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A daily look at what we buy, how we spend, and the companies that do right - and wrong - by their customers.

Housing - All posts in category Housing

  • Jan 10, 2012
    10:18 AM ET

    CES: The High-Tech Solution for Lost Keys?

    The same technology used to track warehouse inventory and tag cattle can soon be used to keep track of your keys, cellphone — and even your kids. Within reason, anyway.

    Available in February, the $100 Bikn (pronounced like “beacon”) kit includes two tags and a smart iPhone case that communicate with each other via encoded radio waves. Sets of two additional tags will be available for $50 each. Users will be able to use the linked app to find a tagged item or person — follow the on-screen directions to the tag, or send a page so that the tag beeps and vibrates. A “leash” feature sends alerts to both the phone and the tag if they move a predetermined distance from each other, say, if a child wanders too far at the mall.

  • Nov 23, 2011
    9:00 AM ET

    Uncle Sam Wants You – To Spend


    Don’t blame the parents. Instead, blame Uncle Sam.

    As shoppers and retailers get ready for Black Friday, a new book says Americans could learn a lesson from more prudent first-world countries like Germany. In “Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves,” Sheldon Garon, a professor of history at Princeton University, says Americans are actively encouraged to spend.

    Americans live large – literally. Garon says that the average size of the American house has risen from 980 square feet in 1950 to around 2,500 square feet today. “There’s only so much stuff you can put in a small house,” he says. Larger homes mean higher heating bills, more cars, fuel and renovation costs. Pay Dirt spoke to Garon about America’s need to shop.

    Pay Dirt: Do Americans spend more than rest of the world?

  • Oct 31, 2011
    6:25 PM ET

    Burglars Find Jobs On Twitter


    Thieves are using Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare as tip sheets.

    Thanks to careless postings on social-networking sites, burglars can find out when homeowners are out of town and whether or not they own a menacing dog, experts say. According to a new report, nearly 80% of former burglars said they believed thieves use these resources to target homes. That could be a polite way of saying they are speaking from personal experience.

    Social networking also allows burglars to “case the joint” without leaving home. What’s more, 74% of ex-burglars say they believe location services like Google Street View is helpful to burglars planning raids. (Twitter and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.)

    It means burglars can hang up their black cat suits and stop prowling in neighborhoods in the dark. The average value of goods stolen during the day is $2,158 versus $1,868 at night, according to the survey by, a website with credit scoring and personal finance tools.

  • Sep 19, 2011
    3:08 PM ET

    Medieval Castles in Ireland: 50% Off

    Thanks to the European debt crisis, vacation homes in the troubled countries of Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal are selling at big discounts, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. But Americans looking for the ultimate deal on old-fashioned digs should instead look to the Emerald Isle, which has arguably had the biggest property crash of them all.

    Some castles in Ireland are now selling for 50% off their peak in 2006, according to Jill O’Neill, spokeswoman for Sherry Fitzgerald auctioneers in Dublin. In addition, some of these properties are exempt from certain property taxes so long as you open them to the public for a certain number of days each year. Just make yourself scarce on those days, or choose to play host yourself.

    You may just have to deal with some weird history within the walls. “Some of these castles have histories of beheadings, murder, drama and adultery,” says auctioneer Helen Cassidy, owner of Premier Properties in County Galway. “We’ve had lots of American interest.” Here are some examples on offer from Irish real estate agents that would make the Tudors blush:

  • Aug 26, 2011
    6:00 AM ET

    Home Improvements To Save Your House From the Next Big Storm


    From a protect-your-home standpoint, there are two ways to thumb your nose at Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters like her.

    Option One: Have an insurance policy that covers windstorm damage and flooding (or whatever natural disasters are typical in your area). Two, fortify your house so that should a disaster strike, the building has a better chance of making it through undamaged — which keeps you safe if you’re weathering in place better phrase? confusing, and gives you a home to come back to, if you’ve evacuated.

    Option Two comes with some financial incentives. As we reported earlier this year, more insurers are offering policy discounts:

  • Aug 25, 2011
    1:49 PM ET

    Avoiding Irene: The Importance of Packing a ‘Go Bag’


    First an earthquake, now a Category 3 hurricane — Mother Nature has given East Coasters plenty of incentive this week to rethink their emergency preparedness. But experts say that it’s a good idea in general to have a “go bag” of vital papers and other supplies ready if you need to leave home — fast — in any emergency situation.

    The number of storms, floods and other natural disasters reaching catastrophic levels — meaning they caused in excess of $25 million in damage — jumped 22% last year to an all-time high of 247, reports reinsurance firm Munich Re. This year is a contender to beat that, given crippling snowstorms across the Midwest and Northeast in January, spring tornadoes in the South and extensive flooding along the Mississippi. “You never know what could happen,” says James Judge, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory council. (He’s also executive director for Lake-Sumter EMS in Mount Dora, Fla.) “It’s always best to be ready.”

    A “go bag” should literally be grab-and go, Judge says, so it’s smart to collect the things you need when there’s no emergency in sight. Pack them in a plastic bin (available at any home goods store) and stash it under the bed or in a closet near your front door. A good kit can also double as a store if you need to weather a hurricane or other disaster at home.

  • Jul 29, 2011
    1:07 PM ET

    A Private Island (Almost) Within Reach

    Hollywood royalty like Leonardo diCaprio, real blue-bloods and even the Aga Khan, the Muslim spiritual leader and noted philanthropist, have all purchased islands to get away from the prying eyes of the public. “The Wall Street Journal” reports Friday that wealthy buyers are flocking to little-known archipelagos for rest-and-relaxation. But what about the rest of us clock-watchers? Buying an island could be within reach even if you don’t have a couple of million bucks to spare.


    Pay Dirt would like to help you achieve your wildest dreams, or at least temporarily explore them. We spoke to Chris Krolow, CEO of real estate company Private Islands of Toronto, Canada, who currently has the exclusive on marketing actor’s Nicholas Cage’s former island in the Bahamas. He says 80% of his clientele is American. “The people who buy these projects get excited about the challenges of developing an island,” he says. “But we’ve also sold islands to teachers.”

    Here are some considerations before handing over a down-payment:

  • Jul 20, 2011
    1:20 PM ET

    Save Cash: Crank Up the A/C


    To consumers across in the 40 states that topped 90 degrees Tuesday — 17 of which hit at least 100 degrees — the Energy Information Administration’s recent predictions for a cooler summer with fewer a/c-required days are cold comfort of the wrong kind. Running the air conditioner to beat the non-stop heat doesn’t have to add significantly to your electricity bill, though, if you know how to use it effectively.

    By Energy Star estimates, one room air conditioner adds roughly $85 to your electric bill over the course of a year, while a central air conditioner will set you back twice that. Expect to pay even more if the unit isn’t energy-efficient, or you’re using it more than the average seven hours a day. Try these four tips to maximize your a/c’s cooling power and minimize the bill:

    Clean up. Clean out the filters in your central or window air conditioner, as well as its exterior vents. A clogged unit uses more energy to push through air, says Tom Simchak, a senior research associate with the Alliance to Save Energy.

  • Jul 5, 2011
    11:05 AM ET

    Renters See Prices Skyrocket

    Sorry renters, but the days of low rents and lenient landlords are over — at least for now.

    Nationwide, the average rate for apartment and home rentals is up 6.7% from June 2010, according to a new report from housing search engine Prices for studio apartments are up 14.3%, and a five-bedroom home is 12.1% more. One- and two-bedrooms got off relatively easy, with average increases of 2.3% and 2%, respectively. Tenants will see the bulk of rent increases this year, predicts listing site, but can expect another 3% jump when it’s time to renew in 2012.

    At the heart of the increases: vacancy rates have dropped from about 8% to 6.2% nationwide over the past year. “That’s a really steep decline in a 12-month period,” says Christina Aragon, a spokeswoman for The drop indicates pent-up demand from people who made-do with roommates or stayed with family during the recession. Nearly half of property managers say they have also seen an increase in applicants moving from a foreclosed property, according to a recent survey from credit bureau TransUnion. “Landlords have the power right now,” Aragon says.

  • May 12, 2011
    10:10 AM ET

    Google Wants To Automate Your Home


    As Senator Al Franken (D., Minn.) conducted a Congressional hearing this week to investigate Google and Apple’s recent online privacy and tracking issues, Google was in San Francisco showcasing its new home automation plans: Android@Home. If the Internet Search giant has its way, it won’t only show you the way to go home on Google Maps, its Android software will remind you that the milk in your refrigerator is running low before you even get there.

    As one worried consumer wrote online: “Now Google can know what’s in my refrigerator and send me ads based on what I have in there.” Not quite. Its plans are in the early stages, but as Pay Dirt recently reported, the smart phone may ultimately be used to remote-control your domestic appliances as software and app developers jump on board. Google gave a glimpse of this future at its Google I/O software developers’ conference. Using Android@Home software, Google says these could remote-control your lights or lawn sprinkler system.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.