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Veterans, service members, and their families believe in homeownership. In fact, the homeownership rate among veterans far outpaces that of civilians.

But the financial toll of military service can make it tough for some veterans to get a financial foothold, let alone land a home loan.

The good news is those who serve have access to a host of home-buying benefits and protections, from what’s arguably the most powerful home loan on the market to financial safeguards and more.

VA loan program

Since the VA loan program’s inception in 1944, the Department of Veterans Affairs has backed more than 21 million loans for veterans, active-duty military members, and their spouses. This program has made buying a home more accessible to those who most deserve the American dream they helped build and protect.

VA loans feature many benefits that help make home buying possible, including the following:

No down payment requirement
No mortgage insurance
Lower average interest rates
Limits on closing costs
More lenient credit requirements

VA home loans have boomed in recent years, attracting many veterans and military members who may not qualify for conventional loans, which have stricter credit requirements.

Still, many eligible buyers are unaware of the benefits of VA home loans and the protections they offer. Some buyers also make the mistake of assuming a government-backed loan comes with endless red tape and miss an opportunity to benefit.

Typically, veterans and active-duty service members are eligible for a VA home loan if they served in the following capacity:

90 consecutive days on active duty during wartime
181 consecutive days on active duty during peacetime
6 or more years in the National Guard or Reserves

Some spouses of military members who died in the line of duty or of a service-related disability may also be eligible for a VA loan.

Talk with a VA lender about obtaining your Certificate of Eligibility and getting a sense of your purchasing power.

Occupancy & power of attorney

VA loans are focused on getting buyers into homes they’ll live in full time. But the program makes exceptions for some veterans and active-duty service members.

For example, a spouse or children may be able to fulfill the occupancy requirement on behalf of a VA buyer. Also, a VA buyer who is deployed or otherwise unable to manage the loan process can typically assign a power of attorney to a spouse or family member to manage the loan process and sign documents.

There are two types of power of attorney: general and specific. The type needed depends in part on what loan-related documents the VA buyer can sign.

The occupancy and power of attorney options mean an eligible VA buyer’s spouse and children could buy a home during a deployment or unaccompanied assignment, helping alleviate the emotional toll of multiple moves on military families.

Basic allowance for housing

Many active-duty military members who receive a monthly housing allowance are surprised to learn that they can use this money to qualify for a home loan. Lenders can count Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as effective income. That can help service members make the leap from renting to owning, especially in higher-cost areas.

BAH is based on several factors, including the location of your duty station, your pay grade, and your family size. The housing allowance can change on an annual basis. To calculate your BAH, refer to the BAH calculator on the Defense Department’s website.

Financial protections

Even after becoming homeowners, active-duty service members can face unique financial challenges. Deployment and changes of station can strain a family emotionally and financially.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) provides active-duty military personnel and their families financial protection involving interest rates, income tax payments, eviction, foreclosure, and more.

For example, military personnel can ask creditors—including their mortgage lender—to cap their interest rate at 6% during their term of service. The SCRA also forces lenders and servicers to seek a court order to foreclose on active-duty military members during their time of service and up to nine months afterward.

Veterans Affairs also offers foreclosure avoidance protection assistance for homeowners. The VA has a team of experts who work with lenders and servicers on behalf of struggling homeowners to find alternatives to foreclosure. Their efforts have helped nearly 500,000 veterans and service members avoid foreclosure in the past six years alone.

Check with your local Armed Forces Legal Assistance office for more information regarding the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. VA homeowners in jeopardy of defaulting on their mortgage can contact the VA loan program at 877-827-3702.

This article was written by Chris Birk, director of education at Veterans United Home Loans and author of “The Book on VA Loans: An Essential Guide to Maximizing Your Home Loan Benefits.”

While we often jump through hoops to protect our home from burglary and fire, we may neglect to protect it from the thing most likely to damage it: Wind.

According to data released Wednesday by insurance company Travelers, wind damage is the most common cause of homeowner’s insurance claims, ahead of hail, water, theft, fire and more. And yet, it’s one of the things many of us are least likely to protect our homes against, says Scott Humphrey, the second vice president of risk control at Travelers: “People don’t think about wind that much.”

5 most common causes of homeowner’s insurance claims

Percentage of claims related to each cause

Exterior wind damage 25%
Non-weather-related water damage (i.e. plumbing and appliance issues) 19%
Hail 15%
Weather-related water damage 11%
Theft 6%
Source: Travelers

Instead, they tend to focus far more on things like fire (buying and maintaining smoke alarms, for example) and theft (getting good alarm systems and locks)—both worthy concerns, but still less likely than wind to damage your home.

Wind can damage your home in a number of ways. Among the most common, says Humphrey: Wind detaching tree branches and hitting the home, wind lifting up roof shingles or damaging windows and doors and wind throwing things like patio furniture and other detached items in your yard.

There are ways to protect you home from wind damage. If a storm is coming, secure your windows with plywood, bring in lawn furniture, secure your garage with vertical braces and remove dangling branches, says Crissinda Ponder, the real estate analyst for financial website Bankrate.com. Repair or replace loose or damaged shingles and ensure you have good door bolts so doors are less likely to fly off, she adds.

Make sure you have enough homeowners insurance, which is highly dependent on how much your home is worth, says Penny Gusner, the consumer analyst with insurance website Insure.com. Get enough coverage to pay for the cost to rebuild your home, she adds. Ideally, you also want enough personal property coverage to pay for the replacement value of your possessions and enough liability insurance to cover the value of your assets in case you’re sued, Gusner says. (If you need more than what your homeowners policy covers, add on an umbrella policy.)

The good news: Wind damage is covered under most standard home insurance policies, Gusner says that homeowners in coastal and hurricane-prone areas may have wind damage excluded from their policies. “If you find that it is excluded, buy a separate windstorm policy,” she says. Even if wind is covered, make sure you look into the deductible, Gusner adds: “If winds are hurricane-strength that harms your home, you may have a hurricane deductible kick in, which is higher than your normal deductible. Hurricane deductibles don’t tend to be flat amounts. For example, if your home is insured for $250,000, and your hurricane deductible is 5%, you’d have pay out $12,500 before the coverage started.

As real estate values have fallen and foreclosures have swamped the market, increasing numbers of would-be sellers are deciding to lease their properties instead of selling. These new and reluctant landlords often miss out on massive tax deductions available for investment properties, which can save thousands of dollars in taxes. In an economy where every penny counts, make sure you take advantage of these ten real estate tax write-offs, some of which are exclusive to real estate investors and landlords.

1. Mortgage Interest

Even homeowners can write off mortgage interest, so this deduction is widely known and understood, but mortgage interest can add up to many thousands of dollars each year; not a deduction to miss.

2. Hazard Insurance

If you were a reluctant landlord, you can rejoice over this one: homeowners can't write off their homeowner's insurance, but landlords and real estate investors can write off their hazard insurance premium as a deductible expense. Be sure to save a copy of your insurance premium invoice, and give it to your accountant.

3. Property Taxes

As intuitive as it sounds, thousands of property owners forget to list their real estate property taxes as deductible expenses every year, and end up effectively paying those taxes twice.

4. Property Depreciation

Real estate depreciation is not well understood, but it adds up to a substantial sum each year. Basically, the government allows real estate investors to take a "paper loss" of value on a mathematical model that assumes that properties will steadily decline in value over 27.5 years, from their purchase price to a value of $0. This means you can deduct a depreciation loss of 2/55 of the purchase price, for the first 27 years you own a property. Depreciation can become complicated however, so make sure you discuss this one with your accountant.

5. Legal Counsel & Landlord Forms

Most of the legal bills, including the cost of landlord forms and real estate legal contracts, are tax deductible for your investment property. Important exception: eviction costs, which generally cannot be deducted, but speak with your accountant for further details on exactly which expenses can and cannot be deducted.

6. Property Management Costs

If you've hired a property management company to oversee your tenants, leases, and properties, their costs are tax-deductible, so be sure to add up their fees and write them off (and remember that you'll owe the property manager a 1099 if the total fees were over $600).

7. Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)

If you have a high mortgage relative to your property's value (and right now, who doesn't), chances are you pay an extra charge each month for private mortgage insurance along with your mortgage payment. These charges, while annoying, can at least be deducted from your taxable income.

8. Maintenance & Repairs

While homeowners can't write off their home improvements, landlords and real estate investors can! There are some exceptions (so touch base with your accountant), but in general any repairs that are required for habitability and safety are tax-deductible.

9. Advertising & Tenant Screening

When landlords have vacant properties, they can write off the costs associated with filling them, such as advertising the rental property, pulling credit reports, obtaining criminal background checks, etc.

10. Settlement Costs

If you're one of the rare and lucky people actually buying investment properties right now, some of the settlement costs you pay can be deducted, such as mortgage lender fees and government recordation costs. Not every settlement charge is tax-deductible, however, so be sure to send a copy of your HUD-1 settlement statement to your accountant so they can comb through it and find all of the deductible costs.

As a final note, remember that your accountant's bill is deductible as well, on next year's tax return, so be sure to include last year's accounting bill among this year's tax deductions, and good luck saving money on taxes!

Spring is all about rebirth. About letting the sunlight back in. About trying something new. Now’s your chance to do something drastic in just a few small steps. Create a space that screams “spring” with these 10 easy designer tips.

1. Pack up dark tones and try new colors

Lighter tones for spring

“When we start seeing more sunlight, I pack up the dark tones and heavy accessories and rearrange everything to increase openness and air circulation,” says Jennifer Adams, an interior designer from Scottsdale, AZ.

Swap in lighter or neutral tones to give your home an open, airy feel. Spring is a great time to bring new colors into your home, especially if you’ve already got white or neutral walls. Adams recommends trying “fresh colors” such as mints, lighter greens, blush pinks, and grays. Combine colors with warm metals (think rose and antique golds) to create a cozy, fresh space.

Introduce new colors
Not sure where to integrate these changes? Think small: throw pillows, blankets, and bookshelf accessories. If you’re feeling brave, consider painting a whole wall—as long as you’re willing to paint again if you grow tired of it.

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2. Update your entryway

A spring-y welcome mat
If your entryway looks like the way to Winterfell, now’s the time to give it a seasonal makeover.

Your front door is the first thing visitors see—so you’ll want to make it pop. DeAnna Radaj, an eco-shui design consultant from Charlotte, NC, recommends changing your welcome mat, door wreath, and porch accessories each season.

That doesn’t mean they have to be covered in pastels and Easter eggs, but a timeless spring look can go a long way.

Don’t forget to clean, too: Remove the layers of snow-tracked dirt and silt built up on your porch and give your patio furniture a thorough wipe-down.

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3. Switch to sheers

Sheer drapes give an airier look.
As a general rule, you should build your drapery in layers, with heavy panels on the top and light sheers against the windows. Now that spring’s here, it’s an excellent time to take down those dark, heavy panels for a thorough cleaning.

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4. Go minimal

Declutter with a more minimal look.
You need fewer accessories in spring. With nothing much to see outside in winter, it’s worth building visual interest with various knickknacks. But now that you’re letting in more light—and tracking the progress of those buds—it’s time to declutter.

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5. Clean the windows, inside and out

You already know: Spring-cleaning is so refreshing, it feels great once you actually do it, blah, blah, blah. But here’s an important step in the whole process that many people forget: Clean the exteriors of your window, too.

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6. Buy seasonal bedding

Seasonal bedding
Don’t just clean your bedding for spring. Consider getting an all-new set to bring new life to your bedroom for the season—something bright, light, and airy. And it’s not just aesthetic: A lighter-weight duvet helps prevent the night sweats as the temperature rises.

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7. Add mirrors and sparkle

Brighten up a room with some well-placed mirrors.
No, we’re not going for full-on glitz and glamour, here—no one wants to relive New Year’s Eve in the spring. But adding reflective elements (e.g., mirrors on the wall or crystal accents) can bring sunlight into hard-to-reach spaces—making even the darkest room feel bright and fresh.
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8. Welcome the outdoors

Bring the outdoors in.
Sure, you can head to the backyard if you’re eager for sunlight and greenery (look at all those gorgeous blooms, finally sprouted!), but why not bring the outside in?

In addition to flowers and plants that can survive indoors, Radaj suggests using natural fibers such as jute and seagrass. You can also get your green on by framing artwork and photos of natural landscapes.
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9. Update your gallery walls

Looking for a simple fix to make your space feel brand new? Look at your walls—how long has the artwork been in that exact arrangement? Try something new. You don’t have to change every bit of artwork you own, but taking the time to rearrange one of your gallery walls—or even move it to a brand-new spot—can make a huge difference in the aura of the room.

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10. Get an HVAC checkup

This last one isn’t about your home design. But after all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?
Before switching on your air conditioner for the first time since last August, make sure your HVAC system is up to snuff after a long winter of heating.

“Your lungs will thank you,” Radaj says.

At the very least, replace your filter. It’s also a good idea to get a full checkup for the system to make sure everything is working properly. Not only will this make the air feel fresher, it also can save you money on your energy bills—and we know that will put a spring in your step.

Mistake No. 1: Renting out your old home badly…

Sure, it seems smart to hold on to your old place just in case. It’s also nice to collect rent! But that’s the best-case scenario; you need to also consider the worst.

“Renting [out] a home can be a great investment, if you know what you’re doing,” says real estate investor Mark Ferguson of Investfourmore.com. “The problem is, many people have no idea how to manage renting a home—like collecting rent and checking on tenants—or [to] anticipate the expenses. Landlords have to account for maintenance and vacancies, not just their mortgage payment, so most houses won’t make money as rentals.”

So make sure you have a plan to manage your home remotely, and that you can afford to keep paying the mortgage in between tenants.

Mistake No. 2: Or selling it prematurely

Robert Palmer, host of the syndicated Saving Thousands Radio Network, talks up the other side of the issue.

“Selling years from now is going to net you more money than selling today, and someone else will have made the [mortgage] payments for you,” he says. “This helps you build wealth.”

The key is the right tenant, like a friend or somebody you know. Bottom line: If your home is in a hot market like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York City, it might be impossible to buy back into the market should you ever decide to return to it. Which happens more than you might think.

“In L.A., it’s not uncommon for rental amounts to be more than the mortgage payments,” says Terra Andersen, director of Internet marketing at apartment-rental company NMS Properties. In that case, it might be more wise to rent out your home, as a revenue stream and a fallback option.

Mistake No. 3: Muddling a mortgage on a new home

If you’re relocating for a new job and want to buy a home before you start working, be sure to structure your employment agreement to avoid issues with lenders. While an executed offer of employment can serve as documentation to qualify for a new mortgage, many lenders will require proof that all the offer contingencies have been met as well, says Mary Catchur, president of Marimark Mortgage.

A solution is to meet with a mortgage loan originator licensed in the state you’re relocating to and develop a plan to fulfill those requirements, “preferably before finalizing the new job offer,” says Catchur.

Mistake No. 4: Storing stuff with plans to move it someday

Tempted to leave behind lots of your possessions to transport months or maybe years after you’re settled? If you’re certain a relocation is permanent, it’s best to move everything right away. The reason: “You can take the moving expenses adjustment on your tax return only for expenses paid in the same tax year as your move,” says Crystal Stranger, president of 1st Tax and the author of “The Small Business Tax Guide.”

Plus, “from a realistic standpoint, it’s easy to forget about an item in storage,” points out Christine Haney, executive vice president of Global Relocation at Elliman Real Estate. “When my father was transferred to Europe, my parents stored their 1970s gold, brown, and green furniture. When they returned eight years later, their now-retro furniture had no place in their new home. It did provide a good laugh for all—or tears, once they discovered how much money they had spent in the long run!”

Mistake No. 5: Expecting your possessions to arrive ASAP

And even if you do pack up and send off everything all at once, don’t push it too close to the day you start a new job or endeavor, expecting all your possessions to arrive at one time.

“It can take a few days, if not a week or two, for all your belongings to arrive at your new home, due to weather or road shutdowns,” says Ryan Carrigan, co-founder of moveBuddha. “Many people end up having to buy new work clothes, school supplies, or basic kitchen items” when they show up at a home well before the moving truck does. Pack a starter kit with whatever essentials you need for a week, and always keep important documents with you.

Mistake No. 6: Not getting schooled on schools

“Some people move into a district without checking out the schools,” says Alina Adams, who works in school admissions in Manhattan. What’s worse, she says, is when people move to a neighborhood with a great school without realizing that it has no more room. So play it safe: Call the school district or private school you want to find out if you can enroll your child.

Mistake No. 7: Trying to arrange your new home exactly like your last

Often relocaters “try to replicate the exact same old living environment in a new area,” says Haney.“As families try to mitigate the impact on the changes that any move can bring, sometimes this can actually add to the stress, especially when the former lifestyle can’t be replicated. Further, it takes away from experiencing new cultures and learning about new areas. The most successful moves I’ve seen is when families embrace the change.” Welcome a new environment to go with your new move. You’ll be glad you did.