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Another slim gain for new home sales

On the other hand, the near-term sales outlook for existing homes isn't encouraging

By James Limbach of ConsumerAffairs
November 26, 2014 Photo © Brian Jackson – Fotolia

Sales of new single-family rose in October for a second straight month.

A report released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development put sales at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 458,000 -- up 0.7% from the previous month and 1.8% higher than a year ago.

Prices and inventory

The median sales price of new houses sold during the month was $305,000 -- up $40,700 from October 2013. The median is the point at which half of the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $401,100, a year-over-year gain of $65,400.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of October was 212,000, which translates to a supply of 5.6 months at the current sales rate.

The complete new home sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

Photo © karelnoppe - Fotolia.com Pending home sales

On the other hand, the National Association of Realtors (NRA) reports pending home sales declined in October, but are still at what it calls “a healthy level of activity,” and are above year-over-year levels for the second straight month.

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, fell 1.1% last month to 104.1, but is 2.2% higher than October 2013. The index is above 100 -- considered an average level of contract activity -- for the sixth consecutive month.

Still at a healthy pace

"In addition to low interest rates, buyers entering the market this autumn are being lured by the increase in homes for sale and less competition from investors paying in cash," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Demand is holding steady but would be more robust if it weren't for lagging wage growth and tight credit conditions that continue to hamper those individuals looking for relief from rising rents."

The median existing-home price for all housing types in October was $208,300 -- 5.5% above October 2013. Monthly median price growth has averaged 5.8% so far this year after averaging 11.5 % in 2013.

"The increase in median prices for existing-homes has leveled off, representing a healthier pace that has kept affordability in-check for buyers in many parts of the country while giving more previously stuck homeowners with little or no equity the ability to sell," said Yun.

Regional breakdown

  • The PHSI in the Northeast inched up 0.5% to 87.9 in October, and is now 3.4% percent above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index dipped 0.6% to 100.6, and is now 3.0% below October 2013.
  • Pending home sales in the South decreased 1.0% to an index of 118.3, but is still 3.9% above the same time last year.
  • The index in the West plunged 3.2% to 98.1, but stands 4.1% above a year ago.

Crystal gazing

NAR also recently released its economic and housing forecast for 2015 and 2016.

Yun projects existing-home sales this year to fall slightly below 2013 (5.1 million) to 4.9 million, and then increase to 5.3 million next year and 5.4 million in 2016.

He also sees the national median existing-home price rising 4% both next year and in 2016.


Money- and sanity-saving Black Friday strategy: skip it

Don't believe the hype: successful gift-giving doesn't have to break the bank. Or you, either

By Jennifer Abel of ConsumerAffairs
November 26, 2014 Photo Walmart workers protesting in D.C. the day before Thanksgiving (Photo: Our Walmart)

An old maxim says that it's better to give than to receive but – true fact – historians agree that statement was first written at least1,500 years before the invention of the consumerist faux-holiday called “Black Friday.”

Legend has it the name came about because the day after Thanksgiving (and semi-official start of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/etc. holiday-shopping season) is when most retailers would finally break even and start showing a profit for that fiscal year – the day their accounts finally switched from red ink to black. But if you have or ever held a retail job, you know Black Friday earns its name by being the worst workday of the year – unless, perhaps, you work for a store forcing you to come in on Thanksgiving (without even earning extra holiday pay, likely as not).

From a customer's perspective, Black Friday offers you the chance to wake up insanely early on a day off, or even camp out overnight in a parking lot during the cold season in the northern hemisphere, and fight enormous mob-style crowds (who trample the occasional person to death, whoopsie) in hope of saving a few dollars off the price of whatever “door-busters” the stores are trying to sell this year.

Go Ortho

Photo Christ Pantocrator Mosaic (Photo via Wikipedia)

Of course, the single easiest way to save money, if you mustcelebrate a gift-giving holiday called “Christmas,” is to go by the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which does not observe the holiday until January 6. You'll find lower prices and smaller crowds for your holiday shopping, if you delay the official start of shopping season from “Black Friday” to December 26.

You might also consider joining the Amish or some other group with actual religious – not just financial – objections to buying cutting-edge latest-gen electronics costing hundreds of dollars.

In all seriousness: cutting-edge electronics and other high-price appliances make poor holiday gifts anyway, for several reasons. The first is that any major appliance-type item makes for a poor surprise gift.

Suppose, for example, you're thinking of getting “a computer” for somebody. Nowadays, “computers” are almost like “clothes” – a single word encompassing too many options to easily count them all, but plenty of opportunities to give a gift the recipient doesn't want or need. What will she use the computer for — is it primarily a tool or a toy? Is a tactile keyboard necessary, or are touchscreen controls sufficient? A student or journalist who primarily reads and writes text documents will have different computing needs than a graphic designer, and someone who primarily wants Internet access might be better off ignoring “computers” altogether in favor of a smartphone or tablet or other device, especially depending on where they live and what ISP bandwidth options are available in their area, and ….

You get the picture: some items work better as carefully researched and personally chosen purchases, not as surprise gifts picked by someone else.

Of course, it's quite possible someone has carefully researched and personally chosen what they want – especially if you're buying for children who have given you and/or Santa extremely specific wish lists, including catalog numbers and links to make purchases online. When it comes to buying the latest electronics, or whatever is the current season's high-demand item, the bald truth is: there probably isn't any legal, scam-free way to find a good bargain price on that — not if you are determined to get it before this Dec. 25.


PhotoOf course, the latest-gen game systems and iThings that are super-expensive this month are pretty much guaranteed to significantly drop in price once the “holiday season” is officially over (although, despite previous cracks about postponing Christmas until the first week of January, the serious price declines on today's hot new techno-whatever probably won't kick in until February or March).

So that's how you save money (or don't) on electronic gifts. But chances are you still have to buy plenty of less-extravagant (though still potentially expensive) gifts for various people in your life — how do you do that without breaking the bank or putting yourself into debt?

Plenty of thrifty-living blogs will advise you to save money on presents by ignoring the mass-produced corporate whatever in favor of giving something more personal, perhaps something you made yourself. That's great advice – if you have the talent, skill and time required to produce handmade gifts anyone would actually want. I personally do not.

But I do have a knack for secondhand and other forms of bargain shopping, and I genuinely enjoy browsing flea markets, thrift stores and other cheapo-discount stores anyway. So I keep an eye open all year long, for any oddball gift-worthy item to store in my gift closet (actually a couple large boxes on a single closet shelf, but never mind that).

China pattern

Photo A Galileo thermometer (Photo via Wikipedia)

Of course, the better you know someone, the easier it is to find just the right present for them, and at a bargain price, too. (My personal favorite amazing-find gift story is this: a friend of mine inherited her grandmother's china – which had much sentimental value to her, though that pattern is not actually valuableon the open antiques market. The china set wasn't complete, though; a few pieces had gone missing or broken over the years, including the sugar bowl and a couple of salad plates. Yet one weekend, while browsing at a local church's rummage sale, danged if I didn't find a sugar bowl, salad plates and a few other pieces in my friend's grandmother's china pattern – and I only paid $3 for all of it!)

Unfortunately, such perfect-find stories are rare — and it really isn't practical to go around buying and holding any mismatched china pieces you see, just in case you one day meet someone looking to finish that set. But I also keep my gift closet supplied with more “generic”-style gifts, bought throughout the year and appropriate for workplace Secret Santa programs, local-club gift exchanges and any other situations where you're expected to give a present to someone you might not know too well. One year, around March or so, an overstock store near me had a stockpile of colorful brass Galileo thermometers selling for only $5 each — guess what my colleagues, mailman and similar people all got for Christmas that year?

I hope their pleased exclamations were all sincere, and that they all genuinely having a Galileo thermometer on display in their homes or offices — but if they don't, at least those thermometers let me affordably meet my socially expected grownup gift-giving obligations for another year. (And their recipients can always turn around and give the thermometers to someone else, provided they're familiar with the ins and outs of successful re-gifting.)


Feeling bad about leaving your dog?

A few days in a pet spa or with a sitter at home won't hurt your hound

By Stacey Cohen of ConsumerAffairs
November 26, 2014 Photo Photo © Margit Power - Fotolia

Everyone's packed up, you're ready to go but one family member isn't heading out with you -- your dog. Grandma has had enough and the dog isn't coming this year. So you are freaking out about leaving it.

Stop stressing -- there are a few options that can leave you less uptight if you do your homework beforehand.

First, investigate and make sure that the company you are leaving your pet with hasn't ruffled too many feathers. Check them out online and ask friends about their experiences. 

If you have a dog that tends to bolt, ask about the kennel's steps to keep it escape-proof.

Do they let your dog be social with other dogs or are they kept apart at all times? You want to make sure everyone has had their shots and that they check for that and you have to show proof.

Inquire about what time you can drop off and pick up because it could affect the billing. Just like a hotel, if you stay past check-out time, you may be charged an extra day.

Let him stay home

Another option is to let your dog stay in the comfort of familiar surroundings and have a pet sitter come to your home. There are many ways to find one and a really great way to start, is to ask your friends. Your vet may have some recommendations as well. You can also contact the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (856-439-0324) or Pet Sitters International (336-983-9222). Or check out online services like Rover.com

One thing with a pet sitter in your home is -- you want to make sure they are licensed and bonded. Breaking an antique vase can be expensive, same thing with having your coin collection mysteriously disappear.

Is back-up available? What happens if the sitter gets sick? Do they have people who can come at a moment's notice?

Is this sitter familiar with emergency services if your dog starts choking or getting sick? Make sure no one shares their raisins with them.
What kind of training does the sitter have?

Even if you like what you hear from the pet sitter and from her references, it's important to have the prospective pet sitter come to your home to meet your pet before actually hiring her for a pet-sitting job. Watch how they interact; does your pet seem comfortable with the person?

You can find more tips in our recent story, Airbnb for dogs.


Mortgage applications head lower again

Applications have fallen in 4 of the last 5 weeks

By James Limbach of ConsumerAffairs
November 26, 2014 Photo © emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

After posting their first gain in 4 weeks, mortgage applications are down again.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending November 21 shows applications were down 4.3% from the previous week.

The Refinance Index also posted a decline -- 4% from the previous week -- with the refinance share of mortgage activity rising to 63% of total applications from 61 percent the week before.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.0% of total applications, the FHA share fell to 9.4%, the VA share dropped to 10.3%, and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.8%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 3 basis points -- from 4.18% to 4.15%, with points rising to 0.25 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) was unchanged at 4.10%, with points increasing to 0.25 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose 5 basis points to 3.90%, with points dipping to 0.13 from 0.18 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was up from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs slipped to 3.35% from 3.38%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped from 3.09% to 3.06%, with points rising to 0.41 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.


FHFA House Price Index up again

Home prices have been on the rise for 13th consecutive quarters

By James Limbach of ConsumerAffairs
November 26, 2014 Photo © teena137 – Fotolia.com

It's lucky 13 for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI).

According to the agency, U.S. house prices were up 0.9% in the third quarter of 2014 -- the 13th straight quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Compared with last year, house prices rose 4.5% from the third quarter of 2013. FHFA’s seasonally adjusted monthly index for September was unchanged from August.

“Easing interest rates and modestly improving labor market conditions helped to drive up prices in the third quarter,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “The price increases were relatively small in most areas, however, and are consistent with the type of market deceleration that other housing market statistics have shown in recent periods.”

Report highlights

  • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 40 states during this year's third quarter. The top five states in annual appreciation: 1) Nevada 2) Hawaii 3) California 4) North Dakota 5) Florida.
  • Of the 9 census divisions, the West South Central division experienced the strongest increase in the third quarter, posting a 1.8% advance for the quarter and a gain of 5.8% since last year. House prices were weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices inched up 0.1% from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., third quarter price increases were greatest in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 6.6%. Prices were weakest in the Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina, MSA, where they fell 4.4%.
  • Eleven of the 20 metropolitan areas with the highest annual appreciation rates were in California.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. showed no change between August and September. The last time prices did not change on a month-over-month basis was in November 2013.



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