Thoughts, Ideas, and Concepts by Sandra Parks

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NEW CREDIT CARD RULES IN EFFECT 2-22-2010

Unexpected rate hikes. Over-limit fees. Double-cycle billing. Those are just a few of the credit-card practices that have trapped millions of consumers into a life of constant worry over mounting debt. In less than a week, these practices will be history.

Unexpected rate hikes. Over-limit fees. Double-cycle billing. Those are just a few of the credit-card practices that have trapped millions of consumers into a life of constant worry over mounting debt. In less than a week, these practices will be history.

Exceptions, Caveats, Loopholes:

• Rate hikes are allowed if you’re more than 60 days late with a payment.
• Some banks have already found a way around the rate-hike issue, by increasing card users’ regular interest rates to as high as 29.9% and then refunding a part of that rate for each month that the customer pays on time.
• Double-cycle billing, although prohibited, can technically still exist for credit cards that don’t have grace periods.
• Issuers have been calling consumers asking them to opt in for over-limit fees in exchange for lowering that fee, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, a consumer advocacy group. What they’re not saying is that if people don’t opt in, the transaction will be denied and they will not be charged over-limit fees in the first place, Wu says.

Billing Statements, Payments and Disclosures

• Billing statements must be sent 21 days before the due date.
• Your due date should be the same date each month.
• Payments are considered on time when received by 5 p.m. on the due date or the next business day after a holiday or weekend.
• Payments above the minimum must be applied to the highest-rate balance first.
• Each monthly statement must include information on how long it would take you to pay off your balance if you make minimum payments only and the total you’ll pay, including interest and principal; and how much you need to pay each month in order to pay off your balance in 36 months and the total you’ll pay, including interest and principal.
• Statements must also include a warning that by making only minimum payments you will pay more interest and it will take you longer to pay off your debt, as well as a toll-free number to call if you want to be referred to a credit-counseling service.

Exceptions, caveats, loopholes:

If you make a purchase under a “deferred-interest” plan (such as “No interest for six months,” for example), the company may let you choose to apply extra amounts to the deferred-interest balance. Otherwise, for two billing cycles before the end of the promotional period, your entire payment must be applied to that balance. Carrying a “deferred-interest” balance is a risky proposition altogether, says Wu: Unless the balance is paid in full over the specified period, the company will charge all interest retroactively once the promotional rate expires. “We think deferred-interest plans should have been banned,” Wu says.

College Students and Young Adults

• No credit cards for college students unless co-signed by a parent or they can demonstrate “ability to pay.”
• No credit-limit increases if you are under 21 and have a co-signer without that co-signer’s permission.
• No credit-card marketing and freebies on college campuses.

Exceptions, Caveats, Loopholes:

• Issuers will likely start appealing to parents to co-sign their children’s credit cards. And the Federal Reserve has specified that issuers have the option of keeping the parent on the hook even after the young person turns 21, Wu says. “If that younger person keeps the credit card for 20 years, the co-signer is liable that whole time.”
• Issuers are not allowed to give out freebies for signing up for a credit card on or near a campus — which still allows them to set up shop near popular off-campus venues and offer freebies to everyone, whether or not they apply.

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Do you have these items in your home?

The kitchen is still king.

LAS VEGAS — Americans want smaller houses and they are willing to strip some of yesterday’s most popular rooms — such as home theaters — from them in order to accommodate changing lifestyles, consumer experts told audiences at the International Builders Show here this week.

 

“This is a traumatic time in this country and the future isn’t something we’re 100% sure about now either. What’s left? The answer for most home buyers is authenticity,” said Heather McCune, director of marketing for Bassenian Lagoni Architects in Park Ridge, Ill.

Buyers today want cost-effective architecture, plans that focus on spaces and not rooms and homes that are designed ‘green’ from the outset,” she said. The key for home builders is “finding the balance between what buyers want and the price point.”

For many buyers, their next house will be smaller than their current one, said Carol Lavender, president of the Lavender Design Group in San Antonio, Texas. Large kitchens that are open to the main family living area, old-fashioned bathrooms with clawfoot tubs and small spaces such as wine grottos are design features that will resonate today, she said.

“What we’re hearing is ‘harvest’ as a home theme — the feeling of Thanksgiving. It’s all about family togetherness — casual living, entertaining and flexible spaces,” Lavender said.

Paul Cardis, CEO of AVID Ratings Co., which conducts an annual survey of home-buyer preferences, said there are 10 “must” features in new homes.

1. Large Kitchens, With an Island

“If you’re going to spend design dollars, spend them where people want them — spend them in the kitchen,” McCune said. Granite countertops are a must for move-up buyers and buyers of custom homes, but for others “they are on the bubble,” Cardis said.

2. Energy-Efficient Appliances, High-Efficiency Insulation and High Window Efficiency

Among the “green” features touted in homes, these are the ones buyers value most, he said. While large windows had been a major draw, energy concerns are giving customers pause on those, he said. The use of recycled or synthetic materials is only borderline desirable.

3. Home Office/Study

People would much rather have this space rather than, say, a formal dining room. “People are feeling like they can dine out again and so the dining room has become tradable,” Cardis said. And the home theater may also be headed for the scrap heap, a casualty of the “shift from boom to correction,” Cardis said.

4. Main-Floor Master Suite

This is a must feature for empty-nesters and certain other buyers, and appears to be getting more popular in general, he said. That could help explain why demand for upstairs laundries is declining after several years of popularity gains.

5. Outdoor Living Room

The popularity of outdoor spaces continues to grow, even in Canada, Cardis said. And the idea of an outdoor room is even more popular than an outdoor cooking area, meaning people are willing to spend more time outside.

6. Ceiling Fans

7. Master Suite Soaker Tubs

Whirlpools are still desirable for many home buyers, Cardis said, but “they clearly went down a notch,” in the latest survey. Oversize showers with seating areas are also moving up in popularity.

8. Stone and Brick Exteriors

Stucco and vinyl don’t make the cut.

9. Community Landscaping, With Walking Paths and Playgrounds

Forget about golf courses, swimming pools and clubhouses. Buyers in large planned developments prefer hiking among lush greenery.

10. Two-Car Garages

A given at all levels; three-car garages, in which the third bay is more often then not used for additional storage and not automobiles, is desirable in the move-up and custom categories, Cardis said.

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