12 Vegetables and Flowers You Can Plant Outside Right Now—Even Before the Last Frost

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Finally, at last, the Longest Winter Ever will soon be in our rear-view mirror—which means it’s a great time to kick-start your spring garden (or victory garden part deux).

“In most of the country, late March and early April signify the start to the gardening season,” says Amy Enfield, a horticulturalist for Miracle-Gro.

Worried that temperatures may plunge below freezing again and kill your young greenery in a last-gasp frost? It turns out your concerns are unfounded since, Enfield points out, “certain hardy plants and vegetables can withstand chilly nights and late-season frosts.”

In fact, certain vegetables and herbs actually do best when planted in early spring, says Sandra Steineke, director of merchandising at Gurney’s Seed & Nursery. The early planting gives the plants a chance to mature, leading to higher yields and better quality produce.

More good news: Vegetables aren’t the only plants that flourish when planted in March and April. Many flowers also perform best in the cooler weather of early spring, since they tend to wither in the hot, dry temperatures of summer.

So what exactly should you plant right now? Whether you’re planting seeds or established plants, we asked gardening experts to discuss which vegetables and flowers you need to get in the ground now, and some best practices for planting.

Vegetables you can plant in March

Here are the fruits and vegetables you should plant now:

  • Leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, kale, collards, and lettuce
  • Cole crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage
  • Tuber vegetables, including radishes, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes, and onions
  • Asparagus
  • Rhubarb
  • Strawberries (Note: Wait to plant them until after the last chance of frost in your region.)
  • Herbs (“There are several cool-weather herbs like parsley, cilantro, and chives,” says Enfield.)

Flowers you can plant in March

Several types of flowers do their best in the cool weather of early spring, Enfield says. They include the following:

  • Pansies
  • Violas
  • Snapdragons
  • Sweet William
  • Sweet alyssum

“Adding them to your garden in March or early April provides an early pop of color, as well as provides beneficial nectar for early-season pollinators,” Enfield says.

Is your soil ready for plants?

No matter what you plant, make sure the soil is ready—and that means unfrozen and dry.

“For instance, planting potatoes, onions, or seeds in cold, wet ground that will not dry out for weeks and weeks will cause these items to rot before they sprout,” explains Steineke.

If you’re eager to plant but your soil isn’t quite dry, plant flowers and vegetables in containers first, and then transfer them into the ground later.

What happens if you have another frost?

A few warm, sunny days might fool you into thinking winter is over. But a frost or two might still be likely in late March.

Many cool season plants can withstand a light frost, Enfield explains.

“Semihardy vegetables like beets, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, Swiss chard, and potatoes will survive light frosts and temperatures down in the upper 20s or low 30s,” she says. “Hardy vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes, spinach, and turnips will survive harder frosts and temperatures down to the low 20s.”

How to protect your plants from frost

To protect your early spring plantings from a cold night or frost threat, cover the plants in the early evening with an old bedsheet, newspapers, or plant cone. Or you can move plants in containers under a covered porch or into a garage.

Just don’t forget to remove the coverings in the morning, or they won’t get enough sunlight.

How much to water plants

To keep your plants alive and well, water them about an inch a week. Check your plants for water every few days by sticking your finger into the soil near the plant an inch deep. Water the plants if the soil is dry. If it’s still damp, wait a day or two.

“Rain tends to be plentiful in the spring, so you may find you don’t need to water hardly at all,” Enfield says.

Fertilize or feed your plants regularly, too, following the instructions on the fertilizer label for how often and how much your plants need.

“This will instantly feed your vegetables, flowers, and other plants, and give them the nutrients they need to grow bigger and more beautiful,” Enfield says.

Article by Erica Sweeney

Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2021

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17 every year. “The date marks the saint’s death. Patrick died in 461 in Saul, County Down. He is buried in the grounds of Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down,” Ireland.com, the official website of Tourism Ireland, explains.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in Boston in the U.S. back in 1737, while Ireland’s first parade was held in the city of Waterford in 1903.

May the Irish hills caress you. May her lakes and rivers bless you. May the luck of the Irish enfold you. May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.

 

Mortgage Rates Are Rising. Read This Before You Refinance.

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Mortgage rates are on the rise after nearly a year of record lows, providing a nudge to homeowners who want to refinance but didn’t get around to it yet.

Does it still make sense to call up your lender and file an application? There is time to figure it out. Here are some questions to consider:

What rate makes sense for me?

First find the difference between your current mortgage rate and the potential savings of a refinance offer. The rate for a refi will vary based on the particular homeowner. Lenders consider credit history, income and home equity when evaluating applications.

The average rate on a 30-year mortgage rose to 3.05% for the week of March 11, according to Freddie Mac. While that is higher than historic lows reached last summer, homeowners with rates above 4% could still benefit from refinancing.

Consider how many months it would take for you to recoup the costs of closing on a refi, along with how long you’ll be staying at this home. If you can recoup closing costs within two years and plan to stay in your house for longer, the savings on interest means the math will likely work out in your favor.

What if closing costs are too high?

If the potential savings from a new mortgage won’t recoup the closing costs—like title insurance, state taxes, appraisal fees and more—it may not make sense to refinance just yet.

The national average for associated refinancing fees is nearly $3,400 with taxes, according to ClosingCorp, a firm providing residential real-estate data. This number hasn’t significantly changed as a result of the pandemic, said Bob Jennings, chief executive officer of ClosingCorp.

In some cases lenders are waiving appraisals—and the associated costs—due to concerns about social distancing. Ask your lender about the research process to ensure this doesn’t lead to an underestimate of the home’s true value.

I have an adjustable-rate mortgage. Is this the time to switch to a fixed rate?

Those with adjustable-rate mortgages might be looking to refinance to a fixed-rate mortgage so they can lock in these ultralow rates.

As you consider moving from an ARM to a FRM, first check where the loan is in terms of its adjustment cycle, and consider how often your rate adjusts. Most only do so every six or 12 months, which gives some homeowners more flexibility when it comes to exploring refinancing and saving up for the potential closing costs.

“A lot of borrowers don’t want the uncertainty,” said Malcom Hollensteiner, head of mortgage production at Sandy Spring Bank in Olney, Md.

Because rates have stayed so low and aren’t expected to skyrocket overnight, some homeowners might decide to forgo the associated costs of refinancing.

I have a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Should I shorten that to 15 years?

Many homeowners are considering changing the term of their loan from a 30-year fixed rate mortgage to a 15-year loan, according to Mr. Hollensteiner at Sandy Spring Bank.

That won’t reduce your monthly payment but doing it now may mean “that payment isn’t going to be much higher than what they’re paying today,” he said. “So if they can save 12 years off the loan, it’s a huge interest savings over time.”

How will the equity in my house affect the situation?

The difference between the value of your home and the remaining mortgage balance is the equity you have in the home—and a key number to have in mind as you pursue refinancing.

Those who may want to refinance to eliminate private mortgage insurance must have home equity worth 20% the value of the home.

Mr. Hollensteiner said some homeowners could benefit from a reappraisal that shows how the booming housing market increased home values. Some homeowners might find they have more equity to draw from than they previously thought.

Should I consider a cash-out refi?

Cash-out refis let borrowers essentially swap their current mortgage with a fresh one that has a higher balance and, potentially, a lower interest rate. That allows a homeowner to pay off the old mortgage and still have cash left over.

The difference between your mortgage balance and your home value then goes to your bank account, which some homeowners use for home improvements (increasingly popular as many are spending more time at home), debt obligations or other financial goals and responsibilities. Cash-out refis have now hit their highest levels since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Ask yourself what you would do with the money. It might make sense if you finish home improvements that increase the resale value of your house. Or, if you pay down debt and boost your credit score. But if the extra money won’t go to good use, consider a refinancing option that lowers your payments and shortens the life of the loan.

How do mortgage points affect a refi?

When lenders talk about mortgage points, think of them as “prepaid interest,” said Shant Banosian, loan officer at mortgage lender Guaranteed Rate. They are extra costs tacked onto the front of the loan to lock in a lower rate.

This increases the closing costs, but could be worth it if your No. 1 goal is to secure a lower rate and save on overall interest. “If someone is going to be in their house for 30 years and it takes two years to recoup these costs, why wouldn’t you want to save money for 28 years?” he said.

How quickly do I need to act?

Some three million homeowners are expected to refinance their mortgages this month, according to forecast data from Black Knight Inc., a mortgage technology and data provider. But make sure a refi decision is right for you. Remember—rates could always drop again in the future.

“I don’t want people to rush, and I don’t want them to chase a bottom or chase a rate,” said Gordon Miller, president of Miller Lending Group. “Do the math. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, ‘We’ll never see rates this low again,’ I would’ve retired after three years.”

Article by Julia Carpenter

3 Must vs. Lust Buying Tips to Avoid Overspending

Image: Julia Marcum / Chris Loves Julia

The super-simple (and fun) way to separate needs from nice-to-haves.

When you embark on the home-buying process, your heart is filled with all the dreams in the world. It’s really easy to get caught up in the “I have to have ___________,  so I’ll cut back somewhere else ” game, even when you don’t actually know where that somewhere else is or if you can realistically cut back there.

This post will show you how to pare down the excess and make sure to get the things you really NEED.

Make a List of Wants

Start by making a list of everything you want in your house. If you love it, jot it down. Have your spouse or partner do the same thing in a separate document.

Image: Mandi Gubler / Vintage Revivals

Once you and your partner have everything down, start sorting your wants by order of importance. What’s your No. 1? Do you need large windows? How about a sunroom? Double sinks in the master? You get the idea.

Come up with your top 10, and then compare your list to your partner’s top 10. What things appear on both lists? Those items should carry more weight because you both want them in your home.

Highlight the Important Stuff

Image: Mandi Gubler / Vintage Revivals

Next, look at your list and consider:

  • The things that can’t be changed without a massive investment. I’m talking things like square footage, window size, and number of bedrooms. This is your heavyweight list. These things should take priority in your home-buying decision.
  • Features that are purely cosmetic, especially things that can be DIYed. These items should be moved waaay down the list or taken off entirely. Backsplash tile, paint color, and lighting can all be changed inexpensively and after you’re living in your house. You don’t want to pass up a fantastic house because you can’t see past a red accent wall.
Image: Mandi Gubler / Vintage Revivals

At this point, you should have a combined list of 10 or so items.

My last tip is to figure out the priority of each one of the items. Ask yourself, would you be willing to give up item number 4, say, to have item number 5? Would you be willing to give up hardwood floors for a home theater room? This is the hardest question to answer, but it’ll put your must-haves in the right order.

I always picture this activity like an eye appointment when the doctor says, “1 or 2? OK, now 2 or 3?” Do that with your list! Pool or flooring? Flooring or yard size? Yard size or square footage? Make sense?

Bring Your List When You Look at a Home

Image: Mandi Gubler / Vintage Revivals

As you’re out looking at houses, keep your list handy. Maybe you’re not willing to give up hardwood floors for a jetted tub, but would you be willing to compromise for a jetted tub and extra square footage? Refer back to your must-haves list often. It’s easy to get distracted.

Here’s a quick checklist that I use when searching for a home. If you answer “yes” to all of these, then a “want” may be worth the splurge — that is, if you can be sure that you’ll be able to afford the feature (in terms of your monthly mortgage payments and living expenses).

  1. Is it on both of your lists?
  2. Is it something that’ll be extremely expensive and difficult to change or add?
  3. Would you be willing to sacrifice something else to have it?
  4. Would you feel like your house would be incomplete without it?

Happy house hunting!

CONTRIBUTED BY
This article was contributed by Mandi Gubler, a DIYer and home decor blogger, who writes “Vintage Revivals” and believes “your house should look like you and no one else.”

How To Know If Your Home Improvement Professional Is Worth the Price Tag

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No one likes to overpay. But if you’re looking to hire a home improvement professional to do some work, you might not know what’s a fair price. Services like installing a deck, repairing a roof, or remodeling a bathroom can cost a lot of money, but most people don’t know what to expect—or understand what goes into the final cost.

“There is a natural information imbalance between the consumer doing the hiring and the pro doing the work,” says Mischa Fisher, chief economist for leading digital marketplace HomeAdvisor. “The pro typically has the time, tools, and talent to do the work, while the homeowner lacks knowledge about how things are done, how long they’ll take, how good the pro is, and how much things should cost.”

Have a home improvement project in mind for which you’re considering hiring a pro? Here are a few tips from the experts on how to find a contractor who’s going to do quality work for a fair price.

1. Thoroughly read reviews from trusted marketplaces

When you have no clue about costs or a contractor’s quality of work, begin by doing some research at Consumers’ Checkbook, Angie’s List, or HomeAdvisor.

“Marketplaces are a great place to level the playing field,” says Fisher. “Homeowners can check reviews to understand if the pro has a track record of doing good work, and how many other people think the pro performed as expected. They can also check marketplace cost guides to see how much things cost and should cost.”

2. Ask for referrals—and call them

If your neighbors across the street rave about a contractor they hired to work on their deck, you might want to consider hiring them as well.

“A high-quality professional should have a history of satisfied customers,” says Fisher. “When a pro is giving you a bid for their work, it’s prudent to have a conversation about similar jobs they have performed in the past, and if they have references you can check for other work that they’ve completed.”

Getting a list of references is one thing, but make sure you actually follow up and call the references to confirm they were satisfied.

3. Check for licenses and work history

Anyone can say they are a contractor. But what separates the professionals from the amateurs are permits, licenses, and a steady work history.

One way to check whether a contractor is licensed is through Angie’s List License Check, which can be searched by state and profession or trade. You can also check the Better Business Bureau or visit your state’s licensing board website to verify the license.

“Licensing can vary a lot by state or county,” says Fisher. “Even if the occupation itself does not require a license, many jurisdictions may require permits for jobs to be completed.”

4. Ask for photos or videos of recent work

Contractors may talk a big game about all the great work they’ve done, like that beautiful spa tub and outdoor bar they put in for their last client. But talk is talk, and you want to see proof before hiring them. Don’t hesitate to ask for photos or videos of their work to see the type of quality product you’ll get.

“Similar to asking for references, an experienced pro should have examples of recent work that they’ve done that is similar to the job you’re looking to have completed,” says Fisher. “This is particularly important if you’re looking for a comprehensive remodeling pro, but it can also be important for jobs that are smaller in scale like painting a single room, moving some light switches, or redoing the plumbing for a bathroom fixture.”

Fisher says it’s not realistic to expect a pro to have pictures of every single job they’ve ever completed, but having a picture or two of similar work to yours should be expected.

5. Have frank conversations about timeline and budget expectations

When hiring a contractor, you need to set a timeline and discuss expected total costs.

“Open communication between you and your pro is extremely important. Before hiring someone for your job, make sure you feel comfortable talking to them about your project requirements and expectations,” says Angie Hicks, co-founder of Angie’s List.

She says to discuss your budget and ideal timeline and, once terms are agreed upon by both parties, to make sure they’re in the contract. She says your pro should be honest about potential delays and how they will be handled.

“When discussing budget, determine what will work for you, but only share 90% of that budget with the contractor. That way if surprises come up or you decide to change something midproject, you have money to cover it without causing financial stress,” says Hicks.

She says to also tell your contractor that you need an itemized list of materials, labor, and any other costs, and to make sure to spell out whether you require specific materials, brands, colors, etc., or if you’re fine with your contractor finding the right materials. 

“Keep the door to conversation open throughout the duration of your project,” says Hicks. “And if a contractor won’t work with you on reasonable requests, find one who will.”

Article by Anayat Durrani

SLOW COOKER GLAZED CORNED BEEF & CABBAGE

Platings + Parings

This Slow Cooker Glazed Corned Beef & Cabbage is made in the crockpot and finished off under the broiler with a brown sugar-mustard glaze, giving it a nice crispy crust.

INGREDIENTS

MEAT AND VEGETABLES:

  • 68 small red potatoescut into large wedges
  • 3 medium carrots thick sliced
  • 2 ribs celery thick sliced
  • 35 pounds corned beef brisket (fat trimmed off and rinsed)
  • 1 cabbage cut into large wedges (about 2 pounds)
  • 2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 small bottle dark beer (about 12 ounces)

GLAZE:

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup brown mustard
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 Tbsp butter

HONEY MUSTARD SAUCE:

  • ½ cup honey or agave
  • ½ cup brown mustard
  • ¼ cup Greek yogurt optional

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Layer the potatoes 1/2 cup celery and ½ cup carrots in the bottom of slow cooker. Place corned beef on veggies. Add garlic and packet of seasoning that comes with the corned beef. Add beer and water until meat is covered. Cover and cook on LOW for 8-9 hours (or HIGH for 4-5 hours).
  • Just prior to corned beef being done, melt butter in small saucepan — add water and brown sugar. Heat over medium-high heat. After about 5 minutes, stir in mustard. Simmering another 2-3 minutes. Pour in dish and set aside.
  • When corned beef is ready, remove and place on cookie tray and tent with foil. Place large pot in sink with colander inside. Pour out the slow cooker ingredients saving both liquid and potatoes. Discard cooked carrots and celery. Preheat broiler. Place pot of liquid on stove on medium-high until boiling. Boil the remaining carrots and celery for 3 minutes then add cabbage and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain liquid.
  • Remove foil tent. Brush glaze on top of corned beef and broil on low, 6-inches from the element for 30 minutes adding glaze every 10 minutes. Always keep an eye on the broiler to avoid burning. After 30 minutes remove corned beef and place on cutting board. Cut corned beef across the grain. Serve with veggies and honey mustard sauce.

Wine Pairings for Corned Beef & Cabbage:

  • I suggest a light-bodied, fruit forward red like a Beaujolais or Grenache to pair with the salty-fatty corned beef and the traditional spices of bay leaves and peppercorn.
  • On the white wine side, I’d suggest a Pinot Blanc or dry Riesling.

Recipe by ERIN of Platings + Pairings

 

5 Things You Didn’t Know a VA Loan Could Do for You

realtor.com

Because of the bravery and sacrifices of veterans and active military, the rest of the country’s civilians can live the American dream in safety. As one tangible way to say “thank you for your service,” current and former members of the military have access to Veterans Affairs home loans. These unique mortgage options allow veterans and those still serving to own a piece of the American dream by potentially qualifying for homes they might have thought were out of reach.

Veterans, active-duty service personnel, and select Reservists or National Guard members are among those who can quality for VA loans. (Find specific eligibility requirements here.) Wondering what some of the benefits of a VA loan might be? Here are five to consider.

1. No down payment

This is one of the most valuable and touted benefits—and for good reason. Saving enough for a down payment can be the biggest obstacle to buying a home. But a VA loan eliminates that roadblock.

“Most of the buyers I work with don’t have extra resources available, so the fact that they can purchase a home with zero down makes the transaction feasible,” says Benny Dinsmore, a Realtor® with Coldwell Banker in Frisco, TX.

In most parts of the country, qualified buyers can purchase up to $424,100 before factoring in the cost of a down payment. In pricier areas, borrowers can go beyond that threshold.

But beware: The “no money down” aspect of a VA loan shouldn’t be confused with “no money out of pocket,” a common misconception, notes Michael Garcia, broker and owner of TQS Realty in Palm Beach, FL.

A VA loan still requires closing costs and the earnest money deposit (a negotiated amount of money that the buyer puts in escrow to essentially “hold” the house).

“However, that money will often come back at the closing, when the title company will write a check back to the veteran on the spot for the total amount that was put into escrow,” Garcia says.

2. More lenient loan requirements

The required credit score for a VA loan can be lower than for a conventional loan—around 620 for a VA loan compared with a range of 650 to 700 for most conventional loans.

In addition, the required debt-to-income ratio for VA loans is often more flexible than for conventional mortgages.

“It allows someone with less-than-perfect credit and some debt to still be able to qualify for a loan,” Dinsmore says.

3. No mortgage insurance

Most conventional buyers have to pay private mortgage insurance if they put less than 20% down. FHA loans come with their own forms of mortgage insurance. But a VA loan waives that insurance requirement.

And trust us—this one’s important.

“This can be a big savings in monthly payments, since PMI typically runs around $200 a month,” says Realtor® Twila Lukavich with Russell Real Estate Services in Cleveland.

Even though there’s no mortgage insurance, there is a “funding fee”—an upfront cost applied to every purchase loan or refinance. The proceeds help the VA cover losses on the few loans that go into default. But borrowers can roll it into their monthly payment, or pay it all at once. Plus, it’s tax-deductible. And veterans with a service-connected disability don’t have to pay the funding fee at all.

4. Limited closing costs

Legally, veterans are allowed to pay for certain closing costs, which include the following:

  • Appraisal
  • Credit report
  • Origination fee
  • Recording fee
  • Survey
  • Title insurance

But there are some fees that veterans are not allowed to pay. And the VA allows lenders to charge no more than 1% to cover the costs of originating and underwriting the loan.

So for example, if the purchase price is $280,000, the veteran might offer $300,000 and ask for 3% back to cover the closing costs.

“In this way the veteran is essentially financing their closing costs into the loan, meaning less out of pocket at the start,” Dinsmore explains.

5. Extra assistance with appraisals

When a home that a veteran is considering purchasing is having trouble reaching the purchase price during the appraisal process, buyers and lenders can ask the VA appraiser to consider adjusting the valuation before making a final determination.

Appraisers notify lenders in the event the appraised value is likely to come in low, giving buyers and real estate agents 48 hours to supply additional information that the appraiser might not be aware of to help justify the home’s value.

“Typically I assemble an itemized list of upgrades and improvements that the seller has performed on the home in the past three years that the appraiser didn’t know about, and therefore didn’t include in the home value,” Lukavich says.

This process “gives the agents an opportunity to assist the appraiser in making sure they have the whole picture of the home and gives the local agent an opening to help an appraiser be educated on specific local values,” she adds.

It’s just another benefit of VA loans aimed at helping our service men and women buy the home of their dreams.

Article by Cathie Ericson 

The Terrible Truth About This ‘Viral’ $7K Tiny House on Amazon

amazon.com

Amazon—the mega-retailer delivering everything from books to blenders, at blinding speed—has recently begun hawking a new type of product that’s apparently selling like hotcakes: tiny houses.

The site’s latest tiny house sensation is the Allwood Solvalla—a 172-square-foot abode (shown above) priced at a mere $7,250. The manufacturer claims it can be built by two adults in eight hours, although delivery takes about three to five weeks. But hey, at least shipping is free—all 2,480 pounds of Nordic wood, as well as most of the other components you’ll need to put the place together.

If you want a bit more leg room, you can buy the Allwood Bella, with 237 square feet of downstairs living space and an upstairs 86-square-foot loft. But it will cost you, at $17,800.

Assembly of this wood cabin takes about 16 hours for two adults, Allwood notes.amazon.com

Don’t want to blow the budget? Consider the Allwood Claudia, which boasts 209 feet for $8,250.

The Allwood Claudia, a 209-square-foot tiny house, is priced at $8,250.amazon.com

Looking for a cabin that sounds like a charming English lake house? Try the Allwood Sommersby. At 174 square feet, this retails for $8,360.

According to the manufacturer, this has been a top seller in the United Kingdom, France, and in the United States since it hit the market.amazon.com

If you’re fine with sacrificing space for a lower price point, check out Allwood’s Lillevilla Escape, which offers you 113 square feet for $4,990.

Use this as a pool or toolshed or just a quiet oasis in your backyard.amazon.com

Or, if a sauna is more your thing, you can buy Allwood’s barrel sauna, which sells for $4,950 and comes complete with a Harvia M3 wood-fired heater made in Finland.

The cylinder shape “allows natural continuous air circulation because the air is pushed back on the round walls,” according to Allwood.amazon.com

So many choices! Then again, Amazon prides itself on its wide selection.

Still, though: Are these mini abodes really the dreamy bargains that many may hope them to be?

The tiny house boom on Amazon: A reality check

When in doubt, it’s always helpful to read Amazon reviews, right? Well, the Solvalla currently has three, and they’re not encouraging.

An Amazon customer identified as “No” writes, “Screw this. For the price you can have an addition built on your house with AC. And electric. Not to mention you could buy the materials and do this yourself for under $4,000.”

Ouch! That’s harsh, but this same sentiment was echoed by tiny house builders.

“This product is a waste of time and money,” says Andrew Bennett of the Florida-based Trekker Trailers, a leader in tiny home designing and building. “They are playing on the tiny house industry. It would be more cost-effective to start from scratch. This type of product is bad for the industry and misleading. It’s not a dwelling. It’s a shed, or an atrium, or a greenhouse.”

Dan Louche, who founded Tiny Home Builders in 2009, agrees. “This garden house, aka shed, would not be easy to make suitable to live in,” he says.

To be fair, Allwood doesn’t recommend that it be used as a full-time dwelling. Instead, the manufacturer suggests that it can serve as “a wine tasting room, yoga studio, set for outdoor cooking lessons, painter’s studio…”—you get the idea.

What’s missing from this $7,000 house

And although the Solvalla does purportedly come with most of the things you’ll need, it’s missing some crucial components, like a foundation. Allwood estimates that the cost to build such a foundation will run you around $170, but Bennett disagrees. While he acknowledges prices vary by location, he says that in Florida, where he is based, you can expect to spend $5,000.

“And if you’re putting it on a foundation, you’re going to have to pull a permit and pay for that, as well as taxes and fees,” he says. He advises that people always check local zoning codes and restrictions before adding any structure to their property.

Another missing component you’ll really miss? Plumbing. Bennett estimates that adding plumbing could run approximately $3,000, depending on labor costs. Unless you like to shower in the dark, you’ll need to add electricity too, and that could run you up to $2,000.

Also, if you live in a cool climate, you should take note that the walls aren’t insulated, although Allwood claims they are “insulation-ready.”

Louche begs to differ.

“The walls are made of tongue and groove pine, so there is no way to properly insulate them,” he says. “Normally insulation is added to a cavity within a wall, but this wall has only an extremely small cavity. Without insulation, you could only stay in it in the most optimal climate. If you did decide to insulate it, you would have to construct a wall cavity, which would take approximately the same amount of effort to just build a proper shed from scratch.”

Sorry if all this downer news dashes your tiny house dreams … but we thought you’d want to know.

Moral of the story? Amazon may sell many things, but high-quality, fully fledged homes may not be its forte quite yet. So beware!

“Unfortunately, it will fool a lot of people,” Bennett says.

A representative of Allwood Industries provided the following statement, “We have never claimed that this model is a tiny home and never would for obvious reasons. We are confident that our hundreds of satisfied cabin kit customers do not consider themselves ‘ripped off’ in any way. The website descriptions together with personalized customer support ensure the buyer knows exactly what is and isn’t included with every model of cabin kits we sell.”

Article by Liz Alterman

12 Ways to Commemorate Your Dog on Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day

Photo courtesy of AKC

As any dog lover knows, we always miss the dogs we’ve lost. So today, we want to focus on and celebrate the great lives of all our dogs, past and present.

Sometime in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, an unknown author wrote a story poem called Rainbow Bridge, in which he (or she) envisioned a place in heaven where our dogs run and play; healthy, young and strong. And where they wait to be with us again. This idea has taken root in many a dog-lover’s heart and it’s comforting to imagine your pet happy and content.

To honor this, author and blogger, Deborah Barnes, created Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, a day dedicated to remembering the pets who have crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. If you’ve been wanting to celebrate the life of your pet, here are some suggestions of ways to honor and remember him.

1. Donate. Why not give to a worthy cause in memory of your dog? Consider donating to AKC Reunite’s Canine Support & Relief or any other organization that is meaningful to you in honor of your pet.

2. Volunteer. A donation of time can be just as valuable as money. Maybe you could get involved with your local club and volunteer at one of their events.

3. Place a headstone or garden stone in the yard. You can purchase a headstone or garden stone ready-made and customized or decorate one yourself. You might want to place it your pet’s favorite outdoor spot.

4. Hold a memorial service. If you’re religious, say a prayer. Consider a family walk or hike to scatter your pet’s ashes in a favorite spot. This is a good way to include all family members, including children who may be struggling with the loss.

5. Plant a tree. One of the nice things about a tree-planting ceremony is that you’re you’re commemorating your pet with something that will live and grow. And as it does, it will be a beautiful memory.

6. Make a scrapbook. This is another way to include the whole family in making memories. Share your favorite stories and add photos or draw pictures to illustrate. You might want to include a favorite small toy, your dog’s collar or other mementos. Scrap-booking can be ongoing, too–picked up every now and then to add memories or to feel close to your pet again. You can buy a ready-to-use pet scrapbook or even download everything you need.

7. Add your dog’s tag to your keychain. This is a simple way to keep him with you wherever you go.

8. Make a Christmas tree ornament. Add a ribbon to your dog’s tags, favorite toys or collar and celebrate your dog’s memory during the holidays.

9. Frame your favorite photo. A beautiful frame makes a photo into a portrait. Buy a plain frame and decorate it yourself or buy a customized frame.

10. Create an online memorial. You can make a memorial page on your favorite social media channel or on websites that allow you to make your own online memorial.

11. Make a piece of jewelry. You can have a custom charm made to add to a bracelet or a personalized pendant to wear close to your heart.

12. Share something. If you have a special dog park or other place you and your dog loved, create an ongoing tribute by sharing his favorite treats or toys. Set up a bucket of tennis balls or Frisbees, place a container of his favorite cookies. This way other dog lovers can share something that brought happiness to your dog’s life.

Finally, remember all of the great times you and your dog had together! There is no greater bond than a person and their dog, so don’t be shy in celebrating your dog’s amazing life.

Article by Jan Reisen

Drink To This: 9 Ways To Use Vodka To Clean Your Home

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If vodka is your spirit of choice, you may prefer it on the rocks, in a bloody mary, or even in a Moscow Mule. This clear, mostly odorless, infinitely mixable liquor is a staple in any cocktail connoisseur’s at-home bar cart.

But it turns out, vodka can be used for more than just happy hour. It can also be used to degrease, deodorize, and disinfect your home!

“Liquor—and particularly vodka—is a natural disinfectant and can be used to clean a variety of surfaces in one’s home to help combat mold and mildew and kill germs,” says Mark Addison, TV personality, designer, and author of “Cocktail Chameleon.”

If traditional cleaning products’ harsh odors and chemicals are too much for you, the grain-based booze can be a good alternative since it’s easy on the hands and evaporates quickly. While we don’t recommend splurging on bottles of vodka for cleaning purposes, think twice before pouring any leftover vodka down the drain—unless you plan to clean the drain with it. (But were you really pouring vodka down the drain anyway?)

Note: There’s no need to shell out for premium vodka for this purpose either. Any type will do, although some experts recommend higher proofs for better cleaning power.

Here are some ways vodka can be used as a cleaning agent in the home. Cheers!

1. Clean kitchen appliances and surfaces

A filthy kitchen is enough to get anyone down. Put a mixture of equal parts vodka and water in a spray bottle, and spritz on grime and grease stains on your stovetop, backsplashes, and countertops. It can also shine your chrome faucets and cabinet hardware. You can also add a few drops of essential oil for a pleasant scent.

“The alcohol in vodka cuts through grease and oil,” says Leslie Reichert, author and green living expert. “Vodka is a great cleaner for stainless steel.”

But here’s a big, flashing warning notice: Vodka should not be used near open flames as it is flammable. OK?

2. Cut bathroom grime

Bathrooms get a lot of foot traffic so they can get awfully dirty, and bathroom fixtures can build up soap scum and hard-water stains. Just spritz some vodka on the mess, rinse, and wipe away the nastiness.

You can also get dark spots out of tile and caulk by spraying them with vodka, letting it sit for 30 minutes, scrubbing it away with an old toothbrush, and rinsing with water.

“Vodka can help with smells around the toilet, too,” says Reichert.

3. Make glass and mirrors cleaner

No one likes seeing streaks on the mirrors or glass. But with its solvent qualities, vodka can do away with even the toughest spots.

Combine equal parts water and vodka and add a quarter-teaspoon baking soda in a spray bottle. Spray and wipe.

“I’d recommend spraying glass or mirrors with the vodka, and then wiping with a fine woven microfiber cloth until completely dry,” says Reichert.

4. Remove sticky labels

Stubborn price stickers on items like toys and electronics are difficult to remove. Sometimes you manage to get the sticker off but the residue remains. Vodka can do wonders when it comes to dissolving sticker adhesive.

“Simply put a few drops of vodka on the sticker residue, let it sit for 10 minutes, and wipe it off with a paper towel for a squeaky-clean surface,” says Addison.

5. Clean jewelry

With everyday wear, jewelry can get dirty and start to look dull. But vodka can revive your favorite baubles.

“Another favorite use for vodka is to clean gold, silver, diamond, or other crystal gem jewelry,” says Addison. “Simply soak your jewelry in a watered-down vodka solution for 10 minutes, remove it, and brush the item with a toothbrush to get into the crevices.”

6. Refresh your laundry and more

Stinky clothes sometimes need a bit more of a punch to knock out those odors. Add a half-cup vodka to your load of laundry before running the washer.

It also works to deodorize other surfaces in your home. Get rid of sweat, cigarette, and other foul smells on your mattress, in your gym bag, or in your shoes. You can spray it directly on these items as the scent and moisture will evaporate and remove odors. (Proceed with caution before spraying anything on leather or other delicate materials.)

7. Remove stains from carpet

Accidents (and stains) happen. But when your normal carpet cleaner just won’t cut it, vodka can save you in a pinch. To get oil-based, grass, ink, or food stains out of your carpet using vodka, just soak, blot the excess liquid, and scrub.

8. Make a room diffuser oil

Vodka isn’t the first scent you gravitate toward when trying to freshen up the scent of your home. But we promise this recipe for a room fragrance won’t smell anything like a fraternity house.

Create an aromatic oil for your diffuser by combining a few tablespoons vodka with about 20 drops of your favorite essential oil and a quarter-cup almond or baby oil.

9. Repel bugs

Tired of getting eaten alive by mosquitoes? Put some vodka in a spray bottle, and spritz away those bothersome insects. The high alcohol content will keep them at bay.

Article by Anayat Durrani 

Parmesan spring chicken

BBC Good Food

 

 

 

 

Dish up an easy, delicious chicken dinner that’s full of spring flavours. The parmesan coating gives a satisfying crunch, and the meat inside stays tender.

Ingredients

  • 1 egg white
  • 5 tbsp finely grated parmesan
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 400g new potatoes , cut into small cubes
  • 140g frozen peas
  • good handful baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp olive oil

Method

  • STEP 1

    Heat grill to medium and line the grill pan with foil. Beat the egg white on a plate with a little salt and pepper. Tip the parmesan onto another plate. Dip the chicken first in egg white, then in the cheese. Grill the coated chicken for 10-12 mins, turning once until browned and crisp.

  • STEP 2

    Meanwhile, boil the potatoes for 10 mins, adding the peas for the final 3 mins, then drain. Toss the vegetables with the spinach leaves, vinegar, oil and seasoning to taste. Divide between four warm plates, then serve with the chicken.

Recipe by BBC Good Food

Can You Take a Home Office Tax Deduction Due to COVID-19? A Reality Check

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2020 was the year of WFH: Working from home became a reality for countless Americans, as company offices closed down to curb the spread of COVID-19. And, as the time nears to file your 2020 taxes, you might be wondering: Does your home office add up to any tax deductions for you?

It’s a logical question: Since most WFH warriors shell out of their own pocket for internet, printer ink, and equipment upgrades if their laptop poops out, it’s understandable to hope you can recoup some of these expenses by claiming the home office tax deduction on your taxes.

But beware: The home office deduction has changed a lot over the years, so whether you can claim it will depend greatly on your circumstances. Here’s more on exactly who can claim a home office tax deduction—and who can’t—as well as how much certain people can save. For people who can’t claim this deduction, we’ve found some clever tax deductions to bring up with your boss that could still save you money—for now, and going forward as long as your WFH life continues.

Who can claim a home office tax deduction?

Even though the name of this tax deduction has the phrase “home office,” this doesn’t mean everyone who works from home can claim it, explains Paul Sundin, a CPA and a tax strategist at Emparion.

In a nutshell, the home office tax deduction can be claimed only by self-employed individuals—meaning freelancers, small-business owners, and anyone who works for themselves. That said, these workers still must meet certain conditions. (Read our next section for more details.)

What qualifies as a home office?

There are very strict rules on what constitutes a dedicated home office. To claim this deduction, you must use part of your home exclusively for business. That means an office that doubles as your bedroom or an occasional guest room does not qualify.

That said, an open area with a desk that’s used only for work qualifies just fine. So if your desk is in an open floor plan, simply measure the space you use for your office. And if you have an entire room dedicated only to work, measure the size of the room.

How to take a home office deduction

The easiest way to claim the deduction is to deduct $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet, of office space, which amounts to a maximum deduction of $1,500.

If you think your deduction is worth more than $1,500, you can also try the more complicated method of tracking all the costs of your home office. Then allocate those expenses based on the percentage of the home you use solely as a home office. So if your office occupies 10% of your home’s total square footage, you can deduct 10% of what you pay to keep it running.

Here’s how that breaks down, according to Ben Reynolds, CEO and founder of Sure Dividend:

  • Business equipment: The IRS considers tangible equipment such as furniture, computers, electronic devices, and office machines as eligible.
  • Internet: You can deduct the amount used for business purposes. If you use your internet 20% of the time for work, you can deduct that percentage of your total internet bill.
  • Home expenses: These include rent, mortgage interest, real estate taxes, homeowners insurance, home repairs, electricity, and gas. If your home office takes up 10% of your home’s total square footage, you can deduct 10% of these expenses.
  • Depreciation: Computers and most office equipment can be depreciated over five years, while office furniture can depreciate for seven years. You have the option to deduct the full amount of the depreciation or gradually subtract the a portion of the total value each year.

Can W-2 employees claim a home office tax deduction?

If you are a W-2 employee, you cannot claim a home office tax deduction.

Why not? While in the past employees could claim a deduction for employment expenses over a certain percentage of their income, the 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated these deductions from 2018 to 2025. The act now prevents full-time, W-2 employees from deducting home office expenses on their 2020 taxes even when they worked from home more than they did in the office, says Reynolds.

There is one small exception to keep in mind: If you’re a W-2 employee with a side hustle, you can deduct eligible home office expenses for that particular side gig.

Are there any home office tax deductions W-2 workers can claim?

Unfortunately, most employees working from home can’t claim any federal tax deductions connected to being a remote worker during the coronavirus pandemic, says Sundin.

However, full-time remote employees who live in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania have a unique option for their state tax returns.

“W-2 workers living in these states can deduct business expenses their employer didn’t reimburse them for,” says Reynolds. These can include a portion of your rent, mortgage interest, internet/utility bills, a new computer monitor, desk, or even an ergonomic office chair. Just be aware the deduction may not cover all of your 2020 work expenses 100%.

The exact rules vary from state to state, so check in with a local tax professional. You can also find your state’s government website complete with links to tax information explained in greater depth at the IRS.

WFH tax deductions companies can take—then reimburse you

Even if you’re a W-2 employee who can’t reap any tax benefits from a home office directly, there are still some ways you can save money—by asking your employer to take some tax breaks on your behalf, then reimbursing you.

“There is something called Section 139 where the employer can reimburse pandemic costs for employees, at their discretion, tax-free,” says Jackie Meyer, CPA and founder of The Concierge CPA and TaxPlanIQ. “You can ask for reimbursements or special stipends directly from your employer.”

Section 139 defines those expenses as “reasonable and necessary” costs incurred by employees due to the pandemic. This can include everything from costs associated with establishing a home office (buying a desk) to maintaining a home office (upgrading to a faster internet). These payments are fully deductible for companies, offering a win-win situation for both employer and employee.

You can also ask if your company would consider an “accountable plan” for the 2021 tax year. Here’s how an accountable plan works: Instead of being paid $50,000, your employer could pay you $45,000 in wages plus a $5,000 home office expense reimbursement, making your salary the same—while saving you on taxes.

Finally, business meals from restaurants (including takeout) may now be deductible under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020. While still subject to clarification by the Treasury and IRS, it seems that food and beverages provided by an employer for virtual or business meetings will be 100% deductible. An employer could also deduct food provided for employee virtual happy hours.

So this might be a way to get your employer to start covering more of your WFH food if you order in, says Meyer. Simply point out to your employer working meals are a great tax deduction for them, and ask them to put delivered meals on their tab.

Article by Margaret Heidenry

Should You Buy a Home or Keep Renting? How To Decide in 7 Steps

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It’s a big question with no easy answer: Should you keep renting, or is it time to think about buying a home?

One of the major benefits of being a homeowner is building equity with each mortgage payment, instead of putting money into your landlord’s pocket.

But that doesn’t mean buying is always the best choice—as a renter, you enjoy more flexibility and avoid many of the costs that come with homeownership.

“This is an extremely personal decision,” says David Parsons, broker/owner of Re/Max North Professionals in Burlington, VT. “For those that want the flexibility to move quickly, have no desire to maintain a property, or need to save up money before making a purchase, renting is worthy of strong consideration.”

But there’s more to consider. We understand the magnitude of your rent versus buy quandary, and we’re here to assist.

Here are seven questions to ponder to help decide what’s right for you.

1. Will you even qualify for a mortgage?

Unless you have enough money in the bank to buy a house with cash, you’ll need a mortgage. Before you get too deep in daydreaming about your new home, reach out to a lender to see if you qualify for a loan. They can also tell you how much of a mortgage you qualify for, which is determined in part by your debt-to-income ratio.

“Job stability, credit history, and savings are some of the important factors used when qualifying for a mortgage,” says Tim Ross, CEO of Ross Mortgage Corp. based in Troy, MI.

If you qualify for a mortgage, buying a home might be a good next step. If not, you should first spend some time shoring up your finances.

“Qualifying for financing is a critical part of the home-buying journey. So if you have challenges in this realm, renting may be a good alternative,” Ross says.

You can also use the realtor.com® rent vs. buy calculator to see if the cost of homeownership is actually a better deal than renting given your location and budget.

2. Can you afford the closing costs?

So you’ve saved up enough for a down payment—congratulations! But beware: If you want to buy, there are more upfront costs involved.

“Buying a home involves more money out of pocket than just the down payment,” says Michele D. Hammond, a Chase private-client home lending adviser. “Closing costs are used to pay for items such as appraisals, inspections, and much more. These can amount to up to 3% or more of the final purchase price.”

When you’re buying a home with a six-figure price tag, 3% or more can mean many thousands of dollars that you’ll need to pay upfront, in addition to your down payment.

3. Can you afford the neighborhood?

Some costs—such as the down payment, closing costs, home inspection and appraisal—are just the price of admission to homeownership. But other real estate expenses depend entirely on where you choose to buy.

“When considering the overall cost of homeownership, the price of insurance and property taxes will vary based on community and location,” Ross says.

You can check with your local tax office or assessor to confirm the property taxes in your area and calculate what you can expect to pay based on a home’s assessed value. Keep in mind that property taxes vary widely by state and city.

4. How long do you plan to stick around?

If you’re buying a home, you should plan to stay there at least two to three years if you don’t want to lose money, Ross says.

“Remember, there is a cost to buy and sell a home,” Ross says.

When you’re buying, you have closing costs and a down payment. When you’re selling, you’ll need to factor in the real estate sale commission, which is typically 6% of the sales price. Considering that homes appreciate from 4% to 5% a year, he says, you might need to live there for a few years to cover the cost of a sale.

“If you’re confident you’ll stay in place for five to 10 years or more, that’s when you’ll find the prospect for meaningful wealth creation,” Ross says.

If you’re not sure you can commit to a home for at least 24 months, Ross recommends renting and setting aside any money you’ve saved for a down payment and closing costs. It’s better to save that money in the meantime and have it available when you’re ready to buy a home.

5. How important is the freedom to renovate?

If you’ve got the itch to tear down walls, try your hand at tiling, or experiment with a bold new wallpaper, you’re better off buying than renting (unless you have a very open-minded landlord). Owning a home gives you the freedom to renovate and decorate to your heart’s content.

“For those who greatly value the concept of ownership or plan on putting sweat equity into a property, ownership may be a better path,” says Rich Gardner, broker/owner of Re/Max North Professionals in Burlington, VT.

6. Are you up for the maintenance?

One major perk of being a renter is that your landlord is likely responsible for most of the maintenance and chores that homeowners have to deal with.

“When one goes from renting to owning, they are responsible for maintaining the property, which can be more expensive than many realize,” Hammond says.

From standard upkeep like replacing smoke detectors and shoveling snow to major issues like pipes bursting and foundation problems, homeownership comes with a long to-do list, and the maintenance can be as costly as it is time-consuming.

7. Are you comfortable with some market volatility?

The real estate market is hot right now, but it’s not guaranteed to stay that way.

“The housing market fluctuates, and although it has historically been an excellent investment in the United States, house prices do go down sometimes,” Parsons says.

“If you’re uncomfortable weathering inevitable ups and downs of any market, renting may provide more peace of mind,” he adds.

Article by Lauren Sieben

How to Dispute Medical Bill Errors

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Scrutinizing a bill from your health care provider or insurer is probably one of the last things you want to do after getting out of the hospital, but it can pay off.

Medical bill errors should be corrected so that you don’t have to pay for a service you didn’t receive, for example, or for medication that was ordered for you but you didn’t use while in the hospital, among other potential errors.

Here are some ways to dispute medical bill errors so that your insurance company doesn’t overcharge you:

Get an itemized bill.
Some medical providers may only send a “bottom line invoice” with a total amount due. Ask for an itemized bill that fully explains the charges. If you’re unsure what a charge is for, ask the provider.

Document and compare.
You or a family member should document what medicines you received and when during your hospital stay. It will help you dispute any unnecessary charges.

Once you have an itemized bill, compare it to the explanation of benefits from your insurance company or your medical chart. The explanation of benefits is sent to you by your insurer, and hopefully you’ve kept it. It may charge for a chart, which should match the services listed on the bill.

Notify the biller, then others for help.
Any errors you find should first be taken up with the healthcare provider’s billing department. It may audit the bill, asking you to provide evidence or documents to back your claim.

If it won’t correct the bill, ask your insurance company for help. You can also file a complaint with the state medical board or hire an attorney.

You can also hire a patient advocate who works on billing disputes. Such services include HealthCPA and Medical Bill & Claim Resolution. They can appeal erroneously denied charges and guide you through your insurance plan’s appeal process.

Companies such as Simplee offer free online services to gather your medical bills and insurance payments so its software can find if there are any mistakes.

Follow up.
Lastly, when you appeal a bill or are told a problem is being fixed, follow up with a phone call or letter to ensure it has been resolved. Upon first contact, ask for an estimate of how long it will take to fix the issue, and contact them on that date.

If you don’t understand something, ask. It’s your right as a patient to be involved in your billing just as you’re involved in your medical care.

Don’t Get Zapped by These Electrical Risks Inside and Outside the Home

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Pretty much everyone over the age of 5 knows never to stick their fingers in an outlet or poke a fork into a toaster, but beyond that, most of us don’t really expect to suffer a serious electrical shock at home. But there’s no doubt those risks exist, and it’s important to be aware of electrical hazards both indoors and outside.

Each year, more than 300 Americans die by electrocution, while thousands more experience nonfatal electric shock and burn injuries, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a nonprofit organization in Rosslyn, VA, that promotes electrical safety at home and in the workplace.

Here are some of the most common electrical hazards and how to prevent them.

Understand electrical shock versus electrocution

It’s common to use these terms interchangeably, but there is a life-and-death difference between them, says ESFI President Brett Brenner.

“When you say ‘electrocuted,’ that means it’s fatal,” explains Brenner. “But you can be shocked or burned in many ways. People don’t realize that electricity is uniquely dangerous; it can really hurt you.”

Levels of shock depend on the energy power, he adds. For instance, 120-volt outlets are the norm in North America. If you touch a wire, it will cause a tingling sensation in your hand, but it probably won’t hurt you. But with 240 volts or higher, the situation can become more dangerous.

“Depending on how much energy is in the environment or the device you’re touching, that will cause some people’s bodies to lock up,” Brenner says. “Electricity can stop your heart or mess with signals to your brain. You can’t let go, because you can’t control your muscles anymore. That’s usually when you get electrocuted.”

Don’t overload or overuse extension cords

Extension cords are convenient, but many homeowners use them improperly, says Brenner.

“People think they last forever—they plug them in and forget them. But extension cords are only intended for temporary use, which means under 30 days,” cautions Brenner.

Depending on the amount of energy used, extension cords can heat up and deteriorate, he adds, so avoid running them behind sofas, underneath beds, or, worse, inside walls—which can be a fire hazard if you drive a nail through drywall and accidentally pierce that wire.

Power strips, on the other hand, don’t typically have a long cord and are more robust, says Brenner. But that doesn’t mean you can run multiple extension cords off a power strip and leave that plugged in, he warns.

Bradley Beck, owner of Alto Home Inspection in Buffalo, NY, recently found three 20-foot extension cords strung together and hard-wired to an electric garage door opener.

“They’d mounted it to the ceiling and plugged into an outlet. Another homeowner did the same thing for a wood-burning stove with a fan built in,” says Beck.

Bottom line: If you need another outlet, call a licensed electrician and get one permanently wired and installed properly.

Know the difference between grounded and ungrounded outlets

One of the most common electrical hazards Beck sees are ungrounded outlets. Grounding wires protects us from getting shocked.

“Ungrounded outlets pose a big risk, because certain equipment such as lamps can have wiring problems. If they do, the human body acts as a path for electricity instead of the grounding wire,” he explains.

Beck also finds three-prong outlets that aren’t actually grounded—a modern electrical plate hides the old setup behind the wall. He suggests spending a few dollars on an outlet tester, which can be found at most home centers.

“They have indicators that tell you if the outlet is wired correctly, and if there’s an open ground or missing ground,” says Beck.

You may have noticed that your bathroom or kitchen outlets near the sink have ground-fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs. These outlets detect and prevent excess voltage by shutting themselves down. GFCIs can wear out over time, and Beck notes that most outlet testers also have a GFCI testing function.

Save your DIY skills for something else

Beck has seen lots of shoddy electrical repairs—often done by DIYers or local handymen—including reverse outlet wiring, where red and black wires were crossed instead of being paired.

“That could lead to metal objects or lamps being electrified, which is super dangerous,” says Beck.

Or you might think you’re being safe when installing a ceiling fan, but accidents can happen. If you switch off a breaker, tell everyone in your household so that nobody turns it back on, which can lead to your getting shocked.

And if you live in an older home with two-prong electrical outlets, don’t assume you can snap off the grounding pin from a three-prong plug.

“People assume that because you can plug it in, you should, and that’s just not the case,” says Brenner.

That’s true even if you’ve done it before.

“If you plug something into the wall and nothing’s ever happened, don’t assume that the next time you do it, nothing’s going to happen again,” he says.

One chore you can (and should) handle: replacing missing covers on electrical panels, outlets, and switches.

“When covers are missing, that invites little fingers to get in there, and that’s a big problem. It’s an easy and cheap fix to replace them,” says Beck.

Be extra careful around overhead power lines outside

Overhead power lines might be out of sight, but keep them top of mind so you don’t accidentally pull one down.

“When carrying things like ladders, people could run into power lines,” explains Brenner. “If you do, you’re dealing with a lot of energy and, usually, it’s a fatal electrocution.”

If you hear a loud noise outside and smell smoke, or you suspect wires have fallen down on your property, don’t investigate yourself; call the utility or fire department. Simply walking through your lawn near a live wire can be deadly, says Brenner.

“With power lines, if you are within 10 feet or so, the electricity can actually jump to you. Electricity is looking for the easiest path to ground possible, and you become the conduit,” he explains.

Even touching someone while they’re in contact with a live wire can electrocute you, he adds. “Electricity is unique because you can’t smell it, taste it, or see it, so it’s typical for one person to unfortunately get killed, and then the second person coming in to help also gets hurt or killed.”

And don’t ever handle the fat service entrance cable that goes from your electric meter to the utility, cautions Beck.

“Those were used for homes built in the 1960s and early ’70s, and were made of cloth,” he explains. “Cables of that era wear down, and I’ve seen the conductors inside of the cable exposed and visible. If someone were to grab it, they could potentially be shocked.”

Use common sense with outdoor electrical use

Often when the weather is nice, people want to be able to use electricity outside, for lighting and other amenities. But if anything, there are more risks.

“If you run an extension cord outside that comes in contact with the water, you can get what’s called ‘electrical shock drowning.’ There’s a current in the water, so when you jump in, your body locks up. You can’t swim, and you can drown,” says Brenner.

Beck cautions against another huge no-no.

“I’ve seen very long chains of extension cords for decorative lights on patios and decks—even over a pool or hot tub, which is megadangerous,” he says.

Just as you would indoors, make sure to have a licensed electrician set up proper electrical outlets for your outdoor needs.

Be on the lookout for abandoned wiring

Beck has seen live wires sticking out of a house that were still connected to a breaker, or forgotten wires sticking out of the ground from a dismantled hot tub or outdoor lights.

Take a look around the perimeter of your home, and if you see any abandoned wiring, call in an electrician to take care of it. Never touch it yourself, says Beck.

Many electrical injuries and deaths can be prevented by following basic safety practices. The ESFI has many helpful resources and checklists that will help homeowners understand how to use electricity properly.

Article by Wendy Helfenbaum

Why Your Credit Karma Score May Be Higher Than Your FICO Score

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Can you actually trust the credit scores provided by Credit Karma?

That’s the question many Twitter users have been asking, after scores of tweets about the personal-finance management company went viral. Many of these tweets centered on a common theme — that the credit scores Credit Karma presents are higher than what lenders see.

One Twitter user compared Credit Karma to “the enabling friend that sugar coats everything,” while others accused the company of lying.

Of course, not everyone had this exact experience. Some people noted that their score on Credit Karma was actually lower than the score provided to them by their credit-card company. How can this be?

It’s a common misconception that there is one, singular credit score for each consumer. “Most people would seriously be stunned if they knew just how many credit scores there are,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree.

In fact, there are two broad categories of credit scores: FICO scores and the VantageScore. Of the two, FICO is the more famous — it was created by a company originally known as Fair, Isaac and Co. in the 1950s. The base FICO score ranges from 300 to 850, although industry-specific scores can range from 250 to 900. Based on where a consumer falls in that range they will be considered to poor to exceptional credit, with higher numbers representing better credit.

VantageScore was created by the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — as a competitor to FICO in 2006. While it uses a different algorithm than FICO, the information used to produce the score is the same. That’s because both FICO and VantageScore rely on consumer data from the credit bureau to produce their scores. Also like FICO, the VantageScore uses the same range, from 300 to 850, to gauge a person’s creditworthiness.

But it gets even more complicated than that. There’s not one single FICO score or VantageScore — there are multiple versions of each that have been released over the years. It can help to think of these scores like computers, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

“Some people have PCs and others have Macs,” Rossman said. “And even within PCs, for example, you might be running Windows 10 or Windows 8 or Windows 7, etc.”

Over the years, both credit-scoring firms have released new iterations of their scores in an effort to provide a more accurate, holistic picture of a consumer’s financial behavior.

Last year, FICO released two new credit scores, the FICO Score 10 and the FICO Score 10 T. Among the changes made to these new models were a different approach to weighting personal loans and the incorporation of so-called “trended data” to provide a sense of a borrower’s financial trajectory.


‘The credit score you see on financial tools and apps is what’s considered an ‘educational’ score.’

Sara Rathner, credit card expert at NerdWallet


Lenders don’t necessarily use the latest versions of credit scores. For instance, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has specific credit-score requirements for the loans that Fannie Mae and Freddie Macback. For these mortgages, lenders can only use FICO Models 2, 4 and 5. Plus, lenders will look at more than just your credit score — they’ll dig into your credit report to identify potential red flags or find explanations for why your score may have dropped or risen.

“Mortgage lenders usually pull FICO scores from all three bureaus — and like the Olympics, they throw out the highest and lowest scores,” Rossman said. “A credit card or auto lender, on the other hand, might just check one. Which bureau and which version can vary considerably.”

Credit Karma uses VantageScore 3.0 for the information it provides to its users, a company spokesperson said.

“The credit score you see on financial tools and apps is what’s considered an ‘educational’ score,” said Sara Rathner, credit-card expert at personal-finance website NerdWallet. “It’ll give you a general sense of where you stand, but don’t take it as gospel.”

As for why credit scores vary from version to version or lender to lender, that comes down to the underlying data used to produce the scores. The FICO Model 2 used in mortgage lending, for instance is produced based on the data from Experian that is sent by lenders on how much debt borrowers owe, whether they’re paying it on time, etc. But lenders don’t always report that information to all three bureaus.

Newer versions of FICO and VantageScore will also incorporate data such as people’s history of paying their rent and utilities on time. Again, not all landlords and utility providers send that information to the bureaus.

“The difference in scores can be really frustrating, because a lower than expected score can mean a more expensive loan,” Rathner said. “This is definitely something that makes it harder for consumers to make informed financial decisions.”

The good news is that the efforts people make to improve their scores should improve their scores across the board. Making on-time payments and avoiding maxing out your limit on credit cards are great starting points.

And in cases where two scores do differ substantially, that could be an indication of an error on your credit report. Consumers can get one free copy of their credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every year to keep tabs on what lenders are seeing. “A quick decrease for no apparent reason can be a sign of identity theft and is important to address in a hurry,” Schulz said.

Article by Jacob Passy

6 Situations When Breaking Your Lease Makes Sense

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While breaking a lease is generally a big no-no, sometimes there’s no way around it. Life happens, and certain circumstances might warrant getting out of your rental situation.

Breaking a lease can be complicated, and it can be costly,” says Dylan Lenz, CEO of Naborly, a modern-day property management software for landlords. “The lease agreement from your landlord and local regulations will have specific details around how to break your lease, what penalties you’ll be tied to, and which situations allow for it.”

Each state and city has its own set of regulations for terminating a lease, so do some research before moving forward. You should also read your rental agreement to see what it says about breaking your lease. Doing so will help you avoid a slew of issues, including a lawsuit by your landlord to recover outstanding rent, debt collectors, damaged credit, and problems finding new housing.

Is it really time to break your lease? Here are six situations where it may make sense to do so.

1. New job

Yes, relocating for a job is a fully legit reason to break a lease. But tenants should be well-prepared before they talk to their landlord.

Since you’re still legally on the hook for rent payments lasting the duration of your lease, broker Bill Kowalczukof Warburg Realty in New York says to minimize the chance of losing too much money,  tenants should try to find a new tenant on their own. And they should do so before telling their landlord they need to break the lease.

“I just had this happen with a property I represent,” says Kowalczuk. “The existing tenant found someone new to move in, who would pay $150 less than what they were paying. So the tenant who was leaving made up the difference for the amount of time left on her lease. Everyone was happy.”

2. Financial hardship

A significant change in your financial situation is reason enough to break a lease. The hope is that your landlord will take your circumstances into account and won’t charge you a penalty for breaking the lease—so documenting evidence of your hardship is important.

“The pandemic has rocked our economy, and we’re seeing a surge of layoffs and furloughs,” says Lenz. “People are in difficult financial situations right now and are making big decisions because of it, like moving back home or opting for a small, cheaper apartment.”

If you’ve experienced financial difficulties from unexpected job loss, you can always try to negotiate a deferred rent payment plan with your landlord instead of breaking your lease.

3. Bad landlord or unit

Several states have constructive eviction laws that allow renters to move out without penalty when a landlord does not provide habitable housing.

One example: “A tenant is entitled to break a lease where a unit is unwarranted (illegal) and does not have a certificate of occupancy on file with the city,” says Joseph Tobener, a tenant rights lawyer at Tobener Ravenscroft in San Jose, CA.

Tobener says another justified reason to break a lease is the landlord hasn’t provided repairs and the broken amenities are substantially interfering with the tenancy.

“To break a lease for substantial interference, the issues have to be serious, like no heat, sewage overflows, constant late-night noise issues, or cockroaches and rodents,” says Tobener.

4. Buying a new house

You’ve dreamed of owning a house since forever, but you’re stuck in a lease. Still, the promise of homeownership may be too good to pass up (hello, low interest mortgage rates!) and you have to break your lease. So what penalties would you face?

If you are thinking of buying a home, keep the lines of communication open with your landlord. You may be able to work out a cash payment to buy your way out of a lease. Some leases have “home-buying” clauses, which allow tenants to jump ship early for a small fee.

5. Divorce

Divorce can get sticky, especially when it comes to working out all the details, including living arrangements.

If living together to ride out the lease isn’t an option, experts suggest working with a legal representative to draft and sign a lease transfer agreement that places all the tenant obligations, such as full payment of outstanding rent, to the spouse still residing in the unit.

6. Military assignment

You just moved into a sweet pad, but three weeks later you receive orders for a new military assignment. Fortunately, a federal law called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is on your side and allows active-duty members to break their lease for official military orders.

Active-duty members must provide their landlord with a written notice of their plans to vacate and a copy of their official military orders for a change of station for more than 90 days. They will typically have to continue to pay rent for the remainder of the month and the next month.

“The most important steps to take are to be aware of what’s in your lease agreement and spark an open line of communication with your landlord early to get the best result for both parties,” says Lenz.

Article by Anayat Durrani 

7 Tricks To Turn a Tiny Bedroom Into a Spacious, Relaxing (and Romantic) Retreat

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We’d all love a spacious boudoir fit for lounging in all day long, but let’s get real: This is just a pipe dream for many homeowners. Instead, we’re banging our shins as we struggle to straighten the sheets.

But you don’t need to feel constricted by the actual physical size of a bedroom. In fact, there are plenty of ways to create the illusion of more space—all by focusing on the right colors, lighting, and accessories.

For starters, make sure you’ve decluttered, since too much stuff is probably the No. 1 culprit when it comes to cramped sleeping quarters.

“All the square footage in the world won’t make a difference if your space is crowded with stuff, so keep your room picked up,” notes Marty Basher, a home design and organization expert with Modular Closets.

Multiple-use furniture and bare, spare windows are two more smart ways to create the feeling of a larger bedroom, say design pros. For more help, check out these seven ways to create an airy, open (and even romantic) oasis where you sleep.

1. Float the bedside tables

You have to edit your furniture ruthlessly in a cramped bedroom, so start by removing the bedside tables (they’re usually a big source of clutter anyway). If you can’t live without a special spot for tissues, lip balm, and your books, consider small floating shelves on the wall that act as bedside tables.

“There are also headboards on the market that come with drawers on either end, which can be used as bedside pieces, too,” notes Karen Gray-Plaisted of Design Solutions KGP.

Photo by Luca Andrisani Architect

2. Fake a headboard

A bulky headboard or bed frame takes up precious real estate. The fix: Mimic a real headboard with a row of pillows, a design painted on the wall, or stitched fabric.

Photo by Cherie Marcel

3. Use light paint and linens

The best paint colors for a smallish bedroom are light neutrals and whites, as these paler shades tend to make spaces look bigger, shares Basher.

The same goes for your bedspread and sheets.

“The lighter and more monochromatic the linens, the better for enlarging a space,” says Jaime Novak, an organizing pro and author of “Keep This Toss That.”

Photo by Hendricks Churchill

4. Add storage and clean lines

Small furniture with clean lines is a critical consideration when outfitting a tiny bedroom. (Banish anything overstuffed!) Chairs and other pieces made from Lucite are also worth a look as they take up less visual space and give the feeling of a more open room, notes Basher.

“Stay low to the ground with your furniture—and don’t pick a tall chair, as it’ll make the space feel smaller,” says Novak.

And try to go the extra step and consider pieces that have integrated storage. (Think ottomans and benches that open up to hold sweaters, extra pillows, and blankets.)

Photo by Prepac Furniture

5. Expose the windows

Let there be light!

“Leaving windows uncovered lets more natural light in and creates an airy, spacious feeling,” points out Basher.

Can’t ditch your drapes? Try sheer panels—you’ll still have some coverage around your windows while allowing some brightness in.

Photo by Woodmeister Master Builders

6. Mount sconces

Floor lamps take up floor space, and table lamps may sport wide shades that also fill a small room. The pros recommend that you skew higher with lighting by affixing sconces to the wall.

“The ones with swinging arms are perfect because they can be adjusted for reading, though pendants lights work well, too,” explains Basher.

Photo by MMO Designs

7. Play with art and mirrors

A wall gallery may seem like a pretty addition to your bedroom, but all those frames break up the space and tend to make it look cramped, says Novak.

“Opt for a large piece of art over the bed,” she suggests. And look to mirrors, which have long been used by decorators to aid a room with space woes.

“Mirrors let your wall hangings, furniture, and accessories reflect back into the room, and any natural light you get is also played off this glass, making the room brighter and lighter—and somehow bigger,” says Basher.

Photo by Rethink Design Studio
Article by Jennifer Kelly Geddes

Turkey Biscuit Stew

Turkey Biscuit Stew Recipe photo by Taste of Home

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup butter, cubed
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 can (10-1/2 ounces) condensed chicken broth, undiluted
  • 3/4 cup 2% milk
  • 2 cups cubed cooked turkey
  • 1 cup cooked peas
  • 1 cup cooked whole baby carrots
  • 1 tube (16.3 ounces) large refrigerated buttermilk biscuits

Directions

  • 1. In a 10-in. ovenproof skillet, saute onion in butter until tender. Stir in the flour, salt and pepper until blended. Gradually add broth and milk. Bring to a boil. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly, about 2 minutes. Add the turkey, peas and carrots; heat through. Separate biscuits and arrange over the stew.
  • 2. Bake at 375° until biscuits are golden brown, 20-25 minutes.

© 2021 RDA Enthusiast Brands, LLC

Did You Skip Mortgage Payments Last Year? Here’s What That Means for Your Taxes

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Amid the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans opted to pause their monthly mortgage payments. That choice could have implications for their taxes this year — and in years to come.

In March, as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the job market and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs as businesses shuttered, federal lawmakers and regulators took the extraordinary step of extending forbearance to mortgage borrowers. Being in forbearance allowed homeowners to pause making their monthly mortgage payments — originally, borrowers could request up to 12 months of forbearance, though that was recently extended to 15 months.

The measure was taken to prevent homeowners from going into default and foreclosure. So far the effort has been successful. In June, the number of borrowers in forbearance reached its peak, at more than 4 million. Nowadays, 2.7 million borrowers are still in forbearance, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Whether you’re still in forbearance now or resumed making monthly payments at some point in the past year, there could be implications for your taxes, especially if you plan to claim the mortgage interest deduction.

How forbearance affects your ability to deduct interest

Forbearance is not a new concept — the strategy is commonly used in the wake of a natural disaster to help affected homeowners get back on their feet financially. But usually forbearance requests are fairly isolated incidents, unlike what’s occurred this year.

“There’s not a lot of information out there that addresses interest during forbearance and how to treat it for tax purposes,” said Paul Axberg, a certified public accountant and president of Axberg Wealth Management, a financial planning firm based in Phoenix, Ariz. (The Internal Revenue Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Individuals typically use what’s called a cash-basis method of accounting, said Ryan Losi, a certified public account and executive vice president of Piascik, an accounting firm based in Virginia. That means you report income if you receive income. (Whereas businesses report income when they’ve earned it for doing a service, even if they have yet to receive payment.)

“The same goes on the flip side with a deduction,” Losi said. In other words, you can only deduct mortgage interest if you paid interest.

What borrowers in this position need to look out for is their Form 1098. This is the mortgage interest statement provided to borrowers by their lenders or servicers for tax purposes. The document will list how much they paid in interest for the previous year, which they can use to calculate whether they should take the deduction.

In many cases, borrowers entered into forbearance as a precautionary measure but continued making monthly payments. These individuals should pay especially close attention to their Form 1098 to ensure the amount listed is accurate. If it’s not, though, don’t just go ahead and report to the IRS what you think the number should be.

“If you put on your tax return a higher mortgage interest deduction than what’s on the 1098, that could easily them to get an automated letter from the IRS saying the numbers don’t match,” Axberg said.

Tax experts advised contacting one’s lender or mortgage servicer if the information on the Form 1098 appears to be incorrect for any reason.

Ultimately, borrowers who requested forbearance will likely have paid less on mortgage interest last year. That could make the mortgage interest deduction pointless for many people, if it wasn’t already. “With the increased standard deduction due to tax reform, this may not affect you because you weren’t going to itemize anyway,” said Tim Todd, an accountant and a member of the American Institute of CPAs Financial Literacy Commission.

Future considerations

With millions of Americans still in forbearance and not yet making payments, they should pay close attention to what happens when they exit forbearance. They will generally have a range of options to repay the debt they owe: as a lump sum, on a payment plan or at the end of their loan’s payment period.

Borrowers in severe distress may be able to modify their loans, to adjust the interest rate or other factors to make monthly payments less onerous. Some borrowers might even find themselves in a situation where they have some of their debt forgiven.

“Let’s say you go a year in forbearance, you’re say you can’t pay this back, and you get into some adjustment of the notes, then that’s when you can have cancellation of debt income,” Losi said.

Cancelled debt can be taxable — and when it is, it’s sometimes taxed like ordinary income, Losi said.

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 excludes any discharged debt up to $2 million for people’s primary residences. As a result, most homeowners won’t need to worry about taxes on that forgiven debt. If for some reason they do, they will receive a Form 1099-C from the lender displaying the amount of canceled debt, which is then added to the borrower’s gross income when they report their taxes.

And if a homeowner ultimately loses their home to foreclosure or sells the home to the lender down the road, the situation is considered a sale for tax purposes. Capital gains or losses may apply, but borrowers in this scenario need not worry about forgiven debt.

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