Meet Jane.

Jane is a thirty-something homeowner with two young kids. She walks into her local bank one day to talk to someone about taking out a loan to replace her outdated furnace. She wanted to put it on her credit card, but she got herself into trouble with credit cards when she was younger, so she wants to look at other options. After talking with her a while, her personal banker, Joe, suggests a home equity line of credit, to which Jane replies, "A what?"

I met many customers like Jane during my time as a personal banker. Many people simply don't know what or how home equity lines of credit work.

A HELOC (home equity line of credit) isn't for everyone, but it often can be the perfect solution for many. First off, you have to be a homeowner and have equity in your home.

What is home equity?

The equity in your home is what you truly own, debt-free. Let's say Jane's house is valued at 200k and she has a mortgage balance of 60k. This would mean that Jane's home equity value is 140k. Over time, the more you pay off any lines against your house (mortgages), the higher your equity value goes. Home improvements that increase the value of your home also raise equity.

A home equity line of credit works much differently than a mortgage or home equity loan. I find it best to view it as working similarly to a credit card. You may draw funds out of the line of credit only as needed. Therefore, technically you can take out a HELOC without ever actually touching the money and having to pay it back.

How much do I qualify for?

Typically, most banks will let you borrow anywhere from 75% to 90% of the equity in your home. To figure this out yourself, take the value of your home, subtract any loans against your home, and multiply that number by the percent the bank will let you borrow. Jane's banker tells her she is able to borrow up to 80% of the equity in her home. You would multiply 140k by .80, coming to a figure of 112k being the maximum amount Jane can borrow. It's important to note that you do not need to borrow the max available. Keep in mind that your debt to income ratio and credit score can also affect how much you qualify for.

How much should I take out a line of credit for?

This is the number one question that was asked to me by customers looking to take out a line of credit. And really, there is no right or wrong answer. You can always take the max available, but you don't have to. There are things you need to consider when deciding how much to borrow. If you are a person who is easily tempted to use that money, even when it's not needed, it probably isn't best to request the max amount unless you know that you will be able to afford the monthly payments.

On the other hand, I also tell people it can be a good idea to take more than you need right now, so you have it as a "cushion." One of my customers came to me to request a HELOC to update her kitchen. Although she qualified for a much higher line, she insisted on only taking what she needed at that time. Not even a year later she came back to me. She had used up the entire amount available on the line of credit and now needed more to fix her roof. She had to go through the entire application process again to do a HELOC increase, and she wasn't happy that it wasn't as simple as saying "I need more money" and having the money readily available. This is the reason I tell people to have a cushion. That cushion can be a lifesaver in emergencies.

What can I use my HELOC to pay?

Most people assume HELOCs can only be used for home renovations, but, in reality, you can use the money for anything. A HELOC can be a great tool to consolidate credit card debt. According to the federal reserve, the average credit card rate was around 15% in 2019, and that rate is often higher for people without excellent credit standings. In contrast, the average HELOC interest rate, according to Bankrate, is around 6%.

What's the application and fee process?

Before heading to the bank, make sure you have the following documents:

  • W2s / 1099 forms
  • Last 2 years federal tax returns
  • Recent pay stubs
  • Proof of any other income

The application process usually takes anywhere from a few days to sometimes weeks, depending on how much information the underwriters may need. The bank typically does an appraisal of the house. In some instances, they may need access to the inside for appraisal, although this is typically not necessary.

After the HELOC is approved, the bank will schedule a closing date and time for you to come in and sign the mountain of paperwork. It can seem like a lot, but you will receive copies of everything, and you have three business days to look it over and cancel if you want.

Common fees associated with HELOCs are lender fees, annual fees, and cancelation fees. Do yourself a favor and research lender options before applying, as there are plenty of banks that do not charge most of these fees. When I worked at M&T Bank, the only fee applicable to a HELOC was a cancelation fee, and that only applied if the line was closed entirely within the first three months.

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Home garden and porch

As anyone who has ever sold a house will tell you, you must prioritize curb appeal. Before a potential buyer even considers looking inside your house, they notice the outside first. Does it attract the right kind of attention? Does it take away from the feel you're going for? If you plan to sell sometime soon, you must think about these things. Here are some landscaping options to increase your home's curb appeal, so you can get the best price on your home.

Extensive Plants and Greenery

A barren front yard won't get you the price you want on your home. So, invest in at least a little bit of greenery to keep the surrounding area from looking too dead. Shrubs and bushes tie the house to the lawn that precedes it, and flower beds bring a pop of color to an otherwise drab structure. You can also strategically plant some trees to improve the overall feel of your home's exterior.

Lawn Care

As we mentioned, your lawn is one of the most prominent features of your home's exterior. A patchy, dried-up lawn will quickly drive your home's price way down. Some of the best landscaping options for your home's curb appeal involve improving your lawn for the next inhabitant. Overall fertilization, ground aeration, underbrush removal, proper mowing—all of these lawn care tasks contribute to a greener and more lively area that invites people to see your house, rather than stay away from it.

Paved Pathways

There's nothing like a broken and disheveled pathway to make someone think twice about buying a property. Just as you want the entryway in your house to be welcoming, so too should the pathway leading up to the house be inviting. The pathway from the street to your front door provides plenty of real estate to get creative with. You don't have to settle for a boring concrete pathway. Consider something more eye catching, like a cobblestone path or intermittent brick patterns, as a way to better welcome potential buyers.

Usable Outdoor Furniture

Landscaping doesn't just involve the ground you walk on; also included are the items you use as extras to the overall look. Outdoor furniture is one such extra that you don't necessarily need but can look quite attractive if done correctly. Staging is important with outdoor furniture. Old, broken-down pieces will only look like more work to the potential buyer. A few comfortable chairs, a bench, or a table with an umbrella really go a long way to improving your outdoor aesthetics.

A good tip for deciding on curb appeal items is to decide what you personally would want to see as a part of a welcoming home's exterior. You don't need to go overboard, but a little bit of forethought could net you quite a lot of extra cash in the sale.

Unfortunately, giving back can sometimes go haywire. If you're ready to make a donation, first consider common mistakes made when giving back.

Many people strive to support their community by donating their time or their money. When you find a meaningful cause, you might be quick to cut a donation check. Though it's admirable to be quick to act charitably, you should be wary of several common mistakes made when giving to charity. Being mindful of these mistakes and learning tips for making informed charitable choices can help you make the most out of your generous check.

Acting Quickly Out of Emotion

Mission statements are meant to be compelling. If you're an emotionally driven individual, it's natural to pull out your wallet at the sight of a sad puppy on TV or when informed about food insecurity over the phone. Unfortunately, not all charities are as effective or official as they may seem.

Take your passion for helping others one step further by making sure your chosen charity is legit. Speaking with a representative, reviewing their website and social media accounts, and looking at testaments online can give you a better idea of whether the organization is worth your donation.

Forgetting to Keep Record of the Donation

Don't forget that you can reap some financial perks from giving back! With the proper documentation of your donation, you can acquire a better tax deductible.

If you donate more than $12,400 as a single filer or $24,800 as one of two joint filers, you're eligible to deduct that amount from your taxes. So, when a charity asks if you'd like a receipt of donation, always answer yes.

Donating Unusable Materials

Most charities can utilize a monetary donation—it's the physical donations that usually cause some issues. Providing a local nonprofit with irrelevant materials or gifting them with unusable products are surprisingly common mistakes made when giving to charity.

Always check your intended charity's website for a list of things they do and do not accept. The majority of places will provide a guideline to donating or offer contact information to clarify any questions.

Strictly Giving at Year's End

As more and more people get into the holiday spirit at the end of the year, nonprofit organizations see an influx of donations. While it's great to spread holiday cheer via a monetary donation, it's important to keep that spirit going year-round.

With regular donations, charities can more effectively allocate their annual budget. Setting up an automatic monthly donation with the charity of your choosing can maximize your impact. You can account for a monthly donation by foregoing a costly coffee every once in a while.

Knowing how much you should spend on home maintenance each year is hard to figure out and may be preventing you from buying your first home. The types of costs you'll incur depend on the house you buy and its location. The one certainty is that you should start saving now. Read on to figure out how much to start setting aside based on the home you own.

The Age of Your House

Consider several factors when budgeting for home repairs. If you've purchased a new home, your house likely won't require as much maintenance for a few years. Homes built 20 or more years ago are likely to require more maintenance, including replacing and keeping your windows clean. Further, depending on your home's location, weather can cause additional strain over time, so you may need to budget for more repairs.

The One-Percent Rule

An easy way to budget for home repairs is to follow the one-percent rule. Set aside one percent of your home's purchase price each year to cover maintenance costs. For instance, if you paid $200,000 for your home, you would set aside $2,000 each year. This plan is not foolproof. If you bought your home for a good deal during a buyer's market, your home could require more repairs than you've budgeted for.

The Square-Foot Rule

Easy to calculate, you can also budget for home maintenance by saving one dollar for every square foot of your home. This pricing method is more consistent than pricing it by how much you paid because the rate relies on the objective size of your home. Unfortunately, it does not consider inflation for the area where you live, so make sure you also budget for increased taxes and labor costs if you live in or near a city.

The Mix and Match Method

Since there is no infallible rule for how much you should spend on home maintenance, you can combine both methods to get an idea for a budget. Average your results from the square-foot rule and the one-percent rule to arrive at a budget that works for you. You should also increase your savings by 10 percent for each risk factor that affects your home, such as weather and age.

Holding on to savings is easier in theory than practice. Once you know how much you should spend on home maintenance, you'll know what to aim for and be more prepared for an emergency. If you are having trouble securing funds for home repairs, consider taking out a home equity loan, borrowing money from friends or family, or applying for funds through a home repair program through your local government for low-income individuals.