How to Afford All Your 2017 Home Improvements

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2017 @ 6:30 AM

A leaky roof or a sagging gutter can be hard to ignore. The same goes for some old-school wood paneling in your den or that hideous palm tree wallpaper you put up in a (misguided) attempt to recreate your honeymoon. Unfortunately, most home improvements don’t exactly come cheap.

In fact, it may even feel like you’re basically saving up another down payment on your home to fix it up. There are some ways, however, to sock some dollars away and have your new sink and bathtub in the new year, too.

Here’s how to work some much-needed home improvements into your 2017 budget.

1. Save

Sure, you may feel inclined to rush into renovations — and when it comes to certain home repairs, things must be readily done. But it still behooves you to save where you can before crossing things off the to-do list. One trick?

“[Set] an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account to take place every two weeks on your payday so that the money leaves your account before you ever have a chance to spend it,” Brian Davis, director of education for real estate blog SparkRental, said.

2. Use Your Tax Refund

Getting a big rebate from Uncle Sam this year? Put it toward your home repairs.

“While it’s easy to spend your refund impulsively, try to allocate some or all of it towards a big project that you’ve been holding off on,” Larry Greene, president at Case Design/Remodeling Indianapolis, said.

3. Get a Tax Break

Speaking of taxes, making improvements to your home could qualify you for certain tax deductions or credits the next time you file. For instance, if you take out a home improvement loan or a home equity line of credit (HELOC), you may be eligible to the deduct interest. You can also qualify for a tax deduction if the improvements happen to be related to medical expenses, like constructing entrance or exit ramps or widening doorways for a sick or disabled resident.

Plus, you could qualify for a tax credit if you make certain improvements that increase your home’s energy efficiency. These credits include a $300 credit for installing a biomass stove; a $300 credit for air source heat pumps; and up to $200 for installing Energy Star-certified windows and skylights. You can learn more about the energy efficiency tax credits that are available at Energy.gov.

4. Be Smart About How You Pay

While you don’t want to overextend yourself, you may want to look into borrowing some money to put toward your home improvements — particularly if they’re the kind you can no longer put off.

Of course, it’s important to consider all your financing options before you decide how to fund a project. We already mentioned that home improvement loans and HELOCs can qualify for a tax deduction, but those aren’t your only options. There are also bank-issued credit cards or that tout promotional financing offers which allow you to skip interest on your charges for a certain period of time, usually 12 to 18 months.

If you don’t feel you can stay disciplined with a credit card, depending on your credit, you may also be able to secure a low-interest personal loan. Just be sure to crunch the numbers so you understand what you’re getting into and whether you can really afford to borrow that select amount of money. (You can learn more about this kind of financing in our loan learning center.) 

5. Shop Around

Research the price of the materials you’re looking to use across “at least three, but on average five to six product and brand choices,” John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada, a digital home management platform, said. Prices vary and you could conceivably drive down the costs of a particular home improvement project just for opting for different brands or materials.

Similarly, “if you feel hiring a contractor is the best approach, give them a list of things you want for your project, and go out and get at least three different bids,” he said. “This can help lower your costs by creating a competitive environment for the contractors.”

Another way to find the right person for the job: “Homeowners should ask around among everyone they know: family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, random strangers in line at the grocery store,” Davis said. “As referrals and recommendations come in, they should call up the contractors and ask to swing by a few of their jobs, to see their work and get a sense of their pricing.”

6. DIY

OK, so not everyone is going to be able to hang drywall (though there’s certainly no lack of how-to videos on the internet to help you learn). And, unless you’re particularly handy or formally trained, many home repairs are best left to the professionals. Still, there are several small projects you can do that could prevent bigger problems and/or help make room in your budget to cover your dream renovations. These DIY projects include:

  • Cleaning out your gutters
  • Swapping out HVAC filters
  • Power-washing your driveway
  • Caulking small holes or cracks around windows, pipes and doors
  • Changing doorknobs
  • Upgrading the hardware on your drawers and cabinets
  • Cleaning carpet stains
  • Simply breaking out the old brush and roller

“You don’t have to spend a ton of money to make major improvements to your home. Look for projects that have the most bang for your buck,” Greene said. “Sometimes even a fresh coat of paint can make your whole house feel new.”

For more DIY options, check out this 10 home improvement projects you can do in a day.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

Disney theme park attendance drops as prices rise

Published: Sunday, June 04, 2017 @ 12:12 PM

Sunday marks an increase in prices for single-day tickets to Walt Disney World theme parks during certain times of year—as well as an addition of expiration dates on all tickets.

Could the House of Mouse be faltering?

In a rare reversal of attendance growth, a new report says fewer people came to 13 of 14 Disney theme parks worldwide in 2016 than in the year prior.

That’s according to independent numbers from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and engineering firm Aecom. Disney does not share official attendance data for the majority of its properties.

Here’s a wild guess — maybe Disney’s endless march of increased ticket prices had something to do with the traffic decline!

Read more: How to visit Disney World for free (or close to it)

You can still save money on Disney if you know how!

Back in February, Disney jacked up its peak pricing strategy in a continuing effort to shift the price of a day pass based on demand.

It’s called “seasonal pricing,” and there are three periods: Value, regular and peak.

  • Value period pricing for the Magic Kingdom became $107 for adults and $101 for children — an increase of $2.
  • Regular period pricing became $115 for adults and $109 for children — a $5 increase.
  • Peak pricing, meanwhile, remained steady at $124 for adults and $118 for children.

Meanwhile, the price of an annual pass also increased in February. The Silver Pass is now priced at $419, the Gold Pass at $559 and the Platinum Pass at $679.

The peak pricing strategy seems to be working from a profit standpoint. Disney’s theme park unit enjoyed operating income of $3.3 billion in fiscal 2016. That’s a 9% increase from the year prior.

So don’t shed a tear for the House of Mouse just because guest traffic slowed down last year!

Disney Theme Parks is still the #1 theme park group in the world. According to the TEA report, Disney had twice the annual attendance of its next nearest competitor, the British-based theme parks operator Merlin Entertainments. And it had more than three times the attendance of the #3 competitor, Universal Parks and Resorts.

When you’re planning a Disney trip, you need every possible advantage on your side to save money. So don’t overlook these areas of savings…

Figure out the cheapest places to stay

If you want to stay on the property, try renting a timeshare. MouseOwners.com has resources for both owners and potential renters. MouseSavers.com also features a lot of info on how to save on the experience.

If you’re going to Disney World, you might consider off-site hotels around Orlando like the Four Season Orlando and Hard Rock Hotel. They’re luring more visitors than ever with competitive rates, water parks and complimentary transportation to area theme parks. Off-site may also turn out to be more affordable, especially if the family has a car.

One caveat to staying off-site: You’ll only be able to book FastPasses 30 days out from the start of your trip.

Know about the military discounts

If you’re military, you have earned the right to save on your Disney trip! ShadesofGreen.org is a special program offered for military personnel and families in partnership with Disney. Discounted lodging generally starts at $95 a night. Other discounts on park admission, dining and transportation are available too.

Use the free FastPass+ option

FastPass+ enables guests to reserve a spot in line at favorite rides prior to their trip. Once guests receive their theme park tickets, they can log into My Disney Experience on the Disney website or app and make an itinerary of preferred rides and attractions. This feature allows families guaranteed access and short wait times to some of the hottest attractions. Visitors who master FastPass+ can minimize the wait times and maximize the time they spend playing in the parks.

If you’re staying on a Disney property, you can begin lining up your FastPasses as soon as 60 days out from the start of your trip.

Have the right gear

Take ponchos from the dollar store with you for afternoon and evening thundershowers instead of buying overpriced ones at the park. Sure, they won’t have cute characters on them, but they’ll help you keep more of those other kinds of characters — like Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson and Franklin — in your wallet!

Have the right reading material

Money expert Clark Howard has long recommended that you get “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World,” not any of the official publications that come from Disney. This manual is updated yearly and tells you all kinds of money and time-saving tips that the parks don’t want you to know.

Go when it’s quiet

Even though the new dynamic demand pricing initiative won’t let you steal a deal, you’ll still want to plan your trip during a quieter time of the year if possible. You can get a sense of expected crowd sizes on sites like TouringPlans.com and WDWPrepSchool.com.

In general, fall is one of the best times for Florida vacations each year. Disney World offers discounts to Florida residents that fill the parks with daytrippers at that time of year. That creates some traffic, but not as much as you would have encountered over the summer. The real time to book, though, is during the first two weeks of December. Almost nobody goes on vacation at that time.

Use an app to plan your time in the park

A lot of families planning trips to the House of Mouse find it easy to coordinate all their planning in one app. TouringPlans is one great option, as is Trello. Give them a try!

Easiest way to schedule your kids’ free time this summer

Other stories you might like from Clark Howard:

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34 retailers likely to close or go broke before the end of 2017

Published: Sunday, May 28, 2017 @ 1:03 PM

Via @tvnewzguy / Twitter
Via @tvnewzguy / Twitter

The bloodbath at retail that’s seen more than 3,600 stores closures announced since January isn’t over yet.

We could reach the 10,000 store-closure mark by the end of the year, according to credit consulting service F&D Reports.

Read more: 2017 retail closings — What you need to know

Which retailers are next to fall?

F&D’s research has identified 34 retailers suffering from poor sales and too much overhead that it says will likely announces more store closures en masse or bankruptcy filings before the year is out.

  • Shopko
  • National Stores
  • Forever 21
  • Charming Charlie
  • Fresh Market
  • Bloomin’ Brands
  • Ascena
  • Tailored Brands
  • Rent-A-Center
  • Bravo Brio
  • Trans World
  • Fred’s
  • Rite-Aid
  • Conn’s
  • Tuesday Morning
  • Guitar Center
  • GNC
  • Neiman Marcus
  • Toys R Us
  • Sears Hometown
  • J. Crew
  • Noodles and Co.
  • Lumber Liquidators
  • Charlotte Russe
  • Bon-Ton Stores
  • Tops Markets
  • Claire’s
  • Ruby Tuesday
  • Sears Holdings
  • 99 Cents Only
  • Ignite
  • Perfumania
  • Le Chateau
  • Gymboree

It’s not just Amazon killing the brick-and-mortar stores!

We should note that some of the stores listed here — SearsBloomin’ Brands and Ruby Tuesday, in particular — have announced anywhere from dozens to more than 150 store closures this year already.

Meanwhile, it’s been widely reported that others like Gymboree and J. Crew are facing imminent bankruptcy.

Yet in the midst of all the media coverage, one important point is sometimes overlooked: It’s not just Amazon killing off the brick-and-mortars. It’s also that we’re way “over-stored” in the United States, as money expert Clark Howard would say.

“We have far too many retail locations, shopping centers and branches of different chains,” the consumer champ notes. “But stores that are meeting your needs with low prices will continue to thrive.”

The sad truth for ailing retailers is that we have 24 square feet of retail space for every person in the United States, according to F&D.

By comparison, Canada — the next country on the list with the most retail space — has 16 sq. ft. of retail space per capita.

Australia — the third most heavily retailed country in the world — has only 11 sq. ft. That’s less than half the square footage of retail space per capita that we have!

Read more: Lidl — Aldi’s archrival — announces first store openings

Liquidation sales underway at 138 J.C. Penney locations

Other stories you might like from Clark Howard:

3 Reasons most stock pickers don’t beat the market

Published: Sunday, May 28, 2017 @ 5:48 PM

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 09: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) the morning after Donald Trump won a major upset in the presidential election on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Global markets originally dropped after Trump began to pull ahead of his rival Hillary Clinton. In morning trading The Dow was down slightly. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Staff Writer
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 09: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) the morning after Donald Trump won a major upset in the presidential election on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Global markets originally dropped after Trump began to pull ahead of his rival Hillary Clinton. In morning trading The Dow was down slightly. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)(Staff Writer)

It’s always been tough to be a successful stock picker on Wall Street.

It’s not that mutual fund managers can’t beat the market, but it’s very difficult to do so year in and year out: Large-cap stocks have delivered long-term, annual realized returns of about 7% after inflation during the past 100-plus years. For the 15-year stretch through December 2016, 92% of U.S. large-cap, actively managed equity funds underperformed the S&P 500, according to data collected by S&P Dow Indices.

Even during April, the 25th best month of performance in the past 26 years for such large-cap managers, only 63% of mutual funds beat their respective benchmarks, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

And the pressure on stock pickers is mounting because of exchange-traded funds, which feature lower trading costs and returns that are often competitive with or better than those of professionally managed funds.

» The Best Strategies for Investing

Debating investing in individual equities or actively managed funds versus passive vehicles, such as ETFs? Here’s why it’s so difficult to pick a winner.

The fee hurdle

Before ETFs became so popular, mutual fund managers faced a simpler task: Pick stocks that performed better than the overall market, ideally better than the stocks their competitors picked. But with more investment choices comes more pressure. Active managers must now outperform by enough to make up for their funds’ higher costs relative to ETFs.

That additional burden can be significant. Equity mutual funds charged an average of 1.28% in annual administrative expenses — or what’s called an expense ratio — in 2016, compared with the 0.52% charged by the average equity ETF, according to data from the Investment Company Institute.

To match investors’ expectations from ETF returns, some portfolio managers create funds that mimic an index without completely duplicating it — what’s known as closet indexing. That can result in bloated or overly diversified portfolios that get dragged down by less-than-stellar picks. In addition, mutual fund managers often impose high redemption fees to discourage short-term trading, typically defined as holding shares for less than a year.

But costs alone don’t explain why stock pickers face such a challenge. Dynamics within the market also are partly to blame.

» 5 Ways to Put a Windfall to Good Use

Market correlation

When unrelated assets move in lock-step — what’s known as correlation — it’s that much harder for stock pickers to find the ones that will go up even more than the average.

The past seven years have been tough in this regard. Among the 11 sectors of the S&P 500, the average correlation to the broader index ranged from 70% to 95% between 2009 and 2016, before dipping to as low as 57% in February and March, according to figures compiled by Convergex, a U.S. brokerage firm.

This has provided “some oxygen for active managers to outperform,” wrote Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at Convergex, in an April report. Even Goldman Sachs has proclaimed the current market conditions —  notably rising return dispersion — as a potential boon to skillful stock pickers.

» How to Spend (or Invest) Your Tax Return

The problem is, if analysts are right, these dynamics are likely temporary, which puts the longer-term fate of stock picking at peril. And remember, in addition to beating the market, active managers must also provide better returns than a comparable ETF to make up for their higher fees.

‘An inherent disadvantage’

One theory got some buzz earlier this year: The odds are stacked in favor of indexes, and it’s not a fair fight for stock pickers.

Returns for a particular index are heavily skewed to a few of its biggest winners, so a portfolio manager generally must invest in these stocks just to keep up with the index’s performance. Picking a subset of stocks increases the odds those picks will underperform versus the index, according to a 2015 paper written by J.B. Heaton, Nick Polson and Jan Hendrik Witte, with a February update by Hendrik Bessembinder of Arizona State University.

“Active managers do not start out on an even playing field with passive investing. Rather, active managers must overcome an inherent disadvantage,” the authors concluded. And Bessembinder notes that compounding only increases that disadvantage over time.

What’s an investor to do?

There are many advantages of index-based funds and ETFs for individual investors. But that doesn’t mean you should dump all of your individual equities or actively managed funds and convert to just any passive vehicle. Not all index funds and ETFs are created alike. There are even some actively managed ETFs which come with higher fees.

Still, the explosion of these assets has given investors more options. If you’re dissatisfied with the longer-term performance of your mutual funds, consider making the switch. Do your homework first, paying attention to fees, commissions and the assets included in the ETFs you’re considering.

If you think you can beat the odds stacked against professional stock pickers, tread with caution. Don’t invest with money you’ll need for short-term expenses or put your entire retirement nest egg at stake.

Anna-Louise Jackson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ajackson@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @aljax7.

Forgotten lottery ticket worth $24 million found days before deadline

Published: Thursday, May 25, 2017 @ 3:11 PM

A lottery player’s luck almost ran out this week after a ticket worth more than $24 million was nearly forgotten in their home.

An anonymous individual with a Lotto ticket came forward to claim the winnings two days before their ticket was set to expire.

News coverage of the unclaimed Lottery prize escalated in the days leading up the deadline, causing the individual to check their house, where they discovered the winning ticket in a pile of other old tickets, the New York Lottery said.

The individual went to a lottery office in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. The ticket was set to expire Thursday.

>> Read more trending news

Lottery rules allow winners to claim their prize up to a year after a drawing.

“We are thrilled that this lucky winner was able to locate this life-changing ticket,” said Gweneth Dean, director of the Commission’s Division of the Lottery. “We look forward to introducing this multimillionaire who came forward in the nick of time.”

The New York Lottery said they will reveal the identity of the winner after a security background check review.

The winning numbers were 05-12-13-22-25-35 and the bonus number was 51.