Call it a housing recovery, but not a boom

By Marcie Geffner -

U.S. housing markets are in a recovery. But the rebound from the depth is modest, and how long the housing recovery will last is anybody's guess.

Evidence of an upswing is so plentiful that Rick Sharga, executive vice president of Carrington Mortgage Holdings, a real estate company in Aliso Viejo, Calif., says "virtually every metric" points to a housing recovery.

Specific numbers vary, as always, from one month and one locale to the next, yet it's clear that, on a national basis, sales of both brand-new and existing homes are up, prices are up, residential building permits are up, and sales of bank-owned foreclosure properties are down.

"A market that was at an incredibly low point has stabilized and is showing signs of getting better," Sharga says. "But it's all relative. We're not looking at a boom. We're looking at a slow and steady recovery."

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Swipe! How a debit card helps you pay as you go

By Marcie Geffner -

Consumers love debit cards.

And no wonder. This payment method is convenient and secure, and it allows consumers to "pay as they go and track their spending of ready funds," says Ed Kadletz, head of debit and prepaid cards at Wells Fargo in Minneapolis.

But what really happens when a consumer makes a purchase with a debit card? Here's a quick tour through the three-part process.

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Can real estate make you rich?

By Marcie Geffner -

House flippers weren't the only ones who lost big when the real estate market crashed. Plenty of consumers lost their down payment, their home equity and their homes.

So is a home a good investment? Or is it only a place to live and a nice tax write-off for those who can claim the federal mortgage interest deduction?

Housing is still a way to build wealth, but that's typically only achieved over the long term, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of

"You don't know what the long-term value of your home ultimately will be," says Gumbinger, "but odds are that at some point down the road, you'll have some stake, some equity component of your home."

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How to refinance your condo

By Marcie Geffner -

If you own a condominium and want to refinance your mortgage, you'll need to meet two sets of loan guidelines: one that applies to you and another that applies to your condo owners' association.

The rules for you are essentially the same regardless of the property type, but the rules for your association can create issues when refinancing your loan, says Joe Metzler, a mortgage specialist with Mortgages Unlimited in St. Paul, Minn.

The first issue is whether your condo has been approved for conventional (Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac) or FHA financing. Approval is required because your association is essentially a third-party involved in refinancing your loan and that involvement adds "an additional element of risk" for the lender, Metzler explains.

5 dumb excuses for ditching a checking account

By Marcie Geffner -

Consumers come up with plenty of reasons to close their checking accounts. They favor cash or prepaid debit cards. They don't want to pay bank fees. Or they have an ideological grudge against big banks. But the fact is a basic checking account still offers a good value and important features for most people.

The benefits start with safety and security but don't end there. Checking accounts also offer debit cards, ATMs, text alerts, direct deposit, online bill pay, electronic record keeping and mobile banking. So if you've been thinking about closing your checking account, you might want to think again. Here are some typical excuses for closing or not holding a checking account and why they're ill-advised.

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