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5 steps that can improve your credit score in...

(BPT) - Low interest rates, a strong economy and the turn of the seasons are all causing the real estate market to heat up. More homes on the market bring more competition to buy the inventory that is out there. And one way to stand apart from other buyers who are vying for their dream home is to take steps to improve your credit score now.

"Preparing your finances is a must before the busy real estate season," says Barrett Burns, president and CEO of credit score model developer VantageScore Solutions. "Knowing your credit scores and making improvements is essential to getting the best loan at the best rates. This also makes you a more attractive home buyer, especially in a competitive market."

With limited time, you may think there's nothing you can do to improve your score. Burns says that's an incorrect assumption. While you can't make dramatic jumps in just a couple months, there are several steps you can take that may influence your score to increase enough to get you prequalified for the loan you want.

Keep in mind, lenders will pull your scores from all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), so it's wise to check your credit report from each of them. You can do so for free once every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com. For best results, monitor at least one credit score from each of the bureaus. You also can check your credit score for free through a large number of online services, such as CreditKarma.com, NerdWallet.com or Credit.com. Other sites offering free VantageScore credit scores can be found at VantageScore.com/free.

Once you have your reports in hand, you can take steps that may have a positive impact on your scores.

Step 1: Check for errors

A credit report gives a comprehensive list of your lines of credit and payment history. The first step is to review your credit report for errors and take steps to make corrections, including past and present names, loan amounts and credit cards in your name.

When checking your credit score, bear in mind that some differences in credit scores across bureaus is normal. But if one of the three credit scores is an extreme outlier, it could be worth double-checking your credit report from that bureau to make sure it doesn't reflect any questionable or erroneous activity.

Step 2: Don't miss a payment

Creditors are interested in seeing how you manage credit, and the consistency of behavior counts. You should always pay at least the minimum amount due on bills on time every month. An easy way to ensure you don't miss a payment is to sign up for automatic bill pay when available.

Step 3: Lower credit utilization levels

Credit utilization is the ratio of a credit card balance to the credit limit. If your balance is $5,000 and your credit limit is $10,000, then your credit utilization for that credit card is 50 percent. In general, a good credit utilization is less than 30 percent, so if you have a higher ratio, consider using your tax refund to pay down this debt.

Step 4: Don't close old credit cards

If you have a credit card that is no longer used but was previously paid off on time each month, don't close the account. Not only is this good for your credit utilization ratio, but it also is another indicator you're a responsible candidate for a loan.

Step 5: Don't apply for new credit

Avoid applying for any new credit, such as an auto loan or a new credit card account, between now and the time you will close on a home purchase. Lenders considering your loan application request your credit score from one or more credit bureaus. And these lender "inquiries" are recorded with one or more of the three national credit bureaus, which may lower your credit score by 10 to 20 points. The score decreases typically only last a few months, as long as you continue to make payments on time. But unless they're absolutely necessary, try to avoid additional inquiries until after you've secured your mortgage.

If you follow these five steps, you may see an increase in your score within a few months so you can get a loan and be an attractive buyer when it comes time to put in a bid for your dream home.

Keep in mind, the more you can put toward the down payment, the more instant equity you’ll have, the lower your monthly payment will be, and the better your chances are of not needing private mortgage insurance (PMI), which can add hundreds of dollars to your monthly payment.

Plus, if you’re able to put down more than a lender requires, a mortgage company may be willing to give you a pass on other issues on your application, such as a less-than-stellar credit score.



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Want to catch homebuyers' eyes? Follow 5...

(BPT) - When it comes to selling a home there are many different strategies and most of them focus on the home's interior. However, what many sellers fail to realize is that it's the exterior of the home that often makes or breaks a sale.

Curb appeal is necessary for that vital first impression. Much of a buyer's opinion about a property is formed before they even enter the front door. Research shows curb appeal not only speeds the sale but also increases offer prices.

One of the biggest influencing factors of curb appeal is the health of the lawn. Think about how much property space the lawn covers. A sparse lawn dotted with weeds lowers a buyer's opinion of the home, while a lush, green lawn elevates a home, and gives the impression it is well taken care of.

Lawn revitalization projects provide impressive return on investment. According to the 2016 Remodeling Impact: Outdoor Features report, lawn seeding earns the top spot for return on investment, recovering 417 percent of the project cost at resale. Implementing a standard lawn care program recovers 303 percent and updating a landscape with a sod lawn recovers 143 percent. Lawn revitalization projects offer much higher returns than many other home improvement projects, including kitchen remodels and deck additions.

Lawn revitalization projects are surprisingly easy to do, so whether you're selling your home or are staying put and just want to enjoy your property more, it's a worthwhile investment. The experts at Grass Seed USA, a coalition of grass seed farmers and academic turf specialists, offer the following five simple steps to achieving a lush lawn fast.

1. Aerate

When the soil under a lawn becomes too compacted, water, air and nutrients have a hard time reaching grass roots. Lawn aerators correct this problem by pulling small plugs of soil about 1/2 inch in diameter and 2 to 3 inches deep out of the ground. You can affordably rent an aerator for a day or hire a professional.

2. Reseed

If you have bare patches or your lawn looks thin, reseeding is an easy solution. Start by contacting a local turf specialist to determine the best seed or sod to purchase for your location and soil type. Then, rake the bare areas of your lawn and apply seed. Water lightly and regularly until new grass grows in. The spring and fall are good times to seed due to cooler weather, although it can be done any time of year.

3. Mow high

Never cut off more than 1/3 of the grass blade height at a time. If grass gets too long, raise the height on your mower. Recommended mowing heights vary by grass type, but an easy rule of thumb for the most common types of lawn is to mow to a 2-inch height when the grass blades reach 3 inches tall.

4. Fertilize

To keep your lawn healthy, aim to fertilize at least once a year; four times a year is ideal. Your local garden center can recommend the fertilizer best for your climate and grass type. Additionally, naturally fertilize your lawn by leaving grass clippings after you mow. As grass clippings break down, they enrich the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the same nutrients found in fertilizer.

5. Irrigate

A thorough watering once or twice a week is better than lightly misting every day. Allowing the soil to dry before it is watered again encourages the roots to grow deeper into the soil and can help the lawn become drought tolerant in the future. What's more, water during the early morning and evening hours to avoid excess evaporation. Watering during the heat of the day can actually scald and burn grass.

Learn more about quick, easy lawn improvement and maintenance tips at www.WeSeedAmerica.com or follow @WeSeedAmerica on Facebook and Twitter.



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How to combat water damage in your walls and...

(BPT) - Ask any homeowner what they dread the most when it comes to home ownership, and it’s likely to involve some type of undetected water damage that could result in mold and mildew in their walls and ceilings — and the problems that follow.

Most water damage in homes is associated with pipes and appliances, especially those that are not regularly maintained. Left unchecked, resulting mold and mildew can potentially cause health problems.

Six of the most common causes of water damage include:

* Window or roof leak that causes water to run down inside the cavity of the wall or ceiling

* Gutter clog that can cause rainwater to back up into your home

* Icemaker water line to the refrigerator that leaks, causing mold in the cavity or on the surface of the wall

* Washing machine or dishwasher water hose failure that can cause mold within the wall

* Air conditioner unit clog or drip pan overflow that can cause water to run down the interior wall or ceiling

* Nail in PVC pipe that results in water leak or bursting pipes

“Homeowners need to realize that the effects of water damage in their homes aren’t always visible — and once you find them, it’s likely mold growth already has occurred and can affect everything on the wall surface and behind it,” said Anitra Mecadon, TV personality and award-winning interior designer.

There are three main ways to protect against water damage and the issues that follow:

Use drywall with extra protection for your walls and ceilings — such as moisture-, mold- and mildew-resistant PURPLE XP drywall by National Gypsum — whether you’re building a new home, or remodeling or restoring the one you have. PURPLE XP products are GREENGUARD Gold Certified for indoor air quality while aiding in the creation of healthier indoor environments.

Routinely inspect vulnerable areas to prevent water damage before it occurs. Every few months grab a flashlight and do some sleuthing under sinks, behind appliances and around windows to check for moistness, rust, kinks or damage in water lines and hoses, and a musty odor. On a regular basis have professionals check things out, especially your air conditioning unit.

Act quickly to minimize damage from water intrusion, because mildew and mold can begin to grow within 24-48 hours of water exposure.

“I don’t know a single homeowner that hasn’t had a water problem of some kind at some point in the history of living in their home,” Mecadon says. “My advice is simple — be prepared. Walls and what they’re made of are important and they’re not all the same. When you can, choose PURPLE XP drywall for performance, value and peace of mind that lasts.”

For more information, go to www.AskForPurple.com.



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Easy DIY projects to prepare your home for sale

(BPT) - If you're looking to sell your home quickly and for more money, CBS News recommends listing when the market begins to heat up in May. To accomplish these goals, it's essential to make popular areas of the house look appealing to potential buyers. Fortunately, with a little DIY effort, you don't have to spend money on expensive home repairs or real estate-staging services.

Consider these easy DIY projects that can help ensure your home is market ready when it's time to sell. If the property is particularly appealing, you may even start a bidding war.

Paint the front door – First impressions count when it comes to a home sale. You want your entryway to be inviting so homebuyers want to look further. An easy way to update an entryway is to paint the door with a new color that complements your home and surroundings. Simply remove the hardware, clean the surface, prime and topcoat with the new paint color. While you're at it, consider painting exterior accent features — such as shutters or window boxes — the same color for a cohesive look.

Repair and refresh walls – Painting is an easy and affordable way to freshen an entire home so that buyers take notice. However, cracks and holes in freshly painted walls can make a poor impression. For a DIY project that yields a professional result, repair walls before the first swipe of the paint brush. ALEX Plus and ALEX Flex Spackling provide unsurpassed performance and durability for filling holes and cracks on surfaces throughout the home. ALEX Plus Spackling is easy to apply, sands to a smooth finished surface, and creates the superior paintability needed to seamlessly blend with the surrounding area. ALEX Flex Spackling is perfect for eliminating those stubborn reoccurring cracks in drywall that appear as problem areas expand and contract with changes in weather and humidity.

Update kitchen and bath hardware – Do you have kitchen and bath hardware that’s decades old? If so, it may be worth your time to replace these dated details. Adding small features such as modern cabinet hardware can visually update a room, so explore affordable options at your local home improvement store. Once you select the style you like best, just get your screwdriver and swap out the old for new.

Re-caulk the kitchen and bathroom – Exposure to water and moisture over time can cause caulk to look dirty and unsightly. Potential buyers are sure to note mold, mildew, dirt, and stains on old caulk. For a clean appearance, remove the old caulk, thoroughly clean the area to remove any dirt or residue, then re-caulk with DAP Kwik Seal Ultra Sealant. Backed by a lifetime mold and mildew resistance guarantee, this premium siliconized kitchen and bath sealant repels water, liquids, soap scum, stains so the sealant stays looking clean, fresh and new. Plus, it is safe for all surfaces, even granite and marble.

Revisit lighting throughout the home – Proper illumination isn't just useful, it can open up a room and highlight beautiful architectural features. All lighting should be dusted, but for those fixtures that are old, outdated, or broken, consider inexpensive replacement options. Something as simple as replacing glass globes can add high-impact style. Adding task and accent lighting is another smart investment. For example, under-cabinet lights in the kitchen are easy to install and are likely to impress potential buyers.

Preparing a home for sale doesn't have to be a daunting process. With these five projects, you'll be well on your way to have a beautiful home ready for listing.



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Black is the new black: Black makes a comeback...

(BPT) - Grays, browns, taupes — after decades of neutral-colored shingles dominating entire neighborhoods, homeowners are turning to the dark side. Home improvement experts agree black roofs are making a comeback, offering a sleek alternative that boosts curb appeal and enhances design elements.

Decades ago black was the traditional color for asphalt roofs. Homeowners, seeking to mimic the look of expensive wood shake shingles, started to opt for brown and gray composite shingles. Black shingles began to fall out of popularity.

But today, homeowners are looking to stand out rather than fit in. A black roof breaks up the sea of sameness of entire city blocks in neutral roofing colors. This bold exterior choice makes a statement with an eye-catching, clean color that contrasts against neighboring homes.

“People today want their homes to be one of a kind,” says Brian Borgard, sales territory manager for TAMKO Building Products. “They want something bold, something to differentiate their homes from their neighbors’.”

Like many shingle manufacturers, Borgard says TAMKO’s best-selling color for many years has been a brown meant to emulate wood shake. “Weathered Wood was the ultimate color even five years ago, but people are looking for a change," he says. "They want something new, but still neutral.”

In fact, in 2016 TAMKO’s black-colored Heritage Laminated Asphalt Shingles were the most popular next to TAMKO’s Weathered Wood. This year, Borgard says it's possible black could eventually overtake the top spot as many contractors are switching all their shingle orders from brown to black.

Roofing contractor John Cotten can testify to the trend in his own business.

“I’ve seen a definite increase in the demand for black roofing,” says Cotten, owner of John Cotten Roofing in Joplin, Missouri, a TAMKO Pro Certified Contractor. “I think homeowners are tired of seeing the same shingles on all of the houses in their neighborhoods — they’re ready for a change.”

So, why are so many homeowners opting for black shingles? These four reasons prove it's a trend that won't be fading anytime soon:

Black is modern: A younger generation of homeowners wants a modern home profile. The natural wood-shake aesthetic is often perceived as too traditional or old fashioned.

Black matches everything: Unless the exterior of your house is navy blue or dark brown, a black roof will match and enhance the facade.

Black highlights: Rather than hiding or overpowering the features of your home, black tends to highlight architectural features and makes other colors appear brighter.

Black stands out: In a neighborhood of neutrals, black is sure to draw the eye of potential homebuyers or passersby.



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Changing weather patterns leave homeowners...

(BPT) - The U.S. has experienced significant shifts in the frequency, severity and locations of natural disasters — including floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires — during the past decade.

As a result, more than 800 emergency or disaster declarations were made in the U.S. from 2005–2015, according to FEMA data. The insured losses stemming from natural catastrophes such as these average $24 billion annually.

Homeowners face severe risks from these disasters, yet many have not connected the dots between these shifts and the impact on their home insurance needs. A recent survey commissioned by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) found that fewer than 22 percent of homeowners view weather patterns or disasters as an important factor when updating their homeowners insurance policy. Missing these links can be costly.

“Changing weather patterns can dramatically impact what insurance should be carried on a property,” says Mike Consedine, NAIC chief executive officer. “When homeowners don’t regularly review their policies, important gaps in coverage can be missed. You should re-evaluate your risk profile at least once a year to ensure your existing homeowners policy provides the protection you need.”

Despite Consedine's recommendation, the survey revealed that 56 percent of homeowners have not reviewed their insurance policies in more than a year. Fourteen percent are unsure when — if ever — they last reviewed their policies.

If it’s been awhile since your last insurance review, there’s no better time than the present. When evaluating your policy, consider the following questions:

1. Am I now at risk? Are earthquakes, wildfires or other disasters now a threat in my state or region? If you live in Oklahoma, for example, the risk of earthquakes has significantly increased in the last decade. Do I need flood insurance? Some incidents such as floods are not covered by a typical homeowners policy, so you’ll need additional coverage.

2. What has changed in my home? If you’ve moved in with your significant other or an adult child has returned home, consider the impact their belongings will have on your coverage. Create a home inventory and update it annually. The NAIC’s MyHome Scr.App.book app (available for iPhone and Android) lets you quickly capture images and descriptions of your possessions. Keep in mind personal items like jewelry, antiques and artwork may require special insurance coverage.

3. Do I save my receipts? Take photos or save receipts from major purchases and store them in a safe place away from your house or apartment. Quick access to these receipts will make filing a claim much easier.

4. What home improvements have I made? Renovations and additions can change the value of your home. Make sure your homeowners insurance policy reflects your home’s current value. Some security or smart home features may qualify you for premium discounts.

5. How can I learn more about being prepared? Get educated about your insurance options now to avoid surprises later. Insure U’s new Disaster Prep Guides can help determine the best course of action before, during and after a disaster strikes. The guides include information and tips for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires.

For unbiased information and resources to help you rethink insurance, visit insureuonline.org. For insurance information specific to where you live, contact your state insurance commissioner.



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Here's how to tap into your home's...

(BPT) - Your most valuable asset is around you all the time. It’s above you, it’s below you and in many cases you don’t realize how much it can do for you.

According to the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., “Americans have a staggering amount of untapped equity in their homes.” How much? Altogether, $11,030,000,000,000. That’s 11 trillion, 30 billion dollars.

Yet despite this huge wealth possessed by homeowners, using it isn’t as simple as writing a check. You have to capitalize on your home’s equity.

What Is Home Equity?

Your home’s equity represents the difference between its current market value and the money that you owe on it.

Let’s say, for example, your home has a market value of $200,000, you made a down payment of $40,000 and you took out a $160,000 mortgage. At that point your equity is $40,000. You can always calculate this number by taking your home’s initial price and subtracting the amount you still owe.

Now, let’s say 10 years later you have paid off $60,000 of your $160,000 mortgage. At this point you still owe $100,000 on your home’s initial price of $200,000 so your equity is $100,000, assuming the home's value has remained the same.

A little at a time

Each month when you make a mortgage payment, some of your money goes toward interest, some goes toward real estate taxes and homeowner’s insurance (if the lender is collecting for these and making the payments on your behalf), and some goes toward paying off the mortgage itself. This last portion grows your equity because it subtracts from the amount you still owe.

Your home equity can also grow if your home increases in value because the amount you still owe has not changed. A rise in value may be due to increased home prices in your area and/or improvements you make to the home.

Market home prices may rise and fall from one year to the next but given enough time, most real estate tends to increase in value. For example, current economic forecasts from CoreLogic project a 4.8 percent increase in home prices year over year in 2017.

Gaining access to your equity

Now that you understand what equity is and how much equity you have, your next question may be “How do I use it?”

Your first step is to contact a knowledgeable mortgage professional. They will be able to answer your questions as well as show you loans that use your home as collateral. You’ll want to do your research to determine which type of loan is best for you. You should also take the time to compare interest rates, offers and loan features.

And if you are age 62 or older, you are also eligible for additional home equity options such as a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), which is an FHA-insured Reverse Mortgage loan. This loan may be taken as a lump sum, a line of credit, through fixed monthly payments or a combination and the loan can never be frozen or reduced.

The equity in your home empowers you with several financing options and the specifics of each loan may vary from lender to lender, so ask questions and do your own research. Once you understand all your options you’ll be able to determine which loan offering allows you to make the most of your most valuable asset.

To learn about HECM Reverse Mortgage loans and other special home-equity options available to homeowners 62 and older, visit www.reversemortgage.org/HomeEquity.



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How PMI can make your dream of home sweet home...

(BPT) - In the 2017 housing market, those who choose to pursue the dream of owning a home face several important decisions, such as how much to put toward a down payment. Twenty percent down is typically recommended by most lenders.

While 20 percent is not a requirement, paying less can have a big impact on the amount you pay monthly. It is important for home buyers to know that when seeking a conventional loan with less than 20 percent down of the sales price or appraised value of the home, lenders will often require Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI).

This article takes a deeper look at PMI by answering the most common questions on the topic.

What is PMI?

PMI is a type of mortgage insurance. Like most other types of mortgage insurance, it protects the lender in the event the borrower is unable to repay the remainder of the loan. In many cases, PMI is required on conventional loans when the buyer has a down payment of less than 20 percent.

Some lenders may offer conventional loans that require a smaller down payment without PMI, but the tradeoff can typically be a higher interest rate.

How does PMI affect your loan?

PMI can affect your loan in several different ways depending on the loan type and the lender. In some cases, the PMI will be required in a lump sum at the time of closing. This PMI payment type is called an upfront premium.

Other PMI plans call for monthly payments where the total value of the PMI is divided and factored into your monthly mortgage payments. The PMI can generally be cancelled under certain conditions once 20 percent of the amount borrowed has been reduced from the principal balance, or amount borrowed.

Finally, the lender may also opt for a plan that requires both upfront and monthly PMI payments. In this case a portion of the PMI is paid at the time of closing, and then the remaining PMI is paid as part of the monthly mortgage payment.

Alternatives to PMI

Some government-backed loans offer alternative options to buyers paying less than 20 percent down on a home loan. There are several of these loans and each has a different approach to handling down payments and mortgage insurance. By being educated on the different types of loans you will have an easier time finding which best suits your needs.

Learning more about PMI

While PMI is an additional fee, it helps those with less than a 20 percent down payment realize their dreams of home ownership.

To learn more about financing options that can make your dreams of homeownership a reality, visit VMFhomeloan.com.

NMLS Disclosure

Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance, Inc., 500 Alcoa Trail, Maryville, TN 37804, 865-380-3000, NMLS #1561, (http://www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org/), AZ Lic. #BK-0902616, Loans made or arranged pursuant to a California Finance Lenders Law license, GA Residential Mortgage (Lic. #6911), Illinois Residential Mortgage Licensee, Licensed by the NH Banking Department, MT Lic. #1561, Licensed by PA Dept. of Banking.



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5 green home improvements that can help sell...

(BPT) - Demand remains high for energy-efficient, eco-friendly home features, according to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders. In fact, the majority of builders now put energy-efficient windows, heating and cooling systems, thermostats and appliances in their construction, the survey says. If you’re selling your home and hope to compete with new construction — as well as set your house apart from other resales — making green improvements could significantly pay off.

“Updating your home with green features can attract more buyers and even increase your home's sale price,” says Geoff Lewis, president of RE/MAX, LLC. “Buyers are not only looking for cosmetic upgrades, they also want improvements that will help save them money for as long as they live in the home.”

Some green projects you can easily accomplish yourself, like replacing less efficient light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs or LEDs throughout the house, or installing a programmable thermostat. Other improvements may require professional expertise but can result in even bigger payoffs.

Here are five popular green home improvements that could help boost your home’s resale value, and save you money until you’re ready to sell:

* Windows: Replacing older windows with ENERGY STAR-rated high-efficiency windows could lower your annual energy bill as much as 12 percent, according to the United States Department of Energy. What’s more, ENERGY STAR-rated windows may qualify for a tax credit of 10 percent off the cost of the windows.

* Insulation: Most homes in the U.S. don’t have enough insulation, according to energystar.gov. Adding insulation and sealing air leaks could reduce annual energy bills by 10 percent. At the time of resale, adding fiberglass insulation in the attic could recoup 107 percent of the cost, according to Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value report.

*Front door: It’s a key part of your home’s curb appeal and the last exterior feature homebuyers see before entering your house. However, a front door needs to do more than look good. Replacing an older, wooden door with an energy-efficient, secure steel door recoups more than 90 percent of its cost when you sell your home, according to the Cost vs. Value report.

*Landscaping: With warm weather approaching, it’s a great time to think about landscaping that has green value as well as cosmetic appeal. Adding trees in addition to flowers can provide shade that will help keep the home’s interior cooler in summer months. In fact, according to the National Association of Landscape professionals, planting five shade trees can return up to 100 percent of the project cost when you sell your home.

*Water: Most water heaters last about 10 years, so if your home is older, a new water heater could be a big selling point. A tankless water heater could be even more appealing; because they only heat water when it’s needed, rather than consume energy to hold gallons of water at a set temperature for hours, tankless water heaters use far less energy. ENERGY STAR says a tankless water heater could save you up to $1,800 over its usable life — which is twice as long as the lifespan of traditional tank water heaters.

When you’re thinking of selling your home, you’ll probably invest a lot of time and energy into staging. Consider saving some additional budget for energy-efficient home improvements that may help boost your home’s value. A knowledgeable real estate agent can advise you on which green home improvements can get you the biggest return on investment. Visit www.remax.com to find a real estate agent near you.



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3 ways to improve comfort and efficiency in...

(BPT) - For homeowners, the warmer months are a great time to think about areas of the home ripe for home improvement. Looking around the perimeter of your home as well as the inside with a critical eye can typically help homeowners identify several areas requiring attention that may have gone unnoticed during winter.

Here are three ways homeowners can improve indoor comfort, increase the energy efficiency and add value to their home.

Schedule equipment maintenance

Seasonal use of your home’s furnace and air conditioner also means they require seasonal maintenance. It’s recommended to schedule a HVAC tune-up with your local utility provider. Not only will maintenance help optimize the performance of HVAC equipment during the season, but it will also contribute to their durability for the long term. Also consider checking the air filters and replacing them as required. The U.S. Department of Energy notes by simply changing your HVAC filter, efficiency of your HVAC equipment can improve 5-15 percent. These small measures can have a significant impact on how your home performs.

Check your roof for any ice dam damage

If you live in an area where snow and icicles are common sights during the winter months, you may want to consider assessing your roof for any roof damage caused by ice dams. Ice dams form as the result of a poorly insulated attic or roof. Expensive, warm air escapes through the roof to cause any snow that has accumulated to melt. As the melted snow runs off the roof, it begins to refreeze as it nears the colder temperatures of the eaves. Ice dams can place a large amount of structural stress on your eaves trough. The excess weight can eventually drive the eaves trough to detach from the house.

Having a professional check your roof for any damage will help identify problem areas and allow you to address them early. It may also be a good time to work on reducing your home’s air loss via the attic or roof by replacing your existing insulation with an insulation and air barrier material such as spray foam insulation.

Check your basement for water damage

Assess whether your basement has experienced any water damage near windows due to melting snow. Water damage can lead to a range of problems, including the potential for mold growth and mildew. Consider replacing your basement’s insulation with closed-cell spray foam insulation like that available from Icynene. Closed-cell spray foam insulation is recognized by FEMA as a flood-resistant material, making it an ideal solution to help maintain comfort in often-overlooked basements as well as reduce the risk of water damage.

Spray foam insulation provides both insulating value and air sealing in one step to help create a comfortable living space while limiting air loss and potential mold growth. Spray foam insulation, which is growing quickly in popularity among homeowners, is a high-performance material that delivers year-round energy efficiency benefits. Plus, spray foam can be used in a variety of areas in the home, such as basements, attics and walls. Spray foam insulation performs for the life of the property, ensuring homeowners can enjoy comfortable indoor temperatures all year round without overrunning their heating and cooling equipment. The foam insulation material limits air loss through the attics, prevents potential water damage in areas such as basements and helps create a comfortable living space.

Homeowners interested in understanding more about the performance and energy-efficiency advantages can download Icynene’s comprehensive home insulation mobile app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. More information about Icynene spray foam insulation can be found at Icynene.com.



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Top 6 home decorating trends

(BPT) - If you’re planning to tackle a home decorating project this year, here are the top trends you should consider:

1. Marble wallpaper: A lot of the 2017 trends are about going back to classic styles, and it doesn’t get much more classic than marble. Few materials evoke high-end living as simply and effectively as marble, a global symbol of refined taste and sophistication. Marble was a big trend in 2016, and it looks like it’s here to stay. With faux-effect materials and faux-marble wallpapers such as this beauty from Murals Your Way growing in popularity, you can count on the soft, subdued design to be a top pick for accent walls, powder rooms, kitchens and more. It’s a seriously impressive way to dress up your walls!

2. Deep blues: Though black has long been a decorating darling, designers are now recruiting deep blues for their go-to power hue. It's a bit more approachable than pure black, and it has a lovely nautical vibe when used in conjunction with materials like rope, brass and wood. Navy velvet couches are a popular way to incorporate the color into your home. And if you want to keep your space light, wallpaper with blue accents is a great solution. Whether you go for indigo, cobalt, navy or some other blue hue, a dramatic, deep blue color will add interest to your space.

3. Acrylic everything: Acrylic was a trend that picked up steam in 2016 and will keep going strong this year. Because most acrylic is clear, it works with almost any type of design style or color scheme. Acrylic furniture pieces and accessories have been around for years, but they primarily came in very modern shapes that wouldn’t work well in a more traditional home. All of that has changed, and now you can find the best of both worlds with this more modern material being used in furniture with traditional designs. Bring acrylic into your space by choosing a larger piece, such as this coffee table from Wisteria, or simply use smaller accessories, such as an acrylic floating frame. Whether it’s a coffee table or floating frame, acrylic accents and accessories are this year’s clear favorite for adding a gleaming finish to a space.

4. Farmhouse chic: Reclaimed wood, aged metals and distressed details are showing up everywhere in interior design and are not going anywhere in 2017. Farmhouse chic decor is a spin on the classic farmhouse style with an added soft elegance. Classic shapes, rustic simplicity and natural materials celebrate country-inspired charm, while soft and cozy neutrals evoke a luxurious and chic style.

5. Greenery: Named the 2017 Pantone color of the year, greenery is meant to represent refreshment, revitalization and our connection to nature. It seems to be an instant hit for those looking for a back-to-nature hue that brings zest while still managing to work with warm wood tones. Greenery is an attention-grabbing color, and it can be used to add pop and contrast to the overall interior. The earthy tone is a welcome complement to some of the more neutral hues that have gained prominence in the past year.

6. Forget hygge: This year is all about lagom: The year 2016 was about reaching the highest level of coziness and comfort, an outlook encapsulated by the Danish term hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). Now there’s an even more sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle we’ll all be wanting in 2017: lagom. It’s a simple Swedish philosophy on everyday life that means "just the right amount." The lagom home strikes the perfect balance between minimalism and cluttered, resulting in a clean, calm space that is also warm and inviting. This Swedish concept of “not too much, not too little” may just dominate in 2017.



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5 mistakes to avoid when buying your first home

(BPT) - Buying a home for the first time is comparable to the first time you ride a bike. You can learn about how it works from your parents and observe it from a distance, but you really won’t know the ins and outs until you actually sit down on the bicycle and start riding.

Like most beginners, first-time homebuyers will likely make a few mistakes as they initially go through the home-buying process in the upcoming year. Here are five mistakes first-time homebuyers often make, and how to best avoid them.

1. Waiting too long to make an offer

One of the biggest mistakes first-time homebuyers will make in 2017 is simply waiting too long to get into the real estate market, according to Jay Carr, a senior loan advisor for RPM Mortgage in Newport Beach, California. Because the rates look like they’re going to continually increase over the year, it’s important for buyers to get in as early as they can so that they can avoid paying more later on. If you see a home that you’re interested in and you have been thinking about entering into the market for some time, don’t hesitate too long.

2. Trying too hard to get less than the asking price

Many first-time buyers are younger, tech-savvy and are comfortable researching homes on their own. Overall, these are positive traits in a buyer. However, because these buyers are typically self-sufficient when it comes to other purchases, they often think they know best when it comes to what price they want to offer.

“Buyers rely too much on what they see on the internet instead of the good advice of what they would hear from a real estate agent,” Carr says.

Of course sometimes it pays off to be bold in an offer (in that you get to pay a lot less than the asking price), but often it can end up that the buyers are negotiating themselves out of a deal. It’s important to pay attention to your real estate agent, who is a seasoned professional, when it comes to putting in an offer so you don’t offend the seller and lose the house you want.

3. Not exploring all your financing options

Carr says many first-time buyers have grown up thinking that they need to save up for a 20 percent down payment before they can enter the housing market. While it is always great to have as much money to put down as possible before you purchase a home, it’s important to consider many of the new options available today.

One option is a home ownership investment such as the Unison HomeBuyer program, which typically provides up to half of the down payment you need. The money is an investment in the home, not a loan, so there are no interest charges or monthly payments. This new type of financing — which works in combination with a traditional 30-year mortgage — can offer greater flexibility and control to the home buyer. It allows you to cut the time needed to save for a down payment in half, lower your monthly payments and avoid mortgage insurance, or increase your purchasing power so you can buy the home you want.

4. Wanting the dream house right away

Everyone has a picture in their minds of what their first home will look like. Whether you envisioned a craftsman bungalow near all your favorite bars and restaurants or a classic ranch-style home with tons of land and no neighbors, chances are you’re going to have to trade up to that dream home from your first starter home.

“If you really like the house, you probably can’t afford it. If you think the house is just kind of below what you want it’s probably right in your price range. Get in the market rather than wait to get the dream house,” Carr says.

Carr advises those in the hunt for their dream home to focus on becoming homeowners now and to wait on their dream home until they have built up equity and have higher incomes in the future.

The median tenure of a homeowner in 2017 is about 10 years, but for the 20-year period before that it was only six. Believing that this won’t be your last house can take a bit of pressure off the home being perfectly suited for you.

5. Not having your own representation

Another mistake a first-time homebuyer can make is not having their own representation (meaning that they use the seller’s agent as their own buyer’s agent). While this is not always a bad situation, Carr cautions buyers to be careful that they have selected a good and trustworthy real estate agent that is looking after their best interests. In other words, you don’t want to pay an unfair price because someone is looking after their own best interest.

To learn more about the Unison HomeBuyer program and how it could help you, visit www.unison.com/homebuyer.



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Know what's below: Call 811 before digging...

(BPT) - With the snow melted and the ground thawed, many eager homeowners and landscape professionals across the country will roll up their sleeves and reach for their shovels to start projects that require digging this spring.

During the transition into “digging season,” Common Ground Alliance (CGA), the association dedicated to protecting underground utilities and the people who dig near them, reminds homeowners and professional diggers that calling 811 is the first step toward protecting you and your community from the risk of unintentionally damaging an underground line.

Every digging project, no matter how large or small, warrants a free call to 811. Installing a mailbox or fence, building a deck and landscaping are all examples of digging projects that should only begin a few days after making a call to 811. Calling this number connects you to your local one-call utility notification center.

According to data collected by CGA in a phone survey in March, millions of American homeowners will likely do DIY projects involving digging this year, but 44 percent of them do not plan to make a free call to 811 before digging. Extrapolated to the full population of U.S. homeowners, approximately 58.5 million people will dig this year without first calling 811.

A utility line is damaged every six minutes in America because someone decided to dig without making a call to 811 to learn the approximate location of buried utilities in their area. Unintentionally striking one of these lines can result in inconvenient outages for entire neighborhoods, serious harm to yourself or your neighbors, and significant repair costs.

As a result, CGA offers the following tips to make sure you complete your project safely and without any utility service interruptions, so you don’t become a statistic.

Here’s how the 811 process works:

1. One free, simple phone call to 811 makes it easy for your local one-call center to notify all appropriate utility companies of your intent to dig. Call a few days prior to digging to ensure enough time for the approximate location of utility lines to be marked with flags or paint.

2. When you call 811, a representative from your local one-call center will ask for the location and description of your digging project.

3. Your local one-call center will notify affected utility companies, which will then send professional locators to the proposed dig site to mark the approximate location of your lines.

4. Only once all lines have been accurately marked should you roll up those sleeves and carefully dig around the marked areas.

There are nearly 20 million miles of underground utility lines in the United States, which equates to more than a football field’s length of utilities for every person in the U.S. Your family depends on this buried infrastructure for your everyday needs, including electric, natural gas, water and sewer, cable TV, high-speed internet and landline telephone. With that much critical infrastructure underground, it’s important to know what’s below and call 811 before digging.

To find out more information about 811 or the one-call utility notification center in your area, visit www.call811.com.



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Home sellers: 6 last-minute cleaning tasks to...

(BPT) - Real estate experts agree: dirt and clutter are the anti-staging elements that can send buyers running for the door before they ever think of making an offer. Prior to staging your home, invest some time in deep cleaning it, paying attention to everything from the front walk to the garbage disposal to the air inside your home.

Once you’ve created a clean foundation, follow through with these quick cleaning tasks before showings:

1. Sweep in front of the house.

A pot of flowers on the front step is great, but they won’t look that welcoming if dirt and debris are visible too. Thoroughly sweep front walks, stairs and entryways, and don’t forget to clear cobwebs above the door. Put away any children’s toys or gardening tools that may be in the front yard. Hide trash and recycling containers out of sight.

2. Freshen the aromas inside.

Pet and cooking smells are major turnoffs for home buyers, but even if your house has neither, freshening the indoor scent can have a positive effect on a buyer's mood. However, you don’t want to saturate your home in overpowering, chemical-based scents, either. To deodorize more naturally, try cleaning with essential oils. Mix 2 teaspoons of Aura Cacia Main Squeeze Essential Oil Blend, 1 3/4 cups of water, 1/2 teaspoon of Borax and 1/4 teaspoon of unscented liquid soap in a 16-ounce bottle. Before a showing, use the mixture to wipe down kitchen counters, leaving behind clean countertops and a fresh, energizing citrus scent.

3. Speed clean the kitchen.

Now that your counters are clutter-free, sparkling and smelling good, just a few more tasks will get your kitchen ready to show. Wipe away any fingerprints on appliances, and put away all pots, pans, dishes and glassware in their proper place. Store pet bowls out of sight, give the floor a quick sweep and dry the interior of the sink with a paper towel.

4. Put your best foot forward in the bath.

It’s tough but critical to keep the most-used room in the house looking its best. You probably used your bathroom to get ready this morning, so wipe down surfaces to ensure no hair or debris lingers. Check the mirror for spots and wipe and dry the sink. If the bathtub or shower door show signs of recent use, dry them off. Store used soap, shampoo, scrubbies, loofahs, wash cloths and towels out of sight.

5. Clean carpets.

Nothing says “show home” like fresh vacuum tracks in the carpet! Just before you leave the house for a showing, give carpets a quick pass with the vacuum. Before you do your other last-minute cleaning tasks, mix 1 teaspoon of Aura Cacia Petal Power Essential Oil Blend with a cup of baking soda and sprinkle on carpets. After 10 minutes, vacuum away the powder and leave a light, refreshing floral scent behind.

6. Take out the trash.

Go through every room with a trash can and make sure it’s empty. It may not seem rational, but many buyers will equate trash in a waste basket with an untidy home. It’s especially important to empty trash that may stink, such as in the kitchen. Remove trash, store it in a sealed receptacle outside the house, and give potentially stinky trash cans a refreshing shot of sweet basil and lavender aroma with a DIY garbage pail pod.

For more home care ideas and essential oil recipes, visit www.auracacia.com.



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Tackle your DIY projects with these 3...

(BPT) - DIY projects are surging in popularity right now and it’s easy to see why. A successful DIY project can fix a problem or make a much-needed improvement to your home, while also providing you with the satisfaction of a job well done. Best of all, it allows you to save money over hiring a professional contractor to do the work.

But is it possible to conquer several DIY projects in a short period of time? Sure, you just need the right multipurpose tools for the job. Below are three tools you can pick up at any hardware store, and each will allow you to tackle a slew of projects with just one purchase, making each tool the perfect project time saver.

Add these three multipurpose tools to your lineup today:

Multipurpose tool 1: Stain

A staining project is an easy, cost-effective way to completely recreate a look in your home. You may purchase one color of stain or several, depending on how many staining projects you plan to do and the proximity of your projects in your home. When you purchase your stain, you can use it to:

* Stain your front door. Your front door is a focal point in your home and staining it gives the face of your home a completely new look.

* Stain your wood floors. Darker floors are growing in popularity and a fresh coat of stain can give your home that look without an expensive replacement.

* Stain a table or other piece of furniture. Whether you want it to be an accent piece in your room or you'd like it to match your new décor, a fresh coat of stain saves you from having to replace a cherished piece.

Multipurpose tool 2: GREAT STUFF(TM) Multipurpose Black Insulating Foam Sealant

Sealing the gaps and cracks around your home will save you money by making your home more energy efficient, while also increasing your home’s comfort. In fact, one can of GREAT STUFF(TM) has a multitude of uses in and around the home, including:

* Seal gaps and cracks around attic doors. This will prevent your home’s heat from escaping during the winter and will better control the temperature in your home.

* Seal areas around vents and duct work. In addition to helping better regulate the temperature in your home, these projects can also ward off pests and vermin that are looking for warmer temperatures inside.

* Tackle other jobs as well. The capabilities of GREAT STUFF™ Multipurpose Black Insulating Foam Sealant apply to projects outside the home as well, so whether you have a project in mind or one arises along your journey, it’s always handy to have a can on hand.

Multipurpose tool 3: Degreaser

If you have a heavy duty cleaning project to tackle in your home, a good degreaser can help. Degreasers dissolve water-insoluble substances and they can help you:

* Clean stainless steel and appliances. Grease and oil collect naturally in any kitchen and their particles can linger on kitchen equipment. Applying degreaser can remove them quickly and cleanly.

* Remove adhesives. Whether the sticker was supposed to go there, it was an accident or the subject of child’s whim, applying degreaser can clean the spot good as new.

* Eliminate heavy buildup around bike chains and engine parts. Buildup is a natural product of use, but it also jeopardizes efficiency. Apply degreaser to these areas to have your favorite objects running like new.

Your mind is already full of DIY projects you’d love to tackle, you just need to find the time to do them. Efficiency is key and the more projects you can tackle with one tool the better. Add these tools to your next home goods trip and you’ll have your DIY project start off on the right foot. To find more projects you can tackle with GREAT STUFF(TM) Multipurpose Black Insulating Foam Sealant, visit greatstuff.dow.com.



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Security in an insecure world

(BPT) - The year 2016 was devastating for some safe deposit box holders. In New York, thieves cut holes in the roofs of three banks and brazenly emptied hundreds of safe deposit boxes, leaving the victims' pillaged boxes on the roof and strewn around the vault.

A stealthier thief in Florida picked safe deposit boxes in several banks, emptying the contents without damaging the box or leaving any visible sign of the theft.

These are not isolated incidents. On average, there are between 15-18 robberies or burglaries involving bank vaults every year according to the FBI. Millions of dollars of jewelry, cash, gold and family heirlooms are stolen, leaving devastated box holders dealing with unrecoverable losses.

Still the safest

Despite these occurrences, law enforcement agencies, FEMA, the American Red Cross and AARP all recommend safe deposit boxes to store valuable items, heirlooms and documents. A safe deposit box in a vault is superior to home storage even with a safe. Why? Because a residence is almost 20 times more likely to be robbed than a safe deposit box in a bank. And with rental costs starting at around $30 a year, safe deposit boxes remain one of the best values offered by a financial institution.

Required step

Today, most people who rent a safe deposit box assume the bank or a federal agency insures the contents. This is not true, and unfortunately, too many people learn this the hard way.

A standard homeowners policy provides limited coverage for some items in a box, but excludes losses from flood and other risks. They may also have a high deductible.

Specialty insurance designed to cover and protect everything inside of a safe deposit box - including cash, gold and important papers such as wills, titles, deeds, photos and digital backups, is now available. There is no deductible, and risks such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes and earthquakes are covered.

And because you do not need to identify what is stored inside the box to obtain coverage, you can maintain your privacy.

Protect yourself

Clearly, there are events that no vault or safe deposit box can protect against. However, there are steps you should take. Safe Deposit Box Insurance, LLC (SDBIC), the leader in protecting valuable assets in secure boxes, has developed a secure storage quiz on secure storage options.

So, despite there being some high-profile break-ins, a safe deposit box is still the best place to store your documents, family heirlooms and other valuables. But because nothing is 100 percent foolproof, it's important to do your research, select the right bank and insure the contents of your box through SDBIC.



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What you should know about rising interest rates

(BPT) - Homeowners planning to refinance and buyers searching for a home may have an idea of what’s in store for them with regards to interest rates, but they never really know until they lock in a rate. Rates can change direction fast, and when they rise—as they have recently—it can cost borrowers a great deal of money and time.

The effect of rising interest rates on your home purchase

Today, the median existing home price in the United States is around $235,000, and the average mortgage interest rate is near 4 percent. If you were to buy a home at that price, an interest rate increase of half a percent would cost you an additional $70 per month on your loan payment. That assumes you’ll put the standard 20 percent down in advance. A more dramatic rate increase—say from 4 percent to 6 percent, even over time — would increase your monthly payment by almost $300.

Home price gains

For homebuyers, it’s not just rising interest rates that can increase your payment, but so can home price appreciation. In fact, in most markets, housing prices have increased past highs previously set before the financial crisis in 2007/2008. For example, in citing this recovery, the Federal Housing Finance Agency recently increased the maximum loan amount for mortgages that meet Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines for the first time in more than a decade.

The new conforming loan limits increased only slightly, to $424,100 in most parts of the country. This will enable home buyers in higher-cost areas to access larger home loan amounts and more affordable loan products, in line with local housing prices.

The home buying season may start early this year

Spring/summer is traditionally the busiest home buying time of the year as many sellers wait to list their homes after the cold winter weather is over and to coincide with the summer school break. However, with both home prices and interest rates on the rise, more buyers are expected to enter the home buying market earlier this year, making for a more competitive home buying season.

Starting your loan search today

If you're in the market but haven't found the home of your dreams yet, there are tools available to guard against increasing mortgage rates. Lenders like loanDepot help customers save by giving them the opportunity to lock a quoted rate and hold (lock in) that rate for 45 to 60 days, protecting them from potential fluctuations in the market.

If you do choose to lock your loan, you'll need to provide an appraisal deposit which can range from $450 to $750. This is not a fee, and is returned when working with loanDepot if there is no appraisal performed on a home.

You can learn more by visiting loandepot.com or by calling (888) 983-3240 today for more information.



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Articles last updated at May 28, 2017 13:13:03pm.
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