Friday, May 22, 2015

Property Taxes

Around this time of year, it seems like we get taxed coming and going. We get a bill for our income, then another for our house! There's no end! In reality, these taxes are being levied by different levels of government and property taxes play an important part in funding schools, public transportation and other important civic goods.

That said, there's no reason not to try minimizing your liability. If you can pay less, you should. The amount of your property taxes is determined by the value of your home, as determined by an assessor. The assessor looks at nearby houses, as well as improvements and features of your home, to determine what your property is worth.

Since assessments are scheduled affairs, you'll have a chance to prepare yourself before your house is assessed. If you want to cut your property tax bill, try these four tricks: 

1.) Follow the assessor 

You don't have to allow an assessor access to your home, but it's always a good idea. If they don't see the inside of the home, assessors usually make the least charitable assumptions. They'll assume you have the newest possible appliances and fixtures in your home. You should let them in and follow them around your house.

While you're doing so, be sure they take note of any flaws, damage or needed repairs. These can reduce the assessed value of your house. If you're not there pointing those out, they may never see them. They'll focus on the wonderful parts of your house and make the assessment based on that.

Additionally, following around the assessor and talking to him may encourage him to hurry the inspection. The assessor may miss new fixtures or overlook value-adding features of your house. By following them, you subconsciously rush them. This can also set you up well for an appeal (but more on that later). 

2.) Check for breaks 

Many localities have complicated property tax laws. They may allow for a standard deduction from your property tax bill. This is a portion of the value of your home that you're not responsible for in terms of taxes.

Other localities may offer specific tax benefits to seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities. Breaks may also be available for renewable energy projects, energy efficient appliances and features, and other green improvements. Because these breaks vary by region, they're usually not well-publicized. You may have to do some research to find out more. 

3.) Limit your curb appeal 

If you're not selling your house soon, you may want to hold off on landscaping until after the assessment. Assessors are just as influenced by first impressions and aesthetics as everyone else. A beautiful front yard sets the tone for an expensive house. That's exactly what you want for a potential buyer, but the opposite of what you want to show an assessor.

You shouldn't try to wreck your yard or do anything to compromise the value of your property. Such tactics will likely draw the attention of nosy neighbors and others who might consider your tasteless display a violation of zoning laws. Instead, just try holding off on major exterior improvements.

Minor tricks, like opening windows on one half of the facade to mess with the symmetry, can be effective in marring the assessor's impression of the house. You might also hold off on resealing driveways and cleaning vinyl siding until after the assessment. These little tricks can nudge your property value down a bit. 

4.) Appeal your assessment 

If you're really unhappy with your tax bill, you can appeal the decision of the assessor. To do this, you'll need to research quite a bit. Finding your property card at the county courthouse is the first step.

Your property card lists details about your home, like square footage, number of bathrooms and so on. Identifying errors on this card can be an easy way to set up your appeal. You can also find out how quickly your property is appreciating in value, according to the assessor's opinions. This will allow you to compare how quickly your property is increasing in value compared to others in your area.

You'll also want to research comparable sales in your area. Find houses of similar size that have sold in the last year, and find the home value assessed to your neighbors. Property cards are public records, and in many areas are available online. This information can help you make the claim that the assessor has unfairly valued your home.

To start your appeal, you'll likely need to visit the county courthouse and speak with a records clerk. They can direct you to the necessary forms. Be sure you've made copies of all supporting evidence and prepare your argument in advance. The first step will likely be an informal appeal, where you speak with a representative from the assessor's office. If that fails, there are several other appeal levels available.

Property taxes can be a pain, but they're one of the costs of home ownership. Know that you're protecting the value of your home by investing in good schools and safe streets. Best of luck with the tax man!

SOURCES:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Home Equity: Loans Vs. Lines of Credit

If you are looking for funds to improve your home, using the equity in your home can be a great way to finance the improvements.  Using the equity in your home is not something to take lightly, but if you are doing something to improve the value of the home, it can be well worth your while. 

What is My Equity?

The available equity in your home is calculated by taking the current market value of the home (as determined by an appraisal) and subtracting the current mortgage balance.  Destinations will loan you up to 80% of that amount.  To get a rough idea of what your home is worth on the market, you can check internet sources, such as zillow.com, for recent sales of homes in your neighborhood.

Loans Vs. Lines of Credit

A Home Equity Loan is a fixed-rate, fixed-term loan.  The payment and the interest rate are constant over the agreed-upon term.  Therefore your payment amount will not fluctuate.  You cannot borrow against the equity again until the loan is paid off.

A Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) is an open-ended loan that you can borrow against any time you need the funds.  The line of credit is up to 80% of the equity in your home.  The rate on the line of credit is generally lower at the time you apply because it is a variable rate.  As market rates rise, so may your interest rate.  With a HELOC, you can draw against the line whenever you need the funds. 

Both options provide low rate loans to accomplish your goal.

With Destinations Credit Union, our HELOC rates are the Prime Rate minus 1% with a floor of 4%.  Since the Prime Rate is now at 3.25% (and has remained so since the end of 2008), our current rate is 4% Annual Percentage Rate.  Prime would have to rise to more than 5% before the rate would rise on our HELOC.

If you are interested in exploring a Home Equity Loan or Line of Credit, contact us through our website or give us a call at 410-663-2500.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mobile Banking - 4 Ways To Stay On Top Of Your Finances While On The Go

Most people have a checklist they go through before they leave the house. Is the stove turned off? Are the doors locked? Do I have my wallet, my keys and my cellphone? The only thing that has changed about that process in the last few years has been the addition of that last item on the list.

Today, 91% of Americans have cellphones and 61% of them have smartphones. This is a remarkable change from even two years ago. More than half of the people you see every day are carrying a computer that dwarfs the most powerful computing technology that was available a decade ago. It's also connected to all of the world's information, literally at our fingertips. What do we use it for? Drawing moustaches on our selfies and tossing wingless birds at shoddily made pig housing.

If you'd like to use your smartphone for more sophisticated purposes, plus add a ton of convenience and peace of mind to your life, consider mobile banking. With a couple of taps, you can access a whole suite of financial information. Let's look at four scenarios where mobile banking can save you some time ... and even some money. 

1.) Say goodbye to security woes 

Despite all of the data breaches that have been in the public eye over the past few years, no one has figured out how to compromise mobile devices as a platform. Security leaks have affected PCs, Macs and point of sale terminals, but no widespread security vulnerability has compromised mobile banking. Despite the fear, mobile banking is actually a fundamentally secure platform.

The first reason for this is the plurality of platforms. You and your neighbor may not be able to share cellphone chargers, much less apps or other experiences. This diversity makes it difficult for a single vulnerability to affect many users. Since there's less possibility of large scale attacks, hackers have very little incentive to dedicate time toward trying to compromise mobile platforms.

The second reason for this is the tight control placed on mobile devices. Because these devices have to send regular usage information back to your mobile provider, they tend to be far less prone to modification. There's just not as much you can do to an iPhone or an Android as you can to a PC. While some users might override those protections, such modifications are not widespread enough to justify attempted infiltration.

Mobile banking is secure and safe. Data transmitted from your cellphone to your provider is heavily encrypted. If you lose your phone, it can be remotely deactivated and passwords usually aren't stored on the device. 

2.) You can check your balance any time 

Rather than waiting for your statement every month or booting up that slow PC for checking your account balances online, you can view transactions while waiting for a bus or in line at a restaurant. You can stay vigilant against illegal account access any time you've got your phone and a spare few seconds.

The convenience of mobile banking can also keep you from making costly mistakes. If you know funds may be running tight, check your account balance while in the checkout line to make sure you can cover the cost of your purchases. You can see if your monthly rent check has been withdrawn from your account to avoid the costly fees associated with overdrafting. It's easier than ever to keep track of your finances.

You can also help to prevent errors with mobile banking. Accidental overpayment, duplicate payments and other errors are a regrettable reality of the modern high-speed economy. By regularly checking your account statement, you can catch these pesky problems before they turn into big issues. 

3.) It's where you'll find the next big thing 

Mobile payments and mobile check depositing are becoming more widely available and are already being used in many places. As technology gets better, these functions will become cheaper, faster and even more widespread. Getting involved in mobile banking on the ground floor will help you stay up to speed with this rapidly evolving world.

Imagine getting turn-by-turn walking directions to your nearest ATM. You could get alerts when new houses are listed for sale along your daily commute. You might pay for your breakfast by signing a receipt on your phone.  These and other changes are coming and they are only the beginning. If mobile banking doesn't do something you need, wait six months. Someone will probably find an app for that. 

4.) 24-hour-a-day instant access 

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night in a panic because you can't remember if you paid your electric bill? Ever have a tiny freakout on the bus because you suspect someone may have accessed your account? Are money worries preventing you from enjoying your vacation? If you have these concerns and are nowhere near your computer, you could just suffer through them.

As an alternative, though, you could use a mobile app to check your balance and transaction history. See if your monthly bills have cleared. Make sure your balance is safe. You can do all of this any time you've got your phone, day or night.

Mobile banking won't replace traditional, face-to-face interaction. There will always be a place in the credit union service standards for the human interaction. What mobile banking apps offer is a wonderful supplement to those high-quality services. Space-age convenience, top-level security, and blissful peace of mind are all available from your pocket, anywhere in the world. 

SOURCES:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Four Steps To Checking Your Credit Report


If there were a song about keeping yourself safe from financial scams, the refrain to that song would be "Check your credit report!" But practically speaking, what does that mean? How can that one piece of advice keep you safe from so much?

Though it sounds like an advanced financial maneuver, checking your credit report is easier than balancing your checkbook. All you have to do is get it, read it, report errors and stay on it. Let's look at each step in detail:

1.) Get your credit report

There are three different credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. They share data, but each makes its own report. You're entitled to one free report from each agency every year. If you know you've got a major purchase, like a car or house, coming up in the next year, you'll want to check all three bureaus before you start shopping. This way, you can catch inaccuracies before lenders see your information and score. Otherwise, it makes sense to stagger them and view one report every four months. This puts the shortest amount of time between checks.

You can get your credit report for free at annualcreditreport.com. This is the only website approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for this purpose. Take care to avoid "imposter" websites operated by scammers. They may use similar-sounding website names or common misspellings in an attempt to trick you and get your personal information.

There are other situations under which you can get a free copy of your credit report. If you are denied credit, you can request a copy of the information that was used to make that determination provided you do so within 60 days. If you have been the victim of certain kinds of fraud, the service will also provide you with a free copy of your credit report in order to help you make it right. These checks will never hurt your credit score.

If you've requested your report online, it should be available immediately. You may need to answer a few questions to verify your identity. The service may ask if you shared an address with anyone else or about previous streets you've lived on. Once you answer these questions, you'll get your credit report.

2.) Go over your report

With your credit report now in your hands, it's time to look it over. There are three things you'll want to look for. You want to find accounts that are open in your name and you want to see if there's any collection activity. You'll also want to take a look at the number and frequency of inquiries.

There are slight differences in the three reports, but each has a list of accounts. They may be broken down by type (mortgage, installment, revolving, and other) or listed by date. You'll want to look through each one to make sure you recognize them. This can be a tricky task, as every store credit card you open and every installment loan you make is listed. If there are any accounts you don't recognize, you'll want to make a note of them and potentially contact the credit reporting agency. Look particularly for accounts going to PO Boxes or listed with addresses in other states.

"Negative items" include bankruptcies, accounts in collection or accounts reporting as past due. Such activity is another good place to check for fraud. If someone else opened an account in your name, they likely won't be paying the bills. You'll also want to look for inaccuracies that may be hurting your credit score. If there's an account listed here that was discharged in bankruptcy, for example, you'll want to make note of that, too.

The list of inquiries shows you the number of times someone has checked your credit. No one can do this without your permission, so if there are more inquiries than you remember, it could be a sign someone has stolen your identity. It might be worthwhile to put a freeze on an ability to open new accounts until you've gotten everything resolved.

3.) Report inaccuracies

Each reporting agency maintains a separate error reporting process, so you'll have to report each error to the agency that made it. For basic errors, like address, name, or personal information, the agency can make those corrections with minimal trouble. For more serious errors, you'll need to send a dispute letter.

The FTC has a template for a dispute letter available on its website. You can use that or you can draft your own. Either way, you'll need to clearly identify the accounts or items you're disputing. Where possible, use partial account numbers or other numerical information. You'll also need to explain why you consider the item an error. Attach copies, but not originals, of documents that support your claim. Examples include police reports for stolen or lost wallets, bankruptcy orders that discharged a debt or letters from a lender indicating that an account was opened fraudulently.

Send your letter via certified mail. This costs a little more than a stamp, but you'll get proof of receipt. This is important because the agency has 30 days to make a determination about your dispute. They'll send your dispute to the information provider (the company that told the agency about the account or negative item).

If the reporting agency finds your claim to be correct, you can request that they send copies of the updated report to anyone who received your credit report in the last six months, and to any employer who pulled your credit report over the last two years. They're also required to send you an updated copy with any new information in it.

4.) Stay on it

Checking your credit report periodically is the only way to keep yourself safe from identity theft and other modern crimes. If you need assistance, Destinations Credit Union is here to help.  Call, click, or stop by today.

SOURCES:

Monday, May 11, 2015

Four Ways To Repay Your Student Loans With Help From Destinations Credit Union!


Graduation day seemed like it would never come. As a freshman, you saw
seniors swaggering about like they owned the place. Then, just a few short years later, there you are. You've crammed for your last final, written your last paper and said tearful goodbyes to your friends. For many graduating seniors, though, leaving college isn't "real" for quite some time.


For many college students, the reality of moving on from college doesn't set in when they throw a mortarboard. It comes a few months later, when they get their first billing statement for their student loans. Seeing a balance of $30,000 can make the gravity of adult life hit home in a very real way.



It's easy to put making the minimum payment on auto-pilot and to treat your student loan bill like your cellphone bill or rent payment. It gets sorted into the pile of bills to pay and never gets a second thought. However, you might be leaving money on the table by using the loan company's bill pay service.



Destinations Credit Union can help you pay back your loan in more ways than you might realize, and save you money in the process. Here are four convenient ways you can pay for your education and get greater flexibility. You might be able to get some extra rewards out of the deal, too!



1.) A savings account for college students



You can't start paying off your student loans while you're in college. But that doesn't mean you have to sit and wait to get buried under an avalanche of debt. You can take proactive steps while you're in school to make your life easier.



Your student work or part-time job might not make a dent in astronomical tuition costs, but it can still help you get out of debt faster. Setting up automatic savings account transfers will force you to put away a little bit each month. Check out Destinations Credit Union Kasasa Cash or Cash Back (free checking with rewards) to see how you can get extra money for your savings every month.  You can use that once you're out of school to make a big first payment. It'll really take the sting out of the debt load.



Make sure to put this money into an account you won't be tempted to use for other things. The $100 or $200 you put away every month could rapidly disappear through dinners out and concert tickets. Automating savings is a way to keep yourself disciplined and on target.



2.) Automatic bill pay



Your student loan provider is a business, and they're out to make money. All aspects of their operations, from the materials they send you when you start borrowing to the bills they send you each month, are marketing materials. They're designed to maximize profit. For lenders, that means keeping you paying the minimum amount for as long as possible.



That's why their bills make it as easy as possible to pay the minimum and require extra work to pay more than that. They want you to pay the "amount due" every month. It's more profitable for them that way.



You can get the advantage back by setting up automatic bill pay. When you do, you can designate an amount of your choosing to be paid to the lender every month. You can pay your bill back at your own pace and save some money on overall interest while you're at it! As a bonus, you can often get around nuisances like "technology fees" with automatic bill payment.



3.) Pay with a Destinations Credit Union credit card



One of the benefits of a student loan is the bump you get on your credit score by paying it regularly. Lenders see your management of student loan debt as evidence of responsible borrowing, making them more likely to trust you in the future. If you want to maximize the benefit to your credit score, you can use a credit card from Destinations Credit Union to make your student loan payments.  You can earn rewards with each "purchase" but make sure you are paying down the credit card as you make these payments.  There's not much point in trading one kind of debt for another unless there is a long-term benefit.



This advice deserves some qualification. Many lenders don't accept credit card payments, and many others charge handling fees. A 1% transaction fee for using a credit card should be seen as a 1% increase in interest. Also, credit cards can be an easy way to get into trouble. Don't use them if you don't have an emergency fund to fall back on. Credit card interest rates are frequently much higher than student loan interest rates and missing a credit card payment is just as detrimental as missing a student loan payment!



Still, if you're careful about it, you can build your credit score twice for the same loan. Both your student loan and your credit card will show as paid each month, which will make you look twice as responsible for paying one bill. You will be able to earn a few rewards points as icing on the cake.



4.) Consolidate and refinance



College is about the journey, not the destination. If your journey was a longer one than usual, you may have debt from several places. You may have used your credit card to finance your living expenses or taken out unsubsidized loans from private lenders. These variable interest rate loans can really hurt you financially.



It might be time to consider refinancing. You can take a personal loan for all your outstanding debt and consolidate it into one monthly payment. You can lower your interest rate and simplify your financial life at the same time.



This process can also include one-on-one time with a trained financial professional at Destinations Credit Union. You can gain advice on budgeting and make a roadmap to a truly debt-free future. To see if consolidation is right for you, call, click, or stop by Destinations CU today!



SOURCES:




http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/repay-college-loans-fast-4.aspx