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Home sellers: Prepare for picky shoppers

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NEW YORK (4/29/14)--When selling a house, Rule No. 1 is don't turn off your buyers. And yet sellers do just that day after day, often without realizing it (Marketwatch April 13).
You might think that, in a better housing market, you can get away with the bare minimum in preparation. Choose that route and it will cost you time and money--more time on the market and less money in incoming offers.
The editors of Home & Family Finance Resource Center recommend you first make sure your home is spotless. Then go through the house and notice all the low-cost fixes or changes you could make that would appeal to a buyer: a new shower curtain, updated knobs on kitchen and bath cabinets, a new welcome mat by the front door, trimming or removing overgrown shrubs at the front of the house, for example.
Look at your home as a product, instead of as the home you live in. Detach yourself from it and the memories the house represents as much as you can.
Eliminate issues that send prospective buyers running, says real estate agent Brendon DeSimone. In his book, "Next Generation Real Estate," he details common turnoffs and how to handle them, which takes daily discipline:
* Pets: Accept the fact that not only must your pets be gone whenever the house is being shown, so must their equipment: bedding, toys, crates, bowls and dishes, food, and litter boxes. It might be easiest on everyone if a friend or family member can take custody of the animals while the house is on the market.
* Kids: You can't farm out your kids until you sell your house, but minimize their presence as much as possible. Stow toys and equipment. Plan to spend a good 20 minutes packing up baby items before a showing, DeSimone says.
* Odors: If your house fails the sniff test, you've lost buyers before they ever tour the property. Pet odors top the list of offensive smells, and cooking odors come in second. After cooking, boil some cinnamon in water to freshen up the house. Real-estate agent Heather Lamp, Fort Mill, S.C., cautions that plug-ins and sprays can make the problem even worse for people sensitive to smells or allergic to the fresheners. And DeSimone says, "If you're a smoker, seriously, get the whole house painted."
* Stuff: You know you must declutter closets, basements, and garages, but don't look past all the stuff that becomes invisible in daily life: too many kitchen counter appliances, grooming tools and potions in bathrooms, for example.
* Dirt: Daily dirt has a way of becoming invisible to occupants, too, but prospective buyers will spot every crumb and dab of toothpaste. One of the hardest parts of having a house on the market is not just getting the house clean, but keeping it clean--for weeks or months on end. The payoff of an always-neat home: You're more likely to get a higher price, DeSimone says.
For related information, read "Want Top Dollar for Your House? Apply Elbow Grease" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

50-plus? Use social media to find a job

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NEW YORK (4/22/14)--It's a tight market for older job seekers. Finding suitable employment takes skill and creativity. To set yourself apart, learn how to make the most of social media for your job search (Parade Publications April 12).
Today's employers need people who are comfortable online, and the best way to find such employees is by digital recruiting.
Employers will check your profile on LinkedIn, browse your Facebook page, look for your blog or website, and check to see if you're tweeting. It's called "informal recruitment," and researchers at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., have discovered it's playing an important role in job searches.
Make your LinkedIn profile your first calling card for potential recruiters. Here are a few tips to help you create a winning profile:
  • Post a professional-looking photo. Potential employers are more likely to look at your profile if you include your picture. Use a recent, energetic-looking photo that shows you at your professional--not personal--best.
  • Demonstrate personality in the summary section. You most likely have a lot of work experience--leave out the number of years and save details for the experience section. Write in the first person, make it interesting, and write about your career in a way that helps you market yourself.
  • Don't hold back when completing the experience section. Unlike a paper resume where you narrow the focus for each potential employer, showcase all your careers, volunteer work, skills, and industries in which you've worked. Quantify and qualify successes as much as possible. Flesh out previous job descriptions with keywords that mirror the terminologies used by the kinds of companies you'd like to work for.
  • Skip graduation dates in the education section. The dates aren't important--they'll only age you, so leave them out. Employers are more interested in the quality of your work experience.
  • Update your status every few days. Keep it fresh to show you're active and engaged. LinkedIn is the right place to keep your network abreast of your professional accomplishments and progress. 
  • Make your connection requests personal. Don't use the standard message. If you don't know the person you're trying to connect with, do some research and tailor your request so the recipient takes notice.
Even if you're not actively looking for a job right now, make yourself as visible as possible. Share industry-related news once a week and join industry and special interest groups that have discussions that are meaningful to you. Post questions to the group and answer others' questions to show that you're current and innovative.
For related information, read "Be Cautiously Sociable on Social Networking Sites" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Quash fuel-economy myths

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SAN FRANCISCO (4/15/14)--Choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle, maintaining it, and combining trips will help you get good gas mileage. Other efforts could be just a waste of your time ( March 29).
There are lots of fuel-economy myths and overstatements, but here's the truth, according to
Myth: All vehicles are tested for fuel economy. Current fuel-economy testing regulations only require "light-duty" vehicles weighing 8,500 pounds or less to be tested. Several models exceed this limit and aren't tested and have no official weight limit. Passenger vehicles--vans and SUVs--that are model year 2011 and newer weighing up to 10,000 pounds also are required to have fuel-economy labels. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't test motorcycles, or four-wheel vehicles that aren't legal for highway driving.
Myth: Small cars always get the best fuel economy. About half of the top 10 most fuel-efficient vehicles for model year 2014 are midsize or large cars and wagons. Technologies such as diesel engines, direct fuel injections, hybrid drivetrains, low-rolling tires and aerodynamic design make several standard-size autos very efficient.
Myth: As cars get older, fuel economy decreases. If you properly maintain your vehicle it will retain its fuel efficiency for years. Fuel economy typically improves over the first several years of ownership. Even vehicles that are 10 to 15 years old experience little decrease in fuel efficiency if properly maintained.
Myth: Using premium fuel improves efficiency. Unless your vehicle is specifically designed for premium fuel, you most likely won't receive a benefit from using premium fuel. Check your owner's manual to see if premium is recommended for your vehicle and under what conditions.
Myth: Replacing the air filter increases efficiency. This might be true for older vehicles, but modern engines have computers that automatically adjust the fuel-air ratio to the proper level. Changing a dirty air filter might, however, improve your engine's performance.
For related information, read "Find the Best Low-Cost, High-Value Car" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Picking a major? Look at it as an investment

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SAN FRANCISCO (4/8/14)--If you're looking for a college major, it pays to get a degree in science, technology, engineering or math.
A recent study by Payscale, a website that tracks earning data, ranked colleges according to how much their students made after graduation as well as by the highest-paying majors (CNNMoney March 26.)
A graduate majoring in petroleum engineering can expect to earn $103,000 upon graduation, whereas an elementary education major typically earns $32,200 starting out, according to Payscale.
Overall, the more technical, left-brain majors tend to offer the best return on investment with actuarial mathematics, nuclear engineering, chemical engineering and aerospace engineering rounding out the top five degrees with the highest earning potential.
Of course, you don't have to major in a science or tech field to make a living, especially if you have neither the passion nor aptitude for those fields. 
When picking a major and school, keep in mind:
  • The income potential. With the cost of tuition continuing to rise, investigate how much you can expect to make graduating from your chosen school with the degree you're seeking, as well as the job placement rate.
  • The whole cost. Include the cost of transportation, room and board, food, supplies, and other fees in your calculations. You might find that a school with higher tuition but fewer associated costs is the better option. Colleges are required to have net price calculators on their websites.
  • That it's OK to follow your interests. Even if you're a liberal arts student, you still can increase your earning potential by attending schools that specialize in your field. The Payscale report ranked the earning potential of schools' graduates by major, too. For instance, if you want to attend a school that's graduated a lot of English majors with high-paying jobs, George Mason and Fordham universities should be on your short list.
For related information, read "Make the Most of Campus Visits: A Guide for Parents and College-Bound Students" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Honey, I'm retired ...

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MCLEAN, Va. (4/1/14)--Couples say they discuss retirement planning about 14 times a year, according to a telephone survey of 1,008 adults sponsored by Capital One ShareBuilder, an online investing site (USA Today March 16).
That's the good news. Not so good: While respondents believe they should be saving 12.1% of income toward retirement, they actually put away about half as much (6.4%).
And despite the reported frequent discussions, Dan Greenshields, president of Capital One ShareBuilder, suggests these may be passing comments instead of in-depth planning conversations.
If you're saving less than 10% for retirement, especially in your 40s and 50s, Greenshields says that's not enough. Ideally, at that age, he recommends you should be saving in the mid-teens to 20% of your income. But he acknowledges that most Americans can't hit that mark because they have so many financial demands.
Greenshields says it's important that couples discuss the lifestyle they want to have and where they want to live. You can live in some rural communities on half the assets it takes to live in many big cities, he points out.
St. Louis psychologist Diane Sanford often counsels couples struggling with money issues. She says, "If you compile a budget for six months of all your expenses ... you'll see what you need to save to create the lifestyle you hope to have in retirement." The budget provides a neutral way of starting the retirement savings conversation.
Sanford says she sees couples where one partner is involved in retirement saving and the other isn't. "It's important that both of you are informed and know what your assets are." One of the worst mistakes partners can make is to blame each other for spending too much. It's better to work together than "pick each other apart," she says.
Couples who fear they won't have enough to retire may feel particularly deprived. In those cases, it's easy to blame the other person when no one is really at fault, says Joe Burgo, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, N.C. "Coming together as a team, agreeing upon and sharing the sacrifices, will help them weather the disappointment of living on less than they had expected."
For related information, read "Who Goes First? For Couples, Retirement is All About Timing" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.