Business

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

MOTHER’S DAY falls this Sunday. No doubt, retailers are raking in the dough as consumers spend hundreds of dollars searching for the perfect gift to celebrate mothers around the world.


If you have not found a gift yet, there is still time. However, before you splurge, do your homework and find the best gift that will really make your own mom’s day. You do not want to leave her disappointed with a non-working product or poor customer service.
Nor do you wish to find yourself fighting a battle if there is a need to return or exchange the gift, so here are some savvy tips to being a smart shopper for Mother’s Day.
If you decide to give your mother a day of relaxation at the spa, make sure you have researched the business before you buy a gift certificate to pay for the day. You can always view a business’ rating, customer reviews and complaint history at Houston Better Business Bureau’s website, BBBhou.org.
Read what other consumers have to say about their experience. Also, pay close attention to any special policies regarding the use of the certificate. You want to avoid any hassles that could possibly turn your mom’s day of relaxation into a day of stress!
Gift cards are a popular go-to item for gift giving. There are several different options, such as buying one for a specific retailer or a card that uses a Visa or MasterCard logo. Whichever you choose, make sure you are aware of any additional fees associated with the card. Gift cards can carry fees for checking the balance or a transaction fee each time it is used.
You definitely need to verify all such information before you purchase the card. You do not want to purchase a gift card valued at, say, one hundred dollars only to find mom can only spend eighty of them! Lastly, make sure you verify whether it has an expiration date.
Nowadays, the number-one popular resource for buying gifts is the internet. There is still time to order mom a gift online and receive it in time for Mother’s Day this weekend, although you might have to pay extra for expedited shipping to ensure it arrives on time.
Most online retailers advertise Mother’s Day gift specials, so check your options to find the best price for your budget. If traditional candy and flowers are your go-to items, still beware! Make sure you get what you pay for.
Ordering flower arrangements online can be tricky. While the picture online might display a beautiful arrangement with blooming flowers, your mom could end up with a bouquet of dead flowers on Mother’s Day. That has happened to me on more than one occasion!
Thoroughly review the business’ policy regarding returns or exchanges before buying. You want to avoid a battle if there is a need to ask for a refund or a replacement of your gift.
As always, before you buy, check on the selling business’ rating, complaints and reviews at BBBhou.org.
Whatever you decide to give your mom for Mother’s Day, I hope she enjoys it!
Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better Business Bureau.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

FLIPPING a house can seem like a walk in the park when it’s wrapped into a few montages during a half-hour TV program. Find a run-down property. Buy it. Take out a few walls, paint, replace carpets, upgrade the kitchen and voilà – you could make tens of thousands of dollars in just a short time.
Reality is seldom so straightforward. Flipping a home can be risky and there’s no guarantee you’ll profit from it.
Finding and buying the right house at the right price point can be difficult. The shows often start with the submission of a winning offer on a home. You might not realize that it takes a lot of work to determine what a potentially good flip looks like and find a property to match.
Experienced flippers have learned how to estimate costs and work backward. A rule of thumb in the industry is to take 70 per cent of the potential selling price – what’s known as the after-repair value, or ARV – and then subtract the renovation costs and use the result as the maximum buying price.
You’ll need a lot of background information, including comparable selling prices of similar homes, to figure out the right numbers. The ability to be honest with yourself while estimating the cost of parts and labor is also important.
For example, if you estimate that you could sell your renovated home for $200,000, you’d start at $140,000, which is 70 per cent of that figure. If you calculate that the renovation costs will be $40,000, you’ll arrive at the maximum buying price of $100,000. The 30-per-cent margin that remains if everything goes according to plan isn’t entirely profit – you might still have expenses like closing costs or reimbursing your investors.
You need a lot of working capital. While paying cash for a home can expedite the sale and increase profits, it might not be an option for beginner flippers. However, traditional lenders don’t necessarily offer financing for flips, especially if you’re trying to fix up a dilapidated home. Even when they do, you might not be able to borrow enough to cover all your expenses.
Instead, some flippers turn to hard-money lenders, private individuals or companies that issue short-term loans backed by real assets, such as the home you’re buying.
With either traditional or hard-money lenders, expect the financing costs to be higher than those you’d pay for a mortgage when buying a home to live in.
Keeping an eye on your total budget is essential. If you borrow enough money to make the purchase but don’t have cash on hand to pay for the renovations and unexpected contingencies, you’ll be stuck before you even start.
In addition to the purchase price, you’ll need money for renovations, upgrades, inspections and permits. Also, consider the cost of ownership between the purchase and sale. Carrying costs, including utilities, financing, insurance and property maintenance, can add up each month.
You want to move fast. One thing you pick up from the TV programs is that time is of the essence. In competitive markets, you’ll need to move quickly to evaluate a home and put in an offer before someone else buys it.
Successful flippers might have a real-estate license or work with a real-estate agent to gain access to the multiple listing service, or MLS, a directory of homes that are for sale. Others look for homes that are for sale by owner or use direct-mail campaigns to reach out to prospective sellers.
Once you buy the home, there’s another race against time to complete the work and make a sale. Working with a trusted contractor and real-estate attorney could expedite the project. Once you’ve developed a strong working relationship, you might even want to invite others to join your team and contribute their work in exchange for a cut of the profits.
Bottom line: Flipping homes can be profitable, particularly for people who have professional real-estate experience, but don’t expect it to be easy money. Months of hard work can go into a flip without any guarantee of success.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PracticalMoney. His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

CITIES ATTRACT people for different reasons, which is partly why they are such popular vacation destinations. Summer is one of the best times to visit, as the long days give you extra hours of sunlight for exploration and many cities host a variety of free seasonal activities.
The busy season can mean rising prices but there are a few city-specific savings tactics that can take some of the strain off your budget.
Look for insiders’ knowledge about the city. Many major cities are covered by bloggers who focus on how to enjoy their hometown on the cheap. You could start your planning by researching online with the keywords “free or cheap” and the city’s name. Some of the well-organized websites will even let you filter events by date, cost and your individual interests.
Also check the city’s local-newspaper sites for lists of free or cheap events. During the summer, many cities have free outdoor concerts and movie screenings, for example; you can pack a picnic dinner and enjoy the warm weather and show.
Move around the city like a local. It might make sense to take an occasional cab but some cities have robust public-transportation systems. Take a few minutes to study the city’s layout before arriving and don’t be afraid to ask locals for advice or directions.
If you’re in town for more than a few days, look into time-based public-transportation passes. For example, you can buy a seven-day unlimited-ride MetroCard for subway and bus rides in New York City for $32, plus a $1 new-card fee if you’re not refilling an existing card. You can even use it on the crosstown buses, which can quickly take you from one side of Central Park to the other.
Explore new cuisine. One of my favorite parts about visiting any city is trying its restaurants. Whether you save up and enjoy one of its finest eateries or find a hole-in-the-wall hidden gem, there’s usually something for everyone as far as eating goes.
Luckily, many cities’ must-try foods are on the inexpensive side. Chicago’s hot dogs, Portland’s doughnuts and Austin’s tacos all often cost less than $5. You can also look for lists of cheap and delicious eats alongside the free-entertainment tips from frugal bloggers and local newspapers.
High-end restaurants will inevitably be pricey but, if it’s on your “must-do” list, there could be ways to save. Some restaurants offer less expensive brunches or early-evening tasting menus, or you might be able to grab a small bite and a drink at the bar rather than a full meal.
Find the deals on offer if you’re going to shop. Some people see shopping as an intrinsic part of a vacation and cities are often home to chains’ flagship stores, boutiques and specialty shops. The wide variety of options could tempt you to overspend but it also means there are plenty of opportunities to save.
If you’re in the luxury market, look for sample sales, where you might be charged less – relatively – for high-end brands products formerly on runways or showroom floors.
Trying to stick to a tight budget? Look for large retailers’ clearance sales, particularly if you’re visiting when stores are clearing seasonal items off their shelves.
Think outside the box when it comes to lodging. Most seasoned travelers know that hotels in the heart of tourist areas are often the most expensive and many turn to home-sharing sites as cheaper alternatives.
Another trick is to look for availability at hotels in the city’s financial district. Holidays and weekends can bring vacancies in commercial areas, which could mean lower rates. Hotels right outside the main township but accessible by public transportation can also cost less.
Bottom line: Cities can be expensive, particularly during the busy summer, but there’s a reason they’re such popular vacation destinations. Whether you’re interested in museums, shows, food, historic sites or all of the above, there are ways to save and make the most of your summer in the city.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PracticalMoney. His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Crimewatch with Walt Candelari

IN THE FABLE about the big bad wolf and the three little pigs, one of the piggies was able to survive the wolf’s threats when he built his house using bricks. While we don’t worry about the effects a wolf might have on our homes, we do worry about storms, high winds and floods. Straw, wood and even bricks are usually no match for floods and storm surges.
Before the winds “huff and puff” in these parts during hurricane season, now just a month away, we can revisit some basic preparation practices.
First and foremost, if the authorities tell you to leave the area – do so! Have your bags packed, your valuables and important papers ready and your evacuation route and destination planned. Also have your vehicle in good working order – especially its tires – and gassed up and your children and pets ready to roll.
Remember to take some food and water with you – just in case. Don’t forget to tell someone your plans and leave your emergency information with them.
During our last hurricane, our friend Candy had troubles with doing the evacuation. Everything was important to her. Every dish, every picture, every plant, every bit of clothing and every item of furniture – she valued them all and didn’t want to leave any behind.
She cried when she and husband Bill left their home, thoroughly convinced that she would never see any of her things again. So she was mightily relieved on their return when they found their house had been spared and nothing damaged.
It took a lot of talking and planning to help her understand what was truly “important” and what could be replaced. Bill reasoned that, if he could leave his ultra-high-definition television set with built-in bottle opener, Candy could leave her super-duper sewing machine with hand-lotion dispenser.
Their preparation list and activities was extensive. The emergency kit and evacuation plans set, Bill looked at what he could do to secure the domicile.
Some windows had storm shutters while others had a storm fabric to protect them. Duct tape, while it might look good, does very little to protect against flying objects and glass shards.
Bill had a stock of blue tarps for the roof if needed. He trimmed the yard trees back and got rid of their dead branches and put all the lawn furniture in the garage as well as the garbage cans.
Inside, he unplugged all non-essential electronic devices and wrapped the more sensitive ones in plastic bags.
He double-checked the items against his master list of serial numbers and insurance pictures and, as an added bit of insurance and to keep Candy happy, he set the furniture on blocks to help protect against rising water and covered it with sheets of plastic.
Finally, he moved all breakable items away from windows and doors in case something did manage to break through.
Candy stored all of her irreplaceable wardrobe, including her wedding dress, in vacuum-sealed bags and kept an itemized list. She then did the same with all of the family photo albums, which took a while as she insisted on looking at each picture as she went along.
Perishable food items were dumped but freezer foods held the biggest challenge. Bill and Candy sealed the freezers and hoped for the best. Prepare to do likewise in the months ahead.
Remember: Think, plan and execute crime-prevention design. Don’t be a crime victim.
Walt Candelari is a crime-prevention specialist and community-policing officer with Dickinson police department

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

THE INTERNAL revenue service is changing the way it handles taxpayers who have outstanding tax debts. Instead of only receiving written notices in the mail, now you could receive a call from a third-party collection agency in an attempt to collect on your outstanding tax debt.


The IRS has revised its collections practices and, beginning last month, it now has four collection agencies who might contact you regarding your debt. The contracted agencies are CBE Group, Conserve, Performant and Pioneer. All four are accredited by Better Business Bureau and all are rated A-plus.
As with any new process, there will be scammers attempting to take advantage of the change by defrauding unsuspecting victims of their money! But the bureau’s investigative services department has some helpful tips to helptax payers understand how the program will work and avoid being scammed.
Before you receive any phone calls regarding your outstanding tax debt, you should have received numerous written contacts about the debt. You will receive letters and phones calls directly from the IRS before the matter is turned over to one of the third-party collection agencies.
The debt collector will also send you written notification, once your debt has been placed with the agency. Be leery if you receive a phone call first but have never received notifications by the US mail. According to the IRS, taxpayers who owe money will ALWAYS receive notifications by mail first.
If you know that you have outstanding taxes, you should contact the IRS and make sure your correct address is on file. Update your address if you need to, as it will lessen the chances of you falling victim to a scammer who tricks you out of your money. Any one of the four agencies that could contact you regarding an IRS debt will identify itself as a private debt-collection company acting on behalf of the IRS.
The agencies’ employees must follow the Fair Debt Collection Practices act and be courteous and respectful. If you receive a call from someone who is belligerent or threatens to have you arrested because of money you owe the IRS, hang up immediately. It might well be a scammer on the other end!
The four collection agencies will not request you to provide credit-card information to make payments over the phone and your payments will be made directly to the IRS and not to the collection agencies.
You can view your balance and any payment history at irs.gov/payments. If you receive a call in regard to your tax debt and the caller tells you to make a payment over the phone or wire money to their agency, hang up the phone!
Additionally, all is not lost once your tax debt has been sent to a collection agency. Taxpayers can request to have their debt transferred from a collection agency back to the IRS. To see if you have an outstanding tax debt, go online to irs.gov/balancedue.
Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better Business Bureau.