What Is an Appraisal Waiver? A Way To Save Cash on a Refinance

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When interest rates dropped to record lows in March, I decided to refinance the mortgage on my house. Yet after applying for a refi with my lender, it sent me an email that left me scratching my head.

“Great news,” it announced. “You’re eligible for an appraisal waiver!”

Nice. So what is an appraisal waiver?

Mystified, I dove in to Google to figure out exactly what this meant for me. For one, my lender assured me, it meant keeping $625 in my pocket that I would have otherwise spent on an in-person appraisal.

But should I accept? I wondered if there was a catch.

So, I did some digging, and learned more about this option, the pros and cons, and whether it’s a good idea based on your circumstances. Here’s the scoop on this home financing option.

What is an appraisal waiver?

When you’re buying or refinancing property, your lender typically engages an independent appraiser to visit your home, study it inside and out, analyze your neighborhood, and review nearby home sales among other factors.

Appraisers help lenders better understand the risks of helping you buy or refinance a particular house. After all, your home serves as the loan’s collateral, meaning that if you stop paying your mortgage, your lender can foreclose on your property, take it over, and then sell the place to recoup its losses.

With an appraisal waiver, however, also known as a property inspection waiver, the loan is underwritten without hiring an appraiser. Instead, the lender assesses the property.

Appraisal waivers were once rare, but the coronavirus pandemic has made them more popular. After all, offering an appraisal waiver means lenders can skip sending an appraiser—a living, breathing human being—into a home. In the era of COVID-19, an appraisal waiver is a safer, healthier option that helps limit the potential spread of the virus, says Kevin Leibowitz, mortgage broker and founder of Grayton Mortgage.

COVID-19 aside, appraisal waivers can also help streamline and speed up the loan approval process. This can be a huge relief in areas where professional appraisers are hard to find, which could cause a loan closing to drag on for much longer than necessary.

An appraisal waiver also helps save money. Independent home appraisals range in price from $200 to $750, depending on where you live. And since the borrower typically pays the appraisal fee, that’s extra cash in their pocket.

Who is eligible for an appraisal waiver?

Appraisal waivers aren’t an option for every loan. Generally speaking, your loan may be eligible if you’re buying or refinancing a single-family home or condo (even if it’s a second home or investment property). But eligibility is also dependent on how much you’re borrowing in contrast to the value of the property (often referred to as loan-to-value ratio). Manufactured homes, co-ops, multiunit properties, and new construction homes generally aren’t eligible.

Because mortgage rates have been at or near record lows for quite some time, and because appraisal waivers are also relatively new, they are most commonly granted during a refinance. However, an appraisal waiver also applies to a home purchase.

So, can a property be accurately assessed without an independent, in-person appraisal? Experts are somewhat divided on this issue, although appraisal technology has gotten fairly sophisticated.

“In a waiver situation, they truly have it down to a science,” says Jeremy Sopko, CEO of Nations Lending.

How to apply for an appraisal waiver

Want to find out if you’re eligible for an appraisal waiver? Just ask your lender. From there, your lender will typically submit some information about your property to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, institutions that buy mortgages from banks and lenders.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have special underwriting technology that helps lenders meet these two institutions’ loan requirements. This technology evaluates properties by using data from millions of home sales. It analyzes your loan, then produces a simple yes or no for appraisal waiver eligibility. If it’s a yes, the lender lets you know, and you decide whether to take advantage of this option.

But even if you’re eligible for an appraisal waiver, that doesn’t mean you have to take it. Since it’s your home and you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can choose to accept the waiver or ask your lender to order an in-person appraisal.

Article by Sarah Kuta

6 Home Upgrades Buyers Want in the COVID-19 Era

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If you imagined 2020 was the year you would finally list your house for sale, you may have hit the brakes on those plans when the coronavirus pandemic arrived.

But now, we’re more than six months into the COVID-19 era with no clear end in sight. As many people continue working and logging in to school from home, the real estate market is again heating up with buyers eager to upgrade to a new home.

So stop putting it off: Now is the time to step on the gas in preparing your home to sell. We talked with experts to learn which home improvements will hit the right note with buyers during the pandemic (and beyond).

1. Upgrade your outdoor space

Photo by Paradise Restored Landscaping & Exterior Design

Most of us are suffering from an acute case of cabin fever these days. It’s little wonder that outdoor space has become more important than ever to prospective buyers.

“Even pools are becoming more popular in areas where they weren’t before,” says Bill Walker, chief operating officer of Kukun, a web resource for home improvements.

That doesn’t mean you need to splurge on a new in-ground pool; even a minor landscaping refresh can make a big difference and increase curb appeal. Depending on your budget and your neighborhood, you might also consider adding an in-ground fire pit or outdoor kitchen to maximize your outdoor space.

If you live in a cooler climate, extending the usability of your outdoor space will be a big draw for buyers.

“Get a low-cost outdoor heater and area rug to stage the space as an outdoor living room,” says Francie Malina, a real estate agent in New York’s Westchester County.

2. Create a functional home office or classroom

Photo by mercer INTERIOR

Many workers aren’t heading back to the office until 2021 or even later, which means home office space is at a premium, along with space for kids to log in to their virtual classrooms.

“People need a dedicated space for multiple people to be able to be on calls at the same time,” says Walker, who currently works at home alongside his wife, and his kids attending school virtually. “It definitely creates challenges when we all need to be on calls and need space to work.

Even if you don’t need two home offices or a remote learning station for your own family, consider staging your home to show the possibilities for buyers.

“Staging a guest bedroom as a home office or classroom is a good idea,” Walker says. “The potential buyer can see the room being used in a versatile way and visualize it for themselves.”

Plus, most of us host guests in our guest rooms for less than a month per year, Walker says—and probably even less during the pandemic.

3. Add separation of space

Open floor plans are so 2019.

“Open floor plans are losing a bit of luster,” Malina says. “Homeowners are looking for distinct spaces for family members to work or study.”

If your space isn’t well-segmented, you may want to create separate spaces by adding barn doors or pocket doors—or even room dividers for a quick and easy solution.

Having distinct rooms helps to minimize volume from other people’s activities, and can also create a different feeling in each part of the house.

“As people are spending more time at home, they want room and different environments to not feel stuck inside,” Walker says.

4. Add space for a home gym

Photo by ColleenRoach

Many people are forgoing the gym during the pandemic, preferring to work up a sweat from home to minimize risks of coronavirus transmission. That means people are looking for space to house gym equipment, from yoga mats to treadmills and stationary bikes.

Your home may not have the space for a fully equipped home gym, but you can still carve out a corner where home buyers will be able to picture their future at-home HIIT workouts or yoga flows.

5. Give your in-law suite a makeover

If you have a guest house, this can be an attractive feature for buyers right now—especially those with multigenerational households, or people looking for a potential source of rental income.

“With people bringing elderly family members home, [additional dwelling units] are a good option, especially if there is a kitchen and bathroom,” Walker says. “Even if this space isn’t used for personal reasons, it can be an investment property.”

6. Spruce up the laundry room

Photo by Plain and Posh

Concerns about cleanliness and hygiene have been at an all-time high during the pandemic, which means “laundry rooms are more important than pre-COVID,” Malina says.

People are doing laundry more often after running errands, and many of us have become more diligent about washing our bed linens. Plus, who couldn’t use more room for ironing, folding, and hang-drying clothes?

“Having a dedicated space to do laundry is a wonderful luxury, and buyers often want the space to be beautiful like the rest of their homes,” Malina says.

Article by Lauren Sieben

Fun Ways to Work Out With Your Dog

Your Essential Fall Maintenance Checklist: 8 Things You Really Should Do Before the First Frost

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Ah, fall: The nip of the first chill in the air. The colorful foliage. The pumpkin spice lattes. The pumpkin spice everything.

Oh yeah, and the long list of home maintenance tasks awaiting you at the start of the season.

We hate to intrude on your fall bliss, but the postsummer months are a critical time for knocking out routine home maintenance to keep your household running smoothly into winter. Luckily, many of these tasks are easy DIY projects, with options to call in the pros if you prefer.

We asked home experts which items should be at the top of your to-do list this fall. Here are the musts to tackle before the falling leaves turn to ice and snow.

1. Check windows and doors for air leaks

Lower temperatures mean higher thermostat settings, and anyone in a cold climate knows the pain of opening a gas bill in the dead of winter.

To keep cold air out and utility bills in check, Mike Bidwell, president and CEO of Neighborly, suggests checking all of your windows and doors for air leaks.

DIY: If your issues are minor, a few low-budget options to fix leaky doors and windows include caulking around gaps, adding or updating the weatherstripping, and using foam sealant.

Call in the pros: If you have major gaps or just want peace of mind that leaks are sealed properly, call an expert.

“Depending on the size of the leak and the number of leaks identified, the cost will vary from a minimum-charge service call to something more if more extensive work is called for,” Bidwell says.

Window seal repairs can run between $70 and $120—still a bargain compared with the cost of replacing an entire window or door.

2. Clean the chimney

If you have a fireplace, fall is a great time to give it a thorough cleaning and inspection, says Craig Gjelsten, vice president of Rainbow International Restoration.

Maintaining a clean fireplace is the simplest and best way to remove creosote, a byproduct of wood combustion that contains tar and toxins.

“Eliminating this from the chimney liner and the smoke box reduces the risk of a fire,” he says.

DIY: If you’ve been keeping up with cleaning your chimney on a yearly basis, you can handle this task on your own, “as long as [you] feel capable of using an extension ladder to get to the roof and scrub the chimney,” Gjelsten says.

Call in the pros: “If you haven’t cleaned the chimney in a long time, it is recommended that you call an expert to do a thorough clean,” Gjelsten says.

You can expect to spend anywhere from the low $100s to upward of $300, depending on where you live (and how fouled the chimney has become).

3. Schedule a furnace tuneup

Don’t wait until the first bitterly cold day to finally turn on your furnace. If you have any issues, you’ll want to know before the mercury drops and you find yourself shivering indoors.

“Homeowners should listen for strange noises, such as booming, clicking, and squealing, when they turn on their furnace for the fall season,” Bidwell adds. “They should also pay attention to odd odors coming from the furnace.”

If you notice anything unusual, call an HVAC professional right away.

DIY: Change your filter regularly and often.

“Every season, homeowners should replace the furnace filter,” Bidwell says. “They can also vacuum dust and debris from and around the furnace to help it operate like new.”

Call in the pros: Even if you change your filter regularly, it’s a good idea to schedule a furnace tuneup, Bidwell says.

HVAC pros can inspect and clean the air ducts, check and adjust the pilot light, lubricate the furnace bearings, and inspect and tighten fan belts and pulleys.

“The typical price for fall heating tuneups ranges from $89 to $159, but prices can vary by services needed and by region,” Bidwell says.

4. Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

It’s easy to forget about smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (unless a cooking disaster sets off the alarm—we’ve all been there).

“That’s why as we approach this time of year, it’s important to test these alarms and detectors, as well as replace those that are 10 or more years old,” Gjelsten says.

DIY: This is a quick and easy project most homeowners can handle on their own. Simply press and hold down the “test” button for a few seconds on each of your detectors.

“If working properly, these detectors will emit a loud ping or siren,” Gjelsten says. “Should the sound be weak or not there at all, you should replace the batteries and test the detector once more to ensure it’s working properly.”

5. Run ceiling fans in reverse

The hot, humid days of summer are officially in the rear-view mirror (in most parts of the country, at least).

“That’s why now is the perfect time to start thinking about reversing the direction [of] fans in the home to make the space warmer,” Gjelsten says.

Reversing the direction of your ceiling fans helps circulate warm air near the ceiling back into your living space. (Heat rises, remember!) This can cut your heating costs by as much as 10%, Gjelsten says.

DIY: All you need is a ladder or stool for this task—and make sure the fan is off. Then simply flip the switch that is commonly found on the side of the motor to change the fan’s direction.

6. Winterize your sprinkler system

It’s a good idea to winterize your outdoor irrigation system to prevent damage from freezing water. This process clears leftover water from the pipes in your irrigation system.

DIY: “Due to the need for high pressure to clear water out of the lines, winterizing sprinkler systems is not a typical DIY project,” Bidwell says.

But if you’re handy and you have the right equipment—including an air compressor—it’s possible to tackle this project on your own.

Call in the pros: In warmer climates, sprinkler winterization service averages between $50 and $70, Bidwell says. In areas where temperatures dip below freezing, the process is more intensive, so you can expect to pay more—generally between $70 and $140.

7. Disconnect and empty your garden hoses

Speaking of freezing water, “a frozen hose can cause the water inside the wall to freeze and burst,” Bidwell says.

Don’t let this happen to you, homeowner!

DIY: Disconnect your hose and let it drain on an angle. Once the hose is empty, coil it up and pack it away for the season.

8. Clean the gutters

Throughout the year, your gutters fill up with leaves, sticks, and other debris. Failing to clear this gunk from your gutters can mean rain and melting snow won’t be able to drain easily—potentially causing seepage and leaks into your home.

DIY: If you’re comfortable climbing on a ladder to clean your gutters, this is a DIY-friendly task,

“Using a bucket, gutter scoop, and heavy-duty gloves, you can remove any debris found in your gutters,” Gjelsten says.

Use a hose to wash away any remaining debris and to make sure the downspouts are working properly.

Call in the pros: If you’re not keen on climbing, you can call in a professional. The national average cost for gutter cleaning is around $157.

Article by Lauren Sieben

COZY AUTUMN WILD RICE SOUP

Gimme some oven by Ali

This Cozy Autumn Wild Rice Soup is full of hearty seasonal vegetables and wild rice (plus chicken, if you would like), it’s wonderfully creamy and comforting, and easy to make in the Instant Pot, Crock-Pot or on the stovetop.

For those days when you’re craving a cozy, creamy, comforting bowl of soup…I have the perfect new recipe for you.

It’s a riff on the classic chicken and wild rice soup of my childhood.  But in lieu of the chicken (which you’re still welcome to add if you’d like), I’ve loaded this soup up instead with lots and lots of seasonal veggies.  And added in some bolder savory seasonings.  And lightened it up a bit by using milk instead of heavy cream.

WILD RICE SOUP INGREDIENTS:

To make this Cozy Autumn Wild Rice Soup recipe, you will need:

  • Wild Rice: I used and loved 100% wild rice (affiliate link) in this recipe, not a wild rice blend.
  • Vegetable Stock: Or chicken stock, whatever you happen to have on hand.
  • Autumn Veggies: Sweet potato, carrots, celery, onion, baby bella mushrooms and garlic.
  • The “Bays”: Old Bay seasoning plus a bay leaf, to season our soup.  (Or see ideas below on different seasoning ideas.)
  • The Cream Sauce: Made from butter, flour and milk, which we will mix up at the end of the cooking time.  Or see options below for a gluten-free and/or vegan alternative.
  • Kale: I also added in lots of fresh kale at the end, or you could sub in baby spinach or collard greens.
  • Salt & Pepper: Don’t forget ’em!
Gimme some oven by Ali

HOW TO MAKE WILD RICE SOUP:

I have included detailed instructions below for how to make this wild rice soup recipe either in the Instant Pot (pressure cooker), Crock-Pot (slow cooker), or on the stovetop.  But here are the basics. 😉

  1. Cook the base of the soup: Whichever cooking method you choose, we will simmer the base soup ingredients (veggies, rice, broth, seasonings) until the rice is cooked and tender.
  2. Make your cream sauce: Then during the last 10 minutes that the soup is cooking, prepare your cream sauce in a separate saucepan.  Melt the butter, whisk in the flour, then stir in the milk and cook — stirring frequently so that the bottom does not burn — until thickened.  The sauce should be very thick.  (Or skip this whole step and add in a can of coconut milk instead, which is vegan and also incredibly delicious in this recipe.)
  3. Add in the cream sauce and kale: And stir to combine.  Then taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. And…
  4. Serve warm: Preferably with a nice hunk of crusty bread, or some oyster crackers, or whatever sounds good. 🙂

POSSIBLE VARIATIONS:

Want to mix things up a bit?  Feel free to:

  • Add chicken: You can either add pre-cooked/shredded chicken.  Or add a chicken breast (or two) to the pot and let it cook along with the rice and veggies, then remove and shred it once it has cooked through.
  • Add more veggies: There are so many other veggies that would be great in this soup too, like cauliflower, butternut squash, parsnips, bell peppers…whatever sounds good!
  • Use a different seasoning: If Old Bay seasoning isn’t your fave, feel free to use any other blends that you like, such as:
    • Italian seasoning
    • Cajun seasoning
    • Za’atar seasoning
  • Make it gluten-free: Feel free to use the vegan option below (it’s delicious!).  Or skip the roux (the butter/flour step) for the cream sauce, and just whisk 1.5 tablespoons gluten-free cornstarch into a saucepan of cold milk.  Heat the milk until it just barely reaches a simmer, whisking frequently, and the milk will thicken up.  Then add it to the soup.  As always, be sure to check that all of your other ingredients are certified gluten-free.
  • Make it vegan: Skip the cream sauce altogether and add in 1 (15-ounce) can of full-fat coconut milk instead.  To be honest, I love the coconut milk version even more than the dairy!
Recipe by Gimme some oven by Ali

How to Shop for a Mortgage: A Home Buyer’s Guide to the Right Type of Loan

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Are you a borrower with a down payment wondering how to shop for a mortgage? We know: Looking for loan products is not exactly what most people would think of as a fun shopping project. Still, your ability to sniff out a great mortgage rate is crucial to your financial well-being as a future homeowner, because the decision you make could stick with you for a very long time, maybe even 30 years. Gulp.

No pressure, right? All we’re trying to say is, it pays to learn how best to compare your mortgage options—which is where this latest installment in our Stress-Free Guide to Getting a Mortgage will come in handy.

How to shop for a mortgage

Like your most trusted shopping buddy, our guide on how to shop for a mortgage lender and a mortgage rate will show you how to hone your bargain-hunting skills and get the most for your money.

Let’s get started mortgage shopping, shall we?

Step 1. Shop for a mortgage that fits your needs

Ideally, you should start shopping for a mortgage three to six months before you plan to buy a home after you have a down payment. This lengthy lead time is important because you may have to invest time in boosting your credit score. You’ll need a credit score on your credit report of 760 or higher to qualify for the best mortgage rates, says Richard Redmond, mortgage broker at All California Mortgage in Larkspur and author of “Mortgages: The Insider’s Guide.” You’ll need a minimum credit scoring of around 660 on your credit report to qualify for any mortgage at all.

If your score isn’t up to par, mortgage lenders can tell you what you need to do to improve it. (They can also help you save for a larger down payment.) This could involve getting an error removed from your credit report and FICO score, which is a real possibility, given that one in four Americans reported spotting errors on their reports in a 2013 Federal Trade Commission survey.

Step 2. Find low mortgage interest rates

As you probably know, one of a borrower’s main goals while shopping around for a mortgage lender is to secure a low fixed interest rate on a home loan. The mortgage rates different lenders charge, after all, are basically a service fee charged by lenders and are not always apples-to-apples. The lower your mortgage rate, the less money you’ll pay back each monthly payment—and every quarter of a percent counts!

On a 30-year $200,000 mortgage with a 4% fixed rate, for instance, you’ll end up paying back not only that $200,000 loan amount in your monthly payment, but an extra $143,739 in interest over the life of the loan, by the time those 30 years are up. That massive mountain of money on your home loan will end up higher or lower depending on the mortgage interest rate you get. Shorter-term loans for 15 years mean you’ll pay less in interest. You may also be able to refinance your mortgage down the road with your mortgage company.

You can compare fixed rate interest mortgage rates at realtor.com/mortgage/rates, but keep in mind the rates listed here may not necessarily apply to you. What rates you qualify for depend on several factors from your debt-to income ratio to your credit score. Better (meaning higher) credit scores merit better (meaning lower) interest rates.

But there are exceptions. Some first-time buyers may have access to lower interest mortgage rates through the Federal Housing Administration. Mortgages through lenders like the government-backed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which are available to active or retired military personnel, enable borrowers to buy homes with lower interest rates than conventional loans as well. Buyers can also check out Freddie Mac, a government-owned company that funds banks so it can make new mortgage loans to homebuyers. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) also approves and insures FHA loans with mortgage lenders.

Step 3. Analyze your closing costs

A low mortgage interest rate and a nice down payment may win you bragging rights as a borrower, but this is hardly your only goal. That’s because mortgage quotes come with sizable closing costs, totaling an additional 2% to 7% of the sales price of your home. Some of these extra lender fees are nonnegotiable, such as state transfer taxes, but some fees are negotiable, says Katie Miller, vice president of mortgage lending at Navy Federal Credit Union.

As such, aim to meet with three mortgage lenders—which could be banks, credit unions, mortgage brokers, or any combination thereof—and get what’s called a good-faith estimate, which breaks down the mortgage’s terms, including the interest rate and fees. Your real estate agent can typically recommend different mortgage lenders.

Also find out from each home loan officer or mortgage broker what lender fees are government-regulated and what fees the lender prices—then haggle on the latter, says Sylvia Gutierrez, a mortgage loan officer in South Florida and author of “Mortgage Matters: Demystifying the Loan Approval Maze.”

If you don’t have a 20% down payment, you may have to get mortgage insurance, which will add to your monthly costs.

A caveat: When a mortgage lender processes your loan application, it runs a “hard inquiry” on your credit score, which can dock your score by up to 5 points, says Beverly Harzog, a consumer credit expert and author of “The Debt Escape Plan.” Your score will recover over time, but it may take a few months. As a result, you should limit your loan shopping to three lenders.

Step 4. Be mindful of interest rate fluctuations

Once you commit to a particular mortgage lender, the lender will underwrite and process your loan application. Then you’ll receive a pre-approval letter, which is a commitment to lend you the money for the mortgage you need to buy a home. Although getting pre-approved from a lender is typically good for 90 days, a borrower’s pre-qualified interest rate isn’t guaranteed until you sign a purchase agreement with a seller, so you’ll want to keep an eye on changes in the mortgage market. However, you can opt to lock in your mortgage rate for a period of 30, 45, 60, or even 90 days, depending on your lender.

Soon you’ll be a home owner making monthly mortgage payments.

Article by Daniel Bortz

4 Huge Mistakes You Might Make Moving From a City to the Suburbs

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There comes a time in many people’s lives—usually when the words “baby” or “school district” become a regular part of the vocabulary—when people flee the glamorous city to the charming suburbs.

Add the coronavirus pandemic to the equation, and suddenly the scales tip all the more toward suburban flight happening sooner rather than later.

Only where, exactly, should you go? How do you find that perfect place where your neighbors seem simpatico rather than psycho?

Alison Bernstein once struggled with these same questions when contemplating moving her own family outside New York City.

“We made the quintessential buyer’s mistake,” says Bernstein. “We picked the perfect town, or so it seemed, based on our checklist. But the problem is, you very seldom know what you should look for, and you don’t consider vital intangibles. So we, like so many people, made a bad decision.”

They picked a suburb that, looking back, “was great, but just not a good personality fit for us,” she says. In short, it was too big. “I grew up in a small town, and I wanted to recreate that,” she explains. “I wanted people to know my name at the local coffee shop. I wanted the pizza place to know my kids, and what they liked. Things that mattered to us—like having our kids get to know others the same age—weren’t so easy, since there were so many schools in the district.”

So Bernstein and her family picked up and moved to a smaller town that feels just right, 45 minutes north of the city. She founded Suburban Jungle, a business that matches city clients with the right suburbs and partners with various local agents in every town who have been vetted, selected, and trained to work with their team. She began the advisory firm in New York City, but has since expanded to include Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington DC, placing thousands of happy families in their new communities.

“I realized the things we had been focused on when we moved weren’t the key elements,” she explains. “So my company makes certain that people ask the right questions and make the best decisions for their family.”

Everyone starts out with the same wish list—a great school district, a short commute, low taxes—but there’s a better way to approach your next-home hunt.  Here, Bernstein shares some of the key mistakes parents make when moving to the ‘burbs.

1. Focusing on the house rather than the whole neighborhood

When picking a new home, most people (understandably!) focus on the property itself—how many bedrooms, bathrooms, how big is the lot? After all, who can resist poring over floor plans and listing photos of sun-flooded kitchens? But no house is an island: It’s part of a community, as you will be, too. To make sure you fit in, get a feel for the community and whether it offers the lifestyle and kinds of neighbors you are looking for.

Bernstein’s advice: “Don’t just visit the well-known towns—what we call the brand-name towns that most people aspire to. Just because a lot of people have heard of a town doesn’t mean it’s right for you.” She recommends taking as much time as you can to hang out in different ’hoods.

Try on a couple of towns—check out their cafés, their parks. Are the playgrounds full or empty on a Saturday afternoon? Are the kids there with parents or au pairs?

“Have dinner in the town. See what the people are like, what the mood is like,” Bernstein suggests. Think about whether this feels comfortable and a good fit. It’s only when you settle on a place that does that you are ready to start comparing whether you like a bungalow better than a Colonial.

2. Finding a ‘good school district’ that’s not a good fit for your kids

Let’s be real: Education is one of the top motivators for a move to the ’burbs, Bernstein says, “Everyone talks about wanting a ‘good school district,’ but the key thing here is, what does that mean for your family? A school that ranks well on standardized tests may be a pressure-cooker that your child won’t thrive in, or it may not have much of an arts program.”

Getting hung up on class size is another rookie move. While no one wants their child in a class of 50, also look at the total school enrollment. Would your child do well in a school that typically has a total of 1,000 kids per grade, even if the class size is acceptable? Do you want a district with one elementary school (small-town living) or are you looking for something with several elementary schools and possibly some specialized schools attuned to your child’s interests and talents?

Here’s another tip from Bernstein: As you narrow your choices, “go to a local school at the a.m. drop-off time and take a look. Who is dropping off the kids—nannies? Moms and dads en route to the train station? Yoga-pants-wearing at-home parents? This will also help you see if this community reflects the lifestyle you are seeking.”

3. Thinking about commute time rather than quality

Before decamping for the ’burbs, most people lock in on a commute time—say, “I won’t be on the train for more than 40 minutes each way.” But that can cause you to overlook a lot of the intangibles, says Bernstein. “Ask yourself, Would you rather be on a packed, standing-room-only local train for 40 minutes a day … or, what if you could be seated on an express train for 45 minutes a day?”

You won’t be able to really evaluate the commute unless you, well, commute. Bernstein suggest you do just that, at rush hour, and see what you are getting yourself into. Sure, it takes time, but can help you avoid locking into a “dream house” that comes with a surprise commute from hell twice daily. (Note: A little research will also yield info on a train line’s “on-time” record—another good bit of data to know.)

While you are doing a dry-run commute, scope out the parking situation, too. Many “hot” towns have packed parking lots with waiting lists and with prized parking permits costing thousands a year. Call the town office and inquire about the details, so you’re prepared.
Bernstein has another great tip for sussing out towns based on commutes.

“Pull out an area map and scan it carefully,” she suggests. “There are wonderful small towns—hidden jewels, even—that don’t have their own train station.” These villages tend to be overlooked by people moving to the suburbs, but are worth your attention. (Ask your real estate agent for help with this, too.) You might be able to move to one of these places and walk or drive three minutes to a neighboring town’s train station.

4. Assuming you’ll easily find child care nearby

Most people moving out of the city do so for the sake of children (current or future), but you can’t assume the child care options are the same in the suburbs as in an urban setting. If you are a two-career couple, see what options exist nearby.

“Few suburbs are truly walkable. If you need day care, how far a drive would that be, and how long would it take during the a.m. rush hour?” asks Bernstein. What time at the end of day do they close, and what happens if you are running late? Is the town one that has a strong au pair network, or are most moms home with their kids? This info doesn’t just let you envision your daily schedule—it will tell you a lot about the community and whether it will be a good fit for your family.

Article by Janet Siroto

5 Mistakes To Avoid With Your Quarantine Garden Before the First Fall Frost

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A lot of us started new hobbies this year, and if yours involved planting the ultimate summer garden, you may just be wondering what to do with it now that fall is here. But don’t throw in the trowel just yet. While your summer schedule may have been packed with all things gardening, fall has its share of gardening delights, too—as well as tasks you’ll need to do to get that garden ready for spring.

Here are five common mistakes to avoid if you want to keep your new garden going strong.

Mistake No. 1: Not planting after Labor Day

Cold-season vegetables like broccoli and kale should be planted in fall. zlikovec/iStock

Just because the summer flowers are fading doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a few more blooms before winter arrives. In fact, there are quite a few flowers (and even vegetables) that are known to thrive during the fall season.

Susan Brandt, president and founder of Blooming Secrets, shares a few of her fall favorites. For instance, aster is a daisylike flower that blooms in late summer through fall, when other summer flowers are fading, she says. Calendula, also known as pot marigold, can have bright orange or yellow flowers, which also have culinary and medicinal uses.

“The petals are edible and can even be used in salads,” she says.

In addition, Brandt lists marigolds, pansies, garlic, kale, and even radishes as top contenders for fall.

And don’t worry if these seeds aren’t planted yet—there’s still time.

“Gardeners can plant fast-growing vegetables for harvest before frost,” says Jenny Vazquez of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. “Radishes, broccoli, turnips, and green beans are some great vegetables that will produce all the way up to the first frost.”

Mistake No. 2: Forgetting to water

The temperatures might be steadily dropping, but if your plants are still alive, then they still need water. Forgetting to water plants in the fall is a top mistake for new gardeners, but if you want to keep your garden healthy (and coming back next year), you’ll want to stick with your watering schedule right up until the first frost.

“Carefully watch the calendar and weather forecast for your area,” advises Richard Reina of TOOLSiD.com. “Continue watering trees and shrubs until the ground freezes. Although they may seem like they’re dormant, they’re still alive.”

Mistake No. 3: Not harvesting your garden

Harvest late-summer herbs, and hang them to dry. ValentynVolkov/iStock

All those herbs and veggies you’ve worked so hard to grow aren’t going to pick themselves. Before your first frost arrives, be sure to check your garden and harvest any last herbs and veggies, or any seeds you’d like to save. Herbs should be hung inside to dry, and seeds can be planted next season.

Harvesting isn’t just about reaping the rewards of your garden, either. It’s also about cleaning it up and getting it ready for the dormant winter season.

“Now’s the time to harvest what’s left of your vegetables,” says Brandt. “If you live in an area where you can’t grow vegetables year-round, then you should start cleaning up. Remove any rotting fruit, diseased foliage, or dead vines—this will prevent insects and diseases. If you use cages or stakes, make sure you clean them off and put them away.”

Follow these guidelines, and Brandt says you’ll be in a much better position when spring rolls around.

Mistake No. 4: Not preparing for winter

Although it might not feel like it, colder weather is most certainly coming. And if you want to give your garden the best chance of surviving the months ahead, you’ll want to be sure to properly prep and insulate it.

“When preparing your garden for fall, you need to make sure you’re aware of the temperature drops, even outside of hard freezes,” says Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn.

“Trim back shrubs and trees, clear out weeds and any dead offshoots from your plants, and fill your garden with new mulch,” says Bailey. “This will help insulate existing plants, keep weeds from growing and, depending on the mulch, may even help with the continued health of plants.”

Mistake No. 5: Forgetting to plan for spring

For spring tulips, you’ll need to plant bulbs in fall. OlgaPonomarenko/Getty Images

If you enjoy spring blooms as much as we do, then you’ll want to start planning ahead for them—now. Believe it or not, fall is actually the season for planting your spring bulbs like tulips, hyacinth, and daffodils.

“Gardeners should make sure to plant perennials for the next season before the first fall frost,” says Vazquez. That means garden eye candy like tulips, daffodils, and irises.

To get the most out of your garden come springtime, be sure to do a little planning now—and get your garden ready, and bulbs in the ground, before it’s too late.

Article by Larissa Runkle 

tamale pie!

Feasting at Home

Simple Delicious Tamale Pie with your choice of ground turkey, beef or veggie meat with seasonal veggies, topped with a delicious cornbread crust. 

Here’s an easy weeknight dinner recipe for Tamale Pie that can be made with ground chicken, turkey, beef or keep it vegetarian and use ground vegetarian “meat”.

The flavorful Mexican-spiced filling is cooked on the stovetop then topped with a simple cornmeal batter before baking in the oven. When it comes out, it is transformed into a golden cornbread-crusted pan of deliciousness!

why this recipe works:

What I love about this recipe is how fast and easy it is to put together, letting the oven do half the work. It is also very adaptable- use whichever meat or veggie meat you like!

Feasting at Home

Ingredients

  • 12 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, rough chopped
  • 1 lb ground meat ( chicken, turkey, or beef) or use vegetarian ground “meat”.
  • 1 bell pepper ( or try cubes of roasted butternut or sweet potato!)
  • 1 can black beans, drained (or sub extra veggies or more meat)
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried mexican oregano (or use regular)
  • 1 ½ cups enchilada sauce (or sub 1 can tomato sauce or diced tomatoes and perhaps “up” the spices)
  • ½ cup water
  • 4-ounce can drained green chilies (optional)
  • 12 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro- optional
  • 1 cup grated cheese- optional

Corn Bread Topping

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 extra-large egg
  • 2/3 cup milk or buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup sour cream or yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter
  • 1 jalapeño, sliced- optional
  • more cheese- totally optional

Garnish with fresh cilantro, sour cream ( or avocado) and hot sauce ( all optional).

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400F

In a 10-11 inch oven proof skillet or dutch oven, saute onion, garlic, ground meat and bell pepper in the olive over medium heat until meat is golden brown, about 10 minutes. ( If using vegetarian meat option, no need to brown first – cook the onion, garlic and bell pepper until tender, then add the ground veggie meat. Use a metal spatula to prevent sticking. If the veggie meat continues to stick no worries scrape it up when you add the liquids.)

Add the corn and beans, salt and spices. Stir in the enchilada sauce and water and optional canned chilies, bring to a simmer over low heat. Taste, adjust salt and spices. ( If you used tomato sauce instead of enchilada sauce you may want to add more spices). Bottom line is …you want this stew base to be flavorful and robust in flavor and just slightly liquidy. Simmer on low and while it’s simmering, make the cornbread topping.

Mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk the egg, milk sour cream, and oil in a small bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk.

Stir in optional cilantro into the filling and sprinkle with optional cheese. While the stew is still simmering on the stove, spread the cornbread batter in a thin layer over top. Simmer 1-2 minutes more, and top with thinly sliced jalapeño ( or more grated cheese) and then place in the hot oven.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, check, then continue baking an additional 5 minutes or until puffed and beautifully golden.

Serve with fresh cilantro, sour cream, avocado and hot sauce.

Recipe by Sylvia! PNW Chef 

6 Things Your Mortgage Lender Wants You To Know About Getting a Home Loan During COVID-19

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Getting a mortgage, paying your mortgage, refinancing your mortgage: These are all major undertakings, but during a pandemic, all of it becomes more complicated. Sometimes a lot more complicated.

But make no mistake, home buyers are still taking out and paying down mortgages during the current global health crisis. There have, in fact, been some silver linings amid the economic uncertainty—hello, record-low interest rates—but also plenty of changes to keep up with. Mortgage lending looks much different now than at the start of the year.

Whether you’re applying for a new mortgage, struggling to pay your current mortgage, or curious about refinancing, here’s what mortgage lenders from around the country want you to know.

1. Rates have dropped, but getting a mortgage has gotten more complicated

First, the good news about mortgage interest rates: “Rates have been very low in recent weeks, and have come back down to their absolute lowest levels in a long time,” says Yuri Umanski, senior mortgage consultant at Premia Relocation Mortgage in Troy, MI.

That means this could be a great time to take out a mortgage and lock in a low rate. But getting a mortgage is more difficult during a pandemic.

“Across the industry, underwriting a mortgage has become an even more complex process,” says Steve Kaminski, head of U.S. residential lending at TD Bank. “Many of the third-party partners that lenders rely on—county offices, appraisal firms, and title companies—have closed or taken steps to mitigate their exposure to COVID-19.”

Even if you can file your mortgage application online, Kaminski says many steps in the process traditionally happen in person, like getting notarization, conducting a home appraisal, and signing closing documents.

As social distancing makes these steps more difficult, you might have to settle for a “drive-by appraisal” instead of a thorough, more traditional appraisal inside the home.

“And curbside closings with masks and gloves started to pop up all over the country,” Umanski adds.

2. Be ready to prove (many times) that you can pay a mortgage

If you’ve lost your job or been furloughed, you might not be able to buy your dream house (or any house) right now.

“Whether you are buying a home or refinancing your current mortgage, you must be employed and on the job,” says Tim Ross, CEO of Ross Mortgage Corp. in Troy, MI. “If someone has a loan in process and becomes unemployed, their mortgage closing would have to wait until they have returned to work and received their first paycheck.”

Lenders are also taking extra steps to verify each borrower’s employment status, which means more red tape before you can get a loan.

Normally, lenders run two or three employment verifications before approving a new loan or refinancing, but “I am now seeing employment verification needed seven to 10 times—sometimes even every three days,” says Tiffany Wolf, regional director and senior loan officer at Cabrillo Mortgage in Palm Springs, CA. “Today’s borrowers need to be patient and readily available with additional documents during this difficult and uncharted time in history.”

3. Your credit score might not make the cut anymore

Economic uncertainty means lenders are just as nervous as borrowers, and some lenders are raising their requirements for borrowers’ credit scores.

“Many lenders who were previously able to approve FHA loans with credit scores as low as 580 are now requiring at least a 620 score to qualify,” says Randall Yates, founder and CEO of The Lenders Network.

Even if you aren’t in the market for a new home today, now is a good time to work on improving your credit score if you plan to buy in the future.

“These changes are temporary, but I would expect them to stay in place until the entire country is opened back up and the unemployment numbers drop considerably,” Yates says.

4. Forbearance isn’t forgiveness—you’ll eventually need to pay up

The CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act requires loan servicers to provide forbearance (aka deferment) to homeowners with federally backed mortgages. That means if you’ve lost your job and are struggling to make your mortgage payments, you could go months without owing a payment. But forbearance isn’t a given, and it isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

“The CARES Act is not designed to create a freedom from the obligation, and the forbearance is not forgiveness,” Ross says. “Missed payments will have to be made up.”

You’ll still be on the hook for the payments you missed after your forbearance period ends, so if you can afford to keep paying your mortgage now, you should.

To determine if you’re eligible for forbearance, call your loan servicer—don’t just stop making payments.

If your deferment period is ending and you’re still unable to make payments, you can request delaying payments for additional months, says Mark O’ Donovan, CEO of Chase Home Lending at JPMorgan Chase.

After you resume making your payments, you may be able to defer your missed payments to the end of your mortgage, O’Donovan says. Check with your loan servicer to be sure.

5. Don’t be too fast to refinance

Current homeowners might be eager to refinance and score a lower interest rate. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s not the best move for everyone.

“Homeowners should consider how long they expect to reside in their home,” Kaminski says. “They should also account for closing costs such as appraisal and title insurance policy fees, which vary by lender and market.”

If you plan to stay in your house for only the next two years, for example, refinancing might not be worth it—hefty closing costs could offset the savings you would gain from a lower interest rate.

“It’s also important to remember that refinancing is essentially underwriting a brand-new mortgage, so lenders will conduct income verification and may require the similar documentation as the first time around,” Kaminski adds.

6. Now could be a good time to take out a home equity loan

Right now, homeowners can also score low rates on a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, to finance major home improvements like a new roof or addition.

“This may be a great time to take out a home equity line to consolidate debt,” Umanski says. “This process will help reduce the total obligations on a monthly basis and allow for the balance to be refinanced into a much lower rate.”

Just be careful not to over improve your home at a time when the economy and the housing market are both in flux.

Article by Lauren Sieben

How Much Are Closing Costs? Plus: How to Reduce Closing Costs

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When you get a mortgage to buy a home, you’ll have to pay closing costs: These fees, paid to third parties to help facilitate the sale of a home, typically total 2% to 7% of the home’s purchase price. So on a $250,000 home, you can expect the amount to run anywhere from $5,000 to $17,500.

Now that you have a sense of the ballpark numbers, here’s everything home buyers and home sellers need to know about closing costs.

Who pays closing costs, and when?

After saving up to purchase a new home, getting pre-approved, and making a down payment, it’s hard for buyers to accept that they’ll have additional out-of-pocket expenses. Some good news, then, is that both buyers and sellers typically pitch in to cover closing costs, although buyers shoulder the lion’s share of the load (3% to 4% of the home’s price) compared with sellers (1% to 3%). And while some expenses must be paid upfront before the home is officially sold (e.g., the home inspection fee when the service is rendered), and others, like property taxes and homeowners insurance, are recurring, most are paid at the end, when you close on the home and the keys exchange hands.

What can buyers expect to pay?

Home buyers pay the majority of these costs, since many of these fees are associated with the mortgage.

“If you’re paying cash for a property, there are still a few closing costs, but they are significantly less,” says Cara Ameer, a Realtor® in Ponte Vedra, FL.

Here are some of the fees home buyers should brace themselves to pay:

  • A loan amount origination fee, which lenders charge for processing the paperwork for your loan.
  • A fee for running your credit report.
  • A fee to underwrite and assess your credit worthiness.
  • A fee for the appraisal of the home you hope to own to make sure its value matches the size of the loan you want.
  • A fee for the home inspection, which checks the home for potential problems from cracks in the foundation to a leaky roof.
  • A fee for a title search to unearth any liens on the property that could interfere with your ownership of it. Title insurance protects the lender and buyer from claims against the home and property.
  • A survey fee if it’s a single-family home or town home (but not condos)
  • Taxes, also called stamp taxes, on the money you’ve borrowed for your home loan.
  • Private mortgage insurance is an additional fee that buyers can expect to pay if they can’t come up with a down payment that’s 20% of the purchase price.
  • Discount points, or mortgage points, are fees paid right to the mortgage lender in exchange for a lower interest rate. One point is valued at 1% of your mortgage total. It may seem like lot to pay upfront, but doing so will lower your monthly mortgage payment.
  • One-time fees may also include: document recording fees for the deed and mortgage, buyers’ attorney fees, real estate agent commission.

Buyers should also account for the following:

  • An escrow deposit, managed by a neutral third-party escrow officer, covering typically two months of prepaid property taxes and mortgage insurance payments

How much can sellers expect to pay?

Here are the fees that sellers are typically responsible for:

  • A closing fee, paid to the title insurance company or attorney’s office where everyone meets to close on the home
  • Taxes on the home sale
  • A fee for an attorney, if the home seller has one
  • A fee for transferring the title to the new owner

While this doesn’t seem like much compared with what future homeowners have to cough up, keep in mind that sellers typically pay all real estate agents’ commissions, which amount to 4% to 7% of the home’s sales price. So, no one sneaks through a home closing scot-free.

Why there’s no such thing as typical closing costs

The reason for the huge disparity in closing costs boils down to the fact that different states and municipalities have different legal requirements—and fees—for the sale of a home.

“If you live in a jurisdiction with high title insurance premiums and property transfer taxes, they can really add up,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “New York City, for instance, has something called a mansion tax, which adds a 1% tax to sales that exceed $1 million. And then there are the surprise expenses that can crop up, like so-called ‘flip taxes’ that condos charge sellers.”

Texas has the highest closing costs in the country, according to Bankrate.com. Nevada has the lowest.

How to estimate closing costs

To estimate these, plug your numbers into an online closing costs calculator, or ask your real estate agent, lender, or mortgage broker for a more accurate estimate. Then, at least three days before closing, the lender is required by federal law to send buyers a closing disclosure that outlines those costs once again. (Meanwhile, sellers should receive similar documents from their real estate agent, outlining their own costs.)

Word to the wise: “Before you close, make sure to review these documents to see if the numbers line up to what you were originally quoted,” says Ameer. Errors can and do creep in, and since you’re already ponying up so much cash, it pays, literally, to eyeball those numbers one last time before the big day.

How to reduce closing costs

While there’s no way for you to outright dodge these fees, there are ways that homeowners can pay vastly less.

Some closing costs are negotiable: attorney fees, commission rates, recording costs, and messenger fees. Check your lender’s good-faith estimate (GFE) for an itemized list of fees. You can also use your GFE to comparison shop with other lenders.

Here are some ways to circumvent the added expenses:

1. Look for a loyalty program. Some banks offer help with their closing costs for buyers if they use the bank to finance their purchase. Bank of America, for instance, offers reduced origination fees for “Preferred Rewards” members. It’s the bank’s way of offering a reward for being a customer.

2. Close at the end the month. One of the simplest ways for you to reduce your closing costs as a buyer is to schedule your closing at the end of the month. If you close at the beginning of the month, say March 6, you have to pay the per diem interest from the 5th to the 30th. But if you close on the 29th, you pay for only one day of interest.

3. Get the seller to pay. Most loans allow sellers to contribute up to 6% of the sale price to the buyer as a closing-cost credit. It’s a way to seal the deal—and a tax-deductible expense for the seller. Don’t expect this to happen much in hot markets where inventory is scarce (which is almost everywhere these days).

4. Wrap the closing costs into the loan. You’re already borrowing probably hundreds of thousands of dollars—why not tack on a few thousand more? Mortgage lenders charge more for this, but if you don’t have the cash, it’s a way to get into the house with less cash upfront. You may want to consider a no closing cost mortgage. With this type of mortgage loan, the lender covers the fees, but you’ll be paying a higher interest rate for the duration of the loan, which will mean larger mortgage payments.

5. Join the army. Military members have closing-cost benefits that are often overlooked. Service members and veterans may qualify for funds to help them purchase a home. These benefits are not limited to the VA loan. The key is to do the necessary research to make sure you get everything you are entitled to. Visit usmhaf.org for more information.

6. Join a union. AFL-CIO members can get help purchasing or refinancing a home with closing-cost discounts and rebates from the Union Plus Mortgage program.

7. Apply for an FHA loan. Americans with lower incomes can apply for an FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loan, a government-backed mortgage. Buyers can get a bit of help from interested third parties including real estate agents, sellers, and mortgage brokers, who can pay up to 6% of the new loan amount. FHA loans are also a bit more lax on credit scores. Borrowers whose credit score is 580 or higher are likely to qualify, whereas traditional lenders require a credit report to reflect 620 or higher.

Article by Chrystal Caruthers

How Does Pet Insurance Work?

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According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, there are 179 million pets in North America that create an estimated $58.5 billion in annual spending. Vet care is the third largest expenditure in the category, costing pet owners about $15.25 billion per year.

Americans have taken notice of the rising cost of veterinary care. More than one million pets are now covered under a pet insurance policy at a collective cost of $595 million. It’s a relatively new industry: It wasn’t until that famed canine, Lassie, first received a pet insurance policy in 1982 that pet insurance became a formalized option. Since 2009 the industry has grown an average of 13.2% annually; from 2012 to 2013 there was a 14.6% increase in active policies. Finding the best pet insurance depends a lot on what your pet situation is and what kind of coverage you’re looking for.

Despite its growing popularity, finding information on pet insurance isn’t easy since only a handful of companies hold nearly 90% of market share. Here’s what you need to know.

It’s Not Like Human Health Insurance

You love your pet like a member of the family but the insurance industry sees Fido or Fluffy more as property. That’s why pet insurance functions more like property insurance than health insurance. But before you remind somebody that your pet isn’t a piece of property, this designation works in your favor. Reading and understanding the policy is a cakewalk compared to health insurance policies written for humans. Consider these advantages:

1. You can choose your vet. As long as the vet is licensed, pet insurers won’t tell you whom you can and can’t see. There are no in- or out-of-network doctors like those your own health insurance policy probably dictates.

2. Simple policies. Most companies have a small number of tiers to choose from. One may cover only accidents, another may cover accidents and illnesses, and a third provides more coverage for more conditions.

3. Premiums are relatively cheap. The average monthly cost for a dog with the lowest tier policy was less than $14 per month. The top plan averages $98 monthly. Of course, cost depends on a host of variables including breed and age of the animal, where you live, and the options you choose as part of your policy. Cats are even cheaper.

If you understand insurance-speak, you can figure out a pet insurance policy. You will pay a monthly or annual premium, you have to pay a deductible (a certain amount before the policy kicks in) and you may have a co-pay. Annual deductibles are generally low – between $100 and $250 – and expect your co-pay to be no higher than 30% of the cost in the worst-case scenarios.

There is one major difference compared to many human healthcare policies. The first person to pony up the money is you – not the insurance company. In other words, as the sign at some doctors’ offices says, “Payment is due at the time of service.” After you pay, you file a claim with your pet-insurance provider and wait for a check.

Some veterinarians may allow you to forego payment until the insurance company pays its portion. But before you say yes to that high-dollar procedure make sure you’re clear about the method of payment.

What If My Pet Isn’t a Dog or Cat?

Your choice of insurers might only be one or two. In fact, dogs alone represented 90% of all policies in the Americas in 2013 – the latest data available. Cats accounted for most of the remaining 10%.

If you have a bird, iguana or other pet check out Veterinarian Pet Insurance, (VPI) a division of popular insurer Nationwide. It’s probably the largest and well-known provider of exotic pet insurance.

What to Watch For

First, if your pet has pre-existing conditions, your policy probably won’t cover them. If your animal has abdominal pain, for example, some companies may try to limit coverage on any condition that lists abdominal pain as one of its symptoms. Before saying yes to a pet insurance policy, talk to the company and have it clarify how it decides what constitutes a pre-existing condition. Something in your pet’s medical records that is harmless may become a big deal if you later file a claim.

On a related note, you may have to get your pet checked out by a vet before getting coverage if it hasn’t seen a vet in more than a year.

Next, waiting periods. You can’t take out pet insurance when you learn that your pet requires a costly procedure. Insurers know that trick. That’s why they instituted waiting periods. Waiting periods vary by state, but will generally be 24 to 48 hours for accidents, and from 14 days for an illness to one year on certain medical conditions, depending on the type.

Finally, most policies will increase your premium to account for rising costs and for the condition and age of your pet. However, some companies do not. Ask about rate increases before signing the policy.

Is It Really Worth the Cost?

According to one well-respected consumer magazine, probably not. Consumer Reports looked at policies from the three insurers that hold a collective 90% market share in the pet-insurance industry and compared them to a lifetime of vet bills for a 10-year-old beagle living in New York in relatively good health.

The magazine found that none of the nine policies would have paid out more money than the total amount in premiums that the owner would have spent.

But when Consumer Reports added some hypothetical and costly health conditions into the mix, it reported that that “some policies” did return a positive payout.

In the case of cats, CR looked at a kitten with a heart condition that cost about $7,100 and a 10-year-old cat that required $9,000 of treatment for cancer. In both cases, having pet insurance would have saved the owners money.

The report also found that pet insurance for wellness care isn’t worth the cost. According to the report, it’s probably better to pay for routine vet care out of pocket.

But remember that pet insurance, or any insurance for that matter, isn’t designed to turn a profit (other than for the insurer). You purchase insurance to protect against catastrophic events and shouldn’t expect to make money.

Ask about maximum payouts. These might include maximums per incident, per year or over the life of the policy. Generally, the highest-level policies have the highest payouts.

The Bottom Line

The verdict, as with most types of policies: When something really bad happens, insurance is worth the years of premiums you paid. For routine or relatively minor problems, you’re probably better off putting the monthly premium into a kitty or doggy emergency fund to pay for those unexpected bills. If you elect to purchase pet insurance for catastrophic care, get the highest deductible you can comfortably afford.

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Homeowners Insurance Claims Do’s and Don’ts You Should Be Fully Aware Of

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Fact: Not all homeowners insurance policies are created equal. When it comes time to file a claim, many homeowners find that their policy covers only certain types of damage.

“As a homeowner, you should thoroughly read your policy before you need it. Review your declarations page in order to fully understand what your policy covers and what your deductible will be for various types of losses,” says Raymond Plante, vice president of account services at Rainbow International Restoration.

“This way, you aren’t hit with any unexpected surprises when you have to report a claim,” says Plante.

When an unfortunate event happens (like a windstorm or a burglary), you’ll likely file a claim with your insurance company. But your life will be even more stressful if you make a mistake filing the claim or aren’t familiar with what your policy covers.

To avoid any unexpected pitfalls, experts recommend that—in addition to knowing the ins and outs of your policy—you take certain steps to protect your property. Here are some insurance claims do’s and don’ts for homeowners.

Do: Document everything

There’s no such thing as overdocumenting when it comes to claims. Your smartphone can be a handy tool to document each and every detail.

“Take plenty of pictures and videos detailing the story of your claim, including various angles and distances capturing the origin of the loss and the resulting damage to your dwelling and its contents,” says Plante.

It’s also a good idea to get organized and create a separate folder to keep all your documented items together.

“Equally important, document all related expenses, save all receipts related to temporary repairs, alternative living expenses, contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc.,” says Plante.

Don’t: Delay filing your insurance claim

When an incident causing damage happens, homeowners should report it immediately.

Most insurance policies don’t put a time limit on how long you have to file a claim. They simply require “timely reporting of property damage,” says Plante.

A good rule of thumb is to file within one year of the incident.

“Some policies state the homeowner may be held responsible for subsequent damages due to delayed reporting or failure to make reasonable temporary repairs to prevent further damage,” Plante says.

Do: Use professionals to help you navigate the claims process

When damage happens, there’s so much to do and take care of. But don’t go at it alone. Claims representatives can help walk you through the process.

“For example, the insurance adjuster, mitigation contractor, insurance experts, and building inspectors should all be able to get in contact with homeowners,” says Plante. These professionals can help you deal with the fi

ne details.

The claims process can be arduous, so you should prepare a list of questions to ask claims professionals. For example: “Does my home insurance cover temporary living expenses?” Or, “When will an adjuster come to my house?”

Don’t: Allow a generalist to do the job

When it comes time for repairs, the last thing you need is shoddy work from a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, especially since your home may have more damage than you are even aware of.

“After a hailstorm, if you have damage to your window glass, you’ll also likely have damage to your roof,” says Larry Patterson, owner of Glass Doctor of North Texas. “Your insurance company may tell you they have one person who can fix both types of damage, but be wary of this.”

A jack-of-all-trades may know how to fix a window, but he likely won’t have the expertise of a roofing expert. Therefore, find experts that know what they’re doing, and will be covered by your insurance company. This might mean going back and forth with your policy holder to find qualified professionals, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Do: Ensure you receive a warranty

Getting your home repaired after unforeseen disaster can put your family at ease and get your life back on track. But you’ll want to make sure that a repair job on your home comes with a warranty.

For example, if your home has a lot of window glass damage, make sure you receive a warranty for your glass repair services.

“A strong warranty against seal failure, for example, will ensure you don’t have to pay to have the work completed again in a few years when your insurance company isn’t paying for it,” says Patterson.

Don’t: Pay a contractor in full before the work is completed

Your insurance company will be paying for some, or all, of the repairs. Yes, the money won’t be coming out of your pocket, but that doesn’t mean the insurance company should pay for a job half-done. Be careful not to pay in full or sign on the dotted line before work is actually done to your home. Make sure there is a plan for the work being done, and get all the details in writing.

“Work with the repair contractor to set expectations, including time frame, materials selection, inspections, payments, etc.,” says Plante. “This can prevent future headaches and ensure homeowners and contractors are on the same page.”

Article by Anayat Durrani

Paleo Butternut Squash Soup with Curry

Recipe by Taylor from Food Faith Fitness

This spicy Curried Paleo Butternut Squash Soup is so creamy you’ll never believe it’s healthy, whole30 compliant, vegan and gluten and dairy free!

Ingredients

  • 1 Medium butternut squash peeled and seeded, (2- 2.5lbs)
  • 3 Tbsps Coconut oil, melted
  • 2 Cups White onion, roughly chopped
  • 1.5 Tbsps Garlic, diced
  • 4 Cups Sodium-reduced chicken broth (or veggie for vegan version)
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 2.5 Tsps Yellow curry powder
  • 3/4 Cup Light coconut milk
  • Cilantro for garnish

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Chop the squash into 2 inch chunks and toss with 2 Tbsps. of melted coconut oil.
  • Spread the squash evenly on a baking sheet, and bake for 30-35 minutes, until fork tender.
  • While the squash roasts, roughly chop the onion and garlic and heat the remaining 1 Tbsps. of melted coconut oil in a large pan over medium heat.
  • Sautee the onion and garlic until they are soft, about 3 minutes.
  • Add in 4 cups of chicken broth, salt, curry powder and the roasted squash. Simmer until the squash begins to break down, about 10 minutes.
  • Using a large spoon, break down the squash and mix until it is well combined.
  • In batches, transfer the soup to a blender (or you could use an immersion blender) and puree until smooth.
  • Pour the soup back into the pot and stir in the 3/4 cup of coconut milk.
  • Garnish with cilantro and devour!

Nutrition

Calories: 253.3kcal | Carbohydrates: 32g | Protein: 6.5g | Fat: 13.4g | Saturated Fat: 11.1g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 0.6g | Sodium: 1167.5mg | Potassium: 761.9mg| Fiber: 8g | Sugar: 8g | Vitamin A: 15680IU | Vitamin C: 55.2mg | Calcium: 128mg | Iron: 2.3mg
Recipe by Taylor from Food Faith Fitness

4 Ways Mortgage Lenders Can Help You Buy a Home

KittisakJirasittichai/iStock

In the long home-buying journey, lenders are often pegged as the bad guy—the villain who holds the purse strings and decides whether (or not) to loosen ’em up and grant you a mortgage.

OK. Let’s take a step back. This bad rep is mostly a bad rap. Because the reality is that lenders make homeownership possible for the majority of Americans who do not have the ready cash to buy a home. And even if you’re a less-than-ideal home buyer, because of bad credit or lack of a down payment, they can actually help your loan go through.

Here are five ways lenders can assist you on the path to homeownership, and some recommendations as to how you can make the most of this relationship.

1. Lenders can get you pre-approved

If you know you’re ready to buy—before you’ve even seen the inside of a single house—it’s wise to head to a lender to get pre-approved for a mortgage, pronto. This means lenders check your financial history and determine how much money they’re willing to loan you to buy a home. “You want to apply before you’re entirely under the gun,” says Steven Bogan, regional managing director for Glendenning Mortgage Corporation in Haddonfield, NJ. “If you wait until you’ve made an offer on a house, you could run into problems.”

Pre-approval is proof to home sellers—and yourself!—that you won’t have problems getting the loan you need, once that special house comes your way. It is best to seek a pre-approval at least a month or two in advance, Bogan says. Requirements for approval in a post-housing bubble world can create headaches even for stellar borrowers.

But don’t start too early. Pre-approvals are only good for 30 to 60 days, so make sure you’re really ready to hit the pavement and start looking for houses. Still, don’t stress if your pre-approval expires; getting it re-upped isn’t a big deal.

“We usually just need to run your credit again, maybe get an updated pay stub or bank statement, and you’re good to go,” says Bogan.

2. If you can’t get pre-approved, lenders can show you how

So what if you apply for pre-approval and get denied? It hurts, but don’t worry—the pre-approval process isn’t a one-shot deal. Most lenders will be happy to work with you, even if you aren’t pre-approved right off the bat.

“The majority of lenders will give buyers a step-by-step path they need to follow to get up to approval,” says Bogan. And that usually involves boosting your credit score (more on that next).

3. Lenders can help you boost your credit score

One of the most common reasons home buyers don’t get approval is a lousy credit score—the all-important numerical summary of how reliable they’ve been paying off debts, from credit cards to college loans. You want a simple equation? The lower your score, the less likely you are to get a loan. The good news is that you can take action to boost your credit score. A credit repair company will show you the ropes, but will charge for those services.

You’ve actually got a free credit-boosting guide at your disposal: the lenders who just passed you up for a loan. In most cases, they’ll be happy to show you what you need to do to boost your credit score. And while it usually takes a few months for the credit bureaus to record these changes, lenders have another ace up their sleeve: They can do a “rapid re-score” that corrects and updates info on your credit report in a matter of days.

4. Lenders can help atypical borrowers

Many home buyers are employed, earning a regular W-2 income—a generally safe bet for lenders. But If you’re self-employed, a contractor or running your own business, and your income is more prone to valleys and peaks, a good relationship with a lender can help you cut past reservations about your loanworthiness. “Basically, we’re just going to look at the last two years of tax returns, instead of W-2’s and pay stubs,” says Bogan.

However, Bogan does recommend applying even earlier if you’re a non-W-2 wage earner, since there is more paperwork and more of an investigative process into your earnings. And unlike everyone else, you’ll need to consider your timing. “Say, for example, 2016 tax returns are almost due, and it was a great year incomewise. It would probably be in your advantage to wait until after you’ve filed your taxes to apply for a mortgage,” Bogan says.

No matter what your situation, though, to get the best help, you’re actually going to have to call. “You absolutely want to talk with somebody in person,” says Bogan. So skip the online forms, and ask your friends and family (or your Realtor®, if you have one already) to recommend someone you can sit down with to get the process rolling.

Article by Angela Colley

Get To Work! How To Make Your Home Office Space a Huge Selling Point

Pekic/Getty Images

It’s been six months since many of us were last in the office, tapping away on our ergonomic keyboards and drawing on whiteboards in conference rooms during (gasp!) in-person meetings.

Since then, we’ve been forced to find a new path forward in our homes, to create feasible workspaces where there really are none. And frankly, the kitchen table just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Buyer demand for home office space has accelerated during the pandemic. In a realtor.com® survey conducted this summer, 63% of respondents indicated that they plan to buy a new home in light of their ability to work remotely. And, on average, listings featuring a home office command a 3.4% price premium and sell nine days faster than listings without one, according to realtor.com data.

“Showcasing a dedicated working area can help attract buyers to your property,” says Jennifer Smith, a real estate agent at Southern Dream Homes.

So, sellers, take note: If you have a home office, now’s the time to promote it. Here’s how to set up a space that will bring in the buyers and seal the deal.

Be mindful when converting a room into a home office

If you don’t have an official home office, you might be frantically looking around your house, wondering which room could be converted into a workspace. But before you go all in swapping out guest beds for built-in desks and bookshelves, know this: While buyers arelooking for home office space, bedrooms still take priority, according to real estate agent Susan Bozinovic of Century 21 Town & Country. And you could inadvertently turn off buyers if one of your three bedrooms suddenly works only as a home office.

Instead, look for opportunities to create dual-purpose spaces. After all, you’re probably not entertaining many guests during the pandemic (we hope), so now’s a great time to create a combination guest room and office. Remove the bed, and replace it with a sleeper sofa or love seat.

“This will result in less visual clutter while you’re working in the room, but allow it to easily be transformed back to a bedroom for guests,” says Smith.

Choose a free-standing desk to fit the space without overwhelming it. Or consider a wall-mounted desk as an alternative.

“They can be installed in virtually any room of a home and can be easily put away when not in use,” says Smith.

And don’t forget to update the closet.

“Maximize your closet space with shelves and containers to store office and bedroom supplies, while also making the space available to store your guests’ belongings,” recommends Smith.

Short on bedrooms? Try carving out space in another area such as the dining room. Keep the dining table, but remove the buffet or remove the leaves in the table and extra chairs to make room for a chair and desk.

“As a seller, you are not erasing the dining room, but signaling to the buyer that the room can be repurposed further to suit an office,” says Bozinovic.

Photo by Tailored Living Serving South New Jersey

Pick a quiet area

The noisy central hub of any home is hardly conducive to productivity, so setting up a workspace in the kitchen or the TV room isn’t likely to woo buyers. If you currently don’t have a designated home office, consider the location when staging one.

“It’s best to choose a room with adequate space that’s far from the main living spaces and not frequented by family members or guests,” Smith advises.

Transform an unused area into a workspace

Take a look around at the underused areas in your home, and you can probably find a place to carve out a workspace buyers will covet. If you have a finished, walkout basement, you can turn that into a comfy and private workspace. The area underneath the staircase or the dead space at the top of a staircase, or even an alcove, makes a compact office.

If you have no choice but to set up a home office in the main area of the house, present it in the most appealing way possible.

“Separate the work area from the rest of the room with portable dividers such as a curtain, a folding screen, partition wall, or even tall houseplants,” says Smith.

Keep the area tidy, and neatly bundle up computer and extension cords. Illuminate a poorly lit zone with a small desk lamp.

Photo by Risinger Homes

Flaunt connectivity

If you have access to dependable and fast internet, flaunt it. Buyers are looking to make sure there are enough outlets, ways to minimize cords, and locations for wall-mounted routers, Bozinovic says.

Also critically important is the quality of the Wi-Fi. Buyers want dependable and fast internet with ample bandwidth to be productive at home.

Stage your home office as you would the rest of your house

If you already have a dedicated home office, the time-honored advice of staging—beginning with a clean and clutter-free space, void of personal objects—stands true. If needed, invest in fashionable, functional office storage options like wall shelves or a filing cabinet, Smith says.

“For decorating and design, it’s best to keep colors neutral and avoid bright paint or busy patterns on the walls,” she adds.

But the office shouldn’t be too bland. Create ambiance with pops of color in office essentials such as an area rug, houseplants in pretty pots, or fresh flowers. If blinds are the only window covering, consider buying some curtains or drapes to add warmth. Be sure to raise blinds, draw the curtains to the side to allow natural light, and feature a lovely view if you have one.

The desk should be featured prominently in the room, Bozinovic says. After all, it is the main component. Facing the desk to the entrance looks more dramatic, hides background clutter, and enhances the room’s purpose—all while offering a welcoming atmosphere.

Article by Lisa Marie Conklin

19 years later: These 9/11 photos remain just as haunting

In a year when the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped countless American rituals, even the commemoration of 9/11 could not escape unchanged.

The 19th anniversary of the terror attacks will be marked by dueling ceremonies at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza and a corner near the World Trade Center, reflecting a divide over the memorial’s decision to suspend a cherished tradition of relatives reading victims’ names in person, as The Associated Press reported.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected at both those remembrances in New York, while President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden plan to attend a truncated ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

To go back 19 years, we rounded up these 16 photos below, from Getty Images.

Just a warning, they are graphic in nature, so don’t scroll any further if you’d rather not see.

A fiery blasts rocks the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes. (Getty Images)

 

People run away as the second tower of the World Trade Center crumbles down. (Getty Images)

 

People hang from the windows of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. (Copyright 2001 by Getty Images)

 

Mike Scott from the California Task Force-8 and his dog, Billy, search through rubble for victims. (Andrea Booher/Getty Images)

 

Policemen and firemen run away from the huge dust cloud caused as the World Trade Center’s Tower One collapses. (Getty Images)

 

A man falls to his death from the World Trade Center. (Getty Images)

 

Smoke spews from a tower of the World Trade Center after two hijacked airplanes hit the Twin Towers. (Getty Images)

 

Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes in New York City. (Getty Images)

 

A firefighter breaks down after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed. (Copyright 2001 by Getty Images)

 

Rescue workers sift through the wreckage of the World Trade Center, two days after two hijacked airplanes slammed into the Twin Towers. (Copyright 2001 by Getty Images)

 

Smoke comes out from the Southwest E-ring of the Pentagon building Sept. 11, 2001 in Arlington, Va., after a plane crashed into the building and set off a huge explosion. (Getty Images)

 

The rubble of the World Trade Center smolders. (Corbis via Getty Images)

 

The rubble of the World Trade Center. (Corbis via Getty Images)

 

A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center, days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

 

Firefighter Tony James cries while attending a funeral service for New York Fire Department Chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, in front of the St. Francis of Assisi Church on Sept. 15, 2001. (Copyright 2001 by Getty Images)

 

Fires still burn in the rubble of the World Trade Center, days after the terrorist attack. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

Article by Michelle Ganley

Michelle is the Managing Editor of Graham Media Group’s Digital Content Team, which writes for all of the company’s news websites.

How To Improve Air Quality at Home in the Age of Coronavirus

Jae Young Ju/Getty Images

With cooler temperatures in the forecast and the continued threat of the coronavirus, it looks like more homeowners than ever will be staying inside this fall.

And because we’ve been stuck staring at the same four walls, tackling improvement projects has become a priority, from finally organizing the garage to putting in a backyard pool. What’s the next thing that needs improving? Your home’s air quality.

“The particular virus that causes COVID-19 is made worse by the presence of pollution in the home, so reducing indoor air pollutants is more important than ever, especially if you have a respiratory issue or immune-compromising condition,” says Jamie Gold, certified kitchen designer, wellness coach, and author of “Wellness by Design.”

Not only can irritating pollutants waft through the air, they’re also known to lurk in carpets, bedding, dryer vents, and upholstery.

These hidden allergens include mold, mildew, and dust mites, says Jason Kapica, president of Dryer Vent Wizard.

Fortunately, installing an air purifier can help your family breathe more freely. Here’s more about adding a purifier, including where to put it, plus some smart cleaning tips for the freshest home air possible.

Find a quality purifier

Three speeds allow you to adjust this air purifier’s spin.Wayfair

Gold recommends seeking out a purifier with HEPA filtration and then matching the machine’s capacity to the size of your room.

A seal from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers is also recommended, adds David Bloom, chief science officer of Green Home Solutions.

The model featured above ($100, Wayfair) fits the bill as it covers up to 200 square feet of living space and is designed to remove pollen, cigarette smoke, pet odors, dust, and viruses.

Change filters regularly

A petite purifier like this one works well in a bedroom or laundry room.Wayfair

Air quality experts recommend cleaning your purifier and changing out the filter at least once a month, though it’s also wise to follow the instructions for your appliance.

“Pros suggest that if your system is cycling longer than usual, if your home is dusty, or if you can see buildup on the filter when you remove the cover, then it’s time to change it,” says Gold.

The small but mighty model above ($70, Wayfair) is easy to use since the built-in filter indicator lets you know when it’s time to take out the dirty one. And the motor has a very quiet whir, which means it’s ideal for a bedroom, baby nursery, or dorm setting.

Match rooms with purifiers

Choose the sleep mode setting at night for a quiet hum.Amazon

When deciding where to put an air purifier, prioritize your spaces, starting with your bedrooms, living room, and home office (or at-home work area). Why? These are the places where you spend the most time.

“Often, the manufacturer’s room size claims are overstated, so if you’re in doubt, go a size up,” Bloom says. And always note the product’s energy usage and noise level.

“Air purifiers need to run continuously, so if the one you want is very noisy or expensive to use, you’ll turn it on less and then defeat the purpose of owning one,” he adds.

We like the larger air filter above ($160, Amazon) because it can filter your home’s air in a space that’s up to 300 square feet, and it comes with a washable pre-filter that picks up larger bits like pet hair and dirt.

Pay attention to dryer vents

Photo by Jessica Risko Smith Interior Design

Think running the laundry isn’t connected to air quality? Guess again. Plugged dryer vents are a big no-no if you’re trying to protect your family’s lungs.

“When a dryer vent is clogged, it causes water to pool inside, and when that moisture is combined with warm temperatures, the result is mold and mildew spores in the air,” says Kapica.

The fix: Clean that sucker out by removing dusty gray deposits by hand and then running your vacuum along the inner portion of the vent with a hose attachment.

Vacuum every week (or more)

Photo by Closets by McKenry

Up your vacuuming routine to a couple of times a week if you want to keep the air at home fresh.

“Vacuuming can keep dust, mites, dirt, and other particles from being kicked into the air and carried by household members,” says Gold.

Just be sure to pick a vacuum with true HEPA filtration, or you’ll be spewing more particulates into the air than you end up removing.

Add plants to decor

Photo by Westlake Development Group, LLC

Plants are natural air scrubbers, helping to filter out impurities such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. So consider placing English ivy, gerbera daisies, spider plants, and peace lilies on your side tables or bookshelf.

As a general rule of thumb, one plant per 100 square feet of floor space will clean the air in an average-size home of about 1,800 square feet, says Ana Cummings of the eponymous design firm.

Keep pets on the floor

Photo by Oliver Designs

Sorry, Fido, no sleeping on the couch or beds—your pet dander can do a number on a home’s air quality. Be sure to toss pet toys in the wash every week and consider low-pile rugs or bare floors so pet fur and other particles don’t become embedded.

Encourage good air circulation

Photo by Fan Diego – The Ceiling Fan Stores

Your mother is right: Fresh air may cure what ails you. In this case, it’s excess pollen, mold, and dust. By keeping the air moving in your home’s rooms, you’ll be helping to prevent the buildup of these allergens.

“With more of us home-schooling and working from home, indoor carbon dioxide levels will increase, so simply cracking a window at either ends of the home can make a big difference,” says Bloom.

“And while designers are not often fans of the ceiling fan, if you do you have one, it’s good to use it to keep your air circulating,” says Cummings.

Article by Jennifer Kelly Geddes

Pumpkin spice lattes — and the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash — explained

An anthropomorphized Pumpkin Spice Latte with a spooky black cat. @TheRealPSL/Twitter

Pumpkin spice is America’s most hatable seasonal flavor. But Starbucks is leaning in even more heavily this year.

August 25 is not a day that is particularly known for feeling especially crisp or autumnal in most parts of North America. And yet it’s the day in 2020 — the earliest release date so far — that Starbucks chose to ready its blazing orange jugs of “pumpkin sauce” and unleash its annual run of pumpkin spice lattes upon its customers.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking this tone for one of disdain. Since its inception in 2003, the pumpkin spice latte has become something of a straw man for discussions about capitalism, seasonal creep, and the meaning of “basic,” resulting in widespread hatred for an otherwise innocuous beverage.

For example, back in 2014, at the height of pumpkin spice mania, this very website described the PSL as “an unctuous, pungent, saccharine brown liquid, equal parts dairy and diabetes, served in paper cups and guzzled down by the liter” — even though clearly the pumpkin spice latte is a highly delicious treat that pairs well with wearing vests and making dorky comments about how crisp the air feels today. Yes, it contains 380 calories; yes, it will make your coffee a rather unappetizing orange color; no, you should not “guzzle it down by the liter.”

But contempt for the PSL and other items of the seasonal pumpkin spice variety is often not really about the flavor itself. After all, there are plenty of other flavors we should all be way more furious about. (There is a shop in Scotland that serves mayonnaise ice cream, people!) Too frequently, it’s about sexism, class anxiety, and our collective skepticism of savvy marketing. After all, the PSL is doing something right: It’s Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage, with about 424 million sold worldwide. In 2019, the chain leaned in further with the introduction of the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, finally admitting to the world that late August is still iced coffee weather.

The history of the PSL

The pumpkin spice latte almost didn’t exist. As former Starbucks veteran Tim Kern told Quartz, “A number of us thought it was a beverage so dominated by a flavor other than coffee that it didn’t put Starbucks’ coffee in the best light.”

Fortunately for Starbucks, the Tim Kerns of the company were ultimately overruled, because within a decade of its launch in 2003, the PSL became its top-selling drink, with more than 200 million of them sold. In 2015, Forbes estimated the PSL brought in around $100 million in revenue over a single season.

2015 was also the year that Starbucks changed its decade-old formula to include actual pumpkin for the first time, rather than simply caramel coloring and pumpkin pie spices (like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves). By all accounts, it tasted pretty much the same, just, according to its inventor, “cleaner.”

At that point, the PSL wasn’t just a cash cow; it was a cultural phenomenon. In part, that’s thanks to its marketing — there is nothing inherently seasonal about the spices that go in pumpkin pie, but Starbucks is able to convince us that the drink should only be consumed during the fall months, thereby increasing demand.

But there’s another reason the PSL exploded so much over the past decade. Culinary food trend analyst Suzy Badaracco told Vox in 2014, “Pumpkin became recognized as part of the comfort food trend during the recession in 2008,” due to its association with Thanksgiving and the holidays. In tough times, we’re more likely to crave foods that bring back happy memories.

Surely, though, the reason we all began talking about PSLs to begin with was their prevalence on social media. It’s not that they’re inherently photogenic — a Starbucks cup is a Starbucks cup regardless of what’s inside it, and the PSL doesn’t get its own specially designed cup the way the holiday drinks do.

It’s because when you add a PSL to a photo of, say, your new fall boots standing atop crunchy-looking leaves or a selfie featuring a festive dark lip color, it adds to the autumnal aesthetic. It’s not a coincidence that Instagram — the epicenter of cutesy fall tableaus — happened to blow up in the early 2010s, which is the same time it became cool to claim you despised pumpkin spice.

But maybe that’s not the whole story.

The backlash is about our anxieties around capitalism

The fact that the pumpkin spice latte — which, to many, conjures the scents and imagery of Thanksgiving — is released in increasingly hot weather year after year is often touted as an ominous harbinger of the evil forces of seasonal creep. “It’s agricultural revisionism!” argue some, citing the fact that pumpkins aren’t actually in season until autumn proper.

Perhaps in response to such criticism, in 2019 Starbucks released its second pumpkin spice beverage since the PSL’s introduction, but this time, it’s cold. The Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew is a vanilla cold brew with pumpkin cold foam and topped with pumpkin spice, which CNBC describes as “less sweet and has a stronger coffee taste than a pumpkin spice latte.”

The success of the PSL is also largely responsible for the barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything else, including cream cheese, dog treats, Kahlua, and an especially wacky seasonal crossover, Peeps. There have also been air fresheners, deodorant, even Four Loko (okay, that one ended up being a joke), resulting in the expected amount of hand-wringing about a food trend “gone too far.” (Indeed, back in 2010, the spice brand McCormick forecast that pumpkin spice would be a popular flavor for the holiday season, which in turn likely exacerbated the rush.)

When a food trend is as in-your-face as pumpkin spice is — ever been to a Trader Joe’s in October? — it forces us to think about how the free market is essentially designed to create this kind of phenomenon. If a product like the pumpkin spice latte sells, it’s natural under capitalism for other companies to attempt to replicate that success. But it’s uncomfortable when we see it happening on such an exaggerated scale.

Actually, the backlash is about our contempt for women

Well, maybe, but maybe what pumpkin spice backlash is really about is our dismissal of trends that are coded as feminine. As Jaya Saxena wrote in Taste last fall, in a piece titled “Women Aren’t Ruining Food,” “When men enjoy something, they elevate it. But when women enjoy something, they ruin it.”

She continues, on the topic of “girly” food crazes like açai bowls, rosé, and pumpkin spice versus “manly” ones like barbecue, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and IPAs:

When those foods blow up, we judge women for falling for the marketing or trying to jump on the bandwagon, and we assume that because they like something other women like, they don’t have minds of their own. And on top of that, women are asked to reckon with, consciously or unconsciously, the perceived psycho-sexual symbolism attached to seemingly innocuous foods.

Plus, “masculine” foods are almost never chastised for beingbasic,” the ever-nebulous term used to describe someone with average, predictable taste that’s usually reserved for women.

In the most stereotypical (and by now probably outdated) terms, a “basic bitch” wears North Face, leggings, and Uggs, and absolutely adores hashtag-PSLs, marking her as a woman with “a girlish interest in seasonal changes and an unsophisticated penchant for sweet,” as the Cut noted back in 2014.

There are often classist implications, too. In a BuzzFeed piece about “basic” and class anxiety, Anne Helen Peterson wrote:

Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them. To consume and perform online in a basic way is thus to reflect a highly American, capitalist upbringing. Basic girls love the things they do because nearly every part of American commercial media has told them that they should.

Essentially, hating pumpkin spice lattes is our way of othering those who drink them, and in the process, marking ourselves as decidedly un-basic.

Of course, this notion of what “basic” means is not the same way black people have been using it for decades, which, as Kara Brown explained in Jezebel, pretty much just translates to “I think that the stuff you like is lame and I don’t really like you.”

“Rihanna could become the official spokesperson for Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and nobody would think of her as basic,” she wrote. “You know why? Because Rihanna does what she wants and what she thinks is cool and doesn’t give a damn about anybody else.”

Or maybe nobody cares anymore

Even if Rihanna suddenly became the official spokesperson of PSLs, however, there is also the possibility that, quite frankly, nobody really cares that much anymore. We seemed to have hit peak “pumpkin spice hot take” in the year 2014, with searches for “pumpkin spice latte” peaking in 2015.

Plus, the pumpkin spice bubble may have already popped. The analytics company 1010data revealed that despite the fact that pumpkin spice products for sale had risen by nearly 50 percent between 2015 and 2016, sales went up just 21 percent. We just aren’t craving it like we used to.

Maybe that’s because we’ve all been stricken with a case of seasonal beverage fatigue in general. Starbucks is constantly coming out with random gimmicky drinks, from the Unicorn Frappuccino to the so-called “secret menu.”

If that’s true, it tracks that we aren’t seeing the same kind of anger directed at what is arguably replacing pumpkin spice as autumn’s de facto flavor. In 2017, both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts released maple pecan lattes. And according to restaurant menu data from that year, “mentions of maple as a flavor in nonalcoholic beverages on menus are up 86 percent this year over last. … Pumpkin mentions, on the other hand, are down 20 percent.” Yet nobody’s complaining about how stupid maple syrup is.

Anyway, this is all to say that maybe by now pumpkin spice has finally returned to signifying the autumnal blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, and nothing more: not basic, not everything wrong with capitalism, and not gross. Because it’s not! It’s delicious.

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How Unemployment Can Affect Your Plans To Buy a Home—Now and Later

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to record-high unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression. And this is particularly worrisome for would-be home buyers.

If you were among the 23.1 million Americans who were laid off or furloughed, you might be worried about your financial future. And if you were hoping to buy a house—either now or in the next few years—you might also wonder how your current jobless status might affect those plans.

While the situation might seem dire, unemployment does not mean that home-buying plans have to be put on hold for long. Here’s how to navigate a period of unemployment so that it doesn’t derail your hopes to buy a home.

Can you buy a home if you’re unemployed?

For starters: If you lose your job while in the midst of home shopping or after you’ve even made an offer, you might have to put the purchase on hold.

The reason: Given your reduced income, the odds of lenders loaning you money for a property purchase are slim, unless your spouse or partner has a sizable income that can carry the mortgage alone.

And even if you’re getting unemployment checks every week, that money is considered temporary income, so it can’t be used to qualify for a mortgage, says Jackie Boies, senior director of housing and bankruptcy services at Money Management International, a nonprofit providing financial education and counseling.

In short, “unemployment could have an effect on your ability to purchase a home in the short term,” Boies says.

But the good news is that once you find a new job, you can likely resume home shopping without trouble, Boies adds. “Unemployment shouldn’t have a long-term effect on being able to buy a home.”

How long after unemployment can you buy a home?

But even once you do find a new job, that doesn’t mean you can easily buy a house just yet. That’s because lenders like to see a steady history of employment before loaning someone money.

“Regular employment must be reestablished as stable, reliable, and dependable,” says Karma Herzfeld, mortgage loan originator at Motto Mortgage Alliance in Little Rock, AR.

So how long is enough? Lenders typically require borrowers to have six months of employment at their current job, and two years of continuous employment. Breaks in employment older than two years shouldn’t affect getting a mortgage.

How unemployment affects your credit score

While unemployment doesn’t jeopardize future home-buying hopes per se, financial experts warn that what can put those plans at risk is how you handle your finances while jobless. Unemployment, after all, can stress your budget in ways that can damage your credit history and credit score.

Lenders check your credit score to assess how well you’ve managed past debts. Scores between 650 and 700 range from fair to good; scores below 650 are considered subpar, which could limit which lenders are willing to loan you money for a house. (You can check your score for free on sites like Credit Karma.)

Credit scores can be damaged in a variety of ways during unemployment. For one, if you get behind on paying bills, this will put some blemishes on your credit history and drag your score down.

Unemployment can also lower your credit score by negatively affecting your debt-to-income ratio, a calculation used by mortgage lenders to compare how much you make against how much you owe.

If you’re unemployed, you may face a double whammy as your income is lower and you’re charging more to your credit cards, thus increasing your debt. Both moves can negatively affect your debt-to-income ratio, which may make lenders leery of loaning you money.

“Any factor that affects income or debt may affect the debt-to-income ratio,” Herzfeld explains.

In sum, hopeful home buyers should be careful not to take on too much debt, even while unemployed. You need to preserve cash as best you can.

“I recommend, if on unemployment, [you] cut back on all discretionary spending and make every effort to keep bills current so that the credit score may not get negatively impacted,” Herzfeld says.

Debt-to-income ratio will likely rebalance once you return to work, as long as you haven’t racked up too much debt during the period of unemployment, Boies says.

How to handle your finances while unemployed

“My recommendation is to always try as best as you can to pay at least the minimum required payment on all monthly debt obligations, otherwise credit may be negatively affected,” Herzfeld says.

Boies suggests reaching out to landlords, credit card companies, utilities, auto lenders, and others to find out what options you have, such as payment plans, deferments, or forbearance. You might also be able to reduce some bills, such as insurance, by reviewing your policy.

“Don’t think that if you can’t pay that bill, you just can’t do anything about it,” Boies says. “You need to reach out to see what options they have available to you.”

How to bounce back from unemployment

If your credit score is negatively affected while you’re unemployed, it’s not the end of the world—but it will take time to repair.

Six months to a year or more of positive credit rebuilding could get you on track to buy a home, Herzfeld says.

“The sooner past-due debts can be remedied, the sooner the score may begin to improve,” she says.

Article by Erica Sweeney