Expand Outdoors, Increase Your Home’s Value

With many Americans experiencing a financial pinch these days, there is a growing trend among homeowners nationwide to look to the outdoor areas of their own property for not only relaxation and entertainment value, but to also expand their living space and thereby, increase their home’s value.
Through my national network of leading real estate professionals, the Top 5 in Real Estate Network®, I have learned that homeowners across the country are spending more time at home and showing an increased interest in outdoor living areas. By sprucing up your patios, porches and decks, you are making your home more livable now and more attractive to future buyers.
Stylish patios and outdoor rooms with comfortable furnishings and convenient cooking and eating areas provide new opportunities for recreation and relaxing family times. A recent survey by the Propane Education & Research Council, found that 35% of homeowners have a finished outdoor room and 34% say they are planning to design one in the next year or two.

Some of my clients are even foregoing expensive vacations in favor of putting in a swimming pool. The reality is, however, that you do not need to make a major investment to improve your outdoor living areas. Here are five quick additions that will make an immediate difference:

1. Outdoor lighting units
2. Gas grills with cooking and food preparation surfaces
3. Outdoor fire pits or fireplaces
4. Patio heaters
5. Mosquito/bug eliminators

I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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5 Easy Steps to Utilize Home Security Systems

With the official start of the summer season right around the corner, homeowners across the country are beginning to anticipate the longer days, warmer weather and family vacations that define the season. As a Member of the Top 5 in Real Estate Network®, I understand the importance of keeping your home safe and secure—whether you are at the office or out of town.
The following home security system tips from alarm.com will not only keep your house safe during the summer travel season, but also offer peace of mind for homeowners looking to protect the largest purchase they will most likely ever make.
1. Make yourself at home. Set up motion sensors throughout the home to communicate all activity. Even if the security system is disarmed, you can still find out what’s going on at home. Interactive security systems can keep track of both alarm and non-alarm events making it easy to find out when the kids get home from school, when the delivery truck arrives or when the cleaning crew leaves.

2. Put security in your pocket. Homeowners constantly on-the-go rely on their cell phones to regularly check in with people who matter to them. Checking in on your home is no different. Simply download a free mobile app to control the security system and monitor the home when on-the-go. Today, security apps for iPhone, BlackBerry or Android devices enable arming and disarming of the security system from afar and also the ability to watch live or recorded video footage from security cameras while away from home.

3. See your way to safety. A security system can truly become a window to your world. To watch over the house while away, use any smartphone or computer with access to the Internet to manage and monitor video surveillance cameras. Even view live video of your kids playing in the basement or save clips of visitors at the front door to know who came to the house. Control your camera settings right from a cell phone and, when video footage is recorded in important areas, receive clips via email and text message to stay aware of what’s happening at home.

4. Use your security system to stay informed.
 No matter where you are, stay connected to home with a wireless home security system. Set up custom email and text message alerts to stay informed about events that matter to you. Be alerted whenever the security system is armed or disarmed. Or find out about a power failure or a water leak in the basement before it’s too late.

5. Make your security system even smarter. 
There are endless ways to use a security system to protect your home. With home energy management features integrated into the system, lights can automatically turn off when you leave for the day. An integrated home automation solution will allow you to lock all the doors in just one click when the security system is armed, turn down the thermostats according to daily routines and assist in setting up personalized user codes for any visitors who come to the house when you’re away.

I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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Is Buying a Foreclosure Really a Bargain? What You Need to Know

Is Buying a Foreclosure Really a Bargain? What You Need to Know
In today’s tumultuous economy, it’s no surprise that there are foreclosure properties to be found in just about every community across America—even ours. While a terrible hardship for homeowners to endure, foreclosures can present a unique opportunity for first-time home buyers and investors looking to purchase a “bargain-priced home” with the potential for building instant equity.
As an experienced real estate professional, I want to advise you to tread carefully when it comes to foreclosures—they might not be quite the bargain you expect. Here are some important facts you need to know before venturing out into the foreclosure market:

- Homeowners faced with foreclosure are understandably stressed and resentful, which can often lead to neglecting routine maintenance on a home. Sometimes, even deliberate damage is done. Assessing the home’s condition, therefore, is a must.

- Foreclosure properties have often been vacant for an extended period of time. Look for problems caused by damp conditions, such as mold.

- Get a thorough home inspection before bidding on the property. Once the damage/disrepair of the home is assessed, factor this in when bidding on the home.

- Contact a real estate professional—like me, a Member of the Top 5 in Real Estate Network®—who is well steeped in the community and can provide information about pre-foreclosure properties, that is, homes that have been scheduled for foreclosure but have not yet gone to auction or been sold off. These homes need to be sold quickly as owners are trying to avoid foreclosure and its impact on their credit.

- Last but not least, go to www.hud.gov for information on how to buy homes acquired by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development as a result of foreclosure action on an FHA-insured mortgage. The site also has information on special programs and opportunities for teachers, law enforcement officers and others.

I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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The Top 5 Pitfalls of Selling Your Own Home

While it is certainly understandable why some people would like to avoid paying a real estate agent’s commission—especially in today’s economy—homeowners need to be aware of the serious pitfalls that can occur before they embark on the process of selling their own home.
As a member of the Top 5 in Real Estate Network®, I have had many clients enlist my services after losing valuable time and money attempting to sell their own home. What seems like a relatively easy undertaking at first, can become a time-consuming and overwhelming process. I’d like to share with you some of the most significant snags that often occur when selling one’s own home:

1. Ineffective marketing.
 Most homeowners simply lack the resources necessary to effectively market their own home. Working with a professional real estate agent, such as a member of the Top 5 in Real Estate Network®, however, usually means your home will be marketed to the widest group of potential buyers possible, both through digital and print advertising, virtual tours, and online listing portals.
2. Mispricing your home. In order to sell your home quickly for the best possible price, pricing your home correctly is critical. This very nuanced process of choosing the right listing price, however, is always best left to a real estate professional. Most who sell their own homes price too high, resulting in their home sitting on the market for an extended period of time. And, unfortunately, the longer a home remains on the market, the less desirable it becomes for buyers.

3. Missing documentation.
 These days, a real estate transaction requires more documentation than ever before. It’s virtually impossible for the average homeowner to be aware of all the forms necessary to complete a real estate deal, and missing paperwork will bring any transaction to a grinding halt.

4. Overlooking legalities.
 The risk of overlooking important legalities, such as disclosure and compliance regulations that vary from state to state, is high for most homeowners. The average person is, understandably, not well versed in the many laws that govern the sale and purchase of a property.

5. Dealing with unqualified buyers. If you accept an offer from an unqualified buyer, you can delay the sale of your home indefinitely. A professional real estate agent will take the necessary steps to work with a lender to ensure a buyer is qualified before accepting their offer.

I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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How New FHA Changes Could Affect Home Buyers

Earlier this week, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) implemented changes to the premium structures for an FHA-backed mortgage.

My membership in the Top 5 in Real Estate Network® requires that I remain committed to keeping my clients and consumers informed, so it’s important that I let you know that these changes may make it more costly for home buyers to procure FHA loan products.

In the wake of the real estate decline and credit freeze of the past three years, FHA-insured loans soared as borrowers sought alternative avenues for securing affordable mortgages. The FHA loan is popular because its minimum down payment is 3.5%, whereas most conventional loans require a much higher down payment. Recently, however, housing experts have raised concerns about FHA’s shrinking funds and its ability to handle increasing defaults, sparking the agency’s impending regulation changes.

According to CNNMoney.com, FHA reported that its reserve fund has dropped to 0.53% of its insurance guarantees, well below the 2% ratio mandated by Congress and the 3% ratio it had last fall. This fund covers losses on the mortgages the agency insures. FHA borrowers pay for the insurance that backs their loans in the form of an upfront premium and an annual premium.

The agency has seen a spike in delinquencies amid the mortgage meltdown. Some 14.36% of FHA loans were past due in the third quarter, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. To compensate for its rapidly depleting reserve fund, the following changes will be implemented to FHA lending:

  • Upfront mortgage insurance premiums will decrease from 2.25% to 1.00%.
  • At the same time, the 0.55% annual premium will be increased to 0.85% for mortgages with loan-to-value ratios up to and including 95%, and to 0.90% for loan-to-value ratios above 95%.
  • Borrowers will be required to have a credit score of at least 580 to qualify.

These changes in FHA lending may be paving the way for conventional financing with private mortgage insurance (MI) to make a comeback in lending for low down payment buyers. According to loan experts, both MI and FHA have their place, but borrowers should consult with their real estate professional and lender to determine what loan options are best for their particular situation.

I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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Top 5 Ways to Protect Your Identity Online

While the Internet is increasingly becoming our go-to source for instantly connecting with others, conducting business, shopping and more, there are certain safety precautions we need to consider. Whether we’re at our desktops at the office, on our mobile devices on the road, or accessing the Internet through a computer in a public space, such as a hotel business center, we must be cognizant of cyber crime and know where the risks lie.

According to David Nelson, an FDIC fraud specialist, there are specific steps you can follow to minimize the risk of identity theft and other online attacks. Here are his top five suggestions:

  1. If you bank online, frequently check your deposit accounts and lines of credit to spot and report errors or fraudulent transactions, just as you should with traditional banking.
  2. Never give your Social Security number, credit or debit card numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs) or any other confidential information in response to an unsolicited email, text message or phone call, no matter who the source supposedly is.
  3. Don’t open attachments or click on links in unsolicited emails from anyone you don’t know or you otherwise aren’t sure about. And watch out for sudden pop-up windows asking for personal information or warning of a virus.
  4. Be on guard against scams hiding behind online coupon offers. Beware of any coupon site that asks for personal, financial or payment information, which can be misused by criminals.
  5. Be careful if you download banking software onto a smartphone. The latest emerging threat comes from criminals selling malicious software for mobile banking, some even falsely displaying bank logos. These applications may contain spyware, and downloading them could give a hacker access to your bank account or payment card information. Only download mobile banking applications from a safe site, such as your wireless provider, phone manufacturer or your bank. When in doubt, contact your bank before downloading any banking applications to your cell phone.
I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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5 Important Steps for First-Time Home Buyers

As you’ve probably heard, today’s market offers many opportunities for first-time home buyers. While shopping for your first home is an exciting time, it can also be a stressful experience as you navigate today’s market.

Before you begin looking, make sure you’re completely prepared and know what to expect. Work with a professional real estate agent who can help guide you through the following five steps:

Step 1: Take an honest look at your finances. Before you dive into the exciting part of home-buying – the search – make sure you have all your ducks in a row. Figuring out your finances and crunching some numbers will allow you to set a realistic budget.

Step 2: 
Secure a loan. After you get your finances in order, talk to lenders and mortgage brokers to ensure you can secure a loan. Shop around to get the lowest interest and overall best deal possible and make sure you understand all the fees involved. Talk to your agent whose brokerage may have an in-house mortgage lender you can work with.

Step 3: Map out your criteria. Now that you have your funding in order, begin your search. With a plethora of online home-search tools at your fingertips, it’s relatively easy to map out different types of homes and neighborhoods and find what is right for you. Make big decisions – like urban versus suburban settings, an estimated property size and neighborhood requirements – before you start to physically look at properties. This will save you time and money.

Step 4: Take notes. On your own and with the help of an agent, you’ve found some houses you’re interested in looking at. Don’t venture out without a pen, paper and camera. Keep track of important details by taking notes and pictures. Have a list of questions ready and scope out neighborhoods by driving around for a bit.

Step 5: Close the deal. If you’ve found a home you love, don’t wait to make a move. I’ve seen many first-time buyers miss out on a home because they got cold feet and continued shopping around. Make an offer and be ready to negotiate. Once a deal has been made, thoroughly read the contract and make sure you understand everything before you sign. Then you will be ready to begin with the appraisal and home inspection process.

I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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Safe Shopping Strategies for the Holidays

In today’s financially challenging climate, identity theft and credit card fraud are crimes to be very aware of, especially as the holiday shopping season descends upon us. While many now have a heightened awareness regarding online shopping security, identity theft occurs offline as well. In fact, according to a February 2009 study by Javelin Strategy & Research, of the 9.9 million identity-theft cases reported in 2008, online theft accounted for only 11% of incidents. Stolen wallets, checkbooks, and credit and debit cards made up almost half.

Adhering to the following guidelines can help prevent this devastating type of crime—so important in a day and age when a good credit rating is of the utmost importance.

  • Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Your Social Security number is the key to unlocking most everything about you. Make sure your Social Security number isn’t apparent on other items you may carry as well, such as your health insurance card.
  • When you head out shopping, take only the credit and ATM cards you really need with you. Most of us carry around every card we own in our wallets on a daily basis, whereas if you only carried a couple of cards, you’d be in monumentally better shape should your wallet be stolen.
  • We’ve all heard horror stories about ATM crimes. Try to use ATMs that are within a bank’s foyer, protected by a locked outside door, and/or in busy, well-lighted areas. If you’re using your ATM to buy goods at a store, make sure no one is invading the personal space behind you when entering your PIN.
  • Be sure to select a non-obvious PIN, one that combines upper and lowercase letters and numbers—and NEVER write your PIN on a card or anywhere else—commit it to memory.
  • People ask all sorts of questions these days, usually aimed at future marketing efforts. Before you give a store clerk your telephone number or a business caller your address, make sure you know who you are talking to and why they are asking for the information. You are usually under no obligation to provide this information, by the way.
  • When shopping online, stick to businesses you trust and enter personal information only on secure Web pages with “http” in the address bar and a padlock symbol at the bottom of the browser window. Unless you shop very frequently at a particular vendor, avoid having your credit card and personal information stored in an account.
  • Choose the credit cards you use online wisely. Try to use cards with smaller limits as opposed to your American Express card or checking account ATM. In the unfortunate event that your card information is stolen, a low credit limit will prevent thieves from doing much damage.
  • Avoid even remotely suspicious emails and click-through links all together. Only bogus websites will contact you first and ask for account numbers or personal information. If the information is truly important, the sender will find another way to contact you. Unsubscribe to any “junk” email to help keep your inbox free and clear.
  • Police your bills and checking account information on a regular basis. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, someone who gets your credit card number and expiration date doesn’t need the actual card to charge purchases to your account. As soon as you see unauthorized charges on your statement, contact the credit card company immediately to report them; if you wait too long, you might not have any recourse.
  • Properly dispose of all receipts, mail, and any papers you no longer need that may carry your personal information. Home office-sized paper shredders are available at reasonable rates.
I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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End-of-the-Year Tax Tips

While the year is quickly coming to a close, you can still take some important steps to save on your 2011 tax return.

According to Jessica James, CPA and author of “Justice for None,” many of the deductions associated with the economic stimulus package will disappear in 2012, so you must take advantage of them by December 31. Now is also a good time to implement some strategies for maximizing your 2012 tax return. Following are James’ tips for both 2011 and 2012 savings:

  • Contribute to retirement accounts. If you haven’t already put money into your traditional or ROTH IRA account for 2011, you’ve got until April 17 to do it. If you have a Keogh or SEP (Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Arrangement for businesses), and you get a filing extension to Oct. 15, you’ve got until then to make your 2011 deposits. The maximum IRA contribution for 2011 is $5,000 or $6,000 if you’re 50 or older by the end of the year. For self-employed people, the maximum for SEPs and Keoghs for 2011 is $49,000.
  • Reconsider the home-office deduction. In the past, many avoided claiming a home-office deduction because it was seen as an IRS red flag. But the requirements and forms have been clarified so you can now avoid the mistakes that might lead to an audit. The rules have also been expanded so if you didn’t qualify for a home-office deduction in the past, you may now. If you use a home office exclusively for business, even if you don’t meet your clients there, you’re eligible. For instance, a handyman who works mostly at other people’s houses can claim the deduction if he does his paperwork at his home office.
  • Maximize your Flexible Spending Account (FSA). The Health Care Act will limit the maximum you can put into these pre-tax medical expense accounts in 2013, so 2012 is the last year to use an FSA to pay for large medical expenses not covered by your health insurance with pre-tax dollars.
  • Consider selling investments in 2012. The Tax Relief Act maintains the tax rate cap on capital gains and dividends at 15 percent through 2012. In 2013, the cap for capital gains will increase to 20 percent and for dividends, 39.6 percent. The Health Care Act also created a 3.8 percent Medicare tax on investment income, effective in 2013. Given those scheduled increases, plan to take advantage of the rates next year.
I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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What You Need to Know Before Refinancing

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called on Congress to approve new legislation that would give all homeowners who are current on their mortgages the opportunity to refinance at record-low mortgage rates.

While details of the program have yet to emerge, the new legislation – in theory – is designed to give responsible homeowners a reasonable chance to refinance without running into roadblocks from lenders. This would also give homeowners an opportunity to take advantage of today’s continued, record-low interest rates.

According to CoreLogic, a company that tracks national mortgage activity, an estimated 28 million homeowners could cut the interest rates on their loans by more than one percentage point if they could refinance. If you’re one of the many homeowners considering a refinance, here are some important facts you need to know first. Be sure to consult with your real estate agent and/or financial advisor, as well.

    1. Make sure you are in good standing on your mortgage. As the President emphasized, refinances will be considered for those homeowners who have a good payment history and are current on their mortgages. If you’re currently underwater, a refinance is probably not an option for you. Consult your real estate professional about other options, including loan modifications and short sales.
    2. Check your current credit score. Refinance candidates need to demonstrate steady income and good credit. Make sure your credit rating is up to snuff and see what immediate measures can be taken to improve it if it’s not.
    3. Examine how much longer you plan to live in your home. If you are planning to put your home on the market in the near future, refinancing probably doesn’t make sense. You need to make sure you’ll be living in your home long enough to recoup the closing costs of the refinance.
    4. Consider the length of the loan. Where you’re at with your current mortgage can play a significant role in your decision to refinance. If you’re close to retirement, for example, and your loan is almost paid off, refinancing could result in extending the life of your loan, ultimately costing you more. Also, if you’re several years into a 30-year mortgage, your goal should be to refinance into a 15- or 20-year mortgage instead. Otherwise, you’re extending the number of years in which you’ll pay interest. Your refinancing goals should be short-term and long-term savings.
    5. Find out the costs involved. Before you plunge into a refinance, find out the costs involved. Weigh these fees against the money you will save (contingent upon how long you plan to stay in your home) to make sure refinancing is the right step.
I specialize in helping buyers and sellers invest in real estate in the Northern Virginia area to include Loudoun County and surrounding areas including Fairfax,Clarke, Fauquier and Prince William Counties.  Our local neighborhoods include Leesburg, Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac Falls, Brambleton, Broadlands, Lansdowne, River Creek, Belmont Country Club, Beacon Hill, Shenstone, Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Hamilton, Round Hill and Bluemont.  Cell 703.727.9885      Office 703.574.3800
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