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April 30, 2009

Term life insurance, what's up?


Here's something I don't like:

I hear that rates for term life insurance policies at some major carriers are rising.

Term life nsurance has been one of the best bargains around for years. I hope this isn't a major turnaround.

Anybody out there shopping for life insurance and wants to share the experience with me? I plan on writing about it soon.

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April 28, 2009

Teens: Summer Jobs are hard to find

Summer jobs for teens are going to be so, so hard to find.

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The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas this week said that it might be the worst summer for job gains since the 1950s.

Last summer was bad, too.

And you see it. There are plenty of earnest teens who can't find something. And who won't be spending much as a result. Teen retailers know this.

Some suggestions for increasing your teen's odds of finding a job:

-Think beyond the mall. There are jobs outside the confines of what teens would buy in distributing, warehousing and other behind-the-scenes players.

-Don't go where all your friends already went and got turned down. This seems to make sense. But not necessarily to teenagers.

-Don't let it be. Don't wait for the phone to ring. Give the potential employer a few days to evaluate your application, and then check back. Do this in person, not by email.

-If all else fails, Challenger suggest finding some rewarding volunteer work for the summer. At least your teenager will get some community service hours which are needed for Florida Brtght Futures scholarships to college.


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April 27, 2009

Confidence is on the rise

Floridians’ consumer confidence in April hit the highest point in more than a year.
The index jumped 6 percentage points to 71, the University of Florida announced this morning.

What it reflects: A huge 15 percentage-point jump in an underlying index that measures perceptions of whether this a good time to buy a big-ticket item, such as a car, a boat or even a house.

A rise in consumer confidence might be a sign that consumer spending will soon rise as well.
“We haven’t had any big, bad events lately and there are some positive things, like the stock market rally,” said Chris McCarty, director of survey research at UF's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

And he notes that housing prices are stabilizing at a low level, which he says has contributed to consumers’ improved spirits.

According to the Florida Association of Realtors, the median home sales price statewide in March was almost $10,000 higher than in January. In 2008, prices were falling month to month for almost the entire year.

McCarty noted that the lowest rating ever for Floridians' consumer confidence was last June at 59. "Perhaps we really have seen the bottom," he said in a statement.

The last time the index topped 70 was in February 2008, when it reached 73.



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Loan modifications, what you need to know

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Everybody's talking about loan modifications.

So here's my report, a commentary I did the other day on Nightly Business Report on PBS.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/video/?slug=sfl-brackey-protect-home-042409-vid

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April 24, 2009

Credit Cards: Are you kidding?

Are you hearing the industry's reasons for not wanting any more limits imposed on credit cards?
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Here's from TheStreet.com:
"I think people are recognizing that the dilemma of credit card companies is that if they don't charge a certain rate, they'll go out of business," said Jim Cramer on Thursday's "Stop Trading!" segment on CNBC.

What, they can't make money unless they have things as they are? The prime interest rate is 3.25 percent but the average variable-rate credit card is charging 10.78 percent. That's not enough room for a little profit? And who, frankly, is paying that average rate? A lot of people are paying more, much much more.

The veiled threat from the industry: Rein us in and we'll cut your credit.

I have a few choice responses to that. What's yours?


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April 22, 2009

Avoid Foreclosure. Help available today

Lenders and housing counselors are ready to talk to troubled borrowers today. The Free Hope Now Foreclosure Prevention Workshop takes place at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 2 to 8 p.m. You can meet representatives of 23 major lenders and loan servicers - from Chase, Citi, Countrywide and others. Also there, HUD-trained counselors to help you through the process. Learn about new programs for modifying troubled loans. Session is free and open to all South Florida borrowers. Seminar will take place Thursday, too.

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Timely Advice: Avoid Mortgage Fraud

I like these tips, published this week by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
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Remember that in Florida upfront fees for loan modifications are illegal -- unless you are consulting with an attorney. Other "mortgage rescue" companies can't charge you beforehand.

Here are some excerpts from the OCC press release

If you’re falling behind on your mortgage, others may know it, too — including con artists. They know that people in these situations are vulnerable and often desperate. Potential victims are easy to find: mortgage lenders publish notices before foreclosing on homes.

If someone offers to negotiate a loan modification for you or to stop or delay foreclosure for a fee, carefully check his or her credentials, reputation, and experience, watch out for warning signs of a scheme, and always maintain personal contact with your lender and mortgage servicer. Your mortgage lender can help you find real options to avoid foreclosure. It is important to contact your mortgage lender early to preserve all your options. There are legitimate consumer financial counseling agencies that can help you work with your lender.

Common Types of Schemes

Foreclosure “rescue” and refinance fraud. The con artist offers to act as an intermediary between you and your lender to negotiate a repayment plan or loan modification and may even “guarantee” to save your home from foreclosure. You may be told to make mortgage payments to the schemer directly — along with significant, up-front fees — and be told that your payments will be forwarded to your lender. In reality, the con artist may pocket your money and leave you in worse shape on your loan. The person also may tell you to stop making payments or stop communicating with your lender. Don’t follow that advice.

Remember that your mortgage lender should be the starting point for finding options to avoid foreclosure. You also should consider contacting qualified and approved credit counselors.

Fake “government” modification programs. Unscrupulous people may claim to be affiliated with, or approved by, the government or may ask you to pay high up-front fees to qualify for government mortgage modification programs. While government-supported mortgage modification and refinancing initiatives are legitimate, the con artists’ claims are not.

Keep in mind that you do not have to pay to benefit from these government programs. All you need to do is contact your lender or loan servicer.

The con artist’s name or Web site may be very similar to those of government agencies. The schemer may use such terms as “federal,” “TARP,” or other words or acronyms related to official U.S. government programs.

Leaseback/rent-to-buy schemes. In this type of scheme, you are asked to transfer the title to your home to the con artist, who will, supposedly, obtain new and better financing and/or allow you to remain in the home as a renter and eventually buy it back. If you do not comply with the terms of the rent-to-buy agreement, you will lose your money and face eviction. The agreement may be very hard to comply with, because it may require, for instance, high up-front and monthly payments that you may not be able to afford.

In fact, the con artists may have no intention of ever selling the home back to you. They simply want your home and your money.

Remember that transferring your title does not change your payment obligations — you will still owe your mortgage debt. The difference will be that you will no longer own your home.

If payments are not made on the mortgage, your lender has the right to foreclose, and the foreclosure and any other problems will appear on your credit report.

Bankruptcy schemes. You may have heard that filing bankruptcy will stop a foreclosure. This is true — but only temporarily. Filing bankruptcy brings an “automatic stay” into effect that stops any collection and foreclosure while the bankruptcy court administers the case.

Eventually, you must start paying your mortgage lender, or the lender will be able to foreclose. Bankruptcy is rarely, if ever, a permanent solution to prevent foreclosure.

In addition, bankruptcy will negatively impact your credit score and will remain on your credit report for 10 years.

Debt-elimination schemes. Con artists may claim to be able to “eliminate” your debt by making illegitimate legal arguments that you are not obligated to pay back your mortgage. These schemers will provide you with inaccurate claims about applicable laws and finance, such as that “secret laws” can be used to eliminate debt or that banks do not have the authority to lend money.

Do not stop making payments on your mortgage based on their claims.

Resources for protecting yourself:

Report suspicious activity to relevant federal agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, and to your state and local consumer protection agencies. Reporting con artists and suspicious schemes helps prevent others from becoming victims. If your complaint or question involves a national bank and you cannot resolve it directly with the bank, contact the OCC’s Customer Assistance Group by calling (800) 613-6743, by sending an e-mail to customer.assistance@occ.treas.gov, or by visiting www.HelpWithMyBank.gov.

Contact a legitimate housing or financial counselor to help you work through your problems.

To find a counselor, contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at (800) 569-4287 or (877) 483-1515, or go to www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hccprof14.cfm.

Call (888) 995-HOPE, the Homeowner’s HOPE Hotline to reach a nonprofit, HUD-approved counselor through HOPE NOW, a cooperative effort of mortgage counselors and lenders to assist homeowners.

Visit NeighborWorks America’s Web site at www.nw.org/network/home.asp.

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April 20, 2009

Free Mortgage Help for South Florida borrowers in trouble

If you're in trouble and afraid of losing your home, help is available this week. An influential coalition of lenders and loan servicers is holding a Foreclosure Prevention Campaign in Miami Beach. The event is free and open to anyone in South Florida.

If you go, you can meet a HUD-trained counselor or a representative of any of 23 major mortgage lenders including Bank of America, Wachovia, Wells Fargo, Chase and more.

How often does your lender come to you? Or talk? All I hear about is the difficulty people have getting anyone who can respond to their needs.

I'd say get there early.

When the same coalition held a similar workshop in Atlanta, 3,200 people showed up, according to a spokesperson. They might get twice as many in hard-hit South Florida.

The details:
Free Hope Now Foreclosure Prevention Workshop
Wednesday April 22
Thursday, April 23
2 to 8 p.m.
Miami Beach Convention Center

Lenders who will be there:

American Home Mortgage
Aurora Loan Services
Bank of America
Carrington
Chase
Citi
Countrywide
EMC Mortgage
GMAC/Homecomings
Home Loan Services/First Franklin
HSBC
IndyMac Bank
Litton
National City
Ocwen
Saxon
Select Portfolio
SunTrust Mortgage
Taylor, Bean & Whitaker
Wachovia
Washington Mutual
Wells Fargo
Wilshire

The sponsors:

Hope Now is an industry alliance of mortgage services, investors, counselors and others involved in foreclosure prevention. It supports the Homeownership Preservation Foundation's free hotline to help homeowners, 888-995-Hope or 4673.
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NeighborWorks America is a network that is involved with more than 230 community development groups.

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Hate your credit card? Beginning to like the economy?

Good news of the day:

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A group of important economists said this morning that the recession is starting to slack off. The National Association for Business Economic survey, which has been going on since 1982, showed the lowest ever reading for industry demand and capital spending four months ago. Now, the indicators are looking better. Not falling at the same rate. Maybe getting down to the bottom of the V in this economic free-fall.

Other good news: The Obama administration, which must be filled with crisis junkies, has found a new disaster it needs to fix: Credit card abuses. Hurray! This one is never going to be resolved by the private sector or by new Fed rules that don’t go into effect until next year. Let’s get going. Consumers need credit cards that work with them. And banks need consumers to be able to pay these debts.

What particular aspect of your credit card bugs you the most? Tell me. Let's make a list of worst business practices. Things cards should never do.

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April 17, 2009

Paycheck: Perking Up

Paycheck news: f you’re feeling a bit more flush, let me explain why.jde0035.jpg

In the first three months of this year, the median weekly earnings of the 100.4 million still-employed full-time workers around the nation went up. The increase was no great shakes. Just a 2.6 percent rise over the year before, said the Bureau of Labor Statistics Thursday.

But, that came at a time when there was no inflation. None. So workers got a real 2.6 percent increase in pay.

The trend has been going on for six months. In the final quarter of last year, wages rose 4 percent, while inflation was up just 1.6 percent. Workers' real pay rose 2.4 percent.

This is a reversal of recent history, in which paychecks were losing ground. Because as wages went up, inflation went up faster. For example, in the third quarter of 2008, wages went up 3.6 percent but inflation rose 5.3 percent, so real wages fell by 1.7 percent.

That meant you and your paycheck had less purchasing power. More money didn’t add up to much at all. It left the impression that there’s never enough.

With low to no inflation, any perk up in pay is feels good. And it makes a difference in your well-being.

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April 16, 2009

Watch your paycheck, Closely!

Did you notice a little bump in your paycheck?

Anyone who is part of a double-income couple better watch his or her paycheck closely. This boost now may cost you next April 15

Here's why: Employers started using a new withholding table by April 1. In one of many recent tax law changes, Congress decided to give wage earners an up-to-$400 per person cut in payroll taxes. The plan was to get this money into workers' hands quickly and out into the economy. Rather than wage earners waiting until next year to file their taxes and get the benefit of this tax cut, the plan was to take less out of paychecks starting now.

But, the new withholding tables in some cases cut too much. If that happens to you, you'll have to pay it back next year.

The tax and accounting business of Thomson Reuters looked at the new tables and found that for a husband and wife who both work and who each earn $75,000, the new tables might mean a cut of $1,228 cut in payroll taxes. But their maximum new tax credit is only $800. So next year, they'd have to pay the extra $428 back.

Thomson Reuters says others who might have too little tax withheld include people who work two jobs, people who receive taxable pension payments and teens or others who are claimed as dependents on parents’ or others’ tax returns.

What to do?

If you think you don't have the right amount of tax withheld, look at IRS Publication 919, How Do I Adjust My Tax Withholding, says CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business and a provider of tax, accounting and audit information.

This new tax break isn't available to everyone. It begins to phase out for those whose adjusted gross incomes are more than $75,000 for singles and $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns.

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April 15, 2009

Tax, get help here

Still looking for tax help?

Here's a list of resources. And below the list are my answers to your recent tax questions.

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An easy place to go for help is www.irs.gov. You can also call 800-829-1040 until 10 p.m.

And in South Florida, the Internal Revenue Service and volunteers working with United Way are still offering free income tax preparation to households that have an income of $42,000 or less.

Here's where to go to get help:

First United Bank
1700 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.
Fifth Flooor
West Palm Beach
9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

West Gate Beacon Center
West Gate Elementary School
1545 Loxahatchee Drive
West Palm Beach
5 to 8 p.m.

Vickers House South
3801 Georgia Ave.
West Palm Beach
1 to 8 p.m.

Vickers House North
811 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.
West Palm Beach
9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Lindsey Davis Sr. Community Center
1550 28th Ave.
Riveria Beach
5:30 -8:30 p.m.

Palm Beach Habilitation Center
4522 Congress Ave.
Lake Worth
5:30 - 9 p.m.

Tamarac Community Center
8601 W. Commercial Blvd.
Tamarac, FL 33321
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Minority Development & Empowerment
3075 W. Oakland Park Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33311
9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Minority Development & Empowerment
1350 N. Powerline Road
Pompano Beach, FL 33069
9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

YOUR QUESTIONS AND MY ANSWERS

Dave, you wanted to know exactly where on the tax form you can account for that additional standard deduction to offset property taxes for homeowners who don't itemize.

You should check the box on line 39c, Michael Dobzinski at the IRS says. The amount gets added to the standard deduction on Line 40. It would be smart if you first went through the standard deduction worsheet that is included in the instructions for the 1040.

Arthur, the best place to get an extension form is online.

Form 4868 is right on the home page of the Internal Revenue Service at www.irs.gov. Print it out and send it in, to get six extra months to file your return. You must pay your taxes, though, by April 15, to avoid interest and penalties.3178351.thl.jpg


James, it's too bad about your new car. You bought it just before the law changed and a nice new tax break was available.

But you're not totally out of luck.

Here's the deal: The law now gives you a chance to take a deduction for sales and excise taxes paid on the purchase of a new car, light truck, motor home or morotcycle, up to a purchase price of $49,500. This is for vehicles and motorhomes purchased "after" Feb. 16 and before Jan. 1, 2010.

You told me you bought your Hyundai on Feb. 14. But hold on.

This new tax break is for 2009 taxes, the one that will be due April 15 next year. And it's a nice break, because people can take it againist their taxable income, even if they don't itemize their deductions.

For 2008 taxes, the ones due tomorrow by midnight, taxpayers in Florida and a handful of states that don't have state income taxes can deduct sales taxes instead. You can use an IRS estimate of sales taxes paid during the year on all sorts of consumer goods and you can add to that estimated amount the actual sales tas you paid for a vehicle bought in 2008.

This is an itemized deduction. That makes it a bit more limited, because not everyone itemizes.

But still, it's a deduction.

Next year, it appears that you'll have to make a choice. You can pick whether to use the older "instead of state income tax" itemized deduction or the new, non-itemized deduction for vehicles bought in 2009 after Feb. 16.

Joanne and Jacqueline, don't pay outrageous tax prep fees, even though time is short.

Joanne, anyone who wants you to pay $87 to fill out an extension form is robbing you. You can get Form 4868 for free. You can download a copy from the Internal Revenue Service web site at www.irs.gov. You have to pay your taxes on time, but you can file this form to get an automatic six-month extension. Just fill it out and send it in.

Jacqueline, somebody asked you for $200 to do Form 5405 for the new homebuyers tax credit. That's exorbitant. It's a one-page form that doesn't even have 10 lines for you to fill out. See if you can do it. $200 is a lot of money for one page.

Bill wanted to know at what income level does that Earned Income Tax Credit become available?
It's a refundable tax credit for low-income families and individuals. For married filing jointly and with no qualifying children, the top income level for the EITC is $15,880.

And, how much would it be?
That person could get a maximum of $438.

As a result of the new Making Work Pay tax credit, Glenn said his company told him that more will be withheld from the paychecks because of the new withholding tax tables, resulting in less to take home

That's the opposite of what the government is saying.

It's supposed to be less.

Because you'll be getting a tax credit for the first 6.2 percent of pay up to $400, they should be withholding less so that this $400 goes into your pocket this year, instead of you having to wait.
That was the point.

Here's from an IRS news release:

For people who receive a paycheck and are subject to withholding, the credit will typically be handled by their employers through automated withholding changes in early spring. These changes may result in an increase in take-home pay.

David asked at what level does the Making Work Pay credit phase out.

Not everyone gets this extra credit. It phases out for taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income in excess of $75,000, or $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.


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Credit cards, we don't know the terms

When you're paying, you know how much you're paying, right?4100872.thb.jpg

No.

And when it comes to credit cards, when something goes wrong, like a late payment, would you know how long that will hurt your credit?

Nope.

A survey out from TrueCredit.com, a unit of TransUnion, says we're really not well informed at all.

The poll by Zogby International was an online survey of 2,557 adults taken earlier this month. It showed:

Most people have no idea what's a normal interest rate on a credit card. Fully 84% said they don't know the current average interest rate on a credit card. It's 13.6 percent, Bankrate.com reports.

More than half (or 54%) don't know how long a late payment will remain on their credit report. The answer is seven years.

Oh, and, 90 percent believe a credit score is included on a credit report. It isn't. Generally, you have to pay to get it in a separate report, while you can get a credit report for free once a year.

Dismal as the report is, it's a giant flashing arrow to the lesson of the day: Get your credit card facts straight. A little bit of knowledge will help you select the best deal out there.

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April 13, 2009

Taxes: The latest

In case you missed it, my latest story, about taxes.


http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/custom/consumer/sfl-tax-season-wrapup-c041209sbapr12,0,4071355.story

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April 10, 2009

Book Review: The Retirement Challenge

Are your dreams of retirement gone?
No. No. Don't let that happen.

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You can get there. The question is, when you do, will you Sink or Swim? That's what my friend Frank Armstrong III asks in his new book, The Retirement Challenge (FT Press) that he's written with securities attorney Jason Doss.

Frank, a certified financial planner and investment manager, and Doss, who represents clients who have disputes with the financial services industry, have put together a plain-spoken guide that respects your basic intelligence about your own money.

They give you the facts to support your own decision-making. But when a choice is a bad one, they say so.

I first got to know Frank because a long time ago he published a very good investment book online, for free, that anyone could download. "My marketing technique was to supply lots of useful information to the masses. It worked," he says in a new release. He manages more than $400 million.

He's honest, he's straightforward like a former fighter pilot would tend to be and he makes sense.

An example from the book is their discussion of whether to pay off a home mortgage in retirement. Lots of people want to do this. Frank then discloses that if you were his client, you'd be withdrawing your money from his firm's accounts and therefore he'd earn a smaller fee for managing it. So his financial incentive would be to say no, don't take the money.

But he lays out the pros and cons for you to choose. "The answer to whether you should pay off the mortgage depends on how comfortable you are with financial leverage and how much leverage you are willing and financially able to bear."

Credit card debt? Get rid of if Annuities inside an IRA? No. If you're living paycheck-to-paycheck before retirement, don't take a lump sum distribution for your pension.

Good, solid stuff. Excellent book.

The only thing I don’t like about this volume is its online companion web-stie, which comes across as gimmicky. Every web user has preferences and this site to me isn’t as easy to use as it should be.

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Financial meltdown: Picture this

It's hard enough to understand this financial crisis, much less get a picture of it in your head.

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But some folks have tried. Good magazine sponsored a contest asking people to d describe how our financial system managed to blow up. Take a look at some of their graphics here:

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April 9, 2009

Obama, Financial Advisor-in-Chief

President Barack Obama seems to be comfortable telling Americans how to handle their personal finances. A while back, didn't he say it was a good time to buy stocks? And today, he says it's a good time to refinance your mortgage.

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This in from AP: "Speaking at the White House, Obama on Thursday emphasized that that average rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have dropped to 4.78 percent. That is the lowest rate on record.

Said the president: "People can really take advantage of this."

(Note to the Chief: When Freddie Mac later on announed the weekly average, it had popped upt o 4.87 [ercemt.)

It's still good rate and it might even go lower in weeks to come.

This chance to grab low rates may not come back around again for a while. At least, while our Financial Advisor-in-Chief is in office.

I wrote about the rush to refinance two weeks ago. You can have a look at my story here:
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/home/sfl-flzrefi0328sbmar28,0,8300.story

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April 8, 2009

The credit card industry vs. the rest of us

If this is not the time for credit card reform, then when?
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That's the question Kathleen Day of the Center for Responsible Lending asks in this very intelligent article from CNNMoney. It's an update on the efforts in Congress to write some rules for credit card companies that are also reasonable for borrowers. Right now, the deck is stacked against consumers.

If you'd like to know how this is faring on Capitol Hill, you should read this: http://money.cnn.com/2009/04/07/news/economy/credit_card_protections/index.htm?postversion=2009040713

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April 7, 2009

Foreclosure: Are you about to fall?

Think you're in trouble with your mortgage?

Here's a quiz that can help. Take this "Mortgage Reality Check" from the National Foundation for Consumer Credit Counseling. It'll tell you whether it's time to worry.

http://www.housinghelpnow.org/MortgageQuiz.cfm

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Foreclosure: Coping in Tough Times: Help with mortgages

Every week, Personal Finance Writer Harriet Johnson Brackey answers your questions about handling the economic downturn. Submit your questions in the form at the right.


I know I’m in trouble with my mortgage. What can I do to protect myself from foreclosure?

First, “prioritize your bills,” says Mary Hurlburt of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of South Florida. “Your mortgage is more important that your cable, more important than options on your telephone, more important than eating out. You cannot maintain your lifestyle if your mortgage is in jeopardy.”

Next, call you lender and discuss your options. You might be able to refinance or get your loan modified if you’re behind on the payments or negotiate a forbearance agreement, in which lenders could suspend payments for a month or two.

If you have an adjustable rate mortgage, you may qualify for a new loan at today’s low fixed rates. But you have to qualify. If you find out that your credit score would prevent you from qualifying, work on increasing it.

“Lenders are willing to help people but you do have to be tenacious,” said Jessica Cecere, president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Palm Beach County/Treasure Coast. “It’s not one call, it’s several.”

If your lender cannot or will not work with you, get a federal housing counselor involved.
The number is 1-888-995-4673.

Those counselors, too, are dealing with a tidal wave of housing troubles, so, again, be persistent.

Harriet Johnson Brackey can be reached at hjbrackey@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4614.

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Job-Hunters, here's where to look

If I were job hunting, where would I go? Not to real estate related firms, of course. They're not hiring and as an industry, they're losing money.job-seeker-circling_~GOV084.jpg

So who is hiring?

That's probably the companies making money.

Sageworks, a financial analysis firm that specialize in private company data, gave me this list of five industries with high profit growth rates in the last year. They're healthy and they might be a good target for your job search.

1. Accounting and tax service firms
2. Specialized freight trucking companies (Such as, refrigerated trucks or flatbed trailers) .
3. Other Health practitioners (Not MDs, but chiropractors, physical therapists, etc)
4. Dentists offices
5. Beer, wine and liquor wholesalers.

Each saw profits grow more than 17 percent in the last 12 months. Sales grew between 5 and 11 percent.

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April 6, 2009

What are you looking for?

Are there really signs that the economy is hitting bottom?

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So tell me, what are they?

What would make you feel like the pressure on your personal finances has lifted? Being able to eat dinner out every week? Buying a new car?

I'm interested in learning what are your personal economic indicators.

Whether you watch home sales or cereal sales or luxury goods or boat reposessions. Tell me what tells you the direction of the economy.

And which way the signs are pointing now.

Do your see any hint that we are at the bottom?


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Economy: Recovery in Sight?

In case you missed it, here's my most recent story:

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/sfl-economy-recovery-c040309sbapr03,0,2656153.story

Signs of economic recovery in South Florida? No turnaround, but there are glimmers of hope
Economic climate: Some trends to watch

By Harriet Johnson Brackey | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

On Wall Street, the stock market has gone up 12 days out of the last 20. Consumer confidence is up a tick, in Florida and across the nation. Even the housing and auto industries are showing unexpected signs of life.

In the steady downbeat of news about the economy in recession, a few signs of hope have surfaced in recent weeks.

A turnaround? No one expects that from the economy this year. But at least some indicators suggest the economy could be close to hitting bottom, economists say.

It won't be a soft landing. New unemployment figures due out today are expected to show the national jobless figure rising to 8.4 percent, from 8.1 percent. Florida's rate is higher, at 9.4 percent. And despite the recent gains on Wall Street, including Thursday's 216-point rally of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, stocks have only slightly recovered from the dramatic slide that began in October, 2007.


"We may be shedding jobs for a little while," says Chris McCarty, who runs the Florida consumer confidence surveys. "But on the bright side, it does look like the stock market is developing a floor here."

Here are some reasons economic forecasters are beginning to sound more optimistic:


Housing sales rise
The Florida Association of Realtors reported that median home prices statewide rose in February to $141,900, the first monthly uptick in six months. In February, the number of existing single-family homes sold in Broward and Palm Beach jumped by 39 percent and 33 percent, respectively, over the year before.

The spike in sales is fueled by lower South Florida housing prices, which, on average, are about 45 percent below the peak in 2005. "A couple of months ago, nobody wanted to buy, at any price virtually," said economist Brad Hunter of MetroStudy.

Interest rates have dropped and first-time home buyers and bargain-hunters are becoming active.

Michael Arno, 33, thinks it's time to buy.

"I'm getting ready to start a family, and renting doesn't work any more," he said. "There are a lot of great buys out there."

Arno, who performs cardiac sonograms at JFK Medical Center, hopes to snap up a home in West Boynton for $75,000 less than he would have paid last year.


Stocks moving up
Typically, the stock market rises before a recession ends. Stocks had a great run in March – climbing 21 percent over a two-week period.

Rick DuPuis, president of Royal Capital Management in Boca Raton, which has $65 million under management, said "things are starting to look a little wee bit up." But he notes that normally stocks will bounce around the bottom before truly turning around.

Even after the recent surge, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, at 7,978.08 – its closing Thursday – remains well below its peak.


Consumers
The three-point rise in Florida's index of consumer confidence in March was a surprise, considering Florida is in a "deep recession," according to Economist Antonio Villamil, dean of the School of Business at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.

McCarty didn't take the boost in the confidence index as a sign of things to come. But he did note that the spirits of Florida's many retirees tend to fluctuate along with the stock market that they watch closely. "When it goes up, they feel good."

McCarty expects the confidence level to continue to go up and down, by a few points either way, until the economic and political news shows a clear trend toward the positive.


Carmakers hopeful
A slight rise in auto sales for March cheered beleaguered automakers, which are still selling about 60 percent fewer cars than the average for recent years.

"It's one month in a row, and it's of interest and there may be a small sign of hope," Chrysler President Jim Press said on a conference call. "But if you look at the trends out there, there's a lot of concern."

The number of autos and light trucks sold in March nationwide was 857,773, compared with 688,909 in February. If that rate were to hold for a year, automakers would be selling 9.86 million units.

That pace cheers Richard Baker, president of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, who pointed out that General Motors and Chrysler say their compaines could be "viable" at a pace of 9.5 million autos a year.

The Florida Department of Revenue said taxable sales at auto dealers in January were about 13 percent higher than in December.

Richard Baker, president of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, is optimistic for the long term. He said automakers are selling about 4 million fewer cars than people are sending to the junkyard on an annual basis, and so he sees demand building.

"People are going to have to come back into the marketplace," he said. "Eventually, you have to buy a car again."

Auto industry officials are also pinning hopes on a new program to back GM and Chrysler vehicle warranties and new tax breaks for cars purchased this year.


Florida's Economy
Florida has been in a recession for two years, in the estimation of UF Economist David Denslow, who said this all began in March 2007. Now, Denslow said, he's "becoming a little more optimistic."

He still sees unemployment growing, perhaps reaching as high as 10 percent nationwide and even higher in Florida. But he's expecting the turnaround to begin next year.

Villamil says some of the signs economists look for — orders for durable goods and consumer spending — are "starting to level off a bit. The steepness of the decline is less." "There are glimmers of light," he said. "But they are at the end of a very dark tunnel."

Information from Bloomberg was used in this report.

Harriet Johnson Brackey can be reached at hjbrackey@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4614.


POSTED IN: Economy (42)

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April 1, 2009

Madoff boat, no bull

Bull, Bernard Madoff's boat, was seized from a marina in Fort Lauderdale today.

Really. Bull. You can see its name if you look carefully in this photo.

seize1.JPG

Did the guy love irony? Did he have to go floating around in something that talks of bull stock markets or the euphemism for what his operation was?

Don't know all the facts yet, but it looks like Bull is a 55-footer that may have been owned by his wife and that Ruth Madoff reportedly had another, smaller boat called Little Bull.

My, they must have liked to go fishing. For something. Or someone's money.

I just couldn't help but think of the title of the classic Wall Street book. The one question an investor asked after he saw his stockbrokers' yacht, was, "Where are the customers' yachts?" It's by Fred Schwed and still in print.

Amazon says: Humorous and entertaining, this book exposes the folly and hypocrisy of Wall Street. ,,,,,, Of course, none of the customers could afford yachts, even though they dutifully followed the advice of their bankers and brokers. .

Broker, that's what my broker made me, the joke goes.

Bull

A word to live by?

I'm sure Madoff's thousands of investors have a few choice words for this occasion.


POSTED IN: Madoff (14)

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Housing Crisis: Somebody fix this


Oh good grief. The number of home mortgages that are at least 90-days in arrears practically doubled in February compared to the year before in the Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall area. If it's that bad down there, you know it's probably that bad or near as bad in the rest of South Florida. That's according to a survey from First American CoreLogic in a survey released Tuesday.

5325486.thl.jpg


Also released Tuesday, in the last year, home prices in the Miami metro area fell by 29.4 percent, according to the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Index.

Hey, like maybe you want to surprise us?

The drumbeat of bad, bad, more bad news is there, but there are faint sounds that some people are actually buying houses. Stuart Miller, head of Lennar, said it Tuesday. People have to live somewhere.

Should we give people more tax breaks for buying? Find a way to funnel them cash?

Is it irresponsible to walk away from a home that's worth less than the mortgage?

What should we do to solve the housing crisis? Put your ideas down in writing and let me know....

.Here are some other posts on this topic. Keep the conversation going.


http://blogs.trb.com/business/columnists/brackey/blog/2009/03/housing_crisis_tell_me_your_so.html

http://blogs.trb.com/business/columnists/brackey/blog/2009/03/solve_the_housing_crisis_chang_1.html

POSTED IN: Your Money (256)

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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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