Thursday, June 13, 2019

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Reduce Summer Expenses

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Reduce Summer Expenses: It's not even summer yet and many parts of the country have already experienced sweltering heat waves. Summer brings higher bills for ...

Reduce Summer Expenses

It's not even summer yet and many parts of the country have already experienced sweltering heat waves. Summer brings higher bills for electricity and water as we struggle to stay cool and keep our lawns alive.

Here are a few reminders to help reduce those expenses:

Don't keep your house so cold that you have to put on a sweater or curl up under a comforter. When the weather is hot, enjoy wearing shorts, sundresses, and sleeveless tops. For every degree you turn up the thermostat, you may save approximately 1% on your energy bill. If no one's home all day, turn it up even higher and program your system to start cooling a half hour before you arrive.

Speaking of air conditioning, don't forget those annual check-ups for your HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system. Filters may need changing and the technician can repair minor problems before they become major. Not only will you save money by having equipment that runs at top efficiency, you'll prevent potentially life-threatening situations, like poor air quality or even fire from years of dust build-up.

Fans are great for circulating the air around you, creating a breeze to make you feel cooler, but they do nothing to lower the temperature. Turn them off if no one's in the room; they just use up electricity.

If you have large windows or sliding glass doors that face the sun, keep the drapes or blinds closed during the hottest part of the day. Not only will your house stay cooler, but you'll prevent the upholstery from fading.

When you run your air conditioner, make sure all your doors and windows are closed, including those in rarely-used bedrooms and bathrooms. I can still hear my father yelling at me to shut the door if I held it open too long for the cat to make up her mind if she wanted in or out. "What are you trying to do, air condition the whole neighborhood?"

Lots of hot days without rain can wreak havoc on your lawn, so expect your water bill to rise if you want your grass to survive. But be careful about putting your sprinkler system on a timer. Unexpected rain showers may save you from having to water your vegetation. There's nothing sillier and more wasteful than seeing a neighbor's sprinklers going off when rain is pouring down.

Don't stock up as much on perishable food that doesn't need to be refrigerated. Vegetables like onions and potatoes that can spend weeks on the counter during the winter might start sprouting after only a few days in warm summer temperatures. Fruit will ripen faster, so plan accordingly to avoid waste. In the south, we have a problem with bugs, so some dry goods like flour and crackers have to be kept in the refrigerator after they're opened. Allow space for that if you face this dilemma.

What tips do you have for saving money on utilities in the summer? I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Appealing Your Property Taxes

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Appealing Your Property Taxes: We just received our property tax assessment and, like many of our neighbors, we're in shock. I'm reminded of a cartoon illustrati...

Appealing Your Property Taxes

We just received our property tax assessment and, like many of our neighbors, we're in shock. I'm reminded of a cartoon illustrating how a house is viewed through different eyes: You see your house as you know it. The real estate appraiser sees a dilapidated shack. The tax assessor sees a palace.

Our county tax assessor thinks we live in a palace.

I used to not pay much attention to the assessment statement, which arrives each spring. I didn't really know what my house was worth—or care that much—since I wasn't getting ready to put it on the market. The figure the tax assessor provided was merely informational.

The tax bill arrives in the fall, but by then it's too late to appeal. Property owners have 45 days from the date of the assessment to protest the valuation that will be used to calculate the tax bill.

About three years ago, when the real estate market started to recover, our property assessment shot way up. I finally paid attention, and then I found out it's not that hard to appeal. There are companies that charge to file an appeal on your behalf, but the process is simple enough to do yourself and save that fee.

In Georgia, you can print a one-page Appeal of Assessment form, found online at Fill in your contact information; the rest of the data can be found on your property assessment form. Start with an appeal to the Board of Equalization, the box for which there is no charge.

Under "Property Owner Comments" I write "see attached." Then I prepare a one-page narrative about why my property is worth less than the assessment.

Start with a visit to an online real estate site like Zillow and type in your address. (It's creepy how much information they have about your house.) Zillow will give you a "zestimate" of what your home is worth, i.e., a suggested asking price if you were to list it for sale. If Zillow's estimate is less than what the tax assessor says your property is worth, include it in your narrative.

Then, most importantly, look at comparable sales in your zip code. (Don't worry about homes still on the market; what matters is how much a buyer will actually pay.) Preferably the sales should have been closed within the last six months, but go back further if there hasn't been much activity. Include sales of nearby homes in similar neighborhoods, with similar square footage and similar amenities.

If you use a "comp" for a more expensive home, be sure to point out why that home is worth more than yours. Perhaps it has an extra bedroom or bathroom, a pool, or has more square footage. Maybe the lot is larger or the location is more desirable.

I also note that many of my "comp" properties have had recent renovations, such as a new kitchen, deck, or professional landscaping, whereas my house still has original flooring and appliances. (If you have done a major remodel recently, there's no need to call attention to it in your narrative—just leave this part out.) Remember the cartoon; you're drawing the picture the real estate appraiser sees (the dilapidated shack).

If the "zestimate" and a handful of recent sales of comparable homes in your area are lower than your assessment, you have a good chance of winning your appeal. I've been successful two years in a row, and I'm hoping the results of my 2019 appeal will also be successful.

In our experience for the past two years, when the property tax bill arrives in the fall, it is for approximately 85% of the total amount the county thinks we owe, and it's noted: "under appeal." Then in January, an assessor comes to look at the property (outside only) and make a final determination.

The first year we appealed, we received an additional refund from the county after the assessor's visit. Last year, we received a small bill after the appeal was finalized, but that amount plus the original 85% added up to less than we would have had to pay had we not appealed.

With just a little effort, you could save hundreds of dollars!

Have you ever thought about appealing your property taxes? I'd love to hear your comments.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Why Must Everyone Go to College?

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Why Must Everyone Go to College?: Our country is reeling from a national scandal involving wealthy parents bribing coaches and administrators at prestigious universities to...

Why Must Everyone Go to College?

Our country is reeling from a national scandal involving wealthy parents bribing coaches and administrators at prestigious universities to admit their children because these kids were unable to get accepted on their own merit. Why is that very expensive piece of paper so important?

College can be a rewarding experience, the source of lifelong friends. A degree is essential for entry into many professions. But without rich parents or a full-ride scholarship, earning a college degree can plunge a student deep into chasms of debt. And sometimes, unable to find a job that pays well enough to retire that debt for decades.

Some high-priced degrees don't prepare the student for any particular career. Thus, the graduate ends up working in the service industry, holding a minimum-wage job that doesn't require a degree at all.

Mired in all that student-loan debt, the graduate is financially unable to start enjoying the elements of the traditional American dream: owning a home, starting a family, indulging one's passions.

In Europe, high school students are directed toward the training that best matches their aptitudes and interests. Why force every child onto an academic path? It's demoralizing for those who are not suited, and it keeps them from developing skills in other fields where they might excel. Fields where good-paying jobs exist.

There's no stigma in many other countries for someone who attends two years of vocational school, apprentices to be a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter, a mechanic, etc., and then immediately goes to work in a lucrative profession, with very little debt. Why not encourage more technical training in America? Why can't it be more respectable to pursue careers where one can earn a decent living without an academic degree?

Arguments include, "But college provides a well-rounded education." "College should be a right." "Mine is the first generation to have the opportunity to go to college." However, many people learn just as well, if not better, outside the classroom. Some students don't even develop an interest in learning until later in life, after their formal education is finished. These days, there are countless opportunities for continuing education: reading, travel, public television programs, online webinars, professional organizations, special interest clubs, community colleges. All one needs is the basic foundation of reading, writing, and thinkingthe skills that should be taught in the first twelve years of school.

I don't regret going to college, and I don't mean to sound hypocritical by implying that others shouldn't go. Just look at the price tag, and decide if you're getting good value for your money.

What are your thoughts on college? Should everyone go? I'd love to hear your comments.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Learn Your Foreign Currency

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Learn Your Foreign Currency: We recently returned from a trip abroad, and I'm constantly amazed at stories from fellow travelers about how they grossly overpaid for...