Each month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.
Can Your Kitchen Pass the Food Safety Test?
What comes to mind when you think of a clean kitchen? Shiny waxed floors? Gleaming stainless steel sinks? Spotless counters and neatly arranged cupboards?
They can help, but a truly "clean" kitchen--that is, one that ensures safe food--relies on more than just looks. It also depends on safe food practices.
In the home, food safety concerns revolve around three main functions: food storage, food handling, and cooking. To see how well you're doing in each, take this quiz, and then read on to learn how you can make the meals and snacks from your kitchen the safest possible.
Choose the answer that best describes the practice in your household, whether or not you are the primary food handler.
1. The temperature of the refrigerator in my home is:
2. The last time we had leftover cooked stew or other food with meat, chicken or fish, the food was:
3. The last time the kitchen sink drain, disposal and connecting pipe in my home were sanitized was:
4. If a cutting board is used in my home to cut raw meat, poultry or fish and it is going to be used to chop another food, the board is:
5. The last time we had hamburgers in my home, I ate mine:
6. The last time there was cookie dough in my home, the dough was:
7. I clean my kitchen counters and other surfaces that come in contact with food with:
8. When dishes are washed in my home, they are:
9. The last time I handled raw meat, poultry or fish, I cleaned my hands afterwards by:
10. Meat, poultry and fish products are defrosted in my home by:
11. When I buy fresh seafood, I:
12. I realize people, including myself, should be especially careful about not eating raw seafood, if they have:
1. Refrigerators should stay at 41 ° F (5 ° C) or less, so if you chose answer B, give yourself two points. If you didn't, you're not alone. Many people overlook the importance of maintaining an appropriate refrigerator temperature.
The refrigerator temperature in many households is above 50 degrees (10 ° C). Measure the temperature with a thermometer and, if needed, adjust the refrigerator's temperature control dial. A temperature of 41 ° F (5 ° C) or less is important because it slows the growth of most bacteria. The temperature won't kill the bacteria, but it will keep them from multiplying, and the fewer there are, the less likely you are to get sick from them. Freezing at zero ° F (minus 18 ° C) or less stops bacterial growth (although it won't kill all bacteria already present).
2. Answer B is the best practice; give yourself two points if you picked it.
Hot foods should be refrigerated as soon as possible within two hours after cooking. But don't keep the food if it's been standing out for more than two hours. Don't taste test it, either. Even a small amount of contaminated food can cause illness.
Date leftovers so they can be used within a safe time. Generally, they remain safe when refrigerated for three to five days. If in doubt, throw it out.
3. If answer A best describes your household's practice, give yourself two points. Give yourself one point if you chose B.
The kitchen sink drain, disposal and connecting pipe are often overlooked, but they should be sanitized periodically by pouring down the sink a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) of chlorine bleach in 1 quart (about 1 liter) of water or a solution of commercial kitchen cleaning agent made according to product directions. Food particles get trapped in the drain and disposal and, along with the moistness, create an ideal environment for bacterial growth.
4. If answer D best describes your household's practice, give yourself two points.
If you picked A, you're violating an important food safety rule: Never allow raw meat, poultry and fish to come in contact with other foods. Answer B isn't good, either. Improper washing, such as with a damp cloth, will not remove bacteria. And washing only with soap and water may not do the job, either.
5. Give yourself two points if you picked answer C.
If you don't have a meat thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done:
6. If you answered A, you may be putting yourself at risk for infection with Salmonella enteritidis, a bacterium that can be in shell eggs. Cooking the egg or egg-containing food product to an internal temperature of at least 145 ° F (63 ° C) kills the bacteria. So answer C--eating the baked product--will earn you two points.
You'll get two points for answer B, also. Foods containing raw eggs, such as homemade ice cream, cake batter, mayonnaise, and eggnog, carry a Salmonella risk, but their commercial counterparts don't. Commercial products are made with pasteurized eggs; that is, eggs that have been heated sufficiently to kill bacteria, and also may contain an acidifying agent that kills the bacteria. Commercial preparations of cookie dough are not a food hazard.
If you want to sample homemade dough or batter or eat other foods with raw-egg-containing products, consider substituting pasteurized eggs for raw eggs. Pasteurized eggs are usually sold in the grocer's refrigerated dairy case.
Some other tips to ensure egg safety:
7. Answers C or D will earn you two points each; answer B, one point. According to FDA's Guzewich, bleach and commercial kitchen cleaning agents are the best sanitizers--provided they're diluted according to product directions. They're the most effective at getting rid of bacteria. Hot water and soap does a good job, too, but may not kill all strains of bacteria. Water may get rid of visible dirt, but not bacteria.
Also, be sure to keep dishcloths and sponges clean because, when wet, these materials harbor bacteria and may promote their growth.
8. Answers A and C are worth two points each. There are potential problems with B and D. When you let dishes sit in water for a long time, it "creates a soup," FDA's Buchanan said. "The food left on the dish contributes nutrients for bacteria, so the bacteria will multiply." When washing dishes by hand, he said, it's best to wash them all within two hours. Also, it's best to air-dry them so you don't handle them while they're wet.
9. The only correct practice is answer C. Give yourself two points if you picked it.
Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, especially raw meat, poultry and fish. If you have an infection or cut on your hands, wear rubber or plastic gloves. Wash gloved hands just as often as bare hands because the gloves can pick up bacteria. (However, when washing gloved hands, you don't need to take off your gloves and wash your bare hands, too.)
10. Give yourself two points if you picked B or C. Food safety experts recommend thawing foods in the refrigerator or the microwave oven or putting the package in a water-tight plastic bag submerged in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes. Gradual defrosting overnight is best because it helps maintain quality.
When microwaving, follow package directions. Leave about 2 inches (about 5 centimeters) between the food and the inside surface of the microwave to allow heat to circulate. Smaller items will defrost more evenly than larger pieces of food. Foods defrosted in the microwave oven should be cooked immediately after thawing.
Do not thaw meat, poultry and fish products on the counter or in the sink without cold water; bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature.
Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard the marinade after use because it contains raw juices, which may harbor bacteria. If you want to use the marinade as a dip or sauce, reserve a portion before adding raw food.
11. A and B are correct. Give yourself two points for either.
When buying fresh seafood, buy only from reputable dealers who keep their products refrigerated or properly iced. Be wary, for example, of vendors selling fish out of their creel (canvas bag) or out of the back of their truck.
Once you buy the seafood, immediately put it on ice, in the refrigerator or in the freezer. Some other tips for choosing safe seafood:
12. If you are under treatment for any of these diseases, as well as several others, you should avoid raw seafood. Give yourself two points for knowing one or more of the risky conditions.
People with certain diseases and conditions need to be especially careful because their diseases or the medicine they take may put them at risk for serious illness or death from contaminated seafood.
These conditions include:
People with these diseases or conditions should never eat raw seafood -- only seafood that has been thoroughly cooked.
Rating Your Home's Food Practices
24 points: Feel confident about the safety of foods served in your home.
12 to 23 points: Reexamine food safety practices in your home. Some key rules are being violated.
11 points or below: Take steps immediately to correct food handling, storage and cooking techniques used in your home. Current practices are putting you and other members of your household in danger of food-borne illness.
The 9 Step System To Get Your Home Sold Fast and For Top Dollar
The Real Estate Market Has Changed . . .
"Buyers are far more discriminating, and a large percentage of the homes listed for sale don't sell the first time. It's more critical than ever to learn what you need to know to avoid costly seller mistakes in order to sell your home fast and for the most amount of money."
The 9 Step System to Get Your Home Sold Fast and For Top Dollar
Selling your home is one of the most important steps in your life. This 9 step system will give you the tools you need to maximize your profits, maintain control, and reduce the stress that comes with the homeselling process:
1. Know why you're selling, and keep it to yourself.
The reasons behind your decision to sell affect everything from setting a price to deciding how much time and money to invest in getting your home ready for sale. What's more important to you: the money you walk away with, or the length of time your property is on the market? Different goals will dictate different strategies.
However, don't reveal your motivation to anyone else or they may use it against you at the negotiating table. When asked, simply say that your housing needs have changed.
2. Do your homework before setting a price.
Settling on an offering price shouldn't be done lightly. Once you've set your price, you've told buyers the absolute maximum they have to pay for your home, but pricing too high is as dangerous as pricing too low. Remember that the average buyer is looking at 15-20 homes at the same time they are considering yours. This means that they have a basis of comparison, and if your home doesn't compare favorably with others in the price range you've set, you won't be taken seriously by prospects or agents. As a result, your home will sit on the market for a long time and, knowing this, new buyers on the market will think there must be something wrong with your home.
3. Do your homework.
(In fact, your agent should do this for you). Find out what homes in your own and similar neighborhoods have sold for in the past 6-12 months, and research what current homes are listed for. That's certainly how prospective buyers will assess the worth of your home.
4. Find a good real estate agent to represent your needs.
Nearly three-quarters of homeowners claim that they wouldn't use the same realtor who sold their last home. Dissatisfaction boils down to poor communication which results in not enough feedback, lower pricing and strained relations. Another FREE report entitled 10 Questions to Ask Before You Hire an Agent gives you the straight, to-the-point questions you should be asking when you interview agents who want to list your home. You can obtain a FREE copy of this report from my website.
5. Maximize your home's sales potential.
Each year, corporate North America spends billions on product and packaging design. Appearance is critical, and it would be foolish to ignore this when selling your home.
You may not be able to change your home's location or floor plan, but you can do a lot to improve its appearance. The look and feel of your home generates a greater emotional response than any other factor. Clean like you've never cleaned before. Pick up, straighten, unclutter, scrub, scour and dust. Fix everything, no matter how insignificant it may appear. Present your home to get a "wow" response from prospective buyers.
Allow the buyers to imagine themselves living in your home. The decision to buy a home is based on emotion, not logic. Prospective buyers want to try on your home just like they would a new suit of clothes. If you follow them around pointing out improvements or if your decor is so different that it's difficult for a buyer to strip it away in his or her mind, you make it difficult for them to feel comfortable enough to imagine themselves an owner.
6. Make it easy for prospects to get information on your home.
You may be surprised to know that some marketing tools that most agents use to sell homes (eg. traditional open houses) are actually not very effective. In fact only 1% of homes are sold at an open house.
Furthermore, the prospects calling for information on your home probably value their time as much as you do. The last thing they want to be subjected to is either a game of telephone tag with an agent, or an unwanted sales pitch. Make sure the ads your agent places for your home are attached to a 24 hour prerecorded hotline with a specific ID# for your home which gives buyers access to detailed information about your property day or night 7 days a week without having to talk to anyone. It's been proven that 3 times as many buyers call for information on your home under this system. And remember, the more buyers you have competing for your home the better, because it sets up an auction-like atmosphere that puts you in the driver's seat.
7. Know your buyer.
In the negotiation process, your objective is to control the pace and set the duration. What is your buyer's motivation? Does s/he need to move quickly? Does s/he have enough money to pay you your asking price? Knowing this information gives you the upper hand in the negotiation because you know how far you can push to get what you want.
8. Make sure the contract is complete.
For your part as a seller, make sure you disclose everything. Smart sellers proactively go above and beyond the laws to disclose all known defects to their buyers in writing. If the buyer knows about a problem, s/he can't come back with a lawsuit later on.
Make sure all terms, costs and responsibilities are spelled out in the contract of sale, and resist the temptation to diverge from the contract. For example, if the buyer requests a move-in prior to closing, just say no. Now is not the time to take any chances of the deal falling through.
9. Don't move out before you sell.
Studies have shown that it is more difficult to sell a home that is vacant because it looks forlorn, forgotten, simply not appealing. It could even cost you thousands. If you move, you're also telling buyers that you have a new home and are probably highly motivated to sell fast. This, of course, will give them the advantage at the negotiating table.
For more information about any of our innovative homeowners programs, give us a call.
Common Mistakes Made With Money and How to Avoid Them
Everybody makes mistakes with their money. The important thing is to keep them to a minimum. And one of the best ways to accomplish that is to learn from the mistakes of others. Here is our list of the top mistakes people make with their money, and what you can do to avoid these mistakes in the first place.
1. Buying items you don't need...and paying extra for them in interest. Every time you have an urge to do a little "impulse buying" and you use your credit card but you don't pay in full by the due date, you could be paying interest on that purchase for months or years to come. Spending money for something you really don't need can be a big waste of your money. But you can make the matter worse, a lot worse, by putting the purchase on a credit card and paying monthly interest charges.
Research major purchases and comparison shop before you buy. Ask yourself if you really need the item. Even better, wait a day or two, or just a few hours, to think things over rather than making a quick and costly decision you may come to regret.
There are good reasons to pay for major purchases with a credit card, such as extra protections if you have problems with the items. But if you charge a purchase with a credit card instead of paying by cash, check or debit card (which automatically deducts the money from your bank account), be smart about how you repay. For example, take advantage of offers of "zero-percent interest" on credit card purchases for a certain number of months (but understand when and how interest charges could begin).
And, pay the entire balance on your credit card or as much as you can to avoid or minimize interest charges, which can add up significantly.
If you pay only the minimum amount due on your credit card, you may end up paying more in interest charges than what the item cost you to begin with. Example: If you pay only the minimum payment due on a $1,000 computer, let's say it's about $20 a month, your total cost at an Annual Percentage Rate of more than 18 percent can be close to $3,000, and it will take you nearly 19 years to pay it off.
2. Getting too deeply in debt. Being able to borrow allows us to buy clothes or computers, take a vacation or purchase a home or a car. But taking on too much debt can be a problem, and each year millions of adults of all ages find themselves struggling to pay their loans, credit cards and other bills.
3. Learn to be a good money manager. Also recognize the warning signs of a serious debt problem. These may include borrowing money to make payments on loans you already have, deliberately paying bills late, and putting off doctor visits or other important activities because you think you don't have enough money.
If you believe you're experiencing debt overload, take corrective measures. For example, try to pay off your highest interest rate loans (usually your credit cards) as soon as possible, even if you have higher balances on other loans. For new purchases, instead of using your credit card, try paying with cash, a check or a debit card.
There are also reliable credit counselors you can turn to for help at little or no cost. Unfortunately, you also need to be aware that there are scams masquerading as 'credit repair clinics' and other companies, such as 'debt consolidators', that may charge big fees for unfulfilled promises or services you can perform on your own.
4. Paying bills late or otherwise tarnishing your reputation. Companies called credit bureaus prepare credit reports for use by lenders, employers, insurance companies, landlords and others who need to know someone's financial reliability, based largely on each person's track record paying bills and debts. Credit bureaus, lenders and other companies also produce "credit scores" that attempt to summarize and evaluate a person's credit record using a point system.
While one or two late payments on your loans or other regular commitments (such as rent or phone bills) over a long period may not seriously damage your credit record, making a habit of it will count against you. Over time you could be charged a higher interest rate on your credit card or a loan that you really want and need. You could be turned down for a job or an apartment. It could cost you extra when you apply for auto insurance. Your credit record will also be damaged by a bankruptcy filing or a court order to pay money as a result of a lawsuit.
So, pay your monthly bills on time. Also, periodically review your credit reports from to make sure their information accurately reflects the accounts you have.
5. Having too many credit cards. Two to four cards (including any from department stores, oil companies and other retailers) is the right number for most adults. Why not more cards?
The more credit cards you carry, the more inclined you may be to use them for costly impulse buying. In addition, each card you own even the ones you don't use represents money that you could borrow up to the card's spending limit. If you apply for new credit you will be seen as someone who, in theory, could get much deeper in debt and you may only qualify for a smaller or costlier loan.
Also be aware that card companies aggressively market their products on college campuses, at concerts, ball games or other events often attended by young adults. Their offers may seem tempting and even harmless perhaps a free T-shirt or Frisbee, or 10 percent off your first purchase if you just fill out an application for a new card but you've got to consider the possible consequences we've just described. Don't sign up for a credit card just to get a great-looking T-shirt. You may be better off buying that shirt at the store for $14.95 and saving yourself the potential costs and troubles from that extra card.
6. Not watching your expenses. It's very easy to overspend in some areas and take away from other priorities, including your long-term savings. Our suggestion is to try any system ranging from a computer-based budget program to hand-written notes that will help you keep track of your spending each month and enable you to set and stick to limits you consider appropriate. A budget doesn't have to be complicated, intimidating or painful just something that works for you in getting a handle on your spending.
7. Not saving for your future. We know it can be tough to scrape together enough money to pay for a place to live, a car and other expenses each month. But experts say it's also important for young people to save money for their long-term goals, too, including perhaps buying a home, owning a business or saving for your retirement (even though it may be 40 or 50 years away).
Start by "paying yourself first". That means even before you pay your bills each month you should put money into savings for your future. Often the simplest way is to arrange with your bank or employer to automatically transfer a certain amount each month to a savings account or to purchase a Savings Bond or an investment, such as a mutual fund that buys stocks and bonds.
Even if you start with just $25 or $50 a month you'll be significantly closer to your goal. The important thing is to start saving as early as you can even saving for your retirement when that seems light-years away so you can benefit from the effect of compound interest. Compound interest refers to when an investment earns interest, and later that combined amount earns more interest, and on and on until a much larger sum of money is the result after many years.
Banking institutions pay interest on savings accounts that they offer. However, bank deposits aren't the only way to make your money grow. Investments, which include stocks, bonds and mutual funds, can be attractive alternatives to bank deposits because they often provide a higher rate of return over long periods, but remember that there is the potential for a temporary or permanent loss in value.
8. Paying too much in fees. Whenever possible, use your own financial institution's automated teller machines or the ATMs owned by financial institutions that don't charge fees to non-customers. You can pay $1 to $4 in fees if you get cash from an ATM that isn't owned by your financial institution or isn't part of an ATM "network" that your bank belongs to.
Try not to "bounce" checks that is, writing checks for more money than you have in your account, which can trigger fees from your financial institution (about $15 to $30 for each check) and from merchants. The best precaution is to keep your checkbook up to date and closely monitor your balance, which is easier to do with online and telephone banking. Remember to record your debit card transactions from ATMs and merchants so that you will be sure to have enough money in your account when those withdrawals are processed by you bank.
Financial institutions also offer "overdraft protection" services that can help you avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of having a check returned to a merchant. But be careful before signing up because these programs come with their own costs. Whenever possible, use your own financial institution's automated teller machines or the ATMs owned by institutions that don't charge fees to non-customers.
Pay off your credit card balance each month, if possible, so you can avoid or minimize interest charges. Also send in your payment on time to avoid additional fees. If you don't expect to pay your credit card bill in full most months, consider using a card with a low interest rate and a generous "grace period" (the number of days before the card company starts charging you interest on new purchases).
9. Not taking responsibility for your finances. Do a little comparison shopping to find accounts that match your needs at the right cost. Be sure to review your bills and bank statements as soon as possible after they arrive or monitor your accounts periodically online or by telephone. You want to make sure there are no errors, unauthorized charges or indications that a thief is using your identity to commit fraud.
Keep copies of any contracts or other documents that describe your bank accounts, so you can refer to them in a dispute. Also remember that the quickest way to fix a problem usually is to work directly with your bank or other service provider.