Reuters Money

Turn home into a winter wonderland, reap profit later?


Want to kick up your feet no matter how hard the cold weather kicks its heels? With winter on the way, we examine luxury renovations ideal for cocooning. Judge for yourself whether they’re worth a set of blueprints and a stack of greenbacks.

Item: Home theater system

Why you want it: Screening movies in your own theater — complete with rump-shaking sound and a larger-than-life picture — can bring out the Hollywood mogul in anyone.
Cost: Estimates vary widely, but figure a minimum of $5,000 for a high-end setup that includes 7.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, at least seven speakers and a subwoofer, amplifiers and a 73-inch rear projection TV that can reproduce 3D and HDTV images. Rich Conklin, a principal engineer with Grand Home Automation in Grand Rapids, says the company’s “Signature Series” surround systems range from $15,000 to $30,000.
Value: A survey conducted by Axiom Home Theaters in Dwight, Ontario, Canada found that a 375-square-foot home theater can add $15,000 to $25,000 to a house priced between $150,000 and $350,000. (Those figures apply to both U.S. and Canadian dollars.) However, this is one asset you can take with you to a new home, as many of the components are portable.
Did you know?: Music engineer/producer Jeremy Kipnis designed a home theater system that reportedly cost more that $6 million, and incorporates three dozen-plus speakers and a motion-picture screen measuring 18 x 10 feet.


Item: Heated driveway

Why you want it: Who wants to shovel during a snowstorm when you can flick a switch and melt the white stuff away?
Cost: About $1,500 to outfit 100 square feet of driveway with radiant heating elements and controls, according to Warmup United States of Danbury, Connecticut. Heated Driveway Systems, a division of Warmzone in Salt Lake City, Utah, estimates operating costs at 28 cents per 100 square feet per hour.
Value: A $2,000 investment in a heated driveway equals of 80 man-hours of shoveling, if you paid two local kids $25 each to shovel your driveway for an hour.
Did you know?: In some cases, heated driveway systems can reduce the cost of homeowner’s insurance due to reduced risk of accidents from walking on slippery property.


Item: In-ground indoor pool

Why you want it: Swimming year round for exercise beats just about any domestic alternative, especially heart-attack-inducing snow shoveling.
Cost: A fiberglass in-ground pool from Endless Pools of Aston, Pennsylvania starts at about $25,900 for a model measuring 8 ½ feet wide, 18 feet long and 60 inches deep.
Value: A study co-authored by G. Stacy Sirmans, a real estate professor at Florida State University, found swimming pools add 8 to 13 percent to a home’s selling price. A pool “is generally positive and significant” to a home’s value, Sirmans says.
Did you know?: When Robert Kaufman died in 1995, he left behind a five-story Manhattan townhouse with a sauna, hot tub and an enormous indoor pool measuring 8 feet deep. The home — which apparently hosted some lascivious bachelor parties — went up for sale for $10.9 million this year, the New York Times reports.

If you want lower property tax rates, you’ve got to ask


For years, the mantra of American homeownership was to count on home appreciation. Every year like clockwork the value went up and houses were a  growing source of wealth.

Now, more than three years after the housing market imploded, the tune is different. It may make sense for you to prove that your home’s value has dropped so you can file for reduced property taxes.

Why household debt reduction could jumpstart economy


If we could move beyond the housing crisis, where would we find the seeds of a broad-based turnaround?

Right now most of the country is anguished over the slack job market and global economic uncertainty. Almost half of U.S. homeowners are feeling house poor. That is, most folks can’t get their wealth out of their homes or even put a realistic price tag on it. They may even be stuck in a house that’s worth less than its mortgaged value.

What new jumbo mortgage rules mean for expensive zip codes


On Oct. 1, the size of mortgages eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will shrink. That isn’t necessarily a big deal in most parts of the country; the new lower limit of $625,500 — down from today’s $729,750 — still is big enough to cover most homes in almost all markets in the United States.

Furthermore, mortgage bankers are stepping up with new money to cover those bigger loans, reports Mortgage Daily. “Programs here and there are popping up,” says publisher Sam Garcia. He reports that some new lenders, including TMS Funding and New Penn Financial LLC, are launching programs that will make mortgages as big as $2 million available to lenders with good credit scores and enough cash to keep up with the payments. And many existing mortgage lenders currently will make those so-called “jumbo” loans and just keep them in their portfolios instead of selling them.

Six investment scams to avoid


Money is a powerful lure. Pretty much everyone wants more of it, and a whole lot of people want to get theirs by taking it from others. Investors are typically more savvy, but they’re targets nonetheless.

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) put together its annual list of “tricks and traps” for investors to avoid. For most, due diligence and skepticism is what stands between the investor and the scam.

Scam artists abound after Irene: How to keep your money dry


There is something about disasters that brings out the best in people — and the worst. Along with the Red Cross and National Guard, scam artists mobilize, too. They see opportunity in people’s misfortune.

“You’ve already been victimized by Mother Nature; don’t be victimized by an unscrupulous contractor,” cautioned Barbara Anthony, who heads Massachusetts’ Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. “People are vulnerable when they’ve been dealt a blow by a hurricane or a tornado.”

Earthquakes, hurricanes and smart insurance moves


What a week: An earthquake gave the East Coast a jolt and now a hurricane is bearing down.

No one’s immune. Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson’s compound on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands was destroyed by fire this week after being struck by a Hurricane Irene-connected lightning bolt.

High-end renovations on the back burner as economy wanes?


In 2008, Ron DeFore had dreams of putting his 3,000-square-foot basement to good use — think swank home theater system, game room, a couple of extra bedrooms — but then the global financial system went to hell in a handbasket.

“I haven’t thought of doing that [renovation] since 2008 for financial reasons,” says DeFore. Between 2001 and 2004, DeFore sunk roughly $500,000 into his 11,000-square-foot, Washington-area home, which he purchased for $1.1 million 10 years ago.

Just got a mortgage? Beware of the junk mail


Buying a new home (or refinancing your old one) comes with a typically unwelcome peril: a deluge of junk mail.

While some of the attempts will be obvious scams to separate you from your money, there will be some offers that might a bit less obvious. They can take the form of something very official-looking or contain language that makes it appear as though your mortgage-holder is the sender.

Time to refinance? How low can mortgage rates go?


Mark Sass and his wife Jan decided to refinance the mortgage on their Cincinnati, Ohio, home on Friday, just days before the Federal Reserve pledged to keep rates near historic lows through the first half of 2013.

“I knew the Fed statement was coming out and rates had dropped to historically low levels, and it just seemed like an opportune time. I hadn’t even thought about it until then,” says Sass, who owns his own marketing research company.