(BPT) - Warm weather heralds home improvement season. It’s also the season of high electric bills as air conditioners hum to life in response to rising temperatures across the country. When you’re making summer upgrades to your home, improvements that make your house more livable and attractive are even more rewarding when they also help put money back in your pocket.
What better way to get money back than to save on your taxes? A host of energy-efficient home improvements are eligible for federal tax breaks. You may also find your state or local government, or local utility company, has programs to reward homeowners who make energy-saving upgrades.
If you’re planning summer home improvements, here are some facts about energy efficient upgrades and available tax credits:
* The federal government offers tax credits for qualified improvements in five categories, according to EnergyStar.gov: biomass stoves; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; insulation; metal and asphalt roofs; non-solar water heaters; and windows and doors. The credits are available only when you make qualified improvements to your primary residence, and are set to expire at the end of this year. It’s anyone’s guess if the government will extend them or introduce some other incentives.
* Other federal tax credits are available for geothermal heat pumps, small residential wind turbines, and solar energy systems. These credits refund you 30 percent of the cost of both the product and installation, and with no upper limit. The credits apply to both principal homes and second residences, both new and older homes. Rentals do not qualify.
* Energy Star rates products for their energy efficiency, but not all products or home improvements will qualify for a tax credit. Check out EnergyStar.gov for a more complete list of products/improvements and a more thorough explanation of the tax credit program.-
* While many energy-efficient home improvements such as solar water heating systems may initially cost more than less conservation-minded options, these upgrades ultimately pay for themselves by helping save money on your utility bills. And if you use photovoltaic collectors (PV) to generate power - in addition to solar thermal collectors for heating water - you may actually make money off the PV system by selling excess power you generate back to the local electric company.
While some energy-efficient improvements might seem obviously deserving of a tax credit - such as adding insulation or replacing older, inefficient air conditioning units with Energy Star-rated ones - other upgrades may surprise you. Making these improvements not only stretches your dollar in the form of a qualifying tax credit, they can also enhance the beauty and livability of your home.
For example, a wood-burning stove adds ambiance and comfort, while reducing your dependence on costlier fuels to heat your home. It also may qualify for the federal tax credit, according to EnergyStar.gov, as a biomass stove. Biomass-burning stoves with a thermal efficiency rating of at least 75 percent may qualify for up to $300 in tax credits.
Skylights and efficiency-enhancing accessories such as blinds can also qualify under the windows and doors category. By installing a new skylight, or replacing an older, existing one with a new Energy Star-qualified one, you can save on your tax bill while reducing utility costs. Natural light minimizes the need to spend money powering artificial lights.
The savings add up even further if you choose to install skylights that rely on solar power to operate the motor that opens and closes them. Skylights equipped with automatic rain sensors and accessories like designer solar-powered blinds, qualify for the 30 percent product and installation credit given solar energy systems.
These daylighting and fresh air systems can improve a skylight’s overall energy efficiency by up to 37 percent, according to skylight manufacturer Velux America. You can find a tax calculator that will show you the benefits of new or replacement skylights at www.veluxusa.com. There’s also a skylight planner app there to show you how skylights and blinds will look in your own home.
In addition to the federal tax credits, many states offer their own programs for homeowners. You can find information about tax credits and incentives available in your state by logging on to energy.gov/savings. And you should always consult a tax professional if you have questions regarding eligibility.
Smartphone cameras are quickly replacing basic digital cameras for snapping photos on the go, and for good reason. Capturing a memorable moment is easy with your cellphone at your side, but if you aren’t sure what you’re doing, you may end up with fuzzy, dark or distorted pictures. To help you get the most out of your smartphone’s camera capabilities, Stephen Sneeden, Xperia product marketing manager at Sony Mobile Communications, offers some expert tips:
Tip No. 1: Get to know your device
Most new smartphone cameras offer multiple camera functions, effects, settings and options. It’s important to learn what’s available on your phone so you don’t miss a beat. Visit the manufacturer’s website or check out tutorial videos on YouTube - many phone makers now make these available to consumers for free.
Tip No. 2: Know when to use certain functions - and when to turn them off
While your smartphone camera may have a flash, zoom and other features, sometimes those functions won’t be optimum for the conditions in which you’re shooting. For example, turning off the flash may help prevent glare, bright spots and red-eye in certain situations. Zooming may cause an image to degrade or blur; you may want to shoot the entire image and then use editing software to crop it for the portion of the image you want to focus on.
Tip No. 3: Consider an upgrade
Technology is ever-evolving, and smartphone cameras are constantly being improved. If you’ve had your phone for a while and aren’t happy with the photos it takes, it may be time for an upgrade. When shopping, analyze key camera elements like megapixel count, sensor quality, user interface and ease of use. Most smartphones have 8 megapixel, primary cameras. The Xperia ZL from Sony outshines that standard with a 13 megapixel camera and HDR (high dynamic range) for photos and videos.
Tip No. 4: Make the most of HD technology
High resolution capabilities are a significant advantage for smartphone videographers. Look for cameras that offer Full HD recording. This function gives you the ability to capture details that translate well on larger HD screens like that of a TV.
Tip No. 5: Download free photo apps
Enhance your phone’s photo capabilities with some of today’s best photo apps that cost absolutely nothing. The award-winning application Snapseed (iOS, Android) allows you to adjust saturation, color levels, brightness, contrast as well as edit and enhance styling with a variety of filters. Quickly crop, edit and fix flaws with Adobe’s Photoshop Express (iOS, Android). Of course, social media junkies love Instagram (Android, iOS) because it’s a snap to share photos across social networks like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.
Tip No 6: Don’t forget photo basics
The principles of good picture-taking remain the same, no matter what kind of camera you use. That means it’s important to keep the lens clean, carefully frame the shot, fill the frame with your subject, make sure the image is in focus, pay attention to lighting, and when photographing kids and pets get on the same level as your subject.
Thirty-two percent of American households are renters, according to the National Multi Housing Council. Generally, more people younger than 30 occupy rentals, while the percentage of people who own their home increases with age, NMHC statistics indicate. People decide to buy a home for many reasons, but the recent real estate market downturn caused many Americans to rethink their assumptions about renting and owning.
Even with many real estate experts predicting the market will continue to improve, it pays to carefully evaluate how home ownership does - or doesn’t - figure into your long-term financial goals. If you’ve been renting and wondering if it’s time to apply for a mortgage and buy your own home, consider these points:
1. Renting isn’t always the cheaper option, and comparing your monthly rent payment directly to a mortgage payment won’t give you a clear picture of the financial impact of either option. Online calculators, like Guaranteed Rate’s rent vs. buy online calculator, can give you a better understanding of the comparison. With mortgage rates consistently low and rental markets competitive across the country, real estate experts agree that in most major metropolitan areas it will still be cheaper in the long run to buy than continue to rent.
2. While the days of zero-money-down mortgages are essentially over, it’s a misconception that you need a huge amount of money to buy a house. Yes, you’ll almost certainly need a down payment, but different lenders will require different percentages. Research your mortgage options before you begin house hunting so you’ll know how much you’ll need to save in order to secure a mortgage - and the home of your dreams.
3. Although the mortgage application process is detailed, it doesn’t have to be drawn out and tedious. Many lenders now allow you to initiate the process online, and Guaranteed Rate has recently overhauled its website to allow borrowers to apply for a loan, track the approval process and receive their home loans all online. The eighth-largest retail mortgage company in the U.S. allows customers to choose and customize their loans, submit an application and receive an official approval letter all at www.guaranteedrate.com. Automating the application process compresses the traditional time frame from days - sometimes, even weeks - into minutes. As part of the process, applicants also receive the credit reports from all three major credit bureaus.
4. Buying a home affords you the opportunity to really grow your roots, but the flipside is that in order to get the most out of your investment, you need to stay put for a while. If you anticipate being in your current job and living in your current town for at least five years, the long-term investment of buying a house will make more sense for you. If you anticipate a job change or a move within a few years, you may want to hold off on buying a house. The good news is, doing so gives you more time to save toward a down payment so you’ll look even more appealing to lenders when you are ready to buy.
While only you can decide if homeownership is right for you and your family - and if now is the right time to buy - keep in mind a few statistics from Trulia.com: 42 percent of renters say they regret not having bought a home, and 31 percent say they want to buy a home in the next two years.
Permanent Change of Station (PCS) and Personally Procured Moves (PPM) come with military assistance to help soldiers and their families make the transition. Families can also take advantage of the do-it-yourself (DITY) option offered by the military, which could make the overall transition much smoother.
No matter how quickly the move happens, or what kind of moving assistance your family requests, here are some moving tips from Penske Truck Rental to help keep everything in order.
* Planning - PCS notifications can come without a lot of warning, or families may know about a potential move far in advance. For both instances, getting a plan in place is a good start. Gather important information into one folder, containing phone numbers, contact names, dates, receipts and checklists in this folder so you can easily track everything about your move. For some planning tools that focus specifically on military moves, visit the U.S. Department of Defense website.
* Moving - Many families choose the DITY option because it gives them more control over the move, and they can also potentially make some money in the process. The military provides an allotted cost for moving, and if you can come under that cost through your own planning, the military will pay you the difference. For example, Penske Truck Rental offers active military personnel a 10 percent discount when they reserve a truck online, and an additional 10 percent off when they show an active military ID while picking up the truck. Penske will price-match any competitive offers on one-way truck rentals as well. Visit www.DITYmove.com to learn more.
* Weights - Military rules require soldiers to certify the weight of the rental vehicle when empty and after it’s fully loaded. Weight limit reimbursements are set depending on a soldier’s rank and dependents, but the traditional weights are estimated at 1,000 pounds per room, excluding bathrooms and storage areas. Then add in the estimated weight of large appliances, garage items and items in storage. Compare this number to what is allowed and determine if you can reduce the load in any way to avoid paying overweight costs. To help with weight certifications, Penske offers a Certified Public Scale locator tool online to help DITY movers in finding weigh stations.
* Contact info - File a change of address form at your local post office so mail can be forwarded, and also make certain your new information is updated with your specific branch of the military.
* Explore - Get to know your new neighborhood, both on and off base. If you have children, explore the schools and the after-school activities available. Learn a bit about the city’s history and gather information on the services the city offers so that on moving day, your water and electricity will be available when it’s needed.
When in the military, a move is practically inevitable, but the process can be much less stressful on both emotions and finances with a little organization and planning from the get-go.
Gone are the days when hackers were the weekend enthusiasts you tolerated on the golf course, when viruses were the things that gave you the flu or a cold, and Phish was a popular jam band who served as the inspiration for your favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s. With the rise of the Internet and electronic devices has come the rise of cyber-related crime.
Cybercrime, as it is called, is defined as a criminal activity using computers or other electronic devices to victimize people, organizations or businesses.
"Despite improved security and international crackdown efforts, cybercrime has thrived over the last decade, growing by double digits year after year," says Clint Kirkwood, a professor of Criminal Justice at Argosy University, Orange County and 28-year veteran and retired commanding officer of the vice section of the narcotics division of the Detroit Police Department. While estimates of the cost of cyber crime to businesses and the private sector vary, a 2012 publication released by Javelin Strategy and Research, the annual cost of identity theft alone was $37 billion. "Today, some of the most successful criminals do not have to leave the comfort of their own homes to pull off crimes bigger than ever. All they need is an Internet connection, a little tech savvy and a lot of bad will," says Kirkwood.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center received more than 300,000 complaints in 2012, which included such crimes as FBI-related scams, identity theft, advance fee fraud and a host of romance, work-from-home, auto auction, loan intimidation and other scams.
"Since the take-off of social networking and the paperless way of conducting business, cyber-based criminal activity has skyrocketed in many corners of the world," says Gary Gonzales, a professor in the Criminal Justice program at Argosy University, San Diego and police detective in his 16th year of service with the San Diego Police Department. "Criminals are masking themselves as potential customers, clients or even professionals to lure innocent people into a web of deception and greed. From copyright infringement and cyber bullying to child pornography and spamming, the impact is enormous."
Knowing the threats you face online and the tools available to help you keep a watchful eye is critical in protecting yourself in the digital world. There are simple precautions that computer, mobile phone and other digital users can take to ensure their safety. Do not open emails/attachments from unknown or suspicious sources, nor answer email messages that ask for your personal information.
"The widows of Nigerian generals desperately seeking your financial assistance and notifications that you’ve won a European lottery are obvious scams but some email fraud can be much more difficult to distinguish," says Arabinda Banerjee, senior vice president of Technology Infrastructure at a leading bank in Tampa, Florida and faculty member at Argosy University, Tampa.
"In general, if it seems too good to be true or requires you to send money in to receive a reward, be sure to avoid it. Emails with vague but feel-good subject lines like ‘Congratulations!’ or the name of a friend and the message ‘has shared a picture/video’ can be malicious emails, even when apparently sent out by one of your friends." Do an Internet search using the term ‘scam’ and some of the key words from the message, advises Banerjee. If it’s a known scam, you’ll likely see it pop up in your search engine results.
Invest in a good anti-virus software and firewall, the experts suggest. While this will not guarantee 100 percent protection, they will definitely reduce your risk greatly. Be sure that any WiFi connection you are using to conduct financial business is locked and protected and any stores you are making purchases from are reputable. In addition, be sure to monitor your financial accounts monthly to determine any fraudulent charges and report suspicious activity immediately.
Change your passwords frequently and create passwords that are difficult to guess. Do not use the same ID/password in all websites. While keeping track of multiple logins and passwords may be an inconvenience, it’s a necessary protection against hackers.
Nearly two-thirds of surveyed homeowners report that a home inspection during the selling or buying of a house saved them money.|
Selling, buying or just putting a house on the market may raise many questions. Can I get a good price? Are there any problems I should fix prior to listing my house? If I buy this house, will I encounter problems that may make me regret my decision?
The sale price of a house depends on many factors, including the market, location, size of the property, age of the house, condition of the structure, what appliances might be included in the sale and even how nicely the property and building were landscaped and decorated - just to name a few.
Having a qualified professional inspect your house prior to putting it on the market - or for prospective buyers, before closing on a sale - can help guide your decision. But many homeowners and prospective buyers are unsure what’s included in a standard home inspection, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). A qualified home inspector will review these aspects of a property:
- Roof, attic and visible insulation
- Foundation, basement and structural components
- Walls, ceilings and floors
- Heating and central air conditioning systems
- Windows and doors
- Water fixtures and faucets
Nearly two out of three homeowners recently surveyed by ASHI reported they saved a lot of money as a result of having a home inspection during the selling/buying of a house. Sellers use inspections to help determine potential problems that can be repaired or replaced prior to listing - potentially getting them a higher sale price. And buyers use the inspections to determine if they want to invest in the property, or help negotiate for a better price that would include the repair and replacement of potential problems.
Not all home inspectors are certified and licensed. ASHI’s “Find an Inspector” tool allows homeowners to locate an inspector in their area. Always check with your local inspector for a complete list of services provided.
"It’s important for homeowners to do their homework before hiring an inspector," says Kurt Salomon, ASHI president. "Look for a home inspector certified through the ASHI Certified Inspector Program, which is the only home inspection association program approved by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies."
The following elements are not included in a standard home inspection:
- Septic system
- Electrical wiring and plumbing that is not readily accessible (for example, behind drywall or plaster)
- Water conditioning or softening system
- Swimming pool
- Backyard fences
- Lawn irrigation system
- Household appliances
- Compliance with local codes
- Appraisal to determine market value
Before hiring a home inspector, inquire about what is covered in the inspection and ask to see a sample report. Although some inspectors provide ancillary services, it may be necessary to consult a specialist for concerns that extend beyond a standard inspection. Often your inspector will help you make this determination.
Hiring a certified home inspector and having questions answered before putting your house up for sale - or before finalizing a purchase price - can not only help save money, but also allow you to go through the process with more peace of mind.