How to DIY Your Taxes — and Not Miss a Single Deduction

Tips on choosing tax preparation software to help get all the homeowner benefits.

Ready or not, the tax man’s coming. Filing your taxes yourself may not be your idea of a fun night at home, but even so, it doesn’t really have to be that bad. Yes, even if you own a home. Even if you itemize your deductions. Even if you’re scared of making a mistake.

We turned to the tax pros and nailed down their top tips to make DIY tax filing as easy and painless as possible — as well as how to ensure you don’t miss any possible deductions. Here’s what they said:

Pick the Right Software

Unless you qualify for a free version (more about this below), software prices are all over the place. Still, you get what you pay for. TurboTax is pricey at almost $60 for the Deluxe version, but both our tax experts agree: If you’re going the DIY route, it’s their favorite option.

“It’s user-friendly,” says Cathy Derus, founder of Brightwater Accounting, who, despite being a CPA, admits she’s used the program herself in the past. “It offers an online questionnaire. Then, it walks you through exactly what you need to do.” That questionnaire does a good job of helping you identify possible deductions.

But it’s not fail-safe, she added. It’s only as good as the information you feed into it.

To really make sure you’re aware of all possible deductions, get a copy of Form 1040, Schedule A, (and Schedule C if you’re a sole proprietor for your own business), says Derus. Then, “scan the forms and take note of any items you think you might be eligible to take.”

If you’re a homeowner, here are some examples of deductions you can take:

Mortgage interest
Property taxes
Some costs of buying a new home
Some costs of selling a home
For a full list of your possible homeowner deductions, go here.

Free Software Can Be Ok, Too

If your adjusted gross income is below a certain threshold — typically $62,000 — you may qualify to use one of about a dozen free software options. TurboTax has a free option, but its income threshold is lower at $31,000. H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and TaxACT also have free versions.

Some companies also impose other restrictions, such as age and state of residence, to qualify for a free version. That’s because for some firms, the free offering is a way to find clients who might be willing to pay for other services.

Watch for extra costs:Some companies will file your federal return for free, but then charge you for the state return, to e-file, or ask questions of a live person.

Filing for an Extension Can Be a Smart Thing to Do

If you find yourself butting up against the tax filing deadline, you can always request an extension, “so you’re not stressed out,” says Derus.

Most people don’t fully understand how extensions work, and often make mistakes that cost a bundle. Here’s what you need to know:

How to file a tax extension:

File an extension anytime before or on April 15. You’ll avoid the late filing penalty, which is a whopping 5% of your outstanding balance, due for every month you’ve failed to file.
If you owe money, pay as much as you can by April 15 to avoid the late payment penalty of 0.05% interest. (A whole lot less than the late filing penalty, though!)
Make arrangements to complete your tax filing by the October 15 deadline to avoid adding extra interest payments.
Get the Benefits of E-Filing

You’ve probably already been e-filing your taxes, but are you aware of the benefits?

Why it’s better to e-file:

24 hours after you e-file, you can start checking on your return via the IRS’s “Where’s My Refund” online tool or IRS2Go app.
You’ll get any refund due to you faster.
You’re also more likely to know if you filed your forms correctly, avoiding a scary encounter with the tax man. Because if you e-file, you’ve got to use software. And these programs “run a check for questions that need to be answered, numbers that don’t add up, and missing Social Security numbers,” says Tai Stewart, accountant and owner of Saidia Financial Solutions in Houston. Those mistakes tend to flag your return for a close-up review.

You’ll also wait up to six weeks for your return if you use snail mail.

So, what are you waiting for? “Fill a pot of coffee, and get to work,” encourages Derus.

 

By: Alaina Tweddale

Are There Dangers in Your Entryway? Don’t Get Spooked!

halloween-house-dangers-entryway

Do Halloween Dangers Lurk at Your Entryway? Don’t get spooked. Take this opportunity to be sure you are Halloween safe.

Everyone loves a good scare on Halloween — as long as it’s just a trick.

To help you avoid any real-life scares — such as falls, fires, and traffic accidents — around your property this All Hallows Eve, play it safe while you’re setting up your Halloween lights and decorations.

Here are seven simple precautions recommended by John Pettibone, curator of Hammond Castle, a Gloucester, Mass., mansion that draws thousands to its renowned 20-room haunted house every Halloween season.

1. Light the Scene

Providing plenty of illumination ensures that your visitors can see where they’re walking, helping to avoid missteps and falls. Pettibone suggests using the highest wattage bulbs your outdoor lighting fixtures can safely take (check the label on the socket), and adding landscape lights every few feet along your front walk.

“We use the solar-powered kind because there’s no wiring needed,” he says. “Just push them into the ground, let them soak up the sun during the day, and they’ll light up the walk after dark.”

2. Secure the Footing

Clear your walk, steps, and stoop of any obstructions that could trip youngsters focused more on tricks and treats than watching where they’re going. That means moving potted mums and jack o’lanterns out of the way, and hammering down any nail heads protruding out of your steps.
If you have a concrete stoop, which can get slippery when wet, apply friction tape ($16 for a 60-foot roll of 1-inch-wide tape) to ensure stable footing, says Pettibone. He also stocks up on chemical ice melt ($20 for a 50-lb. bag) just in case of an early freeze.

3. Tighten the Railings

If your porch railings are wobbly or broken, family members and friends may know not to lean too heavily on them, but Halloween visitors won’t. So hire a contractor or handyman to fix the problem. It’ll make your home safer for guests all year round. Because more strangers come to your front door this night than the rest of the year combined, now is the time to take care of it.

4. Eliminate Fire Hazards

Don’t put real candles into your carved pumpkins or paper lanterns. “That’s a fire waiting to happen,” says Pettibone. Instead, pick up a bulk pack of LED-bulb faux candles, which emit a yellowish, flickering, battery-powered light that looks amazingly similar to the real thing — without the danger.

5. Secure your Property

To prevent burglaries and Halloween pranks — especially on mischief night the previous evening — make sure to keep all windows and doors (other than your main door) locked shut.

You might have an electrician add motion-sensor lights around your property, so anyone who walks down your driveway or around into the backyard will be discouraged from intruding any farther.

6. Set the Scene

In addition to spooky items like cotton cobwebs and half-buried skeletons, consider a few safety-related scene-setters. Pettibone suggests propping open the screen or storm door so it doesn’t get in the way when there’s a big group of kids congregated on your stoop. “We use yellow caution tape to tie open the door,” he says. “You can order it online and it works well with the Halloween theme.” A 1,000-ft. roll of 3-inch-wide caution tape is about $8.

You’ll also want a working doorbell, so if yours is broken, either hire an electrician or handyman to fix it — or install a wireless doorbell in its place.

7. Enhance Street Safety

Four times as many child pedestrians get killed on Halloween night than a normal night. So limit the danger as much as you can by clearing parked cars off the curb to allow better visibility and placing a reflective “watch for children sign” at the edge of the road. For for high-traffic roads in Halloween-intensive neighborhoods, consider posting an adult in the street with a hand-held traffic control light to help maintain safety.

Should You Be Worried if Your Mortgage Is Sold?

has your mortgage been sold?

You open your mail and you receive a (another?) notice that the mortgage for your home has been sold to another financial institution. You know to send your monthly payment to another address and your mortgage statements now come from a different company. But should you be worried?

The process of applying for and maintaining payments on a mortgage can be complex — primarily because of what happens behind the scenes. To make it even more confusing, the company that originally lent you the money to buy your new home will likely sell your mortgage to an investor. This is called the secondary mortgage market.

What’s the secondary mortgage market?

This is where investors — such as Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, pension funds, hedge funds, other mortgage companies, and banks, for example — purchase assets or loans, including mortgages, as well as the bonds that finance these assets.

While lenders tend to hold high-balance loans in their portfolio, they usually sell most mortgages because that’s the easiest way a lender can generate cash to make new mortgages. Without the secondary mortgage market, lenders wouldn’t be able to originate as many mortgages as they do.

Investors like snapping up mortgages because they’re backed by a tangible asset that you can see and touch, and that builds value over time — your home. Generally, house values go up, but in the event that they don’t and a borrower defaults, the equity in the home, or your down payment, is intended to cover this loss. This is why most lenders restrict a mortgage’s loan-to-value ratio, or LTV, to 80% of the house value.

Does this sale affect me, the borrower?

Yes, and it starts at the application process. But you shouldn’t be worried; it’s nothing you haven’t probably already heard about, especially if you’re been doing your homework. (And law protects you from abuses by the new owner of your loan).

For a lender to be able to sell in the secondary mortgage market, the loans need to meet the requirements of the investor buying them; it makes sense that investors are willing to pay more for higher-quality mortgages.

In essence, mortgages are underwritten so that they can be sold for the best possible price. This is why underwriting guidelines can be strict and why lenders want to see proof of employment and income to make sure you can afford to repay the loan without stretching your budget.

The interest rate you’re offered also reflects the price that investors will pay for your mortgage — and lenders use all kinds of info such as credit score and debt-to-income ratios to determine your overall mortgage-worthiness (read: likelihood of repayment). It’s easier to sell a mortgage in the secondary market when an investor is confident the borrower is unlikely to default.

What happens to borrowers who can’t repay?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) works to protect someone who is struggling to pay the mortgage. Even though a new company now owns the loan, this company still has to follow standards to collect on a delinquent mortgage. To prevent servicer abuses, servicers are required to reach out to borrowers to help them solve the problem through options such as a loan modification or short sale before foreclosing on a loan. Servicers are also required to inform borrowers about interest rate changes and balances, for example, so that there are no surprises.

Will the terms change once my mortgage is sold?

Mortgages can be modified, but not unless the borrower and lender both agree on the new terms. The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which also is enforced by the CFPB, prohibits lenders and servicers, as well as any subsequent companies that own your loan, from changing the terms of your mortgage without your consent.

Unless you ask that the interest rate or another term on the note be changed and the lender or new owner agrees, or you agree to a change the lender or new owner proposes, the new owner of your mortgage can’t make any changes.

Still confused?

Call or text me, Lucy Garber, at (310) 293-4866. With over 20 years in the real estate industry, I understand how real estate financing works.

11 Ways to Create a Welcoming Front Entrance for Under $100

11 Ways to Create a Welcoming Front Entrance for Under $100

Whether you are getting ready to sell your South Bay home, or you just want to love coming home, wouldn’t it be nice to approach your home’s entrance with a grin instead of a grimace? Take our tips for beating a clear, safe, and stylish path to your front door.

First impressions count — not just for your friends, relatives, and the UPS guy, but for yourself. Whether it’s on an urban stoop or a Victorian front porch, your front door and the area leading up to it should extend a warm welcome to all comers — and needn’t cost a bundle.

Here’s what you can do to make welcoming happen on a budget.

1. Clear the way for curb appeal. The path to your front door should be at least 3′ wide so people can walk shoulder-to-shoulder, with an unobstructed view and no stumbling hazards. So get out those loppers and cut back any overhanging branches or encroaching shrubs.

2. Light the route. Landscape lighting makes it easy to get around at night. Solar-powered LED lights you can just stick in the ground, requiring no wiring, are surprisingly inexpensive. We found 8 packs for under $60.

3. Go glossy. Borrow inspiration from London’s lovely row houses, whose owners assert their individuality by painting their doors in high-gloss colors. The reflective sheen of a royal blue, deep green, crimson, or whatever color you like will ensure your house stands out from the pack.

4. Pretty up the view. A door with lots of glass is a plus for letting light into the front hall — but if you also want privacy and a bit of decor, check out decorative window film. It’s removable and re-positionable, and comes in innumerable styles and motifs. Pricing depends on size and design; many available for under $30.

A way to get the look of stained glass without doing custom work or buying a whole new door: Mount a decorative panel on the inside of the door behind an existing glass insert, $92 for an Arts and Crafts-style panel 20-inches-high by 11-inches-wide.

5. Replace door hardware. While you’re at it, polish up the handle on the big front door. Or better yet, replace it with a shiny new brass lockset with a secure deadbolt. Available for about $60.

6. Please knock. Doorbells may be the norm, but a hefty knocker is a classic that will never run out of battery life, and another opportunity to express yourself (whatever your favorite animal or insect is, there’s a door-knocker in its image).

7. Ever-greenery. Boxwoods are always tidy-looking, the definition of easy upkeep. A pair on either side of the door is traditional, but a singleton is good, too. About $25 at garden centers. In cold climates, make sure pots are frost-proof (polyethylene urns and boxes mimic terracotta and wood to perfection).

8. Numbers game. Is your house number clearly visible? That’s of prime importance if you want your guests to arrive and your pizza to be hot. Stick-on vinyl numbers in a variety of fonts make it easy, starting at about $4 per digit.

9. Foot traffic. A hardworking mat for wiping muddy feet is a must. A thick coir mat can be had at the hardware store for less than $20. Even fancier varieties can be found well under $50.

10. Go for the glow. Fumbling for keys in the dark isn’t fun. Consider doubling up on porch lights with a pair of lanterns, one on each side of the door, for symmetry and twice the illumination. Many mounted lights are available well under $100.

11. Snail mail. Mailboxes run the gamut from kitschy roadside novelties masquerading as dogs, fish, or what-have-you to sober black lockboxes mounted alongside the front door. Whichever way you go, make sure yours is standing or hanging straight, with a secure closure, and no dings or dents. The mail carrier will thank you.

For more tips about maintaining your house, getting it ready for sale, or how to be a prepared buyer, check back at my blog, or call me at (310) 293-4866.

Lucy Garber
Living in and selling homes in the South Bay for over 20 years
DRE 01100090
RE/MAX Execs Real Estate
LucyGarber1@yahoo.com
LucyGarber.com

Torrance Water Conservation – Level 2 Regulations

water-hose-lawn-restrictionsTo meet the statewide mandate, the city of Torrance and California Water Service Co. adopt much stricter provisions to cut water usage. The cuts are intended to help slash water usage statewide by 25 percent.

On May 5, 2015, the Torrance City Council approved activation of Level 2 water requirements due to the severity of the drought and to meet the new state regulations. This measure includes limiting sprinkler use on landscaping to 10 minutes between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. two days a week, fixing leaks within four days, and restricting the refilling of ponds and pools.

Torrance residents reached only a 5 percent reduction from June 2014 through February.

Torrance Water Conservation Ordinance
Level 2 -Water Use Requirements and Regulations
Calls for up to 30 percent water use reduction

  • No outside watering from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Outdoor watering limited to two days a week for 10 minutes per area or irrigation station
  • Fix all leaks within four days
  • No watering 48 hours after rain event
  • Certain restrictions on filling and refilling of pools, spas and ponds
  • Provides for administrative rules to implement the ordinance
  • Permanent Requirements In Effect at all Times
  • No excessive runoff from outdoor watering
  • No washing of exterior surfaces
  • No washing of vehicles with “open hose”
  • All water features must have a re-circulating system
  • Restaurants to use water conserving spray valves
  • Restaurants to serve water only upon request
  • Lodging business must provide option not to launder linens daily

Remember the 2-6-8-10 Plan
2 Days a week
6 PM – 8 AM Watering Times
10 Minutes/area (watering station)

Cal Water serves Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Carson and portions of Torrance, with cuts of 16 to 20 percent are targeted.

Source: Daily Breeze and City of Torrance website.