MONEY sustainability

10 Super Easy Practices That Are Good for the Earth—and Your Budget

In honor of Earth Day, here are 10 incredibly easy things we should all be doing: They're good for the environment and save money at the same time.

Taking major steps like installing rooftop solar panels or buying an electric car are hardly the only ways to go green. It’s very possible to practice an earth-friendly lifestyle without incurring a major cost outlay. In fact, tons of tiny, easy tweaks to what you do and what you buy day in, day out can not only help the environment, they’ll save you money as a bonus. Here are 10 green cost-saving practices for Earth Day—and every day.

  • Walk or Bike

    Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.
    James A. Parcell—The Washington Post via Getty Images Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.

    Cities and even many small towns are increasingly focused on becoming more walkable and bike-friendly. So why not take advantage? Obviously, neither of these modes of transportation requires the use of fossil fuels or electricity. They’re also free or nearly so. Depending on where you live, you might not even have to buy a bike: The bike share program in Washington, D.C., for instance, costs $75 per year and rides are free if they last 30 minutes or less. (Check out MONEY’s ranking of the Best Places to Walk or Bike.)

  • Group Errands Together

    150420_EM_EarthDay_GroupErrands
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    You could take separate car trips to go grocery shopping, get the oil changed in the car, and visit the doctor for an annual checkup. Or you could combine them into one outing, in a process some call “trip chaining,” which is as simple—or challenging, for some—as being a little more organized and efficient. By planning ahead and grouping errands, you save time and gas money and reduce congestion on the roads.

  • Use Public Transportation

    150420_EM_EarthDay_MassTransit
    Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images New York subway

    Some parts of the country have better public transit than others, and surveys indicate that people—millennials especially—place a high priority on living in cities with good options for getting around. This makes sense for a number of reasons. According to a study on commuter satisfaction, people who get to work on foot, bike, or via train are happiest. These options are not only more affordable compared with driving, the time of one’s commute is more consistent and therefore less stressful. Check out the tools at PublicTransportation.org to scope out transit options and see how much money and carbon emissions you could save by using public transportation in your neck of the woods.

  • Drink Tap Water

    150420_EM_EarthDay_WaterBottle2
    Alamy

    Americans spent roughly $13 billion on bottled water last year, up 6% from 2013. We’re drinking roughly 34 gallons of bottled water annually per capita, up from just 1.6 gallons in 1976. Granted, this is a much healthier option than sugary beverages, but is bottled water any better for us than tap water? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tap water is completely safe; many bottled waters are just tap water that’s sometimes (but not always) filtered. And bottled water easily costs 100 times or perhaps even 1,000 times more than tap water. Only an estimated 23% of disposable plastic water bottles are recycled, by the way.

  • Shop with Reusable Bags

    canvas bag
    Getty Images

    The environmental benefits of shopping with a reusable bag like these recommended by Real Simple are pretty obvious: They eliminate the need for plastic bags that tend to wind up in landfills. Shopping with a reusable bag may also save you money, because stores in places like Dallas and Encinitas, Calif., charge customers 5¢ or 10¢ apiece for non-reusable bags.

  • Don’t Overdo It on Groceries

    shopping list
    Getty Images

    Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the food we buy in the U.S. is thrown away. What this shows is that too many of us buy too much at supermarkets and warehouse bulk-supply retailers, and/or that we’re not particularly good at strategically freezing or concocting leftover dishes. To waste less, shop smarter and be creative with foods that might otherwise be dumped in the trash. And to avoid going overboard with impulse purchases at the grocery store, always make a shopping list in advance, and stick to it.

  • Heat and Cool Your Home Wisely

    Insulation
    Jonathan Maddock—Getty Images

    Among the many straightforward and fairly simple steps you can take to trim back household costs and conserve resources: Turn the heat down in winter (you’ll shave 1% off your heating bill for every 1 degree lower); use fans rather than nonstop A/C in the summer; insulate around doors and windows to protect from drafts; and put heating and cooling systems on a timer so that they’re only in use when needed.

  • Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs, Appliances

    150420_EM_EarthDay_Lightbulb
    Alamy

    They tend to cost more upfront than less efficient models. But they’ll save you money in the long run because they eat up less electricity when being used, and, at least in terms of lightbulbs, they have longer lifespans so therefore have to be replaced less frequently. As for appliances, look for the Energy Star label as a sign of a product’s efficiency—and its potential to shave dollars off your utility bills.

  • Be Practical About Landscaping

    cactuses outside home
    Trinette Reed—Getty Images

    It’s not wise to battle against Mother Nature by trying to force flowers, plants, and grasses to grow in areas where they’re simply not suited. A low-cost, low-maintenance yard is one that incorporates native plants and greenery that flourish in your zone, without requiring extensive watering, fertilizer, and attention—nor a big budget. Check out classic tips from This Old House and Better Homes & Gardens for landscaping that’s gorgeous, affordable, and earth-friendly. Don’t fixate on having a prototypical grassy front lawn, which may look good but often requires loads of time, energy, money, water, and chemicals to maintain.

  • Compost

    Dumping compost
    Jill Ferry Photography—Getty Images

    Many towns give residents free or deeply subsidized composters, and using one is generally as simple as dumping vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and such into the bin. The resulting material can be help your garden and new plants grow, and eliminate much of the need to water and buy fertilizers and pesticides. Composting reduces the amount of waste in landfills as well, of course. (Even apartment dwellers can get in on the act with vermicomposting, or composting with worms.)

MONEY home buying

If You Want to Buy a Home, Here’s What You Need to Do Now

suburban neighborhood
Dan Saelinger

For the first time in years, the boom-and-bust housing market may be finding its sweet spot, with good deals for buyers and sellers. Is it time to jump in?

Too hot, too cold, too hot. For more than a decade the housing market has been nowhere near its Goldilocks moment, a just-right rate of growth that offers opportunities for both buyers and sellers. By certain markers, we’re finally starting to get there: Home prices nationwide are expected to rise 4.9% on average this year, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). That’s closer than we’ve been in a while to the long-term average of 3.3%—and a lot more manageable than either the sharp drops of the bust years or the 12% spike we saw in 2013.

What’s more, inventory is expected to loosen up, with 1.9 million units on the market this year—far below the flooded supply of 4 million we saw in 2008. The number of homes that were “flipped” (bought for a quick-sale investment) has dropped for the second year in a row, while the foreclosure rate is less than half what it was two years ago. Those are healthy signs for everyone (except, perhaps, for the small army of TV shows obsessed with renovating and flipping).

Can the center hold? The big question now is whether this manageable growth is sustainable in the long term. Economists such as Moody’s Analytics’ Mark Zandi note that we certainly need more first-time homebuyers in the mix to make that happen, because they drive a good piece of demand, allowing current homeowners to trade up—or cash in. In 2014 the percentage of rookie homebuyers on the market hit its lowest level in decades, just 33% of sales, vs. 40% historically. That said, a new report from BMO Harris Bank finds that 74% of Americans 18 to 34 plan to buy a new home in the next five years, and they are budgeting $240,000 to make the sale, a 24% increase over just last year.

On the other end of the spectrum, experts warn that prices in some markets have already pushed past the bubbling-over peaks, according to RealtyTrac. In San Francisco the median price for a house in December 2014 was $1 million, up 18% from the peak during the bubble. Prices in New York City (median house: $935,000) are 15% above the peak. It’s not just the coasts either. Prices around Austin are 8.6% higher than they were during the mid-2000s. “What we’ve seen so far,” says Zillow’s chief economist, Stan Humphries, “is still a long way from normal.”

What does it all mean for you? If you’re a buyer, you don’t have to worry as much today about being priced out in a bidding war or by all-cash offers. Sellers who didn’t have enough equity in their homes just a few years ago to justify a move could find themselves in a much better position now. And renovators can still get low rates on home-equity loans and lines of credit. In short: If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, this may be the time to act—or at least to do some serious number crunching.

Here’s some advice to help would-be home buyers plot their next move. In future posts in this series we’ll offer tips for sellers and those who want to stay put and add some value with smart upgrades.

If you’re in the market to buy

The good news: There are a lot more homes to choose from. In addition to the additional properties already on the market, Zillow’s Humphries is forecasting an increase in houses and condos for sale this year as builders pick up the pace and more homeowners cash in on their rising equity. As prices have risen from the depths of the recession—the median sales price hit bottom in 2012, at an average home price of $152,000—the flippers have started to flee, which has helped the overall market stabilize. “Home prices have risen to the point where, in many markets, houses don’t make sense for investors,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president of Realty-Trac, noting that cash buyers dipped to 30%, the lowest in four years. “That helps level the playing field for regular buyers.”

Then there’s that other important factor: interest rates. Despite prognostications that they could tick up by summer, the 30-year fixed rate—recently at 3.7%—”is still within shouting distance of 60-year lows,” says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH, a mortgage information provider.

suburban house
Dan Saelinger

Your action plan

Start hunting. Sure, you’ve been hearing for years that interest rates would shoot up soon. This time you can believe it—Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen signaled as much in her most recent Federal Open Market Committee statement. The NAR is forecasting that the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage will average 4.3% in the third quarter of this year, 4.7% in the fourth, and 5.3% over all of 2016. On a $300,000 loan, the difference between 3.7% and 5.3% would be $285 a month (a payment of $1,381 vs. $1,666) and $102,600 over the life of the loan.

Those rates could go even higher if Europe’s economy starts to recover, warns Sam Khater, deputy chief economist for CoreLogic. One reason that American mortgage rates have stayed so low is that in recent years global investors have poured money into the relative safety of U.S. Treasuries, a main factor influencing the price of mortgages. If money starts flowing back out to the rest of the world, domestic rates will inch up.

Home prices have been heading up as well. Not as fast as in the bubble years, of course, but some areas have already seen double-digit growth. “Until recently the fastest-growing markets were those hit hardest,” says Khater. “Today the fastest growing are those with healthy economies.” With the economy on the upswing, there are a lot more of those now too.

Go fixed-rate, not flex. Adjustable-rate loans may look irresistibly low now—around a 3% average for a five-year and as low as 2.5% for borrowers with credit scores of 760 and higher. But you’re likely to end up paying significantly more at the reset date with rates heading upward. “It’s hard to argue against a fixed-rate loan,” Gumbinger says. The exception: Buyers who plan to stay in the home for less than 10 years may benefit from the low ARM rates in the fixed period.

Right-size your down payment. If you’re looking in a highly competitive market, offer to put down more than the standard 20% if you can afford it. That gives the seller the extra reassurance that if the house appraises for less than the asking price, you’ll still be able to secure a mortgage. Signs that market conditions warrant sweetening the down payment: if houses where you’re looking are going to contract within a matter of days or if they are routinely selling for more than the asking price.

Find a savvy broker. Buyers have so much more information at their fingertips: comparable sales, school district reports, walkability, and more. But don’t underestimate the kind of advice you’d get from a broker. A buyer’s agent will have on-the-ground knowledge of market trends and be able to identify unseen circumstances that affect a property’s price, anything from a cracked foundation or a dead boiler to whether there’s been a recent school redistricting or a zoning change in the area. She might also have access to “pocket” listings that don’t make it online because the privacy-minded sellers don’t want their home flooded with prospective buyers.

Take a little time. Sure, you want to keep an eye on the prospect of rising interest rates. But in a balanced market with steadily rising inventory, don’t feel pressure to jump at the first house you like, says Craig Reger, a broker in Portland, Ore. Visit a good number of open houses (at least five) to get a sense of what’s out there, and go shopping with your agent. You’ll start to learn if a property is over- or under-priced and why.

The rules are a little different if you’re looking at new construction, because builders don’t negotiate on price very often. “They tend to sell at 100% of their list price because that’s their comparable for the next house,” says Jacquie Sebulsky, a broker with Cascade Sotheby’s International in Bend, Ore. That said, if you buy in the early stages of construction (when the developer knows you’ll have to live through months of noise, dust, and other hassles), you may be able to ask for help later with closing costs, upgrades, and additional amenities, such as appliances, in lieu of a price cut.

Remember that money isn’t (always) everything. Even in a market where inventory is tight and sellers aren’t negotiating much, you still have some leverage. That starts with minimizing the seller’s potential headaches. If you have attractive financing—a pre-approved loan from a reliable lender or a large down payment—say so. If you can close on the seller’s schedule—whether that means quickly or letting him stay an extra month—do it.

And don’t be shy about plucking a few heartstrings. It never hurts to write a letter explaining what the house means to you. “A lot of sellers don’t want to sell to investors,” says Tim Lenihan, a broker in Seattle. “Hokey as it sounds, it can help you get your foot in the door.”

MONEY buying a home

This Spring’s Hottest Real Estate Markets

North Beach, San Francisco Bay Area homes
Christian Heeb—Getty Images North Beach, San Francisco Bay Area

Buyers need to move a bit faster this year in order to snag their dream house, even in some of the slowest-moving markets. Homes are going especially quick in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Seattle, and Salt Lake City.

Housing inventory remains tight, and one of the questions on the minds of many homebuyers this spring is just how fast they will have to move to get the home they want and can afford.

To find out how long homes are staying on the market, we calculated the share of homes for sale on Trulia over a two-month period. We first looked at homes listed on February 5, then counted how many were still for sale on April 5. Faster-moving markets had a lower percentage of homes still on the market after two months, while slower-moving markets had a higher percentage.

Trulia_FastestMovingMarkets_Infographic_Apr20151

Our two-month measure is similar to a common housing statistic: days on market (DOM). In general, housing markets with more inventory and fewer buyers will have a higher share of for-sale homes remaining on the market after two months and a higher median DOM. But we prefer our two-month measure over the widely watched DOM as a way to determine how quickly homes are moving in a market.

Why? We think DOM is potentially misleading. If lots of new inventory suddenly lands on the market, then the median DOM could fall thanks to all those newly listed homes. Thus, a low median DOM might indicate that buyers are snapping up homes quickly, so homes aren’t staying on the market long (a seller’s market). But it could also signal that a lot of new inventory has just come onto the market (a buyer’s market). As a result, it’s difficult to decipher what’s really going on based on DOM alone.

Looking for a Bargain Home? So Is Everyone Else

Nationally, 60% of homes listed for sale on February 5 were still on the market on April 5, down a bit from 62% for the same period last year. What’s quickening the pace of sales? It turns out it’s homes priced at the low end of the market. To see this, we evenly divided all homes in each of the 100 largest U.S. metros into three price tiers.

We gave each metro its own price cutoffs based on what’s considered high-end, mid-range, and low-end locally. On average, lower-priced homes moved fastest. Only 50% of homes in this tier were still on the market after two months compared with 65% of higher-priced homes.

What’s more, home sales in the low-price tier sped up more compared with a year ago than sales in other tiers. The share of low-price homes still on the market after two months dropped 3 percentage points, compared with a 1 point drop for middle-tier homes and a 1 point increase for high-tier homes. As always though, the national trend hides big differences from one local market to another. In many metros, the sales pace is quickening, while in others it is slowing.

Trulia_FastestMovingMarkets_BarChart_Apr2015

California: Home to America’s Fastest-Moving Housing Markets

If you’re a home seller, California may indeed be the Golden State. Eight of the 10 fastest-moving housing markets are there, and homes are selling much faster than in the Northeast, South, and Midwest. In fact, fewer than 30% of homes for sale in the three San Francisco Bay Area metros remained on the market after two months.

By contrast, about 70% of homes in Long Island and Albany, NY were still on the market. In addition, the only metros outside California that made the 10 fastest moving list were Seattle and Salt Lake City.

America’s Top 10 Fastest-Moving Housing Markets
# U.S. Metro % of homes still for sale after two months, April 2015 % of homes still for sale after two months, April 2014 Difference in share still for sale, 2015 vs 2014 Median Asking Home prices, April 2015
1 San Francisco, CA 26% 28% -3% $1,099,000
2 San Jose, CA 30% 31% -1% $800,000
3 Oakland, CA 30% 31% -1% $598,000
4 San Diego, CA 33% 44% -11% $549,990
5 Orange County, CA 41% 45% -3% $699,000
6 Seattle, WA 42% 45% -3% $409,993
7 Sacramento, CA 42% 45% -3% $396,950
8 Los Angeles, CA 43% 45% -3% $549,000
9 Ventura County, CA 43% 50% -6% $589,999
10 Salt Lake City, UT 45% 28% -6% $299,900
Note: Among the 100 largest U.S. metros. The two-month shares and the difference are rounded to the nearest percentage point, and the difference was calculated before rounding; therefore, the rounded difference might not equal the difference between the rounded shares. Click here to download the full results for each of the 100 largest U.S. metros.

None of the fastest-moving markets have slowed since last year. In fact, the markets on our top 10 list that sped up the most are San Diego, Ventura County, and Salt Lake City. Other markets that are speeding up most rapidly are almost exclusively in the South and Southwest. The share of homes for sale in Cape CoralFort Myers, FL still on the market two months later dropped from 64% in April 2014 to 47% in April 2015. El Paso, TX and Richmond, VA also sped up at a similar pace, even though homes in those markets aren’t moving quickly enough to land them on the 10 fastest-moving markets list.

To illustrate this point, the figure below shows that homes in markets with bigger price increases tend to move faster, though not always. For the most part, these fast-moving metros are sellers’ markets where homes don’t sit very long.

Trulia_FastestMovingMarkets_Scatterplot_Apr2015

Housing Markets Moving Sluggishly in Long Island and Albany, NY

In contrast, the slowest-moving markets are in the Northeast, including Long Island and Albany, and in the South, including Columbia, SC, and Knoxville. All but two of the 10 slowest-moving markets had year-over-year price increases below the 5% national average.

However, even among these snail’s-pace markets, the share of homes still for sale after two months dropped in five of 10 metros. Knoxville and Long Island both all sped up 2 percentage points this year compared with last. It’s true that in six of the metros on this list, the pace of sales slowed in 2015 compared with the year before. The pace of sales slowed the most in Miami (9 points) and Pittsburgh (4 points).

America’s Top 10 Slowest-Moving Housing Markets
# U.S. Metro % of homes still for sale after two months, April 2015 % of homes still for sale after two months, April 2014 Difference in share still for sale, 2015 vs 2014 Median Asking Home prices, April 2015
1 Albany, NY 71% 70% 1% $264,900
2 Long Island, NY 69% 71% -2% $474,995
3 Syracuse, NY 68% 67% 1% $153,000
4 Columbia, SC 67% 69% -1% $170,000
5 Knoxville, TN 67% 69% -2% $184,900
6 Pittsburgh, PA 67% 62% 4% $155,000
7 Lake County –Kenosha County, IL-WI 67% 64% 3% $289,000
8 Virginia BeachNorfolk, VA 65% 65% 0% $249,000
9 Birmingham, AL 65% 66% -1% $193,000
10 Miami, FL 65% 56% 9% $319,000
Note: Among the 100 largest U.S. metros. The two-month shares and the difference are rounded to the nearest percentage point, and the difference was calculated before rounding; therefore, the rounded difference might not equal the difference between the rounded shares. Click here to download the full results for each of the 100 largest U.S. metros.

Why do some markets speed up while others slow down? Last year we found the fastest moving markets were those that had the largest year-over-year price gains. Things don’t appear to have changed this year. In fact, asking prices increased near or above the national average of 5% year-over-year in six of the 10 fastest-moving markets.

But fast-moving markets are different in other ways, too. They tend to be more expensive to begin with. In other words, they have both higher price levels AND they’ve notched bigger price increases in the past year. Expensive markets—including many in California—have tight housing supplies because of limited construction in the face of growing demand. So homes get snapped up quickly.

And this is bad news for first-time homebuyers. The combination of an expensive market and fast-selling homes at the low tier is yet another hurdle for first-timers, who are already getting slammed by declining affordability and slow wage growth. Now, even the homes they might be able to afford seem to be disappearing in the blink of an eye.

MONEY Taxes

8 Reasons Your Property Taxes Are So Damn High

150420_EM_PropertyTax
Lisa Corson—Gallery Stock Tourism keeps Las Vegas' property taxes low. New Jersey homeowners have no such luck.

Income taxes are probably top of mind right about now. But for many homeowners, high property taxes are an issue year-round. What's to explain why property taxes are such a burden in certain parts of the country?

A Monmouth University survey released last fall showed that more than half of New Jersey residents want to leave at some point, with 26% saying that it’s “very likely” they’ll move away from the Garden State. The most popular reasons cited for were the costs of housing and property taxes—the high cost of property taxes in particular. “The chief culprit among these costs is the New Jersey’s property tax burden,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, explained.

New Jersey isn’t the only state at risk of losing residents to Florida, Pennsylvania, or another state with lower taxes. Stories pop up regularly speculating about the likelihood of homeowners jumping ship from high-tax states like New York and Connecticut as well.

Why is it that some states and municipalities have much higher property tax than their neighbors in the first place? Here’s a rundown of a few major factors.

The community has good schools. Or at least extremely well-funded ones. According to Zillow, the median residential property tax bill in New York’s Westchester County is $13,842, highest in the nation. A Westchester Magazine feature focused on why the leafy, desirable county holds this dubious distinction. The piece draws a comparison to Virginia’s Fairfax County, which is similar in many ways to Westchester: They’re both suburbs of big cities (New York and Washington, D.C.), they have similarly high home values, and they educate about the same number of students in public schools, which in both places have a good reputation.

Yet Westchester spends over $1 billion more to fund its schools, and since property taxes cover the lion’s share of that bill, there’s a big disparity in what homeowners pay. The average residential property tax bill is about $5,500 annually, less than half of what Westchester residents pay (people in Fairfax still complain about property taxes being too high).

The average teacher salary in Fairfax was roughly $67,000 in 2014. In Westchester, the average was estimated at $88,000 in 2013. Benefits and administrative costs add up too—Fairfax County has one superintendent, Westchester has 40—and collectively they translate into bigger burdens on Westchester’s property owners. Defenders of high educator salaries always note that they’re necessary given the high cost of living in the area, and it’s a valid point. After all, teachers, principals, and superintendents must pay local property taxes!

State workers make good money too. By most measures, New Jersey homeowners have the country’s highest property taxes. Tax Foundation data shows that the Garden State has the highest effective property tax rate (percentage of home value) and the highest property taxes per capita. The average property tax bill in the state hit $8,161 in 2014, also tops in the U.S. In fact, one study indicates that less than 1% of American homeowners pay more than $8,000 annually in property taxes.

An Asbury Park Press op-ed published last summer noted that a big reason for the state’s high property taxes is how much the state pays its workers:

The problem lies less with layers of government and excessive numbers of government workers providing services than with the generous salaries and benefits of those who are on the public payroll. Average state worker salaries: highest in the nation. Average teacher salaries: third highest. Public employee health benefit costs: second highest in the nation.

Your state relies heavily on property taxes. The above-referenced editorial also points out that 48% of state and local revenues collected in N.J. come from property taxes, which is off-the-charts high: “No other state derives more than 41 percent of its revenue from that source; the U.S. average is 33.1 percent.”

This state of affairs would be more acceptable to locals if the tradeoff for high property taxes is low taxation in other areas. Indeed, New Jersey has one of the country’s lowest gas taxes, and it’s in the middle of the pack in terms of taxes on wine, spirits, and beer. Unlike many other states, people in New Jersey don’t pay any vehicle property taxes either. Then again, New Jerseyans do pay the second highest state sales tax rate (7%, only California is higher).

Little or no tourism. A recent WalletHub study named Hawaii as the state with the lowest property taxes. New Jersey property taxes are eight times higher than their counterparts in the Aloha State. And a big reason why homeowners get off (relatively) easy in Hawaii is that the state collects so much from outsiders, thanks to high taxes on hotels and other tourism expenses. Likewise, taxes paid by casinos and tourists in Nevada are often credited as a reason why state property taxes aren’t high.

Little or no industry. The more that industrial and commercial businesses pay in taxes in a state or town, the less it’s necessary for homeowners to cover the government’s tab. According to the Wyoming Taxpayer Association, 69% of property taxes in the state are paid by mineral production businesses. Therefore, residential property taxes can remain low—the state has no income tax either. The city of Marlborough, Mass., recently estimated that it were it not for local commercial taxpayers, the average homeowner would see his property tax bill (now averaging $4,791) shoot up by $1,164 per year.

Your property is worth a bundle. Your property tax bill is based on multiplying the local tax rate times the assessed value of your home. So, generally speaking, the owners of more valuable homes pay more in property taxes. Marin County has the most expensive real estate in California, on average, so it should come as no surprise that it has the highest (or among the highest) average property taxes too. In New Jersey, the 10 towns with the highest property tax bills all averaged over $18,000 per year, and five out of the ten had average residential property values over $1 million.

Or it’s not worth much at all. A recent RealtyTrac report shows that nationwide, the highest property tax rates were for high-end homes, valued between $2 million and $5 million. That’s not surprising. What is somewhat of a shock, however, is that the second highest effective property tax rate—calculated based on a percentage of a home’s value—was for houses at the extreme low end of the value spectrum, assessed at under $50,000 or less. Granted, owners at the low end aren’t paying big bucks, but in terms of the percentage of the home’s value, property tax rates represent a disproportionate burden.

Your assessment was too high. There may not be much you can do to change your local tax rate—other than move, of course. But you can challenge the assessment on your property. If your appeal results in a lower assessment, your tax bill goes down as well. The National Taxpayers Union estimates that somewhere between 30% and 60% of properties are over-assessed. This guide to disputing your property taxes from This Old House has some of the best advice on the topic we could find.

MONEY home improvement

Getting Your Lawn Equipment Ready for the Season

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I learned the hard way that lawnmower gas goes stale over the winter, so now I use gasoline additive in my mower, string trimmer, snow blower, and generator. But my neighbor says it’s better to burn the tank dry. Is that true?

The reason that gas gets “stale” and can gum up power equipment engines is that it contains ethanol, which absorbs water. That water can damage the engines of non-road equipment, says Kris Kiser, of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade association.

Most gas-station gas contains 10% ethanol, thanks to a 2007 federal mandate designed to reduce carbon emissions. And 15% ethanol is now being sold at some stations, but only for cars built in 2001 or later.

It actually turns out that ethanol doesn’t provide nearly the environmental benefit that was expected—and some lawmakers are proposing eliminating the mandate altogether—but that’s another story. For now, the vast majority of small-engine problems can be traced to ethanol, says Kiser, and you have three choices for avoiding trouble:

  1. Buy ethanol-free fuel. You can get it at home centers and outdoor power equipment dealers. Burn it and you won’t have to worry about your gas going stale. The problem is you’ll pay around $6 a quart for “E-0” gas. That equates to a very steep $24 a gallon.
  2. Use a fuel stabilizer. It prevents the ethanol from absorbing moisture and thereby prevents regular gas-station fuel from going stale and gumming up the motor. A bottle that costs only about $9 will probably last you several years.
  3. Run your gas tank dry. By rationing small portions of gasoline into your power equipment as needed and always running the machines until they burn all that gas and stall out, you ensure that no gas is left in the engine to go stale. This solves the problem and offers another large benefit, especially for gas-powered generators. The standard advice to run generators monthly is largely designed to burn the old gas and prevent it from going stale. But if you leave the tank dry, there’s no need to do that. Just start it (with very little gas) every few months to ensure it’s working properly, and run it until the gas is gone.

“Any of these three options works well,” says Kiser, “but check your owner’s manuals because different manufacturers have different requirements for their machines.”

 

MONEY Credit Scores

The One Graph That Explains Why a Good FICO Score Matters for Homebuyers

young couple outside of home
Ann Marie Kurtz—Getty Images

An analysis from an economic policy group estimates that tight credit standards may have prevented 4 million consumers from getting mortgages since 2009.

When it comes to buying a home, there’s a lot more to the process than just finding an affordable home for sale and having enough money for a down payment. Most people need loans to finance such a large purchase, but even as the housing market has rebounded from the foreclosure crisis and low property values of 2010, mortgages remain very difficult to acquire. A report from the Urban Institute, a Washington-based economic-policy research group, concludes that 1.25 million more mortgages could have been made in 2013 on the basis of conservative lending standards practiced in 2001, years before the housing bubble began to inflate.

Whether or not a lender approves a borrower for a mortgage depends on several factors, like income and outstanding debt, but looking at the credit scores of mortgage borrowers during the last several years shows just how tight the market has been post-recession. Here’s how it breaks down.

Urban-Institute-FICO-Score-distribution

The Urban Institute estimates that the stringent credit score standards for mortgage origination resulted in 4 million mortgages that could have been made (but weren’t) between 2009 and 2013. From 2001 to 2013, consumers with a FICO credit score higher than 720 made up an increasingly large portion of borrowers, from 44% of loans in 2001 to 62% in 2013. Consumers with scores lower than 660 made up 11% of borrowers in 2013, but they represented 28% of home loans in 2001.

The study authors note that their calculations do not account for a potential decline in sales because consumers may not see homeownership as attractive as it had been before the crisis.

“Even so, it is inconceivable that a decline in demand could explain a 76% drop in borrowers with FICO scores below 660, but only a 9% drop in borrowers with scores above 720,” the report says.

On top of that, the authors found that tightened credit standards disproportionately affected Hispanic and African-American consumers. In comparison to loan originations made in 2001, new mortgages among white borrowers declined 31% by the 2009-2013 period, 38% for Hispanic borrowers and 50% for African-American borrowers. Loans to Asian families increased by 8%.

Millions of Americans are still feeling the impact of the economic downturn on their credit scores, because negative information like foreclosure, bankruptcy and collection accounts remain on credit reports for several years. Rebuilding the credit and assets necessary to buy a home takes time, particularly in such a tight lending climate, but by regularly checking your credit — which you can do for free on Credit.com — and focusing on things like keeping debt levels low and making loan payments on time, you can start making your way toward a better credit standing.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY renting

These Are the Most—And Least—Affordable Places to Rent

Fieldston Historic District, Riverdale, Bronx, New York
Alamy Fieldston Historic District, Riverdale, Bronx, New York

A New York City borough is the least affordable—but it's not the one you're thinking of.

It’s no secret that renting has become more expensive in recent years. Now, new data a from housing data firm RealtyTrac lets us know exactly where in the country renting is most and least affordable.

In order to find out which areas are easiest on the typical renter’s wallet, RealtyTrac crunched the numbers on 461 counties across the U.S. with a population of at least 100,000 and sufficient data available, to determine the percentage of the local median household income that gets eaten up by the “fair market” rent (set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) on a three bedroom property.

The Bronx, in New York City, where fair-market rent takes up a whopping 69% of median income, ranks as the least affordable county in the nation—a result of the borough’s extremely low median income and relatively high rents.

San Francisco, Brooklyn (Kings County, New York), and Philadelphia, are also high on the list, each taking up around 48% of the typical household salary in rent payments.

REa

On the other end of the spectrum, Delaware County, Ohio, was ranked as the most affordable city for renters, with fair-market rents costing just 14% of the median household income. Delaware was closely followed by Williamson County, Tennessee; Hamilton County, Indiana; and Fort Bend County, Texas.

image008 (1)

RealtyTrac also notes that renting is generally more expensive than buying a house. The firm found monthly ownership costs of a median-priced home—including mortgage payments, property taxes, and home and mortgage insurance, assuming a 10% down payment—account, on average, for just 24% of the median income. Fair-market rents, by comparison, averaged 28% of the typical household income. Overall, RealtyTrac found house payments were more affordable than fair-market rents in 76% of the counties it analyzed.

“From a pure affordability standpoint, renters who have saved enough to make a 10% down payment are better off buying in the majority of markets across the country,” said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist.

That said, Blomquist warned, “Keep in mind that in some markets buying may be more affordable than renting, but that doesn’t mean buying is truly affordable by traditional standards.” He added, “In those markets renters are stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to deciding whether to buy or continue renting.”

MONEY mortgages

The Surprising Way to Save $190K on a Mortgage

house on chain
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is the standard in the industry right now, but with interest rates so low, is the 15-year loan a better option?

One of the best ways to eliminate your mortgage debt is moving into a 15-year fixed-rate loan. With the average spread a full 1% compared to its 30-year mortgage counterpart, a 15-year mortgage can provide an increased rate of acceleration in paying off the biggest obligation of your life.

Can You Pull It Off?

In most cases, you’re going to need strong income for an approval. How much income? The old 2:1 rule applies. Switching from a 30-year mortgage to a 15-year fixed-rate loan means you’ll pay down the loan in half the amount of time, but it effectively doubles up your payment for each month of the 180-month term. Your income must support all the carrying costs associated with your home including the principal and interest payment, taxes, insurance, (private mortgage insurance, only if applicable) and any other associated carrying cost. In addition, your income will also need to support all the other consumer obligations you might have as well including cars, boats, installment loans, personal loans and any other credit obligations that contain a monthly payment.

The attractiveness of a 15-year mortgage in today’s interest rate environment has mass appeal. The 1% spread in interest rate between the 30-year mortgage and a 15-year mortgage is absolutely real and for many, the thought of being mortgage-free can be very tempting. Consider today’s average 30-year mortgage rate of around 4% on a loan of $400,000 — that’s $287,487 in interest paid over 360 months. Comparing that to a 15-year mortgage over 180 months, you’ll pay a mere $97,218 in interest. That’s a shattering savings of $190,268 in interest, but there’s a catch — your monthly mortgage payment is going to be significantly higher.

Here’s how it breaks down. The 30-year mortgage in our case study pencils out to a $1,909 monthly payment covering principal and interest. Weigh that against the 15-year version of that loan, which comes to $2,762 a month in principal and interest, totaling $853 more per month, but going to principal. This is why the income piece makes or breaks the 15-year deal. Independent of your other carrying costs and other credit obligations, you’ll need to be able to show an income of $4,242 a month to offset just a principled interest payment on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Alternatively, to offset the principled interest payment on the 15-year mortgage, you would need and income of $6,137 per month, essentially $1,895 per month more in income just to be able to pay off your debt faster. As you can see, income is a large driver of debt reduction potential.

What to Do If Your Income Isn’t High Enough

When your lender looks at your monthly income to qualify you for a 15-year fixed-rate loan, part of the equation is your debt load.

Lenders are going to consider the minimum payments you have on all other credit obligations in the following way. Take your total proposed new 15-year mortgage payment and add that number to the minimum payments on all of your consumer obligations and then take that number and divide it by 0.45. This is the income that you’ll need at minimum to offset a 15-year mortgage. Paying off debt can very easily reduce the amount of income you might need and/or the size of the loan you might need as there would be fewer consumer obligations handcuffing your income that could otherwise be used toward supporting a stable mortgage plan.

Can You Borrow Less?

Borrowing less money is a guaranteed way to keep a lid on your monthly outflow maintaining a healthy alignment with your income, housing and living expenses. Extra cash in the bank? If you have extra cash in the bank beyond your savings reserves that you don’t need for any immediate purpose, using these funds to reduce your mortgage amount could pencil very nicely in reducing the 15-year mortgage payment and interest expense paid over the life of the loan. The concept of the 15-year mortgage is “I’m going to have to hammer, bite, chew and claw my way through a higher mortgage payment in the short term in order for a brighter future.”

Can You Generate Cash?

If you can’t borrow less, generating cash to do so may open another door. Can you sell an asset such as stocks, or trade out of a money-market fund in order to generate the cash to rid yourself of debt faster? If yes, this is another avenue to explore.

You may also want to explore getting additional funds via selling another property. If you have another property that you’ve been planning to sell such as a previous home, any additional cash proceeds generated by selling that property (depending upon any indebtedness associated with that property) could allow you to borrow less when moving into a 15-year mortgage.

Are You an Ideal Match for a 15-Year Mortgage?

Consumers who are in a financial position to handle a higher loan payment while continuing to save money and grow their savings would be well-suited for a 15-year mortgage. The other school of thought is to refinance into a 30-year mortgage and then simply make a larger payment like you would on a 25-year, 20-year or 15-year mortgage every month. This is another fantastic way to save substantial interest over the term of the loan, since the larger-than-anticipated monthly payment you make to your lender will go to principal and you’ll owe less money in interest over the full life of the loan. As cash flow changes, so could the payments made to the loan servicer, as prepayment penalties are virtually non-existent on bank loans.

There is an important “catch” to taking out a 15-year mortgage — you also decrease your mortgage interest tax deduction benefit. However, if you don’t need the deduction in 15 years anyway, the additional deduction removal may not be beneficial (depending on your tax situation and future income potential).

If your income is poised to rise in the future and/or your debt is planned to decrease and you want to have comfort in knowing by the time your small kids are teenagers that you’ll be mortgage free, then a 15-year loan could be a smart move. And when you’re mortgage is paid off, you’ll have control of all of your income again as well.

Proximity to retirement is another factor borrowers should consider when carrying a mortgage into retirement isn’t ideal. These consumers might opt to move into a faster mortgage payoff plan than someone buying the house for the first time.

Keep in mind that to qualify for the best interest rates on a mortgage (which will have a big impact on your monthly payment), you need a great credit score as well. You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com every month, and you can get your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com too.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY home improvement

5 High-Impact Home Improvements for $1,000 or Less

Simple cosmetic upgrades—and even a good cleaning—can instantly transform your home.

Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of investment to add a lot of value to your home. You can start seeing instant payback with maintenance projects that keep your home running smoothly, such as replacing furnace filters, or upgrades, like new appliances, that help save on energy costs. Although $1,000 is a drop in the bucket compared with a major home renovation project, that dollar amount can go a long way toward fixing or updating things around the house, especially if you’re planning to put your home on the market anytime soon. Here are some smart ideas for $1,000 improvements.

 

  • Update the Lighting

    lighting in living room
    Gallery Stock

    A quality light fixture can burn brightly for decades, but the style can fade. If your lighting fixtures are stuck in the ’70s, updating them will instantly transform the look of a room. Plus, switching out old sconces, pendants, or table lamps is easy to do yourself, saving you money on hiring an electrician. A quality fixture costs as little as $200, or shop floor sample sales or big-box stores for bigger bargains. If you like your current fixtures but want to give them an update, try new shades, or change the color of the metal for the cost of a can of spray paint. You can save additional dollars by swapping your old incandescents for CFL or LED bulbs, which use a lot less electricity and last far longer. Bonus: Adding more lighting to your room will generally make the space feel larger. Read more about interior lighting tips and tricks.

  • Replace the Front Door

    front door
    Dreamstime.com

    Your front door is a key element of great curb appeal, not to mention the first thing your guests see. Updating a door for better looks and added security is a wise investment of your money. The national average cost for a new steel door is $1,230, a bit over the $1,000 budget, but the cost may vary depending on where you live and whether you will be installing it yourself. The best part of this replacement project is that on average, a new steel entry door has a return on investment of 101%, one of the highest ranked projects according to Remodeling’s Cost vs. Value report.

  • Fix Up the Kitchen

    kitchen
    Eric Prine—Gallery Stock

    A grand can go pretty far in making over your kitchen. You may not be able to completely replace your dated cabinets, but you can install new drawer and door pulls (about $2 to $10 apiece) that instantly modernize the cabinet fronts. If you’re handy, you can add a new backsplash tile design for as little as $2 to $5 a square foot. Kitchen backsplashes can add big visual appeal without the cost of a full-on remodel. For appliances, you may not be able to afford the latest five-burner gas range, but you can invest in an energy-efficient stainless steel refrigerator for about $1,000 (check your stores for seasonal discounts, rebates and sales) or dishwasher for about $500. EnergyStar rated appliances will also help save on utility bills, further adding value to your home. Inexpensive cosmetic upgrades like repainting dirty walls, repairing broken shelves, fixing leaking faucets, or changing electrical outlets can all be done for $1,000 or less, many of them without the help of a professional.

  • Freshen the Bathroom

    bathroom
    Morgan Norman—Gallery Stock

    The bathroom is one of the most heavily trafficked rooms in the house, so just keeping the space clean and free from water issues can go a long way to making sure it holds its value. But $1,000 can help give the space an updated look as well as increase its functionality. A new shower curtain, fresh linens, new light fixtures, and accessories like towel bars and robe hooks can instantly modernize a bathroom. Replacing your old toilet with a WaterSense model (about $200) and adding a faucet aerator (about $5 to $15) will reduce water consumption, putting money back in your wallet each month. Some of these tasks may need the help of a professional plumber, especially if you suspect water leaks. Here’s how to tell whether to hire a pro or do it yourself.

  • Hire a Cleaning Pro

    pressure washing house
    Mats Persson—Getty Images

    You might think that $1,000 is a lot of money to spend on a house cleaner, but there are parts of your home that may require deep cleaning on a regular basis. Carpets, for example, should be cleaned about once a year—more often in heavy traffic areas. You can rent portable steam cleaners, but these models don’t have the same vacuum power as professional units, and could potentially leave water and dirt behind. Some professionals can also deep-clean upholstered furniture and area rugs as well. Another great use of your cleaning budget is pressure-washing sidewalks and driveways to remove moss, which is not only unsightly but can also be dangerous because it’s so slippery. Machines can be purchased for less than $500, and once you own a pressure-washer, you can regularly maintain walkways, driveways, patio furniture and other outdoor items. You can also rent machines by the day (check your local home center for costs). Before you attempt to use a pressure washer, though, be sure you understand how to operate it.

    Anne Reagan is the editor in chief of Porch. Get more $1,000 home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

MONEY home improvement

5 Questions to Ask Before You Hire a Roofer

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve been putting off replacing my roof, but after the beating it took this winter, I know it won’t make it through another snow season. Before I spend all that money, though, how do I make sure I’m getting the right professional for the job?

A: After this winter’s snow and ice, spring promises to be a busy season for roofers in much of the northern tier of the country. If you’re in the market for a new roof, proceed with caution, because some roofers deserve the trade’s bad reputation. As with any hire, always get referrals from homeowners or other tradespeople you trust, and check references and licensing. Then ask these five questions:

1. Can I visit a project currently being installed by the crew that will be doing my roof? However smooth the salesman is, it’s the workers that matter, so this gives you a chance to assess their workmanship, the way they keep a jobsite, and their attitudes. “And it probably means the salesman is going to give you one of his best crews, because that’s who’s going to best sell you on hiring his company,” says Dan Bydlon, the president of Craftsmen Home Improvements, a contractor in Edina, Minnesota.

2. What exactly will you be replacing? If you have two or more layers of existing roofing, building codes require that you tear them off before installing a new roof. That adds to the mess and cost no matter who does the job, but some roofers may attempt to cut corners by not replacing the flashing. Unless it’s thick copper with a lot more life left, now is the time to replace it; the contract should specify what material the roofer is going to use. Additionally, the contractor should install a rubber membrane called Ice & Water Shield along the eaves to prevent any future ice dams from causing leaks. And he should install a ridge vent at the roof peak (and soffit vents under the eaves if theyre not there already) to help prevent ice dams from forming in the first place.

3. How will you leave the job site at the end of each work day? It’s best when the roofer strips only as much as he can reroof the same day, to reduce the chance that your house is left open to the elements overnight. At the end of the day, the crew should tarp any open roof and clean up stripped shingles—including running a magnet over the lawn and planting beds to pick up stray nails—before leaving the job site. You might even write these procedures into the contract.

4. Will your insurance carrier provide a personal letter confirming your workman’s compensation and liability coverages? It’s not enough for the roofer to just tell you that he is insured, or even show you a form letter. You need a document from his insurance provider addressed to you, and there’s nothing offensive about asking for one. After all, if one of his guys falls off the roof and he is not properly insured, the injured party could sue you for medical costs and lost wages.

5. What sort of workmanship warranty do you provide? Manufacturers’ warranties do not include labor—that’s up to the contractor. One to two years is standard, and having it in writing (even as a simple clause in the contract) is preferable.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com