Local and National Real Estate News from your Doylestown PA Agent - Kim Bartells

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Own an ASUS Router? FTC Says 12,000 Users Were Hacked!

March 23, 2016 1:04 am

To borrow from a popular commercial tag line: what's in your router? We recently learned, along with 12,000 consumers, what wasn't included with their ASUS brand Internet router: appropriate security infrastructure.

Recently, the Taiwan-based computer hardware maker ASUSTeK Computer, Inc. agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that critical security flaws in its routers put the home networks of hundreds of thousands of consumers at risk.

The administrative complaint also charges that the routers’ insecure cloud services led to the compromise of thousands of consumers’ connected storage devices, exposing their sensitive personal information on the Internet.

The proposed consent order will require ASUS to establish and maintain a comprehensive security program subject to independent audits for the next 20 years.

With millions of consumers connecting smart devices to their home networks, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, says routers play a key role in securing home networks.

ASUS marketed its routers as including numerous security features that the company claimed could “protect computers from any unauthorized access, hacking, and virus attacks” and “protect [the] local network against attacks from hackers.” Despite these claims, the FTC’s complaint alleges that ASUS didn’t take reasonable steps to secure the software on its routers.

An FTC release states that in 2014, hackers used readily available tools to locate vulnerable ASUS routers and exploited these security flaws to gain unauthorized access to over 12,900 consumers’ connected storage devices. According to the complaint, hackers could exploit pervasive security bugs in the router’s Web-based control panel to change any of the router’s security settings without the consumer’s knowledge.

In addition, ASUS’ routers also featured services called AiCloud and AiDisk that allowed consumers to plug a USB hard drive into the router to create their own cloud storage accessible from any of their devices. While ASUS advertised these services as a “private personal cloud for selective file sharing” and a way to “safely secure and access your treasured data through your router,” the FTC’s complaint alleges that the services had serious security flaws.

Keep up to date on loads of important consumer topics right here and at consumer.ftc.gov.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


The Ins and Outs of Credit Reports and Scores

March 23, 2016 1:04 am

From buying a car to buying a home, the information contained in your credit report will determine your financial capability—or culpability. Thoroughly understanding your credit report is essential, says Steve Trumble, president and CEO of American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC), a non-profit organization.

“Consumers are often unaware of the direct impact their credit report and score can have on their financial well-being,” says Trumble. “It can have a significant impact on a whole host of major life events, such as getting a job, buying a car, purchasing a home, or even renting an apartment.”

Your credit report outlines a detailed account of your financial history, which informs your credit score. Lenders, landlords and more use these scores to understand a person’s level of risk when it comes to meeting their financial obligations, such as paying back loans. Both credit reports and credit scores can affect a person’s ability to get credit, as well as the terms and rates of that credit.

The most common scoring system is the FICO score. The credit score ranges anywhere from 300 to 850. Based on this scoring system, the higher the score, the lower the risk, and vice versa. If you have a lower FICO score, then you may have a higher interest rate, which would lead to higher monthly payments.

You’re entitled to one free credit report each year from each reporting agency: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The credit report will contain identifying information, such as your Social Security number and date of birth, trade lines, credit inquiries and public records and collections.

When buying a home, the mortgage lender will review all of your credit reports and credit scores. Ordinarily, your credit score should be anywhere above 700 in order to receive a standard mortgage interest rate.

When renting an apartment, the landlords or rental agency will review your credit report for negative information, such as missed payments. Those with bad credit may be required to get a co-signer on the lease. 

When seeking insurance, the insurer may request to go through your credit report and credit score in order to determine terms and rates. With this information, the insurer can calculate your insurance risk. The higher the insurance risk score, the better the insurance rates.

When purchasing a car, most auto dealers will rely on your credit score to offer loan terms that match your credit profile. Those with high credit scores will receive the best auto loan rates available; those with low credit scores may receive an excessively high interest rate.

When applying for a credit card, the company will review your credit report and score to decide if you qualify. Keep in mind credit card companies can also review the scores of existing customers and adjust rates accordingly.

Whichever form of credit you apply for, it pays to know your score, as well as the information contained in your report. Having that information can help pave the path toward a successful financial future.

Source: ACCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.


Buying a Home? 3 Ways to Beat the Competition

March 23, 2016 1:04 am

With home prices on the rise and mortgage rates still relatively low, now is the ideal time to buy a home. But in this type of market, competing offers can shut you out of the home of your dreams if you’re not prepared.

Beat the competition this home buying season with these 3 tips, courtesy of NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit corporation.

1. Seek professional guidance. More than two-thirds of homebuyers in a recent NeighborWorks survey said that the home buying process is complicated. The best way to get a thorough understanding of the process is to consult with a real estate professional. If you find your finances are lacking, you may also want to meet with a housing counselor, who can offer additional support.

“The housing market is tough right now, with fewer homes for sale on the market than usual, and new mortgage rules and many mortgage products from which to choose,” says Marietta Rodriguez, spokesperson for NeighborWorks America. “To be in the strongest position to make an offer that is accepted, consumers have to be prepared. That's where initial consultation with a housing counselor is a great first-step.”

2. Build a budget. National surveys have shown that less than one-third of consumers have a budget. Go into this home buying season with a budget that includes potential changes in commuting costs after purchase, home maintenance expenses, and even estimates for changes in life circumstances (such as becoming a parent or paying for college) to have a leg-up on the competition.

“Once all the numbers are on the table, it's easier to see what type of home suits a family's budget and needs, what might be necessary financial trade-offs, and what could be a direct line to trouble,” says Rodriguez.

3. Remain informed. The supply of homes on the market will be tight this season. Getting into a bidding war could weaken your resolve, and could push you beyond your means financially. In these circumstances, don’t be tempted to forgo important steps in the process, like the home inspection.

“Forgoing a home inspection to move up a place in the bidding process could be costly down the road if problems and defects with the home arise,” says Rodriguez.” NeighborWorks recommends that homebuyers have a home inspection, and know as much as possible about the inside of a home as the outside.”

Follow these three tips to ensure you stay ahead of the competition, and remember: contact a real estate professional. He or she can help you see you through from pre-approval to close.

Source: NeighborWorks America

Published with permission from RISMedia.


How Will You Pay Yourself in Retirement?

March 22, 2016 1:01 am

Depends on who you ask, according to research conducted by Ameriprise Financial. The financial services provider recently posed the question to both pre-retirees and retirees in a study, revealing contrasting confidence levels between the two.

According to study findings, 85 percent of retirees have a plan in place to pay themselves in retirement, and thus feel at ease; just 53 percent of pre-retirees have developed a retirement plan, and feel less confident that they’ve saved enough money to last their lifetime.

“Figuring out how to recreate a paycheck in retirement can be one of the most daunting challenges investors face,” says Marcy Keckler, vice president of Financial Advice Strategy at Ameriprise. “Add to it recent market volatility, and it’s easy to see why pre-retirees who have not developed a retirement income plan feel less confident that they’ll have the money they need to cover their expenses.”

Despite this, 73 percent of pre-retirees cited in the study said they plan to retire at age 65.

“The good news,” says Keckler, “is that they still have time to take action. By putting a plan in place now, while they’re still earning a traditional paycheck, they may be able to achieve similar levels of confidence as their older peers.”

In a shift from previous generations, pre-retirees today are relying less on pensions and more on 401(k)s and IRAs, which places the burden on the individual, rather than his or her employer, to save for retirement. It’s likely the next wave of retirees will need to spend more time calculating optimal withdrawal rates and exploring guaranteed sources of income.

Tax treatment of investments is one of the most important considerations when deciding how or when to draw income. As retirees reach their 70½ birthdays, Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) will dictate how much money they must withdraw from their retirement accounts annually. Retirees may face penalties if distributions are not taken or calculated incorrectly; therefore, it’s crucial to consider these tax rules when formulating retirement income plans.

The majority of retirees surveyed in the study relied on financial professionals to design their plans.

“When transitioning from a pre-retiree to a retiree, figuring out how to spend your savings can be an overwhelming process,” Keckler says. “A financial advisor can serve as a critical source of information to help you develop a tailored, comprehensive plan to fit your retirement income needs.”

Source: Ameriprise Financial, Inc.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


5 Habits for Greener Living

March 22, 2016 1:01 am

(Family Features)—Adopting just one environmentally-conscious habit can make a world of difference—really! The majority of individuals who make choices that help preserve natural resources report feeling happier when doing so, according to a study by packaging product manufacturer Tetra Pak.

“We believe that even simple lifestyle behaviors have the power to make a big impact, on both a personal and global scale,” says Elisabeth Comere, director of Environment and Government Affairs for Tetra Pak. “The combined benefit of the small actions we take, from taking shorter showers to choosing products in renewable packaging—made of natural resources that can be replenished over time—can benefit the world around us while making us happier.” 

Comere recommends starting with one of the following lifestyle changes:

1. Conserve resources, including water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates cutting your shower by just one minute will save two and a half gallons of water. Over time, that savings adds up: 75 gallons per month and nearly 1,000 gallons over the course of a year.

2. Choose products in renewable packaging. Choosing food and beverage products in renewable packaging is a natural extension of environmentally-friendly habits, such as recycling or composting. From milk and soup to water and juice, you can find food products packaged in cartons—primarily made from paper, a renewable resource from growing forests.

3. Buy only what you can consume. At the grocery store, it's easy to over-shop, especially if you're hungry. Buy only what you need, and seek groceries that are considered renewable, such as fruits and vegetables.

4. Use reusable containers. These days, hectic lifestyles are the norm and that often means meals and beverages on the go. When possible, rely on reusable drink and food containers instead of disposable ones.

5. Whenever you can, bike or walk instead of driving. According to data compiled by National Geographic, it takes nearly 13 gallons of water to produce each gallon of gasoline. Using alternative modes of transportation, or car pooling, can help cut water and energy demands.

Adopting just one of these renewable habits can help preserve the planet's resources while fast-tracking levels of happiness. Which of these green changes will you make?

Source: Tetra Pak

Published with permission from RISMedia.


Spring Reset: Colors and Ideas to Refresh Your Home

March 22, 2016 1:01 am

There’s no season like springtime to refresh, renew (and redo!) your home—and one of the simplest ways to breathe new life into it is with a fresh color palette.

“Spring embodies the saying ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’ and provides the opportunity for consumers to apply this mantra in a favorite room in their home,” says Katie Reynolds, an Atlanta-based design expert for Ace Hardware. “This is the perfect time of year to use unexpected pops of color and experiment with fresh, new design ideas."

Reynolds, along with fellow Ace design experts Nathan Fischer and Julia Richard, list these spring shades to try:

• Pink is having a moment! Pair blush tones with crisp whites—the combination will make a big impact in any room. Mix in as an accent by painting a dresser or chest in a soft pink shade.

Turquoise never seems to go out of style. Use it sparingly to highlight other subtler colors in any room.

• Bright shades of coral will bring your home to life. Paint coral on an eye-catching accent wall or introduce it through tabletop accessories. Pair with neutral clay-brown tones to even out its intensity.

To take these on-trend shades to the next level, incorporate these five elements, says Reynolds, Fischer and Richard:

• Vintage Accessories (Birdcages, Lanterns)
• Wall Prints
• Mirrored Accents (Lamps, Side Tables)
• Zebrawood (Cabinet, Chest)
• French Doors

Spring is the perfect time of year to press “reset.” Draw inspiration from the tips above to reset your home this season. You may find these colors have staying power!

Source: Ace Hardware

Published with permission from RISMedia.


8 Tips That Could Get You to Millionaire Status

March 21, 2016 1:19 am

About 5 percent of the adult population in the U.S.—or about one in 20 people—are millionaires. Entrepreneur and investor John Rampton is one of them. Rampton, who achieved millionaire status early in life, has made some savvy decisions along the way. As he recently told Inc. Magazine, he credits these eight frugal habits for helping him achieve and maintain his goal:

1. Live within your means – The more we make, the more we tend to upgrade. But, points out Rampton, Warren Buffet still lives in the small Omaha home he purchased in 1958. Do without a McMansion or a luxury car and let your money work for you instead. 

2. Don’t pay full price – Shop at discount and big box stores and look for bargains on near-new merchandise via sites like eBay and Craigslist. You’ll find you can buy quality goods without paying full retail price.

3. Cut out unnecessary expenses – Pare your cable expense. Cut the daily latte. Never pay ATM fees. Small savings add up to more funds for saving and investing.

4. Rent or sell your stuff – Sell clothing and other things you no longer want at consignment shops or online. Take in a roommate or rent out a spare bedroom. Rent out extra garage space. It’s quick, easy cash you can use to help you climb the ladder.

5. Leave the plastic at home – Being out without a credit card helps you curb expenses and avoid impulse buys. Limit the amount of cash you keep in your wallet so you are not tempted to go overboard.

6. Don’t waste money trying to get rich quick – Studies show that 16 percent of the wealthy gamble on sports each week, versus 52 percent of the poor. Nine percent play the lottery each week, as opposed to 77 percent of the poor. Don’t waste money on any get-rich-quick promise because they rarely, if ever, pan out.

7. Go green – Recycle cans and cardboard. Consider carpooling or taking public transportation to work instead of driving yourself. Reduce heating and cooling bills by adjusting your thermostat, and spring for energy-saving appliances.

8. Get a side job – Besides earning you extra income, having a side gig is a good way to keep you out of stores and restaurants in your spare time.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


Your Household: 6 DIY Drain Tips

March 21, 2016 1:19 am

(Family Features)—When it comes to clearing household clogs, don't be afraid to do it yourself! The tips below will help you handle the most common clogs, without the need for a professional plumber.

For hair-clogged drains, use an entire bottle of a product specifically formulated for hair clog removal. Be sure the product is safe for all types of pipes. Instructions vary by product, but generally, allow the product to work for a few minutes, and then run hot water down the drain to rinse it away.

If possible, transfer water that won’t drain and any lingering dregs in the sink basin into a bucket. Carefully remove stoppers or strainers from the drain. If you're removing screws, store them somewhere safe so they don't fall down the drain.

If you need to remove stopper parts from under the sink, keep a bucket underneath the pipes. Remove any building up from the stopper or strainers, and then run water to flush down remaining material and test the flow.

For clogged toilets, the best tool is a plunger with a flange, which is a smaller opening on the bottom of the plunger that resembles a cup. Place the plunger into the toilet drain straight and vertical. Create a tight seal with the drain, with the plunger fully submerged in water.

Plunge gently at first, then vigorously, in an up and down motion. If the clog remains, or the toilet still isn't flushing properly, a drain snake or a closet auger can help.

To keep clogs from occurring in the future, perform maintenance periodically. Certain down-the-drain products can help keep pipes clean, prevent new clogs from forming and keep drains smelling fresh. These can be found at any local hardware or home improvement store.

Source: Liquid-Plumr

Published with permission from RISMedia.


Breaking Down Spring Home Project Costs

March 21, 2016 1:19 am

(Family Features)—Before you grab your toolkit or enlist the help of a professional for spring projects this season, do your wallet a favor and conduct some research.

HomeAdvisor’s most recent True Cost Report found that 38 percent of homeowners don't know how much it will cost to hire a professional for home projects, and nearly 70 percent are concerned about overpaying as a consequence of not having reliable cost information.

If you’ve got any of these projects on the agenda this spring, keep in mind these tips.

Repairing the roof: Maintaining the roof protects a home from the elements and can raise property values. Small repairs keep a roof in good shape for several years and help avoid costly damages. Most homeowners assume repairing a roof can be costly. In fact, the average roof fix only costs $550, according to the True Cost Report.

Remodeling a kitchen: Kitchen remodels boost a home's resale value and add functionality to the most utilized space in a home. Many factors go into remodeling a kitchen, including flooring, plumbing, appliances and electrical, so bear in mind these additional costs when budgeting.

Remodeling a bathroom: Homeowners can choose from different types of bathroom remodels, depending on style preferences and budget. The average cost of remodeling a bathroom is $9,000, says HomeAdvisor.

Painting the home's exterior: Painting the home's exterior not only boosts its curb appeal, but it also acts as a home's primary defense against weather, insects, and other damage. Consider your region’s climate before selecting a color and/or finish.

Installing landscaping: Landscaping can dramatically change the look of a house and property. Adding landscaping such as an outdoor patio, flowers or shrubs can increase the value of a home. The True Cost Report points to an average cost of $2,938 for landscaping.

Source: HomeAdvisor

Published with permission from RISMedia.


Student Loan Borrowers: 4 Tips to Avoid Scams

March 18, 2016 12:19 am

To date, there are over 43 million student loan borrowers in the United States, owing a total of nearly $1.3 trillion dollars of debt. Many of them, who are already at risk financially, could become targets of debt relief scammers.

“It’s hard enough to finance school, get through it and then manage your debt load once you leave,” says Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®). “Unfortunately, being targeted for student loan-related scams is one more thing graduates may have to deal with.”

To fend off these types of scams, McClary and the NFCC advise the following guidelines:

1. Remember looks can be deceiving. Official-looking emails or websites are intended to lead people into thinking they are legitimate. One way to verify that correspondence is from a reputable organization is by checking their Web addresses and looking for reviews or complaints online.

It’s also worth noting that the Department of Education’s Web pages end in .gov, not .com. Bear in mind, also, that the government doesn’t send out email or use advertising to encourage students to take out loans or borrowers to consolidate debt.

2. Verify before trusting. The same rules for protecting personal information in all other aspects of life also apply to student loans. Don’t provide information, especially a Federal Student Aid PIN, to someone who calls or writes. Instead, ask for a case number, then call the creditor, bank, credit union, credit card company or lender using their published number. This verifies that they are actually trying to reach out regarding a problem with an account.

3. Urgency is a red flag. Whenever pressed to make a quick decision involving a “special offer,” step away and take a hard look at the deal and who is presenting it. Scammers use urgency the same way magicians use distractions—to focus attention away from what they don’t want others to see.

4. Don’t buy into “instant” solutions. While there are many programs that offer debt forgiveness or cancellation, borrowers need to apply to them directly. There aren’t any middlemen who can negotiate special deals.

However, there are certified counselors, like those who work with nonprofit NFCC member agencies, who can help identify opportunities for debt relief and provide guidance toward the right option based on an individual’s unique financial situation. Anyone seeking assistance with student loan debt is encouraged to reach out for counseling by contacting the NFCC at 877-406-6322 or online at studentloanhelp.org

If you suspect that your student loan information has been compromised, call the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General Hotline 1-800-MIS-USED.

Source: NFCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.