Sizzling Trends in Outdoor Cooking

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Outdoor cooking has become a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. Here are the hottest trends fresh off the grill.

It started so simply. In the era of black and white TV, dear old dad hovered over the charcoal grill, torching burgers and hot dogs. Much later came larger cart-style grills burning either charcoal or propane gas, and with it came a whole genre of gourmet recipes developed for outdoor cooking. Today, outdoor kitchens can rival the indoor counterpart in functionality and luxury. TV shows, books and videos abound for transforming you into a grill gourmand.

Outdoor living space.  A well-designed outdoor cooking area should be ensconced in an appealing living space such as a spacious patio or deck. A built-in kitchen should rise from that base in a rock or decking material that matches or complements the base. Cabinets, made of stainless steel or other weather-resistant material, provide storage and a stainless steel grill crowns the top. A propane tank stores in a cabinet under the grill, or consider a natural gas supply line installed by a professional.

The center of it all: the grill.  Today’s grills come with as many as a dozen burners with over 40,000 BTUs, warming racks, smokers on the side and warming surfaces for sauces and side dishes. If you like the convenience of propane, but still love the aroma of charcoal, how about having both with a hybrid grill? Your counter-cabinet space can house a deep fryer, and one of the latest trends, a brick, ceramic or stainless steel pizza oven.

More than just a grill.  The grill is still the centerpiece, but the accoutrements of an indoor kitchen play a supporting role: granite counter tops, a built-in sink, a cutting board-prep surface, a mini refrigerator, a wine cooler. Increasingly, the outdoor kitchen can do anything the indoor one can do.

Don’t bust your budget. All of these wow-inducing features may be outside your budget. Not to worry. You can still have a nice stainless steel grill for an affordable price from a home improvement center or specialty shop. Even a built-in unit need not cost thousands, particularly if you are a DIY-type who can design and build your own. Research plans online for one that suits you and your bank account.

When Is It Time to Reduce your List Price?

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If your house has been up for sale for two months — or longer — without a nibble of interest, it’s probably time to ask yourself some tough questions. What causes a house to languish on the market and when should you lower the price?

Pinpoint the problem. With a Comparative Market Analysis or CMA of recent sales prices, you should have listed the house at an attractive price. Did you make obvious repairs, and declutter and clean the house until it shines? Have you had an open house? Have you staged the home? Try to figure out why buyers aren’t seeing the value of the house in relation to your price.

Examine feedback. Review the feedback provided by prospective buyers who have toured your home. Your real estate agent can set this up for you. If buyers consistently list the same negatives, you’ve found your problem. Is your home a two-bedroom, one-bath model? Is there a railroad track nearby? Does the home smell like cigarette smoke? Fix what you can immediately. What cannot be fixed must be addressed in price.

Check the competition. Look at other houses for sale nearby that are similar to yours. What do they have that you don’t?  Drop in on open houses. For homes already sold, find out what you can about special features that might have raised their final sales price. Your buyer’s agent should be able to obtain this information through the listing agent.

Seasonal sales. Spring and summer are the busiest season for home sales. If you’re selling in the winter, buyers expect better deals and may have considered your home overpriced.

Search parameters. Is your home price just above a common online search parameter? For example, prospective buyers may search for homes ranging in price from $200,000 to $250,000. If you price your home at $260,000, your home will be excluded from many online searches. If you want to sell for $250,000, a savvy agent will steer you toward listing at $249,900 so that you don’t fall just outside of buyers’ search parameters, thereby missing out on good prospects.

Agent expertise.  An aggressive, forward thinking agent should be investing significant time and effort in marketing your home. Relying solely on the Multiple Listing Service and a sign in the yard is not a good strategy. Your agent should assist you in staging your home correctly, getting professional photographs taken, sending direct mail advertising, and posting your listing to social media platforms.

How much to reduce? If, in the final analysis, you need to reduce your price, carefully consider all the factors discussed above and make a decision with the help of your agent.

Hiring a Plumber

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You’ve decided to sell your home, which means it’s time to fix that slow drip in the upstairs hall bathroom. Or perhaps you’ve been setting aside the cash to do a major renovation, including a new sink, tub and shower. Or maybe your home is in desperate need of a replacement hot water tank. All three scenarios lead you to the same question: How do you go about finding a reputable, competent plumber?

Plumbers, like most people in the trades, specialize either in repairs for homes and businesses or installation jobs for  construction projects. The construction experts aren’t likely to be willing to do your fix-it job, so when you search for a plumber, seek out the right people. Ask questions about what types of work they will do. If a plumber isn’t a good match, ask for referrals.

Once you’re found the right plumber for the job, you can expect him or her to identify the source of the problem, provide you with a written estimate, use protective covering on surrounding floors, do the work on a timely basis, and clean up afterward.

Finding a good plumber requires doing your homework — just as it does when you’re hiring any contractor to work in your home. Seek out personal referrals from friends, family, neighbors and coworkers, and then use the internet to vet the companies. Use sites like Home Advisor, Yelp, Trusted Pros and Angie’s List.

The Better Business Bureau is also a stalwart source of information, which you can find at www.bbb.org. Look for contractors who are part of the bureau’s “accredited” program, meaning they have agreed to the group’s standards for handling customers with integrity. You will also be able to see how long companies have been in business, their complaint histories and how they’ve handled them.

Longevity in business is a good sign, because poorly run businesses don’t last. A contractor in business for decades is doing something right.

Plumbers are required to be licensed in each state in which they do business. Using the link provided by the Better Business Bureau, go to the state licensing agency’s website to search for plumbers you are considering. Also, check to see if the plumber in question carries liability insurance and worker’s compensation if employees will be on your job site.

Several online sites provide consumer reviews, but exercise caution when reading these. Comments, both pro and con, are often not verified for accuracy.

Obtain three written bids from contractors. The cheapest and most expensive bids are not necessarily indicators of which to choose. Be sure to get an estimate on how long the job should take. Ask yourself if you’ll be happy working closely with one of the contractors.

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The Multiple Listing Service, or MLS as it is known in the real estate world, is the No. 1 source of listing information on homes for sale in the United States. Whether buying or selling, the MLS plays a big role in the marketing and sales of homes across the country.

What exactly is the MLS? The Multiple Listing Service is a real estate database, organized by region, that contains the most up-to-date information on properties for sale. The data is sourced from subsidiary sites and can be sorted many consumer-friendly ways, including by ZIP code, city or town. Searches can be further defined by price, square footage and other helpful parameters.

Who can use the MLS? In some states, only members of the National Association of Realtors™ can use the MLS on behalf of clients. Other localities may only require an active real estate license to access the database. A seller’s agent will add client properties to the database. Agents working on behalf of buyers will comb the database looking for properties that best match what a client is looking for in a new home. Properties sold by owner do not appear on the MLS.

What are the advantages to using the MLS? The Multiple Listing Service provides one-stop shopping, listing thousands of properties and the corresponding details on each, including square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms and photos. It gives potential buyers quick and easy access to a wealth of information on all the properties professionally listed in a particular area. For sellers, the MLS provides instant — and wide — advertising exposure to all interested buyers in the area working with a real estate professional. Working with a licensed real estate agent will give you the quickest access to the most current data.

Choosing the Best Mortgage for You

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Shopping for a home also means shopping for a mortgage. If this is all new to you, the multitude of mortgage types might be confusing. Here’s what you need to know.

Fixed-rate mortgage. The fixed-rate mortgage is the most traditional way to finance a home. Typically available in fifteen- and thirty-year terms, the loan’s interest rate remains the same throughout the life of the loan. The rate will be higher for a thirty-year note than a fifteen-year note, but because the pay off on the fifteen-year loan is shorter, the monthly principal and interest payment is higher. The benefit is that you save tens of thousands of dollars in interest paid over the life of the shorter loan. If you can’t afford a fifteen-year loan, take out a thirty-year loan and pay a little extra toward principal each month, shaving thousands of dollars off your loan.

Adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). With an adjustable-rate mortgage, the interest rate in the initial five years is lower, then “resets” at a higher or lower rate thereafter, depending on a predetermined formula. There are other starter periods available, but the most popular is the five-year. Generally, the starter rate is lower than the current fixed-rate mortgages available.

As an example, say you take out a “5/1” adjustable-rate mortgage. That ratio refers to the five years of the initial fixed rate, the one means that the rate can adjust each year thereafter. The amount of the adjustment will be linked to a market index, plus a two- or three-point added margin. Let’s say the initial five-year rate is 3.5 percent. Then, assume that the index is tied to the yield on U.S. Treasury bills, which at the reset is 2 percent. In this example you would pay 3.5 percent interest for the first five years, but in the sixth year you’d pay 5 percent: the 2 percent index rate plus the 3 percent margin. The next year it would reset again, higher or lower, by the same formula.

Don’t agree to the terms of the loan unless you clearly understand them. ARM loans offer caps on how much the rate can go up per year, or how much it can rise over the life of the loan. An ARM might make sense if you think you will sell before the five-year initial period is up. The obvious risk with an ARM comes after the initial period, if the rate increases and you can’t afford your payment. ARM loan foreclosures played a major role in the housing crash in 2008.

Interest-only loans. An interest-only loan also offers lower payments for an initial period followed by a substantial increase. In this case, during the initial years no principal is being paid, only interest. The monthly savings can be considerable, but the spike at the end of the initial period can sting. Homeowners with this type of loan also aren’t building equity so it’s not surprising that Interest-only loans were another contributor to the 2008 housing crash.

Piggyback loans. For borrowers with limited money for a down payment, a piggyback loan could help. In this arrangement, the lender loans an amount equal to 80 percent of the house value, then lends a smaller home equity loan equal to 10 percent of the home value. The two loans are “piggybacked” atop one another. The borrower only has to come up with the remaining 10 percent for a down payment. This arrangement also helps the borrower avoid paying private mortgage insurance.

Piggyback loans have their own drawbacks. The smaller loan is usually for a shorter term and the payment is typically high. In addition, the smaller loan creates a second lien on the property, so the borrower must be equally faithful to it or risk foreclosure. Finally, with only a 10 percent down payment, the buyer has less equity from the start.

Spec Home Buying: Pros and Cons

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When shopping for a new home, one of the options you may encounter is a builder’s spec home. Builders construct “spec” homes, short for speculative, hoping to interest a buyer who needs a home as soon as possible. Typically, all that is left to be done in a spec home are the finishing touches, such as interior paint, flooring and countertops. What are the advantages and disadvantages of buying a spec home versus building a home from the start?

Building from the start. Whether working with a custom builder or a tract builder, building from the ground up means being more involved in the decision process. At each step, buyers have choices in the lot,  floor plan, design touches, colors, counters and more. The end result is a home that suits your tastes. The downside is that building takes months and could face weather delays.

An almost-instant home. The biggest advantage to buying a builder spec is the speed at which you can be moved in. The house may be finished, or you may get to choose a few things, such as paint and flooring. Since most of it will be interior work, weather won’t delay the project. If the builder has been doing a lot of spec homes, he or she has probably learned what is popular with buyers, so there’s a good chance you’ll like what you see.

The downside to a spec home is that most of the major design decisions will already be made so you won’t likely be able to change aspects of the floorplan or the front elevation. When it comes to negotiating the purchase of a spec home, you may have some negotiating leverage. The longer a builder has carried the cost of the home, the more likely you can score a deal.

Construction Loans: The Difference is In the Closing

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When planning to build a custom home, buyers have their choice of two types of construction loans. The traditional type involves two closings, one for the construction phase and one for the permanent mortgage. The newer, more popular version is the so-called one-time close, also called a construction-to-permanent loan. Here’s how they differ.

Getting started.  With any construction loan, the lender will want a construction plan, including an expected schedule for each phase. Once you have loan approval, the homeowners will request portions of the money at the completion of each phase. This “draw schedule” is mapped out during the loan-approval process, then implemented throughout construction.

Construction loans are a greater risk for lenders since the collateral for the loan, the house, doesn’t exist at the start of the process, although they only disperse as much as is needed for each completed phase. Expect to put 20 percent down.

The traditional closing.  With this type of loan, homeowners make interest-only payments on the portion of the loan that has been paid out. Each draw increases that interest payment. At the end of construction, when the lender is satisfied that the house has been completed as planned and all subcontractors paid, you have a second closing at which time the construction loan is essentially refinanced into a permanent mortgage.

One of the pros to this type of loan is its flexibility. If you encounter cost overruns, you can add to the loan amount along the way. Rates are often lower than loans that are permanent from the start. There are significant drawbacks, however. Two closings mean double the closing costs. Second, if interest rates rise while you are in the construction phase, your permanent loan could be higher than anticipated. And finally, if you for some reason can’t get approved for the permanent mortgage, you could face foreclosure.

One-time close loans. The construction-to-permanent loan has become very popular. It combines the construction financing and permanent mortgage into one. The draw payment for each phase of the building process works the same, but the entire loan process is done at the start. These loans work best if you are reasonably certain of the construction costs and expect no surprise increases along the way. Homeowners save money with only one closing. However, if you encounter unexpected costs, an outside loan might be necessary. A final point to consider is the interest rate, which might be higher than the combined rates on the traditional two-step process.

Seller Responsibilities to Close a Home Sale

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The moment a sales contract is signed, the clock begins ticking for both buyer and seller to fulfil contractual obligations. The seller must provide important documents to the buyer. Many, but not all, of these items are procured by the title company or attorney hired to facilitate the transaction.

Items the seller provides. A title company or attorney, which varies by state, acts as a third-party administrator of the transaction between the buyer and seller. The title company or attorney holds money in escrow, researches and provides documents that each party will need, and delivers them at closing.  In some states, both an attorney and a title company play a role. These documents include:

  • Certificate of title. A title company examines public record and determines that the seller has the legal right to offer the property for sale. If the title is clear, a certificate of title is issued.
  • Survey. Although the buyer’s mortgage company will order a new survey of the property, the existing survey will serve as a reference point for the surveyor hired to do the work.
  • Encumbrances.  If the property has any liens or encroachments by neighboring property owners, the title company will report those. Liens will need to be settled for the deal to close and the property conveyed to the buyer. The seller must provide proof that liens have been satisfied and the title is clear. Liens can be the current owner’s mortgage, tax liens, or mechanic’s liens for unpaid contractor work. Both liens and encroachments must be settled for the new mortgage company to underwrite the loan for the buyer.
  • Deed. Upon closing, the seller provides deed to the property. This is the key document that legally transfers title to the property to the buyer or to a trustee who holds it during the years that a mortgage is being paid.
  • HOA transfer documents. In a neighborhood with mandatory membership in a homeowners association, the seller must provide the covenants and declarations of the organization as well as the residents’ rules and regulations. Typically, a transfer fee is paid to the association for the change in homeowner membership.

Besides these documents and payments, the seller, in many states, will be required to provide a detailed description of the property’s condition on a state-approved form shortly after contract signing. Sellers must also provide access to the property for the buyer’s inspector and for the mortgage company to send an appraiser. The seller must have all personal property removed by closing or a date agreed upon in the contract.

Through the title company or attorney, proceeds of the sale must be applied against the current mortgage and that lien released. Finally, the seller must provide all keys, garage door openers, lock codes and other access devices to the property at closing.

Throughout the process, breaches by the seller can trigger clauses in the contract allowing the buyer to terminate the deal without loss of earnest money. Depending on the terms of the contract, the buyer may be able to recover any costs incurred as part of the transaction. In some cases the buyer can sue for “specific performance,” requesting that the court force the seller to complete the sale as originally spelled out in the contract.

 

Do High Power Lines Endanger Our Health?

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As technology has grown and land has become more scarce, more and more subdivisions are being built near high tension power lines. Is this potentially harmful to residents’ health?

The National Institutes of Health, the agency of the federal government commissioned with researching and analyzing health and medical topics, has devoted considerable research to this topic.

In summary, the NIH research has shown that electromagnetic fields by most electronic and electrical sources are on the low frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Low frequency electromagnetic radiation has shown a very tenuous link to any sort of health problem. Electromagnetic fields at the low end of the spectrum are not capable of disrupting cells and DNA.

Check the NIH page on electromagnetism to read the agency’s full explanation.

The internet is an amazing source of information and also misinformation. Be wary of information on questionable websites.

A more reasonable concern, as a potential homeowner, might be future resale value. Since most people consider high tension power lines an eyesore, nearby homes are likely to be a tough sell. Homeowners also are fearful that lines will be knocked down during a storm. In a storm’s aftermath always stay clear of downed power lines and call authorities immediately.

What to Do About Tobacco Smoke Odor in a House

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The lingering odor of cigarette smoke makes any house a tough sell. It will take longer to find a willing buyer and will likely bring a lower price. Unless, of course, the seller is up for the challenge of a floor-to-ceiling scrubbing. Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Floors to ceilings. Unlike pet odors that are mostly contained to soiled areas, the smell of smoke permeates an entire house so begin by opening up the doors and windows while you work on eradicating the smell. Using a solution of one cup of white vinegar to a bucket of water, scrub all painted surfaces, including ceilings. Once the top layer of nicotine film is removed, apply a primer called Kilz, then two coats of fresh paint.

Be prepared to spend the money to replace any carpeting and to refinish hardwoods. Next, go over every surface in the home, using soap and water, vinegar and water, or, when necessary, cleaners made specifically for certain products such as granite or Corian. Windows, trim, ceiling fans, light fixtures and switches — every surface must be scrubbed.

Furniture, clothing and other possessions. Since every item in the house has been exposed to smoke, they, too, must be cleaned. Launder every piece of clothing in the house; air out books and other paper products; and professionally clean upholstered furniture and drapery. On nice days, put furniture outside to air out in the sun and breeze.

Time to declutter. Now is the time to get rid of any unneeded or unwanted items you’ve collected over the years. The fewer items you have, the less cleaning you’ll need to do.

Heating and air system.  Although the air intake filters caught some of the smoke, the ducts will need to be professionally cleaned.

Air purifying systems. Consider running air purifiers in your home to trap odors. Electric air cleaners ionize odor particles while HEPA air filters use charcoal filters to trap odor particles.

After the cleaning. If possible open most of the windows in your  home just before a showing. Take the time to bake a batch of cookies or grind coffee beans, too. These more natural smells will go along way toward attracting buyers.

What not to do. Incense or scented candles will not successfully mask the odor left by tobacco smoke. Prospective buyers are smarter than that.

It goes without saying. Do not introduce new smoke into the home while it’s on the market.