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Tips to remember at annual enrollment

It’s a good time to evaluate insurance coverage

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It’s that time again — annual enrollment, also known as open season or open enrollment. If you are lucky enough to be employed and receiving benefits from your employer, this is your opportunity to make changes to your elected benefit options.  Even if you are happy with your current selections and don’t think any changes are warranted, it is a good idea to reassess your needs and stay informed about what is changing.

First things first: one of the biggest problems participants make during open enrollment is making last minute decisions. If you want to make informed decisions and manage your costs, the best thing to do is attend an open enrollment meeting. This is your opportunity to listen to a presentation by a broker consultant and/or the product vendors and, most importantly, ask questions. Here are some other important things to consider:

Health Insurance. When choosing your health insurance option, remember this: health insurance is meant to be a financial safety net but is not meant to cover all costs.   Look at your choices carefully including premiums, deductibles and co-pays. If you have frequent medical appointments or other needs and anticipate submitting numerous claims, consider selecting the option with the least out of pocket expenses such as a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) or a basic Preferred Provider Organization (PPO). If you travel a lot within the U.S., consider a PPO with open access on a national basis so you are not stuck spending on out of plan services.

On the other hand, if your claim history is low and you think you will continue to be a light user of the benefits, see if a Health Savings Account (HSA) is available. An HSA typically has higher deductibles but you use pre-tax dollars to pay for your out-of-pocket costs and any money not spent will carry over year to year. Another way to use pre-tax dollars to pay for medical expenses is a flexible spending account (FSA) in which you can set aside a portion of your earnings to pay for qualified medical expenses. Just remember, if you don’t spend what you put aside during a calendar year, you will lose the money. So plan carefully and remember you cannot claim over-the-counter medications for FSAs or HSAs beginning in 2011.

Dental Insurance. Many employees do not opt for dental insurance because they think the premiums are too high. This may be true, but the premiums are a pre-tax expense and certain services are provided free, such as two cleanings a year. If you have access to a dental PPO, the services are provided at discounted PPO rates, so even if the plan does not pay for certain services like orthodontia, you may still get the benefit of a discount.

Life Insurance. It is always a good idea to talk to a financial professional who can help you access your overall life insurance needs in relation to your long term goals, your current income and expenses, and what you want your legacy to be. Once you have determined your overall need, you can then determine whether a group policy, a private policy or a combination of the two is appropriate for you. Group life insurance can be a great opportunity to get life insurance coverage quickly and without going through the underwriting process which can be timely and lead to exclusions or denial of coverage.   For some, group life insurance may not provide enough protection and particularly for those who are healthy, the cost of group benefits may be more than you can get privately.

Disability Insurance. Many white-collar employers offer short- and long-term disability insurance. Disability insurance is important to consider as this will protect some of your income in the event you become disabled. Again, however, many factors go into a determination of how much and what type of disability coverage is appropriate.  Often group coverage only protects up to 60 percent of your income (and sometimes even less) up to a limit. Additionally if your premiums are paid by your employer on a before-tax basis, you will be taxed on any benefits you receive. Private disability insurance on the other hand can be paid with after-tax dollars, which might allow you to receive benefits tax free.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to act as specific advice. Please talk to a financial professional prior to investing and a tax advisor for tax advice. Benefit guarantees for insurance are subject to the claims paying ability of the insurer.

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Autos

Sport haulers: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercedes GLE-Class

Updated cabins, adept handling, and more

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Jeep Grand Cherokee

Now that March Madness and the Masters are over, it’s time for, well, everything else. For my husband and me, this means water sports, as in kayaks and rowing sculls, which is why we trekked to the Potomac for the George Washington Invitational regatta last weekend. 

Alas, high winds splashed cold water on the event, canceling much of it. But there was still plenty of spirited camaraderie to rival “The Boys in the Boat.” 

And I was reminded of my time years ago as a rower with D.C. Strokes, ferrying teammates to races up and down the East Coast. Back then my ride was a dated, rather cramped four-door sedan. 

If only we could have paddled around in a sporty SUV like the two reviewed here. Now that would have been some smooth sailing (wink-wink). 

JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE 

$40,000

MPG: 19 city/26 highway

0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 37.7 cu. ft. 

PROS: Updated cabin, adept handling, strong towing 

CONS: So-so gas mileage, no third row, pricey trim levels

IN A NUTSHELL: Rough, tough and buff. It’s doesn’t get much more butch than a Jeep. This year’s Grand Cherokee is no exception, with rugged looks, expert off-road capability and better-than-average towing capacity of 6,200 pounds. 

There are a dizzying number of trim levels—more than a dozen—starting with the barebones base-model Laredo at an affordable $40,000. The lineup tops out with the Summit Reserve 4xe PHEV, which is almost twice the price at $76,000 and one of various plug-in hybrid versions available. Those plug-in hybrids can drive up to 25 miles on all-electric power before the four-cylinder gas engine kicks in. Otherwise, you can choose from a standard V6 or V8. Gas mileage on all trim levels is basically the same as the competition. 

Where the Grand Cherokee really shines is in the handling. More refined than a Wrangler but less lavish than a Land Rover, this Jeep maneuvers just as well on city streets and highways as it does on bumpier terrain.    

I tested the mid-range and mid-priced Overland, which comes standard with four-wheel drive and large 20-inch wheels. It also boasts a slew of niceties, such as quilted upholstery, panoramic sunroof and high-tech digital displays. These include a 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen and rear-seat entertainment system. 

The nine-speaker Alpine stereo, designed specifically for the Grand Cherokee, is pleasing. But I really wanted to hear the boffo 19-speaker McIntosh surround-sound system that Jeep also offers. Sigh, it’s only available on the premium Summit trim level. 

MERCEDES GLE-CLASS

$64,000 

MPG: 20 city/25 highway

0 to 60 mph: 6.6 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 33.3 cu. ft. 

PROS: Lush interior, silky-smooth suspension, speedy 

CONS: Some confusing electronics, tight third row, many competitors

IN A NUTSHELL: For a more high-class hauler, there’s the Mercedes GLE-Class. This midsize SUV is similar in size to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. But instead of seating five passengers, the GLE can carry up to seven. Sure, legroom in the optional third row may be tight for taller travelers, but it’s perfect for a cocky cockswain or two. 

Six trim levels, ranging from the base-model GLE 350 to two high-performance AMG models. For eco-conscious buyers, the GLE 450e plug-in hybrid arrived earlier this year and can run on battery power alone for almost 60 miles. 

My test car was the top-of-the-line AMG 63 S 4Matic, a head-turner in every way. Priced at a whopping $127,000, this GLE looks best in glossy black with the Night Package, which includes tasteful jet-black exterior accents and matte-black wheels. To complete the Darth Vader effect, there’s a deep, menacing exhaust rumble that’s downright threatening.

You expect such a ride to be wicked fast, and it is: 0 to 60 mph in a blistering 3.7 seconds. Yet the carbon ceramic brakes with their devil-red calipers are equally impressive in slowing things down quickly. 

Inside, each GLE comes with two large digital displays on the elegantly sculpted dashboard. My favorite feature is the “Hey Mercedes” digital assistant, which responds to voice commands such as opening or closing the sunroof, operating the infotainment system or activating the climate controls. 

It’s hard to find sport seats that are more comfortable, especially with the heavenly massage function (though those massage controls could be a bit more user-friendly.) For AMG models, the seats come with red-contrasting stitching and red seatbelts—a nod to the devilish demeanor under the hood.

Considering all the SUVs available in showrooms, few make quite the splash of a GLE.

Mercedes GLE-Class
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Real Estate

Boosting your rental property’s curb appeal

Affordable upgrades to attract and keep tenants happy

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Spruce up your curb appeal with new plants and trees.

In the District of Columbia, the rental market tends to open up significantly during the springtime for several reasons. First, spring brings about a sense of renewal and change, prompting many individuals and families to seek new living arrangements or embark on relocations. Additionally, the warmer weather and longer daylight hours make it more conducive for people to explore housing options, attend viewings, and make decisions about moving. Furthermore, spring often coincides with the end of academic terms, leading to an influx of students and young professionals entering the rental market. 

Landlords and property managers also tend to schedule lease renewals or list new vacancies during this time, capitalizing on the increased demand and ensuring a steady turnover of tenants. In the competitive world of rental properties, attracting and retaining quality tenants can be challenging. However, with some strategic upgrades, property owners can significantly enhance their units’ appeal without breaking the bank. From enhancing curb appeal to interior upgrades, here are some practical and cost-effective ideas to make your rental property stand out in the market.

Curb appeal

First impressions matter, and curb appeal plays a crucial role in attracting potential tenants. Simple enhancements like freshening up the exterior paint, adding potted plants or flowers, and ensuring a well-maintained lawn can instantly elevate the property’s appearance. Installing outdoor lighting not only adds charm but also enhances safety and security.

Interior upgrades

Upgrade the kitchen and bathroom fixtures to modern, energy-efficient options. Consider replacing outdated appliances with newer models, which not only appeal to tenants but also contribute to energy savings. Fresh paint and updated flooring can transform the look of a space without a hefty investment. Additionally, replacing worn-out carpets with hardwood or laminate flooring can make the unit more attractive and easier to maintain.

Enhance storage

Maximize storage options by installing built-in shelves, cabinets, or closet organizers. Tenants appreciate ample storage space to keep their belongings organized, contributing to a clutter-free living environment.

Improve lighting

Brighten up the interiors by adding more lighting fixtures or replacing old bulbs with energy-efficient LED lights. Well-lit spaces appear more inviting and spacious, enhancing the overall ambiance of the rental unit.

Upgrade window treatments

Replace outdated curtains or blinds with modern window treatments that allow natural light to filter in while offering privacy. Opt for neutral colors and versatile styles that appeal to a wide range of tastes.

Focus on security

Invest in security features such as deadbolts, window locks, and a reliable alarm system to ensure the safety of your tenants. Feeling secure in their home is a top priority for renters, and these upgrades can provide meaningful, genuine peace of mind.

Enhance outdoor spaces

If your rental property includes outdoor areas like a patio or balcony, consider sprucing them up with comfortable seating, outdoor rugs, and potted plants. Creating inviting outdoor spaces expands the living area and adds value to the rental property.

As landlords, investing in the enhancement of your rental properties is not merely about improving aesthetics; it’s about investing in the satisfaction and well-being of your tenants, and ultimately, in the success of your investment. By implementing these practical and affordable upgrades, you’re not only increasing the desirability of your units but also demonstrating your commitment to providing a high-quality living experience. 

These efforts translate into higher tenant retention rates, reduced vacancy periods, and ultimately, a healthier bottom line. Moreover, by prioritizing the comfort, safety, and happiness of your tenants, you’re fostering a sense of community and trust that can lead to long-term relationships and positive referrals. So, let’s embark on this journey of transformation together, turning rental properties into cherished homes and landlords into valued partners in creating exceptional living spaces.

Scott Bloom is owner and Senior Property Manager of Columbia Property Management. For more information and resources, visit ColumbiaPM.com.

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Real Estate

Real estate agents work hard for that commission

Despite recent headlines, buyers and sellers benefit from our expertise

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Realtors work hard for that rare six percent commission.

With there being a lot of noise in the media lately as I am sure you have read and heard headlines like “Gone are the days of the 6% commission” and “End of the good days of Realtors,” etc., I wanted to re-run a very short article of the long laundry list of things that well versed real estate agents bring to the table to earn that seldom 6% commission. It’s typically split in half and it has always been negotiable).

As a real estate professional you will go on listing appointments and buyer meetings to not only attempt to gain business but in doing so you also educate the general public on what it is that we as real estate professionals do. I know what you’re thinking – and if you’ve seen my photo before you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that I am cast in “Selling DC” as the lead villain. I am just waiting for that phone call! But in all seriousness, when I sit down to come up with a list of things to prove to prospective clients the value in working with me as their real estate professional, I am pretty blown away at the items and qualities that a trusted professional representing you in a real estate transaction is responsible for managing a myriad of tasks, including but not limiting to the following:

• Have a pulse on the marketplace to truly understand exactly what is happening from a buying and selling standpoint while also understanding the economic side of things – not just looking at interest rates. Why are rates where they are? What employers are laying off and could cause an influx of inventory? What are the trends for individuals moving IN or OUT of an area looking like? Forecasting the marketplace of all things that truly affect real estate is vital.

• Soft Skills – these are the skills often considered as customer service skills. The ability to be approachable by all types of people and ensure that you are open to receive information. Also – when telling you bad news – it’s important to ensure that it is done in a manner in which you, the receiver, will be pleasantly receptive.

• Pre-market vendors – not only are real estate professionals expected to market your home for sale or locate a home for you to purchase, we are also expected to have a list of pre-market vendors to which you can use for your lending needs, home inspection, title work, any fluffing and buffing needed pre market for the sale of your home such as a contractor, painter, landscaper etc. We have a book of extremely well vetted vendors that either I personally have used or past clients have used that can assist with your needs. This beats Googling for hours and accidentally choosing the wrong contractor. Section A of the pre-market vendor list includes those in which we real estate professionals use for marketing materials for your property – we will use the best photographers, have floor plans drawn for your property, video, staging, catering for brokers opens and the list goes on. Again – this is a well vetted list that we have worked on for years and done all of the heavy lifting and had those uncomfortable conversations when things are not properly executed – so you don’t have to.

• On Market Tasks – these are the tasks that most clients are unaware that we do. Oftentimes when a listing is on market – folks think that I am just cruising around in my convertible buying nice things. However I am in fact going around checking each listing on market to ensure that they are clean, the booties are replaced, marketing materials are stocked, light bulbs are all working, staging looks crisp and the list truly goes on. That of course, doesn’t include the tasks we do to properly market the property such as weekly email blasts, reaching out several times to follow up with showing agents to get their feedback, check the market to see what our competition looks like, what’s under contract and why, and again…..I could go on. Needless to say the most important and time consuming tasks are those that are done when the property is on market.

• “Contract to close” management – the term contract to close is pretty much what it sounds like – it’s what happens from the time we go under contract until we reach the closing finish line and you have those keys. Once a trusted real estate professional has fiercely negotiated on your behalf as a buyer, the fun starts. Again pops up this vendor list – helping guide you though selection of a home inspector, termite inspector, etc. for the inspections. A title attorney is needed (depending on your jurisdiction) and any other vendors for quotes like renovations, etc., that you might want done to the property. Once the inspection is completed and we go through possible re-negotiations then we must ensure that the lender has the documents needed from you completed in order to have the appraisal done to prove the value of the home you are under contract for. Now we are getting into the weeds – but once we are on the other side of things and the appraisal comes back at value and the loan is clear to close then we are at the finish line to your new home.

A similar story can be told if you are selling your home. The appraisal is a very important part of the checklist as that is the value in which your home is worth. The appraiser is a third party that neither the buyer, seller, lender or myself have any allegiance to. I do, however, have the duty to educate said appraiser on why I chose the listing price and how I came up with that value. 

• Post-market vendors. As mentioned before, a real estate professional should have a book of well vetted vendors from which to choose. Looking at the list of vendors now that we are on the other side of the table – I can provide a cleaning person, HVAC contractor, someone to repair the sprinkler system, a dog walker, the best caterers and bakery in town. Further down the road I am able to provide a wonderful wealth manager who can tell you what to do with that piece of real estate you purchased some time ago and we could go on for days.

While you are fully entitled to not use a real estate agent during your real estate transaction, I do believe that it is well within the realm of possibilities to say that without one there would be loose ends not completely tied up, things mismanaged and possible delays that could cost real cash. All of that aside, it is also such a truly wonderful experience to work alongside a trusted professional that at the end of the transaction becomes a new friend and family member. Real estate professionals love what they do, they love real estate and people and sheepherding you through the home buying or selling process is what it’s all about to us.

Justin Noble is a Realtor with Sotheby’s international Realty licensed in D.C., Maryland, and Delaware for your DMV and Delaware Beach needs. Specializing in first-time homebuyers, development and new construction as well as estate sales, Justin is a well-versed agent, highly regarded, and provides white glove service at every price point. Reach him at 202-503-4243,  [email protected] or BurnsandNoble.com.

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