Monday, July 28, 2014

10 Questions to ask about your homeowners insurance policy.

What does it cover?
Homeowner's insurance covers a specific array of damage to your property.  These could a fire in your home, a windstorm blowing the roof off, or burglars breaking in.  It also covers property damage, additional living expenses, personal liability, and medical payments.  But different policies have different levels of coverage, so ask to see if you’re covered.   For instance, your policy may cover you if someone breaks in to your car and steals something valuable. 

What doesn’t it cover?
Every policy has exclusions, so it’s important for you to ask your agent what is not covered.  Most policies don’t take care of you in case of natural disasters like earthquakes, landslides, sinkholes, and power failures, acts of war, nuclear accidents, government actions, and bad work by a contractor.  Tornadoes and hurricanes are usually covered unless you live in a particularly vulnerable area.

Ask if water damage is covered.
Water damage to your home is a completely different animal with most insurance policies, so specifically ask how well you’re protected.  Generally, water from below  - like from flooding or overflowing sewers or broken appliances – is not covered, while water damage from above – rainwater or burst pipes – is covered.

How much insurance do I need?
It’s important to have enough coverage in case the worst-case scenario comes to fruition.  That being said, your lender (if you have a mortgage) will decree how much minimum coverage you need.  But ask your agent if you should bump up that amount to cover personal affects and property.

What deductible is right for me?
Setting your deductible correctly is one of the biggest decisions you have when getting a policy.  Our first instinct is sometimes to go with the highest deductible to get the lowest possible policy cost.  But that may not be wise, especially if you consider that every year, about 6% of homeowners file a claim, and 97% of those claims are for some sort of property damage.  So set a deductible that you’re comfortable paying both monthly and if something happens and you file a claim.

Should you opt for Replacement Cost or Actual Cash Value?
When taking out a policy, you’ll have the option between these two methods of reimbursement if something happens.  Replacement cost is the amount it would take to replace or rebuild your home or repair damages with materials of similar kind and quality, without deducting for depreciation.  It’s recommended your insurance covers at least 80% of the Replacement Cost.  Actual Cash Value is the amount it would take to repair or replace damage to your home after depreciation. 

Policies based on market value usually have lower premiums, but you’ll get less back if something happens.

Are discounts available for preventive action and maintenance?
Ask your agent if there are things you can do that will bode well with your insurer and yield discounts.  Installing new smoke detectors, a fence around your pool, a new roof, or maintenance on your HVAC unit.  Something as simple as installing deadbolts could save you 5%, and a new alarm system might get you a 15% discount!

Can I save money if I bundle policies?
By filling your insurance needs for homeowners, auto, and other policies, you usually get a significant discount.  You should price the options for bundling versus separate policies.  A word of caution - life insurance or insurance as an investment is totally different than homeowners and auto, so don’t worry about bundling these just for discounts.

What about my jewelry?
Most homeowner insurance policies have specific exclusions or rules when it comes jewelry.  So if your wedding ring is lost or stolen, the fine print might only require them to cover up to $3,000 in value.  So ask about the limits for jewelry (and sometimes electronics or cash,) because there are supplemental policies you can easily put in place to make up the difference

How much time do I have to file a claim? 
You should read the fine print about time limits to file a claim if something happens.  Too often, homeowners are overwhelmed, stressed, and confused if something catastrophic like a fire or flood happens, and take way too long to file a claim with the insurer.  That puts them in jeopardy of their claim being rejected based on time limits.  Sometimes, the window is as small as 14 days.

What should I document?
If you file a claim, the onus to prove the existence and value of your property will be on you, so document everything carefully.  It’s recommended you make a list of personal property include serial numbers and model numbers.  Save receipts and take photos of everything, keeping it on a flash drive in a different location.  When you get home improvements or work done on the house, document everything including contracts and materials used.  If you have to file a claim, it’s recommended you create a log with phone calls and emails to your agent, the insurer or any contractors.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Calculating the right rent for your investment property.

Owning rental property is one of the soundest investments you could make, to the extent that 90% of millionaires have income-producing property in their portfolio.  But making day-to-day decisions to manage those properties can be challenging if your not properly informed.  There is no greater decision than what rent to charge a new tenant.

If you read all the books on real estate investing, they cite a general rule as industry standard: To calculate rent, take 1.1% of the home’s value.  That means if your rental property is worth $100,000, the rent should be $1,100.  If it’s a $200,000 rental house, the rent will be $2,200. 

Universal axioms like that are dangerous when you’re talking about real estate because there are no “one size fits all” solutions.  For instance, good luck getting 1.1% in California, where the median home price is much higher than the rest of the country.  The good news about owning property in California is that our appreciation rates are much higher than the rest of the country during healthy markets – as we’ve seen with nearly 25% appreciation since 2012 in the Sacramento area.  Also, whether you’re renting a house, a halfplex or duplex, condominium, or apartment in a building you own has a huge impact on what rental price is appropriate. 

Assuming that you have a single-family residence or halfplex or one side of a duplex (not a condo or apartment) in a decent neighborhood in the Sacramento region, how do you price your rent?

First off, let me cover the three priorities of any landlord to frame the conversation.

In reality, you have three goals as a landlord, in this order:

1. Avoid vacancies.
2. Get a renter who pays on time and doesn’t trash your unit.
3. Get a renter who stays long term.

A renter who stays long term and pays on time helps minimize time, energy, and money-consuming transitions, where 90% of your work as a landlord will occur.  Of course you want someone who takes reasonably good care of the property so your fix-up costs (above their damage deposit) will be minimal. 

And vacancies?  Those are the enemy of the landlord – the monkey wrench that throws all of your calculations on profit out of whack.  Point blank: vacancies kill landlord profits. 

The reason I bring this up is because too often, landlords try to charge the highest monthly rent they can manage, thinking it’s good business to boost their monthly income as high as they can “get away with.”  But in reality, charging rent that’s above fair market value is detrimental to their business model.  Why?  They’ll have a smaller pool of applicants (who may have shaky credentials,) the tenants will move out more frequently or cause more problems, and it will take longer to rent the unit – all factors that contribute to a high vacancy rate.

Imagine that we have a house in a neighborhood where most similar properties rent for $1,200 a month.  At that price it’s easy to find good renters so let’s say the unit will have a paying tenant 12 months a year.  That equals $14,400 a year in rental income.  But if the landlord gets a little greedy and tries to charge $1,300 a month in rent it takes longer to find a tenant or they move out before the year is up.  If it’s occupied 11 months out of the year at $1,300, that comes to $14,300 a year profit.  If it’s vacant for two months, the total profit is only $13,000.  It doesn’t seem like much, but any benefit of trying to squeeze an extra $100 a month in rent is wiped out by even one month’s vacancy.

So as we determine a price for your rental property, we have those three goals in mind. What we want to offer is a rental price that is fair, a win-win for both the tenant and the landlord.  I even like to price my rentals slightly below market value because I attract far more applicants.  I can take my pick of those with the best credit score, income, stable jobs, etc. and I end up earning far more profit by eliminating vacancies, evictions, maintenance, etc. 

Here are the steps in determining the rental price that’s best for you:

1. Compare apples to apples.
When researching what other similar homes are going for, make sure you look in the same neighborhood and at the same type of property.  Don’t compare a condominium to a house, a unit in Granite Bay to one in Citrus Heights, etc.

2. Look into Craig’s List and other websites.
Do your homework online by looking into Craigslist and other websites that advertise rental properties.  This will give you a good sense of what other landlords are charging – your competition – and what options a renter has.  You’ll come up with an accurate range – low, average, and high rental prices. 

3. Talk to neighbors.
Knock on a few doors, announcing your intention to rent the property and inquiring what rents are going for in the neighborhood.  You may be surprised at the answers!

4. Add or subtract for amenities.
Honestly assess what your property has to offer.  If you have new appliances, new carpet, and a hot tub, you may be able to charge slightly more than a unit with old amenities in worse condition.  But you still shouldn’t get too happy adding extra money to fair market rent just because your property is in good condition – that’s almost a necessity.  It will help you attract more and better applicants, but definitely subtract off the rental price if your property is outdated or needs work.

5. Test the market.
As you put your house up for rent and start advertising, listen carefully to what the market tells you.  If you get no calls or interest, your price is way too high.  If you get a few people looking but none want to rent it, they’re finding better and cheaper properties to rent.  The more interest you generate, the closer you are to the fair market value price.  

6. Have a set schedule of price reductions every week or two.  That way, you’ll know you tested the market so you’re not leaving any money on the table, but you’ll get it rented soon without those dreaded vacancies.

7. Talk to a property manager.

The most efficient way to make these rental headaches disappear is to hire a property management firm.  A well-established company like Vienna Property Management in the Sacramento area has an intimate knowledge of rental prices, a pool of tenants looking, and all the marketing channels you need.  If you think big picture, their help will free up your time and energy and eliminate vacancies, evictions, etc. – saving you money overall even with their small fees.

If you need any help or would like some advice about pricing your rental property, give Vienna Property Management a call (916-520-1712) or email.  They're great people and do a wonderful job turning rental properties into cash flowing smart investments!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The history of business cards.

Early History

-Business cards originated in 15th century China, where they were known as visiting cards, which announced a person’s intention of formally meeting with someone else.

-These ancient business cards were made using woodcut and letterpress techniques and often very ornate, even with embedded gold.

-The practice of exchanging visiting cards spread from Asia to Europe, probably by merchants and traders.

Visiting Cards

-Visiting cards were widely called visite biletes, the French term.

- It grew to acceptance under the reign of the French king, Louis XIV from 1643-1715.  But the practice was still reserved for the upper echelon of society. 
-Visiting cards at this time were about the size of a playing card and decorated with engraved crests or elaborate coats of arms. 

-The footmen or page of the aristocrat would present the card to servants of the home to announce their arrival, always collected with their left hand.

-Cards were collected in a silver tray in the home’s foyer.  In their entirety, they documented how many people visited the home and how prestigious they were (sort of like the first social media!)  It also reminded the homeowners of their social obligations to pay a visit or return the call to those who left their cards.

-These visiting cards, or visite biletes, were used to announce the imminent arrival of a person of royalty, wealth, or prestige to a town or home.

-During the 18th century, old woodcut and letterpress techniques were replaced with copperplate engraving. 

-In the 18th and 19th centuries, if a gentlemen wanted to court a lady he’d start by formally calling on her at her home.  Upon the first visit, he had to present a different visiting card to each lady in the household. 

-Or, he could fold his own card down the middle, signaling that it was meant for all members of the household.  If the upper right hand corner of the card was folded, it indicated that the caller presented his card in person. 

-Lettering engraved on the cards (in French) signaled the intention of the visit – “p.f.” indicated a congratulatory visit, while “p.c.” was a condolence call. 

-He left the cards with the servants of the house at the front door, who collected all visiting cards on a silver tray that was kept in the foyer.  The hostess would review the card and he would be admitted only upon her approval.  However, she would never examine a card right in the hall, which would be an unheard-of offense.

-If the female object of his affection never responded to the reception of his card, then he knew she had no interest and the matter was ended.

-At that time, it was ok for a gentlemen to carry cards loose in his pocket but women had to carry theirs in a case. 

-By the 19th century, visiting cards were essential instruments of any polite gentlemen, who used them almost daily as a tool of introduction and upper social mobility.

Trade Cards

-While royalty and high society used visiting cards as an extension of their prestige, a version of the modern business card took hold for the new merchant class.

-The Industrial Revolution saw the formation of a new middle class who engaged in commerce and trade like never before.  The pomp and circumstance of formal society started to diminish, creating a huge divide and resentment between the elite class and the commoners. who were now better educated and worldly and not just in the agricultural trade. 

-In 17th century London, there was no uniform system of numbers and addresses or a well-established city newspaper.  That made it hard for people to find certain shops, businesses, or offices.

-Trade cards solved that problem by advertising a business and also showing a rough map of how to get there, all printed on the card.

-Cards would be passed out in markets and public squares as promotional tools.

-Their purpose was less and less for social purposes and more for true business.  Leaving a card at a home could even signal that a bill was due.

-Trading cards were still seen as an extension of the owner, and exchange created new business relationships and trade links.  Signing your business card with terms written in even created a legally binding contract.

-As an extension, these trade cards started to appear among entrepreneurs and merchants in the newly born United States – still under English rule. 

With the advent and popularity of the lithographic press by 1830, business cards started being printed on good quality paper with shading, small images of art, or even lettering in multiple colors was possible.

-These cards were mostly printed on plain white paper with clear, bold black writing – a utilitarian statement that expressed rejection of the upper class.

-The distinction between visiting cards and trade cards was a sign of the times that symbolized the mutual resentment between the common person and the rich, who treated the trade cards with disdain.

-In the United States, business cards became widely popular in the 1890’s, the age of Captains of Industry and Robber Barons. 

-There was a new emergence of business cards in the fast moving and high-power 1980’s, the decade of consumerism.

International Use And Etiquette

-Business card traditions and etiquette are different around the world.  In Asia, the process of presenting and exchanging business cards is taken very seriously.  It’s thought that a person’s card is really an extension of themselves.  Just like they would dress for success and have the highest manners in an important business meeting, a business card is supposed to be clean, unblemished or folded, mistake free, and presented with honor.

-The standard size for business cards now is 3.370 x 2.125 inches. 

-In many countries, it’s rude to offer your business card with your left hand – just like you wouldn’t shake hands with your left.

-It is also rude to immediately put the card away in your wallet or pocket when someone hands it to you.

-You should not write on someone else’s business card.

-Since it’s the international language of business, many cards have English information on one side.  But the other side should have the same information in the hose country’s language.

-In the international business community, it’s bad form to carry cards loose. Instead, they should be protected in a nice case.  

Modern Uses

-These days, business cards are expected to list essential information about the owner – particularly their name, title, business, and contact information.  They can also be adorned with logos, professional accolades and awards, educational degrees, and a photo.

-But business cards are still evolving – during the age of super-saturated marketing messages, advertisements, and self-promotion; entrepreneurs use business cards as a first impression and a way to differentiate themselves.  It’s fun – and perfectly acceptable – to break all the rules with creative shapes, sizes, cutouts, and art work on business cards.

-Technology is also being integrated into business cards, far past just listing a website and email.  QR codes and even embedded files, flash drive data, or mini-disc technology can be built into modern business cards.

-The future of business cards is exciting and limitless, with hologram technology and multimedia mini computers expected to integrate soon.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

35 Creative ways to improve your home's curb appeal.

1.         Hide your garden hose in a nice pot.
Unsightly garden hoses and spray nozzles can easily be coiled and stored inside of a big ceramic pot or planter. 

2.         Reface your foundation.
If you have a plain and boring concrete or stucco foundation, add faux or half bricks, tiles, or faux stone to turn a negative into one of its nicest features.

3.         Highlight your address numbers.
Instead of small black letters near your front door, why not get creative with larger letters built into in a false rock, concrete column or stone feature with built-in lighting.

4.         Add a pathway.
Build a pathway to your side yard or driveway with mulch, stone, great plantings, and stepping-stones.

5.         Install shutters.
Nothing makes the face of your home look better than nice shutters outside each window.  Look at plenty of color patterns but try a glossy paint with deep, dark colors like black, crimson, or hunter green. 

6.         Get a new front door.
Replace your humdrum front door with a classic stained wood or modern full window door. 

7.         Add window boxes.
Remember those shutters we put up?  Follow that up with box planters outside each window (or just the second floor) with colorful flowers.  Stained wood or bright paint looks great on these.

8.         Plant vines over unsightly areas.
If there’s an area of the house that isn’t particularly nice to look at – like if it has utility poles, boxes, or lines – you can simply put up a vertical trellis in front of it and plant some vines. 

9.         Build a trellis above the garage door.
Let’s face it – garage doors are ugly.  But an easy weekend project of building a nice trellis over it, complete with interwoven vines and some accent lighting, and your garage will be the envy of the neighborhood. 

10.       Paint your front door.
Don’t worry if your budget doesn’t allow for a brand new front door – you can repaint your existing one!  To make sure the new layers of paint don’t keep it from closing properly, you might want to sand it down some before applying primer and paint.  Match this too your shutters with glossy paint.

11.       Create a container garden.
Our first instinct is to plant everything in the front yard, but it’s way easier (and looks really cool!) to mix and match fun, funky, and colorful containers to hold flowers and plants.

12.       Update your mailbox.
Just like your address numbers got a makeover, spruce up your mailbox.  Instead of having it hang by your front door, build a classic wooden pillar and have it sit out on the street, or wrap the base in brick or stone.  Build in a sturdy mailbox but make sure it locks.

13.       Set up a sitting area.
It’s amazing how inviting a front porch or front yard looks with some simple outdoor furniture so you can sit outside and enjoy it.

14.       Update your front porch light.
Replacing outdated lighting with new, modern lighting is a great way to improve curb appeal without breaking the bank.

15.       Replace your garage door.
Trade in your dented and dated garage door with a gorgeous wooden carriage door or faux wood door.  You can even get these to open horizontally to complete the look of a million dollar mansion!

16.       Fix up your garage door .
If you don’t have money to replace it, you can have a row of horizontal windows cut into your existing door and add screw-on hardware that makes it look like a classy carriage door.

17.       Add new hardware to your front door.
Add a new knob, big brass knocker, and brass kick plate to any front door to make it look brand new. 

18.       Add an archway.
Build an archway on the way to the front door and cover it with vines, colorful flowers, and cool lighting.

19.       Paint the exterior.
You may not want to paint the whole house, but there’s nothing wrong with painting only the front, including a three-color pattern with the trim and the front door and shutters different colors.

20.      Paint over concrete steps or porch floor.
Paint old and weathered concrete steps or a porch with dark and glossy paint.  Black looks great, but remember to prepare the concrete well first and use specialty mason/floor paint because of the high foot traffic. 

21.       Power wash.
Rent a power washer for the day and spray clean your house, your roof, inside gutters, stucco, walkways, and your driveway.  Just remember to wash from the top down so you don’t create a bigger mess.

22.       Replace your welcome matt.
Don’t forget that something as simple as a new, colorful, and personalized welcome matt can make a great first impression.  You can even build your own out of painted wooden slats!

23.       Wash windows.
Take out the Windex and the old newspapers (better and less expensive than paper towels) and give your windows a good washing – they’ll really sparkle!

24.       Plant a tree.
To break up a monotonous lawn, plant a tree and surround it with a mulch bed and other lower plants or flowers.

25.       Upgrade your porch railing.
If you don’t have money for a brand new porch, you can replace the posts and spindles and repaint to make it look new.

26.       Add edging stones to your driveway.
I love this look – instead of a boring asphalt driveway butting right up against the lawn, set in edging stones, pavers, or bricks along the way.

27.       Hang outdoor curtains.
Outdoor fabrics are weather resistant and sheer enough to let light in, so use them as outdoor drapes hanging from your overhang or porch ceiling with tiebacks.  The neighbors will rave about it!

28.       Outdoor chandelier.
While you’re at it, replace your boring overhead light fixture with an outdoor chandelier to make your front porch look like the foyer of a million dollar mansion!

29.       Add lights to walkway.
New landscaping lighting along pathways gives your home that welcoming glow at night.

30.       Hang string lights.
Wrap trees, posts, and front porches with strands of white outdoor lights.  The key is being subtle so it doesn’t look like Christmas!

31.       Put up hanging plants.
You can make any porch pop by hanging pretty flowers or lush ferns from pots suspended from the ceiling, complete with their own mister watering system.

32.       Rip out the lawn.
Replace the front lawn with natural landscaping and symmetrical flower gardens to give it an organic, modern look.  You can even have fun and recreate the beach with small crushed gravel that looks like sand, “beachy” grasses, and seas shells and starfish scattered around!  

33.       Put a bench in the garden area. 
Simply adding a sitting area can add curb appeal.  Don’t be afraid to go with something bright and fun.

34.       Add elements of water.
A fountain, water feature, or koi pond makes a great signature piece in the front of your home.

35.       Hang a porch swing.
There is no better way to add curb appeal – and even add value to your home – with a hanging swing on your front porch.  A nice one isn’t too expensive and you can easily attach it to a strong beam with chains or thick ropes.  It will add instant charm to the front of your house!