The Home Column

Home is where the heart is, right? I bought a home in 2005, about six months before the peak of the housing market boom, and chronicled the entire home buying journey. Since then, I’ve kept up to date on all things related to housing, mortgages, and taxes in this column.


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 The Home 
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Are hamsters the cheapest, yet cutest, pets ever?


We shall now pause to consider one of the Internet’s most hotly debated financial topics: The relative worth of hamsters.

Well, to be honest, we aren’t going to waste so much as a pixel on the curmudgeonly views of hamster haters. (What is wrong with some people?)

But we will take a realistic, dollars-and-cents look at just how much they cost to own — and just how adorable they can be.

When Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and her then-boyfriend decided to get a pet together, they didn’t even consider a cat or dog.

“A friend of mine had just bought a dwarf hamster for her daughter,” says Armstrong, who today lives with her now domestic partner in Manhattan. “When I saw that, I thought ‘I must have one of those.’”

Three years later she’s had five.

“They’re the cutest little things,” Armstrong says. “I love sitting there watching TV and holding them.”
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Turn tantalizing foreign cuisine into budget meals

“Well, if I’m going to cook an authentic Argentinian meal, I’m going to have to buy grass-fed beef,” I said to myself. “But the spousal unit is totally going to kill me when he sees how much this meal cost.”

It’s thoughts like that that almost derailed the personal challenge I had taken to to cook a signature dish from all 193 countries in the United Nations.

But I’m off and running now, and you can follow my culinary adventure at Cliffieland: The Global Cooking Challenge.

One of the first things I learned is that some international cuisine can be a little pricey. Grass-fed beef [about $9.99 a serving] and authentic Cypriot Halloumi cheese at about $2.80 a serving (well, most cheeses actually) will set you back some.

But, happily, I discovered that the most familiar dishes from many less well-known countries are actually not only tasty but pretty damn easy on the pocketbook.

Take Botswana, for instance.

Seswaa, something of a national dish, is simply boiled beef, which, in and of itself sounds as exciting as fried dirt. But slow cooked for four hours, properly seasoned and paired with Bogobe, or sorghum meal, and you’ve got yourself a surprisingly tasty, authentic and inexpensive meal, with roast chuck being about $2.99 a serving.

Oh, yeah, sorghum. You’ll get really familiar with unfamiliar things quickly. (And at less than a dollar a serving for sorghum meal, you may want to remain familiar with it.)

For comparison, between pricey meats and various ingredients, your standard boeuf bourguignon (hello, France!) would cost about $8 a serving when all is said and done.

In my book that’s a pretty delicious budget meal. It certainly beats the cost of picking up dinner at the average rotisserie chicken place.
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Why toilet paper was the best thing I got for Christmas this year

The Gift of Necessity is the ultimate care packageWhen I was little, about once a month the most glorious package would arrive at our house. It was from a far-off land called Brooklyn, sent by one of the most magical women on Earth, my Grandma. The excitement was so high that we were required to wait for every member of the family to get home before digging in.
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Evil bedbugs will devour your blood, wallet

Bedbugs are gross, incredibly expensive to get rid ofIt starts small: waking up with a few itchy red bites on your skin, and maybe finding some of their empty shells in your bedroom. But a bedbug infestation can eventually get really, really bad, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars to resolve and potentially torpedoing your home’s value in the process.
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How to get the most out of your HOA fees

What are you getting for your HOA fees?In my neighborhood, which is still being developed, HOA fees aren’t much of an issue. They are small — just $25 a year — and only cover road maintenance.

But other neighborhoods with HOA fees offer a lot more amenities, and charge a lot higher price for them. If you live in such a community, it makes sense to know what you’re paying for, and how to get the most out of those hefty monthly dues.

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FHA loans drop off as housing market recovers

FHA LoanWhile the housing market is far from a complete recovery, it is making progress. The S&P Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Home Price Index rose 12 percent between July 2012 and July 2013, according to the most recent numbers, and just about every facet of the housing market is showing improvement. With the economic situation improving (albeit slowly), more buyers feel comfortable with their options and lenders are more open to extending credit.

With these changes, FHA loans, which had gained in popularity during the Great Recession, are dropping off. More homebuyers seem to be looking to conventional loans.


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 Taxes, The Home 
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The mortgage tax deduction: beyond the hype

House and Money on ScalesOne of the benefits of homeownership that many of us hear about is the mortgage interest tax deduction. After all, how many loans out there provide you with a tax deduction for the interest that you pay? (Student loans and business loans, as well as mortgages.)

But are you really benefiting from the mortgage tax deduction? And is it really something that has a big impact on your finances? As with most matters of personal finance, the answer depends on your own personal situation.


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5 Tips for Selling Your Home Faster

sell home fasterThere is a chance (but just a chance, mind you) that my family could pick up and move halfway across the country. One of the things I am not looking forward to is trying to sell my home.

We’ve been in this home since 2007, and it’s the first home we ever bought. Consequently, it will also be the first home that we sell. And we will probably want to sell it as quickly as we can.

In order to get a little perspective on how to sell quicker, I got 5 tips from real estate consultant Katie McCartney, who works with Cam Taylor Co. Realtors in Columbus, OH:

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