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ABOUT REAL ESTATE: Here’s how to find a legitimate housing counselor

Question: How can I find a legitimate housing counselor? There seem to be an awful lot of sleazeballs out there!

Answer: You’re right — there are indeed a lot of fly-by-night operators who claim to be professional counselors, but all they want to do is separate you from your hard-earned cash. It’s particularly tragic when these swindlers take advantage of homeowners who are struggling financially by soaking them for what little money they have left.

The best way to find a bonafide counselor is to contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD sponsors certified counseling agencies in all 50 states that provide free or low-cost advice on buying a home, renting, credit issues and help to avoid default and foreclosure.

To find a HUD-approved counselor near you, call its Housing Counseling Agency Locator hotline at 800-569-4287 or visit www.hud.gov. There’s no charge for this service.

More than likely, you’ll be provided with at least two or three agencies from which to choose. Call each one to find the counselor that makes you feel most comfortable, and check each agency’s track record with the local Better Business Bureau.

Real estate trivia: A study of homeowners sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Canada found that the smell of old cigarette smoke in a house can cut nearly 30 percent off its resale value.

Q: What are the best home-related purchases in May?

A: Two of the priciest items inside a home — mattresses and refrigerators — usually hit their lowest prices of the year in May. That’s because manufacturers release their new lines in June, and retailers are anxious to clear floor space for the latest models.

Expect discounts of up to 60 percent on mattresses this month, says expert shopper Bill Billick of the bargain-hunting website Deals2Buy.com. You might save even more if you make the purchase on Memorial Day weekend.

Fridges could be marked down as much as 35 percent this month, Billick adds.

The best deals on barbeque grills usually don’t arrive until the end of summer. But retailers usually slash prices on grill-related accessories, such as utensils and covers, in May as homeowners prepare for the peak BBQ months of June, July and August.

Q: I have a lot of equity in my condominium. If I refinance my mortgage at today’s low rates and take out $25,000 in cash to pay off my high-interest credit cards, would the money be taxed by the Internal Revenue Service?

A: No, you wouldn’t owe taxes on the $25,000 in equity that you pull out. The IRS does not tax borrowed money.

Borrowing against your home’s equity at today’s low rates to pay off your higher-interest debt is a terrific idea, provided you don’t quickly run those card balances back up again.

Q: Is damage caused during a riot covered by a basic homeowners insurance policy?

A: Yes. Nearly all homeowners, auto and business insurance policies provide protection against damage stemming from “riots and civil commotion,” said Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. Personal possessions that might get stolen or damaged during such an event also are covered.

Q: My wife and I are planning to buy a newly built home. I know that you always tell readers to make their purchase offer contingent on the property passing a professional inspection, but is that really necessary when the home is new? FYI, the county inspector has already looked at it and issued a “certificate of habitability.”

A: Pay for the services of a private-sector inspector. Most government inspectors are swamped with work and often give a home only a cursory look before issuing the certificate of habitability, a document that’s needed before a sale can close.

A good inspector will spend at least an hour — or, better yet, two or three hours — to conduct a thorough review of a home’s physical condition. According to the nonprofit American Society of Home inspectors, the report should include an evaluation of the home’s heating, air-conditioning, interior plumbing and electrical systems; the roof, attic and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, windows, floors and doors; and the foundation and basement.

ASHI offers a free referral system to help you find one of its certified inspectors who work in your area. Call the group at 847-759-2820 or visit www.homeinspector.org.

David M. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate, Inc.

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