Crackdown on mortgage fraud starts in Washington

With so many reports of mortgage fraud in the news lately, the United States Senate voted this week to hire hundreds more FBI agents and prosecutors to investigate.  There’s an estimate 5,000 allegations of fraud reported each month.

This comes after recent news of the CFO of Freddie Mac’s alleged suicide.  The Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating Freddie Mac.  Documents they’ve requested have been provided and employees have been made available for interviews.

Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont (a Democrat) and Chuck Grassley of Iowa (a Republican) sponsored this bill.  The bill is expected to cost about $265 million a year over the next two years.  President Obama and supporters believe the bill will pay for itself because of the fines and penalties imposed on these fraudulent companies.  The bill passed in a 92-4 vote.

handcuffThere are currently about 250 FBI agents assigned to financial fraud cases.  The bill would allow the hiring of at least 160 more.  200 more attorneys would also be hired by the Justice Department. 

The House will be voting on the bill as early as next week.  Congress is trying to encourage lenders to offer mortgages where borrowers put down a 20% down payment and the loan is a 30-year fixed one.  They’re hoping to discourage other creative financing measures.

Hopefully this is a step in the right direction.  It can prevent another recession.  Do you believe that it’s the right thing to do for Congress to step in?  What types of punishments do these mortgage fraud companies deserve?  Should they be eligible for automatic shutdowns of their companies if they’re discovered?

I’m curious to hear what you think.  Please leave a comment or visit me online. More information on the Senate bill can be found in this article.

With the weather getting warmer in the Chicagoland area, the time has begun to start house walks.  This is a great opportunity to go out and see some beautiful homes in the nearby neighborhoods.  Often these homes are historical.  You can also get some great decorating ideas by viewing what others have done.  Here is a list of some of the local events.  They begin this weekend!

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Friday, May 1: The Garden Club of Evanston features their House Walk and French Market Boutique. Four homes will be available for viewing from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.  Advanced tickets are $50.  Proceeds go towards conservation and education.  Visit them online to purchase tickets.

Sunday, May 3: The Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society has their 23rd annual house walk.  This walk starts at 1:00 pm and ends at 5:00 pm.  The starting point is 1643 West Howard at the Howard Theatre building.  Free parking is in the back of the building.  Tickets are $20 for the general public.  View their Web site for more information and to purchase tickets.

Sunday, May 3: View six homes throughout Vernon Hills and Mettawa at the Hawthorn PTO’s House Walk in Vernon Hills.  Tickets are $15 in advance and available at many retailers in Vernon Hills and Libertyville.  The walk will take place from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm.  View their Web site to find out where you can purchase tickets and the homes on the tour.

Saturday, May 9: For a different kind of tour, The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust is sponsoring a bike tour in Oak Park to view 27 of Wright’s buildings that he designed.  The tour begins at 9:30 am at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park.  You must bring your own bike and tickets are $18.  See their Web site for more information on this and other tours and to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, May 13: The Winnetka Woman’s Club is sponsoring their 2009 Housewalk, voted “Best Housewalk on the North Shore.”  This runs from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit their Web site to download a PDF brochure with information and how to purchase tickets. They are $55 if purchased prior to May 9th.

More local tours throughout the months of May and June can be found in this Chicago Tribune article.

Visit me online if I can help with any real estate needs.

Save energy with these gadgets

Well, I wanted to finish off Earth Week with some more “green” tips.  I hope that you’re getting good information from what I’ve posted earlier this week.  Today I am going to focus on some gadgets and appliances that will help to save you energy and keep your utility bills lower.

shower-head-lg1. Check out this great low-flow shower head at Greater Goods. And it’s only $8!  Using it allows water to flow at 1.75 gallons per minute.  On average, a regular shower head flows at 6 gallons per minute. 

2. Purchase a laptop instead of a desktop.  Who knew that it uses 5x less energy?  Plus, it’s portable so you can take it anywhere.

3. Keep burglars at bay with a motion sensor light.  It will save you money in electric bills by only going off when it senses motion rather than staying on all night. 

4.  High efficiency appliances.  You can purchase refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers this way.  Washers that are high efficiency use a concentrated detergent to give you more bang for your buck.  Purchasing a front-load washer will help you save even more money.  You’re also apt to save money in taxes too!  Make sure you look for the Energy Star label before purchasing, or ask the salesman at the store.  This will help you save up to 30% more energy a month.

5. It may be hard to think about warming up for the winter (especially for those of us in the Chicago area), but it may be worth it next winter to invest in a space heater.  If you’re cold in one room, I first suggest putting on a sweater, but use a space heater to heat the room rather than turning on the heat for the whole house. 

6. One of the best investments you can make is purchasing a programmable thermostat.  You can program it to turn on right before you come home from work and to take the temperature down while you’re sleeping saving energy.  You can purchase these for as low as $25!

7. “If every household replaced just one incandescent bulb with a fluorescent bulb, the U.S. would conserve enough energy to light seven million homes,” says Ronnie Kweller of the Alliance to Save Energy.  Imagine how much you’ll save by replacing all your bulbs with fluorescents.  As a great bonus, they last longer than regular light bulbs so you have to replace them a lot less often.

I hope that my blogs this week inspired you to change at least one thing to help save the environment as well as your utility bills.  Please visit me online with any questions.

Go green in your kitchen

Happy Earth Day!  In honor of it being Earth Week, I’m going to continue to post on other ways to go green.  Today I wanted to write about ways to make your kitchen more eco-friendly.  Since the kitchen tends to be the room that most people spend most of their time in, I figured it was a great idea to start here and give you some tips to go green and save money.

1. Get rid of paper products.  Using paper plates and plastic utensils on a daily basis means a lot more waste in the landfill.  Reuse and wash your regular place settings and utensils.  Buy some dish towels to keep by the sink instead of using and throwing away paper towels.

2. Use a travel mug or reusable water bottle to take water on the go.  It saves the environment rather than purchasing individual bottles of water.  A lot of places also offer discounts to bring your own mug to a coffee shop rather than getting a disposable one each time.  Try to get your coworkers to toss the styrofoam too.  Get everyone to keep a mug or two in the office.

ocean20pointe20kitchen3. This may sound silly, but take a picture of the inside of your fridge and hang it on the door.  This way, when you’re debating what to eat, you can look at the picture rather than hold the door open.  Every time the door remains open, the fridge has to work harder to get cold again which wastes electricity.

4. Find the lids to your pots.  When you cover the pot as it boils, it takes less energy, plus the water is done faster!

5. Store leftovers and work lunches in reusable containers, made by Ziploc or Glad.  They are dishwasher and microwave safe, and are easier on the budget and environment than plastic baggies.

6. Keep baking soda on hand.  A simple mixture of baking soda and water forms a paste that can clean the oven.  This won’t allow extra chemicals from cleaners into the air.  Just put on the dirty area and let it sit overnight.  Clean and wipe it down in the morning.

7. Don’t do double duty.  If you have a well-maintained dishwasher, there’s no need to rinse and clean dishes before they go in.  Choose to either wash and rinse by hand, or use the dishwasher.  Hand dry to save even more energy.

8. Think small.  No need to turn on your oven to reheat leftovers.  Use a countertop toaster oven, which uses less energy to heat up.  Slow cookers are also great eco-friendly appliances.

Need more great tips?  Visit Quick & Simple for some other great ideas.  Visit me online for any questions.

Think Green!

In honor of Earth Week this week, I wanted to write a little bit on “going green,” or finding ways to conserve energy and save the environment.  Esurance.com has some great tips for how to stay green in your own home.  A lot of these ideas are even meant to save you money on your utility bills, and can help protect the environment by not emitting as many chemicals and poisons into the air. 

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1. Save gas by purchasing locally.  This is true in any home improvement task.  Try not to drive too far away to make any purchases.  Even better  if it can be ordered online and shipped to you!

2. Try to open windows when it’s sunny to allow for maximum sunlight.  This will warm up the house during the day and save you money on heating bills.  You’ll want to make sure windows and doors are well insulated to prevent drafts, as well.  During the summer, try to open windows instead of constantly using the air conditioning.

3. Try to install hardwood flooring or laminate floors.  Carpeting can emit harmful chemicals into the air.  The Forest Stewardship Council will let you know if the wood you’re using came from a well-managed forest.  Bamboo and cork floors are more “green.”

4. Recycle your paint and save money.  This paint tends to be cheaper than purchasing it new.  This paint is made from reprocessed latex and prevents chemicals from getting into landfills.  If you’re going to purchase new, pick paints that are low in volatile organic compounds.  Ask your hardware store what is best for the environment.

5. Buy CFL light bulbs.  They not only last longer than regular light bulbs but they use a lot less energy. 

6. Unplug electronics and appliances when not in use.  Don’t just turn off, but unplug them!  They still use energy while they’re plugged into the wall.

7. Take shorter showers and save water.  You’ll also want to consider purchasing a lower-flow showerhead to maximize your water use.  These can be found for less than $30.

Do you have more tips to go “green” in your home?  Please leave a comment or visit me online so my other readers can benefit.

6 companies get government bailout

2350089404_92bb4ecc70The Obama administration just announced the first six companies that will get government assistance to help struggling homeowners afford their mortgages.  These companies will receive a maximum of $9.9 billion in incentive payments which can be used to lower payments for homeowners and reduce interest rates to drop the number of foreclosures.  The six companies are: Chase Home Finance, Wells Fargo, GMAC Mortgage, Citigroup’s CitiMortgage unit, Select Portfolio Servicing and Saxon Mortgage Services.  The administration hopes to provide money to other companies in the upcoming months.

Where is the money coming from?  $50 billion is coming from the $700 billion rescue plan that went into effect earlier this year.  Obama wants the money to be used to help lower bills of those struggling with mortgage payments.  It’s currently limited to those who owe up to 5% more than what their home is currently worth. 

This USA Today article says that borrowers claim some of these modifications aren’t helping enough people, especially those with lower incomes that can pay on time, but might be living paycheck to paycheck. 

People commenting on the article had other concerns such as:

1. Bank representatives telling them they couldn’t get loan modifications because they were still employed and weren’t late on their mortgage
2. Appraisers never stepping foot inside the house to be told that their house didn’t appraise high enough
3. Being able to afford your house but having to help out a neighbor down the street who can’t afford his house with money you don’t have
4. Wondering how the government is going to monitor these bailouts
5. Why money is being spent to help those who committed fraud when they originally purchased their home

I’m curious to know what you think.  Is the government doing something right by stepping in?  Or are they just adding to an already increasing problem?  What else can we do to prevent the number of foreclosures?  Please leave me a comment or visit me online.

New Illinois law gives struggling homeowners more time

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a new foreclosure law into effect over the weekend.  Homeowners struggling to keep up with mortgage payments now have additional time to obtain counseling before lenders can foreclose. 

The new law works like this:  Lenders cannot begin foreclosure proceedings for the first 30 days.  They then have 30 days to notify homeowners with a “Grace Period Notice” that they can seek credit counseling during that time.  If a homeowner does obtain counseling, they have another 30 days before legal action begins.  If they choose not to obtain counseling, legal action can begin at 60 days.   Once the foreclosure process begins, it can be anywhere from 9 to 12 months before a homeowner would be evicted from their home.  Quinn stated, “This is a day that we are going to commit ourselves to straightening out a major problem in Illinois.  We believe in fighting hard for neighborhoods.”

USA/ The Evanston Reviewsays that foreclosure rates have been on the rise in the suburbs between 2007 and 2008.  Evanston rose to 267, or 49%, but was one of the local suburbs that didn’t have as high as an increase.  Skokie surged 93% to 346.  Glenview jumped 131% to 190.

Generally, counseling is free to help develop a modified loan payment plan.  Some agencies might charge a fee as long as it doesn’t create a hardship for the borrower, but they cannot turn you away for an inability to pay. 

The Illinois Homeowner Protection Act (as the law is now called) says there are several things counseling can help with: (1) temporary suspension of payments, (2) a lengthened loan term, (3) a lowered or frozen interest rate, (4) a principal write down, (5) a repayment plan to pay the existing loan in full, or (6) refinancing into a new affordable loan. 

For a list of HUD-approved counselors, click here.

If you have more questions on the new law, please visit me online.

Hurry up and get those taxes done!

With Tax Day (April 15th) only two days away, if you haven’t filed your taxes yet you will want to hurry up and get them done.  The IRS could not only stick you with a failure to file penalty, but you could owe interest on any unpaid taxes.  You can always ask for an extension, but make sure you check with the IRS and/or your accountant to get that done prior to the deadline.  Here is the link for the form for an extension, but it must be completed and submitted before Wednesday.

Lines will always be extremely long at the post office, even though they offer extended hours.  So the IRS always recommends filing electronically.  Most of the computer programs offered allow you to send in your returns this way.  A great benefit to this is that you can receive your refund in half the time via direct deposit to your bank account.  You can split your return deposit into up to three different accounts. The IRS also will acknowledge receipt of your return so there are no worries that it was lost in the mail. 

small_tax20deadline20for20businessFor those of you who owe money to the government, there are many ways you can submit the payment.  You an always send in a check with your return, as long as it’s postmarked by April 15th.  You can also charge a payment with your credit or debit card by phone or online.  You can file online at any time and request a withdrawal on the 15th.  You most likely will be charged a convenience fee to pay by credit card, but you may now be eligible to deduct that fee on next year’s returns.

For those taxpayers that need additional time to pay the government, the IRS now offers an installment plan.  If you owe $25,000 or less in taxes, you can apply for a payment plan electronically which will allow you to pay your balance in manageable, monthly installments.  You will get charged $105 to set up the agreement or $52 if the payments are automatically deducted from your bank account.  Qualified low income households will be charged $43.  Taxpayers are required to pay interest plus a late payment penalty on the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month after the due date that the tax is not paid.

More IRS reminders can be found on their Web site.  Just remember to claim all of your deductions.  Homeowners can deduct property taxes, mortgage interest, and more.  If you own a rental property, you can deduct any payments that went into maintaining the property.  Make sure you consult a certified accountant for help.

Good luck, and visit me online for more information!

Tips for selling more quickly despite the market

No one can predict what will happen to the housing market in the next year, let alone next week.  Sellers are still dependent upon buyers for determining value, and patience is key as a higher inventory of homes is dropping prices across the country.  Author Peter Miller understands that the market is fluctuating, but despite this, offers some suggestions on what you can do to maximize your profits and seller more quickly.

1. And what I think is the most important: Hire a local Realtor.  Nobody knows the local marketplace like a Realtor who works in it.  When I’m not with clients, I’m out previewing homes and comparing data.  I’m viewing homes on a regular basis to know what’s selling and why and for what prices.  I have access to all homes listed, which makes it better for you in terms of knowing the competition.

2. Going along with that, it’s important for you to visit open houses.  This will help you get a better idea of what your competition is.  Make sure to go see what other houses in your neighborhood look like.  You can determine what features they have that you don’t and vice versa.  openhouse1

3. Update MLS photos.  I cannot tell you how many times I go to look at photos of new listings to see a snow covered driveway in July or even Christmas decorations.  Nothing lets the buyer know how long the home has been sitting on the market unsold like this.  With digital cameras commonplace these days, posting newer photos should be a piece of cake.  Make sure your Realtor posts the most updated (and clean) photos of your home.

4. Know your terms.  It might be easier to agree to pay closing costs for a buyer than to lower your price by $10,000.  It could be a lot cheaper, too!  Consider all negotiating points when an offer comes in.  It’s also important to consider EVERY offer, and not just decline a low-ball offer.  Everything is negotiable, and it might be worth it to sell your home now than have it sit on the market for an additional 10 months that you need to pay a mortgage for.

5. Know the marketing plan your Realtor has set in place.  And make sure they stick to it.  If they’re not familiar with online marketing, they might not be the right agent for you.  These days, buyers are looking online more and more before they physically visit homes.  Ask your Realtor to keep you updated about where your property is being advertised.  You might even ask them for pieces that you can hang in your employee lunchroom or at your child’s school.

These are just a few steps that might help you sell quicker.  View the rest here.

For a look at my marketing plan and help selling your home, please visit me online.

Home builders merger creates largest company

imagesIn a recently announced merger, Pulte Homes has agreed to acquire Centex Corporation, creating the largest homebuilder in the country.  The two companies had a combined 39,000 closings last year, and are hoping to keep those numbers up amidst the housing downturn.

Pulte’s President and CEO Richard J. Dugas, Jr. will remain president, CEO, and chairman.  Centex’s CEO Timothy Eller will become vice chairman of the new company that will use Pulte’s name.  They will be based out of Bloomfield Hills, MI where Pulte currently is based. 

Dugas made a written statement saying, “Combining these two industry leaders with proud legacies into one company puts us in an excellent position to navigate through the current housing downturn, poised to accelerate our return to profitability.”

Each company has stated they had about $1.7 billion in cash so combined they’ll have more than $3.4 billion in liquid funds.  Both CEOs stated that merging together would be the best way to survive the downturn in the housing market.  “As the industry prepares for further consolidation, we believe that acting first gives us a competitive advantage,” said Dugas.

After the merger, stockholders in Pulte will own 68% of the combined company while stockholders in Centex will own 32%.  Early this morning, shares of Centex stock were up to $9.24 (+21%), while Pulte stock was down to $9.88 (-8%).

One analyst said that Centex’s strength was the first-time buyer market which will be a new advantage for Pulte, who formally excelled in current home buyers looking for move-up opportunities.  And hopefully the current stimulus package by the Obama administration will increase the amount of closings by first-time buyers.

For help with purchasing your new construction home, please visit me online.