Should You Lease Or Buy Your Next Car? It May Affect Your Mortgage.

Should you lease a new car, or should you buy one? Like most financial questions, the answer depends on your situation. For some people, leasing a car presents distinct economic advantages. For others, buying a car is the way to go.

There’s plenty of online material to help you choose your optimal path, but this 3-minute piece from NBC’s The Today Show serves as an excellent summary. In it, you’ll learn about the basics of leasing a car, and for whom leasing can be a great fit. You’ll also hear reasons to avoid a lease completely.

The NBC interview makes all of the following points :

  • Leasing allows you to drive a car that may be “too expensive” to purchase
  • Leasing puts you in a new car, with the latest safety features and gadgets, every few years
  • Buying a car means that you have no mileage limits, and can sell at any time

For many people, it concludes, buying a car is preferable to leasing one, with a notable exception being those people who can claim their car or truck as a tax deduction. Be sure to check with your tax advisor if you plan to take that route.

However, for another group — homeowners and active home buyers — leasing a car can invite mortgage approval trouble. This is because a car lease payment is assumed by a mortgage underwriter to be a perpetual debt; one that never reduces or gets extinguished. When a lease is complete, it must be replaced with a new lease, and so on.

Therefore, no matter how many payments remain in a lease, mortgage applicants must use the full car lease payment for purposes of a mortgage approval.

By contrast, for people whom are owners of their automobiles, car payments must only be added to debt ratios if more than 10 car payments remain until the car’s loan is paid-in-full. For homeowners and buyers , this can improve debt-to-income ratios and support a higher purchase price on a home.

There is no firm rule for whether it better to lease a car or to own one. The arguments for both sides are compelling and reasonable. Start with the video, then do your own research. 

How Long Will Foods Last In A Refrigerator?

Throw out spoiled foodsDo you keep “past due” foods in your refrigerator? You wouldn’t be alone. A study from the Home Food Safety website shows that more than 40 percent of people either have never cleaned their refrigerators, or can’t remember the last they did.

Past due foods can lose their taste, give off bad odors, and/or make you ill — just a few of the reasons to remain vigilant about your refrigerator’s perishable foods.

Still nursing that ketchup from last Labor Day’s grill out? Put it in the trash. Storing canned vegetables that you bought last year? Get rid of them today. 

Watching that freezer burn develop on some of your cold-storage foods? Pitch them in the garbage. 

There’s very little good that comes from eating food that’s been damaged, spoiled, or left to rot slowly. That’s one of the reasons why FoodSafety.gov has created its “Storage Times For Refrigerator And Freezer” chart. Listed by food category, it tells you how long a particular food type can remain “safe” in your refrigerator, and in your freezer.

A sampling of the foods, plus their recommended maximum storage times, includes :

  • Deli-sliced luncheon meat : 5 days in the refrigerator; 2 months in the freezer
  • Hamburger meat : 5 days in the refrigerator; 2 months in the freezer
  • Leftover pizza : 4 days in the refrigerator; 2 months in the freezer

In all, the list contains recommendations for nearly two dozen common foods. 

In addition, the FoodSafety.gov website maintains a separate safety information section for egg and egg-based products.  Egg storage safety is important because more than 400 people contract salmonella each month nationwide.

From scrambled eggs and pies, to quiches and egg-yolk substitutes, you’ll know how long to keep your food, and how long until you should throw it out.

5 States Home To 50% Of Foreclosure Activity Nationwide

Foreclosure stats July 2012Foreclosure pipelines are re-filling nationwide.

According to data from RealtyTrac, a national foreclosure-tracking firm, the number of foreclosure filings dipped below 192,000 in July 2012, a 3 percent decrease from the month prior.

RealtyTrac defines a “foreclosure filing” as any foreclosure-related action, including a Notice of Default, a Scheduled Auction, or a Bank Repossession.

July marks the 22nd straight month during which foreclosure filings fell on a year-over-year basis. At some point soon, however, that streak may end. This is because, for the third straight month, on an annual basis, foreclosures starts are on the rise.

More than 98,000 homes started the foreclosure process in July, a 6 percent increase from July of last year. Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania experienced the biggest increases, rising 201%, 164% and 139%, respectively.

Each is a judicial foreclosure state, which means that foreclosures must go through the state court system prior to auction.

Nationwide, just a few states accounted for the majority of July’s total foreclosure activity. 5 states were home to more than half of all tracked activity, according to RealtyTrac.

  • California : 21.9 percent
  • Florida : 13.3 percent
  • Illinois : 7.2 percent
  • Georgia : 5.7 percent
  • Texas : 5.2 percent

Collectively, these 5 states represent just 33 percent of the nation’s population.

In contrast to the five states above, the bottom 14 states accounted for just 1 percent of the nation’s foreclosure activity, led by North Dakota. In North Dakota, just 3 foreclosure filings were made in July. Other “fewest foreclosure” states in July included District of Columbia (7 filings), Vermont (31 filings), and South Dakota (63 filings).   

For home buyers , with more foreclosed properties expected to go for sale this year and next, there will be some excellent “deals” and discounts — foreclosed homes typically sell at discounts of 20% or more as compared to comparable, non-distressed homes. However, foreclosed homes are often sold as-is, which means they may have defects.

Before placing a bid on a foreclosed home, therefore, make sure to have an experienced real estate agent on your side. Buying a foreclosed home may save you money at your closing, but may cost you money longer-term.

Improving Market Index Spans 32 States, District Of Columbia

Improving Market Index

80 U.S. metropolitan markets are showing “measurable and sustained growth” this month, according to the National Association of Homebuilders’ Improving Market Index.

It’s good news for the economy and good news for housing. 

The NAHB’s Improving Market Index is meant to identify U.S. markets in expansion. It’s a composite of the three distinct data sets which, as a group, present a more holistic view of a given city’s growth :

  1. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the IMI tracks employment figures
  2. From Freddie Mac, the IMI tracks home price data
  3. From the Census Bureau, the IMI tracks single-family building permits

The home builder trade group compiles this data and, in order for a given metropolitan area to earn the label “improving”, the area must meet two specific growth conditions.

First, in a given city, each of the above data sets must show growth or expansion in the current calendar month. If one of the three do not show growth, the city cannot qualify.

Second, in a given city, at least six months must have passed since the most recent trough of all of the above metrics.  It’s this second clause that can make the Improving Market Index meaningful.

By focusing on long-term growth trends within a city, the IMI ignores “blips” and seasonal irregularities. 

The August IMI shows 80 improving markets nationwide, a 4-city decrease from July 2012. 5 new cities were added to the index including Miami, Florida; Terre Haute, Indiana; and Lubbock, Texas. Nine cities fell off the list.

Overall, 32 states are represented in the IMI, and the District of Columbia, too.

For today’s home buyers, the IMI doesn’t provide much actionable information. It doesn’t show home prices, for example, nor the current demand for homes. What it shows is the strength of local economies, though, and in many cases, as the economy heats up, so do home prices.

The complete Improving Markets Index is available for download at the NAHB website.

Mortgage Standards Stop Tightening; Lending Soon To Loosen?

Fed Senior Loan Officer SurveyAs another signal of an improving U.S. economy, the nation’s biggest banks have started to loosen mortgage lending guidelines.

As reported by the Federal Reserve, last quarter, no “big banks” reported stricter mortgage standards as compared to the quarter prior and “modest fractions” of banks reported easier mortgage standards. 

The data comes from the Fed’s quarterly Senior Loan Officer Survey, a questionnaire sent to 64 domestic banks and 23 U.S. branches of foreign banks. The survey is meant to gauge, among other things, direct demand for consumer loans and banks’ willingness to meet this demand.

Not surprisingly, as mortgage rates fell to all-time lows last quarter, nearly all responding banks reported an increase in demand for prime residential mortgages where “prime residential mortgage” is defined as a mortgage for an applicant whose credit scores are high; whose payment history is unblemished; and, whose debt-to-income ratios are low.

Consumers were eager to buy homes and/or refinance them last quarter and 6% of the nation’s big banks said their credit standards “eased somewhat” during that time frame. The remaining 94% of big banks said standards were left unchanged.

The ease of getting approved for a home loan, however, is relative.

As compared to 5 years ago, home buyers and rate shoppers face a distinctly more challenging mortgage environment. Not only are today’s minimum FICO score requirements higher by up to 100 points, depending on the loan product, applicants face new income scrutiny and must also demonstrate a more clear capacity to make repayments.

Tougher lending standards are among the reasons why the national home ownership rate is at its lowest point since 1997. It is harder to get mortgage-approved today as compared to late-last decade.

For those who apply and succeed, the reward is access to the lowest mortgage rates in a lifetime. Mortgage rates continue to push home affordability to all-time highs.

If you’ve been shopping for a home, or planning to refinance, with mortgage rates low, it’s a good time to commit. 

Closing At The End Of August? Plan Ahead For Labor Day Weekend.

Labor Day ClosingPlanning to make a late-August purchase closing? Keep an eye on your calendar. The last Friday of this month coincides with Labor Day Weekend, which may make for a complicated, end-of-month closing.

If you’re planning to close on, or around, August 31, 2012, plan ahead. Leaving anything to the proverbial last minute could delay your closing by hours in a best-case scenario, and by days in a worst-case.

This is because Labor Day is among the most popular vacation times of the year in the real estate, title and mortgage industries and, as Labor Day approaches, it’s increasingly hard to resolve “issues” related to settlement — not all parties are readily available for resolution.

A small closing issue, therefore, can spiral into a major one when you can’t reach your attorney; or, when the title company is short-staffed, for example. 

For home buyers currently under contract, and for homeowners with a refinance in-process, the best defense at a time like this is a good offense. Get proactive with the mortgage process.

These steps can help your end-of-month closing go more smoothly this month :

  1. Prepay your first year of homeowners insurance, effective your closing date. Provide proof of payment to your lender.
  2. Document and deposit all gifts and retirement withdrawals to be used in conjunction with your closing as early in the process as possible.
  3. If applicable, get Power of Attorney forms signed by all parties, and lender-approved in advance. Don’t leave this for the last week.
  4. When your lender makes requests for paperwork, fulfill the requests within 24 hours, when possible.

In addition, if you’re a home buyer, consider scheduling your home walk-through for as early as can be reasonable. That way, if there’s an issue to resolve, there’s ample time to address it among all parties.

Furthermore, if you have planned vacation time between today and your closing date, make it known to all parties, and make sure to be reachable in the event of emergency by phone and/or email.

Real estate brokerages, title companies and mortgage lenders are notoriously short-staffed as Labor Day approached. Routine tasks take longer than usual. Plan ahead for August 31, therefore. It would be foolish not to.

Clever Ways To Reduce Household Water Usage

EPA water usage chartHow well do you conserve water?

The government’s EPA estimates that the average family of four uses 146,000 gallons of water per year, at a cost of $700. With just a few small changes, however, that cost could drop by as much as 28%.

You’ll save on more than just your water bill, too. You may save on taxes.

This is because water management is often handled at the municipal level and as water usage grows, so does the need for costly investment in water treatment and delivery systems. Less usage means lower costs.

You’ll also enjoy lower home energy bills. 25 percent of a home’s energy bill is used to heating water for home use.

So, with the above three benefits in mind, here are three ways to cut your household water usage.

Catch Your Shower Water

Nobody likes to step into a cold shower, and we sometimes run our showers for 5 minutes before stepping in. Even with today’s low-flow shower heads, that’s 10 gallons of water wasted. Instead of allowing pre-shower water to run down the drain, catch it in a bucket, instead. Then use the bucket to water house plants and your garden.

Stop Pre-Rinsing Dishes

Today’s dishwashers are heavy-duty food busters. Don’t pre-rinse dishes in the sink, only to move them to the dishwasher where the job will be duplicated. Instead, use a wet sponge to wipe dishes clean, then place them in the dishwasher. The job will get done just as well. Or, for caked on foods, follow the steps above then start the dishwasher. After 3 minutes, pause the cycle to allow water to sit-and-soak on your dishes. Then, restart the cycle as normal.

Test Your Toilets

A single leaking toilet can spill 60 gallons of water per day and there are several places where leaks can occur. The toilet may have a worn out flapper; or, a damaged gasket under the flush valve; or, a crack in the overflow tube. One clear sign of a leak is having to jiggle the handle to make the toilet stop running. To test for leaks, try “the dye test”. Fill the toilet tank with food coloring or instant coffee to a deep color and wait 30 minutes. If any of the coloring finds it way to the toilet bowl, you know you have a leak.

In addition to the tips above, the EPA keeps a list of water-saving steps on its website. See how many steps you can take to reduce your home water usage.

(Image courtesy : EPA.gov)

Freddie Mac 30-Year Fixed Rate Mortgage Rates Rises To 3.55%

30-year fixed rate mortgage rateMortgage rates couldn’t fall forever, it seems.

This week, for the first time since mid-June, the 30-year fixed rate mortgage rate climbed on a week-over-week basis, moving 6 basis points to 3.55%, on average, nationwide.

According to Freddie Mac, 3.55 percent is the highest average rate at which the benchmark product has been offered in close to 4 weeks.

The Freddie Mac published mortgage rate is available for prime borrowers willing to pay a full set of closing costs plus an accompanying 0.7 discount points.

Discount points are a one-time, upfront mortgage loan fee to be paid at closing where 1 discount point is equal to one percent of your loan size. In this way, a home buyer who pays one discount point at closing will be responsible for an additional $1,000 in closing costs per $100,000 borrowed.

However, although Freddie Mac says that the average mortgage rate is 3.55%, not everyone who applies for a conforming mortgage will get access to that rate. This is because Freddie Mac’s published rates are the ones offered to “prime” borrowers, the definition of which often includes :

  • Top-rated credit scores, typically 740 or higher
  • Verifiable income using two year’s of tax returns 
  • Home equity of at least 25%

Borrowers not meeting the above criteria should expect slightly higher mortgage rates and/or discount points. In some cases, such as when an applicant’s credit score is below 680, mortgage rates may be higher by as much as 0.500%.

Although mortgage rates are up this week, though, the impact on home affordability is muted. Mortgage payments rose just $3 per month per $100,000 borrowed this week as compared to last week. 3.55% remains the third-lowest Freddie Mac rate of all-time.

Mortgage rates remain unpredictable and there’s no guarantee for low rates to last forever — much less through August. If today’s mortgage rates meet your needs, therefore, consider locking something in.

Simple Explanation Of The Federal Reserve Statement (August 1 , 2012)

Putting the FOMC statement in plain EnglishThe Federal Open Market Committee voted to leave the Fed Funds Rate unchanged within its current target range of 0.000-0.250 percent Wednesday. The vote was nearly unanimous.

Only one FOMC member, Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker, dissented in the 9-1 vote.

The Fed Funds Rate has been near zero percent since December 2008. 

In its press release, the Federal Reserve noted that the U.S. economy has “decelerated somewhat” since January. Beyond the next few quarters, though, the Fed expects growth to “remain moderate” and then gradually pick up.

There was no mention of strain in global financial markets and its threat to the U.S. economy, as the Fed had made in its last two post-meeting press releases.

The Fed’s statement also included the following observations about the economy :

  1. Household spending is “rising at a somewhat slower pace”
  2. Inflation has declined, mostly on lower oil and gas prices
  3. Unemployment rates remain “elevated”

Furthermore, the Fed addressed the housing market, stating that, despite signs of improvement, the sector overall remains “depressed”.

The biggest news to come out of the FOMC meeting, though, was that there was no news.

First, the Federal Reserve is leaving its “Operation Twist” program in place. Operation Twist sells shorter-term securities off the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, using the proceeds to purchase longer-term securities. This move puts “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates” and makes “broader financial conditions more accommodative.”

Second, the Fed re-iterated its pledged to keep the Fed Funds Rate at “exceptionally low” levels at least through late-2014.

And, third, to Wall Street’s surprise, there was no announcement of a third round of quantitative easing, a market stimulus plan by which the Federal Reserve buys U.S. treasuries and mortgage-backed bonds on the open market. QE3 would have likely led mortgage rates lower.

The FOMC’s next scheduled meeting is a two-day event slated for September 12-13, 2012.

Mortgage markets are rising post-FOMC.

Case-Shiller Index Shows Home Values Rising Nationwide

Case-Shiller Index May 2012

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Index, home values rose 2.2% nationwide, with all 20 tracked markets making month-to-month improvement. On an annual basis, 17 of the 20 Case-Shiller Index markets improved.

Despite the positive report, however, our enthusiasm for the May Case-Shiller Index should be tempered. This is because the index’s methodology is less-than-ideal for today’s home buyer.

There are three main reasons why :

  1. The Case-Shiller Index tracks values for single-family homes only
  2. The Case-Shiller Index is distorted by distressed, discounted home sales 
  3. The Case-Shiller Index publishes on a 2-month lag

Perhaps even more important, though, is that the Case-Shiller Index ignores a basic tenet of the housing market — all real estate is local. It’s not possible for 20 cities to represent the U.S. housing market as a whole. Even more egregious is that the 20 markets tracked by the Case-Shiller Index don’t represent the country’s twenty most populated cities.

The Case-Shiller Index specifically excludes home sale data from Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Jose — four of the nation’s 10 most populated cities. Yet, the index does include data from cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota and Tampa, Florida.

These two cities rank #48 and #55, respectively.

Furthermore, in its 20 tracked cities, the Case-Shiller Index still manages to fail as a reliable housing market barometer. This is because home values vary by zip code, by neighborhood, and by street, even. All 20 Case-Shiller Index cities showed gains in May, but there remains areas within each metropolitan area in which values outpaced the Case-Shiller Index findings, and areas in which values fell short.

The Case-Shiller Index provides broad, generalized housing market data and that works for an economist. For an active home buyer or seller, though, making smart real estate decisions requires having timely, relevant real estate data at-hand when it’s needed. 

For data like that, talk with a real estate agent.