Personal Finance 
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Participate in Focus Groups & Surveys, Get Paid

Online surveys are great (I’m a fan of Greenfield and of course Pinecone Research) but they don’t mean the same payday as a real life focus group or in-person survey. In one of my marketing classes at Hopkins, the professor brought in a friend of his who was in the business of market research and she discussed where she held her focus groups. As it turns out, which makes perfect sense if you think about it, you simply find companies who deal in the collection and management of folks you can call on to participate in surveys and focus groups. I’m not entirely sure what the payout is but it seems handsome and it’s a good way to try out new products and get out of the house every once and a while.

As I scoured the web, one resource that kept appearing was a site called Greenbook, which helps anyone find market research companies. On the right hand side there is a listing of all the states and when you click on it it gives you a listing of all the market research companies and facilities in that state. In Maryland there were 18 different listings and by visiting the company’s website you’re often able to sign up to become a participant.

You won’t become rich doing this and often companies will have a limit as to how often you can participate in a market research survey or focus group but for a little extra cash (and they often will pay cold hard cash) it’s not a bad idea to consider getting on these lists.


 Personal Finance, The Home 
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Which Closing Costs Are NOT Negotiable?

I posted some of the closing costs that were negotiable iyesterday, what about list of closing costs are not negotiable? Here they are:

804 Credit report (this is what the broker pays; he/she cannot charge you more) —$20
809 Tax-related service fee (taxes are taxes)
Flood certification fee—$18
MERS fee (a fee for accessing the automated underwriting system) —$3.95
Closing agent courier fee—$25
901 Pre-paid interest (the daily interest you pay if you close on your home before the end of the month) $27.28 a day
903 Hazard insurance premium—$600
1001 Reserve for hazard insurance premium (two months at $50 a month) —$100
1002 Reserve for mortgage insurance premium— (one month at $109.13) —$109.13
1004 Taxes and assessment reserves (four months at $73 a month) $292
Compensation to broker (also known as Yield Spread Premium, this is the fee the lender pays the mortgage broker. It is usually 1% to 3% of the loan. The higher the YSP, the more you can negotiate your interest rate.)
1201 Recording fees—$52

Again, this list is via USA Today.


 Taxes 
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Patented Tax Shelters Not Necessarily Legal

Apparently the US Patent and Trademark Office has been granting patents to folks who apply with their tax shelter ideas, which they consider business practices, and the Internal Revenue Service is upset because this gives the impression that a patented practice is legitimate or even legal. Businesses are then marketing these tax shelter strategies with the government’s seal of approval, which a patent is not, and the IRS is concerned people will be screwed in the process.

“A patent carries with it no assurance whatsoever that the patented process, transaction or structure will pass IRS muster,” IRS Commissioner Mark Everson told a Congressional hearing in July. “We are concerned, however, that taxpayers may be confused about this.”

There are other wider reaching ramifications of this but I think that this part of the issue is most important to consumers like us. It’s not hard to believe that the various parts of the government don’t exactly talk to one another on a daily basis (just try getting anything from the government, it seems like parts of one department don’t even talk to each other) so it’s not surprising the USPTO is granting patents even though they don’t know much about the ever changing tax laws.

So if you’re shopping around for tax preparation services, remember that just because a process is patented doesn’t mean it’s legal or legitimate in the eyes of the IRS.

Story via Fortune Magazine.


 The Home 
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Which Closing Costs Are Negotiable?

I wish I read this article before I bought my house because I didn’t negotiate any of my closing costs. I thought I was under the gun because I needed the closing done within 2 weeks, a seller requirement, so I went with the mortgage lender that my real estate agent recommended. The good faith estimate was spot on and it was lower than what Lending Tree’s closing cost estimates were so I didn’t think to negotiate anything. That being said… always try to negotiate, even if you think you have a pretty good deal already (don’t worry, they won’t walk away).

Here are the fees you can usually negotiate:

801 Loan origination fee (the fee you pay to the lender — can be 1% of the loan but is zero if you use a mortgage broker)
802 Loan discount (you can choose to “buy down” your interest rate)
803 Appraisal fee (these fees tend to be standard, but you can choose your own appraiser) —$350
Administrative fee (Lender) —$525
1107 Attorney fees—$595
1108 Title insurance (you can select your own title insurance company and often save big) $478.75

via USA Today.


 Personal Finance, The Home 
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Cashflow Negative RE Investors F’d

Do you know anyone in a cashflow negative real estate investment who had been lording over you the fact that the condo/townhouse/house they purchased two years ago has appreciated so and so many thousand dollars? Kicking yourself because you didn’t think to jump onto the real estate bandwagon? (By cashflow negative I mean the mortgage payment they have is more than the rents they’re getting, so they are losing money on a cash flow perspective) While I don’t, I do know one guy who had been counting his eggs before they hatched and currently has something on the order of 5-6 condo/townhouses in cash negative positions banking on appreciation to bring him the big bucks. US News and World Report has an article about the slowdown so you know that the slowdown has been going on for probably half a year now, but what does that mean for your real estate friend?


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 Investing, Retirement 
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Rolling Over Retirement Accounts, 401(k)

If you’re planning on moving from one job to another, like I’m going to be doing come Monday, one of the big financial questions you’re going to have to answer is whether you should roll over your retirement accounts (such as a 401k) from your current employer to your new one. Since I have yet to truly investigate the options over at my new job, I will hold off on rolling over my 401k until I’ve had a chance to really weigh my options. That being said, the process is pretty straightforward, though it has a few pitfalls to be wary of, so I felt it was important to understand it now, rather than later.

The Roll Over Process
The process is quite simple: Tell your former employer’s 401k plan administrator that you want a direct rollover (known as a trustee to trustee transfer). Ask the administrator of the new plan who the check should be made out to and then you get 60 days (calendar days, not business days) to deposit it with the new 401k administrator from the day you receive the check.


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 Government, The Home 
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Energy Policy Act of 2005 Saves Me $500

Thank Congress for passing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) which, among many other things, offered homeowners a 10% tax credit for energy saving renovations to their homes. I looked at EPACT when it was first passed because I knew somewhere down the road I’d need to replace my windows and sliding doors.

If you are replacing your windows, you can receive a 10% tax credit up to $200 for the job if the windows meet 2000 IECC & Amendments specifications. If you are replacing exterior doors, which sliding doors count as, then your cap is raised to $500. The quote of $6500 for the whole job means I’ll be able to claim a tax credit of $500, reducing the job to a mere $6000. (it’s still scary)

For that tax credit and an explanation of the others, visit the official Dept. of Energy website on EPACT.


 The Home 
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Quoting Replacement Windows & Sliding Doors

When I purchased my home a year ago I knew that eventually I would need my windows and sliding doors replaced. My townhouse has eight windows, many of which can’t stay open on their own, some have busted screens, one has clouded up because of a crack, and one has a diagonal crack running basically through the length of the window. They were in pretty sad shape. The sliding doors were better superficially thought each didn’t slide all that well (even when you WD-40′d them), the screens were either gone or all torn up (the former owners had three dogs). All the windows and doors were originally to the house when it was built in the mid 1980s. I knew that my former employer would be compensating me for my unused vacation, which was over a hundred hours worth, so I felt now was an excellent time to replace the windows and doors.


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