4 Easy Ways to Add Value to Your Home

Many home owners view their house as not only a place to live, but also as an investment. Like with all investments, you would like to make one day make money off of it. With a house, there are numerous things that can be done to improve the value, and the handy do it yourselfer can accomplish most of these tasks. Owning a home takes a great deal of time and energy, and because of this, many home owners take pride in where they live. With these 4 home improvements, your house will not only look better, but will be worth more in the long run.
1. Make your yard presentable
The first thing you notice when you see someone’s home is their yard. One of the best upgrades to any home is making the yard more presentable. In the real estate world “don’t judge a book by its cover” does not exist, so it is important that you have a nice yard if you are looking to sell or improve value. Having a neat and well-kept yard not only gives your house more “curb appeal”, but also shows that you take pride in the way your home looks. Doing subtle things to your yard such as adding lights around a walk way or flowers and plants is not only easy, but also fairly inexpensive and improves the look of your home, which increases its value.
2. Improve Interior Lighting
A good amount of home owners are unaware that the addition of improved interior lighting can help aid in increasing your home’s value. A great idea for this would to change from standard incandescent bulbs to a more elegant LED style bulb. LED bulbs are an all-around better form of lighting because they have a better light output and use less heat energy than normal bulbs. Although LEDs have a higher purchase cost than incandescent bulbs, they are much more efficient and help you save a great deal of money over their lifetime. Interior lighting in a great way to not only give your home a better feel, but it also can help improve the value of your home as well as potentially save you money.
3. Updating Your Bathroom
One of the more popular ways to improve your home’s value is by upgrading your bathroom. When you make the decision to begin updating the bathroom, many of the upgrades you decide to do are your preference and can be whatever you’d like. A bathroom can easily be made to look great with a little bit of time and effort. A great idea for improving your bathroom would be to give the room a fresh coat of paint (color is up to you) and maybe do some wall paper or crown molding. Another way to enhance the appearance could be to add a new light fixture as well as a new mirror. These upgrades are fairly easy to do and won’t break the bank.
4. Redoing Your Kitchen
The best way to improve the value of your home is by taking the time and money to renovate the kitchen. There are many things that can be done to improve the kitchen, such as the addition of new appliances, paint, and purchasing new a kitchen set, just to name a few. If you decide to upgrade appliances, going with energy star rated units will not only help save you money over the long run, but will help improve the home’s value due to the fact that they are energy efficient. By improving the look of your kitchen not only does your house look better, it will also be worth more.
Simple things can go a long way when it comes to home upgrades. More often than not you will find that making subtle changes to various parts of your home and improving the way things look can help increase the value of your home. Not only would you be making a great investment by spending the time and money to fix your home the way you want it, but you will also be much happier about where you live.
Mark Scheets is a writer for Total Mortgage Services. Since 1997, Total Mortgage has combined the personal service and integrity of a local lender with low rates, convenience, speed, and know-how of a national lender.

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Committee looks to streamline city grant process

index Committee looks to streamline city grant process

An annual list of city events and local programs, partially funded via Brentwood’s business license sales tax proceeds, may no longer have to go through the annual grant application process if the recent recommendations of an economic development ad-hoc committee are approved by the Brentwood City Council.

“There are certain events that the community has come to expect and those are the events that the City wanted to make sure the funding was there to get them accomplished,” said Brentwood City Councilmember Joel Bryant of the ad-hoc’s recommendations made during the committee’s March 20 meeting. “The pool of money that is left over will go to toward the competition process.”

Each year, the city makes allocations to a variety of groups and organizations in Brentwood that put on events and programs that bring attention and business to the city. In the past, these groups, whether it be the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Business Coalition or the City itself, have entered the annual competition for dollars.

But now, the economic development ad-hoc committee is hoping some groups will be able to expect a certain allotment each year without going through the annual paperwork process. A 20-percent allotment of the monies collected from the city’s business license tax funds these projects, and according to the Economic Development Department, the budget for this year’s cycle is $157,000. Any dollars not spent, said Bryant, who also sits on the ad-hoc committee, will go toward the following year’s allocations.

“I think there were some really exciting grant proposals this year, and the committee was very thoughtful in looking at them all,” said Brentwood Planning/Economic Development Manager Alex Greenwood.

Ongoing project allocations included a recommendation of $5,400 for the Chamber of Commerce’s citywide banners program, $6,000 for the City’s Shop Local campaign and $20,000 toward the downtown tree lighting fund. There are 60 to 65 trees in the downtown area that are lighted each evening.

“There are a lot of trees downtown and because they are so young and they are growing so fast, the lights have to be adjusted regularly for the growth,” said Bryant. “I would imagine that once they are grown the cost would go down.”

Grant competition recommendations (programs and groups that would have to apply for funding each year) included a wide variety of projects, such as $750 for the Brentwood Concert Band series, $15,000 for the Downtown Business Coalition and $1,000 for a new event – the Brentwood Antique and Art Show. Also new this year is the Brentwood Harvest Time Festival, which received $27,500.

Those who did not make the recommendation list this year include the East Contra Costa County Community Forum and Family Resource Fair put on by the Village Community Resource Center. They asked for $7,981. No funding was recommended for applications from The Whitewater Group, who hosts a profitability workshop, and the Chamber of Commerce’s Brentwood advertising campaign, either.

“Each year the application is open to all different groups, and it is there for them to try again,” said Bryant. “The purpose is to encourage other groups as well to promote business growth and activities that bring traffic downtown … I am very hopeful that all of these recommendations will get approved.”

The proposal is expected to go before the city council in April or May.

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Stay Put and Remodel — or Move?

images Stay Put and Remodel — or Move?
A New Year ushers in new resolutions, which often includes changes on the home front, but deciding what to do with it can be tough for home owners, financially and emotionally.

As the real estate market rebounds and buyers increase in number, help your contacts make a well-informed decision on the direction they should take with their home. Your insight is valuable when customers are torn between selling in order to upgrade and remodeling their current space to add value and meet their needs. Even those who don’t list and sell with you now may do so later, and even refer friends and family because of your attentive service.

Here are seven key steps to help clients arrive at the best solution:

1. Ask home owners to share what bothers them most about their home, such as the traffic pattern, lack of a certain room, or absence of light.

Help clients analyze how they use their house and determine what features are missing that they want. Changes can often be made within an existing footprint, even without adding square footage. Walls can be taken down, doors removed or changed, and windows enlarged. Home owners who have been in their house for years are often only using certain rooms because of a pattern they established early on.

“Many fail to use 30 to 40 percent of their space,” says contractor Randy Tapper of RHT Design and Construction in Deerfield, Ill. He tries to guide clients toward changing their layout, so they use all spaces, before he suggests adding. Architect Duo Dickinson, author of Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want (Taunton Press, 2011) concurs, and says removing walls and adding openings rather than increasing the home’s footprint can tackle a great percentage of challenges.

2. Help home owners study how their house is sited.

Discuss together the land your clients’ house sits on — both the topography and condition — as well as how it’s oriented toward views. If the site always leaks ground water, has absolutely no trees (or terrible ones), or includes hideous views, then remodeling likely won’t fix your clients’ issues, Dickinson says, and selling becomes a more viable option.

3. Ask clients to talk about their neighborhood.

If they’re very attached to their neighborhood, including the area’s retail, schools, and, perhaps, proximity to major thoroughfares, it may be worthwhile for your clients to “build their way out of their home or site’s challenges — and stay put,” says Dickinson.

Sometimes, pleasant memories, such as where they raised their children or watched a daughter marry in the backyard, may outweigh the option of moving.

4. Remind clients to factor in their time frame and family needs.

If your clients plan to be in their house a long time — at least five to 10 years — making significant changes, such as adding rooms, building a sunroom, or finishing a basement, may provide a worthwhile payback and incentive. If, however, they’re empty nesters and ready to downsize, then remodeling may not be the most prudent financial decision. Here’s where a good financial planner can help them assess their home’s value in relationship to the rest of their assets and needs; a mortgage lender also should be tapped to discuss the costs of a new mortgage, if they need one.

But, exceptions abound, even for empty nesters. Some may decide to stay put. If their children and grandchildren visit regularly, they may decide that remodeling, or even adding on, will be the magic bullet for them to enjoy their home for years into the future.

5. Suggest that clients consult contractors, designers, architects, or structural engineers, and get multiple bids, for a realistic estimate of what changes might cost.

It’s worth paying professionals for an hour of their time; some will even provide it gratis, says Dickinson. These professionals can look at a home owners’ current house, listen to what they want, appraise its condition –—including what an untrained eye may not see — and estimate costs of new work.

In addition, if the house was built more than 30 years ago and hasn’t been updated, it may require new wiring or plumbing, a new HVAC system or roof, and better insulation. A new survey may also be worthwhile depending on what changes might take place, especially if it’s dated.

6. Compare the appraisal and remodeling costs with other neighborhood homes for future resale.

Even though home owners should base decisions in large measure on enjoyment and not wholly on resale value, it’s smart to have an idea of how changes will affect the house compared with others nearby, says real estate attorney and Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss.

It’s never smart to overbuild for an area. The type of improvement can also affect the value. Remodeling changes may add to the house’s worth without changing real estate taxes, while an addition will probably cause an uptick in taxes.

Help home owners by showing recent comps for homes of a similar size and quality and in a similar area, says Dickinson.

7. Seeing is believing: Besides showing clients comps, take home owners to see what’s available in their price range in neighborhoods they like.

A new house may offer a better layout, the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms, an updated kitchen, or a nice yard. But clients should also remind clients that even the home they buy may need some remodeling tweaks, like new paint, carpet, or an overhaul of an outdated master bathroom. Help your home owners factor in the cost and time of these changes as they weigh their final decision.

Here, too, it might prove worthwhile to bring in a contractor or architect to estimate costs of any big changes such as new insulation, removing some walls, or finishing the basement.

Dara Shlifka and her husband Aric went through these paces when they decided they needed additional space for a home office in their 1968, Colonial-style, 2,400-square-foot suburban Chicago home. Initially, they were convinced they’d move, since remodeling and bids for additions came in sky-high — $250,000 and above. They house-hunted in a broad price range, from $400,000 up to $800,000, Dara says. But before they found a house, they asked one more contractor for ideas. He suggested converting their living room to an office and building a 600-square-foot addition with a bigger kitchen and a new family room, powder room, and laundry and mud rooms, and his bid came in at only $120,000, which convinced them to stay. “We’re almost done, but already I feel I’m living in a different house,” she says.

Bottom line: Advise home owners to make this big decision carefully based on all of the facts. In the end, they’ll be happier, and happy clients are your greatest asset.

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December Existing-Home Sales Rise, 2013 Strongest in Seven Years

WASHINGTON (January 23, 2014) – Existing-home sales edged up in December, sales for all of 2013 were the highest since 2006, and median prices maintained strong growth, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, increased 1.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.87 million in December from a downwardly revised 4.82 million in November, but are 0.6 percent below the 4.90 million-unit level in December 2012.

For all of 2013, there were 5.09 million sales, which is 9.1 percent higher than 2012. It was the strongest performance since 2006 when sales reached an unsustainably high 6.48 million at the close of the housing boom.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said housing has experienced a healthy recovery over the past two years. “Existing-home sales have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011, with job growth, record low mortgage interest rates and a large pent-up demand driving the market,” he said. “We lost some momentum toward the end of 2013 from disappointing job growth and limited inventory, but we ended with a year that was close to normal given the size of our population.”

The national median existing-home price for all of 2013 was $197,100, which is 11.5 percent above the 2012 median of $176,800, and was the strongest gain since 2005 when it rose 12.4 percent.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in December was $198,000, up 9.9 percent from December 2012. Distressed homes – foreclosures and short sales – accounted for 14 percent of December sales, unchanged from November; they were 24 percent in December 2012. The shrinking share of distressed sales accounts for some of the price growth.

Ten percent of December sales were foreclosures, and 4 percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 18 percent below market value in December, while short sales were discounted 13 percent.

Total housing inventory at the end of December fell 9.3 percent to 1.86 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 5.1 months in November. Unsold inventory is 1.6 percent above a year ago, when there was a 4.5-month supply.

The median time on market for all homes was 72 days in December, up sharply from 56 days in November, but slightly below the 73 days on market in December 2012. Adverse weather reportedly delayed closings in many areas. Twenty-eight percent of homes sold in December were on the market for less than a month, down from 35 percent in November, which appears to be a weather impact.

Short sales were on the market for a median of 122 days in December, while foreclosures typically sold in 67 days and non-distressed homes took 70 days.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 4.46 percent in December from 4.26 percent in November; the rate was 3.35 percent in December 2012.

NAR President Steve Brown, co-owner of Irongate, Inc., Realtors® in Dayton, Ohio, said that with jobs expected to improve this year, sales should hold even despite rising home prices and higher mortgage interest rates. “The only factors holding us back from a stronger recovery are the ongoing issues of restrictive mortgage credit and constrained inventory,” he said. “With strict new mortgage rules in place, we will be monitoring the lending environment to ensure that financially qualified buyers can access the credit they need to purchase a home.”

First-time buyers accounted for 27 percent of purchases in December, down from 28 percent in November and 30 percent in December 2012.

All-cash sales comprised 32 percent of transactions in December, unchanged from November; they were 29 percent in December 2012. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 21 percent of homes in December, up from 19 percent in November, but are unchanged from December 2012.

Single-family home sales rose 1.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.30 million in December from 4.22 million in November, but are 0.7 percent below the 4.33 million-unit pace in December 2012. The median existing single-family home price was $197,900 in December, up 9.8 percent from a year ago.

Existing condominium and co-op sales fell 5.0 percent to an annual rate of 570,000 units in December from 600,000 units in November, and are unchanged a year ago. The median existing condo price was $198,600 in December, which is 10.9 percent above December 2012.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast slipped 1.5 percent to an annual rate of 640,000 in December, but are 3.2 percent higher than December 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $239,300, up 3.6 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the Midwest fell 4.3 percent in December to a pace of 1.11 million, and are 0.9 percent below a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $150,700, which is 7.0 percent higher than December 2012.

In the South, existing-home sales increased 3.0 percent to an annual level of 2.03 million in December, and are 4.6 percent above December 2012. The median price in the South was $173,200, up 8.9 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the West rose 4.8 percent to a pace of 1.09 million in December, but are 10.7 percent below a year ago. Inventory is tightest in the West, which is holding down sales in many markets, and multiple bidding is causing it to experience the strongest price gains in the U.S. The median price in the West was $285,000, up 16.0 percent from December 2012.

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Pantages project plugging along

Pantages Pantages project plugging along

It’s a project that has been years in the making and with a road still left to travel, but Discovery Bay’s Pantages project recently jumped another hurdle with the recent passage of the housing development by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

“It’s great news, and we’re pleased with the results,” said Mark Armstrong, vice president of Pantages of Discovery Bay. “We’re on the positive path forward.”

The Pantages project, located at the end of Timber Point between Kellogg Creek and the Lakeshore development, will be a gated community of 292-single family homes on 172 acres including 115 deep-water lots.

Armstrong believes the arrival of the project will cement and bridge the gap between original Discovery Bay and the more recent arrival of homes in Discovery Bay west.

On the drawing board for more than six years, recent progress on the project is viewed by many as a sign that the economy is growing and the housing market is strengthening.

Discovery Bay General Manager Rick Howard sees it that way, too, and looks forward to the benefits Pantages will bring to town.

“It’s a project that will be a nice asset to the community,” said Howard, “and one of the biggest benefits is that it will widen portions of Kellogg Creek and that is something we are really looking forward to. It’s a good project; it’s very well laid out.”

Although there is still further permitting necessary before construction can begin – Armstrong estimates at least another two years – it’s clear from all standpoints that the arrival of the new homes is a good thing.

“We still have the annexation into the CSD (Community Services District) and Rec 800 to deal with,” said Armstrong. “But we’re very pleased with the support we have received from the board of supervisors and the community. It’s all coming together.”

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Remodeling Magazine’s Yearly Survey Reveals 5 DIY Projects With Highest ROI

imagesCAIW34KI Remodeling Magazine’s Yearly Survey Reveals 5 DIY Projects With Highest ROI
As the real estate market continues to recover, you may be wondering which remodeling projects will provide you with the best return on investment when you put your house on the market. There are a few things you can do that are relatively economical and get you the most return for your money, making it easier for you to sell your home for the best price. By choosing remodeling projects that simply improve the existing structures of the home, you can invest in your home without too much hassle or expense, and these projects should greatly improve the price your home fetches in the end.

Each year, Remodeling Magazine releases a cost vs. value survey to reveal the return on investment of various home improvement projects. Below are the top 5 do it yourself (DIY) projects with the highest return on investment (ROI) for 2012-2013. Over the last couple of years, these projects have held steady as the best choices for home remodeling return on investment nationwide.

1. Install a steel front door: A steel front door offers improved energy efficiency and curbside appeal. When prospective home buyers visit, the door is the first thing they’ll see, so you want to make sure to make a great first impression. And with a return on investment of 85.6%, a steel front door is an easy way to improve your home’s value and salability.

2. Replace the siding: Fiber-cement siding is easy to care for, attractive, and energy efficient. Replacing your current siding with fiber-cement siding can improve your return on investment around 79.3%, and it can improve the look of your home for that all-important curbside appeal.

3. Add a wooden deck: Nothing makes for great entertaining at home like a wooden deck, and prospective home buyers love them. This remodeling project can provide a return of investment of 77.3%.

4. Replace the garage door: Most people never think about replacing the garage door until there’s a problem. But installing a high-end garage door can provide a return on investment of 75.7%. Because they’re exposed to the elements, garage doors can experience a lot of wear and tear, and homebuyers are looking to see what they’ll have to fix if they purchase the home. Plus, a new garage door can improve the aesthetic impression your house makes.

5. Remodel the kitchen: When home buyers are touring your home, they’re checking out rooms like the kitchen and wondering what kind of work they’ll need to put into it if they purchase it. With some minor kitchen remodeling projects, you can leave them with the impression that everything is in great shape. Repairing and repainting trim, replacing the hardware on existing cabinets and drawers, replacing wallpaper, and replacing countertops or appliances generally comes with a 75.4% return on investment.

These numbers are all higher than the numbers for the same projects from the year before, which shows a promising trend for investing in your home. These numbers are national averages, so the ROI on these projects could vary in your area. The key is to be strategic with your home improvement to make the most of your investment.

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10 Things Today’s Buyers Look for in a Home

untitled 10 Things Today’s Buyers Look for in a Home

While David Letterman’s Top 10 lists generally culminate in a No. 1 ranking, the following list includes in no particular order 10 things that are important to buyers today, especially Millennials who represent a significant buyer niche in today’s market.

1.Quality of the neighborhood – The National Association of Realtor’s 2012 Profile of Buyers and Sellers revealed that neighborhoods are really important to buyers, but that neighborhood choice varies by household composition.

2.Convenience to job – Commuting is a necessary evil, but homes that are close to work enhance work-life balance, a growing priority for many Americans, especially Millennials.

3.Overall affordability of homes – With job markets tight and retirement funds depleted or eroded thanks to the great Recession, it has never been more important to keep housing related costs as low as possible, ideally no more than one third of your pre-tax income.

4.Quality of schools – A recent survey by realtor.com revealed that nearly 45 percent of today’s buyers are willing to pay a premium for quality schools

5.Homes suited for the next 15 years – Just five years ago, buyers were looking to stay in their home about 10 years. Today, buyers expect to stay closer to 15, so it’s important to find a home that can support lifestyles as they evolve through that time period.

6.A mortgage – In today’s tight credit environment, getting a mortgage can be a challenge. Buyers should be willing to consider homes below what they may quality for in order to bump up the loan to value ratio.

7.Energy efficiency – The National Association of Homebuilders surveyed buyers to see what was most important to them in new home construction and energy efficiency topped the list. Four of the top most wanted features involve saving energy: 94 percent of home buyers want energy-star rated appliances, 91 percent want an energy-star rating for the whole home, 89 percent want energy-star rated windows, and 88 percent want ceiling fans.

8.Open floor plans – Spaces that are great for entertaining mean quality time with friends and family, something especially important to Gen Y.

9.High ceilings – Taller ceilings are not only aesthetically pleasing in that they impart a grandness to the home, they also promote greater air circulation and more natural light than lower ceilings.

10.Technology – Can you run your home from a cell phone? Then market to a Millennial, who prizes a homes’ technological amenities prized over curb appeal.

What are YOU looking for in a home? Did we leave something off the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

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The don’ts to build your credit score

images The don’ts to build your credit score

1. Being a big spender using your credit cards

The higher your balances on your credit cards are as in relationship to your available credit limit, termed “Proportion of balance to high credit limit”, the lower your credit score will be. The credit score calculation allows for 35% of your credit score to be based on your revolving credit accounts, with how you pay being second. Credit experts say, keep your balances between 20 and 30%, the acceptable range. When you exceed 30% of your credit limit you will begin to lose more and more credit score points. If you are one of those who pay off your balances every month, keep in mind may not reflect the credit report because the creditors do not report uniformly to all 3 credit reporting bureaus.

To maximize your credit score don’t use the credit card for 30 to 60 days before applying for a loan, unless you know the reporting and closing dates on your credit accounts. If you do not know the cycles, an account can be paid off or down and using a credit scoring tool, “Rapid Rescore”, one can correct the credit card account to reflect the new balance and the credit score will adjust accordingly.

2. Paying your revolving credit cards late

Paying any loan or credit card late is the second most influencing factor to your credit score. When you’re 30 days past due, meaning your balance is still unpaid, your credit score will decrease anywhere between 30 and 60 points. Late payments from your past will have less and less of a negative effect on your credit score as you rebuild a consistent positive payment history with the creditor.

Setting up automatic online bill payments so you’ll never be late will help to avoid forgetting to pay an account on time. If you are late one month, be sure to pay off any past due amounts and become current so as to avoid “rolling 30 day lates.” This happens when consumers pay between cycles not knowing that they are still paying late every month.

3. Not having enough credit

When it comes to your credit report and credit score calculation your credit score won’t be as high as it could be if you have just one credit account. Even if you pay on time and in full every month.

Why? Your creditors and lenders ideally like to see a potential borrower responsibly managing a mix of revolving debt (such as credit cards, where you can reuse the credit after paying it back) and installment debt (such as a car loan or most mortgages, where you pay the same amount every month for a certain period).

The perfect mix is 3 to 5 accounts managed wisely, paid on time with revolving credit cards balances within the accepted range

4. Length of history

Older credit accounts count more than young ones in your credit score. The older the account the more it is a reliable indicator of creditworthiness verses a new account a few months of history that goes unrated. Accounts open less than six months will reduce your credit score because the inquiry used to determine approval and interst rate was a deduction and the account is unrated for it payment history, but if you use it will be rated for it’s proportion of balance to the high credit limit. This is a catch 21, but a necessary evil in building a solid credit score.

But while it may be tempting to close out a credit card account when you transfer the balance to a lower-rate card, this practice will affect your score in a negative way, because your total balance stays the same but your credit limit goes down when you close an account. And, if you close an older account you have lost that long history with the creditor that is so important.

6. Not checking your credit report

There are errors in your credit report. Studies by the credit bureaus themselves show that there is a greater than 50% of credit reports has information that belongs to someone else and as high as 70% that the information is unverifiable. You may have someone else’s accounts and delinquencies reporting on your credit report.

Knowing what is on your credit report gives you the opportunity to improve your score, by correcting the mis-information. Order a free credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus and make sure they’re accurate. If you can’t do it yourself, consider hiring a professional firm to help you though this complex, yet seemingly simple, as the credit reporting bureaus purport, process of investigation and correction. Be prepared for opposition, as it is not in the best interest of the bureaus for you to have a good credit score.

Three annoying but true facts:

1……. Credit scores aren’t free.

2…… Credit bureaus don’t share information on you, so your credit reports and the scores based on them will vary.

3…… Credit scores based on errors and unverified data are not true credit scores.

So if you’re planning on applying for a mortgage or other loan, “know before you go.” Talk to a professional and review your credit report with them, it is usually free.

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The tug of war for the Delta

delta The tug of war for the Delta
Throughout California’s history, the reservoirs and water resources generated by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been the lifeblood of the state’s economy – the largest in the country and a global leader in innovation. Without the aquatic transfers that move throughout the state, agricultural operations as far south as San Diego would be left to wither under inhospitable conditions. No matter the region or city, the Delta is arguably the common denominator that connects northern and southern California.

Today, as the state continues to grapple with its myriad challenges, a new chapter is being written in the halls of Sacramento and Washington D.C. Under the radar of the public eye these past few years, a proposal known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is gaining steam, and with it comes concern as its potential for environmental destruction and rising costs tumble out into the open.

Supported by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to unclog some of the knots in state water systems, create jobs and restore endangered ecosystems, the BDCP includes two large tunnels – built under the Delta – which would siphon water from the East Bay to parched communities in Southern California. Designed to be more than 35 miles long and nearly 40 feet wide, the funding required to build the twin tunnels and their potential ensuing impact recently prompted several Northern California congress representatives to write a letter to Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Led by Representative John Garamendi of California’s 3rd congressional district, they distanced themselves from Brown’s initiative, sought clarification on how much federal funding would be involved and expressed fears that environmental ramifications are being sidelined.

Remarking on the discussion they sought with the agency, Representative Mike Thompson (CA-5) stated in a Sept. 26 press release that “we need to closely examine every dollar we spend” and that he is not convinced, at least for the time being, by the notion that the BDCP will meet California’s water needs or help with wildlife conservation. Other prominent voices included representatives Congressmen Jerry McNerney (CA-9) and George Miller (CA-11). McNerney went so far as to say “we already know that Governor Brown’s proposed plan for the Delta will devastate the region and is not based on sound science.”

Representative Ami Bera (CA-7) also had some strong points to make. “I’ve consistently been concerned about the rush to implement the Bay Delta Conservation Plan before we look at all of our alternatives,” he said in the same press release. “Water is critical to California, and we must find a comprehensive, long-term solution that is based on sound science and doesn’t put south-of-Delta interests ahead of everyone in or north-of-Delta. In addition to those concerns, we must also understand how we’ll pay for any plan before committing to it.”

Some of their constituents, meanwhile, are starting to do a little digging on their own.

“I don’t know all the details,” said East County resident Erin Johnson. “But I do know that those who do should have to explain it to a sharper point before slipping the point between the shoulder blades of those at project ground zero.” Johnson, who describes himself as a political activist, is particularly concerned about eminent domain – the power by state authorities to take private property away from individuals for public use – and wants more questions answered before giving his support to any new construction. “Measure twice, cut once,” he said.

Brentwood resident Mason Matthews is a student currently enrolled at UC Santa Barbara. With his home back in Northern California and his current residence down south, Matthews is working to balance his love for the environment with his desire to see California modernize and advance its infrastructure.

“California has a long history of conflict regarding water rights,” he said. “What we are experiencing is an ideological battle between conservationists and preservationists. Supporters will point out the potential benefits to the greater good by having a steady water supply pumping from the Delta, whereas opponents may argue that the Delta has already been overly developed and polluted.” Matthews said his biggest concern is safety, but like Johnson, is also concerned about the residents and farmers who could end up losing property when construction begins.

“A lot of farmers in the Owens Valley were not rightly compensated when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was constructed (in the early 20th Century),” said Matthews. “That could very well happen to farmers in our communities who use the Delta water to irrigate our local agriculture.”

For their part, proponents of the BDCP acknowledge the Delta is at a critical juncture, but contend that the tunnels offer a necessary man-made solution to a man-made problem.

“The BDCP is a habitat conservation plan under the U.S. Endangered Species Acts and California Natural Community Conservation Planning Act,” said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources. “As such, the plan attempts to help lead to the recovery of a wide range of species over a 50-year period … The federal and state governments have a responsibility to lead the effort to sustain the Delta, and we’re trying, through the BDCP, to take a more comprehensive and collaborative approach.”

Vogel said that 68 percent of the estimated $18.9 billion costs would be paid for by the public water agencies and irrigation districts that depend upon deliveries of water from the Delta. Taxpayers, meanwhile, will be expected to pay roughly $2.9 billion of the habitat restoration costs through general obligation bonds passed out over the 50-year life of the plan.

“Few parts of California can claim to be disconnected from the Delta,” she said. “Forty percent of the state’s land area drains to the Delta. Those parts of California that don’t drain to the Delta tend to depend upon water pumped from the Delta.”

However, even with environmental assurances, promises of new jobs and an array of studies, reactions from the public and their representatives make it clear that proponents of the BDCP face an uphill battle.

In the meantime, as protest movements continue to grow and political groups pit themselves against each other, the real focus of the fight – California’s water needs – continue to loom large for the prospects of the region and the future of the state.

For additional information on the BDCP, the Delta tunnels and organizations in support and opposed to the plan, log onto the following links: www.nodeltatunnels.com, www.friendsoftheriver.org and www.restorethedelta.org

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Halloween Home Maintenance: Spooky Sounds and Strange Smells

images Halloween Home Maintenance: Spooky Sounds and Strange Smells

Are you haunted by strange noises and weird odors? With the proper maintenance, you’ve got more than a ghost of a chance to rest easy.

Creaking and Popping in the Night

The many materials that make up your house — wood framing, plywood, glass, metal ducts, nails, plumbing pipes — all expand and contract at different rates.

When a house cools at night, these materials may move slightly, rubbing against each other and making noises. Occasionally, they’ll contract with an audible pop.

These sounds tend to be more noticeable in fall, when warm days give way to rapidly cooling nights. The bad news? Not much you can do about it. The good news? Those sounds are harmless and normal.

Zombie Odor

It’s either time to throw out the garbage, or you’d better call your gas utility to check on your gas lines and connections.

Natural gas is odorless, but natural gas suppliers add a foul-smelling odorant — butyl mercaptan — to alert occupants to any leaks. The smell is like rotten eggs.

Leaks can occur at your gas-fired water heater, fireplace, clothes dryer, and any gas line. Leaking natural gas is potentially dangerous — leave the house and call your natural gas provider to assess the situation. Most utility companies perform safety checks for free.

Footsteps in the Attic

Amplified by an unfinished attic space, a raccoon or even a good-size squirrel on your roof might sound like an ax murderer is doing the polka overhead.

These rooftop transits are normal for critters — roofs offer a nice long unobstructed highway.

Make sure your soffit, rafter, and gable roof vents are covered with screens and in good shape, or your rooftop buddies might find their way into your attic for real. Trim back branches that provide critters easy access to your roof.

Something’s Burning

You can smell the odor of burnt wood, but the smoke detectors aren’t going off and there’s no smoke in the house. The culprit could be your fireplace — even if you haven’t had a fire for days.

The probable cause is a drafty chimney and negative air pressure in your home, meaning that outside air is infiltrating down your chimney, bringing stale burnt smells with it.

Stop drafts by making sure your damper has a good seal. Regulate air pressure by adding more cold air return ducts to your HVAC system. You’ll get rid of the odor and save on your energy bill, too.

Moaning and Clattering

These classic spooky sounds often show up when the wind blows and there’s a storm brewing.

Vents for clothes dryers, bathrooms, and water heaters exit out the roof or the side of the house. To prevent backdrafts, these vents have dampers — flaps designed to let vented air out and prevent outside air from coming in. These flaps sometimes move and rattle in high winds.

Because dampers often are located in attics or in between floor joists, the sound can be difficult to pinpoint. You may need a new damper ($85).

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Housing projects revving back up

untitled Housing projects revving back up

The Community Services District entered into a reimbursement agreement this week with two residential developers looking to build over 300 homes in Discovery Bay with possible sticks in the ground as soon as next year.

The agreement, unanimously approved by the town board this week, sets in motion the first of several steps the CSD must take in advance of the developer’s annexation and eventual acceptance into Discovery Bay. Simply put, the agreement gives the town a voice regarding concerns and conditions prior to final approval from the county.

“Because they (projects) lie outside of our boundaries … and since we don’t have land use authority or much of a say, this provides the district with the ability to voice concerns prior to annexation,” said Discovery Bay General Manager Rick Howard during the Oct. 2 meeting. “Once LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) approves it our hands are tied.”

Up for discussion are two long-term projects: Pantages Bays, a 252 single-family home community with 115 deep-water lots located on 172 acres at the end of Point of Timber between Kellogg Creek and the Lakeshore development, and Newport Pointe, located off of Newport Road, a 67 home, single-family home development that has been on the drawing board for over six years. Both Pantages and Newport Pointe developers agree to pay an advance deposit of $7,500 each to pay for the town’s costs pre-annexation such as attorney fees and engineering.

However, because this is a community deeply divided between residents in favor of controlled growth and those who are opposed, the impending arrival of new homes is viewed by some to be a double-edge sword.

But not by CSD President Mark Simon.

“As far as Pantages goes, from my personal point of view I am very much in favor of it because it brings something to Discovery Bay,” said Simon. “They will widen Kellogg Creek and they have made it a condition of development that they will bring in a new Marine Patrol dock which will put them closer to fast water.

“But I am absolutely 100 percent against Newport Pointe. Newport Road is already overcrowded and it (Newport Pointe) will change our traffic, take away our already strapped fire fighting services. It brings nothing to Discovery Bay and will take what we have and shrink it. If it were up to me I would refuse them Will Serve (water and wastewater hook ups) and let them sue us.”

Bill Schrader, who’s Austin Group, LLC is developing the Newport Pointe community, disagrees with Simon’s contention.

“I don’t think this is a controversial project at all,” said Schrader. “We are paying a pretty substantial amount of money in parks and recreation fees. We originally were going to put in a dog park but the CSD decided to take the money instead (approximately $400,000 to be paid to the town when building begins). I think it’s a good project and I think the time is right to build.”

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Survey: More Renters Want to Become Homeowners

untitled Survey: More Renters Want to Become Homeowners

Homeownership as a priority is on the upswing. And a look back shows perceptions about owning weren’t as negative during the recession as the media suggested.

Americans have favored buying over renting, even during the recent Great Recession, and this year is no different. The 2013 National Housing Pulse Survey, by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, found Americans overwhelmingly believe owning a home is a good financial decision, and a majority of renters say homeownership is one of their highest priorities for the future.

During the recession, much media coverage of homeownership focused on the idea that lots of people thought renting was much smarter than buying. But that wasn’t necessarily the case as a look back shows.

The decline in home prices and turmoil in the housing markets did influence consumers’ perception of housing as a sound investment — but not by nearly as much as the media made it appear.

From 2007 to 2011, based on earlier Pulse surveys, the share of people who thought buying a home was a good financial decision dropped from about 85% to 73% and the share of people who were “not so strongly” positive grew. By 2013, we’re back to 80% thinking homeownership is a sound financial decision.

You can interpret that dip two ways. Some would say homeowners were resilient as prices declined. Others would say the recession was a wake up call for investors who viewed the real estate market as a short-term investment.

Regardless of which way you see it, most of us have returned to the much more realistic viewpoint that real estate is a solid, if long-term, investment.

This year’s Home Pulse survey also found:
Eight in 10 Americans think buying a home is a good financial decision.
68% believe now is a good time to buy a home.
36% of renters are now thinking about purchasing a home, up from 25% last year.
The proportion of renters who say they prefer to rent dropped from 31% to 25%.
Half of renters say that eventually owning a home is one of their highest personal priorities, up to 51% from 42%.

Those renters should be in a good position to buy given that home prices are pretty affordable (unless you’re a bus driver in San Francisco). Rising interest rates could come into play, but anything around 6% looks good compared with the double-digit interest rates of the 1980s.

Attitudes toward the housing market have also improved over the years. Nearly four in 10 Americans (38%) said their local market was more active this year, compared with 51% of people who reported a slowdown in local activity last year.

There is also less concern than in the past about the drop in home values; almost half (49%) said housing prices in their area are more expensive than a year ago.

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Same-Sex Marriage Ruling: What it Means for Real Estate

untitled2 Same Sex Marriage Ruling: What it Means for Real Estate

While property rights are generally a state issue, the federal recognition of marriage for gay couples will have a significant impact on home owners.

Married same-sex couples in 13 states and the District of Columbia are now or will soon be eligible for more than 1,100 federal benefits and protections denied under the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act. A key provision of the federal law, which withheld benefits from gay couples who had been lawfully married in those states that permit it, was struck down last week by the Supreme Court. And though property rights are set at the state level, the ruling has bearing on a number of real estate–related matters that involve federal law.

The ruling may influence how couples decide to hold title on a property. It will affect the calculation of estate taxes owed when a spouse dies and how much capital gain is exempt from taxes in the sale of a home that is owned in the name of only one member of the couple.

For real estate practitioners, “understanding the status of [your clients’] relationship is critical if you are in a jurisdiction that recognizes marriage” for gay couples, says Los Angeles attorney Wendy E. Hartmann, who specializes in tax and estate planning for same-sex couples. Practitioners should, however, encourage couples to obtain legal advice on such title and tax matters from an attorney, she noted.

Before the court decision, gay couples did not have the option to hold title through “tenancy by the entirety,” which is available only to legally married home owners. Like joint tenancy, this form of ownership means each spouse owns 100 percent of the property and an equal right to possess the home, and provides that when one spouse dies, the surviving spouse automatically becomes the property’s sole owner. Unlike joint tenancy, however, under tenancy by the entirety the home is more fully protected from creditors.

Hartmann cautions that before spouses rush to change the form of title through which a home is owned, it’s important for them to consider that when a home is sold, the $500,000 capital gains exemption will be available to gay married couples when they file federal taxes jointly, even if the deed remains only in one spouse’s name.

“There may be good reasons that a spouse who owned a property at the start of a relationship may not wish to add his or her spouse to the deed. But under the ruling, they are still eligible for the $500,000 exclusion if they file their federal taxes jointly,” she says.

Under the federal tax code’s “unlimited marital deduction,” which addresses the transfer of property to the surviving spouse when one spouse dies or when a marriage is dissolved, married gay couples will see a significant effect because those transfers will “no longer trigger a gift tax consequence,” Hartmann says. By comparison, couples who live in states where their relationships are recognized as civil unions or domestic partnerships—but not marriage—are not afforded that benefit.

While the dismantling of DOMA provides clear-cut benefits for married gay couples who reside in the states they were married in, it creates significant ambiguities in other situations. For example, the immediate future is murky for partners who were legally married in one state but move to a state that does not recognize their union. For now, these people are caught in a confusing tangle of laws.

In Minnesota, where marriage for same-sex couples will become legal on August 1, the Minneapolis Association of REALTORS® is eagerly anticipating the near simultaneous federal recognition. “The laws that are based on marriage will now be fully applied to people the same way whether they are part of a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple, “ says MAR public affairs director Julia Parenteau. She has identified 110 Minnesota statutes that explicitly apply to marital status and housing. Before now, “we’ve been telling members that if they’ve been selling property to same-sex couples and addressing their issues the same way as they do straight couples, they’re doing it wrong,” says Parenteau. “Now that the federal law will come into play, this will makes the lives of agents a whole lot easier in that they don’t have to worry about more than 100 laws” that take into account marital status.

The DOMA ruling is also expected to increase the pressure on states where marriage equality has been on the legislative agenda but has not yet been approved, including Illinois, New Jersey, and Hawaii. “The inequality among the states will become more visible and obvious when some people can claim federal benefits and others cannot,” says Jennifer Pizer, director of the Law and Policy Project at Lambda Legal, a nonprofit organization working for the civil rights of lesbians and gays. “Equal treatment would be in their grasp except for the discriminatory state laws that keep it from occurring.”

And with the federal government obligated to make federal marriage-based benefits available, Hartmann notes, states that don’t offer the right to marry could see an exodus of gay people, while “states where marriage is available [for gays] could see an influx in their population.”

The Supreme Court last week also cleared the way for the reinstatement of marriage rights for gay couples in California, ruling that the supporters of Proposition 8, the ballot measure that invalidated same-sex marriage in the state, did not have legal standing to appeal a ruling holding Proposition 8 unconstitutional. When California residents are added to the mix, according to Lambda, approximately 30 percent of Americans will live in states permitting same-sex marriage.

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Making friends with Caring Hands

If making time to volunteer is on your to-do list, consider joining the Caring Hands volunteer caregivers, a John Muir Health outreach program that trains and assists in partnering compassionate volunteers with seniors who are seeking a friendly companion and a helping hand.

“Beautiful matches are created and loving friendships and deep relationships are formed,” said Roxanne Foster, director of volunteer services for John Muir Health “It’s heartwarming to watch them develop and see the commitment the seniors and volunteers have for each other. We see that all the time. It brings tears to my eyes.”

Founded in 1998, Caring Hands strives to help adults ages 60 years and older remain independent in their own homes.

“We have found that many seniors benefit greatly from a weekly friendly visit, a walk in the park or other social outings,” said Bernice Russ, volunteer coordinator for Caring Hands. “Often a ride to the store or a medical appointment can make a big difference in their lives. We also offer respite care, giving other family members a much needed break.”

To volunteer, you must be at least 18. Volunteers offer only non-medical care, and they visit once a week on a schedule agreed upon by both the volunteer and senior.

“Since so many of our care receivers need transportation to doctor appointments, the best volunteer for Caring Hands is someone who is available during the week, during the day, and who can provide transportation,” said Russ.

To drive with a senior, you must be at least 25 and show proof of auto insurance. If a weekly commitment isn’t feasible, inquire about becoming an occasional or substitute driver.

Volunteers are greatly needed in the East County communities of Brentwood, Oakley, Antioch, Pittsburg and Bethel Island.

To join the Caring Hands team, John Muir requires a background screening, orientation interview, a minimum commitment of six months and attendance at the program’s comprehensive one-day training course.

untitled1 Making friends with Caring Hands

Camille Giglio, a volunteer with Caring Hands, expounded on the subject matter presented in the mandatory course: “It explains the protocols and the relationship between the care giver and the care receiver and why that is necessary. It shows one how to assist a person with balance or walking difficulties, such as helping them into and out of a car or how to hold their arm while walking with them. The training program also gives an overview of types of situations one might encounter while being a friendly visitor and how to discuss or avoid discussing family issues or financial issues.”

The lecture will also address topics such as cultural diversity and hearing and vision issues and will usually feature a successfully paired volunteer and senior as guest speakers in order to answer additional trainee questions.

The next training session will be held in Brentwood on Friday, Sept. 27.

“I think the most rewarding aspect of Caring Hands is finding volunteers who want to give and get as much out of giving as our seniors who needs to stay independent,” Russ said. “It’s a win-win situation for both.”

For more information about Caring Hands and how to get involved, contact Russ at 925-952-2999.

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10 Tips for Saving Water in Your Home

untitled   10 Tips for Saving Water in Your Home

You’ll likely be surprised to learn how much water the average family of four uses every single day in their home: 255 gallons!

The estimates are: 15 gallons for dishwashing; 12 for cooking and drinking; 5 for basic hand washing; 35 for laundry; 80 for bathing; 8 at the bathroom sink for tooth brushing, face-washing, etc.; and a whopping 100 in toilet flushes!

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, not me! We only bathe once a week and we never wash our hands! Regardless of whether or not you meet or exceed the average water use of the average family, everyone wants to save money on their water bill, and be kind to mother earth in the process. Here are some tips for doing just that.

1. Make sure that the water in your toilet is not continuously running. One way to check: place several drops of food coloring in the tank. Wait 15 to 30 minutes and don’t flush. If the color appears in the water of the toilet’s bowl, you have a “leak.” Locate the leak and make the necessary repairs or have them made as soon as possible. Depending on the severity of the leak, it is possible that up to 100 gallons of water could be wasted each day.

2. Put one to three tightly closed, quart plastic bottles (with rocks inside them to weight them down) inside the commode tank. Be sure to place the bottles in such a position as to not interfere with the flushing mechanism. When you flush the commode, one to three fewer quarts of water will be used. Don’t use bricks for displacement of water in the commode tank. They may flake off and cause damage to the system. The flush volume of five gallons (for most conventional commodes) can be reduced by 15 percent without hindering performance.

3. Use your water meter to check for hidden water leaks. Read the house water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter does not read exactly the same, there is a leak.

4. Install low flow faucet aerators in the kitchen and bathrooms. This is a very inexpensive and an easy way to save a lot of water. Aerators are typically small metal screens that fit into the faucet nozzle. These small screens mix the water coming out of the faucet with air, causing a fuller flow of water. Installing a faucet aerator doesn’t require specialized tools, and a typical novice homeowner can complete the project in just a few minutes.

5. Install a low-flow showerhead. Inexpensive water-saving low-flow shower heads or restrictors are easy for the homeowner to install. Also, long, hot showers can use five to 10 gallons for every minute wasted in the shower. Limit your showers to the time it takes to soap up, wash down, and rinse off. “Low-flow” means it uses less than 2.5 gallons per minute.

6. Insulate your water pipes. It’s easy and inexpensive to insulate your water pipes with pre-slit foam pipe insulation. You’ll get hot water faster plus avoid wasting water while it heats up.

7. Rinse your razor in the sink. Fill the sink with a few inches of warm water. This will rinse your razor just as well as running water, with far less waste of water.

8. Use your dishwasher and clothes washer for only full loads. Automatic dishwashers and clothes washers should be fully loaded for optimum water conservation. Also, most makers of dishwashing soap recommend not pre-rinsing dishes which is a big water savings. With clothes washers, avoid the permanent press cycle, which uses an added 5 gallons for the extra rinse. For partial loads, adjust water levels to match the size of the load. Replace old clothes washers. New Energy Star rated washers use 35 – 50 percent less water and 50 percent less energy per load. If you’re in the market for a new clothes washer, consider buying a water-saving frontload washer.

9. Minimize use of kitchen sink garbage disposal units. In-sink garbage disposals require lots of water to operate properly, and also add considerably to the volume of solids in a septic tank which can lead to maintenance problems. Start a compost pile as an alternate method of disposing food waste.

10. Keep a bottle of drinking water in the fridge. Running tap water to cool it off for drinking is wasteful. Store drinking water in the fridge in a safe drinking bottle. If you are filling water bottles to bring along on outdoor hikes, consider buying a LifeStraw personal water filter which enables users to drink water safely from rivers or lakes or any available body of water

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Solar Access Rights Help You Catch Some Rays

images1 Solar Access Rights Help You Catch Some Rays

Most states protect your current solar access for light and energy. If your state doesn’t, local height restrictions may save your sunshine.

Here come the solar access laws that affirm your right to install solar devices and use them unobstructed. About two-thirds of U.S. states maintain solar access regulations and solar setbacks. If your area is still in the dark about the right to sunlight, look for building height restrictions and setback rules that may let the sun shine onto your property.

Regulating light and air

Here are some examples of existing regulations.
In Ashland, Ore., the Solar Access Ordinance—one of the first citywide solar ordinances—prohibits new structures to cast a shadow bigger than the shadow cast by a 6-foot fence. The city calculates solar setbacks with a formula using the 24-degree angle of the sun at noon on the winter solstice.
In California, no plants may be placed or allowed to grow if they shade more than 10% of a neighbor’s sun collector between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
In New Mexico, home owners can obtain solar easements that prevent neighbors from building structures or planting new trees that would block the sun. These easements attach to the property forever and, when the home is sold, the easements are sold along with it.

Grandfathering solar access

Structures and natural landscape features established before the dawn of solar laws may remain.

But, in some places, home owners are being forced to cut down trees that block their neighbor’s new solar panels. In 2008, a Santa Clara, Calif. judge ordered a household to cut down two 4-year-old trees that blocked a neighbor’s new panels. Later that year, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger exempted pre-existing trees from the California Solar Shade Control Act.

How to get a little sun
Research zoning regulations: If your state or city does not expressly protect your solar access rights, its zoning regulations might. Check your state or municipality’s official website. Maximum building height restrictions, which apply to fences, trees that form a hedge, and other building structures, exist in every community. Setback rules aid sun seekers, as well. If a tall structure is closer than it should be to your property, it could be blocking sunlight and violating the law.
Get an injunction: If a neighbor’s new addition exceeds local height restrictions and blocks your sun, seek an injunction to stop construction.
Trim a tree: You may trim trees that get between you and the sun, but only if they extend over your property line.

New HOA trends

Once, home owners associations could prevent you from installing solar panels because they wrecked uniformity or were eyesores. HOAs in states with solar access law, however, may not prohibit—directly or effectively—residents’ solar energy systems.

HOAs in many new communities are prohibiting buildings that block solar collectors.

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Mortgage Scam: Loan Flipping

untitled Mortgage Scam: Loan Flipping

Loan flipping mortgage scams prey on the twin problems of financial anxiety and ignorance. Educate yourself to mount a defense.

The loan-flipping mortgage scam is the evil twin of the helpful home equity loan, which can help put some cash into your pocket for smart purchases like your child’s education or a car you need for commuting.

How can you tell the scam from the legit loan? If you’ve fallen into the clutches of a lender who’s pressing you to take one loan after another, stretching the boundaries between what you need and what you want, you may have become the victim of a con artist.

Are you vulnerable?

If you have some equity in your home but bills to pay, you’re especially likely to catch the interest of a scammer who over-encourages you to use your home like a piggybank.

It will start innocently enough: You get a call out of the blue. Scammers may simply have a call center set up to target neighborhoods where they think there’ll be ripe pickings and, they hope, unsophisticated home owners.

What do loan-flipping scammers do to you?

Scammers, posing as legitimate lenders, ask if you want to refinance your mortgage and get some cash back — the so-called cash-out refi.

A legitimate lender would stop there. But loan-flipping scammers keep coming back: You like your new car? Then take another loan for a showroom kitchen. Two weeks in Hawaii. A catamaran.

Scammers are counting on you to be so entranced by their smooth line and all the goodies that you don’t notice the repayment bills piling up, or the hefty fees they charge to arrange these loans, which may be substantially higher than the 3% to 6% legit lenders charge.

When the con artists have pushed you to take every dime of equity from your house, they disappear into the night, leaving you with repayments you can’t afford. You might even lose your home. Meanwhile, they’re flush with all the fees and prepayment penalty fees they’ve charged you again and again.

Protect yourself against loan-flipping scammers
Don’t sign with a lender you’ve never heard of who calls you up with a persuasive line on tapping home equity. Deal with well-known banks.
When going through a refi, question every fee. Ask about any item you don’t understand. Walk away if the lender is evasive.
Delay closing until you’re 100% sure about the details.
Make sure the lender is a member of a major trade group, such as the Mortgage Bankers Association or the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, which promote ethical practices.

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farmers markets ripe for the picking

images farmers markets ripe for the picking
When it comes to just-picked produce, beautiful blooms and fresh-baked goods, it’s hard to beat the summer offerings of farmers markets, including a new one in Discovery Bay. There are 16 in Contra Costa, with five here in East County. There is a nice variety of harvest out, with peaches in abundance right now. Soon, tomatoes and corn will follow.

• Discovery Bay: In addition to farm-fresh produce, Discovery Bay is serving up artisan cheeses, hand-harvested honey and other small-batch goods at the new market starting this Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The weekly market has set up shop near the Boardwalk Grill, 5879 Marina Road.

• Antioch: Somersville Towne Center Market runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 28 at Delta Fair Boulevard and Somersville Road, and features a delicious array of locally grown produce.

• Brentwood, Downtown: This site runs from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays through Nov. 16 at First Street between Chestnut and Oak streets. The iconic orchards of this area make this a popular market, which also features live music.

• Kaiser Permanente: This Antioch site runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays through Oct. 31 at 4501 Sand Creek Road. Situated near the medical center, this may give extra incentive to score healthful offerings the market offers.

• Pittsburg: Along with fresh goods, you get the charm of downtown Pittsburg from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 26 at Railroad Avenue and Sixth Street. The small-but-mighty site also offers family events.

According to the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, these markets all offer “market match” incentive programs. There is a $5 bonus when you purchase at least $10 in CalFresh/EBT tokens here. If you receive CalFresh benefits (food assistance), bring your EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card. For more information, visit www.pcfma.com/markets.php.

If you’re looking for even more local produce, there Brentwood Harvest Time has an abundance of farms where you can pick your own goods or buy from a roadside stand.

Harvest Time, a nonprofit organization, helps promote 40 local farmers who sell directly to area consumers. From alfalfa to berries and grapes, peaches, onions and walnuts, there is something to tempt your tummy. For more information, visit http://harvest4you.com.

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7 Tips for Staging Your Home

untitled2 7 Tips for Staging Your Home

Make your home warm and inviting to boost your home’s value and speed up the sale process.

The first step to getting buyers to make an offer on your home is to impress them with its appearance so they begin to envision themselves living there. Here are seven tips for making your home look bigger, brighter, and more desirable.

1. Start with a clean slate

Before you can worry about where to place furniture and which wall hanging should go where, each room in your home must be spotless. Do a thorough cleaning right down to the nitpicky details like wiping down light switch covers. Deep clean and deodorize carpets and window coverings.

2. Stow away your clutter

It’s harder for buyers to picture themselves in your home when they’re looking at your family photos, collectibles, and knickknacks. Pack up all your personal decorations. However, don’t make spaces like mantles and coffee and end tables barren. Leave three items of varying heights on each surface, suggests Barb Schwarz of www.StagedHomes.com in Concord, Pa. For example, place a lamp, a small plant, and a book on an end table.

3. Scale back on your furniture

When a room is packed with furniture, it looks smaller, which will make buyers think your home is less valuable than it is. Make sure buyers appreciate the size of each room by removing one or two pieces of furniture. If you have an eat-in dining area, using a small table and chair set makes the area seem bigger.

4. Rethink your furniture placement

Highlight the flow of your rooms by arranging the furniture to guide buyers from one room to another. In each room, create a focal point on the farthest wall from the doorway and arrange the other pieces of furniture in a triangle around the focal point, advises Schwarz. In the bedroom, the bed should be the focal point. In the living room, it may be the fireplace, and your couch and sofa can form the triangle in front of it.

5. Add color to brighten your rooms

Brush on a fresh coat of warm, neutral-color paint in each room. Ask your real estate agent for help choosing the right shade. Then accessorize. Adding a vibrant afghan, throw, or accent pillows for the couch will jazz up a muted living room, as will a healthy plant or a bright vase on your mantle. High-wattage bulbs in your light fixtures will also brighten up rooms and basements.

6. Set the scene

Lay logs in the fireplace, and set your dining room table with dishes and a centerpiece of fresh fruit or flowers. Create other vignettes throughout the home—such as a chess game in progress—to help buyers envision living there. Replace heavy curtains with sheer ones that let in more light.

Make your bathrooms feel luxurious by adding a new shower curtain, towels, and fancy guest soaps (after you put all your personal toiletry items are out of sight). Judiciously add subtle potpourri, scented candles, or boil water with a bit of vanilla mixed in. If you have pets, clean bedding frequently and spray an odor remover before each showing.

7. Make the entrance grand

Mow your lawn and trim your hedges, and turn on the sprinklers for 30 minutes before showings to make your lawn sparkle. If flowers or plants don’t surround your home’s entrance, add a pot of bright flowers. Top it all off by buying a new doormat and adding a seasonal wreath to your front door.

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The Home Gym: A New Gathering Hub

untitled1 The Home Gym: A New Gathering Hub
Sure, home gyms are great for avoiding driving to a club and paying membership fees. But there’s another motivation behind the transformation of basements, garages, and spare bedrooms into home fitness centers: They’ve become a way to gather family members for healthy activity that everyone can enjoy.

Atlanta businessman and avid cyclist Steve Cesinger remodeled his home’s basement so that his family of four can exercise together. Thanks to stays at upscale hotels with gyms, he knew what he wanted to include. He hired design firm HammerSmith in nearby Decatur, Ga., for the remodel, arranging equipment in distinct areas for cardio, weights, yoga, and boxing, as well as creating a place for a sauna, massage, and shower. Designer Eric Rothman aligned equipment with wall mirrors to maintain good posture, and flat-screen TVs were wall-mounted in several locations to help exercisers vary their routines. Because of the basement location, Rothman provided sufficient and evenly spaced lighting that cuts glare and doesn’t create too much heat.

Such renovations can act as a magnet to attract buyers, says salesperson Stephanie Mallios with Towne Realty Group in Short Hills, N.J. “I recently showed a home with a huge gym in a basement with mirrors, professional equipment, big-screen TV, and sound system, and the home owner was finishing a session with a personal trainer. My buyer was very impressed and considered it a huge positive,” she says.

For a variety of price tags, you can duplicate national training manager Matt Elsessner’s examples of home gyms; prices are estimates based on his company’s Life Fitness line of equipment. The company’s Web site also has a room planner to suit specific home owners’ needs.

Advanced Gym: $12,707
T5 Treadmill: $4,399
X8 Cross-Trainer: $4,699
G7 Home Gym: $3,499
Stretching Mat: $50
Exercise Ball: $40
Foam Roller: $20

Small Gym: $2,907
LifeCycle GX: $1,999
Weight Bench: $199
Dumbbell Set with Rack: $599
Stretching Mat: $50
Exercise Ball: $40
Foam Roller: $20

Bedroom Gym: $2,109
X1 Cross-trainer: $1,999
Stretching Mat: $50
Exercise Ball: $40
Foam Roller: $20

Yet, fancy gyms aren’t a magic bullet for all buyers. Not everyone wants a space designated to this purpose, says salesperson Barb St. Amant, ABR, of Harry Norman, REALTORS®, in Atlanta. “Some may be excited seeing a gym, but others aren’t. In our area, there are many inexpensive opportunities for places to work out,” she says.

The key to the perfect balance is helping buyers and sellers understand what’s most important to meet their workout goals and the space and budget limitations. Here’s what the professionals advise.

Be honest about the level of interest. This is the first rule of thumb: Home owners should invest in equipment that will encourage getting started and staying motivated. If home owners are committed to working out regularly and think they’ll stay with a routine, it makes more sense to set aside a room or large area and equip it adequately. But if they’re not sure and may only exercise sporadically, they should start small in a room that can serve a variety of uses.

Set up a gym in the right spot. Out of sight can become out of mind, says Matt Elsesser, national training manager for Life Fitness, a manufacturer based in Schiller Park, Ill. A basement can offer more space than a spare bedroom, but if the bedroom will be more attractive because it’s above ground and has more natural light, that acts as a stronger lure, he says.

Home owners also need to leave sufficient circulation room, says Rothman of HammerSmith. Yet, even a small apartment can host some equipment if it’s arranged properly. Fitness expert Liz Neporent, author of Thin in Ten (Sunrise River Press, 2012) and emeritus board member of The American Council on Exercise, placed a treadmill behind a sofa in her New York apartment so that it faces a TV but isn’t visible when someone enters the room.

Focus on a three-dimensional approach.
1.Cardiovascular workouts, which increase blood flow and lung capacity, can be achieved with numerous items such as an elliptical cross trainer, treadmill, or stationary bicycle. Consider equipment with built-in tracking options and a TV, or at least an outlet for an iPhone or iPad and headset. If home owners have no room or funds for those items, a staircase in a house or apartment building can provide a good workout, says Eugene Reynolds, a trainer with Equinox in New York. It’s most important that home owners figure out what they like to do, so they’ll keep doing it, he says.
2.Strength or resistance training, to build muscles, can also be done with numerous items such as elastic bands, dumbbells, and kettlebells. All are inexpensive and can be stashed easily; bands can be purchased for $12 to $16, while an exercise ball can cost anywhere from $40 to under $100, says Alycia Kluegl, exercise physiologist and owner of Empower your Body in New York.
3.Flexibility training, to improve the range of motion, can be done with a simple mat, jump rope, or medicine ball. Techniques and routines can be learned in just a few sessions with a personal trainer or by purchasing exercise videos. “There are hundreds [of videos] to consider from experts such as Richard Simmons and Jillian Michaels,” says Neporent.

Add in upgrades and frills as space and dollars permit:
•Different pieces of equipment from each category will help vary routines.
•Wall-mounted mirrors aid in checking positioning.
•A wall-mounted TV, if there isn’t one built into equipment or the home owner doesn’t have a workout buddy.
•Exercise apps can be downloaded onto iPhones and some Android platforms to provide workouts such as Life Fitness’s LFconnect, which syncs with specific Life Fitness cardio equipment to provide preset workouts and track results.
•Heart-rate monitors allow home owners to keep tabs on exertion levels.
• Occasional or regular sessions with a certified trainer will help improve skills and accountability.
•Wood and cork floors and skid-proof and electrostatic mats stay cleaner and won’t absorb sweat as much as carpeting does, while padding can add bounce and cut noise transfer.
•A bathroom, or at least a shower close by, is a big bonus.
•A tack board with photos and sayings will serve as greater inspiration and motivation.

Remind home owners not to forget to…
•Invest in footwear that’s safe rather than just trendy and decorative, says Kluegl.
•Buy the best equipment in their budget. Specialty sports stores with knowledgeable salespeople are a good place to start, says Neporent.
• Check that any workout area on a second or third story can support the weight of heavy equipment.
• Be sure the room or area offers sufficient head room—at least 7’8”—and the higher the better

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