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Phone Apps Target Water Wasters

The community reporting app has added a drought section inspired by the social media hashtag #droughtshaming
The community reporting app has added a drought section inspired by the social media hashtag #droughtshaming

With Californians being urged to cut water use as the state’s historic drought drags on, a growing number of local water agencies are enlisting the public to play water cop with their smartphones.

From Long Beach to Placer County, officials are rolling out apps that allow users to snap and send photos of homes and businesses that are violating watering restrictions or operating broken and wasteful irrigation systems.

The apps put more boots on the ground to spot waste and leaks that might go unnoticed, officials say. They say the high-tech citizen reporting programs are intended to encourage water conservation, and not to be used as evidence to fine offenders.

But at least one private company is taking things a step further. Creators of Vizsafe, a neighborhood watch app, have added a feature allowing users to map photos of water wasters — a practice dubbed “drought shaming” on Twitter and Instagram.

The company’s app provides people with useful information about their communities, said Peter Mottur, chief executive of Rhode Island-based Vizsafe. “People have a right to hold others accountable and that is what I think we are doing.”

Privately reporting excessive water use or leaks that have gone unnoticed is “fantastic,” said Karen North, a professor of social media and psychology at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“But to the extent that people then publicly shame each other for that behavior,” she said, it could force “a lot of really solid compliance, but it can also lead to a lot of animosity.”

Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the mere existence of the apps could increase conservation.

“While we all fear Orwell’s Big Brother,” he said, “we all try harder when we are being watched, even if that is a little creepy. You may need these social apps to motivate these behavioral changes.”

Long Beach’s water department released its first app to report water waste in 2010, but revamped it in August so users could add photos, said Melissa Keyes, a special projects coordinator who helped design the service.

The number of app-generated complaints initially increased five-fold, to about 25 a day, but has recently returned to lower levels, she said. “We wanted people to feel they had an outlet to get their frustrations out when they were doing their part and they saw others weren’t,” she said.

The anonymous complaints typically prompt a letter from the water agency to the property owner. Most complaints involve broken sprinklers or irrigation leaks, Keyes said, and often the owners aren’t aware of the problem. So far the city hasn’t seen fence fights erupt over use of the app, she said.

The water-waste app provided downtown Long Beach resident Sherry Ray-Von a convenient way to deal with a nearby apartment building resident who she said washed his car every day for months.

She tried to discuss the matter with the man, she said, but he shrugged her off.

When the upgraded city app came, she thought: “This is great. This is my chance to get this guy.”

She said she snapped a photo of the runoff, sent it to the water department and a few days later, the car washer stopped.

In Placer County, the water agency released a multipurpose water-saving app in May. It lets users report water waste, but it also features a shower timer that estimates how many gallons a person uses. So far, the agency has received 30 complaints, mostly about water runoff, said Matt Young, the agency’s director of customer services.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District forwards app complaints, most involving over-watering or irrigating outside permitted periods, to five water inspectors in the field, who remind offenders of the water usage rules, said spokesman Marty Grimes.

In Palm Springs, 67-year-old real estate salesman Victor Yepello said he used to see broken sprinklers and excessive watering when he biked around the city. But when he got home, he’d often forget the locations or to call the local water agency to complain, he said.

Then he discovered the Desert Water Agency’s new waste-reporting app. This summer, Yepello saw a small river of runoff coursing down Mesquite Avenue from a nearby house, so he stopped, snapped a photo and sent it and the address to the water agency.

Within a few hours, he said, an email came back telling him the problem was a broken irrigation line the property owner hadn’t noticed.

“I don’t see it as a way to snitch on your neighbor,” Yepello said. “If you spot something that is a real problem, report it.”

Creating a Pet-Friendly Home

carpet-cleaning-derby2A pet-friendly home is not just a fun and safe space for your pet, but also a space that can stand up to the kinds of things pets do to houses. Making pet-friendly choices in landscaping, design, and the materials you use will ensure that both you and your pet can enjoy your shared space together.

Opt for durable flooring – Even if your pet is perfectly well house-trained, they’re bound to have an accident or two. Choose a flooring material that’s easy to clean and won’t be damaged by accidents. Linoleum cleans easily and is naturally anti-microbial. Bamboo, cork, tile, and stone are also good picks. If you want carpet, try a modular kind, made of separate carpet squares. Buy back-up squares so if a section gets ruined, you can pop it out and replace it. Avoid wood and laminate floors. Wood is easily scratched and damaged by water and slippery laminate can cause injuries.

Choose pet-friendly materials and décor – Opt for satin paint instead of flat paint on walls. A glossier finish won’t show stains as prominently and wipes clean. Chose low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, especially if your pet bites or licks walls. Match the colors of throw rugs, upholstery, and other décor to your pet’s fur color to give yourself a little more leeway in how frequently you’ll be vacuuming and de-furring the furniture. Set up a feeding area in a spot where you won’t be accidentally kicking over the water bowl. Find a nearby place to store dog food, ideally in a sealed container, like a plastic bin or a metal garbage can with a lid.

Protect furniture – Choose upholstered pieces covered in tough, easily-cleaned fabrics like leather or ultrasuede. Consider washable slipcovers, throws to protect furniture, or extra-durable fabric designed especially for pet owners. Keep pets from chewing furniture by spraying with store-bought, anti-chewing spray or applying a bit of cayenne pepper to their favorite biting spots. If you need to keep a pet out of a particular area, put up baby gates and provide the pet with plenty of sturdy toys for diversion. Set up a special bed or blanket so your pet has a comfortable, cushiony place of his own.

Eliminate dangers around the house – Walk around your house and assess possible pet hazards. Move chemicals and cleaning materials to high shelves or locked cabinets. Make sure trash cans are safely secured so pets don’t get into something that could be harmful to them. (Many common household articles are toxic to pets including: coffee grounds, onions, grapes, and even nutmeg.) Latch lower cabinets with child locks if necessary and keep curtain and electrical cords out of pet reach. Put screens in upper level windows and make sure they’re intact and securely attached. Keep toilet lids closed and avoid automatic bowl cleaners. Wipe up spills in the driveway and garage immediately so pets don’t ingest poisons like antifreeze. Remove any indoor plants that are toxic to pets. You can find a list of toxic and non-toxic plants on the Humane Society’s web site (www.humanesociety.org).

Consider a pet door – If you are frequently away from home, consider putting in a pet door. Pet doors can be put in windows, doors, and walls. Smart models recognize your pet electronically and will only open for them, not for other animals. The doors can be controlled remotely and deactivated if you need the pet to stay inside. If you’re worried about the resale value of cutting a hole in the wall, consider a model that’s built into a glass sliding door. When you sell, you can replace that part of the door with a regular slider.

Create a yard for pets and people to share – Find safe, pet-friendly materials for plants and hardscape. Put in some mint or catnip for cats and a clover ground cover for dogs because it won’t yellow with urine. Outdoor cats like places to hide and things to climb and will make good use of trees and bushy areas. Dogs instinctively patrol the perimeter of the property and like running paths that follow the yard’s circumference. If your dog has already created a path, embrace it, covering it with mulch and lining with attractive plantings. Make sure your fence is in good condition with no secret ways out (including benches, large rocks, or other items that can serve as pet launching pads). Consider putting in a small eye-level panel in the fence so dog can peek out and keep a watch on things. For safety, keep sharp tools put away, keep compost bins covered, and avoid chemical like fertilizers and pesticides. Make sure plants are non-toxic and avoid plants with thorns. And pets like a lot of the same things humans like, so you’ll both be pleased if your yard has a shady spot to cool off and comfy places to sit.

Real Homeowner Stories: A Miracle in the Form of a Red Envelope

Elk Grove Short Sale Agent, CDPE
Elk Grove Short Sale Agent, CDPE

For homeowners who are in danger of losing their home to foreclosure, it is common to feel like you are alone and that there is no one to help. This simply isn’t true. There are real people who have been in the same situation who have found solutions. Take, for example, Punipuao W. of Hawaii.

Punipuao found herself struggling to keep her home after her husband passed away. “With only my income, I was no longer able to make my monthly mortgage payment,” she said. Faced with the prospect of losing the home she and her husband had bought together, she began looking for alternatives to help her keep the home.

She pleaded with the bank for relief, “but their responses gave me little information and even less hope.”

The prospect of losing the home she and her husband had shared for over 20 years was difficult. “I was so distraught,” she said. “I did not know where to turn.

“Then, one day, my miracle came through a red envelope in the mail.”

In the envelope was a note from a local real estate agent with the Certified Distressed Property Expert designation (or CDPE). This designation meant that the agent was trained specifically to help people like Punipuao. She called the agent.

“About four hours after I made the call, he was at my door offering help. I told him my story.” In merely two days, she received a call from the bank saying that the president of the bank was reviewing her file. “That was a good sign,” she said.

A few days after that, Punipuao had been approved for a trial loan modification. “There were many tears of gratitude at the miracle that came to me in the form of my agent. I thank god for sending me that miracle.”

Punipuao’s story is just one of many. I have a report entitled “From Foreclosure to Freedom” which tells other stories of real homeowners who faced foreclosure and found relief. Download the report, read the stories, and then contact me for a free, confidential consultation.

GSEs Tighten Short Sale Timelines

(from CDPE Newsletter May 2012)

In a Bulletin released April 17, 2012, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced updates to their short sale timeline. These updates include new response-time requirements, which aim to shorten the timeline and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the entire short sale process.

“When a home retention option is no longer a viable solution to delinquency, it is important to utilize liquidation options, including short sales, as a valuable foreclosure avoidance solution. Improved communication methods will enhance the effectiveness of these options,” writes Freddie Mac in the Bulletin.

The top changes for a submitted Borrower Response Packages include:

  1. Servicer must acknowledge receipt of short sale package within three business days.
  2. If the package is incomplete, the servicer must notify the borrower of missing information within five business days.
  3. Servicer must give an evaluation decision within 30 days of receipt of package.
  4. Servicer must respond to an offer for purchase of a short sale within 30 days.
  5. If for any reason the servicer needs more than 30 days, it must give the borrowers weekly status updates and a decision within 70 days.

For a full list of new timeline changes and requirements, download the complete bulletin here.

With these steps, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac join the group of lenders actively revamping short sale processes and timelines, striving for easier and more efficient short sales. Bank of America alone plans a 60-70% increase in short sales this year!

BREAKING NEWS!! B of A Short Sale Limited Time Offer

(from B of A Home Loans email received today 5/15/2012)

Short Sale Relocation Assistance Program: You could receive $2,500 to $30,000 in relocation assistance

You want to avoid foreclosure. So do we!

That’s why Bank of America is excited to announce that for a limited time, we are offering enhanced relocation assistance payments in which qualified homeowners who initiate a short sale without an offer could be eligible to receive $2,500 – $30,000* in relocation assistance and owe no more on their mortgage with the sale of their property.

Don’t miss this limited-time offer to get the help you need by having your real estate agent initiate a preapproved price short sale today.

Determining eligibility is easy:

Once the short sale is initiated, B of A will evaluate you, the homeowner, for this offer quickly to determine if you qualify for the enhanced relocation assistance.

The homeowner must participate in one of the preapproved price short sale programs, such as HAFA (Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives) or Bank of America’s proprietary program. Specific investor participation and eligibility criteria do apply to these programs.

Have an active preapproved price short sale? Don’t worry.

Bank of America is reviewing all current, in-process preapproved price short sale agreements to determine who is eligible for this limited-time offer.  Eligible homeowners actively participating in a preapproved price short sale program (such as HAFA or Bank of America’s proprietary program) will receive a letter if they qualify for the additional relocation assistance.  The relocation assistance will be paid at closing.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: How can I find out if I qualify for this limited time offer?

A: Call a Bank of America short sale specialist at 1.866.880.1232 Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

 

Q: Do I have to do anything special when initiating or completing the short sale?

A: No. But act quickly by initiating the short sale. This is a limited-time offer that you won’t want to miss out on.

 

Q: If a short sale is initiated with an offer, will it qualify for this relocation assistance?

A: No. This relocation assistance is only available on preapproved price short sale programs.  Short sales initiated at the time an offer is received do not qualify for the enhanced relocation assistance funds.

 

Q: Will the relocation assistance funds be reported on the HUD-1?

A: Yes, funds received at closing will be documented on the HUD-1, and a 1099-MISC will be issued.

 

Q: Can the relocation assistance funds be used to pay off existing liens?

A: Yes, the homeowner may use funds to pay off existing liens or to help with relocation expenses.

 

Q: Is the relocation assistance added to any other incentives, such as the HAFA or Bank of America proprietary program incentives?

A: The homeowner incentive will be inclusive of the $3,000 HAFA incentive.  For example, if the homeowner is eligible for a $5,000 homeowner incentive, $3,000 will be from the HAFA incentive, and $2,000 will be from the homeowner incentive.

 

Q: Is the enhanced relocation assistance available for other programs?

A: Currently, the enhanced relocation assistance is only available to short sale programs initiated without an offer. However, as we gauge the success we may extend this incentive to other programs.

Questions?

Homeowners and agents may call 1.866.880.1232 to speak to a Bank of America short sale specialist about this exciting limited-time preapproved price short sale program offering.

 

*The relocation assistance payment is calculated based on the appraised value of the homeowner’s property. The total amount will be no less than $2,500, but no more than $30,000. The payment will be delivered at the time of closing if the homeowner complies with all terms and conditions of the Short Sale Agreement, which includes but are not limited to the following: a full walk-through appraisal must be completed and the homeowner must satisfy all junior liens and provide clear title for the property (the relocation assistance payment can be used to clear those liens). The short sale must close by September 26, 2013.  If the homeowner does not comply with all terms and conditions of the Short Sale Agreement, they will not receive the relocation assistance payment. The amount of any deficiency and relocation assistance will be reported to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on the appropriate 1099 Form or Forms. We suggest that the homeowner contact the IRS or their tax preparer to determine if they have any tax liability.

Escape Your Unmanageable Mortgage: Getting free doesn’t have to mean running away

Perhaps you have heard about it.

On the news, a reporter tells a story about how the housing crisis has caused some homeowners to simply walk away from their homes. It sounds crazy, but many people are being led to believe that walking away from their home is a good (or even the best!) option.

It is called Strategic Default. For distressed homeowners who believe that they have no good choices left, the idea of walking away free of consequence may sound like a relief. The reality, however, is that choosing strategic default has serious repercussions on your credit.

THERE ARE BETTER OPTIONS AVAILABLE!

As a real estate professional who has earned the Certified Distressed Property Expert (CDPE) designation, my mission is to provide financially-challenged homeowners with options to escape from unmanageable mortgages without running away.

Facing your problems head-on is always the best solution. Let me help.

Short Sales Just Got Shorter!

Beginning June 15, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will require mortgage servicers to make decisions on short sales under new guidelines, specifically:

  • to acknowledge the documentation was received within three business days;
  • to notify the borrower within five days if more paperwork is needed;
  • to review and respond to a borrower within 30 days of receiving all documentation for short sale properties (the servicer can take up to 60 days on a decision if negotiations with mortgage insurers or other stakeholders linger); and
  • to provide weekly status updates to the borrower if a short sale decision lingers past the 30 days.

The new Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) guidelines are designed to assist the most inventory-constrained markets in the United States with inventory levels by moving properties through the short sale process more efficiently.

If you or someone you know is considering a short sale, contact me at (916) 370-1803 or keisha.mathews@century21.com for a private consultation.

The Top Four Reasons To Sell Now

No one will deny that the market over the past five years has been a real roller coaster ride. No one will deny that either they, or someone they know, has been personally affected by the backlash. But many homeowners in distress are in denial about what is to come and may become additional victims as a result of hanging on to false hope.

If you have been denied a loan mod due to the inability to pay and are on the fence about whether to sell your home in a short sale or just “walk away” via foreclosure, here is what you need to know and take into account as you consider.

REASON ONE:
SB 458 (No Deficiency Law – California Residents Only) – This state law, modified in 2011 to include investment properties and second homes, states that once a lender approves a short sale, they cannot pursue you for the difference (deficiency). It’s that simple.

How to assess this as a homeowner in distress? If you foreclose, the second is wiped out, but the first (the larger of the two amounts) can come after you for the difference and penalties, interest, and attorney fees. Typically to resolve this, people are forced into bankruptcy. The cost of filing bankruptcy alone, for someone already experiencing financial difficulty is not practical. If you don’t qualify for Chapter 7 and are compelled to file chapter 13, most people fall out of the repayment agreement and are right back where they started, still overwhelmed with huge debt.

By choosing to sell your home in a short sale, once the lender agrees to the lower sale price, they cannot come after you for the difference. If you have two or more lien holders and they agree as well, they too are wiped out after the short sale.

REASON TWO:
Mortgage Debt Forgiveness with the IRS – If your lender allows your short sale, normally there are tax implications. For example, if you purchased a home in 2004 for $350,000, sold it in a short sale for $125,000 (what it was worth – market value) in 2011, your lender would send you a 1099-C for the difference, $225,000, and the IRS would view that as income earned for the year and swiftly ask you to pay taxes on it.

As a result of Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 (HR. 3648) enacted by then U.S. President George W. Bush, if you are a homeowner whose mortgage debt is partly or entirely forgiven during tax years 2007 through 2012, you may be able to claim special tax relief and exclude the debt forgiven from your income. Read “Ten Facts About Mortgage Debt Forgiveness” directly from the IRS website.

This act expires on December 31, 2012. It is likely that President Obama will extend this act. President Obama released his budget proposal for 2013 on Monday, February 13th, and is calling for an extension of this Act through January 1, 2015 (see link, and chart on page 218, Under Tax Proposals, Tax Cuts: Extend exclusion from income for cancellation of certain home mortgage debt). However, we won’t know until after the election, in November, assuming he is re-elected, one month before the act expires.

Keep this in mind – It takes on average, six months to complete a short sale; and you can’t file bankruptcy on taxes.

How to assess this as a homeowner in distress? Just do the math. You would be taking a huge risk placing all bets on Obama being re-elected, keeping his proposed budget promise, and getting the bipartisan support needed in order to pass it. Likely to happen, but still very risky.

Rather than being placed in a position wher you need to make a decision under pressure, listing the home sooner will give you the peace of mind and time that you need to make better decisions for you and your family, such as finding a place to live and starting on your plan to recover sooner and buy again!

REASON THREE:
Low Inventory and The Law of Supply & Demand – Tried making an offer on a property within Sacramento County and the surrounding areas lately? If you have, chances are, you have experienced a multiple offer situation and got bumped out or looked over for the next highest and best offer.

Due to extremely low housing prices, record low interest rates, and rising rents, currently, there are more buyers than there are sellers. This is the recipe to real estate investment success – an investor’s dream.

Some areas are even noticing an increase in property values as a result of this growing trend. Pockets of more stable neighborhoods with little to no new development and once booming neighborhoods where the developers were throwing in granite counters, cherry wood cabinets, and professionally manicured backyards are flying off the MLS inventory lists faster than Wendy’s having your order ready at the next window.

Almost any home can sell in this market. Investors in this climate tend to be very savvy, know what they want, and have the money to back it up. Your chances increase if your home is in an area of high desirability, near move-in ready, showable, and priced right.

How to assess this as a homeowner in distress? If you were wondering if your home will sell, wonder no more. There are plenty of websites with info on how to prepare your home to sell. Enlisting the help of an experienced real estate professional, someone closing deals actively on a monthly basis, will help you tremendously. Be open to your agents recommendations with the understanding that your goal is to get from under the debt as quickly as possible and with dignity.

Also, because this is a short sale, don’t have expectations from your real estate professional of a traditional sale. For many agents who specialize in short sales, they have processes in place and a team of individuals to help them move your property swiftly through the short sale process, swiftly to escrow, and swiftly to closing. It may not be a warm and fuzzy experience. It may look more like “please get me all of these items by noon tomorrow”, and you need to comply. Remember, your goal is to get it sold, get rid of the debt, and recover sooner.

REASON FOUR:
Federal Settlement of Foreclosure Misconduct  – On February 9th, 2012 the United States Justice Department released the details of a $25 billion dollar settlement they reached with 5 major banks:

The settlement occurred because the banks were accused of widespread use of “Robo-signing”.

Robo-signing is a practice employed by banks to automate the processing and approval of foreclosure proceedings against homeowners. In many cases, the banks were discovered to have processed thousands of foreclosures in a single day, all signed by one person.

The settlement presents a unique opportunity for homeowners who are in danger of losing their home. The reality is, the banks would rather explore other options than foreclosure and this settlement gives them both the motivation as well as the funding to explore them.

How to assess this as a homeowner in distress? Under the settlement, lenders are now more inclined to allow your short sale and offer additional incentives to help you avoid foreclosure.

Also remember, there is never a fee to you for the short sale. It is assumed, if you can prove hardship, that you have no funds to contribute to the sale. Your lender will make the decision as to how the proceeds of the sale will be distributed.

“Short Sale Lenders shall collectively agree to reduce their respective loan balances by an amount sufficient to permit the proceeds from the sale of the Property to pay the existing balances on loans secured by the Property, real property taxes, brokerage commissions, closing costs, and other monetary obligations the Agreement requires Seller to pay at Close Of Escrow (including, but not limited to, escrow charges, title charges, documentary transfer taxes, prorations, retrofit costs, Homeowners Association Fees and Repairs) without requiring Seller to place any funds into escrow or have any continuing obligation to Short Sale Lenders.” (from Winform Doc SSA – Short Sale Addendum).

For a more borrower/seller specific assessment of your personal situation, please consult with either a real estate attorney (I personally recommend the BPE Law Group, tell them The Short Sale Lady, Keisha Mathews, recommended you), a CPA, or contact me directly for a free consultation, (916) 370-1803, or at keisha.mathews@century21.com via email.

Tax Q&A

This article courtesy of Feed the Pig. Copyright 2011 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

There’s less than a month until the 2011 tax return deadline, April 17. Last week, in Tax Q&A: Part 1, we covered a few basic tax questions. This week, we continue with questions and answers from the American Institute of CPAs to help make sure you pay no more taxes than you should.

How do I know if I can take special tax breaks? Many taxpayers don’t think about the special tax provisions that may apply to them and often pay more tax than they need to pay as a result. The special provisions include the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, the American opportunity credit and the adoption credit. Check with your local CPA or the official IRS website to see if you qualify.

What are some deductions I might be able to take? Your 2011 tax return could be your last chance to claim credits for energy-efficient home improvements or other provisions that are set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress extends them.  Expiring provisions include deductions for tuition and fees, educator expenses, mortgage insurance premiums and the option to include your state and local sales taxes paid as an itemized deduction.  Review some tax savings strategies on the AICPA’s 360 Degrees of Taxes website.

Can I deduct my health insurance premiums if I am self-employed? It depends. If you’re self-employed, you may be able to deduct 100 percent of health and long-term medical costs for yourself, your spouse and your dependents. This deduction is taken as an adjustment to income and it can be taken only if the self-employed person or spouse is not covered by an employer health insurance plan.

Visit www.feedthepig.org for more money-saving tips.