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The Rural Broadband Gap Is Exposed as Students Move to Online Courses

In the blink of an eye, the educational system did a 180. While students have been adjusting, families and teachers certainly have as well. This rapid transition has exposed many elements in the educational system that have room for improvement, but the most notable findings are the broadband gaps in rural areas.

Millions of people don’t have reliable broadband — including 20 percent of rural students — which is causing a huge issue amongst pupils, putting a halt in their learning process that is out of their control. As the country responds to the COVID-19 outbreak, the disparities between rural communities and larger cities are more noticeable now than ever.

“A new BroadbandNow report estimates there are 42.8 million people in the U.S. lacking competent broadband access…”

In addition to switching the traditional class environment to an online system, many employees are now working remotely, and many health-related issues are being addressed primarily via telehealth. The advancement of technology in today’s modern world is guiding the way during this pandemic and assisting in integrating some normalcy as we work through these difficult times. Although these solutions thrive in urban and suburban areas, that is not the case for more rural regions where millions of Americans reside.

As we continue to integrate technology into our lives and are highly reliant on it now, there is a concern about the lasting impacts on millions of Americans without reliable internet. While a 2019 report by the FCC estimated that 21.3 million Americans lacked broadband access, a new BroadbandNow report estimates there are 42.8 million people in the U.S. lacking competent broadband access. With this nearly doubled new estimate and the need for reliable technology during this time, it’s transparent how damaging insufficient internet access can be for these citizens, who risk falling behind without it.

For those who live in more urban and suburban areas, the concept of unreliable internet will likely cause you to scratch your head. But not only are there areas with spotty service, there are also areas where neither cable nor DSL internet is even available. Many schools all over the country have confirmed they will be closed for the remainder of the school year and solely teaching classes virtually. This is troublesome for students in these rural areas, as it will be impossible for them to successfully log into their classes and get a step closer to graduation.

Nora Medina, a high school senior in Washington, lives 7 miles outside of her small town of Quincy and has zero access to the internet at home. She works around the extreme inconvenience by using her phone or attempting to hook up to her family’s hot spot but doing only one minor task can take triple the amount of time it normally would. She shares with Wired, “I’m just going to hope the hot spot works and wish for the best for my final quarter. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do my work from my car in the parking lot at the library to access their Wi-Fi.”

Can you imagine your car being the most convenient and reliable location to get work done?

“I don’t think there has ever been a moment where everybody understands the profound role that broadband plays in our nation’s life. This is no longer a matter of commerce, it is a matter of life and death.”

At this time, if students aren’t able to complete their lessons online, there are no other options. Therefore, this results in falling far behind the curriculum, which again is completely out of their control. In addition to students not being able to attend virtual classes, those who are concerned with their health aren’t able to utilize the increasingly popular option for health-related services and information: telehealth. As the distribution of crucial information and resources becomes only accessible via the internet, we are seeing more clearly how these technology-driven platforms are not a reality for rural America — where nearly 60 million people live.

Many small (and large) business owners have been shifting their focus to help support those in need during this pandemic while doing their best to keep their business afloat. Tom Egan, for example, owner of Craftsmen Mobility, switched gears from building wheelchair lifts to constructing masks, gowns, and face shields to sell to medical centers in NYC. The obstacle here was realizing his utter lack of broadband internet in upstate New York. While he was well aware of his spotty internet in the past, it became a much more serious issue once the pandemic ensued and he had to rely on the internet in order to produce products and get them in the hands of customers and suppliers.

It took Egan years to get a better connection after lobbying and the intervention of his local congressman. Considering the lengths one entrepreneur had to go to in upstate New York, you can only imagine the trouble other households are experiencing when trying to do the same. It’s clear that long before the pandemic began, access to broadband in rural areas was an issue. But now it is in the spotlight as it is a necessity for every citizen, even though a third of rural Americans don’t have access to broadband in their home.

Considering politicians are currently juggling billions of dollars’ worth of stimulus money, this has now become a political discussion. As Abigail Spanberger explains, “I think rural communities are realizing that this is as deep a divide as access to electricity was at the turn of the century, and if politicians want to be attentive to the communities they represent, broadband matters.”

One aspect that many haven’t grasped is the fact that those in these areas without reliable internet have simply been finding workarounds by using Wi-Fi at nearby coffee shops, sharing a friend’s internet, or heading to a local library. Even these inconveniences are intolerable, but now that people are staying home to stay safe, these cumbersome options aren’t even options anymore. As chief executive of the industry association US Telecom, Jonathan Spalter, so directly states, “I don’t think there has ever been a moment where everybody understands the profound role that broadband plays in our nation’s life. This is no longer a matter of commerce, it is a matter of life and death.”

There have been broadband plans in motion, but it continues to be extremely difficult given the US’s dispersed large lands. The time between receiving a grant to provide broadband to a specific region, and the connection being turned on, can be two years.

Handfuls of short-term solutions have been popping up as of late, given the present crisis, although these temporary fixes won’t eliminate potential long-term damage. Some thoughtful temporary solutions from the Morrisville-Eaton district in NY, for students specifically, include filming lessons and uploading them to a flash drive so they can be viewed without the internet, as well as providing students with Verizon hotspots. While these fixes are ideal, they are also expensive, which means most school districts cannot even come close to being able to afford them.

Greg Molloy, the superintendent of the previously mentioned school district, has been reaching out in any direction to put the money together and shares, “We don’t know where the money is going to come from but we know we have to do this for the kids and we will figure out the money situation later.” While these options are resourceful, they’re not a concrete and lasting solution.

A recent study by Michigan State University shows that students with reliable and fast internet at home scored half a grade higher than those without access to the internet, so there is no surprise that teachers are worried about how far their students will fall behind if they don’t have the necessary means to apply themselves.

The pandemic has industries and families scrambling to normalize their life in the interim, and it is bringing the issue of insufficient broadband in rural areas to light. There is hope that the current crisis will cause this issue to climb the priority ladder. The current US presidential candidates are both expressing their pledge to ensure that every citizen will have access to high-speed internet.

What we can take away from this highlighted issue is the urgency to close the digital divide that disconnects so many citizens of rural America. Programs such as USDA’s ReConnect and FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RFOF) are working hard to gain funding and support from private sectors in order to truly assist those in need. ReConnect alone has been awarded more than $600 million to help provide high-speed internet to over 150,000 homes, and RDOF guarantees as much as $20 billion over the next 10 years to fund reliable broadband networks in overlooked rural communities.

By getting these rural areas on the radar and expediting these programs, elected officials/non-profits are extending a hand to students, employees, and employers by connecting them with the necessary broadband capabilities.

A teacher at Maine-Endwell High School in rural NY shares what most of us are thinking — “It is 2020. Internet really should be a utility at this point.”

 

How Will COVID-19 Impact Your Property Taxes?

America has changed drastically over the past month due to the spread of COVID-19. Unemployment rates are up, many businesses are closed, and most kids are doing e-learning at home. In response to these changes state and national agencies have issued stimulus checks and relief funds in an attempt to soften the economic blow on individuals and our nation as a whole.

However, there’s been little discussion about what will happen to property taxes when the country reopens. While some sources speculate that property taxes may, in fact, prove to be the silver lining in all of this and drop when the nation reopens, others worry homeowners won’t see the decrease reflected in their assessments for 3 – 4 years.

What Typically Makes your Property Tax Bill Smaller and How Could COVID19 Impact That?

Your property taxes are largely based on your home’s value, although local government and state officials also have a say in what determines your final property tax rate. So, let’s take a look at how COVID-19 might impact your property tax bill based on those factors.

Your Home’s Value During COVID-19

The value of your home is determined by an assessor that’s hired by your local government. When the assessment goes up, so do your property taxes – and vice versa. That’s why the first thing many property owners do after a larger property tax bill is appeal their assessment if they feel it was unfairly inflated.

COVID-19 has disrupted the U.S. housing market, created higher unemployment rates and an uncertain outlook for many businesses – all of which are likely to create a temporary recession. Historically, home values drop during recessions which should result in lower property taxes.

However, whether or not your home’s value is reassessed is up to your local government. So it’s important homeowners keep up-to-date on their home’s value so they can appeal their home assessment if needed. Financial website fool.com gives a great example:

“What happens if your home values decline as a result of COVID-19 so that your home is only worth $275,000 a year from now? Suddenly, you’re looking at a tax bill of $5,500, provided your home is reassessed. And if your home is not reassessed automatically by your town but home prices in your area clearly decline, you can appeal your property tax bill and potentially lower that burden yourself.”

Property tax assessments in some areas might not take 2020 home value declines into consideration. Kendall County (IL) Assessor, Andy Nicoletti, told the Northwest Herald, “Property tax assessments as of the beginning of this year are based on a three-year sales average, meaning current assessments are being made using 2017, 2018 and 2019 data.”

If you feel that your new tax bill isn’t reflective of the drop your home value incurred due the financial impact COVID-19 had on the economy, Realtor.com explains how to begin the process of appealing. “Your property tax assessment should have an explanation of how to make an appeal on the form you received in the mail.” The article goes on to say, “You can also search for your county or state’s assessment appeals board or department of taxation and finance online. Start by searching for your county plus ‘assessment appeals’.”

Your State and Local Government’s Decision to Provide Property Tax Relief During COVID-19

To recap, your property taxes are based on a combination of your home’s assessed value and the needs of your local government – with the state laying down the guidelines your local government must abide by. For example, the state of California passed Proposition 13 in 1978 capping property taxes at 1%. Prior to that, the average property tax in the state was 2.67%

Many states and localities have put property tax relief in place. Thomson Reuters has an in-depth guide called, “Tax Relief Offered by States and Localities in Response to COVID-19” that can help homeowners to find out if there is property tax relief available to them.

For example, the guide shares that “The State of Indiana ordered all property taxes to remain due on May 11, 2020, however, counties must waive penalties on payments after May 11, 2020 for a period of 60 days.”

Is the Federal Government Offering Property Tax Relief During COVID-19?

The federal government is bringing relief to homeowners, but not in the form of property taxes. Instead the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law on Friday, March 27, 2020 by President Trump, offers a different kind of relief.

The CARES Act helps homeowners who are unable to pay their mortgage due to COVID-19 related financial troubles, foreclosure moratoriums or mortgage forbearances.

A Foreclosure Moratorium suspends or stops your lender from foreclosing (taking ownership back) on your property. A foreclosure typically occurs when you are unable to make the required payments on your mortgage. Foreclosure specifics vary by state.

A Mortgage Forbearance allows you to pause, and sometimes reduce, your mortgage payments for a limited time. A mortgage forbearance does not eliminate your need to repay the missed or reduced payments.

As homeowners, it is prudent to understand what might happen to property taxes in your area and nationally when the country returns to business as usual. And while lower property taxes benefit homeowners in the short term, we should also remember the money collected from property taxes serves as the base of many community initiatives, meaning lower property taxes might be better for the individual but not necessarily for the community.

When to Splurge vs When to Save on Home Improvements

The lines in front of home improvement stores have been nearly as long as grocery store lines lately, as people find different home projects to pass the time while hunkering down inside. Every homeowner has a never-ending list of home improvements they would like to tend to, but often there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to check anything off that list. In addition to a lack of time, there is another large factor: money. Deciding when and where to shell out money on home improvements is difficult and involves cost-benefit analysis across a wide-spectrum of areas.

With all these factors at play, how is one supposed to know when to splurge and when to save?

Splurging here and there is certainly not a bad idea, as there are specific home projects where you won’t want to choose bargain prices over quality. Remember, ultimately increasing the value on your property is the added bonus that comes with thoughtful investments in your home.

With that being said, it’s important to ask the right questions before investing in a project to decide which improvements are worth spending a lot of money on. As you dive into DIY-central while sticking it out at home, consider these cost-effective secrets for a home that doesn’t compromise looks for a budget.

Save: Buy Local

Purchasing materials and appliances from local shops can not only save you money but will help support your community’s local businesses by making them money and help keep them afloat, especially in today’s economic climate. Many assume you’ll find a better price at big department stores, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that’s not always the case. In addition, your local shops will most likely order anything you’re interested in that they don’t have in stock. Save some money while being community and economically conscious: a win-win.

Splurge: Windows

When it comes to features that impact your safety (as well as your utility bills), skimping isn’t the path to take. It isn’t necessary to reach for the most expensive brand name windows but be sure to purchase ones that are well insulated and won’t end up falling apart within a few years. In addition to keeping your heat and/or AC inside where it belongs, energy-efficient windows could score you some energy tax credits and rebates.

Save: Painting

 If you’re looking for a way to jazz up a rather blasé room, painting is the budget-friendly (and best) way to do so. While painting is a rather tedious process, it’s almost too easy to do yourself. Rather than hiring someone to apply some pale green coats to your guest room, spend your weekend in a smock and paint yourself! As far as the price mark on the paint itself, you get what you pay for. So while you can save by painting your walls yourself, you may want to splurge on nicer paint ($30-$40 per gallon) which in the end will require fewer touch-ups and is much less likely to fade or stain over time. You should be able to get small samples of any brand of paint you have your eye on at your local hardware store, so allow yourself to try some different varieties and remember how much you’re saving by not hiring a professional, giving you some wiggle room for the price of the paint.

Splurge: Home Security

You can’t put a price tag on your safety. While you can buy a comical amount of deadbolts at the store, there is no amount of locks and yard deterrents that measure up to an extensive security system. Now that you’re a homeowner, it’s important to take the right precautions to protect your home and all of your belongings inside. Electric alarm systems like Vivint and Simplisafe include a variety of features that benefit you and your family such as an easy to use phone app that allows you to control your security system from anywhere in the world as well as extra attentive customer service.

Save: Wall Shelves

Whether you have a tiny home or a 5+ bedroom house, it seems as though there is never enough space for storage. A great way to utilize space is wall shelving, as opposed to expensive large shelving units, and one of the best things about this option is the affordability. Not only are wall shelves extremely low-cost, but so simple to put up yourself and easy to customize. All you need are some brackets (or opt for floating shelves) and the world is your oyster.

Splurge: New Wooden Floors

New flooring is most definitely expensive, but if taken care of correctly you shouldn’t have to update them again anytime soon, if ever. The average cost of replacing your floors with wood is $5,500 according to the Remodeling Impact Report, so certainly pricey although solid wood floors will substantially increase the value of your home—so much so, that costly investment can potentially recoup around 91% of that cost when selling your home. Lastly, with the extra time on your hands at home, take a stab at installing your floors yourself to cut back on expenses.

Save: Updated Hardware

Finding new hardware such as knobs, handles, and door knockers are some of the easiest cosmetic updates that go a long way. Whether you’re sick of the same drawer handles you’ve had on your dresser for years, or you just scored a great piece of used furniture just begging to be restored, changing the hardware will fool you (and everyone else) into thinking you just splurged on a new gorgeous piece of furniture.

Splurge: Custom-Built Showers

Installing a shower on the cheaper end may seem like a good idea initially, and you may be thinking, I can just cover it with a pretty shower curtain. But some of the many cons of cheaper shower kits are that repairs are difficult, there are limited sizes and styles, and they are not environmentally friendly. Custom-built tile showers don’t share any of those cons. They are eco-friendly – typically made from natural clay as opposed to plastic – and have size flexibility, while increasing your home’s value. The cherry on top: they are much easier on the eyes than their plastic counterpart.

Save: Front Door

If you’re a new homeowner, your jaw will likely drop when you see how expensive a new front door can be—between $1,500 and $20,000 with the installation. The owner of Door Store and Windows, Ann Gregory, shares that many factors play into the cost of installing a new door, but that you’re likely going to spend anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. You will be able to find the same benefits from a door closer to the former amount, so stick to a friendly price tag while keeping in mind you can always add a coat of paint and/or new door number plaques to make your entryway more attractive. Your front door has an enormous impact on your home’s perceived value, considering it’s the first thing guests are seeing when entering your abode. Over the past three years, the most return on investment of any remodeling project is from a new front door, according to a Cost vs. Value report conducted by Remodel, so while even the more budget-friendly options are still pricey that is a great factor to keep in mind.

“Put money into the permanent parts…and go thriftier on interior finishes, which tend to be more ephemeral anyhow.”

There are endless components to consider when renovating your home or even just making small cosmetic updates, making it more important to factor in your budget and balance your priorities before diving in.

As architects, Beth Reader and Chuck Swartz share, “Put money into the permanent parts…and go thriftier on interior finishes, which tend to be more ephemeral anyhow.” One of the many benefits of homeownership is that this is your home, so you are able to reap all the benefits that you provide for yourself, but in addition, these amenities and restorations increase the value of your home. Invest in yourself and enjoy the comfort of your home in the meantime.

If You’re a New Homeowner Don’t Forget to Utilize These Homeowners Tax Credit Programs

While doing taxes isn’t a fun activity for most, deductions can certainly be a valuable part of the process. In addition to the pool of benefits that come with homeownership, such as freedom, stability, and building equity, there are also tax benefits. In 2020, homeowners’ tax credits include mortgage interest deduction, local and state tax credit, and capital appreciation from the qualified sale of your home.

Becoming a homeowner is one of the largest decisions and investments one can make in their life; becoming knowledgeable about the homeowners’ tax credit and tax benefits is crucial in saving you money and being as financially responsible as possible. After taking the plunge into homeownership, take into account these three homeowners’ tax credits that can help you comfortably glide into financial security.

1. Mortgage Interest Deduction

As a homeowner, you can deduct the interest you paid on your home mortgage. Seeing as the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate is 4.072%, and can range up to 8.75% for a 15-year fixed mortgage, these rates can take a toll on your savings account. There are dozens of factors to consider when receiving your mortgage rate, ultimately making it a confusing process. As the president of ArcLoan, Joseph Kelly, explains, “They fluctuate based upon many factors inside the United States and worldwide. Secondly, mortgage rates vary based upon ‘cost.’ On any given day, there are a variety of interest rates available where the borrower may get a lower rate by paying the additional cost or higher rates, which can even include a lender credit to the borrower.”

Kelly continues to share that you are often able to choose between a lower mortgage rate with closing costs, or a higher rate with no closing costs. For example, if you are taking out a 30-year mortgage for $200,000 with $4,000 in closing costs and opt for a 3.5% rate with no closing costs, “…the lender is giving the borrower a ‘credit’ for the closing costs. Is it worth paying approximately $4,000 to save an additional $69 per month in this example? That depends on how long you expect to be in the property and what you expect interest rates do in the next few years.”

Taking all these factors into account isn’t always easy, but with the right resources, you can make the best decision for you and your future.

Once you have chosen the right mortgage, you can take advantage of the interest deduction, along with the estimated 13.8 million homeowners in the previous tax year. There are new rules put into place by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which passed in the winter of 2017 and will be in effect until 2025. The number one change that occurred was announcing a new cap on the amount of mortgage debt you can bear before your interest isn’t fully deductible. Previously, you could deduct mortgage interest on loans up to $1 million and now you can only deduct interest on loans at a maximum of $750,000. In other words, if you bought a home that called for a mortgage exceeding $750,000, you won’t be able to deduct the full amount of interest paid. Another change enacted is that mortgage interest is no longer deductible on a second home under any circumstances, even if you are under the $750,000 limit on your main home. While this will possibly make it more challenging for families looking to purchase vacation homes, they may be able to cushion those extra payments by renting out their additional home for a portion of the year. If you rent your second home out for less than 2 weeks during the year, you can even take the rental income tax-free, no matter how much you’re charging your guests.

Having the ability to deduct your mortgage interest is one of the most appreciated benefits of homeownership, especially because taxpayers who aren’t homeowners have no comparable option to deduct the interest they paid on debt acquired to purchase goods and/or services.

2. Local and State Tax Credit

 With homeownership comes property taxes. Homeowners can potentially deduct their property taxes on a local and state level. Those who itemize deductions can deduct state and local real estate and personal property taxes, as well as either income taxes or general sales taxes.” The TCJA now limits the total local and state tax deduction to $10,000, or $5,000 if married filing separately. The idea behind this property tax credit is that by transferring federal funds to the local or state municipality, local jurisdictions will have the ability to raise and impose new taxes without it being a fiscal hardship to its community.

There are two types of property taxes, so it’s important to understand what category your property, or properties, fall into. There are property taxes for real property and for personal property. Real property taxes, often just referred to as property taxes, applies to property that cannot be moved, including land and anything that is permanently attached to it. Property such as homes, barns, and garages fall into this division. These property taxes are either paid directly to your local tax auditor annually or calculated into your monthly mortgage payment. To determine your real property taxes, you multiply the value of your home by your local tax rate. If the number you’re seeing seems much too high to you — don’t just sigh and ignore it. You can file an appeal with your local tax office if your home is valued higher than you believe it should be.

As for personal property taxes, they are imposed on property that can be moved, such as cars, RVs, boats, planes, and mobile homes. Taxes on these properties are typically paid each year when you renew your registration and some states (about half) in the U.S. charge a personal property tax. If you happen to live in a state which does, it is based on the current value of the said property. There are a variety of ways to lower your property tax bill, such as visiting your local tax office to inquire about property tax appeals, reviewing your property tax card, and of course, tax breaks.

While paying property taxes can be a huge burden for homeowners, you can rest easy knowing that not only will you be deducting that when you file your taxes, but you’ll also be directly helping your community afford new projects and services that benefit everyone — including you.

3. Capital Appreciation

Last but certainly not least, homeowners can receive a tax benefit from the sale of a property. Within the last five years, if you’ve lived in your home for two of those, you don’t have to pay any tax on the profit of the sale as long as it is below $250,000 for single people or $500,000 for married couples.

While any home improvements made to enhance your property, such as updated appliances, a basement renovation, or a new roof, can’t be deducted, they can be used to help improve the value of your home and in turn the price you sell it for. If you’ve been dying to have a shiny new kitchen drenched in marble, keep in mind it is essentially a win-win in the end. In addition, these enhancements can allow you to increase your cost basis, which would eliminate some (or all, depending on the price of your home) profit you have to claim if you can prove you spent a certain amount in qualified home advancements over time, so be sure to hang onto any receipts for your home improvements. As Steven Weil, an agent and president at RMS Accounting, says, “When your cost basis is higher, your exposure to the capital gains tax is lower. Remodels, expansions, new windows, landscaping, fences, new driveways, air conditioning installs — they’re all examples of things that can cut your capital gains tax.”

Your cost basis includes the price you agreed to pay for your property as well as some settlement costs such as title fees, legal fees, recording fees, survey fees, and any stamp or transfer taxes paid. Ideally, your cost basis will include as many of your expenses related to your property as possible because it will lower your tax liability in the future.

If you’re looking to avoid capital gains tax on the sale of your home, there are a few ways to do so. Considering you must live in the house you’re selling for at least 2 out of 5 years, it’s a bit of a hurdle for house-flippers. Christopher O’Neal, a public accountant at Nealson Group in Florida, shares, “The two years don’t need to be consecutive, but house-flippers should beware.” O’Neal continues to explain that if you sell a home in less than a year it can get pricey as you could be subject to the short-term capital gains tax, which is substantially higher than long-term capital gains tax. Lastly, if you sold your house due to work, health or “an unforeseeable event, ” the IRS may give you an exception.

Homeownership is the American dream and the financial weight doesn’t need to steer you away. It’s important to keep in mind that owning a home is a huge investment. Not only are you building equity, but with these tax credit programs, you’re saving money in the end. By renting instead, you’re tossing money away and eliminating a heap of tax breaks, so say goodbye to your landlord and hello to your new welcome mat.

7 Secrets to Lower Your Property Tax Bill

As we ease our way into spring, most of us have likely already finished (or at least started) our taxes for the 2019 calendar year. While it’s certainly not a thrilling activity, the relief of being done with this annual to-do is satisfaction enough to make up for the trying process. Considering these payments cost the average American household $2,127 a year, everyone can probably agree that paying property taxes isn’t a shining benefit of homeownership, but the good news is that there are a handful of ways to lower your property tax bill — more specifically, 7 ways.

“It’s only human to feel tense when approaching your property taxes for the first time, especially as a new homeowner — but it doesn’t have to be scary or break the bank.”

With these 7 secrets to cutting down your property taxes, you’ll forget how much you once dreaded Tax Day.

1. Understand Your Tax Bill

 The first step when approaching your property taxes is to really understand what you’re paying for. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’re overpaying, so it is important to understand how your municipality calculated the total on your bill. While it can be confusing, with the right resources you can be a tax professional in no time. Property taxes are determined by the current market value of your property and the tax rate, which is based on state law. These tax rates are set by municipalities built on what services need to be attended to, such as road construction and the salaries of municipal employees.

As for the estimated market value of your property, an assessor determines that by either coming to your home or handling the property assessments remotely. You’ll then receive your property tax bill from your local tax collector’s office. To get a better understanding of how your bill reached the total amount you’re seeing, you can break down the math. In order to come up with your tax bill, your tax office multiplies the tax rate by the assessed value. For example, let’s say your property is assessed at $300,000 and your local government has set your tax rate to 2.5%, your tax bill will be $7,500.

2. Get a Private Appraisal

While it may be tempting to steer away from any additional expenses, this is not an area where you should skimp. Hiring an independent appraiser can save you a great deal of money at the end of the day. The professional appraiser will come to your home, inspect it with great detail and provide you with a report that will include every feature of the home with photos, measurements, and compiled information about the surrounding homes in your area. Hiring an independent appraiser allows you to be more present during the evaluation and more involved, whereas if an appraiser is designated by the court, you have little to no control over the assessment.

3. Review Your Home’s Assessment

Once you have this information, whether you hired an independent appraiser or took advantage of the assessor provided by your local government, you’ll want to take your time reviewing the document and carefully look for any disparities. Even the basics can be overlooked, so don’t assume you don’t need to check the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, a finished basement, square footage, etc. Any additional notes on your home’s foundation, structural condition, and amenities such as a swimming pool or garage will also play a factor in your property tax bill, so be sure to take these into account when reviewing your home’s assessment.

4. Speak with Your Local Tax Office

 You’re not expected to know the detailed steps required to cut your tax bill down, but your local tax office is. Contact your local tax person and discuss what measures you need to take, and keep in mind that your goal is to lower your home’s assessed value, not a lower tax rate, as that isn’t going to budge. Asking for a copy of your property’s current evaluation is certainly a great first step to take while setting this process in motion.

5. Introduce Your Case, With Figures

After doing thorough research and determining how low your home’s value can be assessed, you can revisit your tax office and present the extensive facts and information in a cohesive and efficient manner. Compiling all necessary information will save you and your tax person time, so be sure to arrive organized with the corresponding documents, pictures, and other important elements. You’ll likely have to fill out some forms and then you’ll be on your way to lowering your tax bill.

6. Limit Home Attraction

When tax assessors stop by to evaluate your home, they have rigorous guidelines to follow, but there is still plenty of room for personal decision making. Considering that’s the case, you should avoid any tidying up or cosmetic alterations to your home prior to your evaluation, despite how counterintuitive that feels. As Investopedia explains, “…more attractive homes often receive a higher assessed value than comparable houses that are less physically appealing.”

The tax assessor is essentially comparing your property to those surrounding you, so let’s say your neighbors have a very primped yard whereas yours could use some TLC — this will likely actually work in your favor, as the evaluation does involve some subjectivity.

7. Find Comparable Properties

 Finding homes and properties that are comparable to yours will assist you and your tax assessor in identifying an accurate value for your home. Your “comp,” which is short for comparable sale, is simply a recently sold home in your neighborhood that is similar to yours in features, condition, location and size.

When your assessor stops by to evaluate your home, they will find their own comps to guide them to accurately determine your home’s value. By finding around five or so comparable properties that have recently sold, either on your own or with the assistance of a realtor, you’ll get a more accurate idea of what your home value is, and in turn, the lowest possible property tax bill. As Zillow explains, “Even if the assessments are similar, if you can show that the comparable properties are superior to yours, you may have a case for relief based on equity. Maybe your neighbor built an addition while you were still struggling to clean up storm damage. In that case, the properties are no longer comparable.”

It’s only human to feel tense when approaching your property taxes for the first time, especially as a new homeowner — but it doesn’t have to be scary or break the bank.

With these 7 lesser-known secrets, you can breathe a sigh of relief that you’re not overpaying on your taxes. As for the amount you do have to pay, it helps to remember the slew of beneficial services your money is assisting within your new neighborhood, such as streets, roadways, public safety, and more. Whether it is just you, you and some furry friends, or you and your family moving into a new home, enjoy the perks of homeownership without pinching pennies when it comes to Tax Day.

Moving Hacks to Make Your Transition Toward Homeownership That Much Easier

You did it—you bought a house! As new homeowner Kashif Khan shares, “When you’re creating a dream home for your family it has to be perfect—nothing less will do.” After the extensive process of finding the perfect dream home, now you’re finally ready for the big move.

Taking that huge step towards homeownership is the toughest part, although the transition and moving in itself isn’t always the easiest process, either. With these moving hacks, you’ll seamlessly ease into being a homeowner and become comfortable in your new city and home in no time at all.

1. Update Your Address

Surprisingly, this step gets overlooked often. It’s hard enough to remember to scribble your new address on upcoming paperwork rather than your old one, but it’s also important to set up mail forwarding at your local post office. Between important bills and subscriptions, it’s essential that companies and people you trust can find you when they need to. You can pop into the post office to grab a small form to fill out, or you can even head over to the website here to set yourself up for mail forwarding in just a few easy steps. You can even pick the date you wish to begin receiving mail at your new address, so no need to remember this on the first of the month when you have enough tasks on your plate.

2. Take Photos of Connected Electronics and Assembled Furniture

Taking apart each of your electronics and pieces of intricate modern furniture is a chore itself, but remember how tough it was to connect and set them up in the first place? To save yourself some time (and sanity), snap a few photos of your connected electronics as well as assembled furniture to help give yourself a visual to work towards when setting them in your new home. It’s unlikely you hung onto the manuals, and even so, doubtful that they will successfully survive the move.

3. Schedule Home Repairs And/Or Improvements

As a new homeowner, there are a variety of repairs and home improvements that are best taken care of prior to moving all of your trinkets into place. Whether you have a leaky window or would just prefer a softer shade on the wall, scheduling these appointments to take place either before you arrive or within the first week will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. Ideally, the move-in day will just involve moving your items into your home, and not electricians in and out of your backdoor with their tools scattered about.

4. Set Up Utilities

Another often forgotten task: canceling and/or transferring utilities from your former home. If you were previously living in an apartment with utilities included in your monthly rent, setting up new accounts for your water, gas, and electricity could easily slip your mind. If you handled the utility bills at your last home, it can only take a few minutes to transfer your accounts to your new address. As the beginning of the month is the most popular time for moving, giving utility companies a call in advance will help you avoid days without hot water.

5. Take Inventory of Your Valuables

Whether you’re moving down the street or across the country, packing up all your beloved possessions can cause some anxiety. A great way to keep track of all your valuables is to take inventory of your belongings. This doesn’t need to be a grueling process. Taking some photos of each item with quick descriptions will suffice. On the off chance something gets lost or broken in the move, this allows you to be aware of what the item was, the original condition, and the next steps to take regarding insurance.

6. Research Local Resources in Your Area

With a new city comes a long list of exciting places to explore. Upon arrival, or perhaps in the weeks leading up to the move, take some time to research nearby businesses, health professionals, public transportation, restaurants, and markets so you’re not a complete stranger when you settle into your new street. If you’re moving to a quaint town, this probably won’t take too long as there is most likely one go-to for each category, but if you’re in a more populated region, this research could take some more digging. In addition to jotting down the necessities, take note of local groups as a great way to get to know your community. This can set you up for success in your new location and you might just find some of your new go-to spots soon after moving in!

7. Set Up a Spare Key

If you’ve lived in apartments or condos for the majority of your life, you’ve had the advantage of being let in by a friendly next-door neighbor if you misplaced your keys. Now that you’re a homeowner, you no longer have that option. We all get locked out every now and then, and rather than waiting for the elusive locksmith to arrive or hoisting yourself into the window (alerting nearby neighbors), position a lockbox on your gate or near your door to safely keep a spare key.

8. Test Your HVAC System and Detectors

Another new factor to take into consideration as you enter the life of homeownership is ensuring that all your smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, furnace, and A/C if you have it, are in working order. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are imperative to keeping you and your family safe, so be sure to check they have new batteries and are working well as soon as you begin settling into your new home. Just popping in some batteries won’t be a true test, so perhaps try lighting a match near the detector to double-check it is working. The same goes for your HVAC system. Considering these units are quite possibly the most expensive feature of your home, you’ll want to be well aware of any issues prior to moving into your house.

9. Keep Up with Home Maintenance

Without a landlord to be handling standard maintenance, you’ll want to organize a way to keep up with any issues and updates on a regular basis. Especially with the change of seasons, you’ll need to keep up with tasks such as shoveling snow, cleaning out gutters, plumbing issues, landscaping, etc. You can either handle these tasks on your own or hire a professional to get the job done for you. Either way, keeping an organized checklist of what needs to be done on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis will ensure you have the right resources at your disposal after a big storm and seasonally, too.

10. Find Your Elected Officials

As you get settled into a new community, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the city council and your local representatives. Looking into town meetings is a great way to get acquainted with your new community and become a part of potential solutions, but you can also find your new representatives easily by heading here. This website, Common Cause, will help you find your state and local elected officials, how to contact them, committees they serve on, specific bills they have introduced, and more.

While moving is stressful, it is also very exciting! With these simple tips, you’ll avoid dozens of headaches and ensure you have a smooth transition into homeownership.

Amongst getting situated in a new neighborhood, maneuvering the new title of homeowner, and the endless unpacking, you’ll most likely feel like your head isn’t screwed on straight, at least for a little while. But if you utilize these few tricks and take a couple of deep breaths, you’ll be settling in and hosting your housewarming party in no time!

Have You Been Dreaming of Becoming a Homeowner?

As you get older, you’ll start to notice everyone around you starting to check all the “boxes”, i.e. finding a partner, settling down with a career, and buying a home. It’s easy to assume dreams of homeownership are unattainable to you for a variety of reasons. Whether it is heaps of student loan debt, hesitancy to commit, or simply a lack of the right resources at hand, these hurdles can feel overwhelming at times, but the longer you wait, the longer you’re putting off the plethora of benefits that come with long-term decision making.

It’s time to take this dream of homeownership off the backburner and make moves, both figuratively and literally.

1. Your rent will only continue to rise

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that rental prices are on the rise across the nation. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment hiked 4.2% in 2018 and studio apartments rose 5%, according to The Apartment Guide 2019 Annual Rent Report. A sales associate with ReMax, Bill Golden, shares, “If you’ve seen your rent escalate significantly but you feel trapped renting, it means the balance may be tipping toward buying. With today’s escalating rental rates and low (mortgage) interest rates, chances are your monthly outlay could be less on a purchase than on a rental.” While continuously tossing money at your landlord for your rental unit, it makes it nearly impossible to save towards your goals. In order to start investing in your future and build equity, you have to take the plunge into homeownership.

2. Average home prices are predicted to rise by $9,000 this year

Home prices tend to increase over time, but NAR expects the median price of existing homes to increase by 3% in 2020. That brings the nation’s average home of $269,600 up to $278,599. Senior economist over at NAR, Gay Cororaton, predicts this based on historical data going as far back as 1999. She explains that this shows the “average month-over-month change in median existing-home sales price changes throughout the year.” Keep this in mind while you balance the pros and cons of homeownership — if you wait until next year, you’re likely to pay more.

“If you’ve seen your rent escalate significantly but you feel trapped renting, it means the balance may be tipping toward buying.”
3. Build wealth

Owning a home is one of the biggest steps you can take towards increasing your net worth and building your equity. Many factors over time will help contribute to your home equity, such as the value of your home rising, renovations made both to the interior and exterior, and making your monthly mortgage payments on time. Rather than handing off all of your monthly housing costs to a landlord, you will now be saving a portion each month considering your newly forced savings. The equity you build can assist you in the future, whether it be for retirement, saving for your children, or the possibility of moving into a larger home or even purchasing an additional home.

4. Security and freedom

Being a homeowner offers a great sense of security as well as freedom. You’re welcome to paint your walls as you please and let your furry friends roam wherever they’d like, without any pricey pet deposit. The days of waiting for your landlord’s approval on something as trivial as a new doorknob are over when you own your own home. You want to feel comfortable and safe in your house, considering throughout our lives we spend 33 years in our beds! The elimination of inspections, neighbor’s loud week-day parties keeping you up, and the overall lack of control in your building will allow you to feel more at ease in your own home; your safe place. The idea of having to move is an immensely stressful concept, in fact it often makes the list of the top 3 most stressful events in one’s life. The comfort of settling into your home provides stability and most likely means you won’t be moving anytime soon, so get comfortable — you’re finally here to stay! 

5. Tax breaks

After the slew of expenses that come along with purchasing a home, it’s nice to know there are benefits coming your way. One huge benefit being tax breaks. Both the interest and property tax portion of your mortgage is a tax deduction. As long as the balance of your mortgage is less than the total price of your home, the interest is 100% deductible on your tax return. Considering your interest is the biggest chunk of change when it comes to your mortgage, this is a gigantic relief. In addition to mortgage interest, homebuyers also receive a tax break when it comes to property tax, especially first-time homebuyers. Real estate property taxes paid for your first home, as well as a vacation home if you’re so lucky, are deductible for income tax purposes. You can find more information on tax breaks for first-time homebuyers in IRS Publication 530. 

6. You won’t always have a monthly payment

If you’ve been a lifelong renter, this may sound like a foreign concept, but believe it or not, one day you won’t have a monthly housing payment. Unlike renting, you will eventually pay off your mortgage and your monthly payments will be funding other (possibly more fun) things. Even if your mortgage payments are a bit steep, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Each of your mortgage payments are knocking down the price of your home, and you can even use the equity to fund your next house. While you do have property taxes to keep in mind, these are typically paid quarterly making it much easier to budget and far less of a headache.

7. Predictable costs

 As a homeowner, your monthly costs are most likely based on a fixed-rate mortgage, which allows you to budget your finances over a long period of time, unlike the unpredictability of renting. Especially if you’re living in an up and coming neighborhood, you don’t have to wake up in fear of being shooed out of your neighborhood by a big real estate company buying your building and raising your rent, or the countless amount of other circumstances that could increase your annual rent.

The dream of homeownership will always be a constant. Between more privacy, security, flexibility, financial stability, and pride, being a homeowner has endless benefits. Renting is a great option for many, but it doesn’t offer tax incentives, fixed costs, or building of equity, so while it is an easier option to start with, it won’t present prosperity for your future.

The question often asked is: when is it the right time to take that step? Your future is waiting for you, so maybe the real question is: why haven’t you taken the step towards homeownership yet?

Take Inventory of Your Belongings Before a Disaster Strikes

As a homeowner, your abode is your pride and joy, and considering how hard you’ve worked to get to this point, how couldn’t it be? After spending countless months—let’s be honest, years—decorating and curating your home, you want to be sure everything is accounted for in case a disaster occurs. Surprisingly, only around half of homeowners have a home inventory, based on a poll from the Insurance Information Institute. This rate has stayed rather stagnant over the past decade, and it’s time for that to change.

Disasters don’t give us a warning. Without a home inventory, you would have to file every single one of your possessions immediately after experiencing something truly awful. Not to mention any forgotten items will be gone forever. Public insurance adjuster David Moore offers some insight when sharing, “You can lose thousands of dollars because you didn’t include everything.”

Documenting all of your belongings certainly may seem like an intimidating undertaking, but with the right assistance and resources it can be totally manageable. As of March 2019, natural catastrophes caused an estimated $52.3 billion in losses in the U.S. With only half of Americans proactively taking inventory, that is a lot of sentimental possessions being unaccounted for. So, if you’re wondering if it’s worth it to make a home inventory list—the answer is yes.

Sure, you may have a good idea of what you own, but are you aware of the value of all your assets? It can be difficult to put a price on everything you have accumulated over your lifetime, which is exactly why documenting everything is so essential to be fairly reimbursed if you suffer losses from any natural or man-made disasters. A woman who lost her home after the devastating Tubbs Fire, Alice Plichcik, shares, “You don’t realize how much you have lost until you try to replace everything.”

Here are six steps to help make the process of inventorying your belongings as easy as possible.

1. Handle One Room at a Time

 Baby steps are key here. On the bright side, this process may give you the push you need to declutter a bit. When beginning to take inventory, choose one room or a section of your house at a time. Starting this process is the biggest step, so take your time! Try focusing on one area of your home a day, or even a week, to make it seem less stressful and overwhelming in the long run.

2. Start with Bigger Items and Work Your Way to Smaller Items

As cherished as your bookshelves and crammed closets are, starting with your more expensive and larger items will make this task more tolerable. Your big ticket items will need the most amount of attention and time, so it’s best to get those out of the way first so the remaining items seem more approachable to catalogue.

natural disaster

3. Organize Your List by Category

Keeping this list organized is crucial. It is hard to comprehend how many items you own until you’re writing them down and all of a sudden your list has reached page 20. In order to keep this inventory document as organized as possible, try listing your valuables by categories such as electronics, furniture, etc.

4. Get a Little Help from Your Phone

 You’re not alone here, and becomes very clear when you start to look into the variety of apps created to help homeowners take inventory of their belongings. If you’re looking to speed things up, give Encircle a try. With this app you’ll focus on one room at a time by quickly snapping some photos of your space and then going back to add details on individual items. Another noteworthy app is Nest Egg, which will cost you $4 for the full version, but is well worth it. While it will take you longer to enter in all of the details of your things, it offers benefits such as giving you a heads up that a warranty is nearing expiration, or that something on loan is due back soon. Both of these apps, and most that are offered, are password protected so there is no need to fear your private information getting out.

5. Use Photo +/ Video

A video is actually an excellent option if you are worried about how tedious this process will be. Taking a detailed video of each room in your home will help jog your memory if there is anything you’ve missed. Additional details such as serial numbers and/or model numbers for expensive pieces is important to jot down but a video is a great start, or alternatively you could take a more in depth video and get a close-up shot of these details on your items. If you hung onto a receipt for an item, you can even get that on the video as well to be reimbursed for the exact price. Many insurance companies accept this type of recording during a claim—some even prefer it. If you’re choosing this route, just double check that your insurance company accepts a video, like State Farm does for example. Photos are also very helpful in keeping things cohesive when putting together a list. Many apps previously mentioned allow you to insert photos along with the details of the object to help keep things organized.

inventory

6. Keep a Copy (Somewhere Safe!)

One advantage to using an app or a Google Doc rather than a list is that it is secure in the cloud or your drive. If making a list on another program on your computer, be sure to put a copy on an external hard drive and keep it in a safe spot.

Life happens, and unfortunately, disasters do as well. If you’re responsible and proactive when it comes to your beloved possessions, then there is no reason to live in fear of potential damage. Whether you’ve lived in your home for 50 years or are just beginning your homeownership journey, you can start your home inventory list today and prepare for your future. As the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, Robert Hunter, says, “The whole idea of insurance is to make you whole, not under-pay you or over-pay you.” Your home inventory is something you will continue to work on as you obtain more belongings. Once you get started, the rest will come easily. Anytime you splurge on a new electronic, or upgrade a worn out appliance, just be sure to update your list so you’re always prepared for the worst. Don’t put off a task now that you’ll certainly regret later.

Live Better for Less in Up-and-Coming Cincinnati

If you’ve been pondering taking on the midwestern lifestyle while still enjoying the lively and hip ABC’s of the city, then take a one-way trip to Cincinnati. Within the past few years, this city has climbed the charts and made its way onto everyone’s radar; both millennials and families are flocking to this bustling city, and with good reason. While the city’s population suffered a bit in the early 2000’s, it is making its way back up each year. In 2018, 12,249 millennials moved to the Queen City and families are equally attracted to Cincinnati considering its strong job market, good school system, and low cost of living.

Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine district, now has a streetcar that allows quick and easy access from neighboring towns to downtown, while offering a fun and unique mode of transportation. If you’re looking to stay active Red Bike, the cities shared bicycle system similar to Citi Bike, has over 50 stations in the metro area. The district’s thriving art and bar scene has also expanded rapidly with a handful of new performing arts venues, community driven events, breweries, and restaurants. If you’re a fan of beautiful parks, impressive bridges, and scenic views of the river, your Cincinnati vacation will quickly involve a lot of home browsing and job searching.

“Over the next 35 years, the city is going to see a 10% growth.”

 It’s rather clear by now that where millennials flock to sets the momentum for that area’s future.  As a SmartAsset report states, “Where millennials decide to move has enormous impact on local markets, from the cost of a mortgage to whether or not you will be able to find a good avocado toast in your neighborhood.” Pew Research Center supports this information as well, when estimating there are around 71 million millennials in the States and they’re expected to surpass the number of baby boomers in 2019. With the huge influx of millennials in Cincinnati, it’s clear that the growth of the city is staying at a steady pace. Tomasz Stepinski, a professor of space exploration and geography at the University of Cincinnati, explains that he mostly sees urban growth in the area. Over the next 35 years, the city is going to see a 10% growth. In other words, there will be about 200,000 new people in the area.

Downtown Cincinnati

With population growth comes an abundance of conveniences and that is proven in Cincinnati, as U.S. News says, “Although Cincinnati is often perceived as a sleepy Midwestern metro area, residents benefit from a wealth of amenities, including museums, professional sports teams and a wide selection of restaurants.” The list of venues, galleries, and restaurants in the Queen City is extensive, and new businesses are popping up overnight. Between The Contemporary Arts Center, 1c Museum Hotel Cincinnati, and 5th Street Gallery, you’ll have a day packed full of inspiring art. The influx of immigrants during the late 19th century encouraged the city to become culturally diverse which manifested quickly into the city’s food scene. So once hunger strikes, indulge in one of the many restaurants the city has to offer such as Japanese Gastropub and sushi bar, Kaze, lively Italian-European restaurant The Mercer, and classic Cincinnatian restaurant, Revolution Rotisserie. Last but not least, line up for the coveted Graeter’s Ice Cream as a night-cap.

The Cincinnati Region is a national hub for employment in careers ranging from hospitality to biohealth and is certainly on the rise. With nearly 10 Fortune 500 companies based out of the city, it’s almost hard not to find a job. Not to mention Cincinnati’s startup growth rate is among the fastest in the Midwest. If you have a million dollar idea you’ve been holding onto, this city may be the perfect place to make moves, especially with the low cost of living to support you as you flourish. With a medium home price of $130,000 alongside a very low average commute time of 24.5 minutes, you’re bound to keep your finances up as well as your happiness. The Cincinnati Region’s real estate market is 40% lower than the national average, so what’s stopping you from buying a home in this up and coming city? As The Cincinnati Experience says, “Live better for less in the Cincinnati Region.”

The Cincinnati Region’s real estate market is 40% lower than the national average, so what’s stopping you from buying a home in this up and coming city?”

We’ve established the growing millennial population in the city, but families are settling down in the region as well, which in part has to do with the excellent school system. The city’s school district ranks among the nation’s top 10. Indian Hill Exempted Village School District in particular ranks as the number one school district in the region and is known for weaving creativity and learning with facilities that are continually improving. Whether you have a crowded dinner table of children or are thinking of starting a family, Cincinnati is a leading place for your kids to receive an education. With a small student to teacher ratio, thriving sports programs, a variety of extracurriculars, and high enrollment growth, there is something for every student.

Whether you’re a midwesterner at heart or thinking of slowing life down in the middle of the country, Cincinnati is the perfect balance between city and country. Say goodbye to your overpriced mortgage, your long commute time and say hello to your new home in Ohio. Have your belly ready to indulge in delicacies such as goetta, a pan-fried patty similar to sausage, catch a Cincinnati Reds game, and simply relish in the carefree lifestyle this midwestern up and coming city has to offer.