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Melissa Preddy

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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Assess the vacation home market as getaway season draws near

Whether a lakeside cabin, desert ranch, riverside RV or beachfront cottage, owning the getaway home is many a consumer’s dream.

And as summer draws near, a new spate of information indicating an upswing in buyer demand makes this an opportune moment to take a look at trends in the sale of second homes and other types of vacation property.

Second homes  modular mountain home

Mens Journal urges readers to buy their second home first.

About 25 percent of Baby Boomers say they plan to buy a second home as part of their older-years strategy, according to a new survey out from Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC; the survey also includes other factoids about the over-50 crowd’s property-buying and selling plans, if that’s your angle.

And the National Association of Realtors today releases its annual Investment and Vacation Homes Buyers Survey.

The NAR report shows that 2013 vacation home sales soared 29.7 percent, to an estimated 717,000 properties, compared to 2012.  Further, vacation home sales accounted for 13 percent of transactions last year, the highest since 2006, and the median price of a vacation home was up 12.5 percent to $168,700.

Interestingly, investment home sales, one of the hottest market segments in recent years, showed a decline in 2013, dropping by about 8.5 percent but still well over a million transactions.  If you’ve been following that trend in your region and its effect on neighborhoods and would-be buyers, this might be time for another look.

The complete report is available from the NAR’s media relations office and includes buyer demographics, down payment medians and more.

Some ideas for specific story angles:

Timeshares.  Always an interesting slice of the market.  This recent Motley Fool article says that big-name purveyors are increasingly competing with the secondary market of individual sellers using wide-reaching online databases to find buyers.  Why not check out some of the “vacation ownership” communities in your area and talk with developers and vacationers about trends? The American Resort Development Association, the industry group, also has a website full of story nuggets from state-by-state legislative issues to the program for its conference, which opens April 6.

Being a vacation-home landlord.  Is this a good retirement or investment strategy?  HomeAway Inc., an online rental marketplace, is just out this week with its most recent survey of rental landlords; it says bookings are stable and notes, interestingly, that the average age of rental owners is trending down.  The survey also cites the top locations for vacation rental sales, most are in the south but I wonder if the firm would run numbers upon request for other states.  In addition to owning full-time rentals, how can consumers turn a dime occasionally?  Here’s a recent Forbes piece, “How to use AirBnB to profit from your second home;”

Non-traditional second homes.  The motor home parked all season in one reserved spot or the city pied a terre for those who prefer martinis to mosquitos might make for some interesting real estate markets depending on the standout features of your region.  Ask around among real estate agents about any offbeat demands from second-home buyers.

And here’s a neat twist from Men’s Journa:  “Buy your second home first.  It chronicles the experiences of upwardly mobile young renters who are finding weekend properties more affordable than condos or apartments in the cities where they work.  An interesting trends piece and of course a good springboard for writing about the tax implications of primary and second homes.

The family cottage.  Equitable use by multiple family members, inheritance problems and economic woes are problems faced by the second and subsequent generations to inherit these getaway gems.  Plus, today’s youngish families may prefer jetting off to a variety of destinations to cooking marshmallows on the same old campfire each weekend.  What’s happening in resort and lakeside areas near your market, traditionally home to the weekend cabin.  Are more being converted to year-round residences, sold out of the family of origin or used as rental property.

 

 

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As autism prevalence soars, which businesses strive to accommodate?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an amazing statistic last week:  One in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder – up 30 percent from just two years ago, according to a CNN report.

Here’s the basic fact sheet on the disorder from the CDC’s extensive autism portal; it says “People with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors and might not want change in their daily activities. Many people with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things. Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life.”

Autism Business

Image of the child: HealthNews.com

The astounding prevalence (an estimate, it should be noted, based on a smallish study) of this developmental disability is really an amazing public health issue for medical personnel, educators, child care providers and of course parents.  And while experts debate the causes, diagnosis and treatment of autism or the various autism spectrum disorders, it’s a condition that is increasingly of interest to businesses, as well.  Which is where we come in.

According to the advocacy group AutismSpeaks.org, more children are affected by autism than by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome combined.  And as it’s considered a lifelong diagnosis, obviously many adults and their families presently and in the future will be coping with autism as well.

AUTISM AS AN ‘INDUSTRY’

I think it’s worth it for business writers to take a look at the “industry” of autism, as well as the increasing number of businesses that are making accommodations for those with autism spectrum and other disorders that make them sensitive to sensory experiences. (Also, April is Autism Awareness Month, if you need another news peg – and it may be prompting companies into reviewing their own training and procedures.)

For example, the Detroit Metropolitan Airport recently said kicked off Onboard with Autism, a program that enlists the TSA and airlines in allowing families to conduct “flight rehearsals” to familiarize people with autism with the routine and sensory experience of checking in, going through security, boarding an aircraft and listening to flight attendant safety instructions.

What’s going on at your local airport, and other businesses that cater to the general public with services or events that could be problematic for those with sensation issues?  Here’s a community playhouse that holds autism-friendly programs and a Tampa, Fla. Holiday Inn that bills itself as autism-friendly; it says it provides “comfort items” and special staff training to help families with an autistic member.  Movie theaters sometimes hold special programming, and a number of hair salons – like tHairapy in San Diego – serve special-needs people with autism and related disorders.  What an interesting niche.

EDUCATING STAFF AND CUSTOMERS

Restaurants, theme parks, dental offices, all are places that likely are under increasing pressure to serve this clientele.  Your area and state advocacy groups likely can provide examples of businesses that do and don’t accommodate, as well as insight into pending legislative issues.  Check this Autism Society database that helps you search for advocacy groups, care providers and other involved parties all at once.

Training teachers, first responders and other in understanding the issues of those with autism is another industry that is revving up; I got a number of hits searching “autism business consultants” and “autism training” with a geographical term for my area.  Are more companies that serve the public hiring experts?  Even as a defensive measure, perhaps; lawsuits like this one against a hotel chain charged with not accommodating an employee with autism – as well as ADA-related suits by patrons – may rise with the prevalence of the disorder.

Finally, on an upbeat note, here’s a Wall Street Journal report, “How autism can help you land a job,” about companies actively seeking autistic adult employees, if you want to do a workplace piece about jobs for people with this lifelong conditions.

 

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Money Monday: Story ideas for reaching parents, kids and teens

Welcome to Money Mondays! April is widely recognized by the financial industry and various consumer protection groups as National Financial Literacy Month, and in honor of it we’ll kick off each week with posts about a variety of hot topics in personal finance as well as resources to help reporters tackle them.

Some financial matters span every age range, while others tend to affect people in specific life stages.  We’ll follow that theme and start the month off with some story ideas for finance as it relates to babies, children and teens.

This artistic piggy bank was created to help teach about personal finance. Photo by Flickr user dbking

Money is an issue even before birth; the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published a new Expenditure on Children by Families report and projected that parents will spend an average of $241,080 to raise a child born in 2012.  That’s a daunting figure and of course real-life spending varies wildly, but you might parse the averages in various categories (shelter, clothing, school, etc.) and get area budget experts, money-smart bloggers and other pros to offer tips for painlessly paring the tab.

A fun round-up of babysitting rates in various districts and neighborhoods might be a good tsk-tsk feature and a heads-up for teenage entrepreneurs; I’m talking casual parents-night-out or after-school sitting vs. day care and was shocked to hear parents recently saying they’re resigned to $50 in babysitting bills for an evening out.  What are the variable rates depending on number and ages of the kids being watched, whether meal preparation or late-night stays are involved, etc?  Maybe bartering with prospective sitters might be one way to economizing; trading tutoring or term-paper editing, or cooking or the use of a gadget, in exchange for date-night child care.

Many parents these days know the importance of reading to infants, what how about developing a child’s money sense?

Sometimes frivolous-seeming features can underscore why so many adults grow up to be challenged in financial matters. I once roamed a big chain toy store looking for games and toys that taught kids about money.  No dice; a tiny vending machine took money to dispense fake food, dress-up purses held baby cells phones to ingrain personal connectivity but with no mention of the monthly tab, and fashion dolls had glamorous occupations like “shopper” and cruise-ship passenger; none were accountants, financial planners or budget manager.  Instructional videos, flash cards and “educational” toys weren’t much better.  Though a recent search did turn up a “Trip to the Credit Union” coloring book, which is a start.

girl with play money

Click photo for Forbes' 5 most important money lessons for kids.

Not to sound like the Grinch, but since financial stumbles can affect a person’s choices in education, career, lifestyle and even relationships you might want to talk with educators about what’s lacking in personal finance messages for kids and teens, and try to find some programs in your area that fill the need.  The Jump$tart Coalition can put you in touch with member agencies in your state, and here’s an enlightening map of state financial education requirements; you will see that many states have none.  Ask legislators and education department officials about the gap.

Tips for making allowances a learning tool, early investing opportunities (yes, kids under age 18 can open a traditional or Roth IRA), gadgets and apps that teach children about money skills, all are components of useful stories that help families fill educational gaps.

The National Credit Union Foundation sponsors Biz Kid$, a TV show that teaches young people about entrepreneurship and basics like credit, spending and the stock market; check with your local credit union about other outreach to teens and children.

Teen earning, spending and saving are interesting topics, especially in recent years when the percentage of employed teenagers has plummeted; according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation report, the participation rate in the workforce of those age 16-19 is only about 32 percent.  The Las Vegas Sun says youths encountering a bleak jobs market “might be permanently scarred” with reduced earning power following them for a lifetime.  What jobs fairs, workshops and other opportunities are out there for teens?

And are they working for pocket money or to contribute to household necessities?  What tips do financial planners have for youth; this is a good time to illustrate the wonder of compound interest for those in a position to put by a few dollars.  College choices loom too; have a planner outline the lifelong consequences of, say, doing the first two years of undergrad on a pay-as-you-go basis at the local community college vs. the four-year schools teens in your area favor.

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Will 2014 new car sales build on last year’s momentum?

Last year’s new car sales in the United States proved a turning point of sorts, soaring 50 percent higher than the dismal post-recession slump of 2009, as CNN Money reported in January.  While the annual sales pace was still 2 million vehicles off the heyday of 10 years ago, consumers (who had been hanging on to their older vehicles for unprecedented lengths of time) did take the keys to 15.6 million new passenger cars and trucks, a gain of more than 12 percent over 2012.

New Car Sales  Chevy Code  Acura NSX  BMW i8

These are three of Car and Driver's 25 cars worth waiting for out of the 2015 models. CLICK photo for full report.

But new car purchasing chilled a bit in December and has been slower than hoped the first couple months of this year; no doubt carmakers are hoping that a forecasted March uptick of 2 percent year-over-year will wave the green flag on another car-buying frenzy in 2014.  But with new car sales for the first quarter due out from major automakers on April 1, you might want check on momentum at dealers in your area.

There are a couple of signs that might not bode so well for the new-car sales industry:  An intriguing release by Interest.com on its 2014 Car Affordability Study says that residents of only one U.S. city — Washington, D.C. — can afford a new car on that community’s median income.   That’s according to the formula recommended by the Interest.com site (a sister to the respected Bankrate.com site) which includes a hefty down payment and monthly obligation of no more than 10 percent of income.  By its calculations, consumers in many major cities can’t afford the $32,000-plus average price tag on a new vehicle; the study indicates the max it thinks a median-income household should spend on a new car, which in Miami, for example, is about $15,000.

Now of course, not every consumer sticks to those sensible guidlines, but there is no question that stagnat wages,a  sluggish job market, the drumbeat of income inquality woes and other factors are factors that could snuff out the fire in car-buyers’ bellies.  Already, they are stretching auto loans to the max with a third of loan terms being six years or longer, according to this J.D. Power report from February.  Consumers also are using more auto leases than they have since 2000 — another way to get into a car that might be bigger than one’s budget.  Automotive News reports that auto loan delinquencies, while low, did edge up recently, and that lending to subprime borrowers (with lower credit scores) are rising slightly as well.

These factors could be a blip or a trend; I’d get out and talk with dealers, credit unions and banks, repo companies and others about the local forecast for 2014.  And is the silver lining possibly better deals for buyers?  The Motley Fool postulates about a “price war” among automakers if sales don’t reflect a little more octane in coming months.

Conveniently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is just out with its report on personal income by state for 2013; it notes that personal income in every state grew more slowly last year than in 2012.  (I don’t know that the BLS numbers are the same ones used by Interest.com, by the way.)  You might find the various income reports for your state helpful in establishing context.

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Heat is on for parents lining up affordable summer kid care

Some of us still are bracing for snowstorms as winter clings to spring with icy fingers — but for some working parents, the balmy days of June and beyond loom uncomfortably close.  That’s because vacation time for school-age children brings up the need for supervising and entertaining kids too young to hang out alone, and it’s none too soon to take a look at the business and personal finance implications of the summer camp and day care industries.

Camp Pinewood YMCA

Camping is about learning skills, developing character and making friends. And giving kids something to do. Photo: Camp Pinewood YMCA

 

From the parents’ POV

This is a huge personal finance story that encompasses out-of-pocket spending, potential tax credits for care costs, the opportunity costs of using vacation time to cover kids’ free time and issues created in the workplace by parents scrambling to make sure their children aren’t left unsupervised.  This annual report from Child Care Aware, while not directly addressing seasonal child care needs, provides a lot of benchmark cost information.

This timely Boston Globe article, “Sticker-shocked parents plan now for children’s summer activities,” is a great one to localize.  It says care and activities can cost $500 per kid per week, or abut $6,000 per child for a full summer.  And the logistics of piecing together a summer’s worth of supervision — between parents’ vacation, grandparents’ visits, camps, summer school or tutoring and so on — are even more daunting.   Why not do a roundup of offerings from various for-profit and non-profit activity centers in your area, as well as a look at rates and regulations at traditional day care operators.

Here’s an About.com article, “Everything you know about sumer camp planning,” that offers some story germs from the parental point of view.  You might also look for creative solutions for cash-strapped parents; perhaps teaming up with another family to share a sitter or swap responsibilities when one parent or the other is on vacation.

The New York Times reported last year on an American Express spending survey that figured the cost of kids’ summer activities at $856 per child (and that’s the average; the affluent cohort spends considerably more.  The Amex Survey measures things like day camps, educational activities, parties and more, in addition (apparently) to day-to-day child care costs.

Climate Camp, England

Physical challenges can be a healthy part of summer camp. Photo: Manos Simonides

Don’t overlook the tax implications.  For starters, over the course of a summer it’s quite possible for parents to exceed the threshold that requires them to pay the “nanny tax” to household workers, as this CBS News report points out. Enlist an area accountant to explain how this works, perhaps connect you with clients who pay the tax in summer and advise on ways to avoid the hassle (like hiring a different type of business to care for the child.)  On the other hand, parents may find that certain types of summer activities qualify for the dependent care credit of up to 35 percent of expenses; here’s a brief from the Internal Revenue Service and a primer from TurboTax.

And how about workplace policies; do parents of vacationing kids get dibs on prime time off, or perks like leaving early, telecommuting, etc.?  Here’s a U.S. News & World Report piece that discusses who “gets the shaft” at work; that’s a can of worms you might address with area unions, HR reps and business owners.

As a business and jobs opportunity

The market research firm IBISWorld reported last fall that day care is a $46.6 billion industry, with non-employers making up 90 percent of players.  That means small independent care providers dominate; what opportunities and niches exist in your area for providing licensed summer child care?  Who’s doing it and what do they earn?  Here’s an interactive map of state child are licensing regulations for easy access.

What other opportunities exist for enterprising tutors, nannies, mentors and others who can fill this niche?  What about opportunities for hourly workers; Snag A Job.com is listing many summer child care jobs. How about camp counselors, health care workers for camps and activity centers, security providers and so on?   What about services for special needs children, or for single parents and those who have fewer resources?

Note  that transportation is a factor in addition to activities and supervision, as well as backup planning in case Plan A falls through.  Those needs offer business opportunities to entrepreneurs; check out this All Student Shuttle Service from Texas, which will zip children around to extracurricular and summer activities or even home from school if they feel ill; it’s already urging parents to “register for summer camp/summer school transportation.”  What an interesting business model that both families and prospective business operators would like to read about.  What costs are involved for operators and what about liability for drivers and owners?  What sort of online scheduling services, apps and security features are state of the art in the student transportation business?

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Quickhits: Home-delivery wars, faux service animals, nation’s best tippers

Every so often I like to clear my desk of the Post-It notes, scratch paper and scribbled-on envelopes where inspirational nuggets tend to accumulate; the result is a few quicktips you might find useful as reporting resources or the germs of story ideas.

Here are few:

Delivery wars.  Amazon.com took a lot of heat for its recent announcement that its Prime memberships – which include free two-day delivery in addition to other privileges like streaming movies – will go up in price from $79 a year to $99 a year.  

amazon fresh

If you live in Seattle, Los Angeles or San Francisco, Amazon Fresh will deliver food to your door.

Shortly an e-mail from Kmart showed up in my inbox, with a sassy question: “Past your Prime?” It was touting the Shop Your Way MAX program it and sister company Sears offer to consumer, which includes free shipping and rewards-points components.   Why not consider a personal finance round-up for consumers, noting the pros and cons of various free-shipping schemes at a variety of online retailers?  Here’s a good example from ABCNews.com – and a PCWorld tipsheet on how to evade the Prime membership costs while still using Amazon.  It mentions FreeShipping.Org, for example, a site that offers a database of current promotions and offers that nix delivery charges. Consumers weighing a Prime renewal might appreciate the up-to-date info on alternatives.

Also, I’m interested in how brick-and-mortar retailers are catering to people who like the convenience of online shopping and delivery; as I’ve noted before, a local independent pet supply store in my area has stepped up with delivery on request, and third-party startups that run goods to your doorstep from area stores are popping up; here’s one called Runn that plans to target merchants and restaurants.  Another service, Instacart, will shop for and deliver groceries for a $3.99 delivery charge.  How do they do it and what stores in your area are adopting delivery?

No pets allowed sign

Photo: Takashi Matsumoto

Faux service dogs.  This is timely as recreation and vacation season heats up; as KXTV in Sacramento, Calif. recently reported, an increasing number of people appear to be Velcro-ing their canines into service-dog attire and taking them into venues that normally forbid dogs.  Laws are so broadly written and challenges so difficult for merchants and others to make – lest they inadvertently challenge a person with disabilities and a legitimate need for the service animal – that “it’s an easy law to break,” as one report from Hawaii put it; that states legislature will consider a bill adding a $1,000 fine for anyone misrepresenting a pet as a service animal.

This would be an interesting story to localize by talking with officials at malls, restaurants, theme parks and attractions, area airports and other venues.  The sale of fake IDs and vests for the animals apparently is brisk online; do a ZIP code search for local vendors on eBay where service/therapy dog vests, patches with sayings like “Service Dog: Access Required by Law” and other items are readily offered. A couple of merchants even are peddling Americans with Disabilities Act wallet cards.

Hey, big spender.  Couldn’t resist sharing this Quartz graphic (based on data from the payment systems company Square) ranking states by the percentage of average tips at places like restaurants and cab services; Alaska has the most free-handed consumers while Delaware is stingiest. The data also reflects the (surprisingly low) percentage of patrons who leave any tip at all.

As a feature it stands alone but if you want to give the story a bit more heft, consider a tax-time update on the income-tax laws related to tipping; the rules about claiming and paying taxes on imputed tips to restaurant workers are confusing and complicated for workers like servers. (And interestingly, while generally the concern is that people are minimizing taxable income by not claiming cash tips, I spoke with someone recently who intends to inflate the amount of tips actually collected over the year – as a way to make herself more attractive to lenders.  Odd but true and something to ask accountants about as you flesh out a tips story.

And here’s a Las Vegas Sun article about changes to the way the IRS classifies the automatic gratuity charged to larger parties; it has servers worried.

 

 

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Proxy season stories: Time to address pay inequality, perks

We’re at the brink of proxy season now; one of the most interesting times of year to be a business journalist.

Proxy statements – or formally, a company’s DEF 14A – are one of the more revealing documents that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires of publicly traded corporations.  They’re issued once a year in advance of a company’s annual meeting of shareholders and for most companies that’s in the spring.  Here’s a good primer from Bankrate.com on why investors should take note of the proxy statement’s contents.

Aetna Proxy notice 2013

In 2013, Aetna published an 80-page booklet on the annual meeting and proxy statement. CLICK on the link to see the document.

Reporters can use proxy statement contents for a variety of stories that reflect on the corporate governance of a particular company; here’s the SEC.gov shortcut on searching for the DEF 14A for specific corporations.

You also can examine all of the proxies for public corporations in your region to look for trends in areas like board member and executive compensation, non-cash perks, and the like.  It’s a convenient time to compare the makeup of company boards; is there much overlap or possible cronyism as area execs serve as one another’s directors?  How about diversity among boards and senior management?

Proxy Monitor is a database run by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy – it tracks a number of large-company proxy statements and its site includes research, commentary and trending topics that might help you define the angles you want to pursue locally.

How does your state stack up in the number of corporate headquarters it hosts, and why does it rank where it does?  Here’s a handy directory from the website of Credit Risk Monitor; the first chart gives a total by state; click on your state’s name for a listing of all* publicly traded corporations.  (*I’m not vouching for the accuracy; you might want to double check via a search at SEC.gov or by asking a local brokerage firm to run a list for you from its Bloomberg terminal, but this is a handy place to start.)  In addition to household names and the usual suspects, you might find small but public firms whose shares are held by only a few people or family members; might be some interesting profiles or industry stories to be unearthed there.

Obviously with income inequality being of great focus today, your audience will be keenly interested in executive compensation stories; sometimes it can be effective to chart all of the “power pay “as I call it, in your area, and run the numbers as a large graphic.  (Remember to do a sidebar noting that some of the highest-paid managers in your market may well be leading private companies that aren’t required to disclose pay.)

It might be interesting to contrast executive pay with average pay for various jobs at a corporation; if the company won’t disclose (the likely case), try gleaning what you can from sites like GlassDoor.com and Salary.com, which purport to publish wage and salary information for a variety of industries and specific companies.

Proxy card

Proxies give investors the chance to vote their opinions on the way a company is run.

Non-cash perks from bodyguards and life insurance to travel and housing subsidies, season sports tickets, club memberships and more generally come to light in the proxy statement and make for juicy reading.  In fairness, though, some things that sound frivolous actually do make sense from a business standpoint; it’s sort of naïve to chastise a CEO for using the company jet, for example, if it’s being used as a valid time management tool.

Related party transactions are another area to look at; this is where a company must disclose any potential conflicts of interest.  Say, if it rents an airplane hangar from the brother-in-law of the CFO, or uses the marketing firm run by another manager’s relative.

Proxy season also is when companies disclose what they’re hearing from activist shareholders, who sometimes muster enough mass to get proposals on the ballot; here’s an article from a NYSE publication for board members that enumerates “What’s cooking this proxy season.”

 

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Tax time brings new financial planning tasks for LGBT couples, advisers

The annual April 15 income tax filing deadline looms, and just as late January is a good time for those early bird filing season stories, the next few weeks are ripe for last-minute tax tips and explainers.

Taxes on CalendarThis year, one of the game-changers is the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and subsequent announcement by the Internal Revenue Service that it would recognize gay marriage for federal income tax purposes.

The ability of same-sex couples to prepare their tax returns as married, filing jointly, presents both opportunities and hassles for filers.  And one story you might want to do as a spin-off from the usual personal finance pieces involves the growing specialty of tax, financial planning and legal advice for gay and lesbian marrieds.  As an entirely new market for professional advice, the growing body of legally-married same-sex couples has not escaped the notice of the industries that sell such advice: Investment News calls this a “New financial planning frontier,” and the Insured Retirement Institute — a financial services lobbying organization — last fall issued a press release noting the stronginterest by gay couples in receiving retirement-planning assistance.   Credit Union Insight last year published an article Targeting gays and lesbians in the banking sector,” that stressed the importance of this “financially significant segment.”

So, as you seek tax tips and filing advice for same-sex couples — who still “face nightmares,” as CNN Money put it – , be on the look for niche businesses and specialty firms that not only can share their expertise but might make for interesting profiles or discussions of demographic-based marketing.  Marcum LLP, a large accounting firm, for example, has its “LGBT and Non-traditional Family Practice Group,” as does another large company, EisnerAmper.

Two women at the marriage alter

The IRS ruled that same-sex couples, legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages, will be treated as married for federal tax purposes. Photo: New Zealand Herald

Before the DOMA ruling, some financial consultants obtained the Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor designation, because before being able to legally marry, same-sex couples had to plan for one another’s security using diffrent tools, like life insurance, where payouts weren’t dependent on marraige the way Social Security and some pension plans are/were.  If you’re pairing an overall financial-planning piece with a tax-time article aimed at same-sex couples, be sure to ask advisers how couples’ strategies might change now.

Back to taxes:  Check out this new IRS YouTube video explaining key tax tips for same-sex couples.  A couple of key areas to stress in your last-minute articles:

> Some married couples will pay more, but it’s complicated.  As this New York Times piece explains, the choice to file singly or jointly depends on where couples were married and where they live now, though generally those in legal marriages must now file jointly.  When couples have similar income levels, they can be caught in the “marriage penalty” of paying more in federal taxes than they would if filing apart; couples in which one earns significantly more than the other tend to benefit from a “marriage bonus.”  Get a local enrolled agent (a specialized tax preparer) to outline a couple of hypothetical scenarios you can illustrate for readers.

>Married couples can go back and file amended returns for three years, if doing so will net them a refund.

> State tax filing is going to vary widely by jurisdiction; be sure to include a separate info-box or sidebar on what the prevailing rules are in your state.

 

 

 

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Kick off spring by digging into lawn and garden industry trends

March 20 marks what might just be the most eagerly anticipated first full day of spring in memory, as the majority of consumers nationwide look forward to the end of a very rough winter. 

So in a nod to the season of fresh starts, you might want to find some facet of the lawn and garden industry that meshes with your beats – from residential real estate to personal finance to retail to technology and innovation.

beautiful purple flowers against grass

Photo: Andrew Fogg

Lawn care and amateur horticulture are big areas of U.S. consumer spending and focus; this Bankrate.com story notes a widely cited Bloomberg estimate of $40 billion a year on turf care alone, as well as a big investment of time on the part of homeowners.

From landscapers to seed sellers to equipment makers and sellers, that spending ripples through the local economy.  Add in the floriculture industry – which grows and sells all of those petunias, impatiens and other flowering annuals – for another $4 billion or so in wholesale value alone; this April 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture details the number of producers per state in various revenue categories, and other metrics you can use to pinpoint the value of this industry to your region. 

Obviously if your area is headquarters to any big-name seed companies, chemical/fertilizer firms that make consumer goods, or power equipment makers, you’ve got a built-in news peg but if not, seek out sod farms, landscaping firms and other area service businesses for their spring/summer 2014 business outlook. Here’s one report from KCRG.com quoting a nursery operator who’s getting a late start on planting due to the winter storms, for example; not having plants ready by the big Memorial Day weekend (or before then, depending on your location) could be crippling to small growers.  What are they doing to speed things along or obtain nursery stock from elsewhere?  How will that affect selection and price offered to consumers?

If you cover the restaurant scene, look into trends about local sourcing of organic and hand-grown produce; ask retailers about consumer demand for organic and heirloom plants and seeds vs. genetically modified.

A just-out report from market research firm IBISWorld notes, however, that despite an uptick in consumer demand, all is not rosy for retailers of lawn equipment, which face headwinds from big box retailers and consumer caution.  Similarly, a quick Google search turns up a number of stories about beloved area garden centers going out of business; bad weather, competition and financing woes are some of the culprits.  You might want to do a quick survey of similar retailers (including nursery greenhouse operations that sell direct to consumers) in your backyard, are they having difficulty getting loans or revolving credit for inventory, and why? 

If you’re looking for the quirky, the composting industry seems to be in the zeitgeist this year; I know it’s anecdata but I’ve heard of two such firms expanding in my region in just the past week or so.  The U.S. Composting Council’s website is a trove of story nuggets, from the group’s quest for its own industry code (they tend to get lumped in with solid waste) and lobbying to keep landfill bans on yard waste alive, to education and careers info. Check out the recently completed annual conference program for clues to other hot industry topics, experts and exhibitors. 

 If you cover real estate, ask agents about trends in landscaping design and spending;  rain gardens, for example, seem to be the buzz lately – would adding one increase a home’s saleability? Don’t forget about seasonal jobs – here’s an ad for a Boise job fair focusing on the landscaping trade, for example.

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