1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2015
  4. July

News in July 2015

Browse by year

2015

Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    Windows 10 automatically grants home wi-fi network access to your Outlook and Skype contacts

    You have to change your network name if you want to opt out of this

    Microsoft officially launched its new Windows 10 operating system last night, offering free upgrades to current Windows 7 and 8 users who make the switch within the next year.

    Before the rollout, Microsoft trumpteted the various new security features that Windows 10 would offer, so it's arguably ironic that the operating system comes pre-installed with a security flaw touted as a connectivity advantage: a feature called Wi-Fi Sense which, unless you deliberately opt out of the default setting, automatically shares your Wi-Fi network password with all of your contacts in Outlook, Hotmail, and Skype. (You can also share your network password with Facebook “friends,” but that's not automatic; it requires you to opt in.)

    More specifically, it doesn't actually hand out your password to your contacts; it “merely” shares an encrypted version of your password and stores it on Microsoft's servers, thus allowing anyone in your contact list to use your Wi-Fi network when they visit you at home, or merely happen to be in range of it. Or maybe when they're breaking into your house.

    Opting out

    Wi-Fi Sense's FAQ page claims to offer “answers to some questions you might have about Wi-Fi Sense.” Unfortunately, it does not answer the question “Where the hell did Microsoft get the idea that if I exchange an email with someone, this means I want that someone to have access to my home Wi-Fi network?”

    According to Microsoft, the only way to opt out of Wi-Fi Sense is by changing the name of the network to include the phrase _optout (note the underscore symbol before the word). Microsoft offered as an example the name mynetwork_optout. However, Microsoft also says that “It can take several days for your network to be added to the opted-out list for Wi-Fi Sense. If you want to stop your network from being shared sooner than that, you can change your Wi-Fi network password. For more information about how to do that, check the documentation for your router or access point.”

    Don't forget that if you change your Wi-Fi network name, you and everyone in your household will then have to re-connect your devices to the newly named network.

    "Disaster waiting to happen"

    Security expert Brian Krebs, who called the automatic password-sharing “a disaster waiting to happen,” noted that, although Wi-Fi Sense has been a feature on Windows Phone for quite awhile, that was “less of a concern” because Windows Phone has only a tiny share of the mobile device market, which is largely dominated by Android and Apple iOS. However, “embedding this feature in an upgrade version of Windows makes it a serious concern for much of the planet.”

    If you intend an upgrade to Windows 10 but have not yet done so, make sure you change the name of your Wi-Fi network to include _optout before you make the upgrade. Krebs also recommends that “While you’re at it, consider keeping Google off your Wi-Fi network as well. It’s unclear whether the Wi-Fi Sense opt-out kludge will also let users opt-out of having their wireless network name indexed by Google, which requires the inclusion of the phrase “_nomap” in the Wi-Fi network name.”

    Microsoft officially launched its new Windows 10 operating system last night, offering free upgrades to current Windows 7 and 8 users who make the switch w...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      Rental housing harder to find in second quarter

      Apartment vacancy rate lowest since 1989

      Renters continued to get squeezed in the second quarter of the year as rents rose and the number of vacant apartments available for rent declined.

      A report (PDF) by the U.S. Census Bureau shows the national rental unit vacancy rate dipped to 6.8% in the April to June period, marking the lowest vacancy rate since 1989. The vacancy rate was 7.1% in the first quarter.

      With fewer available homes and apartments, landlords were able to charge more in rent. The median advertised monthly rent in the second quarter was $803. That's up about $50 a month since the financial crisis.

      Fewer rental opportunities in cities

      The Census numbers show rental inventory is tightest in metropolitan areas, suggesting there are more homes and apartments to choose from in non-urban areas. Regions of the country with the most cities also have the fewest available rentals.

      The south and Midwest had the highest rental vacancy rates while things were much tighter in the northeast and west. The vacancy rate in the northeast was 5.4% and 4.9% in the west.

      It's no coincidence that home prices are highest in those two regions of the country, meaning more people priced out of the real estate market have no other option than to rent their home. Wall Street economists predict the trend means current rents are set to go even higher.

      Home ownership rate falls

      Meanwhile, the Census report shows that as more people have moved into rentals, the home ownership rate has continued to fall.

      In the second quarter, the home ownership rate dipped to 63.4%, down 0.4% from the first quarter and 1.3% from the second quarter of 2014. The downward glide in home ownership began at its all-time high of 69.1% in 2005, just before the housing bubble popped.

      Rising rents and harder-to-find apartments could be combining to drive home sales higher. This week's S&P;/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices release shows Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis in May.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported existing-home sales increased in June to their highest pace in over eight years. At the same time, the lack of inventory helped push the national median sales price to an all-time high. NAR says all major regions of the country experienced sales gains in June and have now risen above year-over-year levels for six consecutive months.

      Rental crisis

      Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to buy a house or qualify for a mortgage. Those consumers will pay the cost of rising rents. Real estate marketing site Zillow recently reported that rents rose faster than home values in April, suggesting a “rental crisis” may be deepening.

      While home values have been up and down since the housing crash, Zillow says rents have been steadily rising. It creates something of a Catch-22 for renters.

      Dr. Stan Humphries, Zillow's chief economist, says while renters are financially motivated to become homeowners, rising rents make it more difficult to save for a down payment.

      Renters continued to get squeezed in the second quarter of the year as rents rose and the number of vacant apartments available for rent declined.A rep...
      Read lessRead more

      Pending home sales post first decline in 6 months

      Still, pending sales are close to a 9-year high

      Pending home sales, it appears, have hit a summer slump.

      The National Association of Realtors reports that after 5 consecutive months of increases, the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, fell 1.8% in June to 110.3 .

      Even with the decline, though, they remained close to May's level, which was the highest in over 9 years, and are 8.2% above June of last year. The June reading for the PHSI is the third highest of the year, and it has now increased year-over-year for 10 consecutive months.

      Strong demand a driver

      Although pending sales decreased in June, the overall trend in recent months supports a solid pace of home sales this summer.

      "Competition for existing houses on the market remained stiff last month, as low inventories in many markets reduced choices and pushed prices above some buyers' comfort level," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "The demand is there for more sales, but the determining factor will be whether or not some of these buyers decide to hold off even longer until supply improves and price growth slows."

      Yun says strong price appreciation and an improving economy are finally giving some homeowners the incentive and financial capability to sell and trade up or down. "Unfortunately, because nearly all of these sellers are likely buying another home, there isn't a net increase in inventory,” he adds. “A combination of homebuilders ramping up construction and even more homeowners listing their properties on the market is needed to tame price growth and give all buyers more options."

      Regional tally

      • The PHSI in the Northeast inched up 0.4% to 94.3 in June, and is now 12.0% above a year ago.

      • In the Midwest the index fell 3.0% to 108.1, but is still 5.0% above June 2014.
      • Pending home sales in the South also dropped 3.0% to a reading of 123.5, but are 7.8% above last June.
      • The index in the West was up 0.5% to 104.4, and is now 10.4% above a year ago.

      Looking ahead

      The national median existing-home price for all housing types in 2015 is expected to increase around 6.5% to $221,900 -- matching the record high set in 2006.

      Total existing-home sales this year are forecast to increase 6.6% to around 5.27 million, roughly 25% below the peak set in 2005 (7.08 million).

      Pending home sales, it appears, have hit a summer slump. The National Association of Realtors reports that after 5 consecutive months of increases, the Pe...
      Read lessRead more

      A rise in mortgage applications

      Applications for refinancings were on the rise

      Mortgage applications were on the rise last week, helped along by an increase in refinancings.

      Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows total applications inched up 0.8% in the week ending July 24.

      The Refinance Index jumped 2%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity to 50.6% of total applications from 50.3% a week earlier. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity slipped to 6.6% of total applications.

      The FHA share of total applications edged down fro 14.0% to 13.7%, the VA share fell to 10.9%t from 11.3% and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.9%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 6 basis points -- from 4.23% to 4.17%, the lowest level since June 2015, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 4.12%, the lowest level since May, from 4.16%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA slipped 2 basis points to 3.98%, the lowest level since June, with points increasing to 0.26 from 0.17 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs declined to 3.39%, the lowest level since June, from 3.43%t, with points rising to 0.38 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down 4 basis points to 3.04%, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

      The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

      Mortgage applications were on the rise last week, helped along by an increase in refinancings. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly M...
      Read lessRead more

      MINI Coopers with side impact performance issues recalled

      The vehicles do not meet the side impact performance requirements for the rear seat passengers

      BMW of North America is recalling 30,456 model year 2014-2015 MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S Hardtop 2 Door vehicles and 2015 MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop 2 Door vehicles.

      The vehicles do not meet the side impact performance requirements for the rear seat passengers, and thus fail to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 214, "Side Impact Protection."

      If the side impact performance requirements are not met, rear seat passengers may be at a higher risk of injury during a crash.

      MINI will notify owners, and dealers will install additional energy absorption material between the rear interior side panels and the exterior vehicle body, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin September 12, 2015.

      Owners may contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525.  

      BMW of North America is recalling 30,456 model year 2014-2015 MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S Hardtop 2 Door vehicles and 2015 MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop...
      Read lessRead more

      Arctic Cat recalls off-highway utility vehicles

      Fuel can leak from the fuel fitting at the throttle body

      Arctic Cat is recalling about 2,700 Arctic Cat Prowler 500 HDX off-highway utility vehicles.

      Fuel can leak from the fuel fitting at the throttle body, posing a fire hazard.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves model year 2014 Arctic Cat Prowler 500 HDX and model year 2015 Prowler 500 HDX models. The recalled vehicles include vehicle identification numbers (VIN) from 303194 through 305166. The VIN number is located on the rear frame tube under the rear of the box.

      The vehicles are green, red, vibrant red metallic, or emerald green metallic. “Arctic Cat” is printed on each side of the hood. Also 500 is printed on each side on the front fenders, HDX on each side of the rear cargo box, and “Arctic Cat” on the cargo box tail gate.

      The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from August 2013, to July 2015, for between about $11,000 and $12,400.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Prowlers and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair. Arctic Cat is contacting its customers directly.

      Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at (800) 279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday.

      Arctic Cat is recalling about 2,700 Arctic Cat Prowler 500 HDX off-highway utility vehicles. Fuel can leak from the fuel fitting at the throttle body, pos...
      Read lessRead more

      Kia recalls Sorentos with seat belt issue

      The front passenger may not be able to fasten the seat belt

      Kia Motors America is recalling 2,587 model year 2016 Kia Sorentos manufactured October 23, 2014, to December 10, 2014.

      The vehicles have a front passenger seat belt whose buckle latch assembly may prevent the front passenger from fastening the seat belt. If the front passenger seat belt cannot be latched, an occupant sitting in the front passenger seat has an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash.

      Kia will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger seat belt buckle cover, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 18, 2015.

      Owners may contact Kia customer service at 1-800-333-4542. Kia's number for this recall is SC123.

      Kia Motors America is recalling 2,587 model year 2016 Kia Sorentos manufactured October 23, 2014, to December 10, 2014. The vehicles have a front passeng...
      Read lessRead more

      Crash test dog dummies reveal which carriers are safest

      Putting safety first when purchasing a carrier is of the utmost importance

      Crash tests are used throughout the automotive industry to ensure that drivers are protected if they have an accident. Although watching the crash test dummies get mangled up can be off-putting, it is all in the name of safety. Now, crash test dummies have been created to test the safety of pet carriers.

      The Center for Pet Safety, a non-profit organization, has teamed up with Subaru of America and NASA engineers to create crash test dog dummies. Each one is designed to model the size and weight of a dog that would fit into a specific carrier. Many different carriers were tested by the researchers, but three of them came out on top in terms of safety.

      The three types of carriers that performed the best during testing were the Gunner Kennels G1 Intermediate with 8’ Tie Down Straps, the PetEgo Forma Frame Jet set Carrier with ISOFIX-Latch Connection, and the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed with PPRS Handilock. All of the other carriers that were tested can be found here.

      Safety first

      The safety of a carrier is of the utmost importance for dog owners. If a crash ever occurred with your dog in the car, a good carrier could stop your pet from becoming a projectile. They could strike another passenger in the car, which could lead to multiple injuries. Researching this kind of topic is a great step toward making sure all car passengers remain safe.

      “We at Subaru recognize the importance of keeping the entire family safe on the road, including our beloved pets,” said Michael McHale, who is Subaru’s director of corporate communications. “Alongside Center for Pet Safety, we are proud to help lead the charge in identifying the best crates and carriers for pet lovers everywhere, while, more importantly, making pet parents aware of the safety measures they can take and the dangers that can occur if they don’t.”

      The researchers have included several tips for pet owners in their study. They state that your dog should fit properly inside the crate so that they are snug, but still have enough room for comfort. Also, pet owners should ensure that pet carriers are secured with stength-rated cargo anchor straps, not with elastic bands or bungee cords. This will ensure that the carrier will not tip over or move around while the car is in motion. 

      Crash tests are used throughout the automotive industry to ensure that drivers are protected if they have an accident. Although watching the crash test dum...
      Read lessRead more

      Still single? You're probably paying more for car insurance

      Consumer group's study says even widows get socked with higher rates

      Saving on car insurance is no reason to get married, but new research by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) shows that getting hitched will lower your rates.

      The CFA questions the fairness of this practice, arguing that it doesn't seem to have much to do with risk.

      Insurers maintain that married people tend to be more responsible drivers, but the CFA says if a woman's husband dies, her rate often rises as a result. Is she suddenly a bad driver because she's a widow, the group asks?

      Widow penalty

      The study focused on 10 cities and 6 major insurers. The authors says four companies – GEICO, Farmers, Progressive, and Liberty – increased rates on state-mandated liability coverage for widows by an average of 20%.

      The study found Nationwide sometimes increased rates for widows. The sixth company, State Farm, did not change rates because of marital status. Its price quotes were the same, regardless of whether the driver was single, separated, divorced, widowed, a domestic partner, or married.

      “Hiking rates on women whose husbands die seems both unfair and inhumane,” said Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s Executive Director. “Why don’t insurers instead emphasize driving-related factors such as accidents, traffic violations, and miles driven in their pricing?”

      The CFA research was conducted using quotes from insurance company websites for the minimum liability insurance coverage required by states. Everything remained the same except for marital status.

      The authors said Farmers, Progressive, Nationwide, and Liberty always charged single, separated, and divorced drivers the same price. It was almost always higher than the premium it charged married consumers.

      The study said GEICO’s premium quotes were always lower for married drivers, but varied unpredictably, with single, separated, and divorced drivers often being charged different prices.

      Industry defense

      The insurance industry for years has defended this practice, saying numbers don't lie.

      “Statistics show that married drivers have fewer accidents than single drivers,” National General Insurance says on its website. “So, if you’re married you’ll probably pay lower auto insurance premiums. This particularly applies to younger drivers.”

      Despite these explanations, Brobeck is unconvinced. He notes that most of the rate examples collected by his organization were for 30 year-old, safe, female drivers. When her age was boosted to 50, the price gap persisted.

      “One would like to see any evidence that two 50 year-olds with the same characteristics pose considerably different insurer risks because of their marital status,” he said.

      Motoring website DMV.org points out that getting married doesn't always lower your car insurance rates. If you have an excellent driving record but your spouse doesn't, your joint rate will be higher than if both parties were good drivers.

      Saving on car insurance is no reason to get married, but new research by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) shows that getting hitched will lower you...
      Read lessRead more

      Microsoft launching Windows 10 tonight

      Though when the rollout will be complete remains anybody's guess

      Only a handful of hours remain until midnight Eastern time (or 9 p.m. this evening in the Pacific time zone), the start of Microsoft's official roll-out of Windows 10, which is predicted to break Internet traffic records.

      Actually, some current Windows 7 and 8 users have already seen version 10 pre-loaded on their computers.

      Microsoft formally announced the July 29 roll-out date early last month. Current users of Windows 7 and 8 will be eligible for a free upgrade for one year after the release, while prices for everyone else will range from $110 for Windows 10 Home to $199 for the Pro version.

      Also, Microsoft has said that Windows 10 would do away with its old tradition of “Patch Tuesday,” or releasing software updates (including security fixes, as necessary) every Tuesday. The obvious problem with limiting security fixes to a once-a-week schedule is that hackers and malware writers tend not to respect the scheduling needs of their intended victims, so why should security fixes adhere to a regular pattern when security threats do not?

      Indeed, shortly before the Windows 10 rollout, Microsoft made a last-minute fix to patch a big problem that caused the Control Panel to crash anytime a user tried uninstalling an application.

      Delayed rollout

      Despite the official “midnight” rollout time, only a relative few customers will get a Windows 10 upgrade at that exact time. Some Windows 7 and 8 users have already seen early upgrades, as mentioned before, whereas others who have reserved copies of Windows 10 might not receive their actual upgrades for several days, weeks, or even months.

      A Forbes contributor who spoke to Microsoft couldn't get a firm prediction regarding just when the Windows 10 rollout is expected to reach completion. A Microsoft spokesperson said “By Christmas we want to have hundreds of millions of [Windows 10] users worldwide” — but would not guarantee that everyone who's reserved a copy of Windows 10 could get the upgrade by December.

      Those who do get their upgrades tomorrow will only be able to install Windows 10 on regular PCs, though Microsoft says that eventually Windows 10 will cross platforms and be available for phones, tablets, and Xbox, too.

      Only a handful of hours remain until midnight Eastern time (or 9 p.m. this evening in the Pacific time zone), the start of Microsoft's official roll-out of...
      Read lessRead more

      Businesses slow to embrace ride-sharing for travel needs

      24% of surveyed companies don't pay for employees to use Uber or Lyft

      Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft may be insanely popular with large segments of the consumer population, but businesses appear far from willing to allow employees to use them on company business.

      The GBTA Foundation, the education and research arm of the Global Business Travel Association, has released a study showing rental cars and taxis are the most common methods of business ground transportation, accounting for a combined 60%.

      Ride-sharing services actually make up 11% of ground business travel, and that number might be higher if more businesses allowed employees to use ride-sharing while on company business - but businesses haven't exactly been early adopters.

      24% of businesses say no to ride-sharing

      "Our research shows 1 in 4 travel buyers say their company does not allow their business travelers to use ride-sharing companies, by far the highest percentage for any form of ground transportation," said GBTA Executive Director and COO Michael McCormick. "In addition, a large number of companies still have not adopted policies around ride-sharing companies, revealing a need for education about the benefits and the risks. GBTA hopes this study is the start to closing that knowledge gap and we welcome an open and constructive dialogue on this topic."

      The issue appears to be one of liability. People behind the wheel of taxis and chauffeured limousines are professional drivers who work for actual companies. Uber and Lyft drivers are not.

      When business travelers rent cars they drive themselves, they are taking on the liability with the rental car company responsible for the integrity of the vehicle.

      Safety

      The 2015 Ground Transportation Study also identified the most important factors business travelers and travel buyers consider when choosing ground transportation. Topping the list was traveler and vehicle safety.

      It was followed by availability for a timely pick-up and convenience of payment methods. Three-quarters of business travelers and 8 in 10 travel buyers agree that these factors highly important.

      In short, safety of business travelers was a major issue. However, the authors say awareness of specific aspects of duty of care is not universal.

      For example, only about a third of business travelers have some knowledge of all aspects such as pre-employment driver certification, driver training requirements, and regulations affecting each ground transportation method. Travel buyers have a higher level of awareness but fewer than a quarter are very familiar with all of them.

      What stands out in the research is that ride-sharing, despite its popularity and explosive growth among consumers, has yet to catch on in the corporate world.

      "Undoubtedly, there is significant market controversy around ride sharing and we felt it was important to have impartial research to create awareness in the industry," said David Seelinger, Chairman and CEO of EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services.

      According to the Insurance Information Institute, ride-sharing drivers using their personal vehicles should have commercial insurance coverage, like taxi companies and livery car services. If a rider sues a ride-sharing driver, it wouldn’t be covered if the driver only had a private-passenger auto policy, the organization said.

      Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft may be insanely popular with large segments of the consumer population, but businesses appear far from willing to ...
      Read lessRead more

      A slide in consumer confidence

      Job concerns is among the causes

      After showing some improvement in June, The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index posted a decline in July. It now stands at 90.9 after rising to 99.8 the previous month.

      The Present Situation Index dipped moderately from 110.3 last month to 107.4, while the Expectations Index plummeted to 79.9 from 92.8 in June.

      “Consumers continue to assess current conditions favorably, but their short-term expectations deteriorated this month,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “A less optimistic outlook for the labor market, and perhaps the uncertainty and volatility in financial markets prompted by the situation in Greece and China, appears to have shaken consumers’ confidence. Overall, the Index remains at levels associated with an expanding economy and a relatively confident consumer.”

      The consumers-eye view

      Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was somewhat less favorable in July. Those who see business conditions as “good” fell from 26.1% to 24.2%. However, those who believe conditions are “bad” was virtually unchanged at 17.9%.

      Consumers were slightly less positive about the job market. Those who said jobs are “plentiful” dropped to 20.7% from 21.3%, while those saying jobs are “hard to get” inched up from 26.1% to 26.7%.

      Optimism about the short-term outlook was down sharply in July. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months declined from 17.9% to 14.7%; those who see conditions worsening rose from 10.2% to 10.7%.

      Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was even less optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead decreased from 17.1% to 13.1%, while those expecting fewer jobs jumped from 15.2% to 20.0%. The proportion of consumers expecting growth in their incomes edged down from 17.6% to 17.0%, while the proportion expecting a decline rose slightly from 10.6% to 11.2%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was July 16.

      After showing some improvement in June, The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index posted a decline in July. It now stands at 90.9 after rising to 99....
      Read lessRead more

      Increase in home prices continues in May

      A slowdown in the rate of increase may be in the works

      Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis in May, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

      Both the 10-City Composite and National indices showed slightly higher year-over-year gains while the 20-City Composite had marginally lower year-over-year gains when compared with the previous month.

      The 10-City Composite posted a year-over-year gain of 4.7%, while the 20-City Composite was up 4.9%. The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, covering all 9 U.S. census divisions, recorded a 4.4% annual increase in May; the advance in April was 4.3%.

      “As home prices continue rising, they are sending more upbeat signals than other housing market indicators,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Nationally, single family home price increases have settled into a steady 4%-5% annual pace following the double-digit bubbly pattern of 2013.

      At the same time though, Blitzer expects the rate of home price increases is more likely to slow than to accelerate over the next two years or so. “Prices are increasing about twice as fast as inflation or wages, “he notes, adding “moreover, other housing measures are less robust. Housing starts are only at about 1.2 million units annually, and only about half of total starts are single family homes. Sales of new homes are low compared to sales of existing homes.”

      The West leads the way

      Denver, San Francisco and Dallas reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities with price increases of 10.0%, 9.7% and 8.4%, respectively. Ten cities reported greater price increases in the year ended May 2015 over the year ended April 2015.

      New York and Phoenix reported 6 consecutive months of increases in their year-over-year returns since November 2014. Year-over-year returns in New York increased from 1.3% last November to 3.0% in May. Phoenix climbed from 2.0% to 3.8% in the same period.

      Month-over-month

      Before seasonal adjustment, the National index, 10-City Composite and 20-City Composite all posted a gain of 1.1% month-over-month in May. After seasonal adjustment, the National index was unchanged; the 10-City and 20-City Composites were both down 0.2% month-over-month. All 20 cities reported increases in May before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, 10 were down, 8 were up, and 2 were unchanged.

      Blitzer says first time homebuyers are the weak spot in the market, providing the demand and liquidity that supports trading up by current home owners. But he adds, “Without a boost in first timers, there is less housing market activity, fewer existing homes being put on the market, and more worry about inventory.”

      Research at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank argues that one should not blame millennials for the absence of first time buyers. The age distribution of first time buyers has not changed much since 2000; if anything, the median age has dropped slightly.

      “Other research at the New York Fed points to the size of mortgage down payments as a key factor,” said Blitzer. “The difference between a 5% and 20% down payment -- particularly for people who currently rent -- has a huge impact on buyers’ willingness to buy a home. Mortgage rates are far less important to first time buyers than down payments.”  

      Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis in May, according to the S&...
      Read lessRead more

      Google surrenders, won't require Google+ account anymore

      Forcing Google+ sign-ups was part of an effort to overtake Facebook, Twitter

      Google has conceded what everyone else already knew -- Google+ is sort of a big minus and is not going to knock Facebook and Twitter out of cyberspace. Google says it will no longer require users to have a Google+ account to interact with other users.

      In a Google+ post, Google+ manager Brad Horowitz announced that Google will "retire [Google+] as the mechanism by which people share and engage within other Google products." Instead, users will need only a Google email or other type of account.

      When it launched "+" -- as it may affectionately be known somewhere in the universe -- four years ago, Google's hope was that it would grow into a huge social network with a billion users. While it had its pluses, including the ability to break groups into categories such as "friend," "family" and "colleague," + actually grew into a big source of frustration for many users.

      "Why the f---?"

      YouTubers, in particular, were miffed that after years of commenting loudly and vociferously they suddenly needed to sign up for a + account, the most famous outburst coming from YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, who asked "Why the f— do I need a google+ account to comment on a video?”

      As Horowitz tells it, the goal was to establish a "platform layer" that would tie all of Big G's services together. But many users saw it as a way for Google to muscle into social media by forcing its users to sign up for G+ whether they wanted to or not. Some critics went so far as to label it downright Microsoftian.

      Horowitz says the company meant well.

      “This was a well-intentioned goal, but as realized it led to some product experiences that users sometimes found confusing,” he wrote.

      Horowitz said Google is rolling out the policy change "as fast as possible," starting with YouTube.

      "What does this mean for Google+ the product?" he asked rhetorically, replying: "Relieved of the notion of integrating with every other product at Google, Google+ can now focus on doing what it’s already doing quite well: helping millions of users around the world connect around the interest they love."

      Horowitz said it's been "incredibly gratifying" to see how well the change has been received.

      ,

      Google has conceded what everyone else already knew -- Google+ is sort of a big minus and is not going to knock Facebook and Twitter out of cyberspace. Goo...
      Read lessRead more

      Volkswagen recalls Audi SQ5s

      The vehicles could experience a loss of power steering assist

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 5,625 model year 2014-2015 Audi SQ5s manufactured May 22, 2013, to April 14, 2015.

      The electric power steering assist system could shut down in cold temperatures due to a steering motor sensor fault. A loss of power steering assist would require extra steering effort at lower speeds, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will update the power steering control module software, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin July 28, 2015.

      Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-253-2834. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 48M1.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 5,625 model year 2014-2015 Audi SQ5s manufactured May 22, 2013, to April 14, 2015. The electric power steering a...
      Read lessRead more