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Ethics, living by the code

By Marcie Geffner - California Real Estate magazine

Realtors, meet Bob Hunt.

Bob would like to sit down with you and have a little chat about the National Association of Realtors' Code of Ethics. But since he can't corral all of California's Realtors, he's had to settle for writing a book, "Real Estate the Ethical Way," in which he uses everyday examples and anecdotes to explain the Code.

"I used to say, 'I don't care if they read the book, I just want them to buy it,'" Hunt says. "Now, I don't care if they buy it, I'd just like them to read it, which is part of the reason why it's on Kindle at less than the price of a frappachino--and more filling than a scone, too."

Read on: "Ethics, living by the code" Turn to page 26.

Pain the lot: how to pare high parking costs

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com

Parking costs are on the rise across the U.S. from beaches in Rhode Island to airports in Hawaii. At the same time, high unemployment rates and economic stagnation have forced more people to adopt frugal living habits. Together, these trends mean saving money on vehicle parking fees is, for many, in vogue and a necessity.

Whether they use parking meters or parking lots, hospitals, colleges, sports stadiums, shopping malls, office buildings and even public transit stops are jacking up their rates, sometimes by substantial percentages, judging from online news reports. In particular, municipal parking lots are prone to rate increases as city governments grapple with reduced revenues and political difficulties in raising taxes.

Hikes in parking fees are sometimes sold to the public as a benefit, the argument being that pricier parking encourages turnover and opens up spaces for people who want to park. That may be true, but it's a bitter pill for driv…

Beat low rates on savings accounts

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com

"Economic conditions ... are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2013."

That sentence, pulled from an Aug. 9 Federal Reserve statement, should send a chill through the heart of any serious saver. Because with those words, the Fed essentially said savers shouldn't expect higher rates on their deposits for at least two years.

Ouch.

The Fed doesn't directly set the rates banks and other depository institutions pay consumers on certificates of deposit, or CDs, checking accounts, savings accounts and the like. But the Fed has plenty of influence over the level and direction of consumer rates. When Fed rates stay low, banks normally follow its lead.

That bleak outlook begs an obvious question: What, if anything, can savers do to improve their position in light of the Fed's decree?

Here are three sound strategies.

Read on: "Beat low rates on savings accounts"

4 Ways to get your spouse to say yes to a refinance

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com

You want to refinance your mortgage, but your spouse thinks that's a bad idea. Or maybe your spouse says yea, and you're the one who says nay. How can you reach an agreement on this important financial decision?

Start by defining your goals, suggests Ken Turkington, president of First Commerce Financial, a mortgage company in Wixom, Mich.

"Frequently, spouses have different opinions," Turkington says. "Often one spouse may be more interested in payment relief, and the other spouse may be more interested in reducing the balance or shortening the term."

Either way, it's important to talk about the options.

Read on: "4 ways to get your spouse to say yes to a refinance"

Pros and cons of investing in gold

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com

Up, up and up. That appears to be the direction of U.S. gold futures, which hit a record high of $1,910 per ounce in mid-August on the New York Commodity Exchange, or COMEX.

The opportunity to buy might tempt investors looking for fatter returns than they've earned on certificates of deposit, bank accounts, stocks or bonds. Yet, gold is far from foolproof.

Indeed, gold shouldn't be considered an investment, says Chris Hyzy, chief investment officer at U.S. Trust, the private wealth management arm of Bank of America in New York. Rather, the precious metal acts as a hedge, or a way to try to protect wealth against the risk of loss in such asset classes as real estate, equities and bonds, he says.

Read on: "Pros and cons of investing in gold"

Faith-based lending: a mortgage with a message

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com

The proverb that "birds of a feather flock together" might explain why some homebuyers and homeowners gravitate toward so-called faith-based lenders when they want to get a new mortgage.

If you hold deep religious beliefs or respect those who do, you might want to give your business to someone who shares your faith or incorporates religious precepts into his or her business practices.

However, as a mortgage borrower, you should realize that just because a lender shares your religious beliefs doesn't mean he or she can give you a better deal on your loan.

Read on: "Faith-based lending: a mortgage with a message"

Making sense of the mortgage landscape

By Marcie Geffner - California Real Estate magazine

It's a hard letdown for Realtors when motivated prospective home buyers can't qualify for a mortgage, and in these days of super-strict lending guidelines, that scenario happens all too frequently. Buyers are tripped up by inadequate savings, impaired credit, income documentation, lender overlays and higher loan fees, just to name a few of the stumbling blocks.

So why is it so difficult for buyers to get financing? And how can Realtors overcome or change this situation for the better?

Read on: "Making sense of the mortgage landscape" Turn to page 52.

How to succeed by really trying

By Marcie Geffner - California Real Estate magazine

Why do some Realtors succeed while others struggle? The answer doesn't involve magic wands or secret sauces. Instead, successful brokers rely on a clear business strategy and superior execution of basic marketing techniques. Here, three of them reveal how they do it.

Read on: "How to succeed by really trying" Turn to page 50

You're never too old for a mortgage

Ask Michael Becker, a mortgage banker at WCS Funding Group in Lutherville, Md., the age of his oldest-ever mortgage client, and he'll tell you: 97 years old.

"She was lucid, owned her house outright and had retirement income," Becker says. "She was helping out her son."

While 97 might seem old to be getting a mortgage, age is never a factor in a loan approval. In fact, it's illegal for lenders to discriminate against borrowers on that basis, Becker says. That's because age is a protected category within the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a federal law that also bars credit discrimination based on a borrower's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status or receipt of public assistance benefits.

Read on: "You're never too old for a mortgage"

Refinance soon to avoid stricter rule

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com

Homeowners who need to refinance an existing mortgage, but don't have substantial equity, might want to act soon to avoid a new rule that could make refinancing more expensive. However, the rule governing "qualified residential mortgages" is still in flux and won't be in effect until at least a year from now.

At issue is the so-called credit risk retention rule, which is part of the federal Dodd-Frank Act. The rule "requires lenders that securitize mortgages to retain 5 percent of the credit risk, unless the mortgage is a qualified residential mortgage or otherwise exempt," according to the National Association of Realtors.

Six federal agencies have proposed a joint definition of the qualified residential mortgages, or "QRMs." These loans are expected to be less costly for borrowers because the loans won't be subject to the risk retention requirement.

Read on: Refinance soon to avoid stricter rule

Why Home Loans Are Hard To Get

By Marcie Geffner - Wisconsin Real Estate

Wisconsinites’ median credit scores are among the highest in the United States. Yet that tendency toward good credit hasn’t shielded Wisconsin home buyers from the current climate in which mortgage lenders have tightened their guidelines, raising the bar for buyers who need financing.

The biggest hurdle is what Stephen LaDue, a senior loan officer with Prime Lending, a PlainsCapital company, in Brookfield, describes as “ever-changing minimum credit score requirements.” The challenge is twofold: lenders across the board have raised minimum scores required to obtain a loan while many borrowers have experienced a myriad of economic setbacks that LaDue says have caused “ripple effects throughout their credit.” The most common setback is unemployment, followed by such issues as a short sale, foreclosure or bankruptcy.

Some borrowers simply don’t understand the degree to which these incidents can harm their credit, adds Julie Flor, a district mortga…

5 Tips for First-Time Home Sellers

Buying a home doesn't teach you everything you need to know about selling one.

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com

First-time home sellers aren't real estate newbies. After all, most sellers were buyers at one time or have been homeowners at least for a while. But just because you've bought or owned a home doesn't mean you know how to sell one. The fact is novice sellers face challenges and decisions that are unique to the sales process.

If you're ready to sell, but anxious about the unfamiliar experience, here are five tips you should consider:

1. Buyer's market or seller's market? During the housing boom, houses sold quickly and sellers had a lot of market power. But today, the opposite is more often the case. If you bought your house in the early or mid-2000s, you might be surprised to find out how much the market has changed, and disappointed to discover you don't have as much power as sellers used to command.

Read on: Five Tips for First-Time Home Sellers

Don't Sell a Smelly House

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate

Homebuyers don't want houses that stink. Sellers must identify and remediate odors that make prospective purchasers hold their noses and run for the exits.

A buyer's market is a tough challenge for sellers, says Patti Ketcham, owner of Ketcham Realty Group in Tallahassee, Fla.

"If you're selling," she says, "your house has to look a little better, smell a little better and be priced a little better than the other houses the buyer will look at that same day."

Unfortunately, it's not always easy for sellers to identify familiar smells that might be problematic, says Neeraj Gupta, director of product research and development at ServiceMaster Clean, which performs major cleanups and post-disaster restorations of residential and commercial properties.

"There is no 'odor meter,'" Gupta says. "People get used to the odor of their house and may not notice that something is not pleasant."

Read on: Don&…

Should you close at the end of the month?

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate

Conventional wisdom says home buyers should wrap up their purchase deal at the end of the month so they can pay less prepaid interest at closing. That's not a bad strategy, but like so much conventional wisdom, it's often misunderstood and not always ideal.

In fact, buyers don't save money by closing at the end of the month, says Peter Thompson, a senior loan officer at Prospect Mortgage in Naperville, Ill. Rather, a month-end close means buyers pay less prepaid interest, but skip only one subsequent monthly payment. Meanwhile, buyers who close at the start of the month pay more prepaid interest, but then skip two monthly payments. Either way, there are no interest-free days; so in effect, the difference is more about cash flow than savings.

Read on: Should you close at the end of the month?

Gift or Mortgage Fraud?

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com

If you're ready to buy a house, but don't have enough cash to make a down payment and cover your closing costs, you might want to ask your parents or other family members to make up the difference with a monetary gift.

A genuine gift, meaning no repayment is expected or implied, can help you qualify for a mortgage. But a "gift" that is really a loan in disguise could be problematic or even considered loan fraud, a federal crime with serious consequences.

That distinction, between a genuine gift and loan fraud, is precisely why lenders require a so-called "gift letter" to document that any gift you get is in fact genuine.

Read on: Gift or Mortgage Fraud?

Bargain or Bust: Buying a House As-Is

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com

Legally speaking, buying a house as-is encompasses more than the seller's reluctance to make repairs. It also releases the seller from responsibility or liability for the home's condition. The buyer gets the property with no guarantee that it's free from minor or major problems, says Joanne Fanizza, a real estate attorney in Farmingdale, N.Y.

"What you see is what you get," she says. "The question then is: What do you see?"

Houses are sold as-is for a reason. Consequently, there's all the more need for the buyer to obtain a professional property inspection, says David Tamny, owner of Professional Property Inspection in Columbus, Ohio.

Read on: Bargain or bust? Buying a house as-is

Left Short...On Patience

By Marcie Geffner - California Real Estate

Call it financial foolishness, predatory lending or hard luck. Regardless of the causes, a short sale can be a devastating and futile way to try to end a once-happy homeownership experience that's turned sour.

And that's just for the former homeowners.

For REALTORS®, short sales that don't close means a loss of time, money and better opportunities.

To gain an understanding of the challenges, California Real Estate magazine asked three homeowners to share their stories on the road to foreclosure.

Read on Left Short...on Patience

Why the housing crash is still a wreck

By Marcie Geffner • Bankrate.com

Foreclosures. Short Sales. Unemployment. Tight credit. Overbuilding. Those are but some of the reasons housing markets in many parts of the country remain stubbornly depressed, even while activity in other economic sectors has begun to rebound.

New-home building and sales of existing homes historically have been leading economic indicators, pointing the way to robust recovery after a downturn. In the current cycle, however, that hasn't happened, says Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.

"Housing has always been the leader in terms of getting the economy back on track," Yun says, "but that is not the case this time around."

Read more: Why the housing crash remains a wreck

Mortgage relief for disaster victims

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com

The federal government has declared more than 30 official natural disaster areas so far in 2011, and it is only June. The latest area declared was in Joplin, Mo., after a category F5 tornado touched down, leaving thousands of homeowners trying to salvage scraps from homes reduced to rubble.

Last year, the total of large-scale floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like climbed to 81. Few states are immune to natural disasters, and each event affects thousands of homeowners who are forced to cope with the physical and emotional damage, as well as the prospect of perhaps not being able to manage their mortgage payments.

Still, a disaster does not guarantee mortgage relief, according to Laura Vinton, counseling manager at Hope Enterprise Corp., a nonprofit community development financial institution in Gulfport, Miss., a town devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "Any consideration is determined case-by-case, and it's a two-way process," she sa…

Banking and your credit score

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com

Most banking activities aren't reported to credit bureaus, but a few can definitely knock some points off your credit score.

It's a common misconception that every piece of financial information is logged into a consumer's credit report. However, the truth is that deposit accounts at banks, credit unions and stock brokerages are largely excluded from credit reporting, credit reports and credit scores.

Banking activities that have no impact on a consumer's credit report or score include making a deposit or withdrawal, writing a check, closing an account or even having multiple bank accounts.

Even so, there are some instances when banking intersects with credit reporting.

Read on: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/savings/banks-checking-credit-scores-more-often-1.aspx?ic_id=tsFS3

Mortgage definition could restrict options

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate

Government regulators are about to define a "qualified residential mortgage," and their definition could determine the types of loans homebuyers and homeowners will -- and won't -- be able to get.

Some experts see no upside for borrowers. Others hope that the definition will help borrowers get home loans that are less likely to result in hardship or default.

"The whole purpose" of the new definition, says Ellen Harnick, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, speaking from the Washington, D.C., office, "is to encourage responsible loans and discourage the types of loan we've seen blow up."

Read on: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/mortgages/mortgage-definition-could-restrict-options.aspx

Get a property tax do-over

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com

Property tax appeals are especially popular among homeowner today due to sharp declines in house values throughout the U.S. The reality is that not all tax assessors have kept up with these trends, which means some homes may be over-valued and thus over-taxed.

Most, though not all, U.S. states tax residential property, according to John Brusniak, president of the National Association of Property Tax Attorneys in Dallas. Other jurisdictions that also may tax real property include counties, cities, towns, school districts, utility districts, and the like. This myriad of taxing authorities means your first step must be to find out who's in charge of your property's valuation. Typically, this information is printed on your tax bill.

Read on: http://library.hsh.com/articles/homeowners-repeat-buyers/house-lost-value-get-a-property-tax-do-over.html

How To Back Out of a Home Sale Contract

By Marcie Geffner - HSH.com You've finally gone to contract on your home, and now you're sorry you have. How can you get out of the contract? "A seller is best-advised to be absolutely firm about wanting to sell real estate," says Joanne Fanizza, an attorney in Farmingdale, N.Y. It's indeed good advice since, as Fanizza explains, sellers face high hurdles if they want to back out of a contract to sell their home "I've seen situations where sellers thought, 'I'm just not going to sell.' They think the house just isn't for sale anymore. You can't do that after you're in contract," she warns.

Read on: http://library.hsh.com/articles/homeowners-repeat-buyers/sellers-remorse-how-to-back-out-of-a-home-sale-contract.html

Why a Home Equity Loan Is Hard To Get

By Marcie Geffner - Bankrate.com
Many homeowners long to hear the magic words, "your home equity loan is approved." But for most, this type of loan, which allows a homeowner to borrow against the equity in the home, is hard to get.
The typical barriers are lack of equity, impaired credit and inadequate income to support additional borrowing.
Of those, negative equity, also referred to as being "upside down" or "underwater," may be the most daunting hurdle to jump over.
More than 27 percent of U.S. homeowners who had a mortgage were in a negative home equity position or had less than 5 percent equity in their home as of Sept. 30, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data service in Santa Ana, Calif.

Read on: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/home-equity/why-a-home-equity-loan-is-hard-to-get.aspx

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