Each month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.

ISSUE #1165
FEATURE REPORT

Before Disaster Strikes
Fires . . . hurricanes. . . floods . . . earthquakes . . . tornadoes.... Natural or other disasters can strike suddenly, at any time, and anywhere.  Your first priority, of course, would be to protect your family and your property.  But it's also important to protect against the financial consequences of a disaster.  A disaster can damage or destroy your property, force you to temporarily live somewhere else, cut the flow of wages and other income, or ruin valuable financial records.

Listed here are some simple, common sense steps you can take now.  Before you take any actions, however, you should be sure you have involved your family or friends whenever possible in decision making and planning.  You also may want the assistance of an advisor, such as a Certified Financial Planner, insurance agent, or similar financial professional.  The important thing is to begin planning now, before the unexpected becomes a harsh reality.




Also This Month...
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent
Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs.


 
 

Protecting Your Home from Fire and Carbon Monoxide
Thousands of people die from fire every year. Most residential fire deaths occur because of inhalation of toxic gas, rather than contact with the flames. The tragedy is that many of these deaths could be prevented by taking a few precautions.

Quick Links
Before Disaster Strikes
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent
Protecting Your Home from Fire and Carbon Monoxide
 

 

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Before Disaster Strikes

Fires . . . hurricanes. . . floods . . . earthquakes . . . tornadoes.... Natural or other disasters can strike suddenly, at any time, and anywhere. Your first priority, of course, would be to protect your family and your property.  But it's also important to protect against the financial consequences of a disaster.  A disaster can damage or destroy your property, force you to temporarily live somewhere else, cut the flow of wages and other income, or ruin valuable financial records.

Listed here are some simple, common sense steps you can take now.  Before you take any actions, however, you should be sure you have involved your family or friends whenever possible in decision making and planning.  You also may want the assistance of an advisor, such as a Certified Financial Planner, insurance agent, or similar financial professional.

The important thing is to begin planning now, before the unexpected becomes a harsh reality.

Protect your property

One of the first things to do is find out what disasters could strike where you live----fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, or tornado, for example.  The following steps can help you avoid or reduce substantially the potential physical destruction to your property if you were to be hit with a disaster.  These steps can reduce your insurance costs, too.  For example, you could:

  • Install smoke detectors to warn of an apartment or home fire.
  • Elevate utilities to upper floor or attic.
  • Clear surrounding bush to protect your home against wildfires.
  • Anchor your house to the foundation, and anchor the roof to the main frame.
  • Secure objects that could fall and cause damage in an earthquake, such as a bookcase or hot water heater.
  • Install hurricane shutters on windows, and prepare plywood covers for glass doors.
  • Cover windows, turn off utilities, or move possessions to a safer location if you have adequate warning of something like a hurricane or flood.
  • If your home is in a high risk flood area, on a fault line, or threatened by coastal erosion, consider relocating.
  • Have your house inspected by a building inspector or architect to find out what structural improvements could prevent or reduce major damage from disasters.
  • If you haven't yet bought a house, you might take construction type into account. Frame houses tend to withstand some disasters, while brick homes hold up better in others.

If you're not sure where to start, you could contact your local fire department.  Fire departments will often make house calls to evaluate your property and make suggestions on how to improve safety.  In earthquake-prone areas, the local utility can be called upon to come to your location and show you how and where to shut off gas lines or how to elevate utilities to get them above a possible flood.

Conduct a household inventory

Inventory your household possessions by making a list of everything you own. If disaster strikes, this list could:

  • Help you prove the value of what you owned if those possessions are damaged or destroyed.
  • Make it more likely you'll receive a fast, fair payment from your insurance company for your losses.
  • Provide documentation for tax deductions you claim for your losses.

To conduct a thorough home inventory:

  • Record the location of the originals of all important financial and family documents, such as birth and marriage certificates, wills, deeds, tax returns, insurance policies, and stock and bond certificates.  Keep the originals in a safe place and store copies elsewhere.  You'll need accessible records for tax and insurance purposes.
  • Make a visual or written record of your possessions.  If you don't own a camera or videotaping equipment (and can't borrow or rent it), buy an inventory booklet and fill it out, or make a simple list on notebook paper.  Ask your insurance agent if he or she can provide one.
  • Go from room to room.  Describe each item, when you bought it, and how much it cost.  If you're photographing or videotaping, have someone open closet doors and hold up items.
  • Record model and serial numbers.
  • Include less expensive items, such as bath towels and clothes.  Their costs add up if you have to replace them.
  • Be sure you include items in your attic, basement, and garage.
  • Note the quality of building materials, particularly for such furnishings as oak doors or expensive plumbing fixtures.
  • Photograph the exterior of your home.  Include the landscaping---that big tree in the front yard may not be insurable, but it does increase the value of your property for tax purposes.  Make special note of any improvements, such as a patio, fencing, or outbuildings.
  • Photograph cars, boats, and recreational vehicles.
  • Make copies of receipts and cancelled checks for more valuable items.
  • Get professional appraisals of jewelry, collectibles, artwork, or other items that are difficult to value.  Update the appraisals every two to three years.
  • Update your inventory list annually.

Sound like too much work? Computer software programs designed for such purposes can make the task much easier.  These programs are readily available in local computer stores.

Most important, once you have completed your inventory, leave a copy with relatives or friends, or in a safe deposit box.  Don't leave your only copy at home, where it might be destroyed.

Buy insurance

Even with adequate time to prepare for a disaster, you still may suffer significant, unavoidable damage to your property. That's when insurance for renters or homeowners can be a big help.  Yet, many people affected by recent disasters have been underinsured-or worse-not insured at all.  Homeowners insurance doesn't cover floods and some other major disasters.  Make sure you buy the insurance you need to protect against the perils you face.

If you own a home:

  • Buy, at a minimum, full replacement or replacement cost coverage.  This means the structure can be replaced up to the limits specified in the policy.
  • Investigate buying a guaranteed replacement cost policy.  When and where available, these policies can pay to rebuild your house, including improvements, at today's prices, regardless of the limits of the policy.
  • Have your home periodically reappraised to be sure the policy reflects the real replacement cost.
  • Update the policy to include any home improvements, such as basement refinishing.  Annual automatic increases may not be enough to cover these.
  • Buy a policy that covers the replacement cost of your possessions.  Standard coverage only pays for the actual cash value (replacement cost discounted for age or use).
  • Be very clear about what the policy will and will not cover, and how the deductibles work (the part you pay before the policy pays).
  • Check government operated insurance pools if you find it difficult to obtain private coverage because of a recent disaster.  Premiums often run higher than market rates, but this is better than no coverage.
  • Use your home inventory list to check that your policy's coverage matches the value of your possessions.

If you rent:

  • If you are renting, consider locating outside a high risk flood area or away from a fault line.
  • Buy renter's insurance, which pays for damaged, destroyed, or stolen personal property.  Your landlord's insurance won't cover damage to or loss of your possessions.  Also, consider special coverage like flood insurance for your belongings.
  • Be clear about what a policy will cover.  Some policies cover more than others.  For example, will the policy pay for living expenses if you have to live somewhere else temporarily, or for damage from sewer backup?
  • Comparison shop for the best coverage at the best price.  Other than government flood insurance, policies vary from company to company.  Policies in most areas are very affordable.  Start with the company that insures your car.  Discounts are often available if you carry more than one policy with a company.

If you are moving:

  • Select a home in an area not on a fault line, in a flood area, or at risk from coastal erosion.
Consider special coverage

Insurance for renters and homeowners won't cover certain types of losses.  Ask your insurance agent or financial planner about special or additional coverage for the following:

  • Floods- Homeowner policies don't cover damage from flooding.  Call your current insurance company or agent first about getting coverage.
  • Earthquakes- Premiums typically are high, and deductibles may range from 5% to 20% of the policy's coverage.  Still, such coverage may be better than no coverage. (Earthquake coverage for the contents of a home usually is separate.)
  • Home offices- Some policies automatically extend coverage to computer equipment and a few other items of business property. Talk to your agent to determine what items would or would not be covered.  If necessary, you could buy additional business coverage at a modest cost.  Or it may be better to buy a separate small business policy, which would also provide more coverage.
  • Building codes- Ask your agent about additional insurance to cover the costs of meeting new, stricter building codes.  Frequently, after a disaster people get shocked with rebuilding costs that are much higher because building codes have changed.  All current codes must be met when rebuilding.  Consider additional structural improvements that provide more protection.
  • Other potential problems- This would include problems such as underground mines (located beneath your property) sewer backup, or mudslides.
  • Big-ticket items- Purchase additional coverage for specific jewelry, collectibles, artwork, furs, or other big-ticket items.
Where to keep cash

After a disaster, you may need cash for the first few days, or even several weeks.  Income may stop if you can't work.  To help stay solvent, consider the following:

  • Keep a small amount of cash or traveler's checks at home in a place where you can get at it quickly in case of a sudden evacuation.  A disaster can shut down local ATMs and banks.  The money should be in small denominations for easier use.
  • Set aside money in an emergency fund.  That can be tough to do on a tight budget, but it can be well worth the effort.  The fund can be very helpful, not only in a disaster, but in other financial crises, such as during unemployment or when unexpected expenses like legal fees arise.
  • Keep your emergency funds in a safe, easily accessible account, such as a passbook savings account or a money market account.
  • Keep some funds outside the local area, since the disaster that affects you could also affect your local financial institutions.  A mutual fund money market account in another city is one option to consider.
  • Keep your credit cards paid off. You may have to draw on them to tide you over.
Use an evacuation box

Buy a lockable, durable "evacuation box" to grab in the event of an emergency.  Even a cardboard box would do.  Put important papers into the box in sealed, waterproof plastic bags.  Store the box in your home where you can get to it easily.  Keep this box with you at all times, don't leave it in your unattended car.

The box should be large enough to carry:

  • A small amount of traveler's checks or cash and a few rolls of quarters.
  • Negatives for irreplaceable personal photographs, protected in plastic sleeves.
  • A list of emergency contacts that includes doctors, financial advisors, clergy, reputable repair contractors, and family members who live outside your area.
  • Copies of important prescriptions for medicines and eyeglasses, and copies of children's immunization records.
  • Health, dental, or prescription insurance cards or information.
  • Copies of your auto, flood, renter's, or homeowners insurance policies (or at least policy numbers) and a list of insurance company telephone numbers.
  • Copies of other important financial and family records (or at least a list of their locations).  These would include deeds, titles, wills, a letter of instructions, birth and marriage certificates, passports, relevant employee benefits documents, the first two pages of the previous year's income tax returns, etc.  Originals, other than wills, should be kept in a safe deposit box or at another location.
  • Backups of computerized financial records.
  • A list of bank account, loan, credit card, driver's license, investment account (brokerage and mutual funds), and Social Security numbers.
  • Safe deposit box key.
Rent a safe deposit box

Safe deposit boxes are invaluable for protecting originals of important papers. If you don't have a safe deposit box, keep copies in your evacuation box or with family or friends.  Original documents to store in a safe deposit box include:

  • Deeds, titles, and other ownership records for your home, autos, RVs, boats, etc.
  • Birth certificates and naturalization papers.
  • Marriage license/divorce papers and child custody papers.
  • Passports and military/veteran papers.
  • Appraisals of expensive jewelry and heirlooms.
  • Certificates for stocks, bonds, and other investments.
  • Trust agreements.
  • Living wills, powers of attorney, and health care powers of attorney.
  • Insurance policies (copies are sufficient).
  • Home improvement records.
  • Household inventory documentation.

Generally, originals of wills should not be kept in a safe deposit box since the box may be sealed temporarily after death.  Keep originals of wills with your local registrar of wills or your attorney.

Deciding on a safe and convenient location is an issue.  You may want to consider renting a safe deposit box in a bank far enough away from your home so it is not likely to be affected by the same disaster that strikes your home (for instance, bank vaults have been flooded). Keep the key to the safe deposit box in your evacuation box.

Home safes and fire boxes

Safes and fire boxes can be convenient places to store important papers.  However, some disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes, could destroy your home.  Usually, it's better to store original papers in a safe deposit box or at another location well away from your home.

If you have time...

Some disasters, such as tornadoes or earthquakes, strike with little or no warning.  Others, such as floods or hurricanes, may allow some time to prepare.  If there is enough time, you could take the following actions:

  • Decide what household items you would put on a very short priority list.  For example, imagine you could take only one suitcase or pack a single carload.  What would you take?  Involve the whole family in this discussion.  Take jewelry and other small valuables.
  • Take irreplaceable heirlooms, mementos, and photos.
  • Don't bother with replaceable items such as televisions, furniture, computers, and clothing (except what you need to wear for a few days).
  • Be sure, however, to take a battery-powered radio and spare batteries so you can stay informed.
  • Take important papers and computer disks if you have a home business.

Whew! These are a lot of ideas.  You may not be able to do everything that is suggested---that's OK.  Do what you can.  Taking even limited action now will go a long way toward preparing you financially before a disaster strikes.

 

 

 

 

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Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent


"It's critical that you make the right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial investment you will ever make."

Not all real estate agents are the same. If you decide to seek the help of an agent when selling or buying your home, you need some good information before you make any moves.

An agent can cost or save you thousands of dollars

Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs. Some agents may prefer that you don't ask these questions, because the knowledge you'll gain from their honest answers will give you a very good idea about what outcome you can expect from using this agent. And let's face it - in real estate, as in life - not all things are created equal.

Hiring a real estate agent is just like any hiring process - with you on the boss's side of the desk. It's critical that you make the right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial investment you will ever make.

1. What makes you different? Why should I list my home with you?

It's a much tougher real estate market than it was a decade ago. What unique marketing plans and programs does this agent have in place to make sure that your home stands out favorably versus other competing homes? What things does this agent offer you that others don't to help you sell your home in the least amount of time with the least amount of hassle and for the most amount of money?

2. What is your company's track record and reputation in the market place?

It may seem like everywhere you look, real estate agents are boasting about being #1 for this or that, or quoting you the number of homes they've sold. If you're like many homeowners, you've probably become immune to much of this information. After all, you ask, "Why should I care about how many homes one agent sold over another. The only thing I care about is whether they can sell my home quickly for the most amount of money."

Well, because you want your home sold fast and for top dollar, you should be asking the agents you interview how many homes they have sold. I'm sure you will agree that success in real estate is selling homes. If one agent is selling a lot of homes where another is selling only a handful, ask yourself why this might be? What things are these two agents doing differently?

You may be surprised to know that many agents sell fewer than 10 homes a year. This volume makes it difficult for them to do full impact marketing on your home, because they can't raise the money it takes to afford the advertising and special programs to give your home a high profile. Also, at this low level, they probably can't afford to hire an assistant, which means that they're running around trying to do all the components of the job themselves, which means service may suffer.

3. What are your marketing plans for my home?

How much money does this agent spend in advertising the homes s/he lists versus the other agents you are interviewing? In what media (newspaper, magazine, TV etc.) does this agent advertise? What does s/he know about the effectiveness of one medium over the other?

4. What has your company sold in my area?

Agents should bring you a complete listing of both their own, and other comparable sales in your area.

5. Does your Broker control your advertising or do you?

If your agent is not in control of their own advertising, then your home will be competing for advertising space not only with this agent's other listings, but also with the listings of every other agent in the brokerage.

6. On average, when your listings sell, how close is the selling price to the asking price?

This information is available from the Real Estate Board. Is this agent's performance higher or lower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how high a price you will get for the sale of your home.

7. On average, how long does it take for your listings to sell?

This information is also available from the Real Estate Board. Does this agent tend to sell faster or slower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how long your home will be on the market before it sells.

8. How many Buyers are you currently working with?

Obviously, the more buyers your agent is working with, the better your chances are of selling your home quickly. It will also impact price because an agent with many buyers can set up an auction-like atmosphere where many buyers bid on your home at the same time. Ask them to describe the system they have for attracting buyers.

9. Do you have a reference list of clients I could contact?

Ask to see this list, and then proceed to spot check some of the names.

10. What happens if I'm not happy with the job you are doing to get my home sold?

Can I cancel my listing contract? Be wary of agents that lock you into a lengthy listing contract which they can get out of (by ceasing to effectively market your home) but you can't. There are usually penalties and broker protection periods which safeguard the agent's interests, but not yours. How confident is your agent in the service s/he will provide you? Will s/he allow you to cancel your contract without penalty if you're not satisfied with the service provided?

Evaluate each agent's responses to these 10 questions carefully and objectively. Who will do the best job for you? These questions will help you decide.


 

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Protecting Your Home from Fire and Carbon Monoxide

Safety & You

Everyone wants to live in a safe and worry free environment with their families, spouse, and children. However, most people are closer to a disaster waiting to happen than they think. Safety may not be an issue that comes to mind as you go about your daily routine. You may feel safe. Yet, lurking in your home are dangers that can take lives and destroy property.

Fire Facts

Thousands of people die from fire every year. Most residential fire deaths occur because of inhalation of toxic gas, rather than contact with the flames. The tragedy is that many of these deaths could be prevented by taking a few precautions.

General Fire Prevention Tips

  • Do not plug too many appliances into an electrical outlet.
  • Make sure that combustibles are not too close to heaters, stoves and fireplaces.
  • Never smoke in bed, or leave a burning cigarette in an ashtray.
  • Do not use damaged or frayed electrical cords or extension cords.
  • Keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children.
  • Teach your children about the dangers of playing with fire.
  • Never use extension cords with heating or air conditioning equipment.
  • Purchase smoke alarms and fire extinguishers for each floor of your home.

Have an Emergency Escape Plan! Practice it frequently!

  • Develop an emergency exit plan and an alternate exit plan. The most obvious way out may be blocked by fire. A window will usually be the second way out of a bedroom. Make sure that screens or storm windows can be easily removed. If you live in a two story home, you should have an escape ladder for each occupied bedroom. Escape ladders are available for purchase, and they can easily be stored under a bed or in a closet.
  • Establish a meeting place outside your home to be sure everyone has escaped. Every family member should participate in practicing escape drills at least two times per year.
  • In the event of fire, do not stop to get dressed or gather valuables. Seconds count - do not search for the family pet.
  • Teach your family that in a fire they must stay low to the floor to avoid smoke and intense heat. Passageways may be completely filled with dense smoke, so everyone should practice exiting on their hands and knees while blindfolded.
  • Train family members to feel a closed door before exiting. If the door is warm, open it slowly, and close it quickly if heat or smoke rushes in.
  • Establish a rule that once you're out, you never re-enter under any circumstances. As soon as two people have reached the meeting place, one should call 911 from a neighbor's house.

Smoke Alarms

Through education and media campaigns, most people now realize the importance of smoke alarms, and most homes in North America have them.

Recommendations:
  • Purchase a smoke alarm for every floor of your home, and read the instructions on how to use it and where to position it.
  • Smoke alarms should be placed near bedrooms, either on the ceiling or six to twelve inches below the ceiling on the wall.
  • Local codes may require additional alarms. Check with your fire department or building code official.
  • Locate smoke alarms away from air vents.
  • Test your alarms regularly to ensure that they still work.
  • If you have a battery powered alarm, change the battery every six months when you change your clocks.
  • For maximum protection, install BOTH ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms in the home for the optimum detection of fast flaming fires and slow smoldering fires.

Fire Extinguishers

To guard against small fires or to keep a small fire from developing into a big one, every home should be equipped with a fire extinguisher. Because almost all fires are small at first, they might be contained if a fire extinguisher is handy and used properly. You should take care, however, to select the right kind of fire extinguisher, because there are different ones for different kinds of fires. Install fire extinguishers on every level of the home and include the kitchen, basement and garage.

Selecting a Fire Extinguisher

Extinguishers are classified according to the class of fire for which they are suitable. The four classes of fires are A, B, C, D:

  • Class A fires involve common combustibles such as wood, paper, cloth, rubber, trash and plastics. They are common in typical commercial and home settings.
  • Class B fires involve flammable liquids, solvents, oil, gasoline, paints, lacquers and other oil-based products. Class B fires often spread rapidly. Unless they are properly suppressed, they can re-flash after the flames have been extinguished.
  • Class C fires involve energized equipment such as wiring, controls, motors, machinery or appliances. They can be caused by a spark, a power surge, or a short circuit and typically occur in locations that may be difficult to see or reach.
  • Class D fires involve combustible metals.

A typical home or office fire extinguisher should have an ABC rating.

Carbon Monoxide

One of the greatest threats to your safety is the quality of air within your home. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a subtle yet dangerous threat because the gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless.

Each year, hundreds of people die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Thousands of other people suffer the effects of the gas without realizing it. Because CO symptoms mimic the flu and other common illnesses, CO poisoning can be easily missed during a routine medical examination.

CO is produced when any fuel does not burn completely because of insufficient oxygen. Mild exposure to CO gives most people a slight headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue ("flu-like" symptoms) followed by a throbbing headache, drowsiness, confusion, and fast heart rate. If the entire family becomes ill after a few hours in the home, and feels better when they leave the home, carbon monoxide poisoning should be suspected.

Possible sources of CO include:

  • Furnace or boiler
  • Gas or fuel-oil water heater
  • Gas or wood fireplace
  • Gas kitchen range
  • Plugged, rusted, disconnected, or defective chimneys or vents
  • Back drafting of combustion gases into the home
  • Automobiles in attached garages

Certain clues can indicate a carbon monoxide problem. Check to see if you have any of the following:

  • Rusting or streaking on chimney or vent
  • Loose or missing furnace panel
  • Soot on venting or appliances
  • Loose or disconnected venting
  • Debris or soot falling from chimney
  • Moisture on interior side of windows

CO can be produced and spill into your home without any of the preceding clues present. Heating appliances that appear to be operating correctly can still be sources of CO. Burning charcoal or wood produces CO that can spill into the home. Gasoline engines, when first started, produce large amounts of CO. Autos in attached garages are often sources of CO.

How To Protect Yourself

To avoid CO exposure in the home, it is important to:

  • Make sure heating appliances are installed and used in accordance with manufacturer's instructions.
  • Make sure chimneys and vents draw all gases out of the home.
  • Have the heating system, chimney and vents inspected and serviced annually by a qualified heating contractor.
  • Never use charcoal grills indoors.
  • Never heat your home with a gas kitchen range.
  • Always use a kitchen range hood, vented to the outdoors, when cooking on a gas range.
  • Never warm-up or run vehicles or other gasoline engines in garages or indoors.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that every residence with fuel burning appliances be equipped with at least one CO alarm. For added protection, place one on every level of the home. Read and follow manufacturers' instructions.

If your alarm indicates high levels of carbon monoxide in your home:

  • Immediately move outdoors to fresh air and do a head count
  • Call your emergency services
  • Do not re-enter the home until emergency service responders have arrived, aired out the house, and determined it is safe to re-enter
  • Correct the problem before starting the heating appliances
  • If a carbon monoxide alarm sounds again, repeat the above steps. Do not ignore alarms.

Fires are traumatizing and frightening, as is a carbon monoxide incident. It is essential to fully recognize the hazards of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning and to take preventative action. A regular home inspection, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers and an emergency exit plan will help you and your family live more safely.

 

 

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