Hanging on to Your Sanity While Working From Home


At first, it may have seemed like a dream come true; sleep a little later…skip the commute…work in your pajamas if you feel like it.

But working from home can quickly outstay it’s welcome. You miss the routine – the coffee breaks and kibitzing, the face-to-face meetings, all those busy, ringing phones – and given the uncertainties of the COVID-19 crisis, there’s no way to know how long your work-at-home status will continue.

Psychologists and productivity experts provide these tips for making the most of the time you are working remotely:

Choose a permanent workspace. It may be tempting to work on the living room sofa. Don’t do it. Create a workspace at a desk or at the dining room table and make that your dedicated workspace. It will help keep you on track and may even help remind family members to avoid unnecessary disturbances.

Get dressed for work. Whether it’s office casual or shorts and a t-shirt, getting dressed rather than working in your PJs can help signal your brain to be productive.

Take regular breaks. Keep to a familiar routine, taking regular ‘coffee breaks’ and lunch hours. Those are the times to eat, snack, listen to music or tune into the news if you like – to take a few minutes to check in with family or phone a friend.

Stay in close touch. It’s likely there will be plenty of virtual meetings scheduled by your office during this time – and feel free to telephone managers or co-workers as needed in between meetings, just as you would if you were at the office.

Separate work time and personal time. Time off is important, so don’t extend your regular work hours. Spend a ‘coffee break’ playing with the kids or the dog if you like. It’s one of the perks of working from home. When you wrap up your work day, take some time to make a mental transition, then enjoy the evening with family or on a Zoom chat with friends.

Exercise and stretch regularly. You may be missing your gym workouts, but getting some exercise while sheltering in place should still be part of your daily routine. Stretch regularly during the workday. Take a walk before or after work, or during your designated lunch hour. 


Alternatives to Traditional Down Payments


The idea of putting a minimum of 20 percent down on a home is a myth that can keep some people from trying to buy a home.

While it can be a great way to lower your mortgage payment and convince sellers that you’re serious about buying, coming up with 20 percent of a home’s purchase price can be difficult.

Here are some other options:

A lower down payment is acceptable. Lenders know that the 20 percent rule is a myth, and will often accept much less if you have good credit and a steady job.

The average down payment on a home purchase in 2016 was 11 percent, according to a report on aspiring homebuyers by the National Association of REALTORS®. For borrowers under age 35, the average down payment was just under 8 percent. The largest share of loans for buyers under 35 were for people putting down less than 5 percent or about $3,500. Coming up with 10 percent down, however, can allow you to have a lower credit score—sometimes as low as 500 for an FHA loan—to qualify.

Around 3 percent is common. A few government agencies require only 3 percent or so down. Loan programs backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require 3 percent down, while the FHA mortgage that targets first-time buyers asks for 3.5 percent down. The FHA mortgage allows the down payment to be a financial gift or from an approved down payment assistance program.

The Fannie Mae HomeReady program allows non-borrowing household members to contribute toward qualifying income. So, if you have an aunt or roommate, their income can be included when qualifying for a home loan.

The programs don’t require perfect credit. The average FICO credit score was 713, but borrowers with a 639 score can still be approved.

People who don’t qualify for such programs can still buy a home with a 639 FICO score, but may need to increase their down payment to 5 percent.

There are no-down-payment options. VA mortgages require no money down for current and former military service members, and most lenders offer them.

Some loans for less than 20 percent down require private mortgage insurance, or PMI, which can add $100 or so to a monthly mortgage; however, VA loans don’t require mortgage insurance.

USDA home loans also don’t require a down payment. These loans are backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and aren’t for farms but for single-family homes that are in less-dense areas of the country.

Piggyback loans are available. These require 5 – 10 percent down and are two mortgages that work best for people with good credit. The first mortgage funds 80 percent of the cost and the second is a 10 percent mortgage—the final 10 percent is a down payment. This eliminates the need for mortgage insurance.

You can find other assistance programs. Down Payment Assistance programs, or DPAs, are run by the government and nonprofits. They offer gifts or no-interest loans to increase homeownership. Nearly 90 percent of all single-family homes in the U.S. are eligible for some kind of DPA.

All of the major loan types listed above allow DPA funds to be used toward a down payment. Your lender should be able to help you find DPAs in your area.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Predatory Lending


Some unscrupulous lenders use abusive practices, known as predatory lending, to trap borrowers in loans they can’t afford. Those lenders target vulnerable groups, make misleading claims and conceal the true cost of their loans.

Types of Predatory Lending
It’s legal for lenders to charge borrowers with bad credit high interest rates since they’re riskier than customers with good credit. Predatory lenders deliberately target people with bad credit and charge them exorbitant interest rates.

Redlining is the illegal practice of denying loans to residents of low-income or minority neighborhoods. Reverse redlining means predatory lenders aggressively push unaffordable loans on residents of those areas.

A bait and switch is when a lender approves a borrower for one type of loan, then changes the terms without adequately disclosing future changes up front.

Asset-based lending is a practice in which a lender offers a customer with assets, such as home equity, a large loan that they know the borrower can’t afford. A borrower who defaults can lose those assets.

A balloon loan has small payments at the beginning, then a large payment for the remaining balance due. Those loans can be legitimate, but predatory lenders don’t clearly explain the terms to borrowers.

A negative amortization loan has payments that don’t cover the interest due or any of the principal. Borrowers make payments each month, but their balances keep growing.

Loan flipping is taking out a new loan to refinance an unaffordable loan. Predatory lenders often set up customers so they move from one unaffordable loan to another while the lender keeps collecting fees.

Loan packing means a lender tacks on fees for services the borrower doesn’t need or want. Those services may be legitimate, but predatory lenders may tell customers they are required, even though they’re optional.

Legitimate lenders often charge prepayment penalties to discourage borrowers from paying off loans early. Predatory lenders may charge exorbitant prepayment fees to discourage refinancing.

How to Spot a Predatory Lender
Several laws are designed to protect consumers from predatory lending, but they aren’t always strongly enforced. That means you need to be on the lookout.

Get quotes from several lenders. Verify that they’re licensed in your state, check their Better Business Bureau ratings and read reviews.

Make sure you understand all the loan terms, including the fees, interest rate and monthly payments, and how any of those terms could change in the future. If a lender won’t provide those details up front and in writing, don’t sign a loan agreement.

A lender that doesn’t check your credit should raise a red flag. The company doesn’t care if you can afford to repay a loan because it can get money through high interest rates and fees or take your car or home if you default.

Don’t sign a contract with blank spaces. Someone could add other information later and you’d have a hard time proving you didn’t agree to those terms. 

Summer Safety From Pool to Grill

Summer is a season for long warm days and nights making memories with friends and families. However, with sky-high temperatures, water sports and more, make sure the memories you make are pleasant ones by keeping safety front and center. To help, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) offers the following insights:

Water safety. Drowning remains the leading cause of unintentional death among children ages 1-4 and the second leading cause among children ages 5-14. Drownings can be prevented by following some simple safety steps:

– Never leave a child unattended in a pool or spa, and keep them away from drains.
– Learn how to swim, and teach your child how to swim.
– Drain covers. Ensure any pool and spa you use has drain covers that comply with federal safety standards. Children can get entrapped by the suction in older, non-compliant drain covers.
– Learn how to perform CPR on children and adults

Turn up the grill safety measures. The National Fire Protection Association states that an average of 10,200 home fires per year involve grills, hibachis, or barbecues. Following a few safety measures can help reduce fire dangers while grilling:

– Safety check. Before lighting the grill, do a safety check. Visually inspect the hoses on a gas grill for cracking, brittleness, holes, and leaks.
– Clean the grease trap. Ensure that the grease trap is clean to reduce the risk of flare-ups and grease fires.
– Use grills outside only, in a well-ventilated area. Never use a grill indoors, or in a garage, breezeway, carport, porch, or under a surface that will burn.
– Never leave a grill unattended, and keep children away from the grill area.
– Grill brushes. Prevent stray wire grill brush strands from ending up in your food. Clean your grill with a ball of aluminum foil or nylon brushes, instead of wire grill brushes.

Gear up and ride safely. Each year, thousands of ATV, bicycle, e-scooter, and skateboard riders – young and old – die or experience life-altering injuries. CPSC recommends that all riders follow these safety guidelines every time they ride:

– Gear-up before riding. This means putting on a helmet meant for your activity. When bicycling, properly wear a helmet that complies with CPSC’s federal safety standard for bicycle helmets. In addition to a helmet, wear elbow and knee pads while riding scooters and skateboards.
– See and be seen. Ride bicycles in the direction of traffic, obey traffic signs and signals, and stay alert.
– Wear additional safety gear when riding ATVs and ROVs, including a DOT-compliant helmet and other protective gear, such as eye protection, boots, gloves, long pants and long-sleeved shirts.
– Do not drive ATVs or ROVs on paved surfaces. Ride on designated trails and at a safe speed.
– Use age-appropriate vehicles. Riders younger than 16 should only drive age-appropriate, youth-model ATVs, never adult models or ROVs.

Also, beware of other dangers during summer activity.
– Hot playground equipment. Check for hot playground equipment surfaces before letting your children play.
– Mowing the lawn. When mowing the lawn, dress properly with substantial shoes, long pants and fitted clothes. Keep children away from the mowing area, and always be on the lookout for children who may have ventured into the mowing area.
– Beach umbrellas. Spike your beach umbrella pole into the sand, and firmly rock it back and forth until it’s buried about 2 feet into the sand and is tilted into the wind to keep it from blowing away and injuring someone.
– Recalled products. Check SaferProducts.gov to see if any of the products you own have been recalled.

4 Ways to Prep Your Home for Hurricanes

4 Ways to Prep Your Home for Hurricanes

Hurricane season runs from June through November, a large portion of the year to be on the lookout for destructive weather. High winds and flooding caused by rain can cause major damage to your home space, so preparation is key.

“We advise homeowners to prepare their homes ahead of inclement weather,” says Ted Puzio, owner of Southern Trust Home Services.

Puzio suggests residents take the following steps to make sure they’re prepared in case of a flood:

Check sump pumps and install a backup battery. Sump pumps should be regularly maintained and tested. Dump a bucket of water into the pump reservoir and observe how it is working. If it isn’t functioning properly and directing water out of the home, it may be time to call a professional. Make sure to check the discharge line to ensure it’s free of debris. Also, consider installing a backup battery onto the sump pump to ensure it performs at all times.

Inspect your foundation. Take the time to tour the perimeter of your home, inspecting your foundation for cracks and crevices that could allow rising water into your basement. Seal what you can with concrete patching and waterproofing, but call a professional if you’re concerned with the structural integrity.

Regularly clean the gutters. Leaves may not build up in the summer as they do in fall, but birds’ nests, small limbs and more can still obstruct gutters and lead to an overflow of water. Basement flooding can occur when the water isn’t directed far enough away from the foundation, so make sure your gutters are empty and directing water effectively to the downspouts. When heavy rains are anticipated, consider extending your downspouts further away from the home with inexpensive, corrugated plastic pipes.

Review home insurance policies. Each year, homeowners should be reviewing their homeowner’s insurance policies to eliminate any confusion and the potential for nasty surprises after dealing with damaging storm systems. Do not put off any questions you may have. Contact your provider immediately anytime you have a concern about whether or not your policy is the best for you.

8 Ways to Update Your Kitchen, Affordably

If your kitchen is outdated or your style has changed over the years, you may be dreaming up a new kitchen. However, your bank account may not agree with your renovation aspirations. According to Home Advisor, the average cost of a kitchen remodel is more than $20,000. To help, Erie Insurance has eight affordable ways to give your old kitchen a fresh new look.

Paint your cabinets. You don’t have to completely replace all of the cabinets in your kitchen to make them feel new again. A fresh coat of paint can do the trick. If your kitchen is on the small side, use white paint for a clean, fresh look that’s sure to brighten up your space. Dark colors can make a bold statement but are best for larger kitchens.

Add new hardware. New knobs and drawer pulls will help give your kitchen a new look for a small investment. Your local hardware store should have plenty of style and color options. And if you’re really on a tight budget, you can update your old hardware using a can of bronze or silver spray paint.

Install a new kitchen sink. A new sink can make just as much of an impact as new flooring or cabinets at a fraction of the cost. Just measure your existing sink and buy a stainless, composite or granite replacement that will drop right in. Complete the look with a new pulldown faucet.

Add lighting under your cabinets. A dark kitchen can make your space seem smaller and less inviting. Under cabinet lighting is an easy way to brighten up the entire room. And with battery, plug-in and hard-wired options available, there’s a simple solution for every skill level.

Install a new countertop. Custom granite countertops cost thousands of dollars. But today’s laminate countertops have sharper graphics and better embossing than the laminate of years past. Laminate can be a durable and stylish alternative that can give you an upgraded look for far less. Other materials like soapstone or butcher block can be a bigger investment than laminate, but still make a statement for less than the price of granite.

Add more counter space. Pushing two kitchen carts together is an easy and creative way to give you more counter space. A butcher block island can also give you extra storage space without installing new cabinets.

Revitalize your backsplash. A stylish backsplash can be the focal point of any kitchen. With some DIY skill, a tile backsplash can be relatively inexpensive. If you’re uncomfortable with grout and mortar, consider using peel-and-stick tiles or a solid surface like beadboard.

Reface outdated appliances. That almond-colored refrigerator was stylish when it was new. But today, stainless is the way to go. Bring your old appliances into the 21st century by applying stainless steel contact paper or covering them with appliance paint.

Homebuyers: This Could Be Your Moment

Has talk of inventory shortages and rising home prices prevented you from getting out there and searching for your first home…or moving up to your dream home? Well, according to a recent report from Trulia, the tide is starting to turn, and conditions are becoming more favorable for homebuyers in many areas across the country, with the share of home listings with a price cut growing to its highest level since 2014.

For much of the first half of 2018, the share of listings on Trulia with a price cut was largely unchanged from 2017, before shooting up in July and August. In August 2018, 17.2 percent of U.S. listings had a price cut, up from 16.7 percent a year ago.

Coupled with home price growth that’s begun to slow, and inventory levels that are creeping back up in some places, a higher rate of price cuts could be a critical third confirmation that things may finally be shifting in buyers’ favor, says Trulia Housing Economist Felipe Chacon.

“Buyers should be encouraged by the signals we’re seeing in the market,” says Chacon. “But not all buyers will benefit equally, and it pays to do research on your preferred neighborhood. Price reductions typically aren’t uniformly spread out across a given city. Our research shows that price cuts are much more prevalent in higher-cost neighborhoods.”

According to the analysis, of the top 100 metros, 63 had a higher share of listings with a price cut this August than last August—and some of the priciest and/or fastest-growing markets experienced the biggest jump. In fast-moving Las Vegas, for example, the share of listings with a price cut rose from roughly one-in-eight a year ago (12.6 percent) to more than one-in-five currently (20.8 percent)—the largest percentage-point jump among all metros analyzed. In San Jose, where the median home is worth more than $1.2 million and home values are growing more than 20 percent year-over-year, the share of listings with a price cut in August more than doubled compared to August 2017.

While increasing price reductions is welcome news for most, not all homebuyers are likely to benefit equally, says Trulia. In 79 of the largest 100 metros, a higher share of homes listed in more-expensive neighborhoods are experiencing price reductions than those listed in less expensive areas.

And although the report points to more price cuts nationwide, the reductions themselves are getting smaller. For the 12 months ending August 2018, the median price reduction nationwide knocked 2.6 percent off the listing price. This has been declining steadily since 2012, when the median price reduction was 4 percent. The median value of a price reduction today is less than the median price reduction at the outset of the recovery in 97 of the 100 largest metros analyzed.