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 

Right now is the best time of the year to buy a home … No really, real estate data says it’s today

If you’re in the market to purchase a home, mark October on your calendar as the best month to buy.

That’s when you’ll get the biggest discount, according to a new study from RealtyTrac, a company that tracks real estate data and trends.

RealtyTrac analyzed more than 32 million single-family home and condo sales across the nation dating back to 2000. The average sales price in October over that 15-year period was 2.6% below the average estimated full market value at the time of sale – better than any other month.

On a $200,000 home, that’s more than a $5,000 discount — more money toward your down payment and more equity in your home.

When you buy, as this report demonstrates, can play a major role in how much home you can afford.

“The start of the school year and the holidays influence our buyer decisions and serve as a strategic indicator of the most advantageous times for buyers to land their lowest-priced deal,” Mark Hughes, chief operating officer with First Team Real Estate, told RealtyTrac.
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 The Home 

I’m into serial refinancing … You should be, too

My husband and I bought our house in 2008, and we’ve refinanced the mortgage three times since then.

Sounds crazy, right? Who would want to go through the cost and hassle of taking out four home loans in just seven years?

We would, and you should consider it, too.

Refinancing doesn’t take much of your time and it can save you a couple of years’ worth of income. You could take that huge savings and retire earlier or put the money toward other major goals.

There’s no reason not to refinance repeatedly as long as you calculate the break-even period and it shows that you’ll likely come out ahead each time.

I say “likely” because it’s never a sure thing.

Your job could get transferred the day after you refinance, and you could end up selling your home unexpectedly.

That’s life, as my dad would say. The best you can do is make an educated guess about how long you’ll keep the new loan.

We were able to go from a 30-year, fixed-rate FHA loan at 6% to a 30-year, fixed-rate FHA loan at 4.5%, then to a 15-year, fixed-rate conventional loan at 3.375% and finally to a 15-year, fixed-rate conventional loan at 2.875%.
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 The Home 

A YouTube video taught me how to fix my oven, saving $1,000 in repair bills and boosting my confidence

My old oven

When my oven went out a few months ago, I put off dealing with the problem.

The appliance looks about 30 years old, so I assumed it was beyond repair and that replacement parts wouldn’t be available.

Because it’s a wall oven, not a freestanding range, my research revealed that it would cost at least $1,000 to replace it with a bottom-of-the-line model.

How depressing.

I only use my oven about once a week, so the payback period seemed too long. There are other things I’d rather spend $1,000 on.

I made do by learning how to cook the things I used to make in my oven on the stove, in the toaster oven or on the grill. I even found recipes for baking bread in a crock pot.

I decided that when my husband and I finally undertook the kitchen remodel we’ve been coveting since we moved in, we would get a new freestanding range and solve the problem.

But that’s about five years off.

Then I decided to research my oven’s symptoms online.

I found information on common oven problems at I knew from having my father-in-law and the gas company examine my oven that even though the electric starter was glowing, it was probably too old to create enough heat to ignite the gas burner.
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 The Home 

Some surprising help turned my long search for new windows into a low-cost (or lower-cost) reality

I was clicking around the Groupon app one evening on my iPad when I ventured beyond the food and drink deals I normally scout to ones for home services.

I expected to find discounted housecleaning, not a significant savings on windows and installation.

But two months later, five new vinyl replacement windows graced our condo — purchased in part with a $1,999 Groupon.

My husband and I had been eyeing new windows for the rear of our home for some time.

When our century-old Chicago home was rehabbed in 1984, the majority of its windows were “updated” with aluminum windows.

Thirty years later, they were a struggle to open. If you did manage to push one up, it wouldn’t stay up.

The pane would come crashing down the second you let go of it. On every aluminum window, the balance — that handy mechanism inside a window that keeps it open — was kaput.
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 The Home 

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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 The Home 

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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 The Home 

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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 The Home 

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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