Coronavirus Tanked the Economy. Then Credit Scores Went Up

Emil Lendof/The Wall Street Journal

Millions of Americans lost their jobs and skipped debt payments this year. You wouldn’t know it looking at consumer credit scores.

While the coronavirus was pummeling the U.S. economy, Americans’ credit scores—a metric used in nearly every consumer-lending decision—were rising. The average FICO credit score stood at 711 in July, up from 708 in April and 706 a year earlier, according to Fair Isaac, the score’s creator. Early estimates suggest the average score has held steady through mid-October at the July level, which is the highest since FICO began keeping track in 2005.

The increase is largely thanks to the unprecedented financial assistance the government and lenders rolled out to consumers after the pandemic took hold in the U.S. Stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits helped many borrowers keep up with their bills and, in some cases, even pay down their debt. Widespread payment holidays on mortgages, auto loans and student loans freed up funds and kept credit reports clean.

American consumers’ ability to withstand such a severe economic shock is undoubtedly good news—an outcome that few would have predicted in the pandemic’s early days. But for lenders, the rise in credit scores is yet another confounding factor that is making it difficult to assess risk.

During the last downturn, loan delinquencies rose along with unemployment, and credit reports reflected missed payments in short order. That hasn’t happened this time, yet millions of Americans are still out of work and surviving on unemployment benefits. The disconnect has scrambled lenders’ underwriting models and sent them in search of new ways to evaluate applicants’ creditworthiness.

One big fear is that consumers’ credit quality could begin to sour if Congress doesn’t reach a deal on additional aid for the unemployed. “We’re afraid that in a couple months there could be real damage to credit reports,” said Francis Creighton, chief executive of the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit-reporting firms.

FICO scores, which range from 300 to 850, are calculated using the information in consumers’ credit reports, including the ratio of credit-card debt owed to total spending limit, payment history and prior loan applications. They don’t take into account employment history or income.

Ethan Dornhelm, vice president of scores and predictive analytics at FICO, said the scores are typically lagging indicators. In the last downturn, credit scores bottomed out at 686 in October 2009—months after the recession officially ended.

“First the macro stress occurs, and then it takes a few months for the strain to show up in people’s credit reports,” he said. Deferment programs and government stimulus “are having a further effect of pushing out that stress for many people.”

What’s more, many borrowers’ credit profiles appear to have improved in recent months. A decrease in credit-card spending helped lower total outstanding card debt. Government stimulus and lender deferment programs helped borrowers stay current on their debts.

Dee Donnell’s credit score was in the low 500s—deep in subprime territory—in February, when she lost her job at a health-insurance company. The 45-year-old used part of her severance to pay off roughly $10,000 of credit-card debt, which she said was costing her $600 in minimum monthly payments. She was able to cover her other bills with her remaining severance, savings and her $1,200 stimulus payment.

In July, Ms. Donnell got a job working in compliance for a startup. Her credit score is now nearly 700.

“Covid forced me to really look at my finances,” she said.

Lenders have been tinkering with their underwriting models since the pandemic began, according to senior executives at large banks, in an effort to avoid approving loan applicants who are unemployed and on the verge of running out of government assistance. Some are also looking to identify existing customers at higher risk of default.

To spot these risks, big banks including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup are seeking to augment credit reports and scores with real-time income or cash-flow data, according to people familiar with the matter.

That involves reviewing their own bank-account data when evaluating certain applicants. Some are weighing using information from other financial institutions. (In most cases, they would need an applicant’s permission to use that bank-account data in the underwriting process.)

Lenders are interested in the data to evaluate new loan applicants, specifically, those seeking credit cards and other loans that don’t typically require income documentation. Some are also discussing using cash-flow analytics—for example, a lag in deposits indicating a recent layoff—to determine whether to cut existing borrowers’ credit lines.

Finicity, a financial-technology company, has been in talks with banks about providing some of this data. “We are convinced that new ways of assessing credit eligibility, like reviewing personal cash-flow data, offer a truer reflection of risk, and many banks are quickly coming around to that idea,” said Chief Executive Steve Smith.

Dormant credit-card accounts are seen as particularly risky these days. Lenders are worried customers will reach for them when unemployment runs out, so they are trimming credit lines and closing some accounts altogether. Even customers with credit scores in the mid-700s—generally seen as more creditworthy and eligible for lower interest rates—haven’t been spared.

Despite lenders’ concerns, there is evidence that Americans are giving priority to debt payments in the pandemic. In a June survey of about 1,300 households, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that those who got stimulus payments used 35% of the funds to pay down debt.

Ben Rohrs, 42, was laid off from his job as a technology product manager in March. He and his wife paused their roughly $5,000 monthly mortgage payment for six months, and used the freed-up funds—plus unemployment and his wife’s income—to keep up with their credit-card bills.

Mr. Rohrs started a new job last week. His credit score is close to 830, around where it was in March.

“I just feel really lucky that there was the increased unemployment insurance, and having a mortgage deferral was huge,” he said.

Article by AnnaMaria Andriotis

Mercury in Retrograde: Your Guide to Buying and Selling While the Planets Go Crazy

iStock; realtor.com

If the sh*t really started hitting the fan for you right around Oct. 13, you wouldn’t be the only one. Mercury is in retrograde until Nov. 3, which explains why your mood might be all over the place and why you and your S.O. got in those epically dumb fights last week.

It might also explain why the grocery store was out of nearly every single thing on my list—and this after what was supposed to be a quick oil change turned into a half-day of pricey car repairs.

But let’s back up for a second: Several times a year, planet Mercury is said to go retrograde—meaning it moves in an opposite direction to Earth. (“This backward movement is actually an illusion, similar to the one you experience when you’re in a car on the highway moving faster than a train alongside you,” according to Mother Nature Network.)

While there’s no need to stock up on your favorite instant mac and cheese and prepare for the apocalypse, you might want to be a little extra cautious during this time, says astrologer and psychic Suzie Kerr Wright—especially if you find yourself about to make a particularly huge and consequential decision, like, say, buying or selling a house.

“Mercury rules our communication and thinking, so all of that can become murky,” Wright explains. “The period messes with our minds so we may misplace or lose things, we might feel a little off, or, if we’re rushing to send an email, we may reply to all instead of one person. We may find we’re a bit clumsier too.”

So how does Mercury play into buying and selling?

“Some people out there are more sensitive to Mercury retrograde than others,” explains Mary Dunne, real estate broker at Warburg Realty in New York. “In many instances, I believe a Mercury retrograde can add some complications or delay some aspects of the process, and generally highlight the need to read the fine print.”

With all of the craziness happening, you might start thinking a moving Mercury might wind up derailing the close on your new house. But both Dunne and Wright insist this isn’t the case.

“I don’t highlight the timing to clients unless it’s brought up,” Dunne says. “I just play more cautious around the time.”

And despite all of the spilled coffee and drama-filled days, Wright actually insists that Mercury in retrograde can be a positive thing.

“The real purpose of a retrograde period is to get us to slow down, rethink what we’ve been doing, revisit old ideas, and reconnect with ourselves and others,” she says. “It’s a break, not a curse.”

How to get through a retrograde sale

The key to getting through a big decision while Mercury does its business isn’t to hole up and hide away. Get out there and keep on keepin’ on—just do it thoughtfully.

“Make decisions from the perspective you had prior to the retrograde,” Wright says. “In other words, if you want a Craftsman home and that’s what you’ve always wanted, but you find a ranch during a retrograde you feel you can’t live without, step back. Think, think, and then think again. Is this really what you would want long-term and why did you want a Craftsman for all this time?”

Some fine print details to get you through the crazy

  • Check contract numbers twice, and double-check everything before signing anything.
  • Overcommunicate your expectations to everyone involved in the deal. That means your real estate agent, and possibly even your buyer or your seller. Make sure everyone is on the same page, and avoid any miscommunications.
  • Avoid last-minute changes. “Buying and selling during retrograde is fine,” Wright says, “so long as contracts have been drawn up before.” If any major last-minute changes take place, consider waiting until after retrograde to sign the paperwork.
  • Don’t be swayed by your own change of heart. Lots of folks are changing their minds right now, so don’t let your new inkling for a ranch make you throw out weeks of negotiating on your former Craftsman dream home.

The bottom line

Sure, weird stuff might happen during this period. But ultimately, everything is going to be OK.

“Starting something new in a retrograde period is not advised, but life goes on and you won’t die if you do,” Wright says. “Just double-check everything, and stay out of the panic mode.”

Article by Larissa Runkle 

11 Indoor Activities For Dogs If You Can’t Get Outside

SAMI MULTASUO

Going to the dog party may not always be an option. To keep your pup from going stir-crazy, here are some things to do with your dog when you’re stuck inside.

Whether the weather is bad or you’re under a stay-inside order, going to the dog park may not always be an option. But, fortunately, there are a number of indoor dog activities you can do to keep them happy and well-exercised. Not only is enrichment important for their mind, but it will help keep them healthy.

“The amount and type of exercise your dog may need will vary based on breed, age, and overall health,” Dr. Kurt Venator, a veterinarian in the Chief Veterinary Office for Purina, tells Woman’s Day. “But in general, I recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise daily for most dogs. With a regular exercise routine and proper nutrition, dogs will be able to maintain a healthy weight and prevent developing joint or other health issues later on in life.”

Just because you’re stuck inside doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the playtime you usually get outdoors. Here’s a list of fun things to do when you can’t take your dog outside that will help you bond with your pup and make sure they don’t go stir-crazy. Some of these activities will even get you a bit of exercise too.

Indoor dog activities - tug
STEPHANIE_GRAFOCAT/GETTY IMAGES
Try tug of war.

Alex Johnson, senior designer & pet enrichment specialist at Purina, suggests buying a tug toy to help your dog get rid of some excess energy. Playing tug can also be a great way to train dogs, teach them self control, and prevent or redirect an “inappropriate use of teeth,” according to Whole Dog Journal.

Veterinarian Julie Taylor tells Woman’s Day that tug is also a great game for large dogs in small spaces.

Indoor dog activities hide the treat
WESTEND61/GETTY IMAGES
Play hide-and-seek with treats.

Taylor recommends playing “hide the treat,” or another scenting game, with small and medium dogs who don’t need as much space to roam. Start out by letting them see where you hide the treat. After that, hide the treat in another room and then let them search for it. Make sure you use very scented treats.

Indoor dog activities - fetch
ANNIEPADDINGTON/GETTY IMAGES
Play fetch in a new way.

You can usually play fetch safely with small and medium-sized dogs inside, depending on the size of your home. But with large dogs, that might be a lot harder. Johnson of Purina recommends throwing toys up and down the steps of your home or hallways of your home or apartment building, assuming your landlord permits it and no one is using those areas. “You could even set up a schedule with neighbors to alternate times for pets to play in the hallways or in the basement/garage,” she says.

Set up an obstacle course.

An obstacle course is great for people who have limited space but who want to thoroughly exercise their dogs, Taylor says. Use pillows, furniture, a staircase in your home (if you have one), laundry hampers, boxes with both ends open, and blankets to create jumps, tunnels, and small forts for your dog to explore. You’ll have to train them with treats or other positive reinforcement so they know how to use it, which will be fun for both them and you.

Play from the couch.

Johnson recommends keeping a basket of toys near the couch so you can play even while you’re catching up on the latest season of your favorite show.

Play from the couch.

Johnson recommends keeping a basket of toys near the couch so you can play even while you’re catching up on the latest season of your favorite show.

Teach your dog to pull their weight.

Train your dog to pick up their own toys. It might seem possible, but there are dozens of videos and how-tos to help you do it. That will leave one less chore for you every day.

Buy or make a food puzzle game.

Dogs need mental stimulation just as much as they need physical exercise. Interactive food puzzles reward your dog’s natural drive to hunt and work for their food. They’re great for teething puppies, dogs who eat too fast or are picky eaters, and they give you a break if you need to finish a task, according to Preventive Vet. Here’s a list of interactive puzzle games, which includes how to teach your dog to use them, and how to make them yourself if you want to save some money.

Get your dog on the treadmill.

If you have a treadmill, Preventive Vet recommends swapping out your daily walk around the block with a 20-30 minute walk with your dog on the treadmill. You might have to coax them with treats at first and keep them on a leash. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can teach them to use the treadmill without you — but you should always supervise them while they’re on it.

Create a quiet space for them.

If you are home a lot, or if you have kids, your dog might want some me time. Gather blankets or your dog’s bed and some of their toys to put in a section of the house where they can still see you but where they can have some time to themselves if they want. Johnson recommends pretending they’re invisible when they’re in that space.

“Eventually, if the rule is followed, the dog or cat will know they will be left alone when in these zones,” she says.

Play the shell game

Take out three cups and a small ball or a treat. Let your dog watch you hide the treat or ball under one of the cups and then shuffle them. The game helps them work on their problem-solving skills, according to Puppy Leaks.

Article by BY

5 Harmful Mistakes People Make When Getting Rid of Computers

Image Source/Getty Images

Once upon a time you and your oversize but semireliable laptop computer were inseparable, and you couldn’t imagine getting rid of it. Ever! Sure, it wasn’t as sleek or powerful as newer models, but it was there for you when you needed it, and even when you didn’t. But the years passed, new technology came out (or your workhorse finally croaked), and eventually you faced the harsh reality: It was time to upgrade.

But what do you do with it? Unlike random couches discarded on the side of the road, there are right—and wrong—ways to dispose of computers.

“Computers can contain personal and sensitive information, so it is important to dispose of them properly and in a secure manner,” says Walter Alcorn, vice president of Environmental Affairs and Industry at Consumer Technology Association.

Sure it’s easy to just toss your laptop, desktop, or central processing unit in the trash. But disposal of computers requires care. This will ensure your personal information stays private—and that you’re recycling in an environmentally friendly way.

Here are some mistakes to avoid when getting rid of computers.

Mistake No. 1: Not wiping the hard drive

Your computer likely has a lot of personal info on it like account numbers, tax returns, email messages, and photos—all things you don’t want in the hands of identity thieves.

A mistake is “disposing of computers without taking any measures to protect personal information,” says Bob Johnson, CEO of International Secure Information Governance & Management Association, a nonprofit industry watchdog for the records management and data destruction industry. He says it’s vital that you fully erase your hard drive.

But it’s not enough to just delete your files or move them to the trash, according to experts at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA.

Even if the trash is emptied on your computer, the information is still there and is retrievable, according to CISA. Instead, it suggests using a disk-cleaning software, which deletes the data and then wipes the information off the hard drive entirely. CISA recommends overwriting the drive’s data multiple times using a program that writes new binary data over it.

Mistake No. 2: Forgetting to back up files

Before erasing the computer’s hard drive and restoring its original settings, it’s important to back up the files you want to keep.

Derek Meister, a Geek Squad agent at Best Buy, recommends maintaining at least two different backups, including one on a physical storage device and one in the cloud. He says physical storage devices include flash drives and external hard drives. Common cloud-based storage options include OneDrive for Windows users, iCloud for Mac users, Google Drive, or Dropbox.

“These cloud services give users the option to set up automatic backups so they can always have a current backup of their files, if needed,” says Meister.

Mistake No. 3: Not taking a hammer to it

The easiest way to prevent others from retrieving your precious information is physical destruction of your computer devices, according to CISA.

The agency says an outsourced metal destruction or licensed incineration facility can disintegrate, burn, melt, or pulverize a computer drive. But for those who want a quick DIY solution, they can drive nails, drill holes, or take a hammer to the device themselves.

“The remaining physical pieces of the drive must be small enough (at least 1/125 inches) that your information cannot be reconstructed from them,” the agency says.

Mistake No. 4: Not recycling, donating, or trading

Don’t know what to do with your old computer once you’ve saved your files and wiped the hard drive? No worries, you have options.

“The top mistake people make is not recycling or trading in their computer,” says Alcorn. “Computers contain valuable resources that, when recycled, can reenter the manufacturing process, conserve resources, and reduce our reliance on virgin materials.”

There are various options for recycling through retailers, local and county governments, and nonprofit organizations. Check with the computer manufacturer’s website for information on its recycling programs.

Mistake No. 5: Incorrect disposal

Computers often contain hazardous materials like heavy metals that are toxic and can contaminate the environment. So experts urge consumers to take time to dispose of them properly.

“Environmental sustainability is very important to us, and we work hard to keep as much junk out of the landfill as possible,” says Angela Koulyras, spokesperson for 1-800-GOT-JUNK?

If consumers are unsure of where to dispose of their computers, Koulyras says their franchises will collect e-waste and bring it to a recycling facility that either specializes or takes the items.

“Many of our locations will even take the time to further break down this e-waste equipment into parts/components that can be recycled in piles more efficiently,” says Koulyras.

If you plan to drop it off yourself, first ensure that the location you use to drop off your computer is third-party certified. You can also visit GreenerGadgets.org for responsible electronics recycling locations in your area.

“The best option for secure disposal of computers is to use a service provider that is NAID AAA–certified,” says Johnson.

Article by Anayat Durrani

Oreo Jell-O Shots

PARKER FEIERBACH

Even after a double take you wouldn’t believe these aren’t Oreos. We removed the cream filling and replaced it with a boozy jello that will undoubtedly trick all of your friends. Stack them up and watch them jiggle like crazy!

INGREDIENTS

Cooking spray

1 c. vodka
(0.25-oz.) envelopes gelatin
1 c. boiling water
(14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
package Oreos
DIRECTIONS
  1. Grease a small sheet pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl or measuring cup, combine vodka and gelatin and let sit 2 minutes. Add boiling water and stir until gelatin dissolves completely. Pour in sweetened condensed milk and whisk to combine.
  2. Pour gelatin mixture into prepared pan and refrigerate until firm, 4 to 5 hours.
  3. Meanwhile, remove cream from Oreos using a butter knife. When gelatin mixture is firm, using a small biscuit cutter or shot glass, cut gelatin mixture into rounds. Place 1 round between two Oreo cookies and repeat until all gelatin rounds are used.
by

Where to Get a Mortgage: Bank, Broker, or Online?

cnythzl/iStock

Wondering where to get a mortgage? More than three-quarters of home-buying consumers need a loan to purchase property. As borrowers, we know that shopping around is the key to getting the best deal on most items. Plenty of us, however, somehow miss that message when it comes to mortgages.

According to a report last year from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, less than half of home buyers shop around for a mortgage lender. This mistake can cost borrowers thousands of dollars over the course of their home loans. Wake up, people! These days, borrowers can get a mortgage loan in lots of different ways. So you may be wondering where you should get yours.

Back in the day, banks were the only option for getting a mortgage, but then credit unions and brokers came on the scene. These days, borrowers can get a home loan online, much as you’d order up dinner from Seamless. But should you?

Where to get a mortgage

Each of these mortgage lenders has pros and cons for borrowers, so it pays to know what they are before you commit.

Bank

Most local and national banks have mortgage lending programs, some of them aggressive and highly developed.

Pros: If you already have a relationship with a bank (through a checking account, for example), you may be able to obtain a discounted interest rate if you also use them as a mortgage lender.

“If you’re a customer with good credit, you can get a competitive interest rate from your bank,” says Ginger Wilcox, chief industry officer for mortgage startup Sindeo.

Cons: Banks typically have a limited variety of mortgage products and more rigid credit standards than other types of lenders. They expect you to have a good credit score, a down payment, and an acceptable debt-to-income balance. The biggest banks may have a certain amount of bureaucracy for you to wade through, which can slow down the process.

Credit union

Credit unions are nonprofit organizations that offer financial services directly (and often exclusively) to their members. You may already belong to a credit union if you have a checking account or credit card account through them.

Pros: Credit unions typically have lower overhead than banks, so they may be able to offer a mortgage with lower interest rates or fees. In the first quarter of 2016, for example, rates on a 30-year fixed mortgage at credit unions averaged 3.84%, compared with 4.02% on the same loans at banks.

Cons: Like banks, credit unions have a limited variety of loan products. You have to pay a membership fee (typically $5 to $25) and meet certain membership criteria in order to join, usually based on things such as your geographic area or employer. Use this tool to research a credit union and see whether you qualify for membership. Credit unions also look at your ratio of debt-to-income and your credit score, although they may be more willing to work with you if necessary.

Mortgage broker

A mortgage broker has relationships with multiple lenders and works on your behalf to find you the right loan with the best mortgage rate and lowest closing costs for your situation. The key factors would include the amount of down payment you have, your credit score, and other factors. Your real estate agent may recommend a local mortgage broker.

Pros: If you have a unique situation, for example if you are self-employed or have poor credit, a broker will know all of the options that are open to you—and which lender might offer the most appropriate product.

Cons: Brokers receive fees, paid either by the borrower, the lender, or a combination of the two. These are generally 1% to 2% of the value of the loan. There is no guarantee that you’ll get a better interest rate than you would have if you’d shopped around on your own, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of the mortgage site HSH.com.

Online lender

Like nearly everything else these days, it’s now possible to apply for and receive approval for a mortgage entirely online, from lenders such as Quicken Loans or loanDepot.

Pros: Streamlined document uploading and the ability to apply on your schedule can make the process less stressful. Plus, online lenders may be able to close your loan more quickly. Sindeo, for example, claims it can close loans in as quickly as 15 days, while the average lender takes about a month and a half.

Cons: There’s little human interaction, which could be tough for first-time home buyers or others looking for an adviser to guide them through the process. Online lenders also don’t have the long-term relationships with local Realtors®.

“If you’re in a strong seller’s market, where there are multiple offers on properties, having a lender with credibility in the local real estate community can help your offer rise to the top of the pile,” says Richard Redmond, author of “Mortgages: The Insider’s Guide.”

Keep in mind, however, that whichever route you go, you should always shop around to make sure you’re getting the best deal, not only on your mortgage rate, but with the lowest loan origination fees and other closing costs.

You should also make sure you are ready to buy or refinance a home before you make a mortgage application. Check your credit report on the credit bureaus, and see if your credit history needs work.

If your credit score shows that you have bad credit, you may need to work on it for several months or even a year before you qualify for the loan amount you want, with a good mortgage rate.

Understand the requirements for a down payment, and save up an additional down payment if you need one. You may qualify for first-time home buyer or other down payment assistance in your state.

Pay down your credit card debt and other consumer debt as much as possible, to improve your debt-to-income ratio. The more you prepare before you apply for a loan, the easier it will be, and the better terms you can expect to receive.

It’s also becoming more common to get a pre-qualification or pre-approval letter from a mortgage lender before you make an offer on a home. Getting pre-qualified shows the potential seller that a lender thinks you can afford the monthly payment, and the lender expects to be able to give you a loan.

“Even if you’re getting a conforming loan and the rates don’t vary much, loan fees can vary lender by lender, and you can end up paying more than is necessary,” says Benjamin Beaver, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Patterson Properties in San Angelo, TX.

Article by Beth Braverman

Fall for This: 5 Autumn Entryway Decor Ideas That Are Just So Unexpected

DK Homes/Houzz

There’s nothing quite like a decorated entryway to make your home feel autumn-ready. In fact, this is the spot in the home where we’re most likely to channel those fall vibes—with festive pumpkins, textured wovens, and the signature colors of crimson and gold.

But if what’s trending on Instagram right now is any indication, not all autumn decor this season is so traditional.

Like we do every week, we scrolled through hundreds of decor posts on Instagram to get a pulse on what’s trending—this time with an eye on the entryway. What we found is some fall looks that bring the autumn vibes in an entirely new way.

So if you’re ready to break free from tradition this season, keep reading to give your entryway a look that feels as fresh as the season.

1. French doors

If your entryway has been feeling dark as of late, then you might just want to open things up with a set of French doors like these ones featured by @lemonleafhomeinteriors.

“All of the glasswork from the French doors allow for observations of the seasons and bring light into your home by extending sightlines,” says designer Ian Stallings of Ian Stallings Design. “Instead of hitting a wall—so to speak— this gives you one more place to look.”

Just remember: French door installation isn’t exactly a DIY project. Make sure to hire a good architect and designer to avoid costly mistakes.

Get the look: Bring the light of the seasons into your home by shopping this collection of French doors from Home Depot.

2. Blue velvet pumpkins

Decor Gold Designs

Like we said, not everything fall has to be orange. This season we’re seeing decor of all shades—and textures—like these blue velvet pumpkins featured by @decorgold.

“When adding decor for the fall seasons, why not embrace a different color,” says Michelle Harrison-McAllister of Michelle Harrison Design. “These stunning blue pumpkins add such an unexpected personality to your entryway. Thinking outside the box like this can really bring that burst of energy and excitement to a home.”

Get the look: Add some of the unexpected to your foyer by shopping these velvet pumpkins from Etsy.

3. Hanging baskets

Celebrate the harvest season by hanging a basket filled with flowers, like this one from @adventuresindecorating1. Gather up some of your favorites from the garden, or shop your local nursery for a fresh fall bouquet.

“Hanging wall-mounted baskets is a great way to add an element of texture and bringing a space together,” says Harrison-McAllister. “These ones are perfect for adding dried flowers or succulent plants to introduce some greenery at eye level and create a whole different experience for your entryway.”

Get the look: Shop these Goodpick jute hanging baskets from Amazon.

4. Mud cloth wallpaper

If you’re looking for an even bigger upgrade to make in your foyer this season, then you might just try out a mud cloth–inspired wallpaper like this one from @lizzydesigns_.

“One can imagine living in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan or chic Hayes Valley in San Francisco with this Bohemian style,” says Stallings. “Give your space a well-traveled look by pairing this with both modern pieces and vintage finds.”

Get the look: Find the perfect wall covering for your foyer by shopping this collection of mud cloth–inspired wallpapers from Etsy.

5. Pine cone chandelier

Another way to make a big statement and celebrate the harvest season is with a giant pine cone lamp like this one from @theottohouse.

“This statement fixture has such a Nordic and organic vibe to it, not to mention the filtered light detail that dances around the walls,” says Harrison-McAllister.

“Ceiling lights often get overlooked, but can make such a big impact in your home. This fixture not only offers a wooded element, but also has a sculptural appeal that turns a simple light fixture into a work of art,” she continues.

Article by Larissa Runkle

10 Halloween Safety Tips for Pets

Image: Mike McCune / via Flickr

Halloween can be a festive and fun time for children and families. But for pets? Let’s face it, it can be a nightmare. Skip the stress and keep your pets safe this year by following these 10 easy tips.

1. Trick-or-treat candies are not for pets.

All forms of chocolate—especially baking or dark chocolate—can be dangerous, even lethal, for dogs and cats. Symptoms of chocolate poisoning may include vomiting, diarrhea, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and seizures. Halloween candies containing the artificial sweetener xylitol can also be poisonous to dogs. Even small amounts of xylitol can cause a sudden drop in blood sugar and subsequent loss of coordination and seizures. “Xylitol ingestion can also cause liver failure in dogs, even if they don’t develop symptoms associated with low blood sugar,” adds Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD. And while xylitol toxicity in cats has yet to be established, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

2. Don’t leave pets out in the yard on Halloween.

Vicious pranksters have been known to tease, injure, steal, and even kill pets on Halloween night. Inexcusable? Yes! But preventable nonetheless. Black cats are especially at risk from pranks or other cruelty-related incidents. In fact, many shelters do not adopt out black cats during the month of October as a safety precaution. Make sure your black cats are safely housed indoors around Halloween.

3. Keep pets confined and away from the door.

Indoors is certainly better than outdoors on Halloween, but your door will be constantly opening and closing, and strangers will be on your doorstep dressed in unusual costumes. This, of course, can be scary for our furry friends, which can result in escape attempts or unexpected aggression. Putting your dog or cat in a secure crate or room away from the front door will reduce stress and prevent them from darting outside into the night…a night when no one wants to be searching for a lost loved one.

4. Keep glow sticks away from pets.

While glow sticks can help keep people safe on Halloween night, they can add some unwanted drama to the holiday if a pet chews one open. “Thankfully, the liquid inside glow sticks is non-toxic, so it won’t actually make pets sick,” Coates says, “but it does taste awful.” Pets who get into a glow stick may drool, paw at their mouth, become agitated, and sometimes even vomit. Coates recommends that if your pet does chew on a glow stick, “offer some fresh water or a small meal to help clear the material out of the mouth.”

5. Keep Halloween plants such as pumpkins and corn out of reach.

While small amounts of corn and pumpkin can be fed safely to many pets, ingesting uncooked, potentially moldy Halloween pumpkins or corn displays can cause big problems. Gastrointestinal upset is a possibility whenever pets eat something they aren’t used to, and intestinal blockage can occur if large pieces are swallowed. Coates adds that “some types of mold produce mycotoxins that can cause neurologic problems in dogs and cats.” So, keep the pumpkins and corn stalks away from your pets. And speaking of pumpkins…

6. Don’t keep lit pumpkins around pets.

If you are using candles to light your jack-o-lanterns or other Halloween decorations, make sure to place them well out of reach of your pets. Should they get too close, they run the risk of burning themselves or causing a fire.

7. Keep electric and battery-powered Halloween decorations out of reach.

Electric and battery-powered Halloween decorations are certainly safer than open candles, but they still can present a risk to pets. Pets who chew on electrical cords can receive a possibly life-threatening electrical shock or burn. Batteries may cause chemical burns when chewed open or gastrointestinalblockage if swallowed. Shards of glass or plastic can cause lacerations anywhere on the body or, if swallowed, within the gastrointestinal tract.

8. Don’t dress your pet in a costume unless you know they’ll love it.

If you do decide that Fido or Kitty needs a costume, make sure it isn’t dangerous or simply annoying to your pet. Costumes should not restrict movement, hearing, eyesight, or the ability to breathe. Coates warns that pets who are wearing a costume should always be supervised by a responsible adult so that if something goes wrong, it can be addressed right away.

9. Try on pet costumes before the big night.

Don’t wait until Halloween night to put your pet in a costume for the first time. “Any time you want to introduce your pet to something new, it’s best to go slowly,” Coates says. Get your pet costumes early, and put them on for short periods of time (and piece by piece, if possible). “Make it a positive experience by offering lots of praise and treats,” Coates adds. If at any time, your pet seems distressed or develops skin problems from contact with a costume, consider letting him go in his “birthday suit.” A festive bandana may be a good compromise.

10. IDs, please!

If your dog or cat should escape and become lost, having the proper identification will increase the chances that he or she will be returned. Collars and tags are ideal if a Good Samaritan is able to collect your wayward pet, but microchips offer permanent identification should the collar or tag fall off. Just make sure the information is up-to-date. Use Halloween as a yearly reminder to double check your address and phone number on tags and with the company who supports pet microchips.

Article by Vladimir Negron

Halloween Isn’t Canceled! Here’s How To Celebrate the Holiday Without Getting—or Spreading—COVID-19

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In a year full of canceled vacations, socially distant celebrations, and postponed events, we’re all desperate to hold on to any festivity and sense of normalcy we can get our hands on—including Halloween.

The tradition of going door to door for candy or inching your way through a haunted house is a sketchy proposition in a pandemic world. But if the idea of sacrificing Halloween altogether this year is just too spooky to endure, we talked with health experts about ways you can celebrate while keeping a safe distance from others and minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. We’re here to save Halloween, folks!

Reimagine Halloween festivities for the social distancing era

It’s hard to imagine hordes of kids walking door to door and asking for candy these days.

But just because you can’t do Halloween the same way this year doesn’t mean you have to forgo your favorite activities. Take haunted houses, for example: An indoor haunted house would be a real nightmare during a pandemic. But with a little creativity, you can still enjoy the experience.

“I’ve heard of groups putting together drive-through haunted house experiences, which seems like a fun but safe way to get into the Halloween spirit,” says Dr.Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

And let’s face it: Halloween wouldn’t be the same without candy. But trick-or-treating is tough to pull off without making contact with the neighbors. One solution? Give your Halloween candy the Easter egg treatment.

“You may choose to skip trick-or-treating completely and do a scavenger hunt with your children to find Halloween-themed items as they walk through the neighborhood looking at the decorations from a distance,” says Dr. Kavita Shanker-Patel, a family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “A socially distanced Halloween costume parade is also another fun way to help kids enjoy the holiday.”

Get creative about doling out candy

Trick-or-treating inherently comes with some risk of spreading the virus; any activity where social distancing is hard to maintain presents a moderate risk, Shanker-Patel says.

If your neighborhood is intent on keeping the trick-or-treat spirit alive this year, you’ll need to rethink the traditional method of handing out candy from your doorstep.

You might be tempted to leave a bowl of candy in front of the house so kids can help themselves, but this isn’t a good idea either—it just creates a free-for-all for germs to spread.

“I don’t recommend leaving candy in a bowl where many hands will come into contact with it,” Moorjani says. “I’ve heard of people creating ‘candy chutes’ where they slide treats to trick-or-treaters in a contactless, but fun way.”

Another candy bowl alternative is to spread out pieces of candy on a table (or in individually wrapped goodie bags), Shanker-Patel says. “As the children walk by, they can pick them up on their own.”

No matter how you dole out the sweet stuff, it’s important for all treats to be individually wrapped or sealed. Don’t forget to thoroughly wash or sanitize your hands before handling treats.

If you go trick-or-treating, plan your route

As you traverse the neighborhood, avoid gathering in large groups or making contact with anyone outside of your household. You may need to zigzag across the street more often than usual, or set up parameters in your neighborhood to limit trick-or-treating routes. For example, if you have an even-numbered address, maybe you trick-or-treat only on the even side of the street.

Homeowners can also do their part by clearly marking what a safe distance looks like.

“It may be helpful to draw markings along the sidewalk and driveway indicating 6-feet distance,” Shanker-Patel says.

And don’t leave home without this year’s hottest Halloween accessories: a bottle of hand sanitizer and a mask that covers your mouth and nose.

Mask up (costume masks don’t count)

Speaking of masks, you can’t rely on a mask that’s part of your costume to do the job of keeping you and others safe.

“A Halloween costume mask does not suffice, unless it is made of two or more layers of breathable fabric that covers the mouth and nose and doesn’t leave gaps around the face,” Shanker-Patel says.

Encourage proper hygiene before kids chow down

Resist the temptation to start snacking on your candy before you get home. This year, you’ll want to be extra careful before diving into your hard-earned loot.

“Right now, we don’t have any research or data that would suggest that kids need to wait a certain amount of time before eating candy,” Moorjani says, but “we still encourage proper hand hygiene for everyone before consuming Halloween candy and treats. And just like any year, don’t let your children consume candy that is not properly wrapped or sealed.”

Embrace new traditions

Sure, it’s going to be a little different from last year, but that doesn’t mean Halloween is canceled.

“Families have the opportunity to create new Halloween traditions,” Moorjani says. “Kids can still dress up in costumes at home, they can watch family Halloween movies together, and they can create Halloween-themed treats or arts and crafts.”

And remember: Outdoor activities like hayrides and pumpkin patches might still be open in your area, but that doesn’t mean they’re 100% safe.

“As always, limiting exposure to others is the most effective way of containing the spread of this disease, so if you don’t have to do these things, then we recommend you don’t,” Shanker-Patel says.

Article by Lauren Sieben

Halloween Deviled Tea Eggs

Photograph by Ryan Dausch

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup dark soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons chili oil
  • 2 tablespoons loose black tea leaves
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 12 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Orange gel food coloring
  • Black sesame seeds, for garnish

Directions

  1. Combine 7 cups water, the soy sauce, chili oil, tea leaves, five-spice powder, 2 teaspoons salt and the sugar in a medium pot over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, uncover and let cool completely.
  2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Gently add the eggs and cook for 7 minutes. Remove the eggs and transfer to a bowl of ice water; let stand until cool to the touch.
  3. Once the eggs have cooled, lightly crack the shells all over. The goal here is to make enough cracks to allow the flavor of the soy sauce mixture to steep into the egg. (You can also put them on a kitchen towel and roll gently.) Add the cracked eggs to the soy sauce mixture, making sure they are completely submerged. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
  4. Peel the eggs. Cut a small piece off the wide bottom of each egg so it will sit flat, then cut off the top. Scoop out the egg yolks into a small bowl and mash them up with a fork. Stir in the mayonnaise, mustard, Sriracha, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Tint orange with food coloring.
  5. Pipe or scoop the filling into the egg whites. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

RECIPE COURTESY OF MANEET CHAUHAN

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