In Honor of Shark Week, We Have 7 Shark Tanks to Swim Through

Whether it is Discovery’s ode to the ocean’s fiercest predator, “Shark Week,” news of ABC’s upcoming “Shark Tank Week,” or SyFy’s insane shark/natural disaster mash-up “Sharknado,” it is quite clear that sharks have taken over the television, the Internet – our lives, basically. Blue sharks, mako sharks, tiger sharks, great white sharks – you name it, and we are immediately fascinated by and engrossed in it.

Realtor.com is no stranger to the shark madness currently sweeping across America with oceanic fervor. In a nod to everything sharks, we have chummed the waters and dived deep into the blue abyss to deliver seven of the finest shark-tank homes out there today.

1. Workout With a Porpoise in This Shark Gym

From Realtor.com

Price: $22.5 million
Excuse the awful sea-hog pun, but this $22.5 million modern masterpiece goes above and beyond in the workout facilities department with an epic shark-tank gym spread. Why crank up the heavy metal when you can get swoll in the presence of sharkness?

2. 10,000-Gallon Shark Tank in Marina Del Ray

From Realtor.com

Price: $5.725 million
Apparently, a home theater, a massive wine cellar and a glass-bottom rooftop pool and Jacuzzi were not enough to satisfy this home owner’s amenity cravings. No, this insanely amazing $5.725 million offering was not complete without its own 10,000-gallon shark tank – to which I say, money well spent.

3. Gilbert Arenas’ Shark-Tank Mansion

From Realtor.com

Price: $3.5 million
Of course Gilbert Arenas would have a mansion filled with shark tanks. The NBA veteran is well known for his, well, quirky personality, and so it came as little surprise to learn that his DC area mansion has not one but multiple shark tanks. There’s a shark tank in the entryway, a massive shark tank in his rec room — heck, even a shark tank in his swim-in grotto. When it comes to shark tanks, Agent Zero does not mess around.

4. Shark Vortex Tank in Fort Lauderdale

From Realtor.com

Price: $4.95 million
Those fixin’ to create a “Sharknado” of their very own will want to take a long look at this ultimate shark vortex in Fort Lauderdale. Besides its awesome saltwater tank, which is less aquarium and more shrine to the shark gods, the $4.95 million property known as Star Harbour goes hard in the sea department with 72 feet of waterfront, a pool house and a private dock.

5. Pool Shark Tank in Coto de Caza

From Realtor.com

Price: $10.75 million
This home may be a car enthusiast’s dream, but it has a billiards room befitting a shark lover. Give the term “pool shark” a literal spin, moving your cue under the bluish hue of your massive inlaid wall aquarium. If that is not enough, other perks of this $10.75 million compound include a posh theater room, a wine cellar and resort-like grounds.

6. I’ll Take “Shark-Tank Homes” for $100, Alex

From Realtor.com

Price: $3.995 million
Judging by the former Hollywood Hills home he had built for himself in 1984, Alex Trebek’s taste in decor borders on sterile. However, the “Jeopardy” host’s taste in shark tanks is clearly on point, as evidenced by the swank aquarium setup complete with a velvety shark-viewing parlor.

7. Hawaiian Penthouse Shark Tank

From Realtor.com

Price: $7.495 million
No unworldly Honolulu high-rise retreat would be complete without its very own dining room shark-tank display, and that’s exactly what you will find within the confines of this $7.495 million penthouse on the Big Pineapple. Other perks of the two-story suite include 360-degree views and a Fendi-designed 4,000-square-foot interior.

This article was originally published by Neil J. Leitereg on realtor.com. To see the original article, click here

Should You Buy a House or a Condo?

If you’re moving to a new city, you’ll likely face a critical decision: Should your new home be a single-family house or a condo? With rates on average mortgage loans trending near all-time lows, this is certainly the time to buy any property.

House or Condo?

Here’s a handy, five-step guide to help you make the home vs. condo decision before you move:

  1. Location: First and foremost, you must decide where you want to live. From there, find out about the condo and single-family house options in the area. If you want to be in the heart of the city, condos will be more prevalent. However, for the same price, you could potentially find a single-family home just a short commute away. Check out the realtor.com® Find a Neighborhood tool to start your search.
  2. Privacy:  Think about how much privacy you would like. Having complete privacy is possible in a single-family house, while condo living means neighbors will be quite close. Condos may not offer private outdoor space.  
  3. Responsibility: When it comes to decisions affecting your home, do you feel comfortable involving neighbors? Many condo communities have strict rules about everything from paint choices to the hours when you can take out your trash cans. Single-family home communities tend to be more lenient, unless the community has a home owners’ association (HOA).
  4. Maintenance: Many condos include maintenance fees that cover landscaping and even exterior maintenance on the unit. With a home, the home owner will have to take care of any maintenance. Many HOA communities do take care of exteriors, but specifics vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
  5. Budget: How much do you want to spend on the property? Condos are usually more affordable than a house, even with the housing market in flux. Give this point considerable thought. The last thing you want is to overextend financially. Try using the realtor.com Home Affordability Calculator to help pinpoint a budget.

This article was originally published on Realtor.com. To see the original article, click here.

10 rehabbed homes: Stunning before-and-afters

See how nonprofit organizations across America have given dilapidated houses a second chance through rehabilitation.

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

Blighted, run-down homes are an eyesore for communities. They bring down property values, contribute to crime and affect the cohesiveness of a neighborhood. In some cities, those homes are being torn down by the thousands.

But demolition isn’t the only option. Nonprofit organizations across the country are saving homes, some of which may look hopeless to the untrained eye. Through rehabilitation, these homes are given a second life, and many of them are part of efforts to provide affordable housing for low-income residents. Here’s a look at properties across the country that were saved by these organizations.

 

1. Before: Pocatello, Idaho

© Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services

© Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services

This 1940 home in Pocatello was rehabilitated through Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services’ owner-occupied home improvement program. The homeowners are a young couple with two small children.

“They came to us originally because they discovered a crack in the foundation shortly after they moved in, and water was leaking into their basement,” said Mark Dahlquist, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

Dahlquist said the couple had good credit but couldn’t get a traditional bank loan because of their low income, which was 49% of the median income in the area. The PNHS got the couple a loan for $22,000 for renovations, but with monthly payments of only $73.

The organization tailors loans to the borrower’s income, with interest rates as low as 1% and partial loan deferral for those in the lowest income brackets. The deferred portions of the loan don’t have to be paid back until the home is sold or the mortgage is refinanced.

“We don’t want to put people in a situation where they are over their heads,” Dahlquist said. “It’s just something that the private bank cannot do. We really embrace the homeowners that are ‘not bankable.’ We’re here to fill in that gap.”

After: 

© Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services

© Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services

“What makes it a bit different is that when a homeowner gets one of our loans, unlike a bank that turns you loose, we really walk the homeowner through the process from start to finish,” Dahlquist said.

A rehabilitation specialist determines what needs to be done, then goes to a loan committee to get the loan approved. “When they approve and we start getting under way, we line up the contractors, which is really a big thing,” Dahlquist said.

For this home, what started as a foundation repair resulted in a much more comprehensive home makeover. “Not only were we able to repair the foundation, we installed egress windows in two of the basement bedrooms, installed new siding, and several windows were replaced with new energy-efficient windows,” Dahlquist said. “We put a new roof and rain gutters on the home, as well.

“Not only have the upgrades helped the family, the improved aesthetics of the home have helped lift up the neighborhood,” Dahlquist said.

 

2. Before: Syracuse, N.Y.

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

This 1870 home is in the Lincoln Hill neighborhood of Syracuse, N.Y., and was rehabilitated by Home HeadQuarters.

“This home came to our attention by a Lincoln Hill Neighborhood Association member who was concerned that the property had been sitting vacant so long,” said Karen Schroeder, resource-development and government-relations manager for Home HeadQuarters. “He was particularly concerned that it would fall into the hands of an out-of-state investor who would make minimal repairs and then rent it to tenants who would not take care of the property. We rehabbed the property and then sold it to a first-time homebuyer.”

After:

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

Here’s the Lincoln Hill property after the rehab.

Kerry Quaglia, executive director of Home HeadQuarters, said the rehabilitation process generally takes about six months. The organization has an in-house realty and sells the properties itself.

“In an ideal case, we would be marketing a property so that just at the time it is completed, hopefully we have a buyer ready to purchase with financing in order,” he said.

 

3. Before: Syracuse, N.Y.

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

This home in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse was donated to Home HeadQuarters, which also purchased the foreclosure next door. The home next door was filled with black mold and had to be torn down. Home HeadQuarters built a new single-family home on that lot while rehabilitating this one.

After

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

Here’s the fixed-up Eastwood home, which was built in 1936.

 

4. Before: Orange, N.J.

© Maulin Mehta/Hands Inc.

© Maulin Mehta/Hands Inc.

This home on Elm Street in Orange was rehabilitated by Hands Inc. The street has a mix of historic homes dating from the 1860s through the 1910s. Hands has been working to stabilize the block since 1987.

According to Hands, there were four vacant, deteriorating houses on the street at one point in the 1990s. The organization cleared title to the vacant houses, rehabilitated them and sold them to first-time homebuyers who had graduated from the Hands HomeBuyers Club, a six-month training program covering budgeting, credit counseling, homebuyer education and mortgage counseling. With time, a ripple of investment spread as other homeowners decided to stay on Elm Street, plant a garden and upgrade their homes.

But this particular house was now vacant. Hands learned that the property was part of a group of mortgages associated with real-estate fraud and subsequent bankruptcy. After months of additional research and negotiating, the organization purchased a group of 47 mortgage loans from one lender, negotiated with the owners, cleared title to all the properties and formulated and implemented a development strategy for each.

After:

© Maulin Mehta/Hands Inc.

© Maulin Mehta/Hands Inc.

Hands rehabilitated this 1870s house by restoring the exterior and upgrading the interior with modern amenities. Jessica Mathelier, a communication and administrative assistant for Hands, said her organization will ensure that this home will continue to provide affordable housing for future residents.

 

5. Before: Columbus, Ohio

© Homeport

© Homeport

This home was rehabilitated in 2007 by Homeport in partnership with the city. The project combined historic preservation with “green” rehab, said Abigail Mack, the organization’s director of home ownership.

“We chose this property as a pilot program to demonstrate that you could rehab structurally sound buildings and increase their efficiency, and within the boundaries of publicly funded programs,” Mack said.

After:

© Homeport

© Homeport

Mack said the historic-preservation officer would not let the organization change out the siding. “We had to wrap it in a bubble and scrape out the lead,” she said. “We painted it historic colors and took it apart from the inside and insulated it.”

While preserving the historic nature of the home, the organization made energy-efficient upgrades such as installing new windows.

 

6. Before: Columbus, Ohio

© Homeport

© Homeport

Homeport generally focuses on providing affordable housing but stepped outside that focus when the organization purchased this Columbus home in 2007.

“Normally, we wouldn’t have gone after that because we knew it wouldn’t be affordable,” Mack said. “We had watched it flip four times. It was an eyesore, and we thought it would be better to control it.”

The organization stabilized the home’s shell and then gutted the inside. “Five years later, we now have funding for construction,” she said. “It’s being converted to a very modern, open floor plan as we speak.”

After:

© Homeport

© Homeport

Homeport took out the original floor plan with the exception of mandatory structural beams.

“We blew out the walls of the former, poorly done addition and created a covered rear patio,” Mack said. “We closed up a door and created room in the kitchen for a full wraparound cabinet.”

Renovations are expected to be complete this summer, and the home is listed for sale.

 

7. Before: Baltimore

© AHC

© AHC

This was one home in a line of classic row houses in Baltimore that were in terrible condition. AHC purchased a number of the homes from the city and has worked to restore them.

AHC President and CEO Walter Webdale said the organization goes in and tears out most of what’s there, leaving just three walls, then rebuilds them to look as they once did.

“We hope to acquire all of them or hope that other investors or families will develop them,” Webdale said last summer, after the organization had completed several rehabilitations. “We’re rebuilding enough of the block so that when the appraiser comes in, he sees that the family is not just buying one nice building on a row of dilapidated structures.”

After:

© AHC

© AHC

After an extensive rehabilitation, the home has new heating and air conditioning, updated plumbing and electrical systems and new windows and doors. AHC works to restore historical features such as moldings and staircases whenever possible.

“The first one we did, we followed the old floor plan,” Webdale said, “but then we modernized it, so it was more open and more desirable.”

AHC works with neighborhood organizations to identify qualified first-time homebuyers and provides loan assistance on top of funds that are available from the city and state.

 

8. Before: Syracuse, N.Y.

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

This home in the Northside neighborhood of Syracuse was built in 1970. Home HeadQuarters partnered with the hospital in the neighborhood, the city and other housing organizations and nonprofits to revitalize this neighborhood as the hospital expanded its campus. Schroeder, of the housing nonprofit, said the organization tore down several houses, built a new home and rehabbed at least two on this street alone.

After:

© Home HeadQuarters

© Home HeadQuarters

Schroeder said this home’s rehabilitation was comprehensive. “We pretty much gutted the whole house,” she said.

She said the home is now “super energy-efficient,” with foam insulation, a tankless water heater and a high-efficiency furnace.

 

9. Before: Columbus, Ohio

© Homeport

© Homeport

Homeport is about to start work on two properties on the same street, one of which is shown here. Both are already in contract before any renovation has been done, which Mack said shows the demand for high-quality, renovated homes. The organization had to tear down another home on the street because it had a tree growing through it.

These two are the first to be renovated on the street. Mack said about 50% of the homes are in disrepair and a third of them are vacant. Homeport is also constructing eight homes in the immediate block.

“There is a lot of new construction on this end, and it is important for the character and vitality of the neighborhood that these little beauties be saved,” she said.

A work in progress: The future

© Homeport

© Homeport

Here’s a rendering of what the home will look like after rehabilitation.

“We decided that since our new-construction homes have three to four bedrooms, we could modernize these floor plans and make them attractive to a different demographic,” Mack said. “We modernized the first-floor plans on both [homes] so that they have an open kitchen and a foyer upon entry.”

 

10. Before: Durham, N.C.

© Builders of Hope

© Builders of Hope

These 1920s duplexes had been boarded up for years and were scheduled to be torn down by the local land bank. Builders of Hopestepped in and rehabilitated them using the organization’s “extreme green” standards. They are now housing for active adults ages 55 and older.

 After:

© Builders of Hope

© Builders of Hope

Builders of Hope used recycled denim and soy-based spray foam as insulation. The units were upgraded to be more open, with cathedral ceilings in the family rooms and removal of connecting walls to the kitchens.

“We salvaged the existing hardwood floors, and they are beautifully refinished,” Builders of Hope founder Nancy Welsh said. “The units were heated with coal, and we left the exposed brick from the chimney down into the coal burner for a retro-modern look.”

The green and efficient upgrades keep the heating and air-conditioning bills at $25 or less per month, Welsh said.

This article was originally published by Leah C Culler on MSN Real Estate. To see the original article, click here

What makes a neighborhood great?

The best places to live rise to the top because of where they are, who lives there and what elements are in them.
What makes a neighborhood great
What distinguishes a great neighborhood from the merely meh? It’s a difficult question, encompassing everything from physical attributes such as good design to the right number of parks and public gathering places.

We asked urban planners, a geographer, an architect and real-estate agents to pinpoint some of the common threads that put an area on the map for buyers and visitors.

Is it a charming Main Street, good schools or an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and other diversions? What elements conspire to create great neighborhoods such as the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., Boston’s Back Bay or Fells Point in Baltimore?

People and place
If you ask Fred Kent, founder and president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, it’s people, not developers, who create the next big place.

“It’s always a bunch of individuals coming in who think the potential for their community is bigger,” Kent says. “They have this feeling that something has happened there and start to do little things that collectively add up to a big thing.”

That might include a shoe-repair shop owner sprucing up his storefront, a coin laundry adding an attached coffee shop or a resident putting in a park bench on the corner to allow people to stop and talk.

“These twists give a signal that something is going on here. Pretty soon other people put a bench on the street,” Kent says. And voilà, he says, revitalization is born.

In many areas, this urban renewal is started by artists – those who need to live cheaply to pursue their craft but want to be close to cultural and physical amenities.

Just look at the decades-old revitalization of downtown Portland, Maine, says Andrew Schiller, geographer and CEO of Location Inc., which operates the NeighborhoodScout website. Its downtown was once so empty that city officials refused to plow the snow from its streets during the winter. Then artists from the local college started moving into old warehouses along the waterfront, stringing up outdoor lights and opening their galleries to visitors. It was the beginning of a thriving city.

Ditto for once-moribund Asbury Park, N.J., with its beautiful Victorian architecture that has been turned around by creative entrepreneurs in the past decade.

Elements that encourage interaction – parks, boardwalks, public plazas and wide sidewalks – serve as people magnets, Kent says. Best of all are sidewalks on a community’s main street that run between café seating and storefront window displays, allowing people to walk dogs, greet neighbors and people watch. Add things such as weekly farmers markets, civic-association pancake breakfasts and multidimensional establishments that offer opportunities to linger, such as a coffee shop with art displays, a lively bulletin board and outdoor café seating, and you’ve got the beginnings of a great neighborhood hub.

These are the places you take friends and family when you want to show them the neighborhood, planners say.

“People attract people,” Kent says, so when businesses triangulate in one place, such as a theater, bookstore and art gallery, they give people reason to stick around.

Indeed, Kent’s group, the PPS, advocates “The Power of 10” for neighborhoods – capitalizing on the 10 most important and useful places, such as the local post office, coffee shop or park. The more things that can be clustered around these places, the PPS says, the more central and beloved a neighborhood will become.

Location, location, location
Of course, few people are going to settle in a neighborhood if it doesn’t have access to well-paying jobs, Schiller says. “The places that have the most value and that gentrified first were those closest to, or have access to, high-paying jobs. They went up the fastest and the farthest,” he says.

That, he says, is why you see neighborhoods revitalized near the subway lines into Manhattan such as Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Williamsburg districts, or those by light rail, such as South Pasadena, Calif.

Indeed, planners say access to good public transportation can turn even some suburbs into hot areas. A study released earlier this year by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors showed that between 2006 and 2011, home values performed 42% better on average if the homes were within a half-mile of public transportation with high-frequency service, such as subway, light rail or bus rapid transit. Residents in those areas had better access to jobs and lower transportation costs, leaving them with more money to enjoy neighborhood amenities.

Another perk: Transit stations often attract retail shops, services and dining, giving some suburbs without a real downtown a place to walk and linger.

Another study cited in the APTA report found that buyers in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., paid more for houses in neighborhoods with more connected street networks, smaller blocks and pedestrian access to commercial shops and services and light-rail stations.

Let’s not forget schools
“By and large, the highest-value home prices in America are found in school districts of very high quality,” Schiller says, preferably those with access to high-paying jobs.

These areas, such as the Boston commuter suburbs of Newton and Brookline, are the blue-chip stocks of neighborhoods, even for people without kids, because they attract people with higher levels of education, who tend to be more active in preserving community value.

Good schools and walkability are two of the biggest themes in neighborhood videos that real-estate agent Sue Adler of Short Hills, N.J., uses on her website to sell homes in her area. The videos of these commuter towns show quaint main streets and residents talking about taking a quick stroll over to parks, bars, shops and theaters in their free time.

“With millennials entering the marketplace, volatile gas prices and fringe suburban home prices in decline, the demand for walkable neighborhoods has outstripped supply in most of the U.S.,” says Christopher B. Leinberger, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a survey (PDF) that ranked the walkability of America’s cities and neighborhoods.

What makes people want to pull over and walk in a neighborhood?
Reid Ewing, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, says a whole host of elements serve as magnets to draw people out of their cars. Items near the top of the list are:

  • Short blocks with relatively narrow streets and wide sidewalks.
  • Ample windows at eye level that let you see activity or displays inside as well as entryways, courtyards and arcades.
  • Human-scale lighting, benches and signs.
  • Tree-lined streets that provide a sense of buffer from street traffic and a comfortable canopy overhead.
  • Landmarks such as fountains, historic theaters, gazebos or clock towers.
  • A complexity of architecture, building materials and color — at least on the first couple of building levels — as well as a mix of building uses.

In other words, cookie-cutter big-box stores and row after row of parking lots aren’t found in many of America’s great neighborhoods.

“A neighborhood will draw people if it’s providing the opportunity for interaction with a backdrop of design that is enjoyable to look at,” says Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg, principal with Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif.

And interaction is key to people’s satisfaction with their communities. If people are happy and engaged with their community, they are more involved with its activities and work harder to protect it, Moffet-Fehlberg says.

Schiller remembers visiting a friend in Jupiter, Fla., who lived in a beautiful Cape Cod-style planned development. While it looked beautiful, he said, his friends who lived there felt isolated and unhappy because it was such a long drive from employment and other social and cultural amenities.

“The streets were empty,” he says.

Can you engineer a great community?
While Kent and many other planners say that a great neighborhood usually evolves organically with its residents, Ewing says that even master-planned developments can become big draws, such as the Kentlands planned community in Gaithersburg, Md., or the Grove, a mixed retail and residential development in Los Angeles.

In these areas, complementary design, rich amenities and public spaces encourage engagement among residents and visitors with places to stroll, eat and play.

Some of the best developments, Moffet-Fehlberg says, incorporate an area’s history or topography to make them feel more real, such as the Grove’s location around L.A.’s Original Farmers Market, a historic landmark.

And it helps if the mix of amenities and activities is attractive to younger and older generations alike, Schiller says.

The next generation of great neighborhoods
Many of the best neighborhoods are yet to come, Ewing says, as cities encourage more creative development in urban areas.

“We expect that two-thirds of the development on the ground in 2050 will be built between now and then,” Ewing says. “There is a tremendous potential to redevelop certain areas differently.”

Indeed, some of tomorrow’s popular neighborhoods will likely spring from former blight.

“Communities can go from being the hero to the goat to the hero all over again,” Moffet-Fehlberg says.

 This article was originally published by Melinda Fulmer on MSN Real Estate. To see the original article, click here.  

The First Thing to Do Before Buying a Home

The First Thing to Do Before Buying a HomeHome prices in most parts of the country are just about as affordable as they are likely to get, and mortgage rates remain super low. Together, those factors mean that many people are thinking about buying a home. Some will be first-time homebuyers, while others will be “boomerang” buyers who lost their homes in the housing meltdown but are now hoping to get back in. Still others may see this as the best time to upgrade to a larger home, downsize to a smaller one, or to move to the retirement locale of their dreams.

Whatever your motivation for buying a home, unless you are going to pay cash for the property, there’s one essential step you must take first: get your credit reports and credit scores.

The reason? Your credit scores will help determine what type of home loan financing you can get, and the interest rate you’ll pay. You’ll want to have plenty of time to dispute credit report errors if you find any, and get them fixed. The last thing you want is to find out at the last minute that you can’t buy your dream home because of something on your credit report that shouldn’t be there.

If you will be buying and financing a home with someone else — a partner or spouse, for example — you’ll each want to get your credit reports and scores. Get them from all three major credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, as they each collect their own data and don’t share corrections with each other. You can do this for free once annually at AnnualCreditReport.com. Beyond that, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is a tool that provides you with an easy to understand overview of your credit standing, along with your free credit scores, which is updated monthly. It’s a good and simple way to keep tabs on your credit regularly, because you’ll quickly be able to see if anything is amiss.

You’re Not Just a Number

The three-digit number that represents your credit score will be important when it comes to buying and financing a home. A difference of a few points could make a difference in the rate you’ll pay for your mortgage. Mortgage lenders will typically use the middle of the three credit scores to determine the rate/program for which you qualify.

But that doesn’t mean you need to obsess about your score. Doing so can cause you unnecessary grief. After all:

  • Trying to tweak your scores based on what you think may help improve them can sometimes have the opposite effect.
  •  There are many different loan programs with different credit score requirements. A loan officer can help you shop around to find the right program to meet your needs.

Keep in mind that you have many scores, not just one, so trying to figure out which scores matter most can be an exercise in futility. When it comes time to apply, your lender will pull the credit scores needed to process your application. In the meantime, you can find out where you stand and get an idea of what factors may be strong, and which may not be. Again, no need to obsess over the number.

In fact, when we included a free credit score with our free Credit Report Card — one of our most popular tools —  we wanted to make sure that consumers understand that they don’t have a single score. That’s why we provide an Experian score, but also show consumers their VantageScore and estimated FICO score along with it. After all, there are dozens of scores available at any given time, and if you focus on just a single number, you may miss the bigger picture.

What’s in a Number?

If focusing on the number that represents your credit score isn’t the most important thing, then what is? Understanding the elements that make up your scores can be much more important. Our Credit Report Card, for example, assigns a grade to each of the main factors that go into a score:

  • Payment History
  • Debt Usage
  • Credit Age
  • Account Mix
  • Inquiries

Within those, we recommend you put your efforts toward the things you can control. If you get a “C” or “D” for a particular factor, you’ll get suggestions for things you may do to address that grade. Some of these may be things you can address immediately while some may not be under your direct control.

If you earn a “D” for debt usage because your balances on one or more of your credit cards is close to your limits, you may want to pay some of them down if you have the cash available to do so. On the other hand, if you have a large student loan balance that you can’t afford to pay off, you may want to simply focus on making your payments on time rather than taking all the money you’ve saved for a down payment to pay it off.

[Related Article: What’s A Credit Score, Really]

What Can Your Score Do For You When Buying a Home?

When it comes to buying a home, your credit scores can help you secure the financing you need to buy the property and pay it off over time. Your credit scores are a tool to help you achieve your personal and financial goals. If you can get the loan you need with the credit scores you have, then be satisfied with that — even if you don’t have the best score your loan officer has seen!

And finally, it’s important to put your scores in context. Mortgage lenders will look at other factors, like your debt-to-income ratios, employment history, and down payment. As any loan officer can tell you, even a perfect score can’t get you a loan if — for example — the appraisal comes in too low, or if you can’t document your income.

This article was originally published by  on Credit.com. To see the original article, click here.

Mortgage before marriage?

For many couples, it makes sense to buy a home before tying the knot. Here’s advice from folks who’ve made the move.

Mortgage Before Marriage

© Tetra Images/Getty Images

After eight years of dating, Greg Hebert and Laura Reiffarth knew it was time to take their commitment to each other to the next level. In June 2012, they took the plunge — and bought a home together.

The couple, who have recently gotten engaged, knew then that they would eventually get married, but buying a house first seemed like the right step for them.

“We knew we couldn’t afford to do both at the time, so we had to make a decision,” Reiffarth says. “We felt it was financially and logically smarter to buy the house first.”

It’s a decision more couples are now making. A recent survey by Coldwell Banker found that 1 in 4 married couples between the ages of 18 and 34 purchased a first home together before marriage.

The trend follows the increase in cohabitation documented by the 2010 census and in a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC study found that nearly half of women up to age 44 had cohabited between 2006 and 2010, compared with 34% in 1995. It also found that 40% of those couples got married within three years of living together.

And for Hebert and Reiffarth, it made more sense from a relationship perspective to buy the house, then tie the knot.

“It’s kind of funny for us to think about how our parents did it,” Reiffarth says. “We look at getting married before moving in together as a huge risk. What if you were married, moved in together and then couldn’t stand the other person? Then you’re kind of stuck, just spent a lot of money on a marriage and a house.”

Changing attitudes
Psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, who worked with Coldwell Banker on the home buying study, says couples who are purchasing homes together are definitely commitment-minded, but that the difficult economy has prompted a shift in priorities.

“You have a population that has to be more aware of fiscal realities and responsibilities, and there is kind of more of a sober attitude when it comes to making pragmatic decisions,” she says. “Couples are deciding, ‘We are committed,’ and it makes sense to save money.

“I don’t think you can separate out the economic and fiscal realities with how couples decide to move forward in their lives,” she says. “How they handle finances will have a huge impact on their relationships. It’s not romantic, but it’s real.”

The way the market is going this spring, if we had waited to buy we would have paid thousands of dollars more,” she says. “Now we can leisurely save for and plan our wedding and make improvements to the house, all from the comfort of our own home.”

A major commitment
But some couples hesitate to purchase a home without the level of commitment that marriage signifies.

“My current husband and I considered this when we were dating, but we hesitated,” Kelli Bhattacharjee says. “Sure if we pooled our assets together we could afford a much nicer home, but I was afraid of the repercussions if we broke up.”

She says she was also afraid that owning a home together might motivate them to stay together for the wrong reasons.

“I did not want to muddy the waters in our relationship,” she says. “I decided I wanted to make the commitment to him before we started entangling our finances.”

After they married, the couple built a home in Hyde Park, Ohio, and Bhattacharjee says she is glad they waited.

“We were more established in our careers and had more disposable income so we could afford exactly what we wanted,” she says.

Testing the relationship
But for some people, buying a home signifies a much bigger commitment than getting married.

“Owning five or six hundred thousand dollars of property together may actually be a stronger bond, one that can be harder to disentangle, than many marriages, which can often be dissolved rather quickly and easily with a no-fault divorce,” says Barry Maher, a motivational speaker who owns two homes in California with his partner, Rose Fennel.

The couple had lived together for eight years before they made their first co-purchase.

“Living together in a rental home was a commitment, certainly much more of a commitment than dating,” he says. “But obviously, it wasn’t nearly as strong a commitment as marriage. All it would have taken for either of us to get out of the relationship was a U-Haul, a couple of friends and a few trips lugging our stuff to a new location.

“But buying a home together is a major commitment, with promises that have to be kept and major consequences if they aren’t,” Maher says. “Just the fact that we were willing to commit to buying that property showed how strongly we were committed to making the relationship work.”

Ryan Lau and his fiancée, Leina Yokota, bought a house together in Honolulu in September 2012 because it made financial sense, but found that the process was a good test of their relationship.

“A Realtor will tell you the top three things to consider before you buy are location, location, location,” he says. “I say, before you decide to buy with your significant other you need communication, communication, communication. Our plan was one that evolved as we went through this process. We listened to each other, were honest with each other and revised our plan as we went along.”

This article was originally published by Leah L. Culler on MSN Real Estate. To see the original article, click here

Ethnic and Old World Decorating Ideas

Whether you’re a world traveler or simply looking for inspiration, check out our favorite ways to bring charm, history and an ethnic look to any space — no passport necessary.

Indonesian Inspiration

RMS user BoBendana

RMS user BoBendana used neutral and organic colors for this Bali-based living room. The tiled fireplace is flanked by two stone carvings (displaying a medley of Pacific Ocean life), but it’s the Moroccan metal chandelier that steals the show.

Eclectic Old World

RMS user DebraCampbellDesigns

RMS user DebraCampbellDesigns

Combining elements from several periods and locations — including an antique Chinese armoire, an Italian chest and a pair of modern paintings — RMS user DebraCampbellDesigns created a charming living room with Old World appeal.

Spanish Courtyard

RMS user Leanne Michael Interiors

This outdoor living space may have been designed in Santa Barbara, Calif., but it’s all Spanish to us. With bright linens, graceful greenery and an oversized white fireplace, this is the ideal place to unwind. Design by RMS user Leanne Michael Interiors

Old World Bath

RMS user DebraCampbellDesign

RMS user DebraCampbellDesign

Complete with a Jerusalem stone floor, beamed ceiling and coordinating linens, this Old World bathroom has the best of the past in the luxurious present. Design by RMS user DebraCampbellDesign

Made in Mexico

RMS user allende

RMS user allende

With 15-foot French doors, the great room in this Mexican home was already off to a good start, but the vibrant splashes of color, matching lamps and oversized iron mirror simply make the space. Design by RMS user allende

Southwestern Style

RMS user MattDouganDesigner

RMS user MattDouganDesigner

Earth-toned stucco with tumbled fieldstone, mesquite doors and wrought-iron gates come together to create the ultimate Southwestern style for this Sedona home. Design by RMS user MattDouganDesigner

Tuscan Dreams

RMS user Newport Beach

RMS user Newport Beach

What makes an antique canopy bed look even more lavish? Placing it beneath a beamed ceiling. Evoking images of the Italian countryside, RMS user Newport Beach transformed this coastal bedroom with golden linens and a crimson accent wall.

This article was originally published by Charity Curley Mathews on HGTV.com. To see the original article, click here.