it should prevent future problems.
Insulation in attics, basements and crawl spaces will help prevent frozen pipes, too.

In 2018, you can contribute more to your 401(k)


There’s good news for 401(k) savers in 2018: They can put $500 more into their plan.

The IRS has announced that the 401(k)contribution limit has been raised to $18,500. That is the first increase since 2015.

The new limit also applies to 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan and 457 plans.

The limit on catch-up contributions for employees age 50 and over remains the same at $6,000.

The deduction phase out limit was also increased. This means that if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income exceeds certain ranges, the amount you can deduct is reduced (or phased out).

Single taxpayers: The phase out is $63,000 to $73,000, up from $62,000 to $72,000.
Married filing jointly: Phase out rises to $101,000 to $121,000, up from $99,000 to $119,000.

Individual contributors: The phase out range rises to $189,000 to $199,000, up from $186,000 to $196,000.

Roth IRA and traditional IRAs
There was no change in contribution limits for IRA and Roth IRA plans. The maximum you can contribute to a Roth IRA is $5,500 per year (or $6,500 if you are age 50 or older).
There was a change to deduction phaseouts, though. If your Modified Adjusted Gross Income exceeds certain ranges, the amount you can deduct is reduced (or phased out). In 2018, the phase-out levels are higher. For singles or heads of households, the Modified Adjusted Gross Income range is $120,000 to $135,000. For married couples filing jointly, the range is $189,000 to $199,000. The phase-out ranges for married filing separately have not changed.

Selling in December can be merry after all


When the weather outside is frightful, selling your house is not so delightful.
That’s what folks say, anyway. But is it always true?

Real estate agents say not necessarily. As with most things in life, it all depends.

Weather is, in fact, a factor and when frightful weather means a lot of snow, showings could slow down. But, on the other hand, a warm winter can be a boon for sellers as home buyers get an early start on the season.

The strength of the local real estate market also comes into play. A strong market can be good even in December. There are always buyers who, for many personal and business reasons, must find a home during the holidays. Those kinds of buyers are motivated.

Here are some considerations for selling during the fall/winter holidays:

– You don’t have to keep your house dark during the season of lights. Decorate, but do so modestly. A Christmas tree can make a home look warm during the cold winter season. Display just a few gifts under the tree. Too many begin to resemble clutter and buyers need to be able to look past decorations.

– Avoid flashing lights inside and out. Stick to simple, classic decorations.

– Limit decorations to the main living area. Although some families go all out decorating every room, as a seller you want to keep decorations of all kinds to a minimum.

– Most agents say that sellers should avoid religious displays, but in some areas of the country this would be acceptable, especially if done modestly. The key is not to overwhelm the house. Make it easy for the buyer to see the rooms.

– Make the most of the season by enhancing curb appeal. Although the trees might not have leaves, the garden won’t have weeds either. Some decorations are seen as welcoming, no matter what the season: A wreath on the door or outdoor lights that emphasize the walkway or special parts of the property.

– If your property looks especially glorious in Spring and Summer, consider leaving out a photo album.

– Play muted classical music to add to the overall ambience, according to HGTV.

– Use light holiday fragrance. Avoid heavy floral scents that make some people cough or sneeze. Don’t overdo it. One scented candle is probably enough.

– Light the fire. Winter is also a great time to show off your fireplace. So spread the warmth!

Negotiation: Tips for buyers and sellers


At the most basic level, home sellers and buyers want the same thing: A good price and a smooth deal.

But between price and smooth, there is a lot of wiggle room and emotion.

The key points for a seller, according to Zillow.com:
– A full price or higher
– A pre-approved buyer
– Smooth timing for a move

Sellers may also want buyers to either waive an inspection or be responsible for any repairs.

Before negotiations, the best idea for sellers is to carefully calculate what they need from a buyer.
– Minimum amount of money you’ll need, considering outstanding mortgage, any debt you want to clear up, or money for a down payment on another house.
– Decide what personal property you want to go with the house and what you don’t want to include in the deal.
– Know how much it will cost to stay in the home during any transition time. This can help in negotiations since a buyer who wants to quickly take possession might save you money.

Or, on the other hand, a buyer who will work with you on timing might be preferable. These considerations can help you choose between offers.

Key idea: Know exactly what you need and don’t rush into a deal if you don’t have to.

Negotiation tips for buyers: One key idea to remember – Don’t start negotiations too low.

Case in point: Heirs are selling a 40-year-old home on wooded acreage. The home will need treatment for mold, new carpets, deep cleaning, and some new fixtures, but the bones are good. The sellers have priced it on the low-end for comparable homes. The listing agent quickly gets two offers. One for $5,000 less than the list price, and one for the list price. It’s October and the heirs want to sell quickly. They don’t want to take the chance of maintaining the home through the winter when home sales are slow. The buyer offering full price is ready to move in immediately and agrees to do so. The sellers accept the full price, rejecting the lower one without negotiation. The unsuccessful buyers lost the home they wanted over a mere $5,000, which on a 30-year loan amounts to just a few dollars a month.

According to credit.com, going in with a too-low offer accomplishes nothing. While a potential buyer can’t always know how their offer will be accepted, it’s probably not a good idea to offer a lower price if the property is already priced reasonably. The exception may be a foreclosure or a slow market, when sellers might be highly motivated to sell.

If a buyer can know how motivated the seller is, then that influences negotiation. A buyer that must move might accept a lower bid, especially if the buyer can take possession immediately. Similarly, a buyer with time can afford to wait for the best deal.

Smart Textiles: Even your shirt will be online


Clothing usually revolves around either extreme utility or fashion and the recent introduction of smart textiles hopes to help improve both of those areas. According to Forbes, a smart textile is a kind of fabric that incorporates new technology to add value for the wearer. This value could come in the form of electronic connectivity or even the ability to change colors or transform. Creatively, there are many avenues that smart textiles could take in the coming years but much of the recent work has gone into three categories: connectivity, aesthetics and performance enhancement.

In an increasingly connected world, companies like Google are always looking for new ways for people to interact with their products. According to USA Today, Google has teamed up with a clothing manufacturer to create a jacket capable of sending commands to a smartphone using only gestures and movements. Aimed at bicycle commuters, the idea is that clothing should make it easier for people to get the information they need as quickly and safely as possible. Although the product is just one of the first steps in this arena, it shows the kind of thing that can be possible by weaving electronics into clothing.

Aesthetically, smart textiles open up a vast world of possibilities for designers interested in putting their models and customers into something truly unique. It is possible, for instance, to use a particular type of fabric that gathers energy from movement vibrations and heat to light up in dazzling colors for nighttime events. For further integration with the beauty industry, smart materials could one day be used to apply moisturizer or perfume as a response to certain activities like dry air or sweating.

Performance-wise, industries such as athletics and even the military are extremely interested in what could be accomplished through using smart textiles in their gear. For a long-distance runner, for instance, a body suit could be used to reduce wind resistance, control muscle vibration, and even regulate body temperature which could lead to faster times and a safer environment for the body.

Speaking of safety, other garments could be created to protect against some of the more extreme environmental dangers like radiation or changes in pressure. Far from simply being able to control a music player with a jacket, smart textiles will one day have the capability to impact the lives of consumers dramatically.

Ask the Expert: What is a conforming loan?


A conforming loan is one that conforms to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are giant government-chartered mortgage companies that buy loans from lenders, allowing lenders to have more flexibility to make new housing loans.
Most everyone who gets a mortgage has a conforming loan.

How much you can borrow to conform:
Conforming loans are generally limited to $424,100, although there are higher limits in areas where housing is very expensive. The conforming loan limit can go up to $636,150 in specific housing markets, such as certain counties in California and New York, among others.

Loan-to-value ratio:
Your down payment has to be equal to 20 percent or more of the home’s value, but buyers can qualify for an FHA loan with as little as 3 percent down. With a down payment of less than 20 percent, buyers have to pay Private Mortgage Insurance, which can be expensive.

Credit score:
A conforming loan requires a FICO credit score of 620-640. However, an FHA loan requires a credit score of 580. A lower credit score than that requires a higher down payment.

Debt-to-income ratio:
Your debt-to-income ratio can be no more than 41 percent (although there may be exceptions that raise this percentage) of your gross income.

A non-conforming loan, by contrast, goes over the loan limit and the requirements are stricter. Credit scores must be 680 or higher. The down payment must be 15 percent or higher. Debt-to-income ratio must be 43 percent or less. Generally the borrower shows high cash reserves, according to the Lenders Network.

Good moods or bad moods, they’re contagious!


You try avoid picking up germs from someone who is coughing, but when you encounter a person who is in a bad mood, you can just as easily pick up their cranky germs. Moods are contagious.

It’s easy to catch a good mood. When you’re at work and co-workers have good news about something or someone, they want to share with you. They seem excited as they tell the good news. Everyone is in a better mood.

The contagious quality of mood and emotion has been one of the most widely studied of all the different forms of contagion. Without consciously trying, people are extremely good at picking up on other people’s negative or positive emotions, according to the Association for Psychological Science.

They call the situation emotional contagion. The first step involves unconscious copying of facial expressions and movements. Seeing a smile makes you smile. Seeing a frown makes you more likely to frown.

If you’re both frowning, maybe you’ll start to feel bad too. You may share emotions and experiences until you are both in the same mood.

Mood copying is common when you’re are in frequent contact with others. When a friend or co-worker is in a mood, it’s more likely that you’ll catch it than if you’re dealing with a stranger.

Marriage researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that husbands experienced lower marital satisfaction when their wives reported higher stress. Wives were less affected by their husband’s stress levels.

Studies emphasize the importance of choosing friends wisely. People who are positive and upbeat can make you feel the same way.

While it may be best to ignore a someone’s bad mood, if you really feel you can help with a problem, maybe you can pass your good mood on to that person.

Is it better to buy or rent a home in retirement?


The kids are gone, the house is paid for, and you are ready for retirement. The question is whether keeping the house is the best idea.

According to USA Today, as many as 46 percent of seniors aged 65 or older are deciding to rent a home rather than buy a new house or keep their previous one.

There are pros and cons to each option.

For someone who already owns their own home with no monthly mortgage payment to worry about, it might seem an obvious choice to keep the house.  According to the Motley Fool, this house can be used as a source of income in retirement through a line of credit or a reverse mortgage if there is a sudden need for extra money. On the other hand, annual upkeep eats up as much as 1 percent to 4 percent of the value of the house each year.  These expenses can add up quickly on an older home. Then there are property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Meanwhile, it is entirely possible that a housing market crash could erode the value of the home right when it is needed the most.

On the flip side, selling a home near or during retirement when the market is priced right could add a lot of cash flow and savings to draw from in the event of an emergency. The idea here is that cash can be invested and might be worth more over time than the house’s appreciation.

Kiplinger’s took a look at several scenarios involving home ownership, selling, and renting to decide which option made the most financial sense. They determined that in the short run renting was the better choice while buying a new home was more profitable after ten years or more.  They also noted that it could be possible to pay yearly rent with interest gained from investing profits from the sale of a home.

Remember too that retirement is also about freedom.  Separate from the financial aspects, renting a home could allow retirees to move around to different parts of the country more easily rather than worrying about having to sell or maintain a house from a distance.

Ask the Expert: 30 yr or 15 yr mortgage


We are trying to decide between a 30-year mortgage and a 15 year mortgage. The interest rate is a bit lower on the 15-year but the payments are nearly twice as high. What is the value to us of going with the 15-year?

The first obvious answer is that you pay off the mortgage more quickly. But, if you can afford payments on the 15-year mortgage, there is one big advantage: Equity.

According to mtgprofessor.com, the difference is dramatic.

Suppose you want to finance a $100,000 home for 30 years. At an interest rate of 4.25 percent, you’ll have an affordable payment of $492. If you take a 15-year mortgage at 3.375 percent, the payment is 44 percent higher at $709 per month.

The big difference in the deal comes over time. In five years, the amount  you owe on a 15-year mortgage is reduced by $27,900. During the same period, a 30-year mortgage sees a reduction of just $9,192.

According to mtgprofessor.com, the home equity growth on the 15-year is three times as large. As a practical matter, this means your debt load is lower and your flexibility is higher.

The equity in your home can be useful if you want to buy a bigger home — you’ll have more buying power.

More equity is also a boon in retirement. You can use your equity with a reverse mortgage to help fund retirement.

Finally, you could borrow against your equity by taking a home equity loan (second mortgage). This type of borrowing against equity can be used for home improvements or to fund education. Best advice, however, is to avoid this type of loan except if absolutely necessary since it defeats the purpose of building equity in the first place.

Alternative to granite


Soapstone countertops combine beauty with utility.

If a stone material can be called flexible, then soapstone is that material.

Soapstone, actually a mineral known as steatite, is a somewhat rare stone that is made up of talc, a soft mineral, and magnesium among others. Time, heat and pressure forge the minerals together into a veined, relatively soft stone that compares favorably to marble or granite for countertops, floors and sinks.

In fact, soapstone has much to recommend it for countertops.

First, it is always unique. Every slab of soapstone is different. Your slab won’t be like that owned by anyone else.

Second, it is versatile. Unlike zinc, for example, it is heat resistant. Unlike granite, marble and limestone, it is non-porous and does not have to be sealed to prevent staining. This non-porous quality also means it doesn’t harbor bacteria and is easy to clean. Acids from lemons or tomato juice won’t affect it and neither will alkalin found in some householder cleaners.

Third, it is easy to maintain. Owners will want to wipe a thin layer of mineral oil over the surface at regular intervals. This helps expose its deeper tones and veining, according to vermontsoapstone.com.

It is a soft stone, however, and will scratch or chip over time. The good news is that it is easy to repair. Light scratches can be smoothed with simple oiling. Deeper scratches can be sanded. And a chip can be easily repaired using a two-step glue. Soapstone is affordable but not cheap. It costs between $70 to $120 per square foot, according to hunker.com. That is less than marble but comparable to high-end granite.

Many other uses for soapstone reflect its ability to retain heat. Historically, it was used as a fireplace material, since once heated it slowly radiates the heat long after the fire has died. That is why it has been used  as a boot dryer and bedwarmer. Vermont Soapstone still sells small slabs for use as bedwarmers. At $42 each, they make a warm gift for chilly nights.